The Europeans No 11: Jan Sobieski

The Polish king led the largest cavalry charge in history to save Vienna from a Turkish attackjoint forces of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire at Vienna in 1683, when the

Jan Sobieski was born in 1629 into a noble family in Olesko, near Lviv, today in western Ukraine, then in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe. After graduating from Krakow's Jagellonian University, Sobieski spent two years travelling in western Europe, and learned French, German and Italian.

On his return to Poland in 1648 he embarked on a military career, and eventually, after many successes, became effectively the commander-in-chief of the Polish army. His victory over the Turks at the battle of Chocim, coinciding with the death of King Michael I, propelled him on to the throne in 1674.

Sobieski's greatest military victory came when he led the joint forces of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire at Vienna in 1683, when the Turks were on the point of taking the city. The crucial assault led by the Polish king, involving 20,000 horsemen, is described as the largest cavalry charge in history.

God conquered
Adapting the words of Julius Caesar, Sobieski is reported to have said of the victory " Venimus, vidimus, Deus vincit " – we came, we saw, God conquered.


The Turkish siege of Vienna had marked the furthest point of the Ottoman Empire's expansion in Europe. Their defeat by Sobieski, on the hill of Kahlenberg, where today stands a church staffed by Polish priests, led in the following years to other reverses in Hungary and Transylvania, much of the military effort being sponsored and indeed paid for by Pope Innocent XI.

Innocent's enthusiasm for war with the Turks recalls the remarks of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, later to become Pope Pius II, who, on hearing of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, said: "Now we have been really struck in Europe, which is to say in our own home." This is one of the earliest uses of the term to connote a cultural rather than purely geographical entity. The first history of Europe to carry that title, the Florentine Pierfrancesco Giambullari's Storia dell'Europa , dates from 1566.

It is noteworthy, though perhaps not surprising, that the existence of a strong consciousness of Europe as an entity carrying a positive charge seems to require the presence of an extraneous entity carrying a negative one.

For many centuries, Turkey was to play this role for Christian Europe until, in the 20th century, Russia and its satellites seemed to pose a more powerful threat to a western Europe that was still largely Christian but more importantly now democratic, liberal and capitalist.

In the mid-20th century, Vienna once again found itself on the border of two worlds (20km from the Czechoslovakian frontier) while the nation of Jan Sobieski, the saviour of Christian Europe in 1683, was stranded on the other side: France and Britain had apparently gone to war for Poland in 1939, but found it too risky to save it from Stalin in 1945.

The countries of what might more properly be called central rather than eastern Europe (if Europe stretches from Portugal to the Ural mountains) were to be culturally and politically reunited with their western neighbours after 1989. It is worth pointing out, however, that this region had from an early stage been central to Europe: there were few places outside Italy where the Renaissance was more fully experienced or flourished more strongly than Krakow, Prague and Buda.

The Poland ruled by Jan Sobieski had for hundreds of years been deeply embedded in European traditions. In comparison with this long and rich history, the period of Soviet domination (1945-1989), when it and its neighbours became marked with the unattractive brand of “eastern Europe” is a mere blip.