THE Jagiellos, after two centuries of almost sisyphean labour, had at last succeeded in welding together, out of the most unpromising and rebellious materials, a new great Power, the Rzeszpospolita, or Polish Commonwealth. This great Power was exposed from the first to peculiar perils, both external and internal. To begin with, by far the larger part of its vast territories had no natural boundaries. The eastern and northern frontiers, in particular, lay open to the interminable raids of the Tatars, the Turks, and the Moscovites, who, with but moderate initial success, could easily penetrate to the very heart of the unwieldy and ill-defended realm. A strong central Government would have endeavoured to remedy this defect, but, unfortunately, Poland had no strong central Government ; and here we touch upon the cardinal organic defect which was the ultimate cause of her ruin. Only sixteen years had elapsed between the death of the last of the Jagiellos and the election of the first of the Polish Vasas; but, in the interval, a momentous political revolution had taken place. Three stormy interregnums had. strikingly demonstrated that some 80,000 country squires had become the dominant factor, the motive power, of the Republic. But these rude and ignorant country gentlemen, whose mental horizon rarely extended beyond the limits of their own particular provinces, were naturally at the mercy of every plausible ambitious demagogue ; and the inevitable multiplication of such demagogues tended to perpetuate disorder and anarchy. We have seen how Montluc procured the election of Henry, and Zamoyski the election of Stephen and Sigismund III, and how, in two cases out of three, the ” King elect ” had still to pass through the ordeal of a civil war before he could reach the throne. We shall now see how the representatives of the gentry, assembled in their annual Diets, after cutting down the prerogative to vanishing point, did their best to prevent the King of their own choice from governing at all.
The new King, a young man of 21, ascended his thorny throne under almost every conceivable disadvantage. As a foreigner he was, from the first, out of sympathy with the majority of his subjects. As a highly cultured Prince, fond of music, the fine arts and polite literature, he was unintelligible to the Szlachta, who regarded all artists and poets as either mechanics or adventurers. His very virtues were strange and therefore offensive to them. His precocious reserve and imperturbable calmness, almost unnatural in one so young, were branded as stiffness and haughtiness. He looked more like a Spanish Grandee than a Polish King. Certainly, he lacked the tact and bonhomie of the Jagiellos, and therefore could never hope to be popular as they were ; but, in fairness, it should be added that the Jagiellos were natives of the soil, that they had practically made the monarchy, and that they could always play off their hereditary domain, Lithuania, against Poland. Sigismund’s difficulties were materially increased, moreover, by his political views which he had brought with him cut and dried from Sweden, views which happened to be diametrically opposite to those of the omnipotent Chancellor. The coldness between the two men began at their first interview. The jovial, expansive Chancellor was painfully affected by the reticence and ceremoniousness of the young Prince. He complained to his intimate friends that Sigismund was possessed by a dumb devil.” When their political systems began to clash, antipathy hardened into antagonism. Sigismund, a zealous Catholic, aimed at a close alliance with the House of Hapsburg, with the double object of drawing Sweden within the orbit of Austria, and overawing the Porte by the conjunction of the two great Powers of central Europe. The inevitable corollary to this system was the much-needed reform of the Polish Constitution, without which nothing beneficial, either to Catholicism or to Poland, was to be expected from any external political combination. Thus Sigismund’s views, taken as a whole, showed foresight, and were, at least, those of a practical statesman who clearly recognises present evils and has a definite plan of his own for remedying them. Zamoyski, on the other hand, regarded the Hapsburgs with ineradicable, perhaps exaggerated suspicion. He was also indifferent to any radical reform of the Polish Constitution. He considered that, so long as the Austrians were kept out of Poland, Poland would do very well as she was. A nobleman himself, he placed no limits to the liberty of the nobility. Every member of a Republic of gentlemen, he argued, had the right to be as free as was compatible with the common security. If such liberty degenerated into licence, he, Zamoyski, who held the Great Seal and the Grand Hetman’s 1 baton in his own hands, would simply quell such licence by force, and all would be well again. Yet he, believed in the greatness of Poland, and had a grandiose but visionary scheme of making her the head of the Slavonic world by her own unaided efforts. But in the circumstances, and especially in view of the peculiar national characteristics of the Poles, Zamoyski’s scheme was far more nebulous than was Sigismund’s idea of a pan-catholic league in Eastern Europe. Personal considerations complicated matters still further. Zamoyski was, undoubtedly, most jealous of his influence and dignity ; his patriotism, genuine as it might be, was not always proof against private pique; and, as we shall see, though always keeping within constitutional limits, he was never over-scrupulous in his choice of means to an end.
The contest between the King and the Chancellor began during Sigismund’s first Diet, the so-called “Pacification Diet,” which met at Warsaw in March 1589. Zamoyski presented to this Diet the project of a political combination between Poland, Moscovy, and Bohemia, coupled with a suggestion that in case the present King should die without issue (a somewhat premature and gratuitous assumption in the circumstances) none but a Prince of some Slavonic stock should henceforth be eligible to the Polish throne. The extravagance of a project which could even imagine the possibility of any sort of union between Catholic Poland, Orthodox Moscovy, and semi-protestant Bohemia struck even the majority of the Diet with amazement. It was only explicable at all as a circuitous and clumsy attempt to traverse the Hapsburg influence. The Diet promptly rejected it, accepting instead the royal proposition of a marriage between Sigismund and the Archduchess Anne. The way had already been opened for this rapprochement with Austria by the Treaty of Bendzyn (March g, 1589), negotiated by the Nuncio Ippolito Aldobrandini, afterwards Clement VIII, whereby the Emperor resigned all his claims to the Polish Crown. At the succeeding Diet, which assembled in March 1590, Zamoyski succeeded in persuading the deputies to exclude at any rate the Archduke Maximilian from the succession to the throne. But he had only gained his ends by skilfully frightening them with the bugbears of Austrian intrigues and Turkish threats; and his opponents, headed by the Primate Kamkowski, immediately after the Diet rose, formed a Confederation’ to protest against its decrees ; and a second extraordinary Diet, dominated by the enemies of Zamoyski, met at the end of the same year. It at once proceeded to reverse all the decrees of its predecessor and strike blow after blow at the Chancellor. Thus the Grand-Hetmanship was placed in commission, the party of Maximilian was amnestied, the Zborowscy were rehabilitated, Zamoyski’s friends and supporters were removed from Court, and the chief pillars of the Catholic party in Lithuania, the wealthy Cardinal Radziwill and the newly converted and highly popular Prince James Ostrogsky, were appointed Bishop of Cracow and Castellan of Cracow respectively. Zamoyski naturally retaliated by means of the same double-edged constitutional weapon which his opponent had used. On June 1, 1592, he formed a Confederation at Jendrzow, which was more numerously attended than the wedding feast in honour of Sigismund’s young Austrian bride the Archduchess Anne, who made her state entry into Cracow, amidst great rejoicings, at the end of May. All the Szlachta, nearly all the senators of Great and Little Poland, and the majority of the orthodox Lithuanians acceded to the Chancellor, so that, at the meeting of the ” Inquisition Diet ” at Warsaw (Aug. 7) summoned by the King to inquire into all grievances and thoroughly sift the so-called ” Austrian cabals,” Zamoyski was once more formidable. Sigismund, supported by the Primate, had still authority enough to stop the inquisition half-way ; but the young Queen’s mother, the shrewd and sensible Archduchess Maria, who had accompanied her daughter to Cracow, had made up her mind that Zamoyski was too strong to be set aside, and that therefore the interests of Austria demanded a reconciliation between the King and the Chancellor. This reconciliation was accomplished quietly by Nicholas Firley, Palatine of Cracow, and included all the leading men of both parties. The rival cardinals Bathory and Radziwill adjusted all their past differences; Zamoyski was fully reinstated in the Grand-Hetmanship ; and as Grand Chancellor, to the general astonishment, presented to the Diet and eloquently defended all the royal propositions, including Sigismund’s request for leave to proceed to Sweden to occupy the throne left vacant by the death of his father John III, on November 17, 1592. This reconciliation lasted a whole decennium, with the happiest results for Poland. Zamoyski, no longer distracted by personal considerations, gave his whole attention to public affairs, and, from 1595 to 1602, achieved some of his most brilliant military and political triumphs.
In 1595 the Papal Court conceived the idea of a new Christian League against the Turk. Certainly the times seemed propitious for such an undertaking. Under a succession of six weak and vicious Sultans (1566-1656), the Ottoman Empire had ceased to be a conquering Power and with difficulty held its own in every corner of its vast domains. But it was still far too strong an enemy for anything less than a league of Christian Princes ; and, unfortunately, such a league, in the circumstances, was impossible. The Hapsburg Emperors were absorbed by the double effort of catholicising and germanising their hereditary domains. Venice would not risk losing the trade of the Levant. The Western Powers were indifferent or preoccupied. But the Curia was in an optimistic mood ; and, as Poland seemed to be the one remaining great Catholic Power capable of rallying the hesitating and the lukewarm to the holy enterprise, all the efforts of the Curia were directed towards arming Poland in the interests of the League. On February 7, 1595, the Sejm met to consider the question of the Christian League. After six weeks of fruitless debating, the deputies, conscious that the whole burden of a Turkish war would fall. upon them, demanded from the Nuncio, as a preliminary, the adhesion of the King of Spain and the Emperor to the project. But they shewed their willingness to co-operate by voting subsidies; making military preparations; and advising the Hetmans to proceed to the Ukraine to look after the Tatars. Mean-while the prospects of the League grew a little brighter. Early in 1595, Mahomed III mounted the Ottoman throne over the dead bodies of his nineteen strangled brothers, and immediately sent the Grand Vizier, Sinan Pasha, against Hungary, with 150,000 men. He was anticipated, however, by Sigismund Bathory, Prince of Transylvania, who, won over to the League by the eloquence of the Jesuit Alfonso Cariglio and the promise of the hand of an Austrian Archduchess, had already (May 1595) deposed the anti-Austrian Hospodars of Moldavia and Wallachia and annexed both principalities to Transylvania. The Grand Vizier thereupon directed his forces against Transylvania, but was routed by Bathory at the bloody two days’ battle of Mezö Keresztés ; the Hungarian contingent, under Stephen Bocskay, pursuing Sinan to the Danube and capturing Giurgevo. The Nuncio was now clamorous for the armed co-operation of Poland, but Zamoyski took a more sober view of the situation. He rightly regarded the victories of Sigismund Bathory as Hapsburg victories, and he was determined that Poland should not be made the political catspaw of the House of Austria. With a small army of 8000 veterans he hastened to the Danube, reinstated philo-polish Princes on the thrones of Moldavia and Wallachia ; and, in his entrenched camp at Cecora on Pruth, successfully withstood a three days’ siege by an innumerable host of Turks and Tatars (Oct. 17-20, 1595), whom he compelled, finally, to come to terms with him. By the peace of Cecora the Hospodars were recognised by the Porte, on condition that Poland refrained from further hostilities ; and Zamoyski returned home in triumph. Pope Clement VIII bitterly reproached Sigismund III for ruining the good cause by the Peace of Cecora ; but Zamoyski exposed the futility of the Christian League by promising to lead 70,000 men against the Turks in person, as the Nuncio proposed, on condition (1) that Austria should henceforth refrain from all interference in Polish affairs, (2) that, in case of success, Wallachia and Moldavia should be incorporated with Poland, and (3) that in the meantime Breslau and Olmütz should be occupied by Polish garrisons as security for the bona fides of the Emperor. As Zamoyski had anticipated, the Nuncio declined to give any such guarantees, and the negotiations fell through. In 15981600 Zamoyski again found it necessary to readjust the political situation in the Danubian principalities, where the Gospodar Michael was working in the Austrian interest against Poland. On October 20 he routed Michael, at Tergoviste, and re-established the ascendancy of Poland in those parts. To the same period (JulySept. 1598) belongs the expulsion of Sigismund from his Swedish kingdom by the Protestant majority there, a fresh blow to the hopes of the Curia.
But, though frustrated in its attempts to entice Poland into a highly adventurous oriental policy, the Austro-Ultramontane Party, as it may be called, was now in the ascendant in Poland itself. Towards the end of 1602 Zamoyski’s influence had visibly declined. Out of the 142 chief dignitaries of the Republic he could only count absolutely on 30 ; and his chief opponent, the Grand Marshal, Sigismund Gonzaga Mysrkowski, generally detested for his haughtiness and foreign ways which gained him the sobriquet of ” the Italian,” was one of Sigismund’s chief counsellors. Signs of a coming storm were in the air. The Szlachta was more than usually suspicious and turbulent. There were loud complaints, not altogether un-warranted, of religious persecutions in Lithuania by the Jesuits; and disquieting rumours were afloat that the King was about to meddle with the Constitution. When, in 1602, Sgismund wedded the Archduchess Constantia, the sister of his first wife, Anne, who had died in 1599, the tempest burst forth. Sigismund’s second marriage aroused all Zamoyski’s ancient fears and jealousies of the Hapsburgs ; and, though now in his 62nd year, he led the opposition during the tumultuous I )iets of i 603 and 1605 with his usual spirit and eloquence, but also with quite an unusual unfairness towards his opponents. The utter futility of these two Diets had, at least, the good effect of seriously alarming the wiser heads for the safety of the Republic. At the Diet of 1605 warning voices were even raised against the absurdity of the existing Constitution, which demanded absolute unanimity in the decisions of the Diet. “Whether from malice, obstinacy or stupidity;” said Ostrogsky, Castellan of Posen, ” all our counsels and consultations end in nothing. It is a great glory, no doubt, for the Szlactha to be able to obstruct the whole Commonwealth ; but it is a great shame for the Commonwealth that, with such a govern-ment as ours, anyone can bring about the ruin of the State from sheer obstinacy and stupidity. For God’s sake let us not allow the Republic to perish without an effort to save it.” Baranowski, Bishop of Plock, supported the Castellan, and declared that the conclusions of the Diet should be decided by a majority instead of by an unanimity of votes. Nothing was done, however, as the Diet regarded any such proposal as a veiled attack upon its most sacred liberties.
Mischievous as the influence of Zamoyski had been during these Diets, his death on June 3, 16o5, made matters infinitely worse. A man of his indisputable genius and force of character could always, at a pinch, impose some limits on the violence of his partisans. Unfortunately, his mantle fell upon the shoulders of a man who, notwithstanding blameless, even glorious antecedents and many edifying private virtues, was ill-equipped for the duties and the responsibilities of political leadership.
Nicholas Zebrzydowski was related by marriage to Zamoyski and had been one of his close confidants. The youngest of the partisans of the Chancellor, he had hitherto played only a subordinate political rôle ; but his career, so far, had been honourable and promising. His zeal and patriotism in the service of Stephen Bathory had been rewarded with the starosties of Stenczyn and Bolislaw. Zamoyski had added to them the still wealthier starosty of Cracow ; and, from hence-forth, Zebrzydowski attached himself to the victorious standard of the Chancellor. He had distinguished himself during the third interregnum and in the war with Maximilian, and won the favour of Sigismund III, who raised him to the Senate, not so much for his services as for his exemplary piety. A pupil of the Jesuits and intimate with the famous Skarga, Sigismund’s court chaplain, he had founded a Jesuit school at Lublin, built the magnificent Calvary monastery near Cracow, renowned through Poland, and was generally regarded, and with justice, as an ornament to the Faith. Unfortunately, his talents by no means kept pace with his virtues. Though a brave soldier, he was no general ; though for years a confidant of the plans of the Chancellor he had learnt nothing of diplomacy, and had not a political idea of his own. He claimed to be the spiritual heir of Zamoyski ; but all that he had inherited from his master was that master’s hatreds and prejudices. Yet, undoubtedly, Zebrzydowski is a very important figure in Polish history. To him belongs the doubtful honour of making constitutional reform in Poland impossible by constitutional means.
At the beginning of 1606, Sigismund Ill summoned the Diet for the express purpose of reforming the Constitution by substituting decisions by majorities for that unattainable counsel of perfectionabsolute unanimity. If Poland was to continue her political existence, the proposed reform, obviously, was urgent and indispensable. Nevertheless, the royal manifesto had scarce been issued when Zebrzydowski summoned a Con-federation to protest against an innovation ” so destructive of personal liberty.” The Confederation assembled first at Stenczyn and then at Lublin (June 4) and was very largely attended by Orthodox Lithuanians, Protestant Poles and political refugees from Hungary. Amongst the most eloquent champions of individual liberty was Stanislaus Stadnicki, sur-named ” the Devil,” who, to quote a contemporary, “had more sins on his conscience than hairs on his head.” This nobleman habitually cropped the noses and ears of offensive small squires, and kept his peasants chained to the walls ‘of subterranean dungeons for months together. Such leaders naturally adopted the most extreme expedients. On August 6 the Confederation moved to Sandomir, where it converted itself into a Rokosz, or Sigismund was now obliged to take measures for his personal security. His worst enemies could never accuse him of cowardice, and, with nothing but a lukewarm Diet and a timid Senate to support him against an armed insurrection of at least one half of the Polish gentry, he now shewed what stuff he was made of. First, he summoned to his assistance the Quartians, or border troops, from the Ukraine. Then, by the advice of the Senate, he issued a manifesto condemning the ” Insurrection ” of Sandomir, and at the same time summoned a rival Zajazd 1 to meet at Wislica for the purpose of forming a Confederation in defence of the Crown. He then proceeded to Cracow to confront the rebels and, if possible, overawe them.
.The resolute conduct of the King was not without effect. The gentry of the palatinates of Russia and Sieradia, enraged at the ravaging of their estates by the ” Insurrectionists,” acceded en masse to the Zajazd of Wislica ; and the ” Insurrectionists,” alarmed at the diminution of their following, offered to treat and drew up 64 articles, which aimed at still further reducing the royal power. They demanded the protection of Protestant and Orthodox minorities, the equal distribution of offices and dignities irrespective of creeds and nationalities, and the expulsion of the Jesuits from the realm. But Sigismund refused to treat with rebels and took the field against them. In September (1606) he routed Zebrzydowski at Janowiec, whereupon the ” Insurrectionists ” surrendered and were allowed to renew their homage, after solemnly pledging themselves to disturb the Commonwealth no more. But all these promises were speedily broken ; and, in the course of 1607, the agitation was renewed, and became more widespread than ever. A fresh Rokosz was formed at Jendrzejow, at the very time when the Diet was . assembling at Warsaw. On May 25, with the consent of the Senate, Sigismund issued an edict demanding its instant dispersion. The ” Insurrectionists ” retaliated by declaring that a Rokosz was as much superior to King and .Diet combined as a General Council was superior to the Pope. Consequently, a Rokosz was the only legitimate tribunal for the remedy of popular grievances. At this crisis, the Diet, instead of energetically supporting the King in his efforts to re-establish the rudiments of law and order, practically enlisted itself on the side of anarchy. Composed, as it was, of the same elements as the Rokosz, its sympathies were with the “Insurrectionists” rather than with the Government ; and its edict ” De non praestanda oboedientia” (June 17, 1607), which was intended to be a compromise, really amounted to a sur-render. This disastrous edict enjoined that, in case of any future malpractices on the part of the King, he was to be twice warned to cease therefrom by the Primate and the Senate, and once more by the succeeding Diet. If he neglected these three warnings, the nation was absolved from its allegiance and free to choose a new Sovereign. But even this did not satisfy the “Insurrectionists.” Their personal hatred of so resolute a lover of orderly government as Sigismund III dominated every other consideration, and they would be content with nothing short of his deposition. On June 24 they issued a manifesto at Jeziorna, a village 45 miles from Warsaw, renouncing their allegiance to Sigismund and proclaiming Gabriel Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania, King of Poland.
For the second time, Sigismund’s Crown hung on the point of his sword. The Grand and Vice Hetmans, Zolkiewski and Chodkiewicz, were sent against the rebels and, after pursuing them for weeks, brought them to battle at Oransk, near Guzow (April 6, 1608), when a desperate encounter ensued. Once the “Insurrectionists,” who were greatly strengthened by a contingent of Hungarian mercenaries, broke the left wing of Sigismund’s army and approached the royal camp. The panic-stricken Senators took to their heels, but the King- stood firm ; the bulk of the army rallied round him; and the rebels were routed. Nevertheless, during the next twelve months, fresh ” Insurrections ” burst forth all over the country; and quiet was only at last restored by the proclamation (1609) of a general amnesty, which punished nobody and decided nothing. The growing unwillingness of the Grand Hetman Zolkiewski “to shed the blood of our brethren ” was the cause of this unsatisfactory solution. The helpless King was obliged to concur, and henceforth abandoned all his projects of constitutional . reform.
Thus the Szlachta had become dominant, and its one exclusive idea was to remain dominant. From the middle and lower classes, whom it had crushed beneath its feet, nothing was to be feared. But the King, as the nominal head of the State, as the controller of foreign affairs through his official counsellors, the Senate and the Chancellors, and, as the head of the army, through the Hetmans, whom he appointed, was still a potential menace to individual liberty as the Szlachta understood it. Henceforth, therefore, an unreasonable, incur-able suspicion of the Crown, and all the executive instruments of the Crown, is the characteristic, or rather the mania, of every Polish Diet. For its country, as a State, the Szlachta had no thought at all. So long as every Szlackcic, or squire, was lord paramount in his own parish he cared little for anything beyond it. And what, after all, was the Sejm, or Diet, but a collection of some 600 of such squires who met annually at Warsaw or elsewhere, in order to contribute as little as possible to public needs and protest vehemently against everything they did not like or could not understand ? So far as they can be said to have had any policy at all, the Szlachta was in favour of absolute non-intervention in foreign affairs, as being the cheapest and least troublesome policy to pursue. The unwillingness with which the gentry of Poland parted with their money, especially for armaments, however necessary, was entirely due to the fear lest a popular monarch, at the head of a victorious army, might curtail their privileges. Rather than run such a risk as this, they were ready to avoid every advantageous alliance, forgo every political opportunity, stint their armies, starve and abandon their generals, and even leave the territories of the Republic unguarded and undefended. That this is no exaggeration will be obvious to everyone who takes the trouble to follow the course of events during the long reign of Sigismund III. Then, if ever, Polish statesmen had the opportunity of realising the Jagiellonic dream of Empire. The political situation everywhere favoured them. Livonia, with its fine seaboard and its hundreds of towns and fortresses, had literally fallen into the lap of Poland. Her one serious rival in the north was the rude young Swedish monarchy ; for Moscovy, after the death of Ivan IV (1584), had ceased to be dangerous. The Turk, unless violently shaken, was inclined to slumber. The Emperor and the Western Powers were more or less involved in the Spanish and, subsequently, in the Thirty Years’ War. The regular army, if small, was good ; while in the Cossacks Poland had an almost unlimited reserve of the best raw military material. Finally, she possessed, in Zamoyski, Stanislaus Zolkiewski, Jan Karol Chodkiewicz and Stanislaus Koniecpolski, four of the greatest captains of the age. No wonder that the Catholic League expected great things from the Republic. Who could ever have foreseen that the Poles themselves would frustrate the hopes of Poland !
The Livonian question was the first which called for prompt settlement. We have seen’ how, by the Truce of Zapolsk (1582), Ivan IV ceded Livonia to Poland. But the Swedes also set up claims to the Baltic Provinces, and attempted to enforce them in 1600 when Sigismund III, though expelled from Sweden, refused to relinquish his claims to the Swedish throne. After conquering Esthonia, which, it will be remembered, was also part of the territories of the ancient Order of the Sword, the Swedes invaded Livonia ; and by March, 1601, the whole country, except Riga and Kokenhausen, were in their possession. But, in the beginning of 1602 the tide turned. Zamoyski, supported by his two great pupils, Zolkiewski and Chodkiewicz, took the field against the Swedes and recovered so many of the captured fortresses that Charles IX offered to surrender Livonia if Sigismund would be equally complaisant with regard to Sweden. Zamoyski, confident of success, advised a vigorous prosecution of the war; but his hopes were dashed by a sudden mutiny of the Polish army, which demanded its long outstanding arrears of pay and, failing to obtain them, dispersed among the Lithuanian palatinates, burning and ravaging as they went. In consequence of this, the Poles were unable to do anything for two years. Then Chodkiewicz again took the field, captured Dorpat and routed the Swedes at Weisenstein (Sept. 15, 1 604)3 for which exploit he won the grand bâton of Lithuania. In August, 1605, Charles IX, with an army of 16,000 men, reassumed the offensive and advanced against Riga. Chodkiewicz, whose army was now reduced to 3,400 men,. mostly cavalry, sent letter after letter both to Poland and Lithuania for reinforcements. His urgent appeals remained unanswered; but, recognising clearly that the fall of Riga would mean the total loss of Esthonia and Livonia, he resolved to seek his fortune in the field and risk everything on one desperate venture. Accordingly, he posted himself two miles from Riga, on the banks of the Dwina, near a little chapel on an island known as Kirkholm. Charles hastened thither with all his forces to administer the coup de grâce. The army of the Swedes consisted almost entirely of infantry. They occupied all the surrounding hills; their superior artillery commanded all the fords; they only waited for the enemy to emerge to annihilate him. At 8 o’clock in the morning, Chodkiewicz suddenly darted out at the head of his squadrons as if in panic flight and drew the Swedish army after him into the open field, when he turned swiftly on the disordered ranks of his pursuers. After three hours of desperate fighting, the Swedes scattered in every direction ; and the battle became a carnage which lasted till evening. Barely 5000 of the Swedes escaped ; 9000 of them bit the dust. Sixty standards, eleven guns, all the baggage and the military chest fell into the hands of the Lithuanian Grand Hetman. Charles IX himself owed his escape to the devotion of Henrik Wrede, who sacrificed his horse, and with it his life, to save his master.
The victory of Kirkholm (Sept. 27, 1605) was a sensational event. Pope Paul V bestowed his thanks and blessing on Chodkiewicz in an autograph letter. Sigismund III received congratulatory letters on the glorious success of the Polish arms from a dozen contemporary Potentates, including, some-what to his surprise, the Sultan and the Shah. Unfortunately, this signal victory was rendered absolutely fruitless by the ” Insurrections,” already described, which convulsed Poland during the next three years. Chodkiewicz’s army, still unpaid, again mutinied en masse; and it was as much as he could do, with a handful of mercenaries, paid out of his own pocket, to keep the Swedes in check till the theatre of the struggle was, in 1609, transferred to Moscovy.
The details of the Russo-Polish war of 16091613 are related in the following chapter. Here we would only emphasise the fact that the triumphs of Chodkiewicz and of his colleague, the Grand Hetman of the Crown, Zolkiewski, were, throughout that war, perpetually minimised and neutralised by the jealous and fatal parsimony of the Polish Diet. Thus, Chodkiewicz was sent against the Moscovites with a lilliputian army of 2000 men, though, if there had been a spark of true patriotism in Poland, he could easily have been provided with the requisite 100,000. Nay, the Diet neglected to pay for the maintenance of even the 2000, which consequently mutinied and compelled its leader to retreat through the heart of Moscovy to Smolensk.
Similarly, when Zolkiewski, in 1611, presented the captive Tsar Vasily Shuiski and his family to the Diet, the unwonted sight evoked boisterous enthusiasm from every part of the House; and the Grand Hetman received a perfect ovation from the delighted deputies. But when the Chancellor, Myszkowski, taking advantage of the opportunity, appealed to the liberality of the Szlachta and called for subsidies ” sufficient to put a roof on so imposing an edifice,” they would barely grant enough to fortify the freshly recovered fortress of Smolensk.
But it is only when we come to the dealings of the Republic with its border mercenaries, the Cossacks, that we are able to realise the full folly of a policy which grudged every penny spent on the national defences. The position of the Cossacks in the Polish Republic was peculiar. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the illimitable steppes of south-eastern Europe, extending from the Dniester to the Urals, had no fixed population. The perpetual incursions of the Tatar hordes of Budjak and the Crimea made the Ukraine, or ” borderland,” as it was called, unsafe to dwell in; but, gradually, as the lot of the serf; both in Poland and Moscovy, grew more and more intolerable, the more energetic spirits among the peasantry sought an untrammelled, adventurous life in the free steppe. Obliged, for fear of the Tatars, to go about constantly with arms in their hands, they soon grew strong enough to raid their raiders, selling the rich booty thus acquired to the merchants of Moscovy and Poland. As time went on, the Cossacks multi-plied exceedingly. Their daring grew with their numbers, and they became an annoyance to all their neighbours, frequently involving both Poland and Moscovy in dangerous and unnecessary wars with the Ottoman Porte. Every river of any importance had its own Cossack settlement. Thus, beginning from the extreme east of Europe, we find the Yaitsie Cossacks on the Yaitsa, the Volgan Cossacks, the Terskie Cossacks on the Terek, and, further westwards, the Don Cossacks. The Cossacks of the Yaitsa, the Volga, the Terek and the Don were under the nominal dominion of Moscovy ; but the most important of all the Cossacks, the Cossacks of the Dnieper, were the vassals of the Crown of Poland.
The origin of the Syech, or Community of the Dnieperian Cossacks, is still somewhat obscure; but it was of importance, as a military outpost, so early as the beginning of the sixteenth century. Not, however, till 1570 do we find the Cossacks permanently entrenched among the islands of the Lower Dnieper. The Union of Lublin (1569), which tended to the polonising of Lithuania, was the immediate occasion of a considerable exodus to the lowlands of the Dnieper of those peasants who would escape the taxes of the Polish Government and the tyranny of the Polish Pans, or overlords. This greatly increased the number of the Cossacks; and Stephen Bathory converted them into a strong military colony for the defence of the border by enrolling the pick of them in six registered regiments of 1000 men each, with allotted districts where they could live with their families, with their headquarters on and around the island of Hortica, just below the porogi, or falls, of the Dnieper, whence they were generally known as the Zaporozhians, or “Backfallsmen1.” Bathory judged it expedient to leave the Cossacks alone as far as possible, so long as they fulfilled their chief obligation of guarding the frontiers of the Republic against the Tatar raids. The Cossack Kosh, or commonwealth, had the privilege of electing its Ataman, or Hetman, and his chief officers, the starshins, annually. The Cossack Hetman received from the King of Poland direct the insignia of his office, namely, the bulawa, or bâton, the bunchuk, or horse-tail standard, and his official seal. He was also obliged to follow the Grand Hetmans of the Crown and of Lithuania to battle whenever called upon to do so. But, as chief of the Kosh, he was responsible to the Kosh alone ; and an enquiry into his conduct, during his year of office, was held, at the expiration of that term, in the Obshchaya Shkodka, or General Assembly, where complaints against him were invited and considered. Thus the Cossacks were independent of the Polish Diet, though the Diet was pledged to support them as part of the national forces. This privileged position was very odious to the Sztachta, who resented the existence of an army which took its orders from the King and yet drew its pay from them.
The Cossacks were from the first a very disturbing and incalculable element in Polish politics. The Republic, with the Porte as its next-door neighbour, was bound to keep the Cossacks within due limits; and this she endeavoured to do by reducing their numbers and setting over them Polish officers. But the Cossacks resented the slightest curtailment of the ancient custom of marauding ; and hence collisions between the Polish Government were frequent and bloody. Thus, in 1596, Zolkiewski was obliged to besiege the Cossack Hetman Nalewajko in his camp at Lubus, when 8500 Cossacks out of 10,000 perished after a desperate resistance. In 1613, encouraged by the disorders in Poland, the Zaporozhians under-took a great piratical expedition on the Black Sea, destroyed Sinope and other ports, and returned home with booty of the value of 40 millions of Polish gulden. A war with the Turks now seemed inevitable, but it was averted, for a time, by the courage and vigilance of Zolkiewski, who, by the skilful disposition of his Quartzians1, kept back the Tatars, and by imposing demonstrations in the Ukraine overawed the Turks. These operations were conducted almost entirely at his own expense, the Diet turning a deaf ear to most of his appeals for help. Left, thus, to his own resources he was obliged to make the best terms he could with the chronically rebellious Cossacks. Thus, by the compact of Olszawa (1616), he promised them an annual allowance of 1000 ducats and 700 wagon-loads of cloth, on condition that they abstained from piracy; and by the compact of Rastawa (1617), thousands of unregistered Cossacks, mostly runaway serfs, were attached, as auxiliaries, to the registered regiments instead of being compelled to return to their masters as heretofore. This great concession was deeply resented by the landowners and accounts for their persistent hostility to the Grand Hetman. But, though postponed for a time, a war with Turkey, in view of the endless raiding of Turkish territory not only by the Cossacks, but by the Pans themselves, was bound to come sooner or later. The conclusion of the long and wearing Persian war in 1618, gave the Porte a freer hand in Europe; and Sultan Osman, in alliance with Gabriel Bethlen, determined to attack Poland with all his forces. At this critical moment, when the very existence of the Republic was at stake, the malcontent majority of the Sejm, instead of voting adequate subsidies, fiercely attacked the Grand Hetman of the Crown in full Diet, accusing him of uselessly protracting the Cossack and Tatar wars to his own advantage. In all these accusations, the result partly of personal jealousy and partly of a suspicion that Zolkiewski favoured the King’s political views, there was not one word of truth. The Grand Hetman defended himself with dignity; but, towards the end of his speech, righteous indignation overcame him and, turning towards the throne, he exclaimed, ” Of a truth, before dying, 1 would fain have had some rest and respite not only. from many grievous labours, but also from the tongues of men. For four and forty years I have rendered military service, shedding my blood in battles, skirmishes and sieges, yet I, who, methinks, have held up the Republic in my arms, I forsooth ! am evil, and those who plunge the Republic into destruction are the better men.” It was with a broken heart and a foreboding of disaster that the aged Zolkiewski prepared for his last campaign. Collecting 10,000 men at Bar, he crossed the Dniester at Podbihy and, on September 7, entered Moldavia, whose Hospodar, Gracian, was in the Polish interest and had promised to bring with him an auxiliary force of 25,000. When, then, he joined Zolkiewski with only 500, the Grand Hetman perceived that the original plan of campaign must be abandoned. He entrenched himself, provisionally, at Zamoyski’s old camp at Cecora, where, on September 19, 1618, he was attacked by Skinder Pasha and 60,000 Turks. The assault was beaten off; but the situation was now so serious that, at a Council of War, Zolkiewski advised a retreat to Mohilew. But the Hospodar and many of the Szlachta, objecting to the perils of so long a march, burst out of the camp and, in an endeavour to cross the Dniester and gain Bessarabia, were cut to pieces by the enemy. With his reduced forces, Zolkiewski then began his retreat through the burnt and barren steppe, harassed at every step by his pursuers. For seven days he fought his way along, when a second mutiny broke out, and the bulk of his forces deserted him after plundering his camp. Then the Turks fell upon the little band which still stood firm, and massacred all but a few generals and dignitaries who were held to ransom. The Grand Hetman himself, fighting to the last and covered with wounds, was finally decapitated by a Turkish scimitar. His head was sent to Stambul as a present for the Sultan.
This terrible disaster awoke at last the conscience of the nation. The Diet of 1619 voted the unprecedented but still inadequate sum of six millions of Polish gulden for war expenses; the Lithuanian Grand Hetman, Chodkiewicz, was appointed to the supreme command ; and the Krolowicz, or Crown Prince, Wladislaus, accompanied the army to the Ukraine. Chodkiewicz had demanded at least 60,000 men, but the money voted could equip no more than 35,000 ; and with this little host he had to confront the pick of the Turkish army, 160,000 strong, led by Sultan Osman in person. At the last moment, however, he was joined by the Cossack Hetman, Sahajadichny, with 30,000 horsemen, and strongly entrenched himself on the Dniester, not far from Chocim, to bar the way of the Ottoman army. The siege, which lasted from September 2 to October 9, was glorious alike to the Poles and the Cossacks. Chodkiewicz, now in his 61st year, died of exhaustion during the siege, but he lived long enough to hurl back a dozen assaults and so break the spirit of the Turkish host that, on the first fall of autumn snow, Osman opened negotiations. On October 9, a truce was signed, on a uti possidetis basis, which the Janissaries considered to be so humiliating to the Ottoman Empire that they murdered the Sultan on his return to the capital.
“The War of Chocim,” as it is called, gave Poland a respite from Turkish attacks for more than a generation, though it was dearly purchased by the sacrifice of two such heroes as Zolkiewski and Chodkiewicz. Fortunately for Poland she still possessed in Stanislaus Koniecpolski a commander capable of upholding the military traditions of heroic Poland. The pupil and son-in-law of Zolkiewski, he had fought by his side to the last on the bloody field of Cecora, and, after three years’ captivity at Stambul, returned to Poland in x623. The exploits of Koniecpolski are the most memorable events of the latter years of the reign of Sigismund. It was he who, on the resumption of the Swedish war, in 1626, with miserably inadequate forces, for three years successfully defended Poland proper against Gustavus Adolphus, whom he defeated in several engagements, notably at Homerstein (1627) and at Trcziana (1629). A more vigorous prosecution of the war might have rid the Republic of her troublesome northern neighbour. But the Sejm never grasped the significance of the situation, and, instead of enabling Koniecpolski to follow up his victories, concluded with Sweden the six years’ truce of Altmark, whereby Gustavus retained possession of Livonia, together with Elbing, a considerable portion of the delta of the Vistula, Braunsburg in West and Pillau and Memel in East Prussia. Still more important than these territorial acquisitions was the permission conceded to the Swedes of levying tolls at Pillau, Memel, Dantzic, Labiau and Windau, from which they derived, in 1629 alone, no less than 500,000 rix dollars.
But it was in the southern Ukraine that Koniecpolski reaped his most brilliant laurels. In 1623, just before his departure for the Baltic, he routed 65,000 Tatars at Martuinov on the Dniester. Subsequently he devoted himself to the difficult task of chastising the Cossacks, whose pretensions had become insupportable. He broke their power at the great battle of Perejaslawl, and imposed upon them the compact of Kurakow, which reduced the numbers of the registered Cossacks to 6000 men, at an annual cost of 60,000 gulden (1625).
Sigismund III would have intervened in the Thirty Years’ War, on the Catholic side, but for the determined opposition of the Diet, expressing itself in fresh insurrections and the refusal of supplies. His intervention would have taken the form of an invasion and, possibly, an occupation of Transylvania, which, under the energetic and ambitious Princes of the Protestant Houses of Bethlen and Rákoczy was the active ally of the Sultan and equally dangerous to Austria and Poland. The best heads in Poland, including Zolkiewski, warmly approved of the King’s policy in this respect, but it proved to be impracticable. The Diet’s mania for non-intervention went so far that it refused to grant any subsidies for the Swedish Warwith the disastrous consequences already recorded. Towards the end of his reign, Sigismund III withdrew altogether from politics and devoted himself exclusively to family matters. He died, very suddenly, of apoplexy, on April 30, 1632, in his 66th year. He would have made an excellent Sovereign if only his subjects had allowed him to rule them.