In 1697, Sweden acquired a new monarch: a 15-year-old who took the name Charles XII. Charles had been taught to follow the warrior tradition of his father, including fencing, horseback riding and military strategy. He was a boy with courage and intelligence, and he was challenged by rivals for territory, who were encouraged by what they believed was Sweden's new weakness resulting from the death of its previous king, Charles XI. Denmark's monarch, Christian V (who also ruled Norway) wanted to win back from the Swedish monarchy the territory of Skåne (just east of Copenhagen), which his family had lost in 1658. The Elector of Saxony, a German named Augustus, was also interested in expanding against Swedish interests. It was an old story: territorial disputes among kings.
Augustus was born in Dresden -- a part of what was still called the Holy Roman Empire. In the manner of Europe's interrelated royalty he was a candidate for the Polish throne. For this he became a Roman Catholic, displeasing his Protestant subjects in Saxony. He won the Polish throne over a rival contestant: the Prince of Conti – a Bourbon prince from France. In 1699, Augustus formed an alliance with the new king of Denmark: Christian V's twenty-nine year-old son, Frederick IV – a cousin to Charles XII of Sweden. And, from Poland, Augustus wanted to expand his rule to Livonia, where Germanic nobles were unhappy with Swedish rule.
Another interested in expanding at the expense of Sweden was Russia's monarch, Peter the Great. He was a friend of the Swedish monarchy until 1699, having sworn to observe all treaties between his kingdom and the kingdom of Sweden. Then he saw opportunity in joining an alliance with Augustus and Frederick, justifying his decision by complaining that the Swedes had stolen lands of his ancestors – a fiction regarding Ingria, Karelia, Livonia and Estonia. And he complained of mistreatment he had suffered during his visit to Riga, when he had been examining too closely Riga's fort.
In August, 1700, Charles XII – then eighteen – responded to the challenge from his neighbors by landing troops a few miles north of Copenhagen, and, without putting up a fight, Frederick agreed to commit no future hostilities against his cousin.
Charles then rushed to Livonia with 8,000 men, arriving at Pernau on October 6. He turned north and eastward, marching across boggy roads, wasteland and difficult passes to do battle against the Russians. At a pass called Pyhåjoggi, with 400 horsemen he put to flight 6,000 Russian troops. On November 19 his army reached Laena, a little village about nine miles from Narva. At two in the afternoon, during a snowstorm, he began his attack on the Russian fortified camp. The Russians had around 40,000 men, but they were poorly trained, in poor shape physically and lacking self-confidence. By nightfall, Charles and his army had defeated Peter's army, Charles losing around 2,000 men and the Russians losing between 8,000 and 10,000 killed and many taken prisoner.
Charles was advised to follow through on his victory, to take advantage of the panic of Peter's forces and widespread discontent in Russia. Charles thought the Russians were imbeciles and less of a threat than Augustus and his German army. He did not want to leave a hostile German army at his rear while pushing deep into Russia, and he wanted to put a candidate of his choice on Poland's throne in place of Augustus.
In July 1701, Charles pushed Augustus and his army out of Livonia. In May, 1702, Charles reached Warsaw. On July 2, at Kliszów, he routed a combined Polish and German force, and three weeks later he captured the fortress at Krakow. Charles thought Augustus defeated and tried to settle with him, but Augustus refused his offers. As monarch of Poland, Charles replaced Augustus with Stanislaus Leszczynski, who became Stanislaus I, King of Poland. And in a treaty signed in 1705 with Stanislaus, Charles agreed to help the Polish monarchy regain territory lost to the Russians in 1667 and 1686.
Copyright © 2001-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.