Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

A French Soldier Becomes King of Sweden and Norway

The career of Napoleon, which passed over Europe like a tornado, made itself felt in the Scandinavian peninsula, where it gave rise to radical changes. In the preceding tale its effect upon Denmark was shown. While the wars which desolated Europe did not reach the soil of Sweden and Norway, yet these countries were deeply affected and their relations decidedly changed.

The work began in 1808 in the obstinate folly of Gustavus IV., who defiantly kept up an active trade with England when Russia and Prussia had closed their ports against British ships. As a result Russia declared war against Sweden, sent an immense army into Finland, and after a desperate struggle compelled the Swedes to evacuate that region. In this way Sweden lost a great province which it had held for six hundred years.

This was one result of a weak king's setting himself against the great powers of Europe. By his lack of political good sense and his obstinacy Sweden lost nearly half its territory and Gustavus lost his throne, for the bitter indignation of the Swedes against him was such that he was taken prisoner by conspirators and forced to sign a deed in which he renounced the throne of Sweden for himself and his descendants. Not a hand was raised to help him and he spent the remainder of his life as a wandering exile.

It was this series of events that in time brought a soldier of the French army to the Swedish throne. How this came about is well worth the telling. After the abdication of Gustavus, Duke Charles of Sodermanland was elected king as Charles XIII., and as he had no children, a Danish prince was chosen to succeed him.

But this heir to the throne, Charles Augustus by name, died suddenly the next year. The people believed he had been poisoned, and on the day of the funeral, suspecting the haughty old Count Fersen of his death, they seized him and in their fury literally tore him to pieces.

It was now proposed to take the brother of the deceased prince as heir to the throne, but little could be done in those days without the Corsican emperor being consulted about it, and the young Baron Mörner was sent to Paris to inform Napoleon of what was proposed. The youthful envoy was an admirer of the conqueror, and thinking to please him he suggested that one of the French generals should be chosen to rule over Sweden.

Napoleon was highly gratified with the suggestion, but when the baron named Marshal Jean Bernadotte as his choice the emperor was much less pleased. He would much rather have chosen some one else, Bernadotte being too independent in character to please him. Difficulties were thrown in the way, but Mörner obtained Bernadotte's consent, and by his argument that Sweden needed an able and experienced soldier to regain its old power the Swedish Ricksdag was brought over to his side.

In the end Napoleon gave his consent, and the marshal was elected Crown Prince of Sweden. But the French emperor evidently doubted him still, for on parting with him he used these significant farewell words: "Go, then, and let us fulfil our several destinies." He had reason for his distrust, as the events of later years showed.

This selection ranks with the remarkable instances of the mutations of fortune. The new crown prince had begun life as the son of a poor French lawyer and in 1780, at the age of sixteen, entered the army as a common soldier. When the wars of the Revolution began he had risen to the rank of a sergeant, which was as high as a man of common birth could rise in the old army of France.

But he made rapid progress in the army of the Revolution, being a man of great courage and unusual military genius. Under Napoleon, whose discerning eye no soldier of ability escaped, Bernadotte became one of the most successful of the French generals, was made governor of a province, ambassador, and minister of war, and had much to do with winning the great victories of Austerlitz, Jena, and Wagram. Finally he was made a marshal of France and prince of Ponte Corvo in Italy.

But Napoleon had doubts of him. He was too independent. He opposed the emperor's ambitious plans and defended the liberties of the people, and was distrusted by the conqueror for other causes. The astute Corsican feared that he would not be the man to reduce Sweden to a province of France, and the event proved that Napoleon was right.

It was in 1810 that Crown Prince Bernadotte, who adopted the name of Charles John as the title of his new rank, arrived in Sweden with his son Oscar. The people were delighted with his appearance. A handsome and imposing man, with black wavy hair, an eagle nose, keen, penetrating eyes and the manner of one accustomed to command, also a clear and eloquent speaker, polished in address and courteous in his dealings with all, they felt that in him they had a true king; while his reputation as one of the leading soldiers in Napoleon's great army gave them assurance that, if war should arise, their armies would be ably led.

Sweden, when Bernadotte set foot on its soil, was in a helpless state of decadence, having become little better than a dependency of France. If ever it needed a strong ruler then was the time, but Charles XIII. was incapable as a monarch, and from the time of his landing the new crown prince ruled the country as though there were no king on the throne.

He at once renounced Catholicism and was admitted into the Lutheran church, the state religion of Sweden. Proposing to consult the best interests of his new country and not to rule as a vassal of Napoleon, he was indignant when the emperor ordered that Sweden should declare war against England. In the existing condition of the country he felt compelled to submit, but he secretly advised the British government that the declaration of war was a mere formality and not a gun was fired on either side.

He also made a secret alliance with Alexander of Russia. None of these movements could be made public, for the Swedes were then fervent admirers of Napoleon and hoped by his aid to gain the lost province of Finland and win revenge upon Russia, their old enemy. Bernadotte saw farther than they, feeling that the inordinate ambition of Napoleon must lead to his downfall and that it was best for Sweden to have an anchor out to leeward. But all these political deals had to be kept from the knowledge of the Swedes.

A change in public opinion came when Napoleon, suspecting the loyalty to him of his former marshal, heaped insults upon Sweden, and finally, in the beginning of 1812, invaded Swedish Pomerania, intending by this act to frighten the Swedes into submission. Instead, he exasperated them and lost their friendship, thus giving Bernadotte the opportunity he had awaited.

"Napoleon has himself thrown down the gauntlet, and I will take it up," he said, and at once began to prepare for the struggle which he foresaw.

With the incitement of the invasion of Pomerania the Crown Prince Charles John—Prince Karl Johan, as the Swedes called him—began active preparations for war. The army was largely increased, new levies being raised and arms and equipment purchased, while alliances were made with foreign powers. It came as a surprise to the Swedes when the fact leaked out that it was not against Russia, but against France, that these warlike movements were being made.

Napoleon now, seeing the state of affairs his injudicious act had brought about, sought to gain the friendship of Sweden, making alluring offers to his late marshal. His change of front came too late. Bernadotte had no confidence in him and came into closer relations with his enemies, encouraging the perplexed Alexander to a firm resistance against the French emperor in the great invasion threatened.

Everyone knows the disastrous end of this invasion. When Napoleon was marching on Moscow Alexander and Charles John met at Abo and a treaty was formed in which Sweden was promised recompense for the loss of Finland in the acquisition of Norway, while a friendship sprang up between the two which lasted till the end of their lives.

Events now moved rapidly. The Corsican conqueror entered Moscow. It was burned and he was forced to retreat. A terrible winter and hostile forces destroyed the Grand Army, only a handful of which escaped. Then came the death struggle in Germany of the greatest soldier in modern history. On every side his enemies rose against him and in the spring of 1813 Bernadotte joined them with an army of thirty thousand Swedes.

This army took part in the several battles that followed, and made its mark especially at Dennewitz, where Marshal Ney commanded the French. Bernadotte thought that the Prussians should bear the brunt of this battle, since Berlin was threatened, and for this reason he held the Swedes in reserve. But when the right wing of the Prussians was broken, Ney cheering his soldiers by shouting, "My children, the victory is ours!" he deemed it time to take a hand, and ordered General Cardell, his artillery chief, to support the Prussians.

Cardell won the day by a brilliant stratagem. He ordered the caissons into line with the guns and deployed his regiments so that they bore the appearance of a division of cavalry, the mounted artillerists bearing down upon the French at a gallop, with drawn swords.

Failing to see the guns, and thinking that they had only cavalry to deal with, the French closed their lines and with fixed bayonets awaited the Swedes. Suddenly the line halted, the guns were rushed forward and reversed, the men sprang to their pieces, and from a long line of frowning cannon poured a fiery hail of grape and canister that tore remorselessly through the solid ranks of the French. The results were awful: dead and dying strewed the ground; the survivors fled in confusion; that deadly volley turned the day in favor of the French, and Ney and his braves were forced to make a hasty retreat.

In the great battle of Leipsic no section of the Swedish army but the artillery took part. When the English agent, Sir C. Stewart, sought by threats to drive Bernadotte into action, he haughtily replied:

"Do you forget that I am Prince of Sweden and one of the greatest generals of the age?"

Bernadotte was considering the uplifting of his new kingdom rather than the overthrow of his old master. He was saving his army for the campaign he proposed against Denmark. Of this campaign we need only say that it ended in the acquisition of Norway. The Danes were beaten and their king disheartened, and in the peace of 1814 he ceded Norway to Sweden, receiving Swedish Pomerania in exchange.

For centuries Sweden had sought to absorb Norway, and now, by the action of this crown prince from a foreign land, the result seemed achieved. But the brave Norwegians themselves remained to be dealt with. They did not propose, if they could avoid it, to be forced into vassalage to the Swedes. A party arose in favor of the independence of Norway, a government was formed, and their Danish governor, Prince Christian Frederick, was elected king of Norway.

It was a hasty act, which could not be sustained against the trained army of Sweden. Norway was poor, her population small, her defences out of order, her army made up of raw recruits under untried officers, yet the old viking blood flowed in the veins of the people and they were bent on striking for their freedom.

Bernadotte returned to Sweden in the summer of 1814 and at once led his army into Norway. Little fighting took place, the Swedish crown prince showing himself favorably disposed, and peace and union finally came, Charles XIII. of Sweden being elected king of Norway. Yet it was not as a subject nation, but as an independent and equal kingdom that Norway entered this union. All her old rights and privileges were retained and the government remained free from any interference on the part of Sweden.

It was to the wisdom of Bernadotte that this result was due. An enforced union, he knew, would yield only hatred and bitterness, and to drive a brave people to the verge of despair was not the way to bring them into the position of satisfied subjects. Norway remained as free as ever in her history, dwelling side by side with Sweden, with one king over both countries.

In 1818 the weak Charles XIII. died and the strong Bernadotte, or Charles John, ascended the throne as Charles XIV. The remainder of his reign was one of peace and growing prosperity, and when he died in 1844, leaving the throne to his son Oscar, the grateful people of Sweden felt that they owed much to their soldier king.