September 17th, 2012
I'm not sure that I spent a single hour back when I was doing my GCE O-Level in History looking at Sweden's imperial phase. To the extent that I was aware of it at all, it was as the great power that Peter the Great of Russia pushed aside as Russia became a great European power.
All of which means that I somehow missed out on The Blazing Career and Mysterious Death of "the Swedish Meteor":
[Charles XII (1682-1718) was…] An endlessly fascinating figure – austere and fanatical, intelligent yet foolhardy – Charles has some claim to be the greatest of Swedish kings. Voltaire, an admirer, dubbed him "the Lion of the North," and though he was at heart a soldier, whose genius and speed of movement earned him the nickname "the Swedish Meteor," he was also a considerable mathematician with a keen interest in science. In other circumstances, Charles might have turned himself into an early example of that 18th-century archetype, the enlightened despot. Yet plenty of Swedes, then and now, despised their king for impoverishing the country and sacrificing thousands of his subjects by fighting almost from the moment he ascended the throne in 1697 until he died two decades later. For the playwright August Strindberg, he was "Sweden's ruin, the great offender, a ruffian, the rowdies' idol." Even today, the king's biographer Ragnhild Hatton observed, "Swedes can be heard to say that no one shall rob them of their birthright to quarrel about Charles XII."
The story of how Charles XII died – still a matter of debate nearly three hundred years on, apparently – is as fascinating as the story of how he reigned.