Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Unsung Hero

File:Jan Tricius - Portrait of John III Sobieski (ca. 1680) - Google Art Project.jpg

During my recent visit to Krakow, in the first couple of days before I took ill, I managed to visit a few places of note.  The first had to be the Wawel Cathedral, Blessed John Paul II's cathedral when he was Archbishop of Krakow.  It wasn't my first visit to the cathedral, but this time I had a few things I wanted to see in particular.  Of course the tomb of St Stanislaus, the martyred Archbishop, and the tomb of the holy queen St Jadwiga whose relics rest beneath her miraculous crucifix.  The crypt of St Leonard is also a must for devotees of Blessed John Paul because it was there that he offered his First Mass on the 2nd November 1946.  It was in that crypt that one of those I can come to honour was buried: King Jan III Sobieski.

Now Jan Sobieski may not be a historical figure familiar with many Europeans today, but in fact he should be one of the most honoured Europeans of all time.  He was King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1674 until his death in 1696.  He was one of Poland's great monarchs who brought stability and peace to a troubled nation.  However, his greatest achievement in European terms was his role in the Siege and Battle of Vienna in 1683.  It was Jan Sobieski and his small army who defeated the invading Turks and saved Europe from invasion.  Had he failed, not only would the various European kingdoms have fallen, but so too Christianity in Europe.  Blessed Pope Innocent XI, who had urged Sobieski and others to go to the defence of Vienna, called him "the Saviour of Vienna and Western European Civilisation".  

Sobieski was born in 1629 to a noble Polish family.  He attended the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, graduating from the school of philosophical studies there in 1646.  After two years travelling around Europe he got involved in the wars in Poland where he learned his trade as a soldier and displayed abilities as a future commander.  Following the invasion of the Swedes, Jan initially swore alligence to the conquering Swedish King, but soon repented of it and joined the struggle to oust the Swedes from Poland. Loyal to the King of Poland he fought in various campaigns and was promoted up the ranks until he was appointed Grand Hetman of the Crown, the highest military rank in the Polish-Lithuanian army.

On the 11th November 1673 he achieved a notable victory over the Turks in the battle of Chocim, capturing the fortress there.  His victory concided with the death of Michael I King of Poland.  His abilities were noted by the Commonwealth, and in May of the following year, Jan was elected King of Poland, as was the custom at that time.  He was crowned as King Jan III in the Wawel on the 2nd February 1676.

Given that Poland was at war for the last half century, the country was in a bad state, and there was almost nothing in the treasury.  Jan set out to rebuild Poland, raise money and bring peace.  He forced the Ottomans to sign a peace treaty which brought peace to southern Poland, though he would be involved in various wars throughout his reign. Despite machinations within his court and spies from foreign courts, Jan managed to restabilise Poland, bring some prosperity and reform the army.  He allied himself with the Holy Roman Emperor and sought to unify Europe as a means of resisting invasion from the ever vigiliant Turks. He joined the Holy League set up by Blessed Pope Innocent XI, an interesting ecumenical alliance of European monarchs and princes, Catholic and Protestant.

His great claim to fame, as I mentioned before, was his role in the Siege and Battle of Vienna.  The Turks, led by Kara  Mustafa Pasha had advanced to the gates of the city and  lay siege.  Vienna was vital to their campaign - if it fell, then Europe was there for the picking.  The importance of the city was also appreciated by Sobieski and the Holy League.   The Polish, Austrian and German armies were under Jan's command, and at 4am on the morning of the 12th September 1683, he led 81,000 troops into battle with the besieging Turks who numbered 130,000 soldiers.  The battle lasted the whole day.  At 5pm Jan led another charge, and in the next half hour the Turks were defeated and fleeing.  At 5.30pm Jan entered the tent of Kara Mustapha and took possession of it as the symbol of victory.   In memory of the victory, Blessed Pope Innocent declared the 12th September the feast of the Holy Name of Mary - the victory had been attributed to her intercession.

Honoured as a hero for the rest of his life, Jan Sobeski died peacefully on the 17th June 1696 and was buried in state in the Wawel Cathedral.  His devoted wife Queen Maria Kasimira died in 1716 and was buried near him in the same crypt.

So where are the monuments to Jan Sobieski in Europe?  Of course the Poles honour their great king, but throughout Europe, are there statues erected to his memory, streets named after him or other monuments reminding the citizens of this continent of what this man did for us?  I don't honestly know.  But I do know that Jan Sobieski has been erased from the history of Europe in many places.  Why so?  Surely he needs to be remembered as one who saved European civilisation and, of course, European Christianity.  It might be no harm for us to learn more about him.  If ever we need Christian heroes in Europe it is now when our native Christian civilisation is under attack again, this time from within.

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