On 27 December 1655 a powerful army was stopped in its tracks during the Swedish invasion of Poland by a small group of monks defending their monastery. This defeat of Sweden marked a turning point in the Great Northern War, and the defiance of the Holy Fathers remains an important part of Polish folklore.
The Swedish invaders
In 1655 Sweden, then a great power in the Baltic, attempted to cast its influence over the ailing Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Much of the Commonwealth was quickly overrun by the impressive and well-trained Swedish armies and the Polish King John Casimir was forced to abandon his territories.
Only the monastery of Jasna Góra would dare to offer the Swedes determined resistance that year. As their enemy approached with an army mainly comprised of German mercenaries, the 70 Catholic monks decided to bar their gates to their Protestant foe, rightly fearing that their ancient treasures would be looted.
Luckily, the decision to fortify the place of worship had been made in August, and Jasna Góra’s stone walls were reinforced by heavy cannon. The monks called on volunteers to help their holy cause, and by the time the Germans reached the monastery it was guarded by 310 men, though many, including the garrison’s core of monks, were not proper soldiers.
The invaders arrived on 8 November, and were startled when their demanded surrender was refused. Ten days later the Germans, commanded by General Burchard Von Der Luhnen, began to position cannons in their first attempt to storm the monastery.
The Prior, Augustyn Kordecki, lead his men charismatically and was not content with passively waiting for the hugely outnumbering enemy to storm his walls. On 28 November the defenders made a sortie, the sheer audacity of which took the besiegers completely by surprise.
Two of their precious cannon were destroyed and the small victory was a major morale boost for the defenders. In December, however, reinforcements arrived from other Swedish armies tightening their grip on Poland, including more and heavier caliber cannon.
Under this renewed onslaught the monastery’s walls began to crumble, but the monks still refused to surrender. Once again, Kordecki inspired his men to remarkable defiance, as the Poles sallied out twice more to destroy one of the new and larger guns, and then to massacre most of the miners tasked with undermining Jasna Góra’s redoubtable walls.
Growing increasingly cold and desperate, Von Der Luhnen demanded a surrender once more on Christmas Eve, though this time the answer was more predictable. One final attempt at a bribe failed before he lead his disheartened troops away on the 27 December.
In the weeks to come, the monastery became a focal point for local guerrillas, and the Swedish army suffered terribly from their surprise attacks while Von Der Luhnen wondered what to do next.
The warrior monks of Jasna Góra had won a victory that was not only moral but strategically significant as the tide of the war began to turn. Poland would retain its independence, and Jasna Góra lives on as a great symbol of Polish defiance.