What is love? Sophie of Mecklenburg and her marriage to King Frederick II of Denmark

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In 1572, at the age of 14, Princess Sophie of Mecklenburg married Frederick II, who was by the Grace of God, King of Denmark and Norway, the Wends and the Goths, Duke of Schleswig, Holstein, Stormarn and Dithmarschen, Count of Oldenburg and Delmenhorst and thereby she became one of the most important queens of the time. The marriage created and secured political and familial bonds between two of Europe’s leading Protestant royal houses in the 16th century.[1]

Some historians argue that the marriage was an unusually happy one, expressed in King Frederick’s letters and by his wish to build Kronborg Castle “to delight his most dearest consort.”[2] However, we do not know Queen Sophie’s feelings towards her much older husband. Frederick II was 38 years old when they married. Did she love him? Furthermore, how was the concept of love and marriage even perceived in the 16th century?

Marriage in the 16th century was primarily a social and economic construction. Marriage was not for affection – the fact whether the husband and wife liked each other was not important. Love and marriage were seen as two entities, and marriage could keep a person away from sinful love and bring man and woman into the socially acceptable cohabitation – married life.[3]

For royal couples, an affective marriage could be seen as a dangerous game to play as Canadian historian Carolyn Harris explains in her analysis of the roles of queens in early modern England:

“… attempts to include certain elements indicative of affective marriage in their public image attracted criticism because these gestures appeared to signify the queen’s increased political influence. […] Public displays of marital love and harmony also appeared to contradict known tensions within each royal marriage.”[4]

For many years prior to the wedding, Frederick II had been in love with a Danish noblewoman, Anne Hardenberg. However, King Frederick could never marry Anne Hardenberg due to the fact that she was not of royal blood. King Frederick was persuaded to find a more appropriate bride, and he agreed to meet with Princess Margaret of Pomerania to see for himself if she was as beautiful as promised by the painting of her sent in advance. Nevertheless, when he met her, she had brought another princess in her entourage – the young Princess Sophie of Mecklenburg. The King decided then and there on Princess Sophie instead of Princess Margaret and brought her home to Denmark to be his queen.[5]

The relation to Princess Sophie of Mecklenburg was much more appropriate for the Danish king than the relation he had had with the noblewoman Anne Hardenberg. But did he love his new Queen? Frederick married Sophie, because it was his duty, it was in line with tradition, and everyone around him demanded that he found a woman of royal blood to be his wife. As his sister Anna of Saxony wrote in a letter to the King in 1571:

“… that Your Royal Majesty once has set upon leaving Your terrible, abominable Existence and join into a God-pleasing and Christian Position and has made friendly and marital Ties to a royal House of equal Origin, Class and Birth which will bring your Kingdom Honour and Use.”[6]

However, during their marriage, King Frederick had no known mistresses, and he wrote about his queen most dearly in his letters to family and friends.[7] So one could argue that the connection to Queen Sophie in the beginning was purely determined by his duty – and maybe by her looks – but that King Frederick admired and respected his wife during their marriage.

The little we know from the source material, that I know of, about Queen Sophie’s feelings towards her king and husband is found in her private letters to her father, Duke Ulrich of Mecklenburg. In 1575, in one of the letters concerning Frederick’s illness, she wrote:

“Most kind and loving Father. I thank Your Grace kindly, for Your Grace’s attentions towards the King. I hope that it will soon improve…”[8]

Danish historian Poul Grinder-Hansen argues in connection to Sophie’s letter that it was expected of her as queen to care and worry for her husband. However, Grinder-Hansen argues that because the letters were personal, the Queen’s expressed feelings towards her husband seem legitimate. But for a Queen, nothing is ever really private, and for Sophie, it could be possible that she complied with the topos[9] of the time of how a woman, wife, and queen should feel and write about her husband and king.

Possibly, it was a deliberate choice for Queen Sophie not to show affection towards her husband in public and thus present herself as the meek and obedient consort. It is possible that she knew it was not for her to express affective marital feelings. However, it is known that she fulfilled her roles as queen by giving the king seven children and managing the royal household in a quiet and successful manner.

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Queen Sophie was widowed in 1588 at the age of 31. Her son, the later King Christian IV, was only eleven years old and could not rule as king by himself. Queen Sophie wanted to rule as regent for her son, which was not unheard of at the time. But the members of the Royal Council did not allow that to happen, even though she kept influencing royal politics by defending the territorial demands she believed her younger sons had to parts of the kingdom.[10]

Queen Sophie used her energy, money and knowledge of administration to become a successful estate owner and ran a prosperous lending enterprise. When her own son was in trouble financially, she was able to lend money to the Danish king, and Christian IV became one of her biggest debtors.[11] One source claims that when the Queen died in 1631, she left behind a fortune of 5.5 million rigsdaler, which made her the wealthiest woman in Europe at the time.[12]

Is it possible to talk about love and affection as the foundation of a happy marriage or could it be that the King and Queen respected and accepted each other, knowing which parts to play in their political and representational position as heads of the Danish monarchy? We know that King Frederick II chose Sophie and that he doted on her throughout their marriage. The sources are less clear about Queen Sophie’s feelings towards her husband, which may be due to the fact that she did not want to infect the political sphere by showing off her marriage as an affective one. But it seems that Queen Sophie found her calling in the running of her estate and in money lending in her later years after she became a widow.[13]

[1] Dansk Biografisk Leksikon, Sophie f. 1557.

[2] Written in 1574 in a letter from King Frederick II to his master builder Hans van Paeschen. Wanscher. Kronborgs historie. 101.

[3] Peters. ”Gender, Sacrament and Ritual.” 63f.

[4] Harris. Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 86.

[5] Grinder-Hansen. Frederik 2. 146ff.

[6] Ibid. 152.

[7] Ibid. 287f.

[8] Ibid. 289.

[9] Topos is a term for a traditional or conventional rhetorical theme or topic.

[10] Dansk Biografisk Leksikon, Sophie f. 1557.

[11] Feldbæk. Gyldendals bog om Danmarks historie. 86.

[12] Lauring. 46.

[13] For further reading by this author and on this subject see: Kristensen, Michelle Jørsing. ”The Politics of Skirts” in History of Royal Women, May 2017; Kristensen, Michelle Jørsing. “Studying Queenship and the Roles of Queens Consort” in History of Royal Women, November 2017; Bech, Claus: Sophie, f. 1557 I Dansk Biografisk Leksikon, 3rd ed., Gyldendal, http://denstoredanske.dk/index.php?sideId=297648; Feldbæk, Ole: Gyldendals bog om Danmarks historie, Gyldendal, 2005. Grinder-Hansen, Poul. Frederik 2. Danmarks renæssancekonge, Gyldendal, 2013; Harris, Carolyn. Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, Palgrave Macmillan 2016; Peters, Christine. “Gender, Sacrament and Ritual: The Making and Meaning of Marriage in Late Medieval and Early Modern England” in Past and Present, No. 169, Oxford University Press, 2000, 63-96. Wanscher, Vilhelm. Kronborgs historie, Fischers, 1939.

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