Carl XII (June 17, 1682 – November 30, 1718), was King of Sweden (including current Finland) from 1697 to 1718. He belonged to the House of Palatinate-Zweibrücken, a branch line of the House of Wittelsbach. Carl was the only surviving son of Carl XI and Ulrika Eleonora the Elder of Denmark. Ulrika Eleonora was the daughter of King Frederik III of Denmark and Norway and his spouse Queen Sophie Amalie of Brunswick-Lüneburg. She was given a strict upbringing under the supervision of her mother. She was taught several different languages, and was reportedly a good student in drawing and painting
Carl XII assumed power, after a seven-month caretaker government, at the age of fifteen.
The fact that Carl was crowned as Carl XII does not mean that he was the 12th king of Sweden by that name. Swedish kings Erik XIV (1560–1568) and Carl IX (1604–1611) gave themselves numerals after studying a mythological history of Sweden. Carl was actually the 6th King Carl of Sweden. The non-mathematical numbering tradition continues with the current King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, who is actually the 11th King Carl of Sweden.
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.
Leading the Swedish army against the alliance Carl won multiple victories despite being usually significantly outnumbered. A major victory over a Russian army some three times the size in 1700 at the Battle of Narva compelled Peter the Great of Russia to sue for peace, an offer which Carl subsequently rejected.
By 1706 Carl, now 24 years old, had forced all of his foes into submission including, in that year, a decisively devastating victory by Swedish forces under general Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld over a combined army of Saxony and Russia at the Battle of Fraustadt. Russia was now the sole remaining hostile power.
Carl’s subsequent march on Moscow met with initial success as victory followed victory, the most significant of which was the Battle of Holowczyn where the smaller Swedish army routed a Russian army twice the size. The campaign ended with disaster when the Swedish army suffered heavy losses to a Russian force more than twice its size at Poltava. Carl had been incapacitated by a wound prior to the battle, rendering him unable to take command.
The defeat was followed by the Surrender at Perevolochna. Carl spent the following years in exile in the Ottoman Empire before returning to lead an assault on Norway, trying to evict the Danish king from the war once more in order to aim all his forces at the Russians. Two campaigns met with frustration and ultimate failure, concluding with his death at the Siege of Fredriksten in 1718. At the time, most of the Swedish Empire was under foreign military occupation, though Sweden itself was still free.
This situation was later formalized, albeit moderated in the subsequent Treaty of Nystad. The result was the end of the Swedish Empire, and also of its effectively organized absolute monarchy and war machine, commencing a parliamentary government unique for continental Europe, which would last for half a century until royal autocracy was restored by Gustaf III.
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”. With the war consuming more than half his life and nearly all his reign,
While in the trenches close to the perimeter of the fortress on 11 December (30 November Old Style), 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. He died instantly.
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 have strong enough evidence to be deemed true. 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 hit. A likely explanation has been that Carl was killed by Dano-Norwegians as he was within 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.
More 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 Frederik I of Sweden, that person being Frederik’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 Carl 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.
Another odd account of Carl’s death comes from Finnish writer Carl Nordling, who states that the king’s surgeon, Melchior Neumann, dreamed the king had told him that he was not shot from the fortress but from “one who came creeping.
Carl XII never married and fathered no children. 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 Frederik I of Sweden.