This edited article about Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, King of Sweden originally appeared
in Look and Learn issue number 733 published on 31 January 1975.
There was no doubt about it. Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was a thorn in Napoleon’s
side. The Emperor could not fail to respect his talents, both as a general and as an
administrator, but he found Bernadotte’s independence of thought and action extremely
Bernadotte’s personality was an attractive mixture of independence, stirring bravery and
humanity. A significant episode in his career occurred when he captured the town of
Lubeck in Germany in 1806. True to character, he treated his prisoners kindly. About
1,000 of them were Swedish.
Bernadotte little realised what this apparently unimportant action would lead to.
The sequel came several years later when Bernadotte, temporarily out of favour with
Napoleon, was living quietly in Paris with his wife and his young son, Oscar. Out of the
blue, he was invited to become Crown Prince and heir to the throne of Sweden.
Sweden’s fortunes were at a low level, for in 1809 she had suffered a revolution which
had deposed her King, Gustavus IV, and replaced him with his aged uncle, Charles XIII.
It was the death of Charles XIII’s heir, the Danish prince, Christian August, which sent
Sweden looking for a new one.
Of the various candidates put forward, it might seem that Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte,
French marshal and commoner, would scarcely have been considered. But the Swedish
nation wanted more than just a king; they were seeking a leader. Bernadotte was popular
in Sweden because of his military and administrative talents – and because of the way
he had treated the Swedish prisoners at Lubeck.
When Napoleon was approached about the matter, he suggested that one of his family
would be more suitable. When it was made clear to him that Bernadotte was the particular
man required, the Emperor did not exert his influence in either direction. In fact, talking
to the Austrian Ambassador, Prince Metternich, he remarked: “For my part, I am
delighted to get rid of him.”
On Tuesday, 20th August, 1810, the Swedes formally elected Bernadotte Crown Prince,
and he landed in Sweden in October.
On coming to Sweden, Bernadotte abandoned his French nationality and immersed himself
utterly in Swedish affairs. His most ardent supporters were among the lower classes and
he set out to merit their approval. But he also won the hearts of the Swedish royal family,
and his sincere charm and loyalty soon caused the King and Queen to look upon their
adopted heir as their true son.
Bernadotte took the name ‘Charles John’, and right from the time of his arrival in Sweden, the direction of Swedish affairs was in his hands.
Bernadotte’s chief problem was in establishing a firm direction for Sweden’s foreign
policy: in particular, he had to define the country’s relationship with Napoleon. The
Emperor, who was trying to defeat Britain with a commercial blockade, announced
that Sweden must declare war on Britain or face war with France. Sweden had to
agree, but the war was not pursued by either Britain or Sweden, and Napoleon was
The breach between Napoleon and Bernadotte widened in 1812, when the Emperor
invaded Swedish Pomerania. Bernadotte lost no time in contacting Czar Alexander
of Russia with an alliance in mind.
The Czar and the Crown Prince met in Finland and took an immediate liking to one
another. The Czar promised to send troops to help Bernadotte conquer Norway
(then under the control of Denmark), and in return gained an ally against Napoleon’s
plans for subduing Russia.
In 1813, Bernadotte entered into alliance with Britain and Prussia and even agreed to
delay his attack on Norway and join the campaign against Napoleon.
Bernadotte knew Napoleon’s military genius better than any of his allies, and respected
it accordingly. He warned them against fighting battles when the Emperor himself was
in command, but encouraged them to attack on all other occasions.
Bernadotte was given command of all the troops in the north of Germany. But throughout
this campaign he showed himself again and again unwilling to enter into direct conflict
with France. This was especially noticeable at the Allied victory of Leipzig, when he annoyed
his allies by holding back the Swedish troops until the last. He wanted the other armies to
win if they could and only in the event of their possible defeat would he throw his own into
Again, Bernadotte was not present on French soil when Napoleon was forced to abdicate,
on 11th April, 1814. He went to Paris shortly afterwards, but took little part in the
His allies had no patience with Bernadotte’s lack of enthusiasm over the defeat of France.
But Bernadotte was not fighting against his old homeland: only against Napoleon.
Bernadotte did not succeed to the throne until 1818, but his dynasty still rules in Sweden.
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