In the late seventeenth century, Monsieur Dalerac was the secretary to King Jan Sobieski’s wife and despised everything Polish. However, just after the Battle of Vienna in 1683, even he said the Husaria were, “without a doubt, the most beautiful cavalry in Europe”. Poland’s famed Husaria were also the most deadly. From 1570 to 1690, 120 years, the Husaria never lost a major battle. They were the shock troops of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and only the best equipped and trained of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility could provide them and their equipment. The Husaria were the 17th century equivalent of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard – their charge decided battles.
The Husaria were a product of the peculiar nature of the Polish and Lithuanian nobility. The “Szlachta” in the centuries up to and including the 17th were a unique curiosity and stood apart from the nobility of most countries in Europe. The nobility of England, France, Germany, and the rest of Europe made up about 2% of the population; in the Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian lands, the Szlachta made up about 10% of the population. They were known as the “petty gentry”, and filled the role of the middle class before there was even such a thing in Europe. In addition to the magnates and traditional nobility, the Szlachta were the small landowners in the towns and the property owners in the cities. And woe betide any who insinuated that the owner of a small manor who worked his land no different than the peasants beside him was in any way less of a man than the magnate of great estate whose hands didn’t know the scythe.
The Szlachta were inextricably and symbiotically linked to that other middle class, the Jewish merchants and businessmen, whom were welcomed with open arms in Polish and Lithuanian kingdoms when they were persecuted and murdered elsewhere. Together they formed the threads with which the Polish and Lithuanian tapestry was woven. Though the Szlachta’s origins are shrouded in myth, they traditionally claimed to be descendants of the Sarmatian horsemen who banded together in the 5th century with the Slavic tribes in the Oder, Vistula, and Nieman river valleys to defend against the depredations of the Huns. Whether that is true or not is lost to history, but one fact of life remains unchallenged among those who lived on the Ukrainian Steppe or the eastern edge of the Northern European Plain during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance – to be a member of the Polish or Lithuanian nobility, one must go to war on a horse.
But not all of the Szlachta could afford the heavy and expensive panoply of the medieval knight, such as those that broke the Teutonic Knights at the battle of Grunewald in 1410. The lower nobles armed and armored themselves as best as they could afford, and formed a mass of light cavalry behind their richer and better equipped counterparts. By the end of the Renaissance, the “Pospolite ruszenie” or levee en mass of the Szlachta had been called so often to repel invaders that the nobles began to standardize equipment. They were known as “Kozacy” from the freewheeling mounted adventurers then beginning to populate the man made desert known as the Ukrainian Steppe, but out of necessity they armed themselves as that light cavalry from Poland’s interminable friend to the south, the Hungarian hussar.
The development of the Hungarian nobility and cavalry paralleled the Polish and Lithuanian, and their wars with the Ottoman Turks in the 15th and early 16th century standardized the petty gentry’s equipment in the form of the hussar. The destruction of the Hungarian nobility by the Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 put the hussar on two separate tracks of development. In the West, the hussar became the lightly armed and unarmored cavalryman “par excellence”, exemplified by Frederick the Great’s Prussian light cavalry used for reconnaissance and raiding, or Napoleon’s well-dressed and dashing foragers, scouts, and wooers of ladies. But in the East during the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the hussars of the Szalchta became better equipped despite firearms which made the knights’ heavy armor obsolete. With the development of gunpowder and pikes in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th century, the charge of heavy knights became ineffective. However, in the freewheeling and open battles of Eastern Europe where arquebusier fire could be avoided and pike phalanxes out flanked, not so much. So in the countries of Western and Western Central Europe, heavily armored hussars were not cost effective against massed pike and shot formations, while the nations of the East: the Russians, Cossacks, Tartars, and Mongols were too poor to afford heavily armored hussars. Only in The Poland/Lithuania Commonwealth were heavily armored hussars cost effective and the country rich enough to afford the Husaria.
By 1570, not all of the Szlachta could call themselves Husaria, but many could. Poles and Ruthenians who were different ethnically but equipped the same as unarmored Cossacks were all still known as “Kozacy”, and this term for light cavalry would continue well into the 19th century. Those Szlachta who could armour themselves in chainmail, still effective against the saber slashes of the Tartar and Turk of 16th and 17th century Eastern Europe, were known as “Panzerini”. The rich nobles who could afford the firearms, long lances, heavy horses, and the plate cuirasses patterned off their Sarmatian forbears were known as the Husaria.
By the time Stephen Bathory was elected King of Poland in the 1570s and definitely by the time the Poles captured Moscow in 1610, the Husaria formed the heavy shock cavalry of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The less well equipped Szlachta of the Kozacy and Panzerini performed the traditional cavalry roles of screening, reconnaissance and foraging, while the Husaria existed for one reason and one reason only – to break an enemy formation on the field of battle.
For honors’ sake, the upper strata of the Szlachta wanted to be at the forefront of battle and they armed and equipped themselves as such. Husaria had the heaviest warhorses in Europe, and Poland forbade their export for just that reason. Not wishing to change what was already good enough, Husaria were equipped with a Sarmatian style Roman breastplate and a composite German/Romano helmet, akin to a Spanish conquistadores’ with cheek and nose guard. Their arms consisted of a long 18ft lance topped with a pennant for identification, a straight long sword on the left of the saddle, an axe or war hammer on the right of the saddle, a sabre at the hip like any good noblemen, a brace of pistols like their contemporaneous musketeers, and a carbine for breaking up counterattacks.
But it was neither their arms nor armor that that garnered the Polish Husaria the most attention — it was their accoutrements. On his back, the Husaria could afford a bear, lion, tiger, or even an exotic leopard or jaguar skin. The exotic cape fluttered between wooden poles from which fluttered hawk, eagle, falcon, and even ostrich feathers: The “wings” of the Polish Hussars.
The purpose of the Husaria’s wings are a subject of much scholarly debate. Originally it was thought that the whistling of the wings unnerved enemy troops and horses. Also, the wooden uprights to which the feathers were attached were thought to prevent Turkish lassos from pulling riders from their saddles. More recent scholarship has accepted that that they just looked bad ass and scared the living shit out of those they were about to break. Whatever the reason, when the Polish Husaria charged, the enemy that survived took notice of the wings and fled – that is a historical fact.
On September 12th 1683, Poland’s King Jan Sobieski emerged from the Vienna Wood and his men fought their way through the Turkish lines to relieve the city which was about to fall to a Turkish siege. All morning and afternoon, his Panzerini and Kozacy pounded over the Turkish trenches until they came to the flat terrain that permitted a proper charge. That evening, 1,100 Polish Husaria charged the remaining 90,000 Turkish besiegers. The Husaria didn’t stop until they reached the Gates of Vienna and the Turks never threatened Central Europe again.
“Za wolność Waszą i naszą!”, “For your freedom and ours!”