The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795)

By H. Kozlowski


Maps: Andersen, A./ 2003

          Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929

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Before his death, king Zygmunt August, the last of the Jagiellonian Dynasty, attempted to establish a set of structures that would unite the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into a single workable unit. Although he enjoyed popular consent, he still had to deal with the power of nobility, which had grown significantly in the years since the Piast era. Nothing could be done without the consent of the powerful great nobles or magnates, who were driven by self-interest. Weak monarchy and state structure were to their benefit because they helped them increase their own power, whereas a powerful state might limit their freedom.




It was against this fractious background that Zygmunt carried out the Union of Lublin (1569). When he brought the southeastern areas of greater Lithuania into the kingdom of Poland, the Lithuanian magnates finally consented to the union. Theoretically, every member of the noble estate (the szlachta) in Poland-Lithuania had the same political rights. This sector accounted for 10% of the population, a far larger class than in other European countries. In the context of the times, this arrangement appeared to constitute a democratic regime because a far larger proportion of the population enjoyed full political rights than those in the Western European countries.


The death of Zygmunt August in 1572 marked the start of the Royal Nobility Republic (Rzeczpospolita Szlachecka) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.


(Click on the below map for better resolution)






With the death of Zygmunt August in 1572, the Royal Republic faced the prospect of electing a king from outside a reigning native dynasty. On the outskirts of Warsaw, in the vast field of Wola, 40,000 nobles, all representatives of their entire estates, gathered to vote. The meeting of the Seym (Parliament) began peacefully with approval of the Maintenance of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Tolerance in the Confederation of Warsaw. Once these tenets were recognized as principles of public life, Poland stood out as a bastion of liberty guaranteeing freedom and religious tolerance in the darkest hour of European religious wars.


There were a number of elements in the Polish constitution that contributed to the country's instability. Interregna often led to periods of weakness, when various foreign factions pursued their own interests, outbidding each other for the right to name the king. The liberum veto, originally conceived as a safeguard against tyranny, stipulated that a single deputy in the Seym (deputies were elected at Seymiks around the country), by his use of the veto if he strenuously objected to a piece of legislation, could cause the dissolution of a sitting of the Seym. Matters got even worse when the veto law was amended to require that all legislation in a particular sitting of the Seym be annulled. A democracy that required complete unanimity often resulted in gridlock.



1. Henri de Valois


On the first election, the nobility choose the new king of Poland; it was to be French prince Henri de Valois. But in 1574, barely several months after ascending the throne, faced with the opposition of Polish gentry, Henri secretly returned to France to wear the French crown after his brother's sudden death. Chaos followed in the wake of Henri's departure.



2. Stefan Batory



Stefan Batory

The second election winner was the Transylvanian Voivod (Prince), Stefan Batory, who became one of Poland's most celebrated rulers, great in both war and peace.

The port of Gdansk, which supported the Hapsburg candidate for Poland's throne, revolted when Stefan Batory of Transylvania was elected. Batory placed a ban and a commercial blockade on Gdansk, moving all trade to Elbing. However when resistance continued and the Abbey of Oliwa was burned by rioters, he attacked by force. At Lubieszow (17 April 1577,) the Royal army, under Jan Zborowski, destroyed a 4x larger mercenary and militia force. The highlight of this battle was the performance of Bathrory's haiduk infantry, which routed six large knescht German companies. But neither the town nor the guarding fort could be taken and according to the Treaty of Malbork, Batory received a hefty subsidy and Gdansk came back into the fold with the same privileges it had enjoyed previous.



3. 1576-1582 War with Russia


In 1576 the Inflanty (Livonia: modern day Estonia and Latvia) has been attacked by the Muscovite Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. At first the Commonwealth could not respond to Ivan's attacks on Livonia, but in 1577 Lithuanian forces took Dvinsk and in 1578 Polish cavalry took Wenden in a nocturnal attack. In 1579 Batory gathered a large army (22,000) and took the war to Russia. He aimed at cutting off Livonia from Russia and took Polock by siege (11-30 August). The following year he returned with 29,000 men and ventured deeper, the target being Vielkie Luki (taken 4 Sept 1580), though many other strongholds were also captured. In 1581 (with 31,000 men) the campaign moved north and Pskov had been besieged. The siege of Pskov, which had continued through a fierce winter, freezing cavalrymen dead in their saddles, was then ended. During the war Russia lost some 300,000 men, the Poles capturing 40,000. Polish detachments roamed deep into enemy territory causing havoc and threatening the Tsar

After a successful campaign Batory accepted the Russian plea for peace and in the peace of Yam Zapolski (15 Jan 1582) Muscovy abandoned all of Livonia including Polotsk The Commonwealth was now recognised as the greatest power in Central Europe and only the Turkish Sultan ruled over more extensive territories.



4. Zygmunt III Waza


After the unexpected death of Batory in 1586, the third election brought the Swedish crown prince, Sigismund Vasa, to the throne but the Hapsburg candidate, Archduke Maximilian, invaded Poland to take the Crown Chancellor and Grand Hetaman Jan Zamoyski was ready, repulsing the Austrians at Krakow and defeating them the following year at Byczyna (24 Jan 1588), capturing Maximilian. He was not released until Austria abandoned all claims to the Polish throne almost a year later.


In 1595 and 1596 the Synod of Brzesc (Brest) Litewski saw the Ruthenian (now Byelorussian and Ukrainian) Orthodox clergy recognise the supremacy of the Pope whilst retaining their distinctive religious rites and liturgy.


King Zygmunt III Waza decided to move the capital from Krakow to Warsaw, the junction of all major routes crisscrossing the Commonwealth. This was done in 1596.



Battle of Kircholm




Hetman Karol-Chodkiewicz


5. 1600-1611 1st War with Sweden.                   (Click here for more details)


Zygmunt’s claims to the Swedish crown have provoked new conflict with Sweden. Their forces landed in Livonia in 1600, 1604 and 1605, but the invasions were notable for their conspicuous lack of success. Polish -Lithuanian forces under Jan Zamoyski and later Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz crushed the Swedish armies at the battles of Kokenhauzen (10 March 1601), Bialy Kamien (25 Sept 1604), and Kircholm (27 Sept 1605, ) On each occasion the Poles were outnumbered, but by skilful tactics and the expert use of hussars the Swedes infantry was wiped off the field. However due to lack of funds, recapturing occupied towns was difficult and protracted, especially since the Swedes began to avoid battle and remained in towns and castles. Chodkiweicz, after helping to put down the Zebrzydowski Rebellion of 1606-07 relieved Riga. The war ended with a status quo, the attention of both countries turned to Russia. Livonia remained in Polish hands.



6. 1606-1607 Zebrzydowski rokosz (rebellion)


A large number of nobles revolted against the King Zygmunt III Waza, who concerned himself too much with regaining his Swedish throne. The nobles took to arms but were defeated by a heavily outnumbered Royal army led by the two Hetman's Stanislaw Zólkiewski and Jan Karol Chodkiewicz at Guzow (6 July 1607).


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7. 1609-1619 War with Russia.                                      (Click here for more details)


Though some Polish and Lithuanian adventurers interfered in Russia, supporting the First and the Second False Dimitri, the Commonwealth did not involve itself until Vasili Szujski became Tsar. It was Szujski who in the 1606 coup instigated the massacre of 500 Poles in Moscow, he also put out feelers for an alliance with Sweden. So Zygmunt decided to attack, giving the command of 9,000 troops to a Grand Hetman Stanislaw Zólkiewski. The aim of the expedition was to recapture Smolensk, but events overtook the Poles, after the startling destruction of the Russian army and auxiliary western mercenaries at Kluszyn (4 July 1610,) Szujski was removed by a court rebellion and the Poles moved to Moscow unopposed. The boyars invited Zólkiewski to protect them from the anarchy within Russia. On 27 August 1610 the boyars received the rights and privileges of the Polish szlachta (nobility) and the King's son - Wladislaw, was proclaimed Tsar. A Polish garrison was installed in the Kremlin, but after the return of the King and Zólkiewski to Poland the situation for the garrison sharply deteriorated.


In an effort to defend itself the garrison caused the Great Fire of 1611. The boyars abandoned their thoughts of Polish Protection and wide spread resistance began. In June 1611 Smolensk surrendered to Poland, but in Moscow the Polish garrison could not be saved, it capitulated on 22 October 1612 and half was butchered on the spot. Four months later, Michal Fyodorovitch Romanov, founder of the greatest Russian dynasty, was Proclaimed Tsar. A minor expedition in 1617-18 on Prince Wladislaw own initiative achieved nothing except the capture of one major fortress. Moscow was not captured due to the onset of winter, though it was besieged and assaulted several times. Significant role in this war was played by new formation of polish light cavalry called "lisowski cossaks". Truce of Deulina (3 Jan 1619) left Smolensk, Siewiersk and Czernichow to Poland.



8. 1620-1621 War with Turkey


Polish claims for the Moldavia and auxiliary forces (15 000 "lisowski cossaks") sent to help Habsurgs against Betheln Gabor (prince of Trasylvania - Ottoman's vassal) provoked the conflict with Ottoman Empire.


In early September 1620 the Royal Grand and Field Hetman's Zólkiewski and Koniecpolski moved into Moldavia with 9,000 men. There they met a Turkish force under Iskanderpasha of about 20,000. Zólkiewski decided to fight it out in the open field, but he was defeated at Cecora (18 Sept to 6 Oct), and during retreat was killed, while Koniecpolski was captured. The following year a massive Turkish army of over 100,000 men invaded Poland, led by Sultan Osman II. He besieged the Polish and Cossack army (55,000), led by Chodkiewicz, at Chocim (2 Sept-9 Oct,). After over 40,000 losses the Turks gave up and returned home. Polish losses were also high and included Chodkiewicz who died in his chamber of old age just as the Turks began to retreat.



9. 1621-1629 2nd War with Sweden                                           (Click here for more details)


In 1621 the Swedes, taking advantage of Poland's war with Turkey, (Crown army busy far to the south-east) led by Gustav Adolph invaded Livonia with a reorganized army. The small Lithuanian forces were defeated and by 1623 most of Livonia was in Swedish hands. In 1626 Gustav turned to Prussia and landed with a strong army, on an unprepared Poland. On 17th January 1626 at the Battle of Wallhof defeated a Lithuanian army deficient in infantry. The first major Swedish field victory of the Poles in 25 years of war. Gustav quickly captured a number of Prussian towns, though not Gdansk and defeated another Polish army led by Zygmunt at Gniew (22-30 Sept 1626) through skilful use of terrain to impede the polish hussar charge on his infantry. Koniecpolski, free after a victorious war against the Turks now took command.


Fighting Gustav to something of a standstill, both men avoided open battle on a number of occasions. Both armies fought each other to a standstill at Tczew, until a Polish musketeer shot Gustav - the Swedes retreated (18 Sept 1627,) and because of Gustav's skilful maneuvering, had to resort to a campaign of harassment, which was quite successful at impeding Swedish offensive operations. 28th November 1627 a Polish flotilla defeated a Swedish fleet blockading Gdansk (battle on Oliva). In 1628 Koniecpolski defeated and forced surrender upon an enemy force (2,500 German mercenaries) sent to attack him from Germany at Czarne.


Koniecpolski also attempted to catch the Swedes on the march, which he finally managed to do at Trzciana, defeating the Swedish King there (26 June 1629), Gustav had to sacrifice his cavalry to protect his infantry, though it also didn't emerge unscathed from the battle.


The Seym, however, preferred to buy the Swedes off with the Treaty of Altmark (26 Sept 1629) due to cash flow problems. The Swedes kept a number of coastal towns, which they used as a base for entering the Thirty Years War, and also received 3.5% of the trade through Gdansk, which financed the Swedes in Germany.



10. Wladislaw IV Waza, 1632-1634 War with Muscovy


With the death of Zygmunt III in 1632, the Tsar decided it would be an excellent opportunity to take Smolensk and he sent Michal Sheyn, commander of the Smolensk garrison in 1609-11, with 25-32,000 men. It was not until the following year, in September, that a Polish relief force of 20-25,000 men arrived. On 23 Sept the Russians were forced to break off the siege and were them besieged. On the 25 Feb 1634 the remaining 12,000 Russians and mercenaries capitulated. The Eternal Treaty was signed on 14 June 1634 and repeated the territorial provisions agreed at Deulina. This was the first war in which Poland relied on western tactics, using large numbers of pike & shot infantry and dragoons due to reforms instigated by the Wladislaw IV King. In 1635, armed confrontation against the Swedes occured. During the summer, large Polish forces under Koniecpolski, concentrated in Royal Prussia. Their aim was to remove the Swedish Garrisons in the Prussian towns (there since the late 1620's). The Swedes exhausted after the 30 Years war, agreed to leave the towns in exchange for conformation of their hold on Livonia (Treaty of Shtumska Wies, 12 Sept 1635)



11. Problem with the Tatars


During this entire period, tartars continually raided Poland's southeastern territories. The current defense force and the standing army were mainly used against them. Throughout the period Polish forces were stationed in the south. The tartars were difficult to combat, they traveled quickly and avoided battle, but when cornered they fought hard. The main encounters; - Kleck (5 August 1506), Lopusz (28 April 1512), Martynow (20 June 1624), & Ochmatow (30 Jan 1644), were Polish victories but they made little impression on the tartar incursions. The tartar raids disrupted life in those territories and caused a great deal of loss of life and property.




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