How Did A French Military Commander Become King of Sweden And King of Norway?

Charles XIV John of Sweden's reign was not much different than that of other kings. He sat on the throne during a time of relative domestic peace, prosperity, and stability. But his biography reveals a startling fact: he was not a man who was born to be a king. He was not from royal blood. He did not marry into a royal family. He wasn’t even Swedish.

The man who would become Charles XIV John of Sweden was born Jean Bernadotte in France in 1763, and he had a memorable life even before he took the Swedish crown. Bernadotte was a soldier during the French Revolution and the wars waged in its aftermath. He served as a field marshal under Napoleon Bonaparte and saw action in some of the biggest battles in the Napoleonic Wars. Bernadotte even obtained a royal title before the one he more famously possessed in Sweden.

Who was Jean Bernadotte? And how did Jean Bernadotte become king of Sweden? The details reveal the truly surreal life of the man who would be king.


  • He Was Anti-Royal In His Youth

    He Was Anti-Royal In His Youth
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    For a man who would later become a king, Bernadotte was staunchly anti-royal in his youth. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Bernadotte was among the many who sided with the new Jacobin republican regime. According to some sources, he even had "death to all kings" tattooed on his arm.

    Bernadotte distinguished himself and rose through the ranks during France’s subsequent wars. He remained a Jacobin sympathizer, even as France shifted back toward monarchy under Napoleon.

  • He Almost Became A Lawyer

    He Almost Became A Lawyer
    Photo: Florent Pécassou / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Bernadotte’s father, Jean Henri Bernadotte, was a prosecutor in southwestern France. Before embarking on his career as a soldier, the younger Bernadotte had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps. He began an apprenticeship, and seemed on track to take up the family business alongside his older brother. However, when his father died, Bernadotte decided to seek his fortune in the military instead.

  • His Wife Was Nearly Napoleon's Wife

    His Wife Was Nearly Napoleon's Wife
    Photo: Robert Lefèvre / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Désirée Clary was just as unlikely a queen as her future husband was a king - and yet she was nearly an empress as well. When her sister married Joseph Bonaparte, Clary came into the orbit of his younger brother Napoleon. The two became engaged in 1795, but never married. Napoleon broke off the engagement to marry Josephine de Beauharnais. Clary, meanwhile, married Bernadotte in 1798.

  • Napoleon Gave Him An Early Promotion

    Napoleon Gave Him An Early Promotion
    Photo: Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Upon declaring himself Emperor in 1804, Napoleon also elevated 18 generals to marshal status - including Bernadotte. The newly formed marshalate was an eclectic mix. It was made up in part of older commanders for whom the distinction was little more than a ceremonial token of appreciation, Bonaparte loyalists who were being rewarded for their backing of Napoleon’s rise, and young up-and-comers for whom the title was an investment in their future.

    Bernadotte fell into a fourth category: potential rivals for power who needed to be appeased. He hadn't supported Napoleon in the coup of 18 Brumaire, the ploy that effectively made him ruler of France. Perhaps Napoleon felt that the new title would keep Bernadotte loyal.