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PODs of the Thirty Years War XIII​

By Alex Richards

Portrait of Prince Władysław Vasa.

Completing our quartet of articles on how the Thirty Years war could have expanded still further than it historically did, today I’ll be looking at those states to the east of the Holy Roman Empire – Poland-Lithuania and Russia. The former was, at the time, the most powerful state in Eastern Europe – and one of the most powerful in Europe as a whole. The latter, meanwhile, was poised on the start of the long process by which it would supplant them.

Poland-Lithuania: The Conflict with Sweden

Poland-Lithuania had formed through the Union of Lublin in 1569 at the extinction of the ancient Jageillon Dynasty which established not just the political union between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, but also an elective monarchy and what was termed the ‘Golden Liberty’ – a wide ranging system establishing equality between all nobles of the realm and devolving most power in the country to the meetings of their Sejm. It was, for the time, one of the most democratic nations in Europe (thanks to the extremely large size of the nobility in proportion to the total population), renowned for religious tolerance and matched this with military power and influence.

At the same time, the politics of Poland-Lithuania were to be shaped by the lengthy reign of King Sigismund III Vasa. Sigismund, whose father became King John III of Sweden shortly after his birth, was raised a Catholic in contrast to either his father’s mediating position or the Lutheran faith that was becoming dominant in Sweden at the time, and was elected as King of Poland-Lithuania in 1587. Five years later he ascended the throne of Sweden and promptly found himself opposed by Duke Charles of Södermanland who successively played on the fears of re-catholicisation to first launch, and then win, a brief civil war and depose Sigismund. There followed a series of conflicts between Poland-Lithuania and Sweden covering most of the period of 1600-1629. Sigismund was determined to use his position in Poland to try and regain the Swedish throne, while first Charles IX of Sweden, then Gustavus Adolphus, made concerted efforts to take the Polish lands of Livonia, Latgalia, Prussia and the ports of the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile the Polish Sejm, which for the most part viewed Sigismund’s desires in this area to be self-aggrandisement with an eye to reducing the power of the nobles, attempted to reign in their monarch by withholding funds.

While much of this lies beyond the scope of these articles (however intriguing such possibilities as Poland-Lithuania-Sweden or a successful Swedish conquest of Prussia in the 1620s are) it offers both a way how Sweden could have remained outside of the Thirty Years War (as we will discuss further later), and a way of getting Poland-Lithuania involved in it. While Sigismund died in 1632, had he lived and remained healthy enough to drive policy for longer, it’s quite possible that he would have used the death of Gustavus Adolphus at Lutzen to renew war with Sweden – effectively joining the war as a co-belligerent of the Habsburgs- though he would have faced renewed opposition in the Sejm to this. Potentially this may have been enough to make the Peace of Prague, or its equivalent, into a decisive Habsburg victory, though any intervention by France against them seems near certain to have led to Sejm to enforce peace- potentially through open revolt as had already occurred in 1606.

Bohemia and the Habsburgs

It need not have been Sweden that led to Poland-Lithuania involving herself in the Thirty Years War however. While Jan Zamoyski (who proposed a union of Poland, Lithuania, Muscovy and Bohemia in 1589) would have been delighted with the suggestions made to support the Bohemian revolt in return for Silesia (or indeed the potential offer of the Bohemian crown to Sigismund’s son Wladyslaw which was rejected on his father’s instructions), this would never have been likely to come to pass considering the joint opposition of the non-interventionist Sejm (who had been burned by Sigismund’s invasion of Russia) and Sigismund’s own Catholic faith and Austrian wife.

Far more likely to have occurred was the plan concocted between Sigismund and Emperor Ferdinand in 1619. Ferdinand was offering the Bishopric of Breslau to secure intervention; Sigismund wished to both assuage the Pro-Habsburg lobby in Poland and gain Ferdinand’s support for the inevitable resumption of hostilities in the Baltic; and the Sejm had to find a way to satisfy the 30,000 Cossacks who had been raised as part of the recent war with Russia. After an initial suggestion to send these troops into Bohemia, their reluctance to fight so far from the plains of Ukraine led to the decision that they would, instead, be used to attack Bethlen in Transylvania, allowing the Habsburgs to move more troops away from that front, but almost certainly bringing Warsaw into direct conflict with the Ottoman Empire. As it was, the determined opposition of the Sejm, a limited conflict between Poland the Ottomans in Moldavia, and then a renewed declaration of war from Sweden, successively led to the project falling through. Despite further efforts by the Habsburgs to secure an intervention, the moment had passed, and while discharged Polish troops after the Swedish wars would find service with the Emperor, and a small and unofficial intervention in his favour was made in Silesia in 1637, Sigismund abandoned efforts to assist the Habsburgs.

And in the end, whether it was Sigismund’s insistence on using Poland as a powerbase for his ambitions, or the Sejm’s increasing reluctance to fund any military activity he proposed, the seeds were sown for the Ukrainian rebellion of 1648, Sweden’s intervention of 1655 (infamously known as The Deluge) and Poland-Lithuania’s long decline in the 18th Century.

Russia: Birth of the Romanovs

Michael Romanov

If Poland-Lithuania had been enjoying a time of prosperity, Russia at the start of the 17th Century was in the depths of the ruinous succession crisis that had come to be known as the Time of Troubles. Sigismund’s involvement here was one of the causes for his lack of involvement in the Thirty Years War- Sigismund’s over-ambitious attempts to not simply install a loyal ally on the Russian throne, but to take it for himself and impose Catholicism on the country- fundamentally poisoned his relations of the Sejm, and with Russia. Despite at least two offers by the Boyars to enthrone Wladyslaw on the condition he converted to Orthodoxy, Sigismund’s refusal to countenance this collapsed the hopes of creation some sort of massive Poland-Lithuania-Muscovy union (another potential angle of interest there isn’t time to cover here). In the ensuring chaos, the 16-year old son of the Patriarch of Moscow, Michael Romanov, was elected Tsar in 1613 and promptly proved to be quite possibly the most able statesman on any throne in Europe at the time. Russia would emerge from the Peace of Deulino having lost Ingria to Sweden and Smolensk to Poland-Lithuania, but with her independence intact and firmly united around the new dynasty.

Russia’s distance from the Empire, the presence of Poland-Lithuania (who she proved unable to defeat in a short war of 1632-34 even when in alliance with Sweden) and the general desire for peace in Russia mean that the Tsardom is, perhaps uniquely in Europe, both uninvolved and near impossible to involve with the Thirty Years War. At most, the prospect exists that a direct Polish intervention in support of the Habsburgs against Sweden might lead to a minor front opening up between Poland-Lithuania and Russia, mirroring the historical Smolensk war and with about as much chance of success.

The one thing which is clear is that even if the states of Eastern Europe are difficult to become involved directly in the Thirty Years War, it’s only because they were involved in their own disputes that could have fundamentally shaped European history in their own way.


Alex Richards is the author of Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, published by SLP


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