Undergraduate Research Journal


Charles XII, King of Sweden (1682-1718), had the unique ability of imposing his will on any given situation and the equally unique fortune of almost always coming out ahead in the game. He was an absolute monarch with that rare combination of courage and daring, a skilled tactician who excelled on the battlefield. All of Europe marveled at his victories, particularly Narva and his Polish exploits. Each of these remarkable successes was a kind of military education for the young king, but the relative ease with which he triumphed was deceptive in that this string of battles played into a false narrative that he was unbeatable. From the start of the Great Northern War (1700-21), Charles XII’s principle adversary, Peter I of Russia believed this, yet Peter was circumspect. Even after successive defeats, he said, “The Swedes will go on beating us for a long time, but eventually they will teach us how to beat them.” Fortunately for Peter, as it turned out, Charles also thought himself unbeatable and the battle of Poltava (1709) would determine, once and for all, whose version of reality would triumph. By overestimating his own force and underestimating Peter the Great’s oppositional force, Charles XII failed to realistically assess the potential risks and real dangers of his Russian invasion, and this proved to be the main cause of both Charles’s momentous collapse and Peter’s stunning, watershed victory.

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