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The Polish Rider by Rembrandt. A Lisowczyk may be the subject of one of the Dutch master's greatest works. Though the rider's identity is not known, one theory is that it is a portrait of Grand Chancellor of Lithuania Marcjan Aleksander Oginski, made in c.1655. It has little to do with the Lisowczycy, though much of the clothing and war gear would have been similar that worn by the real Lisowczyks of 30 years earlier.

Lisowczyk - painting by Juliusz Kossak, circa 1860-65, inspired by Rembrandt's painting.

Lisowczycy (Polish pronunciation: [lisɔfˈt͡ʂɨt͡sɨ]; also known as Straceńcy ('lost men' or 'forlorn hope') or chorągiew elearska (company of elears); or in singular form: Lisowczyk or elear) - the name of an early 17th-century irregular unit of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth light cavalry. The Lisowczycy took part in many battles across Europe and the historical accounts of the period characterized them as extremely agile, warlike, and bloodthirsty. Their numbers varied with time, from a few hundreds to several thousands.

Lisowczycy (Archery) - painting by Józef Brandt 1885

The origin of the group can be traced to konfederacja (a form of semi-legal mutiny of royal forces, practiced in the Kingdom of Poland and then in the Commonwealth), organized around 1604 by Aleksander Józef Lisowski. They began to grow in strength and fame a few years later, when Lisowski's irregulars were incorporated into the forces fighting in Muscovy. The Lisowczycy unit of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth cavalry received no formal wages; instead, they were allowed to loot and plunder as they pleased. They relied on their speed and fought without tabors, foraging supplies from lands they moved through. The Lisowczycy were feared and despised by civilians wherever they passed and they gained dubious fame for the scores of atrocities they carried out (pillage, rape, murder and other outrages). However, they were also grudgingly respected by their opponents for their military skills. They did not hesitate to plunder even their homeland, where they sacked the Akademia Rakowska university of the Polish brethren. Such actions were among of the reasons the Commonwealth ruler Sigismund III Vasa tried to keep them away from the Commonwealth for as long as possible. The Lisowczycy took part in many conflicts, including the Dymitriads (where their actions help explain the text of the infamous placard in Zagorsk: three plagues: typhus, Tatars, and Poles) and in the Battle of White Mountain (where they were essential in lifting the Transylvanian siege of Vienna and Bohemia's defeat). They were eventually disbanded in 1635.

An account of Lisowczycy's exploits was written by their chaplain, Wojciech Dembołęcki (or Wojciech Debolecki), in Przewagi Elearów polskich co ich niegdy Lisowczykami zwano (1619-1623) (Deeds of Polish Elears once known as Lisowczycy (1619-1623)).


Lisowczycy at the inn - painting by Józef Brandt

Prologue: the konfederacja[]

In 1604, during the early stages of the Polish-Swedish War, the Sejm of the Commonwealth failed to gather the money to pay its soldiers fighting in Livonia against the Swedes. Aleksander Józef Lisowski became one of the leaders of the resulting konfederacja - a section of the army that mutinied and decided to gather its outstanding wages by pillaging local civilians, not caring whether these owed their allegiance to the Commonwealth or to Sweden. Although this annoyed the Commonwealth commander, Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, and resulted in Lisowski being banished from the Commonwealth, little was done to stop the mutineers. Soon after, Lisowski with his followers joined the Sandomierz rebellion or rokosz of Zebrzydowski, a revolt against the absolutist tendencies of the Commonwealth ruler Sigismund III Vasa.

Trial of Blood: the Dymitriad[]

Eventually, after the rebel forces were defeated at the Battle of Guzow, Lisowski's fortunes turned for the worse and he became persona non grata in most of the Commonwealth, and was forced to seek refuge with the powerful Radziwill family. In the meantime, Muscovy's Time of Troubles were brewing, and Lisowski did not pass over the opportunity of profiting from this, as many other local magnates and noblemen already had, by meddling in Russian affairs. He soon decided he could profit best by lending his support to the Muscovite pretender, False Dmitry II. In 1608, together with Aleksander Kleczkowski, leading his forces - a band of few hundred ragtag soldiers of fortune, mainly Lithuanians, Poles, Don Cossacks, Ruthenians, Tatars, Germans, Swedes - he defeated the armies of tsar Vasili Shuisky, led by Zakhary Lyapunov and Ivan Khovansky, near Zaraysk and captured Mikhailov and Kolomna, moving on to blockade Moscow. However, he was soon to be defeated at Miedźwiedzi Bród, losing most of his loot. He reorganized the army and joined with Jan Piotr Sapieha, but they failed to capture the Troitse-Sergieva Lavra fortress and were forced to retreat to near Rakhmantsevo. Then came successful pillages at Kostroma, Soligalich, and some other cities (those battles took place around 1608-1609). He took Pskov in 1610 and clashed with Swedes operating in Muscovy during the Ingrian War. The Lisowczycy proved essential in the defence of Smolensk in 1612, when most of the Commonwealth regular army, the (wojsko kwarciane), mutined and joined the Rohatyn Confederation. For the next three years Lisowski's forces were of importance in the guarding of the Commonwealth border against Muscovy incursions. In 1615, Lisowski gathered many outlaws and invaded Muscovy with 6 companies of cavalry. He besieged Bryansk and defeated the Muscovite relief force of a few thousand soldiers under Kniaz Yuri Shakhovskoy near Karachev. Lisowski moved on to defeat the Muscovite advance guard of a force (several times larger than his) under the command of Kniaz Dmitry Pozharsky, who decided to not to attack and fortified his forces inside a camp. Lisowski's men broke contact with other forces, burned Belyov and Likhvin, took Peremyshl, turned north, defeated a Muscovite army at Rzhev, turned towards the Kara Sea coast, then to Kashin, burned Torzhok, returned to Commonwealth without any further contact with Muscovy forces. Until the autumn of 1616, Lisowski and his forces remained on the Commonwealth-Muscovy border, when Lisowski suddenly fell ill and died on October 11.

Death of Lisowski, birth of the Lisowczycy[]

Lisowczycy on the Rhein River

The name of Lisowczycy was carried by the troops ever since Lisowski's passing. Despite his death, they remained a most significant threat: in 1616 they captured Kursk and defeated Russian forces at Bolkhov, in 1617 relieved Smolensk from a Muscovite siege - the invading troops retreated to Białadisambiguation needed as soon as they received news that the Lisowczycy, then under the command of Stanisław Czapliński, were in the neighbourhood. When Czapliński died at Kaluga, Lisowczycy elected Walenty Rogowski for the new commander. They accompanied Władysław's forces in 1617, and while he retreated, they are said to have moved inland as far as the Ob River, where they were are shown to have been impressed by a giant golden statue (possibly a Buddha, but also attachable to the Zlota Baba myth).

Devils in the Holy Empire[]

Lisowczyk. Another modern impression, after Rembrandt's famous picture. Painting by Dariusz T. Wielec.

From 1619, the Lisowczycy, then stationed near Kowno, were sent by Zygmund III Vasa to aid Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor against the Protestants in the Thirty Years' War. Under the command of Walenty Rogowski, they defeated Transylvanian forces under George I Rákóczi at the Battle of Zavada and/or Battle of Humenné in November of that year. After the victory, they engaged in their traditional pastime (as they were not paid and they were obliged to gain everything by their own), plundering nearby lands, 'killing even children and dogs', as contemporary chroniclers recorded. It was around that time that they gained their new nickname: Riders of the Apocalypse.

Then Lisowczycy split: part of them, with Rogowski, decided to return to Poland, pillaging the Slovakia on their way. Others, under Jarosz Kleczkowski, remained in the service of the Emperor for the next few years. After the death of Kleczkowski (March 4, 1620) at the Battle of Krems, Stanisław Rusinowski became the new commander of the Lisowczycy. Under Rusinowski, the Lisowczycy took part in the Battle of White Mountain (November 8) where they captured twenty standards. On May 7, 1621, the Emperor paid them their outstanding wages and released them from service, due to numerous complains about their behaviour. Some of the Lisowczycy returned to Poland, others served under Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria.

Cecora and Chocim (Khotyn)[]

The Lisowczycy fought in the wars between Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire, not least in the last phase of the Polish magnates' wars in Moldavia.


After the conflict with the Ottomans was settled, many Lisowczycy, then under the command of Stanisław Stroynowski, were taken into German employment during the mayhem of the Thirty Years' War, mostly in support of the Roman Catholic Emperor, against his Protestant enemies. Their indiscipline and pillaging became legendary, and they devastated the nearby German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, especially Silesia. The local population often believed it was being attacked by Tatar hordes or non-European barbarians. Eventually, after the French declined to employ Lisowczycy mercenaries, and other sides of the conflict turned them down as well, in 1622 Stroynowski decided to officially disband the unit and return to the Commonwealth.

However, the Lisowczycy proved to be a pestilence wherever they went, and soon most of its members formed bandit groups, pillaging the Commonwealth and German countryside and burning down the town of Radomsko. Condemned by the szlachta and by many sejmiks, they were increasingly hunted down by local government forces and militias. Stroynowski's group was destroyed in 1624, and he himself was executed two years later.

The last time that companies using the Lisowczycy name took part in a major war was during the late 1620s, when they were temporarily reformed to fight in Poland's continuing conflict against the Swedes in Polish Prussia, yet another stage of the Polish-Swedish War - the same conflict that set Aleksander Lisowski on the path to forming the unit that was to bear his name. These Lisowczycy were finally disbanded by an act of the Sejm, in 1636.

Even after the formation was disbanded, its members were respected (or at least, feared) even beyond the Commonwealth. Soon, their atrocities were forgotten and their exploits as the defenders of the Commonwealth and faith against the Orthodox, Protestants and Muslims turned them into a legend which lives on to this day.

See also[]

  • Offices in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth


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