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Famous Men of Modern Times by  John H. Haaren


 

 

CHARLES XII OF SWEDEN

(1682–1718)

[233] IN the year 1697 a strange coronation service took place in the city of Stockholm. A boy of only fifteen years of age was crowned king of Sweden, and took the title of Charles XII.

He was born in 1682. When he was only three or four years old the queen went into the nursery to take him to church, but he refused to get down from the high chair in which he was perched because he had promised his nurse that he would not leave his seat until she had given him permission.

He was taught German as well as Swedish as soon as he could speak; and history, geography, and arithmetic seemed like play to him.

When only four years old he was put astride a horse, and at eight he was a good rider. At eleven he killed his first bear; and before he was twelve he shot a stag at a distance of ninety yards.

As soon as he began to wear the crown he became very pompous and arrogant. No one was allowed to find fault with anything that he did.

[234] About a year after Charles was made king two princesses were brought to Stockholm to spend the winter in the hope that he would marry one of them.

But Charles did not marry either of them. In fact he was never really in love with anybody or with anything but war.

One day, when he was out on a bear hunt, news was brought to him that the kings of Denmark and Poland, and Peter the Great of Russia, had formed a combination against him, and proposed to capture Sweden and divide it among themselves.

He gathered an army, placed himself at its head, sailed for Denmark and soon forced the Danes to sue for peace.

He then marched against the Russians. The Russians were five times as many as the Swedes, but Charles said, "With my brave boys in blue behind me I am afraid of nothing."

On the march four hundred Swedes had been attacked by six thousand Russians; but the Swedes had beaten them off. Peter the Great and his men ran away as soon as the Swedes approached.

But Charles followed them and a great battle was fought in a driving snow storm. Charles [235] lost one of his boots in a bog, and a bullet was flattened against his clothing; but by nightfall the Swedes had won a complete victory. Charles was then only eighteen years of age.

The next summer the young warrior marched against the united armies of Russia and Poland. After a fight which lasted all day Charles was again victorious.

Among the ladies of Poland was the beautiful Marie Aurora. She wrote a letter to Charles asking that she might see him, in the hope of ending the war; but Charles made no reply.

Then Aurora traveled to the Swedish camp, although it was the depth of winter; but the king refused to see her.

The lady, however, was not discouraged. One day she saw him riding toward her, and at once got out of her carriage and knelt before him in the muddy road. Charles raised his hat and made a low bow; but, without stopping, he put spurs to his horse and went off at a gallop. In about three weeks both the capitals of Poland—Warsaw and Cracow—were in his hands.

Charles at once found work for his army elsewhere. Saxony which then belonged to his great enemy Augustus was invaded and captured; [236] and Charles remained in possession of it for more than a year.

While Charles was busy with Saxony, Peter the Great attacked his provinces on the Baltic. He took possession of the principal ports, and founded on Swedish territory his new capital, St. Petersburg.

In the defense of his territories, Charles engaged in several fierce battles with the Russians and finally defeated them.

The Russians retreated and burned all the bridges behind them.

He next determined to go to the succor of the Cossacks of the Ukraine. It was December. The cold was so intense that the Baltic Sea was frozen over, and many of the birds fell dead from the trees. The Swedes were poorly clothed, and they suffered greatly from the cold. Over three thousand were frozen to death, and many others were frost-bitten.

Charles had lost twenty thousand out of an army of forty-one thousand. Yet he would not give up the struggle, but determined to lay siege to the fortress of Poltava.

Up to this time Charles had seemed to bear a charmed life. But one day a bullet struck his foot. Some of the small bones were broken, [237] and the flesh had to be cut open to remove the splinters. Charles watched the operation without flinching; but the wound gave him trouble, and he had to be carried about in a litter, as we have read in the story of Peter the Great.

The "boys in blue" did wonders, but the struggle was really hopeless. They were utterly defeated, and Charles barely escaped with his life.

He at length crossed the River Dnieper with the remnant of his army and took refuge with the Turks; and in the Turkish town of Bender, seven hundred miles from Sweden, he lived for several years.

The sultan of Turkey treated him kindly, and in Bender, Charles built for himself a stone house with walls like those of a fort.

The sultan also gave him a body guard of janissaries. These men became very fond of him and when they found what a strong will he had, they called him "Iron Head." Some of them said, "If Allah (God) would only give us such a ruler we could conquer the world."

Peter the Great had seized certain Turkish ports on the Black Sea, as well as the Swedish ports of the Baltic. So Charles proposed to the sultan that the Turks and Swedes should unite their forces against Russia. To this the sultan [238] agreed and, in 1710, war was declared and an army of two hundred thousand men marched against the Russians.


[Illustration]

CHARLES XII DEFENDS HIS HOUSE AGAINST THE TURKS.

Peter had only about forty thousand, and he was very anxious for peace. He sent a wagon-load of money to the Turkish commander and persuaded him to sign a treaty.

Charles was not with the Turkish army when this was done; but he arrived immediately afterwards. He was terribly disappointed, and more so when the sultan wrote him a letter advising him to return to Sweden.

Charles refused to go. This made the sultan angry; and he sent orders to seize Charles and take him, alive or dead, away from Bender.

Charles sent word back that if they attempted to do this he would fight; and so an attack was made upon him in the house which he had built as a defense.

Some of the Turkish soldiers refused to fight against him, and thirty of them were drowned in the River Dnieper by the sultan's orders.

Fifty of the soldiers who were friendly to him tried to persuade Charles to put himself into their hands; and when they failed they said, "Oh, Iron Head! Allah has made thee mad!"

[240] Twelve thousand Turks then attacked Charles in his quarters. He fought bravely for his life, but was finally captured and turned over to the Turkish commander.

He looked very unlike a king. His clothes were torn to rags, and his face was so blackened with powder and smeared with blood that he could scarcely be recognized.

When the people in Sweden heard of his capture some were greatly delighted at the king's bravery; but the wisest men of the kingdom felt grieved; and, all over Europe, it was said that Charles had gone mad.

Some of the people in Sweden now said that unless Charles returned to Sweden they must have another ruler; and a letter was sent to him imploring him to come home.

This caused him at last to leave Turkey; and at midnight, of November 11, 1714, he entered the fortified town of Stralsund, which belonged to Sweden. His people were overjoyed at his return, but were disappointed that he did not cross the Baltic and come into Sweden itself.

The neighboring powers were glad to have him stay in Stralsund. Six of them—Russia, Prussia, Poland, Saxony, Denmark and Hanover—had declared war against Sweden; and they thought [241] they could capture King Charles quite easily while he was in Stralsund.

They besieged the town; but Charles defended it bravely. To encourage his men he went to the most dangerous places. He even took his meals within range of the enemy's guns. He slept on the ground with a stone for his pillow; and shared all the hardships of the siege equally with the common soldiers.

But, in spite of all his bravery, Charles saw that Stralsund must surrender. He therefore crossed the Baltic in a boat and made his home in the city of Lund, in Sweden. Poor Sweden was almost ruined; and its future looked very dark indeed. It seemed as though Charles could not see in what a wretched state his kingdom was. Everybody else knew that Sweden must have peace; for she had lost in battle or by disease almost one fourth of all her men.

Most of the fisheries were abandoned, because the fishermen had been taken to man the fleet. A large part of the farms were cultivated by women and boys. There was a great scarcity of meat, butter, and tallow; and as tallow was used for making candles, the people were unable to work in the mornings or evenings, because no candles could be bought.

[242] The king shared the poverty of his people. There was no silver on his table. All his dishes were of pewter. He slept on a straw mattress with his cloak spread over him.

His passion for war was as strong as ever; and finally he determined to invade Norway, which then belonged to Denmark.

He attacked the Norwegian fortress called Fredericksten. Trenches were dug within gun-shot of the fortress. One morning as he was looking over the top of one of the trenches, he was struck by a bullet and instantly killed.

Charles was a brave man, but he was not a good ruler. He had a great fondness for fighting, and a strange power of making others fond of it. His people loved him; and they continue to honor him. He brought his country to the verge of ruin. More than one hundred and fifty thousand men perished in his wars; and he left Sweden poorer both in territory and in wealth than it was when his reign began.


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