Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of King Carl XIV Johan of Sweden and of Norway. The second son of Henri Bernadotte and Jeanne St-Jean, the future King was born in 8, rue de Tran in Pau in the southwest of France on 26 January 1763. He received the name Jean, but was called Jean-Baptiste to distinguish him from his elder brother Jean, who was referred to as Jean-Évangeliste.
Obviously there was nothing at the time which indicated that Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte would ever be King of two nations. But the French Revolution made possible a meteoric rise through the ranks of the French army and beyond. He became a general in 1794 and was appointed a Marshal of the Empire by Emperor Napoléon I in May 1804. Two years later Napoléon made him Sovereign Prince and Duke of Pontecorvo, a former Papal enclave about halfway between Rome and Naples.
In 1810 he was surprisingly elected Crown Prince of Sweden and assumed the name Carl Johan. The ill-health of King Carl XIII meant that the Crown Prince soon became the real ruler of Sweden and in 1812 he changed sides, joining Napoléon’s enemies and playing a significant part in the defeat of France in 1814.
The same year he achieved what generations of Swedish warrior kings had dreamed of: the conquest of Norway. However, Carl Johan agreed to let Norway be an independent kingdom in a personal union with Sweden. Upon the death of Carl XIII on 5 February 1818 he succeeded to the Swedish and Norwegian thrones as Carl XIV Johan, thereby founding the most durable dynasty in Swedish history. He was crowned in Stockholm on 11 May and in Trondhjem (now Trondheim) on 7 September 1818.
As King of Sweden he carried out a number of significant reforms, but his increasing conservatism cost him his popularity in his old age. As King of Norway he engaged in a long power struggle with Parliament, which he eventually lost. His most important legacy in Norway is perhaps the development of Christiania (now Oslo) as a capital, with the Royal Palace as its crowning glory. He died on 8 March 1844, aged 81.
There will be no large events to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, unlike the 200th anniversary in 1963. To a great extent this is probably the result of there being many exhibitions, books, royal visits and other events three years ago to mark the bicentenary of his election to Crown Prince. However, the anniversary was commemorated by a conference at the Royal Palace in Stockholm yesterday, focusing on Carl XIV Johan’s role as “the founder of modern Sweden” and tomorrow Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, will carry an article by me on his Norwegian reign.
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