Charles XII: A Swedish Conqueror

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Editor’s note: The following is extracted from The Book of Bravery, by Henry Wysham Lanier (published 1920).

One day in November, 1697, a review was being held of the royal troops at Stockholm, Sweden.

It was not a very large force of men that marched past the commander-in-chief. Indeed, they would seem like a pitiful handful to us today. But these soldiers had at that time a reputation beyond any in Europe. For a hundred and fifty years, under Gustavus Vasa, under his grandson Gustavus Adolphus the Great, under each successive ruler, they had made the Swedish arms feared by Denmark, Poland, Russia, and the loosely knit states of the empire. They had conquered great provinces of what is now Russia and Germany, besides a hundred towns in the German states. Thrones shook when the Swedes descended from the north.

The pride of this record was in the bearing of the soldiers as they manoeuvred in precision that told of long and thorough discipline.

But the reviewing general was a strange contrast to his veterans. He was a mere boy, fifteen years old the summer before. Tall and slender, his large blue eyes were gentle, almost diffident. He was dressed rather magnificently. And while there was a grim expression about his smooth mouth and chin, he seemed absurdly out of place as the commander of such a body.

To be sure, he was the eldest son of the King of Sweden, and the King had died a few months before. But though the law of the country declared that a monarch came of age at fifteen, his autocratic father, Charles XI, had deferred his accession till eighteen; and the boy’s grandmother had taken over the power as Regent.

The last regiment clanked past, saluting. The review was over. Yet the young Charles stood still, silent and thoughtful.

There was an awkward pause among the group of dignitaries behind him. Nobody knew what to do.

Presently State Councillor Piper moved forward.

“May I take the liberty,” he said, with concealed sarcasm, “of asking your Majesty of what you are thinking so seriously?”

The prince started.

“I am thinking,” he replied, “that I feel worthy of the command of those fine fellows, and that it is not my will that either they or I should receive our orders from a woman.”

It was the councillor’s turn to be surprised. He gave a keen, appraising look at the young man, made some non-committal assent, and the company left the field.

But the astute Piper had had a glimpse of a possibility which gave him no rest. Like a prudent courtier he had studied his future ruler. He knew how the boy had learned to manage a horse at seven; his fondness for hunting and military exercises; his occasional flashes of temper and his invincible obstinacy; how he had replied to his tutor when the latter had reproved his wish to be like Alexander the Great—because the Macedonian had “lived only thirty-two years.” “Ah!” said Charles, “and is not that long enough when one has subdued kingdoms?” And he felt that the boy of yesterday was a man to help whom was to help oneself.

He sounded some important noblemen, the councillors of the regency. The logic of the situation was irresistible. The officials tried to outdo each other in hastening the scheme. In three days the councillors had laid the matter before the surprised and reluctant Queen Regent, the states general had been convoked and had unanimously voted for the change—and the boy of fifteen was Charles XII, King of Sweden.

On December 24, he rode into Stockholm on a sorrel horse shod with silver, a sceptre in his hand. The crowds in the streets cheered him wildly, noting his firm seat, his confidence and royal air.

Then he stood before the Archbishop of Upsala, to whom venerable tradition gave the right of crowning Sweden’s monarch, a right jealously maintained by the clergy.

The solemn ceremony proceeded. The Archbishop, in his gorgeous robes, anointed the young ruler. Taking the crown, he held it ready to place on his head. But, quick as thought, Charles straightened himself, seized the crown, and with a proud glance at the Arch bishop, crowned himself.

The thousands who looked on broke into wild applause. There was something magnificent about such haughty arrogance.

Nothing happened for some time after Charles’s accession, however, to justify the new estimate made of him. He made Piper a count and gave him charge of most affairs. As for himself he did little, seeming too haughty to descend to details of government. When he appeared at the council, he would generally cross his legs on the table, and pay little attention to what was going on.

Everybody concluded he was after all a weak representative of the fighting Swedish Kings; and before long three of his neighbors decided that the time had come to take from Sweden her territories on the south and east of the Baltic Sea.

The King of Denmark, who had a standing quarrel with Charles’s brother-in-law, the Duke of Holstein; King Frederick Augustus of Poland (also Elector of Saxony), and the Czar of Russia, Peter the Great, combined to seize what each wanted of the great kingdom which Sweden’s rulers had built up by conquest and confirmed by solemn treaty.

The Czar had just returned from his amazing two years of travel, and work in the shipyards of Holland and England. He was transforming his vast country from barbarism to civilization. He had begun to build the new capital of St. Petersburg, to drill his troops, cast cannon, construct ships. In a hundred ways Russia was waking up. She was a formidable antagonist.

The news of this danger appalled the Swedes. A twenty years’ peace had left them without proved generals. There seemed no help in their ruler. They cast about for some plan of treating with these enemies, to see with how little concession they could be satisfied.

This view was broached in the King’s council. While it was being discussed, Charles rose:

“Gentlemen,” he said, “I have resolved never to engage in an unjust war, but on the other hand, never to conclude a just war but by the ruin of my foes.

“I have made up my mind. I intend to attack the first who declares war against me, and when I have conquered him, I hope to strike terror into the rest.”

The timid were fired by the young King’s spirit, the bolder rejoiced. From that moment Charles stopped being a spectator and took command.

In fact, this crisis seemed to crystallize the boy’s whole character. He forsook every pleasure he had indulged in; he stopped drinking wine for the rest of his life; he replaced his former magnificent clothing with a common soldier’s uniform; he forsook the society of the court ladies, as if determined to avoid every softness. In every way he subjected himself to the most severe military discipline. With absolute single mindedness, he threw all the energy he possessed into the one ambition of making himself a warrior.

The King of Denmark had already invaded Holstein. Charles’s brother-in-law was hard pressed. A force of eight thousand men was sent to aid him; and in a flash the conflict widened, as troops from half a dozen petty German states joined one side or the other.

Charles was bear-hunting when news came that the Saxons had invaded his province of Livonia. He captured his bear, with net and forked club, hastened to the capital, arranged everything for the defense of his realm, and in an incredibly short time had his fleet of forty-three vessels ready to sail.

The English and Dutch fleets had arrived in the Baltic to help against the Danes, who had broken the treaty of Altena by attacking Holstein. Charles joined forces with them, and the Danish fleet, refusing battle, allowed the allies to pass. They soon approached Copenhagen.

The King at once proposed to his commander, General Renschild, that they should attack the Danish capital. His audacity silenced all objections. With a force of eight hundred men in small boats, and a few frigates to cover the landing, the attacking party moved along the shore, while the Danes followed on land watching to see where the attempt would be made.

At Humblebek, seven miles from Copenhagen, the invaders paused. Immediately the Danes threw up intrenchments, and prepared infantry, cavalry, and guns to resist the attack.

As soon as everything was in readiness, Charles jumped into the leading boat. The tiny force rowed straight toward shore, under cover of broadsides from the vessels, but assailed by constant fire from the enemy.

When they were a hundred yards from land, the King’s impatience would not permit him to remain in active any longer. Sword in hand, he leaped over board, up to his waist, his officers and men following.

The bullets whistled around their ears.

“What is that noise?” asked the King of Major Stuart, who was beside him.

“It is the balls from the muskets they are firing at us.”

“Ah !” said Charles, “that shall henceforth be my band.”

As he spoke, the major received a bullet in the shoulder. A lieutenant on the other side fell dead.

Nothing daunted, the King charged straightforward at the head of his men. The Danes were so overcome at this show of resolution that they broke and fled. Without a check, Charles took possession of their intrenchments.

His first act was to fall on his knees and thank God for this auspicious beginning. Then he laid out re doubts, made his camp secure, and sent back to Scania for reinforcements.

Everything went like clockwork. The very next day these nine thousand fresh troops were with him.

The inhabitants of Copenhagen gave up hope at this sudden and irresistible onset. An embassy came out to beg that the city might not be bombarded.

Charles agreed on condition that they should give a ransom of four hundred thousand dollars, and furnish provisions, agreeing to pay for the latter. To the great surprise of the conquered, he not only kept his word, but held his soldiers under such strict discipline that marauding was unknown.

The King of Denmark made some fruitless proclamations from his camp in Holstein. But his capital was at the mercy of his enemy, his fleet was hopelessly out numbered, and he presently began to treat for peace. Charles forced the negotiations through in the same headlong style in which he had attacked. In six weeks he had disposed of one foe, freed the Duke of Holstein, and secured for him the expenses of the war.

The greater part of his task remained, however. The King of Poland had laid siege to Riga; and while he had been unable to make headway against the stout defense of old Count d’Alberg, and had gladly abandoned the attempt on the representations of the Dutch, word came that his ally, the Czar, was advancing from Russia with a great army of one hundred thousand men and one hundred and fifty cannon. Then, as the early rigors of winter shut in that land of ice and snow, the Russians attacked Narva, the most eastern town of the Swedish dominions.

Charles hastened his preparations. Two hundred transports conveyed his army across the sea.

Landing at Pernaw, on the Gulf of Riga, he struck across country by forced marches. He waited for nothing, not even for the main body of his own twenty thousand men; and presently he arrived, with four thousand horse and four thousand infantry, at the Russian outposts.

The first detachment of five thousand did not wait to find out the facts, but retired precipitately. The second twenty thousand was infected by their flight and also fell back. Charles pushed straight on. The next thirty thousand were driven in without the slight est delay, and the Swedes confronted an intrenched army of ten times their size, with strong artillery.

Charles hardly gave his men time to rest after their terrific marches, but ordered an immediate attack.

One officer remonstrated at this rashness in the face of such tremendous odds.

“Surely,” said the King, “you can have no doubt but that I with my eight thousand brave Swedes shall trample down eighty thousand Russians !”

The officer turned away. The King stepped after him. As if fearing his outburst had been boastful, he said:

“Do you not agree with me that I have a double advantage over the enemy? First, because their horse will be useless to them, and secondly because, as the position is cramped, their numbers will only incommode them.”

There was no answering such reasoning. At noon of November 30, 1700, the Swedes charged with fixed bayonets, behind a fire of cannon which opened some breaches in the fortifications.

The snow was driving with them as they burst through upon the enemy. Charles himself, at the head of half his force, attacked the right wing, hoping to meet the Czar in person. The latter had gone, however, to meet the reinforcements of thirty thousand men which he had thought it necessary to send for.

At the first onset Charles was hit in the shoulder, but it was a spent ball, which did him no injury.

His horse was shot under him. He jumped upon another, exclaiming: “These fellows make me take exercise.”

Leading and giving orders at the same time, he swept on like a whirlwind. In three hours the trenches were carried. The little band of Swedes drove the Russians headlong, killing more than ten to one.

The right wing broke, and fled in disorder toward the River Narva, forty thousand pursued by less than four thousand. As the disorderly mob thronged over the bridge, the wooden structure broke down. Many were drowned. Those who had not reached the bridge, turned aimlessly, and rallied for a time behind some buildings.

Charles and his Swedes gave them no time to recover; in a short while the Russian generals surrendered.

The general officers were put under a guard; the soldiers and under-officers were disarmed, taken to the river, and embarked in boats to return home. The artillery was seized.

Then night fell. The King took up a position ready to attack the left wing, which still held its ground, though badly battered. The situation was still perilous enough. The enemy had still thirty thousand troops against his six thousand five hundred. But his mind was calm enough for him to lie on the ground wrapped in his cloak and snatch a few hours’ sleep till daybreak should make it possible to complete his work.

At two in the morning, a message came that General Wade, who commanded the remaining Russians, was willing to surrender on the same terms granted his companions. Charles at once accepted. A strange scene followed.

In the gray morning, across the snow-covered landscape, a long irregular line of Russians approached. In the lead marched their commander, bareheaded like his troops.

The thirty thousand defiled past the King, in front of his compact regiments containing about six thousand five hundred men. The officers threw down their swords and colors as they passed; the private soldiers dropped their muskets. The interminable line wound on toward the river, intent only upon escaping home.

Charles was glad enough to let them go, since it was manifestly impossible to guard so many prisoners with his little force. He treated the captured officers with the greatest consideration, and in his reports of this incredible victory exhibited a modesty as striking as his, prowess had been. From that time on, however, his people and his army looked upon the “Lion of the North’’ as invincible in battle.

While the Russian people were imploring the aid of St. Nicholas against the sorcery which they felt must have defeated their great army, the Czar himself set about repairing the disaster. He agreed with King Augustus of Poland to hire fifty thousand German mercenaries, and to send fifty thousand of his Russians to Poland to be trained.

Charles as usual faced the danger-point. Early in the spring, he marched south to Riga.

King Augustus’s Saxon troops, commanded by Marshal Stenau, were ready to oppose his crossing of the River Dwina, which is very wide at that point.

It looked as if the odds were much against the attacking party under such conditions. The Swedish King, however, constructed large boats with high, movable sides, which protected those within and could be lowered to form a landing-bridge.

Then when he was ready, on a day when the wind blew strong from the north, he had built a huge pile of wet straw and fired it. The dense smoke blew over the river. In the midst of this artificial fog, increased by boats containing more smoking straw, he started his transports across, he himself taking his customary place in the lead.

In fifteen minutes the force was at the opposite side, the only mishap being to the King’s pride, when three men got to shore before him. Landing his cannon, he at once began to order his line of battle.

Before he was ready, however, the wind blew the smoke away sufficiently for the Saxons to see what their enemy was about; and taking a leaf from Charles’s own book, Marshal Stenau charged him furiously with his cavalry.

The unprepared Swedes were thrown into disorder and driven back to the river. Their intrepid leader rallied them, reformed his line partly in the water, and advanced steadily. There was a fierce fight, for Stenau was brave and capable. But on equal terms there were few troops which could stand against the Lion and his disciplined veterans: the Saxons gave way, at length, and retreated.

Charles hastened on, capturing all Courland and Lithuania, while King Augustus intrigued with the various factions into which Poland was hopelessly divided. He even tried to negotiate secretly with Charles through the beautiful Countess of Königsmarck. The implacable Swede advanced relentlessly.

When he took Warsaw, Augustus could not refuse to let an embassy wait upon him.

“I will never grant the Poles peace till they have elected another King,” declared the conqueror.

Augustus saw his only hope lay in fighting. He gathered all his forces and prepared for a supreme effort. The two faced each other between Warsaw and Cracow, and the headlong charge of the Swedish King once more brought him complete victory, though he had only a little more than half the other’s numbers.

Following up the defeated Augustus, he took Cracow almost without resistance, himself snatching the match from one gunner who was preparing to fire a cannon. Had it not been for a fall of his horse, which broke his thigh, he would probably have captured his enemy then and there.

This accident gave his foes another chance. The Poles still hesitated to dethrone their King. The Saxon army gathered again. In one of his irresistible dashes, he routed it at Pultask, whereat Augustus fell back into Saxony. Charles captured Thorn and Elbing. The whole country was in awe of him. His friends urged him to seize the Polish crown himself, since he was the real ruler. The King held to his plan, and finally the Diet, rent by political parties, obeyed his will and elected Stanislas Leczinski King in place of the deposed Augustus.

Charles’s real business in life was fighting, so he immediately set out to conquer the rest of Poland. He took the strong city of Leopold in one day, captured vast treasure, and presently drove Augustus once more out of Warsaw, which he had recaptured.

All this time the King was exposing himself with the utmost recklessness, swimming rivers, leading charges, living the hard life of a campaigning soldier. His in variable dress was a coarse blue coat with brass but tons; a piece of black taffeta served him for a cravat; he remarked once that he had not had his jack-boots off for six years, save when he went to bed. His only complaint was that his enemies had come to run away too soon: it had become more like hunting than fighting!

Fortune seemed ever to charge with him in his impetuous onsets. He drove back one hundred thousand Russians who had come to King Augustus’s aid. He conquered the latter so completely that he finally forced him in the treaty of peace to publicly renounce the throne and to write a letter of congratulation to his successor Stanislas. He crossed the Oder into Saxony, against the solemn warning of the Imperial Diet; he levied heavy contributions, and received at his camp ambassadors from nearly all the princes of Europe, each seeking his influence in some scheme or quarrel; he publicly humiliated the Emperor and made him grant religious freedom to the Protestants of Silesia.

When Emperor Joseph was reproached by the Pope’s nuncio for thus giving way to heretics, he smiled and answered:

“It is very lucky for you that the King of Sweden did not propose that I should turn Protestant, for had he done so, I do not know what I might have done.”

There is hardly a case in history of the attainment of such dominance by the ruler of so relatively small a nation. This northern conqueror, unknown or scorned a few years previously, warned Rome that before long she might see him nearer at hand. He had ideas of sweeping on to Persia, Turkey, and Egypt. Alexander’s dream of conquering the world began to seem a possibility. All the while he was rising at four o’clock, dressing unaided, spending a quarter of an hour at the table, drinking no wine, exercising his soldiers daily.

The persistent Russians claimed his first attention. They were continually harassing the eastern borders. Charles allowed himself a year in which to dethrone the Czar.

In September, 1707, at the height of his renown, he set out. He had with him a rich, splendidly armed and equipped force of forty-three thousand men. Count Levenhaupt waited for him in Poland with twenty thousand more. A third force of fifteen thou sand was in Finland. Fresh recruits were coming from Sweden. He seemed irresistible. The Sublime Porte of Turkey, the inveterate enemy of Russia, sent him an embassy and suggestions of friendly alliance.

The Czar had advanced far into Poland, but was at this time at Grodno. Charles was following his habit of distancing his main force, and arrived within six miles of Grodno accompanied by only six hundred guards. Peter at once evacuated the town with two thousand men; but learning presently the smallness of his enemy’s numbers, and that the rest were fifteen miles behind, he despatched a body of fifteen thousand cavalry for a surprise attack.

They entered the town in the dusk undiscovered, reaching the first guard of thirty men. The alarm was given. For seven minutes, this heroic thirty sustained the attack of an army. Then Charles dashed up with the rest of his six hundred, and his mere arrival threw the Russians into a panic.

The King pursued them, joined by his army, regard less of the midwinter cold, the marsh and forest, the lack of provisions, the destroyed roads and bridges. It was six months before he finally came up with them at Hollosin, intrenched behind a marsh and river.

Without waiting for the main body of his infantry, Charles led his foot-guards straightforward, sending the cavalry around to flank the enemy.

Dashing into the stream, the King crossed the river, the water up to his shoulders. He did not pause an instant, but floundered across the marsh, his men fol lowing in that blind confidence he always inspired. They fell furiously upon the surprised Russians, who had supposed their natural defenses sufficient.

The conflict that followed was one of the most notable of Charles’s career. Seeming to bear a charmed life, he was always in the thickest of the fray. He fought on foot till the cavalry arrived from its détour; then he mounted: but noticing that a young nobleman, of whom he was fond, was wounded, he made him take his charger, and continued to command on foot.

Nothing could resist him that day, and while the Russians fought far better than they had done in the former campaigns, they were finally routed and forced to re tire beyond the Borysthenes into their own country.

Charles pursued them hotly. Czar Peter, great man as he was, began to fear for the country he was bringing up from semi-barbarism. He sent proposals of peace.

“I will treat with the Czar at Moscow,” was Charles’s haughty answer.

He pushed on, routing a force of Kalmuks at Smolensk and almost losing his life in the engagement. Re fusing to wait for the reinforcements behind, he turned off from the Moscow road into Ukrania, where he expected to make an alliance with the Prince Mazeppa (the same Mazeppa of whose terrific ride, tied to the back of a wild horse, Byron wrote).

Instead of joining an army of thirty thousand, with ammunition and provisions, he found Mazeppa a defeated fugitive, the Russians having annihilated his power. Far worse, General Levenhaupt finally appeared with five thousand men—all that was left of his army after a series of tremendous battles with fifty thousand Russians, who had captured his cannon and supplies.

A frightfully cold winter followed. Half-fed and half-clad, the Swedes suffered intensely. It is declared that two thousand died of cold on one march. Only the leader kept up his courage.

A soldier ventured to show him publicly a piece of black and mouldy bread, made of oats and barley, which was about their only food.

Charles took it, ate it calmly, and remarked:

“It is not good, but one can eat it.”

In the face of such spirit the men could only follow him.

By spring his army had dwindled to eighteen thousand. Still he thought only of his resolve to conquer Russia, and laid siege to Pultawa, a storehouse from which he counted on supplying his force with all necessaries.

The large garrison resisted all attack. The Czar was hurrying up with reinforcements. In a skirmish, Charles received a ball which shattered his heel-bone. For six hours he sat his horse and directed the fight. When some one discovered his hurt, he was in such pain that he had to be lifted from his horse and carried to the tent. The surgeons decided the leg must be cut off. One, however, thought he could save it by deep incisions.

The King bore the agony of the surgery unmoved. As soon as it was done, he gave orders for an attack in the morning. Despite all protests, he headed the infantry in his litter.

The first charge broke the Russians. Victory seemed sure. But General Creuts, who had been ordered to flank the enemy with the cavalry, lost his way. The Czar had time to rally his men. Their cannon killed the horses of the King’s litter. He had two more harnessed. Another volley struck the litter and threw the King out.

The report flew about that he was killed. The Swedes fell back. Their powder gave out. The Russians profited by their confusion so well that when the battle was over half the Swedes were killed or captured, all the supplies and treasure were lost, and Charles’s life was only saved by his being carried forcibly off the field. Most of the remainder of the famous army was captured a little later, and the wounded King, with a few hundred followers, made his way into Turkey.

It would take a long time to tell of his five years’ stay there; of his efforts to destroy the Czar through the Turks; of the Homeric battle between his three hundred guards and a Turkish army of eight thousand; of his return to Sweden, to find that his many enemies had lopped off most of his conquests and inheritances outside of Sweden itself; of his famous defense of Stralsburg, where he performed feats enough for the lifetime of an ordinary man; of his characteristic invasion of Norway just when his fortunes seemed at the lowest ebb, and his actual reaching of the Norwegian capital.

The last scene comes in the winter of 1718. He was making a second attempt on Norway, and laid siege to Fredericshall in December. The cold was so intense that sentinels fell dead at their posts. Charles, hardened by sixteen years’ exposure, endured everything, sleeping in the open on boards or straw, encouraging his men to the assault.

On December 11, as he stood in the trenches at night, directing the workers who were breaking the frozen ground by starlight, a discharge of grape-shot from the fortress killed him instantly. In dying, he laid his hand on his sword, and the witnesses who ran up found him lying in that posture.

Thus ended the career of one of the most extraordinary soldiers in all history.

By a strange coincidence, between the time the above narrative was written and when it was put into type, in September, 1917, the newspapers announced that the body of King Charles XII had been taken from its coffin in the ancient Knights’ Church at Stockholm, where it had reposed in peace nearly two hundred years —that a commission of scientists might determine whether the fatal shot was fired from the enemy’s camp or by a traitor in his own army

After minutely describing the wound, and declaring that the indications were that the bullet came from the hostile direction, the account says:

“Those who viewed the dead King were struck by his masterful countenance still bearing through all the years the look of a leader of men.”

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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