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Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was born in Pau, France, as the son of Jean Henri Bernadotte (Pau, Béarn, October 14, 1711 – Pau, March 31, 1780), prosecutor at Pau, and his wife (married at Boeil, February 20, 1754) Jeanne de Saint-Jean (Pau, April 1, 1728 – Pau, January 8, 1809), niece of the Lay Abbot of Sireix. The family name was originally du Poey (or de Pouey), but was changed to Bernadotte – a surname of an ancestress at the beginning of the 17th century.

Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. King Carl XIV Johan of Sweden.

Soon after his birth, Baptiste was added to his name, to distinguish him from his elder brother Jean Évangeliste. Bernadotte himself added Jules to his first names as a tribute to the French Empire under Napoleon I. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a local attorney. However, the death of his father when Bernadotte was just 17 stopped the youth from following his father’s career.

In order to explain how the French Jean Baptiste Bernadotte became Crown Prince, and later King Carl XIV Johan of Sweden, here is some background information on the state of the Swedish monarchy at that time.

Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden

In 1808, Gustav IV Adolf was highly unpopular and his uncle, Duke Carl, was once again chief commander during the king’s stay in Finland. He is presumed to have been, if not involved, aware of the plans to depose Gustav IV Adolf in 1809. He kept passive during the Coup of 1809, and accepted the post of regent from the victorious party after having assured himself that the deposed monarch was not in mortal danger.[5]Carl was initially not willing to accept the crown, however, out of consideration for the former king’s son, his 11 year old nephew, Prince Gustav, Count Itterburg (1799-1877).

On March 13, 1809, those who had dethroned Gustav IV Adolf appointed Carl regent, and he was finally elected King of Sweden as Carl XIII by the Riksdag of the Estates. By the time he became king, he was 60 years old and prematurely decrepit. In November 1809, he was affected by a heart attack, and was not able to participate in government. The new constitution which was introduced also made his involvement in politics difficult. A planned attempt to enlarge the royal power in 1809–10 was not put into effect because of his indecisiveness and health condition.

Carl XIII of Sweden

His incapacity triggered a search for a suitable heir. The problem of Carl’s successor actually had been an accute issue almost from the time he had ascended the throne as it was apparent that the Swedish branch of the House of Holstein-Gottorp would die with him. He was 61 years old and in poor health. He was also childless; Queen Charlotte had given birth to two children who had died in infancy, and there was no prospect of her bearing another child. The initial choice for his successor was a Danish prince, Christian August, the son of Friedrich Christian I, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (1721–1794) and Princess Charlotte of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Plön (1744–1770). Christian August took the name Carl August upon being adopted by Carl XIII.

In 1810 Bernadotte was about to enter his new post as governor of Rome when he was unexpectedly elected the heir-presumptive to King Carl XIII of Sweden.

Although the king had adopted the Danish prince, Charles August, as his son soon after his coronation, Emperor Napoleon favored his ally Danish King Frederik VI, as the new heir to the Swedish throne but he declined the offer. Danish Prince Frederick Christian II, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg (older brother of Carl August, the eventual choice for Swedish Crown Prince) initially had the most support to become Swedish Crown Prince as well.

The Swedish court initially sounded out the emperor for his preferences on candidates for crown prince, whereupon Napoleon made it clear he also preferred his son-in-law Eugène de Beauharnais, one of his nephews or one of his brothers. However, Eugène, serving as viceroy in Italy, did not wish to convert to Lutheranism, a prerequisite for accepting the Swedish offer. Moreover, none of Napoleon’s brothers was interested in going to Sweden and his nephews were too young as the Swedes did not want the hazards of minority rule in the event King Carl died prematurely.

The matter was decided by an obscure Swedish courtier, son of Baron Gustav Mörner, a commander of the Swedish force captured by Bernadotte at Lübeck, Baron Karl Otto Mörner, who, entirely on his own initiative, offered the succession to the Swedish crown to Bernadotte. Bernadotte communicated Mörner’s offer to Napoleon who at first treated the situation as an absurdity, but later came around to the idea and diplomatically and financially supported Bernadotte’s candidacy.

Although the Swedish government, amazed at Mörner’s effrontery, at once placed him under arrest on his return to Sweden, the candidature of Bernadotte gradually gained favour and on August 21, 1810 he was elected by the Riksdag of the Estates in Örebro to be the new crown prince, and was subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces by the king. Bernadotte was elected partly because a large part of the Swedish Army, in view of future complications with Russia, were in favour of electing a soldier, and partly because he was also personally popular, owing to the kindness he had shown to the Swedish prisoners in Lübeck.mAnother factor which favored Bernadotte’s election was his (presumed) close ties to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who had recently defeated Sweden in the Franco-Swedish War.

Before freeing Bernadotte from his allegiance to France, Napoleon asked him to agree never to take up arms against France. Bernadotte refused to make any such agreement, upon the ground that his obligations to Sweden would not allow it; Napoleon exclaimed “Go, and let our destinies be accomplished” and signed the act of emancipation unconditionally.

Upon the death of King Carl XIII on February 5, 1818, Crown Prince Carl Johan ascended as the union King, reigning as Carl XIV Johan in Sweden and Carl III Johan in Norway. In 1814 Sweden acquired Norway from Denmark. He was initially popular in both countries.