The New International Encyclopædia/Charles XII.
CHARLES XII. (1682-1718). King of Sweden from 1697 to 1718. He was the eldest son of Charles XI. and of Ulrica Eleonora of Denmark, and was born in Stockholm, June 27, 1682. His youth gave no promise, either of ability or purpose befitting a sovereign, but he showed his mettle when Sweden, soon after his accession, was threatened by a coalition of Frederick IV. of Denmark, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and Peter of Russia, who was yet to win his title of ‘the Great.’ Sweden had been for seventy years one of the great powers of Europe, as a result of the policy of the kings of the house of Vasa (q.v.); it possessed territory all about the Baltic, and its troops were reputed the best in Europe. The War of the North that was now brought on by the coalition was at first on Sweden's part a war of defense; then, through the successes of Charles, a war of aggression and conquest, and finally, through his failure, a struggle for existence. Its story is a mingling of brilliant triumph and disheartening defeat, both resulting from the meteoric and ill-balanced genius, reckless ambition, and fatal obstinacy of the Swedish King, qualities that have won for him in history the name of ‘Madman of the North.’ He was a born soldier, and had taken Alexander the Great for his favorite hero. He was fond of all daring sports, careless of exposure, and unsparing of himself and others. When intelligence of the hostile league that threatened him reached Stockholm, the young King surprised every one around him by the energy and efficiency he displayed. Frederick IV. of Denmark had invaded Schleswig-Holstein, whose Duke, a brother-in-law of the Swedish King, had called the latter to his assistance. In a six weeks' campaign Denmark was brought to terms and Frederick signed the Peace of Travendal on August 8, 1700. Charles now turned promptly to the defense of the Swedish possessions on the Baltic menaced by Russia and Poland. Russia sought to obtain the Swedish provinces of Ingria and Carelia, while Livonia and Esthonia, whose nobility detested the firm and often severe rule of Sweden, wished to put themselves under the weaker Polish monarchy. Hastening toward Riga, Charles compelled the Poles to raise the siege of that place, and then by forced marches brought his army of a little over 8000 men to the relief of Narva in Esthonia, which was beleaguered by 40,000 Russians, while Peter himself had gone to hasten the advance of 20,000 more. The disciplined Swedish troops, although jaded by forced marches, administered a severe defeat to the Russians before the walls of the city (November 30, 1700), and Europe expected to see the whole Russian Empire brought under the sway of the young Swede who seemed to have revived the martial glory of the great Gustavus. Unfortunately for Charles, he seems to have entertained the same mad dream of conquest. Only the astute Peter looked the situation squarely in the face and sought to learn its lesson for Russia. He strengthened his alliance with Augustus of Poland, and at Birsen in February, 1701, it was agreed that Augustus should occupy the attention of the Swedes in the west and Peter in the east, and that they should divide the Baltic provinces. The war thus opened in Denmark and the Baltic provinces involved the control of the Baltic and lasted for twenty-one years, ending in the marked diminution of the power of Sweden and the rise of Rvissia as the great Baltic power. Its first years, however, pointed to no such result. Influenced by the advice of his generals, Charles did not follow up his success against Peter, who was really his dangerous antagonist, but sought the overthrow of the King of Poland, while Peter was left to develop his resources. The conquest of Poland was accomplished owing to the chronic disagreements among the nobility in that unfortunate country, but five years were necessary for its completion. The country was overrun by the Swedish troops, Augustus was finally driven into Saxony, and Charles, who had determined, against the advice of his principal counselor, Piper, to accomplish his enemy's dethronement, secured the election of Stanislas Leszczyniski, who was crowned in Warsaw, in October, 1705. Meanwhile the Czar had been engaged in the conquest of the Baltic provinces and had been preparing for the ultimate contest with Charles. The latter now carried the war into Saxony, marching through Silesia and posing as the protector of the Protestants. Seeing his hereditary dominions in danger, Augustus sued for peace. Charles exacted from him in the Treaty of Altranstädt (1706) a renunciation of the Polish crown and of all alliances, the recognition of Stanislas, and the delivery to Charles of Patkul, the head of the Livonian malcontents, who had been instrumental in bringing about the coalition between Augustus and Peter. Patkul was executed as a traitor. Charles was now at the height of his power, with a disciplined army of 40,000 men, stationed near Leipzig, holding Germany in awe. If his military ability had been seconded by moderate and wise statesmanship he might have made himself the most powerful sovereign of Europe. France hoped that he might attack the Grand Alliance, and the members of the Alliance feared it, but after exacting humiliating terms from the Emperor Joseph I. Charles turned his face eastward to reconquer the Baltic provinces, and then to conquer Russia and perhaps Asia. He entered upon this daring plan with about 40,000 men. The tactics of the Russians were those afterwards employed to defeat Napoleon. Charles was lured on into the interior of Russia, his army harassed on the way, and finally on July 8, 1709, while besieging Poltava, on the border of the Ukraine, he was attacked by the Russian army in force and the entire fabric of his military success was shattered in one disastrous engagement. His army was annihilated and he himself barely escaped into Turkish territory, with 300 of his guard. He prevailed upon the Sultan to take up arms against Russia, and in 1711 Peter the Great found himself in a most precarious position on the banks of the Pruth. He was permitted, however, to escape, and the treaty which he was forced to conclude with the Turks was of no benefit to Charles. The Swedish monarch spent the next three years in semi-captivity among the Turks, engaged in fruitless intrigues to induce the Ottoman Government to attack Russia. Had he at once returned to his kingdom and turned his real abilities to good use for the State, the history of Sweden might have been different. Instead, with an obstinacy that was simply madness, he wasted his time in this scheme for revenge. When he found that his plots were of no avail he defied the Turkish power, was made a prisoner, but escaped in 1714, and, dashing on horseback disguised through Hungary and Germany, reached Stralsund, which was at once invested by a combined force of Danes, Prussians, and Saxons, and after a year's siege compelled to surrender. The King was wounded in the siege. After driving the Danes from Scania, he invaded Norway and was killed by a cannon-ball while besieging Frederikshald, December 11, 1718. In private life Charles was almost an ascetic. See Sweden; Peter I.; Russia; Poland.
Bibliography. There are valuable Swedish works relating to this reign: Axelson, Bidrag till künnedomen om Sveriges tillstand pa Karl 'XII:s tid (“Contribution to the Knowledge of the Condition of Sweden in the Time of Charles XII.”) (Wisby, 1888); E. Carlsen (ed.), Karl XII:s eyenbindiga bref (“Autograph Letters of Charles XII.”) (Stockholm, 1893}; Carlson, Sveriges historia under konungarne af det pfalziska huset (“History of Sweden Under the Kings of the Palatine House”) (Stockholm, 1855-81), also in German abridgment (Gotha, 1887). Consult, also, Voltaire, Histoire de Charles XII. (Rouen, 1730), which cites much valuable contemporary evidence. A very full bibliography may be found in Lavisse and Rambaud, Histoire générale, Vol. VI. (Paris, 1896). This work also contains an admirable account of the struggle for the Baltic.