With the World Ski Championships in Oslo last week, Norwegian media and infrastructure have been paralysed with euphoria. Mostly because we beat the Swedes. Even in exile I get involuntarily enthusiastic about the event, almost genetically it would seem. I don’t care all that much for skiing, however, so I’ll discharge my Norwegian duties by writing about one niche aspect of the event. No, not about a Norwegian gold medalist, nor a Swedish silver medalist for that matter (sorry), but about a prominent non-competitor: the Norwegian King, Harald V. (Depicted above, anno 1980.) The King, no exception to the rule, also gets excited about skiing. He and other members of the royal family are a ritualised part of big skiing events, where a fortunate elite skier sometimes receives monarchial advice before the race.
But although skiing might be in his genes, one cannot help but wonder whether his Majesty is capable of sound strategic advice. Perhaps, that is, if he’s anything like his fourth great-grandfather.
Harald V’s ancestry connects him to some of Europe’s most prominent royal families. His second great-grandmother was Queen Victoria, his nth great-grandfather Christian IV of Denmark, and his patriline reaches back to the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg branch of House Oldenburg. Lots of interesting history, yes, but not what we’re after. Ironically, any marshal abilities should rather be traced back through his relationship with the – wait for it – Swedish royal family.
For, the Norwegian king is also related to House Bernadotte. The first Norwegian king after the 1905 independence (from Sweden), Haakon VII, was the son of the Danish king, Fredrik VIII, and the Swedish Princess Loiuse, later Queen of Denmark. Louise was the daughter of the Swedish King Carl XV (as King of Norway, Carl IV), who without a male issue passed the Swedish throne to his brother, Oscar II.
Both Carl XV and Oscar II were grandchildren of Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (Carl III Johan as King of Norway, Carl XV as King of Sweden), French revolutionary general and later made Maréchal de France by Napoleon. More, their mother was Queen consort Joséphine of Leuchtenberg, daughter of Napoleon’s stepson (with the more famous Joséphine, Empress of the French), Eugène Rose de Beauharnais. This is an interesting part of Swedish royal history. When King Carl XIII of Sweden failed to produce and heir to the throne, the country’s fate fell into Bernadotte’s hands, a man known for his (irrational) chivalry during the Fourth Coalition War between the French and the a coalition consisting of Prussia, Russia, England, and Sweden. In 1810, with war against Russia looming, the Swedes unexpectedly elected Bernadotte as heir to the throne. The Swedes reasoned that they required a strong arm to defend themselves, and perhaps that Bernadotte’s ties with Napoleon would resolve some of the European tension. The Emperor of the French had, after all, humiliated their allies the Prussians.
Nonetheless, the choice is startling for a number of reasons. Bernadotte was known as a die hard republican with ties to the Jacobins. He had made his way from the lowest ranks to general during the revolutionary war, a man who in some sense had made his name disposing of Kings. But when approached by the Swedes, Bernadotte accepted. Napoleon found the whole notion of a King Bernadotte absurd, and for good reason. The latter had proved himself utterly unreliable in war time. Notoriously prickly and independent-minded, he was suspected of repeatedly showing up late for battle and ignoring orders to demonstrate his autonomy from the Emperor. Rather than earn him political respect, however, it gave him a reputation for being volatile and dangerous. The twin battle of Jena-Auerstedt was only one of many events where Bernadotte failed (perhaps deliberately) to follow Napoleon’s instructions, and thus jeopardised the entire campaign.
For a man with an over-developed sense of honour, manoeuvring himself from the Jacobine club to the throne of Sweden is a triumph of political flexibility only surpassed by, well, Napoleon. But if Bernadotte isn’t exactly the heritage we should look to for sound skiing advice, I think there is more hope with the loyal and industrious Eugène. It speaks volumes about Eugène that he served Napoleon without pause even after the latter divorced his mother. Interestingly, with Eugène it always seemed to me like he came to prominence in the campaigns where things went most astray. Egypt and Russia to mention two obvious candidates. Although he stealthily abandoned the Egyptian campaign together with his stepfather, he fought on in Russia even after Napoleon left, and led the remaining French troops of the grand armée into Germany.
So, more than House Bernadotte, I’d rather have Harald channel the ancestral advice of House Beauharnais when he motions enthusiastically to Northug and the other athletes.
PS Bernadotte is of course buried in Ridderholmskyrkan, Stockholm, but now for the punchline: Eugène is buried right here in Munich, in the Church of St Michael. More on that later, however.