A Brief History
On November 30, 1718, while manning a front line trench in a battle in Norway, the King of Sweden, Charles XII, was killed by either a musket ball or a grape shot ball right through his head. Despite the horrific wound, he immediately grasped his head at the entrance wound with his left hand, leaving his glove soaked in blood. Not only are we not sure if the fatal shot came from a musket or a cannon, but we are also left with various conspiracy theories that the King may have been accidentally or purposely shot by his own men.
The first amazing fact in this case is that a King was in the front lines during a battle in a foreign country! The idea of a national leader actually leading in battle today is so foreign as to be ridiculous. As we have mused in the past, we wonder if national leaders had to face combat if war would be a last option only proposition…
Charles XII took power at the age of 15 in 1697, 7 months after his father, King Charles XI had died. In the interim, a caretaker government ran things until Charles XII took the throne. The war in which Charles was ultimately killed was the Great Northern War, a war Sweden fought against a coalition of her neighbors that sought to take advantage Sweden’s lack of allies. Those belligerent countries included Denmark-Norway, Russia, and Saxony–Poland–Lithuania, while Britain and others eventually became involved. The war was fought from 1700 to 1721, and settled when the opponents of Sweden began to quarrel about exactly which country would control which areas. When Sweden made peace with some enemies in 1720, the Swedes were able to concentrate more military force against the Russians, leading to peace with the Russians as well with the adoption of the Treaty of Nystad. Sweden had lost territory outside of what are now its present boundaries, territory they had added during the 17th Century, and furthermore had ceased to be a major European power.
The war was a daunting task for Sweden, especially in the face of so many enemies. By 1709, defeats had forced Charles XII into exile, which he took in the Ottoman Empire. The Swedish Empire ceased to exist at that time, and the Russian Empire was born. During the 5 years Charles XII and his considerable retinue of Swedish expatriates spent in the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans initially were quite accommodating, paying for the food and lodging of Charles and his crew. Alas, their welcome was worn out as the Swedes amassed large debts with local merchants, which generated local opposition to their continued presence, manifested by actual attacks on the Swedes. Charles XII took the hint, and left the Ottoman Empire to return to Northern Europe in 1714, coming home to find his country still at war with several other nations. In 1716 he led a Swedish invasion of Norway, was repulsed, and invaded Norway again in 1718, where the fighting eventually took the life of the troubled King.
Whatever the flaws and faults of King Charles XII may have been, the fact that died alongside his men in combat with a sword in his right hand speaks to his courage and dedication. Rumors and conspiracy theories started almost right away, and in the ensuing years the body of Charles XII has been exhumed 3 times for scientific analysis of his wounds (hole through his skull), which seems to indicate the fatal shot did come from the Norwegian fort being besieged. Stoking the fires of speculation, the King’s own surgeon related that he had had a dream in which the King said he had been shot by “one who had been creeping,” implying an assassination. The eventual successor to the throne of Sweden (after Charles sister, Ulrika Eleonora had first taken the throne), King Frederick I, has long been a suspect in the death of Charles XII, for obvious reasons. Rich Swedes were rumored to have had Charles XII killed to avoid a proposed 17% wealth tax that the King was planning on levying.
Question for students (and subscribers): Was Charles XII killed honorably in combat, or was he murdered? Killed by a Norwegian shot, probably a stray, random shot, seems most likely, but who knows? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Glaeser,Michael. By Defeating My Enemies: Charles XII of Sweden and the Great Northern War. Helion and Company, 2020.
Wolke, Lars Ericson. The Swedish Army of the Great Northern War, 1700-1721. Helion and Company, 2018.
The featured image in this article, Bringing Home the Body of King Karl XII of Sweden by Gustaf Cederström (1845–1933), was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Nationalmuseum (Stockholm) as part of a cooperation project with Wikimedia Sverige. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: The author died in 1933, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 80 years or fewer. Nationalmuseum has placed those images in the Public Domain which have been acquired exclusively by digital reproduction of those works of art that are no longer protected by copyright. Nationalmuseum does not consider that a new copyright emerges for the reproduction.