Northern Wars

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NORTHERN WARS. The Northern Wars (15581721) were a cycle of general conflicts between the major powers of northern and eastern Europe surrounding the Balticprincipally Denmark-Norway, Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, and Muscovy (Russia)of fundamental importance for modern European history. The wars began following the breakdown of the Hanseatic League (or Hansa), the medieval political and economic system in the Baltic region. The breaking of the economic grip of the Hanseatic League just as western European demand grew for the increasingly lucrative commodities of Baltic grain, timber, pitch, hemp, and flax, stimulated the interest of these major states in controlling the principal ports such as Riga, Danzig, Elbing and Stettin, through which Baltic trade flowed. The southern and eastern Baltic had been controlled by the crusading order of the Teutonic Knights, based in Prussia and Livonia, but the Prussian branch had already lost control of western Prussia to Poland in 1466, while eastern Prussia became a Polish fief in 1525 when its Grand Master, Albrecht von Hohenzollern (ruled 15251568) secularized the Order, establishing himself as hereditary duke of Prussia. The evident decline of the Livonian branch of the Order had by the mid-sixteenth century attracted the attention of all the four major Baltic powers. After a short frontier war between Muscovy and Sweden (15541557), the cycle of general, multilateral conflicts now known as the Northern Wars really began in 1558 when tsar Ivan IV of Muscovy (Ivan the Terrible; 15301584; ruled 15331584) invaded Livonia, sparking off a series of conflicts now known collectively as the Livonian War or the First Northern War (15581583). Over the next century and a half, no single power was able to achieve hegemony in the region and long-term political stability proved elusive. If at first Denmark and Poland-Lithuania seemed to have the upper hand, Sweden emerged powerfully in the seventeenth century to defeat Denmark and Poland-Lithuania, before the Russia of Peter I (Peter the Great, 16721725; ruled 16821725) emerged to eclipse Poland-Lithuania and defeat Sweden, securing a victory that was of fundamental importance for the future of the European states system.


Although access to and control of access to the Baltic Sea figured largely in the Northern Wars, they were more than a struggle for Dominium Maris Baltici ('lordship of the Baltic Sea'). The causes were both economic and political and involved power struggles of long standing, as the war over Livonia and Estonia breathed new life into old conflicts. The Oldenburg monarchy in Denmark controlled the Sound at Helsingör, the outlet from the Baltic to the North Sea, enabling it to levy tolls on all ships sailing into or out of the Baltic. The Oldenburg monarchy was still smarting over the loss of its dominant position in Scandinavia following the collapse in 1523 of the Union of Kalmar with Sweden, established in 1397. Denmark's continued possession of the provinces of Bohuslän, Halland, Scania, and Blekinge left Sweden with only a narrow outlet to the North Sea at Ä lvsborg, which was highly vulnerable to Danish attack. The series of wars between Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy, whose Grand Duke had begun to style himself 'Tsar of all the Russias' over the Ruthenian lands (modern Belarus and Ukraine), most of which were in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, had reached stalemate in the 1530s without providing a satisfactory settlement for either side.

The importance of these ancient rivalries soon became clear. Denmark gave up its historical claim to Estonia to declare war on Sweden, beginning the Nordic Seven Years' War (15631570). Denmark captured Ä lvsborg, Sweden's only direct outlet to the North Sea, but was unable to extend its control of southern Scandinavia beyond its provinces of Bohuslän, Halland, Scania, and Blekinge. Denmark was allied with Lübeck and Poland, but Dutch and Russian support enabled Sweden to repel the Danish challenge. Peace was made at Stettin in 1570, but the conflict in the eastern Baltic continued, as Sweden secured control of Reval (Tallinn) and most of Estonia in 1560. The Livonian Order was secularized and the duchy of Courland was created as a Polish fief in 1561, while the rest of Livonia, including Riga, was incorporated into Poland-Lithuania. Poland-Lithuania, however, was more concerned with the threat to Lithuania, where Ivan IV had seized the trading center of Polotsk in 1563. A new Polish-Swedish alliance, initiated by John III of Sweden (ruled 15681592; of the House of Vasa), who was married to Catherine, the sister of King Sigismund II Augustus (ruled 15481572) of Poland-Lithuania, successfully fought off successive Russian invasions of Livonia. From 1579, Stephen Báthory of Poland-Lithuania (ruled 15761586) recaptured Lithuanian territory lost to Russia in the 1560s, before forcing peace at Iam Zapol'skii in 1582. Meanwhile Sweden had seized Narva and Ivangorod, making peace in 1583 to end the First Northern War, although in renewed fighting (15901595) Sweden captured Ingria and Kexholm.

A new phase of the wars opened in 1600 with the collapse of the Polish-Swedish alliance after the election of John III's son Sigismund III as king of Poland-Lithuania (ruled 15871632). Sigismund then inherited the Swedish throne in 1592 (ruled 15921599), but his Catholicism provoked a political crisis in Lutheran Sweden. After a brief civil war (1598) he was deposed at the instigation of his uncle, Duke Charles of Södermanland, who was crowned in 1604 as Charles IX (ruled 16041611). In 1600 Charles invaded Livonia, beginning a cycle of wars with Poland-Lithuania that lasted until 1660. Initially Poland-Lithuania did well, crushing Charles at Kircholm (1605). Both sides were then sucked into Russia's Time of Troubles (16051613), from which the Poles emerged with important gains. Moscow was occupied by a Polish garrison (16101612), Smolensk was captured (1611), and Sigismund's son Wladyslaw (king of Poland-Lithuania 16481668) was elected tsar by a leading group of Russian nobles. This provoked a strong reaction, however. Following the election of Michael Romanov as tsar (ruled 16131645) and an abortive attempt to capture Moscow (16171618), Poland-Lithuania made peace at Deulino (1618). Sweden had settled with Russia at Stolbova in 1617, cutting Russia off from the Baltic.

After the brief but indecisive War of Kalmar (16111613) between Sweden and Denmark, political and military reform under Charles IX's son Gustavus II Adolphus (ruled 16111632) brought success in renewed war against Poland-Lithuania. Sweden captured Riga (1621) and invaded Polish Prussia (1626), where initial successes failed to prevent ultimate stalemate. International pressure led to the truce of Altmark (1629), which freed Sweden to intervene in the Thirty Years' War (16181648) and gave it control of most of Livonia. A Russian attempt to recapture Smolensk in 16331634 was beaten off by the Poles, who threatened to invade Livonia. Sweden, then facing problems in Germany, surrendered the right to levy tolls on the Prussian ports, won at Altmark, in the truce of Stuhmsdorf (1635), which provided sufficient concessions to persuade the Polish diet to withdraw its backing for further hostilities. Sweden's subsequent success in Germany was rewarded with the grant of Bremen, Verden, and most of Pomerania, including Stettin, at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), while its crushing defeat of Denmark in "Torstensson's War" (16431645) broke Denmark's stranglehold on the Sound, securing Jämtland, Härjedalen, Ö sel, Gotland, and Halland at the Peace of Brömsebro.


The next phase of the wars was sparked off by Poland's internal problems. Sigismund's intervention in Russia and the dynastic quarrel with the Swedish Vasas, maintained by his sons Władysław IV (ruled 16321648) and John Casimir (ruled 16481668), increased the reluctance of the Polish Diet to finance royal foreign policy, while the Commonwealth's inability to defeat Khmelnytsky's Cossack revolt in the Ukraine after 1648 provoked Russian intervention in 1654. Lithuanian defenses crumbled, and Russia seized a series of cities, including the capital, Vilnius. In July 1655, fearing extensive Russian gains, Charles X of Sweden (ruled 16541660) overran Poland in a preemptive strike, thereby forcing Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia (ruled 16401688) into an alliance.

These events opened the indecisive Second Northern War (16551660). A Polish military revival in 1656 pushed back the Swedes, despite a Swedish-Brandenburg victory in the battle of Warsaw (July 1656). Sweden failed to take Danzig while Russia, alarmed at the prospect of a Swedish victory, signed a truce with Poland (1656). The Austrian Habsburgs and Denmark joined the anti-Swedish coalition in 1657, with Frederick William switching sides in return for Poland recognizing his sovereignty over Ducal Prussia. Bogged down in Poland, Charles mounted a brilliant attack on Denmark in February 1658, marching his army to the walls of Copenhagen over the frozen Baltic Sea to force the treaty of Roskilde (1658). Reluctant to return to Poland, Charles attacked Denmark again in the summer, but the Dutch and English supported the Danes and put pressure on Sweden to make peace. At the Treaty of Oliva (1660) with Poland, Brandenburg, and Austria, Sweden gained little beyond John Casimir's resignation of his claim to the Swedish throne; at the Treaty of Copenhagen with Denmark (1660), Sweden retained Scania, Bohuslän, and Blekinge, won at Roskilde, but returned Bornholm and Trondheim. Sweden made peace with Russia in 1661, but the Polish-Russian war had resumed in 1658: the Russians were driven out of most of Lithuania but Polish political divisions and military exhaustion led to a truce at Andrusovo (1667). Russia retained Smolensk and gained the Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper, including Kiev, nominally for three years, but ceded definitively by Poland in 1686.

The Second Northern War revealed the problems Sweden faced in defending its empire, which were confirmed in the Scanian War (16741679). Forced to attack Brandenburg by Louis XIV (ruled 16431715), who was paying them generous subsidies, the Swedes were defeated at Fehrbellin (1675); Sweden was then invaded by Denmark. Charles XI (ruled 16601697) beat off the Danish attack, but lost all of Sweden's German territories; they were only returned at the Peace of Fontainebleau (1679) at the behest of Louis XIV.


Neither Poland-Lithuania nor Russia, involved in wars against the Ottoman Empire, was in a position to exploit Swedish weakness in the 1670s, but both powers still had scores to settle. The Turkish Wars ended in 1699, while the accession of the young Charles XII (ruled 16971718) seemed to provide an opportunity for revenge. An anti-Swedish coalition soon formed including Frederick IV of Denmark (ruled 16991730), Augustus II, elector of Saxony and king of Poland-Lithuania (ruled 16971732), and Tsar Peter I of Russia (ruled 16821725). A botched attempt to take Riga by Augustus in 1700 launched the Great Northern War (17001721).

Charles XII of Sweden, a talented soldier, defeated each element of the coalition separately. Denmark was knocked out of the war immediately, before Charles destroyed a much larger Russian army besieging Narva in November 1700. He then invaded Poland-Lithuania (1702), where he won a series of victories, forcing Augustus to abdicate the Polish throne at the treaty of Altranstädt (1706). The Swedish-sponsored election of King Stanisław Leszczyński (ruled 17041709; 17331736), however, had merely deepened Polish political divisions. When Charles's bold invasion of Russia ended in defeat at Poltava (1709), Augustus returned and Leszczyński fled. Denmark, Brandenburg-Prussia, and Hannover now entered the war in the hope of securing something from the wreckage of the Swedish empire. Charles, on his return from Turkish exile in 1714, staved off disaster, but after his death in action (1718) the way was open to peace. Sweden kept part of Pomerania, but lost its other holdings across the Baltic. If Denmark failed to reverse its previous losses, Russia secured Kexholm, Ingria, Livonia, and Estonia at the Peace of Nystad (1721), and a new system of power was established in northeastern Europe. Sweden and Denmark were now second-rank powers, while continuing Polish weakness enabled Russia and Brandenburg-Prussia to emerge as the victors of the Northern Wars.

See also Baltic and North Seas ; Baltic Nations ; Belarus ; Charles X Gustav (Sweden) ; Charles XII (Sweden) ; Denmark ; Frederick William (Brandenburg) ; Frederick William I (Prussia) ; Gustavus II Adolphus (Sweden) ; Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Hansa ; Ivan IV, "the Terrible" (Russia) ; Kalmar, Union of ; Khmelnytsky Uprising ; League of Augsburg, War of the (16881697) ; Lithuania, Grand Duchy of, to 1569 ; Livonian War (15581583) ; Moscow ; Nantes, Edict of ; Ottoman Empire ; Peter I (Russia) ; Poland to 1569 ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 ; Prussia ; Romanov Dynasty (Russia) ; Russia ; Russo-Ottoman Wars ; Russo-Polish Wars ; Saxony ; Sigismund II Augustus (Poland, Lithuania) ; Silesia ; Stephen Báthory ; Sweden ; Teutonic Knights ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) ; Time of Troubles (Russia) ; Ukraine ; Vasa Dynasty (Sweden) ; Westphalia, Peace of (1648) .


Englund, Peter. The Battle of Poltava: The Birth of the Russian Empire. London, 1992.

Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State, and Society in Northeastern Europe, 15581721. Harlow, U.K., 2000.

Kirby, David G. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World, 14921772. London and New York, 1990.

Roberts, Michael. The Swedish Imperial Experience, 15601718. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1979.

Robert I. Frost

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Northern Wars

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Northern Wars