Bernadotte was born in Pau, France, as the son of Jean Henri Bernadotte (Pau, Béarn, 14 October 1711 – Pau, 31 March 1780), prosecutor at Pau, and his wife (married at Boeil, 20 February 1754) Jeanne de Saint-Jean (Pau, 1 April 1728 – Pau, 8 January 1809), niece of the Lay Abbot of Sireix. The family name was originally du Poey (or de Pouey), but was changed to Bernadotte – a surname of an ancestress at the beginning of the 17th century. Soon after his birth 'Baptiste' was added to his name, to distinguish him from his elder brother Jean Évangeliste. Bernadotte himself added 'Jules' to his first names as a tribute to the French Empire under Napoleon I.
At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a local attorney. The early death of his father, however, would stop him following in his father's career.
Bernadotte joined the army as a private in the Régiment de Royal-Marine on 3 September 1780, and first served in the newly conquered territory of Corsica. Subsequently, the Régiment stationed in Besançon, Grenoble, Vienne, Marseille and Ile de Re. He reached to the rank of Sergeant in August 1785 and was nicknamed Sergeant Belle-Jambe, for his smart appearance. In early 1790 he was promoted to Adjutant-Major, the highest rank for noncommissioned officers in the Ancien Régime.
Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, his eminent military qualities brought him speedy promotion. By 1794 he was promoted to brigadier, attached to the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse. After Jourdan's victory at Fleurus (26 June 1794) he the became a divisional general. At the Battle of Theiningen (1796), Bernadotte contributed, more than anyone else, to the successful retreat of the French army over the Rhine after its defeat by the Archduke Charles of Austria.
At the beginning of 1797 he was ordered by the Directory to march with 20,000 men as reinforcements to Napoleon Bonaparte's army in Italy. His successful crossing of the Alps through the storm in midwinter was highly praised but coldly received by the Italian Army. Upon receiving insult from Dominique Martin Dupuy, the commander of Milan, Bernadotte was to arrest him for insubordination. However, Dupuy was a close friend of Louis-Alexandre Berthier and this started a long-lasting feud between Bernadotte and Napoleon's Chief of Staff.
He had his first interview with Napoleon in Mantua and was appointed the commander of the 4th division. During the invasion of Friuli and Istria, Bernadotte distinguished himself greatly at the passage of the Tagliamento where he led the vanguard, and at the capture of the fortress of Gradisca (19 March 1797). After the 18th Fructidor, Napoleon ordered his generals to collect from their respective divisions addresses in favor of the coup d'état of that day; but Bernadotte sent an address to the directory different from that which Napoleon wished for and without conveying it through Napoleon's hands.
After the treaty of Campo Formio, Napoleon gave Bernadotte a friendly visit at his headquarters at Udine, but immediately after deprived him of half his division of the army of the Rhine, and commanded him to march the other half back to France. Paul Barras, one of five directors, was cautious that Napoleon would overturn the Republic, so he appointed Bernadotte commander-in-chief of the Italian Army in order to offset Napoleon’s power. Bernadotte was pleased with this appointment but Napoleon lobbied Talleyrand-Périgord, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to appoint him the embassy to Vienna instead. Bernadotte was very dissatisfied; he finally accepted the embassy to Vienna, but had to quit his post owing to the disturbances caused by his hoisting the tricolour over the embassy.
After returning from Vienna, he resided in Paris. He married Désirée Clary in August 1798, the daughter of a Marseilles merchant and Joseph Bonaparte's sister-in-law. In November of the same year he was made commander of the army of observation on the upper Rhine. Although solicited to do so by Barras and Joseph Bonaparte, he did not take part in the coup d'état of the 30th Prairial. From 2 July to 14 September he was Minister of War, in which capacity he displayed great ability. However, his popularity and contacts with radical Jacobins aroused antipathy towards him in the government. On the morning of 13 September he found his resignation announced in the Moniteur before he was aware that he had tendered it. This was a trick; played upon him by Sieyès and Roger Ducos, the directors allied to Napoleon.
He declined to help Napoleon Bonaparte stage his coup d'état of November 1799 but nevertheless accepted employment from the Consulate, and from April 1800 to 18 August 1801 commanded the army in the Vendée and successfully restored its tranquility.
On the introduction of the First French Empire, Bernadotte became one of the eighteen Marshals of the Empire, and from June 1804 to September 1805 served as governor of the recently occupied Hanover. In this capacity, as well as during his later command of the army of northern Germany, he created for himself a reputation for independence, moderation, and administrative ability.
During the campaign of 1805, Bernadotte—with an army corps from Hanover—co-operated in the great movement which resulted in the shutting off of Mack in the Battle of Ulm. In the Battle of Austerlitz (2 December 1805) he was posted with his corps in the center between Soult and Lannes, and contributed to defeating the attempt of the right wing of the allies to outflank the French army. As a reward for his services at Austerlitz, he became the 1st Sovereign Prince of Ponte Corvo (5 June 1806), a district of Naples formerly subject to the Pope.
However, during the campaign against Prussia, in the same year, he was severely reproached by Napoleon for not participating with his army corps in the battles of Jena and Auerstädt (14 October 1806), because they were close. Napoleon, on the night of October 13, thinking he had faced the whole Prussian army at Jena, sent orders to Bernadotte and Davout to fall back from Naumburg and get across the Prussian line of retreat. In pursuance of these orders, Bernadotte, separately from Davout, left Naumburg at dawn on the morning of the 14th for Dornburg and marched towards Apolda, which he reached by 16:00. Hampered by the very poor state of the roads, he could not engage in the Battle of Jena, though he effectively compelled the Prussians to retreat from both battlefields by posting his troops on the heights of Apolda. Afterwards, Bernadotte was accused of deliberately refusing to support Davout, who had unexpectedly encountered the Prussian main army at Auerstädt, out of jealousy, and Napoleon, if reminiscences from St. Helena may be believed, once intended to put Bernadotte before a court-martial. In fact, he did what he had been ordered to do, and more fundamental responsibility for his absence rests upon the ambiguous and indirect orders issued by Berthier and Napoleon’s unawareness of the Prussian position.
After the Battle of Jena, Bernadotte defeated the Prussians at Halle (17 October 1806) but the headquarters did not much appreciate this victory. When visiting Halle after the battle, Napoleon enigmatically commented “Bernadotte stops at nothing. Someday the Gascon will get caught.” Subsequently, Bernadotte pursued, conjointly with Soult and Murat, the Prussian general Blücher to Lübeck, and aided in forcing his capitulation at Radkow (7 November 1806). When the French forced their way to Lübeck, the city became the target of large-scale looting and rampage by the French soldiers. Bernadotte, struggling desperately to prevent his men from sacking, was given six horses from the Council of Lübeck as their appreciation. He also treated captured Swedish soldiers with courtesy and allowed them to return to their home country. The impressed Swedes went home with a tale of Bernadotte’s fairness in maintaining order within the city.
Thereafter he marched to Poland and defeated the Russians at Mohrungen (25 January 1807). Since the messenger had been captured by Russians, Bernadotte could not take part in the Battle of Eylau (7 to 8 February 1807). Napoleon rebuked him for his absence but it became acknowledged that it was not due to Bernadotte, but Berthier’s carelessness in dispatching the orderly.
After the Peace of Tilsit, in 1808, as governor of the Hanseatic towns, he was to direct the expedition against Sweden, via the Danish islands, but the plan came to naught because of the want of transports and the defection of the Spanish contingent.
Being recalled to Germany to assist in the new war between France and Austria, he received the command of the 9th Corps, which was mainly composed of Saxons. Further difficulties with Berthier, and inclusion in his corps of the ill-prepared Saxons combined with his illness to make him beg for release from service. Bernadotte wrote to Napoleon that “I see my efforts perpetually paralyzed by a hidden force over which I can not prevail.” Napoleon disregarded these appeals and Bernadotte proceeded with the campaign, commanding mostly foreign troops with few French. At the Battle of Wagram (6 July 1809), he commanded this corps, of which the division of Dupas formed part. Having resisted on the left wing for a long time an attack from a superior force, he ordered Dupas forward to his support; the latter replied that he had orders from the emperor to remain where he was. After the battle, Bernadotte complained to Napoleon for having, in violation of all military rules, ordered Dupas to act independently of his command, and for having thereby caused great loss of life to the Saxons, and tendered his resignation. Napoleon accepted after he had become aware of an order of the day issued by Bernadotte in which he gave the Saxons credit for their courage in terms inconsistent with the emperor's official bulletin.
With Bernadotte having returned to Paris, the Walcheren expedition (July 1809) caused the French ministry in the absence of the emperor to entrust him with the defense of Antwerp with the National Guard. In a proclamation issued to his troops at Antwerp he made a charge against Napoleon of having neglected to prepare the proper means of defense for the Belgian coast. He was deprived of his command of the National Guard, and ordered on his return to Paris to leave for Catalonia and take command of the Army there. Refusing to comply with the order, he was summoned to Vienna, and after an interview with Napoleon at Schönbrunn accepted the general government of the Roman states.
In 1810 Bernadotte was about to enter his new post as governor of Rome when he was unexpectedly elected the heir-presumptive to King Charles XIII of Sweden. The problem of Charles' successor had been acute almost from the time he had ascended the throne a year earlier, as it was apparent that the Swedish branch of the House of Holstein-Gottorp would die with him. He was 61 years old and in poor health. He was also childless; Queen Charlotte had given birth to two children who had died in infancy, and there was no prospect of her bearing another child. The king had adopted a Danish prince, Charles August, as his son soon after his coronation, but he had died just a few months after his arrival.
Bernadotte was elected partly because a large part of the Swedish Army, in view of future complications with Russia, were in favour of electing a soldier, and partly because he was also personally popular, owing to the kindness he had shown to the Swedish prisoners in Lübeck. The matter was decided by one of the Swedish courtiers, Baron Karl Otto Mörner, who, entirely on his own initiative, offered the succession to the Swedish crown to Bernadotte. Bernadotte communicated Mörner's offer to Napoleon, who treated the whole affair as an absurdity. The Emperor did not support Bernadotte but did not oppose him either and so Bernadotte informed Mörner that he would not refuse the honour if he were elected. Although the Swedish government, amazed at Mörner's effrontery, at once placed him under arrest on his return to Sweden, the candidature of Bernadotte gradually gained favour and on 21 August 1810 he was elected by the Riksdag of the Estates to be the new Crown Prince, and was subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces by the King.
Before freeing Bernadotte from his allegiance to France, Napoleon asked him to agree never to take up arms against France. Bernadotte refused to make any such agreement, upon the ground that his obligations to Sweden would not allow it; Napoleon exclaimed “Go, and let our destinies be accomplished” and signed the act of emancipation unconditionally.
On 2 November Bernadotte made his solemn entry into Stockholm, and on 5 November he received the homage of the Riksdag of the Estates, and he was adopted by King Charles XIII under the name of "Charles John" (Karl Johan). At the same time, because of the current Swedish laws regarding its ruler's religion (which had to be Lutheran), he converted from Roman Catholicism to the Lutheranism of the Swedish court.
The new Crown Prince was very soon the most popular and most powerful man in Sweden and quickly impressed his adoptive father. Following his first meeting with his new heir Charles XIII, who had initially opposed Bernadotte's candidacy, remarked to his aide-de-camp Count Suremain “My dear Suremain, I have gambled heavily, and I believe that after all I have won.” The infirmity of the old King and the dissensions in the Privy Council of Sweden placed the government, and especially the control of foreign policy, entirely in his hands. The keynote of his whole policy was the acquisition of Norway as a compensation for the loss of Finland and Bernadotte proved anything but a puppet of France. Many Swedes expected him to reconquer Finland which had been ceded to Russia, however, the Crown Prince was aware of its difficulty for reasons of the desperate situation of the state finance and the reluctance of the Finnish people to return to Sweden. Even if Finland was regained, he thought, it would put Sweden into a new cycle of conflicts with a powerful neighbor because there was no guarantee Russia would accept the loss as final. Therefore, he made up his mind to make a united Scandinavian peninsula by taking Norway from Denmark and uniting her to Sweden. He tried to divert public opinion from Finland to Norway, by arguing that to create a compact peninsula, with sea for its natural boundary, was to inaugurate an era of peace, and that waging war with Russia would lead to ruinous consequences.
Soon after Charles John’s arrival in Sweden, Napoleon compelled him to accede to the Continental System and declare war against Great Britain; otherwise, Sweden would have to face the determination of France, Denmark and Russia. This demand would mean a hard blow to the national economy and the Swedish population. Sweden reluctantly declared war against Great Britain but it was treated by both countries as being merely nominal, although Swedish imports of British goods decreased from £4,871 million in 1810 to £523 million in the following year.
In January 1812, French troops suddenly invaded Swedish Pomerania and the island of Rügen. The decisive reason was that Napoleon, before marching to Moscow, had to secure his rear and dared not trust a Swedish continental foothold behind him. To render it the more insulting, Napoleon scheduled it for the Crown Prince’s birthday. The invasion was a clear violation of international law as well as an act of war so public opinion in Sweden was understandably outraged. Moreover, it antagonized the pro-French faction at the Swedish court. Thereafter, the Crown Prince declared the neutrality of Sweden and opened negotiations with Great Britain and Russia.
In 1813, he allied Sweden with Napoleon's enemies, including Great Britain, Russia and Prussia, in the Sixth Coalition, hoping to secure Norway. After the defeats at Lützen (2 May 1813) and Bautzen (21 May 1813), it was the Swedish Crown Prince who put fresh fighting spirit into the Allies; and at the conference of Trachenberg he drew up the general plan for the campaign which began after the expiration of the Truce of Pläswitz.
Charles John, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Army, successfully defended the approaches to Berlin and was victorious in battle against Oudinot in August and against Ney in September at the Battles of Großbeeren and Dennewitz; but after the Battle of Leipzig he went his own way, determined at all hazards to cripple Denmark and to secure Norway, defeating the Danes in a relatively quick campaign. His efforts culminated in the favourable Treaty of Kiel, which transferred Norway to Swedish control.
However, the Norwegians were unwilling to accept Swedish control. They declared independence, adopted a liberal constitution and elected Danish crown prince Christian Frederick to the throne. The ensuing war was swiftly won by Sweden under Charles John's generalship. The military operations in 1814 were to be Sweden’s last war to this day. Charles John could have named his terms to Norway, but in a key concession accepted the Norwegian constitution and its own political autonomy. This paved the way for Norway to enter a personal union with Sweden later that year.
During the period of the Allied invasion of France in the winter and spring of 1814, when it was unclear who would rule France after the war, the Russian Tsar Alexander I flirted with the idea of installing Charles John on the French throne in place of Napoleon. Ultimately the British and Austrians vetoed the idea, and the Allies agreed that if Napoleon were to be deposed, the only acceptable alternative was the restoration of the House of Bourbon.
As the union King, Charles XIV John in Sweden and Charles III John in Norway, who succeeded to that title on 5 February 1818 following the death of Charles XIII & II, he was initially popular in both countries. The democratic process and forces steady matured under the King’s restrained executive power.
The foreign policy applied by Charles John in the post-Napoleonic era was characterized by the maintenance of balance between the Great Powers and non-involvement into conflicts that took place outside of the Scandinavian peninsula. It made a sharp contrast with Sweden’s previous hegemonic expansionism resulted in uninterrupted wars with neighboring countries for centuries, and he successfully kept his kingdoms in a state of peace from 1814 until his death. He was especially concerned about the conflict between Great Britain and Russia. In 1834, when the relationship between both countries strained regarding the Near East Crisis, he sent memorandum to British and Russian governments and proclaimed neutrality in advance. It is pointed out as the origin of Swedish neutrality.
His domestic policy particularly focused on promotion of economy and investment in social overhead capital, and the long peace since 1814 led to an increased prosperity for the country. During his long reign of 26 years, the population of the Kingdom was so increased that the inhabitants of Sweden alone became equal in number to those of Sweden and Finland before the latter province was torn from the former, the national debt was paid off, a civil and a penal code were proposed for promulgation, education was promoted, agriculture, commerce, and manufactures prospered, and the means of internal communication were increased.
On the other hand, radical in his youth, his views had veered steadily rightward over the years, and by the time he ascended the throne he was an ultra-conservative. His autocratic methods, particularly his censorship of the press, were very unpopular, especially after 1823. However, his dynasty never faced serious danger, as the Swedes and the Norwegians alike were proud of a monarch with a good European reputation.
He also faced challenges in Norway. The Norwegian constitution gave the Norwegian parliament, the Storting, more power than any legislature in Europe. While Charles John had the power of absolute veto in Sweden, he only had a suspensive veto in Norway. He demanded that the Storting give him the power of absolute veto, but was forced to back down.
His popularity decreased for a time in the 1830s, culminating in the Rabulist riots after the Lèse-majesté conviction of the journalist Magnus Jacob Crusenstolpe, and some calls for his abdication. Charles John survived the abdication controversy and he went on to have his silver jubilee, which was celebrated with great enthusiasm on 18 February 1843. He reigned as King of Sweden and Norway from 5 February 1818 until his death in 1844.
On 26 January 1844, his 81st birthday, Charles John was found unconscious in his chambers having suffered a stroke. While he regained consciousness, he never fully recovered and died on the afternoon of 8 March. On his deathbed, he was heard to say:
"Nobody has had a career in life like mine. I could perhaps have been able to agree to become Napoleon’s ally: but when he attacked the country that had placed its fate in my hands, he could find in me no other than an opponent. The events that shook Europe and that gave her back her freedom are known. It is also known which part I played in that."
His remains were interred after a state funeral in Stockholm's Riddarholm Church. He was succeeded by his only son, Oscar I.18 May 1804 – 26 September 1810: Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, Marshal of France
5 June 1806 – 26 September 1810: Jean Baptiste Jules, Sovereign Prince of Pontecorvo
26 September 1810 – 5 November 1810: His Royal Highness Prince Johan Baptist Julius de Pontecorvo, Prince of Sweden
5 November 1810 – 4 November 1814: His Royal Highness Charles John, Crown Prince of Sweden
4 November 1814 – 5 February 1818: His Royal Highness The Crown Prince of Sweden and Norway
5 February 1818 – 8 March 1844: His Majesty The King of Sweden and Norway
His full title upon his accession to the thrones was: "Charles John, by the grace of God, King of Sweden, Norway, the Goths and the Wends."
King Charles John was the 909th Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece in Spain and the 28th Grand Cross of the Order of the Tower and Sword in Portugal.The main street of Oslo, Karl Johans gate, was named after him in 1852.
The main base for the Royal Norwegian Navy, Karljohansvern, was also named after him in 1854.
The Karlsborg Fortress (Swedish: Karlsborgs fästning), located in present-day Karlsborg Municipality in Västra Götaland County, was also named in honour of him.
The Caserne Bernadotte, a French military building located in Pau, was also named after him in 1875.
The love triangle between Napoleon, Bernadotte, and Desiree Clary was the subject of the novel Désirée by Annemarie Selinko.
The novel was filmed as Désirée in 1954, with Marlon Brando as Napoleon, Jean Simmons as Désirée, and Michael Rennie as Bernadotte.
Bernadotte appears in a series of side missions in the video game Assassin's Creed Unity, again concerning the love triangle.
The election of General Bernadotte to become King of Sweden is mentioned and briefly discussed in the science fiction novel Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein.