Polish Soldier Kings
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
November 2015

In the middle of the 17th Century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or Resposzpolita, was Europe's largest nation and one of its most powerful. Though the peasantry suffered the same indignities as the rest of Europe's underclasses, the very large gentry (approximately eight percent of the population) enjoyed widespread rights and elected the king, who did not automatically inherit his crown.

This noble republic dated to 1505, when the Polish Sejm, or parliament, assumed all of the king's powers to make laws. In 1569, the Union of Lublin combined the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania under a single Sejm and elected king, the better to meet the challenge posed by the rise of Muscovy. The Commonwealth would be Europe's largest state for the next two centuries, yet crumbled by the end of this period and would be divided among its neighbors by 1795.

Though there were many causes, the first disaster was the election of a member of the Swedish house of Vasa as king in 1587, to follow the heroic Transylvanian Stefan Batory. Several Vasa followed, and though some were able, the connection to the Swedish royal house involved the Commonwealth in a series of devastating wars with the Swedes. In the middle of the 17th century, a series of terrible wars with the Turks, Russians and Swedes known as The Deluge cut the Commonwealth's population in half between 1648 and 1668.

Augustus the Strong, twice King of Poland, 382 times a father. That's not a misprint.

Starting in 1669, numerous sessions of the Sejm, or parliament, were disrupted by the liberum veto, the right of any member to end the proceedings. All decisions had to be unanimous; to do otherwise was seen as a violation of the principle of political equality. Poland's participation in the Great Northern War led to further disasters, as both the Swedes and the Russians deposed Polish kings and in 1717 Tsar Peter imposed new laws on Poland limiting its armed forces and taxation abilities, marching Russian soldiers into the Sejm to enforce his will. While there were parliamentary procedures allowing the Sejm to work around the liberum veto, foreign interference usually stopped these from having effect.

By the time of the Seven Years' War, Poland remained a geographically large nation, bigger than any west of Russia, but very weak by most measures. Officially limited to 24,000 men, the Polish standing army rarely topped 10,000 troops and was down to 2,000 by the 1770's. Poles paid the lowest tax rates in the Western world yet still sought to reduce this, much like those who paid the second-lowest rates, the inhabitants of England's American colonies.

While Europe tore itself apart, Poland was led, if such a word can be used in this instance, by Augustus III the Fat. His father, Augustus II the Strong, was noted for his enormous physical strength, breaking horseshoes with his bare hands to amuse visitors and children, and for his enormous sexual appetite. Augustus II was twice King of Poland, and his only legitimate child was placed on the Polish throne in 1734 by a minority of the nobility but with the backing of Russian and Austrian armies. The War of the Polish Succession continued until 1735, with young Augustus remaining on the throne as part of a wide-ranging set of territorial exchanges.


Poles ride to war: the Bar Confederation's cavalry at Czestochowa.

Augustus the Fat lacked his father's energies, content to spend his time attending operas, collecting paintings and hunting. He rarely left his palace in Dresden, entrusting Polish affairs to his chancellor, the incompetent fop Heinrich Graf von Brühl. The Seven Years' War took place during his reign, and Saxony was an active participant - Prussia's sneak attack on the electorate, enabled by Brühl's inability to keep secrets, marked the war's beginning.

Poland officially remained neutral, but it was a neutrality favoring the anti-Prussian coalition. Russian troops crossed the kingdom many times to attack Prussia, and Friedrich of Prussia retaliated in a very modern way. When the Soldier King overran Saxony in 1756, thanks to Brühl's lack of preparation all the instruments of Saxon government fell into Prussian hands intact including the electoral mint. The mint handled both Saxon and Polish coinage, and the Prussians now had a full set of dies for making Polish zlotych. The king hired a series of Jewish coin experts - Herz Moses Gumpertz, Moses Isaak and Daniel Itzig - to debase the Polish currency, adding a tiny amount of gold or silver to a mass of "base metal" so that the precious content of each zloty or grosz was far less than its face value.

Friedrich proceeded to spend his fake Polish fortune to fuel his war machine. Prussian agents paid premium prices for Polish goods, chiefly agricultural output, and Polish farmers and merchants happily sold in blissful ignorance that they were taking nearly worthless money in exchange. Inflation roared in the kingdom, destroying the government's fixed tax base, landlords' fixed rents, and peasants' buying power. Friedrich even paid his mercenaries in Polish coin. Within a few years Poland's economy had been thoroughly wrecked.

Augustus the Fat expired in 1763, with Brühl following his master to the grave soon after. His son was bypassed in favor of Stanislaw Poniatowski, a nephew of the powerful Czartoryski family and a former lover of Tsarina Catherine of Russia. Poniatowski's attempts to strengthen the central government were overturned by a new Russian-dictated constitution in 1767. The king's acquiescence, and his ties to Catherine, led to a 1768 noble revolt by a cabal known as the Confederation of Bar (in a medieval holdover, nobles could legally take up arms against the king by forming a "confederatio"). The confederates had several battlefield successes against the Russians, and in 1771 they tried to kidnap, who quickly escaped and returned to the throne staunchly opposed to the Confederation and firmly attached to the Russians.

Bar officers kneel in prayer before battle, 1771.

The Confederation's war provided an excuse for the 1772 First Partition of Poland, when Prussia, Austria and Russia carved off large provinces. Both the small Polish regular army and the remnants of the Confederation's forces attempted to resist but were quickly repressed. About one-third of the Commonwealth went to the empires, with Austria taking the largest and richest share. Prodded by Russian bayonets, the Sejm approved the partition. Russia and Prussia sliced off another third of the Commonwealth in 1793, and all three empires finished off the republic in 1795.

By the time Poniatowski came to the throne, Poland was already doomed. Saving the republic would have been a difficult task at any point after 1717, as both Augustus II and Stanislaw Poniatowski found. But other European countries managed to centralize during the mid-1700's, and perhaps a more competent leadership team than Augustus III and Heinrich Graf von Brühl could have done more to protect the Commonwealth's liberties and provide our Polish fans with more to work with in Soldier Kings.

As a Soldier Kings variant, add Poland as a ninth major power. Poland consists of the three Polish areas currently shown on the map. Increase the money value of each to three. Add three more armies to the Polish force pool. Poland may not ally with Turkey or Russia.

Polish armies, had they participated in the Seven Years' War, would have been led by Grand Hetman Waclaw Rzewuski. Rzewuski, better known as a playwright and poet, had a good reputation as a soldier from the War of the Polish Succession but like any peacetime soldier it's hard to say how he would have performed in the field. Prince Karol Radziwill, the richest man in Poland and a notorious - though highly patriotic - drunkard and womanizer, would have also received high command by virtue of wealth and position.

Poland begins with four armies in play and two available to be built. Rzewuski is available as a leader from the start; Radziwill can enter as a new leader.

As a variant playable only if the Polish player is in fact Polish, allow Augustus the Fat to be replaced by the oldest and favorite bastard son of Augustus the Strong, Moritz of Saxony. Better known as Maurice de Saxe, he served in several European armies and became a Marshal of France and the most successful commander in the 1740-48 War of the Austrian Succession. In 1726 and 1727 he briefly held the throne in the small Duchy of Courland, and this would have been a useful springboard to the Polish throne in 1734. He died in 1750, aged 54, of a fever but perhaps the healthier air of Warsaw could have preserved him to fight again in 1756. And it's not like Polonophiles are over-endowed with a sense of realism anyway. Maurycy I is a royal leader, and is available from the start.

You can download the new Polish pieces here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.