Childhood & Early Life
Charles XII of Sweden was born on June 17, 1682, in Tre Kronor, Sweden, to Charles XI of Sweden and Ulrika Eleonora of Denmark. He was the second-born child of his parents and the eldest son in the family, making him the natural heir to the throne.
His father, Charles XI, had been the ruler of Sweden for 4 decades and was known as an excellent king. Charles had an older sister, and many of his younger brothers had passed away. Hence, he was the only remaining son of the royal family.
Charles XII grew up in a happy environment. Back then, Sweden was admired as a kingdom that had produced great warriors. Since his childhood, Charles was interested in military matters. As he was the heir to the throne, he was also groomed to rule since his early years.
His mother passed away in 1693, and this was a huge shock for young Charles. After his mother’s death, Prince Charles became more serious about the matters related to his kingdom and began accompanying his father on his political travels and at official events.
Charles XI passed away in 1697, and the burden of ruling the nation fell on Charles XII’s shoulders. However, he was too young to take charge of the country. A regency was formed according to the wishes of King Charles XI, but they still required the young king’s opinion on every matter.
The regency ruled the nation for 7 months, and when they thought that Charles was ready to rule solely, they crowned him the king. By then, Charles, 15, had been groomed by excellent tutors and politicians. He had also received military training from the best military strategists of the country.
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King of Sweden
At the time of his ascension to the throne, the Swedish Empire spanned a vast area in Europe and was known as one of the most powerful European countries. Initially, Charles XII’s reign was peaceful. For the first few years, the young king focused on hunting and partying. Unaware that the neighboring enemies were constantly keeping an eye on him, he enjoyed life to the fullest.
Denmark, Poland, and Russia had been Sweden’s enemies since many centuries, and when they saw that a young and inexperienced king was on the Swedish throne, they began chalking out a plan to invade Sweden.
The monarchs of all the three neighboring nations formed an alliance in 1700 and planned to launch a major attack on Sweden. The king of Denmark attacked Holstein, Poland attacked Riga, and Russia attacked Narva. However, Sweden was ready for such circumstances, and its armies were immediately mobilized to tackle the invaders. This was known as the Great Northern War.
Within the first 6 weeks, the attack on Holstein by Denmark was countered, and Charles emerged victorious. He then handled the invasion of Riga, but upon knowing about the Russian attack on Narva, he quickly moved there. The Russian army was much larger in comparison to the Swedish army. Yet, Charles exhibited great military skills, and Russia was defeated.
Charles had proved that despite his age, he was an excellent military commander. He had also proved that irrespective of the number of men in the army, if Charles commanded the forces, they would turn invincible.
Between 1701 and 1707, Charles was involved in a series of negotiations in Europe, which ended up reducing the Danish and the Polish threats to a great extent. Following this, he decided to focus solely on Russia, which was the biggest worry for Sweden.
In 1707, in an attempt to deliver a final blow to Russia, Charles gathered the largest army possible and marched toward Moscow. The Russian army had destroyed the resources that could have helped the Swedes on their way to attack Russia. Charles thus used his tactical brain and moved toward Ukraine to secure the resources required to sustain his huge army.
In 1708, Charles led his army to face the Russians and achieved many back-to-back victories. One of the most important of them was the victory at the Battle of Holowczyn. The battle saw the Swedish army defeat a Russian army that was twice its size.
In 1709, Charles’s army was in Ukraine, on its way to Moscow. They faced a harsh winter that depleted his army to a great extent. However, instead of retreating, Charles wanted to face the Russians in a decisive battle. The battle finally took place in July 1709 in Poltava.
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A few days prior to the commencement of the battle, Charles had faced an injury to his leg, which had not healed. Hence, Charles was physically unfit to command his army in Poltava. Upon his exit from the battlefield, the Swedish army lost its way in front of the Russian army, which was again, double the size of the Swedish army. Sweden lost the battle, but Charles and a few of his soldiers managed to flee to Ottoman Turkey.
Charles spent the next few years in Turkey, trying to gather forces to attack Russia. He planned to attack Norway, with an aim to prevent the Danish king from helping Russia in future conflicts. The campaign was unsuccessful. Following this, Charles returned to Sweden, only to find it in a poor state after years of war and most of the empire under foreign control. Sweden had, however, remained a free country until then.
He stayed there for a year and prepared for one more assault on Norway in 1718. However, by then, Norway had gathered a strong support from the neighboring countries and Charles’s chances of winning were bleak. In a battle in Norway’s Fredriksten, he was shot in his head. This spelled the end of Sweden’s campaigns against their enemies.
It also marked the end of the Swedish Empire, and the country was pushed into a parliamentary government, which was not the norm in Europe. Its intricately designed war machinery and monarchy were both absolutely destroyed. The royal autocracy in Sweden was, however, reinstated by King Gustav III of Sweden.
Other than being an able war commander, Charles was also known as an exceptional politician and ruler. He initiated several tax and legal reforms that allowed the Swedes to become rich and prosperous.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Charles XII of Sweden’s life was mostly consumed by wars. Thus, he never married or fathered any children.
He passed away on the battlefield, fighting Norwegian forces, on November 30, 1718. He was 36 years old at the time of his death.
His sister Ulrika Eleonora succeeded Charles. However, she was eventually coerced to surrender the throne to her husband, King Frederick I of Sweden.
Charles was also known for practicing abstinence from sex and alcohol.