Privacy in an Early Modern Prison

Leonora Christina, daughter of the Danish King Christian IV, was imprisoned in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen castle from 1663 to 1685, as she was suspected of having knowledge of her husband’s betrayal of the Kingdom. After her release from prison in 1685, she wrote a record of her 22 years in the Blue Tower, addressed to her children and known as Jammers Minde (translated into English as Memoirs of Leonora Christina).[1] The manuscript disappeared for several decades, until it came back to light in the nineteenth century and it was published in 1869. It is now considered one of the most important works written in seventeenth-century Denmark.

Portrait of Leonora Christina Ulfeldt by Gerrit van Honthorst (Frederiksborg Museum)

One of the approaches at the Centre for Privacy Studies is to look for priv*-words, analysing the context in which they appear and see if they tell us anything about early modern notions of privacy. Doing this analysis on the text of Jammers Minde shows that these words are particularly used in the context of the process against Count Corfitz Ulfeldt, Leonora’s husband.

“I was suspected of being privy to an act of treason for which he has never been prosecuted according to law, much less convicted of it, and the cause of the accusation was never explained to me, humbly and sorrowfully as I desired that it should be” (p. 89)

 

During the interrogations she was asked who visited her husband when they stayed in Bruges, which was a question she could not answer, since he received his guests in a “private chamber”, where she was not admitted. This gives an interesting insight into privacy in the marital relations of the seventeenth century. During another interrogation she goes on to tell her interrogators that her husband would never keep anything secret from her that concerned them both.

Imprisonment can be considered one of the most far-reaching infringements of privacy. Throughout history many famous persons have been subjected to periods of detention, although in early modern times this might have had a slightly different dimension. Analysing the text there is reference to different heuristic zones: Leonora’s cell or her chamber, her body and her mind.

At the moment of her arrival to the Blue Tower, Leonora Christina is forced to give up all her possessions and clothes, and is searched by one the ladies of the Queen:

“She had formerly sought for letters on the private parts of my person” (p. 99)

 

The Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle

 

We also get a glimpse of the environment where Eleonora Christina spent the 22 years of her imprisonment through her memoirs. She was apparently put in the Blue Tower that was part of Copenhagen castle, located on Slotsholmen (more or less the same site of the current Christiansborg). She was put into a room referred to as the “Dark Church”, a horrendous space without windows meant for the worst criminals.

 

 

 

 

“I found before me a small low table, on which stood a brass candlestick with a lighted candle, a high chair, two small chairs, a fire-wood bedstead without hangings and with old and hard bedding, a night-stool and chamber utensil. At every side to which I turned I was met with stench; and no wonder, for three peasants who had been imprisoned here, and had been removed on that very day, and placed elsewhere, had used the walls for their requirements.” (p. 110)

She stayed in this room for seven years, accompanied by several ladies who kept her company in order of the Queen. The company did not, however, ease her captivity. Several times in her record she brings up the annoyance of their chatting and the attempts she made to silence them.

“I was never more glad than when the gates were closed between me and those who were to guard me. Then I had only the woman alone, whom I brought to silence, sometimes amicably, and at others angrily and with threats.” (p. 94)

 

An undeniable threshold was indeed established by the gates of her prison. According to her description, the “Dark Church” had two doors with locks which separated her from the prison governor. Despite being an obvious spatial threshold, this did not at all contribute to Leonora’s privacy. The doors were opened or closed off by the governor or prison warden and she did not have any control to this effect. According to Altman control and the freedom to make oneself accessible or inaccessible to others is essential in the notion of privacy.[2] While architecture is often a boundary between different private and public realms by doors, walls and windows, there is no opportunity for spatial privacy at prison. Leonora Christina does however protect her mind and her sense of self by putting up an additional boundary or ‘wall of defence’ she found in God.

“I have ever clung steadfastly to God, who has been and still is my wall of defence against every attack, and my refuge in every kind of misfortune and adversity.” (p. 95)

 

When King Christian V ascended the throne, Leonora’s circumstances somewhat bettered, as she was moved to the room above the “Dark Church”. Newly whitewashed this room too had a stench upon her arrival. While there was a window towards the vaulted ceiling of the space, she now reports four doors with locks, separating her from the staircase.

“He then affixed locks to the door of the outer chamber, and to the door leading to the stairs; he had, therefore, four locks and doors twice a day to lock and unlock.” (p. 150)

 

The window allowed her to hear some of the courtly life that was going on just outside her prison walls and when rope-dancers performed in the castle square she even managed to catch a glimpse by building a construction of the sparse furniture in her cell.

“So I took the bedclothes from the bed and placed the boards on the floor and set the bed upright in front of the window, and the night-stool on the top of it. In order to get upon the bedstead, the table was placed at the side, and a stool by the table in order to get upon the table, and a stool upon the table, in order to get upon the night-stool, and a stool on the night-stool, so that we could stand and look comfortably, though not both at once.” (p. 205)

 

As part of the easing of Leonora’s captivity after the coronation of Christian V, a new and lower window was put in the prison on 25 July 1674. She was given material to pass the time, an outer apartment and some money to dispose of for herself.

On 19 May 1685 Leonora Christina was finally released from prison, never having confessed to any of the accusations.

Leonora Christina in the Blue Tower of Copenhagen Castle. A commemoration by Kristian Zahrtmann, 1891 (SMK, Royal Collection of Paintings and Sculptures, KMS 1436)

NOTES:

[1] Ulfeldt, Leonora Christina, Memoirs of Leonora Christina, daughter of Christian IV of Denmark, written during her imprisonment in the Blue Tower at Copenhagen 1663-1685, translated by F.E Bunnett (London: Henry S. King & Co, 1872).

[2] Altman I., “Privacy Regulation: Culturally Universal or Cultural Specific?” Journal of Social Issues 33, 3 (1977) 66–84 (67).