According to legend, King Charles XII of Sweden was granted an occult power of invincibility. His power supposedly originated from a ring that was given to him by a "little grey man" with a rudy complexion, who may have been a sorcerer or spirit. Shortly before Charles' mysterious death, it was noticed that the ring--which the king had worn throughout his outstanding military conquests--was missing from his finger . . .
This attractive folk tale about one of history's most inspiring figures seems to have been invented in hindsight to explain how the "Lion of the North" achieved such notable military successes and an apparently superhuman immunity to missiles. The King is said to have shown unflinching courage on the battlefield, zero emotion, and an unnatural obliviousness to pain. His soldiers thought he was "hard": magically shielded from physical harm, like the Greek warrior Achilles.
According to folklorists, Charles XII was even reported to have stopped in the midst of battle to empty his boots of bullets. The bullets had supposedly fallen inside his boots after hitting his body without effect. He is said to have referred to these deadly orbs of lead shot as mere blueberries! While this story about the invincible Charles XII sounds particularly far-fetched, the 'legend' that he was under the protection of some sort of magical or occult power is given some credence when the circumstances of his mysterious and controversial death are considered.
Charles XII, advised by a Cossack
Although Charles XII became a popular hero-figure for the Swedes, the French philosopher and scientist Voltaire, and the Nazis, in his own time, Charles wasn't quite so well liked. His obsession with war cost his country a lot of money, and his subjects (many of whom had no doubt already lost fathers, brothers, and sons to the Northern Wars) were about to be further penalised by a newly created tax.
Also, Charles XII, a notorious bachelor whose attention was entirely consumed by strategy and warring (even his interest in mathematics arose from how the science could be applied to the battlefield), had no heir. Although he was a genius at strategising, he left his throne in a precarious position. If Charles XII was indeed murdered, there would have been no shortage of people who wanted him dead.
So, anyone from the ranks of the common soldiers (who were tired of war and longing for home), to Charles' successor, Frederick I, could have plotted his assassination. The Swedish aristocracy were also draining their coffers in support of Charles' endless warfare, so anyone who dared to do the deed would not have been wanting in powerful supporters. But how do you kill a man who's supposedly invincible?
This is where Charles XII's story gets really interesting. According to another legend, he was killed not by a bullet, but by a button. Why? Because whoever had determined to assassinate Charles believed he was under supernatural protection: Charles apparently couldn't be harmed by 'foreign' missiles (even though he had sustained an injury to one of his feet during a battle), so a metal button was stolen from the king's own coat. This button-bullet came to be known as the "Kulknappen."
Uniform of Charles XII (actually worn some years before death)
The Kulknappen assassination theory is backed up by some circumstantial evidence. Firstly, according to eye-witnesses, Prince Frederick (who later married Charles' sister, Ulrika, and became Frederick I of Sweden) was reportedly very nervous on the day of Charles' death, and he didn't relax until word reached him that The Lion of the North was no more. Secondly, Frederick's secretary actually confessed to murdering Charles XII whilst in a fever (he later recanted the admission upon regaining his senses).
Thirdly, and most weirdly of all, the King's surgeon, Melchior Neumann, wrote an account of a mysterious dream he had suffered at the time of Charles' death. According to the account, the surgeon saw in his dream the King lying dead on the embalming table. The King came alive, and took Neumann's hand, and told him that he must become the witness to how Charles XII was shot. The terrified surgeon then asked the King if he had been shot by the enemy from their besieged fortress. "No, Neumann," Charles replied. "One came creeping." Neumann's dream implicates a sniper--one of Charles' own.
Sarcophagus of Charles XII
It is fortunate that Charles XII was embalmed and that his body was preserved in Stockholm. It has been exhumed three times to date (once in 1746, again in 1859, and finally in 1917). Autopsies have been carried out in an attempt to determine once and for all how Charles XII was killed. As we shall see, Neumann's dream may actually have been prophetic, as forensic science has helped shed new light on this unresting, creepy 'cold case.' The main question to be answered is whether he was killed by enemy fire from the left, or by an assassin from the right.
Frederick I, The Prince of Hesse
At the moment of his death, Charles XII was assessing some fortifications. Accompanied by a French soldier in his service and a French engineer, he was in a section of trench where several Swedes had already been killed by enemy fire from the left. Charles climbed up for a look about, and received the deadly head wound--but from which direction did it come? Voltaire (pp. 331-3) recounts the immediate circumstances and aftermath:
"The least details relating to the death of such a man as Charles are noted. It is therefore my duty to say that all the conversation reported by various writers, as having taken place between the King and the engineer, are absolutely false. This is what I know actually happened. The King stood with half his body exposed to a battery of cannon directed precisely at the angle where he stood. No one was near him but two Frenchmen : one was M. Siquier, his aide-de-camp, a man of capacity and energy, who had entered his service in Turkey, and was particularly attached to the Prince of Hesse [Frederick I]; the other was the engineer."
"The cannon fired grape-shot, and the King was more exposed than any of them. Not far behind was Count Sveren, who was commanding the trenches. At this moment Siquier and Megret saw the King fall on the parapet, with a deep sigh; they came near, but he was already dead. A ball weighing half-a-pound had struck him on the right temple, leaving a hole large enough to turn three fingers in; his head had fallen over the parapet, his left eye was driven in and his right out of its socket; death had been instantaneous, but he had had strength to put his hand to his sword, and lay in that posture. At this sight Megret, an extraordinary and feelingless man, said, " Let us go to supper. The play is done.""
"Siquier hastened to tell the Count Sveren, and they all agreed to keep it a secret till the Prince of Hesse [soon to be Frederick I]could be informed. They wrapped the corpse in a grey cloak, Siquier put on his hat and wig ; he was carried under the name of Captain Carlsbern through the troops, who saw their dead King pass, little thinking who it was. The Prince at once gave orders that no one should stir out of the camp, and that all the passes to Sweden should be guarded, till he could arrange for his wife to succeed to the History of Charles XII's crown, and exclude the Duke of Holstein, who might aim at it."
A Muse Reflects Newton's Insights Down to Voltaire
If Voltaire's account is to be believed, Frederick I (The Prince of Hesse), who has already been established to have had ample motive and support for murdering Charles XII, and who was supposedly acting very nervous on the day, had his men right there at the scene. According to Voltaire, he was also very eager to make sure his wife, Ulrika (Charles' sister), secured the throne for herself before anyone else could claim it. Ulrika surrendered it to Frederick soon afterward.
Did Frederick set the whole thing up? Was it a coupe d'etat, with Frederick pushed into power by generals and aristocrats who wanted Charles gone? Did Frederick's man in the trench arrange for Charles' inspection of the corner to coincide with Frederick's secretary sniping across in the dark? Was the gun loaded with Charles' own coat button? Did the Kulknappen break the spell of Charles XII's invincibility? A surgeon's prophetic dream and the second-hand account of Voltaire both point to it, but they are not evidence enough.
Could this be the Exit Wound on the Left?
The autopsies carried out on Charles XII are not conclusive. Exit wounds are generally larger than entry wounds, but according to experts, not in every case. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the hole on the left of Charles' skull is much larger than the hole on the right. If the bigger hole is the exit wound, then he was definitely shot from the right--by one of his own men and not by the enemy.
The Hole on the Right
The ballistics report also seemed to point to a projectile encased in a shell having been used--but shell-encased bullets weren't even invented when Charles XII died. How could this be explained?
Xray of Charles XII's Skull
According to the the Kulknappen theory, the Kulknappen was a button from Charles' own coat, used to break the occult spell that had supposedly rendered the King immune to mortal danger. The button was used because it belonged to Charles himself and could supposedly infiltrate whatever invisible barrier protected him. But surely a coat button alone couldn't have caused an exit wound like the one in Charles' skull?
Right Side, Charles XII. Exit Wound?
The Swedish folktales about Charles XII's invincibility--which seemed so incredible at the outset--may have turned out to be critical in solving this nearly 400 year-old cold case. One story stated that the button-bullet used to kill Charles XII was reportedly kept as a souvenir by a soldier of the Northern Wars named Nordstierna. Nordstierna boasted of his possession upon returning home to his village, but the local priest warned him that that was probably unwise, since the men who had actually killed Charles, and who'd gotten away with it, might come looking for him to tie up loose ends. So, Nordstierna was said to have thrown the Kulknappen into a local gravel pit.
In 1932, a metal smith named Carl Anderson found what may well have been the Kulknappen in a load of gravel extracted from a quarry in the exact region where Nordstierna had lived. Anderson took his find to a museum. It was a coat button that had been cut in half, filled with lead, and soldered back together again. One side had been flattened by a hard impact, consistent with it having been fired from a gun and colliding with bone. The Kulknappen found by Anderson seemed to confirm the folktale, and clarify the confusing Ballistics report that suggested the King was killed by a shell-encased bullet of some kind.
The Left Side with Skin Retracted
Later research proved that there actually was a soldier named Nordstierna serving in Charles' campaign at the time the King was killed. The Xrays also showed that the wound in Charles XII's skull had been made by an object with the same diameter as Anderson's Kulknappen. A DNA sample was taken from dried blood in the seam where the two halves of the metal sphere had been soldered together. It matched another sample taken from blood splatter found on Charles XII's glove. The chances of the two samples belonging to two different people are extremely slight.
Centuries after Neumann the surgeon wrote down his disturbing dream, it seems that, thanks to his embalming job, he actually has become a witness in absentia to Charles XII's probable assassination by "one who came creeping."
Copyright HTR Williams 2015.