Today 150 years have passed since the sudden death of Dowager Queen Desideria of Sweden and Norway, which happened at the Royal Palace in Stockholm in the evening of 17 December 1860. The Queen Dowager was officially 79 years old, but in fact 83.
Looking back on her life some years earlier she reflected that it was her destiny to be loved by heroes. Désirée Clary, the wealthy merchant’s daughter from Marseilles, became engaged to the young General Napoléon Bonaparte while still in her teens.
After the future Emperor dumped her for Joséphine, Désirée married another general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, whose election to Crown Prince of Sweden in 1810 would eventually make her Queen of Sweden and Norway with the name Desideria. As such it might be said that she generally failed to rise to the occasion.
She only settled in Sweden in 1823, thirteen years after her husband’s election and five years after his accession, and had little interest in her royal role. She outlived him for sixteen years and also outlived her only child, King Oscar I, who died in 1859.
She grew increasingly eccentric with the passing of time and made a habit of turning day into night. She was almost always late and there is a family legend, told to me by the late Countess Ruth of Rosenborg (whose two youngest children were named Carl Johan and Désirée), that her husband once grew tired of waiting for her and shouted: “Désirée, the King of Sweden is waiting for you!” Back came the reply: “Bernadotte, Bernadotte!”, firmly reminding him that he was not always that grand.
She used to go for carriage rides in the evenings (which were midday for here), which she also did on 17 December 1860. Having reached Djurgården she suddenly decided to go to the Royal Theatre to join her grandson, King Carl XV, and Queen Lovisa, whom she was told were there.
She entered the royal box just as the curtain fell on Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s “Life is a Dream” and was taken ill at the very same moment. She was taken back to the Royal Palace, where she had to be carried up the Eastern Staircase. Her daughter-in-law, Dowager Queen Josephina, rushed to her side and was with her when she died. To this day there is a chair at the Royal Palace on which it has been written that it was the chair in which Queen Desideria died.
She was buried with her husband in the Bernadotte Mausoleum in the Church of Riddarholmen. After a 20th century rearrangement of the tombs she now rests in a green marble sarcophagus which was originally Oscar II’s.
Out of vanity Queen Desideria, no longer the young beauty who had captured the hearts of Napoléon and Carl Johan, had always refused to be photographed. Thus the only existing photograph of her shows her lying in state and was released only in the 1970s (it is now in the public domain).
To an international audience Queen Desideria is probably best known through Annemarie Selinko’s bestselling novel Désirée, loosely based on facts. The film version, starring the late Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando, is entirely fictional and bears no relation to actual events.