Sweden is celebrating at the moment. The Crown Princess has got engaged and next year, when she marries Sweden will have a new prince. Since he’s a commoner and a an ordinary (Not so ordinary for the Crown Princess I gather!) Swedish young man, it’s all very romantic and everyone is simply beaming with happiness.
That’s not what I’m going to write about though. Instead I’ll devote this piece to the last time (and the only time) a commoner has become a prince of Sweden. It happened 1810 when Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, a Marshal of France, was elected Crown Prince of Sweden and was adopted by the childless King Charles XIII. Jean Baptiste was a prince (of Ponte Corvo, a title bestowed him by Napoleon) in his own right, but he was born the son of a lawyer in the French town of Pau.
But what was life for a Frenchman in the early days of 19th C Sweden? The easy answer is cold. As school children we are still told anecdotes about Karl XIV Johan (as Jean Baptiste was crowned) the first Swedish king of the House of Bernadotte, anecdotes about his reaction to the cold climate, the terrible food and the hassle of a new language.
Sängkammarregemente “bedchamber government” sounds practically dissipated, but the moniker of Karl XIV Johan’s rule has a dull pragmatic reason behind it. The king found Sweden so cold he usually didn’t rise from bed until well into the afternoon. The secretaries of state had to come to him instead.
Until the invention of radiators the best way of heating a Swedish house was with kakelugn, i.e. a tiled stove (in German: Kakelofen). A tiled stove is very effective since it stores heat in the bricks and in the smoke canals that makes up its construction.
Unlike an open fireplace it doesn’t need much fuel and it heats up a considerably larger area that an open fireplace. The invention revolutionised the lifestyle of late 18th century: several rooms could be used in the winter and decorators incorporated the tiled stove in their plans, transforming its shape along with the latest trends.
They were a priced object and the rest of the room was furnished around it (not unlike out television sets).The opposite corner to the stove usually held a cupboard in the same shape as the stove to keep the symmetry.
Since they were so costly a room, even big ones, generally only had one stove. The king’s bedroom, however, has two stoves, on either side of the bed. As mentioned before, he thought it cold. His wife, Queen Desideria, thought it colder still. After a brief stay in Sweden she returned to Paris and remained there for twelve years, 1811-1823.
Then there was the food. In the seventies (I’m referring to the 1970s here) my father met a Swedish man in Australia who had left Sweden 50 years before and wouldn’t go back because he “couldn’t stand any more salted herring”. To this day salt and possibly pepper are the main ingredients in any traditional Swedish cooking.
King Charles was suspicious of any dish served at his table and rightly so. We do know however that he liked mushrooms, especially this kind of mushroom, which is called Karljohan.
It’s hard to fail with fried mushrooms. Only add butter – and salt and pepper.
The king also ordered boiled eggs for every dinner. It’s hard to fail with eggs too. Just boil and serve – with salt and pepper.
His silver eggcup and a salt and pepper set in silver are still in use. Since the days of Karl XIV Johan a silver eggcup always marks the place setting of the king at state dinners. When not in use its exhibited in the long gallery where the state dinners take place. So, do go to Stockholm and the Royal Palace, there’s a historical eggcup to be seen!
On to the language difficulty and the Swedish gibberish a friend of mine refer to as Scandiwegian. Karl XIV Johan never learnt the language. I’ve known it since I was a toddler, it’s still a hassle.
He did try to hold speeches in Swedish, but was too uncomfortable too keep it going. Some drafts for the speeches still remain. They are written in a Frenchified Swedish. All the typical Swedish vowels are exchanged for similarly sounding French spelling.
French was the language of the court, had been for many years, so everyday business probably worked out well enough. Occasionally though, the language issue became a barrier.
For one, the king was suspicious of everyone, not being able to follow the gossip and always fearing a coup d’état. Sweden, along with the rest of Europe, had seen its share of conflicts and war since the time of the French Revolution. One king (Gustavus III) had been assassinated in the 1790s, his son (Gudstavus IV) was later deposed from his throne, and Sweden had lost a third of its territory to the Russians – Karl XIV Johan mild paranoia is quite understandable.
On other occasions the language barrier was simply amusing. One anecdote tells of a Mr. Mörner who had been sent by a secretary of State to inquire about the king’s health. Karl XIV Johan had been feeling poorly. Sadly Mr. Mörner’s French wasn’t very accurate.
Herr Mörner “… que son excellence espérait que Votre Majesté se comporterait mieux aujourd’hui que hier.”
Karl XIV Johan “Je tâcherai, mon ami”
What Mörner wished to have said, was inquire whether His Majestyfelt better today than yesterday, but since he used the wrong word he asked instead whether His Majesty would behave better today than he did the day before.
With a smile Karl Johan responded, “I’ll try, my friend.”