Gunilla Bielke was born Gunilla Johansdotter Bielke of Åkerö on 25 June 1568. The daughter of a former governor, Gunilla was orphaned at an early age and raised at the royal court. She spent her days playing with the King’s daughter and would eventually become maid-of-honor to Queen Catherine Jagiellon.
Described as a beautiful blonde, Gunilla was the subject of the King’s attraction, and when Queen Catherine died in 1583, the 16-year-old was chosen to be his next wife. Gunilla was already engaged to a nobleman at the time and had no interest in the King. According to tradition, she turned down a proposal from him at one point which caused the King to punch her in the face. Regardless, her family begged her to consider, and she eventually gave in.
The wedding took place in Västerås on 21 February 1585 and Gunilla was crowned Queen the following day. The marriage had been criticised prior to the wedding due to the bride’s social status. It was said that the King was ignoring Gunilla’s non-royal background and that he only wanted to marry her because she was pretty. The King’s siblings even refused to attend the wedding. King John answered by arranging a lavish ceremony and made sure the wedding festivities were nothing but extravagant.
As Queen, Gunilla caused controversy from day one. In a time when royal wives were expected to be discrete, Gunilla had great influence over the King and his decision-making. A strict protestant, she made her husband’s interest in Catholicism fade away which in turn affected his political views. There were also complaints about her using her newly gained influence to benefit her relatives.
In 1588, she ordered the construction of Bråborg, a stunning renaissance castle in Norrköping Municipality, where she would live as a widow after the death of King John in 1592.
Although she did devote herself to philanthropy (at one point she opened an orphanage) and provided the nation with an heir to the throne when Prince John was born in 1589, she received negative criticism throughout her life as a royal. Rumours were continuously spread about her, and the pension she was living on after the King’s death was almost taken away from her.
On her 29th birthday, Gunilla died at Bråborg Castle after weeks of suffering from a high fever. She is buried at Uppsala Cathedral. The Gunilla Bell at Uppsala Castle is named after her.