The late 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During this time, the Commonwealth was a “republic of nobles” with the gentry, known as the “Szlachta”, able to vote for their king. The nobility and gentry of the Commonwealth differed from many other nations in Europe with the Szlachta making up about 10% of the population, the upper and most of the middle classes, compared to 2%, or just the upper classes, across the rest of Europe. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the elected king of the Commonwealth was Sigismund III Waza, from the Swedish royal house of Vasa. The Commonwealth throne was just a step to attaining his true objective, regaining the Swedish throne. In 1605, Sigismund III saw his chance to increase the Commonwealth’s power at the expense of his troubled neighbor, Muscovy. Sigismund planned to incorporate it into the Commonwealth with Poland and Lithuania, or at least place his son on Muscovy’s throne. The might of the three most powerful nations in Eastern Europe would be enough to seize the Swedish crown, turning the Baltic into a Commonwealth lake under Wasa rule.
With the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1589, Muscovy entered the Time of Troubles, specifically the “Dmitriad” or the time of the three false Dimitris who vied against Boris Godunov and Vasili IV Shuysky for the title of Tsar of all Russians. The Time of Troubles greatly weakened Muscovy. In 1609, Sigismund just finished putting down a nobles’ rebellion, and with his power consolidated, he made no attempt to hide his next target – Moscow. Sigismund III invaded Muscovy after the weakened Vasili IV made an alliance with Sweden to oppose the inevitable Commonwealth invasion.
In September, 1609, Sigismund III invested the Muscovite fortress at Smolensk with the help of Russian boyars supporting Dmitry II. But Smolensk, the gateway to Moscow, was well defended, well-armed, and well supplied. The siege continued all winter. In the spring of 1610, Vasili IV dispatched an army under his younger brother Dmitry Shuysky and Swedish general Jacob De la Gardie.
Shuysky commanded about 48,000 Russian troops and 11 cannon, supported by De la Gardie’s 5,000 Flemish, French, German, Spanish, Scottish, and Swedish mercenaries. Sigismund sent 12,000 Commonwealth troops, including 5500 of the famed Polish winged Husaria, under Hetman (warlord) Stanisław Żółkiewski to intercept them. Żółkiewski’s scouts found Shuysky’s 8,000 strong advanced guard at the villages of Tsaryovo and Zaymishche. The Muscovites fortified the town to secure their lines of communication against raids by the Commonwealth’s cavalry heavy army. Żółkiewski attacked and trapped the Muscovites in the fort. Żółkiewski left 6,000 men, which included most of his infantry and some cavalry, to isolate the Muscovites. On the evening of 2 July under the cover of a heavy rain, Żółkiewski slipped away with the bulk of his cavalry, his cannon, and some supporting infantry. Confident in the power of the Husaria, he silently galloped off to strike the overwhelming numbers of the Muscovite main body while they were strung out on the march.
The next night, Polish scouts spotted their adversaries in two fortified camps about five miles from the town of Kłuszyn, one for Shuysky’s Russian troops and a separate for De la Gardie’s mercenaries. Żółkiewski sent a spy with a letter to the mercenary camp offering them better pay to switch sides. Taking advantage of the bad weather, Żółkiewski attempted to sneak his army around the Russian camp to strike at them the next morning from behind when they resumed the march.
De la Gardie got wind of the letter and ended any conspiracy to switch sides en masse, but the letter’s damage was already done. The mercenaries’ military efficacy was greatly diminished by the prospect of greater pay in the service of what was thought to be a superior Commonwealth force. They fragmented on national lines: some switched sides, some refused to fight, some fought half heartedly, while others honored their contracts fully.
Żółkiewski’s hussars were spotted strung out on a narrow and muddy trail attempting to infiltrate behind the Russian camps. With his movement uncovered and unable to immediately attack, Żółkiewski consolidated his army opposite Shuysky’s camps. He rested his men who had been on the march for almost 48 hours straight, and cleared some obstacles from the future battlefield.
Formed in the dark, both armies faced each other as the sun rose on 4 July 1610. 30,000 of Shuysky’s Russians occupied their center and left, with De la Gardi’s foreign mercenaries on the right. They frantically reinforced fence lines and dug redoubts as Żółkiewski’s 5,500 Husaria supported by 1000 Cossacks on their left cantered forward. The masses of Russians in the redoubts and behind the fence lines were enough to prevent an outright charge by the Husaria, who resorted to the caracole tactic to break the lines, albeit one specifically suited to the Husaria.
In a traditional caracole, the dense mass of riders moved forward slowly. At pistol range the front rank discharged their firearms, and then made way for the next rank to do the same while they went to the rear and reloaded. Thus the cavalry formation either moved forward or backwards slowly by rank while maintaining continuous fire. A Husaria caracole differed and was more akin to the ancient Cantabrian Circle. The Husaria would leave their lances behind and charge forward. At pistol range they’d quickly turn and fire their brace, and then continue to move out of the way. They moved to the rear as the next unit followed up. The movement never stopped and the circle flowed seamlessly. Once at the back end of the circle, they’d pull their carbines and repeat the process. Once the carbine circle was completed, the Husaria charged with their lances, with the hope that the firearms broke up the dense formations, leaving them vulnerable to their terrible charge. As their lances shattered on the Russians, if no break out immediately occurred they’d then turn, and pull their sabers. The momentum of the charge carried them back out of the enemy formation. The Husaria would then retire to reload their pistols and carbines, and begin the maneuver again. The Husaria caracole required immense discipline and exquisite horsemanship just to maintain the timing. At any given moment there were at least four groups of Husaria in the caracole: one moving forward, one charging, firing, or fighting, one retiring, and one reloading. Some Husaria completed this maneuver 8-10 times over the course of the day.
The reinforced hedges and fence lines blunted the worst of the Husaria charges, but the continuous Polish caracoles gave the impression that the Commonwealth’s numbers were much greater than they were. For next five hours, the Husaria caracoles smashed against the Russian defenses of the center and left, while the Cossacks fixed the reluctant mercenaries on Shuysky’s right. The Husaria’s discipline, armor, and firepower were offset by the greater Russian numbers.
The turning point of the battle was a counterattack by Russian reiters (Muscovite boyars equipped as German or Swedish riders) in the center. Sensing the Husaria’s charges diminishing, Shuysky ordered his still fresh reiters forward against the exhausted Poles. The reiters began their own traditional caracole with their pistols, in front of the beleaguered, but still solid, Russian defensive lines. The Poles rushed at the chance to fight the Russian riders. The Husaria abandoned their caracole and charged the exposed Russian reiters with their lances and sabers. The Russians quickly broke in the melee. The routing Muscovite reiters did what the Husaria could not, break the Russian lines. As the defeated reiters pushed their way back through the Russian defenses, the Husaria victoriously followed, and Shuysky’s center collapsed.
Seeing the Russian center break, De la Gardi withdrew back to his fortified camp with men guarding his flank in the woods at the edge of the battlefield. Shuysky and his shattered center withdrew to the Russian camp, while the left held strong. However the timely arrival of the Commonwealth cannon and infantry, which had marched all night after being left behind by the cavalry, were deployed against the remaining Russian lines. (In the haste to form the battle lines in the predawn darkness, Shuysky left his 11 cannon in his camp.) The Commonwealth infantry and cannon broke the Russian left, and the Husaria followed them back to the Russian camp. The Russians routed through the camp and prevented Shuysky from rallying his troops. They abandoned their fortified camp. The exhausted Cossacks and Husaria could not pursue far though, and many looted Shuysky’s extravagant camp and its wagon loads of valuables.
Żółkiewski’s army could not take the remaining mercenary camp with force. De la Gardi’s mercenaries had a much higher ratio of harquebusiers and much better training than the Stuysky’s Russians. Żółkiewski’s men were exhausted and disorganized. So under a flag of truce, he offered the mercenaries the same deal as before, and many switched sides. The remainder were given free passage out of the country on their word never to take up arms against the Commonwealth again.
Żółkiewski took the captured banners and prisoners back to the fort at Tsaryovo and Zaymishche which prompted its defenders to surrender. The Commonwealth victory at Kłuszyn did not however convince Smolensk to surrender. While Sigismund III maintained the siege at Smolensk, his son Wladyslaw IV Wasa advanced on Moscow with the Żółkiewski’s reinforced army. On 3 August they arrived at the gates of Moscow to find that the Russian boyars overthrew Tsar Vasili IV Shuysky. For the next three weeks, the boyars negotiated with Prince Wladyslaw IV and Hetman Żółkiewski.
In return for electing Wladyslaw the new Tsar, the boyars demanded that Muscovite territory remain intact and the Commonwealth would respect Russian social and political institutions, e.g. the rights of the boyars and the Orthodox faith. And finally, as Tsar of “The Third Rome”, Wladyslaw would have to accept the Orthodox faith.
Wladyslaw IV agreed. On 27 August 1610, he was elected Tsar of all Russians. On 3 September, Tsar and Grand Prince Vladislav Zigimontovych of all Russia triumphantly entered Moscow at the head of Hetman Stanislaw Żółkiewski’s Husaria and occupied the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, the Wasa dynasty in Muscovy was short lived. Wladyslaw sent his father the agreement, and Sigismund rejected it outright, despite it securing Muscovy’s support for the Commonwealth. Sigismund wanted to Catholicize Muscovy, which the Russian boyars would never agree to. Furthermore, he refused to abandon the siege of Smolensk. Smolensk had been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had only been lost to Muscovy in the last century. It was the key to any advance on Moscow. With Smolensk in Commonwealth hands under Lithuanian control, the heartland of Muscovy would be open to invasion at any time, and Muscovite politics easy to influence. Moscow would be at the Poles’ and Lithuanians’ mercy. The permanent loss of Smolensk would keep the notoriously finicky Russians in line, and secure Muscovy for the upcoming campaign for the Swedish throne. However, Sigismund didn’t understand that the boyars understood this also. They would never stop fighting while Smolensk was in foreign hands.
Sigismund’s rejection of Wladyslaw’s agreement infuriated the Russian boyars, and turned them against the Commonwealth. Smolensk fell in 1611, but the boyars refused to sign a peace treaty. Tsar Wladyslaw IV and his army were unwelcome foreigners whose control extended little beyond Moscow and the Kremlin. In late 1611 Tsar Wladyslaw departed Moscow never to return, and the Commonwealth troops were trapped in the Kremlin. After a brutal siege in which there were reports of cannibalism among the Commonwealth’s troops, the Russians retook the Kremlin in November of 1612. In 1613, the boyars chose Shuysky’s 16 year old cousin, Mikhail Romanov, as the new Tsar. Tsar Mikhail Romanov ended the Time of Troubles and the Romanov Dynasty ruled Imperial Russia for the next 300 years, until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
Wladyslaw IV would eventually be elected, as had his father, king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He would reign for the next 38 years through what remained of the Commonwealth’s Golden Age, until The Deluge began in 1648. He was one of Europe’s most beloved and successful rulers, though as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and not as Tsar of all Russians.