On May 21, 1674, the Polish military commander John Sobieski was elected King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. He would later come to be known as the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization”.
Since Mieszko I first unified the Polish lands at the end of the 10th century, laying the basis for the development of a Polish state and integrating Poland into the prevailing European culture, Poles had been ruled by the dukes of the so-called Piast dynasty, who regarded themselves as descendants of the semi-legendary Piast the Wheelwright (Piast Kołodziej).
But the 12th century brought fundamental changes to the structure of Polish society and its political system, and the resulting internal division eroded the initial Piast monarchical structure. Poland entered a period of feudal fragmentation which lasted about 200 years and would not be re-established, as a unified political entity, until the 14th century and the reign of Casimir III the Great.
The last ruler of the Piast dynasty, Casimir the Great was succeeded by his nephew, Louis I of Hungary of the Angevin dynasty, whose daughter Jadwiga later married Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania in 1386, creating a dynastic union between Poland and Lithuania and binding the two countries together for the next four centuries…
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
By the second half of the 16th century, Lithuania faced the threat of incorporation into Russia, and Sigismund II Augustus, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, pressed for a real union. After months of negotiations, the last objections were overcome and in 1569, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin, establishing the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Also known as the Commonwealth of Two Nations, the newly-formed state was ruled by a single elected monarch who carried out the duties of King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania and governed with a common Senate and Parliament. It was one of the largest and most populous countries of 16th century Europe, covering almost one million square kilometres and sustaining a population of almost 12 million at its largest territorial extent.
The Commonwealth reached its Golden Age in the early 17th century when it was able to hold its own against Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. It also launched successful expansionist offensives against its neighbors, even invading Russia during the Time of Troubles and forcing the deposed Tsar to take an oath of allegiance to King Sigismund III Vasa in 1611.
The Deluge and the rise of John Sobieski
But while its neutrality during the Thirty Years’ War spared it from the ravages that devastated most of Europe, the Commonwealth’s power began waning after a series of blows, which started with a Cossack rebellion and culminated with a Swedish invasion in 1655. Known as the Deluge, this period saw the decline of the Commonwealth and the rise of the Russian Empire.
It was during that time that the young Polish commander John Sobieski began distinguishing himself as a promising strategist, taking part in a number of engagements which included the Battle of Warsaw in 1656, the Siege of Toruń in 1658 as well as the final offensive against Sweden in 1660. By 1668, he was named Grand Hetman of the Crown and thereby became the de facto commander-in-chief of the entire Polish-Lithuanian Army.
Through his military victories as well as through personal connections, John Sobieski slowly established himself as a leading political figure in Poland and Lithuania, and following the sudden death of King Michael I, Sobieski’s candidacy was almost universally supported, with only a dozen or so Lithuanian magnates opposing him. The new election began on Saturday, May 19, 1674, and the following Monday, John III Sobieski became King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.
The Polish-Ottoman wars
Despite peace being signed in 1621, the borderland area between the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth remained in a state of semi-permanent warfare throughout the 17th century. But by 1670, full-fledged war had resumed after the Commonwealth had tried to take back the Cossack Hetmanate it had lost to the Ottomans during the Deluge.
Despite the newly-elected King John III Sobieski dealing several defeats to the forces of Mehmed IV, the Commonwealth was forced to cede large swaths of Ukraine to the Sultan when peace was signed in 1676. The treaty began a period of peace during which John Sobieski reformed the Polish army completely, notably increasing the number of cannons and introducing new artillery tactics.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, bolstered by its successes against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, turned once again its sight to Vienna. Mehmed IV undertook extensive logistical preparations, including the repair and establishment of roads and bridges leading into the Habsburg territory and its capital, as well as the forwarding of ammunition, cannon, and other resources from all over the Empire into Hungary and the Balkans.
The Battle of Vienna
By 1682, clashes along the border seperating the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires intensified, and the incursions of Habsburg forces into Ottoman Hungary provided the crucial argument for the Sultan to allow the movement of the Ottoman army. But the long wait between mobilization and the invasion provided ample time for Vienna to prepare its defense and for the Emperor to form an alliance with Pope Innocent XI and John Sobieski.
In April 1683, the Ottoman army finally launched its full-scale offensive into Habsburg territory, reaching Belgrade by early May, and finally laying siege to Vienna on July 17. Meanwhile, John Sobieski began preparing a relief expedition and, despite the multinational composition of the Christian army, an effective leadership structure was established, centered around the Polish King.
Acting quickly to save the city and prevent another long siege, the confederated troops crossed into imperial territory in September before taking position on the Kahlenberg hill above Vienna. After a whole day of heavy fighting under the walls of the city, John Sobieski led the largest cavalry charge in history at the head of 3,000 “Winged Hussars” to deal the final deadly blow and save the Habsburg capital.
The last years of Sobieski’s reign
While the defeated Ottomans named Sobieski the “Lion of Lechistan”, the Pope hailed the Polish King as the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization”. Marking the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires, the Battle of Vienna shook the Ottoman hegemony in Central Europe and set the stage for the reconquest of Hungary and the Balkans.
Joined by the Republic of Venice and the Russian Empire, a new “Holy League” was initiated by Pope Innocent XI and John Sobieski to recover previously ceded land and prevent further Ottoman expansion into Europe. But while Ottomans suffered a decisive defeat against the Holy Roman Empire at the second Battle of Mohács, John Sobieski was much less succesful on the Polish front, with the Ottomans refusing a major engagement, contenting themselves with harassing the army and raiding the borderlands.
As a result, the prolonged and indecisive war weakened Sobieski’s position at home. In fact, the last years of the reign of the King saw disorder, lawlessness, factional infighting and anarchy overcoming the Commonwealth. Suffering from poor health and obesity in later life, John Sobieski died in 1696, having failed to reform the ailing Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and leaving it on the brink of civil war.
Throughout the 18th century, internal conflicts, corrupted legislative processes and manipulation by foreign interests critically weakened the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And with attempts at reform coming too late, the country was eventually partitioned by the neighbouring Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia, and Habsburg Monarchy. By 1795, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had been completely erased from the map of Europe.
The divisive legacy of the “Savior of Vienna”
In recent years, John Sobieski has become somewhat of a divisive figure in Europe. Having led the united Christian armies of Europe against the invading Ottoman Empire, the Polish king is indeed regularly depicted by Christian and right-wing nationalists as having saved Christendom from Islam.
As a result, the siege of Vienna has increasingly become a central part of the European far-right ideology who see the Battle as a turning point at a time when “Islam seemed poised to overrun Christian Europe”. The Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who killed 69 people at a Labour Party annual summer camp in 2011, even payed hommage to the Battle of Vienna in his manifesto, 2083 – A European Declaration of Independence.
But many historians have argued that the Battle was far from a mere fight between Islam and Christianity. According to Dag Herbjørnsrud, “if we examine the battle closely, we can understand it rather differently, as a battle based on inter-ethnic cooperation”. He argues that as the king of the multilingual and multi-religious Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, John Sobieski might not have won the battle were it not for the help of his country’s Sunni Muslim Tatars whose “light cavalry became a vital factor in almost every battle in Polish-Lithuanian history”.
In fact, some have claimed that “there is no ruler so revered among the Muslim Tatars as John III Sobieski, who arguably ensured the construction of several mosques in the region and secured the only example of a lasting Muslim community in a non-Islamic European country.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.