The Rise of Jan Sobieski

Portrait of John III by Jan Tricius

Sobieski meeting Leopold I, by Artur Grottger. The Battle of Vienna took place at Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna on 12 September 1683 after the imperial city had been besieged by the Ottoman Empire for two months. The battle was fought by the Habsburg Monarchy, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire, under the command of King John III Sobieski against the Ottomans and their vassal and tributary states. The battle marked the first time the Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire had cooperated militarily against the Ottomans, and it is often seen as a turning point in history, after which “the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a menace to the Christian world”. In the ensuing war that lasted until 1699, the Ottomans lost almost all of Hungary to the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.

In the late 1650s Polish King Jan Kazimierz prepared a project for constitutional reform, in the belief that the crisis of the Swedish wars might predispose the szlachta to accept a strengthening of state power, particularly as, since he had no heir, the interregnum after his death was bound to be critical and possibly dangerous. At the instigation of the Queen, he proposed that his successor should be elected in his lifetime, vivente rege.

This was a red rag to the szlachta. Its right to elect the king was a cornerstone of the constitution, and any election carried out during the lifetime of a reigning monarch smacked of manipulation. In this instance it meant, as the Queen fully intended, that the French candidate nominated by the court would win. The szlachta were suspicious of the Queen’s influence, and the Habsburgs, who were alarmed at the idea of the Bourbons establishing themselves in Warsaw, did everything they could to whip up feeling against the proposals.

The project for parliamentary reform, which included earlier suggestions on voting by two-thirds majority, the removal of the sejmiks’ control over the deputy they had elected, a permanent annual tax, as well as the project for electing a successor vivente rege, came up before the Sejm of 1658. It foundered on minor points. The court party continued to press the issue in the following years, without success. The Queen, who believed that if all else failed a coup might be staged, was placing Frenchmen in key posts in the army. At the same time, Marshal Jerzy Lubomirski, who was in league with the Habsburgs, began to threaten rebellion if the court party persisted with its planned reforms. Following an attempt to impeach him in the Sejm, he rallied part of the unpaid army and groups of discontented szlachta and in 1665 staged a rebellion in the manner of Zebrzydowski. The court party decided to fight it out, and their troops were routed at Mątwy in 1666.

Not long afterwards, Jerzy Lubomirski came and begged the King’s pardon, which was duly granted. The whole affair had been just as pointless as the Zebrzydowski rebellion, and severely dented the prestige of the crown and of Jan Kazimierz himself. Louise-Marie died in 1667, and with his principal moral support gone, the ailing King abdicated two years later. Shortly after, he left for France, where he ended his days as Abbot of St Germaindes-Prés.

The election which followed was the first at which serious disturbances took place. The two principal candidates were Philip Wilhelm, Prince of Neuburg, the Habsburg favourite, and Charles de Bourbon, duc de Longueville. The szlachta who assembled at Warsaw were in no mood for ‘foreign autocrats’, and overwhelmingly voted for a Polish alternative, Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki, son of the fire-eating scourge of the Cossacks, Prince Jarema. The new King was in a difficult position. Resented by the disappointed pro-Habsburg magnates and despised by the former court party, who openly referred to him as ‘le singe’, his only power base was the szlachta who had elected him. But their vote had been a protest against attempts to limit their freedom and against foreign interlopers rather than a vote of confidence in him. There was little he could do except reign.

Large Tatar tchambouls hunted unmolested as the Sejm ignored alarming reports reaching it from Hetman Jan Sobieski, who was doing his best to police the south-eastern marches. In August 1667 he challenged a combined Tatar and Cossack force of some 25,000 with an army of 14,000, more than half of it made up of his own household troops, and defeated them at Podhajce. But this victory only served to obscure a storm that was brewing as the Ottoman Porte prepared a new onslaught on Europe.

In 1672 Sultan Mehmet IV invaded at the head of a substantial army, and the Commonwealth was given a rude awakening when the seemingly impregnable fortress of Kamieniec Podolski fell to his assault. It had been defended by no more than two hundred infantry and a troop of horse, and most of its cannon had remained silent, since there were only four gunners. This level of neglect was symptomatic. There was no army with which to stem the progress of the Turkish host, and Poland could do nothing but sue for peace. The Sultan imposed the humiliating Treaty of Buczacz, which detached Kamieniec with the whole of Ukraine and Podolia from the Commonwealth, and demanded a yearly tribute. This stirred the Sejm to vote money for a new army, which provoked protest from the Porte, and another Ottoman army gathered under the Grand Vizir, Hussein Pasha of Silistria.

King Michał fell ill, and as he lay dying in Warsaw Castle, Hussein Pasha’s janissaries prepared to cross the Dniester into a Poland which faced the prospect of a new election. The King expired on 10 November 1673, and on that very same evening Hetman Jan Sobieski drew up his troops outside the Turkish camp at Chocim. On the morrow he attacked and annihilated the Ottoman army in a brilliantly executed action, news of which travelled rapidly back to the capital. The principal candidates for the throne, Charles of Lorraine, François Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conti, and James Stuart, Duke of York (the future James II of England), were eclipsed by the aura of glory surrounding the returning hero. The szlachta assembled on the election field voted overwhelmingly for Sobieski.

Jan Sobieski, who ascended the throne as Jan III in May 1674, was an energetic man of forty-five. From his close-cropped head and his jewelled fur cap to his soft yellow boots with their silver heels he was every inch the Sarmatian magnate, and he had all the virtues and vices that implied. Since his baptism of fire at Beresteczko in 1651 he had seen service against each of Poland’s enemies in turn. Although he had commanded a 3,000-strong tchamboul of Tatar allies against the Swedes in 1656, it was the Tatars and the Turks who were his most constant and savage foes. His forebear ear żółkiewski had been slain at Cecora, his elder brother had fallen in the massacre at Batoh; the crusade against the Infidel was part of his life. Yet he spoke Tatar and Turkish and loved the amenities of the East.

At the same time he built himself an Italianate palace and collected European works of art with discrimination. He was well read in Italian and French literature, and he was one of Poland’s best letter-writers. He wrote to his French wife, Marie Casimire de la Grange d’Arquien, every day or two for twenty years, whether he was at home or on campaign, letters full of verve as well as gallantry, referring to himself as ‘Céladon’ and his wife as ‘Astrée’ or some other heroine of French literature. This Sarmatian galant was a curious mixture: he was pious, almost superstitiously so, and managed to combine this with a strong dose of cynicism. He was greedy and not always scrupulous in his private affairs, but faultlessly correct in public life. He was as ambitious and dynastically minded as most fellow magnates—there is a portrait of his son (who was not christened Konstanty for nothing) wearing Roman costume and leaning on a classical shield bearing the Sobieski arms, inscribed with the words In hoc signo Vinces (‘In this sign you will conquer’)—yet he was not ruthless in the pursuit of his aims.
Jan III was a fine soldier, combining personal bravery and dash with tactical skill and a good strategic sense. He was strong and agile, quite capable of spending days in the saddle and nights under the stars, in spite of the obesity which came with age. In politics too he lacked neither enterprise nor vision. He calculated that the way to win the necessary authority to deal with internal questions lay through a successful foreign policy, and he set about constructing one.

As the political nation had never conceived a vision of its international role, the Commonwealth had no active foreign policy, only a reactive one, and no system of alliances. This had not presented a problem while it was strong and its neighbours weak, but the values in this equation had altered fundamentally.

In the south and east, the Cossacks and Tatars, who had in the past been no more than a minor nuisance, could now combine with the Turks or with Muscovy to create a formidable threat. An even greater threat loomed in the north—Sweden. This had in the past been engaged in a struggle against Danish and Dutch dominance of the Baltic and against Poland and Muscovy over its eastern shores, but it had come out of the Thirty Years’ War as a major player on the international scene.

The Polish Commonwealth’s pool of potential allies was limited by the fact that its policy was fundamentally pacific and it had little to offer in the way of an army. The Habsburgs had expended much energy in the first half of the century to bring Poland into their orbit and use it as an ally against Sweden. From the 1640s France had taken an interest in Poland as a potential ally against the Habsburgs, but the Francophile court party had failed to bring this about. Three decades later, as Louis XIV engaged in his struggle with the Habsburgs, he again looked to Poland. And Jan III saw in this an opportunity, not just to reaffirm the power of the Commonwealth and gain the prestige necessary to carry out some fiscal reforms, but also to further his own dynastic aspirations.

In 1675 he signed the Treaty of Jaworów with France, which offered to finance an invasion of Ducal Prussia (which Jan III hoped would be given to his son as a hereditary vassal duchy) while her other ally, Sweden, invaded Brandenburg. France undertook to neutralise the Habsburgs and persuade the Ottoman Porte to give back Kamieniec and other lands ceded by the treaty of Buczacz. Sweden duly went into action against Brandenburg, but the Polish forces were not able to invade Prussia because Turkey not only refused to give back Kamieniec, but launched a new offensive into Poland. The large army which had been assembled was used not against Prussia but against the Turks, who were defeated at żurawno in 1676. By the time this operation was complete, Sweden had made peace with Brandenburg, and the opportunity had passed.

In the following decade, the Sultan proclaimed a new jihad and a large Ottoman army advanced into Europe. It invaded the Habsburgs’ Hungarian provinces and, in the summer of 1683, laid siege to Vienna. This provided a fresh opportunity to gain the support of France, which welcomed the Ottoman assault on the Habsburgs and would have rewarded Poland for conniving at their defeat. But the Commonwealth could not countenance the possibility of the Porte conquering a swathe of Central Europe and taking up a threatening position along the whole of its southern frontier.

As Grand Vizir Kara Mustapha approached Vienna Jan III signed a treaty with the Emperor, and the Sejm voted a levy of 36,000 troops in Poland and 12,000 in Lithuania (which never turned up, since Hetman Jan Sapieha had no intention of assisting the King). At the end of August the fifty-four-year-old King set out at the head of his army, at the beginning of September he met up with and took command of the allied troops from various parts of the Empire, and on 12 September he routed the Kara Mustapha under the walls of Vienna.

The Turks retired in disorder, but the campaign was by no means over, and Jan III pursued the retreating Turks into Hungary. The majority of Hungarians had gone over to the Ottoman camp for anti-Habsburg reasons, and the King saw an opportunity of detaching Hungary from Austria and creating a new ally for the Commonwealth. On 7 October he lost the first battle of his life, at Parkany. Although he defeated the Turks two days later, it proved difficult to conclude the campaign. Meanwhile, opposition to further prolongation of the war was mounting at home. Once again the King, now beginning to feel his age and suffering from gallstones, had to abandon his plans.

‘Future generations will wonder in astonishment,’ King Jan lamented in the Senate in March 1688, ‘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.’

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