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May 24, 2024

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Time Now


Poland’s Early Kings: Part 10

A series focusing on the Poland of old, when warring tribes were common and kings were really tested by the mettle in their swords, the strength in their words, the philosophy of their politics, and the honor in their hearts…..



  Poland never played a major role on the Baltic and won no important or lasting success in the struggle for naval supremacy with other Baltic countries. Unfortunately the maritime policy of Sigismund Augustus, Stephen Bathory and the Vasa kings was effectively opposed by Gdansk, the powerful port at the mouth of the Vistula, while the gentry-dominated Seym did not show sufficient understanding of this policy and remained indifferent to maritime affairs.

  The uprising against Habsburg rule, which broke out in Bohemia in 1618, started the Thirty Years’ War between the Habsburgs and German Catholic princes on the one hand and German Protestant princes and their allies, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, on the other. Sweden’s participation in the Thirty Years’ War, waged mostly on German territory, began with an attack on Poland in 1629.

  In the 16th century, Gdansk had become an important economic power. Gdansk merchants derived enormous profits from Poland’s trade, both exports and imports. The so-called Guest Right gave Gdansk a mercantile monopoly in handling Polish exports of grain, timber, wax, hides, wool and flax yarn. All Polish overseas imports had to pass through Gdansk: not a single barrel of herring, no cask of French or Spanish wine, not a yard of Dutch or English cloth, not a pound of pepper or cane sugar, no citrus fruits could reach Polish importers directly, without the intermediary of Gdansk merchants. This lucrative trade made Gdansk the richest of “magnates”, but at the same time easy profits warped the city’s development. Gdansk merchants did not bother to build a merchant fleet of their own. Of all the arts and crafts which made Gdansk industry famous in Poland and abroad, shipbuilding was the least important.

  During the reign of the last Jagiellonian kings, the duties of the Royal Naval Guards were performed by a privateer fleet. The Privateers – either owners of their ships or masters in the service of owners – defended the coast and looted enemy ships and vessels in return for a share of the spoils. In 1567 the privateer fleet flying the Royal Ensign had seventeen ships. In 1570, the Maritime Commission, the first admiralty, maritime court and office in Polish history, decided to abandon the privateer system and organize a regular navy, composed of ships both purchased and built to order. The first ship built for the Commission at the Elblag shipyards was the galleon “Smok”, between 400 and 600 tons weight. Unfortunately, under the rule of the gentry, Poland did not make the necessary effort to build a strong navy.

  During the Polish-Swedish war of 1626-29, the Swedish fleet composed of the “Tiger”, “Pelican”, “Solen” and three other galleons, stood off Hel Peninsula blocking the Bay of Gdansk. The Polish fleet lying off Oliwa near Gdansk, consisted of two galleons, the “Sw. Jerzy” and “Krol Dawid”, and eight smaller vessels, the “Pedzacy Jelen”, “Panna Wodna”, “Wodnik”, “Arka Noego”, “Zolty Lew”, “Bialy Lew”, “Plomien” and “Czarny Kruk”. On November 28, 1627, Arend Dickmann, Admiral in command of the Polish fleet, decided to break the Swedish blockade and ordered his fleet to sail out of harbour. On seeing this, the Swedish Admiral, Stjernskjold moved to attack at the head of his fleet. After a few broadsides, the Polish flagship “Sw. Jerzy” grappled with the Swedish flagship “Tiger” and boarded her. After the Swedish Admiral had been killed the “Tiger” surrendered. Another duel was fought between the “Wodnik” and “Solen”, but before the Polish could grapple and board the “Solen”, her crew, seeing the situation to be helpless, blew themselves up. Thereupon, the “Pelican” did not start fighting with the “Krol Dawid”, but turned tail and sailed north followed by the other enemy ships. The last shot from the “Pelican” killed the Polish Admiral.

  Despite this Polish victory at Oliwa and other successes in Pomerania, the terms of the truce of Altmark (now Stary Targ in the Gdansk voivodship), which ended the war of 1626-29, were unfavorable to Poland.

  In 1648, Ladislaus IV died and was succeeded by his brother, John Casimir.

  Weakened by the Ukrainian rising of 1648 and war with Russia which broke out in 1654, Poland was invaded by Sweden in the summer of 1655. The mass levy of the gentry capitulated without offering resistance; regular Polish troops surrendered after a short period of fighting. Within three months, a Swedish army of 40,000 men occupied almost the whole of Poland. John Casimir sought refuge in Silesia.

  But shortly after almost the whole country had been occupied by the enemy, the nation awoke from its stupor and raids and skirmishes broke out everywhere. Krzystof Zegocki led detachments of peasants, townsmen and gentry from the Wschowa and Koscian region. In Podlasie, Pawel Sapieha, voivode of Vitebsk, stood at the head of Lithuanian troops which had not surrendered. Gdansk refused to open the city gates to the enemy. Czestochowa withstood the siege of a Swedish corps. Highlanders and townsfolk from the Tatra and Carpathian regions began harassing the enemy. At Tyszowce, Hetmen of the Crown broke the conditions of capitulation and called the gentry to arms. This upsurge of resistance enabled John Casimir to return to Poland, following which a national war broke out against the Swedes and their allies, the Elector of Brandenburg and the Duke of Prussia, the Hospodar of Transylvania and the Cossacks. The war lasted five years and ended in 1660 with the peace of Oliwa, near Gdansk. Poland emerged from this war devastated and in a general state of exhaustion. In the peace of Oliwa Poland lost Livonia north of the Dvina and Aiviekste rivers, and the fief of Prussia (ducal Prussia).

  Prince Frederick, the Swedish governor of Great Poland, had his headquarters in Koscian, garrisoned by 400 Swedish troops. Krzysztof Zegocki, starost (district administrator) of Babimost, at the head of a small detachment of peasants and gentry, “daringly seized Koscian and put the landgraf (Frederick) to death.”

  Following the example of Great Poland, southern Poland, in particular the districts of Zywiec, Nowy Targ, Pilzno, Biecz, Krosno and Nowy Sacz, also became centres of harassing warfare. Soon, there was no place in the country where the Swedes could feel safe.

  Towards the end of 1655, the small garrison of the Pauline Monastery at Jasna Gora in Czestochowa, inspired by the Prior, Father Augustyn Kordecki, withstood for several weeks the siege of a Swedish corps under General Muller. On hearing news of the approach of a force of Zywiec highlanders, the Swedes lifted the siege.

  After the surrender of Cracow, which for more than three weeks had resisted Swedish attacks, Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665), Castellan of Kiev, marched out at the head of a small detachment to join John Casimir in Opole, in Silesia. Czarniecki crossed back into Poland in December 1655 and took command of raiders in the Carpathian foothills. Later at the head of regular troops, Czarniecki continued the raids by attacking rear guards. Lacking sufficient strength, he chose the best method of harassing the enemy who were dangerous in an open area. Thanks to his tactics, in mid-1656 the Swedes began losing ground.

  After chasing the Swedes out of Poland, in 1658 Czarniecki led an expeditionary corps to Denmark which was also at war with Sweden, and won several brilliant successes there.

  For three years, Poland had been ravaged and looted by Swedish, Brandenburg, Prussian, Transyl-vanian and Cossack troops. Where the troops had passed and battles and skirmishes had been fought, not a single town or village remained intact. The Swedes looted and carried away from Poland a vast treasure of works of art, archives, and libraries. What they could not take away, they destroyed. The population was decimated by war, hunger and epidemics. In Royal Prussia, about 60 percent of the population perished and 30 percent of the villages stood deserted. Of the big cities, only Gdansk and Lvov escaped unscathed. Warsaw, Poznan and Cracow lost at least half of their populations. As for smaller towns, Koscian, Leszno, Inowroclaw, Leczyca, Naklo, Oswiecim, Wielun, Chojnice, Koscierzyna, Starogard and Swiecie were completely devastated.

   . . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .