Sobieski, Jan III
1629 – 1696
Polish king who saved Vienna from the Ottoman Turksby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
“He is a perfect oval which from a distance looks like a very large egg stood on the small end,” wrote one French observer, as he watched the Polish king, Jan III Sobieski. Blessed with a large head, enormous belly, and small feet, Jan Sobieski did indeed look something like an egg. He was a man of parts: theologian, philosopher, mathematician, historian, possessing a remarkable good memory, and speaking to perfection Latin, Polish, French, Italian, German, Turkish and Tartar. As one exhalted on a wall, Sobieski was an accomplished intellectual, and as a warrior he was one of the greatest in Polish history. He was a master in battle and the culmination of his daring and skill came when he led a combined army of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, and Austrians against the Ottoman Turks and miraculously broke the siege of Vienna.
Although, Sobieski was not born a king, his origins were nonetheless noble. He was born during a violent thunderstorm on the August 17, 1629, in the family castle at Olesko, Galicia (now in the Ukraine.) From the moment that he could walk, he was given a smaller version of the curved Polish saber and was trained by his father in the arts of war. Whenever his family went to Mass at Zolkiew, his mother would take him, and his brother Mark to the tombs of their ancestors so that they could say prayers for their forbears who had died in battle, defending Poland from the ungodly hordes. He and his entire family were devote Catholics and Sobieski remained so his whole life. Jan grew and became very skilled in the art of war. It was this skill that would allow him to make his mark on history and further God’s purpose on the earth.
As a reward for his completion of school in Krakow, Sobieski’s father sent him and his brother on a tour of Europe, where they ended up spending a great deal of time in France. It was there that Sobieski formed his French ties that would allow him to ascend the throne later in his life. It was also where he met his wife-to-be. She was the daughter of a Marquis who was a captain in the Swiss Guard of the Duke of Orleans. Described as being “strong-willed and precocious,” Marie Casimire de la Grange d'Arquien was a fitting match for the young Sobieski. They were married in 1665. Upon his return from France, Sobieski learned that the Cossacks had killed his father. Later on his brother was beheaded by the Turks on the battlefield. This endowed Sobieski with a healthy hatred for the Turks, and he swore to repay them. He worked his away up through the ranks of the Polish army, and as a general he defeated the Turks in battle twice, as they attempted to take over part of Poland. As a result, he was appointed ‘Hetman’ (Commanding General) of all Poland’s armies, which placed him in a position to later become king of Poland.
In the meantime world events were taking a serious turn. The Ottoman Turks were pushing forward into Europe. They had already overrun Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania, and most of Hungary. Things only got worse as the Turks pushed forward towards Vienna. Their commander, Kara Mustafa, wore a green cord around his neck, which the Sultan had given him to strangle himself if he failed in his attempt to capture Vienna. If Vienna fell, then most of Europe would be open for the picking. At this point, the remaining countries of Europe looked to Poland for support. Time had indeed brought change. Jan Sobieski was now Jan III Sobieski, having been elected king after his resounding defeat of the Ottoman Turks at Chocim and also due to the enormous bribes that the French, under Louis XIV, the Cathlolic Sun King, had paid magnates to elect him. Louis XIV had expansionist plans into Germany (finally attacking in 1688) causing difficulty for Jan to hammer out an alliance with the Austrians and the Germans. Allied with Prince Eugene of Savoy, Jan assembled his own army, the main body being composed of the feared hussars. They were called such because of the strange lyre-shaped metal-and-leather construction, which was riveted to the back of their armor. Above them, arose a beautiful fanlike design of some three dozen eagle feathers. When the hussars charged, the wind would blow through the feathers causing them to “sing.” This would then terrify the enemy horses and throw the opposing army into confusion. The Turks feared the hussars mightily and it was on them that Sobieski placed his hope of victory.
On September 12, 1683, at 4 a.m. in the morning, Sobieski’s army of about 81,000 men attacked a Turkish army that numbered more than 140,000. The Turks fought doggedly but inch by inch, they were forced to give up ground. Finally, when the terrain was right, Sobieski ordered the hussars forward and soon after the Turkish battle line was broken as the Turks scattered in confusion. At 5:30 p.m., Sobieski entered the deserted tent of Kara Mustafa and the siege of Vienna was over.
The pope and other foreign dignitaries then hailed Sobieski as the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization.” In a letter to his wife he wrote, “…All the common people kissed my hands, my feet, my clothes; others only touched me, saying: ‘Ach, let us kiss so valiant a hand!’” Ironically, in his greatest moment of glory, the sun began to go down on his reign. His attempts to leave a dynasty behind him, failed. Even Leopold, the Holy Roman Emperor, ignored Sobieski, who had saved his capital, and in an outright insult, refused to review the hussars who had so gallantly destroyed the Turkish battle line. Other rulers who feared his newly acquired status snubbed him, and instead of being recognized for saving them, he and his country became marked for destruction. At the end of his life, as his country was unraveling around him, Sobieski, like Humpty Dumpty, had fallen irrepairably from his exhalted postion. He died in 1696, a disappointed and broken man. (Less than a century later, as Catholic nobles failed to supress Poland's Eastern Orthodox populace, Russia, Prussia, and Austria carved Poland off the map. This greed led to world wide destruction as expanionist Germany rose out of Prussia and Communism rose out of Russia.)
In Sobieski's world of the Roman Catholic counter-reformation, Sabieski was scorned and feared by Transylvanian Saxons and other protestant Lutherians. He had done something that everyone thought impossible, and in this we can see God’s hand working. During the battle, Sobieski found himself in a grim strategic position, and the Tartars were in an excellent position to wreak havoc on his forces. However, Kara Mustafa held them back because he feared something unexpected. As a result, the Tartars deserted his army, furious for not being allowed to attack Sobieski. In addition, Kara Mustafa, against all the advice on the contrary from his generals, split his forces so that while the majority of his army were carrying on the siege, the minority were fighting the coalition of forces led by Sobieski. It was only later on when he saw the error in his strategy that he called on the larger force to attack, but by then Sobieski had the upper hand.
There is something mysterious in Kara Mustafa’s decisions. Why would he be so resolute and stubborn against his generals? Perhaps God hardened the heart of Mustafa's like that if the Pharaoh in Exodus 14. Against overwhelming forces, Sobieski, must have understood like Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:14), that "the battle belongs to the Lord". The significance of this battle was so enormous that certainly divine intervention caused Sobieski’s improbable victory. Where would the world be today if Vienna had fallen? What if Europe had fallen under Muslim domination? Would John Nelson Darby and the Brethren in England have been raised up? Would missionaries have set out to China? There are countless considerations of what course history might have taken if Europe had fallen under Muslim rule. By looking at the chaos that has enveloped the Muslim world, it is possible to see what Europe might have become. Historians remember Sobieski for his historic victory, but he didn’t just break the siege of Vienna. God used him for a greater purpose, to protect Christendom and thus continue the spread of the gospel throughout the earth. Another miraculous defeat of aggressive Islam came in 1697 when Prince Eugene of Savoy lost only 300 men in the destruction of 30,000 soldiers and Tartar horsemen under the Ottoman Sultan Mustapha. From Sobieski onward, the Ottoman Turks regressed to become the sick man of Europe.
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