Charles XII, king of Sweden

Diego Venturino


1“You have heard a thousand times about the famous king of Sweden: he was besieging a fortress in the kingdom called Norway; as he was visiting the trench alone with an engineer, he took a blow in the head and died from it” (“Tu as ouï parler mille fois du fameux roi de Suède : il assiégeait une place dans le royaume qu’on nomme la Norvège ; comme il visitoit la tranchée seul avec un ingénieur, il a reçu un coup dans la tête dont il est mort”, LP, 118 [122]). The first reference to Charles XII in Montesquieu’s work serves only to introduce the principal theme of Rica’s letter to Ibben: the malefic role of prime ministers in arbitrary governments. The minister Georg Heinrich von Görtz is at fault, much more than the king.

2These few words confirm, however, the remarkable reputation which Charles XII enjoyed during the first twenty years of the century, and prove that Montesquieu did not at this date have set opinions about his political and military adventure and drew from them no consideration of a general order. It is quite probable that at the moment when this letter was supposedly written (late in 1719), Montesquieu’s sources were limited to the Gazette d’Amsterdam, which had given notice of the king’s death in January 1719 and that of Görtz’s execution in March of the same year. Indeed, nothing indicates that he knew at this time Grimarest’s Les Campagnes de Charles XII, roi de Suède (Paris, 1706-1711), nor the works published anonymously by Daniel Defoe, The History of the Wars of His Late Majesty Charles XII (London, 1715) and Some Account of the Life […] of George Henry, Baron of Görtz (London, 1719), which had largely contributed to creating the Caroline legend in England and in the Europe of the time, and were known to Limiers and Voltaire.

3That is rather the impression the latter gives in his Histoire de Charles XII, roi de Suède (1731), which brought the Swedish king into the universe of Montesquieu’s political typologies. For Voltaire, Charles XII was the incarnation of the hero, admirable for his military courage, but fearsome to his people whom he cared not a whit for, opposed to the great man, Peter the Great of Russia, the benevolent king, who had raised to civilization his barbarous people by founding a new empire directed by reason. This Voltairian Charles XII would become an 18th-century commonplace, a king lacking the means of his disproportionate ambitions, who had trouble digesting Quintus Curcius Rufus and took himself for Alexander. Numerous are the traces of an early reading of Voltaire’s work, as early as 1731-1732 (Pensées, nos. 641, 734, 744; Spicilège, nos. 236, 572). Montesquieu could also rely on oral testimonies (that of his friend the ambassador in Sweden Louis Pierre, comte de La Marck, who was a friend of the king, Spicilège, no. 662) as well as on the works of La Mottraye, Voyages […] en Europe, Asie et Afrique (The Hague, 1727; present in his Parisian library: Catalogue, appendix 5, no. 10) and Remarques […] sur l’Histoire de Charles XII (London, 1732; Spicilège, no. 538).

4After 1731, Montesquieu several times integrated the Swedish king into his analyses. Without ever constituting for him a real object of study, he was henceforth inscribed in his gallery of historical examples illustrating the ravages of a conquering hero whose moral character was dominated by the despotism of glory. If Charles XII is in good company, that of Charles the Bold or Alexander the Great among others, it is nonetheless true that for Montesquieu the northern despot presents specific features of folly that individualize him, of which he offers a hilarious portrait in his reflections on La Mottraye. A prisoner of the Turks at Bender after 1709, penniless and army-less, he threatened the entire world and manifested sure signs of mental disturbance (“He always had his boots on, and said he had left his slippers in Stockholm and would not put them on again until he was there” [“Il était toujours avec ses bottes, il disait qu’il avait laissé ses pantoufles à Stockholm et qu’il ne les reprendrait que là”, Spic., no. 538]).

5One page in the Réflexions sur le caractère de quelques princes et sur quelques événements de leur vie [‘Reflections on the character of certain princes and some events in their lives’] (1731-1733) is devoted to a parallel between Charles XII and Charles of Burgundy. Everything connects these two heroes: “the same courage, the same suffisance [in the sense of mérite], the same ambition, the same temerity, the same success, the same misfortunes, and the same ending” (OC, IX, p. 51). Wishing to resist their destiny, they adopted daring when courage was required, sought to make more enemies when they were already covered with glory, sought them even after defeats. Destiny was to catch up with this blind pride: “The death of most princes killed in battles is due to chance; the conduct of these two was such that that kind of death became for them a necessity” (ibid., p. 52). Beginning with this first parallel, Montesquieu manifests a total lack of indulgence: it was perfectly obvious that nothing in the action of this prince of the North found grace in his sight: the misfortunes of Charles XII left him cold, whereas he declared himself moved by those of the Duke of Burgundy: “the reason for this is that the latter was an original personage, and the former, a poor copy of Alexander”. (ibid.)

6It was indeed the giant Alexander who was to crush Charles XII definitively. For the latter was again called forth by Montesquieu in L’Esprit des lois: a chapter is devoted to him (X, 14 [13]), or more exactly, half a chapter, for the other is a parallel with Alexander the Great (X, 13 [14]: the two chapters are inverted in the posthumous editions of 1757-1758). Again, Charles XII is used as a sort of extreme example of princely folly, of absence of all sense of historical and political reality, and compared to a prince who for being a conqueror was not the less sensible. Montesquieu insists especially on the incapacity which the Swedish king showed for conceiving the least political calculation: full of himself and incapable of entering into the play of diplomatic alliances, ignorant of the real economic and military capacities of his country which he was exhausting, taking on an immense emerging empire, that of Peter the Great, who would finally destroy him, Charles XII had none of the abilities of a political chief: “He did not go by the current disposition of things, but by a certain model he had assumed: still he followed it badly. He was not Alexander, but he would have been Alexander’s best soldier” (“Il ne se réglait point sur la disposition actuelle des choses, mais sur un certain modèle qu’il avait pris : encore, le suivit-il très mal. Il n’était point Alexandre, mais il aurait été le meilleur soldat d’Alexandre”, EL, X, 14 [13]). The matter is settled: Charles XII, reduced to a tragically real Don Quixote, was a foil for Alexander, who even in the heat of passion had “an impulse of reason that drove him” (“une saillie de raison qui le conduisait”, ibid.). It could be said of Charles XII, a “Cyclops blinded by his pride” (Pensées, no. 744), what Montesquieu said of Peter I: he “was not great, he was enormous” (Pensées, no. 1373). All told, Voltaire’s great men are not Montesquieu’s.

7That said, still all is not said. For Montesquieu’s permanent interest for study of the moral character of rulers had a twin objective: to underscore that a hereditary monarchy is inevitably subjected to the imponderable risk of a poor sovereign, and inscribe that risk within the analysis of the various active forces. In other words, the moral character of rulers is part of the nature of things and must be considered as such. The chapter on Charles XII contains, indeed, one of the most famous passages in L’Esprit des lois: “It was not Pultova that undid Charles. Had he not been demolished in that place, he would have been elsewhere. The accidents of fortune are easily remedied; how can one [1757-1758: one cannot] hold out against events that continually arise from the nature of things? But neither nature nor fortune were ever as powerful [1758: ever powerful] against him as he was himself” (“Ce ne fut point Pultova qui perdit Charles. S’il n’avait pas été détruit dans ce lieu, il l’aurait été dans un autre. Les accidents de la fortune se réparent aisément : mais comment parer [1757-1758 : on ne peut pas parer] à des événements qui naissent continuellement de la nature des choses ? Mais la nature ni la fortune ne furent jamais si fort [1758 : fortes] contre lui que lui-même”, EL, X, 14 [13]). In L’Esprit des lois, the Swedish king is summoned as positive proof in the trial against despotism prosecuted in Book V. His situation as a king prisoner of the Turks furnishes an anecdotal illustration of an essential notion: the exercise of despotism requires but few laws. Indeed, to provoke fear it is not necessary for the despot to be present or nearby or visible; a symbol of his arbitrary will suffices: “Charles XII, at Bender, finding some resistance in the Swedish senate, wrote that he would send them one of his boots to command. That boot would have governed like a despotic king” (“Charles XII étant à Bender, trouvant quelque résistance dans le sénat de Suède, écrivit qu’il leur enverrait une de ses bottes pour commander. Cette botte aurait gouverné comme un roi despotique ”, EL, V, 14).

8From one end of his work to the other, Montesquieu considered the example of Charles XII as particularly effective to synthesize the role of individual personality in the grandeur and decadence of states. Consider his last known text on Swedish affairs, dated from 1748-1749: in the vagaries of freedom in Swedish territory, from Christine to Charles XI, from Ulricke-Eleonore (1718-1720) to Frederick I of Hesse (1720), Charles XII once more incarnates the danger of arbitrary government that threatens every hereditary monarchy without well-grounded institutions (Pensées, no. 1636).

9In all figural cases, the booted king of the Swedes would always be for Montesquieu the purest expression of unreason in power, both a cause and effect of despotism.


Gunnar Von Proschwitz, “Introduction” to Voltaire, Histoire de Charles XII, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1996, IV, p. 1-84.

Jean Ehrard, “Voltaire vu par Montesquieu”, Voltaire et ses combats, Ulla Kölving and Christiane Mervaud ed., Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1997, p. 939-951, reprinted under the title “Le ver et la cochenille” in Jean Ehrard L’Esprit des mots: Montesquieu en lui-même et parmi les siens, Geneva: Droz, 1998, p. 195-211.

Bibliographical reference

Venturino Diego , « Charles XII, king of Sweden », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :