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The Great Northern War (1700-1721) was a war in which the so-called Northern Alliance composed of Russiamarker, Denmark-Norway, Poland-Lithuania and Saxonymarker engaged Swedenmarker for the supremacy in the Baltic Seamarker. The war ended with a defeat for Sweden in 1721, leaving Russia as the new major power in the Baltic Seamarker and a new important player in European politics. The war began as a coordinated attack on Sweden by the coalition in 1700 and ended in 1721 with the Treaty of Nystad and the Stockholm treaties.


Between 1560 and 1658, Sweden created a Baltic empire centred on the Gulf of Finlandmarker and comprising the provinces of Kareliamarker, Ingria, Estoniamarker, and Livonia. During the Thirty Years' War Sweden gained tracts in Germanymarker as well, including Western Pomerania, Wismarmarker, the Duchy of Bremen, and Verdenmarker. During the same period Sweden conquered Danish and Norwegian provinces north of the Soundmarker (1645; 1658). These victories may be ascribed to a well-trained army, which despite its comparatively small size was far more professional than most continental armies. In particular, it was able to maintain a high rate of small arms fire due to proficient military drill. However, the Swedish state proved unable to support and maintain its army in a prolonged war as the costs of warfare could not be passed on to occupied countries.

The foreign interventions in Russia during the Time of Troubles resulted in Swedish gains in the Treaty of Stolbovo (1617). The treaty deprived Russia of direct access to the Baltic Seamarker, meaning that the Russians were not in a position to challenge the Swedish regional hegemony. Russian fortunes reversed during the later half of the 17th century, notably with the rise to power of Peter the Great, who looked to address the earlier losses and re-establish a Baltic presence. In the late 1690s, the adventurer Johann Patkul managed to ally Russia with Denmark and Saxony by the Treaty of Preobrazhenskoye and in 1700 the three powers attacked.

Opposing armies

In 1700, Charles XII had a standing army based on annual training and consisting of 77,000 men, but by 1707 this number had swollen to at least 120,000 despite casualties. It was the army with the best morale in northern Europe, but not the greatest numerically. In contrast, the larger Ottoman forces were poorly disciplined and lacking in morale.

Russia was able to mobilize 170,000 men but could not put all of them into action simultaneously. Furthermore, the Russian mobilization system was ineffective, and the expanding nation had to be defended everywhere — garrisons had to be supported and the war paid for. A grand mobilization covering Russia's vast territories would have been unrealistic. Peter the Great tried to enhance his army's morale to Swedish levels.

Denmark contributed 20,000 men in their invasion of Holstein-Gottorp and several more on other fronts. Poland and Saxony together could mobilize at least 100,000 men.

Swedish victories

From the very beginning of the Great Northern War, Sweden suffered from the inability of Charles XII to view the situation from anything but a purely personal point of view. His determination to avenge himself on enemies overpowered every other consideration. Time and again during the 18 years of warfare it was in his power to dictate an advantageous peace, but he decided against from moral beliefs. He would not take over the Polish throne, instead giving it to the other candidate, Stanisław. He also had the chance to crush Saxony but chose instead to let them walk out because he believed highly in the word of royals. The early part of the war consisted of a continual string of Swedish victories under Charles XII. Denmark was forced to withdraw from the war in the summer of 1700. After a minor engagement at Holstein-Gottorp and a Swedish landing of troops at Zealand they agreed to a treaty not to engage in further hostilities against Sweden. Russia then suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Narva in November.

After the dissipation of the first coalition through the peace of Travendal and the victory at Narva, the Swedish chancellor, Benedict Oxenstjerna, rightly regarded the universal bidding for the favor of Sweden by Francemarker and the maritime powers, then on the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession, as a golden opportunity of ending the war and making Charles the arbiter of Europe.

At that time, the representatives of Poland-Lithuania (which considered itself neutral despite its king's active participation in the anti-Swedish coalition) offered to serve as mediators between the Swedish king and Augustus. But Charles, intent on dethroning Augustus of Saxony from the Polish throne, attacked Polandmarker, therefore ending the official neutrality of Poland-Lithuania. Five years later, on 24 September 1706, he concluded the Polish War through the treaty of Altranstadtmarker, but, this treaty brought no advantage to Sweden, not even compensation for the expenses of six years of warfare. But he did attain his goal of dethroning August II and putting his ally Stanisław on the throne. Since he believed that Poles in general were not responsible he didn't do anything more. That has been regarded as a mistake since it became very easy for August II to retake the throne.

Russian victories

During the years between 1700 and 1707, two of Sweden's Baltic provinces, Estoniamarker and Ingria, had been seized by the Tsar, and a third, Livonia, had been essentially ruined. To secure his acquisitions, Peter founded the city of Saint Petersburgmarker in Ingria in 1703. He began to build a navy and a modern-style army, based primarily on infantry drilled in the use of firearms.

Even now Charles, by a stroke of the pen, could have recovered nearly everything he had lost. In 1707, Peter was ready to retrocede everything except Saint Petersburg and the line of the Neva, and again Charles preferred risking the whole to saving the greater part of his Baltic possessions. The year following, he invaded Russia, but was frustrated in Smolenskmarker by Generalissimo Menshikov and headed to Ukrainemarker for the winter. However, the abilities of his force were sapped by the cold weather and Peter's use of scorched earth tactics. When the campaign started again in the spring of 1709, a third of his force had been lost and he was crushingly defeated by a larger and better-fed Russian force under Peter in the Battle of Poltavamarker, fleeing to the Ottoman Empire and spending five years in exile. Peter's victory shook all European courts. In just one day, Russia emerged as a major European power.

This shattering defeat did not end the war, although it decided it. Denmark and Saxony joined the war again and Augustus the Strong, through the crafty politics of Boris Kurakin, regained the Polish throne. Peter continued his campaigns in the Baltics, and eventually he built up a powerful navy. In 1710 the Russians captured Rigamarker, Tallinnmarker and Viipurimarker. In 1714, Peter's galley navy managed to capture a small detachment of the Swedish navy in the first Russian naval victorymarker near Hanko peninsulamarker.

The Russian army occupied Finlandmarker mostly in 1713-1714, Viipuri had been captured already in 1710. The last stand of the Finnish troops was in the battle of Napue in early 1714 in Isokyrömarker, Ostrobothniamarker. The occupation period of Finland in 1714-1721 is known as the Greater Wrath ( ).


Though Charles returned from the Ottoman Empire and resumed personal control of the war effort, initiating a series of Norwegian Campaigns, he accomplished little before his death in 1718 during the siege of Fredrikstenmarker in Norwaymarker. Only the firmness of the Chancellor, Count Arvid Horn, held Sweden in the war until Charles finally returned from the Ottoman Empire, arriving in Swedish heldmarker Stralsundmarker in November 1714 on the south shore of the Baltic. In nearby Greifswaldmarker, already lost to Sweden, Russian tsar Peter the Great and English king George I, in his position as duke of Hanover, had just signed an alliance on 17 /28 October. Charles was then at war with all of Northern Europe, and Stralsund was doomed. Charles remained there until December 1715, escaping only days before Stralsund fell. By this point, Charles was considered mad by many, as he would not consider peace and the price Sweden had paid was already dear, with no hope in sight. All of Sweden’s Baltic and German possessions were lost.

Over the next few years little changed, but a series of raids on Sweden itself demonstrated that there was little fight left, and soon Prussia, Hanovermarker, and many smaller German states entered the war in the hope of gaining territory when peace was made. Eventually a series of massive seaborne invasions by combined Danish and Russian navies of the Swedish homeland forced the issue.

The war was finally concluded by the Treaty of Nystad between Russia and Sweden in Uusikaupunkimarker (Nystad) in 1721. Sweden had lost almost all of its "overseas" holdings gained in the 17th century, and ceased to be a major power. Russia gained its Baltic territories, and became the greatest power in Eastern Europe. Denmark gained complete control over Schleswig-Holsteinmarker, as a duchy under the king. Prussia and Hanover, which made peace agreements with Sweden before Russia, gained territory from Sweden's German possessions. Sweden's dissatisfaction with the result would lead to its fruitless attempts at recovering the lost territories, such as Hats' Russian War, and Gustav III's Russian War.



  • Sweden and the Baltic, 1523 – 1721, by Andrina Stiles, Hodder & Stoughton, 1992 ISBN 0-340-54644-1
  • The Struggle for Supremacy in the Baltic: 1600-1725 by Jill Lisk; Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1967
  • The Northern Wars, 1558-1721 by Robert I. Frost; Longman, Harlow, England; 2000 ISBN 0-582-06429-5
  • Norges festninger by Guthorm Kavli; Universitetsforlaget; 1987; ISBN 82-00-18430-7
  • Admiral Thunderbolt by Hans Christian Adamson, Chilton Company, 1958
  • East Norway and its Frontier by Frank Noel Stagg, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. 1956

See also

Extensive information on the major battles and campaigns of the Great Northern War can be found as part of these articles:

External links

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