Changing Perceptions of History: Elzbieta Cherezińska’s The Widow Queen
WRITTEN BY LISA REDMOND
Dedicated to all women about whom history is silent
Through the translation skills of Maya Zakrewska-Pim and an American publisher, the English-speaking world will finally be able to explore the powerful writing of one of Poland’s biggest selling authors: Elzbieta Cherezińska. The Widow Queen (Forge, 2021) is her first publication in English, and it explores the story of Świętosława, the 10th-century princess who became a powerful Scandinavian queen. Cherezińska has been fascinated with Świętosława for many years.
“I encountered Świętosława for the first time in a collection of essays I read as a teenager about the women of the Piast dynasty. I was fifteen or sixteen years old, and all I could think of was that she had been my age when she boarded the ship which took her away to Sweden. When, years later, my husband and I began our travels around Scandinavia, I found myself intrigued by the Viking culture, and I saw Świętosława in a new light. I felt as if I were seeing her in her natural habitat. Impressed by Scandinavia’s history, I wrote a tetralogy, set at the same time as The Widow Queen, in which I included a fictional scene depicting my heroes, Bjorn and Ragnar, meeting her and her sister Astrid. My next novel focused entirely on Świętosława’s brother Duke Bolesław… and then I thought: why be satisfied with this? El, are you afraid of making her the heroine of her own story?”
The fact that Cherezińska waited for so many years before tackling the great queen’s story meant that she was able to make use of recent scholarship on the period, so that the original idea expanded into a much bigger story. “A few books were published in the interim which increased my understanding of Świętosława and the men in her life, and consequently by the time I began to work on what has become The Widow Queen, the story grew far bigger than I had initially anticipated. My research consisted of looking at the history of Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, England and Kievan Rus. The largest number of written sources (chronicles) describe English history, but we must remember that the ancient history of all these countries has more in common with legend than fact. No chronicler ever recorded Świętosława’s name. She is referred to as ‘Bolesław’s sister,’ ‘Mieszko’s daughter,’ ‘Sven’s wife,’ or ‘Cnut and Harald’s mother.’ I had to piece together her story from fragments of various chronicles, sources which told the stories of the men in her life.
“I also used the chronicles to collect information about Eric, Olav, Sven and Cnut’s conquests in order to describe the wars they fought as well as the impact their leaving for such prolonged period of time had on Świętosława’s life. It was a fascinating adventure.
“On top of that, I reached for Scandinavian sagas written between the 12th and 14th centuries which detail the lives of kings and heroes, although I had to be careful when using these since the real and the fantastic are so closely entwined within them. Archaeological findings were a great help, too. I used these to help me recreate my heroes’ surroundings and homes, their clothes, households, items of everyday use, weapons and accessories. This enabled me to create a complete world filled with authentic detail – their world.”
For Cherezińska, recovering the names and the voices of women in medieval history is particularly important. The dedication of The Widow Queen reads:
To all the anonymous, forgotten princesses
The nuns, wives, mothers and rulers, about whom history is silent
The girls marked in biographies of dynasties with a sad ‘N.N.’
Cherezińska has restored Świętosława’s name but without relinquishing the nickname given to her by the Scandinavians. “The original moniker attached to her name is Storråda, and it comes from an Icelandic saga about Olav Tryggvason. What is interesting is that the widow queen acquired it after she burned two of her suitors alive in a bath house. She wasn’t named Sigrid the Incendiary, Sigrid the Cruel, but Sigrid the Haughty. It provides context for her actions. Her decision wasn’t seen as a crime, but a battle for female dignity. In Viking culture (at the time, Świętosława was the late Swedish king Eric’s widow), courage, even bravado, was highly valued. Freya, the most famous goddess of Viking mythology, was simultaneously the embodiment of sex, magic, and war. This distinct combination of values led to Sigrid-Świętosława becoming Storråda… I’m not at all surprised that we reach for stories of the outstanding women who came before us, that we want to hear tales of ancient female rulers, to learn about the girls and the women who broke through the glass ceiling a thousand years ago. Our perception of history is changing, too. It became accepted over the centuries that history was created by men. Of course, we cannot change the past, but thanks to the progress made by research and the re-examinations of our earlier findings, we are discovering just how many women did, in fact, have an impact on the fates of kingdoms.”
Although both the author and the heroine of The Widow Queen are Polish, Cherezińska is quick to point out that this is not the first time that Świętosława has been introduced to the English-speaking world and is in fact reclaiming her place in it. “Świętosława entered the English-speaking world long before I did. Cnut [also known as Canute], who is born in the final scene of the first book, grows up to be King of England, so the debut of The Widow Queen on the English market is, really, just her return to the English-speaking world. As for me, I am curious and excited. Will you welcome Świętosława as if she were one of your own? Will you struggle with the difficult Slavic names? Or will you lose yourselves in a story of a world from a thousand years ago, a world in which people, though experiencing a very different everyday existence, nevertheless love, desire, and suffer just like we do?”
We are very grateful to Maya Zakrewska-Pim for translating the author’s responses to Lisa’s questions into English.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Lisa Redmond blogs at “The Madwoman in the Attic” (http://lisareadsbooks.blogspot.com/) about women writers and historical fiction. She is currently working on a novel based on the 17th-century Scottish witch trials.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 95 (February 2021)