1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Charles XII.

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16682671911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 5 — Charles XII.Robert Nisbet Bain

CHARLES XII. (1682–1718), king of Sweden, the only surviving son of Charles XI. and Ulrica Leonora, daughter of Frederick III. of Denmark, was born on the 17th of June 1682. He was carefully educated by excellent tutors under the watchful eyes of his parents. His natural parts were excellent; and a strong bias in the direction of abstract thought, and mathematics in particular, was noticeable at an early date. His memory was astonishing. He could translate Latin into Swedish or German, or Swedish or German into Latin at sight. Charles XI. personally supervised his son’s physical training. He was taught to ride before he was four, at eight was quite at home in his saddle, and when only eleven, brought down his first bear at a single shot. As he grew older his father took him on all his rounds, reviewing troops, inspecting studs, foundries, dockyards and granaries. Thus the lad was gradually initiated into all the minutiae of administration. The influence of Charles XI. over his son was, indeed, far greater than is commonly supposed, and it accounts for much in Charles XII.’s character which is otherwise inexplicable, for instance his precocious reserve and taciturnity, his dislike of everything French, and his inordinate contempt for purely diplomatic methods. On the whole, his early training was admirable; but the young prince was not allowed the opportunity of gradually gaining experience under his guardians. At the Riksdag assembled at Stockholm in 1697, the estates, jealous of the influence of the regents, offered full sovereignty to the young monarch, the senate acquiesced, and, after some hesitation, Charles at last declared that he could not resist the urgent appeal of his subjects and would take over the government of the realm “in God’s name.” The subsequent coronation was marked by portentous novelties, the most significant of which was the king’s omission to take the usual coronation oath, which omission was interpreted to mean that he considered himself under no obligation to his subjects. The general opinion of the young king was, however, still favourable. His conduct was evidently regulated by strict principle and not by mere caprice. His refusal to countenance torture as an instrument of judicial investigation, on the ground that “confessions so extorted give no sure criteria for forming a judgment,” showed him to be more humane as well as more enlightened than the majority of his council, which had defended the contrary opinion. His intense application to affairs is noted by the English minister, John Robinson (1650–1723), who informed his court that there was every prospect of a happy reign in Sweden, provided his majesty were well served and did not injure his health by too much work.

The coalition formed against Sweden by Johann Reinhold Patkul, which resulted in the outbreak of the Great Northern War (1699), abruptly put an end to Charles XII.’s political apprenticeship, and forced into his hand the sword he was never again to relinquish. The young king resolved to attack the nearest of his three enemies—Denmark—first. The timidity of the Danish admiral Ulrik C. Gyldenlöve, and the daring of Charles, who forced his nervous and protesting admiral to attempt the passage of the eastern channel of the Sound, the dangerous flinterend, hitherto reputed to be unnavigable, enabled the Swedish king to effect a landing at Humleback in Sjaelland (Zealand), a few miles north of Copenhagen (Aug. 4, 1700). He now hoped to accomplish what his grandfather, fifty years before, had vainly attempted—the destruction of the Danish-Norwegian monarchy by capturing its capital. But for once prudential considerations prevailed, and the short and bloodless war was terminated by the peace of Travendal (Aug. 18), whereby Frederick IV. conceded full sovereignty to Charles’s ally and kinsman the duke of Gottorp, besides paying him an indemnity of 200,000 rix-dollars and solemnly engaging to commit no hostilities against Sweden in future. From Sjaelland Charles now hastened to Livonia with 8000 men. On the 6th of October he had reached Pernau, with the intention of first relieving Riga, but, hearing that Narva was in great straits, he decided to turn northwards against the tsar. He set out for Narva on the 13th of November, against the advice of all his generals, who feared the effect on untried troops of a week’s march through a wasted land, along boggy roads guarded by no fewer than three formidable passes which a little engineering skill could easily have made impregnable. Fortunately, the two first passes were unoccupied; and the third, Pyhäjoggi, was captured by Charles, who with 400 horsemen put 6000 Russian cavalry to flight. On the 19th of November the little army reached Lagena, a village about 9 m. from Narva, whence it signalled its approach to the beleaguered fortress, and early on the following morning it advanced in battle array. The attack on the Russian fortified camp began at two o’clock in the afternoon, in the midst of a violent snowstorm; and by nightfall the whole position was in the hands of the Swedes: the Russian army was annihilated. The triumph was as cheap as it was crushing; it cost Charles less than 2000 men.

After Narva, Charles XII. stood at the parting of ways. His best advisers urged him to turn all his forces against the panic-stricken Muscovites; to go into winter-quarters amongst them and live at their expense; to fan into a flame the smouldering discontent caused by the reforms of Peter the Great, and so disable Russia for some time to come. But Charles’s determination promptly to punish the treachery of Augustus prevailed over every other consideration. It is easy from the vantage-point of two centuries to criticize Charles XII. for neglecting the Russians to pursue the Saxons; but at the beginning of the 18th century his decision was natural enough. The real question was, which of the two foes was the more dangerous, and Charles had many reasons to think the civilized and martial Saxons far more formidable than the imbecile Muscovites. Charles also rightly felt that he could never trust the treacherous Augustus to remain quiet, even if he made peace with him. To leave such a foe in his rear, while he plunged into the heart of Russia would have been hazardous indeed. From this point of view Charles’s whole Polish policy, which has been blamed so long and so loudly—the policy of placing a nominee of his own on the Polish throne—takes quite another complexion: it was a policy not of overvaulting ambition, but of prudential self-defence.

First, however, Charles cleared Livonia of the invader (July 1701), subsequently occupying the duchy of Courland and converting it into a Swedish governor-generalship. In January 1702 Charles established himself at Bielowice in Lithuania, and, after issuing a proclamation declaring that “the elector of Saxony” had forfeited the Polish crown, set out for Warsaw, which he reached on the 14th of May. The cardinal-primate was then sent for and commanded to summon a diet, for the purpose of deposing Augustus. A fortnight later Charles quitted Warsaw, to seek the elector; on the 2nd of July routed the combined Poles and Saxons at Klissow; and three weeks later, captured the fortress of Cracow by an act of almost fabulous audacity. Thus, within four months of the opening of the campaign, the Polish capital and the coronation city were both in the possession of the Swedes. After Klissow, Augustus made every effort to put an end to the war, but Charles would not even consider his offers. By this time, too, he had conceived a passion for the perils and adventures of warfare. His character was hardening, and he deliberately adopted the most barbarous expedients for converting the Augustan Poles to his views. Such commands as “ravage, singe, and burn all about, and reduce the whole district to a wilderness!” “sweat contributions well out of them!” “rather let the innocent suffer than the guilty escape!” became painfully frequent in the mouth of the young commander, not yet 21, who was far from being naturally cruel.

The campaign of 1703 was remarkable for Charles’s victory at Pultusk (April 21) and the long siege of Thorn, which occupied him eight months but cost him only 50 men. On the 2nd of July 1704, with the assistance of a bribing fund, Charles’s ambassador at Warsaw, Count Arvid Bernard Horn, succeeded in forcing through the election of Charles’s candidate to the Polish throne, Stanislaus Leszczynski, who could not be crowned however till the 24th of September 1705, by which time the Saxons had again been defeated at Punitz. From the autumn of 1705 to the spring of 1706, Charles was occupied in pursuing the Russian auxiliary army under Ogilvie through the forests of Lithuania. On the 5th of August, he recrossed the Vistula and established himself in Saxony, where his presence in the heart of Europe, at the very crisis of the war of the Spanish Succession, fluttered all the western diplomats. The allies, in particular, at once suspected that Louis XIV. had bought the Swedes. Marlborough was forthwith sent from the Hague to the castle of Altranstädt near Leipzig, where Charles had fixed his headquarters, “to endeavour to penetrate the designs” of the king of Sweden. He soon convinced himself that western Europe had nothing to fear from Charles, and that no bribes were necessary to turn the Swedish arms from Germany to Russia. Five months later (Sept. 1707) Augustus was forced to sign the peace of Altranstädt, whereby he resigned the Polish throne and renounced every anti-Swedish alliance. Charles’s departure from Saxony was delayed for twelve months by a quarrel with the emperor. The court of Vienna had treated the Silesian Protestants with tyrannical severity, in direct contravention of the treaty of Osnabrück, of which Sweden was one of the guarantors; and Charles demanded summary and complete restitution so dictatorially that the emperor prepared for war. But the allies interfered in Charles’s favour, lest he might be tempted to aid France, and induced the emperor to satisfy all the Swedish king’s demands, the maritime Powers at the same time agreeing to guarantee the provisions of the peace of Altranstädt.

Nothing now prevented Charles from turning his victorious arms against the tsar; and on the 13th of August 1707, he evacuated Saxony at the head of the largest host he ever commanded, consisting of 24,000 horse and 20,000 foot. Delayed during the autumn months in Poland by the tardy arrival of reinforcements from Pomerania, it was not till November 1707 that Charles was able to take the field. On New Year’s Day 1708 he crossed the Vistula, though the ice was in a dangerous condition. On the 4th of July 1708 he cut in two the line of the Russian army, 6 m. long, which barred his progress on the Wabis, near Holowczyn, and compelled it to retreat. The victory of Holowczyn, memorable besides as the last pitched battle won by Charles XII., opened up the way to the Dnieper. The Swedish army now began to suffer severely, bread and fodder running short, and the soldiers subsisting entirely on captured bullocks. The Russians slowly retired before the invader, burning and destroying everything in his path. On the 20th of December it was plain to Charles himself that Moscow was inaccessible. But the idea of a retreat was intolerable to him, so he determined to march southwards instead of northwards as suggested by his generals, and join his forces with those of the hetman of the Dnieperian Cossacks, Ivan Mazepa, who had 100,000 horsemen and a fresh and fruitful land at his disposal. Short of falling back upon Livonia, it was the best plan adoptable in the circumstances, but it was rendered abortive by Peter’s destruction of Mazepa’s capital Baturin, so that when Mazepa joined Charles at Horki, on the 8th of November 1708, it was as a ruined man with little more than 1300 personal attendants (see Mazepa-Koledinsky). A still more serious blow was the destruction of the relief army which Levenhaupt was bringing to Charles from Livonia, and which, hampered by hundreds of loaded wagons, was overtaken and almost destroyed by Peter at Lyesna after a two days’ battle against fourfold odds (October). The very elements now began to fight against the perishing but still unconquered host. The winter of 1708 was the severest that Europe had known for a century. By the 1st of November firewood would not ignite in the open air, and the soldiers warmed themselves over big bonfires of straw. By the time the army reached the little Ukrainian fortress of Hadjacz in January 1709, wine and spirits froze into solid masses of ice; birds on the wing fell dead; saliva congealed on its passage from the mouth to the ground. “Nevertheless,” says an eye-witness, “though earth, sea and sky were against us, the king’s orders had to be obeyed and the daily march made.”

Never had Charles XII. seemed so superhuman as during these awful days. It is not too much to say that his imperturbable equanimity, his serene bonhomie kept the host together. The frost broke at the end of February 1709, and then the spring floods put an end to all active operations till May, when Charles began the siege of the fortress of Poltava, which he wished to make a base for subsequent operations while awaiting reinforcements from Sweden and Poland. On the 7th of June a bullet wound put Charles hors de combat, whereupon Peter threw the greater part of his forces over the river Vorskla, which separated the two armies (June 19–25). On the 26th of June Charles held a council of war, at which it was resolved to attack the Russians in their entrenchments on the following day. The Swedes joyfully accepted the chances of battle and, advancing with irresistible élan, were, at first, successful on both wings. Then one or two tactical blunders were committed; and the tsar, taking courage, enveloped the little band in a vast semicircle bristling with the most modern guns, which fired five times to the Swedes’ once, and swept away the guards before they could draw their swords. The Swedish infantry was well nigh annihilated, while the 14,000 cavalry, exhausted and demoralized, surrendered two days later at Perevolochna on Dnieper. Charles himself with 1500 horsemen took refuge in Turkish territory.

For the first time in his life Charles was now obliged to have recourse to diplomacy; and his pen proved almost as formidable as his sword. He procured the dismissal of four Russo-phil grand-viziers in succession, and between 1710 and 1712 induced the Porte to declare war against the tsar three times. But after November 1712 the Porte had no more money to spare; and, the tsar making a show of submission, the sultan began to regard Charles as a troublesome guest. On the 1st of February 1713 he was attacked by the Turks in his camp at Bender, and made prisoner after a contest which reads more like an extravagant episode from some heroic folk-tale than an incident of sober 18th-century history. Charles lingered on in Turkey fifteen months longer, in the hope of obtaining a cavalry escort sufficiently strong to enable him to restore his credit in Poland. Disappointed of this last hope, and moved by the despairing appeals of his sister Ulrica and the senate to return to Sweden while there was still a Sweden to return to, he quitted Demotika on the 20th of September 1714, and attended by a single squire arrived unexpectedly at midnight, on the 11th of November, at Stralsund, which, excepting Wismar, was now all that remained to him on German soil.

For the diplomatic events of these critical years see Sweden: History. Here it need only be said that Sweden, during the course of the Great Northern War, had innumerable opportunities of obtaining an honourable and even advantageous peace, but they all foundered oh the dogged refusal of Charles to consent to the smallest concession to his despoilers. Even now he would listen to no offers of compromise, and after defending Stralsund with desperate courage till it was a mere rubbish heap, returned to Sweden after an absence of 14 years. Here he collected another army of 20,000 men, with which he so strongly entrenched himself on the Scanian coast in 1716 that his combined enemies shrank from attacking him, whereupon he assumed the offensive by attacking Norway in 1717, and again in 1718, in order to conquer sufficient territory to enable him to extort better terms from his enemies. It was during this second adventure that he met his death. On the 11th of December, when the Swedish approaches had come within 280 paces of the fortress of Fredriksten, which the Swedes were closely besieging, Charles looked over the parapet of the foremost trench, and was shot through the head by a bullet from the fortress.

See Charles XII., Die eigenhändigen Briefe König Karls XII. (Berlin, 1894); Friedrich Ferdinand Carlson, Sveriges Historia under Konungarne af Pfalziska Huset (Stockholm, 1883–1885); Robert Nisbet Bain, Charles XII. and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire (London and Oxford, 1895); Bidrag til den Store Nordishe Krigs Historie (Copenhagen, 1899–1900); G. Syveton, Louis XIV et Charles XII (Paris, 1900); Daniel Krmann, Historia ablegationis D. Krmann ad regem Sueciae Carolum XII. (Budapest, 1894); Oscar II., Några bidrag till Sveriges Krigshistoria åren 1711–1713 (Stockholm, 1892); Martin Weibull, Sveriges Storhedstid (Stockholm, 1881).  (R. N. B.)