The Reign of Karl XIII. Or Napoleon, the Swedish Revolution, and the Prince Who Fell Off His Horse

By far the most popular name for a Swedish king is Karl. There is Karl XII who lost Sweden’s Baltic empire and who according to legend is responsible for making stuffed cabbage a mainstay on Swedish dinner tables. There is Karl XIV Johan, the patriarch of the current royal dynasty, the Bernadottes. There is Karl XV who supposedly sired illegitimate children all over the realm. And last, but not least, there is the current king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf.

But what about Karl XIII? Who was he?

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Karl XIII of Sweden, painting by C.F. von Breda.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Karl XIII (1748–1818) was king for a brief time. He ruled Sweden from 1809 to 1818 and Norway from 1814 to 1818. As king, Karl XIII has left few traces behind. I have only come across one public building mentioning his name. The building is a church tower belonging to a church located not far from where I grew up in Sweden.

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The church tower at Västra Tunhem, Sweden. The plaque above the door reads: “In the year of 1810 during the reign of King Karl XIII this tower was built from the ground up.”
Photo: EH Kern

To understand why Karl XIII’s reign in hindsight may seem to have been of little consequence, we have to go back to the year 1792.

In 1792, King Gustav III is assassinated and his son, Gustav IV Adolf, becomes king. However, Gustav IV Adolf was a minor. Karl XIII—at this point in time known as Duke Karl—expected to be appointed guardian since he was the brother of Gustav III. But the relationship between the two brothers was strained. On his deathbed, Gustav III made an addendum to his last will and testament, prohibiting the appointment of Karl as Gustav IV Adolf’s guardian. After Gustav III had passed away, Karl managed to have this addendum annulled and consequently became the legal guardian of his nephew and the de facto ruler of Sweden.

Karl’s guardianship lasted for four years. During those years, Karl was a weak ruler and instead his personal favorite and adviser, G.A. Reuterholm took the reins.  In 1796 Gustav IV Adolf came of age. Karl lost all of his influence and he retired from politics.

Gustav IV Adolf became king during the height of the French Revolution. His response was to explicitly distance himself from what happened in France. By 1796, France’s army, under the leadership of Napoléon Bonaparte, had begun its advancement across Europe in a military conflict that would spill over into the European colonies in North America and Africa and continue unabated until the defeat of France at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Because of his opposition to Revolutionary France, Gustav IV Adolf allied himself with France’s enemies. The result of this was war with Russia, at this time an ally of France. For Sweden this war ended in disaster. In 1808, Russia invaded Finland and advanced as far as northern Sweden. In the ensuing peace negotiations of 1809, Finland and the Åland Islands were handed over to Russia. Finland had been a part of the Swedish kingdom since the middle of the twelfth century and constituted half of the kingdom’s surface. Needless to say, the outcome of the war was crushing and Gustav IV Adolf took the blame.

In May 1809, following a military coup, Gustav IV Adolf was forced to abdicate. This coup is the only one of its kind in Swedish history and is viewed as the closest that Sweden has come to a revolution. In the aftermath of the coup, an extra-ordinary parliament (riksdag) decided that neither Gustav IV Adolf nor any of his descendants were allowed to ascend the throne of Sweden.

But the kingdom still needed a king.

Enter Karl.

Karl XIII was elected king in 1809 on the condition that he accepted the new constitution that regulated royal power in relationship to the power of the riksdag.

However, at this time Karl XIII was an old man without heirs. This meant that an heir to the throne had to be located.

In an attempt to convince Norway to become joined in a union with Sweden, Prince Kristian August was appointed heir to the throne. Everything seemed to have been solved for the best, when in 1810 Kristian August during a military drill fell off his horse and died from his injuries.

The search was on again. A new candidate was located, ironically in Napoléon Bonaparte’s France. The man was one of Napoléon’s Field Marshals who had fallen out of grace with the French Emperor. His name was Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, son of a middle-class lawyer from the town of Pau in southwestern France. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte was legally adopted by Karl XIII as his heir and in 1818 he ascended the throne in Sweden as Karl XIV Johan and in Norway as Karl III Johan.

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Jean Baptiste Bernadotte/Karl XIV Johan. The portrait was painted by Fredrik Westin in 1810, when Bernadotte was known as Prince Karl Johan.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

As king, Karl XIII showed the same traits of political weakness as he had as Gustav IV Adolf’s legal guardian. In fact, he was opposed both to the constitution of 1809 and to Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, but lacking political strength he had no other choice but to concede. Moreover, in 1809 he suffered from a stroke and during the final years of his reign he was incapacitated by health issues and incapable to rule.

During his lifetime, Karl XIII was a dedicated free mason. His legacy as such lives on in the Carl XIII’s Order (Carl XIII:s Orden), awarded Swedish and foreign masons of Protestant faith.

Karl XIII passed away in 1818 and lies buried in the Riddarholm Church in Stockholm.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Karl XIII
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Gustaviansk tid (1772–1809)
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Nytt statsskick
Nationalencyklopedin Sverige Historia Tronföljarval och utrikespolitiskt systemskifte
Nationalencyklopedin Karl XIV Johan
Wikipedia Carl XIII:s Orden

Note:
In English, Swedish kings by the name of Karl are called Charles. Here, I have chosen to use the Swedish names.

 

 

 

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