Great Northern War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Great Northern War established Russia as the dominant power in the Baltic region and led to Sweden’s decline as a great military power in Europe.

Summary of Event

The Great Northern War—during most of which Russia, Saxony-Poland, and Denmark allied against Sweden—was fought primarily in Saxony, Poland, the Baltic regions, and Russia. It was essentially the continuation of an earlier, inconclusive struggle between Sweden and Russia for control of the eastern Baltic region. This time, however, the struggle was decisive, and Russia emerged victorious to become the dominant power in the Baltic, while Sweden’s Charles XII was defeated. [kw]Great Northern War (c. 1701-1721) [kw]War, Great Northern (c. 1701-1721) [kw]Northern War, Great (c. 1701-1721) Russian-Swedish conflicts[Russian Swedish conflicts] Swedish-Russian conflicts[Swedish Russian conflicts] Great Northern War (1701-1721) Russian Empire Swedish Empire Baltic region, control of [g]Russia;c. 1701-1721: Great Northern War[0050] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;c. 1701-1721: Great Northern War[0050] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;c. 1701-1721: Great Northern War[0050] Peter the Great Charles XII Augustus II Frederick IV Patkul, Johann Reinhold von Stanis{lstrok}aw I Lewenhaupt, Adam Ludwig Menshikov, Aleksandr Danilovich Görtz, Georg Heinrich von Mazepa, Ivan Stepanovich

During the early part of the war, the great powers of Western Europe were occupied with their own conflict, the War of the Spanish Succession. After 1713, when that war was in its final stages, Britain and Hanover noticed Russia’s aggression, and they attempted to limit Russia’s domination of the Baltic Sea. Prussia, meanwhile, took advantage of Sweden’s plight and captured Swedish Pomerania. The Ottoman Ottoman Empire;Great Northern War Turks became involved in the conflict as well, granting Charles XII asylum after his defeat at the Battle of Poltava. Poltava, Battle of (1709)





In 1699, Czar Peter the Great of Russia had joined Denmark and Saxony-Poland in a secret coalition against Sweden. All three powers had territorial ambitions: King Frederick IV of Denmark wanted Holstein-Gottorp; the ruler of Saxony-Poland, Augustus II, had his eyes on Livonia and Lithuania; and Peter himself dreamed of expanding Russia to the Baltic coast. The idea of this anti-Swedish coalition may have originated with the Livonian nobleman Johann Reinhold von Patkul.

Between January and August, 1700, Saxony-Poland, Denmark, and Russia declared war on Sweden. However, Charles XII, who had come to the Swedish throne at the age of fifteen, was an effective military leader. He quickly defeated Frederick IV, who was forced to sign the Treaty of Travendal on August 8, 1700. The Swedish king then moved against Augustus II, defeating him in Poland. He effectively deposed Augustus as Polish king and replaced him with Stanisław I Leszczyński. Then he defeated Augustus in Saxony as well and forced him formally to renounce the Polish throne in the Treaty of Altranstädt in September, 1706. Patkul was turned over to the Swedes, who executed him. In the wake of these defeats, Russia found itself fighting Sweden alone for three years. Not until after the Battle of Poltava in 1709 did Denmark and Saxony-Poland rejoin the Russians in the war against Sweden.

Charles XII moved against Russia soon after Peter the Great declared war on Sweden in August, 1700. The Swedish king defeated a Russian force that was besieging the Baltic seaport of Narva Narva, Battle of (1700) on November 30, 1700. After the Siege of Narva was broken, Charles XII thought that Russia was no longer a threat, and over the next six years he turned his attention to the defeat of Augustus II. This decision allowed Peter the Great to reorganize his military, build a Baltic navy, and seize Swedish towns in the Baltic region. In the autumn of 1702, he captured Nöteborg, on the mouth of the Neva River, and renamed it Schlüsselburg (“key fortress”). In early 1703, Peter started the construction of St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, Russia[Saint Petersburg, Russia] the future capital of Russia, near Schlüsselburg. While the Swedish king was occupied in Poland and Saxony, Russia was also able to overrun Dorpat and Narva (1705) and Courland (1705-1706).

After the defeat of Saxony in late 1706, Charles XII again turned his attention to Russia and devoted the following year to building up his army for an invasion of that country. Peter the Great had supported Poland’s nobles in their struggle against Charles by giving them massive subsidies. He also supported anti-Swedish resistance by Lithuanian nobles. He knew that Sweden would eventually invade Russia. In anticipation of the Swedish invasion, Peter withdrew his forces from the Baltic areas he had captured (except St. Petersburg). He engaged in a scorched-earth policy, devastating border regions that might provision Charles XII’s army. He also fortified the Kremlin in Moscow.

In January, 1708, the Swedish king crossed Berezina and moved toward Mogilev on his way to Moscow. By July, Charles had defeated the Russians at Holovzin and reached Mogilev. However, lack of supplies, poor roads, and resistance by the Russians made it difficult to advance any farther into Russian territory. In September, 1708, the Swedish king decided not to take Moscow and instead to invade the more accessible Ukraine in order to solve his supply problems.

Charles expected to obtain additional men and supplies from another Swedish army under the command of general Adam Ludwig Lewenhaupt, but Lewenhaupt was defeated by Peter and his general, Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov, at the Battle of Lesnaya on September 28, 1708. Although Lewenhaupt did join Charles, he had lost his supplies and much of his artillery, and the aid that Charles expected from Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa, the Cossack Cossacks leader of the western Ukraine, failed to materialize, because Menshikov attacked Mazepa, who escaped with only two thousand Cossacks to support Charles’s cause. At the Battle of Poltava on July 8, 1709, Peter and Menshikov decisively defeated Charles, who was forced to seek asylum with the Turks. His presence in the Ottoman Empire led to a Russian-Turkish war in December, 1710. This war against the Ottomans proved disastrous for Peter, who was defeated at the Battle of the Pruth River in 1711, resulting in the loss of Azov.

The Swedish army carrying the body of Charles XII after the Battle of Frederikshald.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Charles XII left the Ottoman Empire under the pseudonym Captain Peter Frisk and arrived in Stralsund on November 11, 1714. Charles arrived in Sweden in early 1715 to find new enemy coalitions arrayed against him, coalitions including Prussia and Hanover. A plan organized by Baron Georg Heinrich von Görtz and accepted by Peter in 1713 called for Prussia to support the duke of Holstein’s claim to the Swedish throne. In return, Prussia would be allowed to keep Swedish Pomerania. Charles XII did not see the end of the war: He was killed in battle in December, 1718, at Frederikshald, Norway. With Charles dead, Peter’s armies and his Baltic fleet could move at will against Swedish positions in the eastern Baltic region, including Finland and the Swedish coast. In February, 1720, Sweden signed peace treaties with Hanover and Prussia at Stockholm, and in June, 1720, Denmark and Sweden agreed to the Treaty of Frederiksborg. Frederiksborg, Treaty of (1720) Hanover obtained Bremen and Verden, Prussia gained Stettin and portions of Pomerania, and Denmark obtained part of Schleswig. Russia and Sweden agreed to the Treaty of Nystad Nystad, Treaty of (1721) on September 11, 1721, which awarded Estonia, Livonia, Ingria, and Karelia to Russia.


The Great Northern War ended Sweden’s role as a great European power. It lost its hold on its northeastern German and Baltic territories to Prussia and Russia. Prussia gained much of Swedish Pomerania, paving the way for its massive eastern territorial expansion during the second half of the eighteenth century and its rise to German dominance in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, as the leading power in Eastern Europe, Russia became much more involved in European affairs, playing a decisive role in major European conflicts in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Russia also gained direct influence over Poland and, because Peter maintained a policy of Russian dynastic intermarriages with nobles in Courland, Wolfenbüttel, Mecklenburg, and Holstein, the country faced future entanglements in German affairs and wars.

Symbolic of Russia’s rise as a great European power and its victory over Sweden, Peter in 1721 assumed the title of czar (emperor). There was apprehension among some leading European philosophers and officials of Russia’s rise as a great power. The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646-1716) reacted to the Russian victory at Poltava by suggesting that Peter the Great would become the new “Turk of the North.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, M. S. Peter the Great: Profiles in Power. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1995. Detailed and balanced short summary of the war in chapter 4.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bain, Robert Nisbet. Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire, 1682-1719. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1964. Originally published in 1895, it is still useful for an evaluation of Charles XII as a military leader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chance, J. F. George I and the Northern War. London: Smith, Elder, 1909. A still-useful work on the diplomatic history of the conflict during its later stages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Englund, Peter. The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2003. Excellent use of memoirs and diaries of participants, with special emphasis on the Swedish experience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State, and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. New York: Longman, 2000. The only scholarly study of the long-term conflict in the Baltic region available in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hatton, R. M. Charles XII of Sweden. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968. Essential for understanding the motives and policies of the Swedish king.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Lindsey. Russia in the Age of Peter the Great. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Chapter 2 offers a solid, recent scholarly review of all of Peter’s wars between 1696 and 1725.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rothstein, A. Peter the Great and Marlborough: Politics and Diplomacy in Converging Wars. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Valuable for Russian diplomatic relations with Britain during the early stages of the conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sumner, B. H. Peter the Great and the Emergence of Russia. New York: Collier, 1962. The last chapter provides a general evaluation of Peter’s legacy on Russian foreign policy after the Treaty of Nystadt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolf, John B. The Emergence of the Great Powers, 1685-1715. New York: Harper and Row, 1962. Includes an interesting chapter evaluating the relationship between the Great Northern War and the War of the Spanish Succession.

Founding of St. Petersburg

Battle of Poltava

Ottoman Wars with Russia, Venice, and Austria

Treaty of Kiakhta

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