Surrounded by his closest family, Count Carl Johan Bernadotte af Wisborg peacefully died at the Ängelholm hospital yesterday 5 May at 9 PM. He was the last surviving child of King Gustaf VI Adolf and Crown Princess Margareta, sixth-longest living Bernadotte descendant (calculation courtesy of Ted Rosvall) and last living great-grandchild of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom
After an initial short and dry comment, simply notifying about the death on the Royal Court’s website, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia has though the press and information department given the following statement late today (translated by me from Swedish):
Count Carl Johan was a dear and loved family member who meant a lot for the whole family though his kindness and humour. We will remember Carl Johan as a respected and charming relative who we always held in high esteem, not the least though the knowledge which he so generously shared about our family’s history.
Born in the early morning at 4:30 AM on Tuesday 31 October 1916 at the Royal Palace of Stockholm, he was the fifth child of Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Margareta. He was named Carl Johan Arthur and given the title Duke of Dalarna and would be called Carl Johan it was announced as his birth was celebrated by a Te Deum (thanksgiving) at the Palace Church of the Royal Palace of Stockholm. At his christening on 4 December 1916, held in the green drawing room of the Royal Palace and officiated by Archbishop Nathan Söderblom, King Gustaf V and Queen Victoria, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, Grand Duchess Luise of Baden, King Christian X of Denmark, Queen Mary of the United Kingdom and Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg were named as godparents.
Together with his siblings Gustaf Adolf (1906-1947), Sigvard (1907-2002), Ingrid (1910-2000) and Bertil (1912-1997), he grew up in their parent’s apartment at the Royal Palace of Stockholm in a world ruled by strict etiquette at the court of his grandparents King Gustaf V and Queen Victoria. But the siblings spent more time with their parents than any generation before them; Crown Princess Margareta was a modern royal woman for her time and insisted on breastfeeding her children and being with them as much as she could. When their mother was not around, busy with royal duties or artistic creating, a petite and decisive British nanny was there to care for and keep them company. Both the Crown Princess and the nanny spoke English with the children and every day possible they children had tea with their mother and sometimes also their father. The nanny, or Nana as she was called, came to mean especially much for Carl Johan.
Summer meant freedom for the Crown Prince’s family. Every year, after celebrating the day of the Swedish flag (today the national day) the royal couple and their children would pack their belongings and leave on a train for the south of Sweden. The destination was always Sofiero, their summer home that had been given to Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Margareta as a wedding gift in 1905, and there they could dress more freely and spend time together almost as a normal family.
- Here father had time to play with us. Otherwise the big moments were when father looked in and played with me and my beloved tin soldiers at home at the palace. Imagine, he drew the positions of the soldiers with crayon on the parquet floor! Carl Johan told Helsingborgs Dagblad in 2006.
At Sofiero the family lived a more relaxed life with fewer staff and without court etiquette ruling their days. The children went horseback riding, swimming in the sea, playing on the beach and gardened with their mother – who had created the gardens and decorated Sofiero in the years after they received it. Carl Johan, as the youngest, could escape some chores such as helping in the garden and preferred playing croquet with one of the male staff members. From Sofiero the family also made day trips, visited friends and family in Skåne and across the sea in Denmark where the Danish Royal Family was at a closer distance than Stockholm.
During holidays, and especially the summers, visits to relatives in England were paid. Maternal grandfather Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, also came to Sofiero and Carl Johan and his siblings in their turn went to stay with him at Bagshot Park and Clarence House. In his memoirs Carl Johan also recalls developing a relatonship with two of his Connaught cousins, the (then) Earl of Macduff and Alexander Ramsay.
In 1920, only aged 3,5 years, Carl Johan and his siblings lost their mother. It was a huge blow to the Crown Prince and Sweden grieved a future Queen who had become immensely popular by bringing in modern ideas to the family, creating a profile for her herself and showing off a truly lovely family image. After her death Crown Princess Margareta was not spoken of in the family and because of this Carl Johan lost most of the memory of his mother. The only one who tried to talk to him and his siblings about her was one of the Crown Princess’ ladies-in-waitings, Stina Reuterswärd. Only three years after their mother’s death their father remarried to Lady Louise Mountbatten, another member of the British Royal Family who became their stepmother and would eventually become Queen.
After attending school at the Royal Palace, with a small class of selected fellow students, Carl Johan went on to study at the Lundsberg boarding school in Värmland in western Sweden. After graduating in 1935 he followed the princely path and enrolled in the military where he became second lieutenant in the cavalry and infantry before rising in the ranks to lieutenant and then captain. During the war Carl Johan was part of an armoured division in active service but after the peace he became part of the reserve and left the military in 1948.
Parallel to his early military service Carl Johan also studied at what is today Stockholm University, taking classes that aimed towards achieving a Master of Political Science, and he was also active at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs during and after his studies. But the war came in-between his plans for a degree and a professional career as a diplomat.
In 1939, on his 23rd birthday, Carl Johan met the woman who was to become his first wife at the posh restaurant Cecil in Stockholm. Kerstin Wijkmark was her name, she was the daughter of a high academic Doctor of Theology who had divorced her first husband and lived the high life in Stockholm as a publicist and magazine editor. Her social circles, a mix of the upper class circles and well established and famous people in entertainment and art, opened a whole new world for Carl Johan who had lived a restricted life as a prince. Their relationship was, however, not meet with mild eyes by the court circles and the prince’s grandfather and high ranking members of the Royal Court did everything they could to steer off a marriage.
After six years of relationship, on 21 May 1945, the engagement of Prince Carl Johan and Kerstin Wijkmark was announced to the press (not by the court, of course). No one in his family approved of the plans and he did not get the required marriage permission from his grandfather King Gustaf V, but both were aware that whatever would be his royal life would end. Even after trying to stop the future bride to get a visa to the USA, the family could only stand by as Carl Johan and Kerstin travelled across the Atlantic to start a new life together. On 19 February 1946 they married in Riverside Church in New York, a ceremony conducted by the parish pastor and with only some thirty guests attending. Prince Wilhelm, the groom’s uncle, was the only royal to congratulate on the marriage through a short telegram. A few days later, on 22 February 1946, the official decree removing Carl Johan’s titles and decorations was approved at a Council of State meeting at the Royal Palace of Stockholm.
Standing on his own for the very first time, the business world became Carl Johan’s choice of career to try and support the family. The couple lived in a small apartment, Kerstin continued to work in her magazine world and Carl Johan’s royal past led the couple to socialize with the A-list celebrities of the time.
- Of course it was a difficult time when I “defected”. But it didn’t mean a personal break with my father who was then Crown Prince. It was within the court that they were the most critical. They probably thought they did my father a favour. For me it was a great relief when the matter was finally settled and we could marry when we had been together for seven years, Carl Johan said in a 1983 interview.
Relations with the Royal Family remained tense but gradually became better after Carl Johan’s father became king as Gustaf VI Adolf in 1950. Kerstin and his father came on better terms as the years went by, and the family relationship was also helped by her and Carl Johan’s adoption of two children: Christian in 1950 and Monica (from Austria) in 1951. In 1951 Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg conferred the comital af Wisborg title on Carl Johan on the request of King Gustaf VI Adolf and he accepted although being happy to only be a plain Mr Bernadotte.
After around six years living in New York the couple moved on to Paris and later London where Carl Johan’s business positions took him and they also kept an apartment in Stockholm where they eventually came to live more permanently. In 1973 their villa Kungsberga in Båstad was built and this is also where Kerstin died in 1987.
When King Gustaf VI Adolf died in September 1973, his sons followed the coffin on its motorcade journey from the hospital in Helsingborg to Sofiero where it was dressed by the staff before transportation to Stockholm.
- I remember my father as a man with astonishingly many interests and a sarcastic humour. He was a democrat but kept his distance, for example he never gave interviews, Count Carl Johan once said about him.
After becoming a widower Count Carl Johan rekindled his friendship with Gunnila Bussler (née Countess Wachtmeister af Johannishus), a sister of his childhood friend Claes who he had first met at a visit to Tistad, the castle where her family lived, during an Easter break from school. He was 14 and she was 7 and in the years after they came to meet from time to time at social events and though family connections. In 1987 they were both widowed, she worked in a shop in Stockholm and they started a new kind of relationship.
On 29 September 1988 Count Carl Johan and Gunnila Bussler married in the Gustaf Church in Copenhagen followed by a dinner at Fredensborg Palace. His sister Queen Ingrid was the host of the festivities and she was delighted with the marriage; Gunnila was a person she knew of and who had been in the royal circles since childhood, they immediately liked each other and Carl Johan’s relationship with his sister, which had taken a toll during his first marriage, greatly improved again.
- It meant incredibly much to me that my sister was so involved in our marriage. She was the first one I told, in all secrecy, about the coming wedding between me and Gunnila. Ingrid was an important person in my life and it felt important that she liked my choice of coming wife, the Count said in an interview some years ago.
Together Carl Johan and Gunnila managed to connect their families in a great way, they both had two children each from their first marriages and came to treat their respective children and grandchildren as their joint family; never making a difference between who was whose. When married they spent the winters at an estate near Countess Gunnila’s family home Tistad, the summers at Kungsberga in Båstad and some time in an apartment in Stockholm. When residing in the capital they had an active relation to Prince Bertil and Princess Lilian whom they shared many friends with. Later in life they came to settle almost completely in Båstad.
The Count once described his second marriage as “a second breath”. When asked to picture the best period of his life in an interview with Helsingborgs Dagblad, done in connection to his 90th birthday, he said:
- It must be separated in three parts. The first was during my storming love for Kerstin. The other was my professional life when I had to support the family as a businessman. Right now the third period, where I am married to Gunnila and am very happy, is ongoing.
In Båstad the Count and Countess were very active locally. When invited to open or attend events they went, supporting local business life and the region was something they felt very strongly for. Count Carl Johan was an active golf player and when age restrained him he took to Nordic walking. Tennis was another passion, for many years he and the Countess attended the annual tennis week in Båstad and for his 90th birthday in 2006 a foundation in the Count’s name for tennis talents at the local high school was initiated.
As Båstad is closer to Copenhagen than Stockholm, the Count and Countess had had an active relationship with the family in Denmark. Queen Margrethe visited the couple in Båstad several times and vice versa as going over the sound to Denmark is easier than travelling to Stockholm. Count Carl Johan remained close to his sister Queen Ingrid throughout her life and the Count also enjoyed excellent relationships with Queen Margrethe and King Carl XVI Gustaf who both invited him and Gunilla to big official events. When Carl Johan visited Stockholm in later years, King Carl Gustaf also let him use an apartment at the Royal Palace.
Sofiero remained close to the Count’s heart to the end, never forgetting those sweet childhood summers spent there, and he visited as often as possible and in 1996 took part in an SVT documentary about it.
- Father asked the question if I wanted to take over Sofiero. But I couldn’t afford it. It took seven gardeners to keep the place tidy. No, it was good what happened. The city of Helsingborg takes good care of the castle which I visit as often as I can, he told Landskrona Posten in 2011.
In 2005, when Sofiero celebrated the centennial since Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Margareta took over and rejuvenated the residence, a big Bernadotte family gathering was held with over 40 family members attending. Carl Johan and Gunnila also hosted a private family dinner at Kungsberga for their Danish and Swedish relatives at the time. As late as last summer, Count Carl Johan opened a jubilee exhibition about his sister Queen Ingrid at Sofiero.
On 31 October 2011 Count Carl Johan celebrated his 95th birthday at Kungsberga. He was surrounded by family and friends after prior to the day having been celebrated with a dinner at Drottningholm Palace attended by King Carl Gustaf, Queen Silvia, Crown Princess Victoria, Prince Daniel and Prince Carl Philip. Only recently the Count expressed wishes to have enough strength to attend Princess Estelle’s christening in Stockholm on 22 May.
Yesterday Count Carl Johan Bernadotte af Wisborg closed his eyes forever – a cheerful, curious, kind and stubborn (as he described himself in a Svenska Dagbladet interview in 1996) man has left this world with a unique legacy. May he rest in peace.
Elsewhere: to view photos from the Count’s life, go here to Sydsvenska Dagbladet’s photos.