Sweden, Russia and the Great Northern War

by  Frank Smitha


Maps:  The New Cambridge Modern History Atlas, Cambridge, 1970

            Cambridge Illustrated Atlas. Warfare: Renaissance to revolution (1492-1792), Cambridge, 1996



Carl_XII_of_Sweden  Sweden Defeats Peter the Great

In 1697, Sweden acquired a new monarch: a 15-year-old who took the name Charles XII. Charles had been taught to follow the warrior tradition of his father, including fencing, horseback riding and military strategy. He was a boy with courage and intelligence, and he was challenged by rivals for territory, who were encouraged by what they believed was Sweden's new weakness resulting from the death of its previous king, Charles XI. Denmark's monarch, Christian V (who also ruled Norway) wanted to win back from the Swedish monarchy the territory of Skåne (just east of Copenhagen), which his family had lost in 1658. The Elector of Saxony, a German named  Augustus, was also interested in expanding against Swedish interests. It was an old story: territorial disputes among kings.

Augustus was born in Dresden - a part of what was still called the Holy Roman Empire. In the manner of Europe's interrelated royalty he was a candidate for the Polish throne. For this he became a Roman Catholic, displeasing his Protestant subjects in Saxony. He won the Polish throne over a rival contestant: the Prince of Conti - a Bourbon prince from France. In 1699, Augustus formed an alliance with the new king of Denmark: Christian V's twenty-nine year-old son, Frederick IV - a cousin to Charles XII of Sweden. And, from Poland, Augustus wanted to expand his rule to Livonia, where Germanic nobles were unhappy with Swedish rule.

Another interested in expanding at the expense of Sweden was Russia's monarch, Peter the Great. He was a friend of the Swedish monarchy until 1699, having sworn to observe all treaties between his kingdom and the kingdom of Sweden. Then he saw opportunity in joining an alliance with Augustus and Frederick, justifying his decision by complaining that the Swedes had stolen lands of his ancestors - a fiction regarding Ingria, Karelia, Livonia and Estonia. And he complained of mistreatment he had suffered during his visit to Riga, when he had been examining too closely Riga's fort.

In August, 1700, Charles XII - then eighteen - responded to the challenge from his neighbors by landing troops a few miles north of Copenhagen, and, without putting up a fight, Frederick agreed to commit no future hostilities against his cousin.


Reitars of Charles XII

Charles then rushed to Livonia with 8,000 men, arriving at Pernau on October 6. He turned north and eastward, marching across boggy roads, wasteland and difficult passes to do battle against the Russians. At a pass called Pyhåjoggi, with 400 horsemen he put to flight 6,000 Russian troops. On November 19 his army reached Laena, a little village about nine miles from Narva.




At two in the afternoon, during a snowstorm, he began his attack on the Russian fortified camp. The Russians had around 40,000 men, but they were poorly trained, in poor shape physically and lacking self-confidence. By nightfall, Charles and his army had defeated Peter's army, Charles losing around 2,000 men and the Russians losing between 8,000 and 10,000 killed and many taken prisoner.



Charles was advised to follow through on his victory, to take advantage of the panic of Peter's forces and widespread discontent in Russia. Charles thought the Russians were imbeciles and less of a threat than Augustus and his German army. He did not want to leave a hostile German army at his rear while pushing deep into Russia, and he wanted to put a candidate of his choice on Poland's throne in place of Augustus.




In July 1701, Charles pushed Augustus and his army out of Livonia. In May1702, Charles reached Warsaw. On July 2, at Kliszów, he routed a combined Polish and German force, and three weeks later he captured the fortress at Krakow. Charles thought Augustus defeated and tried to settle with him, but Augustus refused his offers. As monarch of Poland, Charles replaced Augustus with Stanislaus Leszczynski, who became Stanislaus I, King of Poland. And in a treaty signed in 1705 with Stanislaus, Charles agreed to help the Polish monarchy regain territory lost to the Russians in 1667 and 1686.


Peter_der-Grosse_1838  Peter Rallies Russia

Peter is reported to have wept over the defeat near Narva. He wanted to modernize his military. The core of the most modern armies was artillery and a disciplined infantry with rifles, which was supposed to advance while firing and then charge with fixed bayonets. Such armies were the product of training, mathematics for the artillery, and a more advanced economy than Russia had. Peter's army had been more cavalry, of nobles, than it had been infantry. His officer corps had been largely generaled by foreign mercenaries, with nobles filling out the rest of the officer corps. Peter saw the need for better arms, better training, and a great number of recruits.

To enlarge his army, Peter offered good pay for those who would volunteer to join. But, unable to attract a great number of young men, he resorted to the conscription of men from all classes. Debt slaves freed by the death of their owner were forbidden to contract themselves to a new master and were enlisted as soldiers and sailors. Peter created a census to keep better track of who was available. Landlords were obliged to submit a list of those working their lands and to supply the army with one peasant soldier for every 50 peasant households and one cavalryman for every 100 peasant households on their lands. Some recruits were obliged to serve in the military for life. Peter created a regular standing army of more than 200,000, with special forces of Cossacks and foreigners numbering more than 100,000, and he raised taxes to pay for his military. During Peter's reign, eighty to eighty-five percent of his revenues would go to his army and his war efforts.

Peter had no use for precise parade-ground military drilling, for fencing practice or for the elaborate and splendid uniforms of western soldiers. He was concerned with instilling confidence and a sense of purpose into his army. He tried to instill nationalist pride in his army, telling them that they were not going to fight for him but for the interests of Russia.

This he also applied to civilians for the sake of advancing Russia economically. He wished to discourage servility to him personally, and he encouraged his subjects to demonstrate respect for the nation by better performance in their work. He decreed that men should no longer fall on their knees or prostrate themselves on the ground before him. He abolished the requirement that people remove their hats as a sign of respect when he appeared in public - a benefit on wintry days.

Peter was also pushing on this subjects to westernize. He had a tax on beards, and in various places rebellions arose against him. He wanted more of the politeness that existed in the West. To nobles he distributed a manual on propriety. He issued decrees on dress and personal conduct for social gatherings - more in the style that existed in Germany. And he ordered women out of their traditional seclusion.

Peter needed people with the kind of training that people were getting in the West. He needed teachers of arithmetic and navigation. He needed artillerymen and shipwrights. Peter set up schools to meet these needs, modeled on schools in England. He created an academy of science and imported professors and students from Germany. And Peter required young noblemen to learn arithmetic and geometry if they were to serve the state in any position of privilege or if they were to receive a license to marry - a compulsory education away from home that young noblemen disliked.

In 1703, Peter started to build a fort in a desolate area on marshland that was slowly to become St. Petersburg - named after Saint Peter. He would have preferred to build at Riga, which tended to be freer of ice in the winter. But Riga was still held by the Swedes. So St. Petersburg was planned as his port on the Baltic, to supplant the port of Archangel far to the north, which was icebound from November to May and in other months forced ships around Norway.

In building St. Petersburg, and in building roads, dredging rivers and building canals, Peter used forced labor. He had soldiers build factories. People were drafted to work in factories. There, workers who displayed laziness, drunkenness or were careless were beaten or put into prison. And Peter and the factory managers discovered that freely hired workers were more efficient than those who had been coerced.

His mind still on an approaching showdown with Sweden, Peter, a religious man, melted down church bells to help replace cannon lost at Narva. He ordered more prospecting for metals and more iron-smelting. Ships were constructed and launched, and sailcloth was manufactured.

Peter was also contending with revolts. The increased hardship and increased taxation imposed on Peter's subjects provoked a number of revolts, the most important of which was in Astrakhán in 1705-06. There, people believed rumors that Peter was a prisoner of the Swedes or dead and that an imposter had taken his place in Russia, that Peter's reforms were part of a plot to destroy the Christianity that they loved. They were upset over officials from Moscow who were taxing beards and the wearing of traditional clothing and commanding the length of women's dresses be cut above ground-level. The belief spread that the wig-blocks in the dwellings of officials and military officers were idols and part of the worship of the heathen god Janus. People in Astrakhán believed a rumor that marriage for local men was to be prohibited for seven years and that in their place local girls were to be married to foreigners that would soon be arriving.

The people paid for their gullibility. Peter's military burned to the ground Astrakhán and other rebel towns. As an example for others, the people of Astrakhán were massacred. And rebel leaders were executed by beheadings or by being broken on the wheel.

Peter Defeats Sweden in the Ukraine

In August 1706, Charles XII attacked at Dresden and Leipzig, and Augustus was forced to surrender. Augustus renounced the throne of Poland that he had lost four years before, and Charles turned his attention to the Russians. Charles wanted restitution of all lands that he thought were his, which included the area where St. Petersburg was being built, and he wanted Russia to pay him restitution for having gone to war against him.

In November, Peter ordered a speeded construction at St. Petersburg - the formation of two shifts of workers, 15,000 for each shift, for the summer building season of 1707. And early in 1707, into his military he drafted clerks, sons of priests and deacons and other non-ordained men associated with the Orthodox Church, and he made a cavalry regiment of former secretaries.

In 1707, Charles and his army moved into Poland, with 24,000 horses and 20,000 foot-soldiers, and there he waited for reinforcements from Pomerania. On January 1, 1708 Charles and his army crossed the Vistula River, and they moved in the direction of Moscow. In late January, the Swedes defeated a Russian force at Grodno, captured a bridge and crossed the river Niemen. Peter and the retreating Russians set fire to what they could, and as the Swedes advanced across sparsely populated Lithuania, they had difficulty finding food for themselves and adequate forage for their horses, while Lithuanian peasants hid their stores as they had from the Russians. Until spring, the Swedes sought quarters at various places across Lithuania, as far east at Minsk, Charles staying about twenty miles northwest of there until early June, when the pasture grass was again green and thick and the roads that had been mire were again dry.

In early July, Charles and his army reached a six-mile long battle line that Peter had created on the east side of the Bibitch River, at Holowczyn. The Swedes surprised the Russians by crossing the river to marshland that separated the Russian line, and the Swedes were victorious. The divided Russian forces fell back in another retreat. Russian moral was low. Rumors were that Charles and his army were headed for Moscow. Peter ordered that everything be destroyed in front of the advancing Swedes: food, crops, anything that could be useful to the Swedes. But during the hasty retreat much was missed, and rain had made green crops difficult to burn.

The Swedes reached Mogilev on the Dnieper River four days after their victory at Holowczyn. There they stopped to accumulate supplies. They were around 45,000 in number - combatants and laborers - with 30,000 horses, and they wanted to accumulate supplies, including grain, that would last at least six weeks before moving ahead. They waited also for some of their number who had been wounded at Holowczyn to be fit to march. And they were waiting for a supply train of several thousand carts, accompanied by another army, from Riga.

By the end of July the wounded had recovered, but rain was delaying the local grain harvest. The supply train and reinforcements from Riga were late in arriving. Charles and his army survived off the land by staying on the move. It was Peter's strategy, at this point, to wear down the Swedes by means of quick strikes and withdrawal, and on August 31, in the morning fog at Malatitze, Peter, using infantry for the first time, attacked two Swedish regiments. The Swedes lost almost 300 men killed and 500 wounded. The Russians lost around 700 killed and 2000 wounded. After two hours of fighting the Russians withdrew, leaving the Swedes with the impression that the Russians had improved militarily.

In pulling back, Peter kept his scorched earth policy. Anyone who gave or sold food to the enemy, or knew of such an act and said nothing, was to be hanged, and those villages from which food was to be given were to be burned to the ground. The Swedes reached Tatarsk, but the countryside between them and Smolensk was barren of whatever they needed to survive. By mid-September the supply train and army from Riga had not yet arrived. Charles and his men and horses faced starvation. Facing the coming of winter and devastation along the road to Moscow, Charles decided to turn south, into the Ukraine, into terrain that was more densely populated and that held supplies of food and fodder. There also he hoped to team up with the ruler of the Ukraine's Left Bank,  Ivan Mazepa, a Cossack who had been appointed by Peter but who believed that Charles would win against Peter and was secretly negotiating an alliance with Charles.


Casualty figures by Frans G. Bengtsson, The Sword Does not Jest: the Heroic Life of King Charles XII of Sweden, p. 311.

On September 28, Peter's army found the Swedish baggage train from Riga. A battle ensued, at Lesnaia, about thirty miles southeast of Mogilev. Each side had about 12,000 men. After eight hours of fighting the Russians lost 1,111 killed and 2,856 wounded. NOTE Swedish losses were at least as heavy. The army accompanying the baggage train scattered. The Russian captures some of the supplies, and about a thousand of the Swedes headed back in the direction of Riga. The commander of the baggage train, General Lewenhaupt, ordered what remained of the supplies burned, believing that he was no longer able to protect it from the Russians.

Lewenhaupt and his men finally found Charles' army, and they joined Charles in heading for Katurin, Mazepa's capital, where Charles hoped to be supplied with gunpowder and other necessities. Winter was setting in. Mazepa, fearing retribution from Peter, fled from Katurin with a part of his army. The Russians arrived at Katurin in early November and destroyed the town, leaving nothing for the Swedes. The town's inhabitants were massacred, except for boys who were carried off by the Russians and about a thousand Cossack warriors who managed to fight their way through the Russian line.

Mazepa joined himself and the modest remnant of his Cossack army, with Charles and his army. And Charles quartered for the winter at Romny, where his famished and exhausted men found an abundance of supplies, including hay, oats, cattle, sheep, and wine.

It was an exceptionally cold winter. The Baltic Sea was frozen over and the canals of Venice were covered with ice. In the Ukraine birds in flight fell dead. But Charles believed that he had to keep up his offensive against the Russians, to keep the Russians from rebuilding their forces. His strategy was to poke at the Russians, keep them off balance and to lure them into the showdown that they had heretofore avoided. Charles wanted another battle like the one at Narva. He was confident that again his smaller army of Swedes could defeat a larger Russian army. And this time he wanted to destroy the army, which he believed would end the war in his favor.

Winter fighting took a toll on the Swedes, Charles losing perhaps more than 1,000 men in January and more men in another skirmish in February. Many of his troops suffered from frostbite. By spring the army was at about 24 or 25 thousand. Local grain supplies and cattle were sufficient, but gunpowder was low, some of it having been damaged by the wet weather in February.

In April, the Swedes lost 400 men in another battle. That month, Charles was reconnoitering the Russian fortress at Poltava (about a hundred miles southeast of Romny). There the Russians had about 30 cannon and 4,000 troops. In mid-May, Charles laid siege to the fortress, hoping this would bring the main Russian force, against which he planned to spring a trap.

Meanwhile, competition was taking place for the friendship of the Khan of the Tatars in the Crimea. The Swedes were trying to bring the Khan into the war on their side, while Russians were misinforming the Tatars about the Swedes and distributing gold coin to influential Tatars. The Russians told the Tatars that the Swedes were about to conclude a peace with them, and the Tatars chose to stay out of the fighting.

Peter moved his army - around 45,000 men - on the Vorskla River, opposite the fortress at Poltava. In a minor skirmish on June 28, Charles received a bullet wound in his foot. Many of the Swedes had come to believe that God had been shielding their anointed king, and dismay spread among them. The days were now unusually hot. Wounds, including that of the king's, were not healing well. Charles barely survived.



The showdown came on July 8, without the trap that Charles had been hoping for. The Swedes were eager for battle and moved with élan against the Russian entrenchment. Not yet recovered, Charles was carried about on a litter. In two hours of battle, the Russians overwhelmed the Swedes and Mazepa's Cossacks.




Russian artillery cut the Swedes down, and the poor quality of the gunpowder used by the Swedes caused their shots to fall short. The Swedes and Mezepa's troops fled. A remnant of the Swedish army - 14,299 men and 34 cannon - surrendered at Perevolchna. The Swedes had lost 6,901 dead and wounded, and 2,760 captured. The Russians had lost 1,345 dead and 3,290 wounded. NOTE  Charles, his aides, a few hundred cavalry, Mazepa and around 1500 of his Cossack warriors escaped across the border into Ottoman territory - to Ochakov. And with Mazepa went hope for Ukrainian independence.


Casualty figures by Lindsey Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, p. 39.

Sweden loses the Great Northern War


Russians described the victory at Poltava as a divine miracle. Europeans outside of Russia were also astounded, and they viewed the Russian victory with foreboding. Russia, they thought, would now be a formidable power in European affairs.

Seeing Sweden as having been weakened, Augustus of Saxony and Frederick IV of Denmark renewed their alliance with Russia. A prince of the Hohenzollern family, Frederick of Brandenburg-Prussia, agreed with Russia to bar Swedish troops in Pomerania from access to Poland in exchange for gaining the town of Elbing (Elblag).

In November 1709, Frederick IV of Denmark invaded Sweden with 16,000 troops, overrunning the towns of Malmö and Lund, and in February they were driven back to Denmark, Sweden's successful defense impressing the rest of Europe.

Charles XII remained with the Ottomans, at Bender, about a hundred miles west of Okyakov. He urged the Ottomans to war against the Russians, and Europe watched with anticipation of another such war, with Sweden on the side of the Ottomans. The war between Russia began again, with Peter hoping to win the Christians in Ottoman territory to his side.



The Russians, meanwhile, had seized Vyborg, Riga, and Revel and had pushed into Finland. With Charles II defeated in East Europe, King Stanislaus I was repudiated in Poland, and with help from Peter, Augustus again assumed the title King of Poland. Stanislaus escaped to Swedish Pomerania, and from there he went to Weissenbourg, becoming master of the principality of Zweibrücken - his daughter, Mary, to marry King Louis XV of France.

Peter's hopes regarding his war with the Ottomans had failed. With the Peter's armies spread thin, the Ottomans had the advantage over him. In 1711, numerically superior Ottoman forces surrounded Peter and an army short of ammunition and supplies, by the Pruth River, deep into Moldavia. But the Ottomans did not share Charles' passion for crushing the Russians, and they allowed the Russians to withdraw.

In 1712, the Danes took the Duchy of Bremen from the Swedes, and they took Charles's spot of land in Holstein. In 1713, Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia took Stettin. And Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover - soon to be King George I of England - joined the coalition against Sweden.

Frederick William succeeded his father, Frederick, in February, 1713.

Peter and the Ottomans signed a peace treaty. Peter returned Azov and other territory he had gained from the Ottoman Empire in 1700, and he agreed to allow Charles safe passage from Ottoman territory back to Sweden. And the Ottomans recognized Augustus as Poland's rightful king.

In late 1714, Charles and around 1500 troops made their way back to Sweden by way of Vienna, and with help from the Habsburg monarchy in Vienna, which had begun to look with favor upon Charles and Sweden as a brake on Germans to their north. The Swedes journeyed through Bavaria and western Germany as incognito as possible, for the sake of safety.

Charles still saw the area around St. Petersburg as his territory, and Peter now considered St. Petersburg as Russia's capital. In 1714, Peter had begun ordering people to move there. Nobles were obliged to build homes in St. Petersburg and to live in them most of the year. The more serfs that a noble had the bigger his home had to be. Merchants and artisans were also ordered to move to St. Petersburg and to build on the side of the Neva River opposite the nobles. The new residents of St. Petersburg were ordered to pay for the building of avenues, parks, canals, embankments, bridges and other projects. And huge government buildings, designed by foreign architects, were constructed.


Charles Continues the War

From Ottoman territory, Charles went to Swedish Pomerania - to his fortress at Stralsund. With his arrival back on Swedish territory, after a fourteen-year absence, the people of Sweden momentarily forgot the unusual hardships of the recent years and erupted with joy. They foresaw their king as now about to smash those who had dared to move against Swedish territory.

It was a powerful coalition that Charles faced: Peter of Russia, Frederick of Denmark, Augustus of Saxony and Poland, Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia, and George of Hanover and England. Like some rulers in the twentieth century, Charles was undeterred in facing a great coalition. Having at that point lost the most important of contests - the diplomacy war - he was not about to ask for mercy and sue for peace. Instead, he entertained the notion that he could hurt his adversaries enough that they would want to make peace and return to him all of his empire - or at least an empire equal in size to that which he had before the war.

By late June, Prussian and Danish troops had encircled Wismar by land. And on the sea, the Danish and British navies were cooperating, and the Danes were blockading Wismar. Facing numerically superior forces in Pomerania, Charles withdrew his troops to his fortress at Stralsund. In November a flotilla of 640 transport ships landed Danish and Prussian troops that overran the fortress at Stralsund. Charles escaped to the southern tip of Sweden. Swedish troops at Stralsund were made prisoners of war, marching into captivity with banners flying and music playing, expecting to be released in a few months following payment for their keep to Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia. Civilian officials at Stralsund were released immediately. Mercenaries who had been fighting on the side of the Swedes were made prisoners of war, and most of them, as expected, chose to do service for their captors.

Charles was now concerned about his enemies invading Sweden proper. He decided that he could discourage any such invasion by attacking Norway. An invasion of Sweden, he reasoned, required the Danes, and by attacking Norway - then property of his cousin, the Danish king, Fredrick IV - he could persuade his cousin to withdraw from the coalition against him, by crushing the Danish army in a major engagement. Charles also believed that invading Norway would compel the British to keep some of their navy along their coast opposite Norway, weakening help from the British fleet in an invasion of Sweden.

Charles' Norwegian campaign began in February, 1716. Norway's government fled the capital city, Christiania (Oslo). The Swedes occupied Christiania in March. Norwegians failed to cooperate with the Swedes, eschewing their traditional hospitality to foreigners. The Swedes in Christiania were low on supplies. Winter was delaying logistic support, and Denmark's navy commanded the approach to Christiania, forcing Charles to abandon Christiania in April, before Danish reinforcements landed at Fredrikshald. Charles and his troops made their headquarters near Fredrikshald instead, where they waited for Swedish ships to bring them supplies. The Swedes and Danes fought for control of the waters around Fredrikshald. The Swedish navy won in May, but in late June the Swedes lost both on sea and on land. Charles and his troops returned to Sweden without his crushing victory over Denmark's army, but his invasion of Norway did disturb the plans for an invasion of Sweden by the coalition against him.

Wismar had finally surrendered to the coalition's forces, but Peter was upset over the refusal of the Danes, Prussians and Saxons to permit Russian participation in the occupation of Wismar. The use of Russian troops was planned for an invasion of Sweden that year. During the summer, the coalition was slow in getting a navy together large enough for a landing in Sweden, including the wait on Danish ships that had been involved in actions against the Swedes in Norway. The attack by Charles, moreover, had impressed coalition members - especially Peter. They had thought in 1715 that Sweden had been all but defeated. They had been aware of war-weariness in Sweden and Sweden's diminished supply of money. Now, in 1716, they were impressed by the fighting capability that remained with Charles. Peter reconnoitered Sweden's coast, concluding that Sweden's defenses were strong. He was disappointed that Sweden's navy had not been defeated, and in mid-September he pulled out of the planned invasion, claiming that it was too late in the season and suggesting postponement of the invasion until the following year. This did not suit Fredrick of Denmark, who had commandeered the ships of Danish merchants and believed that he could not hold them for two years running. The decision to invade was postponed, and there would be no invasion of Sweden.


Charles' Final Failure

Charles made his headquarters at Lund, where he hoped for further division of the coalition against him. He began to talk peace with members of the coalition, but it was only to gain time to prepare for a military offensive. He saw no hope no hope of making peace with George of England or Peter of Russia, whom he saw as his two main enemies. He wanted a major victory so that he could bargain from strength.

At Lund, he took an interest in theological disputes - his praise of Muslim virtues, which he had learned while with the Ottomans, disturbing some. Charles began each day with prayer and some reading from the Bible. His chaplain claimed that it was his duty to bring an end to the war as soon as possible, but Charles acquired no inspiration to bargain seriously for an end to the war, including a willingness to give up territory already lost. Charles was not about to give up on empire.

Meanwhile, some Swedes were being influenced by the new belief in constitutional government that had developed in the Netherlands and Britain. After the death of Louis XIV of France in 1715 even the French were experimenting with constitutionalism. In Sweden, opposition to the absolutism of Charles was perhaps small, but it was growing. And opposition was growing also to the continuation of war, spurred by Charles' decree of raised taxes as the public's contribution to the war effort - a tax to be paid by nobles, high-ranking officers in the military and high ranking members of the bureaucracy.

Charles was allowed to build his strength through 1717 and much of 1718. Rather than let the war fade, he had plans for an offensive for October, 1718. On the 16th of October he moved again toward Fredrikshald, aiming at the nearby frontier fortress of Fredriksten. The going was slow, and, toward the end of November, Charles and his army were encamped in front of the fortress. Charles was interested in the new line that was being dug fifty yards closer to the fort, and around eight in the evening, on November 30, Charles raised himself above the crest of his rampart to have a look. Flares were burning on the fortress, and lightbombs were giving some illumination. Scattered shots were being fired and one struck Charles on the left side of his head as he was looking to the right. He fell off of the ladder, dead at the age of thirty-six.


On assassination and the death of Charles see R.M. Hatton, Charles XII of Sweden, 501-509.

It was believed by some that Charles had been immune to ordinary bullets and that the missile that had killed him had been a silver or brass button. It was rumored too that he had been assassinated and that Charles' younger sister, Ulrica Leonora, who appeared too ready to succeed Charles, had been part of a conspiracy against him. Ulrica Leonora had been devoted to Charles and was observed horrified and hurt by his death. But the assassination theory lived on and controversy was to rage into the twentieth century over whether Charles had been assassinated.




A Constitution and Peacetime Prosperity for Sweden.

Since late in the 1200s, a Council had existed in association with the authority of the king, and with the death of Charles in late 1718, the Council exercised authority concerning who would replace Charles. Charles had never married, and his closest surviving sibling was Ulrica Leonora. The Council selected her as queen on condition that she renounce all claims to absolute power. She agreed, and the following year she abdicated in favor of her husband, Frederik of Hesse, on condition that they agree to leave the creation of a new constitution to others. They agreed. Frederik became Fredrik I, King of Sweden, and Ulrica Leonora was queen. A peaceful political revolution had taken place, influenced by the development of constitutionalism elsewhere in Europe.

The Swedes began doing what Charles could have done in 1717. Sweden made peace. Sweden made peace with Augustus, recognizing him as King of Poland. Sweden made peace with Hanover, agreeing to give up the Dutchy of Bremen and Verden. In 1720 Sweden settled with Fredrick William of Brandenburg-Prussia. It recognized its loss in Pomerania. It made peace with Denmark. And, in 1721, it made peace with Russia, recognizing Russia's hold on territory it had conquered, including Ingria, Estonia, Livonia, Vyborg (Viipuri), Kexholm (Piorzersk) and part of Karelia. Sweden was no longer the dominant power over the Baltic Sea. That now belonged to Russia.



The Constitution and Prosperity

The writers of Sweden's new constitution were influenced by what had taken place among the Dutch and English, including the writings of John Locke. It was Sweden's first full and precisely written constitution, and it gave the Swedish people what they, and historians later, would call an "Age of Liberty." Basically the Constitution provided for parliamentary rule. Parliament was to meet at least every third year, and parliament alone was to control state finances and legislation. When parliament was not in session, the sixteen-member Council ruled with the king, who had two votes on most issues - the duty of the Council and king being to run the government and to implement the decisions of parliament.

Parliament consisted of four "estates" - one estate being that of nobles, another estate represented towns, another the clergy, and the fourth estate represented farmers. The estate of the nobles was largest, having around 1,000 representatives in parliament. Representatives from the towns numbered between 80 and 90. The clergy had 50 members, and the farmers around 150 - one from each rural district. To pass into law, a proposal needed the approval of at least three of the four estates. Special committees handled various issues and were allowed to intervene in the administration of the judiciary. Members of the farmer estate were excluded from the committee on foreign affairs but included on the issue of taxation.


Sweden was more of a rural society than Great Britain or the United Provinces. It had less of a middleclass or bourgeoisie than the British or the Dutch. Ninety percent of the Swedish population still lived by farming and raising cattle. But Sweden's rural population, with their small farms, was uncommonly independent compared to much of the rest of Europe. Serfdom did not exist in Sweden, as it did extensively in Russia, Poland, the Balkans and to a lesser extent in Denmark, Spain and France.

The loss of overseas provinces had reduced the king's revenues by more than half, and the nobility had lost their reward of lands abroad. But with loans from the English and the French, and, more importantly, with peace, hard work and good harvests, the Swedes began to recover their old standard of living. They had a baby boom. Trade returned. The Swedes welcomed the imported goods which they had long been deprived. And prosperity and inflation made the tax burden lighter.

The government encouraged new opportunities for the poor, with exemption from taxes and other privileges for colonizing territory in the far north. The move of settlers there came into conflict with Lapps of the area, the Lapps trying to hold on to their use of fishing waters and pastures for their reindeers. And Sweden's government supported the settlers, forcing the Lapps to withdraw from contested areas.


Parliament, meanwhile, had done away with the distinction between high and low aristocracy, and it left the nobility exempted from land taxes and with the exclusive right to hold high office in civil service. But these laws were impractical and failing, as commoners with talent were being appointed to high office and as a few farmers were gaining in wealth and acquiring their own tax exempt farming estates.


Sweden's industrial sector remained small, but in 1731 new factories were founded with support from the state, especially in textiles, which, in urban areas such as Norrköping and Stockholm, began employing between 13,000 and 14,000 people. By the middle of the century there would be 360 ironworks in the country, producing 47,000 tons of wrought-iron goods annually.


In foreign policy, the government allowed foreign vessels bring into Sweden only goods originating in their own country, the Swedes aiming to advance their own merchant marine. This annoyed the British. Nevertheless, Sweden was able to maintain a new alliance with Britain, as it did with France and Brandenburg-Prussia.

Nostalgia for Glory.


All of these successes did not totally obliterate a glorification of Sweden's past. The connection between impoverishment and war was not firmly established. The old idea that wars should pay for themselves in the form of reward to the victors and that victory was natural for one's own side, was still alive in Sweden. Political parties had developed in Sweden that ran across the political boundaries called Estates. One of the parties was called the Hats (Hattar in Swedish). It consisted largely of aristocrats and people nostalgic for what they believed were glories connected with militarism. The Hats were for improving the nation's armed forces. They had cultural links with and received money from the French. They favored revenge against Russia and the acquisition of lost territories. Allied with them was Sweden's numerically small but wealthy bourgeoisie, the Hats favoring industrial development and economic investments. Many towns chose to be represented by members of the Hat party, and the Hats favored more control over the labor guilds, town privileges and projectionist policies.


Opposite the Hats were the Caps, who represented the interests of small farmers. Small farmers tended to be for peace and tended to side with the English, from which they also received money. The Caps had been dominant before 1738 and had been careful not to provoke Russia. In 1738, the Caps lost to the Hats, who gained a majority in Parliament. The Hats forced Sweden's elder statesman, Arvid Horn, to resign from his post as Lord President of the Council. They made Hat government made treaties with France in order to obtain subsidies and support against the Russians. A new war erupted in 1740 - the War of Austrian Succession - which gave the Hats an opportunity to join sides and war for revenge against Russia.




Charles of Sweden, by R M Hatton, 1968

The Sword Does not Jest: the Heroic Life of King Charles XII of Sweden, by Frans G Bengtsson

Russsia in the Age of Peter the Great, by Lindsey Hughes

Swedish History, by Jörgen Weibull, Svenska Institutet, 1997



            Originally published at http://www.fsmitha.com