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Charles XII of Sweden

Karl XII

Portrait by Axel Sparre, 1712
ReignApril 5, 1697-November 30, 1718
(Government from November, 1697)
CoronationDecember 14, 1697
Royal motto "Med Guds hjälp"
("With the help of God")
Royal HousePfalz
PredecessorCharles XI of Sweden
SuccessorUlrike Eleonora of Sweden
Date of BirthJune 17, 1682
Place of BirthStockholm
Date of DeathNovember 30, 1718
Place of DeathCarlsten, Fredrikshald, Norway
Date of BurialFebruary 26, 1719
Place of BurialRiddarholmskyrkan, Stockholm

Charles XII, or Karl XII, (1682-1718), King of Sweden. He came to the throne at the age of fifteen and left the country three years later to embark on a series of battles overseas, that briefly made Sweden the predominant power in Northern Europe. His youth gave other nations a decent pretext with which to invade Sweden; Poland-Saxony, Denmark-Norway, and Russia joined in a coalition to attack Sweden, beginning the Great Northern War. Charles XII turned out to be more astute than the other powers imagined.

Charles's first campaign was against Denmark, ruled by his cousin Frederick IV of Denmark, which threatened a Swedish ally, Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp (another cousin of Charles XII, and married to his sister Hedvig Sophia). Denmark's defeat, however, and Sweden's ensuing rise to prominence in the Baltic region was viewed suspiciously by two powerful neighbors, King August II of Poland (cousin to both Charles XII and Frederick IV of Denmark) and Peter the Great of Russia. Russia responded by occupying the Swedish territories of Livonia and Estonia. Charles countered this by attacking the Russian garrison at Narva. From the very beginning, this seemed to be a headstrong move. The Swedish army of ten thousand men was outnumbered four to one by the Russians. Still, Charles attacked under cover of a blizzard, and effectively split the Russian army in two. Many of Peter's troops that fled the battlefield drowned in the Narva River and the battle was a crushing Swedish victory.

Charles then turned against Poland, defeating Augustus and his Saxon allies at the Battle of Klissow in 1702. After the deposition of the king of Poland, Charles XII filled the void with his own man, a certain Stanislas Leszczynski .

Meanwhile, Peter had managed to retake Livonia and even established a new city Saint Petersburg there. This prompted Charles to make the fatal decision to attack the Russian heartland with an assault on Moscow. Once again, harsh climactic conditions took their toll, this time on Charles as he marched his troops through the Ukraine. By the time they reached Poltava, Charles had been wounded, one-third of his infantry was dead, and his vulnerable supply train destroyed. Charles expected the support of a massive Cossack rebellion in Ukraine but the Russians destroyed the rebel army before they could reach the Swedes. The king himself, incapacitated by a coma resulting from his injuries, was unable to rally the Swedish forces. The battle was a disaster, and Charles fled south to the Ottoman Empire, where he set up camp at Bender.

The Turks initially welcomed the Swedish king, who managed to incite a war between the Ottomans and the Russians. However the sultan eventually tired of Charles' endless scheming and ordered his arrest. Meanwhile, the king's old enemies Russia and Poland took advantage of his absence to regain and even expand their lost territories. England, an ally of the Swedes, defected from their alliance obligations while the Prussians also attacked Swedish holdings in Germany. Russia seized Finland and Augustus II regained the Polish throne.

The Corpse of Charles XII
Portrait by Gustaf Cederström, 1884

Seeing his very kingdom threatened, Charles fled the Ottoman Empire and rode across Europe in just fifteen days to return to Pomerania. His efforts to reestablish his lost empire failed, however, when he was killed by a stray bullet in an attack on Danish-controlled Norway. He was succeeded to the Swedish throne by his sister, Ulrika Eleanora.

Charles was one of the greatest soldiers of all time. Exceptional for abstaining from alcohol and women, he felt most comfortable during warfare. Contemporaries report of his seemingly inhuman tolerance for pain and his utter lack of emotion. The king brought Sweden to its pinnacle of prestige and power through his brilliant campaigning. However his over-ambitious invasion of Russia coupled with the overwhelming power of a revived anti-Swedish coalition brought Sweden's downfall as a Great Power.

Autograph of king Charles XII

External links

Preceded by:
Charles XI
List of Swedish monarchsSucceeded by:
Ulrike Eleonore