Pinned against the Black Sea coast, the crusaders had little recourse other than to fight their way out of their predicament. King Ladislas’s charge against Mehmed’s heavily defended position was suicidal.
Hungarian and Polish crusaders marched into Bulgaria in 1444 determined to defeat the Ottoman army. The opponents met at Varna in a tight contest of arms.
During the mid-14th century, a new theater of the crusades erupted, this time on the doorstep of Christian Europe. The Ottoman Turks, once just one of many pastoral Turkic tribes wandering the Anatolian steppe, had united into a powerful and sophisticated military state. Under the leadership of a series of brilliant sultans, they had expanded steadily westward, mostly at the expense of the aging and decaying Byzantine Empire. After conquering most of Anatolia, they crossed the Hellespont and established themselves in the Balkans, even moving their capital to the city of Adrianople, which they renamed Edirne.
The Ottomans were fortuitous to have arrived in Europe at a time when the entire continent seemed to be coming apart at the seams: the Byzantine Empire was barely clinging to life; England and France were locked in a ruinous Hundred Years’ War; the Italian city states were consumed by greed and mutual hatred; the Papacy was divided by schism and rival popes; and even the once powerful Balkan kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria were beset by dynastic problems. Worse still, Genoese galleys in 1347 had unwittingly carried the Black Plague to every harbor on the Continent, devastating the population and economy.
Not surprisingly, Christian Europe’s response to the new Ottoman threat was slow, half-hearted, and uncoordinated. In 1396, after subjugating Bulgaria and reducing Serbia to a vassal, Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I began to threaten Hungary. The Hungarian king and Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund of Luxembourg, appealed to Pope Boniface XI for help and a crusade was called. Nobles from Western Europe travelled to Hungary to help repel the Ottomans.
The Nicopolis Crusade, as the campaign is remembered, was a disaster. The Catholic nobles behaved like a drunken mob on the march south through the Danube corridor, massacring Turkish prisoners, abusing the local Orthodox peasantry, and refusing to follow orders. When they met Bayezid in battle, they repeated the mistakes of Crecy and Poitiers and launched foolhardy cavalry charges that succeeded only in wearing out their own horses. After a fierce fight, Sigismund and what was left of his army were forced to flee back to Hungary, leaving thousands of prisoners behind to be executed in revenge for their earlier atrocities.
Much to the relief of Christian Europe, just six years later Bayezid was himself defeated and captured by the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane at the Battle of Ankara. The loss of the sultan plunged the Ottoman Empire into a decade-long civil war from which, for a period of time, it looked as if it would never recover. Bayezid’s youngest son emerged the victor as Sultan Mehmed I. He restored order and rebuilt the military. By the time he died in 1421, his son Murad II was in good position to once again resume hostilities against Christian Europe.
Stern, aggressive, and clear in his sense of duty and purpose, Murad was exactly the type of ruler the empire needed after years of disorder. He was deeply religious and styled himself the Ghazi Sultan, a champion of Islam sworn to spread the faith and protect the faithful. He had no patience for dispute or dissent, even from his own household. When his headstrong son, the future Mehmed II, refused to listen to his tutors, he ordered the boy beaten into submission. On another occasion, when a renowned and respected imam scolded him for drinking alcohol, ironically his one major indulgence, he had him thrown into prison.
Murad began his reign by laying siege to Constantinople. He failed to take the city but forced Byzantine Emperor John VIII to agree to a humiliating peace that basically ceded away all the territory outside the city walls. Murad then began a series of campaigns to reassert the empire’s control over the Balkans. First, he subdued the Venetians, the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean, by ravaging their possessions in Greece and Albania and taking the rich city of Thessaloniki. Next, he marched north, reclaiming lost territory and forcing the rebellious Serbian Despot George Brankovic to seek sanctuary in Hungary.
It was on the Hungarian frontier that Murad’s forces encountered one of the most brilliant soldiers of the age. John Hunyadi’s origins are mysterious and widely contested. He was of relatively lowborn stock and was believed to have fabricated his own family crest and noble lineage. As a young man, he entered the service of King Sigismund, with whom he travelled across Central Europe and Italy. There he mastered the prevailing tactics and strategies of the time and soon became one of Sigismund’s most valuable commanders.
Hunyadi was posted to Hungary’s restless southern border at just about the same time that hostilities were once again arising with the advancing Ottomans. There he cleverly adapted the tactics he had learned abroad to the narrow valleys and rugged foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. In 1441 he was made voivode of Transylvania, and in the following few years he won a series of stunning victories that made him famous throughout Europe as the “White Knight of Transylvania.” The nickname spoke to both his celebrated reputation as a defender of Christendom and the shining suit of Milanese plate armor he wore into battle.
In 1443 Hunyadi achieved one of his greatest successes in a whirlwind offensive known as the Long Campaign. While Murad was distracted with revolts in Greece and Albania, Hunyadi invaded Serbia, then crossed the Balkan Mountains in the dead of winter and overran most of Bulgaria. In the process he defeated three Ottoman armies sent to stop him. He might have pressed even farther had he not been hampered by the weather and a lack of supplies. Regardless, that spring he returned to Buda in triumph, and a shocked Murad sent peace envoys to offer very generous terms.
Hunyadi’s forces were exhausted and he was equally as eager to come to terms; however, he had a powerful patron with ambitions of his own. In his capacity as Hungarian voivode, Hunyadi served 19-year-old King Ladislas who held the dual crowns of Poland and Hungary. As king of Hungary, Ladislas was responsible for securing Hungary’s southern frontier against the Ottomans. As far as Hunyadi was concerned, this objective had been achieved. But Ladislas, being young, glory hungry, and imbued from birth with the ideals of Christian chivalry, believed the Ottomans were on the verge of being expelled from Europe altogether.
Ladislas was himself also under pressure from Pope Eugene IV-more specifically, his papal envoy Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini. The cardinal had supported Ladislas’s election to the Hungarian throne. In so doing, he became a close confidant of the young monarch. He shared Ladislas’s belief that the Ottomans were on their last legs. Cesarini believed that freeing the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans would bring the two churches closer together and lay the groundwork for a reunification of the two branches of Christianity. While peace negotiations with the Ottomans were under way in April 1444, Ladislas took a solemn oath to lead a crusade by year’s end.
Murad and Ladislas agreed to a 10-year truce in June that Ladislas clearly had no intention of keeping. A strange series of events then followed. The sultan, fully planning to honor the agreement, withdrew from Europe with his army to lead a punitive campaign against one of his rebellious Anatolian vassals. Having secured both his Asian and European frontiers, he then shocked the world by announcing that he was exhausted by the strain of constant campaigning and was abdicating the throne in favor of 12-year-old Mehmed.
In Christian Europe, news of Murad’s abdication caused a flurry of excitement, particularly in Hungary where both Cesarini and Ladislas believed that with the Ottoman Army far away in Anatolia, and an inexperienced child on the throne, a golden opportunity had presented itself. Cesarini immediately declared the truce to be void on the basis that an agreement with an infidel was not worth the paper it was printed on. At a diet in Buda, Ladislas boldly declared that he would drive the Ottomans out of Europe.
An audacious plan was drawn up by which Ladislas, with Hunyadi as his commander in chief, would lead a crusader army south along the route of the Danube River into Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria, proceeding as far as the Black Sea coast. When the crusader army arrived at the coast it would rendezvous with a Venetian fleet that would resupply it for the final leg of its march to Edirne. All the while, the Venetians would blockade the straits between Europe and Asia, trapping Murad and his army in Anatolia and ensuring that the crusaders would be relatively unopposed as they rampaged across the Balkans. It was also hoped that the various peoples of the Balkans would take the opportunity to rise up against their Ottoman overlords, further clearing the way for the crusaders.
To accomplish this ambitious undertaking, Ladislas had at his disposal an army of 16,000 men. It was a multinational force made up of Hungarians, Poles, and Papal troops. Within each group were smaller ethnic contingents from across the diverse peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. For example, the Polish contingent included Lithuanians and Ruthenians. The Hungarian and Transylvanian troops included Croatians, Szeklers, and Saxons. Prince Vlad II of Wallachia, the father of the future Vlad the Impaler, contributed 4,000 horsemen led by his son Mircea II. These wild riders of the Carpathian frontier were among the most exotic of the crusader forces, easily distinguished by their short round beards, tall fur caps, and a lack of armor, which they considered unmanly.
Despite his generous contribution, Vlad voiced grave concerns over the coming campaign. He warned Ladislas that the sultan’s hunting party alone would outnumber the crusaders. He was not the only one to have doubts. Hunyadi also desperately wanted to abide by the hard-won peace treaty and did everything he could to convince Ladislas to change his plans. Brankovic, who Hunyadi had recently restored to power, believed that diplomacy was the best way to secure his kingdom’s survival and not only refused to participate, but actively sought to dissuade other Balkan rulers from doing so.
These protestations had no influence on Ladislas, who refused to break his crusader vow. On September 18, 1444, he led his army across the Danube River into Ottoman territory. At first things went well. The crusaders made slow but steady progress, taking Ottoman strongholds along the way and winning the support of the local Christians. The news of the invasion caused a wave of panic in Edirne that led to riots and the flight of much of the population.
It was not until the crusaders reached Nicopolis that they encountered their first real resistance. The town fell easily enough, but the Ottoman garrison in the nearby fortress refused to surrender and fought doggedly. The crusaders decided to bypass the fortress, but much to their vexation, the farther they advanced, the fiercer the resistance seemed to become. Ladislas also grew frustrated by how his troops seemed to show more interest in booty and plunder than in fulfilling their crusader vows. He and the other commanders consoled themselves with the knowledge that at least Murad and his army were far away in Anatolia, safely contained by the Venetian fleet.
It soon became apparent that the crusaders had not banked on two crucial factors. The first was the surprising wisdom and self-awareness of the young Sultan Mehmed. Upon receiving news of the crusade, he immediately sent his father a stern letter demanding that he return to the throne. “If you are the Sultan, come and lead the armies,” he wrote. “If I am the Sultan, I order you to come and lead the armies.” Murad did as his son asked and returned to power, bringing with him his years of experience and the loyal respect of the Ottoman army and people.
The other factor was the greed of the Venetians’ hated rivals, the Genoese. For the exorbitant price of a ducat a head they agreed to transport Murad and his army across the straits. In mid-October, while the crusaders were still busy battling their way along the Danube, Murad crossed into Europe right under the nose of the Venetians. He immediately began marching north to confront the invaders, rallying together as many more men as he could along the way. By the end of the month, his force had grown to 60,000 men. By November 8, less than three weeks since crossing the straits, he was only a day’s march from the exhausted crusaders who had only just reached the city of Varna on the Black Sea.
On November 9, 1444, scouts under the command of Michael Szilagyi, Hunyadi’s brother-in-law and one of his most trusted captains, spotted the Ottoman army advancing in full battle array to a plain five miles west of Varna where they set up camp. Ladislas called his commanders to council and they all agreed the time had come to fight. In truth, they had no real other option. The ground to the north of Varna was hilly and rugged and impossible for an army to traverse. The Black Sea and Lake Devno to the south formed a narrow, marshy isthmus that was just as uninviting. Furthermore, there was still no sign of the Venetian fleet, meaning no evacuation or resupply would be available to the army.
After months of endless marches and gruelling sieges, the crusaders were also eager to finally come to grips with the enemy. Ladislas brimmed with the confidence and exuberance of youth, and he surrounded himself with a retinue of young Hungarian and Polish noblemen, all just as headstrong and idealistic. Hunyadi was also confident. The conditions in which he had to fight were far from ideal, but he had been in tough spots before and he was yet to lose a battle to the Ottomans. “To escape is impossible, to surrender is unthinkable,” Hunyadi declared at the council of war. “Let us fight with bravery and honor our arms!”
The order to prepare for battle in the morning rang out through the crusader camp. Cesarini gave a final mass in which he promised those who fell in battle a place in heaven. That evening Ladislas sent 5,000 horsemen to keep watch on Murad’s forces camped to the west and report on any movement. As the scouts peered into the darkening night, they could see the huge Ottoman bonfires licking the sky and hear the ominous rumbling of their war drums. Both armies slept that night in their armor and with their horses saddled.
One hour after sunrise Murad broke camp and began deploying his forces in a wide concave arc that stretched for five and half miles across the plain approaching Varna. His strategy was to use his numerical superiority to envelop the crusaders. On his left he deployed the army of Rumelia under Beylerbey Sehabeddin, while on his right he placed the army of Anatolia led by his son-in-law Beylerbey Karaca. The Anatolian and Rumelian troops were composed mainly of sipahi cavalry, although both were also screened by a line of azab light infantry. The sipahi were in many ways the Ottoman equivalent of the Christian knights in that they were a feudal levy that was granted fiefs in exchange for military service. They carried swords, lances, bows, and shields and wore a combination of plate and mail armor. When called to war, they brought with them their own retainers who they themselves armed. The azabs were armed with halberds, maces, sabers, and bows.
Murad positioned himself on a low hill in the center of the Ottoman line. Below he placed a line of azabs, as well as his janissaries. The janissaries were the elite of the Ottoman military, easily distinguished from other units by their tall felt caps. They were slave soldiers who had been snatched from their Christians families in the Balkans and raised to be devoted warriors of the sultan and of Islam. They were extremely skilled hand-to-hand fighters and carried a range of weapons, including bows, swords, shields, spears, and knives. Some carried arquebuses, the early gunpowder weapon that was inaccurate from a distance but deadly at close range.