Useful Notes / The Great Northern War
aka: Great Northern War
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"I was chosen by Heaven, say my name when you pray.
To the skies, see Carolus rise!
With the Lord my protector, make them bow to my will.
To the skies, see Carolus rise!
To the skies, See Carolus rise!"
Sabaton, Carolus Rex, giving a perfectly accurate summary of Charles XII's personality.

"We have just been given an insight into the Russian mind and soul. It will be most valuable, provided we do not die from it."
Charles XII upon coming across a village where the Russians have performed scorched earth style tactics.

The Great Northern War was a series of battles fought to contest the Supremacy of the Swedish Empire in Northern and Central Europe. It originally pitted Russia, Denmark-Norway, Poland-Lithuania and Saxony against Sweden. The result was a bloodbath that saw Poland switching sides twice (both cases saw the election of a new king), Russia to modernize under Peter I (aka Peter the Great) and the death of the Warrior King, Charles XII and the empire he built with it.

Four treaties ended the conflict as Sweden made peace with Great Britain and Hanover in 1719, with Prussia in early 1720, with Denmark in July 1720 and with Russia in 1721. Humiliatingly Saxony-Poland, one of the powers that started the war, did not get a treaty of its own and would have to wait years for peace with Sweden to be formalized. In the end Russia gained Karelia, Ingria, Estonia and Livonia (essentially the area around and to the north of St. Petersburg, Estonia and part of Latvia). Prussia gained part of Swedish Pomerania (in the coastal region on the modern German-Polish border)note , Hanover the duchies of Bremen and Verden (in modern-day Lower Saxony), and Denmark the part of the duchy of Schleswig which up until the war had been ruled by the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf.

Tropes include:

  • Action Girl: Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar. A Swedish girl who disguised herself as a man and served for years in the Swedish army as an artillery gunner. She was eventually discovered and put on trial. Cross-dressing was punishable by death in Sweden at the time, but Ulrika managed to beat the rap by appealing to feelings of patriotism which she may or may not have actually had.
  • Ax-Crazy: When Peter wasn't winning wars or founding empires he liked to drink his courtiers under the table and try out his surgeon and dentist skills on them.
    • He was also an avid dwarf collector.
  • Badass Army: The Drabants, Charles bodyguard, strike unit and ad-hoc Officer Candidate School.
    • The Swedish army as a whole. Dominated the battlefields up to Poltava and preformed gallantly given the circumstances afterwards.
      • Averted with the Danish and (early) Russian army. They were defeated within months after the war started. Russia shaped up though, and by Poltava fielded an army that measured up to any modern (at the time) standards.
  • Badass Boast: "I have resolved never to start an unjust war but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies." - Charles XII. Basically saying "I don't start shit, I end it."
  • Badass Preacher: Swedish Chaplains regularly joined in battle.
  • Blood Knight: Charles
  • Big-Lipped Alligator Moment: After the defeat at Poltava Charles and his surviving men took refuge for four years in the Ottoman Empire, in a bid to gain Turkish support against Russia. Even though there was no love lost between Russia and Turkey in those days, the Sultan was not keen on sending his men to fight in Sweden's war. The Swedes ended up being seen as simple freeloaders in the eyes of the Turks and and in February 1713 the so called "Skirmish At Bender" happened where Charles and about 1,000 Caroleans defended themselves against a Turkish army of 10,000 with orders to capture the king alive. The Turks eventually succeed when Charles tripped on his riding spurs and fell. It ended with a crowning moment of awesome though, when Charles and a few men had to ride a greatly circuitous passage through the length of Europe to Stralsund (which was Swedish territory at the time.)
  • The Big Guy: Augustus II "The Strong", Elector Of Saxony and King of Poland. Also known as "the Saxon Hercules". Said to have been able to straighten out horseshoes with his bare hands. Peter the Great also was quite strong and very tall.
  • Byronic Hero: Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa, Charles XII's ill-fated ally. Lord Byron wrote the poem Mazeppa about him in 1818.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The Swedish "Indelningsverket" (allotment system), a type of system where the soldiers were on year-round duty and living on allotted pieces of land where they would farm the earth and take payment from the village in which they resided. This was considered a better system then to rely on expensive mercenaries or inexperienced conscripts. It allowed Sweden to field a great number of soldiers (compared to her population) in a very short time. The best example of this would be in the Battle of Helsingborg in 1710 where fresh from the defeat at Poltava (where an army of 20,000 had been lost) Swedish Commander Magnus Stenbock managed to raise a new army in a couple of months time to meet the Danish invaders who wanted to reclaim Scania. The Danes ended up getting a royal beating and since then Denmark never made any serious attempts at taking back Scania.
  • Celibate Hero: Charles. Some historians believe he was outright asexual.
  • Cool People Rebel Against Authority: The Norwegian farmers, who felt the burden of heavy war taxation, indicted tax strikes in response. When the Danish king ordered them to shelter troops (who evidently ate their food), they rebelled against that as well. Taxation and ordered housing resulted in a near open rebellion in 1713. Later on, protests were raised against forced conscription of farm boys to the war.
  • Cool Horse: "Brandklipparen" (Firecutter) the horse of Charles XII. Survived the entire war and lived for 20 more years afterwards.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: Charles versus Peter.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Arguably Charles could have gotten a favourable peace after he had slapped the Russians and Saxons about a little in the early part of the war, and it would have been more to Sweden's interest.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Charles XII may have lost the war, his life and the Swedish Empire as a whole, yet he is still remembered by many Swedes today as the very symbol of the "Era Of Great Power" thanks to his fighting spirit, bravery and determination. That is, if you don't think he was stubborn, unrealistic and indifferent to the suffering of his own people.
  • Drinking on Duty: The Swedish commander who decided to take a break at the Norderhov farm at Ringerike, Norway in late January 1716. He and his men were dutifully served lots and lots of beer by the pastor's wife, while one of her servants ran his legs off to warn the Norwegian troops stationed on a nearby hill. It is fair to say the Swedes were stopped there and then...
    • The room where it all happened still has bullet holes in the walls from the Norwegian ambush.
    • This campaign, paired off with the death of King Charles (either by a Swedish or Norwegian bullet), gained the Swedes a dubious reputation in Norway, and they are still the butt of many Norwegian jokes.
  • The Empire: The Swedish Empire. Russia became a bigger empire during the war.
  • Folk Hero: For many Ukrainians Ivan Mazepa, who was retroactively turned into a martyr of Ukrainian nationalism. Not a few other Ukrainians and most Russians however regard him as a traitor.
    • For people in Northern Germany Martje Flohr, the little peasant girl who during the siege of Tönning (1700) was told by carousing Danish officers to offer a toast. She stunned them with: "Et gah uns wol up unse olen Dage" ("May we be well in our old days", with undertones of "you won't grow old"), which to this day is a popular toast in Schleswig-Holstein.
  • Foreshadowing: Charles' last march in Russia and his defeat at Poltava anticipated the similar defeats of both Napoleon (who actually read up Voltaire's history of Charles' reign and tried to force a decisive battle before the Russians did the to him what they had done to Charles) and Hitler in Russia.
  • The Gadfly: Charles XII was a bit like a Swedish version of Oliver Cromwell in that he despised excessive vanity and pompousness. To this end, it is said that he liked to snatch the wigs of military commanders and noblemen and tear buttons and medals of their uniforms in mid-conversation. None of them dared to protest of course. The man himself rarely wore a wig and preferred his military uniform to regal robes.
  • Guile Hero: Peter the Great. He didn't win the war by having the superior army or by being the better general, he won by distracting Charles on the secondary Polish front while he assembled an army that could hold the line against the Swedes, then taking down all of his allies and the Cossacks willing to join him, and leading him in a merry chase until a skirmish showed the Russians could hold the line and retreat in good order when faced with equal numbers, at which point Peter accepted to fight a decisive battle... And prepared a successful trap at Poltava just to be sure.
  • Heel–Face Revolving Door: Great Britain. In 1700, they helped Sweden to besiege Denmark's capital city Copenhagen, but couldn't do much more due to the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1715 they joined the war again...on the Anti-Swedish Alliance's side. In 1721 they were ready to join Sweden's side again but then the war had ended already.
    • It was part of an old Anglo-Dutch strategy to make sure that no one got too much power over the Baltic trade.
  • Kick the Dog: During the war, Russians occupied Finland (which then belonged to Sweden) for seven years. The occupation was so strict and destructive that Finns still refer to it as "The Great Wrath".
  • Knife Nut: Several Norwegian boys coming home from war duty had trouble settling in. Thus, the Great Northern war coincides with the greatest amount of knife fights and bullying in Norwegian history.
  • Magnetic Hero: Both Peter and Charles.
  • Modest Royalty: Charles XII preferred his uniform to more regal clothing.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: The Russians, go figure. This is the war that turned Russia into a great European power.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Charles XII: "Järnhövfde" (Ironhead) and "Skägglös Dundergud" (Beardless Thundergod) although the last one was not used during his lifetime but first used in a poem by Esaias Tegnér from 1818.
    • The Danish-Norwegian naval hero Peder Wessel was known as "Tordenskjold" (Thundershield).
    • All Swedish Soldiers carried "Nome De Guerres" like "Svärd" (Sword), "Seger" (Victory), "Kämpe" (Fighter) etc.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: After the War of Spanish Succession, both Great Britain and France threatened to join the war on Sweden's side if Russia didn't accept the peace deal. They did.
  • The Poor Man's Atomic Bomb: Biological weapons were used during this war. In the initial siege of Poltava, the Russians threw dead cats and dogs down into the Swedish trenches, when their regular ammunition was low.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Peter the Great conquering Swedish territory and building the city of Saint Petersburg on it in the middle of Charles' domination of the war. And he didn't just take a city, renamed it and then expanded it, he took the fortress of Nyenschantz, razed it to the ground and built the stronger Peter And Paul Fortress and a city on the site of Nyen (the city near Nyenschantz, burned down by the Swedes to not leave shelter to the incoming Russians). Between that and the Swedish failure in retaking or even raiding the area, Peter destroyed diplomatically half of the Swedish military successes. Incidentally, that's why the capital of Russia was Saint Petersburg from 1712 to the revolution (renamed Petrograd in 1914, when the Russians decided that no self-respecting Entente power should have such a Germanic sounding capital).
    • During the first Danish campaign in 1700 the Danish resistance was so weak that according to legend, some Swedish soldiers passed the time by hunting wild game in the royal Danish gardens.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Both Peter and Charles.
    • Peter was more versatile then Charles and had an interest in a number of crafts including, interestingly enough, seamanship. Some might say that his nautical interests were bad for Russia in the long run and the example got Russia in more fights then needed by competing with maritime states in their own area of expertise. Still, Peter did do much to increase the independence of Russia and perhaps his eccentricities had something to do with it.
    • Also the newly-ascended King Frederick William I of Prussia; his country however only took a brief part in the war after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, taking the fortified city of Stralsund by siege.
  • Salt the Earth: Rather Town. The inhabitants of the Norwegian city of Halden decided to burn the city to the ground rather than let the Swedes have it (Fall 1715)
    • The merchant who proposed this, was a Peder Colbjørnsen. His sister Anna was married to the pastor at Norderhov. She made the Swedes drink on duty some months later, with a not so good result for the Swedes in question.
    • This was reckoned a true moment of awesome in Norwegian history, to the point where it is actually mentioned in the Norwegian national anthem:
    We would rather let the land burn than to see it fall. Remember the incident at Frederikshald...
    • Also, the Swedes burned down the town of Nyen to prevent the invading Russians from finding shelter when trying to attack its citadel of Nyenschantz. The Russians were not impressed: they stormed the fortress, razed it down, and built Saint Petersburg on the site.
  • Snow Means Death: The Poltava campaign.
    • Not to mention the bright idea to march across the Scandinavian Fjells the New Year 1718/1719, in a blizzard that raged for three days. The result: 3,900 men froze to death, 600 more were crippled for life. Only 1,500 were more or less unharmed.
    • This was the war that started the idea that invading Russia is a Really Bad Idea. Interestingly, Napoleon took along Charles' account of the war in a bid to avoid the same mistakes. He failed.
    • Part of the reason why the Battle Of Narva was such a devastating Swedish victory was that a blizzard started unexpectedly. The Swedes had their back to it while the Russians could not see anything until the Swedes were 30 meters away from them with Muskets at the ready.
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Charles XII had a Stonewall Jackson-style piety.
  • Stock Unsolved Mysteries: The death of king Charles, shot as he lifted his head over the top of a trench during the siege of Halden in November 1718. To this day, Swedes and Norwegians are at odds on who really shot him: Norwegian soldiers or war-weary Swedes. One popular myth is that he was killed by a trouser button (a Norwegian one). Others claim that he accidentally shot himself. Either way, his death was the end of the Swedish campaign, and the beginning of a slow decline for Sweden as a European greater power.
  • Teen Genius: Charles XII. His genius lay in killing people.
    • He was a pretty good tactician but not really much of a strategist.
    • He was also heavy into architecture, history and mathematics.
  • Took a Level in Badass: The Russian Army. At the start of the war it was so weak that Charles XII stopped taking Russian seriously after crushing it at Narva. Three years later the Russians were capable of conquering Ingria (and built Saint Petersburg there to rub salt in the wound) when Charles wasn't around, and in 1709 they crushed Charles' own army at Poltava.
  • Warrior Prince: Charles XII.

Depictions in fiction

Anime and Manga


  • The poem Mazeppa by Lord Byron.
  • The epic poem Poltava by Alexander Pushkin. His Bronze Rider is also a tribute to the building of St. Petersburg.
  • The poem Mazeppa by Victor Hugo.
  • Martje Flohr's toast is commemorated in poems by Detlev von Liliencron and Börries von Münchhausen.
  • serves as background in Krabat. In one chapter the miller's men are forced to host a less-than-pleasant group of lost soldiers.


  • The symphonic poem Mazeppa by Franz Liszt.
  • The second half of the Sabaton album Carolus Rex is about this, mainly from King Charles' perspective:
    • "The Carolean's Prayer" is about the Swedish Army.
    • "Carolus Rex" is about Charles' rise to power.
    • "Killing Ground" is about the early Swedish victories.
    • "Poltava" chronicles the pivotal battle.
    • "Long Live The King" is about Charles' death and his soldiers returning his body to Sweden.
    • "Ruina Imperii" is about the fall of the Swedish Empire.


  • Charles XII part 1 and 2 (1925) regarded as classics in Swedish silent cinema.
  • Eli Sjursdotter (1937) a cute Romeo and Juliet type story about the love between a Swedish Soldier and a Norwegian farmer girl and the conflict this causes with her Knight Templar father.
  • Tordenskjold Går I Land (1942) Danish movie about the famous Naval Commander.
  • Kalabaliken I Bender (1983) A Swedish War/Comedy film about the Skirmish At Bender (see "Big Lipped Alligator Moment" above) and the struggles of two Swedish Soldiers to escort a potential bride to the King. One of the biggest economic flops in Swedish movie history, but it has some decent action scenes.
  • Sluga Gosudarev (aka "The Sovereigns Servant") (2007) Russian movie about the Battle At Poltava.

Live Action TV

  • Peter The Great (1986) American mini-series about the life of Tsar Peter, including the war.


Video Games

  • Empire: Total War has this in the main campaign, starting in 1700 with Charles XII and Peter the Great as the rulers of Sweden and Russia.