Battle of Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade

The end of resistance to the Ottomans in Albania, northern Serbia and Bulgaria was to provoke energetic, though belated, action in the west. The Turks were in fact halted by Mongol armies from the east, not by the Christians from the west, but the ‘Crusade of Nicopolis’ of 1396 is an event of sufficient significance to justify a brief excursus on the history of crusading thought in the century after the disappearance of Christian rule in Syria. Throughout this period there was much discussion concerning the methods to be used to regain the territory now lost to Christianity. The ideas of the Catalan Ramon Llull (1232–1315/16) are of interest for their originality, though they had no practical effect. Llull had plans for military reconquest, but his most novel recommendation proposed the foundation of chairs of oriental languages in western universities. Muslims were to be converted by what might now be called ‘brain-washing’. Special linguist-preachers should ‘hold disputations with prisoners to convert them to the Holy Catholic faith’, and they should read certain books which prove that Mahomet was not a true prophet.

Afterwards the ruler-commander [under whom the military religious orders were to be unified] should release these captives. He should pay them their travelling expenses with a fair and friendly expression on his face, and send them off to the Saracen kings and other rulers … so that they should make clear to them (the rulers) what we believe concerning the most holy Trinity … and this will be a way of converting the Infidels and of spreading our most holy faith.

The most fundamental of the many disadvantages of this scheme was that the Christians very rarely succeeded in taking Muslim prisoners.

It was natural that the most active propagandists of the crusade should be those who were most closely threatened by the Moslem advance. Pierre de Thomas, a French Carmelite friar, went to the eastern Mediterranean around 1350 and spent the remaining 15 years of his life as papal legate in Crete and Cyprus. Among Thomas’s disciples was Philippe de Mézières, who became chancellor of Peter I of Cyprus, planned to found a chivalrous order (to be called ‘The New Order of the Passion of Jesus Christ’) and wrote a number of works on the crusade after returning to France in 1369. King Peter (a Lusignan) was a close friend of both these men, and with their energetic encouragement and assistance he raised a fleet of 165 vessels and launched an expedition of which the anticlimactic outcome was the capture—for a single week—of the city of Alexandria.

The assault on Alexandria (1365) was the issue of three years’ preparatory work, including a visit by king Peter to the west, where he held discussions with pope Urban V, John II of France, Edward III of England, the emperor Charles IV and the kings of Hungary and Poland. It took its place in a long and uninterrupted series of military failures, a list that includes Clement VT’s league of 1343 (which did, however, capture Smyrna) and Peter’s own earlier expedition against Asia Minor, which also captured a solitary port, Adalia (Antalya). It was followed by the ‘Crusade’ of Count Amadeus VI of Savoy, who took 15 galleys and several mercenary companies to the east in 1366, but was diverted into fighting against the Christian Bulgarians on behalf of the Byzantine emperor.

Almost a generation passed before the next ambitious scheme, the joint Franco-Genoese crusade of 1390 against the Tunisian port of al-Mahdiya. A hundred galleys sailed on this enterprise under the command of Louis II de Bourbon, uncle of Charles VII of France. The attack on al-Mahdiya, like all crusading ventures, was the product of mixed motives, motives which affected both the composition of the force involved and the outcome of the operations. The Genoese—who supplied 1,000 crossbowmen and 2,000 cavalrymen as well as the shipping—were principally concerned with al-Mahdiya as the home of corsairs who hindered their valuable north Africa trade. The French were sincere crusaders, benefiting from the respite afforded by the pacific policy of Richard II of England; they were indeed reinforced by English, Flemish and Aragonese elements. The siege proved a difficult undertaking, the Genoese were naturally the first to feel discouraged and negotiations soon resulted in their agreement to a 10-year truce which offered them all they really wanted. The reluctant French were compelled to follow suit and after three months the siege was abandoned.

The last of the major crusading ventures was the outcome of the great Ottoman victory of 1389. Like the al-Mahdiya expedition, the Crusade of Nicopolis was made possible by the long lull in the Anglo-French war. In 1395 negotiations led to the formation of a league involving France, England, Hungary, Venice and Burgundy: Duke Philip the Bold was the principal promoter and his son John of Nevers (the future John the Fearless) commanded the Franco-Burgundian element. More than half of the very large Christian force involved were Hungarians. In the summer of 1396 this army advanced from Buda along the Danube and besieged Nicopolis. Sigismund of Hungary, experienced in warfare against the Ottomans, favoured cautious tactics, but the French could only think in terms of the headlong chivalric assault which had cost them so dear at Crécy and Poitiers. When Bayezid broke off the siege of Constantinople and came to the aid of Nicopolis the French at once launched an attack (25 September 1396). After winning ground in the early stages of the engagement, they were defeated with the loss of almost their entire force. The Ottomans then turned against the Hungarians, who had held aloof from the French battle, and they too were overcome. Most of the French prisoners were put to death, but Bayezid spared the nobles, who were later ransomed for a fee of 200,000 florins. Among these was John of Nevers, who reached home the following year.

The great military undertaking of 1396 had failed to halt the Turkish advance and Constantinople would almost certainly have fallen within a few years but for the defeat of Bayezid by Timur in 1402. Throughout the preceding century the western Christians had compared unfavourably with their opponents—whom they had consistently underrated—in every respect. Their tactics and discipline had been inferior and they had fought in unsuitable armour. Above all, their efforts had been spasmodic and had been frustrated by internal divisions and conflicting motives. As an old man, Philip of Mézières, the great crusading propagandist of the age, learned the news of the crushing defeat of his hopes at Nicopolis. In these last, sad years of his life he was accustomed to write of himself ruefully as a vieil abortif‘(an old failure).

Bayezid’s defeat and capture near Ankara in 1402 postponed Ottoman domination throughout south-eastern Europe for several decades. During this period both Venice and the kingdom of Hungary were sufficiently powerful to dispute what was left of the Eastern Empire with the Turks—though inevitably they were rivals and not allies. After the death of Sigismund (1437) Hungary lost much of its cohesion, and the eventual successor, Ladislas of Poland, had to struggle for control in Hungary as well as fighting the Turks in Serbia. The campaigns of 1442–4, which probably saved Constantinople from conquest by Murad II, were fought under the virtual leadership of John Hunyadi of Transylvania, a Wallachian noble who had come into prominence in the service of Hungary. Hunyadi was also involved in the attempt to exploit Murad’s absence in Asia during 1444, which culminated in the disastrous defeat of Varna, in which king Ladislas was killed. Surviving this battle, Hunyadi became regent in Hungary for Ladislas Posthumus, the grandson of Sigismund and heir to Ladislas III. Hunyadi in his turn became preoccupied with internal factional strife, and in the following years the main role in opposing the Ottomans was assumed by the Albanian George Castriot, later known as Scanderbeg (born c. 1405). Scanderbeg had been taken by the Turks in youth as a hostage and, as a Moslem, served them for many years before he fled to his native land and set up as the leader of resistance there in 1443.

The loss of Constantinople, 1453!


As early as the 1420s western visitors to Constantinople were startled to find its population much under the influence of Turkish ways. The honour of suppressing the shrunken vestige of the empire founded by Augustus fell to Mahomet II ‘the Conqueror’ (1451–81). The man who achieved the success so long promised by God to the champions of the Islamic faith, and so long denied them, was in every respect worthy of his triumph. Mahomet was born in 1432, the son of Murad II by an unknown slave. An elder half-brother was murdered and Mahomet became heir presumptive as a young child; indeed, his father abdicated in his favour in 1445, but had second thoughts and resumed power in the following year. Mahomet’s first campaign was probably the victorious one against Hunyadi which culminated in the second battle of Kosovo (1448). Murad died three years later, and Mahomet marked his succession by putting to death a young half-brother who was a potential centre of opposition. The same fate was later to befall a series of grand viziers, but Mahomet must be given credit for his punctilious observance of etiquette in such matters: when an important dignitary was executed his head was exposed on a silver plate, whereas that of a lesser official was only granted a plate of wood. The sultan’s favourite method of execution was to order men to be sawn in half, and his whimsical sense of humour permitted him to claim that he had been true to his word when he had 300 Italians killed in this way at Mytilene in 1462 after promising that ‘they might keep their heads’. His methods did little to distinguish him from his Christian opponents, though in his reputation for brutality he was outdone by perhaps only one contemporary, the infamous Vlad ‘the Impaler’, ruler of Wallachia. At the height of his campaign against the Wallachians (also 1462), Mahomet’s army apparently found itself in a ‘forest’ of 20,000 stakes on which Vlad’s Turkish and Bulgarian victims had been impaled.

Mahomet was steeled by an unlimited faith in his own destiny. From childhood he had believed that Constantinople would be his, and later he was to dream of the conquest of Hungary and even of Rome. He had a great taste for Greek and Roman history, as well as for what we should now call medieval chronicles; these works were read to him presumably in Greek (for he knew this language, as well as ‘Slav’), by Italians. A particular favourite was Alexander the Great, and there can be little doubt that Mahomet saw himself as the new Alexander, called by destiny to repeat in reverse the deeds of the old. ‘The times have changed now’, he is reported to have said, ‘and I shall go from east to west as formerly the westerners penetrated the East.’

Mahomet’s best-known military achievement, the conquest of Constantinople, was not his greatest feat of arms. This was merely the last symbolic act in the extinction of an empire which had long survived only by consent of the Turks. On the death of the emperor John VIII Palaeologus in 1448 the rival claimants, John’s brothers Constantine and Demetrius, invited Murad to decide the succession. Not unnaturally Murad declared for Constantine, the despot of Mistra, who two years earlier had become his tributary. The city that Mahomet set out to subjugate in 1452–3 had long been encircled, but he took care to occupy the forces of the emperor’s two brothers by launching a diversionary campaign in the Morea. The final siege began on 6 April 1453. Since the Byzantines were able to muster only some 9,000 men (of whom one-third were Genoese and Venetians) to hold four miles of wall, the outcome of the siege was a foregone conclusion once the sultan had turned his full might against the city. Nevertheless, tribute must be paid to the ingenuity which enabled the Ottomans to drag 70 ships across land from the Bosphorus to the waters of the Golden Horn, thus circumventing the chain which was supposed to protect the harbour against naval assault. The walls were at last breached on 29 May. The emperor Constantine died courageously among his men, and within hours the entire city was in Ottoman hands; inevitably there were appalling scenes of massacre and looting.

Mahomet fought an almost ceaseless series of campaigns in Europe and Asia. To chronicle them would be tedious, but without doing so it is difficult to give a sufficient impression of Ottoman military power at this period. In Asia the emperor of Trebizond, another beneficiary of Byzantine decay, was overthrown, as were a large number of Anatolian rebels and Persian challengers. To the north, naval and military campaigns made of the Black Sea a Turkish lake, with disastrous consequences for western European traders. Mahomet’s onslaught on Europe was checked in 1456 by the heroic relief of Belgrade by Hunyadi and the crusaders of the friar Capistrano. Belgrade was to defy the Turks again, but by 1459 Mahomet had regained all Serbia and within three years of this he held Athens and the Morea. To his conquests in mainland Greece he soon added Mytilene (Lesbos) and various other islands, though the Venetians were able to retain Euboea, with its strategic trading post, Negroponte, till 1470. By that date Bosnia had fallen and resistance in Albania almost come to an end with the death of Scanderbeg (1468). From Bosnia marauding Ottoman irregulars launched annual raids as far to the north-west as Styria and Carinthia, and in 1477 a force pressed so far into Italy that the fires caused by its depredations could be seen from Venice. Three years later the Ottomans attacked southern Italy, captured Otranto, massacred every male in the city, and held it for over 12 months.

When Mahomet died in 1481, at the age of 49, Ottoman strength was still checked in the Balkans by the resistance of Belgrade and in the Mediterranean by that of Rhodes. The growth of Turkish sea-power under Selim I (1512–20) made possible the conquest of Syria and Egypt. Only under Suleiman II (1520 – 66) was the advance into Europe resumed, while Charles V warred with Francis I of France. Then the king of Bohemia and Hungary was killed in the decisive battle at Mohács (1526) and, with the acquisition of Hungary, the Ottoman Empire became a greater power in Europe than its Byzantine predecessor had been, even in its heyday before the First Crusade. Not only had the territorial problems set by Byzantine decline been settled for centuries, but the western European states had to reckon with a mighty neighbour whose weight was to count for much in the balance of power diplomacy of the ‘early modern’ period. By splitting Christian Europe, the Reformation served to make the domination of the Turks yet more secure. The crusading ideal lived on strongly in the ideas of the Counter-Reformation, but even the naval victory of Lepanto (1571) failed to check the Ottoman advance: a century after this the Turks captured Crete and besieged Vienna. The replacement of a stricken Christian empire by an aggressive Islamic autocracy was certainly the greatest change in the map of Europe between the thirteenth century and the early years of the sixteenth.