Overview and Beginnings

The Great Northern War (a slightly inaccurate name, since fighting took place as far south as modern Romania) lasted from 1699 to 1721 and involved Sweden and its allies against several countries wishing to gain territory from the Swedish empire. (Hence it's sometimes called the Great Nordic or Scandinavian War.) These combatants included Saxony, Denmark, Russia, Prussia, Poland, and Norway. Despite the involvement of so much of Europe, it is difficult to find information on this war in English, perhaps because Western Europe was busy with the War of the Spanish Succession at approximately the same time.

At the beginning of the war, the empire controlled by Sweden included modern Finland, much of Estonia, Latvia, and parts of modern Lithuania, Russia, Poland, and Germany. Sweden dominated the Baltic Sea and had enough territory on the mainland coast to be easily able to invade other European countries, as well as denying them sea access. The country was a great power which many other rulers would have liked to knock down a bit. Particularly, a man called Johann Reinhold von Patkul from the territory of Livonia (approximately modern Latvia) who wanted to free his homeland from Sweden and was willing to do just about anything to start up an anti-Swedish alliance. When the fifteen-year-old Charles or Karl XII came to the Swedish throne in 1698, Patkul thought it might be a good time to start a fight.

First, he negotiated with King Frederik IV of Denmark, who wanted to regain formerly-Danish territory in southern Sweden. Then, Patkul talked with Augustus II, who was both hereditary elector of Saxony and elected king of Poland (at the time, technically "the Polish-Lithuanian Republic"), who was told that the nobles of Livonia would acknowledge him as their king. Since Augustus wanted to make his kingship of Poland a hereditary office instead of an elected one, this sounded like a good start. Then, Patkul suggested that Tsar Peter of Russia be brought into the plan. Russia also wanted to regain territory that had become Swedish in the past century, and the European forces thought the vast population of Russia would provide useful troops. Peter desperately wanted to gain a seaport for Russia that was not ice-bound for as long as the Arctic Ocean coast port of Archangel, and was not having much luck in his fight with the Ottoman Empire for access to the Black Sea, so he agreed to join in the alliance as soon as he could make peace with the Ottoman Empire.

The Beginning of Actual Fighting

The war started with two relatively small conflicts. First, Denmark invaded the duchy of Holstein-Gottorp, located at the base of the Danish peninsula, in 1699. This duchy was officially independent, but there had been some dispute over who had hereditary rights to the duchy. It had been Danish in the past, but its current duke was a friend and related by marriage to Sweden's king. To other countries it was important enough that it not fall under Danish control that not only Sweden, but Lüneburg-Celle, Lüneburg-Hannover and the Netherlands sent troops to relieve the Danish siege of the Holstein forces. At about the same time as this Danish push, Augustus sent Saxon troops to invade Livonia. (Augustus did not actually declare war before this invasion, which probably bothered Karl of Sweden as much as the invasion itself did.) The Swedish pushed the Saxons back quickly; getting the Danes out of Holstein would take longer.

To distract the Danish from their land battle, Karl arranged with England and the Netherlands to have portions of their naval fleets come to defend the Swedish fleet in transporting a Swedish army to Denmark's capital, Copenhagen. Within two weeks Copenhagen was under siege, and with the main Danish army much farther south in Holstein, Frederick of Denmark was forced to negotiate. In August 1700, he signed the Peace of Travelthal, abandoning the parts of Holstein-Gottorp he had taken and dropping out of the war against Sweden.

However, by this time, Russia had signed a treaty with the Ottoman Empire and was ready to replace Denmark. Karl of Sweden would have preferred to first drive the Saxons out of Riga in Livonia, but Augustus had withdrawn his army to winter quarters after he found out that Denmark was out of the war. So Karl went to deal with the Russians attacking the town of Narva farther north. His advisors were not happy about this; the Russians outnumbered the Swedes at least four to one. But Karl was a stubborn man and marched his army from their landing site 150 miles away from Narva, over muddy roads, surrounded by the charred remains of houses and fields the Russians had burned so that their enemies could not find food and shelter.

On the 20th of November, the Swedish forces arrived and found Russian forces surrounding Narva, but the walled town itself was still in Swedish hands. Karl took the opportunity of a blizzard blowing snow straight into the Russians' faces to attack while his enemy was blinded. The Swedes were able to break through weak places in the spread-out Russian lines, and the inexperienced Russians had no success in holding them back. The Russian loss at this battle made Europeans view Russian forces as weak for the next ten years.

Karl would have loved to pursue the retreating Russians into their own country, but his forces had no food supplies and were being ravaged by disease. The Swedish retreated into winter quarters, and by the spring Karl had decided that he did not want to have Augustus at his troops' back. Augustus was officially in the war only as Elector of Saxony; although he was King of Poland, the legislature of Poland (the Diet) did not consider their country involved. (On the other hand, Livonia had been Polish before Sweden conquered it, so the Diet may not have objected to the war if it seemed Livonia could be recovered.) However, Karl felt that he would be safer if he could get the Diet to remove Augustus from the throne to keep him from drawing on Polish resources for his Saxon fighting. This made sense, as Augustus had brought his retreating troops into Poland.

Years of Russian Gain

The next five years for Karl and Augustus would be largely fought in and over Poland, while Peter of Russia continued to take bits of Swedish territory and to build up his armies, navies, and supply stores. (In 1703, the Russians won the land on which the city of St. Petersburg would be built.) Karl had originally promised to take only what supplies he absolutely had to have from the Polish people, but after Polish troops fought alongside Saxon ones, he was determined to take revenge on both countries.

In 1706, Karl defeated Augustus, forcing him to sign a humiliating treaty, and placed his own puppet, a Pole named Stanislaus Leszczynski, as king of Poland. (Augustus was also forced to deliver Johann Reinhold con Patkul, who had given him the idea of the war in the first place, to Karl, who had Patkul executed.) It took some time to prepare to move Swedish forces east again, but by 1708 Karl's troops were leaving Poland and entering Russia again. Peter let them come far enough into the country that he could easily bring reinforcements up to a battle site before engaging them in combat. This distance from his own supplies made it quite difficult for Karl to get food or more soldiers; he ordered his general Lowenhaupt to march south from the city of Riga with a supply train. However, Russian forces attacked the supplies and won; the general and his troops escaped and made it to the main Swedish force, but more soldiers did little good if they could not be fed.

The Swedes were forced to move south into the Ukraine, where Karl hoped the Cossacks would join with his forces against their Russian overlords. However, only a minority of Cossacks allied with the Swedes, and Karl settled in for another winter in the field. The next spring, he tried to move northeast again toward the more settled areas of Russia, but the two armies met at the small fortified town of Poltava. Karl had suffered a bullet through the foot shortly before this battle and was not able to command from horseback; this was both a morale problem for the soldiers who believed their king was invulnerable and a difficulty for the next-in-command Rehnskjold, not accustomed to being in charge when the King was present. For many reasons, including personality clashes and lack of communication between Swedish officers and newly erected Russian fortifications, the battle was a complete rout; by the end of the afternoon the few Swedish forces not captured were fleeing south toward the territory of Peter's old enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The victory at Poltava made Russia a European power overnight.

Augustus took advantage of Karl's defeat to march Saxon troops back into Poland and reinstall himself as king; he was generally welcomed now that Karl was not there to back his man Stanislaus (who fled the country). Augustus and Peter signed a new alliance, and after that Peter and Frederick I of Prussia made another alliance. Denmark invaded Swedish territory again. Karl was given shelter by Turkey, but he refused to consider backing down from the war. Russian troops were sent to help Demark and the German-speaking regions make certain of their control over the formerly-Swedish territories, as well as continuing to take over new areas bordering Russia. Peter's forces captured Finland in 1713; the naval Battle of Hangö the next year in the Gulf of Finland cemented that conquest for Russia. However, Russia had really achieved its aims in the war by 1711 and Peter would have made peace then if Karl had been willing to negotiate.

In Come the Ottomans

The Ottoman Empire had signed a thirty-year truce with Russia in 1700, but Karl did his best to persuade his Turkish hosts to come in on his side, and finally they did so after Peter's demands for them to expel Karl from their territory came across as an insult. The Danish invasion of southern Sweden meant that no Swedish troops could be sent south to replace those captured after Poltava, and officially the Ottomans fighting alone rather than being allied with Sweden. Karl could have joined the Ottoman troops heading north on the Balkan Peninsula in 1711, but only as a guest of the Grand Vizier, and he felt it was beneath his royal status to hang around with an army he wasn't commanding. Peter decided to try and keep the Ukraine from suffering more devastation; he sent his troops into Ottoman territory, present-day Moldova and Romania, where Christian Slavs had spent years petitioning him for help against their Muslim overlords.

In July 1711, the Ottoman forces caught sight of a divison of Russian troops from opposite sides of the Pruth River. The Ottoman forces crossed the river, but this gave the Russians enough time to get all their separate groups of soldiers together. The Russians were exhausted and severely outnumbered, but they inflicted enough damage that the Grand Vizier, not an experienced commander, was willing to listen to a Russian envoy, though Karl's representative was aghast. The terms the Grand Vizier asked were much lighter than Peter had expected -- Russian troops were to leave Poland, Karl was to be given a safe conduct to Sweden, and the territory Russia had won in its previous war with the Empire was to be returned. Peter had feared that St. Petersburg and other Baltic conquests would have to be given back to Sweden, so he was very willing to agree to the Grand Vizier's terms. However, the local rulers who had helped the Russians lost completely; Cantemir of Moldavia left with the Russians and his lands were ravaged by Tatars at Ottoman orders, and Brancovo of Wallachia was executed.

At the same time, an epidemic of plague was moving throughout northern Europe and particularly Baltic seaports. Copenhagen, Denmark's capital and main seaport, lost 20,000 people -- one third of the city's population -- and was closed to shipping for the latter half of 1711 and the first few months of 1712. The Swedes at Karlskrona were also badly affected, and other garrison forces in Baltic ports. The disease certainly slowed down the movement of soldiers and supplies, and hence the war seemed to stand still in the Baltic area for a while.

As a guest, Karl was starting to annoy his Turkish hosts. He managed to provoke the Ottoman Sultan into declaring war on Russia twice again, once when the former Ottoman territories were not returned quickly enough and once because the Russian soldiers were not leaving Poland, but neither time did any actual fighting occur. Several plots existed to get him out of the country even if it meant handing him over to his enemies; Karl became aware of at least one of them and stubbornly refused to be budged. His little Swedish settlement was surrounded by Ottoman Janissaries in January 1714 in an attempt to intimidate him, and due to some miscommunication or confusion, a small number of Turks stormed Karl's house and the Swedes defended themselves with swords and guns. Since they were not supposed to actually kill Karl, the Ottoman forces shot burning arrows at the house to set it on fire and drive the Swedes out; the King and the less than 100 men with him dashed out and tried to take refuge in another building. However, Karl tripped and fell and Turks grabbed his coat and wrenched the sword out of his hand. Karl finally surrendered to his supposed allies at this point, and was conducted to the local government, who apologized for the whole skirmish happening at all.

Back Up North

At the end of that year, when Russian and the Ottoman Empire signed a 25-year peace treaty, Karl finally left the Ottoman Empire, going in disguise with a few friends ahead of the official convoy of Swedes, and returned to commanding his troops in Europe personally. When he reached Swedish Pomerania, it was the first time he had walked on Swedish soil in 15 years. He stayed in that outpost of Swedish soil south of the Baltic until December 1715 when a Prussian/Danish/Saxon army besieged and took the city of Stralsund, with Danish ships cutting off reinforcements coming in by sea.

During a 1716 trip through Europe, Peter met with his allies and tried to figure out a way to end the war. However, Russia's increasing power worried many European powers, and many of the other anti-Sweden fighters were reluctant to give Russia any voice in how the war should be conducted. However, Peter and Frederick of Denmark did make plans for a joint invasion of the Swedish mainland with some help from George I of Hanover and England, feeling that this was the only thing that might make Karl, who had just invaded Danish provinces in southern Norway, willing to stop fighting. However, numerous delays forced the cancellation of the invasion for that year, because it was too late in the fall.

In 1717 and 1718, Swedish and Russian diplomats met to try and work out a peace, getting Russia out of the fighting and letting Sweden concentrate on the enemies it had longer-running issues with. However, Peter's son Alexei had talked to Swedish representatives a few months earlier during his flight to Austria from Russia and his father's control, soliciting their support for his claim to the throne, and this had given Sweden the impression that a rebellion against Peter was imminent (despite the fact that Alexei died in his father's prison in June 1718). It is true that the war was not popular in Russia, but Peter's control of the country was tight and Alexei never had a chance at a coup d'etat. Also, there was the problem of all the territory Russia had taken from Sweden and did not want to give up.

The negotiations for a possible peace were still going on when Karl died from a sniper's bullet at the Danish castle (located in Norway) of Fredrikshal in November 1718. Karl's successors, his sister Ulrika and her husband Frederick of Hesse, were not as willing to think about peace as Karl had been; they felt English help would allow them to defeat Russia, and so no agreement was made then. George of England and Hanover made treaties (for both his countries) with Sweden in 1719, promising to help against Russia. Through the attraction of gifts of English money and of Swedish territory, Prussia, Denmark, Saxony, and Poland signed peace treaties with Sweden, leaving Russia without allies.

However, throughout 1719 Russia was making successful raids on Swedish coasts, despite the British ships in the Baltic Sea which were supposed to protect Sweden. Economic conditions in 1720 forced England to rethink sending ships and its whole anti-Russian policy. Ulrika had abdicated and left her husband to be King of Sweden, and Frederick realized that the war was going nowhere. Swedish and Russian diplomats met in Nystad on the Finnish coast and spent much of 1721 working out terms (with Peter sending out an occasional raid on the Swedish coastline when things weren't going well for his side). The Treaty of Nystad was finally signed in September 1721, bringing peace to Russia after 21 years. (During the celebrations in Russia, which went on for two months, Chancellor Golovkin made a speech in which he and the Senate encouraged Peter to take the title of "Emperor of all Russia" -- a title which would remain with the monarchs of Russia until the abdication of Nicholas II in 1917.)

Gains and Losses

Though Sweden was the obvious loser of the war, since most of its empire was lost, and it is also clear that Russia and various German-speaking states gained territory and power, the effect of the war on Poland is easy to overlook. The Great Northern War was a huge step away from the power of the medieval Poland, which had been a threat to Russia during Peter's father's reign. Poland was used by countries on both sides during this war for their own benefit, and this would continue until less than a century later the remaining territory of Poland would be partitioned and annexed by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. And of course, Livonia, on whose behalf Patkul had worked to start the war against Sweden in the first place, merely changed from Swedish overlordship to Russian overlordship -- one doubts that Patkul would have considered this much of an improvement.

Bushkovich, Paul. Peter The Great. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2001.
Butler, Robbie. Sweden. Austin, Texas: Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 2001.
Johnson, Lonnie R. Central Europe: Enemies, Neighbors, Friends. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Massie, Robert K. Peter The Great: His Life And World. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980.
E2's very helpful liveforever

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