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Sweden Loses the War, 1709-18

Russians were buying into nationalism, and they hailed the victory at Poltava as a divine miracle. Europeans outside of Russia were also astounded, and they viewed the Russian victory with foreboding. Russia, they thought, would now be a formidable power in European affairs.

Seeing Sweden as having been weakened, Augustus of Saxony (1670-1733) and Frederick IV of Denmark (1671-1730) renewed their alliance with Russia. A prince of the Hohenzollern family, Frederick of Brandenburg-Prussia agreed with Russia to bar Swedish troops in Pomerania from access to Poland in exchange for gaining the town of Elbing (Elblag).

In November 1709, Frederick IV of Denmark invaded Sweden with 16,000 troops, overrunning the towns of Malmö and Lund, and in February he and his troops were driven back to Denmark, Sweden's successful defense impressing the rest of Europe.

Charles XII was still in the Ottoman Empire, at Bender in what today is Moldova. He urged the Ottomans to war against the Russians, and Europe watched with anticipation. The war between Russia and Sweden began again, with Peter hoping to win European Christians ruled by the Ottomans to his side.

The Russians, meanwhile, had seized Vyborg, Riga, and Revel and had pushed into Finland. King Stanislaus was repudiated in Poland, and with help from Peter, Augustus of Saxony again assumed the title of King of Poland. Stanislaus escaped to Swedish Pomerania, and from there he went to Weissenbourg, becoming master of the principality of Zweibrücken – his daughter, Mary, to marry King Louis XV of France.

Peter's hopes regarding his war with the Ottomans had failed. With Peter's armies spread thin, the Ottomans had the advantage over him. In 1711, numerically superior Ottoman forces surrounded Peter and an army at the Pruth River deep in Moldavia. Peter's army was short of ammunition and supplies. But the Ottomans did not share Charles XII's passion for crushing the Russians, and they allowed the Russians to withdraw.

In 1712, the Danes took the Duchy of Bremen from the Swedes, and they took Charles XII's land in Holstein. In 1713, Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia took Stettin. note3  And Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover – soon to be King George I of England – joined the coalition against Sweden.

Peter and the Ottomans signed a peace treaty. Peter returned Azov and other territory he had gained from the Ottoman Empire in 1700, and he agreed to allow safe passage for Charles XII from Ottoman territory back to Sweden. And the Ottomans recognized Augustus as Poland's rightful king.

In late 1714, Charles and around 1500 troops made their way back to Sweden by way of Vienna, with help from the Habsburg monarch in Vienna. The Swedes journeyed through Bavaria and western Germany as incognito as possible.

Charles XII still saw the area around St. Petersburg as his territory, and Peter now considered St. Petersburg as Russia's capital. In 1714, Peter had begun ordering people to move there. Nobles were obliged to build homes in St. Petersburg and to live in them most of the year. The more serfs that a noble had the bigger his home had to be. Merchants and artisans were also ordered to move to St. Petersburg and to build on the side of the Neva River opposite the nobles. The new residents of St. Petersburg were ordered to pay for the building of avenues, parks, canals, embankments, bridges and other projects. And huge government buildings, designed by foreign architects, were constructed.

Charles XII Continues the War

Charles made it to his fortress at Stralsund in Pomerania. With his arrival back on Swedish territory, after a fourteen-year absence, the people of Sweden momentarily forgot the unusual hardships of the recent years and erupted with joy. They foresaw their king as now about to smash those who had dared to move against Swedish territory.

It was a powerful coalition that Charles faced: Peter of Russia, Frederick of Denmark, Augustus of Saxony and Poland, Frederick William I of Prussia (reign 1713-40), and George of Hanover and England. Like some rulers in the twentieth century, Charles was undeterred in facing a great coalition. Having at that point lost the most important of contests – the diplomacy war – he was not about to ask for mercy and sue for peace. Instead, he entertained the notion that he could hurt his adversaries enough that they would want to make peace and return to him all of his empire – or at least enough territory to make his empire equal in size to what it had been before the war.

By late June, Prussian and Danish troops had encircled the port town of Wismar on the Baltic coast (in what today is Germany). The Danish and English navies were cooperating, and the Danish navy was blockading Wismar. Facing numerically superior forces in Pomerania (about 200 kilometers east of Wismar), Charles withdrew his troops to his fortress, also on the Baltic coast, at Stralsund. In November a flotilla of 640 transport ships landed Danish and Prussian troops that overran the fortress at Stralsund. Charles escaped to the sea to the southern tip of Sweden. Swedish troops at Stralsund were made prisoners of war, marching into captivity with banners flying and music playing, expecting to be released in a few months following payment for their keep to Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia. Civilian officials at Stralsund were released immediately. Mercenaries who had been fighting on the side of the Swedes were made prisoners of war, and most of them, as expected, chose to do service for their captors.

Charles XII was now concerned about his enemies invading Sweden proper. He decided that he could discourage any such invasion by attacking Norway. An invasion of Sweden, he reasoned, required the Danes, and by attacking Norway – then property of his cousin, the Danish king, Fredrick IV – he could persuade his cousin to withdraw from the coalition against him by crushing the Danish army in a major engagement. Charles also believed that invading Norway would compel the English to keep some of their navy along their coast opposite Norway, weakening help from the English fleet in an invasion of Sweden.

Charles' Norwegian campaign began in February 1716. Norway's government fled the capital city, Christiania (Oslo). The Swedes occupied Christiania in March. Norwegians failed to cooperate with the Swedes, eschewing their traditional hospitality to foreigners. The Swedes in Christiania became low on supplies. Winter was delaying logistic support, and Denmark's navy commanded the approach to Christiania. Charles abandoned Christiania. He and his troops make their headquarters near Fredrikshald, about 100 kilometers south of Christiania, and they waited there for Swedish ships to bring them supplies. The Swedes and Danes fought for control of the waters around Fredrikshald. The Swedish navy won in May, but in late June the Swedes lost both on sea and on land. Charles and his troops returned to Sweden without his crushing victory over Denmark's army, but his invasion of Norway did disturb the plans for an invasion of Sweden by the coalition against him.

Wismar had finally surrendered to the coalition's forces, but Peter was upset over the refusal of the Danes, Prussians and Saxons to permit Russian participation in the occupation of Wismar. The use of Russian troops was planned for an invasion of Sweden that year. During the summer, the coalition was slow in getting a navy together large enough for a landing in Sweden. This included waiting on Danish ships that had been involved in actions against the Swedes in Norway. The attack by Charles, moreover, had impressed coalition members – especially Peter. They had thought that Sweden had been all but defeated. They had been aware of war-weariness in Sweden and Sweden's diminished supply of money. Now, in 1716, they were impressed by the fighting capability that remained with Sweden and Charles. Peter reconnoitered Sweden's coast, concluding that Sweden's defenses were strong. He was disappointed that Sweden's navy had not been defeated, and in mid-September he pulled out of the planned invasion, claiming that it was too late in the season and suggesting postponement of the invasion until the following year. This did not suit Fredrick of Denmark, who had commandeered the ships of Danish merchants and believed that he could not hold them for two years running. The decision to invade was postponed. There would be no invasion of Sweden.

Charles' Final Failure

Charles XII made his headquarters at Lund, where he hoped for further division of the coalition against him. He began to talk peace with members of the coalition in order to gain time to prepare for a military offensive. He saw no hope of making peace with George of England or Peter of Russia, whom he saw as his two main enemies. He wanted a major victory so he could bargain from strength.

At Lund, he took an interest in theological disputes. His praise of Muslim virtues, which he had learned while with the Ottomans, disturbing some. Charles began each day with prayer and some reading from the Bible. His chaplain claimed that it was his duty to bring an end to the war as soon as possible, but Charles was not sufficiently inspired to bargain seriously for an end to the war or to give up territory already lost. He wasn't about to give up on empire.

Meanwhile, some Swedes were being influenced by the new belief in constitutional government that had developed in the Netherlands and Britain. After the death of Louis XIV of France in 1715 even the French were experimenting with constitutionalism. In Sweden, opposition to the absolutism of Charles was perhaps small, but it was growing. And opposition was growing also to the continuation of war, spurred by Charles' decree of raised taxes as the public's contribution to the war effort – a tax to be paid by nobles, high-ranking officers in the military and high ranking members of the bureaucracy.

Charles built Sweden's military strength through 1717 and much of 1718. He had plans for an offensive for October, 1718. On the 16th of October he moved troops again toward Fredrikshald, aiming at the nearby frontier fortress of Fredriksten. The going was slow, and, toward the end of November, Charles and his army were encamped in front of the fortress. Charles was interested in the new line that was being dug fifty yards closer to the fort, and around eight in the evening, on November 30, Charles raised himself above the crest of his rampart to have a look. Flares were burning on the fortress, and lightbombs were giving some illumination. Scattered shots were being fired and one struck Charles on the left side of his head as he was looking to the right. He fell off of the ladder, dead at the age of thirty-six. note4

It was believed by some that Charles had been immune to ordinary bullets and that the missile that had killed him had been a silver or brass button. It was rumored too that he had been assassinated and that Charles' younger sister, Ulrica Leonora, who appeared too ready to succeed Charles, had been part of a conspiracy against him. Ulrica Leonora had been devoted to Charles and was observed horrified and hurt by his death, but t the assassination theory lived on, and controversy was to rage into the twentieth century over whether Charles had been assassinated.


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