These dashing Swedish officer had nothing to do in the Anglo-Swedish War.
What if they gave a war and nobody came? That is essentially what happened in the Anglo-Swedish War which was declared on November 17, 1810 and dragged on for two years without a shot being fired by the belligerents. It was a sham war between two erstwhile allies—and still secret de facto ones. The faux conflict was a footnote to the international intrigue playing out in the background and on the periphery of the titanic Napoleonic Wars.
It is so obscure that for a while the Wikipedia entry on the paper war was altered by some prankster to claim that the British invaded Stockholm by sea, executed Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and most of the government, and annexed Sweden into the British Empire from which the Nordic country did not gain independence until 1912. This post was evidently up completely undetected for quite some time. But within minutes of when I first started writing this blog post back in 1917, it was corrected. My guess is some history geek like me who clicked on the link from Wikipedia’s On This Day… almanac feature out of idle curiosity about a war they had never heard of, discovered and finally reported the ruse.
This is what really happened.
In the early 19th Century Sweden, the once the dominant power of Northern Europe, had fallen on difficult times. As Allies of the British they were defeated by French, Dutch, and Spanish forces in the Pomeranian War of 1807-08. They lost the eastern third of their territory—Finland—to the Russians in the Finish War of 1808-09. Sensing the weakness of its former master and under pressure from the French Denmark-Norway declared war on Sweden and began preparations for an invasion.
At this point, earlier grand coalitions against Napoleon having collapsed, Sweden was the United Kingdom’s only remaining ally and it was a basket case. Pressured on all sides despite Britain being its main trading partner without which the economy might collapse, the Swedes were forced to look for ways to find accommodation with France and the nations in its orbit.
At home, a war weary and exhausted nation was also in upheaval. A liberal coup d’ état deposed King Gustav IV Adolf and replaced him with King Charles XIII who accepted a new constitution.
Russian cavalry over rides Swedish troops early in the Finish War of 1808.
The Swedes avoided having their country completely overrun when a British fleet arrived after the ice melted in the Baltic Sea—the ice Russian forces had marched across to attack the Swedes in the winter. The Russian fleet was bottled up at Kronstadt and the Baltic became a British lake cutting off easy logistical support for the large armies in Sweden. But in late summer, the fleet sailed away to engage the French and Spanish in the Atlantic. Exposed once again, the Swedes were forced to sue the Russians for peace.
In the resulting Treaty of Fredrikshamn in September 1809 Sweden not only lost Finland but was coerced into renouncing its British alliance, closing its ports to British shipping and subscribing to France’s Continental System. Overnight the Swedes went from being a British ally to being—for the time being—non-combatant French allies.
Pacified, the Russians, then still French allies themselves, used their good offices to facilitate the Treaty of Paris signed in January 1810 by which the French returned Pomerania to the Swedes in exchange for further pledges end still flourishing trade by winked-at smuggling with Britain and to seize British property in Pomerania and in warehouses in Swedish ports.
The reluctant Swedes dragged their feet on both counts and by back channels assured the British that they would stay out of the war and continue to allow sub rosa trade.
The hapless Dane Charles August only survived months as Crown Prince of Sweden before being felled by a stroke.
The new King was both childless without an apparent heir and disinclined to take much direct role in government. After casting about Charles August, a Danish prince who had lately commanded forces against Sweden in Norway was proposed as Prince Regent and Charles XIII dutifully formally adopted the middle aged man he never met as his son and heir. The new Crown Prince was expected to be the de facto ruler for a figurehead monarch.
The thinking was quite simple. The selection of the Dane was a signal to Napoleon of friendlier intentions and a possible avenue though which negotiations might achieve security from further attacks by surrogates or even direct dismemberment by France. It also reflected, even at this late date the lingering reputation of Napoleon as a liberator that was still held by some Continental liberals.
Charles August became Prince Regent co-incidentally with the Treaty of Paris but barely had time to redirect Swedish policy to a stronger pro-French stance because he died suddenly of a stroke in May. Scrambling again for a new heir, the Swedes made an even more astonish choice.
Jean-Baptist Bernadotte was a Field Marshal of France and once one of Napoleon’s most honored and trusted commanders but his relationship with the Emperor had become rocky and contentious. In 1806 Bernadotte was one of the French Marshalls who crushed Prussian General Von Blücher. In the process he trapped a large Swedish force at the Baltic port of Lübeck. Not only did he protect them from his own rampaging troops, he treated them with kindness and humanity and allowed them to be safely repatriated with their arms. In doing so Bernadotte seems to have become seen as a hero and savior by some in the Army.
In 1808 Bernadotte was entrusted with a planned invasion of Sweden via the Danish islands but due to the withdrawal of Spanish troops from his force and a lack of transport, the invasion never came off. The Swedes seem to have believed that Bernadotte had mercifully spared them out of sympathy. Most historians dismiss that as wishful thinking.
The surprise offer of being made Swedish Crown Prince stunned Bernadotte, but after giving it some thought, he accepted it. He had already tried to retire from the Grand Armee as his relations with Napoleon soured. This seemed not only an unbelievable opportunity but an escape. For his part Napoleon was likely glad to be rid of his Marshall but probably believed that as de facto ruler, he would be a loyal satrap. He badly misread his man. Bernadotte had no intention of being an Imperial puppet like some of the monarchs Napoleon had set on European thrones.
Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, former Marshal of France, was one of Europe's great commanders before being elected Crown Prince Charles John of Sweden.
On August 21, 1810 Bernadotte was elected by the Riksdag of the Estates the new Crown Prince and was subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces by the King, conferring real authority to go with the title and honor. He took office under the name Karl Johan—Charles John but continued to be known as Bernadotte throughout Europe. He became immediately immensely popular in Sweden and centered his policy on wresting control of Norway from the Danes and unifying the Scandinavian Peninsula. This policy put him at odds with the Danish ally, France.
But before he could act on any concrete plans, the Crown Prince was compelled to respond to a French ultimatum to enforce the earlier commitments to halt trade with Britain and to officially declare war. Not yet ready to face a potential two front war against French, Danish/Norwegian forces on one hand and the Russians of the other, Sweden declared War on the United Kingdom in November.
But it was, from the beginning, a phony war. Bernadotte had no intention of committing forces to action against the British and for their part, the British understood that. Although trade was somewhat curtailed, especially through southern ports where it might easily be detected, it continued further north. It fell by less than half in 1811, a blow, but not a knock-out punch to the economy. More over the British were allowed to land unopposed on the island of Hanö in the South Baltic and use it as a base of naval operations.
Swedish farmers armed only with farm implements paid a heavy price for their rebellion against conscription at Klagerup in 1811. More than 40 were gunned down by the Army in the only bloodshed associated with the Anglo-Swedish War.
Although there was no armed conflict, Bernadotte did use the war as a pretext for expanding and modernizing the Swedish Army for the day it could be used in the conquest of Norway or incase either the British or the French should decide to move against the country. He instituted an unpopular draft which led to the only violence associated with the war. When farmers in Klågerup near the southern tip of Sweden rose up in revolt against conscription more than 800 of them were attacked by Army forces with two cannons under Major Hampus Mörner killing more than 40 and arresting nearly 300.
As 1811 passed with no action by Sweden to join in actual combat and with ample evidence of collusion to continue trade and allowing the Royal Navy to operate from Hanö Napoleon became increasingly angry at his former Marshal and the Swedes. When Napoleon was preparing to invade Russia in January 1812 citing Swedish breeches he re-occupied Pomerania and the island of Rügen to protect his flank. Bernadotte later said he would never have taken up arms against France but felt duty bound to protect his new country.
In April Sweden signed a new mutual defense pact with the chief victim of French aggression, Russia and both nations jointly engaged in negotiations that led to the parallel Treaties of Orbero ending the Swedish-Anglo War and the Russo-Anglo War which were signed July 18, 1812.
Bernadotte and the Swedes would take a much greater role in fighting the French than they ever did in the faux dust up with the British. In 1813 Sweden officially joined Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria and others in the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon. Later that year he was appointed commander of the Army of the North consisting of Swedish, Russian, and Prussian troops and notched victories against French Marshalls Oudinot in August and against Ney in September at the Battles of Großbeeren and Dennewitz.
Bernadotte's infantry overwhelmed the French under Marshall Oudinot at the Battle of Battle of Großbeeren. This was in the real War of the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon.
After the turning point Battle of Leipzig in October Bernadotte turned his attention on the Danes in a quick campaign that led to the Treaty of Kiel by which Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden in exchange for Pomerania and switch sides to join the Sixth Coalition.
Although Bernadotte’s dream was somewhat thwarted when the Norwegians rebelled and declared a republic with liberal constitution, when he promised them autonomy under the constitution, they agreed to personal union with the Swedish Crown, Sweden refused to hand over Pomerania to the Danes because the terms of the treaty were not fulfilled. They only kept Pomerania until the post-Napoleonic Wars Congress of Vienna re-drew the map of Europe handed Pomerania to Prussia in a complex territorial swap.
The Arms of the House of Bernadotte which still rules Sweden in a modest, low-key manner.
By that time King Charles XIII had died in 1818 and Bernadotte ascended to the throne of Sweden as Charles XIV John and the throne of Norway as Charles III John. He ruled both countries as a successful and popular monarch from 25 years until 1844. Among his many achievements was developing the policy of strict neutrality that has kept Sweden out of war ever since.
He founded the House of Bernadotte that ruled Norway until its independence in 1905 and still reigns in Sweden—however modestly in a low-key Scandinavian manner—under King Carl XVI Gustaf.
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