There can be no denying that the Polish king Jan III Sobieski (1629-1696) is one of the most prominent historical figures and warrior-kings in European history. Sobieski not only changed the European map but also paved the way for the Enlightenment. However, his military triumphs remain largely unknown outside Poland, and his military campaigns have not been taught in the curricula of military academies from École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr to West Point. What is the story and legacy of this underrated king, who dominated his times so profoundly?
The Lion of Lehistan
Because of his proven military skills, Jan Sobieski became the king of Poland in 1674. In 1683, Poland, which had gained the name of Antemurale Christianitatis (Bulwark of Christendom), entered an alliance with Austria against a resurgent Ottoman Empire determined to conquer Central Eastern Europe and spread Islam into the very heart of the West. In the hot summer of that year, a colossal Ottoman army of 200,000 led by the ambitious Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa advanced into the Austrian territory and besieged the imperial capital of Vienna, wreaking desperation and fear among hopeless Christians.
At that crucial moment when everything seemed lost, Sobieski mobilized Polish forces and marched through Austria, knowing that the Christian world depended on him. His legendary reputation as the “Lion of Lehistan (Poland)” made Sobieski the natural choice for the overall command of the Christian forces. Leading a combined army of more than 70,000, Sobieski defeated the forces of darkness and the Ottoman camp, their grandiose tents, ostentatious treasures, prisoners, and much of their weaponry fell into his hands. The Polish king entered the city in triumph, humiliating Habsburg Emperor Leopold I who had earlier fled his capital in panic and played no role at all in its relief.
Such a decisive triumph with no parallel in history could not have been achieved without determined leadership, superior military skills, and the deadliest cavalry ever known – the Polish Winged Hussars, also known as “The Angels of Death.”
Sobieski’s pivotal victory halted for good the Islamic expansion into the heartland of Europe. Christian forces began to press forward in a long bloody war that ended only in 1699 with the permanent expulsion of the Ottomans from Central Europe, thus preventing French-Ottoman hegemony over Vieux Continent. Never again would the armies of the sultan threaten the gates of Christendom. Therefore, from 1683 to 1918, when British troops entered Istanbul, it would be the West that would steadily but inexorably push the Ottomans out of Southeastern Europe.
Nevertheless, not only did this Mother of all battles lead to significant geopolitical changes, but it also left a culinary legacy. Austrian bakers devised a kind of cake in the shape of crescents, a figure they had seen in the Ottoman order of battle. The cake was taken to France by the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, becoming a famous delicacy, commonly known as the croissant (or kipferl). Moreover, Franciszek Kulczyski, a Polish spy and merchant, helped to popularize coffee in Central Europe by using coffee beans left by the retreating Ottomans. He opened the first coffee house in Vienna and one of his innovations was to serve coffee with milk, a practice that was totally unknown to the Ottomans and Arabs.
The expedition for the rescue of Vienna, which influenced Tolkien to write the lines on sieges and reliefs of Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, has always been considered as a symbol of the strength and significance of Poland, a proud nation that has played a major role in European history. The theme of saving Europe from the Islamic diffusion was soon handed down into the sphere of national myths and legends with which subsequent generations of Poles were nourished, especially those who had to live in political slavery and would have to fight for freedom. Indeed, the legendary Vienna expedition and its hero were never forgotten in the collective memory of Polish nation.
Cultural developments and artistic achievements
The centenary of the Relief of Vienna in 1783 was celebrated in Poland, and a few years later, in 1788, Franciszek Pinck prepared a statue of Sobieski that was erected in a beautiful chamber of the Łazienki Palace in Warsaw. It was in this very place that a group of Polish insurgents gathered in the November of 1830 (The November Uprising 1830-31 was an armed rebellion of the partitioned Poland against the Russian Empire). Still earlier, some new centers of the Sobieski cult had been established in Poland.
In 1801, in Puławy, Princess Izabel Czartoryska had opened the first Polish historical museum in the Temple of Sibyl, the pantheon of Polish glory, where the Savior of Europe was venerated as a true hero. Another important place where Sobieski was honored was the Society of Friends of Science in Warsaw, which was formed in 1823. Anniversaries of the Relief were celebrated in 1883, 1933, 1983, and as recently as 2013.
Yet, the legacy of Jan Sobieski is also one of cultural developments, artistic achievements, and a prosperous multinational state united under the so-called Pax Polonica. Sobieski was a great patron of the arts, whose rule inaugurated a new era of cultural accomplishment in Poland. Many magnificent buildings in Baroque style were erected in several Polish cities, during his reign. Sobieski commissioned some of them, which were designed by the royal architects, Tylman van Gameren and Augustyn Locci, two renowned architects brought to Warsaw by the king. Among these buildings is the Capuchin Church of the Transfiguration, built between 1683 and 1692. Founded by Sobieski, in gratitude for his triumph in Vienna, it has a sarcophagus containing the heart of the king.
However, it is the Sobieski family palace in Wilanów, built in the 1680s, which is the symbol of the flowering of Polish culture that took place during Sobieski’s reign. It was designed not only as one of the monarch’s residences, but also as a monument to his military glory and as a haven of beauty, knowledge and virtue. All of the architectural and sculptural decoration of this splendid palace, surrounded by picturesque gardens, referred to the figure of the “Lion of Lechistan.” Moreover, this palace would be the place where Sobieski spent his final years.
Sobieski is commemorated in literature, poetry, and sculpture. Schools, cigarette brands, alcohol brands, train routes, and even a constellation (Scutum Sobiescianum, named in 1684 by Polish astronomer Jan Heweliusz to commemorate his king’s victory in Vienna) bear his immortal name.
What makes Jan Sobieski unique is his knightly virtues and submission to his destiny. He knew that his fate was not to rule peacefully or to be a patron of arts, but to defend Christendom during the most difficult moment in its entire history, thus creating his undying legacy.
Indeed, Sobieski’s legacy is most alive in our continuous search for freedom, justice, hope, and solidarity.
Miltiades Varvounis is a prominent Greek-Polish historian and freelance writer, with a thorough knowledge of the history of Central Europe. He has written several books in Greek and English, including “Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe.”