Poland 1333 AD to 1500 AD
Image courtesy of S. A. Jasinski
My thanks to Stefan Jasinski and his excellent Polish Renaissance Warfare website for allowing my ruthless pillaging of his Images. His site is excellent for anyone interested in Post Medieval Polish armies.
|Polish Picture gallery|
Map (External link to Stefan Jasinski's map)
|Army Composition||Army Composition|
|The Nobles (Szlachta)||Introduction|
|Infantry raised as part of a Lance||The Mercenary Army|
|Town and Mercenary Infantry||Recruitment|
|Light Horse||The Heavy Cavalry|
|Lithuanian Allies||The Towarzysze|
|Polish Battle Tactics|
|The Battle of Tannenberg 1410|
|Polish Banners at Tannenberg|
The following is primarily based on Spieralski's 'The Art of War in Poland 1454-1562'. The Polish historian Spieralski uses works by medieval Polish commanders, including Jan Tarnowski's Consilium Rationalis Bellicae printed in Tarnow in 1558. The only available translation of Tarnowski's work is a 19th Century one in German (that I know of). Spieralski briefly covers the pre 1454 period as an example of how things changed in the Polish military.
Polish armies 1333 to 1454
Between these dates the Polish, like many Countries of the period had no standing army. When a military force was required it was raised by the general levy, essentially a Feudal system. The Nobility of Poland's obligations had been clearly set out during the reign of Casimer the Great, who brought the Nobles back under Royal Authority and issued the Pospolite Ruszenie (all freeman were obliged by law, to serve in the army, when called). Under the law any Noble serving within the boundaries of the Kingdom was responsible for supplying his retinue. The Crown however had to pay wages, supply food and pay any ransoms if the campaign took place outside of the Country.
Like their Western counterparts the Polish relied upon her Nobles and their retainers to provide the core of their armies. A Noble, depending on his wealth was expected to bring a support group of mounted retainers (Strzelcy) with him. These retainers would have numbered between 2-5 men. Each retainer in turn could be required to bring their own support group of infantry. The Polish Crown further supplemented their feudal foot with Town militias and mercenaries. Unlike a western feudal army the Polish fielded a significant number of light horse.
The Nobles (Szlachta)
The core of the Polish Army were the Nobles. As with the Feudal armies of Western Europe the Polish Nobles were equipped as Heavily armoured cavalry. Their basic equipment remained the same through the period. They deployed in the heaviest armour available and used a lance as their primary shock weapon. Towards the end of this period, close contact with the lighter cavalry of the Lithuanians and increasing conflict with the Tatars of the south saw a gradual reduction in the 'weight' of the Knight's armour. The Polish King's of the period offered tax incentives and other perks to European Armourers to settle in Poland. As a result of this and thriving German/Polish trading concerns, the Polish knight closely resembled his counterparts in Germany. The Noble deployed for battle accompanied by his mounted retainers, the Strzelcy.
Strzelcy were predominately missile armed troops, their name approximately translates as shot-men. Crossbows were the main weapon and remained so until post 1500. Some Strzelcy, particularly from areas with high Tatar or Lithuanian settlements mustered with bows but these were a minority. A significant minority also carried lances. A Noble would raise his Strzelcy from villages under his control. Only the minority of villagers would have had sufficient wealth to provide the weapons and armour they needed. Even so the armour of the Strzelcy was far lighter than that of the knights. Mail and scale armour would have been the best with stiffened leather the norm. Shields were carried by the majority.The Strzelcy of a unit fired simultaneously by arcade. Spieralski notes that for maximum effect when firing by arcade the crossbow should be fired at a 45 Degree angle. Missile fire was intended either to soften up the enemy units prior to a general charge or to break up their charging formation, making the Polish counter charge more decisive.
Infantry raised as part of a Lance
Infantry were regarded as second class troops during this period. The Polish however could raise significant numbers of them. Each Strzelcy could be expected to bring 2-3 infantrymen to a muster. Infantry equipment was very basic. Little or no armour and usually a crossbow or bow. Some though would be armed with spear or polearm. Infantry though was rarely raised via the General Levy. Polish Nobles displayed the same distrust of armed peasants as any other feudalised Nation. The period post 1454 brought about more effective infantry formations (see below)
Town and Mercenary Infantry
These were the most effective infantry available to the Polish King. The majority of Mercenary foot were hired from Poland's Western borders, mostly Germans (Bohemians and Moravians) see Medieval German pages. Polish towns, particularly on the borders, could field effective militia. These were also similar to their German counterparts, being predominately Crossbowmen with support from armoured spearmen.
Poland had two major enemies, that of the Teutonic Knights to the North and the Tatars to the South. Although their armies were completely different they both fielded considerable amounts of light horse. The General levy had no mechanism for the raising of such troops. To counter these Poland hired mercenary light horse. The largest 'supplier' of such mercenaries was the state of Lithuania. Poland however also employed light horse from Hungary. Serbia and Wallachia. All areas which consistently fought the Ottoman Empire and produced highly effective light horse as a result. Lithuanian light horse although numerous were not regarded as highly as those from the Southern Countries. The Lithuanian light horse were ill disciplined and often managed to get themselves into 'tight' situations. This was exploited by Polish armies (see tactics) but never the less was not the desired role for light horse. Certainly from around 1400 Polish general's appear to have preferred the 'Serbian' light horse over Lithuanians. It should be noted that Polish sources often used 'Serbian' to denote mercenaries that fought in a particular style and not just those from Serbia. These included Tatars, Moldavians, Transylvanian and Wallachian troops.
The first Union of Poland and Lithuania was formalised by the treaty of Krewo in 1385. Although not always a smooth relationship, Lithuanian and Polish armies fought side by side. The close family relationships between the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and the Kings of Poland ensured that even when the Union had lapsed the co-operation remained. A combined Polish and Lithuanian army defeated the Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg in 1410. A small Polish/Lithuanian force intervened in the Hussite wars. Polish troops helped Zygimantas Kenstutis in a civil war in Lithuania which culminated in the battle of Swienta in 1435.
The Polish Army 1454-1500
The beginning of the 13 years war against the Teutonic knights brought about a shift in the composition and tactics of the Polish armies. It would eventually lead to the formation of the famous Husaria. The campaign against the Order began badly. The General Levy, once assembled refused to move until the King had met certain political demands. The King agreed to all of their demands, including the proviso that the levy could only be called up with the express permission of the provincial Noble Parliament. The campaign commenced and the General Levy moved to besiege the town of Chojnice (Hoynits). Here it was defeated by a smaller force of Teutonic troops. The 13 years war was the last time that the General Levy was in the field for any period of time, it failed to win a single battle. The Levy would only be called upon once in the rest of the 15th Century, for Jan Olbracht's disastrous campaign against Moldavia and the Ottoman Empire. Despite the poor showing of the Levy in the 13 years war, the Polish successfully defeated the Teutonic Order. Her success was due solely to the considerable mercenary forces raised for the war.
The term mercenary when used in the Polish sources has a vastly different meaning than when it is used to describe Western European mercenaries. Mercenary units of western Europe were normally raised by a private individual, at their expense and hired out to the highest bidder. These mercenary commanders could become powers to be reckoned with, Italian Condotteri being a prime example. Prior to the 13 years war this was the same in Poland, especially as most mercenaries were German in origin (excluding the light horse). The need to replace the ineffective Levy and vast cash sums handed over by rebellious Teutonic towns saw the Polish Crown alter the composition of her armies. Innovations of this period formed the basis of Polish armies for the following Century.
The Mercenary Army
Unlike the previous era mercenaries were now raised at the direct request of the Crown. The Crown chose the commander and issued him with a Royal writ. This writ defined the approximate required size by number of banners or Rotas, the pay being offered and also any obligations of the Crown to the unit. These could include replacement of losses and payment of ransoms. Most importantly the document also stated whether the unit was to comprise of Polish Nationals. With the exceptions of the Light Horse and some Infantry this was invariably a requirement. Banner was the designation for a Mercenary Cavalry unit and numbered around 100 men. Rota was the name for a mercenary infantry unit and numbered around 200 men. The documents also record a change in the names for the differing types of units. Once a unit was raised it was presented to Crown representatives where it was inspected and its numbers and composition recorded. If accepted the unit then had to swear allegiance to the Crown for its period of service. So even though many of these units were described as mercenary in Polish sources their composition and method of recruitment does not justify such a designation. Their loyalty, particularly amongst the Polish units, was not in question and their commanders were by Royal appointment. During the 13 years war Piotr Dunin was appointed commander of the hired soldiers. He often became the main battle commander if the King was not present. His office would appear on and off through the rest of the Century. It would become a permanent office in 1503 with the new title of Crown Hetman of Mercenaries.
The Heavy Cavalry
A Knight raised by the Levy was described by Spieralski as 'concerned more with his own comfort than with military efficiency'. The Polish Crown issued writs for new Cavalry banners. These banners were raised by their commanders using the Comrade system. This system was essentially the same as that of the Levy. The Banner commander hired Knights to form the front ranks of his unit. These men went under the name Towarzysze, which means companions or comrades. They were now recruited from the Szlachta and the gentry, possibly a reaction to the fractious behaviour of the Levy. The Towarzysze brought with him his own support group of between 2 to 5 retainers (called Pocztowi). This method of recruitment also defined what type of banner it was. Those banners with a ratio of one Towarzysze to approximately two Pocztowi was called a Lancer Banner. Those with a higher proportion of Pocztowi were called a Volley banner. Spieralski gives some examples of banner composition.
Company Commander Rokosowski in 1471 - a lancer banner, there were 32 Lancers and 63 men of volley. While in the crossbow banner of Company master Kotwicz (Kotvitch) in 1498 there were 19 lancers and 73 shooters.
The Comrades provided the lancer element to the unit. The comrade equipment ranged from the full panoply of a Knight to a heavier version of the old Strzelcy equipment, replacing the crossbow with a lance. Spieralski though stresses that even the heaviest armour of a Knight was still much lighter than the fully armoured man and horse of the Western Nations. There is however some evidence to support a contrary view. A painting of the battle of Orsza, dated between 1524 and 1530, shows the Polish Nobles in full Armour, on barded horses. It should also be noted that even as late as the 1570's some 7 percent of the Polish mounted were still classed as being equipped as Knights.
Personally I incline towards Spieralski's opinion. The Painting of Orsza, although of the period is thought to have been painted by a 'German' artist from second hand accounts and using his own Knowledge of Western equipment. For example part of the painting shows dismounted Knights wearing armoured ring skirts usually only worn for foot combat. Polish nobles almost never fought on foot unless as part of a siege.
These were essentially Strzelcy. Crossbows were still the primary weapon although by the 1540's these had been almost completely replaced by the Eastern composite bow. So it is possible that this change began to emerge in this period.
As per the previous period. Serbs and Wallachian light horse were more numerous around the fall of their respective Countries to the Ottomans. The loss of these recruitment grounds would force the Polish to initiate their own light Horse companies. These were called cossacks and were based on Tatar equipment and tactics. The cossacks however did not become established until after 1500.
Poland still hired many of its infantry from Germany, Bohemian ex-Hussite troops were preferred as Tabor wagons had become a integral part of the Polish battle tactics. These Bohemian troops were, where possible, handgunners. The Polish did issue writs though for purely native infantry units. The majority of these had a similar structure and composition as the town militias of the previous period. Spieralski records the Polish infantry of the 15 Century as being slow moving and deploying in solid squares. His example is a company of 400 men. Deployed with 4 ranks, each of 18 Pavise carrying spearmen, with 18 ranks of crossbowmen behind them. Like the cavalry the Crossbowmen fired in arcade.
Copyright © 2002 Matthew Haywood
All images and text, unless otherwise noted, may not be copied without my written permission.