The Madman of the North

Charles XII of Sweden had a thirst for war, which made him a target for the British press.

Charles XII at the Battle of Narva, David von Krafft, c.1700 © Fine Art Images/Bridgeman Images
Charles XII at the Battle of Narva, David von Krafft, c.1700 © Fine Art Images/Bridgeman Images

From his childhood Charles XII of Sweden dreamed of being a second Alexander the Great, to the extent that, when questioned about why he would want to emulate a king who died in his early thirties, he is reported to have said: ‘Is not that enough, when one has conquered Kingdoms?’ Charles certainly enjoyed conquering and war – he was rumoured to have slept in his boots – and made sure that both he and Sweden were taken notice of in the foreign press, particularly in Britain, whose burgeoning print trade was taking off during Charles’ exploits in the Great Northern War. The twisting plots and fortunes of Charles’ adventures led to the rise and fall of the king’s own reputation as well as providing excellent copy for a public with an insatiable appetite for foreign news. By the end of his reign he was seen less as Alexander and increasingly as the unhinged ‘Madman of the North’.

At first Charles was viewed as the victim of a conspiracy as Denmark, Poland/Saxony and Russia looked to carve up his empire. Many newspapers and journals praised the teenage king for his heroic defence of his homeland by beating each of his enemies in turn. After the Battle of Narva (1700), against a much bigger Russian force, the English Post celebrated this ‘signal Victory’ against a ‘formidable army’ and even remarked that the Russians scuttled home ‘shamefully’. It was certainly remarkable as Charles managed to capture ten generals and the tsar’s personal physician, beheading the tsarist army in one go.

When Charles moved on to Poland, the Observator praised him for his bravery and for chasing the ‘Polish Tyrant’ Augustus the Strong from his kingdom, even comparing him to Britain’s own William of Orange, who had deposed the last Catholic king, James II, in 1688. When Charles agreed to restore Protestantism to Silesia the view of him as a champion against Catholicism was only strengthened, especially when compared to the Polish king, who had shamefully renounced his own faith and embraced the pope for his crown. By 1708 poets were celebrating Charles in works such as The Gothic Hero, where he was seen as a ‘Great Champion for Liberty, Justice and Religion’, comparing him to all manner of classical heroes including his beloved Alexander the Great.

However, this was not a universal view. Many writers could see the flaws in Charles’ personality, observing not a great Protestant crusader but an ambitious warmongering bully, addicted to his ‘own Glory’ rather than redressing grievances to his country. Daniel Defoe was particularly critical, writing essays in his Review in 1704 that were little more than character assassinations. Augustus the Strong of Poland was many things – a rake who had reportedly fathered more than 300 illegitimate children and a strongman who bent horseshoes for fun – but Charles’ decision to ‘un-king’ him and put a Swedish puppet on the Polish throne was viewed by Defoe as an act of revenge that did not fit the crime.

These worries came increasingly into the open after Charles’ decision in 1709 to do to Russia what he had done to Poland – that is, march to Moscow and try to overthrow the tsar. In Poltava, in modern Ukraine, the British press were able to report ‘one of the most famous and complete’ victories by the Russians; the Swedish king was forced to flee to the Ottoman Empire, ending the spell of Charles’ invincibility. Charles’ weakness allowed Augustus to re-enter the war and try to reclaim his Polish throne, his list of grievances aired in the Daily Courant and replete with tales about the Swedish occupation in which innocent Poles were put to ‘Sword and Fire’.

Having returned from the Ottoman Empire and embarked on yet another war – this time with Norway – Charles was desperate to revive his fortunes. Through their new king George I the British were already working against Sweden, but the arrest of the Swedish ambassador Gyllenburg for conspiring with the Jacobite enemy really gave the British press free rein to go on the propaganda offensive; Charles became a cornered mad dog, willing to work with anyone to achieve his ambitions.

Sweden and its king were viewed as increasingly deranged, dangerous and foolish. Defoe, never one to ignore a good fish metaphor, called the Swedes ‘Codsheads’ and their king the ‘Stockfish Lunatic’ and a ‘Ravenous Bird of Prey’, feeding on whatever territory he could get his hands on. A satirical ballad, The Hero in Blue, appeared in 1717 mocking Charles’ warmongering:

I Sing the bold Man, that sleeps in his Boots,
That lyes upon Straw, and that feeds upon Roots,
And at Random he prays, makes Invasions and Shoots,
Believe me, tis all of it true:
His Religion consists in Trumpets and Drums,
In Storming of Castles, and heaving of Bombs,
And spreads all his Butter on Bread with his Thambs
Unlike a Brave Hero in Blue.

By this point his madman reputation was firmly sealed, any good opinion having been squandered by years of seemingly senseless war. These events also informed perceptions of the ordinary Swedish population. Decades later some British writers thought that even lowly Swedish cobblers needed to be weaned off a desire for ‘Conquest and Glory’ given to them by their former ruler. Charles’ reputation long outlived his mortal body, the king having died in 1718 in a siege, a fitting end for both a military madman and a potential Alexander.


Stewart Tolley teaches 18th-century political history at the Department of Continuing Education at Oxford University.