By Jonathon Van Maren
Europe is filled with great Gothic churches, but for me Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral has always been one of the greatest. Not because her soaring bell tower and serrated steeples are so much more beautiful than those of other cities, but because it was St. Stephen’s that presided over some of Europe’s most consequential battles, when the forces of Islam rode up to Vienna to smash through into Europe and do to her great cathedrals what they did to Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia. I had the opportunity not only to explore the church earlier this year (Mozart’s funeral was held here, and the bones of St. Valentine are kept in a chest in one of the chapels), but to give a brief speech on a stage in front of the church for the Austrian March for Life.
The Ottomans thought St. Stephen’s was a prize, too, and when they laid siege to Vienna in 1529, Sultan Suleiman I (the Magnificent), was riding high. He had been racking up victories across the continent, and decided that the first great conquest that would lead to his domination of Europe would be the magnificent city of Vienna. He boasted that he would be having breakfast in St. Stephen’s Cathedral within two weeks of the siege. When the date came and went, Vienna’s defenders, a coalition that included German Landsknechts, Spanish Musketeers, and Italian mercenaries, both Catholic and Protestant, sent the sultan a message to let him know that his breakfast was getting cold. Fierce defenders and savage weather eventually drove the Ottomans back, and Christian Europe, for the time being, was safe.
In July of 1683, the Ottomans decided to try again, this time under the ambitious leadership of “Black” Mustafa, the Empire’s grand vizier. They arrived to lay siege to the city, demanding surrender. Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg, the commander of Vienna’s garrison, scorned the ultimatum: “Let them come; I’ll fight to the last drop of blood.” As the siege dragged on and hunger and exhaustion began to fell the city’s inhabitants, it began to look as if the defenders might have to do just that. Frantic pleas for assistance were sent out to the leaders of Christian Europe, calling for men and arms to repel the invaders. The calls were heeded, and a massive relief force made up of soldiers from Saxony, Baden, Franconia, Bavaria, Swabia, and Poland began to move towards Vienna.
The battle, a chaotic, bloody affair, began on September 11, 1683—but there is one moment that stands out, immortalized against the backdrop of an epic struggle between civilizations. As Black Mustafa and the Turks tried desperately to force their way into the city before the relief troops could swing the advantage the defenders, the Polish King Jan Sobieski emerged from the forests on the hills above the Ottoman attackers. At 6 PM, at his command, an awe-inspiring cavalry charge plunged over the crests of the hills and pounded towards the invaders, a magnificent force of 18,000 horsemen. The Polish king, at the head of 3,000 heavy lancers known to history as the Winged Hussars, led the charge. These knights were named for the wings of birds of prey attached to the backs of their armour, which streamed behind them in the wind and made them resemble a cloud of avenging angels.
The Winged Hussars and the thousands of cavalrymen that followed them smashed into the Ottomans, trampling many of them to death. By the time the horsemen hammered down the hill, many of them were simply riding too fast to stop, and they cut through the enemy troops like a battering-ram of horse, man, and steel. The charge proved to be the fatal blow to the Ottoman siege, and the battle to save Vienna was won within three hours. With the battle in hand and Vienna saved from the forces of Islam once again, King Jan Sobieski sat down in his tent to write a letter to his adored wife, something he did nearly every day when he was forced to be away from her.
There is an interesting cultural footnote to all of this. Most people do not know that J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous Battle of Pelennor Fields, the struggle for the city of Minas Tirith between the soldiers of Gondor and the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron recounted in The Return of the King, is actually based on the charge of King Jan Sobieski and his Winged Hussars. Tolkien sets the scene with chilling foreboding: “It was dark and dim all day. From the sunless dawn until evening the heavy shadow had deepened, and all hearts were oppressed. Far above a great cloud streamed slowly westward from the Black Land, devouring light, borne upon war; but below the air was still and breathless, as if all the Vale of Anduin waited for the onset of a ruinous storm.”
As the battle began in earnest, King Theoden emerges from the forest ahead of his cavalry, the fearsome Rohirrim. As he contemplates the destruction of the city, the king hears a booming sound from Minas Tirith, and suddenly stands erect: “Tall and proud he seemed again; and rising in his stirrups he cried in a loud voice, more clear than any there had every heard a mortal man achieve before:
Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
“With that, he seized a great horn from Guthláf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder. And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.”
Walking through Vienna last month, I stumbled across an iron plaque with Jan Sobieski’s visage peering out from it near the Hapsburg palaces bolted to a wall, cloaked in regal finery and sporting an impressive moustache. The plaque had been placed there in September of 1983—I couldn’t read the inscription on it—but someone had very recently placed a ribboned wreath beneath it to commemorate what the Polish king had done for Vienna, and for civilization itself, all those years ago. For some reason, seeing the wreath cheered me up. Perhaps it is because it is encouraging to see that a few people still remember their history, and still take the time to honor those who took the weight of civilization on their shoulders when everything hung in the balance.