The Winged Hussars: An Eerie and Flamboyant Cavalry That Devasted Their Enemies
The Winged Hussars (known also as the Polish Hussars) were a type of shock cavalry used by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth . The Winged Hussars were formed during the 16 th century and were used until the 18 th century when they became obsolete as a result of the advances in military technology . The Winged Hussars participated in many battles and their prowess on the battlefield cemented their reputation as formidable warriors .
Where Did the Winged Hussars Originate?
Although the Winged Hussars were formed in Poland during the 16 th century, their roots are believed to lie abroad at an earlier point of time. One speculation is that the forebears of the Winged Hussars were the light cavalry units from the Balkans that were recruited by the Byzantine Empire during the 10 th century.
In the centuries that followed, the lands of the Byzantine Empire , including the Balkans, were slowly conquered by the Ottomans. According to one story, it was after the Ottoman triumph at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 that the Serbian knights (reportedly known as usars or gusars in Serbian) migrated to Hungary and Poland. Since these states were in conflict with the Turks as well, the remaining Serbian knights saw it as an opportunity for them to exact revenge on the Turks.
The Winged Hussars. (Kawaart / Public Domain )
Who Used the Winged Hussars?
The reality, however, may have been slightly different as the Serbian knights might have served as mercenaries, considering that the state they once served no longer existed. In any case, it was during the early 16 th century that the first instances of Serbian cavalrymen serving in the Polish army are found. At around the same time, the Polish army began to recruit cavalrymen of other nationalities including Hungarians, Lithuanians, and Poles, in order to bolster the number of hussars they could field in battle.
In 1576, Stefan Batory became the King of Poland and it was during his reign that the hussars acquired its unique form. The Serbian knights were light cavalrymen who were equipped with light armor and carried asymmetrical Balkan shields. Batory was a Hungarian and introduced the heavy armor, shield, and arms that were used by the knights of his homeland. The Winged Hussars may be said to lie in between these two types of cavalry, as they wore a breastplate and were armed with a long lance but did not carry a shield.
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Polish armor used by the Winged Hussars. (FlickreviewR / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Winged Hussars In Battle
It was their ‘wings’, however, that made the Winged Hussars conspicuously different from all other cavalry units. These were a pair of wooden frames onto which were attached eagle, vulture, or falcon feathers. Initially, the ‘wings’ were attached to the saddle of the hussars’ horses. This seems to have changed during the late 17 th century when the ‘wings’ were attached to their armor instead as famously depicted in paintings of Winged Hussars charging into battle.
Husaria's Attack – Winged Hussars , painting by Orłowski. (BurgererSF / Public Domain )
It is unclear as to the exact function of the ‘wings’. Some have argued that these were used merely for parades, though historical research shows that they were indeed used in battle. Some have claimed that the ‘wings’ produced shrill sounds when the hussars charged the enemy. This view has been attributed to the romanticizing of foreign writers.
Another, more plausible, argument is that the ‘wings’ were meant to have a visual impact on onlookers. Coupled with their leopard skin capes (in many cases, these were in fact the pelts of lynxes sewn together) the Winged Hussars would have presented a fearsome sight to those they were charging at. Considering that the charge of the hussars was meant to throw an enemy’s formation into disarray, the damage caused had to be both physical and psychological.
Away from the battlefield these ornaments indicated the high status of the Winged Hussars in society.
The Winged Hussars were deployed by the Polish crown against an array of enemies in various battles.
Arguably the most celebrated of these battles was the Siege of Vienna in 1683. This was the second time the Ottomans attempted to conquer Vienna but were defeated by a combined Christian army led by John III Sobieski, the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Thanks to this relief army the Ottoman attempt to take Vienna failed and the siege marked the beginning of the end of Ottoman domination in Eastern Europe.
The Winged Hussars Become Obsolete
The fortunes of the Winged Hussars did not last forever and quickly went into decline following the Siege of Vienna. This was mainly due to the development of military technology that was able to counter their deadly charges more effectively. One of these was the cheval de fries (Frisian horse) which was a portable, spiked anti-cavalry obstacle that could stop the charges of the Winged Hussar. Another was the development of firearms that were more accurate and quicker to reload, which made it easier to shoot down fast-moving targets like the hussars. The obsolescence of the Winged Hussar is evident in the Great Northern War, which broke out just 17 years after the Siege of Vienna.
Grand Standard Bearer of the Crown / Winged Hussar at the wedding procession of King Sigismund III. (Mareczko / Public Domain )
Although the Winged Hussars lost their military relevance, they retained some ceremonial function in Polish society. For instance, they would be called upon to assist at the funerals of great lords, thus earning them the derogatory name ‘funeral soldiers’. In 1776 the Polish parliament passed a decree that formally disbanded the Winged Hussars. By then the Winged Hussars were no longer relevant on the battlefield and the crippled Polish economy meant that the state was no longer able to pay for their upkeep. Still the Winged Hussars are remembered today as some of the best cavalry during their time, as well as a reminder of Poland’s days of glory.
Painting of the Battle of Kosovo with the Winged Hussars. (Hohum / Public Domain )
Top image: Representation of the Winged Hussars Source: deimanteka / Deviantart
By Wu Mingren
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searchinginhistory.blogspot.com, 2015. The Legendary Winged Hussars of Poland. [Online] Available at: https://searchinginhistory.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-legendary-winged-hussars-of-poland.html
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