The Siege of Jasna Góra

In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnitskiy’s Zaporozhian Cossacks revolted against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and with their Crimean Tartar allies began the end of the Commonwealth’s “Golden Age”. In 1652, the Cossacks and Tartars defeated the Crown Army at the Battle Batih, and Khmelnitskiy ransomed the Polish and Ruthenian prisoners from the Tartars and massacred them, eliminating the Commonwealth’s most experienced soldiers. With the cream of the Commonwealth’s army dead at Batih, Russia invaded the Commonwealth in 1654. With the Commonwealth fighting for survival in the east against the Tartars, Cossacks, and Russians, Sweden invaded from Pomerania to the northwest. Swedish King Charles X Gustav planned to break up the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, reduce the Duchy of Lithuania to a Swedish protectorate, and make good his claim to the Polish crown.

The Swedes brought fire and sword to parts of Poland and Lithuanian that had not known war for 200 years. The victorious Swedes slaughtered, raped and plundered Poland’s most populous and prosperous provinces. They ravaged Royal Prussia, Sieradz, Poznan, Mazovia, and Greater and Lesser Poland whom all quickly fell to the advancing Swedes. The capital of Warsaw was taken and sacked in September 1655, the ancient capital of Krakow in October, and King Jan II Casimir fled to Silesia in November. Lithuania dissolved the Union. The Swedish and tide swept over the Commonwealth, and this period of Polish history is known as “The Deluge”.

On 8 November 1655, a small Swedish army, of about 4000 mostly German mercenaries and Polish Protestants under Swedish General Burchard Müller von der Lühne, approached the town of Czçestochowa, a prosperous merchant town on the border of Lesser and Greater Poland. But Czçestochowa’s riches weren’t just temporal; they were also spiritual. On a hill overlooking the town, the Pauline monastery of Jasna Góra, “the Hill of Light”, housed Catholic Poland’s most sacred relic: The Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Legend has it that The Black Madonna was originally painted by St. Luke the Evangelist on the Holy Family’s cedar table top. The sacred icon was eventually presented to Constantine the Great in 326, and made its way from Constantinople through Hungary and Ukraine and eventually to Poland in the 14th century. With the widespread destruction of Catholic churches, icons, and relics during the Thirty Years’ War still fresh in the minds of the monks, they decided to defend the monastery against the Swedes.

A turncoat Polish noble, Count Jan Wejchard of Wrzeszczewicz, demanded that the monks turn the monastery over to him for “protection”, then after refusal tried to intimidate them with Müller’s approaching army. Father Augustyn Kordecki, the Prior of Jasna Góra responded, “It is better to die worthily, than to live impiously.” The monks also promised to denounce him and sanction any uprisings in his lands. The Count of Wrzeszczewicz’s men ravaged the monastery’s possessions outside the walls, and the Count hastened to the Swedes with encouragment to attack immediately. However, Müller was a professional and a veteran of the Thirty Years War, and standing at the foot of the hill looking up toward Jasna Góra, he respected its numerous artillery, thick bastions, and strong position.

In 1616, the reforms of King Sigismund III Vasa included the construction of walls and bastions to protect Polish Catholicism’s most holy site. Sigismund’s defensive improvements turned the monastery into a fortress, and were validated by the harsh lessons of the Thirty Years War. It 1655, the monastery was well stocked with cannon and powder, and Kordecki purchased 60 muskets to arm the 70 monks prepared to defend the monastery against the Swedes. Kordeki also hired 160 mercenaries and they were joined by 20 szlachta, or petty gentry, led by Piotr Czarniecki and Stephan Zamoyski, and 60 other local townspeople and peasants, who sought refuge in the monastery. Just before the siege, 12 cannon with crews, provisions and cattle, arrived from Krakow, sent by Stanislaw Warszycki, the First Lord of Wawel Castle. The monastery’s defenders were still woefully outnumbered by the approaching Swedish army, but Kordeki’s stronghold was well supplied and more importantly had a considerable advantage in artillery, both in quantity and quality. The monks’ cannon were simply larger, heavier, and more numerous. In an attempt to avoid the otherwise inevitable bloody and tough assault, Müller demanded the monks’ surrender in a letter to the Prior. Father Kordeki wrote later, “It was no longer the hour to write, but to take up arms… We answered by the muzzles of our cannons…”

The first Swedish assault on 18 November 1655 was savagely repulsed by the monks and the defenders of Jasna Góra, so much so that night Müller asked for a truce. The next day the Swedes hid their cannon in the town in preparation for another assault. The monks bombarded the town with incendiaries to destroy the town’s winter stores of grain so they couldn’t be used by the Swedes, and remove any cover for the Swedish artillery. The fires in the town forced the Swedes into the streets and fields where they were again easy targets for the Polish gunners. Müller again attempted to negotiate with Kordeki, this time pointing out that the entire country had surrendered to the Swedes, no Polish army was coming to relive the monastery, and his victory was inevitable. Kordeki refused. The Swedes settled in for a siege and began digging trenches at night. With preparations complete, on Sunday, 21 November, the Feast of Our Lady, Müller again presented demands. After making Müller wait all day while the monks celebrated mass and processed the Blessed Sacrament inside the walls, Kordeki answered with a simple negative.

The infuriated Swedes launched a three day assault on the monastery. There was hard fighting but the decision was never in doubt. Swedish attempts to burn down the monastery with incendiaries were met with organized firefighting efforts by the monks. Also, singing by the monks in the sanctuary during the assaults both demoralized and enraged the Swedes. On the night of 28 November, Piotr Czarniecki, the commandant of Krakow led a surprise sortie against the battered Swedish lines. Czarniecki and his men snuck out of the monastery, made their way through the Swedish trenches, and attacked the Swedish camp from the rear. They killed many officers in their tents, including Müller’s artillery commander, and destroyed two cannon, though at least one account says they were captured and brought back to the monastery. The confusion and fires in the Swedish lines caused by the sortie provided further targets and more Swedes fell to Jasna Gora’s gunners. For the loss of one man, Czarniecki inflicted dozens of Swedish casualties. Czarniecki’s sortie and the failure of the latest assault convinced Müller that he needed reinforcements and especially heavier cannon to take the fortress, which he requested from Arvid Wittenberg, the commander of the Swedish army that just seized Krakow.

While Müller waited, he continued his information war against the monks. He knew Kordeki read every proposal for their surrender to the entirety of garrison. Müller repeatedly stated that he’d respect the Catholic relics, allow the garrison amnesty, and, to provide a stick for the carrots, warned the garrison that further resistance only encouraged revenge against them and their families. Kordeki’s transparency initially worked against the Swedes. The Swedish actions in the previous year were well known, and the Poles had no reason to believe Swedish attitudes regarding Catholicism and the Commonwealth had changed. Nonetheless, the Swedish propaganda began to wear on the garrison, especially when it was delivered by respected Polish figures, such as the Prior of Wielun or Polish nobles who had previously fought the Swedes.

In the beginning of December, word was given to Kordeki that several of the garrison planned to defect. Kordeki immediately addressed the garrison and expelled the traitors. To prevent another such crisis in faith, the mercenaries were given an advance on their pay, and the defense reorganized. Older and more trustworthy monks were given charges to look after and dual command of each bastion was given to a noble and a monk. During this time, Müller threatened the lives of two monks who were hostages, unless the monastery capitulated. Unfortunately for the captured monks, the Swedes attempted to reposition their cannon and informed the garrison that if they interfered, the captives would be hung. Unwilling to risk the sanctity of the garrison for the monks lives, Kordeki ordered his guns to fire. Alternating bouts of fighting and negotiating continued, but Kordeki and Jasna Góra’s defenders were mostly resolute, if at times wavering in the face of overwhelming Swedish force.

On 10 December, Müller’s reinforcements arrived, including two 24 pound cannon, which inflicted significant damage on the northern bastion. But before they could create a breach, another sortie on 14 December, this one led by Stephan Zamoyski, destroyed a redoubt and one of the 24 pounders. Zamoyski sortied again on the 20th, collapsing a mine the Swedes were digging and killing the miners, destroying two more cannon, and massacring isolated Swedish detachments in the trenches. During the raid a cannonball devastated a tent where several Swedish officers were dining, killing all of the revelers. The Swedes suspended operations for two days to recover from the chaos caused by Zamoyski. Buoyed by the success, recent news of Polish victories, and the rumor of a Tartar army coming to the aid of the Commonwealth against their mutual enemies, all talk of capitulation among the garrison ended.

After the rejection of Christmas truce, Müller launched his largest, and final, assault on the monastery Christmas Day. During this climactic battle, both Swedish and turncoat Polish sources reference divine intervention: a “lady of a menacing countenance”, whom the Swedes referred to as a “witch”, who roamed the walls and used both blinding light and uneven fogs to sow terror and misdirect the aims of Swedish gunners. Swedes also spoke of a “venerable old man” clad in a “white mantle” who “swiped from the air” Swedish projectiles, and whose sword fell dead any Swedish soldier it pointed upon. Whether divine intervention or not saved Jasna Góra is a matter of faith, but both sides certainly believed at the time that the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Paul interceded on the Poles’ behalf. What cannot be disputed is that the final attack, and the siege, came to an effective end when the remaining 24 pound cannon malfunctioned and exploded. The explosion was most likely caused by a reused cannonball, which had previously hit the walls and rolled back down the hill. Reusing cannonballs was a common practice, and this one was probably cracked, and when it was re-fired, the crack in the projectile expanded and destroyed the barrel.

Unable to take the monastery by force, Müller attempted one last chance to save face: he offered to lift the siege for 60,000 thalers. Kordeki replied that he would have accepted the offer in November, but in December he needed the money to repair the damage done to the monastery by the Swedish guns. Müller lifted the Siege of Jasna Góra on 27 December, after he learned of nearby Polish victories by Colonel Gabriel Wojniłłowicz, which rendered his position untenable.

The monastery at Jasna Góra was the only significant fortress in the Commonwealth not to fall to the invaders during the Deluge. Its successful defense galvanized Commonwealth resistance against the Swedes, Cossacks, Russians, and traitorous Poles and Lithuanians. Father Kordeki and his defenders saved the heart of Polish Catholicism, although its most sacred icon, The Black Madonna of Częstochowa, was spirited away and hidden in a nearby monastery prior to the enemy’s arrival, with a copy remaining during the siege. The icon was quietly returned after the victory. The new Commonwealth resistance was not entirely due to the victory. The tide of the war began to change in December 1655 with the King’s and Wojniłłowicz’ victories, the death of Lithuanian traitor Janusz Radziwiłł, the arrival of Tartar host, and the beginning of a New Russo-Swedish war in Livonia. Nonetheless, across the Commonwealth, Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, and Belorussians rose up to fight the invaders, inspired by the victory. The Count of Wrzeszczewicz was seized and beaten to death by “peasants armed with rods”. Most significantly, the victory at Jasna Góra gave impetus to the establishment of the Tyszowce Confederation on 29 December and consolidation of various uprisings into new armies under the remaining Grand Hetmans. On Sunday, 1 April 1656, King Jan II Casimir gave the Lwów Oath at Easter Mass, proclaiming the Blessed Virgin Mary perpetual Queen of Poland, and announced “Poland, if thou fightest for Mary, thou shalt be terrible to the followers of Hell.”

By 1658, Swedish forces were thrown out Poland, and would not return until the Great Northern War forty years later. King Charles X Gustav of Sweden died of pneumonia in 1660.

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