Power Plays and Unwavering Wills: How My Research Came to Be

Catherine Jagiellon, c. 1555

The main character of this blog is Catherine Jagiellon, whose possessions and 16th century material culture in general is the subject of my research. Catherine is especially popular in Finland, where she resided as duchess in 1562-63, in Sweden, where she ruled as queen in 1569-83, and of course in her native Poland, but for readers from other countries she might be a bit more unfamiliar. 

Catherine was born in Kraków in 1526 as the youngest daughter of Polish king Sigismund I and queen Bona. She received education fit for a Renaissance princess: she could speak, read and write several languages, play instruments, discuss different topics in politics, religion and philosophy etc. Her upbringing, of course, was aimed to specific goal of becoming a cultured consort, which she also proved to be. She became duchess of Finland in 1562 when she married duke John, son of Swedish king Gustav I, and later queen of Sweden after her husband was crowned king. She died in Sweden in 1583 after years of being sickly.

Two contemporary documents list Catherine’s possessions, and they constitute the main sources of my research. They were created in conjunction with two life-changing events for Catherine: her wedding and her imprisonment.   

Catherine was 36 years old when she married duke John of Finland, who was 11 years her junior. John’s older brother Eric was the ruling king of Sweden at the time after the passing of their father, and their relations weren’t exactly filled with brotherly love. John aimed higher than his position allowed and wanted to make his county of Finland more independent. Marrying Catherine was part of his plan to gain him a powerful and rich ally. King Eric strongly opposed but John proceeded with his plans anyway. Opposing the will of the king and carrying out foreign affairs independently was considered treason, and ultimately John got what was coming to him.

John of Sweden, 1582

Catherine and her brother king Sigismund II, however, were at this point unaware of John’s risky businesses, and the marriage ceremony was conducted October 4th, 1562 in Vilnius, Lithuania, where the Polish court resided at the time and where also John had traveled. The festivities lasted over a week, during which the inventory of Catherine’s dowry was composed. It consists of what Catherine brought with her to Turku castle, her new home in Finland. There are hundreds of entries which include for example Catherine’s clothing and jewelry, cooking and eating utensils, furnishings and even personnel.

Vilnius in 1576

After the festivities were over John traveled home with his newlywed wife, and after some hardship they arrived at Turku castle on Christmas Eve. During the following few months they lived in their luxurious court having parties and governing their county until John was condemned to death in June 1563. After some fruitless negotiations with John king Eric’s troops sieged the castle in August, and shortly after John surrendered. The ducal couple was taken captive and their possessions confiscated. John and Catherine were taken to Gripsholm castle, Sweden, where they were held until 1567. What was left of their possessions after the siege was shipped to Stockholm castle, where an inventory was produced Oct 28th – Nov 3rd, 1563.

This is the background and the surroundings where these documents on Catherine’s possessions have their origins. John and Catherine’s story continues all the way to the Swedish throne, but with the help of these inventories I am trying to shed light on their court in Turku castle, however short-lived it was.

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