The Polish Winged Hussars
Researched and Written by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, B.F.A.
SOBIESKI AT VIENNA:
This painting by Wojciech Kossak,
depicts the husaria at Chocim, in 1621,
where the Polish Army repulsed a 100,000
strong, united Turkish and Tartar army in
Other paintings by Wojciech Kossak
are Hussars at Kircholm.
This battle was fought on
September 27, 1605 against the Swedes.
Another (above) commerated the war
with Turkey in 1621.
There is a painting in the Vatican entitled Sobieski at Vienna. It is painted by a young Polish artist Wojciech Kossak (1857-1842) in the late 1800's. The painting is on display next to Raphael's Stanzas and depicts a heroic scene showing fabulous horsemen wearing exotic armor and having racks attached to their backs on which are giant wings, with multi-colored feathers. This attire gave them the appearance of huge birds of prey.|
The figures are those of the Polish Hussars, often regarded as the finest cavalry in the world, in the 16th and 17th centuries. The painting shows the dramatic events of 1683, when a Christian army, led by King Jan Sobieski of Poland overwhelmed the numerically superior Turkish forces that had beseiged Vienna. The Polish Hussars were the mailed fist of that army, and but for that victory, the entire history of Europe might have been different.
Hussars were recruited almost exclusively from among Poland's gentry. They owed, as the price of their titles, military service to the nation. They were required to provide their own horses, arms, retainers, and some had their own private armies. One gained entrance into the Hussars only by experience and training. Families of the gentry usually trained their sons themselves or hired experienced ex-soldiers to do this training. To be a Hussar, you had to be an accomplished horseman, as well as an expert with the lance, saber, and firearms.
Hussar equipment was influenced by those enemies they were sent to fight, the Turks, the Tartars, the Cossacks, the Swedes, and others. Their primary weapons were the lance, and the saber. They went into battle in glittering armor on magnificent horses, armed to the teeth. They often carried maces, war hammers, horse pistols, or even eastern-style composite bows, just to name a few. The variety of weapons gave them the ability to attack infantry, light Tartar cavalry, or other armoured riders.
They seldom lost a battle, and frequently won against superior forces. They won famous victories in places like Smolensk, Byczyna, Kircholm, Chocim, Beresteczko, and Vienna. The Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, for which they fought, was once the largest country in Europe. They even had one of their Hetman (field marshals), force the surrender of Russia at the Kremlin in Moscow. That man was Hetman Zolkiewski, and he placed a new czar on the throne of Muscovy.
Husaria have a glorious, if violent, history and images of them today, in full panoply, can feed people's fascination with chivalric deeds and desperate struggles.
by Raymond Sypniewski, B.A., M.A.
Illustration © Pavol Pevny
Hussar armor from the second half of the
seventeenth century, made of polished iron
with copper ornamentation. "Wings" are
attached to the back side, the laths of the
wings are made of wood.
POLISH NOBLE ATTIRE:Polish Dress Through the Ages
This page will deal mainly with the Polish Winged Hussars and their gear. However, since many were of hussars were of noble birth, I have decided to add a little background information. The captain of a company of hussars was called a rotmistrz. The rotmistrz was normally a nobleman, from the land owning class, who owned several villages" (Brezinski, Polish Winged Hussar, 8).
Hussar towarzyze or "companions" were elite and as noblemen, they expected recognition from non-nobles. They were to be called pan ("Lord/Sir"). Noble to noble, they addressed each other as pan brat or "Lord-brother." Towarzysze were often given preferential treatment at opeas, balls, and in royal chambers. They generally had camp servants to keep their tents, wagons, and horses in prime condition. The state paid very little for hussar equipment. The towarzysze and rotmistrz paid for their own lances, leopard skins, and wings. Many times this cost could be recovered by the taking of war booty and by appointments given to them by the King. These were usually lifetime appointments.
The nobleman's dress was worn virtually unaltered both at home and for war; many of the fashionable items, such as swords and horse furniture, would be common to both (Brzezinski, 6). Many surviving Polish swords were gold and encrusted with jewels. Swords were a rank of nobility. The sabre (Polish szabla) evolved from the Turkish and Hungarian models. The karabela sabre had a bird-headed pommel, and was mainly used as a dress sword. The more ornate karabelas was not used by the hussars in battle. Not only would this be foolhardy, but Srefan Batory did not wish his hussars to flaunt their wealth in battle.
Noble dress was expensive and the most common fabrics were silks, satins, and velvets. Military men had to supply their own clothes and displayed their wealth without restraint. King Stephen Batory was said to have frowned on such displays and laws were made against flaunting one's wealth. These laws were basically ignored, since the noblemen paid for their own private armies. They wrote their own rules. To enforce the law would have not been wise, since the offended nobles could quite literally withdraw their troops in anger. The nobles made up approximately 6-8 percent of the population.
Poland was greatly influenced by Turkish, Persian, and Hungarian clothing styles. All the ornate embroidered clothing was soon copied by those who had the means to pay for this fine work.
Within the hussar units, men wore similar dress. Yet some retainers were not as well accured as their masters. Many of them had blackened armor and simple "Pappenheimer" helmets. Some even fought without armor. Fighting without armor put them in danger of being mistaken for Tartars.
The legendary hussars were responsible for many of Poland's greatest vistories. Many thought the hussars to be the most beautiful cavalry of all of Europe. However, not all felt this way. In 1598, a Danziger wrote this poem:
I saw many Polish riders go by,
They had wings but couldn't fly,
The Poles carry long lances,
A short pennant thereon,
They might instead use a cowtail.
It costs not much and serves just as well.
This ridicule was laughed at by most Poles, since when you are good you are always open to criticism by others. They simply chalked it up to the source.
The Hussar wings are said to have evolved from similar devices used in Italian and southern German heraldry, of the 14th century.
The hussar concept began in Serbia, near the end of the 14th century. In the 16th century, painted wings or winged claws began to appear on cavalry shields. Wings were originally attached to the saddle and later to the back. In 1645, Col. Szczodrowski was said to have used ostrich wings.
In 1500, the Polish Treasury books make reference to hussars. Early on, they were foreign mercenaries, and were called Racowie from "Rascia" a word meaning "of Serbia." They came from the Serbian state of Ras.
Illustration © Pavol Pevny
Breastplate of hussar cuirass from
the end of the sixteenth century
(the Hungarian crawfish cuirass)
wioth eight lames.
The most prevalent type in the Hungarian army was the hussar, a light cavalryman with arms and armor similar to the Turkish deli. The hussar wore a dolman, or fur-lined jacket, boots, extending to the midcalf, and a cap consisting of a kolpak, or fur covering around a cylindrical hat. A Hungarian riding shield offered ... additional protection (Klucina,90)
Early Polish hussars dressed in Hungarian style. They wore a magierka (a Hungarian cap), and no defensive armor. Later they adopted ring-mail, helmets, and plate armor.
Illustration © Pavol Pevny
Breastplate of hussar armour from the
first half of the seventeenth century,
This is decorated in the prescribed knight's
cross and had a cartouche of the Virgin Mary.
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
All noble hussar armor was burnished to
From the sixteenth (16th) century on, the Polish needed varied armor. They commissioned Western European-style armor, and sometimes wore armor imported from the Orient (Klucina, 93). Their armor included a helmet, cuiruss, gorget, pauldronsa, covering for the upper arema, Oriental-style pasguards, and sometimes plate coverings for the legs which went down to their knees.
The hussars were generally the elite of the Polish armey and their men had excellent fighting and equestrian skills. They were generally feared by the Russians, Swedes, Turks, and Tartars. Since the seventeen century was a time of war, the Poles had to fight to save their land, their natural resources, and trade routes. Sweden, Muscovy, Turkey, the Tartars, and the Cossacks all were hell-bent on destroying Poland.
By the 17th century, Polish hussars were held in even higher esteem and they made their own style of dress. The wings were of Serbian origin too. It was thought the wings were made to defend the backs of the men against swords and lassos, but modern theory is that they were used as intimidation. The noise and appearance of the feathers in the wind would spook the enemy's horses. The wings were mounted on a brass-edged wooden frame. The feathers were inserted into this frame, which was mounted on brackets or hinges (see illustration above). The wooden poles were arched at the top.
Horses were a huge expense. Their cost was five to ten times the salary of its rider. Polish horses were breed well and were among the finest horse flesh in Europe. Polish horses were bred for speed and endurance, and they were not sold outside of Poland. Even their food was expensive, as they offered their faithful steeds the best.
The main weapon of the hussar was the eastern lance (kopia). Lances measured 4.5 - 5 metres in length. They were made of light elastic wood. Metal spearheads were placed on their tip and a two color pendant was anchored below the tip. Lances could pary against Turkish spahis, and they helped the riders cut through thick infantry and cavalry. Only Tartar horsemen (small and skilled) could weave their way past the lance. Lances were held at the right stirrup. After bashing the enemy in the chest with their lance, the sword came into play, as the lance generally broke on striking the enemy. Only three lances survived battle and today they are in museums.
Companions to the lance were two swords: a saber, or szabla(for slashing) was attached to the rider's waist on the left. While the long sword, either a pallasz or koncerz (designed for piercing mail armor) were carried on the horse, under the left side of the saddle.
A pair of pistols were also carried, in the saddle holster (as early as 1576). Pistols were only used at close range. One shot was fired and re-loading was not possible in heavy battle. Some men also carried rifles (carbines).
Transylvanian prince,Stefan Batory, |
illustrated by Iwona Pocieha
(after Jan Matejko). Stefan Batory
(1533-1586) was Prince of Transylvania
from 1571, and King of Poland from 1576.
Stephan died in 1586 of a rumored poisoning.
He was often unpopular with the nobles.
He married the daughter of Mikolaj Radziwill
"the Black." Under Stefan Batory, the husaria
were 85 percent of the Polish and Lithanian
Animal skins were also part of hussar gear. These pelts were usually worn in the fashion of a cloak, over the armor (from the sixteenth century on). Skins were typically of leopard, tiger, lion, wolf, or bear skins. By the 17th century, the hussars numbered 1,000-4,000 horses or 5-20% of the total cavalry. Hussar armies were generally led by high state dignitaries (on paper), but they were actually led by their lieutenants.
Jerzy Lubormirski held the banner in wars against Sweden and Muscovy, and in the Lubormirski Rebellion. Grand Marshal Lubomirski's banner was red and white.
In 1576, husaria regiments were formed by Andrzej, Marcin Kazanowski, Jan Gniewosz, and Jan Lesniowski (to name a few).
GRAND HETMAN OF THE CROWN:*****
The Grand Hetman of the Crown were:
- Jan Tarnowski (1488-1561) herbu Jelita, won the battle of Obertyn.
- Jan Zamoyski (1542-1605) was the son of a Calvinist senator (herbu Jelita). He was Chancellor of Poland and an aide to Stefan Batory. He was one of the largest landowners in the Commonwealth. Although he was born to a Calvinist, he became a Catholic. Their family estate was called Zamosc. In 1580, he began to build New Zamosc with his architect, Bernando Morando. He won the battle of Brczyna, and was a member of the Royal Chancery in 1561, and Grand Chancellor of the Crown, at age 33.
- Hetman Stanislas Zolkiewski (1547-1620) herbu Lubicz. His grandfather Mikolaj battled the Tartars, Wallachians, and Muscovities.
- Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1560-1621) herbu Kosciesza, came for a family of Russian boyars.
- Stanislas Koniecpolski (1591-1646), herbu Pobog, began his military career in 1610, at Smolensk where he lead 200 hussars and 100 infantry.
- Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665) herbu L~odzia.
....Five of his nine brothers were military men.
- Jan Sobieski (later King John III) (1629-1696) herbu Janina. Jan was known as the Lion of Lekhistan, the conqueror of the Turks. He began his military career at age twenty. On May 21, 1674, he was King of Poland, by the vote of the nobles. Jan died in Wilanow in 1696.
Brzezinski, Richard. Polish Armies 1569-1600. (volume 1) #184 in the Osprey Men-at-Arms Series. London: Osprey Publishing, 6, 16.
Brzezinski, Richard. Polish Winged Hussar 1576-1775. Warrior Series. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2006.
Hollins, David. Hungarian Hussars 1756-1815. Osprey Warrior Series. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2003.
Klucina, Petr. (Illustrations by Pavol Pevny) Armor: From Ancient To Modern Times. Reprinted by New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992, (by permission of Slovart Publishing Ltd, Batislava).
Ostrowski, Jan K., et al. Art in Poland: Land of the Winged Horsemen 1572-1764. Baltimore: Art Services International, 1999.
Wasilkowska, Anna. The Winged Horsemen. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Interpress, 1998.
Zamoyski, Adam. The Polish Way. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1996.
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