The Real World during the time of kings

Posted Jan 7, 2008
Last Updated Apr 6, 2008
Introduction to the Foreword
    From time to time I work on a historical novel, set in a Europe that most Americans have scarcely a clue of: the early 1700s.  A Europe stranger than some science fictional worlds.  Some of you might find it interesting.  Here's the Foreword.  If I get any interested responses, I'll talk about it on this site later, along with some writerly considerations regarding the writing of historical novels.
    Those considerations have shifted over the past 15 years.

In the late 1600s, the map of Europe was very different from today's. Germany was a center of political and religious ferment — consisting of some three hundred (300!) independent states. Foreign relations centered on military power (including how many foreign mercenary  regiments you could afford), and on constantly shifting political, military, and trade alliances. Rule was by monarchs. Diplomacy featured connivery, treachery, the trading of other people's territories, and the intermarrige of royal families. Wars were frequent, threats of war continuous, and wrongs clamoring to be redressed innumerable. Treaties often lasted just long enough for new armies to be trained or arranged for, and for new alliances to be secretly forged.
    In fact, the road to hell was paved not with good intentions, but with broken pledges, which were much more abundant.
    What an era!
    In the north, where our story takes place, Denmark had ruled Norway for three centuries —”since 1397. Finland had become part of Sweden more or less gradually, beginning in the mid-1100s. A landmark date was 1216, when the pope confirmed the claim of the Swedish king at the expense of the Danish king, who had claimed Finland after establishing bases on the south coast. There had never been a Finnish state. Much of what is now Finland was wilderness thinly peopled by Lapp reindeer herders and Finnish fur traders, fur hunters, and salmon fishers. What would eventually be known as Finland took shape over the following several centuries, through gradual settlement and by fighting that pitted Finns and Swedes against Russians and Karelians.

In 1618, the complex pattern of German dynastic rivalries and religious conflicts erupted into the Thirty Years War. Sweden's military intervention prevented the threatened collapse of Protestantism in central Europe, but in the process, Sweden and Finland, poor to begin with, were further impoverished. They also suffered a shocking loss of young men. But when the war was over, Sweden held much of the land along the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, land taken from Danish, German, and Russian rulers.
    In 1697, the headstrong 15-year-old Karl XII became King of Sweden and Finland. (The English, of course, called him Charles XII.) To the neighboring royalty, this seemed a good time to strip Sweden of her eastern and southern Baltic possessions, plus that part of (now) southern Sweden that had been Danish until 1658. Thus a "secret" pact was made by neighboring monarchs, who had no reason to imagine that Sweden's teen-aged king would prove to be a military genius. In February 1700, Augustus, ruler of Saxony and Poland, marched an army into Swedish Livonia (mainly present-day Latvia). A month later, Frederick of Denmark attacked his southern neighbor, Holstein-Gottorp, an ally and client state of Sweden defended in part by a Swedish garrison. And that autumn, Russia's Peter the Great, newly freed of war with the Turks, attacked the Swedish-ruled, Finnic-speaking provinces of Karelia, Ingria, and Estonia.
    The result was the 21-year Great Northern War. For several years the Swedish-Finnish army prevailed. At one point it occupied the pride of Saxony, its beautiful capital city Dresden.
    Eventually the main Swedish army got bogged down in the vastness of Russia (actually today's Belarus and Ukraine), and was virtually wiped out in the Battle of Poltava. The sorely wounded King Karl escaped with several hundred men into Moldavia, at the time part of the Turkish empire, eventually returning to Sweden, where he at once began to rearm.
     Karl's original enemies had been joined in 1709 by Prussia, and in 1715 by Hanover. Both were more eager to share in the spoils than in the fighting, however, for if Sweden's power had been sorely weakened, her king's military genius was now abundantly well-recognized and feared. (Hanover's German monarch was the newly crowned George I, King of Great Britain and Ireland, but in Britain he had a parliament to deal with, thus Britain's role in the conflict was small and selective.)

    Meanwhile, in 1714, a Russian army had overrun Finland. The hard-bitten shards of the Finnish army, commanded by General Karl Gustaf Armfelt, had escaped west across the Torne River into northern Sweden. 
    This story is about that Finnish army, its general, and some unblooded units of Swedish conscripts, in the final land campaign of the Great Northern War.

If this is something you'd like to know more about, or  if it's not, tell me.  If you'd like to look at some preliminary chapters, visit

Marla Dickson

Dec 24, 2009

Sounds fascinating to me. My grandfather came from Sweden and I've always wanted to know more about it, including Finland and the rest of the Baltic.

Joel Davis

Mar 23, 2008

Well, as you know, John, I've been rooting for this book since we first discussed--was it REALLY 15 years ago? My goodness... I like the forward you have here. It quickly sets the back-story and gives the readers what they nned to move forward. (Pardon the terrible pun.)

Francis Turner

Jan 8, 2008

Firstly, my condolences on your loss.

Secondly and in re:this post

Kyllä!!! Haluan lukea hänet (and if as is quite possible the finnish is wrong due to excessive rustiness that means yes!!! I want to read it)

When I lived in Helsinki in 1990 there was a pub/club called Karle Kaksitoista and I never really knew whom it was named after.

Geoffrey Kidd

Jan 8, 2008

I liked it. It gives, I think, pretty much the broad background of the situation, including the major players, so, just as in a science-fiction novel, the reader won't be confused as to "Who's in the conflict" and "Why the conflict" and "Where the conflict", though I'd recommend including at least broad-scale maps to help with that. More, please? Thank you.