John III

John III (1629-1696), King of Poland, also called John Sobieski, saved the country from Turkish and Tatar invasions, becoming the hero of Europe by raising the siege of Vienna in 1683.

John, or Jan, Sobieski was born at Olesko near Lvov, Poland, on Aug. 17, 1629, the eldest son of Jakób Sobieski, commander of the Cracow fortress. He began his education at home, continued it at Cracow, and completed it with a tour of Germany, Holland, France, and England. His powerful physique and keen intelligence quickly earned him the reputation of a good soldier, and his amorous exploits proclaimed him an extraordinarily successful lover. Typical of the arrogant and unruly Polish aristocracy, he pursued his own fortunes, often at the expense of his country. He firmly opposed the non-Christian Tatars and Turks, serving in wars against the Cossacks and Tatars, and became commander in chief of all Polish forces in 1668.

Much of his political ambition he owed to his wife, Maria Kazimiera d'Arquien, whom he married in 1665. Tied by her connections to the pro-French faction in the Polish Diet, Sobieski plotted to overthrow the weak king, Michael Wisniowiecki, in 1669. His plot discovered, Sobieski redeemed himself in a brilliant campaign against the Turks, culminating in the victory of Khotin on Nov. 11, 1673.

At the moment of Sobieski's triumph, King Michael died. The victorious general hurried to Warsaw seeking the throne; with a force of 6,000 veterans he overawed the elective Diet and was proclaimed king in 1674. He immediately began clearing Poland of Turks and Tatars, a task accomplished before his triumphant coronation at Cracow on Feb. 2, 1676.

In 1682 John III overcame his distrust of the Hapsburgs and, against the wishes of French supporters, allied with Austria against the Turks. Cooperating with Duke Charles of Lorraine, his former rival for the Polish throne, he led the combined imperial and Polish forces at the battle of the Kahlenberg on Sept. 12, 1683, crushing the Turkish armies besieging Vienna. It was Sobieski's finest hour; he was hailed as a hero throughout Europe.

After Sobieski's campaigns to conquer the Danubian province of Moldavia failed, he returned to Poland in 1690 in broken health. Bitterness and humiliation filled his last years as he tried to secure the royal succession for his ambitious but inept and treacherous son Jakób. Poland's aristocratic constitution, which could turn any conspiracy into an occasion for civil war, frustrated his efforts to create a strong hereditary kingdom, opening the way for foreign intervention in Polish affairs. Although Poland's most popular monarch, Sobieski failed, as others had, to overcome the disruptive power of his own noble caste. He died on June 17, 1696, leaving the Polish throne a pawn of European power politics.


Further Reading on John III

There is a wide literature on John Sobieski in many languages. The best scholarly biographies are by O. Laskowski, Sobieski, King of Poland (1944), and O. Forst de Battaglia, whose original German work appears in a much-condensed English version in the first volume of the Cambridge History of Poland (1947). J. B. Morton, Sobieski, King of Poland (1932), is a popularized account.