June 18, 1682: Charles Rex Palatinate-Zweibrücken Wittelsbach:
I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies…
The above quote is 17th century talk for: “I don’t start shit. I end it.”
Charles XII was the King of Sweden from 1697 to 1718 and by all accounts he was rather hardcore. He never registered physical or emotional pain, lived to drive his enemies before him, and in the span of 21 years he took the European country with the smallest population and briefly made it into one of the world’s most formidable powers, bringing Sweden to its pinnacle of prestige and power through his brilliant military campaigning and victories, only to eventually watch everything crumble before him.
As a youth he spent his winters camped out in Swedish fir forests hunting wolves and bears and he wasn’t going to back down from a fight. He was a dashing, handsome 15-year-old when he became king of Sweden.
When Charles assumed the throne, Europeans were all pretty much dicks, a bunch of neighboring countries: Denmark, Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth all decided that they could beat the crap out of this new kid and take his territories. Back then, the Swedish Empire encompassed not only present-day Sweden but also the Baltic lands of Livonia and Estonia.
The Great Northern War, as it was called, dominated his life, and he was called Alexander of the North by his admirers, who were many. He devastated the armies of Denmark, Russia and Poland. In the Battle of Holowczyn, despite being outnumbered four to one against the Russians, Charles still managed a major victory. Besides his military brilliance, he was known for two things: his abstinence from alcohol and a similar abstinence from women.
Charles raised an army and used his superior tactical skills to whomp some major European asses. First, he sent his men into Denmark where they put a stop to any plans the Danes had to occupy Sweden. Charles put his own man on the throne and ended that war rather quickly.
This totally pissed off the totally heterosexual Tsar Peter T. Great, who sent Russian troops to occupy Livonia and Estonia and build a new city on Swedish turf. Charles was like, “oh, hell no” and sent his troops to attack the Russian army at the Battle of Narva in 1700. Charles and his army of about 10,000 attacked a Russian garrison of about 40,000 soldiers under the cover of a blizzard and despite being heavily outnumbered Charles won a sweeping victory, completely obliterating the Russian army while only losing about 600 of his own men.
After this, Charles turned his attention to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who were formally declared as neutral but who were also definitely fucking with him. The Swedes beat the Polish armies and Charles put one of his cousins on the throne there. An army directly under the control of Charles XII never lost a major engagement.
About this time Charles started to think of himself as all that. Tsar Peter was remodeling his Russian army and provoking Swedish forces once again, and Charles decided it was time to end this shit. He made the same mistake that so many conquerors would make after him and decided to invade Russia.
Charles, just like everyone else, got pretty much fucked by Russia. The weather was bad and the Russians were using “scorched earth” tactics to draw out the Swedish lines. Eventually, the Russians destroyed Charles’ supply train and the Cossacks that Charles’ forces were counting on joining up with were completely annihilated by Peter’s troops. Charles himself was wounded, and while he was in the hospital and unable to fight the Russians attacked his army at Poltava which dealt the Swedes a crippling blow. The Swedish army was crushed, and Charles was forced to flee to the refuge of the Ottoman Empire.
With the Ottomans, Charles kept trying to get Sultan Ahmed III to piss off the Russians. Eventually the Sultan got sick of this and sent his men to kill Charles, but our Charles managed to escape and ride the entire width of Europe on horseback in fifteen days. When he arrived back in Sweden he attempted to rebuild his army.
Charles was brave to the point of folly. He led his men into battle believing that his example would spur on his men to follow his example. He was killed while inspecting the trenches at Fredriksheld by a bullet to the head, very possibly by an assassin in his own ranks. He was 36-years-old. Without him, Sweden’s involvement with the Great Northern War ultimately ended in defeat three years after his death.
While his admirers explained away his lack of interest in women by saying he was “married to the military”, Charles had a potent sexual interest in military men. Two of his lovers were military leaders from his army: General Carl Gustaf Behnsköld and Count Magnus Gustafsson Stenbock. He also had a passionate affair with Prince Maximillian of Württemberg, a younger admirer who had volunteered to serve in his army at 14-years-old. Charles called him “My Little Prince” after Maximilian was wounded at 19-years-old trying to protect Charles from bullets. He liked men of all ages; Charles enjoyed a steamy relationship with the much older Swedish field marshal Count Axel Wachtmeister, who had been a close friend of his father.
Voltaire, the great French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit, so admired Charles that he wrote a biography in 1731, 13 years after Charles was killed on the battlefield in 1718, and Samuel Johnson, the English poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, praised Charles in his poem The Vanity Of Human Wishes (1749).
Charles was succeeded to the Swedish throne by his sister, Ulrika Eleonora. Charles’ death marked the end of autocratic monarchy in Sweden, and the subsequent Age of Liberty saw a shift of power from the throne to a parliament.
During the 19th century’s romantic nationalism Charles XII was viewed as a national hero. He was idealized as a heroic young warrior king, and his fight against Peter the Great was associated with the contemporary Swedish-Russian loss of love for each other.
In the 1930s, Swedish Nazis held celebrations on the date of Charles XII’s death, and shortly before the start of World War II, Sweden gave Adolf Hitler a sculpture of Charles at his birthday. In our own century, Swedish neo-Nazis observe the date of his death as a day for their ceremonies, which are regularly interrupted by larger counterdemonstrations.
The mummified remains of Charles lie in the grounds of a Stockholm church, but have been exhumed at least three times, the last being in 1917 for forensic analysis.
Charles XII lived fast, died young and when he went down, he took the entire country of Sweden with him, kind of how an uninvited twink can ruin a brunch.
Bonus round: Here is the future King of Sweden, Prince Carl Philip, unfortunately not gay: