A Weakened Empire
|Peter the Great|
Encouraged by Augustus of Poland Czar Peter turned covetous eyes on the Baltic states[i], currently under Swedish dominion. Sweden was at the height of its imperial power but now, under the rule of an inexperienced adolescent, Sweden’s rivals sensed her vulnerabilities. The empire was over-extended and her Baltic provinces blocked Peter’s desired expansion to the Baltic. To Peter the lands bordering the Baltic’s eastern shores were Russian[ii], Karelia[iii] and Ingria[iv] had once come under Russian dominion.Charles XI of Sweden and his ministers had been determined to crack down on their new province of Livonia[v] and in doing so created a bête noir; Johann Reinhold von Patkul was a Livonian noble, having pleaded with the Swedish King in vain
‘You have spoken like an honest man for your fatherland. I thank you.’[vi]With the death of Charles on 5th April 1697 Patkul determined to remove Livonia from the claws of Sweden. In October 1698 he arrived in Warsaw in an attempt to persuade Augustus to join an anti-Swedish alliance.
Patkul had already met with Frederick IV, King of Denmark, who was willing to join the fray[vii]. Augustus hoped to turn his position of elected King of Poland into a hereditary position. To that end he wanted to take back Livonia from the Swedes, as a bribe to the Polish nobility. Patkul suggested that Austria, France, England and the Netherlands would do little more than protest; telling Augustus that conquering Livonia would be easy, he passed over details of the fortifications of Riga.A joint offensive treaty between Poland and Denmark was signed. Denmark was to clear Schleswig and Holstein of Swedish troops, before mounting an attack on Scania. By January or February 1700 Augustus was to be ready to attack Riga. At this point Patkul suggested involving the Russians, who could attack Ingria, providing further distractions for the Swedes. Patkul accompanied an embassy from Augustus to Russia.
The Swedish king Charles XII sent a rival embassy to Russia; Peter met with both embassies and agreed with the Swedes to confirm treaties of peace between the two countries. Three days after the Swedish embassy’s departure Peter agreed to make war on Sweden, but only after the signing of a Russo-Turkish amnesty or peace treaty.
The War in the NorthTo meet his promises to Augustus Peter had to mobilise, train and equip an army within three months. A decree was issued to all clerical and civil landowners[viii] and volunteers were called for. Peter deeply felt the loss of General Gordon[ix], who died in November 1699. This was the second death of an old friend; Lefort had died in the previous March. Peter placed himself in charge of the training. In charge of the army he placed three Russians[x] all the regimental commanders were foreigners.
In February 1700 war was launched on Sweden without any formal declaration; 14,000 Saxon troops invaded Livonia and laid siege to Riga. The commanding general was killed; Peter, in Voronezh preparing for a possible further outbreak of war with the Turks, was disgusted with his ally.
‘The King…..should have been Livonia leading his troops himself instead of “diverting himself with women” in Saxony.’[xi]
Frederick of Denmark
In March Frederick of Denmark attacked Holstein[xii], besieging Tönning. His allies wanted Peter to attack Ingria, but as Peter said
‘It is a pity, but there is nothing to be done. I have not heard from Constantinople.’[xiii]The rumours that the Turks were preparing for war again led Peter to rekindle good relations with Sweden. Throughout the spring these rumours proliferated, but on 8th August the news was finally received in Moscow; the Sublime Porte had signed a thirty year armistice on 3rd July. The following day Peter declared war on Sweden.
The Alliance of Poland, Denmark and RussiaCharles XII of Sweden, although young was determined to rid his empire of the invaders;
‘It is curious that both my cousins, Frederick and Augustus, wish to make war on me. So be it. But King Augustus has broken his word. Our cause then, is just, and God will help us.’[xiv]Sweden was a powerful military power, but her enemies viewed Charles’ youth as a major weakness. Charles was not distracted by having two opponents in the first instance. His strategy was to deal with one and then the other.
Charles XII was supported by the major Protestant sea powers in Europe, England and the Netherlands; King William was implacably opposed to any change in the European status quo that might advantage Louis XIV of France. He also did not want his fellow sovereigns to be distracted by a war in northern Europe.
‘This reason has long engaged the English and Dutch, as much as possible, to hold the balance even between the Princes of the north. They joined themselves to the young King of Sweden, who seemed ready to be swallowed up by so many enemies.’[xv]The Swedish navy of 38 ships and 12 frigates controlled the Baltic; but the open seas were controlled by the Danish-Norwegian navy. To gain access to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean required a joint action by the Swedes and the Anglo-Dutch squadron sent by William.
By June the combined allied navy of sixty ships were ready to meet the forty strong Danish-Norwegian navy. The Danes were unwilling to risk their navy with these odds and Charles was free to ferry his army across to Zealand and attack the Danes on their home ground.In early July a force of 4,000 Swedes were landed on the island and within a further ten days a force of 10,000 were established. The outnumbered Danish forces withdrew into Copenhagen. Frederick IV hurried back from Holstein to find himself forced to come to terms.
‘The King of Sweden would not suffer the artifice of the ministers to draw out the negotiations into any length; he would have the treaty finished with as much rapidity as he made his descent into Zealand.’[xvi]Narva
The Treaty of Travendal was signed on 18th August 1700; the Danes were required to leave the anti-Swedish alliance and return Holstein to its duke. Charles was now free to turn his attentions on the Poles in Latavia.
Peter’s attack on the Baltic provinces focussed on Ingria and Karelia. The news of his proposed line of attack was not received with pleasure by his allies.
‘We found him [Peter] so stubborn that we feared to touch anymore on such a delicate subject and must be satisfied with the Tsar’s break in the hope that in time Narva will be in our hands.’[xvii]By mid-September the governor of Novgorod had received orders to march on Narva and invest it with a force of 8,000 men. Command of the army was given to Golovin[xviii]; by 4th October his troops before Narva totalled 35,000 men. The army suffered from supply problems, being over one hundred miles from the nearest Russian town.
By the end of November the artillery bombardment of the town was temporarily ceased for lack of ammunition. Augustus had gone into winter quarters and news arrived in the Russian camp that Charles XII had landed Swedish troops on the coast, 150 miles from Narva.Charles had withdrawn his troops from Zealand; the protection of the Anglo-Dutch squadron had been withdrawn. The hazardous trip across the Baltic was enlivened by a storm that crippled ships and cavalry horses. Nevertheless Charles had his army en route for Narva by 13th November.
Eighteen miles west of Narva General Sheremetev waited with 5,000 horse. Charles positioned his artillery and charged. Sheremetev’s men, lacking artillery retreated, under orders from Peter not to engage with the Swedish army.Sheremetev’s troops pursued a scorched land policy in their planned retreat. Overnight on 17th-18th November Peter passed command of his army to the Duc du Croy[xix], and with Golovin left for Novgorod to speed up reinforcements and demand of Augustus why he was not prosecuting the fight during the winter[xx]. Peter, used to the leisurely speed that Russian armies conducted war, did not believe that Charles would act precipitately.
Tomb of the Duc du Croy
But Charles was a man with a mission, to save Narva. Du Croy was in an unfortunate position; he did not speak Russian and he did not know the disposition of the troops. On 20th November Charles took advantage of a storm that blew up; snow was blowing into the Russian lines. He attacked against an enemy blinded by the snow. The Russian lines before Narva fell like ninepins; all save six Russian battalions, including the Preobrahensky and the Semyonovsky guards.Most of the foreign officers, including du Croy, surrendered and were sent to Reval along with Peter’s personal physician and Peter Lefort, the nephew of Peter’s old friend. They were to remain there for a very long time[xxi].
‘But at last their generals Dolhorouky, Gollouin, and Fedorwitz surrendered themselves to the King, and laid their arms at his majesty’s feet. And in the instant they were offering them, came up the Duke of Croy the general of the army, to surrender himself with thirty officers.’[xxii]The small exhausted Swedish army had defeated an army much greater in size than their own. For Peter it was a huge disgrace. Charles struck a medallion showing his enemy running away from the battle, which caused much amusement across Europe. The battle instilled in Charles a belief in himself and his invincibility and an undeserved contempt for Peter that was to be the cause of his undoing.
BibliographyNatasha’s Dance – Orlando Figes, Penguin Books Ltd 2002
Russia and the Russians – Geoffrey Hosking, The Penguin Press 2001Peter the Great – Robert K Massie, Abacus 1992
The History of Charles XII of Sweden – Mr de Voltaire, C Davis & A Lyon 1732www.wikipedia.en
[i] Now Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
[ii] Russian hero Alexander Nevsky had beaten the Swedes at the Neva river in 1240.
[iii] North of Lake Ladoga
[iv] At the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland
[v] The Protestants of Livonia had been subject to the domination of Catholic Poland and in 1660 Livonia had transferred to Sweden. The new king now demanded the return of lands parcelled out to the nobility (reduction), in an attempt to centralise power in the hands of the monarchy. Despite a prior promise to the Livonians that the policy of reduction would not apply to them, the Livonian nobility were now to be dispossessed
[vi] Peter the Great - Massie
[viii] One serf per 50 households for civil landowners and one serf per 25 households for clerical landowners
[ix] Peter had sat beside his friend as he died
[x] Golovin, Weide and Repnin
[xi] Peter the Great - Massie
[xii] Ruled by the King of Sweden’s brother-in-law
[xiii] Peter the Great - Massie
[xv] The History of Charles XII - Voltaire
[xvii] Peter the Great - Massie
[xviii] One of the ambassadors on the Great Embassy
[xix] An observer for King Augustus
[xx] Not normally a season for fighting
[xxi] Du Croy died in captivity, and due to the fact that he was in debt, his creditors would not allow him to be buried.
[xxii] The History of Charles XII - Voltaire