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battle of vienna jan sobieskiA minor observation in a recent essay began a series of connections that will please Catholics, conservatives, history hounds, and J.R.R. Tolkien fans. Carrie Gress was interviewing biographer Miltiades Varvounis for the National Catholic Register. Mr. Varvounis is the author of Jan Sobieski: The King Who Saved Europe. In the interview, he comments:

Jan Sobieski was one of the most illustrious rulers ever to command an army. He gained glory and fame in his thirties through his exceptional military skills and he was acknowledged as the greatest warrior-king of his time throughout the rest of his turbulent life. His patriotism, his strong faith and hope in God, his military reputation, his taste for arts and letters, and his talents—all these were legendary in his lifetime. Since World War II, no English work has been published about the king who saved Europe from the warriors of Islam at the Battle of Vienna (1683); a battle which was the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic cavalry charge of the Rohirrim that lifted the Siege of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

For those who are unaware, the Battle of Vienna is on par with the Battle of Lepanto in Christian Europe’s centuries-long struggle to stem the advance of militant Islam. The battle took place on September 11-12, 1683. (Note the 9-11 date.) From July, the forces of the Ottoman Empire, led by Kara Mustafa, had besieged the city of Vienna. By September, the defenders were famished and exhausted. German and Bavarian armies had marched to their aid, but the huge and well-organized Ottoman forces continued their siege, digging trenches to hide from the defenders on the city walls, and digging tunnels to blow up the fortifications from below. King Jan Sobieski, in the meantime, was riding south from Poland with his well-drilled cavalry, the Flying Hussars.

Upon reaching Vienna, with the Ottoman army close to breaching the walls, Sobieski ordered a full attack on September 12th. In the early morning of that day, the united army of about 65,000–76,000 men (including 27,000 Poles) attacked a Turkish force of about 80,000–115,000 men. At about 17:00, after observing the infantry battle from the Kahlenberg hilltop, Sobieski led his cavalry in a massive charge down the hillside. The faltering Ottoman battle line was broken and the Ottoman forces scattered in disarray. About a half-hour later, Sobieski entered the deserted tent of Kara Mustafa and the Battle of Vienna ended.

Historians believe it was the largest cavalry charge in history. It not only swept away the besieging Ottoman armies, but also prepared the way for a mopping-up operation that eviscerated the Ottoman advance on Europe for ages to come. When reading accounts of the battle it is easy to agree with Mr. Varvounis’ observation that it was the inspiration for Tolkien’s “The Ride of the Rohirrim.”

The romanticism in Tolkien’s great saga was further inspired by another theme that echoes through history: the once and future King. The idea lingers in the Arthurian tales, but also resonates in the Hebrew concept of the Son of David who will one day return to claim the throne of his father. The story of the exiled king who waits patiently to return in triumph was historical in Jacobite claimants to the throne of England. Ever since James II’s deposition and exile, the Stuart claimants to the English throne lived abroad, sometimes plotting to re-take their rightful throne, sometimes waiting to be restored.

The most poignant and powerful Stuart story is that of James III—the son of the deposed James II. James III grew up watching his Protestant aunts and their husbands rule instead of him and his father. On the approaching death of Queen Anne, Lord Bolingbroke and Tory leader Robert Harley approached James III and offered him the throne of England if only he would convert to Protestantism. He refused and thus gave up his throne for his Catholic faith.

The theme of the noble, long-lost king inspired the creation of Tolkien’s Strider—Aragorn, King Ellesar—while Sobieski’s charge provided the inspiration for the victory at Minas Tirith. A further neat connection (hinting at Faramir’s wedding to Eowyn, the princess of Rohan) is that the heroic King James III of England was married to Maria Clementine Sobieska—the granddaughter of King Jan Sobieski, the hero of Vienna. Their sons were Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and Henry Benedict Stuart, who became a Catholic Cardinal and was known as the Cardinal Duke of York.

The great King Jan Sobieski is buried in Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral, while King James III and Maria Clementina (along with their sons) are buried in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. There is a monument to the Royal Stuarts on one of the columns in the basilica, and Maria Clementina’s burial there links two of the noblest and heroic royal families of Europe.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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18 replies to this post
  1. It was obviously the biggest victory in Europe history. Poland was a superpower country and Polish Hussars were the best cavalry in whole Europe, they saved this continent from Muslims. During their charge, others armies stopped in place and admiring Polish ride. Glad to hear this news about Tolkien, i am proud of being a Polish 🙂

  2. JRR Tolkien had grown up with a family myth that his eponymous Tolkien ancestor had been a knight who fought at the Siege of Vienna, so the above article is all the more likely to be accurate in attributing his inspiration(s).

      • J.R.R. Tolkien by Raymond Edwards 2012 (Catholic Truth Society B750) p.91 footnote 2 – “The family told stories of how their ancestors were originally Saxon nobility, given the sobriquet ‘tolkhunn’ or ‘foolhardy’ after heroism at the 1529 Siege of Vienna, and driven to England by one invasion or another. Many middle class families preserve similar aristocratic origin stories, which may contain smaller or larger elements of truth. Certainly there are Tolkiehns and Tolkiens in Lower Saxony and Hamburg today”.

  3. I wonder if the attack at Helm’s Deep also owes anything to the Turkish skill at digging mines and setting off explosive mines in attacking strong, modern fortifications, which was very much a feature of the Siege of Vienna? Also, a comparison between Jan Sobieski, no spry young man by that time, and Théoden suggests itself. As do the tensions between Jan Sobieski and the Emperor Leopold and those between Aragorn and Denethor.

    What seems to be the standard English account, The Siege of Vienna (ed. 1, 1964), was written by a young Magdalen College, Oxford, history don, John Stoye – who made good use of travel literature in it, and went on to write English Travellers Abroad, 1604-1667. It would be interesting to know if he was acquainted with the Lewis brothers (Warren wrote Levantine Adventurer: The Travels and Missions of the Chevalier d’Arvieux, 1653-1697) and Tolkien.

    It is curious and interesting to note that the future King William was allied with Jan Sobieski and Leopold and that the twenty-three-year-old future King George I was another of the allies and fought personally in the battle.

    It would be very interesting to know more about that Tolkien family history tidbit!

  4. Not to detract from the accomplishments of Jan Sobieski, but for the true king who saved Europe see Charles Martel and the Battle of Tours in 732 almost 1,000 years before the Battle of Vienna.

  5. Europe was saved from existential threat many times over ten centuries, notably at Tours 732, Malta 1565, Lepanto 1571 and Vienna 1529 and 1683. In actual history, as in The Lord of the Rings, the enemy was one that deployed huge, overwhelming forces, placed no value on human life and demanded total submission to its will.

  6. Charles Martel was important in stopping the northward expansion on Islam. The Reyes Católicos in Spain finally completed the expulsion in 1492 after 700 years of occupation. Their persistence through so many centuries demonstrates their determination.
    King Jan Sobieski is a hero in Vienna, or used to be, because of his military brilliance. I did not know of the Tolkien inspiration until reading this, though.
    Knowing that he was a devout Catholic and good king makes it even better.

  7. I guess it’s always up to me to pour cold water on people who are too happy and get them to be sad again, but oh well…

    King Poniatowski , the last King of Poland, had a big statue of Sobieski built in the Lazienki park in Poland and invited the Austrians to celebrate the salvation of Vienna. Poniatowski hoped that by reminding Austria and the Western European powers that they owed all their power to Poland they would agree not to conquer and carve up the weakened Polish Kingdom . Of course Austria did not care and initiated the conquest and partition of Poland along with the Prussians.

    So whenever I think of Sobieski and the battle of Vienna, I think he made a mistake saving Christian Europe. A few centuries under the Islamic knife would have taught Vienna and the West a valuable lesson – to have more respect for Poland. As such Poland saved them and they destroyed Poland before proceeding to ultimately destroy eachother.

    History repeats itself.

    • You do know that it was at Polish insistence that Austria took part in the partition of Poland at all, and that many of the Poles were grateful that Austria preserved the autonomy of Galicia and Lodomeria? Not to mention that Galicia and Lodomeria were already disputed territories claimed by the Hungarian Crown?

  8. I do know that your post proves my point that a few centuries under the Islamic knife would have done the Austrians some good.

    As to the merits of your claim: The internal weakness of the Polish state which led many Poles to side with one of the three partitioning powers in no way dimminishes the moral injustice of the partitions. It is not Christian to stab your neighbor while he is having a heart attack. It is a crime to destroy the nation which rescued your own. Your way of thinking which led to the sacrifice of Poland is actually what ultimately led to the fall of Austro-Hungary and the triumph of Communism. If Austrians exist who continue to think like this, it is a pity.

    No Christian can praise Sobieski for saving Vienna while upholding Vienna’s immoral partition of Sobieski’s homeland.

    • “My way of thinking” was actually the way of thinking of the thousands of Galician Poles who fought in the Polish Legions of Austria-Hungary, loyal to the death to their Emperor and King. Yes the partition between Prussia and Russia was immoral, but you forget that Poland-Lithuania had already ceased to be an autonomous state at the time of the partition, and was effectively a Russian puppet. As it was, Austria only claimed disputed territory, mostly populated by RUTHENIANS (indeed, it had originally been an independent Ruthenian Kingdom that was annexed by Poland-Lithuania). The cause of the fall of Austria-Hungary is nothing less than fanatical Leftist Nationalism, the same Nationalism which would like to have seen the Holy Emperor of Christendom killed by the Turks.

  9. In any part of Europe, nothing would have been worse than a successful Turkish conquest. To think that Islamic domination could in any circumstances be some kind of richly deserved, salutary lesson is neither clever, nor Christian.

  10. Gentlemen ,
    what you call “fanatical leftist nationalism” is nothing but Polish nationalism which did indeed undermine Austro-Hungary. It was as left wing as the republican spirit that teaches the right of the people to self determination. It was also the Catholic spirit of St. Urszula Ledóchowska whose written work in the field of political science puts the lie to your claims. You do not understand why the Poles fought loyaly and you do not understand what they fought for. I encourage you to read Saint Ledóchowska

    Austro-Hungary was the most mild of the partitions and Poland was internally weak, but as you yourselves acknowledge that the partitions were immoral it is obvious that the moment the nation willed a republic , Austro-Hungary had to die . It’s death was well deserved and the unwillingness of Westerners to come to grip with this was directly responsible for the mass appeal of Communism as a last resort in light of imperial recalcitrance.

    Turkey never committed as many attrocities against European Christendom than the Austro-Germanic peoples did . Sobieski saved them in vein. And isn’t it ironic that the same dynamic is playing out today.

    • Then I have one last thing to say;

      What you call “the right of the people to self determination” is nothing more than “the right of the demagogues to bloodshed,” and the “republican spirit” has as little to do with a true just republic, as tyranny with true just monarchy. Perhaps then it is Poland who has on her hands the blood of the Martyr King-Emperor, Blessed Karl, blood which war and oppression by the Communists has not yet expunged. I say perhaps. However this is certain, that the blood of Kings will outlast the frail nationalist states and under the crowned White Eagle will rally all those loyal to Christendom and her Emperor.

  11. The Emperor Karl would not be blessed if not for Pope John Paul II who made him that way. As for the faux Catholicism of the West which you represent: even the elites of the Polish Communist party were all given Catholic funerals – this despite official party orthodoxy which tried to supress the Church. Meanwhile Austro-Germans who enjoyed religious freedom during the Cold War are incapable of even getting to Church on Sunday mornings . Polish Communism was more Catholic and more Orthodox than your beloved Empire. It is little wonder you ignore national character , since Austro-Germans have such poor national character . To make the claim that Poland has the blood of Karl on her hands, when it was a Polish Pope who elevated him to his present status is as ridiculous as your earlier claim that Austro-Hungary had territorial rights to Galicia. Austria would not have territorial claims to a pig farm or public bathroom in Vienna if Sobieski had not saved you all from the Muslims. All of which proves my point: Sobieski should not have saved Vienna, he should have saved Poland. Thankfully God is just and Poland not only saved Christendom from Turkey but in World War II the Polish army put to rest the Austro-Germanic menace once and for all and took back all of the Western lands that had been held by Germanic pagans prior to the triumph of God’s army which was ironically fighting alongside the Red Army. Communism was the natural reaction to the hubris of your Empire and it was better to be Red and Catholic than spend a minute longer under Austrian rule. Sorry for being so harsh towards Austria, but as a German I am accustomed to showing Austria her place.

  12. There is only one king in a dynasty. The rulers who are illustrious and have to good command over army are rare. It is amazing to read and gain knowledge about the great warrior king.

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