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  • James Houser

November 30, 1700 - The Great Northern War & the Battle of Narva

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

November 30, 1700. Sweden is ruled by a teenager. This seems like a perfect time for Denmark, Poland, and Russia to jump on Sweden and take whatever they want. What could a teenager do to stop them? But they have jumped the wrong country and the wrong king. On this date, 17-year-old Charles XII, aka “Carolus Rex,” will show them who they’re dealing with. By attacking a Russian army that outnumbers him four to one. In a blizzard. Like a lunatic.

So this story occurs in that weird part of history where Sweden was a country that everyone else had to worry about. Seems odd, I know. But from say 1630 to 1720, around the same time that the Thirteen Colonies were coming into existence and Louis XIV ruled France, Sweden was one of the European Great Powers. It was the dominant force in the Baltic Sea, sent its armies as far abroad as Ukraine and Austria, and was widely respected as one of the most advanced countries of its age. Pretty much every country, no matter how mild and meek in the 21st Century, has its “awesome age” where it kicked a bunch of ass. This is Sweden’s time to shine.

In 1700, Sweden ruled a tidy little empire. This domain included the modern nations of Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, as well as some chunks of northern Germany. These weren’t just any chunks of northern Germany; though they didn’t contain any cities you’d likely recognize, they controlled the mouths of major rivers which gave Sweden a stranglehold on the northern German trade routes. Sweden even had a cute little Caribbean island, because you can’t really call yourself a European power if you don’t have some useless hunk of sand in the middle of nowhere.

How did Sweden become this inflated power, with twice as much territory as it holds today? The answer is complicated, but it boils down to the fact that the Swedish Kings were unusually strong within their domain compared to other European monarchs. Furthermore, they used this authority to develop Sweden’s economy, build a powerful military, and go and start a bunch of fights. Sweden, while quite large on the map, is largely arctic tundra and desolate forest, so it only had a small population and low resource yield to work with, but the Swedes were just much more efficient and intelligent about it. Sweden had some of the most advanced bureaucracy and administration of any country in the world at the time, and this enabled them to turn those meagre resources into international power.

International power, of course, requires an army, and Sweden had one of the most high-quality armies in Europe. Granted, it was always small. Sweden is small and this was inevitable. But the Swedish Army’s commanders were so good, its tactics were so advanced, and its organization was so robust that it was able to routinely outfight and defeat even larger forces. This trend started with the great King Gustavus Adolphus, but his successors were no slouches either. Gustavus’ brilliant daughter Christina and cousin Charles X both expanded Swedish power and kept the army’s quality and training top-notch. They were always at least a half-step ahead of the rest of Europe.

It helped that Sweden’s natural enemies were declining in power. Denmark, Sweden’s long-term rival, was not what it used to be, and what it used to be hadn’t been all that great in the first place. For a long time, especially in the early 1600s, the giant Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been a mortal enemy to Sweden. The famed Winged Hussars had run down many a good Swedish army. But Poland’s unusual governmental structure left most power in the hands of the nobility, as opposed to the centralized Swedish model; even though the enormous Polish state had many times the men and resources that Sweden did, the tables had begun to turn. Sweden trounced Poland every chance she got, once overrunning the entire country in the 1650s. The Polish remembered it forever after as “The Deluge”, and this disaster started Poland’s decline as a major European power.

To the east, it didn’t seem like Sweden had much to fear. But the true power of Eastern Europe was emerging from centuries of disunion, backwardness, and instability. The city-state of Moscow had come to assert its authority over all the Russian-speaking lands, and now its rulers were calling themselves the Caesars of Russia – or, as we know them, the Tsars. But Russia was still viewed as a backwards, conservative, superstitious state by most of Europe. And they had a point. The Russian Tsars were often murderous and always tyrannical, and their large military never seemed to amount to much. Hell, Poland had captured Moscow for a few years back in the 1610s. So no one was too worried about Russia.

It became the mission of the new Tsar to make people start worrying about Russia. Peter I, known to history as Peter the Great, was a visionary and innovative ruler who sought to “Westernize” and modernize the obsolete Russian Empire. He had taken a grand tour through Europe in 1697, disguised as a common traveler, observing and participating in as much as possible. He didn’t just see modern technology; in some cases he made it himself. The Tsar helped build a ship with his own hands in Amsterdam. He soaked up art, literature, military uniforms, fashions, and inventions, and brought all this back to Russia in his head, ready to get cracking on those reforms. It was time to haul his country, kicking and screaming, into the 18th Century.

Peter modernized Russia in direct and dictatorial ways that wouldn’t have flown anywhere else. He mandated intermarriage with European royalty, decreed that the Russian court would now dress in French and Dutch fashion, and even required his officials and courtiers to shave their trademark Russian beards. Peter went as far as to TAX beards to discourage their growth and encourage the clean-shaven look of Europe.

More than anything, though, Peter needed a window to the west. In 1700, Russia was essentially landlocked. The Ottomans or their vassals controlled the Black Sea. The Arctic passages to the north were only open for a small part of the year. Peter needed a speck of land where he could build the navy he craved and open constant communication to the West. Having tasted the culture of modern Europe, Peter became obsessed with opening his window to the west. No one stood in his way but Sweden, whose possession of Estonia, Latvia and Finland cut Russia off from the Baltic Sea.

But it seemed like things were about to go Peter’s way. In 1697, King Charles XI of Sweden passed away. Charles XI had been an accomplished general, but had spent the last 20 years at peace building up the integrity of the Swedish Empire. He had an immensely well-trained army, with the famous Carolean infantry (“Carolus” being Latin for “Charles”) the best foot soldiers in Europe. He had drastically improved Sweden’s financial and economic situation after long periods of war. But now, after 37 years on the throne, Charles XI was gone, and in his place was a mere boy. 15-year-old Charles XII wasn’t considered ready to lead, and only began his reign after seven months of a regency.

For all of Sweden’s enemies, it seemed like a golden opportunity. Denmark, Poland, and Russia all had reasons to fight the Swedes: old rivalries, recent defeats, or maybe they just wanted lands that the young King Charles possessed. The motives weren’t important, though. The fact was that a teenager was in charge of Sweden, and if they were ever going to hit this guy now seemed like the best time. It helped that the rest of Europe was about to be REALLY busy. Normally Sweden was allied with France, but King Louis XIV had gone and started a war with most of Western Europe. The War of the Spanish Succession isn’t really important to this story, but it explains why Sweden found herself alone with a kid on the throne. France would help, but France was busy.

After gathering their armies and signing a treaty of alliance, the three Allies – Denmark, Poland, and Russia – took a deep breath and all jumped Sweden at once. On February 22, 1700, the Great Northern War began. The three Allies struck simultaneously. Denmark invaded some of Sweden’s German provinces. Poland invaded Latvia and its army put Riga under siege. Finally, Peter the Great’s large Russian forces invaded Estonia and a little strip of land known as Ingria, forming the thin tissue between Finland and Estonia. Ingria was the land Peter wanted. This was the site where he wanted to build his Window to the West, the future city that would bear his name: Saint Petersburg.

With Sweden under attack from all sides, and no cavalry coming to the rescue, it seemed like the end for the Swedish Empire. But the kid sitting on the Swedish throne was not just some teenager. He was Charles XII, “Carolus Rex,” soon to become an immortal European legend. He would lead the Swedish Empire to its greatest height – and its ultimate downfall.

Charles was a singular figure, much admired in his own time and later. George Washington at one point ordered a bust of Charles made for Mount Vernon, and Napoleon studied his campaigns. He became an almost mythical figure for Sweden after his death, the national hero bar none, a symbol of both the apex of Sweden’s greatness and its later fall. He has a prominent statue in Stockholm, as central to that city’s center as Nelson’s column is to London. Something about him has been compelling throughout the centuries. He seemed to exemplify the heroic, virtuous, pious young warrior to an extent not seen since the Middle Ages. Even Voltaire, cynical atheist that he was, admired Charles and wrote his biography.

In an age where Europe was known for excess, fashion and court intrigue, Charles was almost Spartan and disciplined. He abstained from alcohol and women, and as far as we know died a virgin. His courtiers repeatedly urged him to marry, both to secure political alliances and to secure an heir to the throne, but he always refused, stating that he would marry for love or not at all. While his lack of attention to women has caused many modern historians to speculate that he may have been homosexual, there is no evidence he ever had interest in men either. Charles was, if anything, married to his job: being King and going to war.

And Charles was a warrior first and foremost. This slim, small man with his odd hair and strange face was a born fighter. Many have compared him to Alexander the Great in his natural talent and passion for combat. A master tactician, careful politician, and stunningly brave on the field of battle, he was the paragon of self-discipline, sacrifice, and courage. He had a near unworldly tolerance of pain and outward lack of emotion. He also bore a deep and personal Lutheran faith that had a strong influence on his behavior and practices, which gave him a sort of transcendent confidence that even his generals and advisors could never possess. Charles dared to fight, dared to conquer, dared to risk…he just DARED. Small wonder that some have called him the “Swedish meteor.”

As soon as the Allies attacked Sweden, then, they unleashed the whirlwind. Casting aside the counsels of his older advisors and courtiers, Charles took the bit between his teeth and decided to fight. Though some advised him to make peace and settle for terms, Charles realized that the Allies’ forces were widely separated and he was between them. As long as he held this position, he could take them out one at a time. His first target would be Denmark, ruled by his cousin Frederick IV. Farther away from the other powers, Denmark posed the most immediate threat to the Swedish mainland and needed to be brought to heel immediately.

Charles secured the cooperation of England and the Dutch, who were concerned that Danish control of the entrances to the Baltic might kill their trade profits in that region. With the English and Dutch fleets holding the Danish navy at bay, the 16-year-old Charles took personal command of a force of 10,000 men and 43 ships. With most of the Danish army invading his German provinces and allies, Charles didn’t go to face or fight this force. Instead, he plopped his army right in front of the Danish capital of Copenhagen. With the whole Danish Army cut off from their capital by Swedish ships, King Frederick had no choice but to make peace. In August 1700, the Danish diplomats signed a quick treaty agreeing to leave the war and not attack Sweden again. This treaty was guaranteed by other European powers, obliging them to intervene if Denmark broke the treaty.

Charles’s quick actions had ended the Danish side of the war before it had really even begun. One down, two to go.

In the meantime, Peter the Great had been busy. A Russian army of 40,000 men under his personal command had invaded Ingria and Estonia. While Peter rode around this easily conquered land and looked for the perfect spot for his new city, the Russians besieged the critical Estonian city of Narva, which dominates a terrain chokepoint between Estonia and Russia. With Narva under siege by the Russians and Riga still under siege by the Poles, it seemed like a matter of time before Sweden’s Baltic empire would dissolve.

But Russia’s army was weaker than it seemed. Peter, in his boyish enthusiasm for reform and modernization, had completely shaken up the Russian army. He had purged many of the older and more conservative officers and replaced them with his own younger appointees from the Moscow nobility, as well as beginning a rapid expansion of the army’s size. What this averaged out to was an army that had grown too big, too fast. There weren’t enough officers, and those that WERE around had only worn the uniform for a few months. The new recruits had barely any military training at all. Peter’s mistake wasn’t in reforming the Russian Army, which had needed a shakeup, but in starting a war before the reforms were complete. To use a sports analogy, Peter had decided to rewrite his entire team’s roster before heading into the playoffs.

By October 1700, Charles had shipped the core of his army to Estonia and joined up with the small Swedish units there. He could put together a force of around 10,000 men to face the 40,000-strong Russian force besieging Narva. Although he was young and inexperienced – he was a whopping 17 by now – Charles had the benefit of several excellent generals. For instance, the magnificent Carl Gustav Rehnskjold would be his second-in-command, and he had been in service for almost thirty years. Though these generals would give sound advice and implement his battle plans, the real power was in the hands of Charles. Sublimely confident, magnetic, energetic and willful, the Swedish Meteor was going to do whatever he wanted and no one was going to tell him differently.

As Charles’s army approached Narva, it began to snow. There’s snow, and then there’s RUSSIA snow, and this was definitely a Russia snow. Peter the Great’s Russian forces encircled Narva in a double perimeter, with one set of trenches facing the small city and one set facing out to ward off a relief attempt. The Russians were fortified well, with deep trenches for their soldiers and a protective ditch full of obstacles in front of these. Any attack would be a head-on assault against a well-defended position packed with artillery and musketmen. In the dead of winter, when the Russians fought best. And the snow was coming down.

Peter looked at the approaching Swedish army and was confident that Charles would not be crazy enough to attack. Even if the boy did try to strike him, he would only get his whole force massacred. Peter was so confident that he left the lines around Narva to return to the Russian base camp some miles off and coordinate supplies and reinforcements. While some historians have called this move cowardly, it seems more likely that Peter genuinely didn’t expect a battle, and his later behavior in combat vouch for his courage. Truly negligent, though, was the fact that Peter brought his top general with him when he left, leaving the Russian army under the command of Charles Eugene de Croy, a Belgian-born Field Marshal with no command experience. But still, come on. Attacking a larger Russian army? In the Russian winter? When they’re fortified and waiting for you? There was no way Charles would be dumb enough to…

As evening approached on November 29, Charles parked his army seven miles from Narva and made a quick inspection. The Russians knew he was coming. De Croy had inspected the Russian lines as well and ordered his troops to prepare their weapons and remain vigilant. But Charles was determined to attack. With that almost divine confidence in himself, his army, his God and his cause, he believed that he would prevail. He just needed the right moment.

On November 30, 1700, Charles moved his army forward. At 10am, the Swedes began to approach the Russian lines. The Swedish infantry were equipped with fascines, or bundles of sticks used to cross obstacles. De Croy barely believed what he saw: the Swedish army was so small that it couldn’t be attacking on its own, and must be a recon force. He decided to leave the bulk of the Russian force in the trenches instead of concentrating it against the Swedes. The Russian lines remained stretched across four miles of terrain, so that their forces would not be gathered at the critical point when the time came.

Charles decided to attack in two columns of infantry, one to the north and one to the south of the fortified Goldenhof Hill. He would lead the northern flank himself. Charles, 17-year-old Charles, would ride at the head of infantry column into the falling snow to attack the Russian lines. You have to wonder what his men were thinking at this point. This is crazy, maybe. We’re all going to die. I can’t believe I’m going to die based on a teenager’s decision-making.

As the Swedish cannon began to bombard the Russian lines, the Swedish columns moved forward, their blue coats blowing in the winter wind, the teenage king at the head of his men. The storm was growing worse, and soon began to develop into a real blizzard. The icy gusts whipped around the Swedish soldiers, turning the entire battlefield into a sea of white. Some of the Swedish officers approached Charles, saying that he should postpone the attack until the blizzard passed. Charles raised a hand as if to think – then his eyes opened. The wind was blowing TOWARDS the Russians. Right in their faces. Forget postponing the attack; they would never have a better chance.

In the teeth of the blizzard, Carolus Rex led his army forward at the Russian lines. Outnumbered four to one, filled with zeal and courage and his ridiculous self-confidence, the teenage King led his bluecoats forward through the gathering snowdrifts, his boyish voice calling his men onward.

The Swedes hit the Russian lines like a wrecking ball. The infantry suddenly appeared out of the white blasts, fired a volley right into the faces of the Russians, and pitched in with the bayonet. Though the Russians resisted at many points, the Swedes had filled the ditches with the fascines, and overwhelming numbers were pouring in at the isolated points. Soon a terrible slaughter began on these sections of trench, and the Swedes were in.

As planned, each Swedish force now turned 90 degrees and began to plow north and south along the fortification line, knocking down Russian units like dominoes. In the blur of the blizzard, General De Croy couldn’t even tell what was happening, and his artillery could not intervene to stop the Swedes. By grouping his small army together into two halves, Charles had achieved local superiority. He didn’t have to outnumber the Russians overall if he could outnumber them at the decisive point of the battle, and as his Swedes ground up and down the encircling line they routed the Russian regiments one by one.

The Russians began to panic. All they could hear was a distant blast of musketry and cannon, then some wild Swedes appeared from the white storm, discharged their muskets, and fell on them. This pattern occurred time and time again, and soon the entire army was in flight. De Croy and his staff literally went looking for Charles in order to surrender, they were so shocked and demoralized; the Russian troops killed any foreign-born officers, suspecting them of treason. The Russian soldiers retreated so fast across one wooden bridge that it collapsed under the pressure. Only two regiments of Peter’s personally trained Guards retained their organization, organizing a wagon laager and throwing back Swedish attacks with fire until they could withdraw. The rest of the Russian army was turned into a panicked mob.

The exhausted Swedes had won a capital victory. Almost half the Russian army was captured or scattered. All of Peter’s artillery and wagons fell into Charles’s hands, along with 10 generals and 10 regimental commanders. Around 8,000 men had been killed or wounded and 10,000 captured, all for the price of only 2,000 Swedish casualties with 667 killed. Charles was ecstatic. The Battle of Narva was a battle that NO one should have won, much less a teenage king commanding his first battle. Outnumbered 4 to 1. In a blizzard. In Russia.

From Narva, Charles XII would go on to a magnificent series of military victories, totally humiliating the Polish and continuing to pummel the Russians. He had risen far – but even the rising star must fall. In 1704, while Charles was busy in Poland, Peter would sneak back into Ingria and truly begin to build his new capital, his window on the west. It would be called St. Petersburg. Because Peter had been knocked down, but he – and Russia – would bounce back.

Carolus Rex, like all meteors, eventually had to burn out. For that climactic defeat, I’ll refer you back to the Battle of Poltava: July 9, 1709. (POST LINK)

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