Ulfeldt, Leonora Christina (1621–1698)

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Ulfeldt, Leonora Christina (1621–1698)

Danish writer of A Monument to Suffering which records her 22-year imprisonment in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen on the charge of conspiracy to treason. Name variations: Eleonora Ulfeldt; Leonora Ulfeld. Pronunciation: OOL-felt. Born Eleonora Christina on July 8, 1621, at the Castle of Frederiksborg in Hillerod, Denmark; died at Maribo Abbey, Denmark, on March 16, 1698; daughter of Christian IV, king of Denmark and Norway (r. 1588–1648), and his second wife Kirsten Munk (1598–1658); married Corfitz Ulfeldt, in 1636; children: presumably ten, of whom seven reached adulthood.

Lived in exile with husband (1651–60) when both were arrested for treason and imprisoned at the island of Bornholm; released a year and a half later (1662); spent time in Denmark and abroad; was arrested and brought to the Blue Tower of Copenhagen (1663); released (1685); spent last 13 years at Maribo Abbey (1685–98); during prison term, wrote French Biography and drafted a large part of A Monument to Suffering as well as a series of biographical sketches of women in history and mythology.

Selected works:

French Biography (1673); A Monument to Suffering (published 1869); The Ornament of Heroines (only a fragment remains, published 1977).

Although little known outside the borders of Denmark, Leonora Christina Ulfeldt has held her place among the illustrious names in Danish history for the past 300 years. As a person, she is hailed for her unfailing loyalty to her husband and the physical and intellectual courage with which she prevailed through 22 years of imprisonment. As a writer, she is acclaimed for the talent with which she orchestrated her autobiographical work A Monument to Suffering.

Daughter of King Christian IV of Denmark and his second wife Kirsten Munk , Leonora Christina was born at the magnificent baroque castle of Frederiksborg, north of Copenhagen, but she did not grow up there. As was the custom among nobility, she was given into the care of her maternal grandmother, who brought the child to her own home on the island of Funen immediately after Leonora's christening. She was joined there by other siblings, all of whom from the age of four were instructed in reading, writing, catechism and music. This daily routine of lessons was interrupted when their father's involvement in the Thirty Years' War necessitated his requisition of the nurseries for headquarters. Three children, including Leonora, were sent to Holland for safekeeping. They were to stay in the house of King Christian's niece, Princess Sophie Hedwig , who was married to Count Ernst Casimir of Nassau-Dietz. In French Biography, Leonora tells about her stay there, emphasizing a particular incident which speaks to her disposition for love and loyalty and dramatizes her earliest encounter with betrayal.

The object of her affection was the second-eldest son of the house, Mauritz, who had fallen in love with her on her arrival. He was 11 years old at the time; Leonora was 7. Mauritz talked her into believing that one day she would be his wife, and as a token of his affection he taught her to draw with chalk and shared his Latin vocabulary, a treasure traditionally preserved for boys. They spent their free time in one another's company until Leonora caught chickenpox. The attack was virulent, confining her to bed with blotches and blisters, too feverish to take account of her surroundings. She did not register that Mauritz' elder brother, Vilhelm, who had ridiculed their courtship, brought Mauritz to the door of his sweetheart's room so he might get a good look at her face and come to loathe her. Mauritz got "so agitated," reports Leonora, "that he immediately contracted the disease and nine days later he was dead."

When Leonora recovered and asked about him, she was told he was away on a trip with his mother. One day, however, her tutor took her to the room where the embalmed body of Mauritz was lying in a glass coffin. The tutor wanted "to see if she recognized it," so he lifted Leonora up for a better look. She immediately knew her beloved friend, and "a fright came upon her so great she fell into a swoon." Leonora was revived, but "because the dead boy held a wreath of rosemary, she never again would see those flowers without crying, and she took a loathing to their smell which is still with her."

Writing about her relationship with Mauritz, Leonora makes his death into a cataclysmic event with lifelong reverberations. The rosemary she mentions, which traditionally represents affection and remembrance, in her story takes on the connotation of betrayal as well. It is unlikely that the sight of Leonora's face caused Mauritz to become ill, as chickenpox has an incubation period of 14 to 21 days. But Leonora could not have known that, so Vilhelm's cruel joke involving her unknowing participation appeared to her as an act of treason against love itself for which she was partly responsible. The fact that the adults in her world had lied to her about Mauritz' death intensified her sense of loss.

Munk, Kirsten (1598–1658)

Queen-consort of Christian IV. Name variations: Christine, countess of Schleswig-Holstein. Born on July 6, 1598; died on April 19, 1658, in Odense; daughter of Ludwig Munk, count of Schleswig-Holstein; married Christian IV (1577–1648), king of Denmark and Norway (r. 1588–1648), on December 31, 1615; children: 12, including Leonora Christina Ulfeldt (1621–1698).

In 1597, Christian IV, king of Denmark, married Anna Catherina of Brandenburg . Before she died in 1612, Anna gave birth to seven children, including a son and heir, the future King Frederick III. Three years later, Christian remarried, this time to a Danish woman named Kirsten Munk who would have 12 children. Christian eventually banished his second wife from the court for having committed adultery. Considering Christian's own reputation for promiscuity, this charge was, at the very least, incongruous.

This newly acquired knowledge of the world opened her eyes to the vulnerability of human relationships which confronted her on her return to Denmark. During the children's absence, King Christian had been forced to cede from the Thirty Years' War, a martial and marital loser. Outdistanced by Sweden's young king, Gustavus Adolphus, in their race to assume the Protestant leadership in the war against the German emperor and the Catholic League, and out-performed in bed by one of his younger German officers, Christian had lost not only power and prestige but his usual confidence in his right to be loved. When finally he granted permission for his wife Kirsten Munk to leave his house, sending her illegitimate daughter after her like a parcel, he was a tired monarch who for the last 18 years of his reign would fight a losing battle to reconstitute his kingdom and his house.

Ranking high among his concerns was the education of his children. King Christian was fond of all of them, but he favored Leonora, who had inherited his physical energy, inquisitive mind, and artistic talents. Leonora gloried in her position as favorite but paid for it with the loneliness she experienced as the object of her siblings' jealousy. Consequently, she attached herself to the suitor her father selected for her: his most promising courtier, Corfitz Ulfeldt. Leonora was betrothed at the age of nine and spent the six years prior to her marriage in the "schools" her father provided in his palaces, presided over by carefully selected women of the aristocracy. To her early instruction in reading, writing, catechism and music were added lessons in German, French, and history. She and her siblings also learned to dance and participate in theatricals, and Leonora, especially, excelled in the art of embroidery. She took her education seriously and proudly asserted that she had an excellent memory; "she could memorize a hymn, copy another and pay attention to what was being said all at the same time."

Her marriage to Corfitz Ulfeldt in 1636 initiated a new stage in Leonora's life. For 12 years, from 1636 to 1648, the year of her father's death, she lived the life of adored wife and privileged daughter. She is exuberant in her characterization of Corfitz' married love: "[He] loved and honored her, and treated her like a lover not like a husband." Her phrasing shows her pleasure and surprise at this unconventional compatibility of love and marriage, which she made it her goal to perpetuate. She consequently invested her considerable intellectual and emotional powers in building a marriage which would gratify her need to give and receive love as well as honor the familial and societal demands placed on her in the roles of spouse and mother.

Leonora's view of marriage shows a departure from the conventional one held at the time in which she lived. The 17th century was a period of transition between the feudal society of previous centuries and the bourgeois regimes of future ones. One was dominated by the courtly love tradition; the other reflected the general shift towards greater individual freedom in matters of love and marriage. Courtly love was love for its own sake, unassociated with property and family (the primary concerns of marriage) and therefore focused on someone other than one's own wife. Leonora wanted Corfitz to remain her lover in the courting pattern of chivalry and at the same time make legitimate its illegitimate basis: he would love his spouse rather than another man's wife. The resulting progeny would make them a family resembling the bourgeois families of subsequent centuries, and property, rather than being the object of a marital liaison, would be its adjunct, acquired and amassed by joint effort.

That Leonora was successful in her endeavor was due partly to her own physical, emotional, and mental powers, and partly to the king's support of Corfitz' ambitious plans for promotion. Within seven years of their marriage, Corfitz became high steward, second in position only to the king, and Leonora held court as first lady of the city. She presided over their manor at Grey Friars' Square in Copenhagen and traveled abroad with her husband as appointed ambassador for Denmark. She also continued her educational pursuits, took painting lessons, practiced the flute, the viola da gamba, the guitar and, with her husband as tutor, added a knowledge of Dutch and Italian to her other languages. In his autobiography, their family doctor and friend Otto Sperling writes about those golden days on the Square. He praises Leonora's "considerable intellect and well developed judgement even though she was only in her sixteenth year. She was eager to know everything, also matters of medicine." Leonora herself was less satisfied with her progress under Sperling's tutorship. Her Latin suffered especially, due to her having so many irons in the fire, journeys to be made, and, as she wrote, every year she was in the habit of "lying-in, till the number of children totalled ten—in addition to other impediments."

Leonora's cavalier attitude towards "lying-in," which she perceived as just another "impediment," may be explained by her personal code which assigned her a role of equal partner in marriage rather than merely a breeder of children. Considering the high mortality rate of infants and women in childbirth during the 1600s, her statement furthermore measures the strength of her determination to be on equal terms with her husband. Leonora had ten living children and suffered at least three, possibly five, miscarriages between her 15th and 30th year. Yet she offers no complaints or remonstrances against the almost continuous pregnancies or the dangers of giving birth. Bearing children, she knew, was an inevitable consequence of married life, but offspring was not, by her standards, its raison d'etre and did not qualify as a reason to neglect individual accomplishments. To realize her goal of being equal, Leonora found it necessary to develop the skills Corfitz already possessed, preserve her feminine attributes to please him, and downplay the "impediments" which were the corollary of her success.

Their life on the square ended three years after Christian's death in 1648, when the rivalry between the Ulfeldts and the new king and queen—Leonora's stepbrother Frederick III and his wife Sophie Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneberg —made staying in Denmark intolerable. In his effort to balance the state budget, King Frederick had demanded that Corfitz submit records of his financial transactions during his years as high steward, a request which Corfitz interpreted as not only an affront but a vote of no confidence. He refused to comply with Frederick's demands, and the result was renewed investigations which revealed misappropriations and graft extraordinary even by the standards of the 17th century. As a consequence, the Ulfeldts left Copenhagen in July 1651 to seek the support and protection of Queen Christina of Sweden .

In exchange for considerable monetary concessions, Christina granted both these things, as well as a lease on her castle of Barth in Pomerania. From there, six years later, in 1657, Corfitz Ulfeldt joined Christina's successor, Charles X, in his war against Denmark. By then, the Ulfeldts had made several unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation with King Frederick, and Corfitz would wait no longer. He was willing to make war against his erstwhile king to regain his power and possessions in Denmark. Leonora followed him reluctantly but stood by him as the Swedes won the war and Corfitz, as Swedish counselor, negotiated a devastating treaty for the Danes. The Ulfeldts did not, however, return to Denmark. They chose to stay in Sweden in one of the manors Charles X had granted Corfitz for his valuable assistance in the downfall of his country. But Corfitz was not satisfied with his role as "Swedish" nobleman and overseer of Charles X's newly acquired Danish provinces in southern Sweden. He felt he had been slighted and let his dissatisfaction be known among the Danish nobles. His behavior drew the attention of the Swedish king, who sent first a warning and then an arrest on the charge of collaboration with Corfitz' fellow Danes to reclaim Sweden's Danish possessions for Denmark. Corfitz suffered a stroke, but Leonora defended him very skillfully in a trial held at their house. She conceded nothing, and although the appointed court ruled that Corfitz was to forfeit life and property for treason against the Swedish king, their estates were not confiscated and the Ulfeldts were left in their manor without further interference. Charles X's hesitation to act enabled the Danish ambassador, who at the time was Leonora's brother-in-law, to negotiate their release. He was successful, but before he could relay the good news to his relatives, they had been alarmed by rumors about deportation to Finland. They therefore decided to flee. Corfitz was to go to Lübeck, Leonora to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Corfitz changed his mind and went to Copenhagen where he contacted Frederick, who calmly awaited the arrival of Leonora. Frederick then confined the pair to the prison of Hammershus on the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea.

Their release after a year and a half cost them virtually all their possessions. They were allowed to reside at the manor of Ellensborg, on Funen, which Leonora had inherited after her grandmother. To leave Denmark, they had to secure the king's permission, which after a restless year at Ellensborg they obtained at the intercession of old friends. Once out of the country, Corfitz again started plotting against the Danish king, and Frederick charged him with high treason and sent out a warrant for his arrest. Corfitz fled—he died a year later as he was being rowed down the Rhine—but Leonora, who had gone to England to redeem a loan from Charles II, was apprehended in Dover and brought to Copenhagen for incarceration in the Blue Tower.

In the 22 years she spent there, she distilled all the powers of her being to produce the book she titled A Monument to Suffering. It records her inner struggle for mental and emotional balance and accounts for the transformation she would effect from outward loss to inward gain.

Deprived of her clothes and jewelry and dressed in the garments accorded her by the queen, her old rival, Leonora was questioned several times by the king's council who insisted she confess her complicity in her husband's treasonous plans. As she insisted on her ignorance, and remonstrated the unlikeliness of the existence of such plans, she was finally told that Corfitz had been sentenced without trial. Nothing she could say would change his fate; she might, however, be able to move the king to clemency if she would reveal all she knew. She denied any knowledge of treason, professing only to such support and loyalty as became a wife. The result was a political stalemate, and Leonora was left in her cell, unsentenced, to ponder her fate.

Realizing that her good health denied her the death she wished for, she brought a series of accusations against God whom, she thought, was punishing her unjustly. She justified her past actions as those of a loving, loyal wife and after several days and nights of reckoning, she came to the realization that those God loves, He scourges. That enabled her to look at her imprisonment as a trial from which she could decide to emerge victorious. Her deceits notwithstanding, she knew she had been true and responsible in her relationship with Corfitz. She had not failed him—as she believed she had Mauritz—and on that conviction she would build a world in a cell six-by-seven paces.

As she explains to her children in the preface to Monument, she could have escaped from the Tower, but she was determined to stay until the king released her and thereby acknowledged the wrong committed against her. Only then could she be of help to them. Monument to Suffering shows the implementation of that decision in her turning away from reliance on external power and wealth to confidence in her own well-furnished mind and capable hands. Permitted nothing with which to while away the time, she invented tasks. The prick of a forgotten needle in her feather comforter made her ferret it out and put it to use with embroidery thread she obtained by unravelling her silk stockings. Ten years into her prison term, she wrote French Biography, relying on notes written on sugar wrappers with a quill made from a chicken wing dipped in soot and ale. By then, she had been permitted books and writing material, and she subsequently started a series of sketches of famous women. Her aim was to illustrate the equality of origin and performance of men and women. "Wisdom bides in the heart and reason resides in a well appointed brain … consequently both sexes have equal access to obtain and acquire [both]." She furthermore argues that "it is unjust to judge the deed by the doer rather then measure the doer by the deed" inasmuch as women are often as courageous as men, who do not always "match their actions to their titles," while "manly strength is often seen in weaker vessels."

Leonora's courage in adversity had proved a model of behavior for Danes even before they learned about her autobiographical Monument, which did not appear in print until 1869. With that she assured her fame, not as a saint but as a human being suffering losses and betrayals and prevailing by her ability to seek inspiration and find solace in even the bleakest of surroundings. Leonora's descriptions of the inmates of the Tower, the fleas that infested her floor, and the

projects she invented to stay occupied and alert are unsurpassed in Danish memoirs.

Leonora was 65 years old when King Frederick's son, Christian V, released her. She walked out of the Tower on an evening in May 1685, accompanied by her niece, and spent her last 13 years as head of her household at Maribo Abbey. There, she organized her days, as she had in prison, with reading, writing, and different kinds of handiwork. Most important, she was reunited with her three remaining children. When in March 1698 the old warrior laid down her quill and needle, she was given the spartan funeral she herself had planned in accordance with her philosophy that "no amount of finery will further our cause either here or beyond because, in the final reckoning, we have only ourselves to place in the wager."


Dalager, Stig og Anne Marie. "Leonora Christina. Et forsvar for kvindekønnet," in Danske kvindelige forfattere. I, 35–65. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1982.

Historien om en Heltinde. Acta Jutlandica LVIII, Humanistisk Serie 57, Aarhus: Arkona, 1983.

Smith, S. Birket. Leonora Christina Grevinde Ulfeldt Historie. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1879–81.

——. Leonora Christina Ulfeldt paa Maribo Kloster. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1872.

Inga Wiehl , a native of Denmark, teaches at Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington