1902 Encyclopedia > Charles XII, King of Sweden

Charles XII
King of Sweden
(1682-1718)




CHARLES XII, king of Sweden, was born at Stockholm on June 27, 1682. He received an excellent education, and was able to speak German, French, and Latin fluently. In the spring of 1697 his father, Charles XI., died, and the prince, then only in his fifteenth year, was declared of age by the States-General and invested with the royal authority. As might have been expected, the boy-king showed himself but little disposed for state affairs. His time was divided between study and amusement ; now he was poring over the exploits of Alexander in the pages of Quintus Curtius, now spending whole hours in gymnastic exercises, or joining a hunting party in the pursuit of the bear; and thus he was rapidly developing the iron strength of constitution which he displayed in his subsequent campaigns. At this juncture Frederick IV., king of Denmark, conceived the idea of wresting the crown from the young king, and adding Sweden to his possessions in the Scandinavian peninsula, and Augustus II., king of Poland and elector of Saxony, and the czar, Peter the Great, agreed to second his enterprize by seizing the continental provinces of Sweden. The Danes struck the first blow by invading the territories of Holstein Gottorp, and the duke, who had married the sister of Charles, fled to Stockholm and begged for assistance to recover his states. Charles proposed immediate operations against Denmark, confident in his own prowess and in promises of substantial aid received from the court of St James's, for William of Orange saw in Sweden a valuable ally for his Continental policy, and was resolved not to allow the balance of power in the north to be destroyed by the triple alliance. Sir George Rooke, with an Anglo-Dutch squadron, formed a junction with the Swedish fleet, and at the head of fifty-four sail of the line swept the Baltic, drove the Danish fleet into Copenhagen, and bombarded the city, doing, however, little damage. Meanwhile Charles had landed in Zealand with a Swedish army, leading his troops to the shore in person, and wading through the water up to his chin in his eagerness to land. The Danes, inferior in numbers, retired before him, and Frederick seeing his capital threatened with a siege by land and sea, abandoned the triple alliance, and sued for peace, leaving Charles free to turn his arms against Russia and Poland.

From this campaign we may date Charles's assumption of those Spartan manners which distinguished him for the rest of his life. He gave up the use of wine ; at night he slept upon his cloak spread upon the floor of his room or on the ground in the open air. His dress was of the plainest, his whole wavurobe consisting of a suit of blue cloth with copper buttons. He seemed to care for no pleasure or amusement; he had an amount of endurance which defied fatigue, and he was alike insensible to the heat of summer and the almost arctic cold of a northern winter. Hardy, brave to the extent of recklessness, capable of inspiring in his followers personal devotion to himself, and with all that astute and sagacious in council, he was the very model of a soldier king. Yet in the end Sweden reaped no advantage even from his victories. He had left Stockholm to defend the country from a pressing danger, but once he had tasted the pleasures of military success, he allowed himself to be allured onward to a career of conquest, and he never saw his capital again.

When Frederick sued for peace, Peter the Great was threatening Narva and the Swedish province of Livonia on the Gulf of Finland, while Augustus II., elector of Saxony and king of Poland, was besieging Riga, then a Swedish town. Charles disembarked in Livonia with 20,000 men. The Russian army, said to have been 50,000 strong, lay before Narva in an entrenched camp. With 10,000 of the splendidly disciplined infantry of Sweden, Charles attacked them there on November 30, 1700. In a quarter of an hour the camp was stormed, and the Russian army, which must have been largely composed of raw troops, was completely routed and dispersed. Turning southward, Charles marched against the Saxons and Poles, defeated them on the banks of the Dwina, and raised the siege of Riga. He might now have dictated a peace which would have given Sweden an undisputed pre-eminence in Northern Europe. But his ambition was aroused; Augustus was by no means a popular king, and while continuing the war against him, Charles intrigued with the party adverse to him in Poland. The Saxon army of Augustus was defeated in the battle of Clissow (1703), and Poland was occupied by the victorious Swedes. Radziejowski, the cardinal primate, declared the throne vacant, and under the influence of Charles, the diet conferred the crown upon his friend Stanislas Leszczynski, the young palatine of Posnania. But even now Charles would not sheath the sword. He carried the war into Saxony, overran the hereditary states of Augustus, and in 1706 dictated to him the peace of Altranstädt, by which Augustus resigned all claim to the throne of Poland, and further agreed to give up to the conqueror John Reginald Patkul, the ambassador of the czar at Dresden. Patkul was by birth a Livonian, and therefore a subject of Sweden, but he had transferred his allegiance to Russia, and it was said that he was the real author of the league between Russia, Poland, and Denmark. It was very doubtful if he could have been adjudged guilty of treason, and in any case his position as ambassador ought to have protected him; but Charles thought only of vengeance, and after the form of a trial had been gone through, Patkul was condemned to be broken on the wheel, and the cruel sentence was executed, the king refusing to mitigate it in the least degree. The whole affair has left an indelible blot upon his memory, and it shows how much of vindictive passion was concealed under a perfectly impassive exterior. Even had Charles been willing now to bring the war to a close, the execution of his ambassador would not have allowed the czar to accept a peace. Twice he invaded Poland, but each time he had to retire before the Swedes. By the autumn of 1707 Charles had collected 43,000 men in Saxony; a reserve of 20,000 under General Levenhaupt was in Poland, and a third army, 15,000 strong, was upon the frontier of Finland. In the following January, in the midst of the ice and snow, he suddenly broke up his camp, marched against the Russians, surprised and almost captured the czar at Grodno, and then continued his advance, driving the Russians before him, and defeating them in numerous encounters. He had forced the Beresina and won a battle near Sniolensko, and the way to Moscow lay almost open before him, when, to the surprise of his army, he turned southward to the district of the Ukraine. The fact was that he had a secret treaty of alliance with the hetmann of the Cossacks of the Ukraine, Mazeppa, whose romantic story has been made so famous by the verse of Byron. The hetmann had promised to join the Swedes with 30,000 Cossacks and abundant supplies. But when, after a difficult march, Charles reached the Ukraine, he found that the Russians had discovered and frustrated Mazeppa's design, and the hetmann brought him only a handful of followers. Nor was this his only disappointment. A reinforcement of 15,000 men under Levenhaupt was intercepted and cut to pieces by the czar, and after wasting the summer in a desultory warfare, the Swedes found themselves overtaken by the severe winter of 1708-1709 in the midst of an enemy's country. Still Charles would not abandon the idea of reaching Moscow. Though his army was reduced by cold and privations to 23,000 men, he maintained himself till spring, and then besieged the fortress of Pultowa. The place held out until July, when the czar approached at the head of a large army. On the 7th Charles was wounded in reconnoitring the enemy. In the famous battle which took place next day he had to be carried in a litter amongst his staff. The battle ended in the complete defeat of the Swedes. Charles, leaving most of his officers prisoners in the hands of the enemy, fled with a few attendants across the Bug into theTurkish territories, and was hospitably received by the Turks at Bender on the Dniester.

Charles resided three years in Turkey, during all which time his expenses, and those of his numerous household, were paid by the Turkish Government, in accordance with a very liberal interpretation of the Eastern law of hospitality. From the day of his arrival at Bender his constant aim was to involve Russia and Turkey in war. He succeeded in producing an outbreak of hostilities; the Turks outmanoeuvred and surrounded Peter and his army on the banks of the Pruth, and the czar would have been either killed or taken had not his wife Catherine, by her energy and courage, obtained an armistice for him on favourable terms from the grand vizier. Removing his residence to Vranitza, where his followers formed a little camp around the strongly-built house in which he lived, Charles continued his intrigues to produce another war with Russia, and though once on the point of success, he eventually failed, and the counter-intrigues of the czar began to produce an effect at Constantinople. At this time Charles occupied a very humiliating position, short of money, afraid to leave Turkey for fear of falling into an enemy's hands, dreading at any moment to be betrayed by the Turks, and knowing that all his conquests had been useless, and that the Swedish provinces were being invaded by Danes, Saxons, Poles, and Russians. The Porte displayed a singular amount of patience in treating with him, but at length it became evident that so long as Charles felt himself safe among his Polish and Swedish guards at Vranitza he would not leave Turkey. A f etva of the Sheikhul-Islam declared that the rights of hospitality would not now be violated by his forcible removal, and Ismael Pacha, the governor of the district, received orders to seize him dead or alive.

Charles having persistently refused to come to terms, Ismael, with several thousand janissaries and Tartars, surprised the little camp and took his 300 guards prisoners ; he then attacked the house held by Charles and forty of his suite. The king defended himself desperately; the house was set on fire over his head, and he was retiring, driven out by the flames, when his spurs became entangled, and he fell and was secured and disarmed by the janissaries. His eyebrows were singed and his clothes torn and stained with blood. For a while he was kept in honourable imprisonment, then he was allowed to reside with a few attendants at Demotica, where he still spoke of departing escorted by a Turkish army, and feigned illness in order to gain time for negotiations, which in the end led to nothing. The king of Prussia was desirous of forming a league with him against the czar, and would have secured for him an honourable return to his states, the one condition being that Stanislas should abdicate and Augustus II. be recognized as king of Poland, Stanislas was quite willing to abandon his doubtful claim to the throne, but Charles with characteristic obstinacy refused to listen to the proposal. " If," he said, " my friend Stanislas will not be king, I can find some one else to take his place." At length he saw that there was no chance of the Porte granting his demands, and sending his respectful adieux to Constantinople, he set out suddenly with only two attendants, and travelling unceasingly, riding by day and sleeping in a carriage or cart at night, he passed through the Austrian territories, Bavaria, Westphalia, and Mecklenburg, and thus avoiding the districts held by his enemies, reached his own town of Stralsund, in Swedish Pomerania, late at night, on November 21, 1714, after a journey of sixteen days. He announced himself as a Swedish officer charged with important despatches from Bender. The governor received him at once in his bedroom, and asking for news of the king, recognized Charles by the sound of his voice when he replied, and the tidings of his arrival soon spread through the city, which was illuminated for the rest of the night. The return of Charles only drew more closely the alliance between the powers which had been plotting in his absence the dismemberment of Sweden. Stralsund was besieged by a combined army of Saxons, Danes, Prussians, and Russians. Charles made a protracted defence, but on December 23, 1715, the place was forced to capitulate, the king embarking immediately before the surrender, and taking up his residence at Lund in Scania.

Arrived in Sweden, he took measures to protect the coasts of the kingdom against a descent of his enemies, and with a small army invaded Norway in March 1716 ; he overran a large part of the country, but was forced to retire for want of supplies. About this time the Baron von Görtz, a German officer, who had during his stay in Turkey become his principal adviser, proposed to him a complete change of policy, and Charles immediately accepted the scheme which Görtz had elaborated, and of which he had already executed some of the preliminaries. He proposed that Charles should make peace with the czar, cede to him the Baltic provinces of Sweden, and gain his alliance. The allies were to replace Stanislas on the throne of Poland and restore the duke of Holstein to his. states which had been seized by Denmark. Charles was to invade and conquer Norway, and then land a small army in Scotland, and with the help of the Jacobites, restore the house of Stuart in England, Cardinal Alberoni, then all-powerful in Spain, promising to assist in the accomplishment of this part of the project. The other allies had lately been showing a marked jealousy of the growing power of the czar, and it was no difficult matter for Görtz to detach him from the alliance and negotiate peace on the part of Sweden. This first step being successfully accomplished, Charles burst into Norway, speedily occupied several provinces, and in the early winter of 1718 besieged Fredrikshall, a strong fortress, which was regarded as the key of Norway. On Sunday, November 30, accompanied by his staff, and by Siguier and Maigret, two French officers in his service, he visited the trenches in the afternoon. Arrived in the foremost trench he found fault with the progress of the work, sent for some more sappers, and leaning on the gabions in front of the trench, himself directed their operations. Night came on rapidly, but still he remained there exposed to the shot of the fortress, for the Danes threw up light-balls, and kept up a continual fire from their batteries. His officers in vain endeavoured to persuade him to retire from his dangerous post, he obstinately refused even to shelter himself behind the gabions, though several of those around him had been struck, and about nine o'clock, when the moon had risen and shining on the snow made the night almost as bright as day, a weil-aimed shot struck him on the temple, his head fell forward, his hand instinctively grasped his sword hilt, and his officers running up found him leaning over the gabions dead. A musket ball had passed through his head, destroying his left eye and driving the right out of its orbit. The shot put an end at once to the invasion of Norway, the projects of Görtz, and the power of Sweden in the north of Europe.

Before the end of the following year it began to be whispered that the shot which killed Charles came not from the ramparts of Fredrikshall, but from the Swedish trenches. The two French officers were in turn pointed out as the probable assassins, and Siguier in the ravings of fever actually charged himself with the murder. On his recovery he denied it, but his involuntary self-accusation was generally believed in preference to his denial. Others laid the alleged crime upon the Swedish generals Cronstadt and Stiernross, and it was said that they had been bribed to break up the project of Görtz by a successful pistol-shot before Fredrikshall. In 1746 the tomb of Charles XII. was opened and the remains were examined in order to see if in this way the question could be settled. The officials charged with the examination seem to have known very little about surgery. They at first suggested that the hole through the skull was made by a dagger; then apparently misled by their ignorance of the well-known fact that the wound at the point of exit is almost invariably larger than that at the point where the bullet enters, they alleged that the ball had struck the right side of the king's head, which was turned away from the fortress. This naturally confirmed the belief that he had been assassinated, although a great mass of concurrent testimony tended to exculpate every one who had been charged with the crime. To solve the mystery of his death, the body was again exhumed by Charles XV., so recently as 1859, when a careful examination of the skull by three eminent medical professors led to the conclusion that the fatal shot had been fired from a distance on the king's left, and from a higher level than that on which he stood. Thus it was finally proved that Charles fell, not by the hand of a traitor, but from his recklessly exposing himself to the fire of the fortress.

The character of Charles was a strange mixture of good and evil. In him almost everything was vitiated by a kind of exaggeration. Thus his courage at times degenerated into rashness, his determination into mere obstinacy. While we praise his temperate and simple habits, we cannot be sure that, in despising the ostentation and luxury of his brother kings, he was not actuated by a subtle vanity that made him more proud of the blue coat with copper buttons than another would have been of a richly embroidered uniform. His victories and conquests are all the more wonderful when we consider how young he was at the time of his greatest achievements. He was only eighteen when he extorted a peace from Frederick of Denmark and defeated the Russians at Narva, and he was only twenty-one when the victory of Clissow made him master of the destinies of Poland. War had not in those days the lightning rapidity of modern times, or Charles might have more than rivalled the victories of the first Napoleon. But he was really little more than a soldier; as a statesman he must be placed below the second rank, and the only result of his reign was the weakening and impoverishment of his kingdom. He found Sweden one of the first powers of Europe, he left her fallen to a secondary place, and she has never recovered her former position.

See the histories written by his chaplain Norberg and by Alderfield, one of his officers. Voltaire's well-known memoir is useful,but contains several inaccuracies. There are also very full biographies by Fryxell and Lundblad. Among contemporary publications there is a curious account of his wars " by a Scots gentleman in the Swedish service," the first edition of which appeared in London in 1715, before the death of Charles, the second in 1718. The real author was Daniel Defoe. (A. H. A.)









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