Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was probably the most successful of Napoleon’s
Marshals even though he disgraced himself, thanks to some carefully timed manoeuvring when Crown Prince of Sweden.
Rise to Marshall
Bernadotte was born into the family of a French lawyer in 1763. He joined the army aged seventeen, and benefited greatly from the chaos wrought by the French Revolution
– which he strongly supported – and rose from sub-lieutenant in 1792 to Brigadier General in 1794. He created a reputation for military ability and harsh discipline, and came to be friends with another fast rising star, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Bernadotte served as ambassador to Vienna in 1798, and then married Napoleon’s old fiancée Désirée Clary. After a period fighting in Germany he became France’s Minister of War, but he was pushed out of government by the Directory, who believed him to be a Jacobin and disliked his fame. When Napoleon seized power Bernadotte stayed neutral, then worked for the new state, and became commander of an army. It was at this point he was accused of being involved in a plot against Napoleon, although there was no evidence, and Bernadotte remained in Napoleon’s good graces enough to be made a Marshall when Napoleon became emperor.
As Napoleon was restructuring Europe he gave out new positions to his allies, and Bernadotte became governor of Hanover, and later Prince of Ponte-Corvo. Bernadotte was involved in the campaign which ended with Austerlitz
, but became unpopular during the war of the fourth coalition due to his behaviour, was present at the Battle of Wagram where his unit took heavy losses, and where his behaviour was again suspect, and he was sent away for his actions and insubordination. After returning to Paris, ostensibly to recover his health, he was told to organise the Netherlands in case Britain invaded, a task he performed well.
Crown Prince of Sweden
Bernadotte may have been in disgrace with Napoleon, but his careful – some might say kind - handling of both Hanover and Hanseastic towns and Swedish prisoners of war led to a new opportunity: the throne of Sweden. In 1809 the old King Gustav IV of Sweden had been replaced in a revolution by Charles XIII, but he was ill and without issue. A campaign to select Bernadotte was successful, Napoleon allowed Bernadotte to go and accept it in order to spread his influence, and on August 21st 1810 Bernadotte became Crown Prince Charles John. He assumed the practical control of the government and switched to the Lutheran religion.
Bernadotte had already drifted away from Napoleon, and was now refusing to accept his old commander’s influence. Instead he decided to try a conquest of his own to establish him and embed his dynasty: Norway. He began signing alliances which would allow him, alliances which were opposed to Napoleon. After the disaster of 1812 Bernadotte was talked into joining the sixth coalition against Bonaparte, and fought in northern Europe. The coalition victory at Leipzig allowed Bernadotte to go and defeat Denmark and take their possession of Norway, but he had to use a mixture of force and compromise (he accepted a new, liberal Norwegian constitution) to secure it. In the meantime Tsar Alexander has been hoping to make Bernadotte the new ruler of France, but the rest of the coalition feared he’d be a Russian puppet, and it became clear the French people weren’t keen. Napoleon was then defeated.
King of Sweden
Bernadotte’s claim on Sweden was supported during the Congress of Vienna by Britain and Russia, enabling him to keep the throne against the claims of the old regime, and in 1818 he became King Charles XIV John. He now resolved to rule peacefully and balance the role of Sweden in northern European affairs, but is remembered for a mixture of positive effects – good finance, economic growth – and negative ones: conservative, autocratic. He died, still on the throne, in 1844.