The Last Crusaders

The crenellated towers and walls of the Castle of St Peter brood defiantly over the southern end of the Aegean Sea; the mighty fortress is one of the most spectacular and best-preserved crusading castles of the fifteenth century.

The Hospitallers started building it soon after 1406, and from its battlements the Knights kept watch on the sea approaches to their island of Rhodes, less than a day’s sail away to the east along the coast. St Peter’s Castle at Bodrum was part of a network of fortresses throughout the Hospitaller-controlled Dodecanese islands, but this was the Knights’ only foothold on the mainland of Asia Minor. The French Tower, at the highest point in the castle, was the first to be built; more towers were added and a system of walls and bastions gradually covered the promontory that forms one side of the picturesque fishing harbour at Bodrum. Other ‘tongues’, including the English, also had formidable towers and as cannon began to play a part in siege warfare, massive gun emplacements were added to the fortifications later in the fifteenth century.

The Knights acquired this mainland enclave as a result of the ferment of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century when the Mongol ruler, Tamurlane, invaded Syria and Asia Minor. Smyrna (the modern Izmir), along with the other mainland cities, fell to the Mongols in 1402, but the Hospitallers having lost that important city quickly re-established themselves at Bodrum. Ottoman power had suddenly been eclipsed by the Tartar ruler, and Turkish expansion was halted momentarily. The sultan’s plan to take Constantinople had to be shelved, giving Byzantium a reprieve, but when Tamurlane died in 1405 his empire began to disintegrate and with it went any chance of constraining the resurgence of Ottoman power. As soon as the Knights had acquired the site at Bodrum for their new fortress, Master Philibert of Naillac went off on an extensive tour of Europe to raise funds for the building. He was well received by the Pope who issued an indulgence to anyone willing to put up money, and we know that in England indulgences could be obtained for the castle fund throughout the fifteenth century.

Money came in from all over Europe but there is a strong hint that the English nobility must have dug deeply into their pockets, because emblazoned on one wall of the English Tower that was built in about 1414 there is a line of fifteenth-century coats of arms. The centrepiece of this display is a great shield, four times the size of the others, with the carved arms of Henry IV – that enthusiastic crusader who had reysed at least twice with the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. He had clearly made a substantial contribution to the building of St Peter’s Castle along with more than a score of lesser nobles and members of the Royal Family. The well-preserved interior of the English tower is today popular with visitors who are sometimes surprised by the appearance of a monkish-looking figure, his cloak emblazoned with the white starred cross of the Order, who takes charge of crumhorn and tabor recorded mood music. More authentic knights, who were not grand enough to have their arms carved into the battlements – about two hundred survive in various parts of the castle – just scratched their names in the stone while they were on duty. These medieval graffiti are clear evidence of the many different nations represented in the garrison.

Parts of the castle were constructed from the masonry that once adorned the ancient mausoleum of Halikarnassos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which the Knights found in a ruined state on the mainland overlooking Bodrum harbour. The ancient site was a convenient quarry and supplied about forty per cent of the stone they needed to build the great medieval fortress. That estimate has been made by archaeologists who, in recent years, have crawled all over the castle spotting and measuring the building material taken from the mausoleum, and, with the aid of a computer, have put together a plan of one of the world’s missing wonders.

During the short time that Tamurlane held sway in Asia Minor and Syria crusading activity was revived and, while plans for the castle of Bodrum were going ahead, the Hospitallers took part in raids along the Muslim-held coastline of Asia Minor. The fleet of galleys, commanded by Marshal Boucicault, attacked the Turkish port of Alanya, and would have sailed south to Alexandria if contrary winds had not changed the Marshal’s mind.

Instead, this Frenchman, who was Governor of Genoa, attacked Tripoli and Beirut. Boucicault may have been planning another attack in 1407, but as the Turks re-established their position in the East there were fewer opportunities for crusaders to overrun mainland strongholds. The end of the great schism in the West – the general recognition of one Pope instead of two or three – released much more papal energy into crusading. Pope Martin V tried to organize crusades to help the Latin settlements under pressure in the Aegean and, when the Turks laid siege to Constantinople in 1422, he worked for a naval league in which the Hospitallers, Venetians, Genoese and Milanese would take part.

But these efforts were to meet with little success because Christendom was preoccupied with a new heresy in Bohemia’s church. The new heretical threat came from the Hussites, followers of the Czech reformer, John Hus, who had been burned at the stake in 1415. The Hussites wanted both bread and wine at communion for the laity, clerical misdemeanours to be publicly condemned, the freedom to preach, and a review of the church’s material wealth. They were vocal about what they regarded as the iniquitous practice of giving indulgences to Christians to fight other Christians and in 1418 Pope Martin agreed that they would have to be suppressed by force.

King Sigismund of Hungary, who had featured in the crusading defeat at Nicopolis, and was now Western emperor-elect, organized a series of crusades between 1420 and 1431 against the Hussites, whose sense of Czech nationalism and disaffection with the established church resulted in a spirited defence of their lands in Bohemia. As in the Albigensian Crusade and the political wars in Italy, crusaders came from many parts of Europe, and Sigismund’s armies included English, Dutch, Swiss, French and Spanish knights. Much Christian blood was spilled in ten years of fighting and eventually the Hussites were overcome, not by the crusaders, but by the Bohemian nobility itself, although tension and outbreaks of trouble continued well into the second half of the fifteenth century. It was another example of how internal threats were always regarded more seriously than external ones. Sigismund, who had, after all, called for the Crusade of Nicopolis, must have been very conscious of the growing danger to both Eastern and Western Christianity posed by the Turkish sultan, Murad II.

In 1443 Pope Eugenius IV, having won the submission of the Eastern Orthodox Church to Rome, preached a new crusade designed to defend the Christian East against the Turks. There was little response, except from the ‘front line’ countries along the Danube. John Hunyadi, the ruler of Transylvania, led an army that routed the Turks at Nish, and in the following year, 1444, he marched to the Black Sea port of Varna leading an army of 20,000 across the Balkans. Hunyadi and King Ladislas of Hungary planned to continue their advance down the coast towards Constantinople but the sultan moved up reinforcements – some say in chartered Genoese transports – and the crusading forces were almost wiped out. Ladislas was killed but Hunyadi survived and, as long as he lived, kept the Turks from crossing the Danube. He did not, however, put in an appearance during the next major crisis for the Christian world.


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