A brilliant and impulsive man, Charles XII led his Swedish troops to many victories but was unable to stem the tide of Russia’s grow¬ ing power. Born in Stockholm in 1682, Charles received an excellent education prior to his ascension to the throne at the age of 15. He enjoyed two short years of peace before Russia, Saxony-Poland, and Denmark jointly declared war on his nation.
Sweden had been the domi¬ nant nation on the shores of the Baltic Sea since the time of Gustavus Adolphus (see no. 50).Charles had no intention of relinquishing this position.
He mustered the small but professional Swedish army and started the war by invading Denmark. He swiftly overcame the Danes and won peace through the Treaty of Travendal. Then he marched eastward and attacked the Russian army of Peter the Great (see no. 56) that was besieging Narva, d he Swedes attacked in a snowstorm at night and thoroughly defeated the Russians. The Swedes suffered 2,000 casu¬ alties, the Russians between 8,000 and 10,000.
Having deterred the Russian threat tem¬ porarily, Charles turned his attention to Poland, which he believed was the key to east¬ ern Europe. He marched through Poland and ousted King Augustus from power. Charles then set his sights again on Russia, where Czar Peter the Great had reformed his army and was threatening Swedish control of the Baltic Sea.
Charles invaded the Russian Ukraine. He marched as far as Poltava, where he was met by a larger Russian army led by the czar. Charles lost the critical Battle of Poltava (1709). He fled south from the battlefield and took up a residence in exile under the protection of the Ottoman Turks. Most of the men he had brought into Russia surren¬ dered after the defeat.
Three times Charles persuaded the Ottoman sultan to declare war on Russia; three times the ensuing warfare did little good for the Swedish cause. Seeing this,Charles rode incognito across Europe and reached Sweden in 1714. He gathered his largest army to date — 80,000 men — and set out to regain the bor¬ ders Sweden had lost. He was killed by a bul¬ let through the head while besieging the Norwegian fortress of Frederiksten in December 1718.
The boy king” had fought ferociously for his kingdom. Had he gathered more allies to his cause, he might well have prevailed, given his strategic insights and personal charisma.