The Great Northern War in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth I

Swedish Infantry

When Augustus II invaded Livonia in 1700 he had reason to hope for Polish support. His coronation charter included a promise to reconquer the lands lost to the Commonwealth since 1620 and his planned seizure of Riga was intended to present his new subjects with a fait accompli. He had discussed the plan with a small group of senators, including the primate, cardinal Michal Radziejowski, and Polish treasurer Hieronim Lubomirski. Believing that he had their permission for his Livonian policy, he summoned the Senate Council in May 1700 to approve war against Sweden. The Council, however, with Radziejowski’s encouragement, opposed the Commonwealth’s involvement in the war. Only in Lithuania were the anti-Sapieha forces prepared to back Augustus in return for protection against the Sapiehas, and there were Lithuanian troops in Flemming’s invading force.

The failure to take Riga and the startling Swedish victories over Denmark and Russia left Augustus in a delicate position as the Sapiehas, facing complete destruction, turned to Sweden for protection. For Charles, this seemed a golden opportunity. He was aware of the support for the Sapiehas in Poland, and of concern about Augustus’s political aims, demonstrated when the Sejm broke up in bitterness in late 1701 after agreeing to offer mediation between Charles and Augustus. Charles found this ridiculous: how could the Commonwealth mediate between its own king and his enemy? The crumbling of Augustus’s position in Poland seemed too good an opportunity to waste: Augustus had failed to establish a strong regalist party, and the circle of Polish malcontents was extensive, led by a group of Wielkopolska magnates, including Rafał Leszczyński, his son Stanisław, and Jan Pieniążek. This group had close links to the Sobieskis, who were still smarting from the failure of Sobieski’s maladroit eldest son Jakub to secure the throne in 1697. In Malopolska the Lubomirskis and Potockis, who were closely linked with Radziejowski, led a broad faction of magnates with extensive Ukrainian estates who had little interest in Livonia, but were attracted by the idea of an alliance with Sweden against Russia to recover the lands lost in 1667. For them, war with Sweden was particularly inconvenient.

When Charles invaded, the Swedes met little resistance outside Lithuania. The Commonwealth was all but defenceless: the Polish army numbered barely 13,000, 5,000 short of its agreed état; the situation was even worse in Lithuania, where Augustus had deliberately run down the army, an important Sapieha power-base, to under 4,000. Most of the Polish army was in the Ukraine, where the outbreak of Semen Palii’s revolt threatened a return to the savagery of the 1650s. As far as the Commonwealth was concerned, it was still neutral, and politicians awaited Sweden’s response to its mediation offer. The Swedes enjoyed a guardedly favourable reception: Quartermaster-General Axel Gyllenkrook, sent ahead to establish magazines for the march on Warsaw, found Mazovian nobles happy enough to supply the necessary provisions. Augustus’s attempt to buy off the opposition by appointing Rafal Leszczyński Treasurer and bestowing the Grand Hetmanship on Feliks Potocki and then – after Potocki’s death – on Hieronim Lubomirski, merely strengthened his enemies. Leszczyński remained in obdurate opposition, and if Lubomirski did fight at Kliszów in July, he remained in close contact with the Sapiehas. His presence was largely due to a fear that if, as expected, Augustus defeated Charles with the Saxon army alone, his position would be immeasurably strengthened.

Yet Oxenstierna was right to warn Charles of the pitfalls of Polish politics. The Great Northern War was largely won and lost in the Commonwealth long before 1709; for, despite the fact that Charles won every battle that mattered until Lesnaia in 1708, he was comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Peter, who showed a far surer grasp of Polish politics than Charles or, indeed, any of Peter’s predecessors. For the Great Northern War was as much a Polish civil war as a Swedish-Russian conflict. Despite the fact that it was largely fought in the Commonwealth until Poltava, the Poles and Lithuanians raised substantial numbers of troops: by 1708 its armies may well have surpassed the 48,000komput agreed by the 1703 Lublin Sejm; at the peak of the fighting perhaps 100,000 Poles and Lithuanians were mobilised on both sides, although their performance was often lamentable, with contemporaries observing that they displayed more enthusiasm for fighting each other than Swedes or Russians.

The struggle for control of the Commonwealth between 1702 and 1708 was decisive. Not only was Peter given time to construct his new army and push back the Swedes in the Baltic provinces, he was able to fight for six years outside Russian territory; for all the Russian subsidies given to Peter’s Polish supporters, the benefits greatly outweighed the expense. The increasing Russian demands caused problems, and there were bitter complaints even from the Lithuanian lesser nobility, who were among their most loyal supporters; nevertheless, Peter proved to have a much more subtle understanding of the dynamics of Polish politics than did Charles, whose Polish policy focused on his demand for Augustus’s deposition, an idea long floated by his opponents, in particular the Sobieskis, with whom Radziejowski was linked. Deposition seemed to offer the sort of quick, painless solution which Charles had achieved in Denmark, but it proved a dangerous policy. Instead of isolating Augustus by accepting the Commonwealth’s neutrality, Charles insisted on regarding it as a combatant, while the demand for deposition was a clear interference in its internal politics: Augustus might be widely unpopular, but he enjoyed substantial support in Lithuania and was the legally-elected king, whose title to the throne had been confirmed in 1699. Charles, like many historians, overestimated the power of magnate coteries. His association with the Sapiehas was particularly ill-considered: this odious family was universally hated in Lithuania, and Charles’s support for them ensured that his armies met fierce resistance. More ominously, when Augustus proved unable to protect Lithuania from the Swedes, the Lithuanian szlachta turned to Russia. In April 1702, a Lithuanian–Russian treaty guaranteed Russian military support and 40,000 roubles in aid, in return for revenues from Sapieha land.

Lithuanian support for the Russian alliance was of incalculable importance for Peter, since it cut off the Swedish army in the Baltic provinces and provided him with a firm base in the Commonwealth. Matters did not look so good in Poland, where there was substantial opposition to the Russian alliance. Yet Charles’s obstinate refusal to accept anything less than Augustus’s deposition as the price for evacuating the Commonwealth played into Peter’s hands by violating the Poles’ innately legalist sensibilities. Radziejowski, whose cardinal’s hat had gone to his head, tried to use Charles to weaken Augustus’s position in favour of his own, but his exalted views of the powers of the primate were not widely shared, and he was reduced to what Charles understandably regarded as duplicitous manoeuvres, refusing publicly to support deposition. Most sejmiki were in favour of a show of strength to persuade the Swedes to leave, petitioning Augustus in June 1702 to issue the final summons to the noble levy, and the palatinate of Sandomierz formed a confederation to organise defence. Even in the Leszczyński heartland of Wielkopolska, the general sejmik at Środa agreed to summon the levy and petitioned Lubomirski to support them with troops from the foreign contingent.

Augustus patiently built his support, as it became clear that most of the szlachta regarded magnate intrigues with Sweden with hostility: in August 1702, Feliks Lipski, member of a delegation to Charles, who had actually been accused by his fellow envoys of being too favourable to Augustus, was lynched at a gathering of the noble levy on suspicion of conspiring with the Swedes. By March 1703 Augustus was supported by the majority of the Senate, by both Polish hetmans, and by four confederations on the model of that drawn up in Sandomierz, including a general confederation of Wielkopolska, where Leszczyński’s death in January had weakened the opposition. Only a handful of senators turned up to a rival meeting called by Radziejowski in Warsaw, and there was widespread condemnation of the primate’s presumption.

The strength of Augustus’s position was demonstrated at the Lublin Sejm of June-July 1703, which provided the legal basis for his defence of his throne. By calling it, Augustus made it clear that he, unlike the opposition, was basing his actions on the Commonwealth’s legal institutions. He agreed to uphold szlachta liberties and promised not to begin any wars, either as elector of Saxony, or as king of Poland-Lithuania. The Swedish demand for deposition was categorically rejected. There were to be no territorial concessions, and peace was to be on the basis of the status quo ante bellum. Charles’s supporters were declared enemies of the fatherland; those who did not abandon him within six weeks were to lose their offices, lands and honour. The Sejm agreed to raise an army of 36,000 in Poland, and 12,000 in Lithuania, to be supplemented by 12,000 Saxons, 21,000 from the noble levy (15,000 in Poland and 6,000 in Lithuania), 10,200 private troops, and Brandt’s corps of 600. Taxes were agreed to support these forces, and the fiscal autonomy of sejmiki was substantially trimmed to the advantage of the central treasury. Considering the weakness of Augustus’s position in 1701, it was a triumph.

The Sejm did not, however, declare war; the show of strength was merely to persuade the Swedes to leave. Yet Charles still held the military advantage; despite his exasperation with the slippery Radziejowski – who attended the Lublin Sejm – and the Polish malcontents, he continued to insist on dethronement. Gradually his position improved, as Augustus squandered much of his accumulated political capital. There had been some opposition in Lublin to royal proposals, and envoys from Poznan and Kalisz had been excluded from its debates; this provoked the formation of a confederation which became a focus for opposition. Augustus’s blatant bid to align the monarchy with patriotic szlachta opinion was worrying for many magnates, while there was resistance to the Lublin decisions from some sejmiki, alarmed at limitations on their autonomy, while the difficult economic situation ensured opposition to the new taxes. The most explosive issue, however, was that of relations with Russia. The Sejm had confirmed Augustus’s powers to make alliances; when his hopes of international intervention to force Sweden to accept a reasonable settlement failed, and as it became clear that the Sejm’s military decisions would only be implemented slowly and in part, Augustus drew closer to Russia. Peter, anxious to ensure that the Commonwealth continued as the main theatre of war for as long as possible, tempted him with offers of financial and military support.

The need for aid was pressing. The Swedes occupied Poznań in September to secure their position in Wielkopolska, while delays in implementing Sejm decisions meant that Augustus was unable to save the 6,000-strong Saxon garrison in Thorn, which surrendered in October. In November, Saxon envoys signed a treaty in Moscow in which Peter promised financial and military support with the clear aim of drawing the Commonwealth into open war against Sweden; this was followed in December by the ‘triple alliance’ signed at Jaworów, in which Augustus drew on the strong Lithuanian support for the Russian alliance. Peter agreed to send 12,000 infantry and pay subsidies of 300,000 roubles annually; the treaty was ratified by the Lithuanians who, in return for raising 14,000 men, would be supported by 10,000 Russian infantry, 5,000 cavalry and subsidies of 60,000 roubles per annum.

Despite Charles’s refusal to compromise, this was a dangerous step. Opposition to closer ties with Russia grew among senators, including Lubomirski, who lodged a formal protest. Meanwhile, the anti-Augustus confederates were gathering support. The behaviour of Saxon troops in Polish Prussia from November 1702 alienated opinion in a province in which Augustus had never been popular, and which would be in the front line in any war against Sweden. There were no Prussian envoys at the Lublin Sejm, which meant that its decisions were of doubtful validity in Prussia. The Swedish siege of Thorn in 1703 provoked hostility to Swedish demands for contributions, but Augustus’s failure to relieve the city enabled his opponents to gain the upper hand. In October, a confederation was formed at Stargard; although it was not initially opposed to Augustus, it soon drifted towards an alliance with the Środa confederates. Now Radziejowski openly declared for Sweden, humiliated by his hostile reception at Lublin where he was accused of treason and forced to swear oaths of loyalty to Augustus and the Commonwealth. He told Charles in December that the Polish army would abandon Augustus if it was paid, and agreed to call the szlachta to Warsaw to effect a dethronement. On 14 February 1704, Radziejowski declared an interregnum; two days later, a general confederation was called to rally Augustus’s supporters.

Initially, this bold move seemed to work. In March Lubomirski, who had long harboured hopes of the throne for himself, abandoned Augustus and joined the Warsaw Confederation, after the daring kidnap of Jakub and Konstanty Sobieski by Augustus’s agents in Silesia in February which deprived Charles of his leading candidate for the throne. In June he unexpectedly proposed the candidature of Rafal Leszczyński’s son Stanislaw, after Aleksander Sobieski’s refusal to accept what he felt was his elder brother’s due. With Leszczyński’s formal election in July, Charles had achieved the aim for which he had entered the Commonwealth two years earlier, yet it hardly solved his problems. For two years, his armies had seen little serious fighting; if he wished to consolidate Leszczyński’s position he could not abandon the Commonwealth. In May, Augustus’s supporters established their own general confederation at Sandomierz, where the Commonwealth – or at least that portion of it which supported Augustus – finally declared war on Sweden. In August, the Russian alliance was formalised at Narva. The phoney war was over.

Despite holding the military advantage for the next five years, Charles proved unable to secure victory. Although Leszczyński attracted considerable support, particularly in Polish Prussia and Wielkopolska, Charles was unable to conciliate or crush his enemies. Individual magnates were enticed over from the Sandomierz camp, including Lithuanian Grand Hetman Michal Wisniowiecki, but factional intrigues merely divided Augustus’s enemies. Radziejowski opposed Leszczyński’s election, absenting himself from the formal proclamation of the new king. Lubomirski was similarly disappointed, while his defection had destroyed his control of the crown army, threequarters of which remained loyal to Augustus. Together with Radziejowski, whose actions were condemned by the Pope after lobbying from Augustus, he had already begun secret negotiations with Augustus in August 1704; in November he openly abandoned Leszczyński. Radziejowski withdrew to Danzig, where he met Leszczyński in January 1705, but refused to call a general assembly to confirm the election. By 1706, death had removed Radziejowski and Lubomirski from the scene.

Even the invasion of Saxony and the treaty of Altranstädt did little to improve Leszczyński’s position. Despite Augustus’s abdication, Leszczyński failed to win over his enemies, and his tenure of the throne was too obviously dependent upon Swedish arms. An awareness of what was to come has meant that for some Polish historians, the Commonwealth’s failure to rally round Leszczyński represented the loss of a great opportunity to prevent the 200-year Russian domination of Polish politics. Leszczyński, it is suggested, offered the prospect of a return to the Polish-Swedish alliance which had defeated Ivan IV, and which might have prevented the humiliations of the eighteenth century. Yet for contemporaries, there was more reason to see Sweden as the greatest danger to the Commonwealth: Narva had seemed to confirm the superiority of Swedish arms, while Turkish and Tatar threats and news of the 1705 Astrakhan rising suggested that Peter might be in danger of a major defeat, or even the loss of his throne.

The bankruptcy of Charles’s Polish policy was starkly demonstrated after Altranstädt. Since Leszczyński’s election, several influential figures had defected to him, including Lithuanian Grand Chancellor Karol Radziwill, Lithuanian Vice-Chancellor Stanislaw Szczuka and the Jablonowskis. The bitter rivalry between Ogiński and Wiśniowiecki lay behind the latter’s defection, while naked ambition led many to support Leszczyński when he began distributing offices and starosties. Nevertheless, many defectors maintained links with the Sandomierz confederates, and their loyalty was always suspect. Altranstädt might have knocked Saxony out of the war and deprived them of their king, but it did not win over the majority of the szlachta, who had little hope of such reward.

The manner of Leszczyński’s election and the nature of his rule were a travesty of Polish law. With Radziejowski sulking in his palace, the election took place under the protection of Swedish bayonets, in the presence of a handful of senators and szlachta. There was no reading of the Pacta Conventa, the formal agreement made by every new king with the Commonwealth, and contemporary opinion was dismissive of a monarch chosen by a foreign ruler and elected at his insistence. The alliance Leszczyński signed with Sweden in November 1705 was too obviously drawn up to suit the Swedes, who were given the right to occupy Polish cities and fortresses. The Commonwealth was to annul all alliances deemed contrary to Swedish interests, Sweden was to be allowed unrestricted recruitment rights in the Commonwealth, whose trade was to be strictly subordinated to Swedish interests: all goods from Lithuania, Ruthenia, Courland and Polish Prussia were to be exported through Riga, while the Polish port of Połęga in Courland was to be abandoned.10 In the war against Russia, Smolensk and Kiev were to be returned to the Commonwealth, but Courland and Polish Livonia were to be ceded to Sweden.

Peter’s treatment of his Polish allies was a stark contrast. Despite anger at the behaviour of Russian troops in the Commonwealth, and growing fears of Russian annexations in Lithuania and the Ukraine, which played a part in Wisniowiecki’s defection, the alliance held firm. Peter dealt with Augustus and the Sandomierz confederates in a manner very different from Charles’s peremptory contempt for the Commonwealth’s legal norms. Although he clearly had no intention of surrendering his conquests in the Baltic, until after Poltava he maintained the polite fiction that Livonia would be returned to the Commonwealth once it had been taken from the Swedes. Russian armies crushed Palii’s revolt and Peter promised to return the right-bank Ukraine to Polish control.

For all the undoubted tensions, and endless bickering over Peter’s failure to fulfil the terms of the Narva treaty, his cautious approach paid dividends. When Charles launched his Russian campaign in late 1707 and the Russian armies withdrew towards the Russian border, the Sandomierz confederates remained largely loyal. Although they still demonstrated considerable independence in rejecting Peter’s proposals on a number of important issues, including candidates for a new election, there was no mass defection. Many of those who changed sides were disappointed at their reception. Charles constantly interfered in the crucial question of appointments to office and honour – a highly sensitive issue, given that many of these appointments were to positions still held by his enemies. He favoured certain groups among Leszczyński’s followers, in particular the Sapiehas, which did little to help Leszczyński. His insistence on offering the Lithuanian grand hetmanship to Jan Sapieha after browbeating Kazimierz Sapieha into resigning outraged Wiśniowiecki, who expected promotion to the post he had abandoned on defecting to Charles.

Charles’s strategy assumed that Leszczyński and the Swedish general Krassau, who was left with a small Swedish corps in Poland, would lead a substantial force into the Ukraine in support of the main Swedish army. Yet to achieve this, Leszczyński would have to break through the confederate and Russian forces occupying Malopolska, Podolia and Volhynia. As he prepared to launch his campaign in March 1708, Wiśniowiecki withdrew to Lithuania to consider changing sides again. A significant number of other important figures, disillusioned by their reception, were already doing so, including the Lubomirskis and Michal Potocki. Throughout 1708, the two sides engaged in a vicious war of raids and counter-raids. In November, a pro-Leszczyński force of 10,000 was defeated by a confederate force of roughly the same size in a bloody encounter at Koniecpol.

Koniecpol made a great impression on szlachta opinion. Malopolska, which had been leaning towards Leszczyński, now lost all enthusiasm. Few would commit themselves until the outcome of the Russian campaign was known. Augustus, aware that many Poles did not recognise his abdication, gathered troops on Saxony’s eastern borders, but was content to play a waiting game. After Koniecpol, neither Leszczyński nor Krassau could stop a Confederate thrust into Polish Prussia while Ogiński and the Confederate Grand Hetman Adam Sieniawski blocked the route eastwards. In the spring of 1709, with Charles waiting impatiently outside the walls of Poltava, Leszczyński made a half-hearted attempt to break through, but news of the approach of Russian reinforcements soon forced him back. Charles was about to face the consequences of the failure of his Polish policy. He had been unable to impose his will on the Commonwealth, and the Sandomierz confederates had shown that, even deprived of a king, the Commonwealth’s decentralised military and political system was robust enough to thwart its enemies, if not defeat them. Winning battles was not enough. Charles had failed to win the Polish war; his army paid the price at Poltava.


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