home | history

The Great Northern War

MAP of

Sweden had emerged from the Thirty Years' War a winner. Toward the end of the 1600s its empire included Finland, the Baltic States, possessions in Northern Germany and Poland, and the area that in a few years would include the city of Saint Petersburg, and its navy dominated the Baltic Sea. In 1697 a fifteen-year-old ascended to the throne, Charles XII, and still at that age he began ruling on his own – without a without a regent.

The sight of a mere boy on the Throne of Sweden encouraged neighboring rulers who had grievances with the Swedes. There was Russia's tsar, to be known as Peter the Great, just a decade older than Charles. He saw Sweden as having stolen lands from his ancestors and he saw Sweden as blocking Russia's access to the Baltic Sea. There was Denmark's monarch, Christian V (who also ruled Norway). He wanted to win back from the Swedish monarchy the territory of Skône (just east across a strip of water from Copenhagen) which his family had lost in 1658. And there was Augustus of Saxony-Poland-Lithuania, just twelve years older than Charles. He wanted to expand his rule to Livonia,, where Germanic nobles were unhappy with Swedish rule. The three monarchs united against Sweden, seeing opportunity in Sweden being unaligned in addition to Charles' youth. It was still an age when men of power went to war at the drop of a hat, or at least without much trepidation. And so Europe was about to have more kings warring over who was to rule where.

The Great Northern War began in March 1700 and at first didn't work out well for the three. Sweden's Charles XII, now eighteen, was an able commander, and he had inherited a military that was well-armed and organized. The Danes besieged Tönning (about forty miles north of Hamburg) in Holstein-Gottorp, a territory allied with Sweden. Charles forced the Danes out of the war by August. In November, Sweden countered a Russian siege at Narva, a Swedish army of 8,000, including an Estonian and a Finnish regiment, annihilating a Russian army of 23,000 or more. According to Wikipedia, Russia lost more than 9,000 killed and 20,000 captured; Sweden lost 667 killed. Peter is reported to have wept and to have concluded that he had to modernize his military. This humiliation has been described as the big reason Peter decided to modernize Russia.

In July 1701, Charles defeated Augustus' army at Riga, forcing the Polish-Saxon army to withdraw from Livonia, and Charles followed this up with an invasion of Poland. He captured the fortress at Krakow, captured Warsaw on 14 May 1702, and he defeated the Polish-Saxon army again at the Battle of Kliszów in July. He defeated another of Augustus' armies at the Battle of Pułtusk in spring 1703, and Charles besieged and captured Thorn (Toruń). Charles put an ally on the Polish throne — Stanislaus Leszczynski — and in 1705 he agreed to help Stanislaus regain Polish territory lost to the Russians in 1667 and 1686.

Back in Russia, on marshland, Tsar Peter started building St Petersburg. And he began conscripting men into his military. Some recruits were obliged to serve in the military for life. Peter created a regular standing army of more than 200,000, with special forces of Cossacks and foreigners numbering more than 100,000, and to pay for his military he raised taxes. (During Peter's reign, eighty to eighty-five percent of his revenues would go to his army and his war efforts.)

Peter tried to instill nationalist pride in his army, telling his recruits that they would not be fighting for him but for the interests of Russia. And he encouraged his subjects to demonstrate respect for the nation by better performance in their work. Wanting their focus on Holy Russia rather than himself he decreed that men should no longer fall on their knees or prostrate themselves on the ground before him. He abolished the requirement that people remove their hats as a sign of respect when he appeared in public. He encouraged his subjects to Westernize. He put a tax on beards, which created episodes of rebellion.

The war continued. On January 1, 1708, Charles and his army moved across the Vistula River. In late January the Swedes defeated a Russian force at Grodno. They captured a bridge and crossed the Niemen River. Peter and the retreating Russians set fire to what they could, and as the Swedes advanced across sparsely populated Lithuania they had difficulty finding food for themselves and adequate forage for their horses, while Lithuanian peasants hid their stores as they had from the Russians. Until spring, the Swedes sought quarters at various places in Lithuania, as far east at Minsk, Charles staying about twenty miles northwest of there until early June, when the pasture grass was again green and thick and the roads that had been mud were again dry.

In early July, Charles and his army were victorious at Holowczyn, a village near Mogilev. The Russians fell back in another retreat. Their morale was low. Rumors were that Charles and his army were headed for Moscow. Peter ordered that everything be destroyed in front of the advancing Swedes: food, crops, anything that could be useful to the Swedes. But during the hasty retreat much was missed, and rain had made green crops difficult to burn. The Swedes reached Mogilev on the Dnieper River four days after their victory at Holowczyn. They were around 45,000 in number — combatants and laborers — with 30,000 horses, and they wanted to accumulate supplies including grain that would last at least six weeks before moving ahead. They waited also for some of their number who had been wounded at Holowczyn to be fit to march. And they waited for a supply train of several thousand carts accompanied by another army from Riga.

Sweden's campaigning against the Russians was about to become a disaster. The Russians inflicted heavy losses on the Swedes at Lesnaia. Peter's supply lines were shorter than and his troop numbers much greater. The supplies the Swedes had been waiting for were captured or destroyed. The Russians lost more men but the Swedes were being defeated tactically — and strategically.

The coming winter of 1708-09 was difficult, and the Swedes lost men in skirmishes in January and February. A showdown battle on July 8, 1709, at Poltava (in the Ukraine) against a Russian entrenchment destroyed the Swedish army. More than 2,000 Swedes died from the cold in a single night. The Swedes lost 6,901 dead and wounded, and 2,760 captured. The Russians lost 1,345 dead and 3,290 wounded. The Russians could replace their losses while the invaders could not. A remnant of the Swedish army (14,299 men and 34 cannons) surrendered 75 miles or so southwest of Poltava — at Perevolchna. Charles, his aides, a few hundred cavalry and around 1500 of his Cossack allies escaped across the border into Ottoman territory, and Russians hailed their victory as a divine miracle.

Charle's decision to move against Peter deep within his territory would be of interest to historians. Charles XII had been dubbed the "Lion of the North" and the Swedish Meteor," and still in his twenties, modesty had not been his thing, as when he told his countrymen not to worry because God and he were still alive. Obviously, Charles had given too little thought to the possibilities that were to open for Peter: withdrawing into the vastness of his empire, the scorched earth tactic, ambushing Swedish supply lines, and the availability of reinforcements for Peter. (Historians would wonder too why Napoleon Bonaparte didn't give more consideration to Charles' failure in Russia. And there was the hunger for victory and grandeur that would inspire Japan's military command during World War II to want to expand toward India while it was having enough trouble in the Pacific and in China. China's expansion against the Dzunghars in Xinjiang in the mid-1700s, on the other hand, was done on an adequate foundation of material and political strength.)

At stake for Sweden in the second decade of the 1700s was its control of swathes of Eastern and Central Europe and freedom to use Baltic Sea lanes. Seeing Sweden as having been weakened, Augustus of Saxony and Frederick IV of Denmark jumped back into the war on the side of Russia. A prince of the Hohenzollern family, Frederick of Brandenburg-Prussia agreed with Russia to bar Swedish troops in Pomerania from access to Poland in exchange for gaining the town of Elbing (in today's Poland near the Baltic Sea). In November 1709, Frederick IV of Denmark invaded Sweden with 16,000 troops, overrunning the towns of Malmö and Lund, but by February the Swedes (without their king) drove the Danes back to Denmark. The Russians, meanwhile, had seized Vyborg, Riga, and Revel and had pushed into Finland. With help from Peter, Augustus again assumed the title of King of Poland.

Charles and around 1500 troops finally made it back to Sweden in late May 1714, by way of Vienna, with help from the Habsburg monarch in Vienna. Charles arrived to find his homeland at war with Russia, Saxony, Hannover, Great Britain and Denmark. Russian forces traveled across Finland to attack the Stockholm district. For the first time, Sweden found itself in a defensive war. Charles' planned an attack against Denmark-Norway. His forces occupied Christiania (today Oslo), and after suffering significant losses of men and material, Charles he was forced to retreat. Charles attacked the border town of Fredrikshald, now Halden, in an attempt to capture the fortress of Fredriksten, and it was there, in 1718, that he was killed — while on a ladder against a rampart viewing the enemy line.

It was believed by some that Charles had been immune to ordinary bullets. It was rumored too that he had been assassinated and that Charles' younger sister, Ulrica Leonora, who appeared too ready to succeed Charles, had been part of a conspiracy against him. The assassination theory was to continue into the twentieth century.

Charles had never married, and his closest surviving sibling was his younger sister, Ulrica Leonora. The Council selected her as queen on condition that she renounce all claims to absolute power, and she agreed. The following year she abdicated in favor of her husband, Frederik of Hesse. He became Frederik I, King of Sweden, and she was queen, a transition accomplished in agreement with the Council that they would leave the creation of a new constitution to others. A peaceful political revolution had taken place, influenced by the development of constitutionalism elsewhere in Europe.

Sweden settled with Augustus, recognizing him as King of Poland. It made peace with Hanover, agreeing to give up the Dutchy of Bremen and Verden. In 1720 Sweden settled with Fredrick William of Brandenburg-Prussia. Sweden recognized its loss in Pomerania. It made peace with Denmark and in 1721 with Russia, recognizing territories Russia had conquered, including Ingria, Estonia, Livonia, Vyborg (Viipuri), Kexholm (Piorzersk) and part of Karelia. Sweden was no longer the dominant power over the Baltic Sea. That now belonged to Russia.

The writers of Sweden's new constitution were influenced by what had taken place among the Dutch and English, including the writings of John Locke. It was Sweden's first full and precisely written constitution, and it gave the Swedish people what they, and historians later, would call an "Age of Liberty." Basically the Constitution provided for parliamentary rule. Parliament was to meet at least every third year, and parliament alone was to control state finances and legislation. When parliament was not in session the sixteen-member Council ruled with the king, who had two votes on most issues – the duty of the Council and king being to run the government and to implement the decisions of parliament.

Opposing the Hats were the Caps, who represented the interests of small farmers. Small farmers tended to be for peace and tended to side with the English, from whom they received money. The Caps had been dominant before 1738 and didn't want to provoke Russia. In 1738, the Caps lost to the Hats, who gained a majority in Parliament. The Hats forced Sweden's elder statesman, Arvid Horn, to resign from his post as Lord President of the Council.

Ninety percent of the Swedish population still lived by farming and raising cattle. Serfdom did not exist in Sweden as it did extensively in Russia, Poland, the Balkans and to a lesser extent in Denmark, Spain, and France. With peace, hard work, good harvests and loans from the English and the French, the Swedes began to recover from war. They had a baby boom. Trade returned. The Swedes welcomed the imported goods of which they had long been deprived. And prosperity and inflation made the tax burden lighter.

The government encouraged new opportunities for the poor, with exemption from taxes and other privileges for colonizing territory in the country's colder far north. The move of settlers there came into conflict with Samis (Lapps) of the area, the Samis trying to hold on to pastures for their reindeer and their fishing. Sweden's government supported the settlers, forcing the Samis to withdraw from contested areas.

Sweden's industrial sector remained small, but in 1731 new factories were founded with support from the state, especially in textiles, which, in urban areas such as Norrköping and Stockholm, began employing between 13,000 and 14,000 people. By the middle of the century there would be 360 ironworks in the country, producing 47,000 tons of wrought-iron goods annually.

In foreign policy, the government allowed foreign vessels to bring into Sweden only goods originating in their own country, the Swedes aiming to advance their own merchant marine in the new era of maritime commerce that had been developing. This annoyed the British. But Sweden maintained its alliance with Britain, as it did with France and Brandenburg-Prussia.

The old idea that wars should pay for themselves and that victory was natural remained with some Swedes. In Sweden a political party had developed called the Hats, consisting largely of aristocrats and people nostalgic for what they believed were glories connected with militarism. The Hats were for improving the nation's armed forces. They had cultural links with and received money from the French. They favored revenge against Russia and the acquisition of lost territories. Allied with them was Sweden's numerically small but wealthy bourgeoisie, the Hats favoring industrial development and economic investments. And the Hats favored more control over the labor guilds.

Opposing the Hats were the Caps, who represented the interests of small farmers. Small farmers tended to be for peace and tended to side with the English, from whom they received money. The Caps had been dominant before 1738 and didn't want to provoke Russia. In 1738, the Caps lost to the Hats, who gained a majority in Parliament. The Hats forced Sweden's elder statesman, Arvid Horn, to resign from his post as Lord President of the Council.

With the death in 1733 of Poland's King Augustus, the War of Polish Succession began. The kings of France and Spain, both of the Bourbon family, wanted to prevent a Habsburg succeeding Augustus, so did the king of Prussia. Russia sided with Habsburg Austria and Saxony against France. It was their choice, Augustus III, who became Poland's king after a couple of years of fighting. Sweden stayed out of it.

But in 1740 the War of Austrian Succession erupted — an eight-year war. Sweden's Hat Party sided with the French for the sake of revenge against Russia. In 1742 the Russians routed the Swedes at Lappeenranta and captured that frontier fortress. Sweden's involvement in the war lasted to August 1743. The Russians occupied all of Finland. Bombast by the Hat Party had gained Sweden nothing.

Sweden (with the Hat Party in power) joined the Seven Years' War (1756-63) on the side of the French and Russians — against Frederick the Great, the British, and others. Sweden wanted to preserve its military position in the Baltic region and to strengthen its world commerce, but it was on the losing side.

In the future, Sweden would benefit from being in the far north, away from middle Europe over which in the centuries to come territorial disputes would rage and many armies would march. Sweden would have minor involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, however. Denmark's monarchy would lose Norway, and Sweden and Norway would fight a small summer war in 1814. Denmark would be overrun by Germany in 1942, and seeing futility in standing against a vastly superior military machine there was the joke that its strategy would be to play a recording that repeated: "We surrender." Denmark did become one of the founding members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Sweden never joined, but it would hold joint military exercises with NATO, its imagined adversary: Russia.

CONTINUE READING: Western Europe and North American, to the 1740s

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.