History of Poland: The Deluge I 1648-1655.


Mid 17th Century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The largest and most prosperous state in Eastern
Europe. Yet 150 years later the country was no more. All of its lands had been divided by its neighbors
and its existence soon a distant memory. So what happened? This is the story of the Deluge – the beginning
of the end of the Commonwealth. This story began from seemingly unconnected
events. In the first half of the 16th century the
Commonwealths nobles began to burden the peasants more and more. Many peasants sought to escape their servitude. At the same time there was a frontier where
there were no nobles to pay taxes to and free land for everyone that could till it and that
is where many of them set foot. No, it was not the New World, it was the frontier
in the steppes between the Commonwealth and the lands of the tatars. The steppes were a lawless place, always in
danger of tatar raids so the settlers had to be well armed and organized to survive
and prosper. They became known as the Cossacks. Eventually the Commonwealths nobles caught
up to them and wanted to bring the settlers back into serfdom. By that time the Cossacks had grown in number
and power. They claimed that by settling in the borderlands
they were in fact protecting the Commonwealth from tatars and they should be paid for it. This led to a series of Cossack rebellions
that were all put down and their rights were curtailed. By mid century the borderlands were a powderkeg
for a new rebellion. In 1648 another revolt began. The commonwealth garrison forces moved out
to suppress it. They divided themselves into three groups
in order to quell the revolt quickly. Two of them moved forward, while one stayed
back as a reserve. However the rebellion turned out to be stronger
than expected. First the cossack contingent of the commonwealth
army defected to the rebels. Then the second force was encircled and destroyed. The cossacks caught up with the reserve force
and defeated it.The commonwealths garrison in Ukraine was virtually wiped out. Soon the orthodox peasants joined the Cossacks
in rebellion and all of Ukraine fell to the rebels. But the Commonwealth had plenty of resources
and sent yet another army against the Cossacks. However, due to the political nature of the
nobles democracy, military offices were often given out according to status and not merit
and here three different lords were put in command of the commonwealth forces. The cossacks exploited this deficiency and
won another victory. Their hold over Ukraine was secured. During the crisis the king of the Commonwealth
had died and the nobles elected his brother, John Casimir of the house of Vasa to be the
new king. He was to be the one to take the commonwealth
out of the crisis. The king took personal command of the army. After some inconclusive fighting the Commonwealth
was able to leverage its seizable military superiority and the Cossacks and their allies
were defeated. This put an end to their expansion. The cossacks alone were not very formidable,
but their strength was in their allies. They had made alliances with the prince of
Moldavia and the Crimean tatars. The Commonwealth decided to deal with the
allies first and then take on the Cossacks. The Commonwealths military expedition to Moldavia
failed so they resorted to diplomacy to make neighbouring principalities invade Moldavia
and depose its ruler. Moldavia was out and it was time to deal with
the tatars. The tatars interest in the alliance with the
Cossacks was the opportunity to raid the Commonwealth for loot and slaves. During a campaign the tatars would have to
join with the Cossacks, move into the commonwealth, defeat the commonwealths forces, capture the
slaves, then get safely home with the slaves and finally sell them on the Crimean slave
markets for profit. John Casimir offered them a better deal. The tatars won’t support the cossacks and
they get paid. Tatars saw this as a better option and abandoned
the Cossacks. John Casimir prepared to conquer their lands
for the commonwealth. The Cossacks were now backed into a corner. They asked help from Russia and offered the
Czar to become his subjects in return for military aid. Russia wasn’t as strong as the Commonwealth. It had lost several wars to the Commonwealth
earlier and it didn’t seem to be a good idea to start another. But the opportunity to become the dominant
power was too good to pass on and Russia risked it. If Russia committed all of its forces to the
struggle, it would be able to meet the strength of the Commonwealth, but it could afford to
do that for only a few years. If the war couldn’t be ended after the initial
years, Russia was in trouble. So the Czar put all the eggs into one basket
and launched an all out attack. In 1654 the Commonwealth sent its main force
to the Ukraine against the Cossacks. Russia dispatched some forces to make sure
that the Cossacks wouldn’t be fully defeated . At the same time the main force attacked
in Lithuania. With the Commonwealths main force in the South,
Russia was able to catch them off balance and conquer the province of Smolensk. Meanwhile, in Sweden. Sweden dreamt of being a great power. In order to achieve that it saw the need to
conquer all of the coastline of the baltic sea and turn it into a Swedish lake. By that time it had already made some good
progress in its conquest. Now, the neighbouring countries weren’t
fond of this and Sweden had created the most modern army in the region to protect its possessions. This army was very expensive to maintain,
however, and Sweden wasn’t the most prosperous country. So it had a habit of sending its army occasionally
abroad to have their neighbours pay for it. In 1654 the treasury was running low once
again and the army needed to be sent out on another campaign. But the question was, where to send it. Three countries had their possessions near
the Baltic – Denmark, the Holy Roman Empire and Commonwealth with its vassals. The Holy Roman Empire had just been devastated
by the Thirty years War, meanwhile Denmark was small and relatively poor to sustain the
Swedish army for a long time. Meanwhile the lands of the Commonwealth were
vast and had enjoyed a relative peace for decades. So Commonwealth it was. In the summer of 1655 the Swedish army invaded
the Commonwealth. Local nobles gathered to meet the enemy. However, after seeing the Swedish army, they
figured that there was no way of defeating it head on. So they had to weigh other options. The Commonwealth was under attack from three
different sides and needed a strong army and leadership that king John Casimir hadn’t
been able to provide. His detractors argued that the only way to
save the Commonwealth was to recognize the Swedish king Charles as their king. With his powerful army he would surely defeat
Commonwealths enemies. So the nobles decided to bend the knee to
the Swedish king and recognize him as the king of the Commonwealth. Other provinces followed and soon the Swedish
army entered Warsaw, the capital of the Commonwealth. The Swedes made it their goal to capture John
Casimir. He hastily gathered an army, but it was no
match to the Swedish forces and was easily defeated. The king fled to Cracow. But with the Swedes closely on his tail and
with many of the Commonwealths nobles defecting, he had no choice but to flee to the Holy Roman
Empire. With the Swedish invasion the Commonwealths
army fell into disarray. The resistance to Russia had collapsed. Its forces spread out taking over large swaths
of territory. The remaining soldiers and territories attempted
to save themselves by swearing allegiance to the Swedish king. By the end of 1655 Most of the Commonwealth
found itself under foreign occupation. The Commonwealth had lost all of its armies
and its king had fled the country. Was this the end? Well, no because in the next episode, the
Commonwealth will strike back! See you next time.

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