Charles XII’s Gamble at Narva Paid Off
Just after dawn on the morning of November 20, 1700, two figures stood atop Hermansburg, a small rise that overlooked the fortress town of Narva in the Baltic province of Estonia. One of the men was plainly a high-ranking officer, an older man whose elaborate uniform and curly wig proclaimed his importance. Yet, curiously, he was deferential to his tall companion, a pink-faced teenager who swept the horizon with his telescope.
The youth was King Charles XII of Sweden, about to engage in the first major battle of his career. Charles was about five feet, nine inches tall, but his slender build made him seem even taller. He had an oval face, hawk nose, and thick lips, redeemed by piercing blue eyes that commanded respect. The young king was dressed in a simple blue uniform with brass buttons that marched down the front of his tunic; no sign of royalty, no gold braid or order of chivalry, was evident.
But perhaps the most unusual feature was his closely cropped blond hair, strands of which could be seen poking out from under a simple black tricorne. This was still the age of Louis XIV, where elaborately curled, full-bottomed wigs were not only standard but also almost mandatory. Charles left his wig in Stockholm, vowing never to wear it again.
Indeed, Charles had more on his mind than court fashion. Sweden was being assailed by a coalition of powerful enemies determined to dismantle an empire built over the previous 75 years by piety and blood. The Swedish king already had won his first laurels by knocking Denmark out of the war, but in facing the Russians he confronted his most daunting challenge.
The king lowered his telescope and spoke to the older man beside him, Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskjold. Charles always spoke with laconic brevity—clear, concise, and to the point. Narva was a major Swedish fortress, and it was being besieged by a Russian army of 35,000 to 40,000 men. Charles had no more than about 9,000 hungry and exhausted effectives.
There, spread out below the two men’s feet, was a classic siege operation at the dawn of the 18th century. It was like an engineer’s plan brought to three-dimensional life. The Russian trenches encircled Narva in a sweeping arc that was some four miles in length. But the besieger had also constructed a second line of fortifications, this time facing out, not in, designed to keep any possible relief force at bay.
A cold rain was falling, and darkening clouds and plunging temperatures brought the chilling promise of a snowstorm. How could such a relative handful of Swedes triumph against a well-entrenched enemy four times its size? Looking down at the Russian host, many Swedish officers must have felt a chill that was entirely unrelated to the weather. But to Charles, the dire situation was a tonic that brought excitement, not despair.
The weather was worsening, but Charles took little notice. “We will attack,” the king said to Rehnskjold, leaving the older man to work out a suitable plan to carry out his royal wishes. Nothing less than Sweden’s status as a major European power hung in the balance. If Charles was defeated or destroyed, Sweden faced ruin and even possible foreign invasion. The Battle of Narva was about to begin.
“Mistress of the North”
The coming contest had its roots in the growth of Swedish power in the 17th century. By 1700, Sweden was the “Mistress of the North,” an imperial power whose greatness was both feared and admired. The Baltic was a “Swedish Lake,” since most of the islands and territories that bordered that great sea were controlled by Stockholm.
The Swedish empire included Finland and the provinces of Karelia, Estonia, Ingria, and Livonia. It also had footholds in northern Germany, with the most prominent being western Pomerania and the seaports of Settin, Stralsund, and Wismar. Sweden had a population of about 1.5 million, but it did possess probably the finest army in Europe at the time.
The Swedish infantry, magnificent in their blue uniforms with yellow facings, were armed with the latest flintlock muskets. They also had a relatively new innovation, the socket bayonet, which allowed a musket to be fired when attached, unlike the common plug bayonet that was jammed into the muzzle.
Swedish soldiers were tough and hearty peasants, accustomed to the icy blasts of Scandinavian winters. They shared the king’s pious fatalism. Charles once said in effect that a man should not worry about being killed in battle; you would not die unless God decreed it was your time to die. This rough assurance gave the Swedish soldier unbounded strength and confidence.
Swedish power brought enemies as well as friends. Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, cast covetous eyes on some of Sweden’s Baltic lands. Frederick IV of Denmark, another potential foe, wanted to reclaim some territory his country lost to Sweden earlier in the century.
A “Window to the West”
But Russia was going to be Sweden’s most dangerous enemy, though few believed this in 1700. After a long slumber lasting several centuries, the Russian bear was at last awakening from its self-imposed hibernation. Czar Peter admired the West and was determined to modernize a still largely medieval country. The Western calendar, Western dress, and above all Western technology were introduced to a backward nation, still drowsy from its long semi-isolation.
Peter, a colossus in body (he was six feet, seven inches tall), knew that Russia needed an ice-free port, a “window to the West,” if the country was ever to be accepted as an equal among the great powers of Europe. Such a seaport would be an umbilical cord to a modernizing nation, bringing in nourishing fresh ideas, trade, and technology to a country that was still a developing infant in Western terms.
The Russians were blocked from going south—that is gaining access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean—by the weakening but still powerful Ottoman Empire. That left the north, but the Baltic coast was controlled by Sweden. The Swedish army was probably the best in Europe at the time, but if the Swedes were simultaneously attacked on several fronts, their military power might well be diluted and ultimately neutralized.
The secret allies began clandestine preparations for war. They were encouraged by the fact that Sweden’s new ruler, the 18-year-old King Charles XII, seemed a stripling youth. They misread their man. He was pious and moral, athletic and highly intelligent. Above all, he was a born soldier, reveling in military hardships and dangers.
Hostilities began when Augustus the Strong invaded Swedish Livonia without a declaration of war. The Danes also were on the march, invading Duke of Holstein-Gottorp Frederick IV’s territory just south of their own country. The duke was a Swedish ally and also a cousin of Charles XII.
The Treaty of Travendal: Taking the Danes Out of the War
Charles took the news calmly, but inwardly he must have been seething with righteous indignation. He called for his council and announced his intentions: “I have resolved,” Charles said, “never to start an unjust war, but also never ending a just war without overcoming my enemy. Augustus has broken his word. Our cause, then, is just and God will help us.”
Denmark would be the first target of Charles’s offensive. The basic plan was to land troops on Zeeland, a Baltic island where Copenhagen is located. The main Danish army was tied up in Holstein-Gottorp, far to the south. If Charles could successfully land in Zeeland, he could take the Danish capital behind Frederick IV’s back. The Danish king would be forced to sue for peace.
On June 16, 1700, the young Swedish king boarded his flagship King Charles at Karlskrona, the main Swedish naval base. Charles was scheduled to rendezvous with an Anglo-Dutch fleet, which was key to any success against the Danes. King William III of England, who was also ruler of the Netherlands, wanted a quick victory to stabilize the region. Only then could he focus on his main foe, Louis XIV of France.
But before the rendezvous could be completed and the two allied fleets joined, the Swedes had to pass through the Kattegat Sound, a treacherous channel some three miles long. Determined to prevent the allies from uniting, the Danish fleet lay close to the sound’s main Baltic entrance. There were also dangerous shoals in the area, and well-placed Danish cannon added to the list of hazards.
There was one possibility, but Swedish Admiral Wachtmeister hesitated to order it. There was a secondary channel that was relatively unguarded, but its treacherous shoals made it a dangerous proposition. One or more of the Swedish warships might run aground, and that would also block further passage like a cork in a bottle.
Charles overruled his admiral’s objections and ordered the Swedish fleet to enter the secondary channel. Three of the largest vessels had to be left behind—they drew too much water—but after some nail-biting moments the rest of the fleet got through.