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THE present work has no pretention to be anything like an exhaustive biography of Charles XII.--a perfectly adequate treatment of so large and complex a subject would demand many volumes. But it does claim to at least suggest the lines on which such a biography should be written, it professes to present the leading facts of the heroic monarch's career in the light of the latest investigations and it endeavours to dissipate the many erroneous notions concerning "The Lion of the North" for which Voltaire's brilliant and attractive work, I have almost said romance, Histoire de Charles XII. is mainly responsible…
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Copyright © 2015 by R. Nisbet Bain
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CHARLES XI. 1682-1697.
THE BOY-KING. 1697-1700.
BEGINNINGS OF THE GREAT NORTHERN WAR— NARVA. 1699-1701.
THE KING-MAKER IN POLAND. 1701-1703.
STANISLAUS LESZCZYNSKI. 1703-1704
CHARLES THE ARBITER OF EUROPE. 1704-1707.
THE RUSSIAN WAR FROM NARVA TO HOLOWCZYN. 1700-1708.
THE RUSSIAN WAR FROM HOLOWCZYN TO PULTAWA. 1708-1709.
THE TURKISH EXILE. 1709-1715.
SWEDEN AND EUROPE FROM THE BATTLE OF PULTAWA TO THE BATTLE OF GADEBUSCH. 1709-1711.
SWEDEN AND EUROPE, FROM THE BATTLE OF GADEBUSCH TO THE FALL OF STRALSUND. 1712-1715
“GRAND VIZIER” GÖRTZ 1715-1718
THE LAST VENTURE 1718-1719
THE HISTORY OF SWEDEN THE history of her kings—Sudden growth of the Swedish Empire—Gustavus Adolphus’s genius mischievous to Sweden—Sweden as a great Power—Axel Oxenstjerna— Frivolity of Christina—Exploits of Charles X.—Position of Sweden at his death—Long and ruinous minority of Charles XI.—Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie—Outbreak of a general European war—Engagement of Fehrbellin lays bare the real weakness of Sweden—Heroism of youthful Charles XI.—His drastic remedies—Restoration of Sweden as great Power— The monarchy made absolute.
THE history of Sweden, it has well been said, is the history of her kings. Till the reign of Gustavus Vasa there was no such thing as a Swedish State in the modern sense of the word. Sweden in those days was a name rather than a nation. Even so late as the third decade of the sixteenth century she cheerfully submitted to the humiliation of being treated as little better than a trading colony by the Hansa League to avoid absorption by Denmark. Gustavus I. laid the foundations of her national existence as well as of her future greatness in the strong monarchy which he bequeathed to his sons, and so well did he do his work that even their follies and blunders could not seriously shake it. Gradually the young State began to feel her power and expand in every direction. The complications resulting from the collapse of the German Order first gave her a footing on the other side of the Baltic, and with the acquisition of Reval ( 1561) her dominion in the North may be said to have been founded. From Esthonia she advanced, step by step, into Livonia, though here the way was barred, for a time, by the valour of the Polish chivalry and the genius of the Grand Hetman of Lithuania, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz. Nevertheless, in Livonia also, Sweden, on the whole, stood her ground, and it was the tenacity of that cruel but eminently capable monarch, Charles IX., that prepared the way for the ultimate triumph of his illustrious son. Gustavus Adolphus inherited from his father a war with Russia as well as a war with Poland. Only two years before, Charles IX. had combined ( 1609) with Tsar Vasily Shuisky against their common foe Poland, but the swift and irresistible advance of the Poles upset all the calculations of the allies. Vasily was deposed and carried off to Warsaw; a Polish prince was placed on the Muscovite throne, and Russia was straightway plunged into such a horrible state of anarchy that her speedy and complete dissolution seemed inevitable. Unable to assist their ally, the Swedes had now to look to themselves. Their plans alternated between raising up a Swedish tsar against his Polish competitor, or appropriating all Russia between Great Novgorod and Archangel; but, ultimately, the vastness of Russia’s domains and the doggedness of her people saved her now as they had saved her from the Tartars two centuries before. With the election of the first Romanov, a new era began for the distracted country, and after a glorious but indecisive six years’ struggle, Gustavus, recognising the impossibility of obliterating his eastern neighbour, dictated a peace that was to paralyse her for a century. By the Peace of Stolbova (27 Feb., 1617) Russia abandoned all her claims to Esthonia and Livonia, ceded Carelia and Ingria to Sweden, and paid besides a war indemnity of 200,000 rubles. By this humiliating treaty the frontier of Russia was thrust back beyond Lake Ladoga and she was totally excluded from the Baltic.
The war with Poland (then at the height of her short-lived power) proved a much more serious business. It took Gustavus nine years of hard fighting to wrest Livonia from her grasp; but the victory of Wallhof ( 7 June, 1626) finally completed the work. With Riga in his possession, he was now master of the Dwina, and in 1626 he transferred the war to West Prussia (then a fief of Poland) that he might gain the command of the Vistula likewise and so deprive Poland also of her northern seaboard. Imperial indeed was the policy of the great Swede. It was his secret but steadfast resolve to found a Scandinavian empire with the Baltic for its Mediterranean; nay, there is good reason to believe that, had he lived to realise his ambition, he would have transferred his capital from the shores of the remote Mälare to a more central position on the very spot where Peter the Great, a century later, with equal prescience, was to erect Petersburg. Unfortunately for Sweden, this magnificent project was postponed to a nobler but less practical ambition—the heroic monarch determined to champion the desperate cause of his suffering co-religionists in Germany. No vision of an imperial crown, as some have thought, tempted him to draw his sword in their behalf. There can now be no doubt that, in this matter, he consulted his conscience rather than his common-sense, and not without reason has grateful Protestantism regarded him, ever since, as her ideal hero and her typical saint, her Bayard and her St. Louis in one.
Yet, although Gustavus’s German crusade is his fairest title to fame, politically it was a serious blunder, for glorious as were its immediate results, its ultimate consequences proved mischievous and even ruinous to his country. His original project of establishing a compact, connected and, to a certain extent, homogeneous empire round the shores of the Baltic was well within the reach of Sweden’s resources, and had he stopped short at the Dwina, or even at the Vistula, it could easily have been accomplished and Sweden might, to this day, have remained the Mistress of the North. But every step he took westward of the Vistula was a false step because it removed him farther and farther from the real centre of his power; he was now fighting other peoples’ battles instead of his own; his very triumphs were illusory because they blinded his country to her inherent weakness and, but for the genius of the extraordinary man he left behind him to sustain his empire during the minority of his daughter, even the crowning victory of Breitenfeld ( 7 Sept., 1631) had like to have been the grave of Sweden’s greatness.
For it was the unerring eye and steady hand of the Swedish Chancellor, Axel Oxenstjerna ("that axle on which the world turns,” as the French diplomatists called him), that during the next twelve anxious years steered Sweden safely through the sea of troubles which threatened every moment to engulph her. That she emerged from the Thirty Years’ war, not merely a great Power, but the acknowledged head of Continental Protestantism, was mainly due to the wisdom and courage of this great statesman. It was he who, throughout the crisis of the struggle, kept her wavering allies together; skilfully hid her weakness from the watchfulness of her foes; gave fresh generals to her armies and fresh armies to her generals; inspired the Swedish Senate and the Swedish Estates with something of his own patriotism and withstood the Queen herself at the Council Board when her levity seemed likely to fritter away the fruits of so many costly triumphs. Christina herself was obliged to respect the veteran statesman who had been her father’s most cherished counsellor and her own faithful guardian; but her vanity chafed against an authority which obscured while it protected the throne. Though she could not set aside she delighted to thwart the all-powerful Chancellor, and it was chiefly due to her interference that the Peace of Westphalia was not so advantageous to Sweden as Oxenstjerna tried to make it. Inadequate, almost paltry, was the reward which Sweden thereby obtained for the services and the sacrifices of eighteen years. Western Pomerania with the islands of Rügen and Usedom, a small strip of Eastern Pomerania with the towns of Stettin, Damin, Golbrow and the Isle of Wollin; Wismar and the district of Poel and Neukloster; the former Bishopric of Bremen and Verden with a seat and a vote in the German Reichstag and the direction of the Lower Saxon circle alternately with Brandenburg, was all that fell to her share. These new possessions, it will be seen, gave Sweden the control of the three chief rivers of Germany, the Oder, the Elbe and the Weser, and she had the exclusive right to all the tolls levied thereon. They were, indeed, her most lucrative possessions so long as she held them, but a single glance at the map of Europe will suggest, at once, the difficulty she would have in retaining these scattered, outlying possessions. Her former allies already began to regard her as an intruder, and it was not to be expected that Germany would tamely submit to a foreign Power having the practical control of her external trade. These German possessions, moreover, were mischievous to Sweden in another way. They gave her a false importance on the Continent which she was always endeavouring to increase and thus withdrew her from her natural policy, the consolidation of her northern dominions round the Baltic, a task now needing all her energies and resources. For so poor and thinly populated a country to attempt to dominate Germany and remain the Mistress of the North at the same time meant inevitable disaster, though favourable circumstances and an extraordinary succession of great rulers postponed the evil day for something more than half a century. Moreover, Christina’s boundless extravagances during the last six years of her reign did not tend to improve matters. The resources of the State in those days were mainly derived from the vast crown-lands, and these Christina distributed so recklessly among her favourite courtiers that, at last, the permanent annual loss to the Crown was no less than £200,000, and when, in 1654, she voluntarily resigned the crown to her cousin Charles, the new King found the realm not very far removed from bankruptcy. His first care was to summon the Estates to relieve his more pressing wants and, at his suggestion, and with their consent, it was resolved to reduce, or, as we should say, recover a certain proportion of the alienated crown-lands; and a fresh department of state was formed to carry out this very necessary reform. Then, after celebrating his marriage with the Princess Hedwig Eleanora of Holstein, the King embarked for the Continent to begin a war that he was never to finish.
The marvellous exploits of Charles X., though not nearly so well known as they should be, can, nevertheless, only be hinted at here. Charles’s policy was a continuation and extension of the original policy of Gustavus Adolphus freely interpreted by the extravagant imagination of a Prince, who, with all his genius, was much more of a knight-errant than a statesman or even a general. It was his intention, primarily, to round off and weld together Sweden’s Baltic possessions by adding thereto all the Polish territory intervening between Pomerania and Livonia. The wretched condition of Poland, engaged as she then was in a mortal struggle with her own rebellious Cossacks aided by Russia, seemed to promise him an easy triumph, and, in fact, within six months he had driven John Casimir, the Polish King, into exile and taken possession of nearly the whole of Poland proper. But he soon found that it was easier to beat the Polish hosts than to subdue the Polish nation. The tyranny of the northern invader led to a general rising and in Stephen Czar- niecki (vir molestissimus, as Charles X. called him) the Poles found at last a deliverer. Despite fresh victories (notably the great three days’ battle of Warsaw, 18-20 July, 1656), Charles found himself steadily losing ground and, to add to his troubles, Russia now fell upon Livonia and Esthonia; Denmark, instigated by the Emperor, invaded Bremen and South Sweden simultaneously, while Brandenburg, his sole ally, suddenly went over to his enemies. Then it was that Charles dissipated the league that seemed about to overwhelm him by leading a host of 13,000 men across the barely frozen waters of the Belt, a feat absolutely without a parallel in history, annihilating the Danish forces that barred the way to Copenhagen, and dictating to the terrified Danish Government the humiliating Peace of Roskilde (26 Feb., 1658). In pursuance of his Pan-Scandinavian policy, Charles tried by this treaty to detach Denmark from Holland, so as to “have his back free,” as he expressed it, while dealing with his other foes. But the Dutch, well aware of Charles’s intention to exclude them altogether from the Baltic, secretly encouraged the Danes to refuse to ratify the treaty and, accordingly, after six months of diplomatic fencing, a second war between the two northern Powers began. Charles, thoroughly determined this time to wipe out the Danish monarchy altogether, invaded Zealand in August, 1658, captured the fortress of Kronberg commanding the Sound, and proceeded to invest Copenhagen. But a strong Dutch fleet under Van Weisenaer, after six hours’ hard fighting, forced the passage of the Sound ( 29 October, 1658) and threw supplies and reinforcements into the beleaguered city. Still Charles persisted, but the heroic resistance of the besieged, the destruction of a Swedish army-corps in Funen and a general invasion of all his continental possessions by his numerous foes inclined him, at last, to peace. Wisely trusting rather in the support of his own subjects than to the mediation of interested foreign Powers, he summoned a Riksdag, or Diet, to Gothenburg at the end of 1659. He was now willing to come to terms with Denmark, Holland and Poland so as to have his hands free to deal with Russia and Brandenburg; but death overtook him ( 13 February, 1660) at the very moment when his country had most need of his genius to extricate her from the difficulties into which his ambition had plunged her. He left behind him an only son, a child four years of age.
Had the enemies of Sweden only realised her utter prostration they would not have listened so readily to the pacific overtures that she now hastened to make to them. But the victories of Charles X., if they did nothing else, at least inspired Europe with a wholesome fear and a respect of the Swedish arms, and thus materially assisted the Swedish regency in its endeavours to come to terms with the hostile coalition. The ambitious dreams of Charles X. had indeed to be abandoned; but, on the other hand, Sweden lost nothing at all on the Continent, while in the Scandinavian peninsula itself she gained at last her natural frontiers by the acquisition of the provinces of Scania, Halland and Bleking, which had belonged to Denmark time out of mind.
The regency appointed by Charles X. consisted of the Queen Dowager and the five great officers of state. The Queen herself was a nonentity, but as the five magnates had grown grey in the public service and each, in his own line, had already done notable deeds, the dying monarch had good reason to believe that he had left his infant son in safe and strong hands. As a matter of fact this regency was the weakest and most mischievous Sweden ever had. The most respectable of the five regents were Counts Gustaf Bonde and Per Brahe, excellent types of the old-fashioned conservative aristocracy at its best, and so long as the former was alive and the latter in health, things went fairly well; but, ultimately, the management of affairs fell entirely into the hands of the Chancellor, Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, always the evil genius of the regency. The brilliant accomplishments, immense wealth and princely liberality of De la Gardie had made him the most conspicuous figure in Sweden during three successive reigns; but he had never shewn any particular aptitude for affairs and his boundless extravagance and frivolity were as ruinous to his country as to himself. Under his misrule Sweden sunk lower than she had ever sunk before. At home De la Gardie’s administration was marked by the most criminal recklessness. The salutary reduction scheme, whereby Charles X. had hoped gradually to diminish the national debt and double the national revenue, was allowed to stand still because it was unpopular with the nobility; the prodigalities of Christina were renewed and the supporters of the Minister were enriched at the public expense while the soldiers of the frontier garrisons were starving and the salaries of half the civil service remained unpaid for lack of funds. Moreover, the financial difficulties of the country reacted injuriously on her foreign policy. Sweden now became what she had never been before, a mere mercenary of France. The continental complications resulting from the ambition of Louis XIV. led both France and the allies banded against her to bid against each other for the support of the great northern Power. De la Gardie was the friend of France, but his opponents in the Senate were for a watchful neutrality whose object should be to check the extravagant pretensions of le grand Monarque by drawing nearer to England and Holland. For a time, too ( 1668-1672), they carried their point, and the Triple Alliance which compelled Louis XIV. to accept the terms of the allies was mainly their work. But, in the long run, De la Girdie prevailed. By the Treaty of Stockholm (14 April, 1672) Sweden virtually sold herself to Louis XIV., by engaging to hold an army corps of 16,000 men in Germany at his disposal in return for ample subsidies. At the same time De la Gardie flattered himself that he would be able to steer clear of a war and so get the indispensable subsidies for nothing. But the course of events proved too strong for him. Throughout 1673-4 Sweden tried, in vain, to mediate between the belligerents. Then Louis grew impatient and peremptorily demanded that Sweden should give him the covenanted assistance for which he had already paid; and so, at last, in December, 1674, Marshal Wrangel invaded Brandenburg and went into winter quarters there. There was a pause of suspense during which all Germany looked for fresh proofs of Sweden’s ancient prowess, and then the seed sown by twelve years of sloth and slackness was reaped in manifest disaster. Anticipating attack by himself attacking, the Elector of Brandenburg surprised a Swedish division at Fehrbellin ( 28 June, 1675) and defeated it with the loss of 600 men, whereupon the Swedes fell back at all points.
QUEEN HEDWIG ELEANORA, CHARLES XII’S GRANDMOTHER.
The so-called Battle of Fehrbellin was little more than a sharp engagement, but its moral effect was tremendous. The general belief in the invincibility of the Swedish arms was rudely shaken; her German allies drew back, and Denmark, Brandenburg, Holland and the Emperor fell upon her simultaneously. By the end of 1676 nearly all her German possessions were lost, while her fleet was annihilated by the combined Dutch and Danish squadrons under Juel and Van Tromp at the great two days’ battle of Öland. At this crisis it was the heroic energy of the young King that alone saved the country. Charles XI. was at this time a rough lad of twenty whose education had been shamefully neglected by his guardians; but the bitter ordeal of the next six years was to ripen, or rather harden, him into a stern and precocious manhood. At first, indeed, it seemed as if the poor youth were absolutely stunted and stupefied by the disasters which crashed down upon him one after another; but, hampered though he was at every step by craven counsellors and incompetent ministers, his unconquerable courage sustained him to the end, and his shrewd common-sense (always his strong point) divining that a victory obtained at any cost was now the sole remedy for the universal demoralisation, he led his army straight against the invading Danes and utterly routed them at the battle of Halmstad (17 August, 1676). At the end of the same year the young King again attacked the Danes at Lund, against the advice of all his generals, and won another victory which, relatively to the numbers engaged, was the bloodiest of the century, 8300 out of 16,000 combatants perishing on the field. The year 1677 was marked by two crushing naval defeats of the Swedes at the hands of the Danes and Dutch and the total loss of Pomerania; but, in Sweden itself, Charles with only 9000 men defeated 12,000 Danes at the battle of Landscrona after a fierce struggle of eight hours. This crowning victory enabled the Swedes in 1678 to recover all the Scanian fortresses captured by the Danes; but an invasion of Prussia from Livonia failed utterly— thus, after seven years of incessant fighting, Sweden had been barely able to keep the foe at bay at home and had lost everything abroad. Fortunately, for her, an uninterrupted series of victories had, in the meantime, made her ally, Louis XIV., the arbiter of Europe, and the terms which he condescended at last to offer his antagonists, in the course of 1678, included a full restitution of all the territory wrested from Sweden. Protestations were in vain, on this point le grand Monarque was inexorable. He needed a strong power in the North devoted to his interests, and by the treaties of Nijmegen, St. Germaine, Celle and Lund, Sweden recovered all her German possessions except a few trifling strips of territory which her high-handed protector took upon himself to cede to her more importunate creditors without her knowledge or consent. Upon the proud and sensitive mind of Charles XI., however, the dictatorial, almost contemptuous, tone of his magnificent protector produced an ineffaceable impression. Henceforth he was possessed by an inveterate dislike and distrust of everything French, and we shall see that in this, as in so many other respects, Charles XII. was his father’s own son.
Charles XI. devoted the rest of his days to setting his house in order. The fiery ordeal through which he had just passed had opened his eyes to the real situation of his country; his practical common-sense was convinced that only the most rigid economy could make her Government strong and stable once more, and he really seems to have believed himself divinely commissioned to reform her abuses and reestablish her greatness. His plan was a very simple one. He determined to thoroughly carry out his father’s reduction, or land-recovery, scheme, well aware that in this he could count upon the support of his people; and he addressed himself to the task with an energy and a perseverance compared with which even the labours of a Frederick the Great or a Joseph II. seem insignificant. Never, indeed, was any Swedish monarch so popular as Charles XI. The nation at large thoroughly believed in him and contrasted his manifold energy and manifest honesty with the slackness and problematical probity of the aristocratic classes. Ever since the days of Gustavus Adolphus the nobility and gentry of Sweden had tended to become more and more of a dominating and exclusive military caste gradually appropriating the bulk of the crown-lands and, as a matter of fact, both impoverishing the State (which in those days was synonymous with the Crown) and gradually obliterating the yeomanry and peasant proprietors. So violent and vindictive, indeed, was class feeling in Sweden in those days, that the Riksdag or Diet was now inclined to give the King even more than he asked for; the noble and the non-noble orders bid repeatedly against each other to win his favour, and if at the end of his reign Charles XI. found himself one of the most absolute princes in Europe, it was far less the result of his own seeking than of his people’s choosing. From the first the three lower Estates (Clergy, Burgesses and Peasants) warmly supported the King’s land-redemption project, not so much because the State would gain as because the gentry would suffer by it. The Riksdags of 1682, 1686 and 1693 successively authorised Charles XI. to examine all the title-deeds of all the landed estates in the realm with a view to their ultimate recovery by the Crown; zealously interpreted all the fundamental laws in a non-natural, monarchical sense, and even revived long obsolete laws for the express benefit of the Crown. It is remarkable, too, that, in all these matters the Estates themselves took the initiative. The King, all along, kept discreetly in the background, skilfully taking advantage of the antagonism of the Estates; now and then putting leading questions to them as to the exact limits of his prerogatives and invariably using their invariably favourable responses as the starting-points for fresh pretensions. At last the Riksdag became little more than the obsequious mouth-piece of royalty, and the climax of self-surrender was reached when the Riksdag of 1693 by its so-called “Suveränetets-förklaring,” or Declaration of Sovereignty, solemnly declared his Majesty to be “an all-commanding sovereign king responsible for his actions to none on earth, but with power and authority as a Christian King to rule and govern his realm as it seemeth him best.” On the other hand, it is only fair to add that Charles XI. made excellent use of his practically unlimited power. His ordering, reforming hand was felt in every corner of the realm, and though the redemption of the crown-lands was frequently pressed on with a relentless sternness not easily distinguishable from cruelty, and though such an economical revolution could not fail, for a time, to depreciate all sorts of property and thus have a very unsettling effect generally, yet, in the long run, it was a distinct and lasting benefit to the State and the nation. The finances were regulated, the treasury was replenished, trade developed, agriculture improved and the national defences were strengthened and multiplied.
And the moral improvement of Sweden under Charles XI. was even more remarkable than her material improvement. It stands to reason that under an absolute monarch whose every action was determined by a stern sense of duty, and who was known to work all his days and half his nights in the public service, thrift and industry would be regarded as the cardinal virtues and none would have the slightest chance of preferment who was not prepared to work at least as hard as his master. The people naturally followed the example of their King and the wholesome influence of Charles XI. had a bracing, hardening effect upon the national character which was perhaps the real secret of that wonderful elasticity which enabled the nation to sustain a twenty years’ war against the banded might of Europe beneath the banner of his heroic son.
The stability of Sweden at home corresponded with her renewed importance abroad. In the latter days of Charles XI. she once again became a great Power whose friendship was coveted and whose enmity was avoided. The King himself, who had no great liking for diplomacy (he seems to have regarded it as little else than lying on a large scale), left the department of foreign affairs almost entirely in the hands of his Chancellor, the aged Bengt Oxenstjerna, whose cautious circumspection managed, though not without some difficulty, to keep Sweden clear of all continental complications. Oxenstjerna shared his master’s distrust of Louis XIV., and the guarantee treaty of The Hague which he concluded with Holland in September, 1681 ( Spain and the Emperor acceding to it a year later), aimed at keeping France in her proper place. Louis retaliated by arming Denmark and Brandenburg against Sweden, and in 1683 a Franco-Danish fleet actually appeared in the Baltic; but Holland hastened to the assistance of her ally and the Peace of Regensburg ultimately restored the tranquillity of Europe for the next five years. In 1688, however, the ambition of Louis XIV. raised up a fresh coalition against him and led to another European war. Strenuous efforts were made on both sides to draw Sweden into it; but though Charles XI., mindful of his youthful exploits, was strongly tempted to draw his sword once more, his constant regard for the true welfare of his country prevailed. He waited, therefore, until the belligerents were exhausted and then ( 1697) offered his mediation which was accepted at the great peace congress at Rijswijk, the history of which belongs to the reign of his son.
Such, in short, prior to the accession of Charles XII., was the political history of Sweden, an outline of which was necessary to the right understanding of that monarch’s reign. We have seen, to sum up briefly, how the modern Swedish State was, in the main, the creation of Gustavus Vasa; how its normal development was interrupted under his sons, and diverged eccentrically under his grandson; how the weakness of Sweden’s neighbours and the greatness of her own rulers enabled her, for a time, to persevere in her glorious but mistaken policy; how the slightest reverse (e. g. Fehrbellin) sufficed to shake the imposing but unsubstantial fabric of her greatness to its very base, and how, finally, only the casual assistance of a foreign potentate permitted that painstaking master-builder, Charles XI., to shore up again, though not for long, the subsiding political structure. But such an unnatural state of things could not last for ever. Indefensible historically and impossible geographically, the Swedish Empire was bound to fall sooner or later, and it is the heroic but hopeless struggle of Charles XII. to still uphold it when its time had come, which gives to his adventurous career its inexhaustible interest and its tragic pathos.
BIRTH OF CHARLES XII.—CHARACTER AS a child—His mother Queen Ulrica Leonora—Her wise system of education—His first tutor, Nordenhjelm—A dialogue on courage—Sweden under Charles XI.—His genius for work—Dangerous pastimes—Hard riding— Bear-Hunting-His piety-Charles XII.’s Governors, Lindskjöld, Gyldenstolpe—New tutors, Polus, Cronhjelm—The Prince’s studies—Moral training—Death of the Queen—Strong influence of Charles XI. on the character of his son—” My son Carl’s” hardy training—Last illness and death of Charles XI.
We find the following entry on June 17, 1682, in Charles XI.’s diary: “Today, Saturday, at a quarter to eight in the morning, my consort was delivered of and bare me a son. Eternal praise and glory be to God who hath holpen her and may He likewise help her speedily to her former health again” —this child, the only one of Charles XI.’s five sons who survived babyhood, was named after his father and the world knows him now as Charles XII. During his early infancy, the boy was brought up beneath the eye of his excellent mother, the prudent, amiable and pious Ulrica Leonora, whose virtues and charities endeared her as much to the land of her adoption as to the land of her birth. “She was,” wrote the French ambassador D’Avaux at the time of her death,” she was beloved and honoured by all men, because to all she was kind and good.” Her son had more reason than anyone else to be grateful to her. He seems to have been one of those lads who are full of rare promise, but need the control of a firm and steady hand. His strength of character at a very early age considerably impressed those about him, but must have tried them severely too. On one occasion, when his mother came to the nursery to take him to church, he absolutely refused to stir from the high chair in which he was perched. The Queen, much astonished, asked the reason why, when it appeared that he had promised his nurse not to move till she came back and nothing could prevail upon the child to depart from his given word. Naturally enough this commendable firmness of purpose became sheer obstinacy in nine cases out of ten. Thus, on another occasion, he chose to maintain that blue was black, and stuck to his opinion through thick and thin, and once he got the idea into his head that the court-painter Behn was exactly like a monkey, and nothing in the world could get it out again. His courage was equally precocious. How, when a little boy, his hand was severely bitten by a ravenous dog to which he had surreptitiously offered a crust of bread under the dinner-table; how he tried to shield the offending animal by secretly wrapping his napkin about the wound, and how his sudden faintness from loss of blood alone betrayed the accident, is a well-known story; throughout his life, indeed, he had a perfect horror of cowards and cowardice. It was the constant aim of his wise and watchful mother to tame and soften this essentially manly but stubborn and masterful nature, and to her loving care is mainly due the early development of the nobler features of his character, such as his truthfulness, piety, self-control and love of justice, qualities which were to distinguish him ever afterwards. She taught him to say his prayers at her knee every morning and evening; she accustomed him betimes to the sobering sight of misery and the joy of relieving it by making him her little almoner among her poor, and she was particularly urgent with him on the duty of guarding his tongue and temper and respecting the feelings of others. Nor, a scholar herself, was she unmindful of his mental training. He was taught German as well as Swedish from his very cradle; he learnt his first ideas of things from Ulrica Leonora’s magnificent collections of coins, medallions and engravings; was encouraged to ask questions about all he heard and saw, and soon took a delight in repeating every evening to his mother all that he had been taught during the day. When he was four he had sufficiently advanced to need a tutor, so his mother took him with her to the University of Upsala and, after very careful enquiries, selected three of the professors there, leaving it to the little Prince himself to choose which of the three he liked best. Without a moment’s hesitation Charles gave his hand to Andreas Norcopensis who, in the following year, was made a Secretary of State and ennobled under the name of Nordenhjelm, so as to qualify him for his high office. Nordenhjelm, “the father of Swedish eloquence” and by far the greatest Latin scholar that his country had yet produced, was a quiet, old-fashioned, god-fearing man of simple tastes and habits, who would have been considered an oddity at any other Court than that of Charles XI. Although nearly forty-nine years older than his little pupil, he soon succeeded in winning the child’s love and confidence. His success as a tutor was certainly remarkable, though his labours were, no doubt, very much lightened by the Prince’s extraordinary quickness. In a very short time and “as if in sport,” Charles had mastered the rudiments of geography, arithmetic, history and the elements of Latin grammar. Some fragments of the conversations which Nordenhjelm used to have with his pupil have come down to us, and are interesting as showing the bias of the child’s mind even at that early age. Take for instance the following dialogue on courage — Nordenhjelm: “Is it right, think you, to expose one’s self to danger?"—Charles: “Yes, but not too much."—N. “When do you think, then, that one is too venturesome?"—C. “When one cares for nothing at all."—N. “Now would it not be better never to expose one’s self to danger?"—C. “No, for then one would be called a hare."—N. “But, surely, it is better to be called a hare and live, than to be called a lion after one is dead?"—C. “No, it would be shameful to live and be called a hare. I would rather be dead and honoured.” Another time Nordenhjelm asked the little Prince for his definition of a gentleman. Charles replied that a gentleman should be generous and kindly but withal of a stout heart, rough as a lion to his enemies but as gentle as a lamb to all at home.
The Queen continued to regularly examine her son to see what progress he made and, to stimulate him still further by a noble example, she had printed for his special use a good German translation of the diary in which his grandfather Charles X. had kept a record of his own youthful studies and travels. When, however, the boy had reached his seventh year, his father considered him old enough to have a room of his own, and “be put into the hands of men-folk,” so Count Erik Lindskjöld was appointed his governor, though Nordenhjelm continued to be his tutor.
The precocious manliness of Charles XII. was not a little stimulated and developed by the rude but bracing moral atmosphere to which he was accustomed from his infancy. Sweden under Charles XI. has been compared to a vast, perfectly regulated machine, the motive power of which was the ubiquitous, indefatigable King himself. It may be still more appropriately described as a huge patriarchal household where economy, frugality, punctuality, industry and practical piety were not so much abstract principles as the hard concrete cardinal factors of everyday life. In that ideal regime of commonsense everybody’s value was measured by the quality plus the quantity of the work he did, the King in this, as in all other respects, setting the example. Charles XI. rose every day, summer and winter, between three and four, and by breakfast time (six o’clock) most of his Cabinet work was over. The Ministers naturally imitated their master, and we are told by eye-witnesses that their ante-chambers were thronged as early as five o’clock. Of anything like a Court in the modern, conventional sense of the word there was no sign. The practical, hard- headed, under-educated monarch despised the luxuries and the refinements of life and looked upon sloth and frivolity as unpardonable offences. Besides, there was nobody to keep a Court going. The Queen Consort, especially in her later years, was so great an invalid that she rarely quitted her rooms; the Queen Dowager divided her time pretty equally between her lap-dogs and her card-tables, while the King, when he was not shut up with his secretaries, was scouring the country, taking stock of everything, seeing that everyone was doing his duty, snatching a hasty, random meal here and there on his way and grudging even the time he gave to sleep. Soldiering, hunting and break-neck riding were his only pastimes, and the more perilous they were, the more he seemed to like them. His military exercises could scarcely be called sham fights, for they were always attended by loss of limb or life, Charles himself breaking his thigh so seriously on one occasion, while charging, that he was lame for the rest of his days. His rapid rides and drives were scarcely less dangerous. The French ambassador, D’Avaux, attributed Charles XI.’s last illness to his “terrible gallops and frequent falls."—"For several years,” he adds, “the King has delighted in riding fifty to sixty Swedish leagues at a stretch with such prodigious rapidity that a good courier could not do in two days what he has done in one.” As a bear-hunter he was unmatched for skill and courage, frequently attacking the animal at close quarters and single- handed to save a comrade. On one such occasion he exerted himself so violently as to burst a blood- vessel, an accident which was very nearly the death of him. On Sundays, however, he was always “quiet,” as he expressed it, attending divine service twice and often thrice during the day and hearing a sermon in his own room when he could not go to church. His piety, indeed, was deep and unaffected and coloured every action of his life. He read a chapter in the Bible every morning and evening, took the sacrament very regularly and never without careful preparation, kept the anniversary of the Battle of Lund in his own chamber on his knees, and ordered the titles “His Majesty” and “Our Most Gracious King” to be struck out of the prayer for the Royal Family in the Swedish Liturgy because, to use his own words: “I am but a man and a sinner like other men and Almighty God is appeased not by high- sounding titles, but by the prayers of faithful and humble hearts."—He would listen, moreover, with exemplary humility to remonstrances and even reproaches from the pulpit as coming from God, though otherwise his almost ungovernable temper would rage tempestuously on the slightest contradiction, to the terror of those about him. Under such a monarch, who was only saved from being a downright Puritan by a very strong if somewhat rough sense of humour, the pleasures of the Court were always severely simple and with an obviously practical end. In Charles XI.’s private diary, which extends over twenty years, there is only one recorded instance of a masquerade. Weddings, christenings, church-services, reviews, sledging-parties, these were the ordinary relaxations which Charles XI. allowed himself and his family. More special occasions were the public receptions of foreign princes (the only times when there was something like pomp and ceremony), the public recantations of Jews or papists which the royal family always made a point of attending, and once a juggler was admitted into the palace to perform tricks with a magic wand. The King was not, however, the absolute boor he is sometimes represented to be. The interest he took in church architecture and his munificence to the great artist, Ehrenstrahl, whom he ennobled, show that he had some taste for art though, to be sure, the chef-d’œuvres he liked the best were the pictures of the bear-hounds that had saved his life and the hunters that he had ridden to death which still adorn the walls of the Palace of Gripsholm and attest the genius of the Swedish Landseer.
Charles XI. gave the same minute attention to the education of his son that he gave to everything else and the happy knack with which he hit upon the right men for his purpose says much for his natural shrewdness. Count Erik Lindskjöld, the Prince’s first governor, was the son of a smith who had risen to the highest offices in the State entirely by his own exertions, and was equally famous in his day as a poet, scholar, speaker and statesman. His tact, cheerfulness and astonishing capacity for hard work greatly endeared him to the King, and the Danish minister at Stockholm described him as “the strongest spirit of them all who can twist all men and all things as he will.” Unfortunately the young Prince had the benefit of his experience for only two years, Lindskjöld dying somewhat suddenly at the beginning of 1690. He was succeeded by the adroit and keen-witted Count Nils Gyldenstolpe, one of the most successful of Charles XI.’s diplomatists, who, after spending most of his time abroad in his country’s service, had so many charges thrust upon him on his return home that his superintendence of his illustrious pupil’s studies must have been very perfunctory. The lion’s share of the work therefore fell upon the tutor, Nordenhjelm, who also lied in 1694. Thomas Polus, a diplomatist of high standing and large experience, took his place, but being at the same time indispensable elsewhere as one of the overworked Secretaries of State, he received, eleven months later, the assistance of Gustavus Cronhjelm, also an official of great experience whose Latin orations were much admired. In theology the Prince was instructed by that model prelate Erik Benzelius, Bishop of Strengnäs, afterwards Primate, who composed a Breviarium Historiæ Ecclesiæ for his special behoof.
Despite this constant change of teachers, most of whom could only have given him a very small portion of their precious time, the Prince made extraordinarily rapid progress in his studies. His natural parts were excellent, but a strong bias in the direction of abstract thought and mathematics in particular was noticeable from the first. For history and languages he had less liking, while the fine arts and belles-lettres scarcely interested him at all. He readily assimilated whatever was taught him and digested it with remarkable thoroughness. In a very short time he could translate Latin into Swedish and German, and German or Swedish into Latin at sight, and he learnt enough of Greek to be able to read his Testament in the original language. He was well acquainted with the works of Cæsar, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, Cicero and, perhaps, Curtius before he was twelve, and heroic lives, such as are to be found in the Latin classics and the Norse Sagas, had an attraction for him which his tutor considered absolutely mischievous. On one occasion Nordenhjelm is said to have asked him what he thought of Alexander the Great.—"I should love to be like him,” replied the Prince.—"But he only lived till he was thirty-two,” objected the tutor.—"When one has conquered a whole kingdom, one has lived quite long enough,” said Charles. French he always disliked, no doubt copying his father in this respect. It was only on being told that the King’s of Poland and Denmark knew it thoroughly and it would be a shame for a King of Sweden to be inferior to them in knowledge of any sort, that he was persuaded to learn it at all, but he could very seldom be prevailed upon to speak it. His first governor, Lindskjöld, tried to arouse him out of this obstinacy by remarking what a graceful and useful accomplishment it would be for a Swedish King to be able to address a French ambassador in his own language.—"My dear Lindskjöld,” replied the Prince, “I know some French already and mean to learn still more. Should I ever meet the King of France,I will speak to him in his own language; but, surely, it would be more becoming for any French ambassador who comes hither, to learn Swedish for my sake than for me to learn French for his.”
PALACE AT STOCKHOLM, AT THE END 17TH CENTURY
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