Jan Karol Hadkevich
(1560 - Sep. 24, 1621)

Jan Karol Hadkevich (Chodkiewicz in Polish transcription) was born in 1560 and he spent his childhood in the estate called Mysch, not far from Baranavichy. Here, on the shores of the Myschanka river, his father’s solemn castle stood. Its halls contained collections of old swords, sabers, shields and crossbows, which attracted small Jan greatly. The boy was also inspired by the coats-of-arms and portraits of his ancestors, who reached very high positions in the Great principality of Lithuania and  brought glory to the ancient kin of Hadkevich.

In those days young men from noble Belarusian families were to get good education. Jan studied in Vilna - in college and academy, then in Germany and Italy, in the city of Padua, where Francisk Skaryna once received the doctor’s degree in medicine. Hadkevich knew history, geography, math well; he also spoke Latin perfectly, in Europe it was the language of science and arts. When a child, Hadkevich was keen on military games, and, having grown up, he decided to master the secrets of war craft.

Jan Karol was reading the famous captains’ works thoroughly; while reading these works, he forgot about everything. To study the art of war, he also traveled around Europe, in particular he visited Malta, where he got acquainted with the experience of  Maltese knights. Having returned to his homeland, Hadkevich married Sophia, the young widow of prince Symon Slutsky. Jan gained his first victories during the campaign in Moldavia and Valachia, being a commander of private cavalry brigade. Soon, due to this success, he was made the field hetman – a very high position in the army.

Since 1600 Rzech Pospolita has been in the state of endless war with its neighboring countries. Thus, because of the permanent war, the country desperately needed experienced and highly professional army. Such army was the hussar cavalry, under the command of one of the most prominent captains of our land – Jan Karol Hadkevich.

…The hussar cavalry of the XVII century was heavy-armed and represented the transitional stage between heavy knights and more modern kinds of army. The hussars had certain wings fixed behind their backs (photo on the left shows Hadkevich hussar armor in Malbork castle museum). When a hussar was moving fast on a horseback, these wings emitted sound which frightened enemy’s horses.

Hadkevich’s hussars were highly experienced warriors, they were, so to say, the special forces. Many a time the hussars defeated enemy’s armies which outnumbered them.

…In 1600 the Great Prince and King Zhygimont Vaza made Hadkevich vice-great hetman and sent him to the Baltic countries, where our countryman was destined to get eternal glory.

In 1603 the Swedish garrison of Derpt (Tartu) capitulated. The year after Jan Karol defeated strong enemy’s corps sent from the sea, and after some months he celebrated another brilliant victory, having captured 21 enemy’s war banners. After this the Council (Seim) of Rzech Pospolita  made Hadkevich great hetman. It meant that he became the leader of the whole state’s army. But his main war triumphs were still ahead.

Belarusian hussars helped hetman Hadkevich to defeat the Swedes on the 27th of September, 1605. It was the battle near Kirchgolm (today- Salaspils) near Riga, and the victory was almost fantastic. Swedish king Karl IX had 6840 footmen (Scandinavian footmen were considered to be the best,) 450 horsemen and 11 cannons. 4350 soldiers and officers, including 3310 horsemen, stood under the banners of Jan Hadkevich.  Great hetman’s forces almost totally consisted of the Belarusians. Almost all commander were the Belarusians: Jan Peter Sapiega, Vincent Vojna, Jan Kischka, Tomasch Dubrova, Martin Hedroytz… It is really hard to believe, but different historical sources inform that almost 6000 Swedes died during the battle, while the losses from our side were no more than 100 soldiers. The Pope of Rome and the majority of European monarchs congratulated Hadkevich on this victory. But the Turkish Sultan didn’t do this, as if he had predicted another great victory of our captain, this time over the 150 000 army of the Turkey Porta at Hotin.

The religious Thirty Years War, which started in 1618 in Czechia, soon occupied the whole Europe. King Zhygimont Waza was not an exception. After he signed the alliance treaty with the Hapsburg dynasty, he became the enemy of Turkey at once. In June of 1621 the huge Turkish army (up to 150 000 soldiers total) moved North through Moldavia.  The purpose of the campaign was to  conquer the ways to the Baltic Sea. However, there was one hindrance on the way of the Turks – Hotin, the powerful fortress built in the XV century by the Belarusian craftsmen. The fortress was built by the command of prince Vitaut on the shore of Dnestr river, near Chernovitsy, in Ukraine).

Getman Hadkevich was to defend Hotin. The army of Rzech Pospolita at Hotin was about 60 000 soldiers. There were Polish and Belarusian brigades,  also mercenaries from Prussia, Germany and Sylezia. But mostly the army consisted of Zaporozhian Cossacks (30 000 soldiers.) The great hetman’s choice was the defensive tactics.

On the 2nd of September the vanguards of the 100-kilometers-long Turkish army reached the walls of Hotin and tried to assault the fortress at once and to capture it. But the garrison expected the enemy – the hard combat began, and the Turks didn’t manage to please their Sultan. The Turkish army itself reached the fortress on the 4th of September, and after the bombardment of the fortress made by 60 Turkish cannons the assault began. The vehement combat lasted all day long. In the evening mounted and foot Cossacks managed to drive the Turks back and to attack the Turkish military camp. Some cannons were captured. The Turks lost up to 3000 men during the battle, the Cossacks lost about 800 men, the Belarusians and the Poles -  about 300 men. The 7th of September was one of the most difficult days for the defenders of Hotin. The Turks have been bombarding and assaulting the fortress all day long, and in the evening they entered the fortress, having destroyed two brigades of the Poles and the Germans. The Cossacks sent by Hadkevich drove the Turks behind the walls. But the Sultan decided not to let the victory fly away, and he commanded his best janissaries to attack this part of fortress once again. The defenders let the enemy come closer, then the gates opened, and the Belarusian hussar cavalry brigades under the command of Nicolay Senyawsky, Nicolay Zenowich, Peter Opalinsky, Jan Rudomina and Alexander Sapega attacked the Turks. Getman Hadkevich himself led the hussars to battle. In spite of fanaticism and desperate defense, the janissaries suffered great losses and had to retreat. So, this was the day when the Sultan decided not to assault the fortress anymore, the Turks blocked Hotin and started massaged bombardment of the fortress.

The defenders of Hotin died not only from Turkish shots, but also from hunger and diseases. To get the provision, at nights the Cossacks had to make sallies to the enemy’s camp. The Turks were also in awful conditions. Great losses in battles, cold rains, hunger and fugitive acts disrupted the fighting spirit of the Turks. In the beginning of the battle Osman II proclaimed that he would eat no sooner than the fortress of the infidels gave up. Now nobody recalled this fact. It looked that sad war elephants were not destined to see the waves of the Baltic Sea.

On the 18th of September hetman Hadkevich, who has already been mortally ill, gathered the officers’ council. The main problem was whether to keep on defending or give up. It was decided to keep on defending Hatin.  The number of soldiers decreased, so, to decrease the defense line, new bulwarks were built closer to the citadel. On the 24th of September hetman Hadkevich died. This became known to the Turks. Being inspired by the news about the death of the famous captain, the janissaries attacked the fortress violently. Hard combat began on the walls of the fortress. But the Cossacks stood to death against the enemy. Again and again the Turks attacked the walls and, suffering great losses, were driven back. Finally, the determination to assault the fortress vanished totally. The treaty discussions began, which ended on the 9th of October. According to the peace treaty signed, the borders of the country remained unchanged. It was a GREAT VICTORY…  


Text by Mr. Alexander Kokosha and his son.

Links related to Jan Karol Hadkevich:

Lyahovichy Castle built by Hadkevich
Hetman Jan Karol Hodkiewicz on Polish stamps printed during Solidarnosc days.
Jan Karol Hadkevich page on Wikipedia
Jan Karol Hadkevich page on Britannica
Gregory Hadkevich page on Wikipedia

Other Relevant Pages of the Virtual Guide to Belarus

Belarusian Castles and Knighthood
Historic Belarusian Battles
Belarusian Statehood 
History of Belarus

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