CHARLES XII. OF SWEDEN was born at Stockholm on June 27, 1682. He became king at the age of fifteen, and on May 8, 1700, he left his capital for his northern campaign, never to see it again in this life. At an age when ordinary men are in a state of half-conscious development he defeated his chief adversaries, the Danes, Peter the Great, and Augustus the Strong, driving the last-named from his throne as king of Poland; so overwhelming was his victory that between 1704 and 1707 he could regard himself as lord and arbiter of northern Europe. An unbridled imagination and fantastic megalomania led him into the error of a war in Russia and the Ukraine, where a shattering blow struck him and his army at Poltava. There the world power of Sweden descended to its grave, and there Russia was born as a Great Power. It only remains to tell the king’s personal fate, and that, indeed, reveals a character that will never fail to stir adventurous interest. After five years of exile and captivity in Turkey, he succeeded at last in reaching what was then the Swedish garrison town of Stralsund, on November 21, 1714, riding for sixteen perilous days through Hungary and right across Germany. His desperate flight from besieged Stralsund, his reappearance in Sweden, and his war against the Danes in Norway, were mere preliminaries to vaster and vaster enterprises, to which the passion for glory tempted this extraordinary man; but whilst he was inspecting the defenses of Frederickshald on December 11, 1718, an enemy bullet struck him and killed him on the spot. “Almost all his actions, including those of his simple and private life, were far beyond the bounds of probability. . . . He carried all the heroic virtues to a pitch of exaggeration at which they become as dangerous as the opposing vices. A unique rather than a great man, to be admired rather than imitated” (Voltaire). The king’s body was brought from the army headquarters at Tistedahlen to the Swedish city of Uddevalla, where it lay embalmed, awaiting the funeral ceremony. Here in Uddevalla the death mask is said to have been taken on December 13, but on an engraving of it by Angelica Clarke of the year 1823 the more probable statement appears that it was made four hours after the king’s death. The funeral ceremony did not take place till February 26, 1719, in Stockholm; the dead king was buried in the Rittersholm church, in the so-called Caroline choir of tombs, in a black marble sarcophagus covered with a gilded lion’s skin. There are several casts of the death mask itself; that belonging to the Military Association in Stockholm has probably the strongest claim to be regarded as the original. Our plate is from the cast in the British Museum (Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities), obtained from the collection of Henry Christy, who purchased it in Stockholm from the estate of the deceased Swedish sculptor Baestrom. On the right temple of the mask the mark is clearly visible where the fragment of case-shot penetrated the head and cut short the king’s life so suddenly. In considering the features it is not without importance to remember that Charles was not of the Vasa dynasty but belonged to the house of Pfalz-Zweibriicken. Voltaire, whose Histoire de Charles XII is still well known, remarked that the expression of the lower half of the face was disagreeable. (Charles XII. Was frequently cruel and despotic.) A third cast of (lie death mask, formerly in the University library at Cambridge, is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum there. (Voltaire: Histoire de Charles XII, Oiuvres***** de Voltaire, Gotha, 1785, vol. 23; G. A. Nordberg: Leben Karls XII., translated by I. H. Heubel, Hamburg, 1745-1751, vol. ii. pp. 750 ft.; A. Fryxell: Lebensbeschreibung Karls XII., freely translated by G. D. von Jensen-Tusch and L. Rohrdantz, Brunswick, 1861, Part V. pp. 239 ff.; Oskar II. of Sweden: Karl XII., Berlin, 1875; Laurence Hutton: A Collection of Death Masks, Harper’s new Monthly Magazine, November 1892, p. 907.) One more point may be mentioned. Rumours that Charles was the victim of an assassin from among his own men became current soon after his death and were never really silenced. King Charles XV. therefore had the sarcophagus in the Rittersholm church opened on August 31, 1859, and a careful examination made of the wound in Charles XI I.’s head; this proved once for all that the rumours were without foundation. The interesting protocol of this proceeding is contained in the last volume of Fryxell’s book on pp. 294-301. Photograph by messrs. Fleming, London.
Black & White Photos and quotations from: Benkard, Ernst, & Green, Margaret (1927). Undying Faces, A Collection of Death Masks. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.