"I came, I saw, God conquered."
Sobieski after the Battle of Vienna
In the election of 1669, the nobles chose a native candidate, the son of a local war hero, as their next king. Michael Wisiowski's election was due to the overwhelming support of the lower gentry, but the people who knew the young king recognized his glaring lack of ability. The archbishop, who along with most magnates supported a French candidate, preformed the coronation ceremony without enthusiasm, "like a wolf harnessed to the plough and ordered to pull it" according to observers. When former King John Casimir heard of the selection he exclaimed, "What? They have set the crown upon the head of that poor devil!"
Michael Wisiowski (1640-1673) was the only son of Jeremi Wisiowski, a legendary military commander who inherited one of the greatest fortunes in the Commonwealth. Prince Jeremi Wisiowski, of Lithuanian/Ukrainian origin, ruled as Palatine of Ruthenia on the eve of the Cossack Uprising. Incredibly, he owned thirty-eight thousand homesteads on his vast estates in Ukrainia, the lord of almost a quarter of a million peasants who toiled on his land. As such, he had much to lose in the revolt and protected his processions with a ferocity that equaled his opponents. Once he received an envoy from Bogdan Chmielnicki, who was sent by the Cossack leader with a proposed truce, was impaled in full view of the opposing army. Presumably the answer was, "No". His brutal tactics earned him the title Uzhas Kozachij, Cossack's Fear, before his death in 1651.
Armed with the Wisiowski name, and not much else, King Michael, hailed as a "new Piast" despite his Jagiellon blood, proved a feeble ruler who allowed domestic and international relationships to deteriorate to dangerous levels. His appeal to the nobles was his innocuous mediocrity; he was a novice politician, unmarried, Catholic, and poor after the Cossack uprising, a perfectly non-threatening king. Another redeeming quality the king processed was his impotence, which precluded any discussion of dynastic succession. The nobles found it easy to manipulate the malleable monarch, forcing Wisiowski to declare the liberum veto statutory during the coronation Sejm. The new edict proved the most destructive law the Republic ever made.
Although King Michael was a native Pole, he was firmly in the Habsburg camp, having married a Habsburg, the Archduchess of Austria, and accepting membership into the Order of the Golden Fleece. Taking note, the Ottoman Empire, traditional enemies of the Habsburgs, were wary of a Polish-Habsburg coalition and in 1669 formed an alliance with rebel Cossacks who still dreamed of an independent Ukrainian state.
The Turks were one of Poland's few neighbors that did not attack her during the Deluge and, in fact, did not actively engage the Poles for almost fifty years. It may have been because they were busy elsewhere finishing a successful expedition in Crete, but memories of their slaughter at the hands of the Winged Hussars in1621 probably played a role in their passivity. But the obvious ineptitude of the new Polish king and the weakened condition of his kingdom was too inviting.
Turkish-Cossack forces attacked the Commonwealth, quickly occupying a huge swathe of the Polish Ukraine. While the steppes burned the Sejm fiddled, unable to muster the unanimous vote necessary to fund troops. The king proved indecisive and uninspiring, dividing the country at a time unity was needed. In 1672 Michael panicked and made a peace offer that contained humiliating concessions to the Turks. The treaty, signed in Buczacz, relinquished Poldolia and much of the Polish Ukraine to the Turks with the further insulting obligation to pay an annual tribute of twenty-two thousand ducats to the Sultan. The Catholic Polish King was now a tributary vassal of Mahomet. King Michael made the treaty without consulting the Polish Diet, in direct violation of his coronation oath. Cathedrals in the conquered lands quickly were converted to mosques as the Muslim threat inched closer to the Western Christendom.
Fortunately a remarkable Polish commander named Jan (John) Sobieski took charge. In what may have been his toughest fight, he persuaded the Sejm to reject the Buczacz Treaty and instead, appropriate funds for a new army. King Michael roused enough to attempt to lead the troops in battle but the uncharacteristic activity was too much as the thirty-three year old King who died on the eve of the decisive battle. His death was attributed to overeating, heretofore his only discernable talent.
Sobieski, the Grand Hetman of the Crown, led his forces to the city of Chocim in the western Ukraine, where Polish forces famously had defeated a larger Turkish army in 1721. 30,000 Turks were entrenched in the fortress on the Dniester River which was recently ceded to the Ottoman Empire at the Treaty of Buczacz. In the dawn attack on November 11, 1673, the aggressive Poles surprised the Turks by attacking their strong points. In recent years Sobieski had reorganized the army for the offensive. His new tactics included mobile artillery paving the way for that most effective of Polish forces. Sobieski improved and expanded the Winged Hussars, much of it at his personal expense, which had dwindled to only a few hundred men after the ravages of the Deluge.
The Polish infantry managed to storm the ramparts and fill the defensive moats, allowing an avenue for the cavalry to traverse. Before the Turks stemmed the gaps in their lines, the frightening sound of the unstoppable Winged Hussars was heard once again on the eastern battlefield, with the same murderous results. Thousands of the elite Spahi cavalry and their commanders were slaughtered, sending shock waves of disbelief among the Turkish masses. They fled in disarray, suffering great losses as they scrambled for safety. Even the cowed peasants of the fortress came out of their hiding places to kill the frantic Turks. The Polish artillery managed to blow up the bridge, the main avenue of escape, leaving the disorganized Turks at the mercy of the Winged Hussars. Only one man in fifteen of the Turks survived. A lone senior Ottoman commander, Husain Pasha, escaped with his life, but he soon received a silk cord from the sultan, an unspoken order to commit suicide for the disgraceful defeat. Although one Turkish army was destroyed, the Ottomans still had ample resources and fought the Poles to a standstill until a truce was declared in 1676, but the momentum of the invading hordes was broken.
Sobieski's great victory made him the man of the hour, easily securing election as king in the spring of 1674, defeating more well-born candidates such as the Duke of York, who later ruled England as James II. John III Sobieski is Poland's most famous king, responsible for one of the most heroic feats of Western civilization. He is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the last Polish king whose election was decided not by the machinations of foreign rulers, but by the Poles themselves.
In what seems like a contradiction, Sobieski (1629-1696) was elected king for his military prowess even though the Polish gentry were overwhelmingly pacifist. Several decades of near total war created a desire for a peaceful existence, but the Polish nobles were worldly enough to recognize that only perceived strength prevented her neighbors from attacking. Sobieski defended the nation, and his opponents knew it. As an additional appeal Sobieski, although known to have fought the Ottomans, was a partisan of France, the traditional friend of the Sultan, and, thus, not likely to become involved with a war with the Turks or so it was thought.
Sobieski, called by the Turks the "Lion of Lehistan (Poland)" was born to a "purely Polish" family in 1629 in a small village in what is now the western Ukraine. His birth reputedly occurred during a thunderstorm in the middle of a Tatar raid, and his life remained tumultuous throughout. His father, like that of his predecessor, was a onetime Palatine of Ruthenia who presided over a large noble estate. The elder Sobieski, who was instrumental in Poland's 1621 victory against the Turks at Chocim, served as parliamentary deputy twenty times, parliamentary marshal four times, and as senator before accepting his rarefied position in the Ukraine. Jan's privileged upbringing as a Sarmatian magnate in his father's private city exposed him to the finer aspects of Western Culture typically unavailable to those born in the border regions. His affluent father sent Jan and his brother on a two year educational tour of Western Europe, where he observed sophisticated European courts in London, Paris, and Amsterdam. His father cautioned his sons to concentrate on their studies, advising, "My children, apply yourselves in France only in the useful arts; as to dancing, you will have an opportunity of accomplishing yourselves in that among the Tatars". But Sobieski enjoyed the joyous frivolity of youth on his tour, earning a reputation as a debauchee. While in France he even briefly served in the grand musketeers, the personal guards of Louis XIII.
A graduate of the Jagiellonian University where he studied philosophy, the warrior Sobieski was surprisingly educated; fluent in French, German, Italian, Latin, and Turkish. When he returned to Poland in 1648 the Deluge provided him virtually unlimited military experience as he fought Cossacks, Tatars, Swedes and Russian for the next twenty years. Like Napoleon, he won most of his victories against numerically superior foes. Surprisingly, he deserted the royal cause briefly in 1656, accepting an officer's commission from the Swedish King Charles X, but returned to John II Casimir's banner the following spring, perhaps another miraculous outcome of the siege of Jasna Gora. Sobieski fought effectively for the Polish King during the unfortunate Lubomirski Rokosz but was most noted for his annihilation of the Ottoman army at Chocim.
Jan III Sobieski, statesman, soldier, scholar, was a born leader. He was equally skilled in courtly etiquette and battlefield brutality, and feared no man intellectually or physically. His exploits were well known internationally; he corresponded with Charles II of England and Louis XIV offered him the baton of a French Marshal in 1666. His handsome Italianate palace was filled with European works of art, French literature, and Eastern amenities such as Turkish banners, weapons, and carpets. While serving in the Polish embassy in Constantinople in 1654 he honed his diplomatic skills and gained useful insights to his Ottoman opponent, whom he greatly respected. In battle he personally led his men, who adored him, and was second to none in bravery or killing prowess. His imposing physical presence and reputation commanded a respect that even partisans in the Sejm grudgingly acknowledged. He was evenly matched intellectually by his beautiful French wife, Marie-Casimire de le Grange, known universally as "Marysienka", who came to Poland as a lady-in-waiting, attendant of noble rank to Queen Louise Marie, wife of the last two Vasa Kings. The couple engaged in a lively, loving, and lengthy − they wrote to each other almost every day, whether at home or apart, for twenty years − correspondence, much of which fortunately survives, providing an intimate portrait of the king and his times.
Sobieski fearless plunged into the mainstream of European politics that his predecessors, perhaps wisely, ignored. The multilingual Polish king made an alliance with anti-Habsburg France in 1675, no doubt with the encouragement of his Queen, and in 1677 signed a convention with Sweden, with whom he briefly served during the Deluge. Sobieski planned to use the alliances to bring Brandenburg-Prussia, which was aligned with the Habsburgs, back into the Commonwealth. The plan temporarily derailed when the Swedes failed to dislodge Prussian forces and the Polish army assembled to assist in the Prussian attack was diverted to resist the Turks, who rejected offers of peace. Worse, the Sejm of 1677, distrustful of the king's plan, voted to dramatically reduce the army. But Sobieski still planned to reclaim Prussia until outside events dictated a new course.
The Turks, under a new grand visor, Kara Mustafa, noticed the disarray of Christian forces in Europe. Recognizing that France welcomed the destruction of the Habsburg Empire, he planned a new assault on Eastern Europe, calculating that only a coalition of all nearby Christian nations − Austria, Poland, and Russia, could resist his forces. Once the Habsburgs were disposed of, France was in easy reach. Thanks to fratricidal infighting, the divided Christian forces were defeated. With a Muscovite-Ottoman treaty securing their northern borders and a Poland-Habsburg rift apparently in the cards, the Turks amassed an army of approximately 150,000 fighting men hauling three hundred immense pieces of artillery and in the spring of 1683 set out from Ottoman controlled Hungary for Vienna.
For centuries the Ottoman Empire held strategic aspirations for the capture of Vienna, not only as a base for the eventual conquest of Western Europe, but also because of its inter-locking control over Danubean (Black Sea to Western Europe) commerce and overland (Eastern Mediterranean to Germany) trade routes.
The Muslim-Christian conflict was a thousand years old in 1683. Since the time of the Prophet Mohammed, Islam, born in war, expanded the same way, commonly at the expense of Christian territory. The word Islam does not means "peace," but "submit to Allah" and practitioners of the faith did their best to see that mission fulfilled. Although inhabitants of Muslim states often were allowed to practice a religion of their choosing, it was Islam's mission to conquer non-Muslim states, which were required to pay what was in effect protection money to their Islamic overlords. Within conquered territories only Muslim law was considered valid, and infidels were not afforded even this protection. Perhaps the most despicable Muslim practice in Christian lands was the notorious devshirme, child levy, in which they abducted what was considered the most promising Christian children to raise as professional soldiers in the Sultan army.
Prior to the 7th century Christianity was established in the Holy Land and throughout the Mediterranean rim. Contrary to popular present day belief, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt were once some of the most heavily Christian areas in the world. But by the 8th century Christianity had lost these lands as well as much of North Africa and Spain to Muslim armies. Only at great expense, and the heroics of Charles the Hammer Martel, was Europe saved from invading Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732. But the onslaught continued, as Turkey, which was Christian since the time of St. Paul, fell to the Islamic Seljuks in the 11th century. The Muslim military expansion was in fact the greatest imperalistic land grab in history, far exceeding, for example, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe after World War II.
Over three hundred years of virtually uninterrupted Muslim aggression led, finally, to a Christian response. The Crusades were characterized as a fanatical holy war instigated by a self-righteous Pope against peaceful Muslim neighbors. In fact, the Crusades were a defensive war − an attempt to stem the tide of Muslim expansion and reclaim the Christian Holy Land. Church leaders recognized that Islam would not be satisfied with the two-thirds of the original Christian world that had already fallen to the Muslim sword. Christians were convinced, with good reason, that Islam threatened their very survival.
The Council of Clermont was convened by the Pope in 1095 to discuss, among other things, a request for assistance from the beleaguered Byzantine Emperor whose territories were under assault from Muslim forces. Although the "Great Schism" of 1054 formally separated the Christian Churches, the Roman Catholic Church was still willing to defend its Orthodox sibling in the Eastern Roman Empire. The Pope called for knights across Christendom to participate in a Crusade with two goals: rescue the Orthodox Christians in the east and liberate the Holy Land.
Thousands of Christians answered the call. Many historys depict the campaign as a glorified plundering expedition, but the noblemen who left their comfortable estates already were rich and the pickings were decidedly slim in the vast majority of Muslim lands. Although it is true that many Christian rulers happily exported their local knights who were rivals for power, the primary motivation for the vast majority of the Crusaders was a belief in the righteousness of their cause − for which they willingly sacrificed everything they owned, even their lives.
Despite a lack of central planning the First Crusade was remarkably successful, restoring Nicaea, Antioch, and Jerusalem to the Christian fold by 1099. The new Christian rule was not as intolerant as many may suppose, throughout its history Muslims outnumbered Christians in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The victories though were short lived. By 1187 Jerusalem was back in Muslim hands. Subsequent crusades, despite better organization and more numerous recruits, were dismal failures, especially the unfortunate Fourth Crusade which detoured for obscure political reasons to Constantinople. Ironically, the Crusades, originated in part as a Catholic effort to save the Orthodox people, resulted in a permanent rift in the Christian world.
In the 14th century Muslims, now under the banner of the Ottoman Empire, continued their advance, mostly against a weakened Byzantine Empire. Orthodox Christian territories in the Balkans, Middle East, and Asia Minor were systematically attacked by Ottoman forces. In 1389 the Turkish victory over the Serbs at the battle of Kosovo Polje led to the complete subjugation of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania. In what was in effect the last large scale crusade, devote Christians from Hungary, England, France, the Habsburg Empire, and even contingents of Teutonic Knights and Poles who were already bitter enemies, formed a coalition intent on driving the Turks from the Balkan Peninsula. On September 25, 1396, the Christians attacked an Ottoman held fortress at Nicopolis, in present day Bulgaria. Not only were the Christians defeated, but after the battle several thousand French prisoners deemed unworthy of ransom or service as slaves were stripped naked, marched before the sultan, and decapitated one at a time. To make his point the sultan made sure the grisly spectacle, which took the better part of a day, was witnessed by those Christian nobles held for ransom. Although Muslims certainly had no monopoly on atrocities during the Nicopolis Crusade, the slaughter of Christian prisoners left a lasting impression.
The battle of Varna in 1444, which claimed the life of the young Polish king Wladyslaw III, placed Hungary under Turkish control and positioned the aggressive Ottoman Empire on the footstep of Europe. Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Church, was captured in 1453. In 1480 the Sultan Mehmed II conquered Otranto on the southern tip of Italy, causing Rome to evacuate. Although the Sultan's premature death stopped the invasion, Western Europe was still in the cross hairs.
After establishing rule in Hungary following the 1526 Battle of Mohacs, Islamic hordes besieged Vienna in 1529, but were thwarted by a plague in their camp and freakish rainstorms that bogged down the offensive. Wallachia and Transylvania, despite the earlier efforts of Vlad the Impaler, fell under Ottoman suzerainty in the mid-16th century. Meanwhile most of North Africa succumbed along with Baghdad and the rest of Mesopotamia. Tunis, Algeria, and Nice followed suite. Ottoman naval power threatened to choke off the Mediterranean from Christian trade. One is tempted to view the relative position of the adversaries from the position of today, but in the 17th century Muslims were the dominant military power that often defeated a technologically inferior Western world.
In 1683 the Ottoman Empire had an imposing position on the border of Europe. The frontier between the civilizations stretched in a wide arch for twelve hundred miles from the Adriatic to the Sea of Azov, where Muslim possessions included outposts in Dalmatia, Slavonia, Hungary, Transylvania, Moldavia, Podolia, and the Ukraine. Despite a peace treaty with the Habsburg Empire that was not due to expire until 1684, a massive Turkish expedition was clearly headed for central Europe, which they assumed to be politically and religously divided and, therefore, ripe for easy conquest. Sobieski naturally interpreted the Turkish attack on the Holy Roman Empire as a continuation of the centuries old Islamic expansion into the Christian world, as indeed it was. Although later information suggested that the Ottoman Empire was in decline, or at least overextended, the only thing apparent to Christians was the looming possibility of a Muslim Europe.
The Habsburg Emperor, Leopold I (1640-1705), made a desperate offer to his erstwhile enemy and fellow Christian sovereign that if Sobieski personally led a relief force to save Vienna he would be appointed Commander-in-Chief of all Christian armies and receive a subsidy of 1,200,000 ducats. The Polish king's acceptance of foreign funds should not be misinterpreted as a purely mercenary act as the chronic shortage of Sejm approved funds necessitated subsides for any Commonwealth expedition. Still, Sobieski, at the insistence of his wife, refused the arrangement unless the haughty Leopold referred to the Polish King, a mere elected official in the eyes of the Emperor, as "His Majesty". Leopold swallowed his pride and reluctantly agreed.
Leopold I's desperation was partially the result of his strategic folly earlier in the year. Uncertain about the object of the Turkish invasion force, he deployed his armies to the Rhine to protect against France, leaving his eastern approaches undefended. The French, who were interested in a Habsburg defeat, may have given the Emperor the impression that invasion was imminent, a clever deception that cost the Sun King little and potentially the Austrians much.
Despite Sobieski's anti-Habsburg bias, he was predisposed to accept the offer. A Catholic King of Poland could hardly let the Ottoman Empire devour half of Eastern Europe and position itself along the whole of the Commonwealth's southern border. The Austrians at times were annoying neighbors, but the Ottomans were perceived as diabolic ones. Besides, Pope Innocent XI called for a Holy Alliance of Catholic forces to repel the Muslim invaders, promising to fund the expedition with church revenues. But Sobieski's decesion was hardly a mere cost/benefit analysis; in reality, passively allowing the elimination of his Habsburg neighbors, as was the policy of Catholic France, was the "wise" move. Sobieski decided to fight the Turks primarliy because he believed that Christendom was worth fighting for, and potentially dying, to preserve.
Sobieski was uniquely qualified to defend Western civilization at this historical moment. He understood the Ottoman enemy like no other European, spoke their language, observed their high officials in Constantinople, and fought them on a myriad of battlefields for a decade. He was master of the assault and possessed the most feared weapon available at that time in the world, the indomitable Winged Hussars. Almost as important was his reputation as the Turks rightly feared the Polish King whose heroics seemed beyond human capacity. Sobieski was keenly aware of the risk involved, but also the rewards, commenting, "It would be to the detriment of the Commonwealth if Vienna fell, but it would also be bad if it was saved by its own efforts". Here was an opportunity, after decades of decline, to put Poland back on the map of power politics in Europe.
The agreement between Sobieski and Leopold I was signed on April 1, 1683, but was backdated to avoid the stigma of April Fool's Day. The observance of April Fool's Day goes back to the time of Constantine, when court jesters suggested that they be allowed to rule the Empire. Amused, Constantine appointed a jester named Kugel "king" for a day, during which the new ruler passed an edict demanding absurd behavior from his subjects. With an eye to posterity the Habsburg-Poland agreement was officially dated March 31.
The Polish mission required the unanimous approval of the Sejm, which in the past was hesitant to sanction crusades not directly effecting Commonwealth territory. The French, who hoped the Turks would eliminate their Habsburg competitors, sent agents to bribe deputies to vote against the campaign, but the Pope essentially outbid them, liberally dispensing money from the Vatican coffers. Miraculously, given that the Republic still reeled from the decades of war during the recent Deluge and that the Turkish invasion was remote from Polish territory, the Sejm enthusiastically approved Sobieski's mission. The reason was as simple as it was surprising. The Poles genuinely believed that Western Civilization was threatened and were willing to risk their lives in its defense. Although there were some strategic advantages to Poland in the upcoming campaign, the Polish army sent to rescue Vienna was not fighting an imperialistic adventure for dynastic dominance, but were supporting a common European cause to eject a foreign culture from the continent. It was rumored that a price of 100,000 gold pieces was offered in the parliamentary halls for any deputy that invoked the liberum veto, but such was the patriotic fervor that, for once, there were no takers.
A Polish expeditionary force of twenty-six thousand men set off for Vienna in mid-summer, several months behind their Ottoman adversaries. Sobieski made a slight detour to the Polish shrine at Our Lady of Czestochowa to bless the upcoming campaign. Although the Sejm approved taxes for the mission, many of the regiments were funded by magnates who flocked to the campaign.
The Turks reached the Austrian capital on July 16th and began an elaborate siege. The Emperor, who possessed no military talents or knack for inspiratioanl leadership, and most of the inhabitants of Vienna had already fled, leaving about sixteen thousand defenders. Although the Austrians updated the defensive capabilities of the Viennese fortifications and destroyed all outlying buildings to deny the attackers any shelter from their well-placed artillery, they were greatly outnumbered. It was only a matter of time before the Turks took the city. Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha wanted Vienna and its riches taken intact, so, eschewing a frontal assault, he tunneled his way toward the cities fortifications. Given enough time, strategically placed explosives could breach the thick protective walls and provide an avenue for his superior forces to overwhelm any resistance. With the city surrounded and relief forces far away or inadequate, Kara Mustafa could afford to proceed systematically, even leisurely. While waiting for the engineers to complete their work, the restless Tatars kept their looting skills finely honed by raiding the surrounding countryside. Quietly waiting was not in their nature.
By September 8th Turkish sappers created several small breaks in the Viennese walls and appeared on the brink of success. Even if the breakthrough was unsuccessful, rampid dysentery was sapping the Austrian's will to resist. The undernourished defenders, forced to eat cat meat for lack of food, unable to dispose of their garbage or even find sufficient area to bury their dead, lived in squalor under almost constant attack. Supplies of water became dangerously low since the Turks sabotaged the conduits of fresh water leading to the city. Now only four thousand fit men were available to repulse the Turkish horde, surrender was only a matter of days away. When Leopold learned of the dire situation in Vienna, he sent a desperate letter to Sobieski, urging the Polish King to come as soon as humanly possible, ahead of his troops if necessary, because:
...your Majesty's [a term he must have had difficulty writing]presence, being fully persuaded that if your royal presence will vouchsafe to appear at the head of our forces, though less numerous than those of the enemy, your name alone, which is so justly dreaded by them, will make their defeat certain.
Sobieski had more faith in his troops than his name and continued with his army towards Vienna.
Unbeknownst to the confident Ottomans, a substantial Christian relief force, including the Poles, was converging nearby. Imperial forces under Charles V, the Duke of Lorraine and the brother-in law of the Emperor, were united with troops from Bavaria, Saxony, Baden and other Catholic states who had responded to the Pope's call. Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Scots, and Irishman were in their ranks, willing to risk all to stop the Muslim incursion into their collective homeland. Only France, vying with the Hapsburgs for hegemony in Europe, declined to assist its Catholic brothers. The assorted European troops met up with the Poles on a hill overlooking besieged Vienna. Altogether they numbered seventy thousand, less than half of the Turkish force.
Normally nationalistic rivalries make command structure contentious, but the assembled armies of Christendom recognized Sobieski as their unquestioned leader. The Duke of Lorraine, who was once one of Sobieski's competitors for Polish throne, was consistently magnanimous throughout the campaign and readily accepted Polish command. The outcome of the battle was too important to let egos get in the way, the future of the Christian faith was at issue and the enemy was in the European heartland.
Although the Turks were aware of the Polish relief force, they relied on their Tatar vassals to delay Sobieski. A force of thirty thousand Tatar horsemen sent to intercept the Poles was calculated to easily hold up a smaller army in the difficult mountain passes. The rugged geography made it difficult for the Poles to effectively use their heavy cavalry or artillery. It was not necessary for the Tatars to defeat the Poles, only to delay them for a few weeks. But the mercurial Tatars, for reasons unknown, abandoned their Ottoman masters without notice.
On the evening of September 11th, perhaps not coincidentally the last time a Muslim force threatened the Western World, the combined Christian armies surveyed the battered city of Vienna from their elevated vantage point. An occasional cannon blast or a distress rocket fired from within the fortifications confirmed that the Habsburg capital was not capitulating. In the foreground lay the frightening panorama of the massive encampment of Ottoman invaders, almost 250,000 including slaves, camp followers, and observers. Virtually every element of the Turkish realm was represented, with combatants gathered from Muslim domains in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Their sprawling camp, which included numerous pavilions covering the nearby islands of the Danube, swelled with thousands of horses, camels, tents, assorted luxuries, and accoutrements of war. But the Grand Vizier's deployment did not impress Sobieski, who commented,
A fire alerted the defenders to the Christian presence on the hillside, signaling that deliverance was at hand. The Turks were amused by the pathetic bravado of the tiny force on the hill. The Ottomans assumed that the relief force consisted of a rag-tag collection of minor Germanic states and their second rate Austrian brothers, perhaps led by the weakling Emperor who had fled in fear months before. Kara Mustafa did not bother with any extraordinary preparations for the tepid attack that was sure to come in the morning, preferring to concentrate his men on the ongoing siege work. He did not perceive the garrison or the relief force as threats that could trap him, but rather saw them merely as minor annoyances that might delay the inevitable capture of the city.
At first light the assault began as expected. The Turks observed Saxon and Austrian soldiers lumber into position on the left wing near the Danube. Together with the Bavarians, who formed the center, the Christian forces charged the casually prepared Ottoman defensive positions in a heavy rain. The battle was waged on very uneven ground, where deep ravines prevented a wide view of the fighting. In the morning the fighting was concentrated on the Christian left, mainly as isolated struggles in the muddy slopes and gullies. The Christians fought well, but it was apparent that they lacked the power necessary to break the Turkish line, despite the fact that Mustafa had yet to commit most of his men to the fight. In the late afternoon the Grand Vizier, who withheld his massive reserves until the infidels tired, decided to end the charade. Unfurling the green Banner of the Prophet, the symbol of Ottoman victory, he set up his majestic crimson tent behind the newly deployed Turkish troops set for the kill. Protected behind an impenetrable screen of tens of thousands of fresh warriors, Kara Mustafa leisurely watched the destruction of the foolish Christian relief force.
To the shock of the Turkish masses, fortunes were about to dramatically change. Under the cover of dense woods, the Polish contingent spent the day stealthy positioning itself on the Christian's right flank. As if from a dream, the gleaming Polish cavalry, bejeweled with the most opulent finery the Commonwealth possessed, slowly emerged from the nearby woods. The elite force led by the most senior of Polish politicians, magnates, and szlachtas, who put aside their differences for this one magnificent cause. Thousands of the finest warriors in all Christendom materialized on the unprepared Turkish flank. To the horror of the Ottomans, this majestic manhood was personally led by the one man they feared above all others, John III Sobieski. The king, at the height of his glory if not his physical prime, was positioned at exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, if the (Polish) Commonwealth were to have lasted a thousand years, men will say, this was their finest hour. The three thousand Winged Hussars thundered towards the frightened Turkish lines, the Polish juggernaut emitting the eerie sound of thousands of vibrating banners, pounding hoofs, and quivering wings of avenging angels. For many Turkish soldiers, this was the last sound they heard. Ottoman soldiers who recognized Sobieski, identified by the colorful streamers adorning the lances of his personal guard, exclaimed "By Allah, the King is with them," and ran for their lives. Those ignorant of the murderous power of the Hussars soon were fatally educated. Several thousand lances made a sickening crashing noise as they broke after piercing the chests of the Janissaries in their path. The Polish buzz saw, unsheathing deadly sabers, cut through the reeling Turkish ranks, annihilating the first, second, and even third lines of defensive with alarming ease. Soon the rampaging Poles were united with the Habsburg and German soldiers who doggedly advanced their left flank and center positions, forming an overwhelming and suddenly organized force in the belly of the Turkish beast. Recognizing that the Christian troops would meet in the confusing cauldron of battle, Sobieski wisely advised his Polish soldiers to wear straw cockades so their allies could distinguish them from the Turks as the Poles over the years developed the Tatar habit of shaving their heads before battle.
After watching his senior commanders bravely fall, the grand vizier determined that discretion was indeed the better part of valor, and grabbing a nearby horse, escaped just before the thundering Hussars reached his eloquent tent. The rest of the Turkish army followed suite and began a panicky retreat in whatever direction offered relief.
Once the Ottomans lost their cohesiveness they were easy prey for the Christian army that pushed groups of fleeing soldiers towards the guns of the fort. The Husaria were assisted by a mounted padre who followed in the wake of the attack. Hoisting a large crucifix, the priest shouted, "Behold the cross of the Lord, Begone, enemy troops!" Although one could argue about which cavalry was most effective, their combined result was impressive.
After firing their remaining ordinance point-blank at the unprotected Turks, Viennese defenders stormed out of their fortifications and extracted revenge on their tormentors. The Turks that did not flee in confusion were slaughtered where they stood. Vienna was saved and the Ottoman power broken, permanently it turned out, by the most majestic of Polish Kings.
Sobieski sent the Banner of the Prophet to the Pope with a victory message that read, paraphrasing Caesar, "I came, I saw, God conquered". It was later discovered that the sacred Muslim standard was salvaged by the fleeing Turks, but the captured ornate flag was still a fine trophy. The jeweled stirrup that broke off the saddle of the fleeing Grand Vizier was sent to his wife along with the following letter, written from the ruins of Kara Mustafa's tent:
The Immortal God, (to whom Honour and Glory be Ascribed for Ever) has Blest us with so Signal a Victory, as scarce the Memory of Man can Equal: The Enemy was not only content to Raise the Siege of Vienna, and Leave us Masters of the Field; But also of all their Cannon, and Tents, with Inestimable Treasure, and clim'd over Mountains of Carcasses made by their own Body's in the Flight. My Eyes were never Blest before with so delightful a Prospect as to see my Soldiers follow here a great Drove of their Sheep and Oxen, and there a much greater Herd of Turkish Captives; Nor my Ear's e're Charm'd with so pleasing Musick, as the Howlings and Dying Groans of these Miserable Wretches: So great was their Hast, that the Prime Visier almost alone and forsaken of all, was forc't without the Ceremony of his Turbant, to take his Flight; But yet he left me Heir to his Tent and Riches whith were shewn me by a Renegado of his own Retinue.
I have Presented the Turkish Standard to His Holyness, who was Instrumental no less by His Money, than His Prayers, to their Overthrow. The Prime Vizor's Horse with all his Trappings, I reserv'd for my self; And tho he was so Fortunate in his Flight to Escape us, yet his Caymecam, or Lieutenant-General, with some of the most Considerable Bassa's [Pashas]fell by our Swords; But the approaching Night put a Stop to our Pursuit, and their Slaughter. Those Janizaries which were left behind in the Mines and Trenches, we thought not worth the dulling of our Swords, therefore we made but one Funeral Pile for 'em all, and Burnt 'em.
In the Action there were about Thirty Thousand Turks kill'd; besides Tartars, and One Hundred Thousand Tents taken. Our Souldiers, and the Burghers of Vienna, were Two whole Nights, and One Day, in Rifling their Tents and Body's, and I believe a Week would scarce suffice to finish it.
The Rarities which were found in the Prime Vizor's Tent, were no less Numerous than Strange and Surprising, as very curious Parrots, and some Birds of Paradise, with all his Banios,and Fountains, and some Ostriches, which he Chose rather to Kill, than let 'em fall Alive into our Hands; Nay his Dispair and Jealousy transported him so far, as to Destroy his very Women for the same Reason.
The whole Army Attributes the Glory of this Victory to God, and Us, and all the Princes of the Empire, with the Great Officers, as the Dukes of Bavaria and Lorrain, Prince Waldek, etc. were so far transported with my Valour and Success, that their Thanks and Praises were more Numerous, than was their Fears before; and Count Staremberg the Governour, Saluted me with the Title of his Mighty Deliverer. The Common People in my going to and from the Churches, pay'd their Veneration even to my very Garments, and made their Cry's and Acclamations reach the Sky, of Long Live the King of Poland.
In the battle we Lost some of our Friends, as Prince Halicki, and the Treasurer of our Household. The Reverend Marinus Daviano, heapt on me his Pray'rs and Blessings, and told me he saw a White Dove fluttering o're the Army, which he look'd upon as an happy Augure of our Victory.
We are now on our March towards Hungary; taking the Advantage of their Distraction, to Defeat the Remainder of their scatter'd Troops, and Surprize Gran or Newheufell. I have all the Princes of the Empire my Companions in this Enterprise, who tell me they are ready to follow such a Leader not only into Hungary, but to the End of the World.
The Prime Vizor being unable to put a Stop to our Pursuit, told his Eldest Son Mahomet Han, That he must now bid Adieu to all his Greatness, and never expect to be in Safety, whilst their Lye's one Stone upon another in the Walls of Vienna, but withal bid him hasten to the Grand Seignor and Demand a Speedy Succour, to whom his Son Reply'd, That he knew him too well for that, and there was nothing for 'em now to Rely on but their Flight.
I am just now going to take Horse, and all my way for Two Hungarian Miles together, are so strew'd with the Carcasses of Men, Horses, and Camels, that the Stench of 'em would be insupportable to any but a Soldier.
I have sent several Dispatches to Forein Princes to give Notice of this Action, but the King of France was forgotten.
I Rejoice to see our Son Alexander of so Clear and Undanted a Courage who always stuck to me in my most iminent Dangers: and made the first onset on a Body of Turkish Spahn, with that Courage that he put 'em soon to flight, and Receiv'd the Applauses of the whole Army. He has Contracted a very Intimate Friendship with the young Duke of Bavaria with whom he equally devided the spoyl, This Prince has been very Assiduous in his Services to me; therefore I have presented him three of my Horses, the Bassa of Egypt's Tent and Standard, and ten Pieces of Cannon. To his Sister the Dauphiness, a Locket of Diamonds. Yet there Remains such heaps of their Colours and Symeters in our possession as are not to be numbred.
All my Countrey men March't with the same Bravery to the Relief of Vienna, as the Souldiers of Godfrey of Bullein did to the Holy Land, and the miraculous Cross that you presented me with [which was his companion in that Expedition]I Believe Contributed no less to our Victory.
Thanks be to Heaven, now the Half-Moon Triumphs no longer o're the Cross, And 'twas thrown down from St. Stephen's Steeple in Vienna (whom it had o'retopt so long) immediately on the Defeat: Neither have the Turks any occasion to upbraid us with their Blasphemous Mahometan Proverb. 'Ye Christians where is Your God'? :
The Battle of Vienna had significant ramifications.1683 marked the last year that Europe was on the defensive against Islam, from then on Christian forces went on the attack. But curiously the struggle also spawned several enduring culinary legends, some with more than a morsel of truth.
The fleeing Turks left behind many exotic items, including numerous sacks of coffee. Although a few coffee houses had recently opened in England and France, the drink relatively was rare in Europe. John II Sobieski decided to give the captured stock of coffee, which was not valued too highly, to Jerzy Kulczycki, a Polish residence of Vienna. During the siege Kulczycki managed to sneak out of the city and contact the Duke of Lorraine. He then made his way back through enemy lines to the besieged Vienna, informing the defenders that help was on the way. With the confiscated coffee Kulczycki opened the first coffee shop in Vienna, but business was lukewarm until a Capuchin, a branch of Franciscans, friar added milk and honey to the drink, inventing cappuccino. The rest is history.
After the battle bakers in Vienna reportedly presented Sobieski with bread fashioned in the shape of a Turkish stirrup, similar to the one the King presented to his wife, which they called a bagel. The Winged Hussars also had similar stirrups so the source of the inspiration is in dispute.
The Poles did not reap any long lasting benefits from their startling victory, indeed, quite the contrary. Even in the short term it was clear that the recipients of their largess, the Habsburgs, were decidedly ungrateful. The first hint that their magnanimous assistance was not properly appreciated became known as the matter of the Emperor's hat.
Leopold I arrived several days after the battle and expressed his displeasure over the fact that Sobieski did not wait for him to enter the city. Of course, the Emperor could have entered Vienna immediately after the battle had he not hidden in safety some distance away. When the Emperor arrived he was reluctant to receive a mere elected King, but after much discussion agreed to meet Sobieski and his entourage on horseback. Leopold was unnecessarily rude to the man who saved his Empire, even ignoring the introduction of Sobieski's son. Part of his poor manners may have been because he was having trouble controlling his horse, which must have been embarrassing in the presence of some of the greatest horsemen of the age. Sobieski left in disgust and did not participate in the Leopold's inspection of troops who fought in the great battle.
When reviewing the victorious Habsburg troops the Emperor touched his hat as a sign of respect but somehow forgot how to execute the gesture while passing the Polish troops who did all the heavy lifting. The subtle slight did not go unnoticed. Responding to the angry protests, the Emperor explained that he inadvertently was negligent during the review because he was "too absorbed". After all the sacrifices of the Polish army for the Habsburgs, the Emperor literally did not lift a finger in their behalf.
But not every Christian leader was ungracious. From Rome the ex-Queen of Sweden Christina wrote Sobieski, "I have never envied any of my contemporaries till today. Your majesty alone is an object of envy to me, and teaches me that I am subject to that feeling of which I thought myself entirely incapable".
The proverbial Habsburg ingratitude grew into open hostility, but not before the Emperor used the Poles and her allies to consolidate his Empire. In 1684 the Habsburgs helped organize a Holy League, consisting of Austria, Poland, the Papal Sates, the Venetian Republic, and eventually Russia while France was conspicuosly absent from the new alliance. The Ottomans, who held portions of Hungary since the First Battle of Mohacs in 1526, were finally expelled after suffering forty thousand casualties in the Second Battle of Mohacs in 1687. The presence of a large Austrian army did much to restore order in the portion of Hungary, in open revolt prior to the Siege of Vienna, which was under Habsburg rule. The Holy League went on to capture Belgrade, northern Italy, and penetrate deep in the Balkans, further expanding the Habsburg Empire. By the end of the century only France rivaled the Habsburg Empire as a European power.
The Ottoman Empire continued to battle the Christian forces for another twelve years, but the Muslim star definitely waned. European civilization, rejuvenated by the threat of extinction and applying increasingly advanced technologies, soon were the dominant power. Ironically, earlier Muslim success in the Middle East contributed to the eventual triumph of the Christian forces. Barred from trade routes to the Far East, the Europeans were forced to seek a western route. In doing so they accidentally discovered the New World, whose resources provided an unbeatable advantage.
In the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz (Karlovci) the Ottoman Empire was forced to give up more than half their European territories, including Hungary, Transylvania, and Slavonia to the Habsburgs and Podolia to Poland. The Turks concurrently were losing territory in the Mediterranean rim as Muslim influence on the peripheries of Europe continued to decline. The pathetic remnant of the once proud Ottoman Empire became the "sick man" of Europe by the end of the 19th century, and the power vacuum left in its wake figured prominently in the initiation of World War I. After the war, the Versailles Treaty reconfigured the Middle East, returning Christian dominance in the Holy Land after a hiatus of over a thousand years.
The Ottoman decline was hailed as a victory for Christendom, however, had Poland known the consequences of her heroics she may have thought twice. In one of the more glaring proofs that no good deed goes unpunished, Poland's defeat of Muslim forces in Europe strengthened the forces that ultimately destroyed her. The Ottomans were a key component in the balance-of-power in Eastern Europe; their absence created a void at a time of Polish weakness.
The Habsburg Empire, squeezed between the Turks, the Sun King, and the Rhine frontier, now found ample room for expansion in Eastern Europe, initially in the Balkans and eventually in Poland. The Commonwealth's victory at Vienna and subsequent battles with the Turks did little but exhaust her troops and increase Habsburg's power. By 1720 the Habsburgs regained almost all of the territories in the Christian West that were lost to Islam after the Battle of Mohacs following 1526. Instead of defeat at the hands of Ottoman forces, the Habsburgs now controlled a vast multi-ethnic Central European Empire largely made possible by Sobieski's selfless act at Vienna in 1683.
By concentrating on fighting the declining Ottoman Turks, Sobieski ignored the growing powers that threatened Poland. Several opportunities to bring Ducal Prussia back to the Commonwealth failed as Sobieski and his predecessors placated the Brandenburg Elector rather than risk a two-front war. Intervention in Prussia was a difficult proposition politically as the Polish nobility warned the king that any intervention in Prussia would meet with armed opposition. They feared an alliance of Prussia with the king which might tip the internal balance-of-power to the Crown, so much so that they willingly allowed a hostile power on their border. Again the Poles fought imaginary demons while real problems were ignored. Bolstered by tacit Polish support, Prussia consolidated its position and became an independent kingdom in 1701. The new Prussian Kingdom was encouraged by Sobieski's nominal ally Leopold I, who needed Prussian help in the War of Spanish Succession and was always looking for a way to humble Poland for having the poor manners of taking the credit for saving his Empire.
Similarly, Sobieski did not devote the necessary manpower to remove Muscovite Russia from the Ukraine. Both sides regarded the Treaty of Andrusovo as a temporary measure, but Poland's preoccupation with the Turks made the agreement permanent. In 1686 Poland, in order to secure Russian cooperation against the Turks, not only ratified the earlier treaty but recognized Russia as protector of the Commonwealth's Orthodox population, essentially giving the Czar the right to interfere in Poland's domestic affairs. The tepid and temporary Russian support provided by the "Eternal Peace Treaty" of 1686 proved of little military advantage to Poland, but the Ukrainian territories surrendered to Russia gave her a preponderance of resources that enabled her to build an Empire. After the Ukraine was lost, Poland began a long period of contraction that culminated in the complete loss of soveriegnty in the next century. The Russian treaty was instrumental in eroding popular support for Sobieski at home, partly because he was accused of approving the treaty without the consent of the Sejm, a clear violation of the constitution, and partly because he widely was rumored to have accepted a large bribe to sign the document. In any case the terms were viewed with such distain that the treaty was not ratified by the Sejm until 1710.
In a tragic irony, Poland was instrumental in strengthening the very powers, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, that destroyed her in the century to come. She had selflessly saved Western Christianity, but at the risk of her soverienty.
Sobieski's military successes were not appreciated by his political enemies at home. The king's status as hero was considered a problem by the nobility, who worried that his new prestige might enable him to form a dictatorship or reform the constitution, possibilities that were viewed with equal horror. Parliamentary sessions of 1685, 1688, 1689, and 1692 produced nothing but angry debates and partisan attacks on Sobieski's associates. As is often the case in democratic rivalries, the loyal opposition became more of the latter than the former. Ignoring all he did for Poland, Sobieski was called "an infringer of the laws, an oppressor of the people, and an enemy to his country". The king became the target of vile personal insults. Widely circulated brochures depicted unflattering caricatures of the King in compromising positions, including one that showed Sobieski appearing feeble and childlike, sitting on the lap of a young woman and sucking an old one, presumable his wife, who stood beside him. The political infighting prevented cooperation between the king and the Sejm and began to have a detrimental effect on the economy.
Tax revenues dramatically declined, decimating the army. To save money, most of the Winged Hussars were replaced by light cavalry while infantry and artillery forces dwindled to ineffectiveness. Exasperated by the deteriorating conditions, Sobieski said to the Senate in 1688,
Future generations will wonder in astonishment that after such resounding victories, such international triumph and glory, we now face, alas, eternal shame and irreversible loss, for we now find ourselves without resources, helpless, and seemingly incapable of government.
Crucified by his spiteful political opponents and disheartened at Poland's weakness, Sobieski devoted his remaining years to amassing wealth and assembling one of the finest libraries and art collections, which included five Rembrandts, in Europe.
Sobieski's hopes of a dynastic succession went unfulfilled as his son failed to capture the Polish Crown in several lackluster campaigns. But the Sobieski bloodline did briefly reemerge in royal circles when the granddaughter of the Polish hero gave birth to Charles Edward Louis Philip Casimir (1720-1788). Known as the "Great Pretender", or more famously as "Bonnie Prince Charlie", Charles was the son of James III and grandson of the deposed kng of England, James II. Bonnie Prince Charles, the exiled claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland, led a revolt in Scotland designed to recapture the rightful place of the Stuart bloodline. Although Charles is remembered as a Scottish hero, his military exploits failed. He escaped to Europe and led an adventuresome but shallow life, dividing his time between drunkenness and adultery before his death in 1788.
The "Savior of Western European Civilization", Jan III Sobieski, died of a lingering illness on June 17,1696, far removed from the Vienna field where he achieved immortality. Despite his heroics he was in his later years an unpopular king, despised almost as much as his two much less worthy predecessors. Neither he nor Poland has received proper credit from the West for their selfless heroics at the gates of Vienna.
 Sarmatian refers to the lifestyle and culture of the wealthy, literate upper crust of Commonwealth nobility. The name comes from the ancient Sarmatians, warrior nomads who allegedly practiced a form of tribal democracy. Through some fanciful genealogy, elite Poles claimed to be direct ancestors of this mysterious clan.
 Perhaps the most tragic of crusades was the so-called Children's Crusade of 1212. Thousands of French and German children, influenced by a boy prophet who claimed to have spoken with Jesus, believed that if they made it to the shores of the Mediterranean the waters would part and form a path to the Holy Land. Those that survived the journey found no miracle but mainly slavery at foreign seaports.
 Sobieski was fifty-four at the Battle of Vienna, old by the standards of the day. He was described as so weak and debilitated that he required assistance to mount his horse, yet he performed magnificently during the battle. Fletcher, History of Nations, 99.
 Stoye, The Siege of Vienna, 171. The real standard depicting the Koran and the Prophet's robe, carried in a gold arc by a camel near the Sultan or Vizier, was whisked away at the first sign of trouble. Fletcher, History of Poland, 105-106.