Siege of Güns
Suleiman the Magnificent was already in Belgrade. His arrival in this “gold key to Europe,” as Belgrade was called, had been an occasion to put the sultan’s magnificence on full display. The city’s streets were adorned with triumphal Roman arches, every bit as grand as those that had adorned Bologna for the coronation of Charles V. Indeed, the Belgrade spectacle seemed intended specifically to surpass the opulence of the Bologna event. Standard-bearers carried banners with Mohammed’s name embossed in jewels and other flags displaying elegant Ottoman symbols. Pages carried fantastic gold-and-jeweled helmets, more amazing than the crown Charles had worn in Bologna. Other pages carried a box containing the actual mantle of the Prophet and two of his swords. The sultan, wearing an immense turban and a fur-lined purple caftan, sat astride a jeweled saddle on an enormous horse that was caparisoned with brocade and whose bridle contained an egg-sized turquoise gem.
The sultan tarried in Belgrade for several weeks, combining military strategy and diplomacy with dazzling ceremonies. Ambassadors from Vienna turned up again, first at Nis and then at Belgrade, offering a much larger annual tribute and withdrawing previous demands about Buda and the recognition of Ferdinand. They were treated roughly at first by Ibrahim, before they were ushered into the presence of the sultan. The audience was choreographed by Ibrahim to induce the utmost awe and amazement. Suleyman sat upon a golden throne whose supports were fashioned to look like quivers containing golden arrows and that were covered with jewels. Upon his head was a stunning golden helmet that had been made by the finest goldsmiths of Venice and that was designed as four golden crowns, one superimposed upon the next, and sprouted jewels as if they were star-bursts. The helmet bore a vague resemblance to the tiara of the pope, but was far more magnificent. One observer called the helmet-crown “the trophy of Alexander the Great.”
In this audience little was said, for, according to a Venetian report, the ambassadors were rendered “speechless corpses.” To them Suleyman again delivered his stark challenge to Charles V. Was he great of heart? If so, let him await me in the field. With that the ambassadors were dismissed unceremoniously to return home empty-handed.
Treated with greater dignity and even more elaborate pomp was a delegation that came from Francis I. Despite the French king’s promise in the Peace of the Ladies three years before to give up consorting with Turks and to join in the defense of Christian Europe, Francis had actually made a secret alliance with Suleyman’s vassal János Zápolya to support the Transylvanian’s claim as king of Hungary. In return, Zápolya agreed that Francis’s second son would succeed Zápolya on the Hungarian throne. The French envoys were taken for audiences with commanders and viziers, and treated to parades by the Anatolian and Rumelian armies. In their audience with the sultan, the French ambassadors tried to dissuade the sultan from going forward with his European invasion, lest it do what in fact it was doing: uniting the Catholics and Protestants and making the Holy Roman emperor even more powerful. Ibrahim Pasha turned the request aside gently. Matters had proceeded too far. There was no turning back from this epic duel for the mastery of the world. The matter had become personal. If he turned back now, Suleyman said, “They would say that I am afraid of the king of Spain.”
From his golden throne the sultan could survey his vast Balkan dominion with satisfaction. The Turks held virtually all of Croatia to the west with the exception of a few coastal cities like Dubrovnik. They held the territory between the Sava and Drava rivers known as Slavonia. They had occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina for nearly seventy years, and Serbia south to Kosovo for almost one hundred and fifty years. In all of these territories, conversion to Islam had been spirited. When Suleyman’s army moved into Hungary, it would encounter a more mixed situation, but the campaign ahead offered the opportunity to reward those who supported his vassal János Zápolya and to punish those who had defected to Archduke Ferdinand.
In the second week of July 1532, the Ottoman army decamped and moved north, while a formidable Turkish fleet on the Danube shadowed the ground forces. At Osijek, the armies crossed the Drava River over twelve pontoon bridges and soon entered southern Hungary. Heavy rain and interminable swamps hindered the progress, but not as dramatically as during the previous invasion. Eight thousand janissaries led the way, their heavy drums and reedy horns announcing the advance. They were followed by more than a hundred cannons, by a contingent of tribute boys with their long hair and scarlet caps festooned with white feathers, and a group of harriers with their hawks and hounds. The Eagle of the Prophet, encrusted with pearls and precious stones, preceded the suite of the sultan himself. Behind him came tens of thousands of soldiers and an immense baggage train pulled by camels and elephants.
The juggernaut moved north through western Transdanubia, taking the more direct overland route to Vienna through Székesfehérvár and Györ, slogging through the swamps south of Lake Balaton (and leaving many of their heavy siege cannons in the mire), skirting the lake itself and avoiding Buda altogether. At town after town, fortress after fortress, local commanders under the sway of Zápolya came out to greet the Turks and offer the keys to their garrisons. Rewards were handed out accordingly.
At Györ the Sultan tarried for discussions with his advisers. There, the Turkish high command made an important strategic decision. The Ottoman navy would continue upriver to Pressburg, and an advance division of sixteen thousand light-armed raiders would proceed to the environs of Vienna, while the main body of the army would proceed west overland to the southern edge of Lake Neusiedler. From there it would turn south to the town of Güns, the first of the small fortresses under the sway of Ferdinand I. After the army made quick work of that tiny fortress, it would move west into the grasslands and meadows of southeast Austria. They hoped Charles V would be lured from his refuge across the Alps to the open and lovely landscape of Styria into the final apocalyptic battle between emperors and religions and continents to determine whether Islam or Christianity was the dominant and superior force in the world.
By now it was early August, prime fighting season, and the Christian force was indeed massing in southern Bavaria at Regensburg. Charles had been elated at how quickly and enthusiastically his army of defense had mobilized itself. On August 9 he had written to his wife that all the states of Germany, including the Protestant ones, had acted with dispatch and zeal. Within a matter of a few weeks, a combined force of Germans, Austrians, Italians, Spanish, and Dutch had been joined by some twenty thousand Lutheran landsknechts. The total strength of the force was about eighty thousand. Charles was well pleased. The moment for which he had been born and risen to power had arrived. This clash would mark his fulfillment as the secular defender of the faith. This was the highest calling of chivalry. In the words of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the society of European Christian nobles of which he was head, he had been brought to this place and this time to lead the fight “for the reverence of God and the maintenance of our Christian Faith, and to honor and exalt the noble order of knighthood.”
On August 9, the first elements of the Turkish army under Ibrahim Pasha arrived in the environs of Güns. To their dismay, instead of a meek and subservient official bowing and offering the keys to the town, the Turkish advance guard was confronted with Hungarian knights in full battle armor. Upon further inspection, it was determined that all the surrounding villages around Güns had been set aflame, the fields of fodder torched, and the wells poisoned. By the time Suleyman himself arrived three days later with the main army, it was clear that not only would the fortress not surrender, but it planned a stiff defense.
The stubborn leader of this affront was a familiar figure, the Croatian nobleman Nicolas Jurischitz, who just months before had presented the tribute offer for Archduke Ferdinand to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople. Against the mighty Turkish army of over seventy thousand soldiers, Jurischitz had arrived in Güns several weeks before in the company of ten fully armed knights and twenty-eight light cavalrymen. The town itself boasted about a thousand able-bodied men and several thousand women, children, and old people. Güns was a classic “castle town,” with low walls, a fortress, and a barbican or gate tower; its walls were surrounded by a moat that was fed by a millrace that coursed down the hill from the north.
Jurischitz saw his mission clearly. To Ferdinand I he wrote, “I have volunteered to fight against the Turkish emperor and his army. I fight not because I presume to equal his force, but only so as to delay him a little while to give time for Your Royal Majesty to unite with the Christian Holy Roman Emperor.” Slowing down the Islamic cyclone, therefore, was his sole purpose.
That the Christians dared to challenge so overwhelming a force was, at first, a source of bemusement to the Turkish high command. Wrote the sultan’s chancellor, “As soon as the mind of His Highness, Ibrahim Pasha, became enlightened as to the situation of the castle, he, like so many lions in courage, intended to break the pride of those locked within and to open the gate of triumph and attach this castle to the string of other fortifications he had conquered.” It would not be so easy.
In classic fashion, the light cannons known as falcons and falconets opened a barrage against the walls, to little effect. The Turks quickly realized they needed the heavy cannons that they had discarded in the swamps of Lake Balaton. Moreover, the defenders had the brio to sally out of their fortress and inflict considerable loss on the besiegers. Six days into the siege a number of all-out assaults had been repelled, and the Turkish forces grew restless. Grumbling about Ibrahim Pasha’s command began; he had promised quick victory and plentiful booty. Men began to drop from starvation. Heavy rain and hail complicated the situation, and supplies started to run short. “We are short of bread,” a Turkish dispatch read. “We have enough grain, but there are no mills to grind it, so we are short of flour.” Twelve days into the siege, Turkish mines brought down a forty-foot section of the wall. But the charge of the janissaries into the breach was turned back.
If the siege was faltering, the will of the defenders was also waning. Scrolls were lobbed over the walls to the Turkish side, describing a desperate situation and encouraging negotiations. But Jurischitz rallied his motley force. Finally, on August 27, after another furious assault was turned back, Ibrahim Pasha offered to talk. The first exchanges stalled, and the siege resumed. At one point eight Ottoman flags were planted on the walls, but they soon disappeared. With no further progress, Ibrahim offered to talk a second time. His sudden interest in peace negotiations had behind it a considerable incentive: his janissaries were on the verge of revolt.
After two full weeks, the garrison still held out. Their exasperation tinged with grudging admiration, the Turks turned to diplomacy in earnest. Messages began to be exchanged between the sides. Did the fortress commander propose to continue his “futile display of arrogance and pride?” If he would surrender, a free passage to freedom was promised. Jurischitz replied that he was merely the servant of the Holy Roman emperor, who had entrusted the town and fortress to his care. As such he would surrender to no one as long as he lived. Next came an offer of money to the defenders, one gold ducat for every house in the town, though their superiors would have to pay considerable tribute for the trouble they had caused the great Suleyman. To this Jurischitz replied that the town did not belong to him but to his master. He was in no position to take money for it. As for the ducats for the sultan’s troubles, he barely had enough money to pay his own soldiers. As each of these retorts were reported to Suleyman, he grew more livid. He ordered one more furious assault. Word was passed through the Turkish ranks. “I will have the head of my enemy, or he will have mine,” Suleyman was quoted as saying.
When huge wooden, pyramid-shaped assault towers were rolled close to the high walls, the defenders filled barrels with sulfur, tar, and tallow, set them on fire, and burned the towers. As their defense went into folklore, it was said that during this last assault “a rider of vast and imposing stature appeared in the sky, brandishing a flaming sword. This engendered such fear in the Turks that they retreated from the walls.” St. Martin himself had become, in folklore, the savior of Güns.
When the dust of this final assault settled, a Turkish herald approached the walls and shouted a question. Was the commander still alive? Jurischitz was, in fact, wounded. Half his garrison was dead, and his remaining soldiers were ready to give up. The store of gunpowder was virtually depleted. But the Croatian shouted back that he lived still. Then, shouted the herald, the grand vizier demanded a conference with him. Safe conduct was promised, and two Turkish hostages came forward to remain in Christian hands while their leader talked to the enemy.
Jurischitz instructed his comrades that if something happened to him, they were not to surrender the castle. “Thus, alone and timid,” he wrote later, “I left the fortress with my escort that consisted of a thousand janissaries with their captain riding by my side.”
At Ibrahim Pasha’s sumptuous tent the Croatian commander was greeted with ceremony and respect. The grand vizier rose to welcome him warmly and conveyed him to a seat of honor. Ibrahim inquired about the commander’s injuries with evident sincerity. Were the wounds dangerous? he asked. Soon enough, he came to the point. Why had Jurischitz not surrendered? Ibrahim went down the long list of other commanders who had done so in the face of so mighty a force. So much pain and suffering could so easily have been avoided. Ibrahim then turned to the status of Jurischitz’s Christian masters, displaying a precise awareness of where Charles’s Christian army was now encamped. Did the Croatian expect the king of Spain to come to his relief? There was almost a note of hope in Ibrahim’s voice.
If Jurischitz had at Güns proved himself a great warrior, he was no less a diplomat. To each of the grand vizier’s questions, he had an elegant response. He thanked Ibrahim for his concern about his wounds. Only his honor had prevented him from giving up, for he could not endure the humiliation of surrendering without being forced to do so. Gradually, it dawned on Jurischitz that Ibrahim was attempting to lure him over to the Turkish side. How could the Croatian bear to live under so tyrannical a rule as this? Ibrahim asked. The great Suleyman was offering a gift of his grace for the castle, the city, its citizens, and the commander himself. As long as the sultan had ruled, never had his people fallen to such a low state as the people of Güns. Rising decorously, Ibrahim Pasha offered his hand and proposed to take Jurischitz for an audience with the Grand Turk, only a short distance away. The commander needed only to bow before the sultan and he would be saved.
“I know the power of your grace over the Grand Turk,” he said. “My respect for him will not allow me to present myself to him in such a weakened state. I am too weak to bow.”
It had been a delicate dance. “I noticed how pleased Ibrahim seemed to be by showing my reverence and great esteem for him,” the Croatian wrote to the archduke a day later. Flattery had gotten him everywhere. He knew full well that had he given offense, another assault would have followed and that would have been the end of it. At the parting, Ibrahim presented Jurischitz with a magnificent robe of honor.
As the Christian commander was escorted back to the castle, the janissary captain asked if he might come inside the walls to congratulate the brave defenders. Jurischitz did not think it was a good idea. Unruly Germans and Spanish soldiers were inside over whom he had little control, he said. The captain’s safety could not be guaranteed. Not long after, Ibrahim Pasha appeared in person outside the walls. Please do not harm further any injured Turks who might be inside the walls, he shouted to Jurischitz. There were none, the commander shouted back.
“If you are well and wish to ride to the gates of Vienna with His Majesty’s ambassadors, it can be arranged,” Ibrahim shouted. There would be no last assault, only a last effort at recruitment. Again the Croatian thanked the grand vizier for his generous offer, but he must decline. He had fought them for twenty-five days, he shouted back. His defense was more important to him than any major battle or any other honor could be.
Ibrahim nodded his understanding. “You speak the truth,” he said and rode away.
The strangest of conclusions was arranged for this historic David-and-Goliath affair. To save face, a contingent of janissaries was permitted to occupy a breach in the walls for several hours. There they planted their huge flag in the rubble, green in its background, with thick white Arabic lettering: “There is but one God, and Mohammed is his prophet.” As the janissaries sang and chanted boisterously, accompanied by loud drums and horns, Ibrahim sent his congratulations to Suleyman. Heavy rain began to fall, but it did not dampen the farce. Suleyman himself wrote the good news in his diary, as if he were writing for the historical record:
“The Grand Vizier held a Divan with the ceremonial hand kiss. With the joyful news of the surrender of the fortress the Grand Vizier was given five hundred gold coins and a caftan. The Pashas kissed the Sultan’s hand to congratulate him for conquering the castle.”
In his heart Suleyman must have had a very different emotion. His mighty army had been detained and rebuffed by a puny force for more than three critical weeks. In these campaigns against Christian infidels he seemed cursed to encounter brilliant commanders: Philippe de Villiers de L’Isle-Adam at Rhodes, Graf Nicolas von Salm at Vienna, and now Jurischitz here.
At an agreed-upon time, 11 a.m. the next day, the Turks withdrew from the breach, and to this day the bells of Güns (now the Hungarian border town of Köszeg) chime at that hour every morning.
The Turks had wasted three precious weeks on this pointless assault. The chill of fall was not far away. Notwithstanding the lame efforts of Turkish propaganda to turn defeat into victory, the siege of Güns would later be compared to the humiliation of Xerxes at Thermopylae.