This is not a frontier tale, though it’s replete with forests, a bear hunt, rugged country and badassery.
Bear with me. It’s just too good to pass up. The yarn contains a lot of what I’ve been exploring lately: Winter warfare in the 18th Century; strange paranormal doings; dreams. And death.
Two hundred and ninety-nine years ago, deep in the night of November 30, 1718, a musketball blew out the brains of King Charles XII of Sweden, as he inspected the trenches outside the Danish-held Norwegian fortress of Fredriksten. It was an abrupt and violent end to one of the most epic fighting careers in the annals of Europe.
When we think of Swedes as warriors, most of us think first of Vikings. But in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the Swedes were one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. You could make a case that, man-for-man, the Swedes were the finest fighting force on the continent. Charles XII, who assumed the throne in 1697 at the age of 15, was a warrior-king of the first water. Under his reign, Sweden was almost constantly at war.
Robert K. Massie recounts Charles’ reaction to the word that Augustus of Saxony, King of Poland, had invaded Swedish territory. King Charles, a mere lad of 18, was deep in the Swedish forest, hunting bear.
He took it calmly, smiled, turned to the French ambassador and said quietly, “We will make King Augustus go back the way he came.” The bear hunt continued. But when he returned to Stockholm, Charles addressed the council. “I have resolved never to begin an unjust war,” he said. “but also never to end a just war without overcoming my enemy.” It was a promise which he was to pursue, beyond all normal policy, almost beyond all reason, for the rest of his life.
In 1700, the monarchs of Denmark-Norway, Saxony and Peter the Great of Russia launched their alliance against the powerful Swedish Empire in what would be known as the Great Northern War. Moving with the speed and decisiveness that earned him the name The Swedish Meteor, Charles XII knocked out two of the three opponents , leaving only Russia to be dealt with. At first, the Swedes mauled the Russian bear. But that horrible cold winter of 1709 mortally weakened Charles XII’s army, and that summer he was defeated by Peter the Great’s modernized Russian force at the epic Battle of Poltava. Charles, who had been wounded in the foot in an earlier skirmish, was suffering from blood poisoning and was incapacitated for the battle. After his army was routed — with some 7,000 KIA — he fled into exile in the Ottoman Empire.
Poltava was pretty much it for the Swedish Empire, but Charles XII kept on fighting. It was who and what he was. In 1718, he was back in the field, fighting the Danes in Norway. There he met his doom.
The precise nature of that doom was a controversy in his day, and remains a mystery two centuries later.
Saying with any certainty what happened to Charles XII is difficult; for one thing, while plenty of people were around him when he died, not one witnessed the instant of his death. The king had gone forward one evening after dark to supervise the construction of a front-line trench well within range of Danish musket fire. It was a deadly spot—nearly 60 Swedish trench diggers had already been killed there—and though he waited until well after dark to visit, there were flares burning on the fortress walls, and “light bombs,” a 17th-century version of star shells, illuminated the scene. Charles had just stood to survey the construction, exposing his head and shoulders above the breastworks, when he slumped forward. A large-caliber projectile had entered his head just below one temple, traveled horizontally through his brain, and exited through the far side of his skull, killing him instantly.
The obvious conclusion is that the warrior-king was taken out by a random charge of grapeshot or a lucky musket shot from the walls of Fredriksten. And yet…
By 1718, there were plenty of people who would benefit from fragging the King. The Swedes were war-weary, and the tax burden imposed to fund Charles’ compulsive pugnacity was making the kingdom howl. The king’s wars had stripped the nation of its young men; they had taken to fleeing into the forest to avoid conscription, or cutting off fingers or shooting themselves in the feet. Smithsonian notes that:
…the suspects included everybody from an ordinary Swedish soldier tired of the Meteor’s never-ending war to the principal beneficiary of Charles’s death: his brother-in-law, who took the throne as King Frederick I, immediately abandoned the attack on Norway and soon ended the Northern War. It is possible to argue, too, that every wealthy Swede profited from the Meteor’s demise, since one of Frederick’s first acts was to abandon a widely hated 17 percent tax on capital that Charles’s efficient but despised chief minister, Baron Goertz, was on the point of introducing. Goertz was so loathed by 1718 that it has been suggested that the real motive for killing Charles might have been to get to him. It is true that the baron was arraigned, tried and executed within three months of his master’s death.
And there are some weird and eerie paranormal touches to the mystery. The king’s surgeon Melchior Neumann wrote something very odd indeed on the inside cover of a book:
…(He) dreamed he saw the dead king on the embalming table. Then the king regained life, took Neumann’s left hand and said, “You shall be the witness to how I was shot.” Agonized, Neumann asked: “Your Majesty, graciously tell me, was Your Majesty shot from the fortress?” And the king answered: “No, Neumann, es kam einer gekrochen”—“One came creeping.”
Obviously, that’s not evidence of anything, but it certainly indicates that in 1720, the possibility of regicide was on the mind of at least one of the King’s intimates.
That’s not the weirdest part of the mystery, though.
Both legend and forensic examiners who have looked at the wound in the mummified skull of the Meteor believe he was not killed by a regular lead musket ball, but by a hardened bullet. A silver bullet, perhaps? You see, Charles was believed to be “hard” — charmed, unkillable by conventional ball. The projectile that killed is believed to be a button from the King’s own coat — a bullet-button or kulknappen.
The strangest piece of evidence in this strange tale is a “curious object” brought into the museum at Varberg in May 1932 by Carl Andersson, a master smith. Andersson handed over “two half-spheres of brass filled with lead and soldered together into a ball, with a protruding loop that testified to its former use as a button.” One side was flattened, “the result of a forceful collision with a hard surface.” He had found the button, he said, in 1924 in a load of gravel he had hauled from a pit near his home.
According to (folklorist Barbo) Klein, the kulknappen fits neatly with another Swedish tradition–one suggesting that Charles’s magical protection had been breached by a killer who used the king’s own coat button to kill him. More than that: versions of this same bit of folklore tie the object to the gravel pit where it was found. These stories say a Swedish soldier “found the bullet… and brought it with him home.” They end with the man bragging about his find, only to be warned by the local priest that the killers might come after him. He solves the conundrum by hurling the evidence into the very quarry from which Andersson’s bullet-button was eventually recovered.
OK — that’s a great story, but it’s gotta be bullshit, right? Well… check this out. The kulknappen was DNA tested. Yep.
…We need to turn to a much more recent piece of evidence: an analysis by Marie Allen, of Uppsala University,who in 2001 recovered two traces of DNA from the kulknappen. One of those fragments, lodged deep within the crevice where the two halves of the button were soldered together, came from someone with a DNA sequence possessed by only 1 percent of the Swedish population. And a sample taken from the bloodstained gloves that Charles XII wore on his last night revealed an identical sequence; the king, it seems, belonged to that same tiny group of Swedes.
Are you kidding me? I mean, it’s not conclusive, but damn…
Some after-the-fact action lends further credence to the fragging scenario. Charles’ brother-in-law Count Frederick quickly became Frederick I of Sweden — and he swiftly ended the controversial Norwegian campaign and wrapped up the Northern War. The Meteor’s militant legacy was immediately and entirely reversed.
We can’t know for certain, but methinks The Meteor lost the game of thrones. And even in the enlightened 18th Century, losing the game of thrones could be fatal. I think Frederick, with the connivance of other nobles and at least one military officer, had him fragged. I’m sold: Regicide in the trenches before Fredriksten. A warrior-king felled by a button.