One of many ways I like to annoy my beautiful fiancée is to poke fun at her Swedish ancestry.
What’s not to love about Sweden–the near-arctic temperatures, the overtaxed welfare state, modular furniture, a penchant for experimental pornography and a cuisine that has had few true winners since the days of the longship.
Yet of all the things to knock the Swedes for, I always come back to one—deep down, the King of Sweden isn’t even a Swede.
He’s the descendant of a down-on-his-luck field marshal from Gascony.
On February 5, 1818, Field Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, former Marshal of the Empire, former Minister of War, former governor of Hanover, Prince of Ponte Corvo, became King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and King Karl III Johan of Norway. He would be the first of the House of Bernadotte, the royal family that still reigns over Sweden today.
The story of Bernadotte’s peculiar rise to a Scandinavian throne is something out of a Hollywood comedy.
Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was a son of a tailor and small-town lawyer in the town of Pau in southwestern France. He had the good fortune of reaching manhood at the cusp of the French Revolution: a perfect time for an ambitious boy with no apparent prospects. By the time of the rise of Napoleon to power in 1799, Bernadotte had risen from tailor’s son to accomplished general and Minister of War under the Directory (the government in power before Napoleon’s coup).
Napoleon knew a good general when he saw one, and made Bernadotte a Marshal of the Empire in 1804. He distinguished himself in the 1805 campaign at the victories at Ulm and Austerlitz. As a reward, Napoleon made Bernadotte Prince of Ponte Corvo, a hick town in central Italy that was only good as a strategic location (which didn’t help its fate…it was flattened during World War II). He was even married to the sister of Napoleon’s sister-in-law.
It looked like Jean Baptiste had it made. So why would he hightail it to the fjords five years later?
Bernadotte was never easy to figure out. He never went along with Napoleon’s coup d’etat, and rumors were circulating that he was an erratic hothead and a closeted Jacobin (rumors Bernadotte never refuted). Unlike the other field marshals, Bernadotte made his bones during the early years of the Revolution—he was already a name before Napoleon rose to power and never needed his short coattails to rise to anything. Loud, impulsive, fun-loving, Bernadotte would never have the best of relations with Napoleon, who saw him as a bulldog of a general but possibly as a potential rival.
Furthermore, Bernadotte’s battlefield behavior was growing more erratic, at least from Napoleon’s low horizon. On an expedition against the Danes in the northern European port of Lubeck, he treated Swedish prisoners with kindness and respect, making connections that would prove fortunate for him (and not for Napoleon). The Lubeck expedition was supposed to lead to an invasion of Sweden which never materialized. In 1806 Bernadotte took his sweet time bringing up reinforcements at Jena and Auerstadt. He led a contingent from Saxony in the 1809 Battle of Wagram, and on his own, issued an Order of the Day crediting his Saxon regiments with the victory. Never mind that Bernadotte’s men, exhausted and ill-trained, had retreated against the Emperor’s instructions—even while Bernadotte himself tried to rally the men forward.
It was during Wagram that Napoleon stripped Bernadotte of his command.
Demoralized and notably pissed off, Bernadotte returned to Paris a dejected has-been. He was to prepare defenses in the Netherlands against a British invasion which wasn’t happening (most of the invading forces died of fever). Then came the meaningless post of governor of Rome. It appeared Jean Baptiste’s best days were behind him.
Then, a letter arrived that would change everything.
It seems that Bernadotte’s antics made waves across the Baltic. In Sweden, the aging King Karl XIII Johan was childless, as his heir unexpectedly died of a stroke. Frantic, the Swedish ministers searched across Europe for a new presumptive heir to the Swedish throne. Their main rival was Russia, so a man with a military background was preferred. However, Napoleon was an ever-looming threat, so maybe a French general would work so that the Emperor would back off.
Bernadotte arose as the ideal candidate. He was an accomplished general, who still ( at least on paper) had Napoleon’s support. Furthermore, his kind actions towards the Swedes at Lubeck made him immensely popular with the Swedish army. After much debate, on August 21, 1810, Bernadotte was elected the new Crown Prince by the Swedish Estates General, and subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces.
When the letter came that fall, Bernadotte didn’t believe it. He never saw it coming. Napoleon thought the whole thing was a joke. He didn’t support the move, but didn’t oppose it either—he probably though Bernadotte would fuck this up like the retreats at Wagram.
Looking at the situation, you have to agree with Napoleon to a point. It sounds like a bad fish-out-of-water movie. You could hear the awkward first time Bernadotte walks the streets of Stockholm (“Bonjour mon peuple, je suis votre nouveau roi … me prendre à votre …smorgasbord.),
or his first Swedish winter (“Sacre bleu…It’s so cold I’m freezing my boulettes off!”),
or his first encounter with local cuisine (“Lutfisk? Merci…[sniffs]…Merde!!!”).
Yet the fuck up didn’t happen. On the contrary, it was the beginning of Bernadotte’s spectacular second act.
Somehow, he must have seen this as a new lease on life. When Bernadotte arrived in Stockholm on November 2, 1810, he figured if he was going to do this, he would do this right. He received the homage of the Estates General, and the old king officially adopted him as his son, naming him Karl Johan. He didn’t have long to get used to the job. With a dying king and a council of ministers divided, Bernadotte became the most powerful man in Sweden.
His first act? Turning on his old boss.
In 1813, Sweden joined the Sixth Coalition, the alliance of countries opposing Napoleon led by Great Britain. Obviously, there was a selfish end to all this: Sweden hoped to solidify its claim on Norway. Regardless, as commander of the Northern army, Crown Prince Karl Johan defeated two of his old buddies, Marshals Oudinot and Ney. Later on, he decided to ditch the coalition and focus on taking Norway, which he finally did after beating up the Danes in 1814. After the allies recognized his claim, Karl Johan was now the heir to the thrones of both Norway and Sweden.
1818 saw death of the old king and the coronation of King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and Karl III Johan of Norway. Even though he never learned a word of Swedish (nor Norwegian), Karl Johan worked hard to be a good king. He became a Lutheran, which made him even more popular among the people. His reign witnessed the completion of the Gota Canal, and he managed the country’s postwar finances. He kept both Russia and Great Britain as allies, keeping Sweden in an almost perpetual period of peace to this day.
His brash ways were also gone. Over time, Karl Johan went from fiery Jacobin to firm ultra-conservative monarch. His restrictions on freedoms and his hesitance to modernize Swedish commerce or to institute liberal democratic reforms made him less popular as time wore on. Yet his intellect, his experience, and his personal charm kept him in power until his death in 1844. He was astoundingly mourned as a savior of the nation, and one of Sweden’s greatest kings.
That blustery Gascon still affects us today. His descendants not only reign in Sweden. There are Bernadottes in Norway, Belgium, Luxemburg and Denmark. The Swedish coat of arms still carries Jean Baptiste’s old arms as Prince of Ponte Corvo, complete with Napoleon’s eagle under the big dipper.
Finally, it just goes to show how crazy life can be, even for a slightly off French field marshal from the Pyrenees.
I wonder if he ever did try that lutfisk.