Great Northern War

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This is an article about the 18th century war. For wars with similar name see Northern Seven Years' War (1563-1570), Northern Wars (16551661) and the First Maori War (1845-1846)

The Great Northern War was the war fought between a coalition of Russia, Denmark-Norway and Saxony-Poland (from 1715 also Prussia and Hanover) on one side and Sweden on the other side from 1700 to 1721. It started by a coordinated attack on Sweden by the coalition in 1700, and ended 1721 with the conclusion of the Treaty of Nystad, and the Stockholm treaties. As a result of the war, Russia supplanted Sweden as the dominant Power on the Baltic Sea and became a major player in European politics.



Between 1560 and 1660, Sweden created a Baltic empire centered on the Gulf of Finland and comprising the provinces of Karelia, Ingria, Estonia, and Livonia. During the Thirty Years' War Sweden gained tracts in Germany as well, including Western Pomerania, Wismar, the Duchy of Bremen, and Verden. At the same period Sweden conquered Danish and some Norwegian provinces north of the Sound (1645; 1660). These victories may be ascribed to a good training of the army, which was far more professional than most continental armies, and could maintain much higher rates of fire due to constant training with their firearms. However, Sweden was unable to support and maintain her army when the war was prolonged and the costs of warfare could not be passed to occupied countries.

In 1617 Sweden's gains in the Treaty of Stolbovo had deprived Russia of direct access to the Baltic Sea, and internal strife during the first half much of the 1600s meant that they were never in a position to challenge Sweden for these gains. 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 and in 1700 the three powers attacked.

Swedish victories

The Swedish Victory at Narva, 1700 by Gustaf Cederström, painted 1910
The Swedish Victory at Narva, 1700 by Gustaf Cederström, painted 1910

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 Northern overpowered every other consideration. Again and again during these eighteen years of warfare it was in his power to dictate an advantageous peace. The early part of the war consisted of a continual string of Swedish victories under Charles XII. Denmark was defeated in the summer of 1700 in what was to be the first major battle of the war, and so beaten that she could not participate in the war for a number of years. Russia was next, and suffered a crushing defeat in the Battle of Narva in November.

After the dissipation of the first coalition against him by the peace of Travendal and the victory of Narva, the Swedish chancellor, Benedict Oxenstjerna, rightly regarded the universal bidding for the favor of Sweden by France and the maritime powers, then on the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession, as a golden opportunity of ending this present lean war and making his majesty the arbiter of Europe. At that time the representatives of Poland-Lithuania (which considered itself neutral in 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, held haughtily aloof and attacked Poland, therefore ending the official neutrality of Poland-Lithuania. Five years later (September 24, 1706) he did, indeed, conclude the Polish War by the peace of Altranstadt, but as this treaty brought no advantage to Sweden, not even compensation for the expenses of six years of warfare, it was politically condemnable.

Russian victories

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

The Russian Victory at Gangut, 1714 by Maurice Baquoi, etched 1724
The Russian Victory at Gangut, 1714 by Maurice Baquoi, etched 1724

Yet 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 St 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 Smolensk by Generalissimo Menshikov and headed to Ukraine 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, 1/3rd of his force had been lost, and he was crushingly defeated by Peter in the Battle of Poltava, 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 1714, Peter's galley navy managed to capture a small detachment of the Swedish navy in the first Russian naval victory near Hangö udde (see Battle of Gangut for details).


Though Charles returned from the Ottoman Empire and resumed personal control of the war effort, he had little time to accomplish anything before his death in 1718. 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 and Hanover 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 in 1721. Sweden had lost almost all of her "overseas" holdings gained in the 17th century, and was no longer a major power. Russia gained her Baltic territories, and from then on was the greatest power in Eastern Europe. Sweden's dissatisfaction with the result would lead to its fruitless attempts at recovering the lost territories, such as Hats' Russian War, Gustav III's Russian War, and Finnish War.

It has been suggested that Great Northern War and Norway be merged into this article or section. (Discuss)

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.

See Also

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

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