Charles XII

Charles XII (1682-1718) was king of Sweden from 1697 to 1718. A famous warrior king, he led his country during the Northern War.

The son of Charles XI and Ulrica Leonora, daughter of Frederick III of Denmark, Charles XII was born on June 17, 1682. He was carefully nurtured by his parents because his four younger brothers died as infants. Charles XI, conscious of his own neglected education, selected the best available teachers for the boy's instruction; the future king was well grounded in theology, military science, the classics, languages, mathematics, and history. The father himself had a profound influence on the son. Young Charles rode and hunted with his father on expeditions that tested his endurance. He could ride before he was 4 and constantly engaged in mock battles with his peers and his teachers. Not only was he hardened to fatigue and exposure, but he was also made familiar with the details of administration.

The young prince was like his father in many ways. He had the same untiring energy, the same stubborn will. He was reserved and like his father distrusted all things French. He was also impatient with the niceties of diplomacy and preferred direct talk and action to courtly innuendoes. From his mother Charles received a personal gentleness which he combined with unflinching devotion to duty. His father's hopes that the boy would be eased into the duties of kingship were thwarted on April 5, 1697, by Charles XI's death. His father's plans that Charles should be subject to a regency during which he could gain experience also were not realized. Rumors of internal troubles between the six regents and the Estates caused the latter to request that although underage Charles assume full responsibility. Before the end of the year he was crowned, and the adolescent prematurely became the man.

Soon Charles's abilities would be put to the test. The early days of the reign saw him warding off many marriage offers, but his sister Hedvig Sophia married Duke Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp. He indulged in exciting escapades and committed his country by alliance to England and the Netherlands, supporting their stand on the Spanish succession for a guarantee of Sweden's possessions in the Baltic and the integrity of Holstein-Gottorp.

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Northern War

Meanwhile Charles's enemies were forging alliances against him. By the close of the century a Livonian discontent, Joann Reinhold Patkul, had persuaded Frederick IV of Denmark, Augustus II of Poland-Saxony, and Peter the Great of Russia to make a joint attack on Sweden to despoil the young ruler of much of his inheritance. Charles XII turned from sham battles and mock heroics to real war. He had tried to avoid battle, but once his enemies began it, he resolved to punish them. To Charles the defense of his realm was a mixture of honor, duty, and patriotism.

Leaving his garrisons in Finland, the Baltic Provinces, and parts of Swedish Germany to care for themselves, Charles turned first against Denmark. While a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet kept the Danish navy bottled up in Copenhagen, on July 24, 1700, Charles landed his troops on Zeeland. The road to Copenhagen lay open, and shortly that city was besieged from the sea and land. Under pressure from his allies Charles signed a treaty at Travendal which was a return to the status quo.

Poland's turn was next. In September, Charles crossed over to Livonia, but Augustus had already withdrawn. Consequently Charles deceided to relieve Narva, which was under attack by the troops of the Czar. Peter enjoyed great numerical superiority but fled the area before the battle was engaged. It was well he did, because on Nov. 19, 1700, Charles crushed the Russian army, taking so many prisoners he was forced to disarm them and send them home. He should have taken advantage of this victory and brought Russia completely to terms, but he turned once more against Augustus. In 1701 Swedish troops crossed the Dvina in full view of the enemy, inflicted a severe defeat on Augustus's forces, and cleared Livonia of Polish soldiers. Soon Charles occupied Courland. In 1702 he invaded Poland proper and occupied Warsaw, winning a decisive victory at Kliszow. A victory at Thorn in 1703 made Augustus's position untenable, and in September of the next year Charles placed Stanislaus Leszczynski on the Polish throne. He cleared the marshes around Pripetz of Russian auxiliaries and marched through Poland and Silesia into Saxony, where in September 1707 at Altranstädt Augustus was forced to abandon both his Polish throne and his coalition with Russia.

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His Defeat

The next to be chastened was Peter, who had been rebuilding his forces since Narva. He also had been whittling at Swedish possessions in Finland and the Baltic Provinces while committing enough troops to Poland to gain time. Charles's advance, at first crowned with success, ran into trouble because of long supply lines and Russia's policy. The King himself was wounded, and while incapacitated he was badly defeated at Poltava on June 28, 1709. Even worse, his cavalry surrendered on July 1 at Perevolotjna. The Swedish king went into Turkey, where through diplomacy he might have been successful except that Peter was able to buy off Russia's Turkish adversaries. Meanwhile the jackal kings of Poland and Denmark rejoined the ranks of Sweden's enemies. Not to be outdone at the carcass, the electors of Brandenburg and Prussia also became Sweden's enemies.

Charles XII and his country, however, were not dead. Despairing of Turkish help, Charles, after a dangerous ride through enemy territory from Adrianople, arrived on Nov. 10, 1714, at Stralsund, his last important garrison in Germany. When that fell a year later, Charles, after thrilling adventures crossing the Baltic in a small boat, came home to Sweden. There he strengthened his defenses and in two campaigns attacked Norway. During the second attack, on Dec. 11, 1718, he was shot while besieging the Dano-Norwegian fortress of Fredriksten. His skull was pierced, and he died immediately. The Northern War was ended during the reign of his successor, his sister Ulrica Leonora.

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His Character

Myths about Charles XII are legion. Perhaps a few facts should be noted. He was not a barbarian but enjoyed social gatherings when he had time for them. He had a real interest and flair for design and urban planning. His dress, though plain, was expensive. He did not neglect civil administration. Rather he was good at it. Yet military survival had to be his main objective. The Spartan life he affected fast to encourage his troops. He was not a homosexual and was not killed by one of his own men. He could be charming but knew that in diplomacy charm without strength was relatively useless. His firmness—often called stubbornness— was Sweden's greatest as set, and his death contributed appreciably to Sweden's denouement.

Charless XII, however, must bear some responsibility for the loss of Sweden's status as a great power. Still he did not begin a single conflict, and any court of international law must consider his stand just, though unrealistic. The aspiration of fellow monarchs rather than the King's obduracy was Sweden's curse. He did not ruin his country internally or economically. His use of artillery, his tactical innovations, and his strategy when placed in their European context show that he ranks high as a military leader. His plans for peace which never could materialize indicate he would have been an above-average ruler. His death rather than his actions was a significant cause of Sweden's decline.

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Further Reading on Charles XII

Ragnhild M. Hatton, Charles XII of Sweden (1968), is the best study in any language. A dated but helpful work is R. Nisbet Bain, Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire (1895; repr. 1969). Charles's diplomacy is considered in John Joseph Murray, George I, the Baltic and the Whig Split of 1717: A Study in Diplomacy and Propaganda (1969). A lively discussion of Charles's invasion of Russia is in Leonard Cooper, Many Roads to Moscow: Three Historic Invasions (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Bain, R. Nisbet (Robert Nisbet), Charles XI, New York: AMS Press, 1980.

Hatton, Ragnhild Marie, Charles XII, London: Historical Association, 1974.

Voltaire, Lion of the North, Charles XII of Sweden, Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1981.