Patrick Boniface on the deaths in combat of regal warriors.
On 5 April 1697, the Swedish Prince Charles, also known as Carl, became King of Sweden at the age of 15 following the death of his father, Charles XI. During his 36-year reign, Sweden would go on to lose between 10% and 20% of its population during what became known as the Great Northern War.
Born into a military world where Sweden was a nation renowned for the quality of its fighting men, King Charles XII would go on to earn the nickname ‘The Last Viking’ and lose his life in battle. Other nicknames dubbed him ‘The Lion of the North’ and ‘The Swedish Meteor’. Charles is famously quoted as having said, ‘I have resolved never to start an unjust war, but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies.’
In life, Charles XII was despised by his nation for throwing Sweden into countless battles and wars, and sacrificing the lives of thousands of soldiers. Today, over 200 years since his death, the distinguished biographer Ragnhild Hatton notes, ‘Swedes can be heard to say that no one shall rob them of their birthright to quarrel about Charles XII.’
The first years of his reign were peaceful, but in 1700 the combined forces of Denmark, Norway, Saxony, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia launched a devastating attack on the Swedish protectorate of Holstein-Gottorp, as well as the nearby provinces of Livonia and Ingria.
The attacking forces believed that the young and inexperienced King Charles XII would not have the stomach, skills, and determination to lead a counter-attack. They were to be proved wrong. Charles skilfully led the Swedish army to a number of brilliant victories despite being often outnumbered.
One of the greatest of these victories was the Battle of Narva in November 1700. The Russians outnumbered the 10,000 strong Swedish Army by a factor of four to one. Charles’ tactic was to split the Russian forces and to attack under the cover of a blinding blizzard. Many of the Russians who fled the battlefield in disarray tried to leave by crossing the swollen Narva River and drowned. King Charles’ success at Narva led Russia’s Peter the Great to sue for peace. Charles XII refused to accept.
His next target was the alliance between Poland and Lithuania, which was led by the Polish King Augustus II. The two sides met at the Battle of Kliszow in 1702, with the Swedes sweeping aside all opposition. Augustus II was deposed, and in his place Charles XII put a puppet monarch on the Polish throne in the form of his ally Stanisław Leszczynski.
The Great Northern War continued with Charles forcing all of his enemies into submission by 1706, a year that saw the Swedish forces under the command of General Carl Gustav Rehnskiold devastate the combined armies of Saxony and Russia at the Battle of Faustadt.
Eager to complete the task in hand, the young and fearless Swedish monarch marched on St Petersburg, the capital of his last remaining enemy: Russia. His force would again destroy a much larger Russian army, estimated to be at least double the size of Charles’ force, at the Battle of Holowczyn. Charles would later say that this was his ‘favourite’ conquest.
The victory secured, Charles changed his plans and marched his forces towards Moscow in the east instead of attacking St Petersburg. This proved to be a disastrous decision. Russia’s Peter the Great ambushed the Swedish force at Lesnaya. The encounter left half of the force dead and the Russians carried away valuable supplies and artillery pieces.
King Charles XII of Sweden, like many military leaders before and after, then suffered at the hands of nature. Russia’s harsh winter climate took a deadly toll as the Swedes marched towards Ukraine, where they would spend winter.
The Russians, however, gained ground at Poltava, where Sweden lost a large number of men. Here, Charles XII was also incapacitated by a musket-ball round that penetrated his foot. The wound became infected with blood poisoning and Charles was wracked with fever.
The defeat was followed by the humiliation of the Surrender at Perevolochna which saw Charles XII exiled to the Ottoman Empire for four years. These years were spent formulating a plan to regain what he had lost under the terms of the Treaty of Nystad, which saw Russia occupy Sweden’s Baltic provinces, thus reshaping the map of Europe for centuries to come. Sweden also lost Bremen and Pomerania, and a hostile ruler took over in Poland.
Charles XII returned to Sweden in 1714. Much weakened, he could only confront neighbouring Denmark on equal terms. In December 1718, having gathered a large force of men, he led an assault on Norway with the aim of evicting the Danish king, his cousin. The campaign went badly from the start and, on 11 December 1718, during the Siege of Fredriksten, Charles was killed by a shot through the head in strange circumstances, which are still disputed to this day. Some even suggest that Charles XII was not killed by enemy fire, but was murdered by disillusioned men from his own side.
On the day of his death, Charles had gone forward under the cover of night to inspect the construction of a front line trench that had drawn lots of Danish fire already. Indeed, some 60 Swedish diggers had already fallen to accurate musket fire. The Danish were using ‘light bombs’, an early form of star shells, to illuminate the enemy positions. Just as the King stood momentarily to survey the construction, he slumped forward as a large-calibre projectile sliced into his head. The object entered below one temple, straight through his brain, and exited the other side of his skull.
The King was dead, aged just 36.
None of the men who were digging the trench saw the impact that did the damage, but equally none were displeased to see him dead. King Charles XII had brought nothing but misery for the ordinary people of Sweden through 20 years of bloody warfare.
Suspicions arose about who might have murdered the king. Suspects included his brother-in-law, who eventually succeeded him as King Frederick I, and indeed any wealthy Swede who was suffering from Charles’ 17% taxation of their wealth to fund his wars.
A possible connection to this suggestion was that within months of the King’s death, his hated chief minister, Baron Goertz, who was responsible for the despised taxation policy, was tried and executed. Yet another scenario involved King Frederick’s secretary, André Sicre, who confessed to killing Charles, albeit in the throes of delirium; once he had recovered, he recanted his statement.
Finally, there is an unusual account from the King’s surgeon, Melchior Neumann, who left some intriguing remarks on the inside cover of a book. Neumann wrote that he had dreamed that he saw the dead King on the embalming table. Then the King regained life, took Neumann’s left hand and said, ‘You shall be the witness to how I was shot.’ Agonised, Neumann asked, ‘Your Majesty, graciously tell me, was Your Majesty shot from the fortress?’ The King answered, ‘No, Neumann, es kam einer gekrochen [one came creeping].’
The mummified remains of King Charles XII lie in the grounds of a Stockholm church, but have been exhumed no fewer than three times, the last being in 1917 for forensic analysis. The results are inconclusive; when ‘the Swedish Meteor’ fell, the nation replaced him with a mystery surrounding his death.
This article was published in the October 2018 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.