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The Madman of the North

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Charles XII on the Battle of Narva, David von Krafft, c.1700 © Wonderful Artwork Photos/Bridgeman Photos

From his childhood Charles XII of Sweden dreamed of being a second Alexander the Nice, to the extent that, when questioned about why he would wish to emulate a king who died in his early thirties, he’s reported to have stated: ‘Isn’t that sufficient, when one has conquered Kingdoms?’ Charles actually loved conquering and conflict – he was rumoured to have slept in his boots – and made certain that each he and Sweden had been taken discover of within the international press, significantly in Britain, whose burgeoning print commerce was taking off throughout Charles’ exploits within the Nice Northern Battle. The twisting plots and fortunes of Charles’ adventures led to the rise and fall of the king’s personal popularity in addition to offering glorious copy for a public with an insatiable urge for food for international information. By the tip of his reign he was seen much less as Alexander and more and more because the unhinged ‘Madman of the North’.

At first Charles was considered because the sufferer of a conspiracy as Denmark, Poland/Saxony and Russia regarded to carve up his empire. Many newspapers and journals praised the teenage king for his heroic defence of his homeland by beating every of his enemies in flip. After the Battle of Narva (1700), in opposition to a a lot greater Russian power, the English Submit celebrated this ‘sign Victory’ in opposition to a ‘formidable military’ and even remarked that the Russians scuttled residence ‘shamefully’. It was actually exceptional as Charles managed to seize ten generals and the tsar’s private doctor, beheading the tsarist military in a single go.

When Charles moved on to Poland, the Observator praised him for his bravery and for chasing the ‘Polish Tyrant’ Augustus the Robust from his kingdom, even evaluating him to Britain’s personal William of Orange, who had deposed the final Catholic king, James II, in 1688. When Charles agreed to revive Protestantism to Silesia the view of him as a champion in opposition to Catholicism was solely strengthened, particularly when in comparison with the Polish king, who had shamefully renounced his personal religion and embraced the pope for his crown. By 1708 poets had been celebrating Charles in works comparable to The Gothic Hero, the place he was seen as a ‘Nice Champion for Liberty, Justice and Faith’, evaluating him to all method of classical heroes together with his beloved Alexander the Nice.

Nevertheless, this was not a common view. Many writers may see the issues in Charles’ persona, observing not an ideal Protestant crusader however an formidable warmongering bully, hooked on his ‘personal Glory’ quite than redressing grievances to his nation. Daniel Defoe was significantly vital, writing essays in his Evaluation in 1704 that had been little greater than character assassinations. Augustus the Robust of Poland was many issues – a rake who had reportedly fathered greater than 300 illegitimate kids and a strongman who bent horseshoes for enjoyable – however Charles’ determination to ‘un-king’ him and put a Swedish puppet on the Polish throne was considered by Defoe as an act of revenge that didn’t match the crime.

These worries got here more and more into the open after Charles’ determination in 1709 to do to Russia what he had completed to Poland – that’s, march to Moscow and attempt to overthrow the tsar. In Poltava, in fashionable Ukraine, the British press had been capable of report ‘one of the crucial well-known and full’ victories by the Russians; the Swedish king was pressured to flee to the Ottoman Empire, ending the spell of Charles’ invincibility. Charles’ weak spot allowed Augustus to re-enter the conflict and attempt to reclaim his Polish throne, his record of grievances aired within the Day by day Courant and replete with tales in regards to the Swedish occupation by which harmless Poles had been put to ‘Sword and Hearth’.

Having returned from the Ottoman Empire and launched into one more conflict – this time with Norway – Charles was determined to revive his fortunes. By means of their new king George I the British had been already working in opposition to Sweden, however the arrest of the Swedish ambassador Gyllenburg for conspiring with the Jacobite enemy actually gave the British press free rein to go on the propaganda offensive; Charles grew to become a cornered mad canine, prepared to work with anybody to attain his ambitions.

Sweden and its king had been considered as more and more deranged, harmful and silly. Defoe, by no means one to disregard a very good fish metaphor, known as the Swedes ‘Codsheads’ and their king the ‘Stockfish Lunatic’ and a ‘Ravenous Hen of Prey’, feeding on no matter territory he may get his palms on. A satirical ballad, The Hero in Blue, appeared in 1717 mocking Charles’ warmongering:

I Sing the daring Man, that sleeps in his Boots,
That lyes upon Straw, and that feeds upon Roots,
And at Random he prays, makes Invasions and Shoots,
Consider me, tis all of it true:
His Faith consists in Trumpets and Drums,
In Storming of Castles, and heaving of Bombs,
And spreads all his Butter on Bread together with his Thambs
In contrast to a Courageous Hero in Blue.

By this level his madman popularity was firmly sealed, any good opinion having been squandered by years of seemingly mindless conflict. These occasions additionally knowledgeable perceptions of the unusual Swedish inhabitants. A long time later some British writers thought that even lowly Swedish cobblers wanted to be weaned off a need for ‘Conquest and Glory’ given to them by their former ruler. Charles’ popularity lengthy outlived his mortal physique, the king having died in 1718 in a siege, a becoming finish for each a army madman and a possible Alexander.


Stewart Tolley teaches 18th-century political historical past on the Division of Persevering with Schooling at Oxford College.

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