Five for one
Charles XII came to the throne at the age of 15. By that time he already knew three foreign languages, brilliantly knew mathematics and engineering, and was considered one of the best riders in Europe.
Formally, the regency was established under him, for such was the deathbed will of his father Charles XI. But the young king could not accept this. He gained recognition of himself as an adult and by personal royal decree abolished the regency, becoming a full-fledged and full-fledged ruler of Sweden. The young monarch received a truly mighty state as an inheritance from his father. In the 17th century, Sweden, for the first time after a long break, returned to the international arena. The return was triumphant and overwhelming. Sweden entered the Thirty Years War, concluding an alliance with France. It was these two powers that ultimately benefited the most from the Peace of Westphalia, which put an end to this long conflict.
After that, Sweden continued to impose its order in Eastern Europe. In 1655, King Charles X Gustav invaded the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Those events went down in history under the name "Swedish Flood". By the end of the 17th century, namely, the very same year, 1697, when Charles XII came to the throne, his power controlled the Baltic Sea. Here the Swedish rules and the Swedish order acted, which, of course, did not like the neighboring powers, who decided to use the inexperience of the new king to end the Swedish hegemony. Thus arose the triple alliance of Denmark, Poland and Russia, also supported by Saxony and Hanover. 18-year-old Karl was left alone against five rivals. England and Holland gave him only moral support, agreeing not to get involved in the conflict. However, the Swedish king perfectly managed without their help. In the early stages of the Northern War, he managed to show his best qualities - determination and boldness. It was with this that he, in the end, deserved a comparison with Alexander the Great.
Denmark wanted to take possession of the Swedish territories on the continent and in Prussia. It was there that the main forces of the Danish army were sent. And then Karl decided on a desperate and extremely risky move. Gathering a small squadron and a 15,000-strong army, he crossed the tiny strait separating Sweden from Denmark, and landed right under the walls of Copenhagen. It was a stunning blow. The Danish capital was well fortified, but its garrison was less than 4,000 thousand. Copenhagen was not preparing for a long siege, and the Danish fleet was blocked by a small Swedish squadron. King Frederick IV was so frightened by the prospect of losing the capital that he asked for peace. True, he had to accept all the conditions of his Swedish cousin.
Battle of Narva
As a result, Denmark abandoned its territorial claims, paid the indemnity and pledged not to wage hostilities for the next 9 years. Karl XII, thus, led the enemy out of the war in just a few weeks. He did not sit in Denmark, and almost immediately sailed to the Baltic States, where Russian troops besieged Narva and the Baltic States. And here all the same simple and daring methods were used - suddenness and decisiveness. Karl rejected the idea of maneuvers, long constructions and the search for a vantage point. Youthful maximalism demanded to attack, so Karl always acted. Under his command there were 9 thousand people and 37 guns, while Narva was besieged by the main forces of Peter’s army - 40 thousand soldiers, plus almost 140 guns. The Swedes made a march to the fortress, despite the strongest snowstorm and gusting wind, which allowed them to approach the enemy from the rear and go unnoticed. After that, Karl decisively attacked the Russian positions, taking advantage of the fact that the forces of de Croix, who led the siege of Narva, were stretched for several kilometers along the front line. The Swedes broke through the enemy's ranks in several places at once, forcing De Croix to capitulate, the stunned army, which had lost its commander, began to randomly retreat, trying to cross Narova on a single bridge.
But this bridge could not stand it and foully collapsed. Karl XII achieved a decisive and dizzying victory. Having lost about 600 people, he destroyed one-fifth of the army of de Croix, capturing all its artillery with the royal treasury to boot. And here before the young monarch there was a choice of what to do next. To continue the Russian campaign and go to Moscow to force Russia to capitulate, or to attack Poland with Saxony. Karl chose the second option, thereby making his first fatal mistake.
The first fatal mistake
However, in Poland, things were going like clockwork. It all began with a victory at Kleshov, thanks to which Karl earned a flattering comparison for himself with Alexander the Great. The 12,000-strong Swedish corps was halted by the Polish-Saxon army, which forced him to retreat to a dense and massive forest. At nightfall, Charles raised his troops and ordered them to go through the forest. Under the pouring rain, the army passed through the thickets, coming out to the enemy positions in the morning, right near their right flank, where the Saxon forces were stationed. The Swedes launched a rapid offensive, knocked over the astonished enemy and ended the battle in a few hours. Karl lost 300 people, Poland and Saxony - ten times more.
It was in 1702 that Karl planned to end the war with Poland and Saxony in the next 7–8 months, but it didn’t work. The world that marked his victory was signed only in 1706. Karl forced the Polish king Augustus II (he was the elector of Saxony) to abdicate the throne. The Polish throne was raised by the protégé of Sweden Stanislav Leschinsky. Karl was at the peak of fame, and his power at the top of his power. In Europe, he spoke about the Swedish king as being about the new Alexander the Great. They admired his victories, some of them wrote poems and pamphlets. Louis XIV sent Karl a white horse as a sign of admiration and friendship. True, the Swedish king never received this gift. The war continued and, unexpectedly, took a very bad turn for Sweden.
Triumph really quickly ceased to be a triumph. The Swedish aristocracy, dissatisfied with the absence of the king, took control of internal affairs into its own hands, partially canceling the reforms carried out by Charles's father. The king received an urgent report urging him to return to Stockholm. Karl promised to return as soon as he won the war. At that moment it seemed to him that this was a matter of the strength of one and a half years. In fact, he was not destined to see Stockholm again. Leaving the capital in 1700, Karl did not know that he would not return to this city anymore. While the new Alexander conquered Poland, Peter I returned to the Baltic States. The largest Swedish fortresses were captured, and a new city was laid at the mouth of the Neva. At the council, Field Marshal Ronsheld suggested that Charles XII return by sea to Sweden, and then, through Finland, attack Russia from the north and repel the Baltic States. This plan was smart, but not brash enough for 24-year-old Carl. He already had a reputation as a man who ended the war with the defeat of the enemy and nothing else. There could not be a couple of victories and a profitable world. There should have been an absolute triumph with the complete surrender of the enemy. So, the king who was at the zenith of glory made the second fatal mistake.
The second fatal mistake
At the very same council where Ronsheld advised to return to Sweden, Karl decided to go to Moscow. The Swedish king wanted to attack the Russian capital as he did with the capitals of Denmark and Poland. The trouble is that the campaign was coming long, and Karl was in too much of a hurry. Tedious fees and training, he instructed General Adam Levengauptu, and he hastily departed for Little Russia. There were reasons for this. Karl already knew that Ivan Mazepa was going to take his side and made a bet on the sudden betrayal of the Ukrainian hetman. Löwenhaupt, however, waited for the arrival of reinforcements from Sweden and moved with his body to join up with the king. But Peter well knew about the Swedish maneuvers and skillfully took advantage of the fact that the enemy army was separated.
He overtook Levengaupt’s corps and utterly defeated him at the Battle of Lesnaya. Later, Peter will call victory at the Forest Mother of Poltava Victoria. Why? Yes, simply because the first happened nine months before the second. Karl, meanwhile, unsuccessfully besieged Poltava. Having received news of the defeat of Levengaupt, he retreated to regroup. Somewhat later, Russian troops cut off the Swedes from supplies. The situation has become critical. Ronsheld again advised the king to abandon ambitious plans. It was still not too late to return to Poland, to sail from there to Sweden and go from the north. The king called Field Marshal a coward, stating that he would go to the end. "We will crush the Russians," he said, "and then we will conclude an alliance with the Sultan." But in the battle of Poltava, luck changed Karl XII. His plan was never communicated to the commanders. For unclear reasons, they received different instructions. Some were supposed to storm the redoubts, others - to bypass them. Confusion broke the very first blow that always brought victory to the king. The offensive was crumpled, and the troops were caught off guard by a counterattack. Even the betrayal of Mazepa did not help. However, the worst for the Swedes, part of the battle was a retreat, which escalated into a disorderly flight. His final chord was the capitulation of Perevolochny, where significant forces of Charles XII's army were blocked and surrounded. The Swedish king lost everything. Army, strategic initiative and support for their soldiers and commanders. In some ways, he even lost his own country, for the way back to Sweden was now cut off to him. Karl fled to the Ottoman Empire and camped in Bender. Sultan Ahmed III warmly welcomed Charles and allowed him to stay in Bendery for as long as he wished, promising, moreover, protection from Peter.
In the next few years, the Swedish king sat in his camp, trying to come up with a plan for B. He tried to call for reinforcements from Sweden, demanding that the squadron bring troops to him by sea, rounding Europe. He frantically sought allies, urging Ahmed to declare war on Russia. By this he only set up the sultan against himself. The Ottoman ruler ordered his guest to get out of Bender. Carl refused. Then the Janissaries were sent to the city with a rather broad mandate to take action. “Expel, in case of resistance to arrest, if something goes wrong - kill”. Karl resisted for three weeks. In one of the clashes, he lost the tip of his nose. When the situation became critical, the Swedish king broke through the encirclement and hurriedly left the camp. In that fight, he showed so much stubbornness and courage that the Janissaries called him "Iron Head".
Shot skull of Charles XII
The loss of the tip of the nose, by the way, did not change Carl’s habits. He fled to Sweden through insurgent Poland, risking capture. He behaved cautiously, fought off the chase twice, and got injured three times. Nevertheless, he crossed Europe in just 15 days, suddenly appearing in Sweden at the moment when everyone thought he was languishing in Ottoman captivity. Karl was unable to restore order in his country. He tried to make peace with Russia, but having been refused, announced that he would continue the war and invade Norway, which was under the power of Denmark. First of all, he besieged the fortress of Fredriksen. This was his last battle. The king led the construction of the fortifications when a stray bullet pierced his head. Carl was killed outright. There are still legends and disputes around his death. It is believed that the Swedish king fell victim to a conspiracy of disaffected nobles. Anyway, Karl became the last European monarch, who died on the battlefield and, it seems, the last person who was compared with Alexander the Great. His life is one complete paradox. Over 18 years of endless campaigns and battles, he won many great victories, but they were all crossed out by a single defeat. This defeat wiped out not only the past successes of Charles, it put an end to further ambitions of Sweden. As a result of the Northern War, it lost its leading position in Europe and control over the Baltic Sea. Karl was the brilliant commander whose rule had disastrous consequences for his country. But here is the next paradox: it remains one of the most respected and revered rulers of Sweden in all its long history.