The Turk was indeed upon Vienna. The plain was covered with his tents, thirty thousand, some said, and swore that from the lofty spire of Saint Stephen’s cathedral a man could not see their limits … partly to awe the Caphar dogs, the Grand Turk’s array was moving in orderly procession before the ancient walls before settling down to the business of the siege. The sight was enough to awe the stoutest. The low-swinging sun struck fire from polished helmet, jeweled saber-hilt and lance-point. It was as if a river of shining steel flowed leisurely and terribly past the walls of Vienna.
— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”
Gottfried von Kalmbach thanked his stars to be safely away from the Sublime Porte. Suleiman the Magnificent had almost recognized him as the knight who wounded him at Mohacs. After parting ways with the embassy that had brought him nothing but nine months in a Turkish prison and a bad moment face to face with the Sultan, he probably did not intend a return to Vienna. He thought little of Archduke Ferdinand, and knew that the city’s defenses were in sorry condition. A Turkish army was marching against it. Gottfried had seen Turkish onslaughts before.
He believed it would be more use to carry a warning to his native Bavaria, out of favor though he was with his kindred – his father especially. If Suleiman took Austria, he would be likely to attack the German Empire next. But Gottfried never carried out his intent, because the Sultan remembered where he had seen him before and gave orders concerning him. Ibrahim, the Grand Vizier, took the matter in hand and set Mikhal Oglu on Gottfried’s trail.
The details of that pursuit through a rain-drenched landscape can be found in “The Shadow of the Vulture.” Gottfried barely escaped Mikhal Oglu’s Akinji corps in the village where he had been drinking, wenching and spending the Sultan’s gift-money. He rode through the gates of Vienna with his stallion foundering beneath him and the Akinji (otherwise the “Sackmen” or “Flayers”) close on his trail. After that, he was trapped in the besieged city. Mikhal Oglu’s orders to take Gottfried’s head to the Sultan still applied. His Akinji rode all over the country around Vienna, mercilessly doing their usual job, which was to burn, slaughter, terrorize and enslave until the land was empty. In an age inured to brutality, they were the most methodical exponents of massacre and depopulation. And there were thirty or forty thousand of them. As Howard expresses it, “Before the waving vulture wings the road thronged with wailing fugitives; behind them it ran red and silent, strewn with mangled shapes that cried no more.”
If Gottfried had tried to escape from Vienna – he might as well have cut off his own head and handed it to the Sultan himself.
The huge German had last been in Vienna three years before, after the Battle of Mohacs. His mistress of those days, Aranka, was not there now; she and her fourth husband had escaped to Prague, with their wealth. He preferred not to die fighting the Turks as her three previous husbands had.
Gottfried damned the man’s cowardice, but owned that Aranka was better out of the threatened city. Then he settled down to business. Drunken reprobate that he was, the former Knight of St. John knew siege work backwards. The news was bad. Vienna’s outer ramparts lay in crumbling disrepair, “nowhere more than six feet thick,” as REH tells his readers, “so frail it bore the name of Stadtzaun – city hedge.” Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, the Emperor Charles’s brother, justified Gottfried’s low opinion of him by hair-splitting dispute at the Diet of Spires while the Ottoman host advanced. That gathering of bishops and princes was held for the purpose of crushing the Lutheran heresy – in other words, persecuting dissident Christians, even as the Grand Turk invaded Austria. One man thundered at the Diet, “The Turks are better than the Lutherans, for the Turks observe fast days, and the Lutherans violate them!” He wouldn’t have said that if he’d been in the path of Mikhal Oglu’s Akinji; he’d have been too busy screaming.
The Vienna garrison numbered 23,000 men, and the grand Turk set out from Istanbul with about a quarter of a million. The Archduke at least sent some reinforcements, and a good man to take command of the defense – Nicholas, Count Salm. He was seventy, and had soldiered since he was seventeen, when he fought at Morat against Duke Charles the Bold. He became a colonel in 1491 and had since fought in Italy under Georg von Frundsberg – in fact been instrumental with Frundsberg in the capture of the King of France at Pavia.
Salm’s chief aide was his brother-in-law, Wilhelm, Freiherr von Roggendorf, like Salm a seasoned captain. He held the rank of Hofmeister (Court Master) in the German Empire. At Vienna he commanded the heavy cavalry under Salm, and being still on the right side of fifty, he was a good deal younger. Other commanders and aides mentioned by REH in the story are Count Nicholas Zrinyi and Paul Bakics. (They are more easily located on the Web as Nikola Subic Zrinski and Pavle Bakic.)
Bakics was a Serb, and Serbia was subject to the Turks in his day; he had been a lord of great estates under the Sultan. However, he left them behind to go with his family and brothers, and a great following of Serbs, to become a liegeman of young King Louis of Hungary and fight at Mohacs. He knew Gottfried from that fight. After the Hungarian defeat, he briefly sided with the traitorous John Zapolya, but soon soured on the man and went over to Archduke Ferdinand in 1527. He remained loyal to Ferdinand for the rest of his life. As captain of the Serbian infantry, cavalry and river forces, Bakics played an important part in the defense of Vienna.
As for Zrinyi, he was a Croatian noble who served the Habsburg house for decades. He distinguished himself at Vienna, when he was only 21, and after a lifetime fighting Turks, died with his entire garrison at Szigetvar Castle, standing off a Turkish host of more than 100,000. Anybody who chose to fight the Turks in those days was likely to find himself facing huge odds. Without much help from fellow Christians, likely as not.
Philip the Palgrave is another real historical character who appears in “The Shadow of the Vulture.” He too was no greybeard at the siege – twenty-six. (Von Kalmbach was only five years older.) The youngest son of Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, and Elizabeth of Bavaria-Landshut, he marched to reinforce Vienna with a regiment of Spaniards and one of German landsknechte. His cousin Duke Frederick, with a few thousand men, sought to beat the Turks into Vienna, but they had already taken the bridges across the Danube and Frederick had to halt. Philip, though, had moved more quickly, and entered Vienna three days before the Turks surrounded it.
(Two other bold young nobles, Rupert of Manderscheid and Wolf of Oettingen, were so determined to get into Vienna and strike blows against the Turk that they swam the Danube – a swollen torrent – and were hauled up the wall by ropes at the Werder Gate.)
Philip was known to Germans, and thus to von Kalmbach, as Philipp der Streitbare, or Philip the Contentious. There was a connection by marriage and blood. Von Kalmbach women had more than once wed members of Philip’s ducal family, the Wittelsbachs. In “SotV” it is Philip who calls out sternly to his distant cousin that he ought to be ashamed of soaking in an ale-pot with the Turks upon them. Gottfried, indignant that a pup five years his junior, who no matter how brave had not charged at Mohacs, should take him to task, blusters while weaving in sozzled circles, “What ale-pot? Devil bite you, Philip, I’ll rap your pate for that — ”
Then, of course, there is REH’s creation, Red Sonya of Rogatino, a worthy addition to the list of defenders. I believe she had been scouting and skirmishing with a mixed band of about five hundred dog-brothers she had gathered before coming to Austria – Poles, Bohemians, Magyars, Moravians and Styrians – criminals, outcasts, runaways and the dispossessed, much like the first Cossacks. Sonya knew such men and how to lead them. As the dreaded Akinji advanced through Austria, she and her band met these hard-riding irregulars on occasion. Once they caught and destroyed a detachment of eight hundred, taking advantage of the rotten visibility imposed by the constant rain. After questioning the survivors about the advance of the main Turkish army, they trussed them in pairs and heaved them into the Danube. Since Mikhal Oglu’s Sackmen numbered about thirty thousand, it made little difference to Austria’s situation all told, and Sonya returned to Vienna before the Sultan arrived.
The weather, at least, was on the defenders’ side. It had rained solidly for weeks while the immense Turkish host advanced by river and land. As REH expresses it, “Rain fell in torrents, and through the floods that changed plains and forest-bed to dank morasses, the Turks struggled grimly. They drowned in raging rivers, and lost great stores of ammunition, ordnance and supplies, when boats capsized, bridges gave way and wagons mired. But on they came, driven by the implacable will of Suleyman, and now in September 1529, over the ruins of Hungary, the Turks swept on Europe … ”
The massive cannons of Suleyman’s heavy artillery – the best in the known world – were especially apt to bog down because of their weight. Piece by piece they had to be abandoned. Some were brought up the Danube in transport barges, but again, their weight made the boats ride dangerously low in the surging flood-water. Seeing the light field pieces being set before the walls, Gottfried asks where the heavy cannon are “that Suleyman’s so proud of,” and a Hungarian pikeman answers with pleasure, “At the bottom of the Danube! Wulf Hagen sank that part of the Soldan’s flotilla.”
I haven’t been able to learn much about Hagen. He was evidently one of the captains of Vienna’s defense. But if the Turks had come against the city in dry weather, they could have brought their cannon royal and breached its inadequate walls in a week. Vienna was not Rhodes, which had been the best fortified stronghold in the eastern Mediterranean, yet still fell to Suleyman the Magnificent at last.
And Suleyman promised the people of Vienna that he would eat his breakfast on their ramparts on the Feast of St. Michael — the 29th.
Read Keith’s REHF Award nominated three-part series “Here was Ragnarok, The Fall of the Gods!” here.
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven