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The Great Northern War
Sunday, 25 March 2018
A false lead
Topic: Factoids

I have just spent a day in Krigsarkivet, in preparation for my May talk about some overlooked sources concerning Armfeldt's campaign in 1718. One of the volumes I looked at contains incoming letters to Lt. General de la Barre. According to Svante Hedin's bibliography Armfeldts fälttåg mot Trondheim 1718-1719 (1986) it should contain no less than ten letters from Charles XII, dated 1 October 1717 to 19 May 1718. 

This sounded rather curiuos to me and turned out to be incorrect. The letters were not signed Carolus but rather C. Feif...

Despite the fact that the field archive of Armfeldt's army appears to have been lost the records from the campaign are very extensive. The documents concerning supply matters are very informative and detailed to the last penny.

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 8:42 PM MEST
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Sunday, 29 October 2017
Paul Bethun
Topic: Factoids

In Börje Magnusson's Svenska teckningar 1600-talet (1980), page 104, it's stated that the artillery officer Paul Bethun while in Russian captivity in 1714 made a drawing of Saint Petersburg. This is incorrect. Bethun served in Elbing and was captured when the town was taken by the Russians in 1710. In an account dated Ystad 13 December 1711 Bethun describes his experience in Russia:

On 3 April 1711 the Swedish prisoners (476 men) were ordered  to march through Marienwerder, Strasburg, Pultusk and Grodno to Riga, where they were kept outside the town for three weeks. On 4 July the prisoners were ordered to march eastwards and eventually ended up at Velikiye Luki. On 25 August the Swedes were ordered to continue and on 12 September they reached Narva, the 15th Jama and on the 16th Koporie. There the prisoners were met by Menshikov and the group was divided. The officers were sent to Ivangorod and the common soldiers to Saint Petersburg where they were put to work. Many of them, Bethun says, died from hunger and fatigue. 

On 8 December Bethun left Ivangorod and marched through Dorpat to Riga. There were no wagons for the officers, he writes, and those who were sick had to be drawn on sleds by their comrades. They were also badly treated by the guards. It was obvious, Bethun claims, that the plan was to kill all the prisoners. On 2 December they marched to Dünamünde and on the following day boarded ships which carried them to Ystad.

So did Bethun actually visit Saint Petersburg? He doesn't say, but if he did it was certainly not in 1714.

Source: Riksarkivet, Ericsbergsarkivet, Autografsamlingen, vol. 17


Posted by bengt_nilsson at 9:26 PM MEST
Updated: Sunday, 29 October 2017 9:27 PM MEST
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Sunday, 13 August 2017
An old debt
Topic: Factoids

It was recently suggested in a Facebook discussion I happened to see that the city of Danzig (Gdansk) still owed money for a loan made by Karl Knutsson Bonde in 1447. This is incorrect, but the story is rather fascinating. 

In the 17th and early 18th century the Gyllenstierna family considered themselves to be the closest relatives to Karl Knutsson. In 1704, as the GNW increased the demands on the Swedish economy, the matter was apparently brought to the attention of Charles XII. He viewed it as an opportunity and brought pressure on Danzig. Eventually the city agreed to pay a very considerale sum. The King made an agreement with the Gyllenstierna family that the money would be used for the war effort, but returned after the war.  

When the war eventually ended in 1721 the state was very heavily in debt and the Gyllenstierna famili did not receive any money. They came back with new pleas in 1731 and 1740, but to no avail. In 1766 the issue was again brought to the attention of the authorities, but in the end the claims failed again. It was brought up again in the early 19th century, but no decision had been made when Gustav IV Adolph was overthrown in 1809. So the family came back yet again in 1823, after some more of the relevant documents had been found. 

A parliamentary committee investigated the matter and came (unsurprisingly) to the conclusion that the family was not entitled to any money. The claims had come too late, it was not entirely clear that the Swedish state had borrowed the money (perhaps it was Charles XII personally) and perhaps the money had been repaid before 1709 but all relevant documents lost after Poltava?

The Gyllenstierna family made another attempt in 1834, but it went nowhere. 

Some of the conclusions made in 1823 seem ridiculous. How could it possibly have been a loan made to the King personally? And how could they possibly suggest that the money had been repaid some time between 1705 and 1709? The fact that the debt was too old (it had initially been decided that war debts would have to be claimed within 20 years) was more relevant, but the family had tried both in 1731 and 1740. 

So Danzig has no outstanding debt to pay (and it was of course rather peculiar that a loan from 1447 would become an issue more than 250 years later). But the Swedish army was powerful negotiating tool in 1704...


Herlitz, Nils, Från Thorn till Altranstädt (1916)

Saarinen, Hannes, Bürgerstadt und absoluter Kriegsherr (1996)
Statsutskottets betänkande 1823, nr 456 (Bihang till samtlige Riks-ståndens protocoll...4. saml., 4 bandet)


Posted by bengt_nilsson at 8:05 PM MEST
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Sunday, 6 August 2017
Magnus Stenbock
Topic: Factoids

It has frequently been claimed that Charles XII never forgave Magnus Stenbock for the surrender in 1713 and took his revenge by letting his old favorite remain a prisoner of war in Denmark. The evidence is slim. Not only did Charles XII on 12 August 1713 order the Council to prepare a new transport to Germany. Stenbock would be in command (the King assumed that the prisoners had been released in accordance with the agreement made when the army surrendered).

An even clearer evidence is a letter from Casten Feif to Stenbock, dated Demotika 24 July 1714. Feif assures the Field Marshal that he should not worry, the King continued to hold him in high regard. Stenbock should not, Charles had told Feif, listen to rumours who were intended to annoy him but rather take care of his health so that the King once more would have the joy of seeing his old friend as happy and amusing as he used to be.


Riksarkivet, Ericsbergsarkivet, Autografsamlingen, vol.  69.

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 7:12 PM MEST
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Sunday, 4 June 2017
Never had such a strong army
Topic: Factoids

Modern historians frequently tend to view the battle of Poltava as the beginning of a dramatic change in European history, i.e. the event which broke the back of the Swedish empire and signalled the rise of Russia. 

This was not necessarily how the battle later was perceived by the surviving Swedes. Per Adlerfelt (1680-1743), in 1709 a captain in the Life Guards, was in 1739 a Councillor of the Realm and a supporter of the plans to send troops to Finland for the purpose of putting pressure on the Russian government. On 31 August he wrote to Carl Gustaf Tessin, stating that 6,000 men were about to be transferred to Finland. These were under the command of Major General Buddenbrock and Colonels Didron, Pahlen, Silfversparre and Wrangel (all veterans of the GNW and a couple also participants in the campaign of 1708-1709).

When these reinforcements arrived in Finland, Aderfelt wrote, the army would number 20,000. This would make it stronger than any army Charles XII had commanded in battle against the Russians. As God had always used to help the Swedes this would hopefully continue.

The decision had been kept very secret, so if everything worked out the arrival of this force in Finland would make a profound impression in Saint Petersburg. The Russian envoy had not been in Stockholm on the day the orders went out. He had not discovered anything until three days later. The envoy had been profoundly stunned and not sent his first report until the next day. There was great enthusiasm among the officers and the soldiers, Adlerfelt ended his report.

Source: Riksarkivet, Ericsbergsarkivets autografsamling, Vol. 2 

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 5:54 PM MEST
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Sunday, 21 May 2017
Marshal Sapieha
Topic: Factoids

In 1963 Gustaf Jonasson published a long article called Karl XII:s baltiska militärpolitik under 1701. In it he attempted to determine when the idea to move the main army back from Courland to eastern Livonia in preparation for an attack on Pskov was abandoned. Jonasson also discusses the reasons behind the changed plans and suggests that it had to do with a request for help from Hetman Sapieha. It arrived in early September and resulted in the King sending Colonel Hummerheilm into Samogitia with a small cavalry force. At about the same time there came a letter from Prince Jakub Ludwik Sobieski, who asked the King to help the Sapiehas.

According to Jonasson this letter of recommendation was likely a result of a visit Herman Sapieha had made to the Prince's estate at Ohlau (Oława) in August. Jonasson bases this on Carl von Rosen's Bidrag till kännedom om de händelser.., vol. 1, page 18. The source given by von Rosen is a letter from Georg Wachschlager to Mauritz Vellingk, dated 27 August 1701. This letter can be found in Riksarkivet (Polonica, vol. 117). So what does it say? Apparently Jonasson never checked... 

The letter is in French and the relevant part is like this: "Il m' dit aussy que le Marechal de Lituanie Sapieha etoit arrivé en ces quartiere pour luy parler des affaires de consequence.." (He also told me that Marshal Sapieha had arrived in these quarters for talks with him on important matters). Carl von Rosen apparently did not discover that there are more letters on this subject. On the same day Wachschlager also wrote to Charles XII (Polonica, vol. 110), reporting: "Er vertraute mir auch dass der Littauische Marschalck Sapieha dieses Orts ankommen und mit Ihm wichtige dinge abzureden hätte". And on 3 September to the King: "der Littauische Grossmarchall Sapieha ist noch dieser Orten und gegenwartig bey dem Königlichen Printzen Jacob zur Olau" (The Lithuanian Grand Marshal Sapieha is still in these parts and right now at the Royal Prince Jacob's estate Olau"). 

So Marshal Sapieha... Is this really referring to the Hetman? No, he would have been called "Feldherr" or "Grand General".

Wachschlager instead means "Le grand maréchal de Lithuanie" ("Marzałek wielki litewski"), i.e. the Hetman's son Aleksander Paweł Sapieha (1669-1734). Later letters makes this very evident. On 7 September Wachschlager writes to Charles XII that the Hetman's son the Grand Marshal last Sunday met with the Prince.

A small detail, but it shows that you need to look at the documents and not just take some previous historian's word for granted. 

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 9:31 AM MEST
Updated: Sunday, 21 May 2017 10:30 AM MEST
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Sunday, 5 March 2017
The Gottorp Fury
Topic: Factoids

In the spring of 1698 Duke Frederick IV of Holstein-Gottorp arrived in Stockholm, where he was to marry Princess Hedvig Sophia, the sister of Charles XII. The Duke was almost 11 years older than Charles and (if foreign diplomats are to be believed) made a deep impression him - resulting in a number of adventures. These almost always find their way into biographies of Charles, more often than not markedly overshadowing the rather dull everyday work the King spent most of his time on. 

The alleged incident historians particulary love is said to have taken place in late May/early June, when according to the French envoy D'Avaux the King and his cousin spent 8 days decapitating dogs, sheep and calves in the former's quarters on the second floor in the Wrangel Palace. The young scoundrels threw out the heads through the windows and the furniture went the same way.

The remarkable thing about this is that no one has (as far as I know) been able to find any sort of corroborating evidence, i.e. no records of large purchases of animals, replacement furniture or massive cleaning of the King's rooms. So the story remains very hard to believe. D'Avaux's letter is dated 11 June (New Style), the equivalent of 1 June O.S. 

The previous letter from d'Avaux is dated seven days earlier (25 May O.S.), so if the envoy's story is correct the killings must have started the same day and continued until 1 June. But the facts don't add up: On the 23rd, 27th, 30th and 31st of May as well as on 1 June the King met with the Council in it's role as Supreme Court - in the very same building where the orgy (according to d'Avaux) continued for eight days without pause...

The story of course makes very little sense. The King is for example known to have been fond of dogs. I can certainly see the point in killing a few animals in a sort of competition, but for eight days? And indoors? "Sorry Frederick, I have a meeting with the Council in the next room, but I'll be back in a few hours. You can keep on killing animals while I am away". Rather absurd, in my opinion. 

Amomg the items made digitally available by the National Archives is a collection called "Kungliga arkiv". One of the volumes (K 33) contain some financial records from the period May-July 1698. The content is a lot less sensational. The King hands out money to a worker in the garden at Karlberg, to three soldiers from Pomerania, to a poor clergyman, to a poor soldier from Holstein and to many others - high and low. One item stands out: 82 thalers for some cattle the King and his cousin had shot at Kungsör. Is this verified "prank" the rather modest origin for the story D'Avaux told?

An ox apparently cost about 9-10 thalers in 1698, so maybe they shot half a dozen cattle and paid well above the market prize as compensation? 

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 7:32 PM CET
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Sunday, 23 October 2016
The bold Schlippenbach
Topic: Factoids

In 1719 Wolmar Anton von Schlippenbach, by then in the service of Czar Peter, claimed that he upon receiving his promotion to Major General in 1701 had replied to Charles XII: "Thank you, but I would have preferred 7,000- 8,000 soldiers". This is (naturally) quite untrue. On 2 October 1701 Schlippenbach acknowledged the arrival of his promotion and expressed his gratitude. There was nothing he would rather do for the rest of his life, Schlippenbach wrote, than serve the King and try his outmost to please him. 

The closest to this dramatic (but apparently untrue) warning can be found in Schlippenbach's letter dated 6 September. After relating the recent fairly successful skirmishes he points out the enemy's numerical superiority and his own army's weakness, asking for instructions and reinforcements. Upon receiving this dispatch in Grobin on 16 September Charles XII immediately acted accordingly, sending the regiments of Fritz Wachtmeister and Erik Stenbock as well as 300 men from Albedyhl's dragoons and another 50 dragoons just arrived at Reval. The King also ordered Governor General Dahlbergh to send 937 from the garrison at Riga and nearby post. Charles had carefully looked at Dahlbergh's dispositions and decided that the post at Kobron could be brought down from 190 men to 30. By making similar savings elsewhere (6 men here, 42 there, 24 here, 18 there etc.) he managed to scrape together almost 1,000 infantry, which together with the other reinforcements more or less doubled the size of Schlippenbach's force. Charles realized that this may still prove to be insufficient and gave Schlippenbach full control of corps in Livonia. If the newly appointed major general believed the situation forced him to retreat there was no need to ask for permission first - Schlippenbach had every right to conduct the campaign as he saw fit. Advance or retreat, it was Schlippenbach's call to make. Similar instructions were issued to Cronhjort in Ingria, a fact which rather disproves the old myth that Charles was reluctant to delegate.


Riksarkivet, Skrivelser till Konungen. Karl XII, vol 23-24

Riksarkivet, Riksregistraturet 

Ustryalov, N., Istoriya Tsarstvovaniya Petra Velikago. Tom 4 Chast 2. - Saint Petersburg, 1863

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 8:00 PM MEST
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Sunday, 14 August 2016
Personal initiative
Topic: Factoids

In 1975 Roland Persson published a dissertation called Rustningar i Sverige under det stora nordiska kriget. When studying how the effort to raise more troops at the outbreak of the war he discovered that some of the county governors in Finland acted quite independently from the government in Stockholm, in fact in some cases actually going directly against previous orders because they evaluated the situation differently. Persson states that this shows that local authorities in reality was given much more leeway than they theoretically had. 

Another example of the same thing is the decision in February 1700 by Governor General de la Gardie in Reval to order the mobilization of the Finnish regiments without waiting for orders from Stockholm. In a letter to Erik Dahlbergh in Riga, dated 9 March, Governor Vellingk mentions this decision by de la Gardie. Vellingk says that he personally will not dare to follow the example in absence of a direct request from Dahlbergh. The impression he had received from Dahlbergh's letters was that Riga was under no immediate threat. Hopefully the King's orders would soon arrive. Vellingk believed these would not only contain instructions to drive the Saxons back to Courland, but also permit an advance into the duchy. Surely the Polish Republic would welcome the removal of the Saxon forces?

In his letter to Dahlbergh Vellingk enclosed a copy of a letter he had written to de la Gardie.  Vellingk noted de la Gardie's actions and suggested that the Finnish regiiments should be quartered in the vicinity of Narva until orders from the King arrived. Small cavalry detachments could meanwhile operate against the Saxon raiding parties in Livonia.

On 13  April Vellingk again wrote to Dahlbergh. 12000 infantry and cavalry had passed through Narva and two more regiments were expected shortly. The entire force would number 18000 and that would be far more than Charles XI ever had in Scania during the war 1675-79, Vellingk wrote. This should be more than sufficient to handle the Saxon forces for quite some time and Vellingk had already reached agreements with Lt. Colonel Albedyhl, Lt. Colonel Schlippenbach and Captain Liewen for the recruiting of three new regiments. Vellingk would personally raise two more and de la Gardie was in the process of recruting one. So, Vellingk wrote, what could King Augustus do? He couldn't raise any more regiments in Saxony and had because of this been forced to get Danish regiments in. The Polish Republic had refused all cooperation and Brandenburg would not help him either. The only problem was that no firm orders had yet arrived from Stockholm as to how the campaign was to be conducted. 


Source: Uppsala University Library, Riga-Tartusamlingen, vol. 1. (nowadays rearranged as "Livonica" with different numbering) 

Posted by bengt_nilsson at 7:17 PM MEST
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Sunday, 10 April 2016
The silver legend
Topic: Factoids

One of the most famous Swedish stories from the GNW period is the one about how the clergyman Christian Georg Notmann saved the Communion Set belonging to the Västmanland infantry regiment by hastily burying it near a big oak on the battlefield at Poltava. After more than a decade as prisoner of war he then, the story goes, returned after being released, dug it up and brought back to Sweden. This version of the story goes back at least to the poet Carl Snoilsky (1841-1903) and his Regementets kalk, but has since found its way into more scientific literature. So what did Notmann himself say on the subject?

In 1724 Notmann lived in the parish of Kvillinge just outside Norrköping. The vicar had just died and Notmann sought to succeed him. In a letter to the bishop in Linköping he outlined his achievements, particularly after the disaster of 1709: he became a vicar in the German parish of Yaroslavl and also served parishioners in nearby Kostroma. After his release in 1722 he went via Narva to Norrköping and Kvillinge. So nothing about a visit to Poltava...

However, Notmann does tell a story about a Communion Set. At Toruń in 1703 Charles XII personally gave him a chalice and a paten, saying that Notmann should use them when he received his own parish in the future. Notmann apparently sent them to his mother in Riga for safekeeping and when she fled to Sweden she ended up in Kvillinge, where she gave them to the church. So, Notmann writes, if he was appointed vicar in Kvillinge he would be able to use the chalice and the paten in the way the late King had wished. 

This part of the story is confirmed by an inventory from the early 18th century: "On 2 August 1711 Catharina Eleonora Stenhammar of Kvarntorp presented the church of Kvillinge with a gilded chalice and a paten...". 

Unfortunately for Notmann the parishioners preferred the late vicar's son and he never got his own parish, dying in Kvillinge in 1739. It mattered very little that King Frederick I in 1723 had recommended Notmann, stating that it would be gratifying if the latter received some sort of promotion after having endured so many difficulties during GNW. 


Landsarkivet i Vadstena, Domkapitlet i Linköpings arkiv E IV : 193

Landsarkivet i Vadstena, Kvillinge kyrkoarkiv C I : 2


Posted by bengt_nilsson at 10:13 PM MEST
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