As Christian Europe tore at her own throat during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the Ottoman Turks missed a golden opportunity to strike their centuries-old enemy. Why? They were themselves absorbed with war in Persia. Moreover, they were beset by a turbulent period of harem intrigue and governed—or not—by a string of ineffectual and self-indulgent sultans, one of whom was deposed and two of whom were murdered. The last of these was Ibrahim I. He was deposed and murdered.
Known as “the Debauched,” Ibrahim was famous for his vigorous appetite for well-upholstered women, and he is remembered for drowning his entire harem—280 ladies in all—in the Bosporus upon learning that he was not the only man enjoying their affections. A liaison one night, however, with a Russian concubine produced the son that would reverse Ottoman fortunes.
Mehmed IV was what we would call today, an “outdoorsman.” He preferred hunting to war, but unlike his recent predecessors, he made decisions and stuck by them. Indeed, history remembers Mehmed for two decisions in particular. The first was to give control of the empire to the Koprulu family, which produced a series of Grand Viziers who restored internal order to the empire, recaptured many of the Aegean Islands from Venice, and extended the boundaries of the empire northward through battlefield victories in Transylvania and Poland.
Best known and last of these Grand Viziers was Kara Mustafa Pasha. Kara Mustafa Pasha was the source of Mehmed’s other famous decision: in the summer of 1682 the Grand Vizier persuaded his Sultan to violate the Peace of Vasvár and lay siege to Vienna.
A century-and-a-half had passed since Suleiman the Magnificent had tried and failed to take the fortress city on the Danube. Mehmed was determined not to fail, and more than that, he was convinced, like all Sultans before him, that the Ottomans were, as conquerors of Constantinople, the true heirs of the patrimony of the Roman Empire. The Hapsburgs in Vienna were impostors who needed to submit to the rule of Islam.
By the autumn of 1682 the Ottoman Army had crossed the Bosporus and proceeded to Adrianople. There the sultan wintered his army, and as they trained for war, he read and reread the abundant accounts of earlier Turkish campaigns into Eastern Europe. Along the road-of-march to Belgrade (in Ottoman hands since 1521) bridges and roads were repaired. A draft or “ban” was proclaimed for auxiliaries throughout the empire and Arabs, Bosnians, Bulgars, Greeks, Macedonians, and Serbs poured into the White City to await the arrival of Mehmed’s force, led by his 12,000 janissaries. Among the sultan’s army were Protestant soldiers loyal to the Magyar Lutheran Imre Thököly who looked to the Islamic east to back his dubious claim to the throne of Hungary.
Less detestable than Protestants allying themselves with Islam against Catholic Hapsburg rule, but considerably more savage and fearsome, were the Sultan’s mobile shock-action cavalry: the Tatars. Descendants of the bloody convergence of Sarmatians, Scythians, and Mongols, these natural horsemen were the stuff of nightmare. Like the African corsairs who raided the coastal fishing villages of Italy in the 16th century, the Tatars were the frontline of the Ottoman slave trade. Rape, pillage, plunder, and arson composed their modus operandi, tales of which made their way as far as France and England. To the villagers on the Christian Ottoman border in Hungary and Poland, however, the Tatars were no mere story to frighten ill-behaved children. They were a terrifying reality. To the Polish, Lithuanian, and Austrian soldiers who had faced them in battle, they were extraordinary archers capable of a rapid rate of fire and deadly accuracy from their short bows and all from the saddle of a galloping pony.
In March of 1683, as the army left Adrianople amidst great fanfare, a sudden squall blew the Sultan’s turban from his head. All his men, from the highest-ranking officer to the lowliest conscript, recognized the bad omen. Superstitions aside, spring storms swelled rivers and the usual fords required pontoon bridges to cross. At Belgrade, Sultan Mehmed handed the Flag of the Prophet (a facsimile because the original had been captured by the Venetians at Lepanto a century before) to his Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa and with it command of the Ottoman host.
Mehmed remained in Belgrade to hunt and play. The real ruler of the Ottoman Empire pressed north for Buda, sending his siege cannons on barges up the Danube. Buda had endured Turkish occupation since 1541—another conquest of Suleiman the Magnificent. The Church of Our Lady there to this day bears in one alcove the decorations of the building’s days as a mosque. Was it a misguided ecumenical gesture, or is it a reminder of what may come again to a West grown soft and inattentive?
By the second half of June the Turkish army, now greater than 150,000 strong, had arrived in Buda. There the Grand Vizier announced to his war council his plan to take Vienna. “It is for thee to command and for us to serve,” answered the Governor of Damascus. Following the Danube west the Turks pressed on for Vienna, raiding and burning along the way.
Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor could no longer deny that Vienna was the Ottoman objective. The man who had guided his country through the Thirty Years War ruled an empire pinched between a France under the Sun King determined to expand eastward and the Ottoman Empire resurgent. The condition called for a less vacillating character than the emperor, who permitted himself to be talked into abandoning Vienna.
Two men of sterner stuff he left behind: Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg to command the garrison in Vienna and Charles Sixte, Duke of Lorraine to command the Imperial Army in the field. It bears noting that the heroic figure for whom the Siege of Vienna is most remembered, John Sobieski, arrived in the eleventh hour. Both Starhemberg and Lorraine, severely outnumbered, acquitted themselves well throughout the two-month siege, masterfully resisting the Turk and prudently delaying a decisive engagement until the Polish and Saxon reinforcements could muster.
The Turks arrived at the walls of Vienna on the 12th of July. On the 13th an emissary from the Grand Vizier rode to the city’s walls with an invitation to surrender the city and submit to Islamic rule.
On the 14th the Turks began to bombard the city’s walls. The walls of Vienna had been much improved since the medieval days when they were first constructed, paid for by Richard Lionheart’s ransom. By the 17th century, the city’s defenses included all the designs developed in Italy during the Renaissance: mutually supporting bastions and ravelins, scarp and counterscarp, glacis and curtain wall. Tightly packed earth faced with brick and gently sloped both absorbed and deflected the rounds from the Turkish bombards. But the walls were not everywhere strong, and the Turks located on the south side Vienna’s weak spot between two bastions that fronted the Imperial palace. Toward this point in the wall they began a process at which they were very good: the steady digging of parallel trenches to close on the city’s defenses followed by mining, the digging of underground galleries to be packed with explosives to tumble the walls from beneath.
By August, the combination of mining and artillery fire had taken its toll of the city’s outer wall and seriously damaged the palace bastion. Musketball-to-arrow, pike-to-cutlass, and hand-to-hand encounters in the ditch and on the ramparts grew more frequent and more fierce. Viennese counterminers clashed with Turkish sappers in torchlit underground tunnels. Flamboyant and fearless, Starhemberg, a pistol in each hand, was ever in the thick of these contests, yet he knew that without relief the fighting would soon be street-to-street and house-to-house.
In the plains and woods surrounding Vienna, Charles Sixte, with his small force of 10,000 horse and no infantry (critical for seizing and holding terrain) did his best to limit the depredations of the merciless Tatar raiders. Dozens of villages south of the Danube were put to the torch, their women raped and their men slaughtered.
As grim as events appeared, hope was within sight. Four days after the start of the Turkish bombardment, John III Sobieski, King of Poland marshaled his army of nearly 40,000 in Warsaw and began the 435-mile march southwest toward Vienna. A similar force under John George III Elector of Saxony came southeast from Dresden. A third force came straight east from Munich under Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria. They united near Krems, some forty miles upriver from Vienna.
The Holy League, under command of Sobieski now began its difficult passage through the Wienerwald, known to us as the Vienna Woods, the 30-miles-long and 20-miles-wide expanse of thickly wooded foothills that dominate the terrain southwest of Vienna. Moving the artillery over steep slopes and rugged ground cut with ravines was particularly difficult, but by the 11th of September the Christian force had reached the Kahlenberg ridge. Looking down on the plain below they saw the countless brightly colored tents of the Ottoman host stretching north toward the city walls.
Sobieski also saw that the south slope of the ridge was of the same difficult terrain as the rest of the Wienerwald and was crisscrossed with the high, stone walls of vineyards and farms. The descent to the plain below would be as painstaking as the climb, but also under attack from Janissary skirmishers.
Before dawn, Sobieski assisted at Mass in the ruined Church of the Camaldolites, offered by Blessed Marco D’Viano. Gathering his force he commended their mission and their souls to the care of the Blessed Virgin.
The descent began.
As the sun rose on the morning of 12 September, the Ottomans saw, according their own account, “a flood of black pitch flowing down the hill, smothering and incinerating everything that lay in its way.”
Taking one ridge at a time, the Christians fought their way down the hill. Little could the commanders do but exhort their forces to press ahead in the confusion. The Saxons on the left of the Holy League line were the first to engage the forward deployed Ottomans, but by ten a.m. the whole Turkish army was arrayed for counterattack. For several hours the battle traded advantage, the Holy League ever closing on the city.
By late afternoon, Sobieski’s army had reached the plain, and he was now positioned to exploit his greatest asset, the famed Winged Hussars. Drawing up these courageous cavalrymen, their feathered plumes streaming off their backs, he led them himself, lances couched in a full-tilt charge at the center of the Ottoman line. Shouting “Jezus Maria ratuj!” they charged and reformed, charged and reformed, charged and reformed. The Polish horsemen followed their intrepid king deeper and deeper into the army of Islam, smashing what remained of their resistance, setting the followers of Muhammad to flight, relieving the siege, and carrying the day.
“We came, we saw, God conquered.” Sobieski wrote to Innocent XI.
The Polish king—taking a privilege that ought to have gone to Emperor Leopold—entered the city feted with parade and feast. Writing to his wife, Sobieski described Vienna’s gratitude, “All the common people kissed my hands, my feet, my clothes, saying: ‘Ah, let us kiss so valiant a hand!’”
The event was the last great Ottoman effort. Their borders receded. Within three years Buda was back in Christian hands.
One year after Sobieski’s victory, Pope Innocent XI—also dearly remembered for his explicit condemnations of usury and of “mental reservation”—extended the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary to the Universal Calendar of the Roman Rite to honor the great victory that Our Lady granted the Christian West. When it fell out fashion three centuries later in 1969 to recall the heroics of Christian soldiers against the enemies of Jesus Christ, the feast was removed from the Liturgical Calendar. In 2002, however, Blessed John Paul II restored the Feast to the Universal Calendar. It is hard not to imagine that the Trade Tower attacks of the preceding year were to the fore of his thoughts when he did, but that we do not know.
We do know, however, that Islam is an age-old enemy of the Christian West, and that the West, the United States included, emptied of Christianity is also emptied of meaning. Catholics today have a duty and a privilege to honor Our Lady, and to honor the heroic Polish King and his warriors under the walls of Vienna at least by not pretending that the Crescent is not again resurgent and intent on trampling the Cross.