The Siege of Vienna – Through Mary, you, John, will be victorious!

The fate of a continent was decided at the walls of a city… With St. Peter’s Basilica on the verge of becoming a stable, was divine intervention on its way?

Vienna. The city of galas, of refinement, of music and pompous processions; the key locale for the political and social events of Europe was about to succumb to the fury of an Ottoman invasion. Surrounded by hills and woods, and enhanced by the Danube flowing at its feet, it could be seen from afar, topped by the steeples of its churches and crowned by the spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. However, this time it was not the delight of some traveller’s rapt gaze, but the object of the dreams of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, who repeated his hallucinatory aspiration to himself: to carry the standard of the Crescent to the heart of Europe…

Already savouring the moment when he would replace the crosses that met his eye with a crescent, and convinced that the Viennese would not receive the aid of any other Christian army, he asked himself cynically: “Who can save Vienna?” The sight of the smiling city, with the moats of its fortifications turned into gardens, convinced him even further that it would not withstand a long siege: the whole world knew that Vienna was a court, not a military bastion. Kara Mustafa then promised to exterminate it, as well as the emperor, “despite his crucified God,”1 in his words.

The vizier had definitely inherited the fiery character and ambitious temperament of his ancestors. He wanted to conquer the whole of Europe and would not rest until he had turned St. Peter’s Basilica into the Sultan’s stables.

Christendom putrefied by love of the world

The threat afflicted the Viennese people and echoed beyond their walls to Rome, from where the Supreme Pontiff, Innocent XI, sought to send military reinforcements.

Holy Mother Church looked to her first-born daughter, France, for help. Where was she at this moment of danger for Christendom? The Sun King’s serious moral shortcomings and pride had obscured his outlook, or rather led him to believe that no other star but himself should shine on the world stage. Louis XIV refused to send his troops to the defence of Vienna, hoping, with petty selfishness, that its disappearance would rid him of the splendours of that court which overshadowed the glory of his own reign…

Meanwhile, the besieged population was becoming more and more disheartened. The Christians knew that if Vienna fell, Rome would soon follow, and with it the Holy Church. They expected from their monarch, Leopold I, at least a gesture of encouragement, an order to take up arms, a word that would spur on the resistance, and yet… the worldliness and licentiousness of his court prevented him from being a hero when the future of Christendom demanded it.

The only remedy the Emperor found for this extreme threat was to forbid his subjects, on pain of death, to speak of the circumstances looming over the kingdom, in the hope of at least maintaining normality and composure in his domains…

The Turks redoubled their attacks. Everything indicated that the walls of Vienna would fall. Who would save i?
Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa – Museum of Vienna

When Kara Mustafa’s troops finally appeared in the distance, sowing the fields with fire, blood and confusion, the emperor fled with his family to Bohemia, sealing his reign forever with the signet of cowardice… Following his example, sixty thousand inhabitants of the Danube capital fled, abandoning the city to its own fate.

“Who can save Vienna?” The Supreme Pontiff raised this question to Heaven, and in the midst of that firmament covered with treachery and ingratitude, a star began to shine. Only one person could come to his aid and rescue Christendom in peril: the King of Poland, John Sobieski.

A boy brought up to triumph

From an early age, John was brought up for combat and great endeavours. His mother, Theophile Danilowiczowna-Sobieska, a woman of ardent heart and bellicose spirit, took him every day to the church of Zolkiew, where the paintings of the family heroes were decorated with marble and gold, in order to pay perpetual homage to these masters of love for faith and country. Showing him the weapons that shone on the family coat of arms, she repeated:

“Be like them, or greater!”

It was in this context that little John grew up, and the future would prove that the boy would surpass all his ancestors in skill and virtue.

Elected king of Poland, he had to fight great battles in defence of religious principles and Polish territory. In all his expeditions, he showed rare military talent and unrivalled bravery. He knew not only how to govern the people, but also how to uplift and encourage them in the fulfilment of God’s will.

The plan of attack, on the brink of the impossible

On hearing the request of the Supreme Pontiff, John Sobieski promptly organized an army and, taking even his youngest son with him, joined the imperial troops of Charles, Duke of Lorraine, and the prince electors of Bavaria and Saxony.

The chronicles of the time tell us that these nobles welcomed the victorious leader sent by Providence with tears of joy. If before his arrival discord had reigned in the Catholic camp, Sobieski brought, as if on the wings of an angel, unity and respect, arousing ready obedience among all, so that his decisions were carried out without hindrance. This was all the more necessary as Vienna no longer had enough gunpowder, food or men to fight.

The last desperate message the Count of Stahremberg had managed to send had been: “There is no time to lose!”

The disproportion between the two armies was staggering. The Ottomans numbered three hundred thousand men! On the other hand, the Christian combatants numbered less than seventy thousand, of whom – it should be noted – about ten thousand were just a band of volunteers who ran the risk of becoming an embarrassment and a danger rather than a help…

However, Sobieski knew that victory would come from God and not from men. An experienced man of war, he immediately set about his audacious plan of attack, seized by one of those inspirations of genius that never failed him in battle: he would take his army to the summit of Mount Kahlenberg, attacking the Ottoman camp from where they least expected it.

Enfeebled by pleasures, the enemy loses its vigour

For his part, the Grand Vizier could wait no longer. Vienna had resisted the siege for 45 days, much too long for his ambition. Part of the wall had been destroyed by cannons, the bridges were demolished, and many soldiers had died during the attacks, from hunger or the epidemics that were spreading in the capital. The armoury was exhausted, and the morale of the population was low. Why did they not surrender? None of those who had promised to come to their aid had appeared…

The Turks redoubled their attacks and dug trenches around the whole city, undermining it. Everything indicated that in two days the walls would fall and they would enter, to the ruin of the people.

However, these almost two months of inertia had serious consequences for the Ottoman army… In addition to the depravity of customs, every soldier worried about the booty obtained in the massacre and looked for a way to escape or hide it. Too confident in his own strength to foresee any danger, Kara Mustafa remained incredulous about the aid promised by the King of Poland and, even when informed of the disturbing movements on the Kahlenberg, remained indomitable, increasing the discord among the disgruntled troops. He was occupied only with frightening the Christians with numbers and dazzling them with the pomp of his costumes, armaments and tents, wishing to see them vanquished without even fighting them, more prepared to watch a triumph than to fight as a soldier…

The vizier’s extreme negligence was providentially one of the causes of his powerful army’s ruin.

Obedience and heroism of the soldiers of Christ

On September 9, 1683, the united troops under the command of John Sobieski began to climb the Kahlenberg. The heat and strong wind made the ascent even more difficult. With no paths through the woods, the riders were forced to unmount and lead their horses through the dense forest. But that was not the worst of it. The cannons became an impossible load for the animals to drag, so they had to be pulled with ropes by the soldiers themselves.

Under the command of John Sobieski, the Catholic troops gathered on Mount Kahlenberg. The winged Hussars stood out, looking like exterminating angels descending from heaven upon the minions of evil
Winged Hussars in attack formation – Still from the film “The Day of the Siege: September Eleven 1683”

The advance along the steep slopes was slow and painful, but on September 11 the army occupied the top and proved that the Turks had not planned enough resistance there. Launching a projectile into the starry sky, Sobieski notified the besieged that help had arrived, and kept several fires burning that night on the top of the Kahlenberg to sustain the hope and courage of the inhabitants of Vienna.

At the same time, a Capuchin monk rode in haste to meet Sobieski on the summit of the mountain. It was the papal legate, a Venetian religious famous for his holiness: Marco d’Aviano. Handing him a brief letter from the Pope, he blessed the troops with a crucifix and declared to the combatants: “I announce to you in the name of the Holy See that if you trust in God, victory will be yours!”

The attack was to begin before dawn the next day, the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary. The King of Poland carried with him a copy of the miraculous painting of Our Lady of Jasna Gora, before which the army attended the last Mass before the attack, consecrating the decisive battle to the Heart of Mary. No one slept that night. At three o’clock in the morning, Sobieski deployed his army towards the opposing camp, which skirted Vienna. At the cry of “God is our aid,” they rushed upon the enemy and launched a formidable artillery barrage, spreading panic, death and destruction. The Hussars stood out and, with their famous winged uniforms, resembled exterminating angels descending from heaven upon the minions of evil.

Enemy insolence turns to tears…

Enthusiasm was sweeping through the Catholic ranks, with Sobieski at their head. Amidst the din of battle, his voice thundered like an avenging thunderbolt and he sang the Psalm of the prophet-king: “Non nobis, Domine…”

Astonished, Kara Mustafa understood the meaning of all this: the King of Poland was indeed in the fight and personally commanding that cavalry charge! He was filled with both rage and panic. His army was divided in two: one part was running to meet the Christians, to stop their advance, the other was preparing the final assault on the walls of Vienna. In the midst of the chaos of the first clashes, Kara Mustafa made the fatal mistake of not protecting the flanks of the formation, allowing Sobieski to boldly breach the Ottoman lines.

The Grand Vizier tried to organize a counter-attack and call for reinforcements, but it was too late! Consternation reigned among the Mohammedans and columns of camels leaving for Hungary confirmed the mass desertion. He realized that he was alone and could no longer sustain the battle. He called the few remaining men and began to cry like a child, asking one of the officers:

“And you, can you not help me?”

“I know this king of Poland, and I told you that with him there would be nothing to do but flee,” was the only reply he received.

They accordingly took to flight, pursued by Christ’s army.

…and the Christian resistance to jubilation!

The defeat was complete! It is difficult to know the exact number of losses, as the chronicles differ. However, the violence of the attack cost the Ottomans at least twenty thousand casualties, and the corpses of the vanquished filled the fields around the city. On the Christian side, however, the number of wounded and dead during the siege and in battle did not reach four thousand.

At dusk, John Sobieski entered Vienna. The princes of the empire came to meet him and embraced him, colonels and officers acclaimed him without ceasing, and all the people sought to touch his cloak, to grasp his hands and feet, wanting to kiss them. The king tried to stop them, but nothing could restrain their manifestations of gratitude. He went to the church, prostrated himself and sang the Te Deum, the victory hymn of the Lord of hosts.

The news of the liberation of Vienna filled all of Europe with joy, except – sad to say – the Sun King… The Pope received from Sobieski the principal standard captured from the Turks, a trophy that visited all the churches of Rome for a month.

An immortal legacy for the Church

By the sword of the Polish hero, the Holy Church had once again repulsed Islam, planting in the heart of Christendom the standard of triumph and bequeathing to it two treasures of incalculable value.

The triumphal standard of the Polish hero was planted in the heart of Christendom, assuring it that with the Most Holy Virgin, it will always be victorious
John Sobieski after the liberation of Vienna, by Jan Matejko – Vatican Museums

The first was found by Sobieski in the ruins of the village of Wishau. It was an ancient painting of Our Lady of Loreto, whose crown was supported by two Angels holding scrolls with the following inscriptions:In hac imagine Mariæ vinces, Johannes”; “In hac imagine Mariæ, victor ero Johannes” – meaning “Through this image of Mary, you, John, will conquer”; “Through this image of Mary, I, John, will be victorious.” The Queen of Heaven’s message was undeniable. In addition to protecting King John Sobieski throughout many other battles, Christendom comprehended that with the Blessed Virgin it would always be victorious.

The second treasure was a gift from Innocent XI to the Holy Church: the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary, then celebrated in only some regions, and extended by the Pontiff to the Universal Church. To this day, it is celebrated on September 12, the date of this memorable Marian victory in history. 



1 The historical references in this article have been transcribed from: SALVANDY, Narcisse-Achille de. Le libérateur de la Chrétienté au XVII e siècle. Jean Sobieski, sa vie, ses vertus, ses epreuves, ses victoires. Cadillac: Saint-Remi, 2010.



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