She was described as the most beautiful queen in Europe, and, as her daughter later said, had "all the virtues and vices" associated with her gender.
Maria Eleonore's father, Johann Sigismund of Brandenburg, was an indolent glutton and drunk. Due to his corpulence he was often short of breath and his action radius was further reduced by gout. Still, his reign was a fairly happy one. In 1614 he issued an Edict of Tolerance to uphold religious freedom. He converted from Lutheranism to Calvinism, but allowed his wife and children to remain Lutherans. Maria Eleonore's mother, Anna of Prussia, was as dominant and energetic, as her husband was indolent. When the Hohenzollern couple had a row, plate was often broken. The Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony (1585-1656), who had married Anna's sister, once wrote to Johann Sigismund that if his wife would vex him as Johann Sigismund's did off and on, he would surely hit her.
In 1616, the 22-year-old Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden started looking around for a Protestant bride. He had since 1613 tried to get his mother's permission to marry the noblewoman Ebba Brahe, but this was not allowed, and he had to give up his wishes to marry her, though he continued to be in love with her. He received reports with the most flattering descriptions of the physical and mental qualities of pretty, 17-year-old Maria Eleonore. Elector Johann Sigismund was well inclined towards the Swedish King, but he had become very infirm after an apoplexic stroke in the autumn of 1617. His determined Prussian wife showed a strong dislike for this Swedish suitor, because Prussia was a Polish fief and the Polish King still resented that he had lost Sweden to Gustav Adolph's father.
Maria Eleonore had additional suitors in young William of Orange, Wladislaw Wasa of Poland, Adolph Friedrich of Mecklenburg and even the Prince of Wales. Maria Eleonore's brother, George Wilhelm, was flattered by the offer of the British Crown Prince and proposed their younger sister Katharina (1602-1644) as a more suitable wife for the Swedish King. Maria Eleonore, however, seems to have had a preference for Gustav Adolph. For him it was a matter of honour to acquire the hand of Maria Eleonore and none other. He had the rooms of his castle in Stockholm redecorated and started making preparations to leave for Berlin to press his suit in person, when a letter arrived from Maria Eleonore's mother to his mother. The Electress demanded in no uncertain terms that the Queen Dowager should prevent her son's journey, as "being prejudicial to Brandenburg's interests in view of the state of war existing between Sweden and Poland". Her husband, she wrote, was "so enfeebled in will by illness that he could be persuaded to agree to anything, even if it tended to the destruction of the country". It was a rebuff that verged on an insult.
The Elector Johann Sigismund Maria Eleonore's father died on December 23, 1619 and with him the prospect of a Swedish marriage seemed gone. In the spring of 1620, however, stubborn Gustav Adolph arrived in Berlin. The Electress Dowager maintained an attitude of reserve and even refused to grant the Swedish King a personal meeting with Maria Eleonore. All those who were present, however, noticed the Princess' unconcealed interest in the young King. Afterwards, Gustav Adolph made a round of other Protestant German courts with the professed intention of inspecting a few matrimonial alternatives. On his return to Berlin, however, the Electress Dowager seems to have become completely captivated by the charming Swedish King. After plighting his troth to Maria Eleonore, Gustav Adolph hurried back to Sweden to make arrangements for the reception of his bride.
The new Elector, George Wilhelm, who resided in Prussia, was appalled when he heard of his mother's independent action. He wrote to Gustav Adolph that for the present, until Sweden and Poland had settled their differences, he refused his consent. It was the Electress Dowager, however, who, in accordance with Hohenzollern Family custom, had the final word in bestowing her daughter's hand in marriage. She sent Maria Eleonore to Brunswick territory, out of George Wilhelm's reach, and subsequently concluded the marriage negotiations herself.
Anna of Prussia provided herself with a selection of objects of value from the exchequer, before she joined Maria Eleonore in Brunswick. A detachment of the Swedish fleet took the women over to Kalmar, where Gustav Adolph was impatiently awaiting them. The wedding took place in Stockholm on November 25, 1620. A comedy was performed based on the history of Olof Skötkonung. Gustav Adolph - in his own words - finally "had a Brandenburg lady in his marriage-bed".
Gustav Adolph shared Maria Eleonore's interest in architecture and her love of music, while she was sentimentally devoted to her husband. Often, she lamented that she never had her hero for herself. Foreign ambassadors found her gracious and beautiful and she had good taste, although her character showed some extravagant traits. Maria Eleonore had a definite liking for entertainment and sweetmeats and soon she succumbed to the current fashionable craze for buffoons and dwarfs. She spoke French, the court language of the age, but never bothered to learn to write German or Swedish correctly.
Within six months of their marriage, Gustav Adolph left to command the siege of Riga, leaving Maria Eleonore in the early stages of her first pregnancy. She lived exclusively in the company of her German ladies-in-waiting and had difficulty in adapting herself to the Swedish people, countryside and climate. She disliked the bad roads, sombre forests and wooded houses, roofed with turf. She also pined for her husband. A year after their wedding she had a miscarriage and became seriously ill. She was tempestuous, excessive, neurotic and jealous. She was often given to language of unthinking violence, and she did not spare her husband, even if there were strangers present. Her emotional life lacked balance, and everything Maria Eleonore undertook on her own initiative needed careful watching. Soon Gustav Adolph's intimi knew that his married life was a source of grief and anxiety.
The romantic circumstances of her marriage, in which she and her husband had to elope to escape her brother's care, was said to have fostered in her a genuine love for her husband, a very unusual condition for a queen of her time. She displayed her love very openly and inappropriately according to the etiquette of the time, which made people consider her to be emotional and hysterical and very "feminine", which meant she was not considered as very intelligent. Her husband wrote specifically that, if he should die when his heir was still a minor, his widow was not to be allowed any political influence whatsoever. He continued to be in love with Ebba Brahe their entire marriage, but it does not appear that Maria Eleonora noticed this.
In the autumn of 1623 Maria Eleonore gave birth to a daughter, but the baby died the next year. At that time, the only surviving male heirs were the hated King of Poland and his sons. With Gustav Adolph risking his life in battles, an heir to the throne was anxiously awaited. In the autumn Maria Eleonore was a third time pregnant. In May 1625 she was in good spirits and insisted on accompanying her husband on the royal yacht to review the fleet. There seemed to be no danger, as the warships were moored off just opposite the castle, but a sudden storm nearly capsized the yacht. Queen was hurried back to the castle, but when she got there she was heard to exclaim: "Jesus, I cannot feel my child!" Shortly afterwards the longed-for son, the heir of the throne, was stillborn.
With the renewal of the war with Poland, again Gustav Adolph had to leave his wife. It is likely that she gave way to hysterical grief, as we know she did in 1627, and it is probably for this reason that the King let his queen join him in Livonia after the Poles had been defeated in January 1626. By April, Maria Eleonore found she was again pregnant. No risks were taken this time and the astrologers predicted the birth of a son and heir. During a lull in the warfare, Gustav Adolph hurried back to Stockholm to await the arrival of the baby. The birth was a difficult one. On December 7th, a baby was born with a fleece, which enveloped it from its head to its knees, leaving only its face, arms and lower part of its legs free. Moreover, it had a large nose and was covered with hair. Thus, it was assumed the baby was a boy; and so the King was told. Closer inspection, however, learned that the baby was a girl. It was left to Gustav Adolph's half-sister, Katharina (1584-1638), to inform him that the child was a girl. She "carried the baby in her arms to the King in a condition for him to see and to know and realise for himself what she dared not tell him". Gustav Adolph remarked: "She is going to be clever, for she has taken us all in." His disappointment didn't last long and he decided that she would be called Christina after his mother. He gave orders for the birth to be announced with all the solemnity usually accorded to the arrival of a male heir. This seems to indicate that Gustav Adolph, at the age of 33, had little hope of having other children. Maria Eleonore's state of health seems to be the most likely explanation for this. Her later portraits and actions, however, do not indicate that she was physically fragile.
Shortly after the birth, Maria Eleonore was in no condition to be told the truth about the baby's gender, and the King and court waited several days before breaking the news to her. She screamed: "Instead of a son, I am given a daughter, dark and ugly, with a great nose and black eyes. Take her from me, I will not have such a monster!" She may have suffered from a post-natal depression, because in her madness the queen even tried to hurt her own child. In her early childhood Christina repeatedly met with accidents. Once a beam fell mysteriously upon the cradle. Another time, she 'accidentally' fell off the stairs. On another occasion the nursemaid was blamed for dropping the baby onto a stone floor, injuring a shoulder that ever afterwards remained a little crooked.
In the year after Christina's birth, Maria Eleonore is described as being in a state of hysteria owing to her husband's absence. In 1632 Gustav Adolph described his wife as being "a very sick woman". There was some excuse for her; she had lost three babies and still felt herself an isolated foreigner in a hostile land, even more so after 1627 when her brother joined Sweden's enemies. Meanwhile, her husband's life was constantly in danger, when he was on campaign. In 1627 Gustav Adolph was both ill and wounded. Two years later he had a hairbreadth escape at Stuhm.
Gustav Adolph was devoted to his daughter and tried to rear Christina as a boy. At the age of two, she clapped her hands and laughed with joy when the great cannons of Kalmar Castle boomed out the royal salute. Afterwards, Gustav Adolph often took his little daughter with him to military reviews. Maria Eleonore showed little affection for her daughter and was not allowed any influence in Christina's upbringing. The Princess was placed in the care of Gustav Adolph's half-sister, Katharina, and the Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna.
In 1630 Gustav Adolph believed that Habsburg designs for Baltic supremacy threatened Sweden's very existence and also its religious freedom. Before he left to join the Thirty Years War, he discussed a possible regency with members of the government and admitted to them that his wife was "a miserable woman". Even so, Gustav Adolph could not bring himself to nominate a regency council in which her name did not appear. To Axel Oxenstierna, he confessed: "If anything happens to me, my family will merit your pity [..], the mother lacking in common sense, the daughter a minor - hopeless, if they rule, and dangerous, if others come to rule over them."
During the next two years Gustav Adolph marched across a devastated Germany, conquering Pomerania and Mecklenburg. Early November he went to Erfurt to say goodbye to Maria Eleonore, who had been in Germany since the previous winter. In the battle of Lützen 39-year-old Gustav II Adolph was shot in the back. He fell and was dragged for some distance by his horse. He managed to free himself from the stirrup, but while lying on the ground "The Lion of the North" was killed by another shot through his head. By nightfall both armies were exhausted, but Bernard of Saxe-Weimar (1604-1639) and the Swedes had captured all the Imperial artillery and were in possession of the key position. The King's body was found, lying face downwards in the mud, plundered of everything but his shirt.
In 1633 Maria Eleonore returned to Sweden with the embalmed body of her husband. In Nyköping 7-year-old Queen Christina came in solemn procession to the ship to receive her mother. Later she wrote: "I embraced the Queen my mother, she drowned me with her tears and practically smothered me in her arms." For more than a year Maria Eleonore condemned the active, spirited little Queen to an appalling mourning seclusion in rooms draped with black and lit by candles day and night, from which every ray of light was excluded. She made her daughter sleep with her in a bed over which her father's heart was hung in a golden casket. Things were made worse by Maria Eleonore's continual weeping. Christina, who was herself somewhat malformed with one shoulder higher than the other, also detested her mother's dwarfs and buffoons. She became seriously ill; an ulcer appeared on her left breast, causing her terrible pain and a high fever until it burst. In the summer of 1634 the funeral procession finally wound its way to Stockholm. Queen Christina later wrote about her mother: "She carried out her role of mourning to perfection."
Maria Eleonore had plunged into a prolonged crisis of hysteria and indulged in orgies of grief. She found it more difficult than ever to conceal her dislike of Swedish "rocks and mountains, the freezing air, and all the rest of it". During the rest of her life she pathetically preserved the memory of her hero husband. She used to weep for hours and even days on an end. When the regency council tried to separate Christina from her mother, Maria Eleonore wept and protested so bitterly that nothing was done.
In 1636 Maria Eleonore was taken to Gripsholm castle and officially lost her parental right to her daughter, because at times she was completely out of her mind. In 1639 a letter written by her and intended for Sweden's archenemy, the King of Denmark, was intercepted. After a summons, Maria Eleonore appeared at her daughter's court in a flood of tears in the summer of 1640. Queen Christina, 13 years old, reasoned with her mother and dissuaded her from taking up residence at Nyköping near Denmark. Afterwards, Maria Eleonora returned to Gripsholm. To undertake one of her periodic fasts, Maria Eleonora retired to the seclusion of her own apartment, accompanied by only one of her ladies. At night the two ladies let themselves down from a window and were rowed in a boat to the other side of the nearby lake, where a carriage was waiting for them. They drove to Nyköping, where they boarded a Danish ship. King Christian IV of Denmark had intended the ship to take her home to Brandenburg, but she convinced the captain to bring her to Denmark instead.
In Denmark Maria Eleonore became the guest of King Christian IV. The Elector George Wilhelm refused to receive his sister in Brandenburg, so Maria Eleonore had to wait until his death in December that year before her nephew gave her permission to visit Brandenburg. Still, the new Elector insisted that Sweden should provide for his aunt's upkeep. She received a small pension of 30,000 écus a year. After a while Maria Eleonore, surprisingly, started to long for Sweden. In 1648 she returned. Queen Christina went to meet her mother's ship. It was delayed by a storm and the young Queen slept in the open for two nights and contracted a fever, which kept her in bed for some days. In October 1650 Maria Eleonore proudly attended her daughter's postponed coronation ceremony.
In early 1654, Christina shocked everyone when she decided to convert to the Catholic faith and abdicate in favour of her cousin, Charles Gustav. Maria Eleonore couldn't understand her daughter's action and had grave doubts about its possible effect upon her own finances. She was miserable about the whole situation, when the cousins visited her in her residence at Nyköping in April. Christina and Charles Gustav promised the Queen Dowager that she would be provided for. Thus, Maria Eleonore witnessed her daughters' abdication and died the following year. At that time, ex-Queen Christina was touring across Europe, wearing a man's suit.