The Death of Karl XII

By Nordling, Carl O. | Scandinavian Studies, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Death of Karl XII


Nordling, Carl O., Scandinavian Studies


A Case of Political Murder

In November or 1718, Sweden was at war with Russia and Denmark. As king of Sweden, the thirty-six year old Karl XII was the absolute ruler of one of the great powers of Europe. The Great Nordic War had lasted all his adult life, and so far he had managed to make peace with two of Sweden's enemies, Poland and Saxony. His counselor and unofficial minister of finance, Baron Goertz (1668-1719), was on Aland, negotiating for peace with Russia. King Karl himself was leading an attack on the Danish fortress of Fredriksten in southern Norway near the Swedish border.

On November 30, one of the three outer fortifications had already been taken by storm. The final assault on the main fortress was being prepared. All evening, King Karl was supervising the digging of the most advanced trench from a position in the newly completed trench just behind it. His head and shoulders were visible above the breastwork since the enemy had illuminated the field with fires on the walls, and the moon was up. Baron Goertz was expected to return any day with a report on Czar Peter's attitude towards Sweden's proposals for peace and alliance. The fortress was generally expected to fall within a week opening the way toward Christiania, while another Swedish army was advancing toward Trondhjem in the north. From a military and diplomatic perspective, it was a critical week in the history of Sweden and Denmark. At precisely this juncture, about ten o'clock at night, a bullet hit King Karl piercing the tuck of his felt hat and head. The King died instantly.

The death of King Karl precipitated an abrupt change in Swedish policy initiated by Count Frederick of Hessen-Kassel (1674-1751), the Swedish generalissimus and brother-in-law of the King, who took over the reins of the government in the name of his wife, Ulrica Eleonora, the sister of Karl. The assault on Norway was suspended, both armies were ordered to retreat, the negotiations with the Czar were discontinued, and the much hated Baron Goertz was arrested and soon executed after a sham trial. The recently promulgated capital tax, intended to confiscate seventeen percent of all revenue, was rescinded before going into effect. King Karl was, thus, succeeded by his sister, who fifteen months later abdicated in favor of her husband. King Karl's death at this crucial moment, by a bullet to the side of his head has led historians to suspect assassination. This interpretation is based on reminiscences of persons involved and finds support in recent ballistic and forensic evidence.

Count Frederick himself was the first to comment on the King's death. In one of his three surviving letters from the period, he speaks about a cartouche bullet, which would imply an enemy shot. Other early sources agree on this point. Early reports from Stockholm speak about a shot from the right side, which would possibly suggest an assassin. In addition, the Stockholm gossip mentions a small bullet or a musket ball. An assertion that just one Danish bullet was fired on the night in question has arisen on a few occasions, but reliable sources, such as the diary of the governor of Fredriksten, confirm that shelling and bombardment were, in fact, massive. The first innuendos about assassination stem from February 26 and 27, 1719 and occur in funeral and commemorative poems (Uppstrom 25-34).

The skull of King Karl is extant and the bullet holes are convincing enough as to the cause of death. The King's hat with the 19.5 mm bullet hole is on permanent display in the Royal Castle of Stockholm. But the question of the origin of the bullet--a random bullet from the fortress or one fired by a nearby assassin--has been a controversial issue for almost 300 years. Many books and articles have been published supporting both theories. The latest Swedish national encyclopedia, Nationalencyklopedin, for example, says, "De seglivade ryktena om att K[arl XII] lonnmordats kan numera avvisas" (447 n. …

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