Charles XII, the last Swedish warrior king

Karol XII Wittelsbach was the last absolute king of Sweden and ruler, who continued the tradition of conquests initiated by his ancestors. He was blessed with a huge military talent, called the “Viking king” because of his appearance and courage in battlefields. His life and his government were short and his death ended with the Swedish supremacy in northern Europe.

Born in 1682, young Charles became King of Sweden at the age of 15. The ruler had the appearance of a real Scandinavian Viking – it was a clairvoyant giant of great physical strength and, as it was supposed to turn out later, a similar approach to conducting the politics of conquests. As a warrior he was characterized by ruthlessness and unprecedented fortitude, but most of all he was an extremely talented commander, able to perform miracles on the battlefield.

Swedish King Charles XII Wittelsbach
Painting: Hyacinthe Rigault via Wikimedia Commons

Charles inherited the state with the status of a European empire, at the top of his military power. In 1699 Denmark, Saxony and Russia entered into an alliance against Sweden’s hegemony. Rather than confining himself to defense, Charles decided to eliminate his enemies in turn and first defeated Denmark immediately, and then, without hesitation, shifted his forces eastwards to Inflanty, going to the rescue of the Narwa Fortress, besieged by the Russians.

The Swedish army that arrived on the Narew river was about 10 thousand people. Opposing each other, the Russian army had almost 40,000 soldiers, but having such a large majority of the Tsar’s forces were less well-trained, less equipped, and also commanded by French officers, who most often did not understand each other with their sub-dominant ones. Charles XII skillfully divided the poorly commanded wings of the enemy and won the entire battle, totally crushing the Russian army, losing only a few hundred soldiers. The Russians have lost 15 000 people, all the flags and all the guns.

Russians capitulate under Narew before Charles XII
Painting: Gustaf Cederström via Wikimedia Commons

A similar situation also happened in 1701 near Dźwina, where the Swedish ruler defeated the combined army of Saxony-Russian forces under the command of fieldmarshal Adam Henryk von Steinau. Thus, after both of these battles, Charles’ legend was born as a brilliant commander, who enjoyed the great trust of his people. At the same time, soon afterwards, the young ruler made his greatest political mistake, which in the long run cost Sweden the position of a superpower – instead of pursuing and eventually defeating Russia, Charles decided to eliminate the Saxons from the war.

In 1702 under Kliszów the Swedish army, which 100 years earlier had been “torn apart” by the Polish winged hussars, had no problem with breaking the Saxo – Polish army. In the following years he methodically broke down Saxons’ resistance points, and in 1706 forced Augustus the Strong to abdicate.

Battle of Poltava
Painting: Pierre-Denis Martin via Wikimedia Commons

After getting rid of the Saxons, Karol turned his eyes towards Russia and started marching to Moscow. For the 30,000th Anglo-Swedish army, the campaign did not start with their thoughts: first of all, on the borderland of Mazovia and Lithuania, Charles’s people were heavily shaken by the indigenous Kurpian tribe, causing the Swedes to lose about 1,000 people and thousands of horses. Then they were stopped by the ruthless Russian winter and the strategy of burnt land, which was guided by the retreating Russians (100 years later Napoleon Bonaparte fell into the same trap). The Swedes suffered from frost, lack of food and falling morale. After losing the battle of Lesnaya, in 1708 Karol went to Ukraine to attempt to establish an alliance with the Cossacks of Hetman Ivan Mazepa. Historians described the horror of a Ukrainian hetman when he learned about the approaching Swedes. Then he had to say the words “now we both perish, he and I!” He was right.(Mazepa died shortly after they later escaped to Turkey).

Charles XII and Ivan Mazepa after the Battle of Poltava
Painting: Gustaf Cederström via Wikimedia Commons

In 1709, the famous Battle of Poltava took place, where the Russian army, rebuilt by Peter I, had a huge advantage, well equipped and rested by the Russian army defeated the Swedish-Cossack forces of Karol XII. Wittelsbach managed to escape from the battle and managed to hide in Turkey, which he persuaded for war with Russia, then won by Turkey. In 1713 Charles in disguise went back to Sweden.

The war against the anti-Swedish coalition continued, and Charles decided to attack the Danish-owned Norway. In 1718, during the siege of the Fredrikshald fortress, he died on the spot after being hit by a rifle ball in his head, shot by one of the defenders.

Charles XII’s body, a visible hole obtained under Fredrikshald. Photograph from 1917.

Charles XII Wittelsbach’s death ended the era of Swedish Hegemony in northern Europe. He was the last absolute ruler, the last warrior – king, who continued the policy of conquests initiated by his predecessors. The Swedish army never regained the strength and greatness it presented under Charles, and his military genius is often mentioned by contemporary historians and also in artistic works. Below you will find one of the pieces by the Swedish metal band Sabaton from their album “Carolus Rex” telling the story of Charles.


Source Britannica Encyklopedia PWN TV Republika

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