Falling Star (an essay instead of a review)

Erik XIV.
Erik XIV. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It all started with a friendly discussion about the joys and dangers of HEA endings, which you can find here. Blodeuedd, my interlocutor, mentioned a certain Swedish king who dared to marry a commoner out of love/lust (imagine that!), was thrown to prison and poisoned by his own brother as a result. I got curious and started looking for more information. My sources were limited because, unfortunately, I don’t know either Swedish or Finnish. Still I managed to find enough to become even more curious. Especially the sad life of prince Gustav, the son of king Eric XIV of Sweden and the aforementioned commoner girl, Karin Månsdotter, caught my imagination. He would be a perfect hero for any novel, wouldn’t he? Actually a novel about him has been written and here I was surprised reading in Wikipedia:

“Prince Gustav is the main character of the famous Polish novel “Broken star” by Jadwiga Żylińska.”

Hmmm…Being an avid reader, born and educated in Poland, I should have heard about that “famous” novel and its author, shouldn’t I? Only I didn’t. It piqued my curiosity though so I decided to look for that book. I got lucky – a very reasonably priced paperback copy (for a bit less than two dollars) was sent to me soon afterwards by one of Internet bookshops. I am sure they thought they’ve got a great deal as well, getting rid of it. By the way the title is translated badly: it should be “Falling star” or even “Meteorite” not “Broken star”. When I wanted to find an English translation I faced a concrete wall of nothingness. Maybe it was because that author was not as famous as Wikipedia wanted her to be (never, never, never believe completely any statement by Wikipedia, not unless you check it twice) or maybe because Ms Żylińska’s novel, written and published in 1985, belongs firmly to the era before e-books,  Internet bookshops and, indeed, democratic changes in the Central and Eastern Europe. I bet its subject matter and its hero (a prince rejected by aristocracy who had to work from time to time to make the ends meet) suited the communistic propaganda only too well.

Sigrid of Sweden

Anyway, what can be found about Gustav Eriksson Vasa? He was born in January 28, 1568 and died in February 1607. He was an illegitimate son of Eric 14th , the king of Sweden, and Karin Månsdotter (Kaarina Maununtytär in Finnish). The career of his mother could have been written by a romance author. Karin, a daughter of a prison guard, arrived at court as a maid to Princess Elizabeth, the King’s sister. The brilliant but unstable Erik soon fell for the lovely, gentle Karin, and made her his mistress. Like other rulers of the period, Erik had had many ladies in his life, but his passion for Karin was unique. He dismissed all his other mistresses and treated her with a generosity and devotion that baffled the court. The royal accounts state that she was given a new and expensive wardrobe and her own staff, among them her own former employer; Karin, the wife of Gert Cantor. Karin was even accused of using witchcraft and love potions to inspire this unique and single-minded attachment.  
Stenrelief av Karin Månsdotter i Åbo domkyrka.
Stenrelief av Karin Månsdotter i Åbo domkyrka. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Karin bore the King two surviving children: Sigrid (1566-1633) and Gustav (1568-1607), the hero of this little essay. In 1567, Erik married Karin morganatically, and, the next year, made her his Queen. Her son became the heir to the throne. The commoner’s elevation to the rank of royal consort scandalized the aristocracy, probably contributing to the atmosphere of discontent with Erik among the high nobility. In any case, shortly after Karin’s coronation, Erik’s brothers, John and Karl, rebelled and dethroned the King. John seized the crown and Erik, Karin and their children were imprisoned. In 1573, to prevent the birth of any more legitimate offspring with a claim to the throne, Karin was forcibly separated from her husband. Together with her children, she was transported to Finland and held under house arrest in Turku, until Erik’s death, probably from poisoning, in 1577.

 The new king was afraid that the supporters of his older brother would try to deprive him and his son of the crown so he wanted to assassinate Gustav. That’s why in 1575 the boy was secretly sent to Poland where he was placed in the household of a Polish nobleman; for reasons unknown he ran away and for some period of time he lived in poverty, allegedly working as a servant in an inn. Then he was found by one of the most influential Polish aristocrats of that time, Count Albert Laski (Olbracht Łaski) , aalchemist and a courtier during the reign of Stephen Batory.

Łaski was a very interesting personality – not only a nobleman but also a well-educated, refined man of the world, a polyglot who was famous for his international connections with different European rulers and courts. He knew personally Elizabeth 1st and several Polish and Habsburg kings. However he was also a  man who didn’t flinch from marrying a rich widow over twenty years his senior; then he imprisoned her for 11 years, until her death, just to get hold of her significant personal wealth. He was also accused of bigamy – while the said widow was still alive in her prison he married a French lady, Sabina de Sève – this time, apparently, out of love. He really would feel perfectly at ease among the ASOIAF series characters by George R.R. Martin. Shadowy doesn’t even start to cover that gent.
Olbracht (Albert) Laski

Anyway Łaski took care of the lost princeling (according to Żylińska of course – I haven’t found any historical sources which confirmed it but I must admit I didn’t have a lot of time to look for them long and hard) –  Gustav was sent to an exclusive school for noblemen’s sons, led and directed by the Jesuits (small wonder at some time he became a Catholic) and then he went to Italy (Padua) to finish his studies. Apparently Łaski thought Gustav might be a good investment in the future. Gustav was a diligent, gifted student – in the novel he was made an assistant of Galileo Galilei and John Dee. He was also supposed to be a quite good copyist/painter. Once he went as a mercenary with cossacks to Sinope (Turkey) and took part in plunder. Unfortunately he didn’t have what it takes to be an aggressive, ambitious and successful pretender to the throne. Not that he lacked opportunities, it seems he simply lacked motivation.

For example Ivan IV of Russia attempted to persuade Gustav to help him in his political ambitions around the Baltic. The orphaned and persecuted prince was such a great pretext for meddling in internal affairs of Sweden and Russians have always loved meddling; initially Gustav was quite unwilling to listen to the Tzars and profit from their generosity; he preferred living in Prague and assisting the Czech king, Rudolf, with his alchemical experiments. Great men’s favours are uncertain, though, especially when your own status is rather shadowy; after some peaceful years Gustav was imprisoned by his former protector for some time and deemed as insane as his father. After such an experience he decided to listen more closely to the Russians and change the climate.
 In August 1599 he officially arrived in Moscow for a proposed marriage to another Tsar’s, Boris Godunov’s, daughter Ksenia. He was showered with gifts and honours, given houses and servants, finally treated like a real royalty. It must have gone straight to his head – according to Russian accounts he started to live a self-indulgent life. He even dared to invite his old lover with children (we don’t know her real name – I will elaborate in a moment) and showed her off in public driving along in a carriage harnessed as though it was meant for the tsarina. Either he didn’t understand the consequences of his move or he didn’t trust the Tzar and his promises enough to behave. It was a major slight and the offended Tzar broke off the engagement. He didn’t give up his plans though – Gustav was still kept close and considered useful.
Gustav Eriksson Vasa (1568-1607)
Gustav Eriksson Vasa (1568-1607) – unfortunately it is most likely not his real portrait
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 As compensation for the broken word he received the principality of Uglich (some 194 kilometers north of Moscow), where he lived until the beginning of the reign of the False Dimitry (1605); Dimitry ordered his arrest by the demands of his ally — Sigismund III Vasa (the king of Poland, cousin of Gustav and son of king John III) and sent him to Yaroslav jail – apparently some influential people feared the prince deep down might still nourish some political ambitions. After the death of the False Dmitry (1606), the new Tsar, Vasili IV of Russia, released Gustav and sent him to live in the small city of Kashin (Russia) with his family. His lover’s name is lost; some said it was a girl called Brita Karth; Ms Żylińska in her book calls her Otillia (Tillia). I suppose both are fictional, especially the first.
 The history about Brita Karth and her alleged children with prince Gustav was almost for sure the product of baron Adolf Ludvig Stierneld’s vivid imagination (1755-1835). The baron was a courtier and a well-known collector of historical documents, whom historians have later found also to be a ruthless forger of such documents. Wishing to claim a royal ancestry for his own family Stierneld reported having found handwritten notes by Brita Karth herself regarding her relation and family with Gustav in an old pious book that was to have been given to her by Gustav’s mother, Karin Månsdotter. Oh right, a man can dream.
Gustav Eriksson Vasa died in February 1607 in Kashin and was buried there February 22. He never managed to return to his country or play any significant role. 
The coat of arms of Eric XIV of Sweden includi...
The coat of arms of Eric XIV of Sweden including the arms of Norway and Denmark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ms Żylińska in her book allows him to speak for himself – in the first part the unfortunate exiled prince, brought up among strangers and growing without any roots, presents his own version of events. I must say it was done in a believable way – Gustav doesn’t know/understand much, blaming the stars and fate for his lack of success. He runs around in circles from one more powerful protector to another and he sounds like an underdog – defeated even before he thought about fighting back seriously. It is obvious he wasn’t stupid – he could have been a good scientist, painter, doctor or/and alchemist but never a prince or a king. He was simply not a politician or a strategist.
 Jean Allard, his father’s French mercenary and the most faithful supporter, would be far better suited for that role – the second part of the book consists of his memoirs. He tried to find Gustav and reinstate him as a king or a prince all his life. He was also a kind of unofficial trustee to the treasure of king Eric – chests of gold and jewellery he kept in a secret location hoping almost against the hope that one day the prince would use them to return to Sweden and defeat all his foes. Even historical records confirm Allard negotiated with Henry III of France to whom he offered a significant sum of money – 2 millions ecus, not less – to help the Swedish prince. He and adult Gustav never met although not for the lack of trying; Allard was definitely a determined man and he wanted to be faithful; if not to a dead king’s son and heir then at least to an idea he’d fallen in love with. Pity all his efforts were so pathetically fruitless.
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