The Great Northern War. End of Swedish rule in Estonia

The reforms carried out in Estonia under Charles XI did not have a long-lasting effect; in reality Swedish church law was put into practice. In 1697 Charles XI died of cancer and his son Charles XII acceded to the throne (he ruled until 1718). The main reason for not completing the reforms was the Great Northern War, which broke out in the Baltic Sea region in 1700. By 1699 an anti-Swedish alliance had been formed by Poland (under Augustus II the Strong, Prince of Saxony 1694–1733; Polish king 1697–1706 and 1709–1733), Denmark (King Frederik IV, 1699–1730), and Russia (Tsar Peter I, 1682–1725). The aim of the alliance was to conquer the lands that Sweden had ‘robbed their neighbours of’; according to the agreement Estonia and Latvia were to be incorporated in a vassal state subjected to Poland. In the formation of the coalition the role of Johann Reinhold Patkul (1660–1707) was of great importance, a Livonian nobleman in the service of Augustus and a fierce opponent of the reduction. His aim was to separate Estonia and Livonia from Sweden and he attempted to incite the whole Livonian aristocracy, although in vain.

The war broke out in February 1700 with an unsuccessful attempt by the Saxon troops to capture Riga. At the same time the Danish attacked Swedish provinces in North Germany, but were defeated and forced to make peace. When Russian tsar Peter I brought his troops to Narva in the autumn of 1700, Charles XII came to defend it with his forces. In the battle at Narva the Swedish won an overwhelming victory over the Russian army in November 1700. Charles XII took his main forces on to fight Polish-Saxon armies in the south. The departure of the Swedish king’s forces was beneficial to the Russian tsar, who conquered Ingermanland and made successive raids to weaken defences in Estonia. In 1703 began the building of St. Petersburg, the future capital of Russia in the mouth of the Neva River; on Estonian territory about to be occupied by the Poles, a scorched-earth strategy was applied. In 1704 the Russian troops captured Narva and Tartu and the inhabitants of these cities were deported to Russia. The strategy culminated with the blowing up of Tartu in 1708.

On other fronts the Swedish army was successful in achieving the surrender of Augustus II who was forced to abdicate. Russia, who had lost all allies, offered peace, but Sweden did not accept the offer. In 1709 the army of Charles XII suffered a crushing defeat at Poltava in Ukraine, which decided the course of the war in favour of Russia and enabled Augustus II to resume the Polish throne. At the same time he gave up his pretensions to Livonia. In that year of 1709, Russian forces had begun to lay siege to Riga, the centre of Livonia; after the capture of Riga in 1710 the Livonian and Estonian cities surrendered one after another. The war on Estonian territory ended with the capitulation of Tallinn in September 1710.

As Russia considered the support of the local nobility to be essential in consolidating its power, the towns and the aristocrats achieved favourable terms of capitulation. The incorporation of Estonia and Livonia into Russia was stated in the Peace of Uusikaupunki (Nystad) in 1721, ending the warfare which had continued for ten more years outside Estonia.

The Swedish reign is a significant period in the history of both Estonia and Sweden. With the subjugation of North Estonia in 1561 began Sweden’s rise to supremacy, while the loss of Estonia and Livonia in the Great Northern War marked the end of the Swedish empire. Under Swedish rule, Estonia was united for the first time in history within its present borders by a central authority. In Estonian oral tradition this period is called ‘the good old Swedish time’. This idealised tradition was established by a contrast between the peasant-friendly reforms in the 17th century and Estonia’s later experiences. The Great Famine and the death of Charles XI were seen as omens predicting the hard times and events which began with the outbreak of the Great Northern War. The war, the plague and the increased privileges of the aristocrats at the expense of peasant rights were the reasons why Swedish rule was nostalgically remembered even until the 19th century.

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