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Charles XII of Sweden
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Charles XII of Sweden

Charles XII, Karl XII or Carolus Rex, (June 17, 1682 - November 30, 1718) was a King of Sweden (1697 - 1718). He came to the throne at the age of fifteen and left the country three years later to embark on a series of battles overseas, that briefly made Sweden the predominant power in Northern Europe. His youth gave other nations a decent pretext with which to invade Sweden; Poland-Saxony, Denmark-Norway, and Russia joined in a coalition to attack Sweden, beginning the Great Northern War. Charles XII turned out to be more astute than the other powers imagined.

Karl XII

Portrait by Axel Sparre, 1712
Reign April 5, 1697-November 30, 1718
Government from November, 1697
Coronation December 14, 1697
Royal motto "Med Guds hjälp"
("With the help of God")
Royal House Pfalz
Predecessor Charles XI of Sweden
Successor Ulrike Eleonora of Sweden
Date of Birth June 17, 1682
Place of Birth Stockholm
Date of Death November 30, 1718
Place of Death Fredriksten, Norway
Date of Burial February 26, 1719
Place of Burial Riddarholmskyrkan, Stockholm

Charles's first campaign was against Denmark, ruled by his cousin Frederick IV of Denmark, which threatened a Swedish ally, Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp (another cousin of Charles XII, and married to his sister Hedvig Sophia). Denmark's defeat, however, and Sweden's ensuing rise to prominence in the Baltic region was viewed suspiciously by two powerful neighbors, King August II of Poland (cousin to both Charles XII and Frederick IV of Denmark) and Peter the Great of Russia. Russia responded by occupying the Swedish territories of Livonia and Estonia. Charles countered this by attacking the Russian garrison at Narva. From the very beginning, this seemed to be a headstrong move. The Swedish army of ten thousand men was outnumbered four to one by the Russians. Still, Charles attacked under cover of a blizzard, and effectively split the Russian army in two. Many of Peter's troops that fled the battlefield drowned in the Narva River and the battle was a crushing Swedish victory.

Charles then turned against Poland, defeating Augustus and his Saxon allies at the Battle of Klissow in 1702. After the deposition of the king of Poland, Charles XII filled the void with his own man, a certain Stanislas Leszczynski .

Meanwhile, Peter had managed to retake Livonia and even established a new city Saint Petersburg there. This prompted Charles to make the fatal decision to attack the Russian heartland with an assault on Moscow. Once again, harsh climactic conditions took their toll, this time on Charles as he marched his troops through the Ukraine. By the time they reached Poltava, Charles had been wounded, one-third of his infantry was dead, and his vulnerable supply train destroyed. Charles expected the support of a massive Cossack rebellion in Ukraine but the Russians destroyed the rebel army before they could reach the Swedes. The king himself, incapacitated by a coma resulting from his injuries, was unable to rally the Swedish forces. The battle was a disaster, and Charles fled south to the Ottoman Empire, where he set up camp at Bender.

The Turks initially welcomed the Swedish king, who managed to incite a war between the Ottomans and the Russians. However the sultan eventually tired of Charles' endless scheming and ordered his arrest. Meanwhile, the king's old enemies Russia and Poland took advantage of his absence to regain and even expand their lost territories. England, an ally of the Swedes, defected from their alliance obligations while the Prussians also attacked Swedish holdings in Germany. Russia seized Finland and Augustus II regained the Polish throne.

Seeing his very kingdom threatened, Charles fled the Ottoman Empire and rode across Europe in just fifteen days to return to Pomerania. His efforts to reestablish his lost empire failed, however, when he was killed by a stray bullet in an attack on Danish-controlled Norway. He was succeeded to the Swedish throne by his sister, Ulrika Eleanora.

Charles was one of the greatest soldiers of all time. 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. However his over-ambitious invasion of Russia coupled with the overwhelming power of a revived anti-Swedish coalition brought Sweden's downfall as a Great Power.

Scientific contributions

Apart from being a monarch, the King's interests included mathematics. He is attributed the invention of the octal numeral system, though several historians of science suspect that either Emanuel Swedenborg or Christopher Polhem may have been the true inventor behind this feat.

Preceded by:
Charles XI
King of Sweden Succeeded by:
Ulrike Eleonora

External links