It was common for kings throughout the centuries to forge alliances and diplomatic relationships through marriage policies. In the history of Spain, there are numerous examples of queens consort from various parts of Europe, primarily from Portugal, France, England, Austria, and Italy. Sometimes they came from less frequent places, like Greece or the one we are about to see, though in her case, she did not reign. In the 13th century, the King of Castile, Alfonso X “the Wise”, arranged the marriage of his brother with the Scandinavian princess Kristín Hákonardóttir, who is remembered as Christina of Norway.

Anyone passing through the town of Covarrubias in Burgos (Spain) should stop to see its monumental heritage, declared a Historic Site and Asset of Cultural Interest. There are the medieval palace and tower of Fernán González (in the latter it is said that the titular homonym ordered his daughter, Infanta Urraca, to be walled up for falling in love with a shepherd), the 16th-century wall, the parish church of Santo Tomás, the traditional house of Doña Sancha (made of adobe with a wooden framework), a couple of stone crosses, a jurisdictional roll, the façade of the Archive of the Castilian Advancement, and many other things.

One of the most unusual is the chapel of San Olav, the first hermitage built in Spain in the 21st century, and therefore made with materials uncommon for that type of architecture (sheet metal and wood). The reason a temple was erected in honor of that saint, a Viking king who converted to Christianity in Normandy and introduced that faith to Norway after claiming the throne as a descendant of the late Harald I, is because of the wedding gift requested by the aforementioned Princess Christina from her husband, Infante Felipe, upon setting foot on Castilian soil on an Ash Wednesday. This is narrated by the skald Sturla Tordarson in his work Hákonar saga gamla (“Saga of Haakon the Old”).

The unique hermitage of San Olav
The unique hermitage of San Olav. Credit: Helia.hdh / Wikimedia Commons

It should be clarified that this promise was not fulfilled until eight centuries later due to the early death of the young princess, who lived in Spain for only four years. This brings us to another curious spot in Covarrubias: the collegiate church of San Cosme and San Damián, a late Gothic parish church that began construction in 1474 during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, and houses the tombs of various historical Castilian figures like Count Fernán González, his wife Sancha of Pamplona, and their daughter Urraca (queen consort of León through her successive marriages to Ordoño III and Ordoño IV, and of Pamplona as the third wife of Sancho Garcés II).

Also there, but in a Gothic sarcophagus located in the cloister, lie the mortal remains of Christina of Norway, the aforementioned daughter of King Haakon IV and Margaret Skulesdatter, and sister of Olaf, Haakon the Young, and Magnus VI (the ordinal of the latter due to his succession to the throne in 1263 after his elder brothers’ deaths). For centuries, the contents of the sarcophagus were unknown until it was opened in 1958 during restoration work, revealing a wooden coffin containing the mummified body of a woman wrapped in silk. The analysis of the fabric indicated it was from the 13th century, a significant clue.

The conclusions of doctors Maximiliano Gutiérrez and Gabriel Escudero in 1958 were that it was a person aged between twenty-six and twenty-eight at the time of death, which, combined with her great height for the era (1.72 meters) and the good condition of her teeth (without cavities), identified her with considerable probability as Christina of Norway. This was very timely, as it was seven centuries since her wedding to Infante Felipe of Castile. This identification was not starting from scratch, as a manuscript dated 1756 and kept in the collegiate archive already indicated that the princess’s body had been placed in the cloister.

The tomb of Christina of Norway in the cloister of the collegiate church
The tomb of Christina of Norway in the cloister of the collegiate church. Credit: Lourdes Cardenal / Wikimedia Commons

Consequently, an identifying plaque was placed ad hoc, to which a bronze statue was added in 1978 in front of the temple façade (the work of artist Brit Sørensen), inaugurated with the presence of a Norwegian delegation. This delegation also promoted the twinning of Covarrubias with Tønsberg, the creation of a foundation (the Princess Kristina of Norway Foundation) that, together with the Norwegian embassy, organizes an annual Scandinavian market and music festival in the town, as well as promoting an ancient fencing club and the construction of the aforementioned San Olav chapel in 2011.

The question many might ask is how Christina ended up in Castile, as she was born in Bergen in 1234. The answer lies in what was mentioned at the beginning: a marriage alliance arranged between King Alfonso X “the Wise” and Haakon IV. In his Det norske folks historie (“History of the Norwegian People”), published in the mid-19th century, Norwegian medieval historian Peter Andreas Munch narrated this adventure, explaining that it was in 1255 when the Scandinavian monarch sent an embassy to the Castilian crown, which by that time already encompassed the kingdoms of León, Galicia, Jaén, Córdoba, Seville, Badajoz, and Murcia, demonstrating its progressive expansion and strategic interest.

The newcomers, who brought gifts like furs, leathers, and falcons, were not only well received but also, the following year, when they returned, they did so accompanied by several representatives on behalf of Alfonso X. Leading them was the royal advisor Don Fernando, with the assistance of another, Sira Ferrant, who had studied at the Parisian university of La Sorbonne with Petter Hamar, advisor to the Norwegian kingdom. Their mission was to arrange a marriage between members of both dynasties, as both kingdoms would benefit from an alliance.

Façade of the collegiate church of San Cosme y San Damián, in Covarrubias
Façade of the collegiate church of San Cosme y San Damián, in Covarrubias. Credit: Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

Norway, where agriculture was very limited by the climate, would have commercial ease to import the abundant wheat produced in Castile, while Alfonso X had an ambitious goal: to gain the political and military support of Haakon IV—whose kingdom was also growing—for his candidacy for the Holy Roman Empire throne, which had been vacant since the death of Frederick II Hohenstaufen. The Castilian monarch was the grandson of a cousin of his, hence his aspirations.

Legend has it that a marriage was proposed between the king himself and a daughter of his Norwegian counterpart, given that his wife, Violante of Aragon (daughter of James I “the Conqueror”), was infertile. In reality, Violante had eleven children, so the marriage was actually intended for one of the king’s four surviving brothers (Fadrique, Enrique, Felipe, Sancho, and Manuel, besides Berenguela and four half-siblings). Haakon accepted on the condition that his designated daughter, Kristín, could choose. The princess set sail from the port of Tønsberg in the summer of 1257, accompanied by a retinue of over a hundred people, made a stopover in Yarmouth (England), crossed the English Channel, and landed in Normandy, crossing France on horseback until they passed the Pyrenees.

They entered Aragón, being received in Girona by James “the Conqueror”, Alfonso X’s father-in-law, who appeared with a large entourage. It seems the monarch was captivated by the princess’s beauty—tall, blonde, blue-eyed—and proposed marriage, something the Norwegian ambassador Loðinn Leppur, leading the expedition, had to tactfully reject due to the significant age difference. They then moved to Castile and arrived in Burgos on Christmas Eve, staying at the Abbey of Santa María la Real de las Huelgas. The king received them in Palencia, and together they entered the court of Valladolid on January 3, 1258.

The statue erected in Covarrubias in memory of Christina of Norway, by artist Britt Sørensen.
The statue erected in Covarrubias in memory of Christina of Norway, by artist Britt Sørensen. Credit: Ecelan / Wikimedia Commons

It was there that Christina finally met Alfonso X’s brothers, choosing Felipe, who was younger (though three years older than her), despite initially being destined by his father for an ecclesiastical career as the bishop of Seville (for which, to be fair, he had no vocation and thus refused to continue, spending his days hunting). Alfonso preferred him in this new role. Another legend says Christina chose him because Federico had a war scar that deformed his mouth, while Fadrique was ruled out for rebelling, and Sancho wanted to continue his career as bishop of Toledo.

The lavish wedding took place on March 31, 1258, in Valladolid, in the church of Santa María la Mayor, the precursor to the future cathedral, and afterward, the Norwegian entourage returned to their country except for two members, warriors named Ivar and Thorleit, who traveled to Jerusalem. The newlyweds settled in Seville, but not before Felipe was extravagantly rewarded with honors, estates, and possessions by his brother to compensate for the loss of the benefits he previously enjoyed from the Seville archdiocese: lordships, taxes, rents, royal levies, and estates…

Here again arises a legend that Christina lived only four more years because she died at twenty-eight, in 1262, from a combination of melancholy, due to her boring existence and homesickness. It’s no wonder she has generated a romantic aura, likely making her the first Hispanic royal woman to be called “the one with the sad destinies”. In reality, according to the “Chronicle of Alfonso X”, her death was due to an illness caused by the intense Andalusian heat, which she especially suffered from being unaccustomed to it. It’s also unknown whether her marital life was happy; the only certain fact is that they had no children, and he did not have time to build her the promised hermitage of San Olav.

The statue of Princess Kristina and its surroundings in Covarrubias
The statue of Princess Kristina and its surroundings in Covarrubias. Credit: TurismoRuralArlanza / Wikimedia Commons

According to the aforementioned chronicle, Felipe suffered “great moral damage”. His sadness led him to seek immediate solace by marrying again, this time to the Castilian lady Inés de Guevara, ending any potential political effects between Castile and Norway because Alfonso was forced to abandon his imperial dream and, lacking the promised military support, also his planned conquest of North Africa.

It is worth adding that Felipe soon became a widower again in 1265 and sought a third wife, Leonor Rodríguez de Castro, whose family opposed Alfonso X, causing him to lose his brother’s favor, leading to a revolt in which he lost his life.

Christina is the only member of the Norwegian royal family buried outside her homeland. Given that her brief time in Castile is tinged with legend, it’s almost inevitable to end this article by emphasizing that. In 1958, when the sarcophagus containing her remains was opened, alongside them was a parchment with several verses and three remedies for earache, leading to the supposition that Christina died from an ear infection.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 24, 2024: Kristina, la princesa medieval noruega cuyos restos se encontraron en 1958 en una colegiata de Burgos

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