The Battle of Kircholm, 1605 – Sweden’s Greatest Defeat

Poltava is more famous, but, explains historian Magnus Olofsson, Kircholm was probably the greatest defeat in Swedish history.


For the 27 September 1605, King Charles IX of Sweden penned the following note in his diary:

Was fought the Battle of Kircholm. There many a brave hero fell due to his craven heart. I was hacked in the head but praise the Lord not hurt. I lost the battle. This was caused by the Finnish and Swedish horse, second to God’s punishment, which put us in the hands of our enemies.

With these few words the king summed up what was perhaps the worst defeat in Swedish history. It was even more costly than the far-better-known Battle of Poltava, a little over a century later. And the battle was lost even though the Swedish army was three times as strong as the victorious Polish-Lithuanian army. Enemy casualties were minimal. It was a humiliating defeat.

The Battle of Kircholm, 27 September 1605. This exceptionally vivid depiction shows the assault of the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry on the Swedish ‘pike-and-shot’ infantry blocs. All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.

When Charles blamed the defeat on the poor showing of his cavalry, he was either lying to himself or being disingenuous. The real culprit in the drama was none other than himself. He had started the war, he had planned the campaign, he had commanded the army at Kircholm. He would have done far better to have kept his poor country out of a war with the mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Charles never explained why he invaded Polish Livonia in 1600. The background to the war gives an inkling of what his motives may have been.

He certainly wanted Livonia, a rich, populous province whose main city Riga rivalled Stockholm in wealth and size. Historically, Livonia had been a part of the Teutonic Knights’ sprawling Baltic possessions. The decline of the Knights during the 15th and 16th centuries led to a ‘Scramble for the Baltic’ among nearby powers. Poland, from 1569 united with Lithuania in a Commonwealth, got the juiciest parts.

In 1561, the good burghers of Reval turned to King Erik XIV of Sweden for protection. The offer was too good to refuse for the king of a penurious, sparsely populated country on the margins of Europe.

OPPOSITE The Battle of Kircholm, 27 September 1605. This exceptionally vivid depiction shows the assault of the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry on the Swedish ‘pike-and-shot’ infantry blocs. LEFT The aggressor: King Charles IX of Sweden (r. 1604-1611).
The aggressor: King Charles IX of Sweden (r. 1604-1611).

Thus Reval, a rich trading city, along with the surrounding counties – roughly encompassing present-day Estonia – became a Swedish possession. So began Sweden’s tug of war with Denmark, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia for the mastery of the Baltic. It would last for more than a century and a half and would see the emergence of a Swedish empire. King Charles stood in that empire-building line of Swedish monarchs.

A genealogical tangle

There was seemingly a more personal motive. This had to do with the tangled webs of royal genealogy. In 1521, Gustavus I Vasa – the ‘Henry VIII’ of Sweden – freed his country once and for all from a century of recurring vassalage under Denmark.

During his four-decade-long rule, he transformed his backward country, creating one of the strongest, most-efficient states in Europe. He died in 1560, bequeathing the crown to his eldest son, Erik XIV. A talented but troubled man, Erik was ousted from power in 1568 by his brother, who ascended the throne as King Johan III.

Johan was married to Catherine Jagiellon, a Polish princess. They had a son, Sigismund. In 1587, Sigismund was elected King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania as Sigismund III Vasa. When his father passed away in 1592, Sigismund was duly elected King of Sweden.

His rule was destined to be short. There was little love lost between the staunchly Catholic Sigismund and his Protestant Swedish subjects. And in the wings was a Machiavellian figure ready to exploit the situation: the youngest son of Gustavus I Vasa, Duke Charles.

The Polish-Lithuanian parliament, the Sejm, required their king to be personally present in the Commonwealth, not resident in distant Sweden. But in Sigismund’s absence, Duke Charles was able to make himself de facto ruler of Sweden.

Sigismund saw no alternative but to invade his unruly second kingdom. Given the might of the Commonwealth, the outcome should have been a foregone conclusion. However, as the Sejm saw it, the crown of Sweden was Sigismund’s private problem, and refused to spend a penny on their monarch’s private quarrel in the north.

Unperturbed, Sigismund raised with his private means a small army – too small, it proved. His invasion of Sweden was defeated at the Battle of Stångebro in September 1598. Come next summer, a specially convened Swedish parliament deposed him, and Duke Charles became regent in his stead.

Sigismund plotted his revenge, which he planned as an invasion of Swedish-controlled Estonia from Livonia. Early in 1600, the Sejm torpedoed this plan when they yet again refused him their financial help. His private resources would not suffice. The struggle for Sweden was effectively over.

Duke Charles committed an act of supreme hubris: he invaded Livonia.

A Swedish coup

Duke Charles knew of the Sejm’s refusal. He should have let matters rest. Instead, for all his cunning, he now committed an act of supreme hubris: in the summer, he invaded Livonia.

The attack was unprovoked, against a peaceful neighbour. The war aggrieved his subjects, who were not overly interested in paying the cost of the Duke’s Baltic adventure. Worse, the attack drove Sigismund and the Sejm into each other’s arms. The Commonwealth was invaded. The Sejm gave Sigismund the money to raise an army. Events would soon prove that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth outgunned Sweden by far.

However, Duke Charles’s invasion had taken the Commonwealth by surprise. Their meagre local forces were easily brushed aside. By April 1601, most of Livonia was in Swedish hands. The Swedes took the castle of Kokenhausen under siege and, once that fell, only Riga remained.

Still, there were worrying signs. There had been a couple of clashes in the open field. In both, the Polish-Lithuanian forces had defeated the Swedes despite being heavily outnumbered. The main reason was that their famous Hussar horse outclassed the Swedish cavalry.

below The Baltic theatre at the time of the Polish-Swedish War of 1600-1611.
The Baltic theatre at the time of the Polish-Swedish War of 1600-1611.

Come summer, Sigismund had put together an army strong enough to strike back in earnest. The ensuing Battle of Kokenhausen was a reprise of the earlier clashes on a grander scale: charging Hussars broke the Swedish horse and then massacred the infantry.

The Swedish situation in Livonia was becoming perilous. Sigismund had a strong army in the field. It was next to impossible to supply the Swedish forces in the war-torn and ravaged country. And the Swedish home front was also in dire straits. Crop failure and epidemics had done nothing to raise popular support for the war.

Duke Charles found it hard to raise money and troops. By the end of 1601, the Polish-Lithuanian forces had recovered half of Livonia. Duke Charles was running out of options. He ordered his forces to take shelter in the fortresses still in their hands, hoping to wear down the enemy.

Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1561-1621), the veteran Polish-Lithuanian field commander at the Battle of Kircholm.

This Fabian strategy failed. Fortress after fortress fell into enemy hands; Livonia was freed, and Estonia occupied. By April 1603, Swedish control had been reduced to Narva, Pärnu, and Reval in the whole of the eastern Baltic. Those three fortress-cities were saved only because the Polish-Lithuanian soldiers refused further active operations due to a lack of pay.

The initiative passed back into Swedish hands and a reinvigorated Swedish army counterattacked. But this foray, too, ended in disaster. At Weissenstein in September 1604, outnumbered two-to-one, the Polish-Lithuanian army crushed the hapless Swedes, killing 3,000 for the cost of 50 dead.

By then, Sweden’s strategic outlook was grimmer than ever: war-weariness was rampant, with the army barely clinging to the last few fortifications in Estonia, the arch-enemy Denmark making warlike noises, and the Commonwealth plotting to put their own man on the throne of Russia.

A new king, a new army, a new offensive

But Charles – who had allowed himself to be elected King of Sweden in 1604 – was resourceful. He struck on a daring plan. He would raise a huge army and lay siege to Riga, forcing the enemy to allow it to fall or rush to its relief; and his hope was that he would crush them in pitched battle through sheer weight of numbers.

So Sweden mobilised; taxes were levied, soldiers conscripted, mercenaries hired. By mid-1605, King Charles had raised a seemingly impressive army. With so much at stake, he decided to take personal command.

On 12 September 1605, most of the army was gathered outside the walls of Riga. Two days later, the siege artillery was emplaced. Each night, the saps crept closer to the walls. It was only on 24 September that the Polish-Lithuanian commander in Livonia, field hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, learned that the whole Swedish army was massed around Riga.

Chodkiewicz knew that he was heavily outnumbered. But he was undaunted by the odds. He had been fighting in Livonia since 1601. He had led the army that won the Battle of Weissenstein. He knew what his Hussars were capable of. Riga was too valuable a city to be allowed to fall into enemy hands. He set off with his army to raise the siege.

On 26 September, King Charles learned that Chodkiewicz’s army was massed at Kircholm, some 11 miles as the crow flies from Riga. The enemy, the king believed, had put his head into the noose. Now he just had to draw it tight.

ABOVE Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz (1561-1621), the veteran Polish-Lithuanian field commander at the Battle of Kircholm. RIGHT One of Chodkiewicz’s elite strike force: the Polish Winged Hussars.
One of Chodkiewicz’s elite strike force: the Polish Winged Hussars.

Most of the Swedish army was immediately set in motion. It marched east along the winding Daugava River during the hours of the night. The rain was pouring. The army reached the heights by Kircholm church in the morning of 27 September, wet, hungry, and tired. Down on the fields below, the camp of the small Polish-Lithuanian army could be seen.

Deploying for battle

By 8 o’clock, King Charles had formed his army into a battle array of four lines on the edge of a ridge in a strong defensive position. The right of the army was protected by the Daugava, the left by a morass. The right-wing was protected by 11 guns. The first line was made up of seven infantry battalions, the second of six squadrons of horse, the third a further six battalions of foot, the fourth mustering another five cavalry squadrons.

It was a wise deployment. The inferior Swedish horse was protected but could still sally forth through gaps between the infantry squares.

ABOVE The Battle of Kircholm, 27 September 1605, showing the armies deployed at the start of the battle and the direction of the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry charges. (See the illustration at the head of the article for the situation at the climax of the battle.)
The Battle of Kircholm, 27 September 1605, showing the armies deployed at the start of the battle and the direction of the Polish-Lithuanian cavalry charges. (See the illustration at the head of the article for the situation at the climax of the battle.). Map: Ian Bull.

All in all, the army numbered 8,358 foot and 2,500 horse. It was a modern, Western-style army, with pike-and-shot infantry formed in squares of 30 by 30, and pistol-armed cavalry. It was, perhaps, the largest Swedish army ever mustered on a battlefield. Even in its bedraggled condition, it must have been an impressive sight up on that ridge.

King Charles seems to have been confident of victory. Everything was, after all, going according to plan. The small size of the enemy forces must have increased his certainty. For field hetman Chodkiewicz had less than a third of King Charles’s strength, some 1,750 splendid Hussar lancers, 200 Western pistoleers, and 450 light Cossack and Tartar cavalry, supported by 1,040 light Haiduk-style foot and five small guns.

Chodkiewicz’s army was drawn up in traditional Polish order, with the foot formed in two supporting bodies and the horse in several lines with strong reserves. Not only was the battle order was old-fashioned, but the army was also armed with the weapons of yesteryear: lance, bow, arquebus, halberd.

But Chodkiewicz wanted a battle too. He had reason to be confident: more so than King Charles. The Hussars had yet to lose a battle in this war.

The Polish-Lithuanian plan

Chodkiewicz was no fool. A charge uphill straight into the Swedish pike-and-shot squares would be suicidal. He had to lure the enemy down from the heights so that he could defeat his horse. Then the foot could be picked apart, in the usual Polish-Lithuanian manner.

To achieve this, he massed his army close to Daugava, inviting the enemy to come down and try to crush it against the river. He also ordered his troops to close ranks to make the army look even smaller than it was. With another 300 Reiter pistoleers approaching the field of battle, moreover, he decided to play for time.

He sent out skirmishers to drag out the morning hours in desultory exchanges of fire. Since King Charles was not yet ready to stir from his lofty position, the hours went by without any decisive move by either side.

The Swedish artillery put up an inefficient bombardment. But not the Polish-Lithuanian: Chodkiewicz was wary of putting off King Charles by inflicting too heavy casualties.

Around noon, Chodkiewicz made his final arrangements. He reinforced the skirmish line to protect his 300 Reiters while they forded the river and took up their place in the second line of the centre. Then he played to oldest trick in the book: a feigned retreat.

King Charles, sensing victory, fell for it. He ordered his army to regroup and advance. The cavalry moved out to the flanks of the army. Shrieking the battle-cry ‘Jehovah’, the Swedish army came down the slope to clinch the looming victory. They reached the flats below the ridge. That was when Chodkiewicz sprung his trap.

Then he played the oldest trick in the book: a feigned retreat.

The Polish-Lithuanian attack

He ordered his army to charge the enemy. Shouting ‘Jesus-Maria’, the Polish-Lithuanian army went for their foes.

They pinned down the Swedish foot by a frontal assault. It was on the wings the battle was to be won. Hussars and pistoleers hit the Swedish right-wing cavalry in their front, while light horse took them in their open flank. Enveloped, the Swedish squadrons fled almost immediately, disordering part of their foot.

On the Swedish left-wing, a swirling cavalry mêlée of attack and counterattack took place. In the end, the lance proved mightier than the pistol that day. After half an hour of combat, the Swedish left-wing horse broke, again partly trampling their foot in their flight.

below A contemporary military manual, illustrating the drill of mounted pistoleers. RIGHT A contemporary representation of cavalry versus infantry combat in the ‘pike-and-shot’ era.
A contemporary military manual, illustrating the drill of mounted pistoleers.

In the chaos of the rout, King Charles had his horse shot from under him. He survived only thanks to his helmet, which took a sword-stroke, and the self-sacrifice of an officer who gave his horse to the king. The King of Sweden then joined his fleeing cavalry, riding hell for leather towards Riga.

Most of the Swedish foot still stood firmly in their massive squares. Without cavalry support, they were at the mercy of their enemies. Wave after wave of Hussars charged through their fire to spear them with lances, which outreached their pikes. In between the charges, the Haiduks and cannon shot them up.

A contemporary representation of cavalry versus infantry combat in the ‘pike-and-shot’ era.

Some managed to fight their way out, but most were butchered where they stood. When it was all over, they lay in their thousands, in great mounds and heaps, a grotesque and silent testimony to the failure of King Charles and the cunning of field hetman Chodkiewicz.

The Swedish losses were staggering. The burghers of Riga claimed to have buried 8,983 corpses according to one report, 8,918 according to another. Most of them were Swedish soldiers, the rest Polish-Lithuanian soldiers and Swedish non-combatants butchered near Riga during the pursuit.

Of the 11,000 Swedish soldiers mustered at Kircholm on the morning of 27 September 1605, some 8,000 were dead come evening. Not many were made prisoner. Chodkiewicz won this stunning victory for the cost of only 100 men killed and 200 wounded.


When King Charles wrote the bitter words in his diary after the battle, he was partly right: his horse had behaved infamously. Still, the main reason the battle was lost was down to him. At Kirchholm, Charles of Sweden was outgeneralled by Chodkiewicz of Poland-Lithuania.

The defeat, however, had deeper causes. The plan to force the enemy to engage in a battle with inferior numbers to save Riga was not in itself a bad one, but had a glaring flaw: it assumed that his army would be able to defeat the enemy through sheer force of numbers.

ABOVE The victorious Chodkiewicz [CENTRE Left] following the Battle of Kircholm. His cunning leadership had allowed him to defeat a numerically more-impressive opponent.
The victorious Chodkiewicz [CENTRE Left] following the Battle of Kircholm. His cunning leadership had allowed him to defeat a numerically more-impressive opponent. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Yet Sweden’s soldiers had been savaged in battle by Polish-Lithuanian forces one half or even one third of their own strength, time after time. When the war began, Charles’s soldiers were poorly trained, his infantry short of pikes and armour, his cavalry of armour and courage.

King Charles was aware of these problems, but, five years into the war, he had not managed to rectify them. When faced by crack Polish-Lithuanian soldiers led by a cunning general, his sham of an army could not win despite its impressive numerical superiority.

The Polish-Lithuanian army is sometimes described as a medieval relic. Regarding Kircholm, this view has prompted historian Robert Frost to write: ‘If East European methods were backward, they were remarkably effective.’ Sweden’s Western equipment and tactics were not enough to overcome the superior training, morale, and generalship of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Given the magnitude of the Polish-Lithuanian victory, the fruits of victory turned out to be very small indeed. Chodkiewicz’s soldiers soon revolted due to lack of pay. The army had to be partly demobilised. What remained went into winter quarters.

Thus King Charles and what remained of his army managed to save themselves by retreating into their Estonian fortresses. The following year, a Polish uprising against Sigismund gave King Charles breathing space.

The war King Charles had started so needlessly in 1600 would continue in fits and starts until his death in 1611 and for many long years afterwards. It would continue into the reigns of another four Swedish monarchs: Gustavus II Adolphus, Kristina, Charles X Gustav, and finally Charles XI. It would end only in 1660, a few months shy of its 60th anniversary.

In the Peace of Oliva, Livonia became Swedish and the heirs of Sigismund renounced their claims on the Swedish crown. The Commonwealth was no longer a Great Power, but Sweden had in the meantime become one. Thus the defeat at Kircholm was finally avenged; but, to this day, it remains the worst defeat ever suffered on the field of battle by a Swedish army. •

Magnus Olofsson is a researcher in the Department of History, Lund University, Sweden.