Charles XII Wittelsbach was the last king of Sweden to continue the tradition of conquests initiated by his ancestors. Endowed with immense military talent, he was called the “Viking King” because of his appearance and courage displayed on the battlefields. His life and reign were short, and his death ended Swedish supremacy in northern Europe.

Born in 1682, young Charles became the king of Sweden at the age of 15. The ruler had the appearance of a true Scandinavian Viking – he was a fair-haired giant with great physical strength and, as it later turned out, a similar approach to conducting conquest-oriented politics. As a warrior, he was characterized by ruthlessness and unparalleled courage, but above all, he was an extremely talented commander capable of performing miracles on the battlefield.

Swedish King Charles XII Wittelsbach
Painting: Hyacinthe Rigault via Wikimedia Commons

Charles inherited a state that was a European superpower at the peak of its military power. In 1699, Denmark, Saxony, and Russia formed an alliance aimed at countering Sweden’s hegemony. Instead of limiting himself to defense, Charles decided to eliminate his enemies one by one. He quickly defeated Denmark and then, without hesitation, redirected his forces eastward towards Livonia, going to the aid of the besieged fortress of Narva, which was under attack by the Russians.

The Swedish army that arrived at Narva numbered around 10,000 men. They faced an almost 40,000-strong Russian army, but the Tsar’s forces, despite their overwhelming numerical advantage, were less well-trained, less well-equipped, and led by French officers who often did not understand their subordinates. Charles XII skillfully divided the poorly led enemy wings and won the entire battle, completely crushing the Russian army, while losing only a few hundred soldiers. The Russians lost 15,000 men (!), all their banners, and all their artillery.

The Russians surrendered at Narva before Charles XII.
Painting: Gustaf Cederström via Wikimedia Commons

A similar situation occurred in 1701 near the city of Riga, where the Swedish ruler defeated the combined Saxon-Russian forces led by Field Marshal Adam Heinrich von Steinau (the battle is known as The Crossing of the Düna).

Thus, after both of these battles, the legend of Charles as a brilliant commander who enjoyed immense trust from his people was born. At the same time, shortly thereafter, the young ruler made his biggest political mistake, which cost Sweden its position as a superpower in the long run. Instead of pursuing and ultimately defeating Russia, Charles decided to eliminate the Saxons from the war. In 1702, at Kliszow, the Swedish army, which had huge problems fighting against the Polish winged hussars 100 years earlier, easily defeated the Saxon-Polish forces. Over the next few years, Charles systematically dismantled Saxon resistance and in 1706 forced Augustus the Strong to abdicate.

Battle of Poltava 
Painting: Pierre-Denis Martin via Wikimedia Commons

After defeating the Saxons, Charles turned his eyes towards Russia and began his march towards Moscow. The campaign did not go according to plan for the 30,000-strong Swedish army: first, on the border of Masovia and Lithuania, Charles’s men were heavily attacked by the local population, causing the Swedes to lose about 1,000 men and thousands of horses. Then, they were stopped by the ruthless Russian winter and the scorched earth strategy pursued by the retreating Russians (100 years later, Napoleon Bonaparte would fall into the same trap). The Swedes suffered from the cold, lack of food, and falling morale. After the lost battle of Lesnaya in 1708, Charles headed towards Ukraine to try to form an alliance with Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s Cossacks. Historians have described the Ukrainian hetman’s terror when he learned of the approaching Swedes. He was said to have uttered the words “now we will both perish, he and I!” – in a sense, this did happen (Mazepa died shortly after fleeing to Turkey).

Charles XII and Ivan Mazepa after the Battle of Poltava.
Painting: Gustaf Cederström via Wikimedia Commons

In 1709, the famous Battle of Poltava took place, where the well-rebuilt, well-supplied, and well-rested Russian army, which had a huge advantage, defeated the Swedish-Cossack forces of Charles XII. Wittelsbach managed to escape the massacre and found refuge in Turkey, which he persuaded to wage war against Russia, ultimately resulting in a Turkish victory. In 1713, Charles managed to sneak back to Sweden in disguise. The war against the anti-Swedish coalition continued, and Charles decided to attack Norway, which belonged to Denmark. In 1718, during the siege of the fortress of Fredrikshald, he was killed on the spot by a bullet to the head fired by one of the defenders.

The body of Charles XII, with a visible gunshot wound received at Fredrikshald. A photo from 1917.

The death of Charles XII Wittelsbach marked the end of Sweden’s hegemony in northern Europe. He was the last absolute monarch and warrior king who continued the policy of conquest started by his predecessors. The Swedish army never regained its strength and size as it did under the rule of Charles, and his military genius is often mentioned by contemporary historians and in works of art.

Below is one of the songs from the Swedish metal band Sabaton from their album “Carolus Rex” telling the story of Charles XII.

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