Frederick IV. conceded full sovereignty to Charles’s ally and kinsman the duke of Gottorp, besides paying him an indemnity of 200,000 rix-dollars and solemnly engaging to commit no hostilities against Sweden in future. From Sjaelland Charles now hastened to Livonia with 8000 men. On the 6th of October he had reached Pernau, with the intention of first relieving Riga, but, hearing that Narva was in great straits, he decided to turn northwards against the tsar. He set out for Narva on the 13th of November, against the advice of all his generals, who feared the effect on untried troops of a week’s march through a wasted land, along boggy roads guarded by no fewer than three formidable passes which a little engineering skill could easily have made impregnable. Fortunately, the two first passes were unoccupied; and the third, Pyhäjoggi, was captured by Charles, who with 400 horsemen put 6000 Russian cavalry to flight. On the 19th of November the little army reached Lagena, a village about 9 m. from Narva, whence it signalled its approach to the beleaguered fortress, and early on the following morning it advanced in battle array. The attack on the Russian fortified camp began at two o’clock in the afternoon, in the midst of a violent snowstorm; and by nightfall the whole position was in the hands of the Swedes: the Russian army was annihilated. The triumph was as cheap as it was crushing; it cost Charles less than 2000 men.
After Narva, Charles XII. stood at the parting of ways. His best advisers urged him to turn all his forces against the panic-stricken Muscovites; to go into winter-quarters amongst them and live at their expense; to fan into a flame the smouldering discontent caused by the reforms of Peter the Great, and so disable Russia for some time to come. But Charles’s determination promptly to punish the treachery of Augustus prevailed over every other consideration. It is easy from the vantage-point of two centuries to criticize Charles XII. for neglecting the Russians to pursue the Saxons; but at the beginning of the 18th century his decision was natural enough. The real question was, which of the two foes was the more dangerous, and Charles had many reasons to think the civilized and martial Saxons far more formidable than the imbecile Muscovites. Charles also rightly felt that he could never trust the treacherous Augustus to remain quiet, even if he made peace with him. To leave such a foe in his rear, while he plunged into the heart of Russia would have been hazardous indeed. From this point of view Charles’s whole Polish policy, which has been blamed so long and so loudly—the policy of placing a nominee of his own on the Polish throne—takes quite another complexion: it was a policy not of overvaulting ambition, but of prudential self-defence.
First, however, Charles cleared Livonia of the invader (July 1701), subsequently occupying the duchy of Courland and converting it into a Swedish governor-generalship. In January 1702 Charles established himself at Bielowice in Lithuania, and, after issuing a proclamation declaring that “the elector of Saxony” had forfeited the Polish crown, set out for Warsaw, which he reached on the 14th of May. The cardinal-primate was then sent for and commanded to summon a diet, for the purpose of deposing Augustus. A fortnight later Charles quitted Warsaw, to seek the elector; on the 2nd of July routed the combined Poles and Saxons at Klissow; and three weeks later, captured the fortress of Cracow by an act of almost fabulous audacity. Thus, within four months of the opening of the campaign, the Polish capital and the coronation city were both in the possession of the Swedes. After Klissow, Augustus made every effort to put an end to the war, but Charles would not even consider his offers. By this time, too, he had conceived a passion for the perils and adventures of warfare. His character was hardening, and he deliberately adopted the most barbarous expedients for converting the Augustan Poles to his views. Such commands as “ravage, singe, and burn all about, and reduce the whole district to a wilderness!” “sweat contributions well out of them!” “rather let the innocent suffer than the guilty escape!” became painfully frequent in the mouth of the young commander, not yet 21, who was far from being naturally cruel.
The campaign of 1703 was remarkable for Charles’s victory at Pultusk (April 21) and the long siege of Thorn, which occupied him eight months but cost him only 50 men. On the 2nd of July 1704, with the assistance of a bribing fund, Charles’s ambassador at Warsaw, Count Arvid Bernard Horn, succeeded in forcing through the election of Charles’s candidate to the Polish throne, Stanislaus Leszczynski, who could not be crowned however till the 24th of September 1705, by which time the Saxons had again been defeated at Punitz. From the autumn of 1705 to the spring of 1706, Charles was occupied in pursuing the Russian auxiliary army under Ogilvie through the forests of Lithuania. On the 5th of August, he recrossed the Vistula and established himself in Saxony, where his presence in the heart of Europe, at the very crisis of the war of the Spanish Succession, fluttered all the western diplomats. The allies, in particular, at once suspected that Louis XIV. had bought the Swedes. Marlborough was forthwith sent from the Hague to the castle of Altranstädt near Leipzig, where Charles had fixed his headquarters, “to endeavour to penetrate the designs” of the king of Sweden. He soon convinced himself that western Europe had nothing to fear from Charles, and that no bribes were necessary to turn the Swedish arms from Germany to Russia. Five months later (Sept. 1707) Augustus was forced to sign the peace of Altranstädt, whereby he resigned the Polish throne and renounced every anti-Swedish alliance. Charles’s departure from Saxony was delayed for twelve months by a quarrel with the emperor. The court of Vienna had treated the Silesian Protestants with tyrannical severity, in direct contravention of the treaty of Osnabrück, of which Sweden was one of the guarantors; and Charles demanded summary and complete restitution so dictatorially that the emperor prepared for war. But the allies interfered in Charles’s favour, lest he might be tempted to aid France, and induced the emperor to satisfy all the Swedish king’s demands, the maritime Powers at the same time agreeing to guarantee the provisions of the peace of Altranstädt.
Nothing now prevented Charles from turning his victorious arms against the tsar; and on the 13th of August 1707, he evacuated Saxony at the head of the largest host he ever commanded, consisting of 24,000 horse and 20,000 foot. Delayed during the autumn months in Poland by the tardy arrival of reinforcements from Pomerania, it was not till November 1707 that Charles was able to take the field. On New Year’s Day 1708 he crossed the Vistula, though the ice was in a dangerous condition. On the 4th of July 1708 he cut in two the line of the Russian army, 6 m. long, which barred his progress on the Wabis, near Holowczyn, and compelled it to retreat. The victory of Holowczyn, memorable besides as the last pitched battle won by Charles XII., opened up the way to the Dnieper. The Swedish army now began to suffer severely, bread and fodder running short, and the soldiers subsisting entirely on captured bullocks. The Russians slowly retired before the invader, burning and destroying everything in his path. On the 20th of December it was plain to Charles himself that Moscow was inaccessible. But the idea of a retreat was intolerable to him, so he determined to march southwards instead of northwards as suggested by his generals, and join his forces with those of the hetman of the Dnieperian Cossacks, Ivan Mazepa, who had 100,000 horsemen and a fresh and fruitful land at his disposal. Short of falling back upon Livonia, it was the best plan adoptable in the circumstances, but it was rendered abortive by Peter’s destruction of Mazepa’s capital Baturin, so that when Mazepa joined Charles at Horki, on the 8th of November 1708, it was as a ruined man with little more than 1300 personal attendants (see Mazepa-Koledinsky). A still more serious blow was the destruction of the relief army which Levenhaupt was bringing to Charles from Livonia, and which, hampered by hundreds of loaded wagons, was overtaken and almost destroyed by Peter at Lyesna after a two days’ battle against fourfold odds (October). The very elements now began to fight against the perishing but still unconquered host. The winter of 1708 was the severest that Europe had known for a century. By the 1st of November