On the last day of November 1718, the Swedish Empire hit the dust, crumbling into non-existence with the death of Karl XII. This our last warrior king was out inspecting his positions in Norway when an unidentified object hit him in the temple and killed him. Since then, debate has raged as to whether it was the Norwegians who killed him or one of his own: Karl XII at the time was not a popular king, his bellicose policy having more or less ruined his homeland.
Karl XII, at fifteen
Karl XII became king at the tender age of fifteen. His father Karl XI died in 1697, and it had been his wish that the country he left to his underage son be ruled by a council until little Karl came of age. Not to be, as the proposed members of the council were rather unpopular among the higher levels of nobility. Instead, one of these sleazy counts suggested at the next Parliament that the king was wise enough to rule on his own. Acclamation followed (clearly carefully planted) and the young king, flushed with pride, saw no reason not to accept. Out went the council, in came a fifteen-year-old absolute monarch.
That Karl had every intention of ruling on his own was made imminently clear at his coronation. Not for him a stately ceremony where he entered bareheaded into the church, there to swear his coronation oaths and bend his head as the archbishop anointed him before settling the crown on his head. Karl decided all this was unnecessary. Instead he rode to church, already with the crown on his head. Once there, he hopped off his mount, lifted the crown aside so as to allow the anointment, and then replaced the crown – him crowning himself, if you like. Once done, he sat up, the crown slipped off and hit the ground but was retrieved and handed to the king who laughed and put it back on before riding off to the waiting party.
No sooner had the old king expired, but Sweden was invaded by a veritable deluge of ambitious mamas towing their various princess daughters along. The young king needed a wife, right? Nope. Karl was totally uninterested in all these girls paraded before him – he preferred other pursuits such as going wild and crazy and demolishing furniture, throwing chairs through the windows or riding half-naked through the streets of Stockholm. In this, he was always accompanied by his brother-in-law Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp, a man who clearly shared the king’s love of these bracing pursuits.
Not only did our young king party, he also spent a lot of time beheading calves so as to immune himself to the sight of blood, and then of course there was his predilection for hunting bears with a cudgel. Yup, you heard: the king would dispatch these poor creatures with various blows to their head. Not as dangerous as it sounds, as the king always ensured there was a net between him and the poor animal – just in case.
To give him his due, Karl XII also worked quite hard, spending substantial hours with his principal advisor as he managed his extensive realm. A teenager with a worth-ethics, coupled with a penchant for blood-sports – here we had a warrior king in the making! Karl XII couldn’t have agreed more – all he needed was a reason to go to war.
Soon enough, King Augustus (Frederick to his friends) gave him such a reason. Augustus was the Elector of Saxony, and since 1697 he was also King of Poland. Colluding with the Danish king and the as yet rather young Peter I of Russia, he attempted to take a big chunk out of the Swedish pie. So began the Great Northern War.
Narva – the capitulation of the Russians
In 1700, our young king set off to teach upstart Augustus a lesson, and along the way he casually won one of Sweden’s largest ever victories, when his army of 8 000 defeated Tsar Peter’s 80 000 (although some say they were only 40 000) at Narva. The Swedish forces took so many prisoners they did not have the men with whom to guard them, so instead they disarmed them and sent them off to survive as well as they could in the icy November weather before throwing themselves at the huge amounts of vodka they’d captured with the Russian baggage train. At eighteen, the Swedish lion had roared – loud enough that all the rest of Europe sat up straight.
To Karl, the victory at Narva proved that Tsar Peter was an inconsequential nobody – well, beyond being extraordinarily tall. Augustus, however, needed to be brought to heel. Karl won one victory after the other, and at one point Augustus even dispatched his Swedish mistress, the beautiful Aurora Köningsmarck to plead his case. (Read more about Aurora here) Karl remained uninterested in women, so that didn’t help much, and instead Augustus had to make a most abject and humiliating submission. He was dethroned in Poland, crawled and wept, and Karl was satisfied – for now.
Tsar Peter embracing his medieval side
All this took a couple of years, and that inconsequential chappie, Tsar Peter (and you can read more about him here), had not exactly spent all that time lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. All too late, Karl realised that this Russian bear was impervious to Swedish cudgels, annexing one piece after the other of Swedish territory round Neva. As you all may know, Peter was presently busy building himself a glorious modern city on the Neva – the soon-to-be Russian capital St Petersburg.
Karl did a u-turn with his army and marched east, this time to once and for all whack Peter over the head. He decided to march on Moscow. Like so many have learnt at their peril since, marching on Moscow is never a good idea.
Initially, things went well for the disciplined Swedish army. In the marshy terrain round an obscure place called Holowczyn, the Swedes carried the day, this because the king ordered them to wade through the swollen waters to attack their enemies where they least expected it. Karl went first. The water reached them well over their waist, and seeing as none of these gents knew how to swim one must either applaud them for their bravery or sigh at their recklessness. (As an aside, army rules dictated that any Swedish soldier who indulged in outdoors bathing was to be flogged. No idea why…)
An immediate result of all that water wading was that the gunpowder became damp, and so the Swedish troops jumped the Russians with sword in hand rather than loaded muskets. The king was a big fan of sword in hand – all those beheaded calves had given him ample practise in how to dispatch his enemies.
The victory at Holowczyn proved hollow. While the road to Moscow now lay open, the Russians had (as they’ve done on so many occasions since) burnt the land, leaving a barren waste. Karl XII was also still waiting for his reinforcements – not only more men, but also food and ammunition and all that other stuff an army needed. When they finally arrived, they were much depleted, having had to fight their own battles to reach the king. The food had been abandoned along the way, and it was a hungry Swedish army that settled down in Ukraine to survive the winter of 1708.
It was the winter of all winters. The Baltic sea froze, as did the straits between Sweden and Denmark. In Russia, it was so cold people froze to death while out walking or riding, and the poor Swedish soldiers saw their own share of such deaths – as described in the surviving diaries. It was cold, there was not enough food, and there was no way of returning home – not when venturing outside was the equivalent of risking death through exposure.
Finally, spring came, and Karl emerged from his winter quarters as aggravated as a newly-awakened hibernating bear. After feeding his men as well as he could, Karl XII turned his attention to Poltava, a Russian fortress in a crucial position. Karl XII wanted the fortress and laid siege. Tsar Peter set himself at the front of a gigantic army and came to the rescue of his beleaguered garrison.
The Battle of Poltava took place in June of 1709. At the time Karl XII was sunk in a fever, having been shot in the foot with a subsequent infection, and so the command of the Swedish troops went to Field Marshal Rehnsköld who unfortunately was at loggerheads with all the other Swedish officers.
Had things ended differently had Karl XII been hale? We don’t know, but whatever the case, the Russian army more of less annihilated the Swedish infantry, who suffered from lack of gunpowder. The Swedish cavalry was forced to retreat, making for the river Dnepr. Once there, Karl XII and four hundred of his men forded the river and made for Turkey, hoping to find reinforcements. The rest of the Swedish army was preparing to cross the river when the advancing Russian army caught up with them. There was no hope of winning a confrontation, so the officer in charge saw no choice but to capitulate. Eighteen thousand Swedish soldiers were taken prisoner. Very few were ever to see their homeland again, and the majority would die toiling in Russian mines or Russian fields.
By now, it was close to a decade since Karl XII had set foot in Sweden. One would have thought he wanted nothing as much as to return home, especially as Sweden was losing territories right left and centre to Denmark and various principalities. Augustus was back as king of Poland, and in Sweden people were becoming more than upset by this sequence of losses.
The king, however, did not return home. Instead, for the coming five years he remained as a “guest” of the Turkish Sultan, whom he managed to convince to declare war on Tsar Peter – three times!
The Skirmish in Bender
After the third time, the Sultan wanted nothing as much as to oust this unwelcome guest. Karl XII was having none of it, and so the Sultan was obliged to set his army on him. The resulting event is known as the “Skirmish at Bender”. On the one side, approximately 50 Swedish soldiers led by the king. On the other, 10 000 Ottoman soldiers. The king barricaded himself in his house, and the fighting raged for over seven hours, at which point the Ottomans launched fire arrows, setting the house ablaze. The king exited in haste, still with sword in hand, but unfortunately he tripped over his spurs and so the Ottoman soldiers could finally overcome him. Karl, it is said, was happier than he’d been in years, feeling more invigorated by the fighting. The Sultan was less so, and Karl XII was now effectively a prisoner.
From a cultural perspective, one could argue that this extended stay in Turkey was about the only thing Karl XII contributed to his country, as when he finally returned to Sweden he brought along not only a number of Turkish merchants and money-lenders (the king owed them astronomical sums) but also a fondness for Turkish design and refinement as well as for a Turkish dish called dolma – these days, the Swedish “kåldolme” is a descendant of that Turkish delicacy.
Anyway: the Sultan and Tsar Peter negotiated yet another treaty, according to which Karl XII was allowed to ride through Russian territory to go back to Sweden. And once back home, Karl XII was to discover he was now at war not only with Denmark and Russia (things had not really been sorted with the tsar) but also with Prussia and Hannover. Even worse, that Hannoverian shmuck of a prince had recently become the king of England, previously a valuable Swedish ally. Things were, putting it mildly, not good.
George I, at the time of his ascension
A meeting was set up in Copenhagen: the Danish king, George I of England and Tsar Peter were to sit in the same room and discuss just how to destroy what remained of the Swedish Empire. Peter came with close to 20 000 men, making the Danish king understandably nervous. After all, what was to stop Peter from invading Denmark once he’d dealt with Sweden? Even better – from a Swedish perspective – George and Peter detested each other. The planned coalition fell apart before it even started, so to say, and Sweden could exhale in relief.
Fortunately for Karl XII, he had a couple of very able men at his side, and in particular a certain diplomat called Görtz, who more or less singlehandedly manged to negotiate his way through the labyrinthic mess of all these ongoing conflicts.
James Francis Edward, the Old Pretender
Not so fortunately for Görtz, Karl was a creative king, and after casting about for ways to truly annoy Georgie-porgie, he decided to finance James Francis Edward Stuart’s attempt to regain his crown. A Catholic pretender bankrolled by a most Protestant king – although devout, Karl XII does not seem to have bothered overmuch with religious differences. Or women. The man was as yet unmarried, and showed no inclination to do anything about it, repeating ad nauseam that he was married to his army. There are no indications he ever had a mistress, nor are there whispers of intimacies with men. The king, it seemed, was uninterested in all things sexual.
The Jacobean rebellion failed, and poor Görtz ended up imprisoned in Holland on George’s orders. The king already had his attention focussed elsewhere: he was going after Norway, at the time part of the Danish kingdom. His people groaned under ever heavier taxes. They were sick of war and strife – far too many had lost sons and fathers, men and brothers in the king’s various conflicts. Careful suggestions were made that maybe the king should desists from all this war, settle down and go back to simple pursuits such as bear-bashing.
Rather harshly, the king reminded his council that Sweden was an absolute monarchy, and so when he said jump, people had best jump – or be prepared to bear the consequences. The result: in 1718 Karl XII and his army went to Norway, while at home opposition grew, to a large extent headed by Frederick of Hessen, Karl XII’s brother-in-law, married to Ulrika Eleonora. (Not the same Frederick Karl went carousing with in his younger years. This Frederick was much savvier and would, once his dear wife became queen, cunningly edge himself into the seat of power and have himself proclaimed king…)
The dead Karl XII being carried home to Sweden
The king returned from Norway in a coffin. So what happened in Fredrikshald, Norway? Was the king the victim of enemy fire, or was he murdered by one of his own men? Various historians have pondered this over the intervening centuries, and these days the general opinion seems to be that the king was shot by a Norwegian musketeer. Personally, I still find it plausible that some Swede or other thought “Enough!” and shot the man who single-handedly had brought about so much suffering for the Swedish people.
Karl was the last absolute monarch to govern Sweden. During his twenty years as king, he caused more Swedish deaths than all other Swedish kings put together. Actually, he caused a lot of death elsewhere as well, having little consideration for the civilians who suffered as his army rode back and forth. Undoubtedly, he was a brilliant military commander and his exploits led to Voltaire writing a biography that reads more like a panegyric than a balanced assessment. For very many years, Karl XII was hailed as a hero, our last true Swedish warrior king. These days, the jury is out.
The king himself has little to say for himself. He has left very little behind in the form of personal letters or notes – this was a man of action rather than reflection, and so we will never know what he thought or felt at the more decisive moments in his life. An enigma, this boy who became a king and led the Swedish army to glory and ruin before dying, most ingloriously, on the 30th of November, 1718.