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Who is Carolus Rex, Charles XII of Sweden? | The Boy King Who Defended The Swedish Empire

a painting of King Charles XII of Sweden, Carolus Rex

Sweden today is known for IKEA, Stockholm Syndrome, and ABBA. However, in the 1600s, Sweden was an empire that controlled most of the Baltic Sea. This was the world Carolus Rex was born into.

Who was Carolus Rex? His real name was Charles XII, and he was the king of Sweden who defended the Swedish Empire when he was only fifteen years old from Europe's biggest empires, including Peter the Great's Russia.

a map of the swedish empire in the 1600-1700s

Early Life of Charles XII

Charles XII was born on June 17, 1682. In 1697, he ascended to the Swedish throne at only fifteen years old. He had been raised with the idea of being an absolute monarch (having sole authority) and being subject to God.

a map of Europe in the 1700s

He spent the first few years on the throne partying, drinking, and hunting. It all ended in 1700 when three empires—Denmark, Poland-Saxony, and Russia—invaded the Swedish Empire from three sides. These empires had seen the boy king as a weakness and thought Sweden would be easy to defeat as a result.

Europe looked very different back in 1700 than it does today. Poland controlled most of Eastern Europe, Denmark and Norway were united, and Russia was considered an undeveloped backwater

Charles XII, The Boy, Goes to War

Charles XII and The Battle of Narva

However, Charles XII had mostly defeated them within a year and had defeated the strongest of the opponents, Peter I of Russia (Peter the Great), at the Battle of Narva. He was vastly outnumbered, but after defeating Russia, he marched on Poland-Saxony. By this point, he had become a competent general and leader. He inspired his men through his bravery and was renowned for his warrior spirit on the battlefield. In 1706, he made peace with his enemies and deposed the leader of Poland-Saxony.

a painting of King Charles XII of Sweden, Carolus Rex on a horse leading a battle

The Russians hadn’t been fully defeated, however. They had been beaten early on, and while Charles XII was occupied finishing off his enemies, Peter I had been training his armies. And so, a year after Charles made peace, he marched on Russia to finish them off.

And It All Came Tumbling Down…

Charles XII and The Battle of Poltava

But Russia, being Russia, retreated deep into their country and destroyed supplies the Swedes could use. A massive winter forced Charles south into present-day Ukraine, and in 1709 he attacked the Russians at Poltava to decide the outcome of the war…

a painting of Peter the Great of Russia leading his army at the Battle of Poltava

...and the Swedes lost. They were unfit for battle, while the Russians were well prepared. Charles wasn't even able to lead his army due to an injury, so he passed off command to his subordinates. Most of the Swedish army surrendered following the battle, but Charles was escaping as fast as he could to the south… to Turkey.

This isn't the first time Russia and Ukraine's stories have overlapped. Russia and Ukraine have a long history and complicated history. Here's how their history culminated in the Russia-Ukraine War…

Charles XII Exiled in the Ottoman Empire

So, Sweden’s affairs of state were handled in Turkey... for FIVE YEARS. The Ottoman Empire wanted some of Russia’s land, so they were willing to cooperate with the Swedes. They even declared war on Russia four times. But Sweden’s new army never came.

a painting of King Charles XII of Sweden, Carolus Rex army being attacked by Ottomans

The Skirmish at Bender

Things in Turkey weren’t getting any better. Charles XII and a few of his men were attacked at their camp by the Ottoman army, and he fought them off with less than a hundred men. It later became known as the Skirmish at Bender.

Finally, after five years in exile, Charles disguised himself and secretly rode through enemy lands for 14 days and nights until he finally returned to Sweden.

Charles XII Defends The Homeland

A coalition against him formed again, and almost everyone in Europe was against him. First, he fought delaying actions in the Baltic provinces to prevent the war from reaching the Swedish mainland. He put together an army, formed a grand strategy, and prepared to defend his empire… by attacking Norway first.

a painting of King Charles XII of Sweden, Carolus Rex when he was shot and killed

The Death of Charles XII

One night, he was inspecting fortifications for a siege when a Danish soldier shot the now 36-year-old boy king in the head. Some theories say it was an assassination by friendly forces to end the war. But what is known is that Sweden’s Empire fell with Charles and would never rise to the same height again.

The Legacy of Charles XII of Sweden

Charles XII of Sweden represents the days when Sweden’s Empire was at its height. He is known for being a skilled tactician and an intellectual. Encyclopedia Britannica describes his pursuits,

He became increasingly occupied with new ideas in administration, and many of his administrative reforms were far ahead of their time. He demanded considerable sacrifices of those classes in Sweden who were lukewarm about the war effort once the years of bad fortune set in after 1709.

Charles had risen to power at 15 and grew to be a brave general and competent leader. Funny enough, his greatest enemy was also a teenager when he came to power… Peter the Great of Russia

a painting of King Charles XII of Sweden, Carolus Rex looking over the Danube
I have resolved never to start an unjust war, but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies.

Charles XII (1682-1718)

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