Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte- From Pauper to King

Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, Prince de Ponte-Corvo

This is a story of rags to riches and of an unlikely king.  Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was born in France to a lawyer, but through an extraordinary turn of events became king of a country far from his own.

Born in Pau, France on February 5, 1818, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was the son of a prosecutor and his wife.  His family wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a lawyer as well, but Jean-Baptiste enlisted in the French Marines in 1780 instead.  When the French Revolution and its aftermath of the Terror happened (for more on the Terror, please see this post ), he rose rapidly through the ranks.  The bars to commoners ascending to command were removed, and Jean-Baptiste became a brigadier general in 1794.  Staunchly anti royal, Jean-Baptiste was definitely a Jacobin sympathizer and according to some sources had “death to all kings” tattooed on his arm.  If so, that probably got awkward later.  Under his command, the French army was able to mount a successful retreat over the Rhine for Battle of Theiningen.  From there he went to reinforce Napoleon’s army in Italy.    It was in Mantua where the two men first met, and Napoleon gave Jean-Baptiste command of the 4th division.  

A rivalry sprung up between the two men.  Members of the Directory, or five-member committee which governed France from 1795 to 1799, appointed Jean-Baptiste as commander-in-chief of the Italian Army to offset Napoleon’s power.  There were fears even then that Napoleon would move to overturn the French Republic.  Napoleon, as can be imagined, was not happy about this move and through political maneuvering was able to have Jean-Baptiste relieved of command and attached to the embassy to Vienna.  Jean-Baptiste was bitter about this choice, but went to Vienna.  Eventually he returned to Paris to marry, and this was another source of contention between Napoleon and Jean-Baptiste.

Jean-Baptiste married Napoleon’s old girlfriend.  Desiree Clary was a beautiful young woman, who was the daughter of rich merchants in Marseilles.  She was originally courted by Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, but she fell hard for Napoleon, who seemed to return her feelings.  Joseph eventually married Desiree’s sister Julie and Napoleon and Desiree were engaged.  Unfortunately, Napoleon was quite a ladies’ man and could not keep away from other women, especially the beautiful Josephine de Beauharnais.  Desiree broke off the engagement claiming Napoleon had “stolen” her virginity.  In fact, there is a very angry letter to Napoleon from Desiree in the Swedish royal archives after the breakup.  Despite this, there were always rumors that Napoleon still carried a torch for the lovely Desiree.  After this little episode, Desiree went on to marry Jean-Baptiste in 1798.  It was a good match- she was lovely, rich and well connected, and he was an up and coming military man.

It was a messy time.  In 1804, there was a coup d’etat, which put Napoleon in control of the First French Empire.  Although Jean-Baptiste did not take part in the coup, he did command the army and provided nominal support.  As a reward, he was made one of the eighteen Marshals of the Empire, and served as governor for Hanover.  He performed well at the Battle of Ulm and the Battle of Austerlitz, and was rewarded.  He was made the 1st Sovereign Prince of Ponte Corvo in 1806.  His name is also on the northern pillar of the Arc de Triomphe, constructed by Napoleon as a monument to France’s greatness after Austerlitz.

All of this was well and good, but things started to go south again.  He was reprimanded severely by Napoleon for not joining in the Battle of Jena though he could not get there because of poor roads.  (For more on the players at Jena, please see this post: )    It was at that point he came very close to court martial and accusations of treason flew around.  However, Jean-Baptiste did force the Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher to surrender at the Battle of Lübeck.  At Lübeck, he was able to keep his men from sacking the city and treated the surrendering Swedish soldiers fairly.  Something they did not forget.  Despite these victories, Napoleon was deeply suspicious of his rival, commenting, “Bernadotte stops at nothing. Someday the Gascon will get caught.”  He fell into disfavor again and was actually fired by Napoleon in the middle of the Battle of Wagram in 1809 accused of fleeing with his troops.  In reality, he was riding ahead and trying to rally them.  Casting about for something else to do, he got an interesting offer.

Apparently, the Swedish soldiers whom he had dealt with took their tale back to their aging king.  Sweden at that point was in a bad way.  They had lost Finland in 1807, which had been under the Swedish crown for 700 years.  This defeat caused them to overthrow the former king and put his childless uncle on the throne.  King Charles XIII was 61 and in ill health.  He had two children who had died in infancy and his wife, Queen Charlotte was past childbearing age.  He designated a member of the Danish royal house as an heir, who promptly fell off his horse and died.  While casting about for another potential heir, their eyes fell on Jean-Baptiste.  He was a successful general who had a reputation for being a fair administrator.  Could this be the man who could recapture Finland?  They were going to find out.  Napoleon agreed to allow Jean-Baptiste to take the offer after making him swear to not take up arms against France.  Jean-Baptiste refused.  Napoleon exclaimed, “Go, and let our destinies be accomplished.”  These two were going to cross swords again.

Taking the new name Charles John, Jean-Baptiste made very clear Finland was off the table.  Napoleon had attacked Swedish Pomerania and the island of Rügen on the way to Moscow.  All bets were off.  Instead,Jean-Baptiste cast his eyes instead on Norway.  Norway was part of the Danish crown, and was a nominal ally of Napoleon.  He made a deal with England and Russia to fight with them against Napoleon if he got Norway for the Swedish crown.  With the help of the Swedish troops, the allies were able to defeat Napoleon.  (For more on Napoleon’s defeat, please see this post: )  However, his plans for Norway didn’t go so well.  He took control of Norway through the Treaty of Kiel, but the Norwegians had other plans.  They balked at being passed back and forth “like cattle”, and quickly created a new constitution declaring independence.

Formally crowned king of Sweden in 1814, Jean-Baptiste’s reign was marked by a small war between Norway and Sweden, but they were eventually forced to accept Norwegian independence.  He was personally well liked, and was succeeded by his son, Oscar I.  In a bit of irony, Oscar’s wife was named Josephine after her grandmother.  She was the daughter of Eugene and a Bavarian princess.  Eugene was the son of Josephine de Beauharnais, Oscar’s mother’s rival for Napoleon’s affection.  Small world indeed.


Prester John


Prester John from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the time of the crusades, Europeans were looking for any allies in their battles against the Muslims for the Holy Land.  Medieval writings often feature a fabulously wealthy Christian king in the East.  This was Prester John.  He was believed to be a member of the Nestorian Church, which was an independent Eastern Christian church that did not fall under the purview of the patriarch in Constantinople.  He was supposed to be an ally against the Muslims for the crusaders to take advantage of.

The story of Prester John was first recorded by Bishop Otto of Freisling Germany in his Chronicon published in 1145.  It was based on a report from Bishop Hugh of Gerbal in Syria to the papal court at Viterbo, Italy.  According to the story recorded in the Chronicon, Prester John was a powerful Christian king who was the descendant of the Magi who visited the Christ Child.  He was also said to be a formidable fighter who defeated the Muslim kings of Persia in battle taking their capital of Ecbatana.  The only reason he did not recapture Jerusalem was because he could not cross the Tigris River.  There was no more on the story until a letter appeared in 1165.  Copies of a letter from Prester John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos began circulating.  In this letter, Prester John’s kingdom is described as having crystal clear rivers of emeralds, massive amounts of gold, majestic animals and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  This myth also morphed into having Prester John’s kingdom being next door to the Garden of Paradise.  A good ally to have.  This letter were so persuasive that Pope Alexander III sent a return letter addressed to Prester John in 1177.  It was being taken east by Alexander’s personal physician Philip.  It is addressed to “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.”  Nothing more is mentioned of Philip or what happened to him and the letter.

However, all of this was fictional.  It is thought that the battle being referred to was fought between the Mongol khan Yelu Dashi and the Seljuk sultan Sanjar in 1141.  The Mongol khans who fought in this battle were not Christians, but Buddhists.  However, many of their followers were Nestorian Christians.  It’s also possible that Europeans that were unfamiliar with Buddhists may have assumed they were another sect of Christianity.  The letter published in 1165 was fiction, however, it was translated from its original Latin into a variety of languages and distributed throughout Europe.  Then word returned from the Fifth Crusade that Prester John’s grandson, King David, was fighting the Saracens.  The problem?  It wasn’t King David conquering all these lands.  It was the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.  They tried to bend this new development around the legend by saying one of his favorite wives was a Nestorian Christian and that he was tolerant of other religious faiths as long as they didn’t make trouble.  However, this didn’t really fit the narrative and the legends moved away from Prester John being a central Asian king.

Some additional legends, linked Prester John to kingdoms in Africa even though the original story placed him in Asia.  Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a Christian land fueling the rumors.  In the 15th century, Italian and Portuguese explorers began searching for Prester John in Africa.  Portuguese explorers began connecting a kingdom in present-day Ethiopia with Prester John’s realm.  They made contact with the kingdom of Zara Yaqob, and decided this kingdom was the source of the wealth of Solomon.  Prester John was identified with the negus, or emperor, of the kingdom.  In fact, ambassadors from Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence and identified as representatives of Prester John.  They were extremely confused.

By this time, the legend was dying out as exploration of Africa and Asia by the Europeans were not finding this fabled kingdom.  However, the legend did inspire generations of explorers, soldiers and dreamers


Dorothy Lawrence-  The Woman in the Trenches

Lawrence in 1915 in her soldier’s disguise. Photo Credit- By Unknown –

History is full of women who disguised themselves and fought along their menfolk for causes they believed in.  A prime example are the women who inspired the legend of Molly Pitcher during the American Revolution.  (For more on this, please see this post: )  According to historian, Elizabeth Shipton, many women made it to the front line as nurses in the trenches or helping those wounded in No Man’s Land.  Some women took up arms and called “she soldiers”, but they had to operate in secret.  Dorothy Lawrence was one of these.  She disguised herself as a man and fought in the trenches along with the men.  

Dorothy was born in Hendon, North London around the late 1880s.  Some sources put her birth as late as 1895.  Not much is known her parents except that she was probably born to an unwed mother.  Her mother died when Dorothy was around 13 or 14, and she was taken in by a guardian of the Church of England.  In her autobiography, Sapper Dorothy, she describes him as very respected, and said if he would not approve her later shenanigans.   She mused,

‘if my highly respectable guardian, living in that dear old Cathedral city, could see me now, they would have forty fits.’  

Dorothy later accused this guardian of sexual abuse, but these allegations were not investigated or taken seriously.

As a young woman, she was attempting to make a living as a journalist in London.  A few of her articles were published by The Times, but she had had no real success.  When World War I broke out in 1914, she was living in Paris and was determined to cover the war from the trenches.  She was laughed out of the office.  She tried to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment, but was rejected. In desperation she tried to walk to the war zone and was arrested by French Police in Senlis.  Dorothy decided to change her tactics.  Befriending two soldiers on leave, whom she referred to as her “khaki accomplices”, she convinced them to smuggle her a uniform by stealing pieces from the army laundry.  Dorothy tried on her ill-gotten gains, and found her figure gave her away as a woman.  She used a homemade corset to flatten her chest and cotton wool padding to broaden her shoulders.  Her two soldier friends cut her hair very short and darkened her skin with Condy’s fluid, usually used as furniture cleaner..  They even had her shave to get a razor burn on her cheeks.  Then they taught her to drill and march with the best of them.  Complete with fake identity papers, Private Denis Smith of the First Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment was ready to report for duty.

Dorothy Lawrence Photo Credit-,

Dorothy cycled to the Somme as her ill fitting uniform got caught in the bike and her fake tan rolled down her face with the rivulets of sweat.  On the way she met sapper Tom Dunn.  A sapper, also called a pioneer or combat engineer, is responsible for breaching, demolitions, bridge-building and the laying and clearing of minefields.  Field defences, road and airfield construction and repair also fell within their purview.  As a former coal miner, Dunn was being used as a tunnel expert.  He became one of her “khaki accomplices” after she admitted who she was and asked for his help.  Dunn helped set her up with a hiding place, an abandoned cottage she called her “private barracks”.  Dunn shared his rations with Dorothy and Dorothy worked alongside him as a sapper with the 179 Company troop.  They laid mines under fire and shrapnel in No Man’s Land and under the German trenches.  Most days she was only 400 yards away from the German lines.

However, after two weeks the high stress, constant fire and poor food and water took their toll  Dorothy became ill and started having fainting fits.  Afraid her illness would inadvertently reveal her identity and get her friends in trouble, she turned herself into the commanding sergeant and told him the whole story.  She was sent to Third Army headquarters in Calais and was closely questioned by three generals.  At first she was treated as a prisoner of war, as high command was shocked a woman could infiltrate that far into the lines.  They were initially afraid she was a German spy.  From Calais she was taken to Saint-Omer, and went before a judge.  He was afraid her story could possibly reveal sensitive information or inspire other women to sneak over and become soldiers.  He had her confined to Convent de Bon Pasteur in France until after the Battle of Loos, and was made to swear she would not write about her experiences, which had to be a blow as that was the entire purpose of why she did this.

On the way back to London, fate took a hand.  Dorothy traveled on the same ferry as noted suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst.  Pankhurst took an interest in Dorothy’s story and at her behest, Dorothy spoke at a suffragette meeting.  Dorothy tried to write articles on her experiences, but the War Office invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to scrap the project.  Eventually she wrote a book in 1919 called Sapper Dorothy Lawrence:  The Only English Woman Soldier.  Even though the war was over, the book was still heavily censored by the War Office.  It was not a commercial success.

Eventually, Dorothy’s mental health deteriorated and she was committed to London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell.  Later she was permanently institutionalized at Colney Hatch Lunatic asylum in Friern Barnet, where she died in 1964.  She is buried in a pauper’s grave in new Southgate Cemetery.   A sad end for such a brave woman.


The Affair of the Poisons

Madame de Montespan

Court is treacherous place full of back biting nobles who would sell their own mothers to get ahead.  The Affair of the Poisons was an episode in the court of Louis XIV that exemplified exactly how far one would go to get where they needed to be in court.

It all started with the arrest of the wife of a minor noble, the Marquise de Brinvilliers.  As with most noble marriages, the Marquise did not marry for love.  In fact, she disliked her husband the Marquis enough to attempt to murder him.  She apparently didn’t do a very good job because she didn’t succeed and got caught.  However, this was not the Marquise de Brinvilliers’ first rodeo.  Turns out she and her lover, Godin de Saint-Croix, had systematically killed her father and two brothers.  That way when her husband was out of the way, the two could marry and be rich.  Perfect plan.  Except she got caught escaping the country, and was convicted of being a witch and a murderess, tortured, beheaded and her remains burnt.  They were not messing around.

Before the Marquise de Brinvilliers died, however, she did complain mightily that she was getting punished for something everyone else was doing already.  That made the head of the Parisian police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, prick up his ears.  At a party a Madame Bosse got massively drunk, as was wont, and began discussing how she was happy to sell “inheritance powders” to whoever needed them.  Bosse was arrested, which led to a glut of fortune tellers and alchemist being picked up.  They were under torture and started singing like canaries.  As we mentioned in a previous post ( ) torture was admissible in a court of law to obtain both a confession and evidence against others.  France had some lovely ones, so it’s not surprising they were accusing everyone and their dog to make it stop.  Real trouble came from the testimony of Magdelaine de La Grange.  La Grange insisted she would be happy to supply the names of much more important people in return for her life.  The names she, and others, gave up were singularly frightening as most of them could put la Reynie in prison for daring to think about investigating them.  La Reynie knew he was in over his head and went to the Marquis de Louvois, Louis XIV’s foreign minister, for help.

Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie (1625–1709), 17th century print by Mignard.

The main problem was the finger had been pointed at Catherine Deshayes Monvoison, otherwise known as La Voison or Madame Voison.  Who was she?  Ostensibly, she was a midwife.  However, more famously she was the fortune teller and sorceress to the upper crust.  Her clients included the who’s who of 17th century France including Madame de Soissons, Olympe Mancini, who was the King’s former mistress; Marie Anne Mancini, Olympe’s sister; the Duc de Luxembourg; Marquis de Cessac; Vicomtesse de Polignac; Princesse de Tingry; Duchess de Vivonne; and Marquis de Feuquieres.  The big name that was hushed up was Athénaïs de Montespan de Rochechouart, the King’s current mistress.  

Athénaïs de Montespan de Rochechouart was the clever friend of the King’s former mistress Louise de La Vallière.  Indeed, Louise had introduced them and Athénaïs had used her considerable beauty and wit to usurp Louise’s place in the King’s heart and bed.  Soon she was the formidable maîtresse-en-titre.  However, keeping the eye of a king was hard work especially after bearing seven children.  The King liked them young, and his eye lit upon the beautiful Marie Angélique, who later died after contracting a fever after giving birth to a stillborn child.  According to the testimony of La Voison’s daughter, who was her assistant, these deaths could be attributed to poisoning by Athénaïs.  She also testified that Athénaïs bought aphrodisiacs and participated in “Black Masses” where she lay naked on an altar and babies blood was put over her so she could keep her beauty.  These revelations would tear the court apart if they came out and La Reynie would be quite dead.

To keep all these high nobles out of the public eye, the investigation became secret and they were tried in a special court called Le Chambre Ardente or Burning Tribunal.  There were 442 people implicated in the plot, and at least 218 arrested.  After a five year investigation going from 1677 to 1682, 36 people burned to death after torture, 4 sent to the galleys, 36 banished or fined, 81 imprisoned by lettres de cachet.  Lettres de cachet meant that the king simply decided you needed to spend the rest of your life in prison.  There was no trial, no appeal.  You were just stuck.  It is hypothesized that one of the most mysterious French prisoners of all- the Man in the Iron Mask- had something to do with the affair and earned a lettres de cachet  (For more on him, please see this post ).   Even more were either exiled or fled France to escape.  

When the investigations began to get to close to Athénaïs , the courts were shut down.  Marquis de Louvois was nervous because it was he who encouraged the king’s affair with Athénaïs.  If she was convicted, he could go down with her whether he was involved in her shenanigans or not.  Louis XVI began handing out lettres de cachet like candy to anyone who whispered Athénaïs’ name.  He also had all records of the affair he had access to burned.  People took the hint and shut up.  What Louis didn’t realize was La Reynie kept his copies of the investigation records and hid them away.  They were found centuries later.

As for Athénaïs, she stayed with Louis for eleven more years until she retired to the Convent of St. Joseph with a handsome pension.


The Sad Life of Louis-Charles

Born March 27, 1785 to King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette, Louis-Charles should have had a charmed life.  He was the second son and named the Duke of Normandy until the death of his older brother, upon which he became the Dauphin or heir to the throne.  Madame de Rambaud was his governess and she cared for him as if he were her own.  Although he had a governess, Louis-Charles was still close to his mother.  He was described as a bright, good looking child, “…his blue eyes, aquiline nose, elevated nostrils, well-defined mouth, pouting lips, chestnut hair parted in the middle and falling in thick curls on his shoulders, resembled his mother before her years of tears and torture. All the beauty of his race, by both descents, seemed to reappear in him.”  His life was set fair.  Then the revolution came.

The royal family was kept prisoner in the Tuileries Palace in Paris under close guard for three years.  His mother devoted her time to her children, but it was difficult.  For example, the guards insisted she keep her hands behind her back to make sure no letters were smuggled in or out to the prisoners.  They family tried to escape, but the attempt failed and a year later the Tuileries Palace was stormed by an armed mob.  The family fled for their lives and sought sanctuary at the Legislative Assembly.  They were then transferred to the tower of the Square du Temple, and Louis XVI was removed from the family for his trial and subsequent execution on September 21, 1792.

The rest of Europe hailed Louis-Charles as Louis XVII, and this did not make the revolutionaries happy.  After another failed escape attempt, they took young Louis away from his mother and put him in the care of a cobbler who had been named as his guardian by the Committee of Public Safety.  Antoine Simon was charged with turning young Louis into a productive citizen of the Republic.  His methods were nothing short of monstrous.  In fact, Louis’ sister, Marie Therese, called this man “monster Simon” in her memoirs.  Louis was only eight years old.

According to later reports, Louis was subject to cruel treatment by both Simon and his wife.  He was beaten and abused in countless ways.  The couple tried to induce him to deny the existence of God, and when he refused beat him brutally.  The taught him obscene songs and how to swear and forced him to do so on command.  There were also reports that he was shown pornography and raped by prostitutes to give him venereal diseases.  The eight year old child.  This breaks my heart both as a parent and a decent human being.  The couple then used the boy’s knowledge of all of this to fashion an accusation that Marie Antoinette had been molesting her son.  The boy signed, but it is little wonder.  Through it all, Louis is reported to have tried to have been a good child.  Simon wouldn’t even give him his own name, referring to him only as “Capet” one of his long dead ancestors.  This exchange was recorded after a regular beating.  “On one of these occasions, when the child had fallen half stunned upon his own miserable couch, and lay there groaning and faint with pain, Simon roared out with a laugh, “Suppose you were king, Capet, what would you do to me?” The child thought of his father’s dying words, and said, “I would forgive you.””   Item:  I am not that nice.  Not long after signing the declaration against his mother, the Simons blessedly left, but child was put in a dark room like an animal where food was pushed through the bars to him.

After six months of darkness, Louis was given some freedom.  They had ordered Louis to have a new attendant and be let out of the dark room.  He was still in prison, but was allowed to walk outside and a clean room and clothes.  A Dr. Desault came to treat Louis and found he no longer spoke.  Jean Jacques Christophe Laurent was put in charge of young Louis with the help of a man named Gomin.  Gomin attempted to be kind to Louis, but there was only so much he could do.  Eventually Louis began speaking to Gomin, and it was clear he was very ill.  A doctor was summoned and diagnosed tuberculosis as well as a severe case of scabies.  There was no way the weakened boy was going to survive.  Gomin stayed with his sad charge until the end.  He reported Louis heard voices, including his mother’s, comforting him until he died.  He states, “At a quarter past two he died …The poor little royal corpse was carried from the room … where he had suffered so long, – where for two years he had never ceased to suffer. From this apartment the father had gone to the scaffold, and thence the son must pass to the burial-ground.”

An autopsy was performed by Dr. Pelletan, head surgeon of the Grand Hospice de l’Humanite and he found his little body ridden with scars from his treatment at Temple prison.  He was buried in Sainte Marguerite cemetery, but minus his heart.  It was French tradition that the heart of the king be removed after death.  Dr. Pelletan secreted Louis’ heart away in a handkerchief and kept it a bottle of distilled wine.  The heart was passed around through the years, and was finally buried next to the remains of Louis’ parents in June 2004.  Hopefully, the little lad found peace.