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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.