by Susan Flantzer
King Oscar I was born Joseph François Oscar Bernadotte on July 4, 1799 at 291 Rue Cisalpine (today’s address: 32 Rue de Monceau) in Paris, France. His father was General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a Marhsal of France and the French Minister of War. His mother Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary, known as Désirée, was the first fiancée of Napoleon Bonaparte. Julie Clary, his mother’s sister, was married to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother and Jean-Baptiste and Désirée’s son was named after Joseph Bonaparte. The name Oscar was suggested by Napoleon Bonaparte, the baby’s godfather. Napoleon was an admirer of the 18th-century Scottish poet James Macpherson and the name Oscar was used in Macpherson’s works.
In 1810, just as Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was about to start a new position as governor of Rome, the Swedish Riksdag elected him heir to the childless King Carl XIII of Sweden. The Riksdag wanted a soldier as king because of their worries over Russia. In addition, Bernadotte was popular in Sweden because of his considerate treatment of Swedish prisoners during the recent war with Denmark. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte became king on February 5, 1818 upon the death of King Carl XIII and reigned as King Carl XIV John and started the House of Bernadotte which still reigns in Sweden.
Oscar was eleven years old when his father was elected Crown Prince of Sweden and he moved to Stockholm with his mother Désirée. Oscar was given the title Duke of Södermanland, and, unlike his mother, quickly learned Swedish and adapted to life in Sweden. As Crown Princess, Désirée had difficulty adjusting to the Swedish court and despised the weather in Stockholm. She left Sweden in 1811 and did not return until 1823, five years after her husband became king. As a result, Oscar did not see his mother for twelve years.
Oscar’s father prescribed guidelines for his son’s education. Upon arriving in Sweden, Oscar was immediately schooled in Swedish, quickly became proficient, and served as his father’s translator. Besides Swedish, Oscar was also taught Norwegian and German. He studied humanities, administration, constitutional law, science, art, and music. Oscar was particularly talented in music and composed a funeral march that was performed at the King Charles XIII’s funeral in 1818. When the composer Ludwig van Beethoven heard of this, he wrote to Oscar’s father and was invited to help develop Oscar’s musical talent. Besides his musical talent, Oscar was an expert in social-political issues and wrote articles on education and prison reform. He was elected an honorary member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and was appointed chancellor of Uppsala University.
Oscar married Princess Joséphine of Leuchtenberg (known by the Swedish form of her name Josefina) by proxy at the Leuchtenberg Palace in Munich, Bavaria on May 22, 1823 and in person at a wedding ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden on June 19, 1823. Princess Joséphine of Leuchtenberg was born on March 14, 1807 in Milan, Italy. Her father was Eugène de Beauharnais, the son of Empress Joséphine (who was Napoleon’s first wife) from her first marriage to Alexandre, Vicomte de Beauharnais who had been guillotined during the French Revolution. Her mother was Princess Augusta of Bavaria, a descendant of King Gustav I of Sweden and King Charles IX of Sweden, thereby insuring that future members of the House of Bernadotte were descendants of the House of Vasa which ruled Sweden from 1523-1654. Joséphine of Leuchtenberg brought to Sweden jewelry that had belonged to her grandmother Empress Josephine which is still worn members of the Swedish and Norwegian royal families. For instance, Empress Jospéhine’s Cameo Tiara was worn by her descendant Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden on her wedding day. Oscar and Josefina had five children, four sons and one daughter.
Children of King Oscar I and Queen Josefina
- King Charles XV (Charles IV in Norway) (1826–1872), married Louise of the Netherlands, had issue
- Prince Gustaf, Duke of Uppland (1827–1852), unmarried, died from typhoid fever
- King Oscar II (1829–1907), married Sofia of Nassau, had issue
- Princess Eugenie (1830–1889), unmarried
- Prince August, Duke of Dalarna (1831–1873), married Therese of Saxe-Altenburg, no issue
Oscar and Josefina’s marriage was a happy one. They shared interests in music and art and had similar personalities. While he was crown prince, Oscar had an affair with a lady-in-waiting which produced a daughter. Unfortunately, during his marriage, Oscar had another well-known affair with Emilie Högquist, a famous Swedish actress at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. Oscar had two sons by his mistress Emilie. In 1832, Queen Josefina wrote in her diary that a woman was expected to endure a husband’s extramarital affairs: “A woman should suffer in silence.” Josefina and her husband continued to appear together in public. Oscar discontinued his extramarital affairs when he became king in 1844 upon the death of his father.
Oscar I’s health had never been strong and he began to suffer periods of time when he would fall silent in mid-sentence and then continue a minute later as if nothing had happened. By the early 1850s, these symptoms worsened and in 1852 he was forced to make a trip to the spa at Bad Kissingen in Bavaria in hopes of recovery. In the fall of 1852, he became ill with typhoid fever and it took a year for him to fully recover. He continued to have neurological symptoms and by 1857, it was suspected that Oscar had a brain tumor. By September of 1857, Oscar was paralyzed and the doctors recommended that he be relieved of his duties. On September 25, 1857, Oscar’s eldest son Charles was declared Regent. After being bedridden for a long period of time, King Oscar I died at the Royal Palace in Stockholm on July 8, 1859 at the age of 60. An autopsy confirmed that he had a brain tumor. King Oscar I was buried at in the Bernadotte Chapel at Riddarholmen Church in Stockholm.