Monday, 7 May 2012

At the road’s end: Count Carl Johan Bernadotte af Wisborg (1916-2012), by birth Prince of Sweden

The old guard is passing out. Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century we see the passings of the last of those royals who saw the light of day before that great watershed for European monarchies that was 1918.
Yesterday came the sad news of the death at Ängelholm Hospital at 9 p.m. on Friday, after a short illness, of Count Carl Johan Bernadotte af Wisborg, by birth Prince of Sweden, uncle of the King of Sweden and the Queen of Denmark, last surviving great-grandchild of Queen Victoria of Britain and the last of his royal generation in Scandinavia. He was 95 and had been scheduled to attend the christening of Princess Estelle in Stockholm on the 22nd of this month.
Born at the Royal Palace in Stockholm on 31 October 1916, His Royal Highness Prince Carl Johan Arthur of Sweden, Duke of Dalecarlia, was the fifth and youngest child of the future King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden and his first wife, Crown Princess Margareta, née Princess of Britain. His older siblings were Gustaf Adolf (1906-1947), Sigvard (1907-2002), Ingrid (1910-2000) and Bertil (1912-1997).
He received the name Carl Johan in honour of his great-great-great-grandfather, King Carl XIV Johan of Sweden and of Norway, the founder of the Bernadotte dynasty and of the Swedish-Norwegian union which had come to an end only eleven years before the birth of Prince Carl Johan. His great namesake always held a special fascination for Carl Johan, who was to have a great interest in the history of his family. His other name, Arthur, was in honour of his maternal grandfather, Prince Arthur of Britain, Duke of Connaught. Later he was to say that he was sure that the reason why he, unlike his older siblings, had only one extra name was that the parents had run out of ideas when the fifth child was born.
His christening took place in the so-called Green Drawing Room at the Royal Palace on 4 December 1916. The sponsors were his grandparents, King Gustaf V and Queen Victoria of Sweden, and Prince Arthur and Louise Margaret of Britain, Duke and Duchess of Connaught, his great-grandmother, the Dowager Grand Duchess Luise of Baden, King Christian X of Denmark, Queen Mary of Britain and the Dowager Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The latter, aged 94, died on the very day of the christening.
Prince Carl Johan was only 3 ½ years old when Crown Princess Margareta died on 1 May 1920, aged 38 and pregnant with her sixth child. “Unfortunately I have no memories of my mother. I have always envied my older siblings that they remembered her”, he told me some years ago. He added that he had read a lot about her and was full of admiration for everything she had accomplished during her short life. “She must have been an absolutely wonderful person”.
Three years later his father remarried Lady Louise Mountbatten. Not all the children were very happy about this, notably Ingrid. Carl Johan believed it was easiest for him, who was the youngest and had no memories of his mother and was therefore more “available” than the elder siblings. His relationship with “Aunt Louise” was good, “but she could never really replace my mother, and our relationship never became very confident”. When it came to personal issues he rather confided them in Stina Reuterswärd, a lady-in-waiting to both his mother and stepmother.
When asked about the greatest advantages and disadvantages of growing up as a prince, Carl Johan thought that one was taken very good care of and consequently “a lot more spoilt than most people”, but that one suffered from not knowing much about ordinary life. “Not because there was a great distance, but because we lived a very sheltered life”.
Summers were spent at Sofiero Palace in Helsingborg in Scania, a part of Sweden which came to mean a lot to Prince Carl Johan. Often there were also trips to England to visit his maternal family, and he had vague memories of watching the huge victory parade staged in London in 1919 to mark the end of World War I.
Like his siblings before him, Prince Carl Johan attended a private school at the Royal Palace and eventually went on to the elite boarding school Lundsberg before joining the army. After his spell in the army he began a course in law and economics, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, which Carl Johan and some friends had almost observed first-hand as they drove through Germany in the last days of August 1939.
“That’s it”, Carl Johan said to his sister Ingrid, by then Crown Princess of Denmark, as he reached Graasten Palace in the south of Denmark. He had hardly set foot on Swedish soil before Germany invaded Poland. As an officer in the reserve he was called up to join the Swedish neutrality watch.
The autumn of 1939 also saw a meeting which would change the course of Prince Carl Johan’s life. His 23rd birthday, 31 October 1939, was celebrated at the nightclub Cecil, where he encountered Kerstin Wijkmark. It was not long before he realised that he was in love with her.
The court could hardly have been less happy about the Prince’s choice of girlfriend. Not only was she six years older than him and a commoner, but she was a divorcee and a journalist, as well as a strong character with some rather rough edges. The love affair met with strong opposition from the royal court, who also made some nasty attacks on Kerstin’s character. If this was meant to dissuade the Prince it proved counterproductive.
The Swedish Act of Succession, in force until 1980, was one of the strictest in Europe when it came to royal marriages. Princes were explicitly forbidden to marry a “private Swedish man’s daughter” (it had only been softened somewhat in 1937, when the word “Swedish” had been inserted). If doing so nevertheless, princes automatically forfeited their rights of succession, regardless of whether the King consented to the marriage or not. Whereas Carl Johan’s great-uncle, Prince Oscar Bernadotte, had at least been allowed to retain the title Prince when he broke the rules in 1888, Carl Johan’s elder brother Sigvard and their cousin Lennart had been stripped of all titles and thrown out into the dark when they married commoners in 1934 and 1932 respectively.
Prince Carl Johan and Kerstin Wijkmark announced their engagement as peace returned to Europe in May 1945 and were married in New York on 19 February 1946. “We were treated quite severely, and cut off immediately. I had to return my decorations, and I got no money. It was a huge readjustment”, he told me, but added: “I have often thought about whether I would have done it again if I had known how difficult it would be, but I think I would have done it again. Because I was so much in love with Kerstin and had decided that she was the one I wanted to marry. And I have never regretted that I married her. But I do understand that I caused my father great disappointment, and I understand that better now that I am older”.
Four princes had left the royal house between 1932 and 1946, and Carl Johan’s brother Bertil was about to do the same by marrying his Welsh girlfriend Lilian Craig. When hearing of his brother’s marriage plans, Prince Bertil remarked that he thought he could have waited, perhaps implying that he would have liked to get ahead of him. But the situation changed significantly when the eldest brother, Prince Gustaf Adolf, was killed in a plane crash in January 1947, meaning that the succession hinged on his nine-month son, the current King Carl Gustaf. Prince Bertil therefore postponed his and Lilian’s marriage for three decades in order to be able to act as regent in the all too likely event of Carl Gustaf’s accession to the throne before reaching his majority. We will never know if Carl Johan would have acted in the same way if it had been him rather than Bertil who had been the last prince left in January 1947.
When Bertil and Lilian eventually married in 1976 and Bertil, as a reward for his loyalty and sacrifice, was allowed to retain his royal titles and position, Sigvard and Lennart asked the King to restore the princely title to them. The King did not grant their wish, something which caused a serious falling-out with Sigvard, who nevertheless assumed the title of prince in 1983. Carl Johan made no similar proposition.
“So you are the Swedish Mrs Simpson”, said Winston Churchill when introduced to Kerstin Bernadotte on their honeymoon. They also came to know the real Mrs Simpson as they occasionally spent some time with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when in New York or Paris. The Duke, who was Carl Johan’s second cousin, always refused to refer to him as Mr Bernadotte. “That is unacceptable to me”, he would say.
Carl Johan himself was of another opinion. “To me it has been good enough to be Mr Bernadotte”, he told me. “I knew the consequences when I married. I have never taken part in any campaigns to get the title back. Kerstin summed it up very well when she said that ‘There is no use in crying over spilt milk, particularly not when one has spilt it oneself’”.
However, following his father’s accession to the throne in 1950, Carl Johan the following year accepted the title Count of Wisborg, which was bestowed on him, his brother Sigvard and their cousin Lennart by Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg.
Having lost his royal status, Carl Johan Bernadotte earned his living as a businessman, while Kerstin continued her career as a journalist and eventually managed to charm her father-in-law. Carl Johan counted himself fortunate in that, unlike his brother Sigvard, his relations with his family were never completely broken.
The couple never had children of their own, but adopted two orphans, Monica and Christian. Monica is a journalist with the weekly Svensk Damtidning, while Christian is a businessman living in the USA. Eventually there were six grandchildren for Carl Johan Bernadotte.
Carl Johan and Kerstin Bernadotte lived in New York, Sweden, Paris and London. Eventually their summer house in the hills about Båstad, a small town on the south-western coast of Sweden, would become his permanent home. It was in the cemetery in Båstad that Kerstin was buried following her death on 11 September 1987, aged 77. Of the four marriages which between 1932 and 1946 cost four princes their succession rights, Carl Johan’s and Kerstin’s was the only which lasted until death did them apart.
By now in his seventies, Carl Johan Bernadotte soon found happiness again, this time in the form of Gunnila Bussler, née Countess Wachtmeister af Johannishus. “We had known each other practically all our lives”, he told me, pointing out that he had found his own signature in the guestbook at her family home in 1930, when she was seven. He had been to boarding school with her brother Claes and later he and Kerstin were good friends with Gunnila and her husband Carl-Herman Bussler. After they had both been widowed, Carl Johan and Gunnila discovered each other in a new way.
The wedding, hosted by his sister Queen Ingrid, who Carl Johan had grown increasingly close to, took place in the Swedish Gustaf Church in Copenhagen on 29 September 1988. Aged 72 and 65 at the time of their marriage they almost made it to their silver wedding.
Carl Johan Bernadotte’s was a rather low-key existence and he did not have the same high public profile as his fellow ex-princes Sigvard and Lennart. He was thus less known to the public, but this was to change in the last years of his life, turning him into something of a national treasure.
The deaths of his siblings Bertil, Ingrid and Sigvard in 1997, 2000 and 2002, followed by their cousin Lennart in 2004, made Carl Johan Bernadotte the last surviving member of his generation (except for those who married into the family). As the grand old man of the family he was treated with a certain respect, which saw him placed as a guest of honour at events such as the seventieth birthday of his niece Queen Margrethe or the wedding of his great-niece Crown Princess Victoria a few months later.
He enjoyed an excellent relationship with his Swedish and Danish families, to whom he was known as “farbror Putte” and “onkel Johnnie” respectively. His ninetieth birthday in 2006 saw a major family gathering in Båstad, while his 95th birthday last autumn was hosted by King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia at Drottningholm Palace. Remarkably fit for his age, he used the occasion to proclaim his intention of living to 100, which seemed far from unlikely.
Carl Johan Bernadotte had a quiet dignity which may be seen as typical of royalty of his generation. He was friendly, approachable and down to earth, was endowed with a sense of humour and was always willing to help. He was quite simply the kindest man imaginable.
As the last survivor of his generation Carl Johan Bernadotte was more often called upon to act as a witness of bygone ages in articles, interviews and documentaries. On a personal note I will maintain happy memories of a summer afternoon spent on his veranda listening to his reminiscences of his life and his family. Many who watched the documentary “Familjen Bernadotte” in connection with the Bernadotte bicentenary in 2010 will remember the warmth radiating from the recorded meeting between him and Crown Princess Victoria.
Even more memorable was his live appearance on TV4 early in the day of her wedding. The huge contrast between him, who had lost his royal position by marrying a commoner, and his great-niece, who could do so without any cost 64 years later, was the theme of the interview. And there, in TV4’s temporary wedding studio at Skeppsbron, sat this fine, warm, generous, old gentleman who without a trace of bitterness praised Crown Princess Victoria and perhaps in particular Prince Daniel to the skies. Watching this it dawned on me what a tremendous asset the Swedish monarchy lost when it let go of Prince Carl Johan.


  1. Trond, very nicely done. I met Count Carl Johan and his wife a decade or so here in DC .. they specifically asked me to join them at lunch at the home of Peder Bonde (whose son was once married to Monica), A truly charming couple.

    1. Thank you. Yes, indeed, they were both very charming and always willing to extend a helping hand. A wonderful man who I am sure would have been at least as beloved as Prince Bertil if he had remained a member of the royal house.


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