Monday, 14 March 2011

New books: The election of a crown prince

The story of how Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, Marshal of the French Empire and Sovereign Prince of Pontecorvo, became Crown Prince of Sweden in 1810 is one of those stories which seem almost too fantastic to be true. Thus it is no wonder that it has been told many times. In connection with last year’s bicentenary the Swedish Parliament chose to tell the story in a new way, i.e. by publishing the primary sources themselves in the book När svenskarna valde tronföljare – Handlingar från riksdagen i Örebro 1810, edited by Nina Sjöberg.
Following the loss of Finland in 1809, Gustaf IV Adolf had been deposed and sent into exile and his childless, frail uncle, Carl XIII, had been elected king. Prince Christian August of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg was elected heir to the throne, but had barely arrived in Sweden before dying suddenly in May 1810. The Four Estates thus had to be called together once again, this time in the small provincial town of Örebro, partly because of the unrest in Stockholm which had reached its climax with the public slaying of the Marshal of the Realm, Axel von Fersen, during the Crown Prince’s funeral, and partly out of fear of Russian attacks on Stockholm or other cities on the east coast.
Most of this book is made up of source material, but there are also short chapters on the background, how the Four Estates worked and about the main players. There is also a presentation of the main candidates for the Swedish throne: ex-Crown Prince Gustaf, the son of the deposed Gustaf IV Adolf, who was favoured by the Gustavians and by Queen Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta; Duke Frederik Christian of Augustenburg, the brother of the late Crown Prince; King Frederik VI of Denmark, who offered himself as a candidate and whom Napoléon I would have liked to see elected; Marshal Bernadotte; and Prince Regent Peter of Oldenburg, who was Carl XIII’s first cousin and could thus be said to be the next male in line of the House of Holstein-Gottorp (Peter is misidentified in this book as Duke of Oldenburg, a Danish duke and the brother-in-law of the Emperor of Russia; he was in fact not yet Duke of Oldenburg, but “administrator” of the duchy in place of his mentally incapacitated cousin, he was German and it was his second son who was Alexander I of Russia’s brother-in-law). Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark, who was seen by some as a more acceptable alternative to Frederik VI, is not included in the list of candidates here.
Through the documents reproduced in this book one sees how King Carl XIII and the cabinet early on agreed on the Duke of Augustenburg and how eleven of the twelve members of the parliamentary committee dealing with the issue voted in favour of the Duke on 8 August (the twelfth member voted for Peter of Oldenburg).
What turned everything around was that the young lieutenant Carl Otto Mörner, one of the messengers sent to Emperor Napoléon I in Paris to inform him formally of the Crown Prince’s death and to request the most powerful man on earth’s advice on who should be the new heir, took it upon himself to ask Marshal Bernadotte to stand for election.
Three days after the parliamentary committee had agreed upon the Duke of Augustenburg, the former French Vice-Consul in Gothenburg, Jean-Antoine Fournier (grandfather of Edouard Manet), arrived in Örebro and presented himself as a representative of Bernadotte, carrying no formal authorisation to act on his behalf but possessing a toothpick case with miniature portraits of Bernadotte’s wife and son which was considered proof of his attachment to Bernadotte. Fournier was able to convince the Swedes that Bernadotte was Napoléon’s favoured candidate (which he was in fact not) and that he was able to offer Sweden significant financial benefits.
This changed the minds of the Swedes and the documents show how one now managed to convince oneself that the Duke of Augustenburg might turn down the offer if elected in order not to upset his brother-in-law King Frederik VI. There were reservations about Bernadotte’s religion (he eventually converted in Denmark just before crossing Øresund to Sweden) and his inability to master the Swedish language (which he never learnt to speak), but in a remarkably short time the Swedish parliamentarians turned around entirely, rejected Duke Frederik Christian and on 21 August voted unanimously for Bernadotte and eventually passed the Act of Succession which remained in force until 1980.
Throughout most of this book the documents, which are transcribed in their entirety (and translated if originally in French), are allowed to speak for themselves, which is an interesting way to read the story as it gives an insight into the views held by and the arguments used by the main actors. By having made these primary sources readily available as a book the Swedish Parliament has made a valuable addition to the literature on the Swedish monarchy, the House of Bernadotte and the history of nineteenth-century Sweden.


  1. Yes it is a rather fantastic story. I do not know if it is encouraging or depressing that it shows that a decision taken without any important preparations and partly under false conditions can turn out to be very fortunate whereas many well-prepared ones turn out to be disastrous. Might be Parliament had that in mind when deciding to publish the documents.
    Now my question. I have read that Napoleon at some point should have offered the Swedish Crown to his step- and adopted son the Vice-Roy of Italy,who declined. At what point did Napoleon consider that he was in a position to do this? Did anyone in Sweden know anything about that plan? Unfortunately I do not normally take notes of what I read.I am sure you know!
    Martin Rahm

  2. Napoléon was never in a position formally to offer Prince Eugène (or anyone else) the Swedish crown, but after a peace treaty between Sweden and France had been concluded in 1809 he had a certain influence on Swedish affairs, which was why Carl XIII enquired about his opinion on the succession matter following the death of Christian August.

    The Emperor's preferred candidate was apparently his loyal ally Frederik VI, but he sent his Grand Marshal of the Palace, Marshal Gérard Duroc, to Prince Eugène to sound out the latter about whether he would be willing to be a candidate. Eugène asked for 24 hours to think it through and declined next day, stating as his reason his or perhaps rather his wife's unwillingness to convert to Lutheranism.

    But probably there were also other reasons, such as his wife's stepmother being the sister of Queen Fredrika (something which was to cause an awkward situation at the deathbed of King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria in 1825 between his sister-in-law the ex-Queen of Sweden and his daughter, by then the mother of the Crown Princess of Sweden and Norway), but primarily that Eugène had not yet given up hope about succeeding to the crown of Italy.

    Eugène had been promised the secundogeniture to the Italian throne, but when Napoléon married Marie-Louise in April 1810 this was changed so that if the Emperor had two sons, the eldest would inherit the Empire and the second the Kingdom of Italy. But if he had only one son, Italy would still become Eugène's. So that chance was still there and it is also believed that Eugène and his wife harboured dreams that they might succeed to the entire Empire if Napoléon had no sons.

    Among Napoléon's reasons for sounding out Eugène about the Swedish throne might have been that this would have been some sort of compensation for the Italian crown, but also that he considered Eugène the most loyal of his relatives and could thus rely on getting a faithful ally in Sweden.

    Eugène was by the way also among the names of possible candidates mentioned by Mörner when he arrived in Paris that summer. (Macdonald was another and I have always had a counterfactual liking for the sound of "the House of Macdonald"...)

  3. Thanks. A Big Mac on the thrones of Sweden and Norway would have been fun.
    So the idea of the Imperial Prince and Vice-roy of Italy. Eugène, né de Beauharnais, as King of Sweden was previous to the the matters and acts now published by the Swedish Parliament? But where is it recorded? In the emperor's correspondance to Prince Eugène?

    Is it true that there actually were real problems of protocol at the death-bed of King Maximilian I? After all Queen Friederike was- pehaps even in my mind- an ex-queen since she divorced her husband and king and the dowager duchess of Leuchtenberg was just the mother of the Crown Princess of Sweden and Norway.
    Martin Rahm

  4. Not previous to, but at the same time - the book tells the story from the days immediately after Christian August's death. I do not think the events are recorded in the correspondence of the Emperor and the Viceroy - the latter was at the time still in Paris having attended the celebrations of his ex-stepfather's remarriage to Marie-Louise in April and the souding-out was obviously done orally by Duroc. I think Ménéval's memoirs have something about it.

    From 1812 to 1844 any form of contact with the deposed royal family was punishable by death according to Swedish law. The only ones exempt from this were King Carl XIII and Dowager Queen Sophia Magdalena. Thus it would probably look less than good if the Crown Princess's mother met the ex-Queen. The sheer embarrassment of such a meeting might perhaps also be taken into account.


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