Robbers and soldiers on the service of the king

Powerful rivals who threatened the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth forced the king to change the Polish Army – to rely not only on cavalry, but also on infantry with guns.

Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Kingdom of Poland – road to modern times

In the 16th-17th centuries, Rzeczpospolita was one of the most developed in Europe and played an important role in the political arena of the continent. Obviously, in order to carry out ambitious projects, the Polish kings and grand dukes of Lithuania needed an army capable of solving the difficult tasks of exercising hegemony in Eastern Europe. The need to fight several powerful rivals, whose martial art was strikingly different from each other, forced us to constantly improve the organization and tactics of the Polish Army, adopting the experience of neighbors and developing our own solutions. This is how the original and complex military machine of the Polish-Lithuanian state appeared.

The rulers of Poland constantly had to fight not only with external enemies, but also with their own nobles, who retained the right to revolt (rokosh), in case the king was not agreeable enough and trampled on the rights of the ruling class. The omnipotence of the Sejm, which elected the king and allocated extraordinary taxes and the collection of the “potent destruction” – the militia convened in extraordinary circumstances, forced the monarchs to balance between the interests of the clandestine clergy, clergy, townspeople and external forces.

Military revolution: the infantry takes its toll

In the 16th century, while a military revolution was taking place in the West, and chivalry was rapidly losing its position, Poland was one of the last to preserve the traditions of the High Middle Ages – the nobility, who imagined themselves to be the descendants of the Sarmatians and other great conquerors of the past, fought exclusively in horse ranks. In addition, the rapid development of cavalry was facilitated by the geographical position of Poland and Lithuania and constant contact with various traditions of equestrian combat – from the gendarmerie and reitars in the west to the Sipakhs, Delhi and Tatars in the south and east. All this made the cavalry the main branch of the Rzecz Pospolita’s troops: while regular infantry was reviving throughout Europe, the Poles were proud of their thousand-year tradition of equestrian combat. Under Stefan Batory, the famous winged hussars appear – one of the symbols of Poland to this day, however, no matter how much the gentry wanted, it was impossible to fight without infantry in the 16th century – even during the heyday of chivalry, the infantry made up a significant part of any army, remaining indispensable in combat on rough terrain and during sieges.

The first zholnery – that is, soldiers who received a salary for their service, appeared in Poland and Lithuania at the end of the 15th century, which was associated with the natural development of military affairs in Europe. In Switzerland, Germany, and after Spain, a close-knit infantry appeared, fighting in close formation and crushing the enemy with a powerful ramming blow, but the Poles took a different path, more suited to the local characteristics of military affairs.

For a long time, the cavalry continued to play a major role in Poland, and the infantry was needed as a support and a means of fire on the enemy. Therefore, the experience of the Czechs-Hussites, Hungarians and Turks, who relied on firearms, was taken into service. In the opinion of one researcher, “… the zholner were valued not so much for their quantity, but for their quality, for the moral effect that they exerted in battles with their skill and fortitude on the rest of the army.” And if at first the zhollers preferred to fight under the cover of a camp camp, then in the second half of the 16th century they more and more often accompany the cavalry on the battlefield, preparing the attack of the hussars.

Stefan Batory – ruler, tactician, reformer

In Lithuania at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the situation with the infantry resembled the Russian state – the army was based on the noble militia, and the infantry was represented only by small urban units and “firefighting” infantry – beepers supporting the main forces. In richer Poland, the weak development of its own infantry was compensated by the recruitment of mercenary contingents primarily in the German lands, where the kings recruited detachments of landsknechts and arquebusiers as far as possible. These mercenary detachments, which undoubtedly possessed a higher quality, organization and cohesion than the infantrymen of the gentry or city militia, became one of the main factors of the resounding tactical success of the Polish-Lithuanian army near Orsha, which defeated the army of the Russian governor Chelyadnin. Nevertheless, the Polish infantry proper for a long time needed improvement and reorganization in order to be able to withstand numerous opponents. It is curious that the impetus for the creation of regular detachments of arquebusiers was not the battles of the Swiss or free riflemen, but the infantry of Ivan IV.

In 1576, one subjective factor was added to the objective factors of reforming the Polish army – Stefan Batory, a Hungarian nobleman and Transylvanian ruler, was elected to the Polish-Lithuanian throne. The king was familiar with military affairs firsthand – daring and military success in battles with the Turks and Tatars were one of the reasons why the ruler managed to achieve the throne, and becoming king Stephen continued with renewed vigor the transformations carried out by the last Jagellon – Sigismund II Augustus. Under Sigismund, a permanent royal army was established in Poland, which was directly subordinate to the monarch, whose combat readiness depended not on the will of the magnates and the time of year, but on the correct payment of the salary appointed by the king.

According to Sigismund’s idea, a quarter of all the income of the crown went to the maintenance of the army, from which its name “wojsko kwarciane” – quartz army (quart – in Polish, a quarter) comes from. Stephen, in turn, in addition to the quartz banners, in which the number of infantry was insignificant, created the selected infantry (piechota wybraniecka). These units were supposed to be the Polish response to the Russian archers, however, the peculiarities of the political structure of the Rzeczpospolita did not allow to achieve significant success in this direction: at most, about 2,500 Vyborotsky infantry took part in the campaigns of Stefan Batory, while the archers of the elite Moscow companies alone numbered about 3,000 and more than 20,000 were scattered throughout the cities and fortresses of the Russian state.

Despite all attempts to instill in the Polish nobility and common people the tradition of foot combat, the kings regularly had to resort to hiring entire corps of mercenaries from Germany and Hungary, compensating for the insufficient number and low quality of their own infantry. So in the campaign to Pskov in 1581, in addition to the actual Polish and Lithuanian contingents, German, Hungarian, Scottish, Swedish and even French soldiers took part. The downside of this practice was the high cost of the army, the funds for the maintenance of which the kings had to literally beg from the Diet every time. Already in the 17th century, King Vladislav IV reformed the infantry … and again under the influence of the Russians, who unpleasantly surprised the gentlemen during the Smolensk War of 1632-1634 with troops of a foreign system. From now on, the entire army was divided into autorament cudzoziemski – troops uniform and trained to act in the German manner and autorament narodowy – original, local troops, including hayduks brought to Poland by Stephen Bathory.