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The king who almost drowned a week after his coronation

The coronation of a monarch is marked with ceremony and celebration and, often, time in other parts of their new realm as they introduce themselves to their people. Karl Johan became King of Norway and Sweden 205 years ago but his time amongst those he was now to rule almost ended in disaster. For the man anointed as king almost died within days of being crowned.

Karl XIV Johan has been described as one of the Nordic countries’ most important monarchs but he came from humble origins in France before ending up as Napoleon’s general. He was offered the Swedish throne after a coup d’état. He won the Norwegian throne during a war in 1814.

However, just seven days after being crowned King of Norway in 1818, his reign almost ended abruptly in a deserted river in Norway, when the King almost lost his life.

From the mining city of Røros, Karl Johan crossed the entire vally of Østerdalen in just one day and then spent the next night on the farm Bjørnebye in Upper Solør. Solør is a farming region in eastern Norway known for its good soil. On the farm of Bjørnebye you can still see the “king room” in which the king spent the night. Also in this area, Karl Johan was met by a huge crowd. However, this journey through farming areas could have been the very last thing the newly crowned monarch did.

After leaving Bjørnebye farm on September 14 1818, the journey took the new king south. Karl Johan arrived at the town known as Flisa today, where he had to cross the river Flisen. There was no bridge , so the king and Crown Prince Oscar had to be transported in the tiny ferry that was there. Karl Johan did not want to stand on the small ferry and therefore sat down in his canopy carriage which had carried the monarch all the way from Stockholm.

There was no room for much more on the fleet than the king, his horse-drawn carriage and the ferryman Ole Sparby Isakssæter. Halfway across the otherwise calm river, the ferry lost balance and tipped. Karl Johan, his horses and the ferryman went straight into the cold river. Karl Johan was by no means a good swimmer and struggled to stay above the water. As a large crowd gathered on the banks, the king appeared to be drowning.

As people watched in horror at the dangers facing the king, the ferryman Ole swam towards Karl Johan and took a firm grip around him and pulled in towards the shore. Ole saved the king’s life and Karl Johan was eternally grateful to him. At this point of the journey Karl Johan had run out of precious gifts he could distribute. The ferryman Ole Sparby therefore got the biggest gold coin the king could find in his personal belongings as a thank you for saving his life. The gold coin was in the family’s possession until 2012, when it was stolen.

If Ole Sparby had not saved the king, Karl Johan could in the worst case have ended both his coronation journey and his life in Solør that day. This could have changed the entire European political balance of power. The 19-year-old Crown Prince, Oscar, would have become king exactly one week after his father was crowned. Fortunately, this did not happen and after a change of clothes, the French-born king of Norway and Sweden was able to continue the journey to the fortress of Kongsvinger. 

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About author

Senior Europe Correspondent Oskar Aanmoen has a master in military and political history of the Nordic countries. He has written six books on historical subjects and more than 1.500 articles for Royal Central. He has also interview both Serbian and Norwegian royals. Aanmoen is based in Oslo, Norway.