Memoirs of Leonora Christina

Leonora Christina (1621-98)
1673-74, published in 1869 Se tidslinje

By Dorthe Sondrup Andersen, master's degree in literature and culture writer, 2006

London, summer of 1663 

The King’s daughter, Leonora Christina, is reading a letter from her husband. Part of the letter is made up of numbers, but it does not look like a calculation. The letter is written in code, and even the words in the letter sound like encrypted messages. Afterwards Leonora Christina goes to the lavatory where she tears the letter into tiny pieces and lets them fall into the latrine. 

Attempted escape 

Leonora Christina has been detained by the English authorities and has decided to escape. She has hidden a couple of handfuls of gemstones in her wig, she has sown gold coins into the hem of her slip, and there are more in her silk stockings. A diamond jewel is hidden in the lining of her silk jacket and sapphires are rolling around in her shoes.

Unfortunately, the escape turns out to be a set-up. The Danish princess runs straight into the arms of the police who stop her rather convincingly by pointing their pistols and swords at her heart. Leonora Christina is taken on board a ship bound for Denmark. She bites a large diamond off her gold ring and keeps it in her mouth. She discretely disposes of the ring when she sets foot on Danish soil. It is 9 o’clock on the 8th of August 1663, and she is under arrest. 

Letter to the children 

Leonora Christina is not the main character in a crime story. She is not even a crime writer. She is what she is: the daughter of King Christian IV who had the misfortune to be married to a man who was later convicted of treason. The reason why her long letter to her children is now considered a brilliant piece of Danish literature is simply that her description of her escape, capture, abduction, interrogation and body search is very exciting reading. That is also true of the record of her imprisonment in the Blue Tower for the next 21 years, 9 months and 11 days, but for a completely different reason: Memoirs of Leonora Christina also describes how to behave royally among gaolers, spies, prison chaplains and fellow prisoners.

Copenhagen Castle with the Blue Tower at Christian the Fifth Time. Lithograph by Carl Otto. Undated. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Prospect af Det Kongel. Residentz-Slott i Kiøbenhafn at see fra Høibroe Anno 1698
Leonora Christina. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.

Did you know?

Source: John Chr. Jørgensen (red.): Dansk forfatterleksikon. Rosinante, 2001.

It is only the first part of Memoirs of Leonora Christina that she wrote in captivity. The book otherwise gives the reader the impression of being written in Blue Tower from end to end, but that is not the case. Last part of the work was written in Maribo, where Leonora Christina stayed after her release in 1685, and until her death in 1698.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

“Oh, that my grief were weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea.” Leonora Christine (1621-98). 

Jammers Minde is the title that the Countess Leonora Christina chose for the memoirs of her twenty-two-year internment in the Blue Tower in Copenhagen from 1663-85 (translated into English as Memoirs of Leonora Christina). The original title literally means: A Memory of Lament. The memoirs are without doubt the work remaining from the Danish Baroque period deserving of the greatest respect. As a human achievement, it is outstanding that the imprisoned Countess managed to recall and write down the many years of suffering and humiliation – despite the fact that in the preface she quite rightly contemplates whether it would have been wiser to forget the whole thing. For practically two centuries, the work was unknown in the public realm – right up until 1869, when its publication justifiably caused a sensation. A completely unexpected gift from a distant past. 

The prison biography portrays an indomitable, strong and self-aware woman’s ability to suffer through whatever she was subjected to without giving up. The work overflows with realistic observations, sights, stenches, sounds, often related with a sensual repulsion, but also with grotesque humour that merely makes the details even more striking. Leonora’s ability to impart the appearance and character in the persons that her period of imprisonment brings her into contact with has forever recorded images of a number of frequently insignificant people, particularly a number of women, that otherwise would forever have been lost in time. When this temperamental and personally experienced book grew into a literary masterpiece, it was not least due to the fact that the author managed to wrap the entire work in a supremely elaborate and brilliant style of language that casts radiance and elegance over even the darkest details.


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