Jean Baptiste Bernadotte

The French-born Jean Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844) ruled Sweden and Norway as King Charles XIV John from 1818 to 1844. The founder of the present Swedish dynasty, he served as a marshal of the Napoleonic army before his election as crown prince of Sweden in 1810.

The son of petit-bourgeois parents, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was born on Jan. 26, 1763, at Pau, France. He joined the army in 1780 and was a sergeant when the French Revolution began in 1789. Embracing the Revolutionary ideals, he rose rapidly in the ranks of the republican army. By 1794 he was a brigadier general and had served with the armies of the Meuse and the Rhine.

In 1798 Bernadotte served briefly as French ambassador to Vienna. Returning to Paris in the summer of that year, he married Désirée Clary. Her relationship with Napoleon—he had courted her in 1794 and her sister had married his brother Joseph Bonaparte—was to prove beneficial to Bernadotte. During 1798 Bernadotte was also minister of war for a short period, and he had become an influential political general by the time of Napoleon's return from Egypt in 1799. He did not, however, take part in the coup d'etat of Brumaire (November 1799), which established the Consulate under Napoleon. During the 4 years of the Consulate he commanded first the Army of the Vendée and then the troops at Hanover.

The creation of the empire in 1804 brought Bernadotte the title of marshal. He played an active role in the campaign against Austria in 1805 and fought at Austerlitz. In return for his services to France, and because of his relation to the Emperor, he was given the principality of Pontecorvo in June 1806. He took part in the Prussian campaign of 1806, but during the Battle of Jena (October 14) he refused to support Marshal Louis N. Davout, who was thus forced to engage the major portion of the Prussian army with only one army corps. Although he remained popular with his troops, Bernadotte was denounced by Napoleon and criticized by his fellow marshals for this action.

In 1808, as governor of northern Germany, Bernadotte came in contact with Swedish troops, who were impressed by his generous conduct. The 1809 campaign against Austria found him once again at the head of an army corps, but the Battle of Wargram marked the end of his military career with the French army. When the German troops under his command fled to the rear at the height of the battle, Bernadotte rode after them in a vain attempt to rally them. While riding full gallop to the rear, he met Napoleon advancing with reinforcements. The Emperor would listen to no explanation; he relieved the marshal of his command and ordered him off the battlefield.

Bernadotte returned to Paris in undeserved disgrace but was soon given command of the defense of the Netherlands. Then, in 1810, as he was about to take up his new post as governor of Rome, the Swedish government asked him to become crown prince of Sweden. After securing the approval of Napoleon and becoming a member of the Lutheran Church, Bernadotte was elected on Aug. 20, 1810, to succeed the aging and ailing Swedish king, Charles XIII. When he arrived in Stockholm in November, he was adopted by the king and took the name Charles John. He was popular with the Swedish people, and his political influence increased as the King's health continued to decline. Realizing that Sweden could never retake Finland from Russia, he followed a pro-Russian course in foreign policy, aimed at acquiring Norway. The occupation by French troops of Swedish Poemerania in 1812 and the ruinous Continental blockade resulted in a formal split with Napoleon, and in 1813 the crown prince took his adopted nation into the camp of the Allies.

Charles John led a Swedish army against France in the final years of the Napoleonic Wars, and after Napoleon's defeat Sweden was allowed to annex Norway, which had been part of the Danish kingdom. In 1818, when Charles XIII died, the crown prince ascended the throne. An ultraconservative throughout his peaceful reign, he almost outlived his popularity. On March 8, 1844, he died at Stockholm.

Further Reading on Jean Baptiste Bernadotte

Sir Dunbar Plunket Barton wrote three books on Bernadotte, which completely cover the life of the soldier and king: Bernadotte: The First Phase, 1763-1799 (1914), Bernadotte and Napoleon, 1763-1810 (1921), and Bernadotte: Prince and King, 1810-1844 (1925). Franklin D. Scott, Bernadotte and the Fall of Napoleon (1935), is an excellent account of Bernadotte during the years 1809-1815.