Background

“What does a chatelaine do? I asked myself puzzled when I, a girl from Stockholm, moved into the large Scanian 16th century castle. The halls answered with echoing silence. Curious about my predecessors, I began to flip through the archives in the attics. Bit by bit, an unexpected picture fell in place and a fascinating story about women emerged. Along with a number of famous Swedish authors and historians, I presented the answer to my question in a new book from Atlantis Förlag as well as in an exhibition at the castle. On Saturday the 12th of April 2014, Skarhult opened to the public for the first time in 500 years.”

– Alexandra von Schwerin

Alexandra von Schwerin opening the windows in the White Parlour, one of the exhibition’s rooms. 
Picture: Håkan Sandbring.
Alexandra von Schwerin opening the windows in the White Parlour, one of the exhibition’s rooms. Picture: Håkan Sandbring.

The white spot in Swedish history
Women have for centuries formally been minors and without proprietorship. When sons were missing, the ownership automatically went to the oldest daughter’s husband. Exclusively men. Where was the other half of humanity? When I asked the historians they simply answered: “Well, no one usually inquires after the women.” That was when we seriously began to delve, and the research gave the answer to my question: there is a white spot in Swedish historiography.

Women had power
This is something which university and school education tells little or nothing about. Sweden’s history is, therefore, by many still equated with powerful men – from Per Albin Hansson via Karl XIV Johan, Carl von Linné and Axel Oxenstierna to Sten Sture and Ansgar.  Since women’s names are rarely found in historical documents, such as contracts and certificates of ownership, today’s view of historical women has come to be characterised by a fundamental misconception: that women lacked power. In reality, however, women often exercised power, great power – over farms, confirming houses, and even over the whole country. Half of Sweden’s history is anonymous. Until now. 

Breakfast in front of the north wing during the late 19th century.
Breakfast in front of the north wing during the late 19th century.

Skarhult reveals the hidden history
The project Power in Disguise – 500 years at Skarhult Castle wants to spread understanding of how women in history truly exercised power. Women’s conditions were certainly not the best. They were excluded from higher office, unwelcomed to study at universities and lacked the right to vote. Marriage was an economical project and a woman went from father to husband. Financial independence was not gained until the woman became a widow. However, the women at Skarhult are especially interesting because they show how their contemporary obstacles could be overcome; Mette Rosencrantz built the castle, Stina Piper received it as a wedding gift, Margaretha Uddenberg saved the estate’s economy, and Beata von Königsmarck ran it for over half a century. The stories of these women’s captivating destinies – from an ostracised waitress to an eccentric queen – have never been told. Not until now. 

The housewife ideal was very popular in the 1950s. 
What ideals are popular today?
The housewife ideal was very popular in the 1950s. What ideals are popular today?

Skarhult’s microcosm shows a bigger picture
This new knowledge is presented in a new book and exhibition on location in the halls of the Scanian castle. The exhibition brings our common history to life and rejects the myth about the absence of Swedish female role models.  Simultaneously as the women of Skarhult highlights their own history, they also become symbols for all those Swedish women whose lives and aspirations for the past 500 years have carried Sweden forward both politically, economically, as well as socially. The story of the women at Skarhult becomes a microcosm, which shows how Sweden – and Europe – has changed for five centuries into modern time. Our history’s white spot was once jointly created, now we must fill it together. 

The story comes alive again
In connection with the exhibition, one of Sweden’s best-preserved castles from the renaissance era is opened to the public for the first time ever. The exhibition Power in Disguise shows in rich detail the lives and aspirations of fifteen chatelaines, presented in the halls which they built, lived in, and died in. These women have through their own courage, energy, and ambition determined the history of the castle. Now, they are brought back to life.