Margareta Leijonhufvud – mistress of Gripsholm
During the Vasa period, Gripsholm Castle was a workplace for hundreds of people and was almost entirely self-sufficient. Queen Margareta Leijonhufvud was mistress of all this.
"A particularly well-trained and capable woman when it comes to domestic duties."
Historian Anders Fryxell
Queen Margareta Leijonhufvud, the second wife of King Gustav Vasa, was an extraordinarily competent housewife. She was also a skilled manager and logistician, and the only person to be fully trusted by the wary king. At Gripsholm, the favourite castle of the Vasas, traces of this remarkable woman can still be seen to this day.
In Margareta's time, Gripsholm Castle was a society in miniature and was virtually self-sufficient. Here, butter was churned, beer was brewed, livestock was raised, sausages were made and bread was baked. Grain, vegetables, herbs and fruit were grown, and people fished, hunted, wove and sewed. Queen Margareta was mistress of all this, with responsibility similar to that of a CEO of a large company.
"blessed with great felicity…; both rich and poor acknowledged it"
A diplomatic queen
Margareta had ultimate responsibility for the royal household and the royal storehouse. It was she who ensured that all employees had food and clothing, and received care if they fell ill. She was also responsible for keeping finances in order, and acted as something of a diplomat. People tended not to go direct to the king – instead, they would first speak to Margareta, who was one of the few people the king truly trusted. She managed all this extremely well. For example, her brother, Sten Eriksson, noted that she was "blessed with great felicity…; both rich and poor acknowledged it". In other words, Margareta Leijonhufvud must have been a very strong, competent woman.
Gripsholm was the preferred castle of the Vasas, and they spent increasingly long periods here while the family grew up. The castle had four strong towers with thick walls and small openings for defence purposes. The main entrance was alongside the water, since boats were the fastest means of transport. Inside the courtyard, the windows are larger. It was here that the royal family had their rooms. The children's rooms were above those of their parents, linked by a staircase. The dwelling rooms had low ceilings, at just 2.5 metres, and were very small so that they could be heated a little. The king and queen's apartments also included three very large rooms with double ceiling height, two of which are partly preserved. The king's and queen's rooms probably met in the middle of the apartment.
During the 16th century, walls and ceilings were often covered with paintings or richly decorated panels, while floors were simply boarded. Furniture was often affixed to the wall, and chairs were rare – even in the king's apartment. Instead, there would be benches and simple trestle tables, which were covered with textiles. Expensive woven tapestries hung in high status rooms. These were the most exclusive decorative object, and were packed into chests and taken along when the occupants moved between their various palaces. The kitchen was built on the ground due to the risk of fire, and was housed in a separate building, as was the bathhouse (a sauna). Immediately next to the castle were storerooms and barns.
Firm and capable
Everything revolved around Margareta. Of course, she did not actually milk the cows herself – this was done by the 22 milkmaids working in the cowshed – but she went there to oversee operations, and complained if the cows produced too little milk.
In a 16th-century bestseller, Household Finances for the Young Nobility, Per Brahe described how the work of a large estate was organised. He wrote about what having responsibility for the storehouse involved:
"Everything that women's work entails, such as managing the storehouse and the cattle, spinning and weaving, maintaining fishing nets, malting, brewing, baking and sewing, cooking, milking, cheesemaking and churning butter."
This work followed the changing of the seasons, and a competent housewife knew what needed to be done each month to ensure that there would be food all year round for those who lived and worked in the house, as well as clothing and firewood to keep warm. July meant cutting the grass, August was a time to preserve cherries, dry plums and pick hops, while October was the month for slaughtering. The queen had many people to carry out the practical work, but it was still her responsibility to ensure that everyone did what they needed to.
Margareta carried out many day-to-day practical tasks. For example, she paid the bills and received and issued goods. One summer's day in 1539, she reminded the chief accountants that a tailor needed to be paid, and on another day in June 1545 it was noted that she took delivery of 16 barrels of honey which were delivered to the royal household.
A travel arranger with great responsibility – and ten children
Margareta was responsible not only for Gripsholm, but also for the households of the other royal palaces and the sixty or so farms that she owned privately. In addition to this, Margareta also had to manage the complex logistics involved when the royal family, their staff and the state administration moved between the various palaces. Margareta was responsible for ensuring that food, beds and firewood were available when everyone arrived at the next palace. If the beer was too week, the king would complain.
Throughout her marriage, Margareta was almost always pregnant. She gave birth to ten children, nine of whom survived to adulthood – quite an achievement at that time. Both the king and the queen constantly kept a close eye on their children's health. The otherwise fearsome King Gustav was something of an overprotective father, sending anxious instructions when his children were due to travel anywhere:
"Take good care to ensure that they are well supplied with clothing, as the cold and the frost are quite dangerous."
The doting parents also issued instructions about fruit, clothing and household remedies, and when their daughter Cecilia fell ill, the king wrote that the other children should remain indoors to avoid "the sickness that is hanging around". However, no one can avoid death. Margareta Leijonhufvud died on 26 August 1551, at the age of 35 and to the great sorrow of the king. On the subject of her death, the contemporary commentator Per Brahe wrote: "The sun lost its sparkle."
Top image: Portrait (cropped) of Margareta Leijonhufvud, by Johan Baptista van Uther. Photo: Erik Cornelius/Nationalmuseum