Polish Intervention: Thirty Years War


The Ottomans defeated the Poles, who were supporting the Habsburgs in the Thirty Years’ War, at the Battle of Cecora in September–October 1620, but were not able to further intervene efficiently before the Bohemian defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620. File:Defending the Polish banner at Chocim, by Juliusz Kossak, 1892

The attack on Transylvania followed long Habsburg efforts to enlist Polish support. Poland was potentially a more important ally than Spain, and Sigismund III was as devout a Catholic as Philip III. Poland’s military power was to be demonstrated in 1621 when it was to raise an army of 45,000 backed by 40,000 Cossacks. More significantly, Poland bordered on Silesia and Hungary, placing it in a direct position to help, and it had signed a mutual assistance pact in 1613 promising aid against rebellions. As Emperor Ferdinand’s sister, the Polish queen naturally championed intervention, but the king remained undecided. His own ambitions remained firmly fixed on the Baltic and he was disappointed at his in-law’s lack of assistance when Sweden invaded Livonia in 1617–18. (Ferdinand would again fail to help against a second invasion in 1621.) Sigismund also had to consider his nobles who preferred raiding against their traditional targets, the Turks and Muscovites. However, the Russians had made peace in December 1618, widening Sigismund’s options.

Many Polish clergy were receptive to Habsburg arguments that the Protestant Bohemians posed a common threat. Sigismund had instructed his son Wladyslaw to decline a Bohemian invitation to stand in their royal election. As the situation worsened during 1619, Ferdinand held out inducements, including an offer to relinquish the bishopric of Breslau to Poland. Many Polish historians regard the Thirty Years War as a lost opportunity, arguing that Sigismund should have accepted this offer, or grabbed Silesia by playing the role later adopted by Sweden and joining the German Protestants. Sigismund had no such plans. Instead, he sought a way of satisfying the Polish pro-Habsburg lobby without committing himself to a long war that would distract from his primary objective of recovering Sweden. The leaders of the Sejm agreed, because limited intervention provided a way of removing the 30,000 unpaid Cossacks. These troops had been discharged after the recent war with Russia and their raiding across the southern frontier risked provoking a new conflict with the sultan. The Cossacks have entered history as the Lisowczycy, after their original commander, Aleksander Lisowczycy, a Lithuanian veteran who commanded a regiment in the Russian war. The Lisowczycy were the kind of cavalry that ‘God would not want and the Devil was afraid of’. Unlike the traditional Polish cavalry, they wore no body armour, relying on speed and fake retreats to lure opponents into traps. They were happy to be paid, but also fought for booty, deliberately terrorizing civilians into submission.

The Habsburg ambassador intended to recruit the Cossacks to reinforce the imperial army, but they were reluctant to serve too far from home in a land they considered full of impregnable fortresses where plunder would be hard to take. Plans were changed so that 4,000 Lisowczycy joined 3,000 other Cossacks recruited by György Homonnai, an Upper Hungarian magnate who was also a member of the Transylvanian Estates and a personal enemy of Bethlen, who he believed had cheated him in that country’s election of 1613. Having been driven into exile, Homonnai had already fostered two failed rebellions. He now struck across from his estates in Podolia at the end of October 1619. Bethlen had left Rákóczi with only 4,000 men in Transylvania, refusing to believe Homonnai posed a threat. The two armies met near Ztropka (Stropkow in modern Slovakia) on 22 November, where Rákóczi’s men were routed after they mistook the classic feigned retreat for the real thing.

Homonnai’s attack fuelled an already volatile situation in east Central Europe. Despite the grand vizier’s promise, the Ottomans had hesitated to break their truce with the Habsburgs. Nonetheless, they regarded Bethlen as their client and did not want him driven from Transylvania, especially by the Poles who were already interfering in neighbouring Moldavia. Peace had just been concluded with Persia, allowing the sultan to send the Tartars, backed by Ottoman regulars, into Moldavia where they routed a Polish relief force at Cecora in October 1620. Sigismund sent a huge army the following year that entrenched at Chocim (Hotim) on the Dneister and managed to repel almost twice its number of Tartars and Turks. Fresh problems with Sweden forced Sigismund to agree peace later in 1621, restoring the pre-1619 situation, though Poland had to accept the sultan’s candidate as prince of Moldavia. This conflict was separate from the Thirty Years War, but nonetheless proved significant for the Empire in preventing Poland and the Ottomans from intervening.

The threat to Bethlen was already receding before he left his camp outside Vienna. He had arrested most of Homonnai’s supporters after the earlier rebellions. Finding few willing to support him, Homonnai was already in retreat by 2 December. With the wider situation remaining unclear, Bethlen was nonetheless forced to accept the mediation of the Hungarian diet, agreeing an eight-month truce with Ferdinand on 16 January 1620. Bethlen remained a threat to Ferdinand, but the immediate danger had passed.

Sigismund refused to allow the Lisowczycy back into Poland, and redirected them along the mountains into Silesia to join the imperial army. Five detachments totalling 19,000 fighters set out between January and July 1620, though some were intercepted by the Silesian militia. The steady reinforcement enabled Bucquoy to resume the offensive, launching three attacks from Krems in March, April and early June against Thurn’s Bohemians and Austrians entrenched around Langenlois to the north. The Silesians and Moravians returned, bringing the Confederate army up to 25,000 by May when Anhalt arrived to take command. They were joined by 8,000 Hungarian and Transylvanian cavalry sent by Bethlen who, despite Ferdinand’s generous terms, still distrusted the emperor and decided to re-enter the war. Bethlen and Frederick had already sent a joint delegation to Constantinople in March 1620 to seek Ottoman assistance for the revolt. Mehmed Aga reached Prague in July to deliver the sultan’s belated congratulations on Frederick’s coronation. He asked to see where the Defenestration had taken place and enthusiastically promised 60,000 Ottoman auxiliaries for Bohemia. Many in Prague were deeply uncomfortable with courting the Ottomans, yet the leadership was seduced by the fantastical scheme of a grand alliance smashing both Poland and the Habsburgs. Scultetus did a theological somersault to stress common ground between Calvinism and Islam, while Baron Tschernembl argued any means were justified provided they saved the true cause from the papists. Despite misgivings, Frederick wrote to the sultan on 12 July, making Bohemia a tributary state of the Ottoman empire in return for assistance. A delegation of a hundred Bohemians, Hungarians and Transylvanians set out for Constantinople with 70,000 fl. in bribes to seal the deal. Meanwhile, Frederick promised 300,000 fl. to Bethlen, even pawning his jewels to raise the first instalment.

With support growing, and having easily repulsed another attack by Homonnai in August 1620, Bethlen seized control of the diet at Neusohl in Upper Hungary. This had convened in May at Ferdinand’s request to broker peace among all Hungarians. Bethlen’s supporters declared the abolition of the clerical Estate and the confiscation of the property of all who opposed them. Ferdinand ordered the diet to disband on 13 August. Twelve days later, Bethlen’s supporters elected him king of Hungary. Throughout, the solidly Catholic Croatian diet (Sabor) rejected the Hungarians’ overtures and aligned itself with its Inner Austrian neighbours, still loyal to the Habsburgs.

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