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Poland’s winged Hussars

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Legendary lancers at the service of the Holy Roman Empire and Poland, they were Europe’s first “universal soldiers”.

The three thousand winged hussars who fought alongside the Holy Roman Empire to defeat the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 celebrated one of their greatest triumphs. Their leader, Polish King Jan III Sobieski, was considered the saviour of Christian Europe. Still the source of their lasting fame, that victory came at the end – not the beginning – of almost two centuries of successful campaigns.

The first members of the hussar cavalry entered the Polish army around 1500, when Poland and Lithuania, united under the Jagiellon dynasty, needed more numerous and agile forces to take on Muscovy to the East and the Tatar Khanates to the South.

Hussars were not originally Polish, but probably Serbian mercenaries (the term racowie mentioned in military rolls of the time means ‘Serbian’, from the mediaeval State of Rascia in Southern Pannonia).

A persuasive if unverifiable hypothesis sees in hussar – and the plural form used in army registers, hussaria – a derivative of chosarios (through Hungarian huszar, from Serbian gussar with the nuance of ‘bandit’). The hussars as mercenaries served not only Poland, but also the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Hapsburg (1508-1519).

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