A poisoned king, religious turmoil, and spilt tea

“Look, I can see the castle”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “It looks stunning. Just like a fairy-tale one.”

We are arriving in Mariefred, a town on the shores of Lake Mälaren. We had left Birka around 1000 in the morning and for a while had caught the wind from the north, skimming along at a good speed on a comfortable beam reach. Then we had had to turn south into the long inlet leading to Mariefred, and the wind, now from behind, had dropped to a mere breeze. We had goose-winged by rigging the genoa to one side and the mainsail to the other, but it hadn’t made much difference and we had resigned ourselves to a sedate two knots for the duration. But we had been in no hurry, and had relaxed and read. Eventually the towers of Gripsholm Castle had come into view at the end of the inlet.

Coming into Mariefred, Gripsholm Castle on the left.

“Do a loop around it”, calls the First Mate. “So we can get some photos.”

I start the engine and we take in the sails. We make a loop around the bay to see the castle from the sunlit side. Cameras click furiously.

“I have always wanted to live in a place with a turret, ever since I was a little girl”, says the First Mate. “That’ll do me just fine.”

“You should have married a Prince”, I mutter.

“I can see a blue buoy just next to the marina”, calls the First Mate again. “I think it is one of those SXK buoys we are allowed to use. We could tie up there and save messing around berthing in the marina. We can go without shore power for another night.”

We motor in slowly, and slip the Heiks-hook into the ring of the buoy. It’s probably just my imagination, but I think I see one or two disapproving looks from the fishermen on the promenade, wondering whether we have the right to use the buoy. I fetch the Bojflagga sign from the cabin and display it prominently just to be sure.

Tied up to the SXK buoy in front of Gripsholm Castle.

“This is the life”, says the First Mate as she stretches out luxuriously, a cup of coffee in her hand and the sun streaming into the cockpit. “I can pretend that the turret is mine for the night.”

Refreshed, we decide to explore the town. We untie the dinghy and row ashore.

“I read that Mariefred means ‘Peace of Mary’ after the Charterhouse that used to be here”, says the First Mate on the way. “And that for historical reasons it is referred to as a city even though there are only 3000 people here. Normally a place would have to have 10,000 people to be classified as a city.”

We walk up to the station. A narrow gauge railway runs from Mariefred to Strängnäs, but because it is the end of the season and also a Sunday, everything is quiet.

Mariefred railway station.

Further on is the entrance to the castle. Outside is a runestone that was found when it was being renovated.

Runestone outside Gripsholm Castle.

We find ourselves back on the main street. Most of the shops are closed.

Mariefred main street.

We walk back past the picturesque old church, perched on a hill dominating the town.

Mariefred church.

That evening, I read the guide book on the history of the castle. It has belonged to the Royal Family since the days of our old friend Gustav Vasa I in the early 1500s, who had demolished a previous castle on the site and rebuilt it as a fortress, much the same as he had done at Kalmar, Bornholm and several other places. Gustav’s eldest son Erik, who had succeeded him as King of Sweden, had imprisoned his brother John in the castle, but later the tables were turned when John had imprisoned him. The Castle is now a museum and houses the National Portrait Gallery.

History from the mists of time?

“Interesting”, says the First Mate. “I would think that there are worst places to be imprisoned in. But I wonder why the two brothers imprisoned each other? Obviously they didn’t get on too well together?”

“It seems Eric had a mental illness and was a bit unstable”, I say, reading on. “At one stage he had a thing for Queen Elizabeth of England, but she turned him down. Then, after he became King, he convinced himself that his nobles were plotting against him, and had his brother John and his wife imprisoned in the castle. He then had members of one of the powerful families in Sweden massacred. This didn’t go down too well with the others, so all the nobles rose up against him. John took over as king and had Eric imprisoned in the castle.”

“Fair enough, I suppose”, says the First Mate.

“The story doesn’t end there”, I say. “Eric eventually died, apparently after eating a plate of pea soup.”

“Oh dear”, the First Mate interjects. “We had better throw away those tins of pea-and-ham soup in the storeroom. We don’t want stomach problems at this stage.”

“No, no”, I say. “It was deliberate. In the 1950s, they exhumed his body and discovered that it contained very high levels of arsenic. The pea soup had been poisoned to get rid of him.”

In the morning, I wake up early and make myself a cup of tea. I grab the milk carton from the fridge and pour it into the brewed tea. It isn’t the milk, but rather the apple juice. The cartons look almost the same. I sigh. It’s going to be one of those days.

Sure enough, it doesn’t get better. As I put the tea caddy back into the cupboard, the lid springs open somehow and tea leaves go everywhere. Luckily the First Mate is still sleeping. Frantically I try and brush them up. As I open the lid to the fridge to clean the rubber seal where some of the leaves have fallen into, more leaves land on the cheese. Painstakingly, I pick them off. Ten minutes later I survey my efforts. Everything seems to be back to normal.

No use crying over spilt tea.

“I think that I would quite like to find Kurt Tucholsky’s grave”, says the First Mate over breakfast. “I didn’t know that it was here in Mariefred, but I read somewhere that he was buried in the main cemetery.”

“Excuse my ignorance”, I say, “but who was Kurt Tucholsky?”

“Do you mean to say that you’ve never heard of him?”, exclaims the First Mate. “He was a famous German author and satirist between the wars who stood up to the Nazis. Most people in Germany know of him. I used to enjoy reading some of his books when I was younger.”

“My education is ‘gravely’ deficient”, I say.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?”, she says. “If so, it wasn’t very funny.”

We find the location on Google Maps and walk over. The cemetery is huge.

“I wonder how we will find his grave amongst all the others?”, says the First Mate. “I don’t really want to go looking at every one. There must be hundreds.”

“We could always read this map”, I say, pointing to a large map of the cemetery pinned to the church’s notice board at the gate. “It says it is over here.”

We still manage to walk past the grave, but the First Mate eventually finds it.

“He is famous for warning of the dangers of National Socialism before they gained power”, she says. “He was a social democrat, and was against authoritarianism. When the Nazis eventually did gain power, his books and other writings were banned, and he had his German citizenship stripped from him. He moved to Sweden and lived close to Mariefred. We had to read some of his books in school. One of his books was actually a love story called Gripsholm Castle after the castle where we are moored.”

“Perhaps we should try and get hold of a copy”, I say, as we walk back to the town centre. “I would be quite interested in reading it too.”

“Put it on your Amazon wish-list”, says the First Mate. “It can be your Xmas present. As long as I can read it first.”

In the morning we set off for our next destination, Strängnäs. We retrace our track back along the inlet into Mariefred before turning west. It is sunny and the wind is from the north-west. We sail along on a close reach.

En route for Strängnäs.

We arrive at the Stallarholmsbron, the first of the two bridges we need to negotiate. It opens at 1430. As luck would have it, we have ten minutes to wait. I ring the bridge operator to tell him we are waiting, and also that we will be passing through the Tosteröbron further up as well.

Ruby Tuesday, Tosteröbron opens at 1510”, he says. “You’ll have to be quick if you want to get from Stallarholmsbron to there in that time. Its next opening after that is two hours later, at 1710.”

“How far is it?”, I ask.

“About five and a half miles”, he says.

I calculate quickly in my head that we will never make 5½ miles in 40 minutes. That would mean an average speed of more than eight knots. That would be really pushing it.

“I wonder why they don’t synchronise the bridges for sailing boats?”, says the First Mate.

“We might as well give it a go”, I say. “If we miss it, we’ll just have to find a place to anchor and wait a couple of hours.”

We set off following the red and green buoys through the channel. One after the other pass in a blur.

Will we make it in time?

I look at my watch. The bridge will open in ten minutes. I call the bridge operator again.

“We are just passing the island of Sogerön”, I say. “Is there any chance of you holding the bridge?”

“How long do you think you will take?”, he says.

“Probably about 20 minutes”, I say.

“The bridge will be open for ten minutes anyway”, he says. “But if there is a lot of traffic, I’ll have to close it promptly.”

We push on. It’s now 1510. The bridge will be opening, I think to myself.

Five minutes later, we round the point, and the skyline of Strängnäs comes into view.

“The bridge is still open”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “We could be in with a chance.”

“I’m going as fast as I can”, I shout back. “Fingers crossed that he can keep it open for just a few more minutes.”

“Oh, no”, shouts back the First Mate looking deflated. “It’s closing again. We’re not going to make it.”

Sure enough, the bridge starts to close. My phone rings. It is the bridge operator.

Ruby Tuesday, sorry, I had to close it”, he says. “There was just too much traffic in each direction.”

“Don’t worry”, I say. “We’ll find a place to anchor until the next opening. But thanks for ringing.”

Just a few minutes late.

We drop anchor in a little bay to the side of the bridge. The First Mate brews some tea.

“We are really getting through the tea”, she says. “We only filled the caddy up a few days ago.”

I mutter unintelligibly under my breath about sailing being thirsty work in this hot weather. Luckily, she doesn’t hear me.

Two hours later the bridge opens again, and we are through. Strängnäs marina is just on the other side. We find a berth with a stern buoy and tie up.

We eventually make it through Tosteröbron.

“It’s really pretty here”, says the First Mate. “That windmill up there looks beautiful. Let’s go and explore.”

Ruby Tuesday tied up in Strängnäs marina.

The windmill dates back to the 1630s.

Further on, we come to the cathedral. Around it are panels describing its history.

Strängnäs cathedral.

“Did you see the panel about the Reformation in Sweden?”, says the First Mate, as we leave the cathedral. “Strängnäs seems to have played quite a role in it.”

“No, I missed that”, I say. “What did it say?”

“Well, it seems that up until 1527, the country was dominated by the Catholic Church”, she responds. “But people all over Europe were getting fed up with its corruption, particularly with the luxury the top echelons were living in, and the indulgences where you paid money to obtain a certificate forgiving your sins so that you would go to heaven. The Church was also a powerful political force, and in the Swedish War of Independence from Denmark, the Bishop of Sweden sided with Denmark. Unfortunately for him, the Swedes won, our old friend Gustav Vasa became King, the Kalmar Union was dissolved, and the Bishop had to flee.”

“That’s the sort of thing that would happen to me”, I say. “Choosing the wrong side, I mean.”

“Anyway, Gustav had had enough of the Church meddling in national affairs and decided to break with Rome completely”, she continues. “Looking around, he quite liked what Martin Luther was saying at the time, so with the help of two reformers from Strängnäs, Laurentius Andreae and Olaus Petri, he decided to change the national religion of Sweden to Lutheranism.”

“Just like that?”, I say.

“Just like that”, says the First Mate. “But he didn’t stop there. To hobble the power of the Catholic Church even more, he made himself the head of the new religion rather than some distant Pope living in luxury, made the clergy economically dependent on the Crown rather than the church, insisted that only words from the Bible could be preached, and discouraged Catholic doctrines such as pilgrimages, veneration of saints, confessions and indulgences. He then confiscated all Church property in Sweden, and took it for the Crown. Of course, the fact that he was broke after the war with Denmark had nothing to do with it.”

Gustav Vasa I assumes headship of the Church of Sweden.

“So a pretty thorough make-over, then?”, I say. “One way or another, Gustav Vasa certainly had quite an influence on Sweden. We have bumped into him wherever we go.”

“Well, there were a few wobbles with the new religion – his son King Erik, who was imprisoned in Gripsholm Castle, continued his switch to Lutheranism, but when his brother John got into power, there was a bit of a Counter-Reformation as his wife was a Catholic. But that didn’t last long, and finally in 1593, Sweden proclaimed itself to be a Protestant country and abandoned Catholicism.”

We pass through the main square where the political parties are all out campaigning for the upcoming elections. The Sweden Democrats have a booth.

Sweden Democrats booth.

“I really hope that they don’t win”, whispers the First Mate. “I can’t believe that neo-Nazis can be so close to power in Europe again. What is the world coming to?”

“We will just have to wait and see”, I say, trying to sound philosophical.

We arrive back at the boat and prepare dinner. The First Mate opens the fridge to get the chicken pieces out.

“Yuck!”, she says. “There are a whole lot of tea leaves at the bottom of the fridge. Did you have an accident?”

Faced with the evidence, there is no point in denying it. I fess up.

“But I did try and clean everything up”, I say plaintively. “I must have missed some.”

Trying to change the subject, I turn on BBC Sounds to listen to the news.

“We are just getting news in that the Queen died a few minutes ago”, says Huw Edwards sombrely.

The tea leaves are forgotten.

2 thoughts on “A poisoned king, religious turmoil, and spilt tea

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