17th Century Polish Winged Hussars inspire Griffin Brady

Griffin Brady, author of The Heart of a Hussar, talks about the inspiration for this novel and its sequel, The Hussar’s Promise, and shares some of her research journey. Griffin – also known as Kae – and I met at the Historical Novel Society conference in 2019.

Why 17thcentury Poland?

When I tell people I write historical fiction about 17thcentury Poland, the usual response is either “Are you Polish?” (to which I answer “no”) or “Why?” Simply put, it’s because I fell into a rabbit hole one day while doing research for a completely different tale. The rabbit hole, which has since grown into a megalopolis of warrens, was the discovery of the Polish winged hussars. I’d never heard of them.

My curiosity piqued, I began reading … and reading … and couldn’t stop. And so began my journey into the fascinating world of Polish winged Hussars that resulted in two novels, The Heart of a Hussar, released in September, and A Hussar’s Promise, scheduled November 2020.

A love story at its heart, The Heart of a Hussar is the tale of a young Polish winged hussar determined to distinguish himself in order to gain an estate, but his ambitions and enemies undermine his secret love for a noble maiden.

Who were the Polish winged hussars?

The Polish winged hussars were an elite group of armored cavalrymen who comprised a jaw-dropping fighting force. Exceptionally trained, the hussars were highly skilled shock troops who dominated the battlefield for over a hundred years. In short, they were a 17thcentury version of our modern day special forces, and they were formidable.

A little history

The rise of the hussars began in the late 16thcentury at the behest of King Stefan Batory, when the Kingdom of Poland was united with the Duchy of Lithuania in one vast commonwealth. Europe’s most populous country at the time, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was also one of the largest.

Poland was a center of cultural enlightenment, known for its democracy and religious freedom. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth was constantly warring with its enemies: Muscovy, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire, together with their vassals, the Crimean Tatars. A strong military was a necessity, but Poland had only a small standing army. Hence, it relied heavily on the nobility to fight its wars.

Victory in the face of incredibly bad odds

I’m no military enthusiast, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the stats as I immersed myself in research. Polish winged hussars were the difference maker in numerous battles where enemy armies far outmatched them, and they prevailed.

For instance, in one of their most extraordinary victories, the Battle of Kłuszyn, Muscovy, on July 4, 1610, a force of roughly 6,500 (1,000 infantrymen and 5,500 winged hussars) defeated 35,000 combined Muscovites and foreign troops in a conflict that lasted five hours.

Different accounts of this battle diminish the number of the Polish force, increase the size of the Muscovite army, or both. No matter how the numbers are nudged, however, the difference in troop sizes was eye-popping, and yet the hussars triumphed.

What I find even more astonishing is that this battle was not just one aberrant phenomenon. During the winged hussars’ golden age (late 16thcentury to late 17thcentury), they engaged in similarly skewed battles where they emerged the victors. A few examples: the Battle of Kokenhausen in 1601, the Battle of Kircholm in 1605, and the Battle of Chocim in 1621.

The Polish winged hussars were truly exceptional soldiers who flexed their formidable muscle for over a hundred years, garnering respect and dread from those familiar with their feats.

Noble warriors

Polish sons of nobility, or the szlachta, and their retainers (pacholiks) filled the ranks of the winged hussars, motivated by duty, love of country, and honor. They began training as young boys, taught to master horses and myriad weapons, including sabers, bows, broadswords, war hammers, pistols, and the lance.

Conflicting theories abound on the purpose of a hussar’s trademark wings and whether they were regularly used in battle. That’s not the case with regard to the hussar’s other telltale battle accessory, the kopia, a hollow, metal-tipped lance used in charges. If any disputes exist with regard to the kopia, they would likely concern the lance’s length. Estimated at between thirteen and twenty feet—long enough to outreach enemy pikes—so few survived that an accurate measurement is hard to gauge.

Prowess on the Battlefield

The winged hussars came in waves at their foes, riding in formation, kopie leveled at their enemies’ navels. They barreled into their opponents with such speed and force that more than one adversary could wind up impaled on a single lance. Once a hussar shattered his lance—usually on first impact—he fell back to seize a fresh one or took up his saber and continued the attack.

The hussars’ tactics were highly effective on open ground, as documented in reports that survive today. Narratives recount the decimation of an enemy line after sustaining only one or two of the hussars’ impressive charges. The spectacle of a wall of armored cavalrymen clad in animal pelts, riding full out with girded lances, had to have been terrifying and spectacular. That sight alone was often enough to send enemy soldiers fleeing, causing their front line to open up—precisely the result the winged hussars sought.

Whether the wings added to the adverse psychological effect, they certainly wouldn’t have lessened the intimidating visual impact. No doubt they enhanced its magnificence. They are now the stuff of legends.

Where history lives and breathes

In September 2019, I had the good fortune to visit Poland and explore its treasure trove of windows into the past. At times, it felt as though an ancient structure stood on every corner! Did this history nerd get her fill? Not a chance.

Though it was my second such visit, it merely whetted my appetite to discover more. Everywhere I traveled, I found myself walking along the same paths the Polish winged hussars once walked. Being transported into the long ago was truly magical for me.

The history of this time, this place, and these valiant men is rich and deserves to be told. I hope readers will be spurred to delve further and unearth the many wonders awaiting them.

The Heart of a Hussar by Griffin Brady ~~ A tale of chivalry, love, and conflicted loyalty set in 17th century Poland

Exploiting Muscovy’s Time of Troubles, Poland has invaded the chaotic country. Twenty-two-year-old Jacek Dąbrowski is an honorable, ferocious warrior in a company of winged hussars—an unrivaled, lethal cavalry. When his lieutenant dies in battle, Jacek is promoted to replace him, against the wishes of his superior, Mateusz, who now has more reason to eliminate him.

Jacek dedicates his life to gaining the king’s recognition and manor lands of his own. Consequently, he closely guards his heart, avoiding lasting romantic entanglements. Unscathed on the battlefield, undefeated in tournaments, and adored by women eager to share his bed, Jacek has never lost at anything he sets out to conquer. So when he charges toward his goals, he believes nothing stands in his way.

Upon his return from battle, Jacek deviates from his ordinarily unemotional mindset and rescues enemy siblings, fifteen-year-old Oliwia and her younger brother, Filip, from their devastated Muscovite village. His act of mercy sets into motion unstoppable consequences that ripple through his well-ordered life for years to come—and causes him to irretrievably lose his heart.

Oliwia has her own single-minded drive: to protect her young brother. Her determination and self-sacrifice lead her to adopt a new country, a new religion, and a new way of life. But it’s not the first time the resilient beauty has had to remake herself, for she is not what she appears to be.

As Jacek battles the Muscovites and Tatars threatening Poland’s borders for months at a time, Oliwia is groomed for a purpose concealed from her. All the while, Mateusz’s treachery and a mysterious enemy looming on the horizon threaten to destroy everything Jacek holds dear.

 

Pasadena’s Infamous “Suicide Bridge” by Chip Jacobs

Author and journalist Chip Jacobs grew up in northeast Pasadena. He’s written several non-fiction books and his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Time, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and other well-known publications. Arroyo is his first novel.

Pasadena’s fabled Colorado Street Bridge consumed eleven thousand cubic yards of cement, each one weighing roughly four thousand pounds, when city fathers christened it in December 1913.

During construction of this historical novel, there were points when I felt like one of its hefty, Beaux-Arts columns were strapped around my solar plexus.

The structure still curving over the Arroyo Seco, you see, isn’t only an ode to bravura engineering of the Progressive Age, when steel-reinforced concrete heralded a modernization kick soon to remake cities, architecture and this futuristic concept known as freeways. The bridge rested in the hometown many of my ancestors have resided in since my maternal grandfather, Hollywood musician Lee Zahler, relocated here from New York’s Tin Pan Alley in the early 1920s.

Given that ongoing familial connection, and the edifice’s split personality as a noir-ish beauty emblematic of Pasadena’s grandeur and a well-known death zone for hopeless souls, writing a historical novel was a weight-bearing excursion in a minefield. Nobody calls the roadway that helped braid Los Angeles’ two great valleys together by its formal appellation. They call it “Suicide Bridge” because of the more than 150 people who’ve leapt to their deaths from its creamy-gray ledges.

Nonetheless, I’d been mesmerized by this bridge—arguably Pasadena’s foremost beauty queen, sorry Rose Princesses—since I was a partying, girl-crazy prep high school student. On the night I crumpled the back of my parent’s Pontiac Grand Safari by stupidly backing into a buddy’s car in the parking lot below her, I swear I could feel the queen staring down at me, as though she already knew we’d enjoying a literary rendezvous later.

Source: LA Times

It wasn’t a simple journey to her. All I knew, as a former journalist and non-fiction author, was that my maiden stab in fiction would somehow involve a quixotic dreamer and a rascally dog able to occasionally read his companion’s oft-distracted mind. The spark for that concept shared my last name, just not my identity. It was my big brother, Paul, who scolded me that I was squandering my unrelenting sarcasm and affection for irony and absurdity by genre jumping, from biography to environmental to true crime in the non-fiction universe. Go with your nature, he said, and your love of the pureness of dogs. What’s annoying at family get-togethers might appeal to certain readers.

Not long after, in the course of freelancing an unrelated topic, I stumbled across an afterthought mention in a Pasadena coffee-table-type book about a gruesome construction accident that struck the bridge near quitting time on August 1, 1913. Soon I was obsessed about how the bridge saved repeatedly by good-hearted preservationists, the bridge whose romantic sightlines prop up local art galleries and organizations had such tragic origins. It just goes to show: the best story is the one you never set out to write.

I started kicking up dirt like an unsupervised Labrador, resurrecting details in the microfiche cubbyholes at the Pasadena Central Library and the subterranean stacks at the Pasadena Museum of History. I downloaded old engineering stories that tested the tensile strength of my liberal-arts brain. What I discovered about the inception of this old gal was juicy—it’s own gas-lamp soap opera rampant with feuds, missed deadlines, intrigue, and scant justice for those responsible for a semi-collapsed arch that took a trio innocent men to their demises from more than a hundred feet in the air. The citizenry, back in a time of a lapdog journalism, knew precious little about the strife and secrets, including how the tycoons living in mansions on the Orange Grove Boulevard’s “Millionaire’s Row” influenced the bridge’s design.

A pilot light flicked on in me: this is the backdrop I coveted for my man-dog morality tale.

I probably bought Jeff Bezos a new blazer with the twenty-odd books about the city and era I purchased off Amazon. From them and other sources, I saw that turn-of-the-century Pasadena held a constellation of big names I could use: Teddy Roosevelt, muckraker Upton Sinclair, Renaissance Man Charles Fletcher, and Upton Sinclair Adolphus and Lillian Busch, whose magical gardens of terraced slopes, fairytale huts and winding paths were once crowned “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Looking back, I realize I’d collected essential ingredients for a historical novel: romance, parasol-twirling splendor, political trickery, and suppressed conflict surrounding a famous bridge infamous today for suicides and ghost.

But what I was missing could’ve filled a dozen concrete vats. In my conception, my characters were feebly drawn individuals in the thick of either dangerous or entertaining circumstances. My celebrities were gaudy showpieces who played no role in advancing or arresting my protagonist, his suffragette girlfriend or his precocious dog. The bridge itself had nothing to add – a stoic royal indifferent to the escapades created in her name.

Around the time I was about to start writing, my elderly father’s health nosedived, and I used his death as a pretext to delay the inevitable rolled-up sleeves grind. So, I gushed out an overwrought 30,000-word treatment instead of a first draft doomed to fail. When I finally produced a miserable second draft, my editor critiqued my book-in-progress as “original,” “fun” and nowhere ready for publication.

He was right. I couldn’t tackle such an important and uber-delicate subject with a tissue-thin storyline where events subsumed the characters’ journeys. And I’d be damned if I was going to make the Colorado Street Bridge’s association with suicide the centerpiece when the real story was the provenance of her dark alter-ego.

A gutless historical novel about my city’s most enigmatic creature: what was I thinking?

It was a return to basics. I buried my nose into writers who’d brought history in Technicolor brilliance: Pete Dexter (think Deadwood) and T.C. Boyle (Road to Wellville). I studied how they developed their heroes, black hats, and side characters within the realm of their time. I read John Irving’s latest, An Avenue of Mysteries, to decipher how he so effortlessly integrated magical realism into his engaging morality play.

Still, the writing wasn’t as simple as the inspiration I drew from Messrs Dexter, Boyle and Irving. It was perspiration time – no more Internet distractions, excuse making, or delusions my story would materialize, to quote John Lennon, on a flaming pie. I had to accept I’d fail in draft after painful draft, in storylines that tried to be all things to all people, in prioritizing clever phrasing over crisp exposition. And when the sheer tonnage of my ambition put my bone strength to the test, I gulped Diet Coke and reminded myself that my novel demanded to be about unique characters living fishbowl existences within little-known history.

For four months starting last Thanksgiving, I buckled down like I had on no other book, pushing myself to the brink (while paying for my previous posturing as a future novelist).  I made myself a ghost to my family. I forsook weekends, favorite Netflix shows, vacations, and the sun. I cut, edited and revised through flu-bugs and a trigger-finger caused by repeated use of the delete key.

By Easter, I’d trimmed twenty thousand words and, with the assistance of my patient editor and understanding publisher, created a storyline far more nuanced and magical than I ever dreamed I could.

Suddenly, the concrete felt a whole lot lighter. I hope I made Pasadena’s weighty queen proud.

Many thanks, Chip, and best wishes for Arroyo.

Arroyo by Chip Jacobs ~~ Set against two distinct epochs in the history of Pasadena, California, Arroyo tells the parallel stories of a young inventor and his clairvoyant dog in 1913 and 1993. In both lives, they are drawn to the landmark Colorado Street Bridge, or “Suicide Bridge,” as the locals call it, which suffered a lethal collapse during construction but still opened to fanfare in the early twentieth century automobile age. When the refurbished structure commemorates its 80th birthday, one of the planet’s best known small towns is virtually unrecognizable from its romanticized, and somewhat invented, past.

Wrought with warmth and wit, Jacobs’ debut novel digs into Pasadena’s most mysterious structure and the city itself. In their exploits around what was then America’s highest, longest roadway, Nick Chance and his impish mutt interact with some of the big personalities from the Progressive Age, including Teddy Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, Charles Fletcher Lummis, and Lilly and Adolphus Busch, whose gardens were once tabbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” They cavort and often sow chaos at Cawston Ostrich Farm, the Mount Lowe Railway, the Hotel Green and even the Doo Dah Parade. But it’s the secrets and turmoil around the concrete arches over the Arroyo Seco, and what it means for Nick’s destiny, that propels this story of fable versus fact.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.