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Carl XII (June 17, 1682 – November 30, 1718) was the King of Sweden from 1697 to 1718. He belonged to the House of Palatinate-Zweibrücken, a branch line of the House of Wittelsbach. Carl XII was the only surviving son of Carl XI and Ulrika Eleonora the Elder, the daughter of King Frederik III of Denmark and Norway and his spouse Sophie Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg. Carl XII assumed power, after a seven-month caretaker government, at the age of fifteen.

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King Carl XII of Sweden, aged 15.

In 1700, a triple alliance of Denmark–Norway, Saxony–Poland–Lithuania and Russia launched a threefold attack on the Swedish protectorate of Holstein-Gottorp and provinces of Livonia and Ingria, aiming to draw advantage as the Swedish Empire was unaligned and ruled by a young and inexperienced king, thus initiating the Great Northern War.

Carl never married and fathered no children of whom historians are aware. In his youth he was particularly encouraged to find a suitable spouse in order to secure the succession, but he would frequently avoid the subject of sex and marriage. Possible candidates included Princess Sophia Hedwig of Denmark and Princess Maria Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp – but of the latter he pleaded that he could never wed someone “as ugly as Satan and with such a devilish big mouth”.

Carl was an exceptionally skilled military leader and tactician as well as an able politician, credited with introducing important tax and legal reforms. As for his famous reluctance towards peace efforts, he is quoted by Voltaire as saying upon the outbreak of the war; “I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies”.

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Carl XII of Sweden

Death.

While in the trenches close to the perimeter of the fortress on November 30, 1718, Carl was struck in the head by a projectile and killed. The shot struck the left side of his skull and exited from the right. The shock of the impact caused the king to grasp his sword with his right hand, and cover the wound with his left hand, leaving his gloves covered in blood.

The definitive circumstances around Carl’s death remain unclear. Despite multiple investigations of the battlefield, Carl’s skull and his clothes, it is not known where and when he was hit, or whether the shot came from the ranks of the enemy or from his own men. There are several hypotheses as to how Carl died, though none can be given with any certainty. Although there were many people around the king at the time of his death, there were no known witnesses to the actual moment he was struck.

A likely explanation has been that Carl was killed by the Dano-Norwegians as he was within easy reach of their guns. There are two possibilities that are usually cited: that he was killed by a musket shot, or that he was killed by grapeshot from the nearby fortress.

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From the autopsy of Charles XII in 1917

More sinister theories claim he was assassinated: One is that the killer was a Swedish compatriot and asserts that enemy guns were not firing at the time Carl was struck. Suspects in this claim range from a nearby soldier tired of the siege and wanting to put an end to the war, to an assassin hired by Carl’s own brother-in-law, who profited from the event by subsequently taking the throne himself as Frederick I of Sweden, that person being Frederick’s aide-de-camp, André Sicre. Sicre confessed during what was claimed to be a state of delirium brought on by fever but later recanted.

It has also been suspected that a plot to kill Carl may have been put in place by a group of wealthy Swedes who would benefit from the blocking of a 17% wealth tax that Charles intended to introduce. In the Varberg Fortress museum there is a display with a lead filled brass button – Swedish – that is claimed by some to be the projectile that killed the king.

He was succeeded by his sister Ulrika Eleonora, who in turn was coerced to hand over all substantial powers to the Riksdag of the Estates and opted to surrender the throne to her husband, who became King Frederick I of Sweden, the son of Karl I, Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel and Princess Maria Amalia of Courland.