Thursday, March 27, 2014

Monarch Profile: King Charles XII of Sweden

In the early eighteenth century, the Kingdom of Sweden dominated the scene in Europe and that was thanks entirely to the military genius and the astounding audacity of King Charles XII, the monarch who earned the nickname of “the last Viking”. He was born on June 17, 1682 in Stockholm, the only surviving son of King Charles XI and, during his youth, was given a superb education in both the civil and military spheres. He also learned his trade alongside his father and succeeded him upon his death in 1697. For a short time there was a regency to assist the young King Charles XII but his maturity and talent were so impressive that within a year the teenage monarch was ruling on his own. Early on matters of national defense seemed to dominate much of his agenda and he set to work taking the already efficient, disciplined and veteran army he inherited from his father and making it even better. For a country like the Kingdom of Sweden, living on the harsh, northern edge of Europe with a very small population to draw on, having an extremely large army was never an option. Since the Swedes could not be bigger, they had to be better. They had to fight smarter and Charles XII took steps to ensure that.

In the spirit of the great King Gustavus Adolphus who had gone before him, King Charles XII further integrated the infantry, cavalry and artillery in his army as well as putting a renewed emphasis on close combat and bayonet training. Although a vicious weapon, many people misunderstand the bayonet. It is primarily a psychological weapon. More often than not a bayonet charge did not end in violence at all but with the enemy force having retreated before the attackers arrived. Like most of the greatest military leaders in history, King Charles XII also did not neglect the art of logistics and he modernized the transportation of his army so that supplies could more readily keep pace with the advancing forces at the front. A soldier who is well fed, watered and clothed will always fight better and the results were so noticeable that other European armies began to follow the Swedish example and organize themselves in the same way. By better combining the different branches of the army and streamlining his logistical support, King Charles XII really made the Swedish army like a well-oiled machine, every part working together to produce a fighting force that was able to perform out of all proportion to its size. Unfortunately, not every neighboring power was quick to recognize this. They assumed that the young and inexperienced monarch would be easy to defeat which would make Sweden easy to dominate. They were proven disastrously wrong.

During April of 1700 the Kingdoms of Denmark, Poland and the Russian Empire joined in alliance against the Swedes, starting what later became known as the “Great Northern War”. At first, Charles XII mostly remained on the sidelines. He was a new monarch and it was only naturally that not everyone should trust him immediately. However, his father had chosen good generals to command the army and the King mostly left matters to them and they were able to mount such a defensive that the forces of the alliance against Sweden were stopped. From then on, however, King Charles XII took a more decisive part in fighting the war and showed his aggressive nature by ordering a counterattack against the Danes. It was a swift and stunning success and in no time at all the Swedes had overrun Denmark and forced the government to withdraw from the alliance with the Treaty of Travendal on August 28, 1700. Not allowing the enemy to regain the initiative, King Charles XII went on the attack again and rushed to Livonia (the coastal area of what is now mostly Latvia and Estonia), where Russian forces were besieging the Swedish-held city of Narva in October. He was faced by no less a figure than Tsar Peter the Great who was leading a Russian army of almost 70,000 men but King Charles XII, with only 10,000 men, advanced through a raging blizzard, attacked and totally defeated the blinded and bewildered Russian army.

At that point, following their surrender, the Russians had lost almost all of their modern military equipment and would have been almost defenseless in case of attack. However, King Charles XII still had other enemies to deal with and so he turned his army against Poland and Saxony. In the three years that followed, King Charles XII and his Swedes dominated the battlefields, defeating the Polish and Saxon armies and occupying each of their capital cities in turn. When 1705 rolled around the Baltic had essentially become a Swedish lake and King Charles XII stood triumphant over all of his enemies. The Russians, with their massive reserves of manpower, were the only ones still standing and Tsar Peter the Great had no desire to continue the fight as things were and was anxious to make peace. The Swedish monarch responded to peace well but his experience probably made him over-confident, especially regarding the Russians. He did, quite wisely, use the peace to refurbish his army, rebuild and strengthen it but he also displayed a lack of respect for the Russians he had so easily defeated before. King Charles XII famously said, “There is nothing in winning victories over the Muscovites; they can be beaten at any time.” It was a rather condescending attitude to take, but given his crushing victories thus far, one can understand why the mentality existed.

King Charles XII won battles by skill, quick-thinking and stunning audacity. In 1708 he made his most audacious move ever and, quite probably, his biggest mistake. He decided to invade the Russian Empire. He had already put down all his other enemies and no doubt reasoned that Russia would have to be dealt with permanently at some point and so it would be better to strike fast before the odds grew even more slanted in Russia’s favor. All the same, one can only marvel at the audacity of a King of Sweden launching an invasion of Russia. This was Sweden, not Napoleonic France or Germany that was dominating most of the continent, with numerous countries to draw support from, and it took no small amount of nerve for the King of Sweden to look across the border to the massive Russian Empire and say, ‘I think I can take’ them’. Peace offers were cast aside and the King took his Swedish army into Russia. What played out was something that Napoleon would have likely found familiar. On February 5, King Charles XII captured Grodno, he sat out the spring thaw in Minsk and as summer began resumed his offensive. However, the Russians refused to meet him in a face-to-face battle. They retreated before the Swedish army, destroying anything of value while at the same time harassing Charles XII with small-scale attacks of attrition.

The harsh winter had reduced his small army at the outset and his forces had been further bled from minor skirmishes and the privation caused by the loss of his supply train to attacks by the Russian cavalry. Nonetheless, Charles XII was nothing if not combative and on June 28 he finally met the main Russian army in battle at Poltava (in what is now Ukraine). With only 14,000 men to start the Swedes battled around 45,000 Russians (later more) in bitter fighting that went on and on for eighteen hours. To make matters worse, the King had earlier been wounded and had to pass field command to Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld. Although they put up a long and grueling fight, in the end, the Swedes were defeated and almost wiped out. The Marshal was captured and only the King and about 1,500 soldiers were able to escape. The Swedes had reached their ‘high water mark’ and would never be quite the same again. One participant in the battle had been the Cossack Hetman of Ukraine Ivan Mazepa, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, who had defected to the Swedes when he learned that Tsar Peter intended to replace him. He had hoped to create an independent Ukraine but found himself a refugee with the Swedish King after the battle (the Skoropadsky replacing him).

Encouraging a Ukrainian rebellion against Russia had not worked but Charles XII did not give up. He and his little party made their way south to the territory of the Ottoman Empire where he tried to persuade the Turks to make war on Russia. Unfortunately for him, he was not successful in this either and the Turkish Sultan finally became so tired of his nagging and his presence which was offensive to Russia that he set his own army against the Swedish King and his tiny, ragged band of soldiers. King Charles XII was forced to flee again and made an epic trek across Eastern Europe, through Ottoman territory, across the Hapsburg lands of the Holy Roman Empire before finally arriving in Swedish Pomerania (in what is now Germany and Poland). He had not been home for ten years but had continued to rule Sweden all that time, as best he could, from a distance. He had been through a terrible ordeal but it had done nothing to dampen his zeal and determination. He set to work immediately to rebuild his army and drive out those who had taken advantage of his absence to encroach on Swedish territory.

Showing the same skill and tenacity, Charles XII battled for two years, winning for the most part, before gaining sufficient strength, in his estimation, to launch an invasion of Norway in 1718. Sadly, it was to be his last campaign. On November 30 at a battle near Halden he was shot in the head and killed. He was only thirty-six years old but had lived quite an extraordinary, and quite an adventurous life, in that short span of time. He was succeeded by his sister, Ulrika Eleanora, who immediately made peace, surrendering most of the Swedish possessions in the Baltic. With the death of King Charles XII the era of Swedish domination had come to an end and the era of Russian domination was just beginning. His accomplishments were astounding and probably all the more because he died so young and on the field of battle, facing the enemy. His daring attacks and adept maneuvering of his army allowed him to defeat forces greater than his own time and time again. He knew that in his position he would have to take risks to be successful and he was certainly not afraid of taking risks and the bolder the better. His one, greatest mistake will always be the invasion of Russia and historians will probably always argue over why he turned down the chance for peace to embark on a campaign with the odds so heavily stacked against him. Perhaps he felt that, as poor as they were, they would only be worse later and conflict was inevitable. We may never know, however, he will always be a favorite of mine simply for his audacity and, once again, it certainly takes audacity, whether rightly or wrongly, for a King of Sweden to try to conquer Russia. I cannot but admire audacity on such a grand scale as that.


  1. Thank you for this article. It was an excellent look at the life of one of Norths greatest monarchs. My only gripe is that Narva is in present day Estonia and Charles set sail through the Gulf of Finland. :)

    Död vid rikets rand drömmen rann ut i sand leve Carolus
    Buren hem för hand åter till Svealand leve Carolus Rex

    Vila i frid min kung. :(

  2. Thanks for the great article
    This could so easily have been different, then the world would have had a Charles the great instead of Peter the great. And a very different Europe..


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