Désirée Clary: From Napoleon’s spurned fiancée to Queen of Sweden

Explore the intriguing life of the ordinary Frenchwoman who nearly married Napoleon and somehow became Queen of Sweden in the House of Bernadotte.
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Desirée Clary as Queen of Sweden - Courtesy of Wikipedia
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Quick facts
Full name:Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary
Birth:8 November 1777 in Marseille, France
Death:17 December 1860 at age 83, Stockholm Palace, Sweden
Parents:François Clary
Françoise Rose Somis
Reign:Queen of Sweden (5 Feb 1818 – 8 March 1844)
Marriage:Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte who took the name “Charles XIV John of Sweden” (1798-1844)
Children:Oscar I of Sweden, only child
Famous for:becoming Queen of Sweden, founding the House of Bernadotte

Desirée Clary was born on November 8, 1777, in Marseille, France, to François Clary, a wealthy silk manufacturer, and Françoise Rose Somis. She grew up in a comfortable and prosperous environment.

Her family’s profession as merchants and not nobility provided security from the 1789 French Revolution, but still provided them status and weath. In her youth, Desirée gained a reputation for her charm and good hearted nature.

Bonaparte and Bernadotte

In 1794, at the age of 17, she caught the eye of a rising military officer named Napoleon Bonaparte. His older brother Joseph Bonaparte was engaged to wed her older sister Julie, so it seemed simple for Napoleon to marry Désirée.

The 26-year-old Napoleon however would soon break off the engagement with Désiree, once he met a widow named Josephine de Beauharnais, a woman he would fall madly in love with.

The other members of the Bonaparte family were not happy with this change however, and continued to remain close to Désirée. She would eventually be introduced by Napoleon to her future spouse, Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, perhaps as a way of making it up to her.

Bernadotte was another French general and politician who had also worked his way up the ranks along with Napoleon. They married in 1798 and would go on to have one child, Oscar.

Queen of Sweden

With Napoleon firmly in power in France as Emperor and rampaging through Europe, he sought to put his relatives, friends, and allies on the thrones across Europe.

In August 1810, Bernadotte was elected Crown Prince and heir to the throne of Sweden and Norway. The Swedish climate was quite a shock to her however, and her son was taken from her to be raised as Lutheran as the future King. (Désirée was Catholic.)

She was officially renamed Desideria in Swedish, although she herself did not use that name. She left Sweden in the summer of 1811 under the name of Countess of Gotland, officially because of her health, and returned to Paris, leaving her husband and her son behind.

Bernadotte inherited the throne as King Charles XIV John in 1818, making Désirée Queen of Sweden. However, because she didn’t live in Sweden full time and was Catholic, she wasn’t crowned until 21 August 1829 in Storkyrkan in Stockholm.

After the death of her husband in 1844, Desirée retired from public life and spent her remaining years in seclusion between Paris and Stockholm. She passed away on December 17, 1860, in Stockholm, Sweden.

Her son Oscar inherited the Swedish throne, and Désirée’s descendants through the House of Bernadotte continues to rule Sweden to this day.


If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about French history. A bientôt!

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