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WITH HOMAGE to Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, 1888, here’s a tale of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte who actually became Sweden’s King Charles XIV John. It’s a tale of a Napoleonic officer who married well, soldiered perhaps less than well, albeit with compassion, yet landed with his feet on royal turf. It’s a tale of budding European nationalism when a Frenchman of humble stock came to rule an Italian principality for awhile, and went on to establish a royal dynasty in Sweden. In fact, it’s a tale told here at SimanaitisSays in two parts, today and tomorrow.
Jean Bernadotte, 1763–1844, was born to modest means in Pau, France. His ancestors included a shepherd, a weaver, a tailor, and, his father, a local prosecutor who had once been imprisoned for debt.
The family added Baptiste to Jean’s given name to differentiate him from his elder brother also named Jean. Jean-Baptiste later added Jules on his own. He was briefly apprenticed to a local attorney, but at the age of 17 joined the Régiment Royal—La Marine in 1780. Bernadotte’s first posting was in the newly conquered territory of Corsica, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte.
By 1785, Bernadotte achieved the rank of Sergeant as well as the nickname Sergeant Belle-Jambe, loosely, Sgt. Hot-Legs. Following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, he rose quickly in the ranks, though not without mixed results.
Wikipedia notes, “Bernadotte contributed, more than anyone else, to the successful retreat of the French army over the Rhine after its defeat by the Archduke Charles of Austria.”
Later, it’s noted, “Upon receiving insult from Dominique Martin Dupuy, the commander of Milan, Bernadotte was to arrest him for insubordination. However, Dupuy was a close friend of Louis-Alexandre Berthier and this started a long-lasting feud between Bernadotte and Napoleon’s Chief of Staff.”
Later still, in various foreign postings, Bernadotte was less than obsequious to Napoleon. This, in turn, coincided with the French Revolutionary Directory’s fear at home of Napoleon’s growing power.
Returning to Paris, in 1798 Bernadotte married Désirée Clary, sister-in-law of Joseph Bonaparte, guess-who’s elder brother. This apparently didn’t hurt Bernadotte’s career, at least for awhile: From July 2 to September 14, 1798, he was France’s Minister of War.
On the other hand, Bernadotte’s popularity with the radical Jacobins got in the way, and on September 13 he found his resignation announced in Le Moniteur Universel, essentially the government’s official newspaper.
French politics being what they were at the time, Bernadotte later declined to help in Napoleon’s 1799 coup d’etat. Nevertheless, Bernadotte was appointed an army commander and, in the First French Empire, he served as one of Napoleon’s 18 Marshals.
Wikipedia notes that Bernadotte “created for himself a reputation for independence, moderation, and administrative ability.” Indeed, as reward for his service at the Battle of Austerlitz, Bernadotte was appointed the 1st Sovereign Prince of Pontecorvo in 1806. The Principality of Pontecorvo, within the Kingdom of Naples, was short-lived: Napoleon created it for Bernadotte; it was ceded back to the Papal States in 1815.
However, things were not all pêches et crème. After one battle, Napoleon commented, “Bernadotte stops at nothing. Someday the Gascon will get caught.” Concerning another battle, Wikipedia writes, “Napoleon rebuked him [Bernadotte] for his absence but it became acknowledged that it was not due to Bernadotte, but Berthier’s carelessness in dispatching the orderly.”
Bernadotte’s alleged military transgressions were to have far-reaching implications: He prevented his soldiers from widespread looting at Lübeck. He even treated captured Swedish soldiers with courtesy, allowing them to return to their home country.
Tomorrow, we’ll see how this changed the course of Swedish history, and of Bernadotte’s fortunes. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018