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King of Poland 1674-1696, and hero of the siege of Vienna.

He was born in 1629, son of James Sobieski, the castellan of Cracow. After defeating the Turks at Choczim (11 November 1673), he was elected King of Poland on 21 May 1674 in succession to King Michael Wisniowiecki.

In 1683 he achieved that victory will live for ever. Vienna was besieged by the Turks, and was about to fall. Then the defenders looked out and a great cry went up from the walls, John! John Sobieski!

It is this cry that sticks in my memory and makes him a hero of history to me.

(English version: John Sobieski)

Polish monarch and national hero. Born 1629 at Olesko, in Galicja/Galicia. Died 1696 at Wilanow. Elected king of Poland in 1674.

Born into a wealthy noble family1, Jan made a career for himself in the Polish military, including a celebrated victory over the Ottomans at Choczim (November 11, 1673), before being elected king2 in 1674 (succeeding Michael Wisniowiecki).

Politically, Sobieski was supported by the Habsburgs, and through this alliance, he became involved in a war (1683) with the Ottoman Empire. The armies of Sultan Mehmed IV were, at the time, besieging Wien/Vienna, and, as the city seemed about to fall, Sobieski arrived with a relief force. The Battle of Vienna (September 12, 1683) was a significant defeat for the Ottomans, and quashed their ambitions of further expansion into central Europe - and left Jan Sobieski the great hero3 of Christendom.

As king, Sobieski was an enthusiastic patron of Polish art and culture, but in the final analysis, his greatest failure was that he failed to strengthen Poland's political influence beyond that which was provided by the strong standing army. In failing to form closer ties with other states, Sobieski left Poland without solid allies, a legacy that was to be problematical in the future.

Jan Sobieski died at the palace in Wilanow in 1696, and was succeeded, after some wheeling and dealing, in 1697, by August II Mocny the Elector of Sachsen/Saxony - thus beginning a 66-year-long personal union of Poland with Saxony.

Jan III Sobieski and his wife, Maria Kazimiera d'Arquien (who died in 1716), are interred in the crypt of the Royal Cathedral at Kraków Castle.


1 Saying that someone is "noble" isn't really saying all that much, in Poland. This country boasts more petty noble families than any other in the world - but Sobieski was upper-class nobility. His father, Jakub Sobieski ("James Sobieski"), was the castellan of Kraków/Cracow, and his mother belonged to the wealthy Ziolkowskis. Altogether, the family was one of the richest in Poland, and Jan later augmented this, by marrying a rich widow, Maria Kazimiera d'Arquien, widow of Jan Zamoyski, in 1665. Though, legally, all the nobles were equals, there was a vast difference between high nobility and low - and Jan's family were definitely upper crust.

2 Poland, like many other European monarchies, elected its kings. However, the elective monarchy, which Poland had introduced in 1572, and which was in other countries (e.g. Denmark) a mere formality, used only to confirm the designated heir to the former king, was in Poland an actual political system, devoted to a sort of restricted democratic election - though "democracy" is used in the widest sense, as only members of the nobility were eligible for kingship. Of course, this also made for a certain inertia in Polish politics, as the individual nobles spent all their strength campaigning for kingship - especially as the Polish system required consensus.

3 One of the more curious honours conferred upon Jan Sobieski in commemoration of his victory at Vienna may be found in the heavens - the constellation of Scutum ("The Shield"), or more properly, Scutum Sobiescianum ("Sobieski's Shield"). This constellation was invented by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius (Jan Heweliusz, 1611-1687), for inclusion in his catalogue of stars (Firmamentum Sobiescianum, part of Prodromus Astronomiae, published posthumously in 1690). Today, the constellation is well known to astronomers, but Sobieski's name is remembered (in this context) only in the more pedantic textbooks.

Additional curious facts

  • Actress Leelee Sobieski claims lineal descent from Jan III Sobieski.

  • Supposedly, the bagel was invented by a baker in Vienna, in honour of Jan Sobieski's victory. The etymology is supposed to be either from an (Austrian)German word Beugel, "(fist)fight", or from the German word Bügel, "stirrup", though it may be from an older Yiddisch word, and the shape of a bagel is supposed to be a deliberate imitation of a stirrup's form, since the Poles fought on horseback.

(I make no guarantees for the veracity of these "factoids".)

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