Charles XII of Sweden

Charles XII of Sweden
Charles XII
King of Sweden
Grand Prince of Finland
Duke of Bremen and Verden
Duke of Palatinate-Zweibrücken
Charles XII in military uniform, David von Krafft (1706)
King of Sweden
Reign 5 April 1697 – 30 November 1718 (&1000000000000002100000021 years, &10000000000000239000000239 days)
Coronation 14 December 1697(1697-12-14) (aged 15)
Predecessor Charles XI
Successor Ulrika Eleonora
House House of Pfalz-Zweibrücken
Father Charles XI of Sweden
Mother Ulrika Eleonora of Denmark
Born 17 June 1682
Tre Kronor (castle), Sweden
Died 30 November 1718(1718-11-30) (aged 36)
Fredrikshald, Norway
Burial 26 February 1719
Riddarholmen Church, Stockholm
Religion Lutheran

Charles XII also Carl of Sweden, Swedish: Karl XII, Latinized to Carolus Rex, Turkish: Demirbaş Şarl, also known as Charles the Habitué[citation needed] (17 June 1682 – 30 November 1718) was the King of the Swedish Empire from 1697 to 1718. Charles was the only surviving son of King Charles XI of Sweden and Ulrika Eleonora the Elder, he assumed the crown after a seven-month caretaker government at the age of fifteen.

In 1700, a triple alliance of Denmark–Norway, SaxonyPoland–Lithuania and Russia launched a threefold attack on the Swedish protectorate of Swedish Holstein-Gottorp and provinces of Livonia and Ingria, aiming to draw advantage as Sweden was unaligned and ruled by a young and inexperienced king, thus initiating the Great Northern War. Leading the formidable Swedish army against the alliance, Charles had by 1706 forced to submission all parties but Russia.

Charles' subsequent march on Moscow ended with the dismemberment of the Swedish army at Poltava and Perevolochna, and he spent the following years in exile in the Ottoman Empire before returning to lead an assault on Norway, trying to evict the Danish king from the war once more in order to aim all his forces at the Russians. Two failed campaigns concluded with his death at the Siege of Fredriksten in 1718. At the time, most of the Swedish Empire was under foreign military occupation, though Sweden itself was still free. This situation was later formalized, albeit moderated in the subsequent Treaty of Nystad. The close would see not only the end of the Swedish Empire but also of its effectively organized absolute monarchy and war machine, commencing a parliamentarian government unique for continental Europe, which would last for half a century until royal autocracy was restored by Gustav III.

Charles was an exceptionally skilled military leader and tactician as well as an able politician, credited with introducing important tax and legal reforms. As for his famous reluctance towards peace efforts he is quoted by Voltaire as saying, upon the outbreak of the war; "I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies." With the war consuming more than half his life and nearly all his reign, he never married and fathered no children, and was succeeded by his sister Ulrika Eleonora, who in turn was coerced to hand over all substantial powers to the Riksdag of the Estates and opted to surrender the throne to her husband, who became King Frederick I of Sweden.


Royal title

The 15-year old Charles in 1697 as king of the Swedish Empire

Charles, like all kings, was styled by a royal title, which combined all his titles into one single phrase. This was:

We Charles, by the Grace of God King of Sweden, the Goths and the Vends, Grand Prince of Finland, Duke of Estonia and Karelia, Lord of Ingria, Duke of Bremen, Verden and Pomerania, Prince of Rügen and Lord of Wismar, and also Count Palatine by the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, Count of ZweibrückenKleeburg, as well as Duke of Jülich, Cleve and Berg, Count of Veldenz, Spanheim and Ravensberg and Lord of Ravenstein.

The fact that Charles was crowned as Charles XII does not mean that he was the 12th king of Sweden by that name. Swedish kings Erik XIV (1560–1568) and Charles IX (1604–1611) gave themselves numerals after studying a mythological history of Sweden. He was actually the 6th King Charles.[1] The non-mathematic numbering tradition continues with the current King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, being counted as the equivalent of Charles XVI.

Early campaigns

Part of the Monument to Charles XII in Stockholm, with Charles pointing towards Russia

Around 1700, the kings of Denmark–Norway, Saxony (ruled by elector August II of Poland, who was also the king of Poland-Lithuania) and Russia united in an alliance against Sweden, largely through the efforts of Johann Reinhold Patkul, a Livonian nobleman gone traitor through the great "reduction" of Charles XI stripping much of the nobility of lands and properties. In late 1699 Charles sent a minor detachment to reinforce his brother-in-law Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp, who was attacked by Danish forces the following year. A Saxon army simultaneously invaded Swedish Livonia and initated a siege on Riga, the most populated city of the Swedish Empire. Also Russia declared war, but stopped short of an attack on Swedish Ingria until the late summer.

Charles's first campaign was against Denmark–Norway, ruled by his cousin Frederick IV of Denmark, For this campaign Charles secured the support of England and the Netherlands, both maritime powers concerned about Denmark's threats to close the Sound. Leading a force of 8,000 and 43 ships in an invasion of Zealand, Charles rapidly compelled the Danes to submit to the Peace of Travendal in August 1700, which indemnified Holstein.

Having forced Denmark–Norway to peace within months, King Charles turned his attention upon the two other powerful neighbors, King August II (cousin to both Charles XII and Frederick IV of Denmark–Norway) and Peter the Great of Russia, who also had entered the war against him, ironically on the same day that Denmark came to terms.

Russia had opened their part of the war by invading the Swedish-held territories of Livonia and Estonia. Charles countered this by attacking the Russian besiegers at the Battle of Narva. The Swedish army of ten thousand men was outnumbered almost four to one by the Russians. Charles attacked under cover of a blizzard, effectively split the Russian army in two and won the battle. Many of Peter's troops that fled the battlefield drowned in the Narva River, and the total number of Russian fatalities reached about 10,000 at the end of the battle, while the Swedish troop lost 667 men.

Charles did not pursue the Russian army. Instead, he turned against Poland-Lithuania, which was formally neutral at this point, thereby disregarding Polish negotiation proposals supported by the Swedish parliament. Charles defeated the Polish king Augustus II and his Saxon allies at the Battle of Kliszow in 1702 and captured many cities of the Commonwealth. After the deposition of August as king of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Charles XII put Stanisław Leszczyński, largely a puppet of Charles, on the throne.

Russian resurgence

Charles XII and Mazepa at the Dnieper River after Poltava by Gustaf Cederström

While Charles won several decisive battles in the Commonwealth and ultimately secured the coronation of his ally Stanisław Leszczyński and the surrender of Saxony, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great embarked on a military reform plan that improved the Russian army, using the effectively organized Swedes and other European standards for role model. Russian forces managed to penetrate Ingria and established a new city, Saint Petersburg, there. Charles planned an invasion of the Russian heartland, allying himself with Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks. The size of the invading Swedish army was peeled of as Charles left Leszczyński with some 24,000 German and Polish troops, departing eastwards from Saxony in late 1707 with some 35,000 men, adding a further 12,500 under Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt marching from Livonia. Charles left the homeland with a defense of approximately 28,800 men, with a further 14,000 in Swedish Finland as well as further garrisons in the Baltic and German provinces.[2][3]

After securing his "favorite" victory in the Battle of Holowczyn, despite being outnumbered over one to three against the new Russian army, Charles opted to march eastwards on Moscow rather than try to seize Saint Petersburg, founded from the Swedish town of Nyenskans five years earlier.[4] Peter the Great managed, however, to ambush Lewenhaupt's army as Lesnaya before Charles could combine his forces, thus losing valuable supplies, artillery and half of Lewenhaupt's men. Charles' Polish ally, Stanisław Leszczyński, was facing internal problems of his own. Charles expected the support of a massive Cossack rebellion led by Mazepa in Ukraine, with estimates suggesting Mazepa of being able to muster some 40,000 troops, but the Russians subjugated the rebellion and destroyed its capital Baturin before the arrival of the Swedish troops. The harsh climate took its toll as well, as Charles marched his troops for winter camp in Ukraine.[5]

By the time of the decisive Battle of Poltava, Charles had been wounded, one-third of his infantry was dead, and his supply train was destroyed. The king was incapacitated by a coma resulting from his injuries and was unable to lead the Swedish forces. With the numbers of Charles' army reduced to some 23,000, with several wounded and handling the siege of Poltava, his general Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld had a clearly inferior force to face the fortified and modernized army of Tsar Peter, some 45,000.[6] The Swedish assault ended in disaster, and the king fled with a small entourage south to the Ottoman Empire, where he set up camp at Bender with some 1,000 of his Caroleans ("Karoliner" in Swedish). The Swedish defeat at Poltava is considered by some historians to be the point where the downfall of the Swedish Empire was consummated and the Russian Empire was founded. The remainder of the army surrendered days later at Perevolochna under Lewenhaupt's command, most of them (including Lewenhaupt himself) spending the rest of their days in Russian captivity.

Carolus - the autograph of the king.

Exile in the Ottoman Empire

Royal Monogram

The Turks initially welcomed the Swedish king, who managed to incite a war between the Ottomans and the Russians. His expenses during his long stay in the Ottoman Empire were covered from the Ottoman state budget, as part of the fixed assets (Demirbaş in Turkish), hence his nickname Demirbaş Şarl (Fixed Asset Charles) in Turkey. Demirbaş, the Turkish word for fixed asset, is literally ironhead (demir = iron, baş = head), which is the reason why this nickname has often been translated as Ironhead Charles. Eventually a small village named Karlstad had to be built near Bender to accommodate the ever growing Swedish population there. Sultan Ahmet III, as gesture to the King, had bought some of the Swedish women and children put up for sale by the Russians and turned them over to the Swedes, thus further strengthening the growing community of Caroleans.

However, the sultan Ahmed III's subjects in the empire eventually got tired of Charles' scheming. His entourage also ended up piling huge amounts of debt to Bender merchants. Eventually "crowds" of townpeople attacked the Swedish colony at Bender and Charles had to defend himself against the mobs and the Ottoman Janissaries involved. This uprising was called "kalabalik" (crowd) which after this event found a place in Swedish lexicon as "kalabalik" referring to a ruckus. The Janissaries did not shoot Charles during the skirmish at Bender, but captured him and put him under house-arrest at Dimetoka and Constantinople. During his semi-imprisonment the King played chess and studied the Ottoman Navy and the naval architecture of the Ottoman galleons. His sketches and designs eventually led to the famous Swedish war ships Jarramas (Yaramaz) and Jilderim (Yıldırım).

Meanwhile, Russia and Poland regained and expanded their borders. Great Britain, an adversary of Sweden, defected from its alliance obligations while Prussia attacked Swedish holdings in Germany. Russia seized Finland and Augustus II regained the Polish throne.


The funeral transport of Charles XII. A romanticized painting by Gustaf Cederström, 1884

Charles succeeded in leaving his imprisonment in Constantinople and returned to Swedish Pomerania on horseback, riding across Europe in just fifteen days. A medal with Charles on horseback, his long hair flaring in the wind, was struck in 1714 to commemorate the speedy ride. Rhyming in German, It reads Was sorget Ihr doch? Gott und Ich leben noch. (What sorries you so? God and I live still.). His efforts to reestablish the Swedish empire failed. He had two Turkish-style warships built in Sweden, the Yıldırım ("The Lightning") and the Yaramaz or Jarramas ("The Rogue"). Charles's last efforts to reinstate Sweden as an empire were to invade Norway. He first invaded Norway in 1716 with a combined force of 7,000 men, occupied the capital Christiania, today Oslo, and laid siege to the Akershus fortress. However, the Norwegian forces were intact, and forced a retreat from the capital at 29 April after inflicting significant losses of men and material. Mid-May following the retreat from Christiania, Charles invaded the border town Fredrikshald, now Halden, in an attempt to take the fortress of Fredriksten. The Swedes came under heavy bombardment from the fortress and were forced to flee from Fredrikshald when the town was set on fire by the Norwegians. Swedish casualties in Fredrikshald were estimated to 500. During the siege in Fredrikshald the Swedish supply fleet was defeated by Tordenskjold at the Battle of Dynekilen.[7]

In 1718 Charles once more invaded Norway. The main force consisting of 40,000 men laid siege to the strong fortress of Fredriksten, overlooking the border town of Fredrikshald. While inspecting trenches close to the perimeter of the fortress on 11 December (30 November Old Style), 1718, Charles was killed by a projectile. The shot penetrated the left side of his skull and exited out of the right, destroying most of his brain in the process. The invasion was abandoned, and Charles' body was brought across the border. Another army corps under Carl Gustaf Armfeldt marched against Trondheim with 10,000 men, but had to make a retreat, during which many of the 5,800 remaining men perished in a severe winter storm.

From the autopsy of Charles XII in 1916[8]
Carl XII's sarcophagus in Riddarholmen Church, Stockholm

The exact circumstances around Charles' death are unclear. The most likely theory is that he was hit by a bullet from a Norwegian musket, but he may also have been killed by a grapeshot bullet from a cannon. Another theory is that he was killed by a uniform button re-made into a bullet. This theory is coupled with speculation that he was shot from the Swedish side (due to the great force of entry by the bullet), making his death an assassination, because allegedly he was unpopular in Sweden at the time. A theory is that the murder was an act of conspiracy made by his sister Ulrika Eleonora's husband, Fredrik, who was crowned Fredrik I. It is believed that the murder was committed by an officer who confessed before he died in a fever.

There are today two major theories about who and what killed the king. A study was presented in 2005 by Peter From, where he argued that the lethal projectile was fired by a Norwegian musket at close range.[citation needed] The theory has gained support by historian Dick Harrison. Another theory by Svante Ståhl proposes that Charles was shot by a grapeshot bullet made of forged iron from a Norwegian cannon. Such ammunition of the correct calibre has been proven to have been used by the Norwegians at the time of the siege.[citation needed] This would explain the absence of lead in Charles' lethal head wound. This study is embraced among others by historian and the Chairman of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund.

Charles was succeeded to the Swedish throne by his sister, Ulrika Eleonora. As Palatinate-Zweibrücken required a male heir, Charles was succeeded as ruler there by his cousin Gustav Leopold. Georg Heinrich von Görtz, Charles' minister, was beheaded in 1719.


Exceptional for abstaining from alcohol and women, he felt most comfortable during warfare. Contemporaries report of his seemingly inhuman tolerance for pain and his utter lack of emotion. The king brought Sweden to its pinnacle of prestige and power through his brilliant campaigning and victories, although the Great Northern War eventually ended in Sweden's defeat and end of the Swedish Empire.

Scientific contributions

Apart from being a monarch, the King's interests included mathematics, and anything that would be beneficial to his warlike purposes. He is attributed as having invented an octal numeral system, which he considered more suitable for war purposes because all the boxes used for materials such as gunpowder were cubic. According to a report by contemporary scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, the King had sketched down a model of his thought on a piece of paper and handed it to him at their meeting in Lund in 1716. The paper was reportedly still in existence a hundred years later, but has since been lost. Several historians of science suspect that either the multi-talented Emanuel Swedenborg or the brilliant inventor Christopher Polhem – also present at the meeting in Lund – may have been the true inventor behind this feat, or at least a main contributor.


Charles fascinated many in his time; Voltaire, who could be very sardonic, stopped in front of Charles and took off his hat.[citation needed] Samuel Johnson, a devoted anti-militarian,[citation needed] wrote in his poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes":

On what Foundation stands the warrior's pride,
How just his hopes let Swedish Charles decide;
A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
No dangers fright him, and no labours tire;
O'er love, o'er fear, extends his wide domain,
Unconquered lord of pleasure and of pain;
No joys to him pacific sceptres yield;
War sounds the trump, he rushes to the field;
Behold surrounding kings their power to combine,
And one capitulate, and one resign;
Peace courts his hand, but spreads her charms in vain;
"Think nothing gained", he cries, "till nought remain,
On Moscow's walls till Gothic standards fly,
And all be mine beneath the polar sky."
The march begins in military state,
And nations on his eye suspended wait;
Stern Famine guards the solitary coast,
And Winter barricades the realms of Frost;
He comes, not want and cold his course delay; -
Hide, blushing Glory, hide Pultowa's day:
The vanquished hero leaves his broken bands,
And shows his miseries in distant lands;
Condemned a needy supplicant to wait,
While ladies interpose, and slaves debate.
But did not Chance at length her error mend?
Did no subverted empire mark his end?
Did rival monarchs give the fatal wound?
Or hostile millions press him to the ground?
His fall was destined to a barren strand,
A petty fortress, and a dubious hand;
He left the name, at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral or adorn a tale.

Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson and Professor Ragnhild Hatton have written noted biographies of Charles XII of Sweden, as did Voltaire in 1731.


In popular culture

A character based on Charles XII plays a major role in The Age of Unreason, a series of four alternate history novels written by American science fiction and fantasy author Gregory Keyes.


  1. ^ Article Karl in Nordisk familjebok
  2. ^ Karoliner by Alf Åberg, p. 117
  3. ^ Karl XII by Bengt Liljegren, p. 151 and 163
  4. ^ Svenska slagfält, page 280
  5. ^ Svenska folkets underbara öden, book four by Carl Grimberg, about the numbers of Mazepa's army
  6. ^ Bra Böckers Lexikon, the article of Karl XII
  7. ^ Charles XII's march on Norway - national library
  8. ^ Associated Press (16 September 1917). "A ROYAL AUTOPSY DELAYED 200 YEARS". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 November 2008. 

Ragnhild Hatton, Charles XII. London, 1968.

External links

Charles XII of Sweden
Cadet branch of the House of Wittelsbach
Born: 17 June 1682 Died: 30 November 1718
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Charles XI
King of Sweden
Duke of Bremen and Verden

Succeeded by
Ulrika Eleonora
Duke of Palatinate-Zweibrücken
Succeeded by
Gustav Samuel Leopold

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