A Polish princess of the 16th century, Katarina Jagellonica is an unlikely model for the 21st-century spouse. Yet, as mixed marriages increase and lawyers report a surge in divorce enquiries, there’s much to learn from her life, which was defined by both her Catholic faith and devotion to her Lutheran husband. This was a marriage troubled by religious differences, external criticisms and family feuds.
A renowned beauty and sound political prospect, Katarina received proposals from courts across Europe. Suitors included Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia – a romantic proposition so dreadful that it reduced the serene princess to tears. The choice was not Katarina’s: it was her brother, the king of Poland, who would decide, and on political grounds alone. In the end, her brother chose Prince John of Sweden.
Katarina’s Catholicism sparked rows immediately. Even after the wedding in 1562, John’s brother, King Eric XIV of Sweden, tried to bring Ivan the Terrible back into the picture: he plotted to banish his sister-in-law to the court of the deranged tsar. Yet even under great pressure, Katarina and her family insisted that she be able to practise her faith. John reassured them that he was his own man. Katarina would not be forced to convert.
John had underestimated his family’s desire to interfere. Within months, the couple found themselves entirely at Eric’s mercy. He captured them and took them to Sweden. There he made Katarina a grim proposal: to leave John, or stay with him in the prison of Gripsholm Castle.
Even for someone in love with their spouse, this might be a hard decision. Yet so early into an arranged marriage, Katarina hardly knew John. Now she faced imprisonment in a hostile, foreign land. True to her vows, Katarina proved immovable: “Nobody but death,” she said, would part her from her husband. Denied the sacraments and forbidden to see a priest, Katarina was as firm in her faith as she was in her marriage. In prison, she spent much time reading Catholic books – and shared them with her Lutheran husband.
Ironically, it was Eric’s own choice of bride that would liberate John and Katarina. In 1567, he married Karin Månsdotter, the daughter of a prison guard and a peasant woman. Appalled by the king’s lowly choice, the Swedish nobility rebelled. John and Katarina were installed as king and queen consort of Sweden. They emerged from prison united, cradling a son.
As consort, Katarina persisted in her attempts to save the king’s soul and, now, the souls of all of Sweden. She wrote to popes who sent Jesuit missionaries from Rome. With John’s open-minded attitude to religion, conversion appeared tantalisingly possible. The king even allowed Jesuits to teach undercover at the ministers’ college in Stockholm. Meanwhile, he underwent catechesis with the Jesuit diplomat Antonio Possevino. After five months, it seemed that Rome and Katarina had triumphed. John hugged Possevino, crying: “I embrace you and the Catholic Church forever!”
But John never truly embraced the Catholic faith. He adopted a novel, eclectic approach to religion. He told the pope that he would reintroduce Catholicism to Sweden – but only as part of a new church that blended the most popular aspects of the apostolic and Lutheran faiths. Some suspect that John’s desire to ally with Rome was driven more by politics than piety. When Katarina died in 1583 John married Gunilla Bielke, an ardent Protestant. John soon ceased his parlay with Rome.
History could write off Katarina Jagellonica as a decent wife but, in all else, a failure. She converted neither her husband nor Sweden. Their Catholic son would be king, but Sweden’s last monarch of the old religion. And even during his reign Sweden remained a Lutheran land.
By worldly standards, Katarina’s achievements were piecemeal and brief. But for Catholics they were near heroic. Katarina kept her marriage vows unwaveringly in the face of hostility and interference. Though it made her a pariah, she maintained her faith and sought the conversion of an entire land. At her urging, a Jesuit mission arrived in Sweden and, though clandestine, won converts, including men training for ministry. Masses were celebrated. Her children grew up Catholic. And when her son inherited the throne, the Swedish mission grew.
Anyone who strives for eternal salvation will come to recognise that we often edge towards the ultimate prize quietly, through imperfect means, one step at a time. Like all marriages, Katarina’s was not one of endless bliss or perfection. Yet, despite her disappointments, her story should encourage us as we face the timeless challenges that come when we unite two people, two families and, ever more frequently in these times, two faiths.