Last updated
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. Rembrandt - De Poolse ruiter, c.1655 (Frick Collection).jpg
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, after Rembrandt. National Museum in Warsaw. Juliusz Kossak, Lisowczyk.jpg
Lisowczyk – painting by Juliusz Kossak, circa 1860-65, after Rembrandt. National Museum in Warsaw.

Lisowczycy (Polish pronunciation:  [lisɔfˈt͡ʂɨt͡sɨ] ; also known as Straceńcy ('lost men' or 'forlorn hope') or chorągiew elearska (company of elears  [ pl ]); or in singular form: Lisowczyk or elear) – the name of an early 17th-century irregular unit of the Polish–Lithuanian 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 Jozef Brandt, 1885, Kosciuszko Foundation in New York Brandt-Lisowczycy, Strzelanie z luku.jpg
Lisowczycy (Archery) – painting by Józef Brandt, 1885, Kościuszko Foundation in New York

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 the Polish 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 Racovian Academy university of the Polish brethren. Such actions were among 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 Jozef Brandt Lisowczycy by Jozef Brandt.jpg
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 Great Hetman of Lithuania 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 King 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 Radziwiłł 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 Dmitriy II.

In 1608, together with Aleksander Kleczkowski, leading his forces – a band of few hundred ragtag soldiers of fortune, mainly Poles, Lithuanians, and Ruthenians – 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 1608–09). 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.

Lisowski's soldiers in Northern Russia (1612–13)

In 1612, when the Polish occupation of the Moscow Kremlin had ended (see Polish–Muscovite War (1605–18)), loose Polish forces, which had fought under Lisowski, scattered over vast territory of the Tsardom of Russia, taking advantage of the so-called Time of Troubles. Exact whereabouts of Aleksander Jozef Lisowski at that time are unknown: the legendary leader most likely roamed across northern Russia, together with his men.

After Russian recapture of Moscow, most of the Polish brigands headed to the area of Vologda. On September 22, 1612, the town was captured, looted and burned by the invaders commanded by Colonel Andrzej Nalewajko, who returned in December 13 of the same year. On December 16, Poles burned the Spaso-Prilutsky Monastery, located near Vologda.

On July 10, 1612, Poles captured Belozersk without fight. The town was looted, and its governor fled to Kirillov, hiding in the fortified Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. Lisowski's men reached the monastery on August 20, but its siege did not begin until December 1612. Since Polish brigands, numbered at some 3000 men, did not have any artillery, they failed to capture the abbey with its stone walls.

On December 12–15, 1612, a unit of Bobowski three times tried to capture the town of Kargopol, located on the left bank of the Onega River. On January 25, 1613, Poles led by Jakub Jacki attacked the town of Veliky Ustyug, but without success.

In search of food and booty, Lisowski's soldiers moved further northwards, reaching as far as Yemetsk on the Yemtsa River, Solvychegodsk, Kholmogory, and Arkhangelsk. Solvychegodsk was captured and looted on January 22, 1613. The brigands stayed in the town for three days, and then headed towards Yemetsk, which is located 150 kilometers from Arkhangelsk. Its residents, aware of the danger, managed to fortify the town and arm themselves. The "Lithuanians", as they were commonly called, tried to attack the town from the Northern Dvina, but were repelled. A battle ensued, in which two Russian traitors were captured, and sent to Kholmogory, where they warned residents of a planned attack.

The brigands, numbering some 1200 and commanded by Stanislaw Jasinski, appeared at Kholmogory on December 6, 1613. Again, they failed to capture the town, and decided to head to Arkhangelsk, which they unsuccessfully besieged between December 14–19, 1613. Jasinski and his soldiers then marched towards the Northern Dvina estuary and the White Sea shore. There, they captured Severodvinsk and burned Nikolo-Korelsky Monastery, after which they ransacked local villages, reaching as far as Karelia.

Death of Lisowski, birth of the Lisowczycy

Lisowczycy on the Rhein River Lisowczycy on the Rhein River.PNG
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 Bely 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). [ citation needed ]

Devils in the Holy Empire

Lisowczyk. Another modern impression, after Rembrandt's famous picture. Painting by Dariusz T. Wielec. Lisowczyk1.1.jpg
Lisowczyk. Another modern impression, after Rembrandt's famous picture. Painting by Dariusz T. Wielec.

From 1619, the Lisowczycy, then stationed near Kaunas (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 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 complaints about their behaviour. Some of them 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.


Further reading

Related Research Articles

Jan Karol Chodkiewicz Army commander of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Jan Karol Chodkiewicz was a military commander of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth army who was from 1601 Field Hetman of Lithuania, and from 1605 Grand Hetman of Lithuania, and was one of the most prominent noblemen and military commanders of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth of his era. His coat of arms was Chodkiewicz, as was his family name.

Time of Troubles chaotic period of Russian history 1587-1613

The Time of Troubles, or Smuta, was a period of political crisis during the Tsardom of Russia which began in 1598 with the death of Fyodor I and ended in 1613 with the accession of Michael I of the House of Romanov. It was a time of lawlessness and anarchy following the death of Fyodor I, a weak and possibly intellectually disabled ruler who died without an heir. His death ended the Rurik dynasty, leading to a violent succession crisis with numerous usurpers and false Dmitrys (imposters) claiming the title of tsar. Russia experienced the famine of 1601–03, which killed a third of the population, within three years of Fyodor's death. Russia was occupied by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth during the Polish–Muscovite War until it was expelled in 1612. The Time of Troubles ended with the election of Michael Romanov as tsar by the Zemsky Sobor in 1613, establishing the Romanov dynasty which ruled Russia until the February Revolution in 1917.

Stanisław Koniecpolski Polish military commander

Stanisław Koniecpolski was a Polish military commander, regarded as one of the most talented and capable in the history of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was also a magnate, a royal official (starosta), a castellan, a member of the Polish nobility (szlachta), and the voivode (governor) of Sandomierz from 1625 until his death. He led many successful military campaigns against rebelling Cossacks and invading Tatars. From 1618 he held the rank of Field Crown Hetman before becoming the Grand Crown Hetman, the military commander second only to the King, in 1632.

Stanisław Żółkiewski Polish noble

Stanisław Żółkiewski was a Polish nobleman of the Lubicz coat of arms, magnate, military commander and a chancellor of the Polish crown of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, who took part in many campaigns of the Commonwealth and on its southern and eastern borders. He occupied a number of high-ranking posts in the administration of the Commonwealth, including castellan of Lwów, voivod of the Kiev Voivodeship and Great Chancellor of the Crown. From 1588 he was also a Field Crown Hetman, and in 1618 was promoted to Grand Hetman of the Crown. During his military career he won major battles against Sweden, Muscovy, the Ottoman Empire and the Tatars.

Stanisław Lubomirski (1583–1649)

Prince Stanisław Lubomirski was a Polish nobleman (szlachcic).

Kosiński uprising

Kosiński uprising (1591–1593) is a name applied to two rebellions in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth organised by Krzysztof Kosiński against the local Ruthenian nobility and magnates.

False Dmitry II Pretender to the Russian throne

False Dmitry II, historically known as Pseudo-Demetrius II and also called "тушинский вор", was the second of three pretenders to the Russian throne who claimed to be Tsarevich Dmitry Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. The real Dmitry had died under uncertain circumstances, most likely an assassination in 1591 at the age of nine at his widowed mother's appanage residence in Uglich.

The Moldavian Magnate Wars or Moldavian Ventures refer to the period at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century when the magnates of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth intervened in the affairs of Moldavia, clashing with the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire for domination and influence over the principality.

Polish–Muscovite War (1605–1618) 1605–1618 military conflicts and eastward invasions

The Polish–Muscovite War, also known as the Polish–Russian War of 1605–1618 or the Dimitriads, was a conflict fought between the Tsardom of Russia and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1605 to 1618.

Zebrzydowski rebellion

Zebrzydowski's rebellion, or the Sandomierz rebellion, was a rokosz in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth against King Sigismund III Vasa. The rokosz, formed on 5 August 1606 by Mikołaj Zebrzydowski, Jan Szczęsny Herburt, Stanisław Stadnicki, Aleksander Józef Lisowski, and Janusz Radziwiłł in Stężyca and Lublin, was caused by the growing dissatisfaction with the King among the nobility. In particular, the rebels disapproved of the King's efforts to limit the power of the nobles, his attempts to weaken the Sejm, and to introduce a hereditary monarchy in place of the elective one. The rebellion (1606–1609) ended in the defeat of the rebels. The rebellion led to the szlachta controlling the monarchy in the Polish–Lithuanian political system.

Polish–Ottoman War (1633–34)

The Polish–Ottoman War of 1633–1634 was one of the many military conflicts between the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland together with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Ottoman Empire and its vassals.

Aleksander Józef Lisowski

Aleksander Józef Lisowski HNG was a Polish–Lithuanian noble (szlachcic), commander of a mercenary group that after his death adopted the name "Lisowczycy." His coat of arms was Jeż (Hedgehog).

Nalyvaiko Uprising

The Nalyvaiko Uprising was a Cossack rebellion against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Headed by Severyn Nalyvaiko, it lasted from 1594 to 1596. The second in a series of Cossack uprisings, the conflict was ultimately won by the Crown of Poland, but two years of warfare and scorched-earth tactics employed by both sides left much of right-bank Ukraine in ruins.

Polish–Swedish War (1621–1625) Phase of the Polish-Swedish war

The Polish–Swedish War of 1621 to 1625 was a war in a long-running series of conflicts between the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Swedish Empire. It began with a Swedish invasion of the Polish–Lithuanian fiefdom Livonia. Swedish forces succeeded in taking the city of Riga after a siege. The Commonwealth, focussed on war with the Ottoman Empire, was unable to send significant forces to stop Gustav Adolf, and signed a truce favorable to Sweden. The Commonwealth ceded Livonia north of the Dvina (Düna) river, and retained only nominal control over Riga. The new truce in Mitau was signed and lasted from November 1622 to March 1625.

The Battle of Krosno on December 7, 1655. Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth forces under the command of Gabriel Wojniłłowicz defeated the Swedish forces, supported by their Polish allies under Colonel Aleksander Pracki. The battle was regarded as a symbol of Polish resistance to the invaders, as it was first Polish victory since the Swedish invasion of summer 1655.

The Battle of Magierów took place on 11 July 1657, during the period in Polish history known as the Swedish Deluge. Polish army commanded by Stefan Czarniecki, and supported by Crimean Tatars, defeated a Transilvanian-Cossack-Moldavian-Wallachian army of George II Rákóczi.

The Battle of Czarny Ostrów took place on July 20, 1657, during the period in Polish history known as the Deluge. The Polish Crown army commanded by Hetmans Stefan Czarniecki, Jerzy Lubomirski and Stanisław Potocki, supported by Crimean Tatars, defeated a Transilvanian-Cossack-Moldavian-Wallachian army under George II Rakoczi.

The Siege of Velikiye Luki was one of battles of Livonian campaign of Stephen Báthory. It took place between 1 and 5 September 1580, and ended in Polish-Lithuanian victory. Forces of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth captured Russian fortress of Velikiye Luki.

Stanisław Czapliński was a colonel of the Polish Army in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, who participated in the Polish–Muscovite War (1605–18), the so-called Dymitriad. His date of birth is unknown, and he died in 1618.