King Karl Johan, the people’s sovereign

The “crowned republican” who opposed Norway’s independence

Karl Johan Bernadotte

Image: Wikimedia / public domain
Karl XIV Johan of Sweden (Carl III Johan of Norway) as crown prince enters Leipzig, Germany, in 1813. Painting by Fredric Westin, 1850. King Carl Johan’s motto was “The peoples’ love shall be my reward.”

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

Sometimes history is stranger than fiction.  What author would have imagined that the primary opposition to Norway’s independence in May of 1814 was none other than a fiery and spirited Gascon from southern France. His given name was Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, and by a number of incredible chance circumstances, he had become the Prince Regent of Sweden in 1810 and adopted the Nordic royal name Karl Johan.

Hollywood recognized that his story-book life would make an exciting movie, and one was actually released in dazzling Technicolor and Cinemascope in 1954.  It starred Marlon Brando as Napoleon, Michael Rennie as Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, and Jean Simons in the incomparable role of Désirée, Napoleon’s beautiful first lover, and Bernadotte’s later devoted wife. Désirée, as the movie was called, was a visually stunning but middling film centered on romance and intrigue. The real Karl Johan merited a better movie, he lived an exceptional life and he deserves to be portrayed at some future date in an equally exceptional film.

Bernadotte was born in Pau, France, at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains, in 1763, to an attorney of modest means and a farmer’s daughter. As a young man, Jean Baptiste joined the army as an ordinary infantryman, but he rose to the rank of sergeant in a few short years. A bit of a dandy, he went out of his way to look good in his uniform and was dubbed by the nickname “Sergeant Belle-Jambe (Sergeant Beautiful Leg)” by his fellow NCOs.

Despite his self-admiration and proclivity for occasional duels over women, he proved himself an able soldier and inspiring leader of men. Once the French Revolution erupted in 1787, his military career accelerated rapidly in the wars against revolutionary France’s many enemies. By 1793, he had become a lieutenant-colonel and shortly after, in 1794, during the Battle of Fleurus in the Netherlands, he received a promotion to brigadier-general on the field of battle.

He was known for the reliable, well-cared for, and disciplined troops that flourished under his command. Bernadotte was also adventurous, and he was the first French general to go up in an observation balloon over the battlefield. Well before Napoleon, he successfully led an entire army in winter across the Alps into Italy.

Politically, he was a republican who promised he would oppose “all royalists and enemies of the directorate” to “the moment of my death.”

Despite his republican tendencies and Napoleon’s distrust of his loyalty, Bernadotte ultimately rose in the military and political hierarchy to become one of the great marshals of the French empire in 1804. He was brave in battle but protective of the troops under his charge and fought with distinction in some of the most celebrated battles of the Napoleonic Era.

In 1810, the nation of Sweden was looking for a likely candidate to serve both as crown prince and prince regent of Sweden.  Its current king, Charles XIII, was elderly, childless, and in poor health.

The leadership of Sweden’s government soon fixed its sights on Bernadotte as someone perfectly suited to the job. What convinced them he was their best choice was not only his skills as a soldier, but his fair and equitable governorship in northern Germany and his humane treatment of Swedish prisoners of war. With Napoleon’s consent, the Swedish parliament (Riksdag) elected Bernadotte crown prince of Sweden in August 1810, and in the fall of that same year, he was formerly adopted as the son and heir of King Charles XIII under the name Karl Johan.

Surprisingly, Bernadottte, now Crown Prince Karl Johan, had long held the opinion that both Norway and Sweden’s interests would be best served if the two countries combined in a single union under one king and turned their attentions toward the Atlantic for commerce and prosperity.

Crown Prince Karl Johan ably applied both his military and political skills to this objective. With the fall of Napoleon to the allies, he achieved his goal with the Treaty of Kiel in 1814 and had it confirmed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Norway, of course, had sought an entirely different outcome, and on May 17, 1814, had declared its desire for full independence with the signing of the Eidsvoll Constitution.  Crown Prince Karl Johan and the Swedish government, of course, took issue with the recalcitrant Norwegians and Prince Karl Johan, a master of good staff work and planning as a general, led the Swedish army in crushing the Norwegian resistance in the summer of 1814. Fortunately, because the prince showed his usual restraint on the battlefield there was no general slaughter of Norwegian troops.

With the death of Charles XIII, Crown Prince Karl Johan became the king of both Norway and Sweden in 1818 (known as Karl XIV Johan of Sweden and Carl III Johan of Norway).

In wise recognition of Norwegian sensitivities, he held his coronation in Trondheim, the spiritual capital of Norway, not Christiania (now Oslo). In the end, he let Norway have its own separate legislature and standing army; he only asked Norway to accept him as its rightful king and allow Sweden control of foreign affairs.

During his long reign of 26 years, he made many trips to Norway, which he loved, and he worked hard to improve its towns, roads, and harbors. King Karl Johan never entirely forgot his republican roots and liked to think of himself as a “crowned republican” who promoted popular government in his two realms. Over the years, because of his open engagement with all levels of the population, he eventually won the hearts of the people in both Norway and Sweden.

Though King Karl Johan only began to grudgingly allow the celebration of the 17th of May after 1828, it is worth noting that today the main Oslo 17th of May parade route now heads up the street Karl Johans gate and proceeds to the royal palace, which King Karl Johan originally commissioned in 1821, and then passes between King Karl Johan’s equestrian statue and the palace as the parade swings in front of the balcony of the present King of Norway, Harald V.

It is especially important to keep in mind that King Harald’s grandfather, the beloved Haakon VII, was in turn the great-great-grandson of King Karl Johan. King Haakon was well aware of his ancestral connection to his Gascon great-great-grandfather, and he wore King Karl Johan’s 1818 coronation regalia and his Leipzig sword at his own coronation in 1906 in recognition of his royal ancestor’s illustrious legacy as an enlightened monarch, who in the end, truly sought the happiness of his subjects.

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue ofThe Norwegian American.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.