The Great Northern War

The Great Northern War

The Great Northern War lasted from 1700 to 1721. The Great Northern War was fought between Sweden's Charles XII and a coalition lead by Peter the Great. By the end of the war, Sweden had lost her supremacy as the leading power in the Baltic region and was replaced by Peter the Great's Russia.

Peter the Great

The Great Northern War had a number of distinct phases: 1700 to 1706; 1707 to 1709; 1709 to 1714; 1714 to 1718 and 1718 to 1721.

Though the Great Northern War started in 1700, the causes of it had been fermenting throughout the 1690's. An anti-Swedish coalition was created from 1697 to 1699 and included Russia, Denmark and Saxony-Poland. All three states believed that a fifteen years old king - Charles XII - would be an soft target. They also had a shared belief that Sweden by the 1690's was a spent force and that her territory was waiting to be cut up by a superior force.

Charles V of Denmark wanted to regain Scania and other territories on the Swedish mainland lost by Denmark to Sweden during the Seventeenth Century. Denmark also wanted to remove Swedish troops from the Duchy of Holstein-Gottorp - a Swedish satellite state.

Augustus II of Saxony-Poland was known as Augustus the Strong. He was also the Elector Frederick Augustus of Saxony and in 1697 he was elected king of Poland - hence his combined title of Saxony-Poland. Augustus wanted to conquer Livonia to put an end once and for all to Swedish economic predominance in the Baltic. He wanted to develop Poland's industrial base by using Poland's raw materials and Saxony's economic know-how. However, he could not do this while Sweden remained a commercial rival in the Baltic.

Peter the Great simply wanted a foothold in the Baltic as a move towards greatness in the region. Russia could never be great in the Baltic while Sweden was pre-eminent especially as Sweden possessed Karelia, Ingria and Estonia - thus blocking Russia's advance west.

This anti-Swedish alliance was knitted together by J R von Patkul and other anti-Swedish noblemen living in Livonia. The was started badly for the alliance.

1700 to 1706:

In March 1700, the Danes invaded Holstein-Gottorp. The Swedes, aided by an Anglo-Dutch fleet as well as their own navy, invaded Zeeland and threatened to overrun Copenhagen. In August 1700, Denmark withdrew from the war via the Treaty of Traventhal.

While Sweden was fighting Denmark,  Augustus invaded Livonia but quickly withdrew when Charles XII transferred his army to Livonia from Denmark.

Charles was now free to attack Russia who were besieging Narvia and Ingria. 8,000 Swedes  destroyed a Russian army of 23,000 in November 1700 - this was to give Charles XII legendary military status and it also confirmed to western nations that Russia under Peter the Great was backward.

From 1700 to 1706, Charles spent time in Poland building up a firm military base there before his planned invasion of Russia. Charles courted anti-Saxon and anti-Russian Polish nobles for their support. Charles' campaign in Poland lead to him conquering Warsaw in May 1702, and he defeated a Polish-Saxon army at Kliszow in June 1703. Thorn was also captured in 1703. After such military success, Charles organised the election of a puppet leader - Stanislas Leszczynski. He became king of Poland in July 1704.

Charles signed the Treaty of Warsaw with Poland in February 1705 which was for peace and    commerce and defeated and he defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Fraustadt in February 1706. By Spring 1706, Charles was in control of Poland having forced out both the Russians and the Saxons. The final blow came in September 1706 when Augustus II recognised Stanislas as the king of Poland in the Treaty of Altranstädt and allowed the Swedish Army to winter in Saxony.

While Charles XII had been concentrating on Poland, Peter the Great had made incursions into parts of the Baltic controlled by Sweden; namely, Dorpat and Narva - both in 1704. However, such was the military status of Charles, that Peter ceded these conquests in order to make peace. Charles would not accept this and considered Russia a permanent danger to Sweden in the Baltic. He prepared a campaign against Russia - a march on Moscow.

1717 to 1709:

The invasion of Russia started in 1707. Charles had planned for a two-pronged attack. Charles XII, himself, invaded Russia via Smolensk while Count Lewenhaupt invaded Russia via Riga. From 1707 through to 1708, Peter the Great withdrew his forces. Peter made his first stand at Holowczyn in July 1708. The Swedes won but it was at a price. As Peter withdrew, he used a scorched earth policy destroying anything that might be of value to an advancing army.

Charles did not follow Peter. Instead, the Swedish army wintered in the Ukraine. There was a logic to this as Charles hoped to link up with Mazepa, the Hetman of the Ukraine Cossacks, who was seeking to build an independent Cossack state and, therefore, saw Peter as a potential enemy who needed to be defeated. Charles also hoped to build an anti-Russian alliance with Devlet-Girei III, the Khan of the Crimea. Charles was confident that this group of three - the Swedes, the Cossacks and the Crimeans - would defeat Peter.

However, Devlet-Girei III was forced to remain neutral. His master was the Sultan of Turkey and the Sultan did not want to be embroiled in a war that he felt he would only lose out if he joined in or gave his blessing for one of his underlings to get involved. Mazepa of the Cossacks, was simply not in a military position to assist Charles. Therefore, the alliance came to nothing. Charles also had other problems to face.

The winter of 1708 to 1709 was one of the worst on records and had a major impact on Sweden's army that was wintering in the Ukraine.

Also, the advance of Lewenhaupt was stopped at the Battle of Lesnaya in 1708 where he lost his entire supply column.

Charles XII lead a weakened and under-equipped army into Russia. He also had to lead his army on a stretcher as he had been shot in the foot during a skirmish. In June/July 1709, Sweden suffered a serious military defeat at the Battle of Poltava. Many Swedish soldiers were killed and those who were not surrendered at Perevolochna.

The defeat immediately turned around the position Sweden and Russia held in Europe. After this one decisive battle, Sweden was no longer supreme in eastern Europe. The victory put Peter the Great where he wanted to be  - dominant in eastern Europe and a power to be reckoned with. Charles had to escape to Turkey.

1709 to 1714:

Charles now found that he could not return to Sweden. All the potential routes were fraught with danger. As a result, Charles stayed at Bender, Bessarabia in Turkey. With Charles isolated, the alliance of Denmark, Poland and Russia revived itself.

Augustus reclaimed his title in Poland as Stanislas fled.

Demark invaded Scania in 1710 but was repelled.

Russia continued her conquest of the Baltic states and Finland. Russia defeated the Swedish navy at Hangö in July 1714 and had the potential to invade Sweden itself.

In the absence of Charles, Sweden was governed by the Swedish Council. They raised a new army which was sent to North Germany in preparation for an attack on Poland. However, Sweden had come to rely on mercenaries and the attempt to produce an army in a very short space of time failed. The army got to northern Germany but it became stuck there as the navy of Denmark destroyed the transport ships used to supply them. With few supplies and little chance of getting back to Sweden, this army surrendered against a combined Russian/Danish/Saxon force at Tanning, Holstein in May 1713.

In Turkey, Charles XII persuaded the Sultan to launch an attack on Russia in the south at the same time as Sweden was launching an attack on Russia in the north. In fact, just one of the major problems Charles faced was lack of communications with Sweden. After Tanning, Sweden simply could not produce an army of any substance. However, the Sultan's attack was successful in that Russia was defeated at the River Pruth and the Sultan got effective control of the Black Sea and gained Azov. In June 1713, the Sultan signed a settlement with Russia which guaranteed peace between the two for 25 years.

1714 to 1718:

Charles was no longer welcome in Turkey and he made his way to Stralsund in Pomerania. Stralsund and Wismar were the only two possessions Sweden had in northern Germany. For the next few years Charles attempted to make alliances with numerous states - including recent enemy states. It is difficult to know what Charles' plan was but some believe that he had no intention of maintaining peace and only a desire for Sweden to get back her reputation and status in eastern Europe. In this sense, it seems that Charles was willing to negotiate with any state but probably had no desire to keep to the terms of whatever treaty he signed. Some historians believe that Charles was becoming more and more divorced from reality and that he refused to accept that Sweden's golden days as the dominant state in eastern Europe were over.

In 1715, two more state joined the alliance against Sweden - Brandenburg and Hanover. Stralsund fell in 1715 and Wismar in 1716. By 1718, Charles had somehow managed to put together an army of 60,000 men. He invaded Norway but was killed at Fredriksheld in late 1718.

1718 to 1721:

The death of Charles XII removed a major stumbling block in the peace process. Charles could not accept that Sweden was a spent force and that the dominant state in eastern Europe was Russia. It is not clear what he intended when he invaded Norway. In the previous 18 years, Norway had not been a problem to Sweden; if Charles had intended to use Norway as a base to attack Denmark, it was a failure.

Fear of Russia extended further than the Baltic. Britain and France were both concerned at the potential extent of Russia's power and as a result of this, pressure was brought to bear for peace treaties to bring stability to the region as it was reckoned that Russia would use war as a lever to expand. She would have found it more difficult to do so if there was peace in the area.

Four peace treaties brought apparent stability to the Baltic:

Treaty of Stockholm

November 1719 Signed between Sweden and Hanover. Sweden handed over Bremen and Verden to Holstein in return for financial and naval support. The Elector of Hanover was George I.

Treaty of Stockholm

Jan/Feb 1720 Signed between Sweden and Brandenburg. Sweden ceded Stettin, South Pomerania, the islands of Usedom and Wollin in return for money.

Treaty of Fredriksborg

July 1720 Signed between Sweden and Denmark. Sweden gave up her exception from paying taxes to use the Sound. She also gave up Holstein-Gottorp.

Treaty of Nystad

Aug/Sept 1721 Signed between Sweden and Russia. Sweden ceded Livonia, Estonia and Ingria while Russia returned Finland (except Kexholm and parts of Karelia)

Sweden and Poland signed a peace treaty in 1731.


MLA Citation/Reference

"The Great Northern War". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.






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