On June 30, 1651, the Polish army under King John II Casimir inflicted a severe defeat upon the rebel Ukrainian Cossacks of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky and their Crimean Tatar allies at the Battle of Berestechko, considered to have been among the largest European land battles of the 17th century.
In 1648, Ukrainian Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky led a Cossack rebellion in the eastern territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had been trying to limit the Cossacks’ autonomy by reducing their numbers, restraining them from conducting lucrative raids upon their Turkish and Crimean Tatar neighbours, and forcing them into a condition of serfdom.
Joined by local Ukrainian peasantry, the Cossack leadership soon realized the potential for autonomy was there for the taking. Khmelnytsky made a triumphant entry into Kiev on Christmas Day in 1648, and he was hailed as “the Moses, savior, redeemer, and liberator of the people from Polish captivity, the illustrious ruler of Rus”.
Within 18 months, the Cossacks were formally taken under the protection of the Ottoman Sultan and were reinforced by the Sultan’s vassal, the khan of the Crimean Tatars. And in June 1951, after the expiration of a two-year truce, a joint Cossack-Tatar force advanced against the Poles and engaged them in battle at Berestechko, in Volhynia, on the hilly plain south of the Styr River.
The Polish commanders were hoping to break the Cossack ranks with a charge of the Polish Winged Hussars, a tactic that had proven effective in many previous battles. But the Cossack army was well acquainted with this Polish style of war, having had much experience fighting against the Poles and alongside them, and preferred to avoid an open field battle, and to fight from the cover of a huge fortified camp.
Although approximately three times larger than the Poles’, the Cossack army suffered a fatal defeat, after being betrayed by their Tatar allies, who deserted the battlefield. Considered to have been among the largest European land battles of the 17th century, the Battle of Berestechko forced the defeated rebels to accept a new peace settlement which deprived them of the right to settle in and control various provinces of the Commonwealth.
But the enormous casualties suffered by the Cossacks at Berestechko also made the idea of creating an independent state impossible to implement, and forced Khmelnytsky to recognize the suzerainty of the Russian Tsar and to incorporate the Cossack community into the Muscovite state, effectively putting an end to Catholic Poland’s influence over the Ukrainian Orthodox population.
Indeed, although the initial phase of the rebellion ended at the Battle of Berestechko, the Cossack Uprising brought into focus the rivalry between Russia and the Commonwealth and led to the Russo-Polish War, which ended with significant Russian territorial gains and marked the beginning of the rise of Russia as a great power in Central and Eastern Europe.
The Uprising thus began a period in Polish history known as The Deluge, which ended the Polish Golden Age and saw the decline of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the rise of the Russian Empire. It was however during that time that the young Polish commander John Sobieski began distinguishing himself as a promising strategist…
Samuel Twardowski’s narrative poem, The Civil War, describes the setting for the Battle of Berestechko:
There is a little town on it,
In the middle of Volhynia, called Berestechko,
Belonging to the Leszczynski family, that was not as famous in the past
As it has now become – both ancient Cannae
And Khotyn are far outshone by it, because as many heads here
Our eyes have seen as at Thermopylae
Or Marathon they counted, although there the whole strength
Of Europe and Asia had come together.
Since our arrival – hilly roads
And steep slopes, until open
Meadows unfold near the Styr’s
Low banks. It was pleasant to look from the south
At the pyramid of the Pronskis and the groves that are green
In winter always. And to th east there lies as if a natural
Field for a camp – and there it was indeed placed
Later, but first – this was pondered for a long time.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.