Chodkevicius is the central figure in this famous painting of the Battle of Chocim by Polish artist Jozef Brandt.
Chodkevicius is the central figure in this famous painting of the Battle of Chocim by Polish artist Jozef Brandt. He is credited with saving the Commonwealth from the Ottoman deluge.


By Miltiades Varvounis.

Early 17th century portrait of J.K. Chodkevičius by an anonymous Polish or Lithuanian painter.
Early 17th century portrait of J.K. Chodkevičius by an anonymous Polish or Lithuanian painter. (Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland)

The Chodkevičius (Chodkiewicz) family was one of the richest and most influential families of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) in the 16th –17th centuries. The most prominent member of this family was Jonas Karolis Chodkevičius (Jan Karol Chodkiewicz), a renowned Lithuanian military commander. He played a major role, often as the Grand Hetman (Commander-in-chief) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth forces, in wars against Sweden, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to his victories, his family name became famous across Europe, and to this day he is regarded as one of the greatest European military leaders in history.

His early life

He was born in 1560 in the GDL. His father held the prestigious title of the Grand Marshal of Lithuania, while his mother, Krystyna Zborowska was descended from the powerful Polish magnate family of Zborowski. From 1573 young Chodkevičius studied at the Vilnius Jesuit College (later Vilnius University) and continued his studies abroad at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. It is likely he also studied in Padua, a popular destination for Polish and Lithuanian noblemen furthering their education. He returned to Poland in 1590 and soon formed his own rota (company) of 100 soldiers, with whom he fought against rebellious Cossacks in the steppes of Ukraine under Stanislaw Zolkiewski’s command. He fought in the battle of Kaniów in 1596 with such distinction, that in 1599 he was appointed starosta (elder or administrative official) of the Duchy of Samogitia in northwestern GDL.

War with Sweden

During this time period, Sigismund III Vasa, king of both the Commonwealth and Sweden, lost the throne of Sweden. From then on, most of his policies centered on attempts to conquer Sweden and regain the Swedish throne. Polish-Lithuanian nobility supported this foreign policy, assuming that the conflict with Sweden would be limited to the territory of today’s Estonia. They expected to gain many new lands and increase grain export by way of access to Estonian ports on the Baltic Sea. The Poles and Lithuanians did not have a high opinion of the descendants of Vikings, and did not expect the war to be long or difficult. They were confident that the Polish-Lithuanian forces would easily repel any attacks by Sweden. They were mistaken in all these assumptions, grossly underestimating their opponent. Fortunately for the Commonwealth, Chodkevičius would repeatedly save his state from humiliating defeats.

Late 16th century map of Livonia (present day Latvia and Estonia) by cartographer Joann Portantius.
Late 16th century map of Livonia (present day Latvia and Estonia) by cartographer Joann Portantius. Chodkevičius achieved many great victories against the Swedes in these territories.

In 1600 Chodkevičius was serving under Polish chancellor Jan Zamoyski in his victorious Wallachian campaign. That year he was promoted to Field Hetman of the GDL (second Commander-inchief) – evidence that his superiors valued his military talents. When the Polish-Swedish War (1600-1611) finally broke out, Chodkevičius accompanied Zamoyski to Livonia (present day Latvia and Estonia). There, he took part in the first major open battle of the war at Kokenhausen (modern Koknese) in early 1601.

The Swedes had gathered about 1000 infantry, 4000 cavalry and 17 cannons. The Lithuanian forces had 9 cannons and a total of about 3000 men, of which less than 400 were infantry and 1000 were winged hussars. Thanks to both fearsome hussar charges and artillery fire, Lithuanians won the engagement decisively. They suffered 200 casualties, while the Swedes lost 2000 men, including their entire infantry. This battle is considered one of the greatest victories of the Lithuanian winged hussars.

Soon afterwards, the forces of Jan Zamoyski captured Valmiera and Viljandi from the Swedes. By 1602, Sweden was left only with control of Tallinn, Parnu, Haapsalu, and Tartu. However, Zamoyski, now 60 years old, had fallen ill. Chodkevičius took command and laid siege to Tartu. At Rakvere, he defeated a Swedish reinforcement force sent to relieve the Swedish troops in Tartu. The town surrendered to the Lithuanians in April of 1603.

The Battle of Weissenstein 

The following year, Swedish reinforcements of more than 6000 soldiers, including German mercenaries led by Arvid Stalarm and the experienced Spanish mercenary leader Alonzo Cacho de Canut, arrived in northern Livonia (Estonia). The Swedes attempted to besiege Paide (Weissenstein), but again Chodkevičius came to the rescue. On September 25, with less than 2300 men, consisting mostly of cavalry units, he engaged the enemy in battle outside the city walls. It ended with the total defeat of the Swedish army. The Swedes lost 3000 soldiers (including Alonzo Cacho de Canut), 6 cannons, all equipment and 26 standards, while the Lithuanians suffered 50 casualties and 100 wounded. Chodkevičius had again effectively used his winged hussars to break the enemy lines, leaving Stalarm no chance to regroup. The Battle of Weissenstein was an outstanding Lithuanian victory that would give Chodkevičius the title of the Grand Hetman of the GDL.

Charge of the winged hussars, the most formidable cavalry in the history of humankind.
Charge of the winged hussars, the most formidable cavalry in the history of humankind. Painting by Stanislaw K. Batowski.

The epic Battle of Kircholm 

Despite the defeats of his armies, Swedish king Charles IX continued to send troops to Livonia. On September 23, 1605 he personally led 14,000 men to lay siege to the city of Riga. The city had great strategic importance as it controlled trade routes in Livonia and was the base for provisioning Chodkevičius’ Lithuanian forces. Capturing Riga would divide Livonia and effectively cut the forces of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth forces in two.

The same day, around 3500 soldiers rallied to the Lithuanian camp, set up at a distance from Riga. Remarkably, Chodkevicius’ forces heading for Riga managed to cover more than 100 miles in less than 40 hours (!). Informed by his spies that the enemy was approaching the besieged city, Charles IX decided to advance by night. On September 26 he made his move. With 11 artillery guns and 11,000 men, including 4000 experienced mercenaries under the command of Count Joachim Frederick of Mansfield, Charles arrived at a place called Kircholm. He arranged his army in four lines, in a so-called Dutch Pattern. The first two lines were made up of infantry units, which included the fearless mercenaries, behind them were two lines of cavalry. Cannons were placed in front of the cavalry, while the flanks were protected by reiters (light cavalry).

Inspecting the enemy lines, Chodkevičius knew he could not attack such a strong position, especially since he was outnumbered 1:3. Thus, for his first maneuver, he chose the Tatar tactic of multiple quick skirmishes to draw the Swedes off their lines. After a few hours of relatively low action, the Lithuanians pretended to retreat. King Charles, thinking that he now had a chance to destroy the enemy, gave his forces orders to spread out and give merciless chase.

It was the mistake that Chodkevičius was hoping for. As the Swedes abandoned their positions, he launched his counterattack. First, the Lithuanian hussars charged the Swedish left flank. At the same time, another 300 hussars attacked the Swedish infantry in the center. This prevented the infantry from regrouping and aiding the Swedish cavalry fighting the hussars on its flank. After the Swedish cavalry retreated, Chodkevičius ordered his left flank and all of his reserves to attack the right flank of the Swedish forces. When the reiters on the right flank collapsed, the isolated infantry in the center was attacked simultaneously from three sides.

In the end, almost the entire Swedish infantry was massacred. Remarkably, even though the final phase of the battle lasted less than a half hour, it resulted in complete Swedish defeat. Charles lost two thirds of his forces –more than 9,000 men including many Swedish officers. The king himself was wounded, avoiding captivity by escaping from the battlefield at the last moment. The Lithuanian losses numbered about 100 dead and 200 wounded, although the formidable hussars lost a large number of their trained battle horses.

The battle is remembered as one of the greatest triumphs in the history of European warfare, a unique example of how an outnumbered cavalry destroyed a large force in such a short time. Without a doubt, all the credit goes to the Lithuanian military genius Chodkevičius.

Painting of the Battle of Kircholm (1605) by Pieter Snayers.
Painting of the Battle of Kircholm (1605) by Pieter Snayers. It can be said without exaggeration, that Kircholm along with the battle of Žalgiris (1410) are the most famous Lithuanian victories in history.

The end of wars with Sweden

The following year, Chodkevičius was again marching against the Swedes, who had returned to re-invade Livonia. Advancing towards Riga, which was blockaded by the enemy, he saw a great chance to destroy the Swedish naval squadron based in the port of Salis. Gathering an improvised fleet, he dealt a surprise blow to the Swedish Navy at the Battle of Salis. The port, together with stocks of weapons, ammunition and other supplies, fell into Lithuanian hands. After liberating Riga, he defeated another Swedish army in battle near the river Gauja. This brought the Swedish offensive in Livonia and eleven brutal years of fighting to a final halt. A truce between both sides was signed in 1611.

War against the Muscovites and Ottomans

Meanwhile, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was engaged in the Dimitriad wars with Muscovy. Chodkevičius was sent to fight against the Muscovites operating near Smolensk and Pskov. In the period of 1613-1615, he defended Commonwealth gains in the Smolensk region and dealt with unrest in the GDL. The Polish-Muscovite War ended with the Treaty of Deulino.

Several years later, a new crisis emerged on the southern frontier. The Ottomans, the world power of the time, defeated the defending Polish forces at Cecora, killing Grand Hetman Zolkiewski. Having no other option, the Polish king sent Chodkevičius southwards. He crossed the Dnieper in September 1621 with an army of 60,000 men, half of them Cossacks under their Hetman, Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny. Chodkevičius was opposed by an immense Ottoman-Tatar-Moldovan army of 120,000 – 160,000 troops led by Sultan Osman II himself, whose ambitious mission was to invade the Polish lands. Chodkevičius seemed to be the last chance for the Commonwealth.

He entrenched his army around the fortress of Chocim (present day Khotyn, Ukraine), blocking the path of the Ottoman deluge. The earthworks were designed to break the Ottoman assault and to allow counter-attacks by Polish and Lithuanian winged hussars. For more than a month the Ottomans repeatedly assaulted the defensive fortifications, frustrated at every attempt. On September 7 more than 10,000 Ottomans moved to attack. Chodkevičius counterattacked with three squadrons of hussars and one squadron of reiters – around 650 men. Despite his advanced age, he personally led the attack. The Sipahi (Ottoman elite cavalry) could not withstand the intense Polish-Lithuanian charge and retreated chaotically. Chodkevičius’ riders pursued them to their camp, massacring everyone they encountered. The Ottomans lost more than 500-600 men, Polish-Lithuanian losses amounted to 30. The daring cavalry charge inflicted heavy casualties and had a huge impact on the morale of the Ottoman forces.

A few days before the siege was lifted and the Ottomans decided to start negotiations, a different casualty occurred. The aged Chodkevičius, ailing since the very beginning of the campaign, died in the impressive Chocim fortress. It was September 24, 1621. Without a doubt, his last battle saved the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the Ottoman nightmare, and prevented the face of Central Europe from being changed forever.

A soldier, patriot and patron 

Chodkevičius was renowned for his talents as a military strategist and organizer. He was an energetic, charismatic man with an iron will and an explosive personality. He is described as tall with a handsome, vigorous face. His enemies called him “Beelzebub.” He was praised and held in high esteem by Polish Jesuit Piotr Skarga, poet Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz and other Polish-Lithuanian authors of his time and later. Jesuit colleges represented him as a model of patriotism and he is mentioned in Lithuanian folklore. In his private life he is remembered as a very proud individual, attentive husband and someone who stressed his identity as a member of the Lithuanian nobility.

In addition to his life in the military, Jonas Karolis Chodkevičius had a significant role in the cultural and political life of Lithuania. From 1616 he was the Vilnius voivode. He was the patron of the Kražiai College (1613), which was named Collegium Chodkievicianum in honor of his services to the homeland. This college was one of the major cultural and educational centers in the GDL. Over the span of his illustrious career he acquired significant wealth with which he funded churches, schools and other prestigious institutions.

Kražiai College, established with the financial support of J. K. Chodkevičius in 1610s.
Kražiai College, established with the financial support of J. K. Chodkevičius in 1610s. (Rimantas Lazdynas, Wikipedia-Public Domain)