A Crusade Si or Non?


Esztergom in 1664.


Siege of Esztergom in 1683 by Justus van den Nypoort, and J. M. Lerc.

After the relief of Vienna in 1683, tens of thousands of men were drawing away again from the arena of their decisive encounter, a small strip of ground in central Europe. Franconians and Bavarians moved back into Germany. Winter-quarters were being assigned to Habsburg troops in Bohemia and Hungary, the Poles marched east and then north. The Turks were in retreat and the Grand Vezir dismissed his Tartar, Transylvanian, Moldavian and Wallachian auxiliaries to their own distant homesteads. Only the Lithuanians still belatedly drifted through Poland to Moravia and Hungary on their way to the wars. In this new context, statesmen once more tried to assess future prospects and wondered whether the shock of defeat would conceivably loosen the whole structure of the Ottoman empire. The help occasionally given by Serban Cantacuzene, Prince of Wallachia, to Kuniz during the siege had been a promising sign, although the Prince withdrew eastwards after the battle of 12 September. Prince Apafi of Transylvania was also careful to keep in touch with the Christian commanders from near Buda. The crushing defeat of the Turks at Párkány and Esztergom, it might be thought, was bound to encourage these rulers to watch for an opportunity to change sides if the Ottoman power came any closer to a total collapse.

On 22 October an important conference met at Linz, with Kuniz and Caprara both present. The Emperor had already decided to send Zierowski to Moscow, but now they considered whether to appeal for support to the Danubian princes and the Shah of Persia as well as to the Czars of Muscovy. A Transylvanian Catholic of great experience in Balkan politics, Count Czáky, was commissioned to go through Poland to Wallachia in order to negotiate secretly with Cantacuzene. Meanwhile Pallavicini reported from Cracow to Rome that Sobieski wanted to send the Cossacks into action. The King recalled that the recovery of Kamenets in Podolia, not long since, had been his great and necessary ambition. He knew that Petriceicu, once a Hospodar of Moldavia and then deposed by the Turks, hoped to regain the government of his country. He feared that the Tartars would raid into Polish territory on their way home from Hungary. It followed that this was an opportunity to use both Petriceicu and the Cossacks to stop and shatter them. Even the Austrians, from recent bitter experience, had an interest in the grand strategy of an attack on the Tartars hundreds of miles to the east. By the end of October the nuncio was enthusiastically describing the value of a recent promise from Rome of additional funds. Sobieski could now hasten the recruitment of Cossack bands, waiting eagerly for cash and equipment in the area beyond Lvov.

In December, therefore, fighting began again in Bessarabia and Moldavia. Petriceicu and the Cossack leaders won a notable victory near the mouth of the Dniester, of which lurid details were soon published in Cracow. The King had hopes of a heavy Polish thrust in the near future north and east of the Carpathians, and then into the Principalities. But he looked even farther afield and visualised a threefold advance on the grand scale. While the Poles and Cossacks fought in the east, and the Habsburg army in the centre, the Venetians would intervene in Greece and possibly the Dardanelles. This had been an old project discussed by mission priests in the Balkans, and by the papal nuncios at various European courts. An invitation to Venice figured in the debates and correspondence which preceded the alliance between Leopold and Sobieski in 1682–3. Now at last it formed a basis for serious negotiations, which led step by step to the Holy League concluded at Linz in March 1684. Venice agreed to join the existing offensive pact of King and Emperor against the Sultan. It was another major victory.

Certain groups of politicians in Venice were always critical of the cautiously yielding attitude which those in office, with greater responsibilities and a clearer view of the Republic’s weakness, had adopted towards the Ottoman power after the loss of Crete in 1669. These critics wanted to recover the island and they pointed out that the Sultan’s government, if it ever overcame the Emperor and forced him to make peace, would unhesitatingly turn to deal with a much weaker opponent. The danger was all the greater because of the influential interest, at Vienna, which so obviously wished to come to terms with the Sultan in order to deal with Louis XIV. However the Venetian administration continued to watch and wait during the critical summer months of 1683. Restless irregular forces in Dalmatia, who raided into Turkish territory and invited reprisals, added to the uncertainties of the crisis. Venice acquiesced tamely when Istanbul demanded lavish compensation. Then the wonderful news from Vienna, following close on false rumours which anticipated the truth, reached the city. Talenti, Sobieski’s secretary, arrived with his trophies of victory bound for Rome. It is possible, though not proven, that he had already been instructed to invite the Venetians to join in a grandiose attack on the infidel. When he returned from Rome, the project of an expanded Holy League under the aegis of the Pope had already taken a clearer shape in some minds; while by this time Leopold had made informal approaches to Contarini, the Venetian ambassador in Linz.

News of the victory at Esztergom strengthened the militants in Venice but others still argued that no move should be made unless the Balkan peoples first rose in revolt against the Ottoman government. The course of events in Germany and Flanders, with its effect on court politics at Linz, continued to worry them. Contarini, a good patriot, was in the best position to size up this last problem, and he pushed steadily in favour of an offensive alliance with the Emperor. Early in December Königsegg formally proposed such an alliance, suggesting that both Muscovy and Persia would join in the war against a common enemy. Leopold’s envoy in Venice worked hard at his end of the negotiation. The Venetians at length settled their current disputes with Innocent XI over ecclesiastical jurisdiction and privilege; their envoy at Rome, and the nuncio in Venice, entered vigorously into detailed discussions. Marco d’Aviano also spoke up for the good cause; Venetia, after all, was his own country. In December and January the interests which championed the League gradually wore down their opponents, in the complex of interlocking committees which were an essential feature of the Venetian constitution; they resolved the problems caused by the changing membership of these bodies, due to fresh elections at short intervals. Contarini was empowered to negotiate at Linz. Here a Polish plenipotentiary had also arrived, and the papal nuncio managed to reconcile their differences. Both Sobieski and Leopold’s ministers were very anxious to commit the Republic to a direct assault on the Dardanelles, and they wanted a clause in the treaty specifying the size of the Venetian force, in men and ships, to be mounted against the Turks. There were also difficulties over the King of Hungary’s ancient claim to sovereignty in Dalmatia, which Venice naturally wished to recover and to rule. Contarini and Buonvisi evaded these demands. The Poles and the Austrians did not press them and the agreement was completed on 5 March 1684, almost exactly twelve months after the ratification of the original treaty between the Emperor and Poland. The great victories of the year, therefore, had in this way led to the organisation of a combined attack on the Ottoman empire from Poland, Hungary and the Mediterranean. Never before, in the two previous centuries, did the three Christian states most directly concerned agree so positively on a common enterprise; and they soon began to tap the military resources of many of the German princes. Without much exaggeration, the war of 1683–1699 against the Sultan can be called the last of the crusades.

The attempt to bring Muscovy into this crusade was a failure. The effect of the warfare in the Ukraine between Sultan and Czar in the years before 1681 had been plain enough to all intelligent observers; it diverted Ottoman forces from the west. The willingness and ability of the Poles to fight the Turks also depended on Russo-Polish amity, and if Leopold could help to maintain the peace between them, so much the better for the whole Christian alliance. Unfortunately, long before Zierowski reached the Russian frontier a conference between the Russians and Poles had broken down. Positive co-operation was out of the question. Nonetheless the envoy completed his journey to Moscow, accompanied by a staff which included not only professional, diplomats but also a Jesuit, Johann Schmidt, Zierowski’s almoner. Schmidt represented a different facet of Habsburg policy. The Jesuits working in Lithuania had appealed to Rome for assistance; they wanted to do something for the handful of Catholics who lived in Moscow and they wanted—if conditions allowed—to proselytise. In June 1684 a much more influential Jesuit joined Zierowski and Schmidt, Father Carlo Vota, a negotiator of great subtlety who won over the dominant Muscovite statesman of the day, Galitzin. As a result, although the political discussions led nowhere Zierowski left behind in Moscow a mission which was also a missionary centre. Its chief responsibility was the tiny Catholic population in the city but its expenses were met by the Habsburg government. Just conceivably this venture, one of the humbler results of the victory at Vienna, could have had far-reaching effects—had not Catholic enthusiasts hoped to spread Catholic influence into Russia ever since the sixteenth century? But they sadly miscalculated, and the Russians of Peter the Great’s generation soon showed that they could more easily be made to learn technological skills from the Protestant peoples of northern Europe than religion from Rome.

It so happened that in 1683 the Catholic Bishop of Naxivan in Persia, the Dominican Sebastian Knabb, was in Poland. He carried a brief from Innocent XI to Shah Suleiman, dated 12 June, begging for help against the Turks in that hour of crisis. After 12 September both Sobieski and Leopold wished him to take their own letters, containing an appeal to the Shah to profit from the Sultan’s recent disaster by joining them in a combined attack. Knabb next appears in Moscow and finally found his way overland to the Shah’s court. The European Catholics in Persia were well aware that Christian envoys had not the slightest chance of persuading Suleiman to declare war on the Turks. The Holy Alliance never won his support, just as nothing came of a vague hope that the Abyssinians might be induced to mount an assault on the Sultan’s authority in Egypt. But these fantasies were a feature in politics at this particular date.

Sobieski likewise suggested to Innocent that Dutch and English sea-captains might be encouraged to sail under the Papal flag, and to attack Turkish ports and ships. Innocent firmly disapproved; but he put to Louis XIV’s ambassador in Rome a variant of this proposal, an idea which he had himself aired on many earlier occasions. He asked that the King of France, the Most Christian, should send his great fleet to assail the common enemy. The King declined.


Louis XIV certainly wished to impress the Sultan with his naval power. This had been one motive for the dispatch of Admiral Du Quesne into the Aegean in 1681 and 1682. At the same time he distinguished very clearly reasons of state, which forbade him to sacrifice his interests in western Europe by helping Leopold against the Turks in 1683, from the commercial and ideological considerations which justified a fierce assault on the corsairs of the western Mediterranean. This assault was his crusade, an enterprise which satisfied the French king and his subjects that they also fought boldly for the Christian cause; but the Moslem strongholds of Tunis or Algiers were remote, peripheral, and to attack them was not to weaken the Sultan.

Ever since 1680 Du Quesne’s ships of war had been in action against the corsairs. In 1682 he bombarded Algiers, and in June 1683 appeared there for the second time. On this occasion, in spite of the great strength of the French, resistance was very determined and culminated in a brutal execution of the French consul in the town. Louis’ dispatch of 25 July had instructed Du Quesne to insist on the complete humiliation of the enemy. Another dispatch, of 10 August, witheringly reproached the Admiral for his failure to take the place, and pressed for a relentless bombardment with an exceptionally heavy, new type of mortar by which the French set great store; technically it was a more striking novelty than anything that either the attack or the defence at Vienna, in this very month, had to show. For another four weeks the fate of Algiers was in doubt, before the French finally withdrew. Louis continued to hope for a resounding victory over the infidel, just when the crisis in Vienna was coming to its climax. At the same moment, in the middle of August, he decided to send his troops into the Spanish Netherlands. It seemed certain that no one could help Grana, the Viceroy at Brussels, and Leopold was manifestly unable to do so. If the Spaniards collapsed in Flanders, their ambassador in Passau or Linz would in turn find it impossible to maintain the interest at Leopold’s court which still opposed a settlement in the Empire and the Netherlands on Louis’ terms. But simultaneously Louis would impress Europe as the victor at Algiers, the redeemer of all those Christian captives and slaves in north Africa.


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