Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Spotlight on: Great Northern War (Stora Nordiska Kriget/Северная война)

Battle of Poltava (Slaget vid Poltava/Полтавская битва)

Dear Reader,

Most of my English readers will not have heard of the Great Northern War, or will have some kind of hazy idea of what occurred. This Kabinettskriege dominated the first 20 years of the eighteenth century, and opened a Russian window into Europe. In Russian history, the Great Northern War opens a period of history which will not be concluded until 1945 or 1989. In Swedish history, the Great Northern War marks the end of the stormaktstiden period, the years 1630 to 1722, when Sweden was one of the most powerful nations in Europe.  This post should serve as a brief introduction to the war. I will cover the various armies, cultures, and battles in more specific posts later on. For specific information on the battle of Fraustadt, a major battle during the Great Northern War, click here. For a timeline of the entire Kabinettskriege period, click here

First Phase: 1700-1709

The war opened in 1700, as Peter I of Russia (Пётр I), Augustus II of Saxony, and Frederick IV of Denmark planned to break the Swedish control of the Baltic. It seemed like the right time to strike, as Charles XI of Sweden had died, leaving his eighteen year old son, Charles XII, to rule the kingdom. 

Unfortunately for the anti-Swedish coalition, Charles XI had left his son a large, modern military, referred to today as the Karoliner. These soldiers, with blue coats and yellow turnbacks, would fight on, despite incredible odds, for the next 22 years. The Karoliner had incredibly high morale, which came from a strongly rooted religious identity and a sense of national unity. 

As a result of this high morale mixed with highly aggressive tactics (Swedish: Gå-På English: "Go-On"; I 

believe a better colloquial translation might be "Head-On") the Swedish army won many victories in the 
1700-1709 period. The battles of Fraustadt, Narva, Saladen, and Holowczyn, give an impression of what 
the Karoliner's capabilities. The Swedes won all of these victories while outnumbered, and often without artillery support. In the summer of 1709, Sweden was winning the war, having forced Denmark and Saxony to sign peace treaties. 

However, Charles XII was unwilling to accept a negotiated settlement with Tsar Peter I, and pushed the war on into the Ukraine, after long campaigns in Poland and Saxony. At Poltava, in the Ukraine, on June 27 1709,  the Karoliner were crushed by a modernized Russian army, using heavy artillery and field fortifications. The best book currently available on the Great Northern War, Peter Englund's, The Battle That Shook Europe, covers this pivotal turning point in the war. 

The Second Phase: 1709-1718

With the defeat of Sweden's main field army, the Swedish cause disintegrated  and Saxony and Denmark re-entered the war. Charles XII fled into exile in the Ottoman Empire, where he would attempt to bring the Ottomans into the war on Sweden's side. Despite the massive losses inflicted by the defeat at Poltava, Sweden was able to scrape together enough men to win impressive victories such as Helsingborg  in 1710 and Gadebusch in 1712. In 1714, Charles returned home, after outstaying his welcome in the Ottoman empire. His return brought disaster for Sweden. Still unable to agree to a negotiated peace, Charles invaded Norway twice, dying in the second invasion, on the 30th of November, 1718. His death meant the end of the Karoliner, and the majority of the soldiers in his army never returned to Sweden. 

The Third Phase: 1718-1722

The final phase of the Great Northern War dealt with a succession crisis for Sweden, followed by a series of Russian amphibious raids on the Swedish coast. The Swedes were spent by this time, and mostly unable to resist.  The war ended by confirming Russia as the new Baltic power, and encouraging the rise of several smaller states, such as Brandenburg-Prussia. The Swedes fell into a decline which would last most of the 18th century, but they would briefly take revenge on the Russians in the war of 1788 to 1790. 

As we are still going through the 300th anniversary of the war, there is a great deal of interest in how it was fought, and what effects it had on Europe. If anyone has any opinions on the Great Northern War, or would like to have an article regard specific aspects of the Great Northern War, please let me know in the comments. 


  1. I would be interested in hearing about how the Karoliner was so effective. What were the specific strengths?

  2. Thanks Bran412! I will do a post on the Karoliner very soon. Is there anything else that you or anyone else is interested in?

  3. Hey Alex I've just started reading your blog.

    I am the guy who made a bunch of costumes for Beyond the Mask.

    Anyhow I like your research the 18th century is a very interesting time period of history for me.

    I am starting a reenacting group and I thought I'd just ask and see if you're interested in it. We are starting with both Colonial and British units of the War for American Independence though we'll likely be adding some seven years war impressions in the next few years and I have a possible film contract for a British War of Austrian Succession film project.

    I don't have the website up yet but we do have an active facebook page and you can email me.



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