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Charles X of Sweden

Karl X Gustav

Portrait by Sébastien Bourdon (1653)
ReignJune 6, 1654-February 13, 1660
CoronationJune 6, 1654
Royal motto "In Jehovah sors mea, ipse faciet"
("In God my destiny - He will do it")
QueenHedwig Eleonora of Holstein-Gottorp
Royal HousePfalz
PredecessorChristina of Sweden
SuccessorCharles XI of Sweden
Date of BirthNovember 8, 1622
Place of BirthNyköping, Sudermannia
Date of DeathFebruary 13, 1660
Place of DeathGothenburg
Place of BurialRiddarholmskyrkan, Stockholm

Charles X or Karl X Gustav (1622-1660), king of Sweden, son of John Casimir, Margrave of Pfalz-Zweibrücken, and Catherine, sister of Gustavus Adolphus, was born at the Castle of Nyköping on November 8, 1622. He reigned as king of Sweden from 1654-1660. He was married to Hedwig Eleonora of Holstein-Gottorp (1636-1715) produced the son and successor, king Charles XI of Sweden.

Heir to the throne

He learnt the art of war under the great Lennart Torstenson, being present at the second battle of Breitenfeld and at Jankowitz. From 1646 to 1648 he frequented the Swedish court. It was supposed that he would marry the queen regnant, Christina of Sweden, but her insurmountable objection to wedlock put an end to these anticipations, and to compensate her cousin for a broken half-promise she declared him her successor in 1649, despite the opposition of the Privy Council headed by the venerable Axel Oxenstierna. In 1648 he was appointed commander of the Swedish forces in Germany. The conclusion of the treaties of Westphalia prevented him from winning the military laurels he so ardently desired, but as the Swedish plenipotentiary at the executive congress of Nuremberg, he had unrivalled opportunities of learning diplomacy, in which science he speedily became a past-master. As the recognized heir to the throne, his position on his return to Sweden was not without danger, for ‘the growing discontent with the queen.turned the eyes of thousands to him as a possible deliverer. He therefore withdrew to the isle of Öland till the abdication of Christina on June 5, 1654 called him to the throne.

The beginning of his reign was devoted to the healing of domestic discords, and the rallying of all the forces of the nation round his standard for a new policy of conquest. He contracted a political marriage on October 24, 1654 with Hedwig Leonora, the daughter of duke Frederick III of Holstein-Gottorp, by way of securing a future ally against Denmark. The two great pressing national questions, war and the restitution of the alienated crown lands, were duly considered at the Riksdag which assembled at Stockholm in March 1655. The war question was decided in three days by a secret committee presided over by the king, who easily persuaded the delegates that a war with Poland was necessary and might prove very advantageous; but the consideration of the question of the subsidies due to the crown for military purposes was postponed to the following Riksdag.

War on Poland

On the July 10, Charles quitted Sweden to engage in his Polish adventure, in what came to be the Northern War. By the time war was declared he had at his disposal 50,000 men and 50 warships. Hostilities had already begun with the occupation of Dünaburg in Polish Livonia by the Swedes on July 1, 1655, and the Polish army encamped among the marshes of the Netze concluded a convention, July 25, whereby the palatinates of Posen and Kalisz placed themselves under the protection of the Swedish king. Thereupon the Swedes entered Warsaw without opposition and occupied the whole of Great Poland. The Polish king, John II of Poland, of the House of Vasa fled to Silesia.

Meanwhile Charles pressed on towards Cracow, which was captured after a two months’ siege. The fall of Cracow extinguished the last hope of the boldest Pole; but before the end of the year an extra ordinary reaction began in Poland itself. On the October 18 the Swedes invested the fortress-monastery of Czenstochowa, but the place was heroically defended; and after a seventy days’ siege the besiegers were compelled to retire with great loss. This astounding success elicited an outburst of popular enthusiasm which gave the war a national and religious character. The tactlessness of Charles, the rapacity of his generals, the barbarity of his mercenaries, his refusal to legalize his position by summoning the Polish diet, his negotiations for the partition of the very state he affected to befriend, awoke the long slumbering public spirit of the country. In the beginning of 1656 John II returned from exile and the Polish army was reorganized and increased. By this time Charles had discovered that it was easier to defeat the Poles than to conquer Poland. His chief object, the conquest of Prussia, was still unaccomplished, and a new foe arose in the elector of Brandenburg, alarmed by the ambition of the Swedish king. Charles forced the elector, indeed, at the point of the sword to become his ally and vassal (Treaty of Königsberg); but the Polish national rising now imperatively demanded his presence in the south. For weeks he scoured the interminable snow-covered plains of Poland in pursuit of the Polish guerrillas, penetrating as far south as Jaroslau in Galicia, by which time he had lost two-thirds of his 15,000 men with no apparent result. His retreat from Jaroslau to Warsaw, with the fragments of his’ host, amidst three converging armies, in a marshy forest region, intersected in every direction by well-guarded rivers, was one of his most brilliant achievements. But his necessities were overwhelming. On June 21, Warsaw was retaken by the Poles, and four days later Charles was obliged to purchase the assistance of Friedrich I of Prussia by the treaty of Marienburg. On July 18-20 the combined Swedes and Brandenburgers, 18,000 strong, after a three days’ battle, defeated John II’s army of 100,000 at Warsaw and reoccupied the Polish capital. However this brilliant feat of arms was altogether useless, and when the suspicious attitude of Frederick William compelled the Swedish king at last to open negotiations with the Poles, they refused the terms offered, the war was resumed, and Charles’ concluded an offensive and defensive alliance with the elector of Brandenburg (Treaty of Labiau, November 20) whereby it was agreed that Frederick William and his heirs should henceforth possess the full sovereignty of East Prussia.

War on Denmark

This was an essential modification of Charles's Baltic policy; but the alliance of the elector had now become indispensable on almost any terms. So serious, indeed, were the difficulties of Charles X in Poland that it was with extreme satisfaction that he received the tidings of the Danish declaration of war on June 1, 1657. The hostile action of Denmark enabled him honourably to emerge from the inglorious Polish imbroglio, and he was certain of the zealous support of his own people. He had learnt from Torstensson that Denmark was most vulnerable if attacked from the south, and, imitating the strategy of his master, he fell upon her with a velocity, which paralysed resistance. At the end of June 1657, at the head of 8,000 seasoned veterans, he broke up from Bromberg in Prussia and reached the borders of Holstein on July 18. The Danish army at once dispersed and the duchy of Bremen was recovered by the Swedes, who in the early autumn swarmed over Jutland and firmly established themselves in the duchies. But the fortress of Fredriksodde (Fredericia) held Charles’s little army at bay from mid-August to mid-October, while the fleet of Denmark, after a stubborn two days’ battle, compelled the Swedish fleet to abandon its projected attack on the Danish islands. The position of the Swedish king had now become critical. In July an offensive and defensive alliance was concluded between Denmark and Poland. Still more ominously, the elector of Brandenburg, perceiving Sweden to be in difficulties, joined the league against her and compelled Charles to accept the proffered mediation of Oliver Cromwell and Cardinal Mazarin. The negotiations foundered, however, upon the refusal of Sweden to refer the points in dispute to a general peace-congress, and Charles was still further encouraged by the capture of Fredriksodde, October 23-24, whereupon he began to make preparations for conveying his troops over to Funen in transport vessels. But soon another and cheaper expedient presented itself. In the middle of December 1657 began the great frost, which was to be so fatal to Denmark. In a few weeks the cold had grown so intense that on the freezing of an arm of the sea with so rapid a current as the Small Belt became a conceivable possibility; and henceforth meteorological observations formed an essential part of the strategy of the Swedes.

On January 28, 1658, Charles X arrived at Haderslev in South Jutland, when it was estimated that in a couple of days the ice of the Little Belt would be firm enough to bear even the passage of a mail-clad host. The cold during the night of January 29 was most severe; and early in the morning of the 30th the Swedish king gave the order to start, the horsemen dismounting where the ice was weakest, and cautiously leading their horses as far apart as possible, when they swung into their saddles again, closed their ranks and made a dash for the shore. The Danish troops lining the opposite coast were quickly overpowered, and the whole of Funen was won with the loss of only two companies of cavalry, which disappeared under the ice while fighting with the Danish left wing. Pursuing his irresistible march, Charles X, with his eyes fixed steadily on Copenhagen, resolved to cross the frozen Great Belt also. After some hesitation, he accepted the advice of his chief engineer officer Erik Dahlberg, who acted as pioneer throughout and chose the more circuitous route from Svendborg, by the islands of Langeland, Laaland and Falster, in preference to the direct route from Nyborg to Korsör, which would have been across a broad, almost uninterrupted expanse of ice. Yet this second adventure was not embarked upon without much anxious consideration. A council of war, which met at two o’clock in the morning to consider the practicability of Dahlberg’s proposal, at once dismissed it as criminally hazardous. Even the king wavered for an instant; but, Dahlberg persisting in his opinion, Charles overruled the objections of the commanders. On the night of February 5 the transit began, the cavalry leading the way through the snow-covered ice, which quickly thawed beneath the horses’ hoofs so that the infantry which followed after had to wade through half an ell of sludge, fearing every moment lest the rotting ice should break beneath their feet. At three o’clock in the afternoon, Dahlberg leading the way, the army reached Grimsted in Laaland without losing a map, on February 8, Charles reached Falster. On February 11 he stood safely on the soil of Zealand. Not without reason did the medal struck to commemorate the glorious transit of the Baltic Sea bear the haughty inscription: Natura hoc debuit uni. An exploit unique in history had been achieved. The crushing effect of this unheard-of achievement on the Danish government found expression in the Treaty of Taastrup on February 18, and Treaty of Roskilde February 26, 1658, whereby Denmark sacrificed nearly half her territory to save the rest. But this was not enough and a council held at Gottorp on July 7, Charles X resolved to wipe from the map of Europe an inconvenient rival, and without any warning, in defiance of all international equity, let loose his veterans upon Denmark a second time.

Estates assembled in Gothenburg

Only after great hesitation would Charles X consent to reopen negotiations with Denmark direct, at the same time proposing to exercise pressure upon the enemy by a simultaneous winter campaign in Norway. Such an enterprise necessitated fresh subsidies from his already impoverished people, and obliged him in December 1659 to cross over to Sweden to meet the estates, whom he had summoned to Gothenburg. The lower estates murmured at the imposition of fresh burdens; and Charles had need of all his adroitness to persuade them that his demands were reasonable and necessary. At the very beginning of the Riksdag, in January 1660, it was noticed that the king was ill; but he spared himself as little in the council-chamber as in the battle-field, till death suddenly overtook him on the night of February 13, 1660, in. his thirty-eighth year. The abrupt cessation of such an inexhaustible fount of enterprise and energy was a distinct loss to Sweden; and signs are not wanting that, in his latter years, Charles had begun to feel the need and value of repose. Had he lived long enough to overcome his martial ardour, and develop and organize the empire he helped to create, Sweden might perhaps have remained a great power to this day. Even so she owes her natural frontiers in the Scandinavian Peninsula to Charles X.


Preceded by:
List of Swedish monarchs Succeeded by:
Charles XI