In the course of the fourteenth century the main forum of crusading warfare in the eastern Mediterranean became Constantinople and the Balkans, a shift prompted by the remorseless rise of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were a nomadic tribe from northwestern Asia Minor who had emerged under the leadership of Osman, a frontier warlord, at the very start of the fourteenth century. Their origins are somewhat hazy but early on the presence of large numbers of ghazis (volunteers dedicated to the holy war who fought in the expectation of booty and who were treated as martyrs on their death) and Sufi mystics gave them a strong religious drive. A series of victories against Muslim and Byzantine Christian opponents convinced them that God was on their side. By the middle of the century they had established a strong territorial base in northwestern Anatolia and begun to push through the Dardanelles and into southeastern Europe. In 1389 the Ottomans destroyed a Serbian army at Kosovo, another battle that has remained strong in modern regional consciousness. The immensity of the Turkish threat began to concentrate minds in Catholic Europe in a way not seen for decades. Coupled with a rare window of peace in the Hundred Years War, and inflamed by the crusading enthusiasm of John of Nevers, son of the duke of Burgundy, and Marshal Boucicaut, this generated a substantial army ready to turn back the Ottoman menace. Boucicaut’s biographer evoked the spirit in which the French nobility joined the crusade: “he [John of Nevers] was then in the full flower of youth, and wanted to follow the path sought by the virtuous, that is to say, the honour of knighthood. He considered that he could not use his time better than in dedicating his youth to God’s service, by bodily labour for the spreading of the faith . . . several young lords wanted to go along, to escape boredom and employ their time and energies on deeds of knighthood. For it really seemed to them that they could not go on a more honourable expedition or one more pleasing to God.” The results of the expedition were, however, catastrophic.

In July 1396 the French linked up with King Sigismund of Hungary at Buda and a combined army of perhaps fifteen to twenty thousand men began to march down the Danube intent upon the recovery of Nicopolis, a strong defensive site in Bulgaria. After this the crusade planned to move on to Constantinople and relieve the city from a siege led by Sultan Bayezid I (1389–1402), known as Yilderim, or Thunderbolt. Early successes lulled the Christians into a sense of complacency and as they blockaded Nicopolis their camp became a scene of indiscipline and licentiousness; Bayezid, meanwhile, had gathered his troops and was approaching fast. On September 25 the two sides met in battle. The French impetuously hurled themselves against Bayezid’s infantry and light cavalry who were carefully positioned at the top of a hill. Stakes in the ground tore the crusaders’ horses to pieces, but although they fought on foot, so great was their momentum that they succeeded in cutting their way up past the Turkish infantry to face the light cavalry. At this point they discovered Bayezid’s trap: waiting on the other side of the hill, fresh and rested, were his heavy cavalry. The Ottomans charged and the crusaders, from being convinced of their success, collapsed: “the lion in them turned into a timid hare,” commented one contemporary. Thousands of men were killed or taken prisoner, an earlier massacre of Turks was avenged by the summary execution of countless Christians, and Count John and Marshal Boucicaut were imprisoned. The debacle of Nicopolis was a massive blow to crusading morale in western Europe and it gave the Turks free access to continue their conquest of the Balkans. In 1402 their momentum was briefly stalled by defeat at the hands the Turcoman ruler Timur (also known as Tamerlane) at the Battle of Ankara, and a period of dynastic infighting checked their progress further, but within a couple of decades they were looking to expand again.

The Turks’ prime target was clearly Constantinople, in part because of its immense wealth and importance to Christianity, in part because it lay directly between Ottoman lands in Anatolia and their possessions in the Balkans. The Greeks had regained the city from the Latins in 1261, but only a pale shadow of past glories survived; that said, it did survive blockades and sieges from 1394 to 1402 and in 1442. So great was the Ottoman menace that Emperor John VIII was persuaded to grasp the nettle of Church unity and in 1439 he led a delegation to Florence where, after centuries of division, the union of the Catholic and Orthodox—with the former as the senior partner—was finally proclaimed. This provoked outrage among some of the Greeks: “We have betrayed our faith. We have exchanged piety for impiety.” John, however, received the reward he was after with a new crusade in 1444. This saw another heavy defeat for the Christians at the town of Varna on the west coast of the Black Sea (in modern-day Bulgaria) when Ottoman troops, fighting under the banner of jihad, entirely crushed their opponents.

In 1451, Mehmet II, known to posterity as Mehmet the Conqueror, became sultan at the age of seventeen (he had held the title briefly between 1444 and 1446). Two years later this remarkable character struck Christendom an enormous blow with the capture of Constantinople. He was a brave, secretive, and utterly ruthless man; he was also a scholar and a superb strategist. He is described as having a hooked nose and fleshy lips, or “a parrot’s beak resting on cherries” as a poet so colorfully expressed it. Two actions early on in his sultanate—one a combination of the private and the political, the other strategic—give a sense of the man. First, as soon as he became ruler, he ordered his infant half-brother to be drowned in his bath (the perpetrator was then executed for murder); thus he enshrined fratricide as a means of preventing civil war. Secondly, he commissioned the construction of the castle of Bogaz Kesa, the Throat-Cutter, a few miles east along the Bosporus. This fine fortress (known today as Rumeli Hisari) has four large and thirteen smaller towers and was completed in a matter of months, testimony to the superbly efficient Ottoman war machine. As the name of the castle suggests, it was designed to block the passage of Christian shipping along the Bosporus and thereby to close the net around Constantinople.

Within the city, Emperor Constantine IX (1449–53) viewed these developments with understandable trepidation. He appealed to the West for help, but other than some support from the Venetians, who still retained an interest in Constantinople long after their part in the 1204 conquest, no major forces arrived. The Genoese held a colony at Galata, just across the Golden Horn, and while they professed neutrality, their men and shipping also came to play a vital role in the defense of the city. Even with such limited outside assistance the sheer strength of Constantinople’s fortifications made it a formidable site. The emperor commanded ditches to be cleared while the dilapidated outer walls were restored and covered with huge bales of cotton and wool to try to cushion them from cannon fire. He also ordered the fabrication of a huge boom, made from massive sections of wood and iron links, to span the Golden Horn and protect the more vulnerable walls on the inlet—the area where the Fourth Crusade had broken into the city. Contemporaries indicate the defenders’ great faith in this construction and their confidence that, in conjunction with the mighty city walls, it would enable them to endure once more.

It is interesting to compare the two great sieges of 1204 and 1453. Aside from the obvious contrast of the latter episode being Muslim against Christian, rather than Catholics versus Orthodox, the size of the opposing forces was strikingly different. In 1204 the crusaders were massively outnumbered by the Byzantines; in 1453, however, the Christian troops in Constantinople totaled perhaps ten thousand. Notwithstanding the defensive efforts of the citizenry—and even monks were pressed into service—in military terms, at over eighty thousand men (plus tens of thousands of laborers) the Ottoman army was a vastly bigger fighting force, mighty enough for a Venetian eyewitness to describe the defenders as “an ant in the mouth of a bear.” The 1453 siege was also more multifaceted with a significant part of the fighting taking place on water. During the earlier campaign the besieging Venetians had enjoyed almost a free hand at sea, but in 1453 an Ottoman fleet of up to four hundred ships frequently tussled with a small but powerful Genoese and Cretan force based around the defensive boom. Finally, technology had moved on: by 1453 the emergence of gunpowder (during the late thirteenth century) meant that cannon came to play a hugely prominent role in the later campaign.

The siege began on April 6. Mehmet’s engineers had constructed a massive palisaded rampart that ran from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn while a similar structure overlooked the city from the Galata side. With siege guns and catapults the Turks soon began to bombard the “queen of cities.” Teams of workmen had strengthened roads and bridges to allow the transportation of several colossal cannon—one required sixty oxen to pull it—from their base at Edirne, 250 miles to the northwest. Most of the firepower concentrated on the gates of Saint Romanus (now known as the Topkapi Gate) and Charisus, both toward the middle of the land walls. The Turks’ largest gun burst, but one of the others remained a monstrous piece of weaponry, capable of firing a shot of almost 550 kilograms. Mehmet had over fourteen batteries of cannon, most of which could launch balls of between 100 and 200 kilograms. Day after day these machines generated a lethal hail of stone that crashed and smashed against the walls of Constantinople, splintering its defenses and demoralizing the defenders. Mehmet was canny enough to continually reposition his cannon to best advantage, and at times he triangulated three guns on a single point to maximize their effect. The Byzantines had artillery of their own but these were far smaller devices and used mainly against troops and siege engines; lack of powder and shot were further restrictions on the Christians’ firepower: by contrast, Mehmet’s biggest cannon consumed 1,100 pounds of gunpowder a day! A contemporary noted: “He devised machines of all sorts . . . especially of the newest kind, a strange sort, unbelievable when told of but, as experience demonstrated, able to accomplish everything.”

Nicolò Barbaro, a Venetian eyewitness, described the debilitating effect of living in continuous anticipation of a major assault. Such tensions were increased by a series of night attacks, usually heralded by the harsh cracking and snapping of castanets, but all were successfully resisted. On April 20, however, the Christians scored an unexpected victory. The appearance of three large Genoese vessels bearing papally sponsored troops and supplies prompted a sea battle. Mehmet’s admiral engaged the galleys but the greater size of the Genoese boats gave them a crucial advantage over the oared Turkish ships and the Christians used their superior height to pour down arrows and small-arms fire onto their enemy. As Mehmet watched from the shore he grew increasingly enraged at the lack of progress and, famously, he mounted his horse and plunged into the sea to bellow inaudible advice to his admiral. Once the wind turned, the Christian vessels were able to reach the safety of the boom and this duly opened to bring them sanctuary. The defeat was a massive blow to Ottoman pride and caused consternation in the Muslim camp. Mehmet was beside himself with rage and summoned the admiral to answer for this failure—the sultan was said to have wanted to execute the man, but his colleagues persuaded their ruler that the loss of rank and a flogging would suffice.

The Christians’ continued trust in the boom seemed well placed, but Mehmet was not to be resisted. Because he could not break the barrier the sultan devised a quite brilliant way to—literally—get around it. As we saw with Reynald of Châtillon’s transportation of kit-form ships from Kerak down to the Red Sea in 1182, it was possible to move vessels overland. Others had followed his example; more recently the Venetians had shifted galleys from the River Adige to Lake Garda. Mehmet accomplished something similar, although on a jaw-dropping scale. His engineers constructed a shallow trench that ran from the shore of the Bosporus, up over the steep hill (through the modern Taksim Square) and then down to the Golden Horn. This carefully crafted ditch was then covered in boards and greased, allowing ships to be laboriously hauled up the slope and then eased downhill behind the boom and into the heart of the Christian harbor. An incredible seventy-two vessels made this journey and once back in the water their sails were rerigged and they could threaten the weakest walls of Constantinople. The creation of a pontoon bridge to link up the troops near Galata with those by the land walls was another sign of technical flair and a hint that a major assault was brewing.

On April 28 the Christians attempted to seize the upper hand with a bid to destroy the main Ottoman fleet. They filled transport ships with sacks of flammable materials—cotton and wool—to set the Turkish boats ablaze, but the flotilla’s commander, “a man eager to win honour in this world,” raced ahead of the escort vessels and drew the full weight of enemy firepower. The Turks scored a direct hit on only their second shot and “quicker than ten paternosters” the ship sank with all hands to ruin the Christian offensive. Soon the Ottomans regained the initiative and in mid-May heavy bombardment of the gates of Saint Romanus and the Caligaria (near the Blachernae Palace in the north) called for the most desperate resistance.

Around this time the Turks started to use yet another stratagem to break into the city—a contingent of specialist Serbian miners began to dig a series of shafts in a bid to get under the walls and to provide an entry point into Constantinople. As usual with Mehmet’s armies the scale of these works was immense—one of the tunnels was over half a mile long—but one night the defenders heard the sound of digging and their own mining expert, a Scotsman named John Grant, located the shaft. He dug out a countermine, set fire to the Turks’ supports, and caused them to collapse and suffocate the attackers.

Throughout the siege, the Turkish artillery continued to pound away at the walls, parts of which were now filled with a patchwork of earth, rubble, and timber barricades. Barbaro noted the demoralizing effect of the mighty cannon: “One was of exceptional size . . . and when it fired the explosion made all the walls of the city shake and all the ground inside, and even the ships in the harbour felt the vibrations of it. Because of the great noise, many women fainted with the shock which the firing of it gave them. No greater cannon than this one was ever seen in the whole pagan world and it was this that broke down such a great deal of the city walls.” A strange fog caused consternation in the Christian camp when what should have been a full moon appeared as a slim, three-day moon, an event seen as a dire omen because a famous prophecy foretold that Constantinople would fall when the planet gave a sign.

Meanwhile Mehmet considered his next move. Some of his inner circle argued in favor of a peaceful solution and they suggested that Constantine could hand over his city in return for control of the Morea. The Byzantine emperor’s response was curt: “God forbid that I should live as an emperor without an empire. As my city falls, I will fall with it.” Rumors of an approaching Venetian fleet and plans for a Hungarian relief force to march to Constantinople probably underlay Constantine’s continued resistance. By the same token, however, fear of this imminent crusade pushed Mehmet into action. Like Saladin before the Battle of Hattin, the sultan’s campaign had built up so much momentum that he needed to bring it all to the boil or else risk losing support of his own people. The danger of running out of supplies—his enormous army had been outside Constantinople for over fifty days and had utterly stripped the countryside of food—was another important consideration.

On May 26 the sultan ordered preparations to be made for the final assault. Huge fires were lit throughout the Turkish camp and the men fasted by day and feasted by night. Mehmet went among his men to raise morale and the imams told stirring stories of the jihad and of Islamic heroes of the past. The prospect of taking Constantinople had a profound spiritual resonance with Muslims because a well-known Hadith promised the capture of the city. The prophecy had powerful eschatological overtones and claimed this would be a definitive Muslim victory, surpassing all others and representing the penultimate defeat of Christianity before the final Armageddon. Here, then, was a chance to fulfill that centuries-old destiny—and with a leader named Mehmet, the Turkish form of Muhammad. Encouraged by these portents, the Ottoman encirclement of Constantinople grew ever tighter. The troops brought up two thousand scaling ladders, they filled in the ditches, and the bombardment intensified further until, in Barbaro’s words, “it was a thing not of this world.” The defenders knew their supreme test was about to come and while Emperor Constantine deployed his troops as best he could, the clergy paraded relics and led prayers and processions around the city.

A couple of hours before daybreak on May 29 a volley of artillery fire announced the start of the attack. The principal focus was the damaged area near the Saint Romanus Gate, although in the course of the day Ottoman forces also engaged the remainder of the land walls and the defenses along the Golden Horn. First to be sent forward were Christian prisoners and subject peoples—the most expendable of all Mehmet’s troops. The defenders’ crossbowmen and light artillery duly slaughtered most of these hapless souls—in any case, had they retreated, then Mehmet’s Janissaries, his crack troops, had orders to kill them. A second, more organized division made a further foray although they too were driven back. All of this drained the defenders’ energy and resources—it also left the Janissaries fresh and rested, waiting for their turn to move. As Mehmet himself watched, these professional warriors advanced with disconcerting slowness toward the Saint Romanus Gate and, unusually for Muslim armies, without musical accompaniment. This sinister new assault was fiercer than ever—they were “not like Turks, but like lions,” related Barbaro. Still the Christians held them off, but the city resounded with the chaos of battle, the Turks “firing cannon again and again, with so many other guns and arrows without number and shouting from these pagans, that the very air seemed to be split apart.” For all the Christians’ valor they were doomed, “since God had made up his mind that the city should fall into the hands of the Turks.”

The Janissaries at last got a foothold in the Saint Romanus barbican but their determination was colored with good fortune too. Several accounts describe the Genoese commander, John Giustiniani Longo, being wounded, although reports of his reaction vary. Some claim that he sought medical help, although in doing so, he caused the emperor to believe he was deserting his post. Barbaro, admittedly a hostile Venetian, suggested that Longo had retreated, shouting “The Turks have got into the city!,” which made everyone abandon hope. This panic, in turn, gave the Janissaries the chance to make a proper opening in the main walls and from there they poured into the city. In the early morning light the flags of Venice and the emperor were torn down and Ottoman banners began to appear on the skyline of Constantinople. As the Christians lost heart, the Genoese and the Venetians attempted to fight through to their vessels on the Golden Horn and flee. While the Italians rushed out, Ottoman troops poured in from every side and for one day the city was given over to the sack. Across Constantinople, the Turks wrought havoc, killing indiscriminately, whether young or old, male or female, healthy or infirm. Women, girls, and nuns were ravaged and many thousands of Christians were captured to be ransomed or sold as slaves. Barbaro luridly conveys the savagery of the moment: “The blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm, and the corpses of Turks and Christians were thrown into the Dardanelles, where they floated out to sea like melons on a canal.” They tore an inestimable amount of booty from the great religious institutions, as well as from private houses and from merchants. Just as in 1204, the mighty sanctuary of the Hagia Sophia was ripped open and plundered, and Leonard of Chios claimed the Turks “showed no respect for the sacred altars or holy images, but destroyed them, and gouged the eyes from the saints . . . and they stuffed their pouches with gold and silver taken from the holy images and sacred vessels.” Crucifixes were paraded in a mocking procession through the Muslim camp and very soon the Hagia Sophia was turned from a church into a mosque.

The death of Constantine himself is shrouded in mystery. Some writers claimed that as the final onslaught began the emperor begged his courtiers to kill him and when they refused he charged into the fray and died under a hail of scimitars and daggers. Muslim sources indicate that he was close to the walls on the Sea of Marmara, looking to escape by boat, when he was slain by troops unaware of his true identity. Yet once the battle was over Sultan Mehmet did not try to eradicate a Christian presence from his new capital; for a start he realized that the city needed its local population to survive and prosper and soon Muslims, Christians, and Jews mingled freely enough, although the latter two remained subject groups who paid a poll tax according to Islamic law. The sultan even appointed a new Orthodox patriarch, which shows a broad sense of tolerance too.

The loss of Christendom’s greatest city provoked outrage in the West, not least because of the apparent indifference of the major ruling powers. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II) wrote: “For what calamity of the times is not laid at the door of the princes? All troubles are ascribed to the negligence of rulers. ‘They might,’ said the populace, ‘have aided perishing Greece before she was captured. They were indifferent. They are not fit to rule.’”


Within a year of Mehmet’s triumph, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, one of the most powerful men in Europe, made lavish promises to launch a crusade to recover Constantinople and to drive back the infidel. The forum for this was the Feast of the Pheasant (February 1454), an event saturated with chivalric behavior and another superb, if slightly late, example of the intimate connection between noble display and crusading. The year 1453 had also marked the end of the Hundred Years War and this seemed the perfect moment to respond to the catastrophe in the East. Philip’s father had led the forces defeated at Nicopolis in 1396 and although held prisoner for six months he had received a hero’s welcome on his return. Philip summoned the Burgundian nobility to the city of Lille in northern France to attend a sumptuous banquet and to hear his plans. Thirty-five artists were employed to decorate the chamber and, to ensure that the world knew of this splendid occasion, the duke ordered official accounts of the feast to be distributed. The report noted:

There was even a chapel on the table, with a choir in it, a pasty full of flute players. A figure of a girl, quite naked, stood against a pillar . . . she was guarded by a live lion who sat near her. My lord duke was served by a two-headed horse ridden by two men sitting back to back, each holding a trumpet. . . . Next came an elephant . . . carrying a castle in which sat the Holy Church, who made piteous complaint on behalf of the Christians persecuted by the Turks, and begged for help. Then two knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece brought in two damsels . . . these ladies asked my lord duke to make his vow. It was understood that if the king of France would go on the crusade, the duke would go.

Philip’s vow was made “to God my creator and to the most virgin His mother, and to the ladies, and I swear on the pheasant. . . . If the Grand Turk would be willing to do battle with me in single combat, I shall fight with him with the aid of God and the Virgin mother in order to sustain the Christian faith.” This entrancing combination of revelry and unrestrained excess shows an almost total absorption of crusading into the chivalric ethos. The contrast between the cavorting of naked women and the impassioned preaching of a man such as Bernard of Clairvaux is self-evident, yet the Holy Church was said to be delighted by Philip’s promise—as well it might, given that many of the guests soon followed his example and assumed the cross too.

Two months later Philip repeated his intention at Regensburg where he spoke of his Christian duty and of “the crisis in which Christianity finds itself. If we wish to keep our faith, our liberty, our lives, we must take the field against the Turks and crush their power before it becomes any stronger.” Centuries of crusading hyperbole had preceded this statement, but it was a rare occasion when the gravity of the threat seemed to match the claims being made. Philip pushed ahead with his plans and engaged in serious and extensive preparations that included the manufacture of new pennons and banners, as well as signing up over five hundred gunners: an indication that Mehmet’s use of heavy artillery had been noticed in the West. Mehmet heard about the crusade and riled the duke with use of his spectacular title: “true heir of King Alexander and Hector of Troy, sultan of Babylon,” and he promised to do to Philip’s army the same as his predecessor had done to the duke’s father at Nicopolis. By the summer of 1456, however, the duke’s enthusiasm had begun to wane. His stipulation that the king of France should crusade remained unfulfilled as national rivalries became ever more important in frustrating the chances of holy war.

Mehmet, meanwhile, inspired by his triumph, advanced toward the Balkan town of Belgrade. In spite of his recent successes the determined resistance of Hungarian troops led by John Hunyadi and the seventy-year-old Franciscan friar John of Capistrano held off the Turks for three weeks and then, in a pitched battle, utterly defeated them. This feat of virtuosity, achieved without the crowned heads of western Europe, did much to stem the Ottoman advance for the next fifty years at least. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, the final large-scale crusading campaign of the medieval period was about to take place in Iberia.

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