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.


Eva Ekeblad

Eva de la Gardie (1724-1786), Swedish scientist

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I could use a nice cold drink.  We’ve talked about the origins of beer (Please see this post:, but sometimes something a bit stronger is necessary.  So we move on to vodka.  In fairness, the lady who is the subject of this post did not only pave the way for vodka but many other things.  However, as I sip a Moscow Mule, vodka seems the most important.

Eva Ekeblad was born July 10, 1724 to statesman Count Magnus Julius De La Gardie and his wife Hedvig Catharina Lilja.  Interestingly, her brother was married to Catherine Charlotte De La Gardie, who also a scientist.  Catherine invented a smallpox vaccine and was instrumental in stopping Sweden’s last witch trial in 1758.  Perhaps Eva took inspiration from her sister in law.

As was customary for the nobility, Eva was married at the young age of sixteen to Count Claes Caesson Ekeblad.  It was considered a good match and the two eventually had a son and six daughters, and the family spent time in their two castles-  Mariedal Castle and Lindholmen Castle, Västergötland.  Nice work if you can get it.  Eva was quite active in management of the family lands, and her mind had a definite scientific bend.  At that time in Sweden, there was a shortage of oats and barley.  If someone could find a substitute, they would be not only helping the country but rich to boot.  In an effort to exploit a new cash crop, Eva began experimenting on potatoes.  At that time, potatoes were not considered fit for human consumption and used only for animal fodder.  Eva grew her own patch of potatoes and began to study them.  Her experiments discovered a way to cook and powder the potatoes to form a form of flour.  From there, it was a short step to distilling them to make a clear alcoholic beverage- our old friend vodka.  

In 1784, Eva submitted her findings to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and at twenty-four became the first female member.  Her work promoting the use of potatoes in place of other cereal grains, alleviated the food shortages in Sweden.  The potato wasn’t used for general food consumption in Sweden until the 19th century, but the popularity of vodka swept Northern Europe.  With potatoes being used for vodka, the oats, rye and barley it freed up was used to feed the poor.  Despite these achievements, her membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was downgraded to “honorary” in 1751 because she was a woman.  Nice.  I wonder if they were sipping some nice vodka when they did it.  She was the only female to make the academy’s list until nuclear physicist Lise Meiner was admitted in 1941.

What Eva thought of the downgrade we don’t know.  She continued her scientific work, researching a way to bleach cotton and yarn without using toxic dyes.  She also continued her experimentation with potatoes and found that potato flour could be used as a substitute in cosmetics for more dangerous materials such as lead.  All of this while raising her seven children, running her family’s estates and later being a lady in waiting to Queen Sophia Magdalena, as Mistress of the Robes and governess to Crown Prince Gustav IV Adolf.  This extraordinary woman passed at age 61 at her home in Mariedal.

So let’s raise a glass to Eva Ekeblad, without whom we could not enjoy delicious cocktails.


Edgar the Ætheling-  The Boy Who Wasn’t King

Edgar, from an illuminated tree of the family of Edmund Ironside

England in the 11th century was not always a great place to be if you were royalty. Young Edgar was the grandson of Edmund Ironside, king of England, and great grandson of the infamous Æthelred the Unready, also king of England.  So you would think Edgar would be next in line?  Well, not exactly.  There was a little problem named Cnut the Great. Cnut was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark.  In the summer of 1015, Cnut mounted an invasion of England and fought with Edmund for the throne of England.  It was a year or so of battles, and ultimately Edmund lost and ceded all of England north of the Thames to Cnut.  Then Edmund mysteriously died, some say murdered, but there is no truth.  Cnut then took the throne and married Edmund’s step mother, Emma.  Edmund’s sons, Edward the Exile and Edmund Ætheling fled abroad.  There Edward married a German princess and had three children- Margaret, Christina and the longed for male heir Edgar sometime around 1051.

Meanwhile back in England, things weren’t going swimmingly.  Cnut had been considered a wise and just king, but he also died November 12, 1035.  There was chaos with Cnut’s sons trying to consolidate England with their Danish possessions and fight a war in Scandinavia against Norway.  Eventually, the throne passed to Edward the Confessor, the son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma, the same Emma who married Cnut years before.  Edward had spent his time in exile in Normandy, his mother’s homeland.  England was a foreign place.  Plus he was coerced into marrying the daughter of his most powerful noble, Godwin of Wessex.  Godwin was accused of murdering Edward’s brother Alfred, so they weren’t exactly on good terms.  Whether it was due to Edward’s extreme piety or his desire to not allow a descendent of Godwin near the throne, Edward and his wife had no heirs.  Some legends say their marriage was never consummated.  So in 1054, Edward invited Edward the Exile home to take his place as heir to the throne.  However, things didn’t go as planned.

The little family arrived in England some time in 1057, but Edward the Exile was dead soon after.  No one is quite sure whether this was through natural causes or more sinister means.  However, King Edward’s plans were null and void.  He could not use Edward the Exile as a foil against the Godwins and his son Edgar was too young to use.  However, Edgar and his mother and sisters lived at court under King Edward’s protection.  Then the fateful year 1066 came.  In January, Edward the Confessor died and there was quite the quandary over who should succeed him.  The candidates and their reasonings were numerous and complicated.  The usual suspects were:

  1. Harold Godwinson- Sister of Queen Edith and most powerful noble as the Earl of Wessex.  He claimed Edward the Confessor left him England on his deathbed.
  2. Harald Hardrada- This one is complicated.  Back when Edward the Confessor took the throne, he made an agreement with his half brother Harthacnut that if he died without an heir he would pass the throne to him.  Harthacnut had ruled England after his father Cnut died briefly and was the son of Cnut and Emma.  Harthacnut then fought a war with Magnus I of Norway and promised the throne of England to him as spoils of war.  Magnus was too old to claim it for himself, so he ceded his claim to his son Harold Hardrada.
  3. Duke William the Bastard of Normandy- Distant cousin of Edward the Confessor and claimed Edward promised the throne to him.  Also claimed Harold Godwinson swore a sacred oath to support his right to the throne.
  4. Edgar the Ætheling- Direct blood relation to Alfred the Great, but was only ten years old.

Got it?  Phew.  The witan crowned Harold Godwinson, and we all know what happened from there.  1066 was another year of battles, and to make a long story short William the Bastard won the Battle of Hastings and became William the Conqueror.  But what happened to Edgar?  In the aftermath of the battle, the witan initially proclaimed Edgar king, but it didn’t stick.  In December 1066, he submitted to William.  He was taken to live at court and treated well, but was essentially a hostage.

However, the land was smoldering with rebellion and Edgar was their natural figurehead.  He and his family escaped to Scotland, where his sister Margaret married Malcolm III Canmore. In 1069, Edgar marched into northern England at the head of an army.  They attacked York several times, eventually taking it and killing the garrison stationed there.  They also captured ships from an aborted Danish invasion and used them to raid Lincolnshire.  However, once William arrived in the winter of 1069 playtime was over.  The winter campaign called the Harrying of the North has been described by some historians as nothing less than genocide.  Edgar fled back to Scotland leaving his unfortunate countrymen to bear the brunt of William’s anger.

The Treaty of Abernethy was signed between William and Malcolm in 1072, and ended Edgar’s Scottish stay.  He was fleeing to Philip I of France, but shipwreck forced him back to Scotland, where Malcolm handed him over to William.  Surprisingly, William was relatively kind to Edgar.  He set him up with a pension and Edgar eventually became close friends with William’s sons, Robert Curthose and William Rufus (For more on William Rufus, please see this post: )  These two brothers became embroiled in a conflict after William died and Edgar got right in the middle of it.  Robert was exiled from England after William Rufus became William II.  On behalf of his friend, Edgar went to his brother in law Malcolm Canmore and got him to invade from the north.  Peace was restored and Edgar’s nephew and namesake became king of Scotland.  

Further south after William II met with the unfortunate unpleasantness in the New Forest (For more on that, please see this post: ), little brother Henry became Henry I.  Big brother Robert wasn’t so pleased, and Edgar stood with Robert.  Unfortunately, Robert lost the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106 and was imprisoned for life.  Edgar made his peace with Henry, probably aided by the fact he had just married Edgar’s Scottish niece, Edith.  Edgar seemed to retire from court life at this point as he had probably had enough excitement for a lifetime.  Chronicler William of Malmesbury wrote of him in 1125 that ‘he now grows old in the country in privacy and quiet’.  That is the last mention we have of him.  Hopefully the end of his life was as peaceful as the beginning was tumultuous.


Forseti, Norse God of Truth and Justice

Not much is known about Forseti as he is only mentioned twice in Old Norse literature. Our main source is from the Poetic Edda. The first mention of him is in the 15th stanza of the Grímnismál or “The Song of the Hooded One”, part of the aforementioned Poetic Edda. The Poetic Edda is a collection of poems by anonymous Old Norse-speaking poets collected by Snorri Sturluson. Sturluson then took the information in the Poetic Edda and extrapolated it into the Prose Edda. The debate about the authenticity of the Prose Edda has been raging amongst scholars for some time. For example, the second mention of Forseti is in the Prose Edda, where Sturluson’s claims he is the son of Baldr and his wife Nanna. However, this is questioned by some scholars as there is no basis for this except Sturluson claims. Despite this, most sources do call out Baldr and Nanna as Forseti’s parents.

The name Forseti is thought to come from the word for “chairman”, “presiding” or “president”. Other translations indicate it is from the words for “winding stream” or “cataract”, since he may have been first worshiped by the sea faring peoples of Frisia as Fosite. As expected for a god whose name means “Chairman” or “President” in Old Norse, Forseti’s forte was mediation and law. He was the divine inspiration for a “lawspeaker”, or lögsögumaðr in Old Norse, which was the head of the þing, or Scandinavian legal assembly. The lawspeaker acted as judge and decided the verdict of disputes in accordance with the law. He decided both disagreements between the gods as well as thorny disputes among humans. It is said that no one who came to him for justice went away unsatisfied. His hall was called Glitnir or shining as its silver roof and gold pillars radiated light for miles around. His symbol was the golden axe he carried. Forseti was also famed for his ability to meditate, which kept his mind clear and peaceful so he could deliver judgements with out emotion.

The Frisian connection is disputed. One of the main sources we have for it is the 8th century account of the life of St. Willibrord. In the blindingly obviously named Life of St. Willibrord, the author discusses the saint visiting an island between Denmark and Frisia, where there was a spring holy to Forseti. Because of its innate holiness, all water gathered there was done in silence. There is another reference to this Frisian spring in a medieval account, where Frankish king Charles Martel told twelve Frisian law-speakers they had to conform to his laws or face punishment. The choices were slavery, death or being cast adrift in a rudderless boat on the ocean. They picked option three, and were put in a rudderless boat and sent on their way. The twelve men prayed to the Christian god to save them. In answers to their prayers, a thirteenth man carrying a golden axe appeared in their boat. He used the axe as a rudder and led them to the island, then used the axe to split the land so a spring appeared. He told the men he was Forseti and proceeded to teach them all the laws they needed to know then disappeared. The shrine was apparently in use until St. Willibrord shut it down. I get that they were converting folks to Christianity, but that strikes me as a buzz kill.

Echoes of his legacy are seen in that the Icelandic word for “president” is “forseti”. Another Nordic name, Veseti, is also supposed to have roots in Forseti as it means “person who is incharge of or presides over the hallowed space , or ve”.


La Petite Struensee

In an earlier post, we told the story of the tragic Caroline Matilda of Great Britain.  She had an affair with her deranged husband’s doctor and had a child by him.  (For more on that story, please see this post: )  She was sent in to exile and never saw her children again.  What happened to the little girl they called La Petite Struensee in reference to her bastard parentage?

Louise Auguste was born July 7, 1771 at Hirschholm Palace in Denmark.  She was heralded as the child of King Christian VII of Denmark and his wife Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, but it was an open secret that she was the biological daughter of the king’s doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee.  The court called the little girl La Petite Struensee behind her back.  When she was six months old, Struensee and her mother were arrested, which led to his execution and her mother’s banishment.  She never saw her mother again and was left in the care of her step-grandmother, Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.  Dowager Queen Juliana had been the prime mover in the plot to unseat Struensee and Caroline Matilda.  It seems an odd choice to leave their young daughter in her care.

Louise and her half-brother, Crown Prince Frederik, were raised in the Danish court in Copenhagen and grew very close.  This did not please Juliana as she hated Louise’s mother and resented the fact that she and her lover tried to usurp her stepson’s throne. The two children were raised in a very stilted and formal setting, and were each other’s best friend and ally in the cold atmosphere of court.  Christian VII was mentally ill, and did not take much notice of the two children, so it must have seemed as if they were orphans.  At one point Louise was sent by Juliana away to be educated and Frederik lost his temper and insisted she return at once.  She was back at court with in the week.  Both of them developed a healthy resentment of Juliana, especially after they pieced together the story of their mother from court gossip.  The two children stuck together through adolescence and into young adulthood.

Louise was more outgoing than her brother, and became a favorite of the other young people at court.  She often shocked the more conservative older members of court with her fashionable dress, especially having her portrait painted in a softer style of dress popular at the French court.  At the unveiling, Dowager Queen Juliana nearl
y fainted as the shape of the princess’ legs could be seen through the sheer gown.  Scandal!  The artist was forced to paint over the offending legs with additional fabric.  Despite this, Louise was not interested in marriage.  Chief Minister Andreas Peter Bernstorff had the brilliant idea of marrying the 14 year old princess back into the royal house of Denmark.  At that time, there were two branches- the House of Oldenborg, of which she was supposedly a member; and the House of Augustenborg.  By marrying Louise to Duke Frederick Christian II, the two halves of the Danish royal family would be united and it would keep Louise from marrying into the rival Swedish royal family.  Louise was not excited about this plan, but went through with it at the urging of her brother.  Louise and Frederick Christian were married at Christiansborg Palace May 27, 1786.

The couple lived at court in Copenhagen for many years and Louise was proclaimed the “Venus of Denmark”.  They returned to Frederick Christian’s duchy of Augustenborg after his father’s death.  However, Louise was lonely and bored in far off Augustenborg.  Her husband was no company for her as he was very scholarly and would lock himself into his study to read for hours at a time.  In a compromise, they lived in Augustenborg during the summer, and the Duke allowed Louise to invite artists for company, and then returned to Copenhagen in the winter.  In an ironic twist of fate, the couple was childless for ten years of their marriage until Louise received fertility treatments from Dr. Carl Ferdinand Suadiacini.  Court gossip attributed the paternity of her three children to Dr. Suadacini in a cruel mirror of her own parentage.

When the French revolution started, Louise and her brother were one of the few royals that were in sympathy with the French.  Some, such as Anne-Marie Selinko in her novel Desirée, speculate this was due to their anger at the English mother.  However, this is pure speculation.  Her husband and her brother did feud over control the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein and Sonderburg, and began scheming to be chosen as the heir to the throne of Sweden.  However, Louise’s loyalties remained with her brother and the Danish throne, and worked with Frederik to keep her husband from becoming the king of Sweden.  Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Marshal of France and Prince of Ponte Corvo, was elected instead.  This caused a split between Louise and her husband, and their children took sides, with her daughter Caroline Amalie siding with her mother and their two sons siding with their father.  Caroline Amalie went on to become the Queen of Denmark after marrying a cousin of King Frederik.

Louise outlived her husband by thirty-three years, and after her eldest son took over the running of the duchies, she kept a court of artists and thinkers.  She died January 13, 1843 and is buried in Augustenborg.