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Why does Sweden’s history making monarch have a French surname?

The King of Sweden is about to make history. Carl XVI Gustaf will celebrate the first Golden Jubilee the country has ever seen. It’s a moment that will shape modern Sweden but at its heart is a monarch with a French name.

Sweden was a monarchy long before its current ruling house arrived on the throne. However, it was the last dynasty to accede to the throne that made it famous. 

Its founder was born in France, and the Kingdom of Sweden was his reward for a well-conducted campaign during the Napoleonic wars. 

Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte was born in Pau, southern France, on the 26th of January 1763, the last of five children born from the union of Jena Henri Bernadotte, a prosecutor, and Jeanne de Saint-Jean. 

Although initially he was set to follow in his father’s footsteps and undertake law studies, his father’s death when he was 17 dissuaded him from continuing on this path.

Therefore, in 1780 he joined the army as a private, reaching the rank of sergeant five years later, and then being promoted to Adjutant-Major in 1790 – the latter being the highest rank that non-commissioned officers could achieve under the military rules at that time. 

This quick military career came thanks to his many qualities as a military leader, exemplified by the many promotions he was offered based on the words of his superiors and his men alike. 

Under the Directory’s orders, he marched his men into Italy to support Napoleon Bonaparte’s army and thus began the relationship that would ultimately make him King. The start of it, however, was less than auspicious: after many battlefield successes, he was deprived of half of his division, with orders to march the other half back to France. 

One of the five members of the Directory had appointed him commander in chief of the Army in Italy to try and balance Bonaparte’s power, but the general’s intervention prompted his Minister of Fearing Affairs, Talleyrand, to send him to France’s Embassy in Vienna instead. 

Following his return from Vienna to Paris, he married Désirée Clary, with whom he had just one child, the future King Oscar I. 

During and after Napoleon’s ascension to the French Empire’s throne, Bernadotte saw his military capabilities amply rewarded and recognised with many appointments. 

However, it was the last reward that would change the history of Europe: his 1810 election as heir presumptive to King Charles XIII of Sweden. The King and his wife, Queen Charlotte, had only had two children, both of whom had passed away in infancy. The King was 61 and in poor health, and the prospect of the couple giving birth to another child was slim to none. 

After the passing of their first adoptive son, Prince Charles August of Denmark, the situation in Sweden became increasingly unstable, to the point where electing a foreign King seemed the only viable solution. 

Although initially, Napoleon would have preferred his stepson or one of his family members to get the position, refusals or impediments for all of them made him come around to support Bernadotte’s candidacy, both financially and diplomatically. 

And so it was that, on the 21st of August 1810, Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte was elected by the Riksdag (Parliament) of the Estates and became Crown Prince Jean, with the role of Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces. 

In November, he was formally adopted by the King with the name of Karl Johan, simultaneously converting to Lutheranism. Because of the concurring situation in the Privy Council and the King’s poor health, Prince Karl Johan found himself holding essentially all of the power in Sweden. 

Among his first actions was stabilising Swedish finances, devastated by mismanagement by previous sovereigns and decades of unsuccessful wars. He also sought to create more diplomatic relations with Sweden’s neighbours, and although he couldn’t avoid it entirely, he tried to avoid dragging the country into more wars. 

King Charles XIII passed away on the 5th of February 1818, following eight years of declining health that had left him mute and with memory loss, and Karl Johan became King Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and Karl III Johan of Norway. 

Public opinions about their new King were divided: on the one hand, his non-intervention policies gained him respect and sympathy. On the other, his shift towards autocracy and ultra-conservative views scared the public, particularly regarding his press freedom repressions. 

He survived an abdication demand following his conviction of journalist Magnus Jacob Crusenstolpe for lèse-majesté. Still, he didn’t survive the consequences of the stroke that he suffered on the 26th of January, passing away on the 8th of March 1944. 

He was succeeded by his only son, who became King Oscar I of Sweden and Norway, having unified the two kingdoms under one flag. 

Since then, the Bernadotte dynasty has been sitting on the throne of Sweden up until our modern times, in which King Carl XVI Gustaf is about to celebrate his Golden Jubilee. 

Many things have changed since its inception; however, some links with the past are still strong to this day. First and foremost, when it comes to names: one of the King’s sisters is named Désirée, and the name is also Crown Princess Victoria’s fourth. The heir to the throne also has a son named Oscar, and both the King and his only son are called Carl, a nod to the name that Jean Bernadotte took when he became heir. 

On the more visible side, a substantial part of the Swedish jewels has a French provenance, including the Cameo Tiara and accompanying parure, which were made for Empress Joséphine and arrived in Sweden through her granddaughter’s marriage to future King Oscar I (he married Joséphine of Leuchtenberg, the daughter of Eugène de Beauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg, and Princess Augusta of Bavaria). One of Queen Silvia’s favourite diadems came from this family branch, the Leuchtenberg Sapphire Tiara. 

But, most importantly, despite changing his name upon adoption, the Bernadotte dynastic name is still used by members of the Royal Family when they need a surname (school, military training etc).