Vienna and the Failure to Complete the Crescent I

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In the early part of the sixteenth century there developed a nexus of decision in Western Europe. It centered around five men—two of them kings, one an emperor, one a religious leader, and one a politician wearing the clothes of a religious leader. Though all of them took advice and occasionally changed the details of their policy, they were so consistent that it is possible to deal with them in general terms.

One of the kings was Henry VIII of England; his policy looked inward to England and outward across the Atlantic, and although his support was eagerly sought by other members of the power group and that seeking influenced many of their actions, he was always so unwilling to do anything practical about affairs on the Continent that he may be dismissed with the remark that he raised tides like the moon and remained about the same distance.

The second king was Francis I of France, who thought of himself as a knight-errant like Pedro of Aragon, and behaved like a bandit. He inherited a realm which had become the first modern unified state of Europe under Louis XI, Charles VII’s son, with the great feudatories broken down, and a military system based on a combination of artillery with heavy cavalry, especially designed to deal with English armies of static archers and men at arms. In Francis’ very first year of 1515 ambition took him to Italy, where he encountered the Swiss pikemen and halberdiers, the terror of Central Europe, at Marignano. It was one of the most gigantic battles of the age. Two days of desperate fighting proved that the new French system was quite as useful against pikemen as against archers. “The drunken Swiss” were driven from the field; France won the duchy of Milan and made with Switzerland a “perpetual peace” that really turned out to be perpetual.

The war in which this took place was really part of the long duel between the royal house of France and the ducal house of Burgundy, which in Jeanne d’Arc’s time so nearly missed ending in the completion of Henry V’s conquest. But the ducal house of Burgundy had ceased being merely the greatest of the French feudatories. By one of those marriages which caused a rival king to ejaculate, “Tu, felix Austria, nube,”its possessions had fallen in with those of the Hapsburg Empire. By another, with Joanna, the heiress of Spain (who, like all queens named Joanna, ultimately went mad), that peninsula and its immense overseas empire were added to the Hapsburg heritage. In 1519 the third protagonist of this story, Charles V, attained the united thrones.

He inherited more than dominions that encircled France on every side and a tradition of implacable hostility toward her. Charles also acquired the Spanish military establishment, based on solid blocks of heavily armored, thoroughly disciplined pikemen, with little knots of arquebusiers at the corners, the tercias. At Pavia in 1525 this establishment clashed with Francis and the combination of fire power and push proved so far superior to what France could put in the field, even with Swiss help, that the French army was destroyed and Francis himself taken prisoner.

The event decided the fate of Italy, which in a practical sense became a Spanish possession for two generations, but it did not make things much easier for Charles, because of the politician in the power complex. This was Pope Clement VII, who could never forget that before his election he had been Giulio de’ Medici, a member of the former ruling house of Florence. Neither in this capacity nor as an Italian temporal potentate was he anxious to be helpful to Charles, and in fact was so unhelpful that strains built up to that sack of Rome, which is usually taken as the most convenient date point for the end of the Italian Renaissance.

Quite as importantly the Holy Father procrastinated about calling a general council of the Church, which Charles deeply desired as a means of dealing with one of his leading problems, the fifth member of the combination, Martin Luther. It is by no means certain that a council would have extricated Charles from his difficulties with the Reformers, for when the matter came to a head, Luther had already pronounced his conviction of the fallibility of councils to Charles’ face at Worms. By this date the movement had taken on a certain nationalistic aspect in addition to the religious. But the refusal of Clement to call a council made it very certain that Charles would not easily get out of this particular trouble.

These were the forces. They produced a long series of French-Imperial wars that left everybody poor, without any significant territorial changes after Pavia. These wars had the technical characteristic of being largely conducted through siege operations. After Pavia nobody quite dared to meet the Spanish infantry in the field, and in any case, the plunder of a town at reasonable intervals was one of the best methods of keeping mercenary Landsknechts and terciaries to the line of discipline.

By 1528 the situation of Western Europe had become not too dissimilar from that in the Middle East at the date when the Persian and Byzantine empires had exhausted each other just in time to clear the track for the coming of the Saracens. Here also there was a sprawling empire, short of financial resources, with part of its population in a state of religious disaffection, engaged in a great struggle with another entity.

The Moslems were at hand to take advantage of the situation here also.

They were no longer the penniless Saracens of the desert, with the drive supplied by a religion which had united a race, but a closely organized and modern, if non-Western state—the Ottoman Turks. They were a clan which appeared in Asia Minor in 1227, nomads from the steppes and relatives of the Seljuq Turks. The Seljuqs assigned them some territory around Ankara as a reward for military services. The Seljuqs themselves had reached Asia Minor earlier, as servants and fighting men for the later and more luxurious caliphs, and soon owned everything; but they had no gift of political organization, and as the clan system tended to fragment where they were in permanent residence, they became a group of quarreling independent principalities about the time the Ottomans arrived on the scene.

These Ottomans had two stupendous pieces of luck. One was in their royal family; in the course of nearly 300 years, down to the point at which this narrative begins, that family produced an unbroken succession of no less than nine extremely able rulers—energetic, adventurous, cruel, just, and intelligent. Conquest was their peculiar pleasure. No other family strain in all history can show such a record.

The second piece of luck was Ala ed-Din, one of the members of this family and elder son of Othman, the first sultan. He was a philosopher and a theoretician, who willingly left the throne to his younger brother Orkhan, and devoted himself to working out a military and administrative system that would make the most of what the Ottoman Turks had.

There were never very many of them, but they were all soldiers, and being of nomad origin, soldiers who fought on horseback. When a district was overrun, it was cut up into fiefs, each of which was to supply a horseman. These fiefs were combined into districts and the districts into larger counties under the authority of a beylerbey. Thus far the system was feudal. There was a provision that a fief did not necessarily fall from father to son, each man must prove his own right by valor and service, but there were similar statutes in early European feudalisms also, and the Turkish setup might have taken similar lines of development but for the unique additive supplied by Ala ed-Din.

This was the institution of the yeni cheri, Europeanized as Janissaries. Their background was that the later caliphs of Egypt had set up a body of slave soldiers called the Mamelukes; at the same time in all Moslem countries the religious duty of exacting tribute from non-Moslems endured. Ala ed-Din combined the two institutions by taking his tribute in the form of male children. They were brought up in Islam, forbidden to marry or to engage in trade, held under the strictest discipline and, except for those who showed administrative talent, they were confined to the camp from the age of twenty-five. They were infantry.

The Ottoman sultans thus had a celibate military community within the body of their state, one whose only devotion was to them and to Islam, and one whose every member was trained from childhood in the sole business of war. With such an instrument in the hands of the head of state, and with such heads of state as the Ottoman line provided, the feudal lords never had a chance to develop into great feudatories, as in the West. They remained a body of first-class cavalry and a rather loose aristocratic class, since only the son of a feudal tenant could hold a fief.

The military organization thus combined a standing army of elite infantry, whose cavalry wings could be increased in an emergency. It was infinitely superior to anything in the West, and the Ottomans proceeded to prove it, beginning with what was left of the dying Greek Empire, since they were not too interested in subduing other Turks. By 1355 what was left of the Byzantines in Asia Minor had been wiped out; in 1361 Murad I crossed the straits, took Adrianople, made it his capital, and began working on the Balkans. Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Montenegro, Wallachia celebrate national heroes for their resistance to the flood from the East, but it always ended the same way, in another nation or district being added to the Ottoman Empire. With each addition the number of available fiefs and of children to be made into robot Janissaries grew, a snowballing process without visible limit.

It was not even interrupted by an incursion of Mongols who captured Sultan Bayezid I and kept him in an iron cage till he died; nor by the fact that each succeeding sultan usually found it necessary to have his brothers and cousins poisoned or strangled. The supply of good blood in the Othmanli line seemed inexhaustible. By the middle of the fifteenth century the whole of the Balkans and Greece were Turkish and their fleets began to dominate the eastern Mediterranean.

One of the specific excellences of that Ottoman line was its ability to learn. It is not certain when and where they first encountered cannon—probably in the hands of Venetian sailors—but it did not take them long to discover that this invention covered the one technical weakness of an army essentially nomadic by habit and thought, its inability to handle siege operations. The new device was adopted with enthusiasm, and under the influence of the Turkish penchant for magnificence the Ottoman heavy artillery speedily became the best in the world. When Mohammed II reached the throne in 1451 he at once began casting enormous guns that could throw stone balls up to twenty-five inches in diameter; two years later he turned them on the greatest city in the world and Constantinople became Istanbul.

It was a shock to Christianity, but all efforts to raise a crusade encountered the fact that Christianity was thinking about other things. Moreover, Mohammed failed to take Rhodes from the Knights of St. John, his successor, Bayezid II, kept peace in Europe except with the Hungarians, whom everyone regarded as little better than the Turks, and his successor, Selim the Grim, became involved in a series of wars in the East, in support of Moslem orthodoxy against the Shi‘ite heretics of Persia. It is worth noting that his artillery won the wars for him and also enabled him to take over Syria and Egypt.

In 1520 he died, and his son Suleiman, known to Turks as Suleiman the Lawgiver and to Europe as Suleiman the Magnificent, became the tenth sultan.

To contemporaries this seemed good news rather than bad. The communications of the West with the Turkish court through Venice were excellent, and people knew all about the new ruler—about twenty-five years old, tall for a Turk, somewhat sallow of countenance, with Tartar blood from his mother; very quick, both of mind and body, delighting in romantic tales and the Moslem type of chivalry, a linguist who could converse with his officers in most of the Balkan dialects, knew Italian, was a master of Persian and Arabic, and wrote poetry in his own language so well that even if he had not been a ruler he would have ranked as one of his country’s leading poets. His interests were thoroughly Western; he had been governor of European Turkey while his father was campaigning in the south and east, and he cared nothing for Selim’s crusade against the Shi‘ite heretics. A despot, but an enlightened despot, on the familiar model of Francis I and Charles V; Europe considered it entirely possible to do business with a man like that. Finally, his grand vizier and alter ego was a Greek turned Moslem, a man named Ibrahim, of infinite charm and accommodation.

Europe overlooked two factors, not very surprisingly, since they were buried in Moslem law and tradition. One was the fact that just before his death, the late Grim Selim had become Caliph of all Islam, Commander of the Faithful. In the theory of Moslem law this office should be in the hands of a member of the Prophet’s clan, the Koreish. The last caliph of the blood was a shadowy creature, who held a phantom court at Cairo; when Selim acquired Egypt, the office was resigned to the sultan without much urging. Suleiman thus inherited the position of the early caliphs as combined emperor, Pope, and commander-in-chief of the armies of a Moslem world that had abruptly become very nearly united, thanks to his father’s overthrow of the heretical units and the expulsion from Spain of the last remnants of the Almohades.

The second factor overlooked in the West was the compilation of a code of Moslem law, which took in not only the Koran, but also the sayings of the Prophet recorded from oral tradition and the decisions of the early caliphs. The code was not complete when Suleiman reached the throne, but there was enough of it, added to previous codes, to establish the main line, and one point in it was absolutely clear: it was the plain religious duty of Moslems to conquer the unbeliever, convert him to Islam, or impose tribute upon him. It is not recorded that Suleiman was particularly devout, but many of his officers were, and the Janissaries, who were beginning to realize themselves as an influential guild, were not at all happy unless there was a war on.

The sum of these forces was that Suleiman’s interest in the West became an interest in conquering the West, and he began with a demand on young King Lajos (or Louis) of Hungary for tribute. Young King Lajos had the ambassadors killed, which would have been a fairly good cause of war even if nobody were trying to provoke one. Suleiman set the troops in motion, and without difficulty captured the two great border fortresses of Szabács and Belgrade. They were, in fact, taken almost too easily; not only did Suleiman wish to shine, but also the vizier, Ibrahim, pointed out to him that the realm had expanded so rapidly to east and south that some labor of consolidation in those directions would be necessary. The shining part of the program was temporarily accomplished by an attack on the Knights of St. John of Rhodes, who were forced to surrender after a tremendous defense. Suleiman was still engaged in distributing fiefs, putting down local troubles, and organizing administration in Egypt and Kurdistan when he received a letter from the King of France.

It was written from Madrid, whither Francis had been taken as a prisoner after Pavia, and it urged the sultan to press on against Hungary and the empire for glory and booty; France would do her part by keeping Charles V occupied in a two-front war. The embassy acted as a detonating charge; Suleiman dropped his administrative details into the hands of subordinates and turned in the direction to which ambition, religion, and the demands of the Janissaries all urged him—Hungary.

That state was particularly ill-prepared to meet attack. Throughout the turn-of-the-century period Hungary had presented the curious spectacle of social evolution backward. The great nobles cased themselves in semi-barbaric luxury and jewels, even wearing their coronets to bed; the burden of taxation fell ever more heavily on the peasantry until they staged a fierce revolt, fiercely repressed in 1514. It was followed by the “Savage Diet,” which enacted laws that placed the entire laboring population in actual, not virtual, slavery to “their natural lords,” annulled any charters the towns had, permitted nobles to engage in trade tax-free, and came down so hard on the minor gentry that thousands of them preferred to cross the Turkish border, live under Mohammed, and pay tribute rather than be part of such a regime. King Lajos himself was often short of clothes and food.

When Suleiman came through Belgrade with 100,000 men, Lajos could assemble less than 30,000, feudal cavalry, with a group of forced-to-fight peasant infantry. Lajos had hoped and asked for help from Charles V, doubly his brother-in-law, but Francis of France, faithful to his engagement with the Turks, pushed an army into Italy, and the emperor could spare nothing. Young King Lajos led against the Turks at Mohács; on August 28, 1526, he was killed with both archbishops of the realm, five bishops, and 24,000 men, and Hungary ceased to exist as a nation. The plunder of Buda furnished the bazaars of the Near East with wares for years afterward, and Suleiman had John Zápolya, the voivode of Transylvania, elected to the vacant throne as a tributary king.

He was not the only claimant. The emperor’s brother Ferdinand called himself King of Hungary in the right of his wife, sister of the late King Lajos, and assembled enough of the magnates to make up something called a Diet, which went through a form of election. “Tell him I will see him at Mohács,” said Suleiman when he heard of it, “and if he is not there I will come to Vienna for him.”

For the moment the sultan was too busy with affairs in Persia to do anything about Vienna, and with the withdrawal of Turkish troops, Hungary collapsed into an anarchy of roving bands who theoretically held for King Ferdinand or King John, but actually served only themselves. But by the end of 1528, Suleiman had solved out his Persian preoccupations and determined that the next step should be the thorough digestion of Hungary through the fief system, as the Balkans had been digested earlier. A necessary step in this direction was the capture of Vienna and the elimination of any German danger to the new frontier, as the Hungarian danger to the Balkans had been eliminated by Mohács and the capture of Buda.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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