Märta Berendes was a baroness and a lady courtier who wrote her autobiography towards the end of the seventeenth century.
Märta Berendes was born in 1639. She was brought up within an aristocratic family at her mother’s estate of Hedensö. She belonged to the social elite. Her father, Johan Berendes, came from an old noble family in Estonia whilst her mother, Ingeborg Kurck, had noble roots through the Finnish Kurcke family and the Swedish Oxenstiernas. Although the couple had three children only Märta and her sister Anna survived into adulthood. Johan Berendes occupied an elevated position within the state administration and owned Sollentunaholm farmstead (now Sollentuna) and Hofsta (in modern Katrineholm).
Befitting aristocratic custom Märta Berendes probably received a good home education. Her father died in 1652, and her mother was very poorly. However, two years later Märta Berendes, along with her sister Anna and an uncle, were raised to her father’s baronial status. At this time she also became a courtier at Queen Kristina’s court. She maintained her courtly service until the end of her life, serving in various positions and with varying degrees of intensity from lady-in-waiting to mistress of the robes. During her period of courtly service she was twice married and bore a total of eleven children, of which only two survived into adulthood. When she became widowed for the second time, in 1676, she wrote an autobiographical prayer book. The prayers allow the reader to follow the most important events of Märta Berendes’ largely sorrowful life. The book did not just include her own prayers but also included some from her mother-in-law Ebba Oxenstierna’s prayer book, and some written by her sister. Devotional literature was read and reflected on. Like other well-known autobiographical texts of the seventeenth century written by women such as Maria Euphrosyne and Agneta Horn, Märta Berendes’ writings were informed by the religious devotion of the era both in their form and content.
Märta Berendes’ prayer book begins with the loss of her second husband and then looks backwards to the year of her birth before moving forwards chronologically. Nothing is written after 1698 as at that point the book was so full that even the covers had been fully covered with text. The prayers are alternated with autobiographical anecdotes. Märta Berendes commented on her first marriage to Johan Sparre by stating that it was a lively marriage and that her husband was “devout and virtuous”. She lived with her mother-in-law Ebba Oxenstierna following his death. Märta Berendes’ second marriage to Gustaf Posse in 1662 brought new happiness to her life. However, her husband suffered from various serious illnesses. The couple travelled from their home in Jönköping to Ems in Switzerland and back in search of appropriate treatment for the ailing man. The prayer book contains references to all the places they passed.
1676 was a year of sorrow. Märta Berendes first lost her young daughter Ingeborg and then her husband, Gustaf Posse. The prayer book reveals how deep her sorrow was but also how confident she was of God’s support. Having inherited a significant fortune from her father she had no financial worries, but the loss of her husband was unbearable. Märta Berendes annotations not only revealed the main events of her life but also those of her husband’s. In 1689 Märta Berendes lost both of her sons, who were in Venetian military service (during the Venetian republic’s war with the Ottoman empire), to a severe bout of fever. Further, the 1696 wedding of her daughter, Ebba Margareta, was only a brief happy interlude as Ebba Margareta died two years later in childbirth.
The main function of the prayer book was to provide a source of comfort but it also expresses how devotion and religion informed a lifestyle. The short anecdotes and prayers portray the sorrows of a human life and also provide an insight into the many different occupations that were necessary for most people. Märta Berendes’ aristocratic and royal – due to her court service – existence meant that she alternated managing her inherited property and farmsteads with fulfilling her royal service. She portrayed her life, however, as a series of personal losses.
Märta Berendes died in 1717. At almost 80 years of age she was still in royal service at the court.