PROFILE: Sweden’s Carl XVI Gustaf, flawed playboy who came good

Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf, who celebrates his golden jubilee on Friday, long struggled to shed his image as a car-mad playboy after being thrust onto the throne at the age of 27.

PROFILE: Sweden's Carl XVI Gustaf, flawed playboy who came good
King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia at the funeral service of Queen Elizabeth II in 2022. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP

But it was his compassion that ultimately helped him connect with his 10 million subjects, many of whom are expected to take part in weekend festivities in his honour.

The king’s finest hour came in January 2005, shortly after more than 500 Swedes lost their lives in the tsunami that swept across tourist resorts in southeast Asia.

“What if I, just like the king in the fairytales, could make everything all right and end the story with ‘And then they all lived happily ever after’. “But I, just like you, am only a grieving, searching, fellow man,” he said in a speech that hit the right note when the Swedish government’s response was seen as lacking.

Despite being a hesitant public speaker, the king opened up about losing his father without ever knowing him, winning praise from victims’ families and the public.

Born on April 30th, 1946, Carl Gustaf Folke Hubertus Bernadotte was only nine months old when his father, Prince Gustaf Adolf, was killed in a plane crash in Denmark.

Sex scandals

He became crown prince at four when his grandfather ascended the throne as King Gustaf VI Adolf in 1950 and then king in 1973. For the 27-year-old, who had grown up with four older sisters and an often-absent mother – Princess Sibylla of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha – it was “simply very tough” to become the world’s then youngest king, he later confided.

“I don’t think one can ever quite understand what such a task entails on a personal level,” he told Swedish Radio in a 2013 interview. Speaking in his first podcast aired just before his 75th birthday, he called his job “draining”.

The king – who occasionally appeared shirtless in gossip magazines in his early years as monarch – has never quite managed to shake his playboy image.  And subsequent sex scandals only reinforced that.

Yet the monarchy has been broadly popular under “Carl Gustaf”. He married a German-born commoner, interpreter Silvia Sommerlath, three years his senior, in June 1976. The couple, who met during the 1972 Munich Olympics, went on to have three children: Crown Princess Victoria, Prince Carl Philip and Princess Madeleine.

Victoria (born July 14th, 1977) is expected to succeed him, becoming Sweden’s first reigning queen in nearly 300 years.

In 2019, the king slimmed down the royal household, stripping the children of his two youngest offspring of their “His/Her Royal Highness” titles. His grandchildren retain their prince and princess titles but will not receive an appanage.

Passion for cars…

Carl XVI Gustaf’s passion for luxury cars is well documented. A collection of vintage American models share garage space with Swedish classics and European sports cars at his lakeside castle outside Stockholm.

He has passed his interest on to his son – though he was unable to pass him the crown. In January, the king reiterated his criticism of Sweden’s 1980 change of succession laws to make the first-born child monarch – in his case his daughter Victoria.

It meant his then seven-month-old son Carl Philip’s lost his title as crown prince. The king, who is barred from meddling in political affairs, called the move “unfair”, which didn’t go down well in gender equal Sweden.

…and women

In 2010, a book on the king’s private life alleged he was a philanderer and a regular at sex clubs in the 1990s, repeating previous claims he had numerous affairs with younger women.

The controversial book – titled The Reluctant Monarch – took a toll on the king’s popularity, especially because he never denied the claims outright. The king told reporters he had discussed the book with his family, who were hurt by the allegations. “Now we’re turning the page,” he said.

The press also often teased him for his many gaffes, including misspelling his own name at a 1973 signing. It later emerged he suffered from dyslexia, as do two of his children.

A keen sportsman and hunter, the king has taken part in the gruelling 90-kilometre (56-mile) Vasaloppet cross-country ski race three times. Not known to have any major health concerns, he underwent keyhole heart surgery in February 2023 that went “according to plan”, the palace said.

Passionate about the environment, he chairs the Swedish branch of the World Wide Fund For Nature and is honorary chairman of the World Scout Foundation.

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IN PICTURES: Swedes throng capital for royal jubilee

Tens of thousands of Swedes thronged central Stockholm on Saturday to mark 50 years since King Carl XVI Gustaf ascended the throne.

IN PICTURES: Swedes throng capital for royal jubilee

To the sound of military bands and under a sunny sky, the 77-year-old monarch, clad in a sober suit and tie, enjoyed the public acclaim along with Queen Silvia, 79, wearing a canary yellow ensemble, as six horses led the royal procession.

The crowd broke into applause as they passed and waved Swedish flags to mark the milestone for Carl Gustaf, who was the world’s youngest monarch when he was crowned aged 27 in September 1973 after the death of his grandfather Gustaf VI Adolf.

King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden (3rd L) and Queen Silvia of Sweden (C) arrive at the Royal Palace during festivities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf’s accession to the throne. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

The king is the longest reigning monarch in Sweden’s history and also the European monarch with the second-longest reign, behind his cousin Queen Margrethe of Denmark who took the throne in 1972.

King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden (L) and Queen Silvia of Sweden stand on a royal boat during the festivities. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Born on April 30, 1946, Carl Gustaf Folke Hubertus Bernadotte was only nine months old when his father, Prince Gustaf Adolf, died in a plane crash in Denmark.

Central Stockholm was closed to traffic with police expecting crowds across the day to top several hundred thousand — though celebrations went ahead amid tight security given that Sweden last month raised its terror alert level following a spate of Koran burnings that have angered the Muslim world.

Spectators crowd to watch Sweden’s King and Queen. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

Christina Flodin, an administrator aged 59, was among admirers of the king, who Friday oversaw the changing of the guard at the palace ahead of a gala banquet for business and religious leaders and other Scandinavian royals. 

 ‘Continuity, stability’

“I am there to celebrate his 50 years with him — I want to show my gratitude for all he has done,” she told AFP, saying he represents in her view “continuity, stability, a good model leader.”

King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden (C-R) and Queen Silvia of Sweden (C-L) arrive in a carriage. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

“I came for my brother who is in the navy and participating in the parade,” said Wendela Seppi, a machine operator aged 23. “It’s a bit unreal — I find it’s cool something’s happening” in Stockholm.

READ ALSO: QUIZ: How much do you know about King Carl XVI Gustaf?

The afternoon procession through the capital was the highlight of the celebrations, their horse-drawn carriage escorted by 3,000 troops from the army, navy and air force and military bands.

Royal guards parade during the festivities. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

The final leg of the procession was to see them being rowed across the water in the royal barge to the steps below the palace in the Old Town, with an outdoor concert nearby featuring several popular Swedish acts to top off the day, from Cuban salsa to disco and classic Swedish sounds.

The city centre was transformed into a giant public dance floor to allow residents to let their hair down.

Despite occasional scandals — the biggest when a 2010 book alleged he frequented sex clubs and had numerous affairs — the king enjoys broad support in his homeland.

Spectators watch jet fighters flying in formation above the Royal Palace. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

A poll this month in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter said 62 percent of Swedes were in favour of the monarchy, a level that has remained stable over two decades.

READ ALSO: LISTEN: King’s 50th jubilee, and must Swedish citizenship be ‘protected’?

The king’s role has been purely ceremonial since constitutional reform in 1974.

“We must not abolish the monarchy,” said Martin Persson, a 60-year-old bus driver. “I think it’s good — and I’m hoping to see him today,” said Persson, from the western coastal town of Vastra Gotaland. 

(On the balcony, L-R) Prince Carl Philip of Sweden, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, Prince Daniel of Sweden, Princess Sofia of Sweden, Princess Madeleine of Sweden and Christopher O’Neill stand on the Palace balcony. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

The palace has remained tight-lipped about the cost of the festivities.

As far as presents for his majesty are concerned, Swedish furniture retailer Ikea is gifting the man who already has a throne a special armchair to mark the occasion.

The retro design comes from the “1970s when the king met Silvia at the Olympic Games in Munich,” Ikea executive Johan Ejdemo told AFP.