CHAPTER THREE

WOMEN OF ESPIONAGE

Some women use their passion for extreme nerdery to delve deep into subjects like astrophysics and biochemistry—and that’s amazing. But others are less about the theoretical and more about the going out into the world and working for serious immediate social change. These dames weren’t cool with the establishment, and they realized their power to do good for their country. Using their unique skill sets (photographic memories, encrypting, forging, pretending to enjoy being in public with a bunch of people when they’d really rather be anywhere else) these incredible women shook things up like old-school femmes Nikitas. The time has come for their secret identities to be known.

Brita Tott

“I reign / I have reigned /

I will reign again”

Monarchies can be a pretty precarious form of government, which isn’t so surprising if you stop to think about it. Give one person the ruling power of a deity and force them into diplomacy with other equally stubborn sovereigns—what could go wrong? Well, plenty. Especially when you have a spy like Brita Tott skulking around.

Brita Olufsdotter Tott (or Birgitte Olufsdatter Thott, depending on how Danish you are) had it good from the get-go—she was born rich. Her parents were the Danish knight and statesman Oluf Tott and the wealthy (as in huge tracts of land and massive castle in Vallø wealthy) heiress Karen Jensdotter Falk. In her youth, Brita’s family was a political powerhouse in Scandinavia, even after her mother’s death and father’s remarriage; their machinations kept them well connected and in a position to influence policy in both Sweden and Denmark—a feat that, at the time, was extremely impressive. Why? Because by 1448 Denmark was ruled by King Christian, Sweden was ruled by King Charles, and Norway was in the rather unenviable position of having to choose to align with one neighboring nation or the other. All three countries had been united under Denmark’s Queen Margaret I in 1397, but then her successor had un-united them. (A dude in power screwed something up? But that never happens!) After first choosing Charles of Sweden as an ally, the Norwegians flip-flopped and officially aligned with Christian of Denmark. Naturally, the Swedish were miffed (and probably made lots of anachronistic “Something is rotten” Hamlet jokes), and so fighting between Christian and Charles and their respective nations continued apace.

Despite being born to Danish parents, young Brita was on her way to becoming one of the Swedish king’s BFFLs, thanks to her marriage in 1442 to the Swedish nobleman Erengisle Nilsson the Younger. A member of the elite Swedish Privy Council, Erengisle was a knight, judge, governor, and member of the aristocratic house known as Natt och Dag (aka Night and Day, aka the oldest living Swedish dynasty, aka Old Money). In case that wasn’t impressive enough, his real house was a castle on a big ol’ estate called Hammersta, in southeastern Sweden. Even though he had two children from his first (late) wife, Märta, Erengisle gave Hammersta (and all its farms and homes) to Brita as her morgongåva, the traditional “morning gift” a husband would bestow on his new wife the morning after their wedding. Which, in the case of preposterously rich people like Brita and Erengisle, was meant to provide security to the woman in case of her husband’s death (a smart move in the 1440s, when you could drop dead from the Black Death, battle wounds, or not ever brushing your teeth).

Still, even as Brita started to rub shoulders with Sweden’s King Charles (and her hubby began consulting on Super Important Kingly Business Decisions), one thing remained certain: Brita was Danish at heart, and she wasn’t about to forget her roots. Yet instead of wearing her patriotism on her sleeve (or getting a cute Danish flag tattooed on her thigh), Brita decided to use her position of power and privilege to become a super-sneaky and viciously effective spy.

In 1451, when Sweden and Denmark stopped all their pretenses and flat out went to war, Brita realized she could be a huge help to her homeland—husband notwithstanding. She passed crucial information to the Danes about the strengths and weaknesses of Sweden’s troops and its king so that her compatriots could stay one step ahead of the enemy. When Denmark invaded the bordering province of Västergötland, in southwestern Sweden, the soldiers crept right in and overtook the walled stronghold at Lödöse (present- day Gothenburg, now the country’s second-largest city), with no one the wiser thanks to Brita’s tips revealing the Swedish army’s position. But Brita wasn’t just sending messages far afield. At one point she was involved with a plot to assassinate King Charles, even though she hung out with him all the time and they were supposed to be best buds.

Unfortunately, the jig was soon up. Sir Tord Bonde, captain of Charles’s forces, and his men rode all night through a storm to surprise the waiting Danes, retaking Lödöse. Inside the fortress he found, among other things, a bag full of letters from Brita to the Danish crown announcing all of Charles’s plans. (Womp womp.) In 1452 Charles accused Brita of treason (or basically “being the worst friend ever”), a potentially fatal offense. In the tradition of all monarchies, however, the king’s power was held in check by his nobles. Since the aristocracy knew that eliminating Brita would anger her powerful friends on both the Danish and the Swedish sides of her family, the sentence was commuted from being burned at the stake to being bricked into a wall to die a slow and agonizing death alone (which sounds way worse than the stake burning, no?). Ultimately, Brita’s punishment was reduced to a mandatory lock-up in the Kalmar Nunnery (which sounds so Sound of Music). Erengisle lost his governorship, although he maintained his position on the council. (Times may change, but being rich is always a good way to stay in power.)

Once Brita finished her brief stint in nun prison, she decided to show she’d cleaned up her act by commissioning the artist Albertus Pictor to travel to Ösmo church in Södermanland province, just ten minutes from Hammersta, and paint a series of murals. One of the paintings features Brita clad all in white, kneeling to ask for the Lord’s forgiveness. So did this super-chill portrait mean she was ready for the straight-and-narrow path? Nope! Brita turned instead to forgery to increase her already huge fortune, creating fake wax seals, fancy stamps that acted as a kind of legally binding, easily reproduced signature. These allowed her to impersonate other people and move a bunch of money and property into her own holdings. Having ended up with so many seals, according to legend she directed a maid to throw a ton of them into the river outside the Hammersta estate (perhaps so that no one would be tempted to say, “Hey, wow, B, that’s a lot of seals, considering you are one person and therefore should have only one seal. What is up with that?”).

Brita may have engaged in some not-so-worthy endeavors, but she was likely trying to survive amid brutal medieval misogyny. For one thing, she was in danger of losing her home. After her husband’s death in 1469, Brita claimed ownership of two properties: her mother’s holdings in Vallø and Erengisle’s holdings at Hammersta. The problem was that, a decade earlier, Brita had technically renounced her claim to Vallø so that her husband could hold on to Hammersta. Now that he was dead, Brita believed both lands were rightfully hers—Vallø because of inheritance, and Hammersta because of not only the morning-gift thing but also the three letters written by Erengisle stating unequivocally that it belonged to her. Nevertheless, people weren’t accustomed to a single woman holding so much land, and they didn’t buy her reasoning besides—especially not Brita’s stepmother, who claimed Vallø for herself, nor Brita’s stepchildren, who followed suit and claimed Hammersta. All this family infighting devolved into endless legal battles (and probably some super-awkward holidays). If only Brita could get her hands on official documentation that could override their claims…

Oh, wait—she could! Even though it was technically illegal, Brita did what she did best and forged documents stating that she was “equal to the best child” (in other words, just as worthy of the estate as her relatives), thereby restoring her rights to Vallø. With everything resolved, she promptly attempted to sell the property to the Danish crown for a ton of money. But by now the royals were wise to her tricks, and Brita was put on trial again, this time for forgery. Further complicating her predicament was the deathbed testimony of a guy claiming to be one of her forgers (it was later discovered that he was in fact working for a member of her evil stepfamily).

In 1479, for the second time in her life, Brita was found guilty—and once again she was let off without so much as a slap on the wrist. Sick of all the bickering and lawsuits, she eventually headed back to Denmark, where in 1484 she was made administrator of the royal lands of Dronningeholm, far north of Copenhagen. She went on to act as länsman och godsägare (manager and sheriff) on her own for nearly a decade—a massive job, especially for a single woman—until her death sometime after 1498.

Yet even in death, Brita acted defiantly against the wishes of the Swedish crown, causing a huge who-gets-what hullabaloo by bequeathing the last of her Swedish estates to both Uppsala Cathedral in 1475 and the Swedish regent on the order of the court and her relatives in 1484. Which just proves that even though a lot of her documents might have been fake, when it came to holding her own against the patriarchal laws of the land, Brita Tott was the real deal.

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