What was the religious significance of the Siege of Vienna in 1529? And why did the Ottomans fail to take the City?
Introduction and Historiographical Background
In the Autumn of 1529 a huge Ottoman army laid siege to Vienna. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had proclaimed a Jihad and within the city walls fear and despair were widespread. If Vienna fell it seemed, then the rest of Europe too was no longer safe.
Among the inhabitants of the city was Peter Stern Von Labach Austrian Secretary of War who wrote that, ‘if there is a battle, I shall not be able to fight. My eyes are too weak, my bones too fragile. So day after day I shall do my duty and record the fate of Vienna in the greatest of detail.’ In writing the official chronicle of the defense of Vienna from the Hapsburg perspective, he stylized this account as a conflict between cultures, Christianity versus Islam. This historiographical context is demonstrated where he writes, ‘In the year of our lord 1529, Sultan Suleiman, the Cruel tyrant and sworn enemy of the Christian faith, set out for Vienna with all his military equipment and forces in order to defeat Christianity and subjugate it.’
Caroline Finkel points out that in proclaiming a Jihad or a holy war, this perspective of the conflict as a religious clash of civilizations was mirrored in Ottoman historiography as well. She goes further to describe the proclamation as a ‘rhetorical device to rally the troops to give them a focus for the fight and so on…it’s first and foremost a territorial confrontation, it’s not first and foremost a religious confrontation with Ferdinand I and the Hapsburgs.’
Therefore the issues of historiography and religious facade along with why the Ottomans failed to capture Vienna in 1529 are to be examined in the following work.
In May 1529 the 150,000 man Ottoman Army set out for Vienna from Constantinople, it’s First major encampment was at Belgrade.
The march was arduous, unusually heavy rain had softened the ground and the army’s heavy guns had to be left behind. In most regions the downpour had also destroyed almost the entire harvest, inflating the price of grain twenty-fold. As a result the Ottoman army quite literally sank in the mud.
This is exemplified by one of Suleiman’s secretaries who noted, ‘It rained so heavily that many people drowned in the river. Some of the horses and camels were swept away by the water, men climbed up trees and spent two days and nights there’
The Advance of the Ottoman army was nonetheless a superb logistical achievement, arriving just outside Vienna after travelling nearly 2000 kilometers in four months.
Suleiman’s Secretary recorded upon the Ottoman army’s arrival in the vicinity of Vienna, ‘Our warriors forced their way into a farmstead, sounding their Muslim battle cry they drew their sabers and cut down all the infidels, they seized the girls and boys and secured rich booty, this too is further proof of the grace of Allah’
Although Charles V was away fighting a war with France, he dispatched 17,000 Landsknechts for the defense of the city. Landsknechts were professional mercenaries whose flamboyant dress-code served to show that they were an elite force who could afford everything and had no need to observe social barriers. Epitomizing this was their cod piece, a replica of an erect penis and a symbol of constant virility as shown below.
In order to pay for the Landsknechts, Vienna’s church treasures were melted down and emergency coins struck.
September 24th, 1529
The main Ottoman army reached Vienna on this date and the city was soon surrounded, at which point it was clear that Suleiman hoped that the city would surrender without a fight.
This is shown from where Suleiman’s secretary writes, ‘to the commander and the other inhabitants of the fortress of Vienna let it be known that if you become Muslims nothing will happen to you. But if you offer resistance, then by Allah the most sublime your city will be reduced to ashes and young and old slaughtered.’
This shows that Suleiman had no interest in storming the city because according to Islamic marshal law he would have to grant his troops three days of pillage, only if Vienna capitulated would all of its treasures belong to him.
Peter Stern Von Labach provides confirmation of this sentiment in commenting upon the ultimatum delivered to the city. ‘Suleiman is thus trying to strike an agreement with the leaders of our city, he vows not to let any of his men enter it and do harm to it’s people, but if we do not surrender he will not stop until he has conquered Vienna and slaughtered young and old.’
The vast ottoman camp could only be seen in its entirety from the spire of St Stephen’s cathedral where an artist sat and sketched. The result is that the attacks and the pillaging outside its gates as well as the events inside the city are captured in a single picture.
The decision to fight was stylized by Peter Stern Von Labach as almost an oath of Vienna in that he wrote, ‘Noble and common companions at arms swore to remain the city as long as there was still life in their bodies and swore to die for the Christian faith.’ The soldiers were mercenaries in the service of the Hapsburgs however, they were not holy warriors ready to die for their faith.
Despite this, atrocities committed by the Ottomans served as a harbinger of what would happen to Vienna should it fall. In turn the interpretation of these atrocities transcended religion to an extent by creating an identification of the Ottoman civilization as one which was cruel by definition. This is shown below in a contemporary depiction of an Ottoman cavalryman nonchalantly carrying a skewered baby.
Stern Von Labach also exemplifies this in citing that, ‘people were butchered in their thousands or abducted, babies were slit from their mothers wombs and cast away or impaled, maidens were violated until they died. May the almighty have mercy on their souls and may the murders committed by these cruel bloodhounds not go unavenged.’
The other significant impact that can be drawn from the religious nature of the historiography of the Siege of Vienna in 1529 lays in how Martin Luther preached vehemently against the Turks who he saw as the personification of the anti-Christ, ‘Thus be assured, that the Turk is the devil’s most evil fury against Christianity we see how he acts as cruelly as he were the wrathful devil incarnate.’
This demonstrates that to a significant extent the Siege of Vienna in 1529 was a unifying force within Christianity and served as a distraction from the internal turmoil caused by the Reformation.
Ottoman Bombardment and Sapping
After having had to leave their heavy wall-breaching cannons behind, the Ottomans bombarded Vienna with smaller artillery pieces which posed little threat to the walls. However these smaller cannonballs came over the walls and bounced off the hard paving causing major damage. So the people of Vienna tore up their streets, afterwards the cannonballs merely sank into the soft earth.
The cannons’ purpose however was simply to spread fear and prevent the inhabitants from gaining any respite.
The Ottoman’s real weapon was engendered through ditches that were being dug for the purpose of igniting explosive charges under the walls of the city. Therefore while the defenders were idly expecting an attack, it had already begun underground. This is shown in the illustration below which depicts the tunnels and trenches dug by the Ottomans in order to undermine a key portion of Vienna’s defenses near the Corinthian Gate.
On September 28th, It started to rain, a cold spell unusually early for the time of year meant an assault was out of the question. The Turkish trenches filled up with water and the black powder for the explosive charges was soaked, as long as the rain continued to fall Vienna was safe.
As the rain poured down for two days the Ottoman camp became a sea of mud and spirits within the army’s ranks sank to rock-bottom.
Suleiman’s secretary corroborates this in writing, ‘bitter cold day and night, it had become so muddy that for several days many pack animals were unable to lie down and rest day or night, it is impossible to describe how much rain fell.’
It is clear that time was running out for the besieging Ottoman army and winter was approaching sooner than expected.
The Assault and Retreat
By October 9th, the rain had stopped and Vienna’s period of grace was over, but during this time the city’s defenders had also located the explosive charges placed by the Ottomans and Landsknechts were assembled to defend the portion of the city wall under threat.
Although upon detonation of the explosive charges a breach in Vienna’s wall thirty meters wide was created, the Ottoman assault upon this breach failed as a solid Landsknecht spear-wall was formed within the gap before it could be exploited by the Ottomans.
It is clear that by this time the Ottoman army had very little fighting capacity left in it owing to serious food shortages, the extremely difficult weather conditions and their defeated first assault.
Therefore the final assault on October 14th could be seen as a last desperate throw of the dice, the desperation of which far outweighed the possibility for success. This is clearly demonstrated by the Ottoman army’s retreat of its own accord after two hours due to the fact that they no longer believed they would win the battle.
In conclusion, therefore, it can be seen that in 1529 the Ottomans failed to capture Vienna primarily because dramatically unforeseeable weather conditions had thwarted both their primary and contingency strategies for taking the city. The extraordinary amount of rainfall which coincided with the campaign, not only forced the Ottoman army into the abandonment of their heavy cannons, their best chance of breaking undermining Vienna’s defenses, but it also created a complicated situation in terms of the food supply to the army. Finally, during the siege, the delay caused by the rainfall allowed the cities defenders time to identify the threat that Ottoman sapping posed and enact measures to counteract it effectively.
With regards to the religious significance of the siege it is clear that the religious tone of the historiography of this event on both sides was to a large extent a vehicle to raise the morale and legitimacy of each’s cause. Although, in terms of genuine religious zeal which cannot be discounted on both sides, the rain’s role in saving Vienna could have been seen as divine providence. And in combination with religion’s role as a facade Vienna was subsequently viewed as a bulwark against Islam and a bastion of Christianity.