The poles first appeared in history in the fifth century under the name of Poliani.
There appears to have been a definitely organized kingdom of Poland as early as the tenth century. But the country did not rise into much prominence until the fourteenth century; and it attained its greatest splendor in the seventeenth.
The name Poland is derived from a word meaning plains. For many centuries great herds of cattle, horses, and swine have been raised within its territory; and cereals, hemp, timber, honey, and wax have been produced in large quantities.
Numerous mines of salt, and a few of iron, copper and silver, have been worked at different periods; but they are not of much value.
After passing through a vast number of changes, Poland became, in 1572, an elective monarchy; and this principal became one of the chief causes of the national downfall.
The nation consisted of but two classes, the nobles who owned the soil, and the serfs who cultivated it. There was no third estate.
At the time of which we write the Turks were at the height of their power in southeastern Europe. Their flag still waved, as it had done for a hundred and fifty years, over Belgrade; and Belgrade was the gateway to Hungary.
Their fleets swept the Mediterranean. They captured the island of Crete from the powerful state of Venice; and they fortified the Dardanelles, so that no ships could enter the Black Sea without their permission.
Poland being famous for its wheat and cattle, the Turks greatly desired to possess it.
They therefore invaded Poland with a large army; but the Poles met them bravely and in a great battle in which Sobieski served as commander-in-chief of the Polish forces succeeded in beating them back.
Just at that time the king of Poland died quite suddenly; and the Diet assembled to select a successor. Sobieski entered the hall where the Diet was in session and proposed the name of a French prince. Then one of the nobles was heard to say, "Let a Pole rule Poland." Sobieski was at once proposed and elected with hardly a dissentient voice.
Starhemberg, the defender of Vienna.
John Sobieski was born in 1624, at Olesko, in Galicia. His father was castellan or keeper of the castle of Cracow. John received an excellent education, both at home and in foreign countries; and this was of great advantage to him when he was elevated to the throne.
Poland was, at that time, one of the most powerful countries of Europe. It was stronger by far than Russia; and gave promise of a still greater future.
A hundred years before this the Turks had threatened Vienna, and they now determined to conquer all Austria.
In 1683 they gathered a vast army and marched a second time against Vienna, which was at that time not only the principal city of Austria, but the capital of the German Empire.
The emperor then ruling over Germany was Leopold I. He wore the crown of Charlemagne, but he was not worthy to do so.
As soon as he heard that the Turks were marching toward Vienna he fled from the city; and many of the nobles and wealthy people followed his example.
Count Starhemberg who was in command of the garrison stayed at his post, and did everything possible to prevent the city from falling into the hands of the enemy.
The fortifications needed repair. Not only the men but the women aided in the work. The women mixed mortar and even carried stone while the men built up the walls.
One day, as the people of Vienna were looking eastward, they saw columns of smoke ascending. Crops were burning, and houses and villages were in flames.
This told them, only too plainly, that the Turks were approaching; and at sunrise, on the fourteenth of July, 1683, they appeared before the city walls.
Their camp made a semicircle or crescent reaching more than half around the city.
As in Athens, during the terrible siege by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, so now in Vienna the plague broke out. This was because the people who had rushed into the city from the country were huddled so closely together.
The amount of sickness was terrible. Then a fire broke out; and as there were no fire engines nor other appliances with which to fight the flames, a great many houses were burned, and hundreds of families were rendered homeless. Things looked very discouraging; but just when they were at the worst help came.
John Sobieski, king of Poland, was marching to the relief of the beleaguered city. He had sixty-five thousand men in his army; and John George, the Elector of Saxony had joined him with thirteen thousand more.
Relief of Vienna.
Before beginning the attack on the Turks, Sobieski made a speech to his men in which he said, "Not Vienna alone, but Christendom looks to you to-day. Not for an earthly sovereign do you fight. You are soldiers of the King of kings."
The battle cry was Sobieski's own name. It was well known to the Turks, for they had met him before, and thousands of Turks fled before hundreds of his Poles. His very name seemed to fill them with dread.
Large numbers of the Turkish soldiers stood their ground, however, and fought desperately; but they could not withstand the furious charges of the Poles.
Sobieski himself went into the battle singing the words of the psalm beginning: "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake."
Six of the sultan's pashas, or generals, were killed; and the grand vizier, or prime minister of Turkey, abandoned his splendid green silk tent that was embroidered with gold and silver, and fled for his life.
The whole Moslem army was routed; and the conqueror and his troops entered the city in triumph. A great service of thanksgiving was held in the cathedral; and one of the priests preached a sermon from the text: "There was a man sent from God whose name was John."
Never again did the Turks attack Vienna. City after city was lost to their empire; and all Hungary was finally won back from them.
Since Sobieski's great victory, the power of the Turks has steadily waned rather than increased.
They have been slowly pushed to the eastward until there is now little of value left to them in Europe but Constantinople.
The reign of John Sobieski was the most brilliant in Polish history. But the constant dissensions and the unending turbulence of the Polish nobles frustrated all his efforts to strengthen the kingdom, and prepared the way for its final dismemberment and ruin.
The hero of Poland has not, like Hercules and Perseus, given his name to a great constellation; but in the brightest part of the Milky Way hangs a gleaming expanse of star dust known as Sobieski's shield; so that, until the stars forget to shine, or men to watch them, the name of the great Polish hero will never be forgotten.