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The Last Stand of an Empire: The Great Northern War

Updated: Jan 29

Written by Arda Kizilkaya

The Great Northern War was one of the most important events in shaping history into what it is today. It was a war between the Tsardom of Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Saxony, and Denmark-Norway against the Swedish Empire. The war cost both sides a lot of resources since the battles lasted for 21 years (1700-1721). In the end, the Swedish Empire lost the war to Russia and its allies.

The Path of War

The war started because of the massive Swedish expansion that opposed its neighbor's interests the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was growing interest in taking Livonia (which is most of modern-day Estonia and Latvia), Denmark-Norway was against Sweden for taking her Scandinavian provinces, especially Scania, and was also aggrieved by Sweden’s alliance with the ducal house of Holstein-Gottorp, which contained Denmark from the south and prevented the Danish crown’s reabsorption of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Lastly, the Tsardom of Russia had been expressing their desire to capture territory on the Baltic Sea. At that time, the Baltic Sea was under Swedish control, which benefited greatly from the numerous sea trade routes and ports. Russia and Sweden had conflicted for centuries over the control of land on the coast of Finland. In 1584, Sweden took control of a large section of Russian coastal land, including Novgorod, but they returned Novgorod to Russia in 1616. Sweden’s control of these provinces cut off Russia from the sea, and Peter was well aware of the economic loss Russia suffered.

Calm Before Storm (1697-1700)

The death of the Swedish king Charles XI in 1697, when his heir, Charles XII, a boy of 14, sparked the signal for Denmark-Norway to organize an anti-Swedish coalition. They talked about forming the anti-Swedish coalition for two years from 1698 to 1699. during the talking the tsar of Russia Peter I (The Great) said that he would not declare war until he signed peace with the Ottoman Empire he didn’t want to face a Western army whilst having an enemy in the south because if he didn’t sign peace with the Ottomans they would most likely redeclare war which split the Russian army that would mean the total collapse of the Russian army. In 1699 the anti-Swedish coalition was officially formed and the powers in the coalition started to mobilize to attack the Swedish Empire. The new century was calm when it started, but all hell cut loose in February of 1700.

A New Century, A New War

In February 1700, Augustus II king of Poland and elector of Saxony, attacked Livonia, two months after the Polish declaration of war (March 1700) Frederick IV, king of Denmark and Norway, marched into Schleswig and Holstein. With that, the Great Northern War officially started. When the war started the Russians didn’t declare war against Sweden until October 1700. Sadly for the coalition, Charles XII of Sweden would respond first by concentrating his forces against Denmark-Norway. Landing a few miles from Copenhagen, he compelled Frederick to withdraw from the anti-Swedish alliance before the Russians joined the fight and to sign the Treaty of Traventhal in August 1700, which restored the status quo.

The Siege of Narva

In October 1700 the Russians declared war and in September they placed a siege on the city of Narva, which was located on the bank of the river Naróva. Built by the Danish in the 13th century, it was surrounded by a well-armed fortress, the city also allowed the Russians to build ships since it was a coastline, which made it a primary target for the Russians. It was soon to be seen that the Russian forces were not up to the task of a siege. There were not enough men, and the Russian cannons were not causing enough damage to the enemy. As Winter approached, the Russian army was faced with sickness, and with Peter’s desertion, since he wasn't in charge of the army, Peter left the command to Duke de Croy and left the frontlines. Charles XII saw this as the perfect opportunity to break the siege in Narva and to cut the Russian morale. Impressively, 8,000 of Charles XII’s men took on the Russian army, which was around 24,000, and managed to defeat them on November 20, 1700. The Russian army was devasted by the defeat at Narva since they couldn't even retreat properly because of the snowstorm which seriously hindered their sight. Over 5,000 men were lost to the Swedes. When Peter learned about the defeat, he ordered the surviving troops to go to Nóvgorod. Peter then had to rebuild his army. The scattered troops were reorganized and numbered over 34,000; fortifications were strengthened, new weapons were gathered, and new taxes were introduced to pay for it all. In 1701, Peter met with Augustus II for negotiations, which lasted for ten days. Both Peter and Augustus agreed to continue the war against Sweden. They decided they would need both countries to agree before withdrawing from the war. Poland would focus on Swedish Livonia and Estonia, while Russia would work on Karelia and Ingria.

The Polish and Livonian Campaign

Charles XII decided that he could not fight both the Russian army and the Polish army at the same time and turned his attention towards defeating Augustus. So he turned his army against the Poles and the Saxons, occupying Courland and forcing Augustus to retreat into Poland. Determined to depose Augustus, Charles spent six years fighting him; only after the Swedes invaded Saxony, however, did Augustus agree to relinquish his Polish crown and break his Russian alliance in late 1706. While that was happening, in January 1702, Russia won its first great victory at Erestfer in eastern Livonia, with around 3,000 Swedish soldiers being killed. In July 1702, Sheremetev (Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army) and his men faced the Swedish Colonel Wolmar Anton von Schlippenbach at Hummelshof in Livonia. after that battle, the Swedish troops were almost wiped out, which meant Livonia was now virtually undefended, and it did not take much for Sheremetev and his men to capture all the remaining towns.

The Battle of Poltava

Charles XII had decided to take the town of Poltava, a small town on the bank of the Vorskla River. He had heard rumors that 5,000 Russian soldiers were staying there and had an abundance of supplies, which his men greatly needed. In May of 1709, Charles XII began a siege that his generals adamantly opposed, as the Swedish army was no longer the strong and large army it once was. Meanwhile, the Russians had taken position across from the Vorskla River and were waiting for Peter’s arrival. Unlike others, Peter took full command of his army in this battle. After learning that the Swedish army was running out of gunpowder, he decided to cross the Vorskla River. On June 27, the Swedish army attacked, but it did not take long for Russia’s superior army to thwart their attack. The Russians and the Swedes then met in an open field and battled each other. Peter was in the thick of battle and showed great courage, to inspire his men. Although Charles XII was seriously injured, he had himself carried out on a stretcher as he encouraged his men to fight. Within a few hours, the battle ended with the Russians victorious. The remainder of the Swedish army had been arrested, marking the end of the once brave and mighty Swedish army.

The Treaty of Nystadt

After much back and forth between Russia and Sweden and with other countries like Britain and Prussia getting involved, the Treaty of Nystadt was finally signed on 30 August 1721. Russia gave up Finland, agreed to pay a large amount of money for Livonia, and gave the Swedes the right to buy


  1. Miate, L. (2022). Great Northern war. World History Encyclopedia.

  2. Second Northern War. (2022, July 20). Encyclopedia Britannica.\


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