Friday, June 27, 2008


It was the age of the Marlborough and Cyrano de Bergerac, of Pascal and Moliére, of William of Orange, of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, of Hobbes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley and Spinoza. And, of course, it was the age of Marlborough, Louis XIV of France and Peter the Great of Russia.

Yet among all of these magnificent characters there is also one who stands out like a Siegfried or D’Artagnan on steroids, the almost incomparable King Charles XII of Sweden, although he is virtually unheard of on this side of the ocean.

Who? Some Swedish friends once asked me in the ‘80s whether I knew who King Charles XII was, hoping to make fun of Americans (they actually said this was their goal). I was happy to be able to say without the aid of the yet to be invented Google, that I did, and felt like I was holding up the American end. Timing is everything. I had read Will Durant's The Age of Louis XIV as well as my favorite biography (and Pulitzer Prize winner), Peter the Great not too many years earlier and was fascinated by XII. Voltaire’s biography, L'histoire de Charles XII, from which those great writers drew would have to wait two decades.

For some reason I said then that every American should know about him as he represented an early wild cowboy spirit. Probably I was just being nice. There are enough swashbuckling heroes on this side of the ocean. But XII was actually special. Despite his bad end, a couple of decades after his death a young Benjamin Franklin wrote that XII was “the wonder of his age”.

XII’s dad, Charles XI, was quite the monarch himself. He revived the moribund royal power over the nobles, had a pretty good war record and brought about a bit of a golden age in Sweden, despite being a tyrant. When he died in 1697, XII was only 15 years old, but he lived his princedom well, preparing in every manner to be a powerful. A wise member of the clergy suggested that maybe 15 was a little young to be king. XII sentenced him to death, but, in the end he saw reason and gave him life in prison (remember, they were still burning people at the stake in those days). I have always hoped that in later years he pardoned the man, although that may be no more than wishful thinking on my part.

The holy man was certainly right in XII’s case. He was ignorant and arrogant, even taking his crown from the hands of the clergyman who was going to coronate him and put it on his own head, preceding Napoleon by a hundred years or so. Yet, when XII came to power, Sweden itself was a real aggressive player, as hard as that is to believe today of our neutral friend, and had enough land in northern Europe to pen Russia in like a slumbering giant. It’s leaders needed to be tough.

Perhaps XII started off on the wrong foot with one man in particular.  XI had charged an ambitious officer with treason for protesting his having redistributing noble lands back to the monarchy. The officer, Johann van Patkul, escaped to the lower continent. When XI died, Patkul sought a pardon from the new young king and was soundly rejected.

Long before XII could celebrate his second anniversary as King, van Patkul had convinced Peter the Great of Russia to combine with Saxony and Denmark to eat up Sweden as if at a smorgasbord.

Of course, it took a bit for countries to marshal their troops and get across borders in those days. Eventually, word of the alliance reached Swedish ears. His advisors counseled trying to divide their opponents diplomatically. Only 18, the young king resolutely (bravely/stupidly?) stated “Gentlemen, I have resolved never to engage in an unjust War, but never to finish one that is founded upon Justice and Right, but by the Destruction of my Enemies.” End of meeting but also the end of the arrogant, unjust and hard to love young man and birth of a sensational and popular leader.

XII became a Spartan warrior. No women (leading to the usual suspicion of homosexuality), no alcohol or soft living for him. He eschewed fine dress, preferring to dress like his soldiers, whom he allowed great freedom of expression with him. He addressed them directly and suffered their deprivations with them. On one occasion a soldier brought him a piece of moldy bread in way of complaint. XII ate the entire piece and said “It is not good, but it may be eaten." Leaders like that become beloved by their troops..

Once, on telling a cook that he would promote him, the cook joked back, “I’ll have that in writing, Sire.” He was often kind to his opponents after he had defeated them. Yet, he was undoubtedly the bravest of all of his men and the most physically impressive. Constantly putting himself in danger’s way, he once quipped, after losing two horses in quick successive, and gaining a third – “I see that the enemy wants me to practice riding.”

He could fight like the berserkers of old, and pick an object off the ground at full gallop like a Sioux Indian. Voltaire tells us that XII hunted bear with only forked sticks and nets, although, Herodotus like, he adds words that would lead you to believe he may have doubted that. But on a better documented occasion, thrown from a horse and surrounded by Russian and allied troops, he killed a dozen men before his men could surround him.

In Spring 1700, he marched off to war against Denmark, which was actually on Sweden’s border. Heading across the dangerous channel between the two countries against advice (I don’t know why – I crossed it twice in 1987 and didn’t even get sick) and headed for the Danish capital, Copenhagen. The brave king of Denmark, Frederik IV, XII’s cousin, pretty much immediately gave up, paid for his peace and promised never to make war on his ferocious cousin.

His next test was against Peter the Great himself. Peter, although Czar, was serving in the army as a mere officer. If you think XII had become king too young, Peter became co-king with his older but sickly brother when he was ten, although his powerful half-sister, Sophia (think Ursula, the witch from The Little Mermaid), was regent and really ruled until she lost power and then Peter’s mother took that role until Peter came of age. Like XII, he threw himself into training, wanting to westernize his country, but focused on shipbuilding, even going to the Netherlands to learn the trade himself as a mere workman.

Before he knew it, XII had snuck up behind him in present day Estonia. Although heavily outnumbering his adversary 4 or 5 times (perhaps 10 to 1), Peter thought twice and high tailed it back to Moscow. It may have been embarrassing knowing that XII had a medal created showing him running away, however, it was good thinking. The Swedes were a powerful force, dominated the Baltic Sea with their navy and had a well trained army. The 8,000 Swedes swept the field of the largely untrained 40,000 to 80,000 man Russian force at Narva. Reportedly, the Swedes lost between 500 and 1000 men, the Russians 17,000.

His successes had given backbone to his officers who now advised him to finish off Moscow and end the fight once and for all. But Charles resisted heading off into his huge neighbor in winter. He turned instead towards Poland and took the capital without a fight in 1702. He simply banged on the gates demanding that they open it and when the keeper complied, he smacked him on the head with his riding crop and entered. A couple of years later, King Augustus II of Poland, another cousin of his, stepped down and Charles’ puppet took his crown.

Bad news for van Patkul, who was hiding out in Poland. He was eventually given up, tortured, quartered and decapitated. It was now between Peter and XII; two brilliant and powerful young leaders opposing one another directly. Peter almost succeeded in bringing Great Britain in on Russia's side, but they were more afraid of Russia and did not want to add to help add to their territory or strength.

While in Poland, XII had a fall from his horse and broke his leg. While he recovered for the most part, it caused him to limp for the rest of his life. It did not stop him from leading his troops in battle or even swimming across rivers.

While Charles was busy with Poland, Peter was busy rebuilding his army and war machinery. He began building his namesake city Petersburg. He made his way back to Narva, where XII had whipped his troops, and revenged himself on the few Swedes left there. The huge Peter personally killed some of his own men in a rage in order to end the massacre of Swedish troops. When he addressed the vanquished, he pointed out that the blood on his sword was not Swedish, but that of Russians that he had cut down for their sake.

In 1708 (just for context, Benjamin Franklin is 2 years old and Isaac Newton would live another quarter century) Charles crossed into Russia with troops now swollen to well over 40,000 including a formidable cavalry. Peter again wisely fled after ordering a scorched earth policy. Less wisely, he left his troops in the care of his Cossack leader, Ivan Mazepa, who perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, offered XII his help.

The vast distances of Russia began to have their effect, not to mention the scorched earth. Food was scarce and the tide began to turn. Charles’ reinforcements were nearly destroyed by Russian troops. Peter’s right hand man, Prince Aleksandr Menshikov, was able to surprise Mazepa who fled with only 1300 men to Charles, and Menshikov burned his city to the ground.

The winter heading into ’09 was especially fierce, and this was still what is known as the little ice age (which would last over another century). The Swedes suffered horribly but Charles, like all fearless, adrenaline driven heroes pushed on, his forces cut nearly in half. Still, even when outnumbered by huge factors, his troops whipped the Russians whenever he led them.

In Spring ’09 Charles and Peter’s troops finally met. Charles went out to have his own look see and got shot in the foot for his troubles. He performed surgery on himself but finally passed out.

He delegated his forces to his underling and had to be carried to the field of battle in a litter for emotional support. The Swedes, again outnumbered almost four to one began to sweep the field, but this time, Peter, still just an officer in rank, was ready. His greatly superior artillery cut the Swedes to pieces. Although the Russians lost more men than the Swedes, they captured almost all of the rest, who, except for the officers, were treated as slaves to work on projects for the Czar.

This time it was XII, accompanied by Mazepa, who fled all the way to Turkey. The Battle of Poltava turned the tide for good and made Peter truly deserving of his "Great," at least in the minds of Europe. Augustus II of Poland regained his throne. The Danes ripped up their treaty and invaded Sweden, although unsuccessfully. Prussia joined in and even Louis XIV offered an alliance with Peter, who rejected it.

Fortunately for XII, the Turks hated the Russians and allowed him to keep his own court there. Many thought he converted to Islam because of his attendance at public services and his abstention from alcohol. He refused Peter’s demand to surrender Mazepa to him, meaning certain death, but Mazepa dropped dead in 1710 anyway. Finally, Charles, who was offered escort to Sweden by the French, convinced Sultan Ahmed III to make preemptive war and invade Russia with 200,000 men under his vizier.

In the Summer of 1711 Peter was caught by surprise with less than 20,000 men. He expected to die, quickly provided for the election of a new Czar in Moscow, but finally was able to wiggle out of his predicament by asking for terms, giving a large bribe and making many promises, including giving safe passage for XII to return home. XII had no such thoughts and racing to the battle, he actually swam the river alone rather than go out of his way to cross a bridge and crossed the Russian camp alone. He was furious to learn of the truce as he probably rightfully believed he could have destroyed the Russian army and reversed Poltova. He was able to convince the Sultan to dismiss the vizier, but Peter merely bought his peace with the new one too.

The Sultan grew tired of XII and ordered him to leave Turkey. Being XII he refused to leave and was finally forced to leave in 1713 (I told you things moved slow then) with 12,000 Turkish troops. Still being XII, it took them 8 hours to capture XII and just 40 men. Every bit the action hero, he personally killed a number of them, before tripping on his own spurs and being taken down by a large group of them. It took a dozen to pin him down and pack him off. He was sent to the border with Greece, but was inexplicably allowed to remain almost two more years while the Turkey and Russia jockeyed for position. The incident is worthy of a long piece itself. Maybe someday.

Finally, this magnificent martial man gave up and started for home in 1714. He traveled almost alone in secret so as not to endanger his remaining troops, making such phenomenal time and showing such great endurance that his feat reverberated through Europe when it was learned.

He would get a chance to fight more. His absence from Sweden had led to its demise. He found himself trapped on the Baltic coast across the sea from Sweden at war with the German principalities, Russia, Denmark, England and Russia. For nearly a year he was forced to defend a fort with about 35,000 men. He courted death repeatedly leading his men on charges outside the gates.

In the end, it was artillery again which he could not master. They smashed the town to pieces. Somehow he was able to escape to Sweden for the last time at the end of 1715. Although welcomed back there, he wanted to fight and taxed his people relentlessly while he built his army up again. Finally, having lost almost everything on the lower continent, he invaded Norway in 1717.

Laying siege to a Norwegian fort, he again exposed himself for an interminable amount of time, at one point telling some workers “Don’t be frightened.” One subordinate said to another not to say anything to him or he would stay exposed longer. His seeming invincibility ran out.

He raised his head at the wrong time and took a bullet in his temple. It has long been argued which side the bullet came from. A recent review of the evidence has led some historians to conclude that it was in fact from the Norwegian side and not a friendly fire incident or even assassination by XII’s own troops. He had been at war for eighteen years but had lived more in his 36 years than almost anyone else could have in 136.

With XII dead, Sweden slowly bought peace with its enemies. It took another four years though and multiple Russian invasions before it finally surrendered to Peter, who had but four years to live himself.

The Great Northern War was forced upon XII. He was away from home for 15 years and never even re-entered his capital once he left it. From 18 on he was at war. He faced a man as great as himself, if not as competent militarily. But Peter had the land, manpower and asset advantage and used them fully. XII was Robert E. Lee, Hannibal and Custer to Peter’s Grant, Scipio and Sitting Bull.

I could argue that Franklin and Voltaire were the two greatest thinkers who lived totally in the 18th century. We have heard from Franklin already. Voltaire began his book on XII with a list of marvelous events that you read or hear and should not believe, but then tells you that you should believe the marvelous stories he will tell you about XII. “[F]or where is the sovereign who can say, I have greater courage, more virtues, more resolution, more strength of body, greater skill in war, or better troops than Charles the twelfth” and “[O]n the twenty-seventh of June, 1682, was born King Charles XII. The most extraordinary man, perhaps, that ever appeared in the world.”

I have of course simplified greatly the Great Northern War. Charles fought in over a hundred battles, maybe many more, and almost never lost although he was almost always outnumbered and on enemy territory. He often led from the front and took more risks than anyone. His death at 36 was not his luck running out. It should have run out 10 years earlier. Had the initial sweep caused Peter to flee again at Poltova, or had Peter not the great advantage in men and machine, XII may have conquered Russia just as their ancestors had founded it and would have become a Second Charlemagne or Charles Martel.

Men like XII are few, awe inspiring, dangerous and, frankly, frightening. He had perhaps too much courage. It would be easy to say his country suffered for it, but had he not fought so ferociously Sweden might have been dismembered long before by its enemies. As to who was greater, XII or Peter, I will offer only this suggestion. XII was more magnificent, but Peter was greater, as his achievements were many and lasting, and not just military.


  1. Anonymous3:16 PM

    So did the cook get the promotion offer in writing??

  2. I don't know, but as he was a good cook, I doubt they got rid of him either. Ask Voltaire.

    By the way, were you looking through my window with binoculars waiting for me to post. That was pretty tight.

  3. Hmm... I was also wondering about the cook. Man, do you need a proofreader. A minor quibble.
    Interesting stuff Frodo. You may have finally convinced me to read that biography of Peter the Great you are always raving about.

  4. I thought you were my proofreader.

    I know, I know, I write these ridiculously long posts in proportion to readership, usually at night and I often am too tired to proofread. Sometimes I just publish and proof days later. Some I correct a year later if I see a mistake. Beauty of the blog -- it's never done. Of course, my proofing of comments hear and elsewhere is even worse.

    You will never be sorry with Peter the Great (think I lost my copy when I moved) because I can't find it. Extraordinary work. Massie's Nicholas and Alexander is also riveting and I almost did not give it a chance.

    I think that Massie relied fairly heavily on Voltaire for his stuff on XII. That's actually pretty good reading too, although in those days, there was no footnoting, so you don't know where Voltaire got his stuff from.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .