Charles XII the Boy Warrior


Charles XI died of stomach cancer on the 15th of April 1697 at the age of forty one. Charles XII was only fourteen. His mother, Hedvig Eleonora of Holstein-Gottorp was regent and made the kingdom mourn her son for a year. He respected her a great deal and asked her advise even when he was the King.

Charles XII did not.  But then he seemed to hate all women. Charles told Theodore Piper, “My father has been dead a year now. I am thinking myself worthy to command.”

“And what of your Grandmother?” Piper asked.

“I don’t like that either they or I should any longer receive orders from a woman.”

“Some on the counsel will oppose a fifteen year old boy as King. Sweden has enemies on all sides.”

“Do this for me and you shall be my Prime Minister, Piper.”

The coronation was held three days later on Christmas Eve. The Archbishop of Uppsala was in the process of coronating Charles King, when the 15 year old grabbed the crown from him. He placed it on his own head.

“God has made me King. I answer to Him,” said Charles. The crowds went crazy cheering for him.”

And thus Charles XII became the king at fifteen. Charles XII was said to have respected his grandmother. They both liked simplicity and it was their nature to give orders. Stories are told of him not wanting to be drunk in front of her. But he did not ask her to rule while he was gone leading the army.

Charles XII at fifteen

Though he became famous as  a superlative General,  he did not like ruling and often said he wished that he had a brother to stay home and take care of business.  Voltaire said Charles walked into his study in military attire. He was fifteen and newly coronated. A well worn “History of Alexander the Great” sat on his table. The young Charles saw the map his father owned of Hungary that said, “The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away.” Charles XII grabbed a pen and scrawled under Riga, “The Lord hath giveth and the Devil shall not take it away from me.

A tutor once asked young Charles XII what he thought of Alexander the Great. He said he would like to be him. “But he only lived 32 years.”

“That is long enough after conquering the world.”

The alliance of Poland, Russia and Denmark was created then. Poland, Denmark and Russia decided they would attack Sweden from three sides when they heard a child had taken the throne. They did not know Charles XII was obsessed with the military and Sweden had the first army reserves in the world. Their whole army could be assembled in 3 days. The allies attacking him required 3 years to prepare.

Charles XII was young, and they thought he would be easily intimidated. They were quite wrong. Charles XII was a great commander and thrilled to have a chance to engage in a real conflict, and even more to have a wrong to avenge.

Thus from the Swedish point of view the Great Northern War began. When he was 18 they attacked. The Netherlands and England immediately declared that they were Sweden’s allies. It was not that they loved Sweden, but they did not want anyone else to gain power over trade from the ports of Latvia and Estonia on the Baltic Sea.

Charles XII made his famous statement to his cabinet, “I have resolved never to begin an unjust war but also never to end a just war without overcoming my enemy.”

In the first few weeks of the war Charles delivered an amazing victory which started his reputation. Denmark had to be knocked out of the fight before they could help their weaker allies, Poland and Russia. He knew they had a better navy than he did. Their army was strong too.

To eliminate the Danes Charles XII needed to take Copenhagen, and that would not be easy. The Danish army had started marching on Sweden as soon as war was declared. The navy was left to protect the coast. King Frederick was still in Copenhagen.

Charles could not march over land without meeting Danish troops, at a great loss of life. He could not enter by sea without fighting their very formidable navy. So Charles told his Generals, “Dress my Swedish sailors as British navy men, and hang their flag. Then say we are British war ships on display at the command of King Frederick IV.” Swedish soldiers were then packed under the deck.  The army of Sweden gained entrance to Denmark and were able to march on Copenhagen without shedding any blood.

Frederick IV who was 29 in 1700

King Frederick IV was shocked at the news. “Charles has landed in Denmark? Where is he now?” he asked.

“Twenty miles from Copenhagen.” Frederick was silent.

Finally he said “What are his terms?” Charles was not harsh. “Give my cousin the Duke of Holstein back his land or face the destruction of Copenhagen and ravaging of the countryside.”

King Frederick IV was a very practical and an effective man, perhaps the most intelligent of his line, though not intellectual. “I have little choice. My men have all sailed off for Sweden. We have no military to defend the city.” That was the end for Denmark, August 1700, six weeks into the war having lost without a battle. The Swedish men broke out in riotous joy. General Rehnskiöld came to congratulate Charles.

Peter the Great was philosophical when told about the defeat. He said, “Two bears in a lair never agree.” He meant he would not have surrendered. But then Denmark was not Russia.

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