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Charles XII (Karl XII)
(16821718)

Charles XII (Karl XII) (16821718)

Charles XII was the King of Sweden from 1697 to 1718. Charles was the only surviving son of King Charles XI of Sweden and Ulrika Eleonora the Elder, and he assumed the crown at the age of fifteen, at the death of his father.

He left the country three years later to embark on a series of battles overseas. These battles were part of the Great Northern War and many of them were fought against Peter I of Russia. Saxony, Denmark-Norway, Russia joined in a coalition to attack Sweden, starting what would later be known as the Great Northern War.

Charles XII was a skilled military leader and tactician. However, although he was also skilled as a politician, his willingness in making peace were lacking. Charles is quoted by Voltaire as saying upon the outbreak of the Great Northern War, "I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies." Although Sweden achieved several large scale military successes early on, and won the most battles, the Great Northern War eventually ended in Sweden's defeat and end of the Swedish Empire.

Referring to Karl as Charles XII is a modern invention. The Swedish kings Erik XIV (1560-68) and Charles IX (16041611) took their numbers after studying a highly fictitious History of Sweden. He was actually Charles VI.

In 1700, Denmark-Norway, Saxony, and Russia united in an alliance against Sweden, using the perceived opportunity as Sweden was ruled by the young and inexperienced King. Early that year, all three countries declared war against Sweden. Charles had to deal with these threats one by one.

Charles's first campaign was against Denmark-Norway, ruled by his cousin Frederick IV of Denmark, which threatened a Swedish ally, Charles' brother-in-law Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp. 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 defeated Denmark-Norway, King Charles turned his attention upon the two other powerful neighbors, King August II of Poland (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.

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 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 17,000 at the end of the battle, while the Swedish troop lost 667 men.

Charles did not pursue the Russian army. Instead, he then 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 the king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Charles XII put Stanisław Leszczyński on the throne.

While Charles won several battles in the Commonwealth, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great embarked on a military reform plan that improved the Russian army. Russian forces managed to retake Ingria and established a new city Saint Petersburg there. This prompted Charles to attack the Russian heartland with an assault on Moscow, allying himself with Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks. The size of the invading Swedish army altogether was 77 400 men. Charles left the homeland, with a defense of approximately 28 800 men.

Peter the Great defeated Swedish forces near the Baltic coast before Charles could combine his forces, and 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 but the Russians destroyed the rebel army before they could aid the Swedish troops. The harsh climate took its toll as well, as Charles marched his troops through Ukraine.

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. The battle was a disaster for the king, and he fled south to the Ottoman Empire, where he set up camp at Bender with about 1,000 men who were called Caroleans ("Karoliner" in Swedish). The Poltava Swedish disaster is by some historians considered the point where the Swedish Empire ended and the Russian Empire started to rise.

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.

However, the sultan Ahmed III's subjects in the empire eventually got tired of Charles' scheming and they besieged the Topkapi Palace and this uprising was called "kalabalik" (Crowd) which after this event found a place in swedish lexicon as "kalabaliki" referring to uprising. The Janissaries did not shoot Charles during the skirmish at Bender, but captured him and put him under house-arrest in Constantinople. During his imprisonment the King played chess and studied the Turkish navy.

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

Charles succeeded in leaving his imprisonment in Constantinople and returned to Swedish Pomerania on horseback, riding across Europe in just fifteen days. His efforts to reestablish the Swedish empire failed. He had two Turkish-) and the Yaramaz or Jarramas ("The Rogue"). He invaded Norwa in 1716, occupied the capital Christiania, today Oslo, and laid siege to the Akershus fortress. However, the siege was lifted after the defeat of the Swedish supply fleet by Tordenskjold at the battle of Dynekilen.

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

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 one of his own uniform buttons that had been re-made into a bullet. The button-bullet theory is coupled with speculation that he was shot from the Swedish side, making his death an assassination, because he should allegedly have been unpopular in Sweden at the time.

The most recent and thorough study was presented in 2005 by Peter From. With the help of expertise from around the world, From argues that the mortal bullet was fired by a Norwegian musket. The theory has gained support by renowned historians Peter Englund and Dick Harrison, among others.

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.


Sweden, 1944, Ship on the Line Kung Karl, 1693

Sweden, 1966, Ship on the Line Kung Karl, 1693

Sweden, 2000, Watch Mechanism

Sweden, 2000, Watch face

Ukraine, 2008, Ivan Mazepa and Karl XII

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