Kings and things
Napoleon and Desiree’s part in Norway’s independence
Judith Gabriel Vinje
La Crescenta, Calif.
Syttende Mai might be called the “king swapping” day, but throw in a famous courtesan turned queen and an even more famous jilted lover, and you’ve got… a famous movie, and the story of Norway’s independence.
Until the late 800s, there was no single king in Norway. Nothing but a bunch of jarls: essentially kinglets, each presiding over a little territory. In the 9th century, Harald the First swore he would not cut his hair until he united Norway. He succeeded in doing both. The haircut earned him the name Harald the Fair-Haired.
From then on, however, no man would think of assuming the title or power of a king except by the vote of a Thing, the people’s assembly.
After the Black Death in the Middle Ages, the royal line died out. The country entered into a period of decline and became a backwoods province of Denmark, and ruled by autocratic Danish kings.
There would be no more kings in Norway for a long time. Not during the so-called “400 year night” also called “the Danish black-out.”
Enter Napoleon. Napoleon passed over Europe like a tornado, resulting in the break-up of the established power structure in Europe.
The Danish kingdom, having joined forces with Napoleon, found itself on the losing side and was ordered by the Treaty of Kiel of January 14, 1814 to give up Norway. To forfeit Norway, like the spoils of war.
It wasn’t until February 2nd that the Norwegian public learned their country had been ceded to the king of Sweden. Nobody had bothered to ask the Norwegians what they thought about this, and they were miffed at being traded like a cow in a market.
This mood stirred the royal ambitions of Danish Prince Christian Frederick, who was in Norway as vice-regent.
When he got the message that he was supposed to turn everything over to the Swedes and come home to Denmark he became indignant. He had a better idea.
He took a fact-finding journey through Norway and found that all the people wished to defend the independence of the country.
And Christian Fredrik also had the idea that he could ascend the throne of a free and independent Norway as absolute monarch. Now, another hopeful king enters the picture. A French commoner named Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, married to Désirée. She was played by Jean Simmons in the 1954 movie Désirée with Marlon Brando as Napoleon.
Désirée was once engaged to Napoleon, but he dumped her for a worldly courtesan, Josephine. A snubbed Désirée then marries Bernadotte. Napoleon made him a marshal of France, but Bernadotte soon turned against him. Sweden invited Bernadotte to be crown prince, and he was going to try to get Norway as part of the package.
He didn’t think he’d have any problem in that regard. He even said that a people who for centuries had tolerated the supremacy of a foreign power without a murmur would not seriously resist a change of masters.
Bernadotte issued some threats to Norway to comply, but for the time being, Bernadotte was occupied with the final battles on the Continent.
They gave the Norwegian Storting more authority than parliamentary bodies had in any other country except the United States.
Crown Prince Christian Fredrik was elected as king. He was thus chosen. In a Europe where almost all countries were ruled by absolute monarchy, this was seen as extremely radical.
Ending the proceedings at Eidsvoll that first Syttende Mai, the assembly president declared: “Thus within Norway’s boundaries is resurrected Norway’s ancient seat of kings, which was graced by Athelstans and Sverres and from which they ruled over Norway of old.”
This electing of a king and the adoption of an independent constitution was tantamount to a declaration of war against Sweden, and as such it was taken.
Bernadotte and his Swedish troops invaded Norway. The Norwegians reluctantly entered into negotiations.
In exchange for Swedish promises to recognize the Norwegian constitution and the Storting, Christian signed a peace treaty in August 1814 and abdicated the throne, returning sadly to Denmark.
Bernadotte—who only spoke French—was elected king of Norway as Karl Johann. And Désirée became queen of Sweden, although she found Stockholm so cold she said it made her cry. Their descendants are still represented in the royal families of Scandinavia.
The House of Bernadotte reigned in both countries until the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905. The most amiable and bloodless revolution known to history.
Both during the period of independence and the dissolution of the union with Sweden one important principle was defined: the Constitution stood above the king.
The Norwegians did not win their freedom suddenly through a revolutionary uprising. That struggle lasted through centuries. It was waged for the sake of preserving the freedom which they knew to be theirs from ancient times.
This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.