To tantalize their readers, some writers would need to concoct an absurd and elaborate fictitious story about a royal family, a tragic plane crash, forbidden love, an intriguing, influential and tortured artist, an endless court drama, family disputes, and a fascinating cast of colorful characters involved in devastating public betrayals.
“Count Sigvard Bernadotte, who wanted to die as a prince, was remembered instead as an artist on Friday during a funeral attended by the Swedish royal family and Denmark’s Queen Margrethe.”
That’s how the Associated Press reported his death in 2002.
“Hundreds attended the funeral … in Stockholm. Bernadotte, who died February 4 at age 94, was the second son of the former King Gustaf VI Adolf, and an uncle of the present King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf.”
Sounds innocent enough, right? Well, the sordid details this simple report doesn’t divulge are the basis of our story today, and they include such gems as the fact that the current king of Sweden may never have become king if Sigvard Bernadotte’s life had played out differently, and that the King himself was responsible for Sigvard’s wish to die as a prince going unfulfilled.
At this point, I gotta warn ya, this story has a dozen characters with similar names and loads of details. It’s a mess, albeit a fascinating mess, but if you can manage it, snuggle in and grab a snack.
When he was born in 1907 as Prince Sigvard (Duke of Uppland), his grandfather, Gustaf V, was the king. By all reasonable expectations, Sigvard’s father, Prince Gustaf Adolf (Duke of Skåne), would eventually ascend to the throne upon grandpa’s death.
Prince Sigvard was the second son of the King’s son, making him third in line to the throne at birth. That’s pretty far, but a lot closer than most people will ever be. If something tragic or unforeseen were to happen to his older brother before he had any sons, that would put Sigvard second in line behind only his father. Under circumstances such as those, it would be perfectly plausible to expect that Sigvard Bernadotte would one day become King of Sweden.
Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf (Sigvard’s
father) on the left and King Gustaf V
(grandfather), right, presenting a medal
to Nazi commander Hermann Göring
in 1939. And you thought your
old photos were embarrassing!
Nobody would really want to become king at the expense of his father and brother dying, of course, but unfortunately, that’s one of the few situations that can accommodate such an ascension.
As fate would have it, something tragic and unforeseen did happen to his older brother in 1947. Prince Gustaf Adolf (Duke of Västerbotten) died in a bizarre airplane crash on the runway at Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen, Denmark.
After a routine stop at the airport, the KLM flight carrying Prince Gustaf Adolf and 21 other passengers and crew left the ground with its rudders inadvertently locked in the parked position. This mistake prohibited the pilot from having full control over the plane and it took a nosedive from just 50 meters (165 feet) above the runway. The plane exploded on impact and everyone on board perished.
Unfortunately for Sigvard Bernadotte, not only had his older brother been taken from him in a disastrous accident, but the sequence of events to make him king had already played out all wrong.
The year before dying in airline disaster, the prince had welcomed a son into the world, Prince Carl Gustaf (Duke of Jämtland). That birth moved Sigvard farther down in the line of succession. Yet, even if that newborn had not come about, another controversy had already pushed Sigvard out of the way.
Thirteen years earlier, in 1934, the 27-year-old Prince Sigvard was stripped of his noble title of prince and his place in the line of succession when he married a non-noble woman without prior approval of his grandfather, the king.
Marrying a commoner doesn’t disqualify you outright from retaining your title and your place in the line of succession. Generally, if you want to keep either (or both) you have to tell the king that you want to marry a commoner. The king then has to make an arrangement with the government to approve the marriage. Erika Maria Patzek was a German civilian Sigvard met while working as a stage designer in Berlin and although it may have been love at first sight, it was a non-royal love the king was none too thrilled about.
So by the time his brother died in 1947, had Sigvard not married a commoner – well, two commoners by that time – thereby losing his title and position in succession and had his brother died before generating an heir, Sigvard would have become next in line to the throne. Following that sequence of events, Prince Sigvard would have become king in 1973 instead of Carl Gustaf. Instead, his nephew, 39 years his junior, became king at age 27.
Carl Gustaf is the King of Sweden today and in an odd twist, he is the man most commonly credited with allowing Sigvard to go to his grave with an unfulfilled lifelong wish of having his title reinstated. I mean no disrespect to His Majesty (especially in light of my upcoming residence permit application), however, it is the popular consensus that the King could have changed it had he wanted to.
According to the Royal House of Sweden, the power to reinstate Sigvard’s title of Prince Sigvard does not rest at the King’s hands. According to almost everyone else, it does.
It all comes down to the Swedish Act of Succession. Although this act has been revised occasionally in the centuries since it was adopted – most recently in 1980 – the act itself has been set into Sweden’s law since 1810.
Article 5 of the Act of Succession reads: “A prince or princess of the Royal House may not marry unless the Government has given its consent thereto upon an application from The King. Should a prince or princess marry without such consent, that prince or princess forfeits the right of succession for himself, his children and their descendants.”
Interestingly, the act discusses only the right of succession, not the right to one’s royal title. The title of “prince” seems to be something that King Gustaf V – Sigvard’s grandfather and the monarch at the time of the wedding – took away from Sigvard at his own discretion.
In 1888, about two decades prior to Gustaf V’s reign, Prince Oscar married a commoner without prior consent. Not only was Oscar permitted to retain his title, but his wife was given the title of Princess.
In other words, King Gustaf V took Prince Sigvard’s title away because he could. He was the king, goddammit, and he didn’t want his pristine, royal grandchildren running around with the dirty regulars.
Throwing his weight around as king was a bit of a hobby for Gustaf V. He had some ego and power issues. I mean, this guy was going around acting like he was the effin’ King of Sweden or something.
According to the Guardian newspaper, at Gustaf V’s direction, the Royal Court of Sweden confiscated Sigvard’s passport within hours of the wedding because it bore the title “Prince.” He was subsequently issued a replacement passport with a title equivalent to “Mister” (“Herr”).
During his famous Courtyard Speech in 1914, Gustav shocked the nation and was accused of overreaching the realm of his control by aggressively demanding a larger military. The public agreed with him and the ensuing wave of support for the King’s positions forced out the liberal government. Gustaf V himself appointed conservative replacements who implemented the changes he wanted.
If you are a Swedish prince with a place in line to the throne (as I know many of my readers are) and you are hopelessly, madly in love with a non-royal girl (gasp!), there are basically two ways to be with her forever without losing your title and place in the line of succession.
The first way is to just never marry the girl and the second way is to get prior approval by request of the king. Sigvard’s younger brother Prince Bertil did both.
Bertil remained unmarried to his lifelong lover – the British commoner Lillian Davies – for decades in order to remain second in line to the throne. When it became clear that Prince Carl Gustaf (Sigvard and Bertil’s nephew, the son of the crown prince who died in the plane crash) would ascend to the throne at a young age instead of the then-elderly Bertil, his priorities changed. It seemed the time was right to finally marry the love of his life.
Prince Carl Gustaf became King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1973 and he approved his uncle’s marriage to Lillian Davies just three years later. Prince Bertil kept his title and his wife was christened Princess Lillian.
Despite this act of kindness toward Uncle Bertil, King Carl XVI Gustaf (the current king of Sweden) never acted to reinstate the princely titles for his other uncles, Bertil’s brothers, Sigvard and Carl Johan.
Bertil and Sigvard also had a younger brother who, now at age 93, is still living. Carl Johan Bernadotte had also invoked Gustaf V’s wrath back in the ’40s and was stripped of his royal title and succession rights as a result of marrying Swedish commoner, Elin Kerstin Wijkmark.
The boys’ sister Princess Ingrid avoided the whole mess by simply marrying another royal. In 1935, she was wed to Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark and Iceland. She subsequently became Queen of Denmark and is the mother of Denmark’s current Queen Margrethe.
After Sigvard’s nephew Carl Gustaf became king in 1973, then later approved the marriage of his brother Bertil to a commoner, Sigvard felt a more reasonable standard bearer had ascended to the throne. He asked the King to restore his title numerous times. These requests fell sadly upon deaf ears. Sigvard got the run-around. The King and Swedish government both refused to act, or each pushed the decision upon the other. The Royal House said it was a government issue and the government said it was a Royal issue.
That’s where this story gets truly bizarre.
Despite accommodating the marriage of Sigvard’s brother Bertil to a British commoner; despite the previous historical instances of Swedish royals retaining their titles after marrying commoners without prior consent; despite the King’s own marriage to a German commoner; despite, it seems, practically everyone in the Swedish Royal Family marrying commoners, for whatever unknown reason, King Carl, for decades, has ignored every opportunity to help restore Sigvard’s royal title.
Now we can even add an additional “despite” to that list: despite the current engagements of the King’s own daughters (Princess Madeleine and Crown Princess Victoria) to commoners. At this point, well, it’s just absurd to not give Sigvard Bernadotte the title he went to his grave yearning for.
At two different points in his life, it seems Sigvard finally had enough. After years of recurrently unanswered appeals, without official sanctioning, he simply began calling himself Prince Sigvard again in 1983. Then, in 2001, at age 93, he resorted to taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights and filed an official legal complaint against the Kingdom of Sweden.
2001 is the year the dispute came to a head. Regardless of the fact that Sigvard was invited to the Royal Castle for the first time in more than sixty years that spring (for the King and Queen’s 25th wedding anniversary), the Aftonbladet newspaper reported that the relationship between the King and his uncle had “never been especially cordial and is now as frosty as ever.”
Professor Emeritus Gunnar Bramstång, an expert on monarchy, told Aftonbladet, “It was a legal mistake committed in 1934 by [the king at the time]. Since then, this wrong has been continued against Sigvard and despite repeated requests, he has not received a positive response to return his title of prince.”
Sigvard’s counsel Eva-Maj Mühlenbock stated at the time, “The prince title is the same as a name and you can’t take away a person’s right to their name.”
The letter began by saying that the Royal Family never comments on internal matters, but that public interest had become so great that they felt compelled to make a statement so their position would be clear.
The article says the King’s counsel “writes that the King can not change the decision of 1934. Sigvard married in London without the approval of the then-King Gustaf V and the government. Therefore, he lost his right to succession as prince.” The King’s lawyer Bengt Ljungqvist wrote: “Our present king has, with respect to his predecessor and the previous governments’ decisions, not revised or undertaken any reinterpretation of these decisions, which were made under a different constitution and long before his time as monarch.”
Sigvard’s lawyer responded, “On the contrary, it is the king and only the king, who can modify or reinterpret the relevant decision.” Adding that the Royal Court seems to be missing the point, “The most serious problem is that [their response] does not at all address the question at issue, namely the right to his name and birth title. We believe that the title is part of Prince Sigvard Bernadotte’s name.”
The Guardian reported, “Mr. Bernadotte has always accepted his removal from the line of succession to the Swedish throne, but not the removal of his title.” The paper also made the point, “King Carl XVI Gustaf had already been crowned king when he married a commoner who now holds the title of Queen Silvia, but [the King] has steadfastly refused to return the title of prince to Bernadotte.”
“I was born as a prince, and I want to die as a prince. Once a prince, always a prince,” Sigvard was quoted as saying.
The Swedish public seemed squarely in line on the side of the former prince. Aftonbladet ran an online poll in May 2001 with the question “Should Sigvard Bernadotte regain his prince title?” Of the 39,987 people who voted during the one-day poll, “A clear majority of over 80 percent clicked on yes.” However, just days later, the position of the Royal Court was slammed home in a stark headline: “Sigvard Bernadotte will never be prince again.”
Sigvard Bernadotte passed away in 2002, just months after the controversy hit its boiling point. He was laid to rest at the Royal Burial Ground (Kungliga Begravningsplatsen) at Haga Park in the Stockholm neighborhood of Solna.
Two years after his death, the European Court of Hunan Rights ruled that his application was inadmissible. Even posthumously, neither the Swedish Parliament nor King Carl XVI Gustaf have acted to restore Sigvard’s title.
When I first learned of this controversy seven years ago in the amazing (yet now defunct magazine) Stockholm New, I couldn’t believe how this man had been seemingly been stonewalled his whole life for doing something first that everyone else ended up doing later. “None of my nieces or nephews have married a royal either,” he said.
It seemed to me that the common threads in Sigvard and Carl’s lives – their family relationships and their marriages to German women – allowed some parallels and many opportunities for shared compassion.
As an aspiring Swedophile, I thought of the story many times. While living in Los Angeles in 2003, I created a wall mural of Sigvard’s image on a fictitious postage stamp, of course, with the title Prince Sigvard Bernadotte of Sweden.
Ultimately, I wanted to make sure I had the story straight for my own peace of mind. In 2006, I wrote a letter to the Royal Court of Sweden. As you’ll see in the messages attached to the end of this article, I got sent into the same kind of circle Sigvard himself was sometimes sent into. The Royal Court referred me to the Riksdag; the Riksdag referred me to the Swedish Act of Succession; and the Swedish Act of Succession addresses only ascension to the throne but contains nothing pertaining to the removal or reinstatement of royal titles. No real reason.
Of course, I could be wrong, but it only makes sense that if King Gustaf V can revoke the title, King Carl XVI Gustaf can reinstate it. I think it’s as simple as that.
Again, I want to make perfectly clear that I mean no disrespect to His Majesty the King, but it just seems that he never wanted to do anything about the situation, purely based the principle of not doing anything about it.
As Sigvard Bernadotte’s obituary states, he wanted to die as a prince but is remembered instead as an artist. In his career as a graphic and industrial designer, he amassed an impressive and influential body of work. He has been nicknamed “The Design Prince of Sweden,” a title perhaps more honorable because it hails his contributions and accomplishments rather than a title someone is born with by chance.
Though you may not know it, you are probably familiar with many of his designs – furniture, kitchenwares, logos, appliances, movie posters, et cetera – especially if you live in Sweden or the United States.
We’ll look at his rich and pivotal creations as a designer in PART TWO: LIFE AND LEGACY. Coming soon.
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From: Scott Ritcher
Subject: Fråga från Kentucky
Date: July 20, 2006
To: Royal Court of Sweden Info [firstname.lastname@example.org]
I am a great admirer of Sverige and all things Svensk. I have visited your beautiful country many times.
I would like to know if there is an official reason why Sigvard Bernadotte’s royal title was not restored…
I respect the Swedish government’s decision, but in my research I have not been able to find an explanation for it. Is there an official reason that the government of Sweden has not reinstated Sigvard’s title? What steps would need to be taken for such an event to occur?
Many people around the world who know of the situation (I live in Louisville, Kentucky USA) feel that Sigvard Bernadotte brought much glory and respect to Sweden through his work, and that even after his passing in 2002, Sweden should restore Sigvard’s title.
Tack så mycket,
Louisville KY USA
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From: Royal Court of Sweden Info [email@example.com]
Subject: SV: Från engelska kontaktsidan på webbplatsen
Date: July 24, 2006 3:24:39 PM GMT+02:00
To: Scott Ritcher
Thank you for your email to the Royal Court of Sweden
The answer of your question is, that when it was declared that Count Sigvard Bernadotte was no longer part of the Royal House (which is a protocol state matter, and has nothing to do with the membership of the Royal Family), it was in that time a governmental resolution – a decision made in a cabinet meeting, dated in the 1930:s.
According to the Swedish law, the King is not in charge to change any governmental declaration from now or before. And therefore, there was no official declaration made by the King.
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The next day, I forwarded my question to the Swedish Parliament and received the following response:
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From: Sveriges Riksdag [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Subject: Ang. Fråga från Kentucky
Date: July 26, 2006 1:30:04 PM GMT+02:00
To: Scott Ritcher
You’ll find the Act of Succession translated to English here:
You need to contact a library in order to find a parliamentary record dated in the 1930:s. You’ll find information about the Riksdag library here:
Please note that they are closed until August 14.
The Swedish Riksdag
100 12 Stockholm
Phone: +46-8-786 40 00
Fax: +46-8-786 61 45