King Charles XII was the only surviving son of King Charles XI and
Queen Ulrica Eleonora ("the elder", born as a Princess of Denmark).
Charles XII was born in 1682, and he was barely 15 years old when his
father died (of a widely spread stomach cancer) in 1697. Later that
year the Swedish Estates declared him being of ruling age and he took
the throne at only 15. Almost immediately, Sweden's enemies (Denmark,
Russia, and Saxony-Poland, later also Brandenburg?) formed an
alliance against Sweden and its new young king. In 1700, Charles
waged war against his enemies. The war went on for 21 years and it is
known in the history books as "The Great Nordic War".
Charles was a brilliant army commander and he conducted his main army himself. The army consisted mainly of domestic troops, raised through the so-called "domestic levy", which was devised by his father. Every province of Sweden (including Finland) should contribute with one or more permanent regiment(s), named after the province itself. Every ten farmsteads had to supply one soldier and all his equipment, including his horse if he was a cavalryman. The soldier should be given a farm-house of his own, so that he could marry, raise children and (at least almost) support his family. The other farmers should pay the soldier for his daily work on the other farms, mostly in kind (grain, meat, and some dairy-products). All regimental officers (from the youngest ensign to the colonel himself) were given farms of their own by the Crown as their salary. (In the coastal areas, ship crews were conscripted in the same way.) This method of raising an army was in force in Sweden until 1901, and the soldier's profession was often inherited as a craft from father to son.
Charles started his 18-year long campaign with a quick landing in Denmark, thus forcing the Danish King Frederick IV (Charles's own cousin) to renounce his claims for the German province of Holstein-Gottorp. Thereafter Charles defended the fortress of Narva (in Estonia) by means of a gallant victory against the Russian army in November 1700, and then he led his army through Sweden's Baltic provinces, Courland and Poland into Saxony, where he in 1706 forced King August II (called "the Strong") to abdicate from the Polish Throne in the Armistice of Altranstädt. Meanwhile, Charles forced the Polish Sejm (Parliament) to accept his pro-Swedish candidate, Stanislas Leszczynski, as the new Polish King.
Meanwhile, Czar Peter had occupied the Baltic provinces and had raised a new large army in Russia. These occupied areas included the former Swedish fortress of Nyenskans, the easternmost fortress of the Swedish "fortress chain" from Stade to Nyenskans. Peter razed the fortress and there he founded his new capital, S:t Petersburg. Charles decided to march towards Moscow, but after some initial successes he head to turn southwards and to try to defeat the Russian main army in open field battles. After a few years' campaigning, the Russian army took its stand at the town of Poltava (in Ukraine) in the early summer of 1709. The Swedish army was tired and battle-weary, General Lewenhaupt's corps had lost its artillery and its baggage in a battle at the Ljesna River in September 1708, and as an extra strike of bad luck Charles himself had just a few days before been wounded in his left foot and had to be carried on a stretcher between two horses. Therefore, Charles had to give his Field-Marshal Carl Gustaf Rehnschiöld the immediate command of his army during the following battle on June 28th.
The Russian army was well-equipped, highly-spirited and well-fortressed in its camp, so the Swedish army would have faced a formidable task if attacking even at its maximum strength. Now the odds were much worse and due to many cooperating reasons (bad scouting on the night before, confused and misunderstood orders in the field, "bad luck" in some individual cases a.s.o.), the battle became almost a total disaster. Many officers and men were taken prisoners for years (many died in Tobolsk and other Siberian towns, where they were imprisoned). The shattered remnants of the Swedish main army retreated southwards and finally capitulated at the River Dnjestr outside the village of Perevolotjna on July 1st. Charles himself had to seek shelter in Turkey and was living in virtual "house-arrest" for about six years in his quarters at Bender. He induced the Sultan no less than three times to declare war on Russia, but the Turks were soon ready to make peace with Russia again.
Denmark and Saxony-Poland broke the armistices, and a Danish force landed outside Helsingborg (in Skåne) in 1710 but was soon defeated by General Stenbock's domestic army. However, in Germany the situation rapidly grew worse. In 1713 the Royal Council (still residing in Stockholm) decided to summon the Estates on its own initiative to discuss the war situation. When Charles heard of the summoning (and of the critisism against him raised at its deliberations) he ordered the immediate dissolution of the Estates session. Thereafter, in October 1714, he made his "escape" through all Europe by riding on horseback (accompanied by only two aides-de-camp) all the way to the then still Swedish town of Stralsund in only fourteen days. England-Hanover and Brandenburg also entered the anti-Swedish coalition (and in 1715 declared war on Sweden). Charles led the defence of the province of Vor-Pomerania against the Brandenburgian forces until Stralsund itself was surrounded (and eventually fell).
Late in 1715 he sailed back to Sweden and put up his temporary quarters (which were to last for more than two years) in a professor's house in Lund. In Lund he ruled the shattered rests of the Swedish short-lived "Baltic Empire" and mustered his last newly-conscripted army. He raised this army at the same time as he tried to make the most of the internal disputes between his enemies in order to make peace with at least some of them. However, his frantic diplomatic efforts failed. In 1718, he started a new campaign to conquer Norway (then a Danish province) from two different directions as a means of forcing Denmark to sue for peace. Late on November 30th, 1718, Charles was killed in a trench by a stray bullet when inspecting the Swedish siege of the fortress of Frederikshald. As a result of the news of the King's death, all Swedish armies retreated into Swedish territory and all effective Swedish resistance against its enemies virtually ceased.
The country had already bled white during 18 years of war. The confusion after Charles's death (including the disastrous retreat and virtual annihilation of General Armfelt's corps over the bare mountains of Jämtland) aggravated the situation even more. During the next years, Russian troops harassed the Swedish and Finnish coasts and many towns and villages were burned and pillaged. In the Peace of Nystad (a Finnish town) with Russia in 1721, Sweden lost its Baltic provinces of Estonia and Livonia (which were conceded already at the peace conference on Åland in 1718) without any territorial compensation. The war had ruined the country's economy for many years ahead, and Sweden never recovered its earlier position as Europe's "Northern Great Power", obliging to one of the Trustors of the Peace of Westphalia (of 1648). As a result of the outcome of the Great Nordic War, Russia gained permanent access to the Baltic (and thereby to Western Europe).
Myths of Charles arose already during his lifetime, and his untimely death added to this mysticism. First of all: there is no proof that Charles was killed as the result of a plot against him (although weighty circumstantial evidence suggests so), perhaps he just had bad luck and was hit by a stray bullet from a distance. Posterity's verdict over Charles has been very varying, from the (much too simplified) opinion that he was just another war-maniac to the (much too deferential) view that he was the war-genius of all times, however beaten by an irresistible coalition. Here is not the place to give an account of all the different opinions during the centuries. Let me give just some of my own simple impressions of Charles (from the books I have read during the years).
He was obviously a brave (he shot his first bear at the age of eleven and a half years) and a well-educated young teen-ager when he (at too early an age) had to take over the responsibility as absolute ruler of Sweden, defending its territory from its numerous enemies. Sweden's position was rather bad (although not quite hopeless). Its population had always been small in proportion to its large and hard-defended territory. Traditionally, Sweden had tried to conduct its wars on enemy soil. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Sweden had aquired as many Baltic river-mouth areas as possible in order to master the trade and to levy customs duties. The economic value of these river-mouths now began to diminish at the same time as new great powers (the greatest of them all being, of course, the unified Russia) arose in Europe. The power of France, Sweden's ally and protector, had reached its climax and it had in fact already begun to decline. In this perspective, the war as such was inevitable. If Charles XI had lived, the outbreak could perhaps have been delayed a couple of years, but as a whole this wouldn't have changed the Swedish odds significantly.
On further consideration, it is easy to say that Charles should have accepted the peace offers recieved already in (and before) 1706 (thus avoiding the final disastrous campaign into Russia "at all costs"). The campaign of 1708/09 was of course unwise (despite its initial striking successes), espcially after that General Lewenhaupt's corps was delayed in the spring of 1709. (There is always a possibility that diplomacy could have reached what the arms couldn't.)
Much domestic politics was focused on the uncertainty about the succession (Charles being unmarried and childless and having no official male heir to the throne). This uncertainty could perhaps have been reduced if Charles's only one year older brother-in-law, Duke Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp, who served as an officer in Charles's army, had survived his wounds at the Battle of Kliszow on July 9th 1702. Had Charles XII himself survived his Norwegian campaign, Sweden would almost certainly have achieved better terms of peace than the unlucky Queen Ulrica Eleonora and her advisors (including her strongly anti-Russian husband, the future King Frederick I, who was a son of the Landgraf of Hesse). At the time of his death, Charles still had hopes for a peace agreement with Czar Peter; there had already been negotiations on the island of Åland, and Sweden had offered her Baltic possessions to Russia in exchange for Danish territories. It is not unlikely that these negotiations would have resulted in an agreement in 1719. The peace terms would almost certainly have included the recognition of the future succession to the Swedish throne of Charles's young nephew, Duke Charles Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp (who later married a Russian Princess and whose eldest son actually, by a freak of Fate, became Czar Peter III of Russia!).
Perhaps Sweden and Russia could have been united as results of these royal marriages? I you want another "what if", why not not read the book "Fingers of Fate" ("Ödets fingrar") by the Swedish writer and historian Alf Henrikson? Among other conjectures in world history, Dr Henrikson ventures what could have happened if Charles, not Peter, had won the battle of Poltava.
Like many other absolute rulers, Charles became as much "a victim of his own fate" as anyone of his subjects. After his death he "got into bad company", as both the French Emperor Napoleon and the German Führer Adolf Hitler referred to Charles's Russian campaign as an example for their own wars in Eastern Europe. Nowadays, many "skinheads" and other right-wing extremists in Sweden refer to Charles XII as a patron of chauvinistic and anti-immigrant ideas. How wrong and ill-advised they are!
Sweden in Charles' days was a melting-pot of nations and cultures, in fact the greater part of the country's population were of non-Swedish origin. Many immigrants (or descendants of immigrants) acquired high military or civil offices and made long-lasting contributions to different aspects of Swedish industrial, cultural, scientific, and social life. Riga (in Livonia) was -- as long as it was a Swedish city -- the second largest city in the country and an equally important economic centre as the capital of Stockholm. The farming provinces in Germany were important granaries of the realm. (Many other examples could be given.) Together with a well-working civil service (founded already during the 16th century and refined by the remarkable Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna) and a reasonable taxation, the "Swedish times" (roughly a century or a century and a half from 1648) are still considered as a "golden age" in the history of the Baltic and the North-German ex-Swedish provinces.
Charles himself was a excellent representative of this multi-cultural country. His own grand-father was originally a Prince of the Palatinate, who was elected by the Estates to inherit the Swedish throne after the abdication of his cousin (the reigning Queen Christina, daughter of King Gustavus Adolphus). Charles employed many able foreigners in his service during his reign: Balts, Germans, French, Scots, a.s.o.. During his involuntary stay in Turkey, he took a great interest in the Turkish and Middle East cultures and even organized three scientific expeditions to the Levantine area. During these years, he also had an extensive correspondence with his architects in Stockholm concerning details of the construction of a new Royal Palace. When he had returned to Sweden for his two-and-a-half-year stay in Lund, he attended academic lectures and summoned inventors and industrial men to his quarters. He designed a calendar reform (introduced not until 35 years after his death). In an Ordinance of Postal Service and Inn-keeping he ordered right-hand traffic on Swedish roads; this ordinance was annulled by his successors, and it was very expensive to finally change from left-hand to right-hand traffic in 1967! When the country faced a shortage of precious metals, he (assisted by his advisor, Baron Görtz) introduced the impopular so-called "emergency coins" (i.e., they had no immediate equivalents in metal stock) -- which, in fact, is the everyday usage of every national bank today!
Under more "normal" conditions, Charles perhaps would have gone down in Swedish and European history as a "philosopher on the throne" like King Frederick II ("the Great") of Prussia or a "Theatre King" like King Gustavus III of Sweden. I have found no evidence of a "brilliant" intelligence, but evidently Charles was a sensible young man who developed many different sound interests and certainly would have promoted many different enterprises in his country. Through the fingers of Fate he had the opportunity to practise only one of his many "royal professions", and therefore congealed into a stiff (and seemingly stern) military mould too early and too quickly.
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This page was updated June 28th, 1996.
(On this very day 287 years ago, King Charles XII lost the battle of Poltava to Czar Peter the Great of Russia. Today 82 years ago, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo.)