The Great Northern War (1700-21)

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The Great Northern War 1700 21

Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Great Northern War (1700-21), which marked Russia’s decisive bid for power against Sweden, was launched for reasons quite incidental to Polish-Lithuanian affairs. Augustus’s treaty with Russia, negotiated exclusively in his capacity as Elector of Saxony, did not involve the Republic (Commonwealth). His attack on Swedish Livonia in 1700 was largely motivated by considerations of personal gain. Yet the Republic was implicated in spite of itself, and became one of the principal victims. It is true, of course, that the presence of a victorious Saxon army in Riga would have done much towards restoring royal authority in Lithuania, which had virtually seceded from Poland by virtue of decades of magnatial feuding. For this reason, the predominant Sapieha faction in Lithuania hastened to support the Swedes against the Saxon-Russian combination. But Augustus never achieved a position where he could have enforced any consistent policy; and the potential threat of his Saxon guard was systematically exaggerated by his enemies in the Republic in order to justify their resistance. As events worked out, Augustus’s initial failure before Riga began an interminable game of cat-and-dog, in which the Elector-King was chased from pillar to post throughout the length and breadth of his Saxon and Polish dominions for nearly twenty years. In 1700, having saved Riga, Charles XII of Sweden occupied the Republic’s Duchy of Courland. In 1702, he marched right across the Republic from north to south, occupying Wilno, Warsaw, and Cracow. After breaking the Polish cavalry in the one set battle, fought at Kliszow on 19 June 1702, he found that Augustus had doubled back on a roundabout route to Pomerania. In 1703, the Sejm made provision for expanding the Republic’s forces; but their expectations were dashed by a second Swedish victory at Pultusk, and by the outbreak of Palej’s rebellion in Ukraine. In 1704, Augustus was faced in the Republic by the Swedish-sponsored Confederation of Warsaw which produced its own claimant to the throne in the person of a nobleman of Wielkopolska, Stanislaw Leszczynski (1677-1766). The pro-Saxon Confederation of Sandomierz relied heavily on Russian auxiliaries. Augustus took evasive action against the Swedes by retreating to Lwow, before advancing once more to Warsaw. In 1706, Charles XII determined to put an end to the comedy by marching into the heart of Saxony. At the Treaty of Altranstadt he obliged Augustus among other things to renounce the Polish throne in favour of Leszczyriski; but then learned that the Russians and the Confederates of Sandomierz had succeeded in redressing the balance by defeating a secondary Swedish army at Kalisz.

After seven campaigns, it was clear that no satisfactory verdict would be obtained without an invasion of Russia. After a year’s preparations, Charles XII set off eastwards from Grodno in January 1708, leaving Leszczynski with General Krassau to hold his bases in the Republic. In the campaign of 1708-9, which led to the epoch-making Russian triumph at Poltava, a conspicuous part was played both by Polish peasants who harassed the Swedish columns and by the Confederates of Sandomierz, who prevented any reinforcements reaching the beleaguered Swedes. Poltava put an end to the Swedish party in the Republic. Leszczyriski and Krassau were pursued to Stettin. The Confederation of Warsaw was disbanded. In 1710, Augustus returned in triumph. The Saxon monarchy was restored.

Yet the Republic’s troubles continued. The reintroduction of the Saxon Guard and their brutal impositions rekindled the animosity of a people who had been schooled to think of all foreign troops as the instruments of royal tyranny. In November 1715, the Polish nobility found common cause once more in the General Confederation of Tarnogrod which swore to expel the Saxons lock, stock, and barrel. For a time, it looked as though they would succeed. Augustus, having lost Poznari, was being pushed back towards Saxony, when a sense of cold reality was suddenly injected into the situation by the appearance of a Russian Army. The Tsar, irritated by the squabbles of his Saxon and Polish clients, was threatening in no uncertain terms to knock their heads together. By offering to arbitrate in their dispute, he stood to gain a permanent grip on Polish affairs. After seventeen years of punishing warfare, the battered Republic was exhausted, and divided against itself. Such was the setting of the notorious Silent Sejm of 1717.

Peter the Great’s policy to Poland-Lithuania had matured over the two decades of the Northern War. The first stage, of putting his Saxon client into a position of dependence, had been completed within five or six years of his original election. The second stage, of turning Russia’s military supremacy into a durable political system, took rather longer. In 1706-7, when Augustus had deserted his throne, Peter passed many months in Poland looking for a ‘head’ to put on the body of the decapitated Republic. Residing in Sobieski’s favourite castles of Zolkiew, Jaworow, and Wilanow, and selecting vast quantities of plundered treasures for removal to Russia, he conducted lengthy negotiations with the Confederates of Sandomierz. He was shocked by what he learned. The Polish ‘republicans’ expected to treat with the Tsar as with an equal. They were men who would take neither orders nor bribes. One magnate refused an offer of the Crown on the grounds that he was not going to be ‘any Tsar’s fool’. Others responded to the Tsar’s expensive gifts by sending still more expensive gifts in return. After that experience, Peter knew what he was dealing with. (The term ‘Polish Anarchy’ appeared in Russian documents for the first time in this period.) The Tsar had either to hold Poland-Lithuania by force, which was beyond even Russia’s capacity, or he had to chain the Wettins to their task in such a way that neither they, nor the Polish nobility, could challenge the arrangements. His opportunity came with the war of the Confederation of Tarnogrod. At negotiations held in Warsaw in 1716, his diplomats were able to persuade the King to a permanent withdrawal of the Saxon Army from the Republic’s territory. At the same time, the representatives of the Sejm undertook to place a permanent limit on the size of the Republic’s finances and armies. The Tsar undertook to guarantee the agreement in the form of a written constitution. In this way, both King, and nobility were deprived by the means of threatening each other. By no mere coincidence, they were also deprived of the means of resisting the encroachments of the Russian Tsar who henceforth could legally intervene in Polish affairs at will. The terms, agreed in advance, were to be put before a meeting of the Sejm sworn to accept them without debate or protest. The operation was completed on 30 January 1717, in less than one day. The Silent Sejm, surrounded by Russian soldiers, signed away Poland’s freedom for the duration; and no voice was raised against it.

The troubles of the Great Northern War thus mark the beginning of the modern political history of Poland. Russian supremacy, first instituted in 1717, has persisted in one form or another to the present day. The Russian protectorate has sometimes been exercised by manipulating the activities of an autonomous, but dependent Polish state – as was the case for most of the eighteenth century – and sometimes by incorporating large parts of the Polish lands into the Russian Empire. It has sometimes been exercised by Russia alone, and sometimes in conjunction with Russia’s German or Austrian associates. But in two hundred and sixty years, it has only been interrupted for brief periods, notably for the twenty-four years between 1915 and 1939.


Stunned by the humiliation at Narva, where a 40,000-strong Russian force was wrongfooted in a blizzard by only 11,000 Swedes, Peter the Great’s army had reversed the odds within a year and won a crucial victory at Poltava in Ukraine in June 1709. Peter’s reformed troops made the most of their almost twofold numerical advantage partly because they were now under the tsar’s personal command, but principally because the Swedes had been exhausted by their punishing drive through Ukraine. Swedish losses totalled approximately 10,000 dead and wounded from their initial force of 24,000, almost all the rest falling captive to the Russians, who lost only a tenth of their 45,000 men. Superior Russian fire power, including 102 mobile light cannon, permitted a switch from defensive tactics to the aggression that culminated in ruthless attacks on the fleeing Swedes. Captain Lars Tiesensten, who himself lost a leg, described the panic among the Upplander infantry, who clambered `in a heap and as if fallen upon each other or thrown up on the pile, wherein the enemy with pike, sword and bayonet eagerly slaughtered and massacred as much as he was able, despite not recognising what was living and what dead’. Poltava did not end the war, and it could not save an overconfident Peter from a setback in July 1711, when a bigger, more mobile Turkish force overcame his army on the River Pruth. Nevertheless, because it marked the defeat of the hitherto invincible Charles XII, Poltava proved to be not only the pivotal battle of the Great Northern War but a decisive moment in the rise of Russia’s international reputation.


One of the most destructive conflicts in Lithuania’s history, involving Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, and, at times, Denmark, Saxony, and Prussia. The war began when Augustus II of Poland-Lithuania-in alliance with Denmark and Russia, which sought to end Swedish hegemony in northern Europe-invaded Livonia in order to drive out the Swedes. However, Augustus failed in his campaign, while his Russian allies suffered a disastrous defeat at Narva. A military alliance between Tsar Peter I and Augustus was negotiated at Birzai in Lithuania, but the Swedes defeated both the Commonwealth and Russian forces. The armies of Sweden’s King Charles XII invaded Lithuania and occupied Vilnius in 1702. Lithuania suffered immensely as Swedish forces and the Commonwealth’s Russian allies swept through the country, ravaging the countryside. After the decisive defeat of Charles XII by Peter the Great at Poltava in 1709, the Russian army in effect occupied most of the Grand Duchy for several years. The Treaty of Nystadt in 1721, by which the Swedes ceded Estonia and northern Latvia to Russia, ended the war. The Great Northern War had disastrous demographic and political consequences both for the Lithuanian people and the Commonwealth as a whole. The plague of 1708-1711, which accompanied the war, killed as much as a third of the entire Lithuanian population, although in the west-Samogitia and East Prussia-the death rate was even higher. In political terms, the decline of Swedish influence in the Baltic and the assertion of Russia’s power increasingly transformed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into a Russian protectorate.

Charles XII, King of Sweden (1682-1718)

Swedish king. Known as the “Alexander of the North” or the “Madman of the North,” Charles was born in Stockholm on June 17, 1682, the eldest and only surviving son of King Charles XI and Ulrika Elenora. Charles became king, as Charles XII, three months shy of his 15th birthday on the death of his father in April 1697. Russia, Poland, and Denmark then formed the Northern Union, designed to take advantage of Charles’s youth and inexperience to wrest the southern Baltic from Swedish control.

Charles XII did not wait to be attacked. In 1700 he invaded Denmark, the weakest of the powers arrayed against him, thus beginning the struggle for Baltic supremacy known as the Great Northern War (1700-1721). The Danes quickly agreed to peace in August, and Charles then turned to Russia. Landing in Livonia with only 8,000 men, he intended to relieve the besieged city of Riga but instead marched on Narva, which was also besieged by a powerful Russian force. There Charles defeated Czar Peter I and a Russian army of 40,000 men (November 30, 1700).

Charles seemed well on his way to his goal of establishing a great northern empire, but fortunately for Peter, the Swedish king spent the next years campaigning in Poland. This delay allowed Peter time to bring in Western military experts and improve the training, discipline, and weaponry of his army.

In 1706 Charles succeeded in placing his own candidate on the throne of Poland and forced that country to break its alliance with Russia. Rejecting peace overtures from Peter, Charles then gathered forces to invade Russia. On January 1, 1708, Charles invaded Russia with a well-equipped 45,000- man force, intending to drive on Moscow. He captured Grodno and then halted near Minsk to await the spring thaw. The Swedish army crossed the Berezina River at Borlsov at the end of June, then defeated a larger Russian army at Holowczyn (Golovchin, July 14). Charles’s army reached the Dnieper River on July 18.

Charles now found himself severely hampered by Peter’s scorched-earth tactics and Russian harassment of the increasingly long Swedish supply lines. Therefore, Charles decided to turn south and ally himself with the Cossacks of Ukraine under Hetman Ivan Mazepa and the Ottoman Empire, driving on Moscow from that direction. This plan collapsed when Mazepa was ousted from power in October and a Swedish relief column of 11,000 men under General Adam Loewenhaupt was defeated at Lesnaya (Lesna, October 9-10, 1708).

With great difficulty, Charles managed to hold his army together during the winter (November 1708-April 1709), but his force was reduced to only about 20,000 men and 34 guns with little gunpowder. With the spring thaw, Charles advanced on Voronezh but stopped to besiege Poltava, in Ukraine. The siege took longer than anticipated, and Peter came up with a large force of 80,000 men and more than 100 guns. Instead of attempting to withdraw west into Poland, Charles attacked the Russian camp just north of Poltava and was soundly defeated (June 28, 1709). Most of Charles’s men were killed or captured although he himself escaped with 1 500 cavalry. Most of Charles’s men were killed or captured, although he himself escaped with 1,500 cavalry to Bendery in Ottoman Moldavia. In November 1710 he induced the Ottoman Empire to enter the war against Russia. Until 1714 he governed Sweden from Bendery. Returning to Sweden, Charles made a last effort against his many enemies. He raised a new army and planned a preemptive campaign to bring about an advantageous negotiated peace. Unfortunately for Charles’s plans, he was killed by a musket ball (the source of the shot remains a matter of some speculation) during the Siege of Fredrikshald (present-day Halden, near Oslo) on November 30, 1718.

Charles XII was a bold and resourceful military leader, a capable administrator, and an effective strategist and logistician. His principal error was in strategic overreach, when he rejected Peter’s peace overtures in 1706 and decided to invade Russia. Under Charles, Sweden lost an average of 8,000 men a year for 18 years, an amount equal to 30 percent of its adult male population. With Charles’s death, Swedish power receded back to Sweden and Finland.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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