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The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial Between Cross & Crescent

The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial Between Cross & Crescent

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by John Stoye

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"In his splendid study The Siege of Vienna, the Oxford historian John Stoye provides a detailed account of the intricate machinations between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. Mr. Stoye's description of the siege itself is masterly. He seems to know every inch of ground, every earthwork and fortification around the Imperial City, and he follows the action


"In his splendid study The Siege of Vienna, the Oxford historian John Stoye provides a detailed account of the intricate machinations between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. Mr. Stoye's description of the siege itself is masterly. He seems to know every inch of ground, every earthwork and fortification around the Imperial City, and he follows the action meticulously."--The Wall Street Journal

"Worthy of the pen of Herodotus. . . . It is a measure of the fascination of Mr. Stoye's subject that one should think of comparing his treatment of it with the work of the greatest historians."--The Times Literary Supplement

"John Stoye is the master of every aspect of his subject."--Daily Telegraph

The siege of Vienna in 1683 was one of the turning points in European history. So great was its impact that countries normally jealous and hostile sank their differences to throw back the armies of Islam and their savage Tartar allies.

The consequences of defeat were momentous: The Ottomans lost half of their European territories, which led to the final collapse of their empire, and the Habsburgs turned their attention from France and the Rhine frontier to the rich pickings of the Balkans. That hot September day in 1683 witnessed the last great trial of strength between the East and the West-and opened an epoch in European history that lasted until the First World War.

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The Siege of Vienna

The Last Great Trial Between Cross & Crescent

By John Stoye


Copyright © 2000 John Stoye
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-1812-9


The Origins of the

Ottoman Attack


On 6 August 1682, an important meeting took place in Sultan Mehmed IV's great palace in Istanbul. The highest officers of his government were present, and those among them who opposed the Grand Vezir Kara Mustafa for personal reasons, or deplored his aggressive statesmanship, had been silenced. They now agreed to disregard the existing treaty of peace with the Emperor Leopold I, which was not due to expire until 1684, and they recommended a military campaign for the year 1683, to be mounted in Hungary with the maximum armament of the Sultan's empire.

In fact, these dignitaries were formally accepting the Grand Vezir's decision to intensify a policy already in operation; but they could hardly fail to realise how much depended on the bigger scale, and therefore on the scope, of his new proposal. In 1681, a number of the Sultan's troops stationed north of the Danube had been sent to help Imre Thököly, the Magyar leader in rebellion against Habsburg authority in Christian Hungary, that part of the country which the Turks themselves did not occupy. Early in 1682, more troops were drawn from an even wider area, including Bosnia and Serbia, for the same purpose. Their commander, old Ibrahim, the governor of Buda, gave Thököly powerful assistance and some useful Habsburg strongholds in Slovakia were captured. Up to, but not beyond this point, the policy was flexible. It could be modified or even reversed. But now the Sultan, inspired by the Grand Vezir, went decidedly further. He recognised Thököly as 'King' of Hungary under Ottoman protection. He instructed his own court, and in addition the full complement of his household troops, to winter in Adrianople. He began to summon other contingents from his more distant provinces. It was soon understood that they were all to move northwards during the early months of the following year to Belgrade, the general rendezvous for an immense concentration of forces.

Five days later, on 11th August 1682, at Laxenburg near Vienna, Leopold I received the opinion of his counsellors on the question of peace or war with the Turks. They unanimously advised him to try to renew his treaty of peace. These statesmen paid far too little attention to the gloomy dispatches from the Habsburg envoys in Istanbul, George Kuniz and Albert Caprara, or to the threatening situation in Hungary. They were almost all preoccupied by the recent aggressions of Louis XIV in Flanders and Germany and Italy, and by Leopold's and Louis' rival claims to succeed Carlos II of Spain if he died childless. They considered that the ambitious foreign policy of the French court had gained rather than lost momentum since the treaties signed at Nymegen in Holland, in 1678 and 1679, put an end to seven years of public warfare in western Europe. They believed that Louis XIV was more to be feared than Mehmed IV. They argued that further concessions to France would prove fatal to Habsburg power and reputation, while possible concessions to the Sultan might be retrieved in due course. They appeared to have in mind, not an immediate order to Caprara to make a positive offer to the Turks (this they had always refused to contemplate), but a further dragging out of discussion between their envoys and the Grand Vezir; if necessary, somewhat later, they would consider the surrender of a few fortified points in the area between Habsburg Pressburg and Turkish Buda. The Sultan, after all, had not stirred in the critical 1670s when Christian Hungary was in a state of mutiny against Leopold. They tried hard to convince themselves that he would not stir far in the 1680s.

The Austrian counsellors were mistaken, but the westward orientation of Viennese policy was an obstinate tradition of long standing. The dominant idea, at least since the early part of the century when the Ottoman power was relatively quiescent, had been to deal gently with the Moslems in order to spare the maximum force required to oppose Christian enemies in western Europe. This was the tactic in 1664, after the great victory of St Gotthard on the banks of the River Rába, when the Habsburgs made concessions (unnecessarily, it seemed to some critics) in order to secure the twenty years' truce due to expire in 1684. 'The Crescent Moon (of Islam) climbs up the night sky and the Gallic cock sleeps not!' was a popular German saying of the time. Leopold I in the Hofburg heard clearly the crowing of the French court and, with the majority of his statesmen, disliked Louis XIV intensely; but for him, the moon rose in comparative silence and the Sultan represented the principle of evil in a somewhat remote sphere, at least in the years before 1682 and 1683. A strong clerical interest at his court, which argued the merits of defending or expanding Christendom, battled in vain against the traditional emphasis in the complex system of Viennese diplomacy.

In August 1682, therefore, the Turks decided on an ambitious military attack against the Habsburg at an early date; and the Habsburg decided to try to avoid war. It is a coincidence which helps to explain why twelve months later the armies of the Sultan were camped round the walls of Vienna itself. In fact, the Habsburg government was not caught completely off its guard, as other evidence will show. But a fundamental underestimate of Turkish striking power continued to bedevil its general policy.

An official ceremony in Istanbul, the mounting of the Sultan's insignia—the Tugh, or horsetails—outside the Grand Seraglio, publicly proclaimed his intention of leaving the city in the near future. As so often in past years, no doubt, it seemed that he would hunt during the autumn and then go on to Adrianople. Indeed, he left on 8 October, after the fast of Ramadan and the feast of Bairam were over, hunted at leisure through various tracts of countryside, and reached Adrianople early in December. His harem and household followed him. But observant men were on the watch for a great deal besides the usual paraphernalia of a despot's private pleasures. They saw the different sections of the Sultan's permanent army, usually stationed in and near Istanbul, now assembling outside the walls of the city around his gorgeous ceremonial tent, the movable headquarters and symbol of his government: the Janissaries and auxiliary infantry units, the Spahis and other household cavalry, and a host of technicians and tradesmen required for the service of the troops. Although a marvellous cavalcade had ushered the Sultan out of the city with traditional Moslem emphasis on the importance of such an occasion, the majority of the soldiers left a week later, moved forward without stopping long anywhere, and reached Adrianople before him. Here they remained for four months, the core of an army which expanded rapidly as additional detachments kept coming in; for messengers had gone out to the farthest edges of the empire in Asia and Europe, and also to Egypt. The beylerbeyis, or governors-in-chief, were instructed to bring with them the contingents for which their revenues made them liable, and to see that the lesser provincial officials, the sandjakbeyis, and the landowners large and small, who held land on military tenures, did likewise. Gradually, these forces began to make their way to Adrianople, Belgrade or to points on the road between them.

Meanwhile Kuniz and Caprara had both been brought from Istanbul, and the representatives of other rulers arrived at the temporary centre of government where the Sultan and Grand Vezir resided. One came from Moscow, and the treaty made in 1681 with the Czar of Muscovy was ratified, which ensured peace in a vast area north of the Black Sea. The envoys of the Prince of Transylvania were for once well and lavishly entertained: the Ottoman government hoped to make certain that Prince Michael Apafi sent his forces to join the army, and paid his tribute punctually in the coming year, at the same time acting as a counterweight to Thököly, the new 'King' in Hungary. A conference with Caprara took place, in which arguments aired at earlier meetings between the Austrian and the Turkish statesmen were repeated. It was a farcical occasion, because Leopold had made no fresh offers, and because Kara Mustafa was determined not to commit himself until the weight of the army to be assembled in Hungary had given him an overpowering advantage. Caprara learnt now that the price of peace was the surrender of Györ, a fortress of the greatest importance to the Habsburg defences, situated on the Danube, fifty miles south-east of Pressburg. The Turks realised that he had no authority to agree to this; he was already that familiar phenomenon in the history of Ottoman relations with the Christian states, a captive diplomat, detained for possible use by the Turks at their discretion. As a matter of much greater immediate importance, at Adrianople the Sultan willingly agreed with his counsellors that he should lead the army to Belgrade, while thereafter the Grand Vezir exercised supreme military command as his deputy.

For some time attention had been given to the condition of the route through the Balkans. The repair of bridges across the Maritza and the Morava was taken in hand. Unfortunately, exceptional rains increased abnormally the weight of water flowing off the Rhodope and Balkan mountains. The passage of the foremost troops inevitably churned up the road, to the disadvantage of men, carts, and beasts coming up behind them. On 30 March the vanguard of Janissaries set out, to be followed soon afterwards by the Sultan and his household with the main body of troops, the ambassadors of Austria and Poland, and all the rag-tag and bobtail that accompanied a court or an army on the move at this period. Perhaps 100,000 persons were trekking forward.

Caprara's secretary has left an account of what took place on the road to Belgrade in April, 1683. Some parts of the army marched or rode by day, but when the secretary tried to sleep at night he woke to hear other troops, advancing through the darkness by the flare of countless torches. Carts and wagons of every description went along with, or followed, the different detachments; often they got lost, or lagged behind. Great flocks of sheep and herds of cattle formed the basis of the victualling system, and Caprara guessed that 32,000 lbs. of meat and 60,000 loaves were consumed daily. Prices fluctuated as rival commissariats bid against one another to supply their men. Privileged persons went by coach, and coaches stuck in the mud. The rains were shocking. If most men slept in tents, the more exalted (among whom the Austrian diplomats were still lucky to count themselves) sometimes found accommodation in the hospices which generations of wealthy and pious Moslems had built at intervals along the road. Sometimes there were halts of a day, or two days, when cities like Philippopolis and Sofia were reached; the army camped outside, and only civilians and grandees were allowed to pass the walls. Otherwise, there was nothing to be done except to go patiently forward after the vanguard—the indispensable vanguard of Janissaries which led the way, marked out the distances, and prepared the ovens every evening for those who followed them. Behind the Balkan troops, the men of Anatolia and Asia were now coming up. At Niš the other great route was joined, from Salonika, down which were moving the men from the Aegean and the men of Africa. The main body finally reached the outskirts of Belgrade on 3 May. A little earlier, officers had been sent ahead to close all the wineshops. A little later, the Sultan's entry into the city was of great ceremonial magnificence. The season of war and serious business approached with the spring, though spring itself, and the indispensable growth of fresh pasture for the innumerable livestock of this army, came late.

At Belgrade the Danube meets one of its largest right-bank tributaries, the Sava. Across the Sava stands Zemun, where the enormous camp was set on 4 May. More troops came in daily from different directions. The artillery was reviewed, though a Turkish account suggests that it did not include more than sixty guns and mortars. Munitions and provisions were loaded on 150 ships, for dispatch up the Danube. Every day the Sultan rode out from Belgrade on tours of inspection, and on 13 May he solemnly entrusted the sacred standard of Islam, 'the Flag of the Prophet', to the Grand Vezir, appointing him generalissimo for the campaign. Between 18 and 20 May the governor of Mesopotamia arrived with his men. The Janissaries marched out of camp, and a few days later the Grand Vezir followed with most of the remaining troops. The Sultan and his court stayed on at Belgrade with a small but adequate guard.

The pace of the Turks' advance was still slow, and they did not reach Osijek until 2 June. Two things held them back, rain, and the knowledge that their great bridge over the River Drava, another major tributary of the Danube, was not yet in a proper state of repair. For at Osijek, the route into Hungary crossed the Drava by a long pontoon bridge and then, a little way upstream, another bridge—constructed of massive timbers, with spectacular wooden towers placed at short interval—traversed the marshes for a distance usually estimated at five miles or 6,000 paces. Throughout a chequered history of decay and renovation since Suleiman the Lawgiver's reign, this formidable engineering work was the main gateway into Hungary from the south. Croats and Magyars had tried more than once to destroy it, and Caprara's secretary in 1683 noticed the scars surviving from a brave effort to burn down the bridge in 1664. According to their own accounts, the Turks had been engaged on repairs during the previous six months; even so, they were too slow not to delay Kara Mustafa's army. While the work was hurriedly completed, Osijek itself hummed with business. Troops arrived from Albania, Epirus, Thessaly and even Egypt. The pasha of Veszprém had come southwards and reported for duty with his men. Above all Thököly himself appeared, to be greeted royally.

On 14 June the army began to leave Osijek. Most of the European, Asiatic and African contingents had now arrived, and once past the bridge a stricter order of march was enforced. The vanguard, led by Kara Mehmed of Diyarbakir, with 3,000 Janissaries, 500 Cebecis (also footsoldiers) and the cavalry of Diyarbakir, Aleppo, Sivas and Egypt, was 20,000 strong, and subsequently increased by some 8,000 Tartars who were then riding across Hungary to the Danube. Next came the main body of troops, followed by a powerful rearguard; but for neither of these are firm figures available. On they tramped, or rode. Instead of the rains, they complained of lack of water, and retailed the usual story that enemy agents were poisoning the wells. Prince Serban Cantacuzene, the tributary ruler of Wallachia, now appeared with his due contingent of men and wagons, to be employed by the Turks to strengthen their inadequate commissariat. Ten days later, Székesfehérvár was reached. A final decision on the future line of march had to be taken at this point, where the itineraries diverged towards alternative objectives on the long frontier between the Christian and the Moslem worlds.


Excerpted from The Siege of Vienna by John Stoye. Copyright © 2000 John Stoye. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Stoye is a Fellow in Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he lives. He has written several books including Europe Unfolding: 1648-1666, Marsigli's Europe: 1680-1730 and English Travellers Abroad: 1604-1667.

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The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial Between Cross & Crescent 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a very poorly understood part of western history. My hopes for this book were to understand the surrounding issues and also the critical aspects of actual battle and siege. Unfortunately, it seems the author felt he needed to include copious amounts of thoroughly researched but trivial and lost focus upon the big picture and the actual events. There were too many names to keep track of, the maps were unacceptably lacking and poor, the writing style was dry and uninteresting, and I was left still looking to understand the background as well as the critical events of the final battle.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
While the German-born author is praised for his command of English, his story telling ability is poor. I felt I was dropped into the middle of the history, deluged with names of people and places and left to sort out what he was trying to tell me. After 112 pages of struggling to understand what he obviously was passionate about, I gave up.