King John III Sobieski is remembered as the commander of the victorious armies on the battlefield at Vienna. Yet this brave and talented commander was also a man of deep feelings, as evidenced by his love letters to his wife, Marie-Casimire de la Grange d’Arquien (Marysieńka).
by Piotr Abryszeński
Marie-Casimire came from the old d’Arquien family and was born in Nevers in June 1641. Her mother served at the court of Marie Louise Gonzaga, the wife of two Polish kings Władysław IV, and later John II Casimir Vasa. The enterprising queen cared for the strengthening of the French party in Polish politics, which was why she tried to match her daughters with influential aristocrats. This was also the case with Marysieńka, as she was affectionately called. The choice fell on Jan “Sobiepan” Zamoyski, a magnate coming from an excellent and famous family, as well as a talented commander.
The marriage did not go well from the beginning – the French woman was aware of her husband’s numerous betrayals, which was perhaps not a surprise in the era, but still she suffered from the lack of interest on his part. Zamoyski squandered his family fortune, and [disturbed his wife with] his relatively frequent tantrums, perhaps caused by a venereal disease or a passion for strong drink. Marie-Casimir was about to raise the issue of his possible insanity, then, however, she met Jan Sobieski, who was twelve years her senior.
It is known that at that time Marie and Sobieski had an affair which they tried to hide. This was noticed by Marie Louise, who considered it an excellent opportunity to attract a powerful magnate to the pro-French party. Sobieski, initially reluctant to the queen’s diplomatic activities, revised his views over time and in 1661 officially supported the candidacy of the Great Condeus for the Polish throne to no avail, however.
Only a week after Zamoyski’s premature death in April 1665, Jan and Marie were secretly married, and a few months later, in July, an official wedding took place. The spouses were then blessed by the Apostolic Nuncio Antonio Pignatelli (later Pope Innocent XII). The event was not without a scandal – the ceremony took place while the state was in official mourning after Zamoyski’s death, which was maliciously commented on. After all, the spouses broke the rule of observing one year of widowhood.
Sobieski’s political career flourished. He was rightfully considered to be an outstanding commander, which was confirmed by his successive assumption of the offices of Grand Marshal, Field Hetman and Grand Hetman of the Crown. When King John Casimir abdicated in 1668, the external situation of Poland was difficult – in 1672 a new war broke out with Turkey. John Casimir’s successor, King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki turned out to be a poor commander and administrator. He failed to react to the capture of the famous fortress in Kamieniec Podolski as a result of which the entire Podolia fell into Turkish hands. In 1674, the king died suddenly and the Commonwealth needed a king-soldier able to defend the south-eastern lands. Jan Sobieski seemed to be the best candidate.
Among the then European elite, marriages were concluded primarily for mutual political and financial gain. Sobieski’s marriage to Marie d’Arquien was for those times, however, an unusual union of love, and the letters of both lovers are phenomenal proof of this. Even after years together, their love did not fade. Sobieski’s love letters to Marysieńka, as he affectionately called her, are also an interesting example of Baroque literature. They both used a cipher, giving code names to selected people and events as well employing diminutives and phrases full of tenderness and care for each other.
The correspondence was written in periods of longer separation between the lovers: trips, Sobieski’s participation in campaigns, including against Turkey in 1675-1676 and during the Vienna siege in 1683. The correspondence shows that it was the future king who expressed his love more openly. This does not mean that the queen was less emotional. She gave wonderful feasts for her husband, and when she heard about her husband’s illness in 1687, she and her father rushed from Jelenia Góra to distant Żółkiew. According to historians, in his haste his father-in-law went through more than 20 horses, while galloping to reach Sobieski.
A few hours before the famous Battle of Vienna, he found time to write a letter to his wife in which he described preparations for the fight, assessed the supply of troops and the situation in the allied camp, and reported on the meeting with the commanders. The most famous letter sent by the king to his wife was the one written from Kara Mustafa’s tent on the night after the victorious battle. It contained the often quoted phrase: “God and our Lord blessed forever gave victory and glory to our people, which past ages never heard.” The Polish ruler described the captured treasures and banners, enthusiastic crowds of grateful Viennese and the leader of the opposing troops fleeing in panic. In response, he received a caring letter in which his spouse wrote to him not to eat too much fruit as this could lead to dysentery.
The reign of Jan III Sobieski escapes clear judgment. There is no doubt that he was one of the greatest commanders of his time, but as a politician he was less energetic. Some historians believe that he was influenced by his wife. Indeed, she pursued her own pro-French policy, but did not act against the interests of Poland. The king trusted her, as evidenced by the fact that he entrusted her with important diplomatic missions.
The feeling between them did not fade, lasting until the very end. The king died in 1696 but his spouse outlived him by twenty years.
Author: Piotr Abryszeński
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin