Battle of Warsaw (28–30 July 1656) I


Swedish King Charles X Gustav in skirmish with Polish Tartars near Warsaw 1656.

The Commonwealth’s sudden implosion, which brought Swedish armies to the Hungarian border and Muscovite troops to the Vistula, reverberated far beyond northeastern Europe. For the Habsburgs, the Swedish victories represented a real threat to the fragile peace achieved in 1648 since the Habsburg patrimonial lands were intensely vulnerable to attack from Poland. France, ironically, feared the opposite: that the resumption of the Swedish-Polish wars would scupper Mazarin’s hopes of involving Sweden directly in the Empire to prevent the resumption of the alliance between the Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs broken in 1648. For the Dutch, already involved in an unresolved conflict with England, a Swedish conquest of Royal Prussia and Danzig would complete Swedish domination of the Baltic coastline. For Denmark, Sweden’s success in 1655 threatened complete eclipse and ultimate encirclement. To the south, concern at the shift in power from the Commonwealth to Muscovy had already provoked the Crimean Tatars to change sides, and the ambitious George II Rákóczi, prince of Transylvania, was in close contact with a number of Polish magnates, especially the ambitious Grand Marshal, Jerzy Sebastian Lubomirski.

The attitude of foreign powers would depend upon political and military developments within the Commonwealth. As yet, neither Muscovy nor Sweden had faced a real military test. The szlachta were rapidly to discover, however, that their much-vaunted liberties could not safely be entrusted to conquering foreign monarchs. Although the Swedes entered Poland under strict military discipline – Patrick Gordon claimed that on the month-long march from Stettin to Konin 470 men were executed, mostly for trivial offences – there was little hope that trouble could be avoided. Charles had an expensive army of foreign mercenaries to feed and pay, even without the Polish regulars who joined him in October hoping that he would pay their arrears; his own men were already complaining that plundering was due to the failure to pay their wages. In order to meet

these pressing needs, the Swedes sought substantial contributions: Cracow had to pay 300,000 zloties; 240,000 were demanded from Warsaw, a sum many times larger than its annual tax revenues. In the countryside, Swedish promises to respect szlachta privileges were soon broken. Although efforts were made to limit looting to the lands of those still resisting, it proved impossible to police.

Perhaps most influential in turning opinion against the invaders was their behaviour towards the Church. For the veteran champions of the Protestant Cause, the wealthy Catholic Church was a natural target for looters. The tone was set by Charles himself. On arriving in Cracow, he demanded 300,000 złoties from the city’s churches; when told this sum could not be raised, he ordered churches to be stripped of valuables to the required sum. His soldiers quickly followed suit. In September in the Cracow suburb of Kazimierz, a group of drunken Swedes murdered subdeacon Jakub Mrowiński. The Swedes occupied the monastery; while in residence, they devastated the library, stealing books and ripping out the pages to light fires. On their departure two years later a hundred carts of horse manure had to be removed. It was a story repeated in churches, monasteries and Jesuit colleges across Poland. Jan Branecki, suffragan bishop of Poznań, was murdered in his own house in August 1655; Wojciech Gowarczewski, archdeacon of Poznań, had his arm cut off before being flung in a river; one contemporary claimed that twenty Franciscans alone were killed by the Swedes.

Discontent spread rapidly. Resistance began in Lithuania, where Radziwiłł’s pro-Swedish policy failed to win wide support, and much of the Lithuanian army, under Pawel Sapieha, opposed him, forming a confederation at Wierzbołów in August. In the autumn, mixed bands of noble and peasant partisans began operating across Poland. In October, one such band surprised the small Swedish garrison at Kościan with a classic ruse, shooting dead Charles’s brother-in-law Frederick of Hesse in an incident which gave the resistance movement all the publicity it could desire. It was the start of a long campaign which was to cause the Swedes serious problems until Czarniecki’s regulars entered Wielkopolska in May 1656. Similar activity in the uplands of Małopolska saw the capture of Nowy Sącz in December by a peasant force, while the defence of the Pauline monastery of Jasna Góra in Częstochowa against a half-hearted Swedish siege was later to become a symbol of heroic resistance to the heretical invader.

Against this background, John Casimir’s political position improved dramatically. Now that Swedish duplicity had been exposed, his refusal to cooperate was retrospectively vindicated. On 20 November, a manifesto was issued in Oppeln, proclaiming his return, and calling for Poles of all estates to rise up against the invader; by 1 January 1656 John Casimir was back on Polish soil. Three days earlier, the Confederation of Tyszowce condemned the nation for having allowed the false promises of a deceiver to seduce it from its loyalty to its legally-elected monarch, and called it to arms in the name of the Commonwealth and Catholicism. The signatures of Potocki and Lanckoronski marked the return to loyalty of a substantial portion of the army. After the king’s arrival in Łańcut in mid January, the Tyszowce confederates were joined by Lubomirski, who had long opposed John Casimir, and Stefan Czarniecki; by February, most of the regular army had abandoned Swedish service. The patriotic fervour reached a peak in April at Lwów, when John Casimir dedicated the Commonwealth to the Virgin Mary, whom he proclaimed Queen of Poland, and swore to lighten the burdens on the peasantry once peace was restored.

The return of the will to fight was of crucial importance, but the task that faced the Commonwealth was immense. The Ukraine and most of Lithuania were under Muscovite or Cossack control, while Charles had moved into Royal Prussia, which was defended by 3,600 regulars, 600 infantry raised by the Prussian estates, 3–4,000 from the noble levy, and mercenaries raised by the cities.40 John Casimir had urged the Prussians to reach a settlement with elector Frederick William of Brandenburg, who, as Duke of Prussia, was a Polish vassal, and who had an army of 14,000. A treaty was signed between Frederick William and the Royal Prussian szlachta at Rinsk on 2/12 November, although Danzig, Elbing and Thorn refused to accept Brandenburg garrisons. Against the background of the surrender of Cracow and John Casimir’s exile, Charles persuaded Thorn and Elbing to surrender, although Marienburg held out until March. Danzig, however, continued to resist behind its impressive fortifications. Frederick William, ignoring the promises he had made at Rinsk, hastily withdrew his garrisons and signed the treaty of Kónigsberg (7/17 January 1656), in which the link between Ducal Prussia and Poland was sundered, with Frederick William accepting Charles as his feudal superior.

The military situation was unpromising. Apart from Danzig and Lwów, every major city in the Commonwealth was in enemy hands. John Casimir’s operational base was limited to a small area of southeast Poland. The Swedes controlled the Vistula, occupying Cracow, Warsaw and Thorn, enabling them to cut off Danzig’s trading lifeblood. With so much of the Commonwealth under occupation, raising taxes on a scale sufficient to pay regular troops would be difficult indeed, and the army was woefully short of infantry, artillery and ammunition: in early 1656, it consisted of 7,200 regulars under Potocki and Lanckoroński, 2,500 Lithuanians under Pawel Sapieha, 3,500 foot scattered in garrisons, and Lubomirski’s units, 13,500 strong. Despite these problems the Commonwealth mounted a spirited campaign. By March, 2,597 regular cavalry had been raised, while a start had been made on the reconstruction of the foreign contingent, with the recruitment of three new infantry regiments, the reconstruction of one dragoon regiment and the raising of two new companies. Together with Koniecpolski’s units and the noble levy of several southeastern palatinates, the army reached nearly 30,000 men. Although command was nominally held by the hetmans, Czarniecki and Lubomirski largely took control of operations.

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