The city of Leeds was electrified by the sights and sounds of the Polish Winged Hussars over the August Bank Holiday weekend in their first ever show in the United Kingdom.
The event, held at the world famous Royal Armouries museum situated on the banks of the river Aire, provided the opportunity for packed crowds to witness the incredible horsemanship of the world-renowned Hussars, and to see their dazzling armour and deadly weapons.
In addition to local crowds, and the many people who had travelled from outside Yorkshire to witness the spectacle, the show was watched by many VIPs and special guests on Bank Holiday Monday, including the Polish Ambassador Arkady Rzegocki and his family, who are big fans of the Hussars.
Performing to sell-out crowds on all three days of their visit, the Hussars thrilled and entertained in excess of 5,000 people, including large numbers of Polish spectators from Yorkshire and beyond. On offer was a truly impressive demonstration of horsemanship, including the skilful use of lances, two types of sword and pistols, performed by riders wearing armour and costumes that were as beautiful and they were impregnable.
The crowd included people from numerous countries, but was especially noticeable for the number of British and Polish families who were rubbing shoulders – and swapping superlatives – as the Hussars galloped by at breakneck speed, performing their exercises and daring manoeuvres.
The show also provided the chance for people to hear Polish instructions delivered in a dramatic and evocative setting by the charismatic Commander of the Hussars, Jarek Struczyński. Struczyński is already a familiar face at the Royal Armouries, having competed at the museum’s Easter Tournament in 2016, where he took home the much-coveted team trophy with his teammate Jan Gradoń.
Lucy Broom travelled to the event with friends from the Yorkshire town of Otley. “I found it exciting and interesting, and I also learnt a lot,” she said as she made friends with one of the riders’ horses and admired the Hussars’ intricate armour during a ‚meet and greet’ session at the end of a show. “And I was touched by how polite and gentlemanly the Hussars were too,” she added.
Among the many Polish visitors to the Royal Armouries for the event was Wojciech Kołodziejczak (originally from Łódź) who travelled from Manchester to see the show. He said: „I was really delighted to see the performance of the Polish Winged Hussars, as I used to be very interested in their history, arms and armour as a kid. It was great to see the show in Leeds – the pride of the Polish army that saved Europe in Vienna in 1683!”
A British Hussar
One of the many firsts over the weekend was the appearance in the arena of the first British rider ever to perform with the Hussars – the Royal Armouries’ own Andy Deane. It was a great honour for Andy to join his friends in the show this year, after striking up a special friendship with them through jousting and other horsemanship events in the UK and Poland, including the major competition at the beautiful Gniew Castle, where the Hussars are the re-enactors in residence. This impressive edifice, situated in northern Poland and built in the late 13th century, is a former castle of the Teutonic Order of Knights.
Speaking about his appearance as an official member of the Hussars, Deane said: “It’s amazing that the team invited me to join them. We share a passion for making the most of every day, and it was thrilling to be able to perform out there with my Polish friends. It’s a great example of British and Polish people working together.”
Deane, who is an interpreter at the Royal Armouries as well as being an expert horseman, also spoke about his adventures riding Polish horses, which he described as “totally fearless and incredibly agile”.
Arkadiusz Dzikowski, one of the many Hussars whose rugged looks give the impression that he has just stepped off a film set, agreed with Andy about how effective the partnership had been. It saw the Polish riders using British horses based in Goole in East Yorkshire, which have recently starred in historical TV dramas such as Poldark. He was also happy to swap compliments with the British Hussar, saying: “Andy has had very little time to get used to the armour and horses, and I’m really impressed by how he has acquitted himself.”
Dzikowski also paid tribute to the huge crowds that assembled during the weekend, saying: “It was great to see so many Polish people in the arena – and to talk to them after the shows.” An important element of each performance was an extended opportunity for photographs with the Hussars after the arena activities had ended.
The weekend was made extra special through a stunning display in the Armouries building of photographs by the celebrated Polish photographers Marcin Lipinski and Andrzej Wiktor, who have captured – almost as if in paintings – this historic group of cavaliers. Interpretation panels within the gallery helped visitors learn more about the history of the Hussars, their armour and arms – and their place in European military history.
Visitors were also able to view a gun from around 1600, found near Gdańsk, that has recently been acquired by the Royal Armouries and constitutes one of the few Polish items in the collection of the museum – something the curators are hoping to put right, despite the rarity of many Polish artefacts.
A galloping success
Speaking about the success of the event at the dinner reception which closed the event, Dr Edward Impey, Director General of the Royal Armouries, said it had been a memorable “weekend of firsts” and one he looks forward to repeating.
He also commented on the strong friendship that has been forged between the Royal Armouries and the Hussars, built on shared interests and warm hospitality. Finally, he paid tribute to the Hussars’ scholarly and skilled re-enactment, which had brought so much enjoyment to the crowds over the long weekend.
Jarek Struczyński, Commander of the Hussars, thanked his many friends at the Royal Armouries for bringing the project to fruition and then gave a rousing vodka toast and song for the assembled guests, which included the Polish Ambassador Arkady Rzegocki and his wife Jolanta.
The three-day event ended with the Hussars presenting framed photographs of themselves to the Polish Ambassador, local dignitaries and of course the new Hussar team member Andy Deane.
There were hugs, tears, jokes about vodka, hopes expressed for future joint projects and then Andy proclaimed, movingly: “Every day I will remember I’m a Hussar!”. British-Polish cooperation doesn’t come any better than this.
WINGED HUSSARS – FIVE FASCINATING FACTS
- Their fearsome reputation, and long history of being undefeated in battles, resulted in the Hussars gaining the reputation as the finest cavalry in history.
- The Hussars’ wings were traditionally constructed of eagle feathers, and were fixed to wooden frames on the back of the riders’ saddles. They are thought to have given the Hussars a superhuman look, and a psychological advantage in battles. The sound of the wind screeching through the Hussars’ wings as they charged is also thought to have scared the horses of the enemy.
- The leopard (and other cat) skins worn by the Hussars added visual splendour to their costumes, but they are also thought to have brought with them the distinctive scent of predators, which again scared the enemy’s horses.
- Their most formidable weapon was arguably the distinctive wooden lances which were used in battle charges, which were six metres long and caused enormous damage when used en masse.
- The full name of the Hussar group who came to Leeds is the Chorągiew Husarska Marszałka Województwa Pomorskiego (Winged Hussar Banner of the Marshall of Pomorskie Voivodeship)
Brin Best is the co-author of ‚Poles in the UK’, which can be downloaded for free from www.polesintheuk.net.
Polish Ambassador’s View
Mr Arkady Rzegocki: “I think it’s a great idea because both in Poland and Britain we love horses and cavalry, and both countries have a huge tradition of military service with horses. So I feel it’s about time we show our British friends and colleagues our Polish traditions, in the form of the very famous Polish Hussars. They have been very well known around Europe since the beginning of the 16th century, and it’s really amazing that, after being established by the Polish parliament, for 120 years there was not a single battle which they lost. It’s a huge tradition, unfortunately not very well known in Britain, so it’s a very good opportunity to show Polish traditions and heritage here in Leeds, in a country where soldiers on horses are very popular and look wonderful.”
The Hussars took part in the vital Battle of Vienna of 1683, when the forces of the invading Ottoman Empire where defeated. Do you think it’s important for British people to learn more about this history?
“Yes, of course this battle was very important. It helped not only Vienna, but the central and western parts of Europe to survive. The role of King John III Sobieski of Poland needs a special mention. He was elected by all noblemen in Poland, around 10% of the population, and he was a great leader and a well-educated person.”
Have you been looking forward to the visit of the Hussars to Leeds?
“Yes, I’ve been really looking forward to it because I haven’t been able to see the performance live before. I’m aware that this particular group of Hussars are well known for their attention to detail, recreating what the original arms and armour looked like. This is important because we often have an image of the Hussars going back mainly to the 18th century, when their role was not as significant, and they changed their outfits and customs. So I think it will be interesting for everybody to see what the Hussars looked like at the beginning of the 17th century.
My whole family have been looking forward to the performance in Leeds, especially my eldest daughter (aged 9), who is very keen on the Hussars and horses. During our holiday, we visited the small town near Krakow where, for many years, they have specialised in making outfits and arms just for the Hussars. To this day there continues to be a school of metalwork there; they keep the tradition and there’s a small museum too, containing some equipment of the Polish Hussars.
Just like for you, when you wrote your book and held your meetings with Polish people, it’s been amazing for me to find so many connections between Poland and Britain. And when I attended the garden party at Buckingham Palace in May, I was really surprised to see lances, of Polish design, decorating the area around the royal tent, with their red-and-white flags. The British military created similar ones, with their accompanying red uniform, at the beginning of the 19th century.”
What has been the most significant part of this collaboration for you?
“I’m so happy that this important event, which is financially supported (alongside other sponsors) by the Polish Embassy and the Institute of Polish Culture, is taking place in the city of Leeds. In Leeds you can find the very famous Royal Armouries museum and the city is also a famous centre for heritage and history.
For me the most important part of this highly successful collaboration is the British-Polish friendship that we have seen here in Leeds. I would like to thank the team at the Royal Armouries for working on this important project, and I’m looking forward to the next one.”
The interview & the article: by Brin Best
Photos of husaria: Gosia Prochal