The Start of the Great Northern War

Crossing of the Düna 1701 by Daniel Stawert

Charles XII is crossing the Düna

Swedish floating battery, similar used at Düna

The outbreak of war

In the hands of his gifted son, Charles XI’s army was to prove a formidable force. It was, however, an army built for peace, not for war, designed to provide a powerful deterrent sustained by Sweden’s own resources, thus avoiding the need for foreign subsidy which had proved so disastrous in the 1670s. After 1680 Charles sought peace. He married Christian V’s daughter Ulrika Eleanora in 1680, hoping to promote rapprochement with Denmark, and if Swedish contingents did fight against Louis XIV in the Nine Years War, Charles was careful to keep Sweden out of direct involvement in the quarrels of western Europe.

The stormclouds were already gathering, however, when Charles died prematurely in April 1697. The treaties of the 1660s had left much unsettled, while the Scanian War had revealed Sweden’s vulnerability. The long period of peace was more due to the distraction of Poland-Lithuania and Russia by Turk and Tatar than the emergence of stability in northeastern Europe. Denmark was smarting from losing control of the Sound, and the English were mounting a serious challenge to Dutch commercial hegemony in the Baltic. Brandenburg-Prussia and Russia were increasingly concerned about their lack of a major Baltic port, especially since Sweden’s endemic financial weakness ensured that it sought to maximise its income from customs duties. Despite Charles’s reconstruction of the army and navy – restored to 34 ships of the line and 11 frigates by 1697 – Sweden’s grip on its empire remained fragile.

An age was passing. Charles XI’s death was one of a series which saw the departure from the scene of a generation of monarchs who had experienced the last round of the Northern Wars. The first to go, in June 1696, was John Sobieski, who was followed into the grave by Christian V in August 1699. Alexis was long dead, but two decades of uncertainty in Russian politics were ended by the death of his invalid son Ivan V in February 1696, which left Ivan’s energetic half-brother Peter (1682–1725) in sole charge of a state whose new military potential was demonstrated by the capture of Azov from the Turks in July of that year. Charles was succeeded by his precocious fourteen-year-old son, Charles XII, whose military talents were to prove greatly superior to those of Frederik IV of Denmark (1699–1730) and the new king of Poland-Lithuania, Frederick Augustus, elector of Saxony, who took the name Augustus II on his election in 1697. Finally, Frederick William’s successor in Brandenburg, Frederick III (1688–1713) transformed his status in 1701 by securing Leopold I’s permission for his coronation as Frederick I, king in Prussia.

European politics had changed substantially since 1667. Statesmen in western Europe were increasingly obsessed with Spain as the childless Carlos II shuffled towards his grave. It also affected eastern Europe, where the long series of Turkish wars was winding down as Leopold I prepared to contest the Spanish succession with Louis XIV. The ageing Sobieski had lost the fire which had animated him during the 1683 Vienna campaign and his subjects forced him to withdraw from the Holy League in 1696. Augustus, who had led the imperial forces against the Turks in 1695–6, was keen enough, but the Commonwealth hastened to make peace. Only Peter was still enthusiastic, planning to extend Russian power along the shores of the Black and Caspian seas. His diplomacy on his famous embassy to western Europe in 1697–8 was largely devoted to reviving the anti-Turkish coalition, but he was unwilling to fight alone. When Austria, Poland-Lithuania and Venice settled with the Ottomans at Carlowitz (January 1699), Peter opened negotiations, securing a twenty-year truce in June 1700.

A new Northern War had already begun. For Sweden’s perceived weakness under its adolescent monarch had roused those with scores to settle. Chief among these was Denmark. Despite Charles XI’s efforts at détente, neither Christian nor Frederik accepted the losses of 1645–60. Moreover, despite Ulrika Eleanora’s mollifying presence at court, the Holstein-Gottorp party remained strong, led by Hedvig Eleanora, Charles X’s widow. The principal bone of contention remained the question of whether the duchy’s sovereign rights, confirmed in all Swedish-Danish treaties after 1645, included the jus armorum, which for Denmark represented a permanent provocation, since the duchies provided easy access to its vulnerable southern frontier. Ulrika Eleanora died in 1693, and although the dying Charles XI seems to have recommended that his son marry Christian’s daughter Sophia, Hedvig Eleanora and Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp scotched the plan. Barely a month after Charles’s death, Denmark exploited the annoyance of the Maritime Powers with Sweden on account of its neutral stance in the Nine Years War by razing the fortresses built by Holstein-Gottorp in Schleswig in breach of the 1689 Altona agreement, in which the Maritime Powers upheld the rights of Holstein-Gottorp in the hope of securing Swedish support against Louis XIV.

This was merely a shot across the bows; past experience had shown the folly of attacking Sweden without international support. The Maritime Powers had long sought to maintain the balance between the Scandinavian kingdoms and, as the Spanish succession crisis built up, opposed any war in the north which might interrupt the flow of naval supplies from the Baltic and prevent Sweden or Denmark joining an anti-French alliance. Christian therefore looked east for allies. The first to respond was Augustus, who sought to strengthen his position in the Commonwealth through an active foreign policy, coveting Livonia, which he saw as a potential hereditary duchy for the Wettin dynasty that would improve its prospects of retaining the Polish throne.

In March 1698 the Danes and Saxons signed a defensive alliance. Five months later Augustus met Peter at Rawa near Lwów where, between colossal drinking bouts, they held private discussions at which an anti-Swedish alliance was discussed. It is unlikely that any concrete plans were made; for Augustus, Livonia was still only one of a number of possible hereditary principalities he coveted, including Moldavia, Wallachia and Ducal Prussia: indeed, the seizure of Elbing by Frederick III in November 1698 on the pretext of the Commonwealth’s failure to pay its debts to Brandenburg after the Second Northern War provoked outrage in Poland which might stimulate support for a war. Gradually, however, an anti-Swedish alliance formed: in April 1699, Peter signed a defensive agreement with Denmark, to come into effect after Russia had made peace with Turkey; in September, he put flesh on the bones of his informal pact with Augustus by signing an agreement at Preobrazhenskoe committing Russia to an attack on Ingria in 1700. Danish enthusiasm was not dulled by Frederik IV’s accession in August: four days after the Preobrazhenskoe treaty a new Saxon-Danish defensive-offensive treaty was signed in Dresden. The coalition was complete.

By the time the Russo-Ottoman peace was signed in June, the war was well under way. The Danish army moved into Schleswig and Holstein in late 1699 to await Augustus’s attack on Livonia. After an attempt to take Riga by surprise in December was thwarted, a Saxon force of three infantry and four dragoon regiments – 5,000 men – crossed the Dvina in February, and seized Dünamunde (23 March), as Frederik moved into Holstein-Gottorp to besiege Tønning. In late August, within days of hearing of the peace with Turkey, Peter’s armies were on the move. For Sweden, the nightmare of a three-front war had become reality.

A surprise beginning

The allies did not expect a long war. The military odds seemed entirely in their favour, while they hoped to exploit anti-Swedish feelings in the Baltic provinces. For if the reduktion succeeded in Sweden without provoking major opposition, it was a different story across the Gulf of Finland. Livonia’s tangled history made it extremely difficult to determine just what should be regarded as royal land, and the reduktion in Livonia, after a comprehensive land-survey, affected 80.8 per cent of the land and 74.2 per cent of peasant households, leaving the Crown with 72.3 per cent of the land, compared with only 1.25 per cent in 1680. The situation was slightly better in Estonia; nevertheless, 53 per cent of estates were affected.5 Although efforts were made to compromise with the lesser nobility, opposition was fierce. Two delegations led by the choleric Johann Reinhold von Patkul to Stockholm attacked the reduktion; by late 1694, it was largely complete, but talks had reached deadlock, which the government sought to break by trying Patkul for lèse majesté. After delivering a passionate defence of Livonian liberties, he slipped into exile, where he fomented anti-Swedish feeling, assuring all who would listen that the Baltic nobility was on the point of rebellion. All was apparently set fair for a rapid victory

Nobody expected what followed. By the time Peter declared war on 9/20 August as the Saxons began the siege of Riga in earnest following the arrival of their artillery, Denmark was already out of the war. Sweden, having promised in January to back the Maritime Powers in upholding the treaty of Rijswick against Louis XIV, was able to call on their support as guarantors of the Altona agreement. On 13–14 July (OS), the Swedish fleet evaded a slightly larger Danish force with a daring manoeuvre along the Swedish coast, and joined up with an Anglo-Dutch fleet before landing a 10,000-strong army on Zealand and marching on Copenhagen. Faced by a blockade of his capital and under pressure from the Maritime Powers, Frederik caved in, signing the treaty of Travendal on 7/18 August. By the time the Russian army left Moscow, the last Swedish troops had left Danish soil.

Travendal was a serious blow. Livonia was still recovering from the devastating effects of the great famine of 1695–6, in which some 50,000 had died, and despite Patkul’s promises, the Livonian nobility showed little enthusiasm for the Saxons. Augustus’s siege of Riga was chaotic; without naval support he had no means of cutting off supply from the sea, and an administrative oversight meant that the Saxon ammunition was mostly of the wrong calibre for the heavy siege guns.6 Having achieved nothing but the capture of Dünamünde, optimistically rechristened Augustusburg, he raised the siege on 29 September. By the time that the Russian army, at least 35,000-strong, began its bombardment of Narva on 31 October, the Saxons were entering winter quarters south of the Dvina. As the Russians laboriously constructed their elaborate siegeworks, Charles was already heading for Estonia. In the battle of Narva (19/30 November), the Swedes hurled themselves at the Russian defences under cover of a fortuitous snowstorm. Outnumbered nearly three to one, they broke through at two points, smashing the Russian line into three parts before rolling it up. The Russians were routed; including those drowned in a desperate stampede across the river they lost 8,000 men and 145 guns. The Swedish empire was not as vulnerable as it looked.

Far from it: for the next six years, Charles swept all before him. He first attacked Augustus. Deterred from invading Saxony by the Maritime Powers, who wished to prevent diversions in Germany which Louis XTV might exploit, Charles forced his way across the Dvina into Courland in July 1701 then invaded Lithuania in January 1702, before destroying a Saxon-Polish army at Kliszów (July 1702). Warsaw, Cracow, Poznań, Thorn and Elbing were occupied and in July 1704 Charles presided over the election of his own candidate, Stanisław Leszczyński, as king of Poland-Lithuania. Two years later, following a crushing victory by Karl Gustaf Rehnskiöld over a Saxon-Russian army at Fraustadt (February 1706), Charles invaded Saxony where, in Augustus’s absence, he forced the treaty of Altranstädt (September 1706) on the Saxon Estates, by which Augustus was to abdicate his Polish throne. Augustus – who had already secretly ratified the treaty – led a Saxon-Russian army to victory at Kalisz a month later, but Charles’s publication of Altranstädt exposed his duplicity and forced his compliance: in November he returned to Saxony.

Charles’s long sojourn in the Commonwealth, however, left the Baltic provinces open. In 1703 Peter seized Ingria, where he began to build his new capital of St Petersburg; in 1704, he took Dorpat, Narva and Ivangorod, while Russian troops streamed into the Commonwealth to support the anti-Swedish forces who were not reconciled to Leszczyński by Augustus’s abdication. In 1707, with three of his enemies out of the war, Charles turned east for the showdown with Peter. With his army rested and replenished, he rejected Peter’s offer of peace in return for the cession of Ingria, and marched east. Peter, however, had prepared his strategy well: his armies withdrew into Russia, devastating the country as they went. For most of the summer of 1708, Charles sat in Lithuania waiting for Adam Ludvig Lewenhaupt to gather supplies for the attack on Russia. In September, without waiting for Lewenhaupt, Charles decided to turn south to winter in the Ukraine, where he hoped for support from the rebel Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa. The risky strategy proved disastrous. Peter pounced on Lewenhaupt at Lesnaia (28 September 1708 OS), defeating him and seizing the supply train. Lewenhaupt joined Charles in October, but the Swedish army suffered dreadfully in the bitter winter of 1709: constantly harried by the Russians, soldiers died in their thousands from cold and disease. With Polish and Russian forces blocking Leszczyński from coming to his aid, Charles was trapped. By the time Peter was ready to give battle outside Poltava, which Charles had been besieging since early April, the Swedes were running low on ammunition and morale. On 27 June 1709 OS, the army built by Charles XI and perfected by his son was shattered on the narrow plain north of Poltava. Three days later, as Charles crossed the Dnieper into Turkish exile, 17,000 demoralised Swedes surrendered at Perevolochna. The war was to last another twelve years, but the Stormaktstid was over.

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