Peter the Great and Charles XII fought each other in The Great Northern War from 1700 to 1719, in an match that was considered uneven. Peter did not expect to win the war. He wanted a warm water port and anticipated the young Charles would capitulate quickly when attacked from three sides by Denmark, Poland and Russia. However Charles refused any offer of peace which included profit for the enemy no matter how insignificant. He defeated Denmark and Poland without negotiation by 1706, but the war with Russia went on to the chagrin of all.
The war began when Charles XII became King of Sweden at fifteen. Sweden was the most powerful nation in Europe at the time, prosperous with a standing army which could be assembled in three days. His father Charles XI had left his paternal grandmother, Hedwig Eleonora, to rule as regent until the boy was eighteen. But he deposed her and crowned himself after a year.
Peter the Great, his enemy was twenty five when Charles XII became king. His country had manpower but no money and was considered one of the least powerful nations of Europe, without significant commerce. The country produced raw materials.
Charles was 5’9, very Scandinavian, with blue eyes and a straight large nose. His lower mouth was described by Voltaire as unattractive, he had an overbite. As he got older his hair fell out on top. But Voltaire described Charles XII as, “perhaps the most extraordinary man ever born a hero who summed up in his personality all the great qualities of his ancestors, and whose only fault and only misfortune was that he carried them all to excess.” He was the superhero of his generation.
As stated by Voltaire, Peter was a paradox of personal contradictions. He was described by many sources as being handsome had it not been for involuntary spastic movements of his face and arm, left over from an attack of encephalitis at twenty one.Peter was 6’7” with brown eyes, a small nose and rounded chin with a full head of hair even at his death. Future generations would consider him the Abraham Lincoln of Russian history, though at the time he was deeply hated.
The two were a study of contrasts, but many of these features were not important. By temperament the Swede was cold, and serious. Charles did not speak much, and when he did it was usually in German which he preferred to Swedish. He barely drank except to accompany meals.
When he first became king he banned torture. He thought correctly that the information obtained from a desperate man was poor; although he had no qualms about killing. In the course of his career he oversaw the deaths of soldiers, and peasants who opposed him. On one occasion he brought back the brutal custom of breaking on the wheel for Johann Reinhold von Patkul who had started the long war.
He did not hold parties nor engage with the opposite sex, either having mistresses, visiting whores or a having a wife. Some have theorized he had Asperger’s Syndrome.
The King had very few interests outside of the military, though he carried a Lutheran bible everywhere.
Peter the Great was very different. As a man he was gentle but as King he tortured people in order to obtain information about the many conspiracies to depose him. He was not sadistic but had seen the power of his enemies at the age of ten and did not forget. Yet he wrote that justice was better served by letting many of the guilty go free than convicting the innocent. He hated hunting and despised the suffering of animals.
Peter was infamous for his capacity to drink, but he was careful not to talk or do anything he would later regret. His decadent parties had forced drinking (with servants who were spies).
Finally he was passionate, an ardent womanizer who admired Charles for not being one. His conversation was passionate and enthusiastic; he was constantly on the move, and interested in everything. The economy of Russia was his major concern and he regarded the military, which he valued very highly, as subordinate to this.
However they had important things in common. As children they both chose to command actual soldiers in order to learn the nuts and bolts of military essentials.Charles replaced his regent grandmother at fifteen, Peter deposed his half sister who ruled for him at sixteen. The two were were simple in their tastes, sparse and plain in their choice of food, dressed only for practicality and donned luxurious robes when forced to for ceremonial occasions.
Both were born rulers and great military strategists. They were not corrupt in the slightest, this was a lifelong struggle for Peter surrounded by those who would steal. Neither was interested in gossip. They believed that the Church was important, Swedish Lutheran or Russian Orthodox, but subservient to the interests of the state.
Their fathers were both effective rulers who increased the territories of their countries. They were well regarded and willing to fight. But though they were successful at war, they preferred peace. Both of their fathers died unexpectedly in their forties.
To achieve their goals, and further what they felt were the ambitions of their country, Peter and Charles extracted terrible taxes from the people. Peter melted down the church bells to make cannons. Charles taxed the churches and took the personal possessions of his subject to hire mercenaries. Both were indifferent to the sufferings of those who stood in their way.
But there were important differences in their situations which caused enormous contrasts in outlook. Sweden was a prosperous country with a strong standing army. Charles XII fought for his principles, which were God, glory, and love of warfare. He often said he wished that he had a brother to stay home and take care of the business of ruling.1 Peter came from a weak country that was behind the western world and the Ottoman Empire in manufacturing, mining, trade and all aspects of written culture. He fought for practical objectives, a warm water port and trade routes.
In the end they respected each other, though they never met. Peter won the war because Charles decided to enter Russia. Voltaire claimed there was talk of the two of them commanding an army together, though others doubt this. When Charles died on he battlefield fighting the Norwegians, Peter declared his court would mourn him for a week.
1Browning, Oscar Charles XII page 6