Charles XII. (Sweden)

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Charles XII. in 1697 by David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl .

Karl's signature:
Autograph, Carl XII, Nordisk familjebok.png

Charles XII. , also Latinized Carolus Rex , (* June 17th July / June 27th  1682 greg. in Stockholm ; † November 30th July / December 11th  1718 greg. near Fredrikshald ) was King of Sweden and Duke of Sweden from 1697 to 1718 Bremen and Verden . For almost all of his reign he led his country through the Great Northern War , in which he achieved significant successes for several years. Due to a failed campaign in Russia in 1708/1709, however, he put his country on the defensive. In 1718 he fell in Norway during the siege of Frederikshald . In the end, Sweden lost its great power position in Europe, especially in favor of emerging Russia.

Charles's parents were the Swedish King Charles XI. and Ulrike Eleonore , daughter of the Danish King Friedrich III. The grandfather of Karl XII, King Karl X. Gustav, came from the noble family of Wittelsbach , Palatinate-Zweibrücken line .

Live and act

The monogram of Charles XII., Photographed at the Old Armory Wismar
Charles XII. by David von Krafft, 1700

Childhood and youth

Charles XII. was the eldest son of Charles XI. from Sweden and his wife Ulrike from Denmark. Four of his younger brothers died in infancy. The father exerted a great influence on his son from an early age. He had taught him horse riding , hunting and fencing as a child. As a little crown prince , he began extensive training under the direction of his mother at the age of four and received his own horse; at seven he took over his own regiment. Later the future king received lessons in military science, foreign languages, law , mathematics, geography, literature and history from specially selected teachers . Charles XII. was brought up in a spirit of allegiance to the principles of absolute monarchy. He was eleven years old when he lost his mother in 1693. His impetuous character, which was not considerate of himself or others, was soon apparent, tolerated no contradiction, was associated with high waste and daredevil riding and hunting undertakings with a number of close friends, in which he narrowly escaped death several times. He often hunted bears with fork sticks , participated in boisterous pranks (like smashing the windows of citizens and teasing generals), and one of the pleasures of his circle was beheading various animals, including bulls, with the sword. Admonitions by state dignitaries or by preachers were unable to change anything. He did, however, show a serious interest in the military.

Taking office

He came to the throne after the death of his father on December 14, 1697 at the age of fifteen, when he proclaimed himself king and refused a reign , whereby the Swedish Diet (the four Swedish imperial estates ) declared him of legal age . Then he put the monarch's crown on his head himself , an absolute rule break for those times. However, this also expressed his absolute claim to power and was modeled as early as 1701 by Friedrich I , King in Prussia at his royal coronation .

The father had left his son a stable state with reinforced royal power and restructured state finances. When he ascended the throne, Charles XII ruled. via today's Sweden, Finland, Livonia , Karelia and Ingermanland , Wismar and Swedish Pomerania and the Duchy of Bremen-Verden . The first few years of his reign were apparently free of foreign policy problems. However, the reputation of the frivolous daredevil and spendthrift that Karl XII. meanwhile enjoyed it, aroused desires among other powers, as this was interpreted as a weakness.

Outbreak of the Great Northern War

In March 1700 the Great Northern War began . Sweden was suddenly attacked by Denmark , Saxony and Russia . As early as October 1698, August II of Poland-Lithuania and Frederick IV of Denmark had concluded an offensive alliance against Sweden, which Peter I of Russia later joined. One of the main organizers was the Livonian aristocrat Johann Reinhold von Patkul . In the event of a victory, the allies wanted to divide the Baltic provinces belonging to Sweden ( Scania , Livonia, Estonia , Ingermanland and Swedish Pomerania ) among themselves. The Alliance bet on an easy and quick victory, as the country was ruled by a very young and inexperienced king and the dreaded Swedish army was commanded by what appeared to be a commander-in-chief without any military experience.

So in the spring of 1700 Charles XII. against a strong coalition. His behavior changed fundamentally immediately. He switched to a Spartan way of life and focused entirely on the war. His strategy for this was simple, but ultimately did not lead to success. He concentrated all his energies on one enemy at a time, in order to defeat him and to force peace. This was temporarily achieved with Denmark and Saxony-Poland, but not against Russia.

Campaign against Denmark in 1700

The hostilities began in 1700 with the attack of his cousin Frederick IV of Denmark on the Gottorf part-duchy, allied with Sweden, in the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein , which was ruled by Duke Frederick IV , a brother-in-law of Charles. Charles XII. took advantage of the absence of the Danish army operating in Holstein and landed on July 23, 1700 with Anglo-Dutch naval support on the Danish main island of Zealand , enclosing Copenhagen and beginning the siege of the Danish capital in August.

The Danish king now found himself in a dangerous position. On August 18, 1700, Frederick IV concluded the Treaty of Traventhal with Sweden . The status quo ante was restored, Denmark left the anti-Swedish coalition.

Campaign against Russia and Livonia in 1700 and 1701

Charles XII. now turned to the two remaining opponents, the Russian Empire and Saxony-Poland. Both were about to attack the Swedish possessions in the Baltic States. Russia began its attack on Estonia in August 1700, and the siege of the Swedish fortress of Narva began in September . Charles XII. decided to attack the Russian army and relieve the Narva fortress . In the battle of Narva his Swedish army of about ten thousand men defeated a numerically clearly superior army of the Russians . The Battle of Narva is considered one of the greatest victories in Swedish military history.

In the Battle of the Daugava on July 19, 1701, Charles XII defended himself. the attack of the Saxon-Russian troops on Livonia and Riga . With that Karl XII. expelled all enemy troops from Swedish territory.

Fighting in Poland and Saxony 1702–1708

Charles XII. receives Stanislaus I. Leszczyński (1677–1766) in 1704 , copperplate engraving by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki (1726–1801)

Instead of pursuing the defeated Russian army in order to destroy it completely and to force Tsar Peter to make peace, the king now turned to his third opponent, the Saxon Elector and King of Poland, whom he regarded as breaking his word and hated fundamentally. On March 23, 1702, the Swedes invaded Poland. Charles XII. conquered Warsaw , defeated August and his Saxon troops in the Battle of Klissow in 1702 and also occupied Krakow , the old Polish royal city.

After August's deposition as King of Poland in 1704, Karl placed his own man on the Polish throne, Stanislaus Leszczynski . Meanwhile, Peter was able to conquer Ingermanland and Estonia behind Karl's back and even build a new city on the Baltic Sea - Saint Petersburg .

After Karl realized that he could not defeat August on Polish territory because he was constantly raising new armies in Saxony, Karl attacked Saxony directly in 1706. In the peace treaty of Altranstädt in 1706, he finally forced August to sign a peace treaty and, as Karl thought, to renounce the Polish royal crown for good. This ended the personal union of Saxony-Poland for the time being . At the same time as he threatened Louis XIV of France to intervene in the War of the Spanish Succession , the king succeeded in granting the Lutherans in the then still Habsburg province of Silesia limited religious freedom in the Altranstadt Convention of 1707. He also had Patkul, the main organizer of the alliance directed against him, extradited by August the Strong and executed him by wheeling. He then turned to his last remaining opponent, Peter the Great.

Campaign in Russia 1708–1709

Charles XII. could not fight in the battle of Poltava due to a leg injury , here Karl is shown together with Hetman Masepa. Drawing by Gustaf Cederströms (1845–1933)

In order not to turn the Baltic States into a battlefield one more time and to defeat Russia for good, he wanted to attack Moscow , the Russian capital, directly . However, the defeat in the Battle of Lesnaya , where the valuable Swedish supply train was captured by the Russians, forced the king to evade to the Ukraine. Karl expected support there from a massive rebellion by the Ukrainian Cossacks under Ivan Masepa , but the Russians defeated the insurgents in their stronghold of Baturyn , so that Masepa could only provide a few fighters to Karl on his arrival. During a reconnaissance attempt on June 28, 1709 greg. the king was wounded, which is why he could not lead the Swedish forces in the battle of Poltava . The battle turned into a disaster for the Swedes and Karl fled to the Ottoman Empire , where he set up camp in Bender .

Stay in the Ottoman Empire 1709–1714

Karl in the scuffle at Bender , in which a piece of his ear was shot off

The Turks initially welcomed the presence of the Swedish king, who was working towards a war between Russians and Turks, and who set his hopes in it. However, Sultan Ahmed III was. since the peace of the Prut got tired of the intrigues of the Swedish king. Janissaries imprisoned him on behalf of the Sultan in the scuffle of Bender on February 12, 1713 and assigned him to quarters near Adrianople . The establishment of the Swedish king facilitated the peace of Adrianople between Russians and Ottomans. Meanwhile, Russia, Denmark and Saxony-Poland took advantage of his absence and pushed Sweden further on the defensive. England , an ally of the Swedes, only fulfilled its alliance obligations by half-heartedly sending out a Baltic squadron. Russia in the meantime occupied Finland and August the Strong regained the Polish royal crown.

Defense of Pomerania 1714–1715

At the request of the Sultan, Charles XII left. only in October 1714 the Ottoman Empire again. In only 15 days of violence , he managed to cover the 2150 kilometers from Piteşti in Wallachia through Hungary and Germany to Stralsund in Swedish-Pomerania , where he was accompanied by only one officer. Immediately upon his return he took part in the siege of Stralsund .

Ignoring the situation, it was now his goal to restore the previous balance of power in Swedish Pomerania, which up to this point had been almost completely occupied by his opponents. With his relentless foreign policy, however, he finally drove the previously neutral Kingdom of Prussia with its King Friedrich Wilhelm I , who valued the King of Sweden for his "soldier virtues", into the ranks of the enemy.

The Pomeranian campaign of the allied Prussians, Danes and Saxons on May 1, 1715, could not be resisted by the clearly inferior Swedes despite self-sacrificing leadership by the King of Sweden. on December 22nd, 1715 together with three companions, in order to avoid his capture, shortly before the fall of the besieged Stralsund fortress in a small yacht across the partially frozen Strelasund towards Hiddensee, from where he and the last frigate located there safely in Trelleborg Sweden reached.

Return to Sweden and death 1715–1718

Karl's original uniform at Frederikshald's
The body of Charles XII. is transferred to
G. Cederström Krusenberg, 1884
Charles XII. Sarcophagus in Riddarholmskyrkan, Stockholm
Mummified corpse of Charles XII. with the hole of the deadly projectile in the right temple (photo from 1916)

After his return, he continued his autocratic rule again and secured a diplomatically skilled colleague in the form of the Holstein Minister Georg Heinrich von Görtz , to whom he largely left a free hand, in particular to procure the funds necessary for the continuation of the war, to which he has all means were up to the devaluation of the money (Görtz-Taler). Charles's efforts to restore his empire came to an end when he tried to conquer Christiania (now Oslo ) in Danish-controlled Norway in 1716 . Sweden was economically and financially ruined by the ambitious monarch's wars, and Charles's authority was undermined.

During the renewed siege of Frederikshald during the second Norwegian campaign in 1718, he was killed by a bullet. The monarch's body was brought to Stockholm and buried in the tomb of the Swedish kings in Riddarholmskyrkan .

Charles XII. died unmarried and without children. His sister Ulrika Eleonore , married to Friedrich von Hessen-Kassel (head of the Hessian party at court) succeeded him on the throne.

Circumstances of death

The siege of Frederikshald was at the time of the death of Charles XII. well advanced and the fortress was expected to fall within a week, which would open the way for the attackers to Oslo (Christiania). The Norwegian soldiers fired artillery all the time at the Swedish soldiers engaged in excavation work. On December 11th, the fortress commander had the parapet equipped with lanterns and pitch torches. In addition, flares were fired from the fortress towards the Swedish positions. The moon was still overcast with clouds at the time of death. Under this battlefield lighting , cannons, mortars, howitzers and rifles were constantly being shot at the besiegers. Around 70 Swedish soldiers had already been shot at in the part of the siege trenches that was under construction. The main moat was parallel to the fortress, but at night a sloping moat was dug towards the fortress. Despite the threat, that evening the king inspected this part of the trenches, some 200 meters from the fortress, and exposed himself above the trench to get an overview. Three officers stood at his feet, but did not look like the king over the palisade. He wore a three-cornered hat, his body rested on his left side and his left cheek rested on his hand as he supported himself with his elbow against the palisade.

Charles XII died around nine in the evening. A bullet had penetrated one side of the skull and exited the other, whereby the question of direction is of crucial importance: If it came from the left, or if it came from the fortress due to the orientation of the siege trench, according to general opinion, it came from right probably from within their own ranks. In addition to bullets, lead cartridges and fragments from shell fire have also been discussed as causes of death. The results (based on four autopsies, the last in 1917) are controversial. The wound on the right temple is smaller than the left one and should therefore actually be the entry wound, but the autopsy from 1917 assumed that the bullet came from the left and the wounds in the skull were no longer in their original state. On the hat of Karl XII there is only an entry hole on the left, and three witnesses who stood directly with Karl XII (the Swedish lieutenant Bengt Vilhelm Carlsberg, who commanded the soldiers who dug the new trench, the French siege engineer Colonel Maigret and the Balte Friedrich von Kaulbars), stated that the bullet came from the left and heard a sound like a stone falling into mud. The king died immediately. In addition to the official version of death by an enemy bullet, there were already suspicions about an attack from his own ranks, for example in the notes of the military doctor Melchior Neumann, who embalmed the body .

Despite efforts to keep the body secret and to remove the body quickly, word of the death of the Swedish king got around inside the trenches on the evening of December 11th, and the news of the death was given by the French adjutant general Sicre with the hat of Charles XII. as proof brought by his successor Friedrich . The commandant of the fortress was also told of the death of the king by defectors.

There has been centuries of controversy surrounding death that remained open in Michael Roberts' 1991 summary . To be sure, the body was last exhumed in 1917. After evaluating forensic medical examinations, reconstructing maps of the course of the trenches and other things, Peter From came to the conclusion that the king was probably killed by a Norwegian musket ball. Other authors like Carl O. Nordling see evidence of murder from within their own ranks. Otto Haintz held in his biography of Karl XII. a shot from the Norwegian side was most likely and saw no convincing evidence to support the murder theory.

Evaluation of his work

With Karl XII. ended the Swedish position as a great power and the struggle for control of the Baltic Sea, which had been going on since 1611, for the so-called Dominium maris Baltici . Russia replaced Sweden as a great power after the Northern War.

In 1731 Voltaire wrote a highly acclaimed biography of the life of Charles XII, which also influenced Frederick the Great . In the last chapter he gave an overall assessment of the work of Charles XII. from who “lived through” “what is only great happiness and what is hard only to unhappiness, without for a moment being softened by the former or shaken by the latter.” Voltaire continued: “but he increased all heroic virtues to such an extent that they became as dangerous as the opposite vices. His firmness became stubborn…; his generosity turned into waste and ruined Sweden ... and in recent years the nature of his government has approached tyranny. ”His outstanding qualities“ made his country unfortunate, ”as Voltaire judged:“ He never attacked anyone first, but himself he was more unforgiving than clever in his vindictiveness. He was the first to have the ambition to be a conqueror without enlarging his states; he just wanted to win rich people to give them away. His passion for fame, war and revenge prevented him from being a good politician, without which quality there was never a conqueror. ”Much of the hatred that the consequences of his rule generated in Sweden was directed against his former plenipotentiary Goertz who was arrested and executed immediately after the king's death. The official biography of the king first appeared in 1740 by the former field chaplain of the king Jöran Nordberg .

After his death, there were different views of the king in Sweden, which was also reflected in domestic politics, especially in the 18th century ( party of hats with opposition to Russia and the more liberal, trade-oriented party of hats ). Another aspect was that he was seen as the victim of an aristocratic conspiracy, which played a role in the conflict between parliament and king in the 18th century. In the 19th century he was often glorified as a heroic figure, while August Strindberg turned against him with his play about the king in 1901, which resulted in a literary feud between 1910 and 1912 with Verner von Heidenstam , Nobel Prize winner and author of a book Karolinerna (2 volumes 1897/98) with portraits of people from the circle of Karl XII, and others led (Strindberg feud) - Strindberg also used this for attacks on Sven Hedin and other Swedish personalities and institutions. Also in the 20th century, Karl XII. the hero of nationalist currents in Sweden such as the Swedish National Socialists.

His military assessment also fluctuated over time. Important works on the military history of Charles XII. come from Arthur Stille , Carl Bennedich (Swedish General Staff Works 1918/19), Gustaf Petri . The yearbook of Karolinska förbundet is specifically from the time of Charles XII. dedicated. He is considered a great tactician, a headstrong strategist (his six-year campaign in Poland made Russia's rise possible), but a bad diplomat. The king turned down offers for a victory peace several times; for example, in 1701 and 1702 August had repeatedly offered him Courland and Polish-Livonia , and an alliance against Peter. Karl continued to pursue his illusory goal of bringing Swedish vassals to the throne in Poland and Russia. Less than a hundred years after Karl's death, Sweden had lost all of its possessions outside of the motherland in the Baltic Sea region (including Finland).

Literary reception

Rainer Maria Rilke dedicated Karl XII. from Sweden a poem that appeared in the anthology Das Buch der Bilder . In it, the King of Sweden hurries restlessly from battle to battle driven to whom only his love is meant.

Personality and private

His abstinence from women and alcohol was exceptional. But there is no evidence of homosexuality being lived out . Since the victory of Narva, war had been his element; but he had never started a war on his own initiative. Even in his youth he hardened himself and became known for his ability to endure; so he went on a winter bear hunt, armed only with a spear. His sympathy was poor. Regarding the Russian devastation in his provinces of Livonia and Ingermanland, he only said that they could not carry the soil away . He could not forgive treason, as the case of Patkuls shows, which he let the Saxons deliver and then cycle.

The king led a spartan life and felt comfortable during a campaign and on the battlefield. His diet was simple: his favorite foods were bread with butter, fried bacon and malton wine. Even the royal tableware was simplified from silver to pewter and eventually tinny dishes were used. Karl always sat at the table alone. He ate quickly without taking his eyes off the plate; when he was finished, his satellites (the 150-strong elite troop and bodyguard of the king led by his friend Arvid Horn and equipped with special privileges) came and ate.

Karl was personally involved in the campaigns and battles during the Great Northern War. He slept in the open air on hay by bivouac fires and often ate black bread. When the Swedish army ran out of food during a campaign, soldiers complained about the lack of food. One soldier even expressed indignation and handed the king a bad piece of bread to show how badly the army was doing. Karl tried the bread and said: "The bread is not good, but you can eat it."

The king was interested in chess and math and was able to multiply large numbers in his head. The invention of the octal number system is attributed to him, although some science historians suspect Emanuel Swedenborg or Christopher Polhem as the real inventors. He spoke fluent German and Latin and understood French, but refused to speak in the diplomatic language of the time.


Johann Kasimir von Pfalz-Zweibrücken-Kleeburg (1589–1652)
Charles X. King of Sweden (1622–1660)
Katharina Wasa of Sweden (1584–1638)
Charles XI. King of Sweden (1655–1697)
Friedrich III. of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (1597–1659)
Hedwig Eleonora of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (1636-1715)
Maria Elisabeth of Saxony (1610–1684)
Charles XII. King of Sweden
Christian IV. King of Denmark , (1577–1648)
Friedrich III. King of Denmark (1609–1670)
Anna Katharina of Brandenburg (1575-1612)
Ulrike Eleonore of Denmark (1656–1693)
Georg von Braunschweig-Calenberg (1582–1641)
Sophie Amalie of Braunschweig-Calenberg (1628–1685)
Anna Eleonore of Hessen-Darmstadt (1601–1659)


  • Frans G. Bengtsson : Karl XII. Stuttgart 1957 (Swedish original Stockholm 1954, abridged version; a two-volume edition appeared in 1935/36)
  • Joachim Krüger : Karl XII. - The "heroic" military monarch of Sweden. In: Martin Wrede (Ed.): The staging of the heroic monarchy. Early modern royalty between knightly heritage and military challenge (= historical magazine. Supplement 62). Oldenbourg, Munich 2014, pp. 358–381.
  • Benjamin Richter: Scorched Earth. Peter the Great and Charles XII. The tragedy of the first Russian campaign. MatrixMedia, Göttingen 2010, ISBN 978-3-932313-37-0 .
  • Jörg-Peter Findeisen : Karl XII. of Sweden - a king who became a myth. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1992, ISBN 3-428-07284-7 .
  • Jörg-Peter Findeisen: The struggle for control of the Baltic Sea. Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1992, ISBN 3-428-07495-5 .
  • Ragnhild Hatton : Charles XII. of Sweden. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 1968.
  • Otto Haintz : King Karl XII. of Sweden. 3 volumes. De Gruyter, Berlin 1951, 1958.

Web links

Commons : Charles XII. (Sweden)  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Chorographic delineation of the Glükligen Descente over the Daugava, sambt the Victorieusen Bataille of His Royal Mayestet from South Carl XII. (contemporary illustration of the passage of the Swedish troops over the Daugava)
  2. ^ Messmer: The Bavarian National Museum. Munich 1868, p. 360.
  3. Otto Haintz, Karl XII, 1951, Volume 2, p. 256 f.
  4. ^ Roberts, From Oxenstierna to Charles XII, Cambridge University Press 1991, 2002, chapter The dubious hand , pp. 144 f.
  5. Mike Dash, The Blazing Career and Mysterious Death of “The Swedish Meteor,” Smithsonian, September 17, 2012
  6. Jan von Flocken: Murder or Hero's Death? Charles XII. of Sweden. In: Welt Online , accessed January 20, 2013.
  7. ^ Roberts, From Oxenstierna to Charles XII, Cambridge University Press 1991, 2002, chapter The dubious hand on the controversy
  8. see the conclusion in Peter From: Karl XII: s död - gåtanslösning. Historisk Media, Lund 2005, from p. 287.
  9. ^ Carl Nordling, The death of King Charles XII, the forensic verdict, Forensic Science International, Volume 96, 1998, pp. 75-89. Then the bullet came from the left, but it wasn't an ordinary musket ball made of lead.
  10. ^ Haintz, Karl XII, De Gruyter, Volume 3, 1958, p. 310.
  11. Presentation of publication and editions.
  12. ^ François Marie Arouet de Voltaire: The story of Charles XII., King of Sweden. Chapter 9. In: Project Gutenberg-DE .
  13. Maltonwein. In: Polytechnisches Journal . 305, 1897, Miszelle 3, p. 47.
  14. Andrej Jaschlawski: Karl XII: Soldiers bread , water and cabbage rolls. ( Memento of January 9, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) In: Voice of Russia , January 20, 2012.
predecessor Office successor
Charles XI./I. King of Sweden,
Duke of Bremen-Verden
Ulrika Eleonore
Charles XI./I. Duke of Pfalz-Zweibrücken,
Duke of Pfalz-Veldenz
Gustav Samuel Leopold