Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary was born on 8 November 1777 as the daughter of François Clary and Françoise Rose Somis.
She was educated in a convent and was just 11 years old when the French Revolution broke out. She then returned to live with her parents. Her father died in 1794, and he had made an appeal to be ennobled shortly before the French Revolution. Due to this, her brother was arrested by the authorities. She accompanied her sister-in-law to appeal his case but fell asleep in the waiting room where she was discovered by Joseph Bonaparte, and he took her home. He was introduced to her family, and they became engaged not long after. However, after being introduced to the family, Napoleon Bonaparte suggested that Joseph marry her elder sister, Julie, while he should marry Désirée. All approved the suggestion, but by 1795 Napoleon had fallen for Joséphine de Beauharnais, and their engagement was broken.
Désirée went to live in Rome with Julie and Joseph. She was briefly engaged to a French General, Mathurin-Léonard Duphot. He was killed in an anti-French riot on 30 December 1797. Désirée returned to France, where she met her future husband, Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte. They were married on 17 August 1798, and she gave birth to their only child, Oscar, on 4 July 1799.
In 1804, her husband was made Marshal of France and at the coronation of Napoleon on 2 December 1804, she followed behind Joséphine. Her husband was made Prince of Pontecorvo in 1806 and in 1810 he was elected heir to the throne of Sweden. It was perhaps not what she had expected and said, “I thought, that it was as it had been with Ponte Corvo, a place from where we would have a title.” She later admitted not to have cared for any other country than France and despaired at the thought of leaving Paris. 1
She arrived in Sweden on 22 December 1810 with her son Oscar. She was treated with kindness by the Dowager Queen, Sophia Magdalena of Denmark but she did not have a good relationship with the current Queen, Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp. Charlotte described her as, a “spoiled child” and a “French woman in every inch.” 2
She did not stay long in Sweden and returned to Paris in the summer of 1811, officially because of her health. Her husband became King of Sweden in 1818, but Désirée remained in France. During this period, she reportedly fell in love with the French Prime Minister, the Duke of Richelieu, but he did not return her affections. In 1823, Désirée returned to Sweden with a bride for her son, Josephine of Leuchtenberg. She probably intended to return to France, but her visit was to be for life. On 21 August 1829, she was finally crowned Queen of Sweden.
Désirée soon grew tired of the Swedish court and wished to return to France. However, her husband would not allow it. She lost her husband in 1844 and became Queen Dowager. She then prepared to return to Paris, but eventually, her fear of sea travel made it impossible for her to leave. She grew more and more eccentric as Dowager Queen. She slept all day, got up in the evenings and ate breakfast in the middle of the night.
She died on 17 December 1860.