The Fall of Constantinople and Pius II failed Crusade

Huge siege cannon used in the final assault and fall of Constantinople in 1453. Diorama in Askeri Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

A New Weapon

A man called the “Blood-Drinker” for his cruelty became sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1451 at the age of nineteen. Mehmet II was “deeply secretive and suspicious of others; self-reliant, haughty, distant from human affection, and intensely ambitious . . . astute, brave, and highly impulsive—capable of deep deception, tyrannical cruelty, and acts of sudden kindness . . . a personality of paradox and complexity.”

Mehmet embarked on a policy of total domination and victory over the Byzantine Empire. He knew the key to destroying Byzantium was the conquest of Constantinople. He had begun his studies of the city and its defenses and started planning his conquest at the age of thirteen. Conquering Constantinople “would unite his empire, remove a potentially troublesome base for hostile troops and help define a universalist imperial ideology.” Intelligence reports arrived in Constantinople informing the Byzantines of Mehmet’s plans, so Emperor Constantine XI sent envoys to Mehmet to negotiate a treaty. Mehmet had them beheaded. War was imminent.

Mehmet knew that his army was superior to the Byzantine army in terms of numbers of men, quality of officers, and expertise in siege tactics; however, he had also studied and learned from past Ottoman failures at Constantinople. Those armies had failed because they could not find a way past the massive Theodosian defensive walls. But Mehmet had something in quantity and quality those previous Ottoman armies did not: cannon. He designed a siege that focused on destroying the walls using gunpowder, but he also knew that available cannons were not strong enough to destroy the walls themselves. He needed a bigger gun.

A year before the siege, he met a Hungarian engineer named Urban who was looking for work. He had recently offered his services to the Byzantine emperor who had no use (or funds) for his skills, so he went to the Ottomans. Mehmet ordered Urban to begin work on a super gun that would bring Constantinople to its knees.

It took Urban three months of hard work, but he produced the largest bronze cast cannon in the world. It was twenty-seven feet long with a barrel surrounded with eight inches of solid bronze, and measured thirty inches across the muzzle. The cannon fired a solid shot eight feet in circumference, weighing fifteen hundred pounds, a full mile. The cannon was so large it required sixty oxen and 200 men to move it and could only travel two and half miles a day. Firing the gun was so complex and labor-intensive that it could only be done seven times a day.

Mehmet now had a weapon that would demolish the walls of Constantinople.

The Attack

The Ottoman force left the capital of Erdine on Friday, March 23, 1453 and arrived outside Constantinople on Easter Sunday (April 1). In accordance with the rules of war at the time, the city was asked to surrender, and it refused.

The emperor, Constantine XI, was a fighter more than an administrator, and it was providential he “held the purple” during Constantinople’s most desperate hour. Born of a Serbian mother named Helena and a half-Italian father, Constantine was “capable and trustworthy, ‘a philanthropist and without malice,’ imbued with resoluteness, courage, and a deep patriotism.”

Mehmet’s strategy was one of attrition, since he had soldiers to spare. He also gave orders to “batter the walls day and night with artillery fire and to launch unpredictable skirmishes to wear down the defenders and to make a major breach for a final assault.” The bombardment began in earnest and continued non-stop from April 12 through April 18. The sixty-nine guns in the Turkish artillery fired 120 shots a day. Urban’s super gun hammered the Theodosian walls and caused extensive damage, but it developed cracks and ruptured early in the siege, robbing Mehmet of his special weapon.

The Time Is Near

A month into the siege, the situation was desperate for the defenders. Food was scarce, supplies were dwindling, and the constant Turkish artillery barrage and assaults had taken their toll. Many soldiers left the wall to find food for their families, further weakening the defenses. A major council of war recommended Constantine leave the city for the Peloponnese, gather new troops, regroup, and strike the Turks from the rear. But Constantine refused to leave the city in its hour of desperation.

As the siege approached its second month, both sides were eager for it to end. Mehmet sent a proposal of surrender to the city that stipulated an annual tribute payment of 100,000 bezants and abandonment of the city. Constantine rejected the offer.

On May 29, Mehmet ordered a general assault. The Byzantine clergy prayed, blessed the city, and carried icons along the walls for help and protection. The Ottomans kept coming, and at one point, a stone from one of Mehmet’s big guns opened a breach in the inner enclosure.

Almost immediately, 300 Muslim warriors poured in through the gap, but were met with fierce Byzantine resistance. The defenders had been fighting for nearly four hours and were exhausted, but the Turks were unyielding as Mehmet ordered 5,000 Janissaries forward. The crack troops gave out such a yell that it was heard five miles away.

Once more the beleaguered Byzantine defenders beat back the Ottoman attack, and the tide appeared to turn in their favor. Constantine could sense it, and urged his warriors: “Brave soldiers, the enemy’s army is weakening, the crown of victory is ours. God is on our side—keep fighting!”

In war, however, victory can be elusive and defeat sudden. Some Ottoman troops found a postern gate near the Blachernae Palace unguarded. In a repeat of the action that led to the Crusader victory in 1204, they opened the gate and tore into the city’s defenses. Soon they infested the wall and tore down the Christian banner and replaced it with the Ottoman standard.

Ottoman troops poured into the city surging past the defenders. Within fifteen minutes, 30,000 Muslim warriors were in the city. Horrified at the sudden change in the situation, Constantine rushed to the wall:

Constantine XI, last of the Roman emperors, tore the purple cloak from his back and raised his sword to catch the morning sun upon its blade . . . he plunged into the melee at the breach, to die fighting as a common soldier against the triumphant infidel. Turbans and scimitars overshadowed him. He vanished from sight. He was never seen again. His body was never recovered.

The sultan had triumphed; the emperor was dead and his empire with it. “A Constantine, son of Helena, had built this city more than 1,000 years ago; another Constantine, son of another Helena, had now lost it forever.”

The Sack

The Muslim troops ran through the undefended city slaughtering the inhabitants, stopping just long enough to take the pretty women and children for slaves before dispatching the rest. Women (including nuns) and boys were savagely raped.

A large group of citizens trying to escape the Ottoman horde ran to Hagia Sophia, the sixth-century church built by Justinian the Great and the largest church in Christendom. When news reached Mehmet that his troops were in the city, he rode straight for Hagia Sophia, entered, and declared it a mosque. It would remain a place of Muslim worship until 1935, when it was turned into a museum.

In the end, 4,000 Christians were killed in the sack and 50,000 seized, of which 30,000 became slaves. The Queen of Cities was now in the hands of Islam. The “bone in the throat of Allah” had been dislodged.

The Crusader-Pope

Five years after the loss of Constantinople saw the election of a new pope who would play a central role in “shaping the character of Crusading against the Ottoman Turks.” Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini took the papal name Pius II at his election in 1458. He was completely dedicated to the Crusading ideal and made his primary papal goal the liberation of Constantinople.

Pius II called the temporal rulers of Western Europe to gather at a congress in Mantua in 1459 to discuss plans for the new Crusade. This idea of an international meeting to discuss the Turkish threat preceded Pius, but he implemented it. Unfortunately, the response was less than enthusiastic. None of the major rulers—more concerned with their national interests—came to Mantua. Pius II gave a speech at the congress in which he blamed the conquest of Constantinople on the lack of Western response to the city in her hour of need, and he reminded his listeners of the savagery of the Turks.603 Pius also recalled the heroes of the First Crusade in an effort to shame and motivate the absent secular leaders to take up arms in the cause of Christ: “Oh, that Godfrey, Baldwin, Eustace, Hugh, Bohemond, Tancred, and those other brave men who re-conquered Jerusalem were here! Truly they would not need so many words to persuade them.”

While exhorting the warriors of Christendom to awake from their slumber and take back Constantinople, Pius also engaged in evangelization in the hope of converting the Ottomans. In 1461, he sent a personal letter to Mehmet the Conqueror urging him to abandon the false religion of Mohammed and to embrace the true light of Christ. His request was denied.

After several years of fruitless cajoling, exhorting, and pleading with the secular rulers of Christendom to take the cross, Pius decided to take the cross himself. He addressed his reason for taking the cross, an unprecedented action for a pope, in a letter:

Our cry, Go forth! Has resounded in vain. Perhaps if the word is, Come with me! It will have more effect. That is why we have determined to proceed in person against the Turks, and by word and deed to stir up all Christian princes to follow our example. It may be that, seeing their teacher and father, the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, a weak and sickly old man, going to war, they will be ashamed to stay at home.

Pius believed his personal example of taking the cross would be the impetus for others to do likewise. He knew that “zeal for the faith will bring some, greed for glory others, that and curiosity to see great events.” Pius’s plan began to come to fruition as the rulers of Hungary, Venice, and Burgundy entered into an alliance with the Papal States to fight the Turks. The pope traveled to the muster site at Ancona in August of 1464 to await the arrival of other Crusaders.

Unfortunately, the pope’s expectation for large numbers of Crusaders did not materialize, and those troops who did show quickly broke into quarrels along national lines. As was common with large groups of soldiers gathered together in close quarters during the summer, disease broke out, and many Crusaders died. Pius II, too, contracted the plague and died, and so ended his Crusade.


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