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THE YEAR 1810 was a busy one for Napoleon, for Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (Napoleon’s appointed Prince of Portecorvo), and for King Charles XIII of Sweden.

Emperor Napoleon’s goal of conquering all of Europe was well underway; he was to achieve his greatest domination a year later. Bernadotte was continuing his on-again/off-again subservience to Napoleon in being giving an appointment as Governor of Rome. And King Charles XIII, having ascended the Swedish throne only a year before, was 61, in poor health, and childless.

King Charles XIII of Sweden, 1748–1818. He was actually only the seventh Swedish king with this name, but an earlier Charles had adopted a faux numeral based on a fictitious history of Sweden.

Unlikely to produce an heir, King Charles XIII had chosen a Danish prince, Charles August, to succeed him. Alas, this adopted Crown Prince died of a stroke at age 41, on May 28, 1810.

Sweden’s next choice for an heir-assumptive was—wait for it—Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte.

Though Napoleon considered this an absurdity, it made sense to Swedish Baron Karl Otto Mörner and the Swedish Army. The country had its complications with Russia at the time, and a Crown Prince with military background wasn’t a bad idea. What’s more, Bernadotte’s compassion shown to Swedish prisoners after the Battle of Lübeck was not forgotten.

At first, the Swedish government didn’t buy this; Mörner was briefly arrested. However, by August 21, 1810, the Riksdag of the Estates, Sweden’s highest authority next to the King, elected Bernadotte as Crown Prince Karl Johan, aka Charles John.

Swedish Crown Prince Karl Johan, entering Leipzig, 1813. Portrait by Fredric Westin.

According to Wikipedia, “Before freeing Bernadotte from his allegiance to France, Napoleon asked him to agree never to take up arms against France. Bernadotte refused…. Napoleon exclaimed ‘Go, and let our destinies be accomplished.’ ”

Crown Prince Karl Johan became the darling of Swedish commoners, Riksdag members, and the infirm king. These were complex times, though, and by 1812, on Crown Prince Karl Johan’s birthday, Napoleonic troops invaded Swedish Pomerania.

Swedish Pomerania, a Baltic enclave, is shown in orange; the rest of Swedish Empire, at its seventeenth-century greatest, is shown, in green. In the Napoleonic Era, it was somewhat smaller.

In 1813, acting as Regent, Crown Prince Karl Johan allied Sweden with Napoleon’s enemies, including Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia. His military prowess gave this Sixth Coalition several important victories. And then the Crown Prince went his own—and Sweden’s—way in securing Norway by crippling Denmark.

This plan succeeded in 1814, in what was to be the last of Sweden’s wars to this day. What’s more, Bernadotte’s diplomatic skills with the Norwegians encouraged them to enter a union with Sweden later that year.

Such was Crown Prince Karl Johan’s cred at the time that Russian Tsar Alexander I proposed that he’d make a suitable choice for French king, once Napoleon was deposed. Others in the Sixth Coalition opted for restoration of the Bourbon line.

On February 5, 1818, Sweden’s King Charles XIII died. Crown Prince Karl Johan, that is, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, became King Charles XIV John of Sweden and dually King Charles III John of Norway.

King Charles XIV John of Sweden, King Charles III John of Norway, born Jean Bernadotte, 1763–1844, reigned 1818–1844. Portrait by François Gérard, c. 1840.

Not bad for a guy whose ancestors had included a shepherd, a weaver, a tailor, and a father having spent time in debtors prison.

The House of Bernadotte. Founded in 1818 by King Charles XIV John, it continues today in Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf.

Alas, though Bernadotte was something of a radical in his youth, the burden of all these titles transformed him into an ultra-conservative. In particular, Wikipedia notes, “His autocratic methods, particularly his censorship of the press, were very unpopular, especially after 1823.”

Statue of King Charles XIV John of Sweden in Copenhagen. Equestrian statue by Bengt Erland Fogelberg.

Nevertheless, King Charles XIV John went on to celebrate his reign’s silver jubilee in 1843, two years before his death.

On his deathbed, he was heard to say, “Nobody has had a career in life like mine.”

I’d sure agree with him on that. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. Michael Rubin
    June 26, 2018

    He’s not held in much esteem in Finland.

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