What would you do if, at the tender age of 15, you already had the responsibility of taking care of and ruling a nation? Seeing that you’re not invaded by other empires, all while making sure that your people are happy and your town is peaceful? That’s what Charles XII had to do when his father, the king of Sweden, died from abdominal cancer.

The Beginning of The Great Northern War

In 1697, Charles sat on the throne and ruled over Sweden. Just three years after an alliance of Denmark–Norway, Saxony–Poland–Lithuania, and Russia was formed, they wasted no time launching an attack against the Swedish Empire, knowing that a young and inexperienced king now led it. The idea came from Peter the Great, who wanted to get the Baltic Sea, which was, unfortunately, under Sweden’s power. When Charles XI died, they thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take it, starting the Great Northern War.

Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t going to be the case.

Portrait of Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia. (Amsterdam Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles was unfazed by the three-way alliance. In August 1700, he deployed an army of 10,000 near Copenhagen in Denmark, a surprise attack that caught Frederik IV of Denmark-Norway off-guard. Unable to defend his city, he didn’t have much choice but to agree on a peace treaty called the Peace of Travendal. For Charles, that’s one less attacker of his nation, so he could focus on Peter the Great of Russia, who happened to wage war with Sweden that very same day the peace treaty was signed.

Blessed by the Wind in The Battle of Narva

Russia invaded Livonia and Estonia, two Swedish territories. Upon knowing this, young Charles decided to sail to Narva to face his besiegers. It was freezing cold, and they would be greatly outnumbered, the ratio being 4:1. Naturally, his father’s top advisers voted against what seemed like a suicide plan. But Charles’ strong will and desire to crush the enemies prevailed, plus he believed that his 10,000 disciplined and highly-capable soldiers would do just fine in the battle. He carried on with the plan, and his soldiers marched amidst the blizzard.

Battle of Narva 1700. (Alexander Kotzebue, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It seemed like an inevitable defeat, but for a few minutes, the wind favored Charles’ armed forces and was now blowing on their back, now blinding the Russians. Emerging from the blizzard, they attacked their would-be conquerors, fired their weapons at point-blank, and dove into the trenches to fight them with bayonets. The Russians fled, and many of them fell and drowned in the Narva River. Peter’s armed forces were crushed to the frozen ground.

He could’ve taken advantage of the situation and could’ve invaded Russia, and he should have. Instead, he pursued the Saxon-Poland-Lithuania alliance, which he defeated, too.

The Great Frost Downfall

Charles XII won every battle that he ever fought until 1709. Peter had the chance to rebuild his army, which he did. They established a new city in Ingria and called it St. Petersburg. Charles decided he now wanted to invade Russia with the help of the military commander of the Ukrainian Cossacks. They succeeded in invading most parts of Russia through time. Everything was going great for the Swedish army until the coldest winter that Europe had seen in 500 years arrived: the Great Frost of 1709.

Part of a lagoon that froze over in 1709, Venice, Italy. (Alexander Kotzebue, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Swedish troops did not have enough supplies. The starvation and disease took out one-third of his force, although the Russians had their losses too.

At the Battle of Poltava in 1709, Charles could not lead whatever was left of his army due to injuries. His general led the remaining 20,000 men against Peter’s 45,000 soldiers. Some even say the number was 80,000. Whichever it was, Charles XII’s outnumbered forces terribly lost while he fled to the Ottoman Empire.

Charles XII died when he was shot in the head during a siege in the town of Fredriksten in Norway as he was inspecting the trenches. He was just 36 years of age.

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