Karl XII of Sweden (1682-1718)


King of Sweden, 1697-1718. “Lion of the North.” He succeeded his father, Karl XI, two months shy of his 15th birthday. From his earliest boyhood, he was fascinated by all things military-in a manner reminiscent of his lifelong bete noir, Peter I. The early death of his warrior father encouraged Sweden’s enemies to underestimate the new boy-king, and seek to take political and military advantage of his inexperience. Impetuous and headstrong, Karl XII inherited a superbly professional Swedish Army, albeit one that had not fought a battle since its victory in the Scanian War (1674-1679). He led this force against a coordinated Danish, Polish, and Russian attack that launched the Great Northern War (1700-1721). He benefited greatly from wise choices to retain his father’s generals, most notably Karl Gustaf Rehnsköld, and to expand the Army from 65,000 to about 75,000 men. He quickly defeated the Danes in 1700 by braving a landing on the island of Zealand that threatened Copenhagen. He immediately turned and humbled the Russians and their tsar at Narva (November 19/30, 1700). Thereafter, he turned south into Poland, against the vehement counsel of his top advisors, most of whom said he should finish off Peter and Russia first and who also feared what they thought was the greater power of the Polish Commonwealth. Instead, Karl deposed the Polish king, Augustus II, and set his own candidate, Stanislaw I, on the throne.

Throughout this early period, his instincts as a warrior in the grand tradition of the House of Vasa amplified the core professionalism of the Army he inherited. As good as the Army was, this was a youthful monarch who loved war far too much for a small state with an economy and population base unable to sustain conflict for as long as would be needed to fulfill his extreme ambitions. Karl was an unusually puritanical king, even for so Spartan a Protestant people as 18th-century Swedes. He disdained alcohol, for instance, in profound contrast to the regular and indeed perverse debauchery indulged by his great enemy Peter of Russia. Karl also refused to wear the compulsory gentleman’s wig, and preferred to dress in a plain blue uniform that abjured lace or other decoration. His dress was no affectation. It was a type of practical uniform born of a habit and preference that reflected his only real interest in adult life: making war.

Karl XII was only happy in the saddle and on campaign to defend or expand the Swedish Empire. After leaving Stockholm at the start of the Great Northern War in 1700, he spent the next, and last, 18 years of his life on one campaign or another. He usually led from the front, a fact much praised for its courage and widely criticized as reckless. His compulsive warrior’s behavior seemed Alexandrian to admirers then and since, but it was unlike that of any other contemporary European monarch. Most of his sovereign peers and lesser kings and barons were busy constructing comfortable miniature Versailles palaces in baroque emulation of Louis XIV, or were at war themselves with the “Grande Monarque.” One explanation of his tactics is that they worked, at least until they no longer did. More fundamentally, they flowed from a long-standing, aggressive Swedish military culture of “gå på” (“At them!”). This approach to war permitted Swedish forces to repeatedly defeat much larger Russian, Polish, and Saxon armies. Swedish tactics emphasized astonishing cavalry and infantry charges. The latter were often made with Karl or his commanders exhorting men not to fire their muskets but instead use their bayonets, swords, and pikes.

A major reason for Karl’s odd behavior at the operational and strategic levels is that he was fixated on the personalities of his enemies, first Augustus and later Peter, against whom he raged, plotted, and made war without due consideration of other important factors. He would have been well served, for instance, to study Polish and Lithuanian politics. Instead, utterly failing to comprehend the internal dynamics of his enemies, he intervened in Poland-Lithuania’s chaotic civil war and made the major error of supporting the detested Sapiehas faction. Had he studied geopolitics and grand strategy, he might not have waited to attack Peter in Moscow, providing that clever tsar the vital years he needed to recover from Narva, reform the Russian Army, and build up his Navy and new capital. But Karl would not make peace in Poland unless Augustus was driven forever from that land. This opened the door to Peter to make an alliance with the Lithuanian szlachta in Karl’s strategic rear once Augustus could no longer defend them from Swedish depredations and contributions. Nor could Karl bring himself to make peace with Russia while it was still governed by Peter, or deny himself the temptation to invade and punish the tsar.

Engorged with a personal hatred for Peter that Marlborough noted when he met the Swedish king, Karl invaded Russia in 1708. He very nearly captured Peter, but then Karl turned south a second time, eventually marching all the way to Ukraine in pursuit of Cossack allies as well as food and forage for his starving men. In June 1709, he was wounded in the foot and was soon prostrate with high fever. Unable to mount or ride, he was carried about on a stretcher. Lacking guns, supplies, or enough men, he still chose to attack the Russian camp at Poltava (June 27/July 8, 1709). As a result, he lost his entire army and, in time, his empire. He left behind on the fields of Poltava 10,000 dead and 14,000 more who were taken prisoner as he was carried into enforced exile by his personal guard.

His initial acceptance by the Sublime Porte eventually turned into gentle imprisonment at Ottoman hands. While in his camp inside Ottoman borders, he was effectively a prisoner of Russo-Ottoman relations. He stayed there for several years, encamped along the Dniester River, begging the sultan to open a southern front against Russia, while Peter and Karl’s many enemies in the north picked at the increasingly exposed bones of the Swedish Empire. Despairing of any strategic hopes or gains from staying longer in the south, and swooped down upon and taken prisoner by the sultan in 1714, Karl was finally permitted to return north by an Ottoman court tired of his intrigues and more wary of Peter’s. He traveled overland through eastern Europe to finally arrive in Swedish Pomerania. To get there, he was forced to travel through Austria and Germany, disguised with a wig and false mustache. He was just in time to defend Straslund from assault, but only until he was forced to abandon the fortress in December 1715.

Karl returned to Sweden in the new year, touching its soil for the first time since 1702. He raised a new army, which included many boys, from the scrapings of Swedish resources. This was not the same professional force with which he had invaded Poland, suppressed Saxony, and attacked Russia. Leaving those more powerful enemies aside, Karl resumed campaigning against the Danes in Norway. He was also tied down in fighting with Hanover, Prussia, and Saxony. He attacked into Norway in 1717 and again in 1718. His ambitions were undimmed by his earlier failures and years of exile. Something of a strategic as well as tactical berserker, he contemplated a scheme to displace the Stuarts from the Scottish throne as a roundabout means of getting at his enemies in Hanover, who now also reigned in Great Britain. Just 36 years old, he was killed on November 30/December 11, 1718, while peering over the ramparts to watch sappers dig zig-zags toward the Danish works at the siege of Fredrikshald (Fredriksten) in Norway. The mortal wound was caused by a musket ball passing through his head. It is uncertain if the fatal ball was fired by an enemy or fired ineptly by one of Karl’s own men.

Karl XII’s wars, and especially his ill-advised and stubbornly pursued invasion of Russia and Ukraine, amounted to an extraordinary imperial overreach that crippled Sweden as a major power, and ensured that it lost its Baltic empire and suffered a permanent fall from the ranks of the Great Powers. None of those facts prevented a martial myth from growing up around Karl’s supposed battlefield virtuosity that in certain respects survives today. It is best to take a more balanced view, agreeing that, at times, Karl displayed real tactical brilliance, such as during his great offensive campaigns of 1702-1706, but equally recognizing that Karl lacked operational and strategic vision, and that his hubris and unquelled personal hatreds ultimately birthed military disaster.

Suggested Reading: R. Hatton, Charles XII (1968).


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