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Karl XIV Johan

King of Sweden and Norway

Karl XIV Johan

Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was born at Pau in the French province of Béarn, on January 26, 1763. He was baptized Jean, known as Jean-Baptiste, and later added the name Jules; his regular signature was merely "J. Bernadotte." Little is known about his childhood and youth except that he was repeatedly ill, and that he probably attended a Benedictine school in Pau for a short time.

Early Military Career

In 1780, Bernadotte enlisted in the army of Louis XVI, in the Royal-la-Marine regiment, and first saw service in Corsica. In varied service he became successively grenadier, corporal, sergeant, quartermaster, sergeant major, and, early in 1790 adjutant, the highest rank among noncommissioned officers.

During the French Revolution, Bernadotte stood on the side of authority and judicial processes, and once led a group of under-officers in defense of their colonel in a disagreement with revolutionary civil authorities. In 1792, he was elected a Lieutenant and attached to the 36th Regiment of the Army of the Rhine. In the defeat of May 17, 1793, Bernadotte managed to calm the chaos within the ranks and reorganize the batallion for the fight. Rising through the ranks, he became captain in 1793, and, in 1794, passing from Lieutenant Colonel to Colonel on to Brigadier General and then General of Division. He subsequently served in the Army of the Sambre and Meuse (1794-1795), and distinguished himself for his ability to inspire troops in desperate situations. In 1796 he campaigned in north Germany, where he was known as one of the disciplinarians of the army while trying to save the population from plundering by troops and gaining an unusual degree of respect from the inhabitants. In 1797 he brought reinforcements from the Rhine to Napoleon Bonaparte's army in Italy, distinguishing himself at the passage of the Tagliamento and the taking of Gradisca.

Ambassador to Vienna

Though he was next slated to succeed Bonaparte in command of the Army of Italy, both Bernadotte and the Austrians were shocked when he was named ambassador to Vienna. He had no experience to fit him for the post, but from January to April 1798 he did his best. His mission ended on April 14, however, after a Viennese mob rioted against the embassy because Bernadotte had hoisted the French tricolour over the embassy.


On August 16, 1798, Berandotte married Désirée Clary. Her sister Julie had married Joseph Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon), so that when Bernadotte married Désirée he came into the fringes of the Bonaparte clan.

Service to Napoleon

In the fall of 1798 Bernadotte commanded the Army of Mayence and arranged peace with Hesse-Darmstadt. From July 2 to September 14, 1799, he served as Minister of War, in which capacity he displayed great ability. Although he declined to help Napoleon in the preparations for the coup d'état of November 1799, Bernadotte was soon reconciled to the new regime, and from 1800 to 1810 was closely associated with the empire building of Napoleon, active in both campaigns and administration.

Governor of Hanover

On May 19, 1804, Bernadotte was named one of the eighteen Marshals of France, and in June became Governor of Hanover. As both military commander and civil administrative officer, Bernadotte showed executive skill and an ability to win the affection and respect of the citizenry. He showered privileges on the University of Göttingen and attempted to ease the tax burden on the poor by transferring it to the rich.

During a campaign against Austria, Bernadotte led an army corps from Hanover against Austerlitz (December 2, 1805) and occupied Ansbach (February 19, 1806).

Prince of Ponte Corvo

On June 5, 1806, Bernadotte was made Prince of Ponte Corvo, an enclave of 5,600 inhabitants within the territory of the Kingdom of Naples. Later that same year he was severely reproached by Napoleon for not participating with his army corps in the battles of Jena and Auerstadt, though close at hand. Two months later, however, Bernadotte was given command over three corps which made up the left wing in the Polish campaign. On January 25, 1807, he led his troops to a victory over the Russians at Mohrungen. On June 5 he was wounded by a shot in the neck, which took him out of active duty for a short time.

Governor of the Hanseatic Cities

On July 14, 1807, Bernadotte was named Governor of the Hanseatic cities. In this capacity he was to have directed the expedition against Sweden, via the Danish islands, but the plan fell through due to the want of transports and the defection of the Spanish contingent. In the war against Austria, Bernadotte led the Saxon contingent at the Battle of Wagram (July 6, 1809), during which he lost one-third of his soldiers and was forced to withdraw from the town of Wagram. On July 10, Bernadotte's army was dissolved and he was stripped of his command.

Defender of The Netherlands

Soon after Bernadotte's return to Paris, the Council of Ministers entrusted him with the defense of The Netherlands against the English. Bernadotte ably organized that defense, though disease rather than force of arms proved the undoing of the British expedition.

Crown Prince of Sweden

In 1809, Sweden lost Finland to Russia, after which a palace revolution overthrew King Gustav IV Adolf and put on the throne the aged, childless Charles XIII, with the Danish Christian August as elected Crown Prince. In June 1810, the Prince suddenly died, and Sweden was forced to find a "replacement." At the time, it was natural to seek the advice of the then "master of Europe," so a delegation was sent to meet with Napoleon, but the Emperor showed little interest in Sweden's problem. One of the delegates, Baron Otto Mörner, had heard of Bernadotte's military career, his administration of Hanover and the Hansa towns, and his charitable treatment of Swedish prioners. On his own initiative, Mörner offered the succession to the Swedish crown to Bernadotte, who in turn replied that he would not refuse the honor if he were duly elected. Although the Swedish government, amazed at Mörner's brazeness, immediately placed him under arrest upon his return, the candidacy of Bernadotte gradually gained favor. Previous candidates were abandoned at the eleventh hour, and, on August 21, 1810, Bernadotte was elected Crown Prince. Bernadotte accepted the Lutheran faith on October 20, made his entry into Stockholm on November 2, and received the homage of the estates on November 5. Continuity in Sweden was maintained by his adoption as son by Charles XIII, under the name of Karl Johan. The Crown Prince at once assumed actual leadership of the government and acted officially as regent during the prolonged illnesses of the king.

Union with Norway

Foreign policy was the primary concern of Karl Johan's first years in Sweden, and the keynote of his policy was the acquisition of Norway. Such an acquisition would not be easy, however, since Norway "belonged" to Denmark, which was an ally of Napoleonic France. In April 1812, Karl Johan concluded an alliance with Alexander of Russia. Subsequent alliances were made with Britain (March 1813) and Prussia (April 1813). The allies convinced him to forego his right to get Norway right away and aid in a great campaign against Napoleon instead. As commander-in-chief of the northern army, Karl Johan successfully defended the approaches to Berlin against Oudinot in August and against Ney in September at the battles of Grossbeeren and Dennewitz. After the battle at Leipzig (October 16-19), he decided that French defeat was all but assured and turned his attention toward the crippling of Denmark and the securing of Norway.

Crown Prince of Sweden and Norway

On October 29, Karl Johan turned his armies north, and, in a rapid but unspectacular campaign, forced Denmark to sue for peace. In the Treaty of Kiel (January 14, 1814), King Frederick VI of Denmark signed over Norway to the Swedish crown. The Norwegians refused to recognize the Treaty of Kiel, however. An assembly drew up the Constitution of Eidsvold on May 17, 1814, and chose the Danish Statholder Christian Frederick as king. Karl Johan was forced to conquer the country directly.

With reluctant but unwavering support from his allies, Karl Johan conducted an efficient and almost bloodless campaign. On August 14, the Norwegians signed the Convention of Moss, and within the next few weeks arrangements were worked out which preserved the essential liberal principles of the Eidsvold Constitution, except that they required that the Norwegian king be the King of Sweden. Reluctantly, Karl Johan's allies acceded to the union at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Such began an era of peace on the Scandinavian Peninsula that lasted until 1940.

King of Sweden and Norway

Karl Johan succeeded to the throne upon the death of Charles XIII, on February 5, 1818, and assumed the titles Karl XIV Johan, King of Sweden, and Karl III Johan, King of Norway. As king, Karl Johan was popular in both Sweden and Norway. Although many Norwegians resented the method by which union with Sweden had been achieved, his rule there was never in serious danger. Keenly interested in the welfare of the people as a whole, he encouraged the founding of the Academy of Agriculture in 1811, was largely responsible for the rebuilding of the great library at the University of Uppsala, and for the spread of popular education. Fearing that "cognac would be the ruin of the Swedish people," he gave strong support to Per Wieselgren and the temperance movement. He likewise promoted medical and pjysical education. His reign also saw the completion of the Göta Canal, begun twenty-two years earlier.

the coronation of Karl XIV Johan
the coronation of Karl XIV Johan

Karl XIV Johan died at Stockholm on March 8, 1844. He was succeeded by his son, Oscar I, King of Sweden and Norway.

A Note of Interest

Although Bernadotte converted from Catholicism to the Lutheranism of the Swedish court on his adoption, he never learned to speak Swedish nor Norwegian. This was not a problem, however, as the court had no problem with speaking French -- that language being a favorite of the aristocracy of many nations in those days.

His Legacy

Prince Oscar, Karl Johan's only child (born 1799), had come to Sweden with his mother in 1811 and was reared as a Swede. Désirée, however, had returned to Paris and did not come to Sweden to stay until 1823, on the occasion of Prince Oscar's betrothal and marriage to Princess Josephine, daughter of Eugene de Beauharnais, granddaughter of the King of Bavaria. Through this marriage and its issue the Bernadotte dynasty was destined to continue in Sweden for a long time.


Encyclopedia Britannica Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1957

See Also

Napoleon Bonaparte
The Netherlands
Tsar Alexander

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The Robinson Library >> Sweden >> 1814-1907

This page was last updated on January 26, 2019.