The Great Northern War and the Battle of Narva

On 30 November 1700 Charles XII of Sweden won a famous victory at the Battle of Narva, an early encounter in the Great Northern War. Peter the Great of Russia sought access to the Baltic Sea, which was blocked by the Swedish occupation of Estonia, Livonia, Ingria, Finland and the isthmus of Karelia. Peter allied himself with Denmark and Poland, at the time ruled by Elector Augustus the Strong of Saxony. The allies expected an easy victory, but they were underestimating the pugnacious brilliance of Charles XII (1682–1718), a teenager who had ascended the throne in 1697 and was in command of the most formidable army in Europe. Charles was a highly intelligent risk-taker, whom Voltaire dubbed ‘the Lion of the North’. His lightning strikes and unpredictable movements earned him the nickname ‘Swedish meteor’.

In the summer of 1700, the Swedes attacked Copenhagen and soon secured a Danish capitulation. When Peter the Great declared war in August 1700, Charles made his way to Estonia, where the Russians were besieging the fort of Narva. Outnumbered 4:1, the Swedes attacked in a driving snowstorm. Charging headlong at the Russians, it took them just 30 minutes to drive the besieging army into a panic-stricken retreat across the Narva River. The Swedes inflicted 8,000 casualties, losing only 700 men.

The writing was on the wall for the Russians, and the defeat at Narva forced Peter the Great to overhaul his army and turn it into a modern fighting force. Meanwhile, Charles XII rampaged through Poland, taking Warsaw and Cracow, and forcing Augustus to abdicate. The triumphs of the early 1700s came to an abrupt end in 1709 when Peter the Great crushed the Swedish army Poltava, dealing a deathblow to the Swedish Empire. An injured Charles XII took refuge in the Ottoman Empire, where he remained a semi-captive for four years, and the Russians embarked on a successful campaign against the Baltic fortresses. By the time the peace treaties were signed in 1719–21 Russia had acquired Sweden’s Baltic territories and had emerged as a great power.

Charles meanwhile returned to northern Europe in 1714, this time to confront his old enemy, Denmark. He fell in battle in Danish-held Norway and died in December 1718, aged just 36.

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