Lisowczycy or the 17th century James Bond unit from Poland

Polish Rider, one of the most famous portraits by Rembrandt

As today is  the Polish national holiday I decided to write an essay concerning Polish history. I chose Lisowczycy.They were called „devils”, “barbarians” and „bloody hounds”. They were admired and copied. People feared them worse than the plague. Mothers in Bohemia and Germany threatened with them their unruly children up to the 19th century. Rumour had it they had to sign a pact with the Lucifer, promising their immortal soul in exchange for supernatural battle prowess. Let’s face it – they completely deserved their notoriety.

They were able to appear out of nowhere and disappear into thin air in a period when moving around or traveling at all was difficult and slow no matter whether you dealt with an army or individual units. They always left behind their horrible calling card – murdered men and women, ruins, charred remains of villages and towns. How and why were they created? The answer is simple: money or rather the lack of it.

The 17th century in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was an age full of wars and internal turmoil. However, as it was said later by Napoleon Buonaparte, there are three things you REALLY need to wage war successfully: money, money and more money. Polish rulers more often than not were completely broke and didn’t pay the army; small wonder after some time their soldiers have had enough of empty promises and empty pockets (not to mention empty stomachs). Around 1604 a semi-legal mutiny of royal forces (called in Polish konfederacja) was organized by Aleksander Józef Lisowski, a Polish nobleman (‘szlachcic’) and a professional soldier; he and about two hundred men decided it was high time they took the matter of their livelihood in their own capable hands. Forming a new unit they went to Courland, one of the historical and cultural regions of Latvia, and started to rob, murder and pillage the local population, taking what they considered their due for previous military campaigns. Their superior commander, the grand Crown hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, soon found out about that lawlessness. He influenced the Polish parliament (the Seym) so they proclaimed Lisowski an ‘infamis’ (a honourless criminal who could be killed on spot without a trial by any nobleman). Still such sentences didn’t impress people at that time – nobody really wanted to capture and/or kill Lisowski, a skilled swordsman with plenty of friends by his side. I bet many  soldiers who never received their full wages actually sympathized with him and his cause.

Slowly the band of his followers was transformed into a unique unit of light cavalry and called a company of elears (from Hungarian “elu jaro”, meaning scouts or avant-garde soldiers enjoying single combat before a battle). Some say that their other name, ‘forlorn hope’ suited them better. Anyway all the historical accounts of the period characterized them as extremely agile, warlike, and bloodthirsty men. Their numbers varied with time, from a few hundreds to even several thousands. What’s was typical they didn’t receive any formal wages: instead they were allowed to loot and plunder as they pleased. Lisowczycy were a trully international group, I suppose a bit similar to the French La Légion étrangère. They counted among themselves soldiers from Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Bohemia, Silesia, Zaporhizia (now Ukraine), Crimea, even Tartary. It also seems that they accepted skilled warriors from all walks of life – another revolutionary step at times when an army usually consisted of noblemen and their servants. It is true that they were cruel and ruthless soldiers, spreading death and destruction wherever they appeared; still their skills, swiftness, uncompromisingness, cunning and battle frenzy made them the predecessors of contemporary special forces units. Usually they were armed with a saber, a spetum (a long pole on which was mounted a spear head with two projections at its base), an arquebus or alternatively a bow with arrows. Their horses were fast, relatively small but agile and tough. They moved around without wagons or tabors, foraging supplies as they went, so they were able to travel up to 150 km in 24 hours, no mean feat in lands often lacking any thoroughfares at all. As they did not hesitate to plunder even their homeland, the Lisowczycy were feared and despised by civilians wherever they passed. It was said that they used to finish off their wounded companions – there was no place for incapacitated soldiers among them and if a Lisowczyk was left behind he would have been tortured and killed by the locals anyway. Polish kings appreciated their skills but were more and more eager to send them fighting abroad and to keep them away from the Commonwealth for as long as possible.

The Lisowczycy took part in many battles across Europe including the Dymitriads in Russia (where their actions help explain the text of the infamous placard in Zagorsk: ((there are) three plagues – typhus, Tatars and Poles). From 1619, the Lisowczycy, then stationed near Kaunas (Kowno), were sent by Zygmund III Vasa to aid Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor against the Protestants in the Thirty Years’ War. Under the command of Walenty Rogowski, they defeated Transylvanian forces under George I Rákóczi at the Battle of Zavada and/or Battle of Humenné in November of that year. After the victory, they engaged in their traditional pastime, plundering nearby lands, ‘killing even children and dogs’, as contemporary chroniclers recorded. It was around that time that they gained their new nickname: Riders of the Apocalypse. All they needed were those stylish, black The Clash or Metallica t-shirts ;p.

Then the unit split: part of them, with Rogowski, decided to return to Poland, pillaging Slovakia on their way. Others, under Jarosz Kleczkowski, remained in the service of the Emperor for the next few years. After the death of Kleczkowski (March 4, 1620) at the Battle of Krems, Stanisław Rusinowski became the new commander of the Lisowczycy. Under Rusinowski, the Lisowczycy took part in the Battle of White Mountain (November 8) where they captured twenty standards (meaning the destruction of twenty units, imagine that). Still their indiscipline and pillaging became legendary, and they devastated the nearby German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, especially Silesia. The local population often believed it was being attacked by Tatar hordes or other non-European barbarians. The negative PR was ultimately their downfall.

On May 7, 1621, the Emperor paid them their outstanding wages and released them from service, due to numerous complaints about their behaviour. Some of them returned to Poland, others served under Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria. Eventually, after the French declined to employ Lisowczycy mercenaries, and other sides of the conflict turned them down as well, in 1622 Stroynowski decided to officially disband the unit and return to the Commonwealth; still it wasn’t easy to persuade the former special soldiers and bandits who used to live by rapine and never thought about the consequences, that they had to start obeying the law. Without a charismatic leader and strict discipline they were very dangerous to anybody they met on their path. Polish noblemen clamoured with the king for catching all the remained Lisowczycy and put them to death not only because of the atrocities they had perpetrated but also because there were some of burgesses and peasants among them – an unthinkable idea. The King couldn’t save them that time. After being increasingly hunted down by local government forces and militias the Stroynowski’s group was destroyed in 1624, and he himself – executed two years later.

If not for the pillage, brutality, murders and rapes, the Lisowczycy could have became the core of a modern Polish army. During just 20 years of the official existence of the unit they managed to prove their superior value in almost all European military conflicts, facing soldiers from east, south and west. Fast, valiant, cunning and ruthless, gathering some of the most excellent swordsmen and horsemen regardless to their social status and nationality, they were peerless among other units. Unfortunately no king was far-sighted enough to appreciate their value and offer them steady incomes and financial security in return for more discipline. Even after the formation was disbanded, its members enjoyed notoriety even beyond the Commonwealth. Soon, their atrocities were forgotten and their exploits as the defenders of the Commonwealth and faith against the Orthodox, Protestants and Muslims turned them into a legend.

My sources:

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6 Responses to Lisowczycy or the 17th century James Bond unit from Poland

  1. blodeuedd says:

    WHat a lovely bunch of rapists

    • And murderers. And arsonists. Pilfering was their second name – small wonder I had to write an essay ;p. They were basically like your average Viking, right?

  2. Carole Rae says:

    🙂 Lovely!

  3. heidenkind says:

    Great post, Bridget! 👏

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