“During his absence…” – Lady Barbro, a Swedish castle builder who was praised, punished and turned into a ghost.

Anna Röst explores the history and legacy of Lady Barbro, a seventeenth-century unlikely castle builder.

“I would now give a pompous description of the magnificent castle of Thorsborg, which was built during the thirty years’ war (…). I would relate, how the lady Barbara Goholm, the wife of the Admiral Stjernebjelke, (whose bust at Thorsborg shows her to have been a proud and dignified woman,) surprised her husband who was fighting for the cause of freedom in Germany. During his absence she erected on a hill, where still sits enthroned in princely grandeur this noble edifice, overlooking immeasurable fields and meadows, extending for several miles ; and on the occasion of the return of her hero, she caused lights to be placed in all the windows (…) this did not delight him as she had expected, and that the story goes that he was equally displeased at this proceeding of the Lady Barbara.”

F. Bremer, The H— Family (1843).

In 1843, Swedish author Fredrika Bremer published her novel The H— Family. Bremer had made a name for herself since the late 1820’s within the genre of realistic novels, and by the 1840’s claimed international fame. Her childhood summer home, Årsta Castle – a convenient calash day trip south of Stockholm – served as model for the H— family home Thorsborg, where the bust of stern Lady Barbara Goholm loomed large over tea parties and romantic drama. At Bremers’ own Årsta, the life-sized oil painting of (likewise stern and staring) Barbro Åkesdotter of Göksholm had made quite an impression on the young Fredrika. Could a woman, in the midst of war-torn Early modern Europe, really have built a castle (or two)?

The story of Lady Barbro and the trajectory of her character through the centuries serves as an example of how possible roles for early modern women were distinctly different and difficult to grasp for later generations. They still seem to be. Amongst the present-day visitors to Årsta Castle, some do not care to join the guided tour to the attic or basement. They have heard the ghost stories.

Årsta Castle/”Thorsborg” depicted in Suecia Antiqua et Hodierna, ca 1700 , Royal Library of Sweden.

Early Modern notes: Lady Barbro praised

Barbro Åkesdotter of Göksholm (1620-1680), of the ancient noble family Natt och Dag had married the Admiral and Crown Councillor Clas Hansson Bielkenstierna (1615-1662) in 1642. During twenty years of marriage, thirteen children were born. While Clas did his duty for king and country in several battles on the Admiral’s ship in the Swedish Navy, Barbro managed the town house and country estates. Early modern archival sources state with admiration that she completed the build of her elderly father’s castle as well as the new grand house at Årsta. For instance:

“…during his absence in the war and unbeknownst to him, Lady Barbro had the grand stone house built, and amongst all magnificence an expensive staircase (…) and she rearranged all the courtyard and layed out a beautiful garden, so that when he returned, he did not recognize his own estate…”

Daniel Tilas, visit to Årsta ca 1750 (Manuscript in the National Library)

Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865), Swedish novelist and women’s rights advocate. Photo: Europeana (no copyright).

The romantic and realistic 1800’s: Lady Barbro punished

The memory of Lady Barbro was passed down through the generations and landed in the curious mind of the young Fredrika Bremer – arriving at Årsta in 1805. She grew up in a large, reasonably wealthy family where she and four sisters, not unlike the Bennets of Jane Austen, had one prospect only and their mother one goal: a suitable match (five such matches would be ideal!). In this setting of endless polite conversation, needlework and French classes, it would have appeared highly unlikely that a woman – two hundred years earlier – could have possessed the agency to build a castle. Barbro seems to have been awe-inspiring to Fredrika– but surely such an attempt at a man’s privilege could not have gone without punishment? In The H— Family Barbro’s attempt at impressing her hero husband he is thoroughly displeased. The story then changes in an accelerating fashion, and a number of anecdotes around the Admiral and Lady couple come to life in the decades to come. 

Lady Barbro Åkesdotter Natt och Dag of Göksholm (1620-1680). Photo: Anna Röst.

The mad woman and the basement? Lady Barbro as a ghost story in the 1900’s

Have you heard? About how the Lady of Årsta Castle in the old days took a lover whilst her husband was away? How she plotted to kill him – the Admiral – but failed? How she built a castle where he could not see the sea? How he slapped her in the face and the slap echoes at midnight in the grand staircase? How her lover was buried in the basement and anyone with any sensitivity to the supernatural will not go there? 

Årsta Castle still sits ”in princely grandeur” on a hill. In the 20th century writings of architectural history, it was built by Admiral Clas Bielkenstierna. Its expensive staircase that Barbro commissioned (she did – the contemporary sources tell us so) and where Fredrika Bremer played with her sisters remain an attraction for visitors to this day. Peeling away the layers of ghost stories, early 19th century feminism and Early modern female identities, it is striking how the story of one woman remains of interest to each generation but is nor static nor linear. Instead, it appears to go backwards, either obscuring or ridiculing, punishing – and only in the early days – briefly admiring her achievements. Passing beneath the gaze of Lady Barbro every morning in the grand staircase at Årsta – I can not help but promise to do better, and to tell the stories of her in the context of each time it has been told.

Årsta Castle today. Photo: Johan Gustafsson, G40 Studio.

Dr Anna Röst is a researcher at the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm University and Curator at Årsta Slottsmuseum. Her research interests focus on memory, interdisciplinary research of the early modern period, and historical archaeology. Anna completed her PhD at Stockholm University in 2016.

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