by Göran Björkman, with edits by Scott Muldoon
The Great Northern War that devastated the Baltic region from 1700 to 1721 forever changed the balance of power, reducing the major power Sweden to a second rank nation and laying a path for the future glory of Russia. The main characters of this drama, the various royal heads of the Baltic powers, were indeed a colorful assembly. Let us introduce them...
Charles XII of Sweden (1682-1718)
Charles became King of Sweden at the tender age of 15, and was only 18 years old when the Great Northern War broke out in 1700. He inherited many regional rivals, but also one of the highest quality armies in Europe at the time. When the war broke out, he left Stockholm with his army, never to return. Charles, like many other royal personages at the time, was raised to be an absolute ruler in the manner of his father. In order to prepare the young prince for this task, King Charles XI impressed upon his son the need for a comprehensive education, especially as he thought he was lacking a proper education himself. The young heir learned to speak German, Latin, and French, and counted among his favorite subjects mathematics, philosophy, in addition to military studies. When his father died of cancer in April 1697, the young Charles was not of age, and a guardian regency was formed. This arrangement functioned poorly, and soon the Swedish nobility proposed the coronation of the 15-year-old Charles, which then occurred in December 1697. As a sign of his intention to rule as an absolute monarch, he intended to put the crown on himself, but this unorthodox symbol was tarnished when he accidentally dropped the crown on the floor. This proved an ill omen for the future of his reign; in the first years of his rule, he was confronted by poor harvests and a fire that burnt down the royal palace. And then the war came.
As a military commander, one can say that Charles was a brilliant tactician but a poor strategist. For his time, he held a strange sort of morality. Since the war began with Sweden being attacked, he assumed a righteous stance and refused all peace offers that came from his enemies, convinced that he was fighting a just war. This sort of politics was unrealistic. He was also physically very brave and exposed himself to danger on several occasions, the last at a siege in Norway in 1718 with fatal results. From the start of the war, the king was known for his simple habits. His uniform was the uniform of a private and he refused to wear a wig (common fashion for the time). He did not drink much alcohol (but he was probably not a teetotaler) and kept a simple household. Much folklore was has come to surround Charles’ lifestyle. For instance, it has been said that the king could not be killed by enemy bullets due to a spell from his childhood, and at bedtime the night after a battle, he could shake the bullets out of his clothes. Supposedly, the only way to kill the king was with an item from his possession, prompting a further legend that Charles was killed with a bullet made of a button from his own coat, shot by a Swedish officer who tired of the long war. As Charles never married and there is no evidence of any mistresses, legends also tell us that Charles, after his decisive victory over the Russians at Narva, claimed to be married to the army. There have also been speculations about his sexual preferences or that he was simply afraid of women, though he was very close to his sisters.
It is not easy to discern what was going on in Charles’ mind during the war, as he was not the sort of person to share his thoughts with anyone. We know he thought he was fighting a righteous war, but when Sweden had in the latter part of the war lost all her overseas provinces including Finland, he stubbornly insisted on continue the fight, even beginning a new campaign in Norway. Whilst he had begun negotiations with the Russians, they soon discovered Charles did not seriously contemplate a negotiated end to the conflict; he sent his minister Görtz to negotiate merely to buy time for his military stratagems to mature. So what was Charles doing in Norway? We don’t really know. Some say he intended to conquer Norway as a substitute for the loss of Finland, or that he planned to use it as a bargaining chip in future peace negotiations. However, it is known that Charles wanted to support Scotland against England, and there was some speculation that Norway would have been a bridgehead for future action westwards. It is also known that Charles negotiated with the pirates of Madagascar in an attempt to get access to their naval power. But whatever his future plans, during the siege at Fredrikshald on 11 November 1718, a bullet ended Charles’ life in a split-second. His sister Ulrika-Eleonora inherited the throne and began the hard work of making an honorable peace for a Sweden exhausted by many years of war.