Nicopolis 25 September 1396 Part I

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.

In the early fourteenth century the Byzantines lost western Anatolia to the Turks, of whom the most successful were the Ottomans who established themselves opposite Constantinople. This blocked further expansion until 1354, when involvement in the Byzantine civil wars allowed the Ottomans to establish a bridgehead at Gallipoli. This became their base for the conquest and settlement of Thrace, completed with their victory in 1371 over the Serbs at the battle of the Maritsa. Turkish expansion has been attributed to the ghazi-ethos, i.e. the Turks were warriors for the faith bent on extending the frontiers of Islam. They were also pastoralists seeking new lands for their flocks. They fed on the weakness of their opponents. In 1387 Thessalonica, the second city of the Byzantine Empire, voluntarily submitted to the Ottomans. In 1389 the Serbs were defeated at Kossovo and became their tributaries. In 1393 the Ottomans entered Trnovo and annexed Bulgaria. They were also taking over the Turkish emirates in Anatolia, including in 1397 Karaman.

The threat from the Turks gave a new lease of life to the crusade which had lost its purpose after the fall of Acre in 1291. The Knights Hospitallers led the way. In 1308 they seized Rhodes from the Byzantines and used it as a base against Turkish piracy in the Aegean. Their success encouraged crusading activity which suited Venetian commercial interest and pandered to nostalgia for the glories of the crusade. There was a fashion for the creation of chivalric orders dedicated to the promotion of the crusade. The main success came with the crusade of 1344, which conquered Smyrna, handing it over to the Knights Hospitallers. The initiative thus wrested from the Turks in the Aegean, the focus of the crusade now became Cyprus, where Peter I was preparing a crusade against the Mamluks of Egypt. Alexandria was stormed in 1365, but any further progress was dampened by the Venetians who feared for their trade with Egypt.


During the period of internal wars in Hungary, relations between the kingdom and its neighbours changed profoundly and irreversibly. Ottoman expansion reached Hungary in 1389 and the kingdom was soon compelled to adopt a defensive policy to counter this threat. From this time until the catastrophe of Mohács, Hungary lived, almost without interruption, under the constant menace of Ottoman raids and invasions, which, besides straining her economic and military forces to the limit, also led to internal conflicts. Proud of their ancestors’ warlike traditions, the nobility found the necessity of a defensive policy unacceptable. They demanded the same offensive attitude towards the Ottoman empire as had for so long prevailed towards others. The failures that were bound to follow were invariably blamed on those who happened to be in power.

In early 1389, Lazarus, prince of Serbia, confirmed his allegiance to Sigismund, but he was killed in June at the battle of Kosovo, and his son Stephen Lazarević soon became an Ottoman vassal. In early 1390 Turkish troops devastated the region of Timişoara, in 1391 they did the same in Srem, and thereafter their incursions became regular occurrences. Sigismund took the threat seriously from the very first moment. As early as the autumn of 1389 he led an expedition to Serbia, taking Čestin and Borač by siege, and he repeated the action in 1390 and 1391. In 1392 he pushed forward as far as Ždrelo, but Sultan Bayezid, who arrived there in person, refused to give battle. In 1393 the barons led a campaign along the southern frontiers, and Sigismund was also there in August 1394. In early 1395 he mounted an expedition against Moldavia and forced its prince to submit, but this success proved only temporary and Moldavia soon shifted back under the influence of Poland. By this time Wallachia had passed temporarily under the suzerainty of the Ottomans, who raided Transylvania for the first time in 1394. Mircea cel Bătrîn, prince of Wallachia, who had hitherto opposed Hungary with Polish support, asked Sigismund for help in order to regain his land. On 7 March 1395, in Braşov, he agreed to be a vassal of Hungary. However, on 17 May the Hungarian army sent to Wallachia was defeated and its commander, Stephen Losonci, killed. In July Sigismund himself invaded the province, restored Mircea to his throne and recovered from the Ottomans the castle of Minor Nicopolis on the Danube.

These wars were exhausting and yielded only meagre results. Consequently, Sigismund decided to settle the Turkish problem once and for all. He set about organising a major enterprise with the ambitious aim of driving the Ottomans out of Europe. In 1395 his envoys made a tour of the courts of Europe and an embassy may also have been sent to the Mamluk sultan of Egypt. As a result of these efforts the Pope declared the planned expedition a crusade, and by the summer of 1396 an army of considerable size had assembled. Alongside the Hungarians and their Wallachian auxiliaries, the core of the army was made up of Frenchmen, with John of Nevers, heir to Burgundy, at their head, though knights also came from Germany, Bohemia, Italy and even England. In August the army, led by Sigismund, invaded Bulgaria along the Danube and laid siege to Nicopolis. Bayezid, leading the counter-attack in person, marched to relieve the beleaguered castle, and it was there that a European army faced the Ottomans for the first time. The battle, which for a long time was to determine the nature of Hungaro-Ottoman relations, took place on 25 September 1396. The crusader army was virtually destroyed, allegedly as a consequence of the ill-considered actions of the French knights. As for Hungarian casualties, several barons were killed, Palatine Jolsvai captured, and Sigismund himself barely escaped with his life, fleeing on a ship to Constantinople and returning by sea to Dalmatia in January 1397.

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 catastrophe of Nicopolis demonstrated that the Ottoman empire represented a power against which Hungary was unable to wage an offensive war, even with support from abroad. The hope that Ottoman attacks might be stopped through a single determined effort vanished. From this point on priority was given to defence rather than to offensive campaigns. The kingdom had to learn how to live with the constant menace of Turkish incursions.

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.

Nicopolis 25 September 1396 Part II

The Crusade of Nicopolis in 1396 was disorganised and badly led: the result was a catastrophic defeat. However, it was the aftermath of the battle which produced the greatest impact in Europe. Jean de Froissart described in Book 4 of his Chronicle how, after the battle, the Sultan ordered the execution of many of his noble prisoners, harsh recompense for the slaughter of Ottoman prisoners by the French. A miniature in one edition of Froissart shows the bodies of the decapitated men beginning to pile up before the Sultan, who wished to make an example that his enemies would not forget. The watercolour in Loqman’s sixteenth-century Ottoman court history, like Froissart, shows the Turk as a fearsome enemy. By the time the Ottomans finally captured Constantinople in 1453, the image of their implacable cruelty had been formed and reinforced over almost three generations.

Whilst besieging Nicopolis, the crusader army became aware of Bayezid’s advance. It was Sigismund’s intention to deploy his unreliable vassals, the voivodes of Wallachia and Transylvania, in -front of his main body in order to force them to fight. But the French demanded the honour of the van and charged directly at Bayezid’s position. Behind a screen of Akinji light cavalry, and invisible to the westerners, lay a belt of sharpened wooden stakes, at chest height to the horses, full of Janissary archers. As the Turkish light cavalry melted away to the flanks, the crusaders lost their horses to both the arrows and the obstacles. Undeterred, they abandoned their mounts and attacked on foot, routing the unarmoured bowmen. Unfortunately, when they saw the crusaders’ horses galloping back across the plain, the Wallachians and Transylvanians made off. Meanwhile, the French arrived at the top of the hill, exhausted by their efforts, to find the cream of Bayezid’s heavy cavalry – the Spahis – awaiting them. Surrounded and overwhelmed, they surrendered en masse. Sigismund’s Hungarians arrived too late, and were themselves driven off by the flanking attack of Bayezid’s Christian Serbian vassals. The outcome epitomized the difference between Bayezid’s well-balanced defence in depth and a headstrong western charge. Numbers on both sides are difficult to assess, but there is no reason to believe that the Turks greatly exceeded the crusaders. They were Simply better disciplined and better led.

The Battle

This was the battle that ended the ill-fated crusade, largely financed by the Duke of Burgundy, that had been organised in response to appeals for aid against the Ottoman Turks from the future emperor Sigismund, king of Hungary. Contemporary chroniclers claim that the combined Hungarian and crusader forces comprised 50-62,000 Hungarians (26,000 of them mercenaries), 10,000 Wallachians under Mircea the Old, 16,000 Transylvanians, 10-14,000 Frenchmen and Burgundians, 6,000 Germans, 1,000 Englishmen and 12-13,000 Poles, Bohemians and Italians. These figures, however, are fantastically high and can probably be largely discounted; in reality they may have totalled only 12-16,000 men (Schiltberger, an eyewitness, says 16,000, while Froissart puts the French crusader cavalry at no more than 700 men). Similarly, although another eye-witness (the author of the ‘Religieux de Saint-Denis’) reported the opposing Ottoman forces, commanded by Sultan Bayezid, as comprising a vanguard of 24,000, main battle of 30,000 and rearguard and household troops of 40,000, the Turks perhaps really numbered no more than 15-20,000 men, two Ottoman sources actually putting their own strength at just 10,000 men. Whereas the Christian forces were almost entirely cavalry, those of the Turks included a substantial number of infantry.

Marching to the relief of besieged Nicopolis, Bayezid chose a defensive position on a rise, straddling the road to the city with his flanks protected by ravines. His first line comprised irregular horse (i. e. akinjis, 8,000 of them according to Froissart), behind which infantry archers were drawn up in 2 large companies behind a line of stakes that was 16 feet deep. Behind these were his feudal cavalry, and behind these again, on his flanks, were two reserves, that on the left of Serbs under Stephen Lazarevic, that on the right being composed of the troops of the Porte under Bayezid himself, ‘hidden in a certain copse to avoid detection’ according to Doukas, the Religieux confirming that Bayezid’s division was hidden behind a bill.

Sigismund’s sound proposal that his own light troops should open the attack, to soften up the Ottomans for the decisive charge of the Western European heavy cavalry, was met with hostility by the haughty French and Burgundian crusaders, who regarded it as an insult to be put in what they deemed the rearguard position. Consequently, claiming that Sigismund wanted only to rob them of ‘the honour of striking the first blow’, they spurred ahead of their allies and approached the Ottoman position totally unsupported. As they came within range the Turkish light cavalry opened fire with their bows, then wheeled left and right (though not without casualties) to reveal the stakes and infantry archers, who outflanked the crusaders on both sides. These too now opened fue, upon which the crusaders charged uphill against them, negotiating the stakes with considerable losses, and many of them either dismounted or unhorsed, until they finally reached the Ottoman infantry, of whom they allegedly killed 10,000.

However, while thus disordered (as Bayezid had planned), the crusaders were counter-attacked by the Ottoman feudal cavalry. These too they managed to break through after a hard struggle in which 5,000 more Turks are claimed to have died, only to then be finally overwhelmed by Bayezid’s 10-40,000 men, who came in on one end of their line. Most of the understandably biased Western chroniclers claim that Sigismund’s Hungarians had fled by this time, but the eye-witness Schiltberger reports that a second battle now took place as the Hungarian and crusader main battle – although abandoned by its left flank (the Wallachians) and right flank (the Transylvanians) as it became apparent, from the riderless crusader horses stampeding past, that Bayezid was the victor up ahead- advanced in the wake of the French and Burgundians, cutting down the reformed Ottoman infantry, 12,000 in number, as they came. The feudal cavalry too were being pushed back when suddenly Bayezid’s Serbian vassals emerged from ambush and overthrew Sigismund’s banner, upon which the Hungarians broke and fled, to be pursued in rout to their ships anchored on the Danube.

In a battle that had lasted only 3 hours contemporaries estimated that the Christians had lost 8-100,000 men, the reality undoubtedly lying somewhere in between; Schiltberger says they lost 10,000. The Turks also suffered severe losses (Western contemporaries exaggeratedly claimed 6-30 were killed for every Christian), figures ranging from 16-60,000. Enraged by his heavy casualties, the next morning Bayezid executed the majority of his prisoners (300 according to Froissart, 3,000 according to the Religieux and 10,000 according to Schiltberger), the survivors being given to his army as slaves, except for a small handful of the very highest rank who were eventually ransomed.

Naval Crusade

The so-called “crusade of Nicopolis” started as a Burgundian and Hungarian affair. The chronology, the events and the outcome of the expedition are well known. Less clear are the actions of the fleet. In February 1396 four Venetian galleys were already in partibus Romanie but the captain of the Gulf was instructed to avoid any clash with the Ottoman ships. In April the Venetians expressed their concern about the slow preparations of the crusade and their impression that the expedition seemed to rely only on Hungarian forces. Even in these circumstances the Venetians assured King Sigismund that the Venetian fleet would wait for Christian forces from July until the middle of August. Sigismund was asked to keep the Venetian commander informed about the progress of the crusade and especially if the expedition was cancelled.

The naval strength of the crusade of Nicopolis seems to have been composed exclusively of Venetian and Hospitaller knights’ ships. Nevertheless, there was no joint action or coordination between the two squadrons and it seems that each fleet followed its own plan. This situation was caused by older disputes between the Order and the Republic, but also by the fact that Venice recognised the authority of the Roman pontif, Boniface IX, while the Hospitallers were faithful to the Avignon pope, Benedict XIII.

The Venetians were unable to break through the Straits because of defensive measures undertaken by Bayezid I at Gallipoli. For this reason, the Venetian galleys may have stopped at Tenedos. As a matter of fact, Francisc Pall suggested that the episode regarding the Venetian ships’ entrance on the Danube was just a tale of the Venetian chroniclers who were eager to underline, on the one hand, the Republic’s attachment to the crusade and, on the other, the ingratitude of the King of Hungary who, in 1396, owed his salvation to the Venetian galleys. The Hospitallers’ fleet headed from Rhodes towards Smyrna, but from this point on, the itinerary is very hard to know. Jean Christian Poutiers assumed that the ships commanded by Philibert of Naillac might have entered the Black Sea and the Danube. Should this scenario prove correct, it might explain the way in which Sigismund of Luxemburg reached Constantinople after the defeat.

The results of the naval expedition from 1396 are far from being spectacular. The fleet could not make the junction with the land forces and was not able to stop the disaster of September 25, 1396. The sultan’s victory compelled Venice to take defensive measures not only for its own territories, but also in Constantinople, which was in a dire situation. After the success of Nicopolis, Bayezid I was willing to grant the Venetians peace “on sea”, but not also on land, where he claimed the Venetian possessions Argos, Nauplion, Atena, Durazzo and Scutari. Venice, in turn, wished to get an agreement for its possessions in the Peloponnese and Albania, but refused to accept peace on sea because of increasing activity by Turkish pirates. Given these conditions, the last years of the fourteenth century were very difficult for Venetian possessions in Romania.

Composition of crusader forces

From France, it was said about 2,000 knights and squires joined, and were accompanied by 6,000 archers and foot soldiers drawn from the best volunteer and mercenary companies. Totaling some 10,000 men. Next in importance were the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes, who were the standard bearers of Christianity in the Levant since the decline of Constantinople and Cyprus. Venice supplied a naval fleet for supporting action, while Hungarian envoys encouraged German princes of the Rhineland, Bavaria, Saxony and other parts of the empire to join. French heralds had proclaimed the crusade in Poland, Bohemia, Navarre and Spain, from which individuals came to join.

The Italian city-states were too much engaged in their customary violent rivalries to participate, and the widely reported and acclaimed English participation never actually occurred. The report of 1000 English knights comes from contemporary Antonio Fiorentino, and was taken as fact by historian Aziz S. Atiya and others following him. A thousand knights would have actually amounted to “four to six thousand men and at least twice as many horses”, counting foot-soldiers and other retainers. However, there are no records of financial arrangements being made in England to send a force abroad, nor of any royal preparation needed to organize and dispatch such a force. Reports of Henry of Bolingbroke or other “son of the Duke of Lancaster” leading an English contingent must be false since the presence of Henry and every other such son, as well as almost every other significant noble in the land, is recorded at the king’s wedding five months after the crusade’s departure. Atiya also thought that the invocation of St. George as a war cry at Nicopolis signified the presence of English soldiers, for whom George was a patron saint; but Froissart, who mentions this, claims that the cry was made by the French knight Philippe d’Eu. Furthermore, there was no collection of ransom money in England to pay for captives, as there was in every other country that had sent men to the battle. Sporadic mention in contemporary accounts of the presence of “English” may be attributed to Knights Hospitaller of the English tongue subgrouping, who joined their comrades for the crusade after leaving Rhodes (where the Hospitallers were based at the time) and sailing up the Danube. Possible reasons for the English absence include the increasing tension between the king and the Duke of Gloucester, which may have convinced the two that they had best keep their supporters close, and the antipathy caused by the long war between the English and French, resulting in the English refusing to consider putting themselves under a French-led crusade, regardless of the recently concluded peace.

Nevertheless, obviously inflated figures continue to be repeated. These include 6-8,000 Hungarians, ~ 10,000 French, English and Burgundian troops, ~ 10,000 Wallachians led by Mircea cel Batran (Mircea The elder) the prince of Wallachia, ~ 6,000 Germans and nearly 15,000 Dutch, Bohemian, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Bulgarian, Scottish and Swiss troops on the land, with the naval support of Venice, Genoa and the Knights of St. John. These result in a figure of about 47,000 – 49,000 in total; possibly up to 120,000 or 130,000 according to numerous sources, including the 15th-century Ottoman historian Şükrullah who gives the figure of the Crusader army as 130,000 in his Behçetu’t-Tevârih.

Composition of Ottoman forces

Also estimated at about 20-25,000; but inflated figures continue to be repeated of up to 60,000 according to numerous sources including the 15th-century Ottoman historian Şükrullah, who gives the figure of the Ottoman army as 60,000 in his Behçetu’t-Tevârih; alternately described as roughly half of the Crusader army. The Ottoman force also included 1,500 Serbian heavy cavalry knights under the command of Prince Stefan Lazarević, who was Sultan Bayezid’s vassal since the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, as well as his brother-in-law after the Sultan married Stefan’s sister, Princess Olivera Despina, the daughter of Prince Lazar of Serbia (Stefan’s father) who had perished at Kosovo.

Battle of Grocka

Had the Turkish wars ended conveniently with the Habsburgs’ apogee at the Peace of Passarowitz in 1718, then the conventional assumptions about Ottoman decay and decline would have been triumphantly vindicated. But they did not end then. There were two more wars which destroyed the euphoric confidence generated by the victories won by the generation of heroes. The aggressive war fought against the Ottomans between 1737 and 1739, and the defensive war between 1788 and 1791, were probably the most pointless and inept campaigns in the annals of Habsburg warfare. In hindsight, both were ill considered, created solely to meet diplomatic expedients, by Habsburg officials with scant understanding of the military realities. Nevertheless, in 1737 the war began with huge optimism and a grand flourish.

On July 14 a great procession including representatives of the religious orders, judges, ministers, the court and the emperor himself wound its way from the Hofburg to St Stephen’s Cathedral to announce to the citizens of Vienna that war had broken out. Gathered before the great door of the church all heard the declaration of war and an edict proclaiming that the bells of the city churches would ring every morning at 7.00 and each individual was to fall to his knees wherever they were and whatever they were doing and pray for the blessing of the Almighty upon the army of the emperor.

 This was the only part of the war that passed off according to plan.  

All along the long frontier there were inadequate supplies, not enough troops, and, by late August 1737, no evidence of a plan of campaign. The Austrians were dilatory in attacking the Turkish fortress of Vidin, which would have fallen to a swift attack, while a thrust into Bosnia to take the town of Banjaluka ran into a large Ottoman force and had to retire rapidly on the far side of the River Sava, leaving 922 men and 66 officers dead on the battlefield. The final failure of the year was truly humiliating. The only real success of the campaign had been taking the strategic town of Nish, on the road south to Istanbul. The pasha there had surrendered as soon as the Austrian army had appeared. In Vienna the seizure of such a famous town as Nish had been taken as a great victory, and confirmation that the Ottomans had indeed lost their old fighting spirit.

But in October 1737 a mass of Turkish sipahis arrived before the city and sent a message to the commander that the Grand Vizier, Ahmed Köprülü, was on his way with his entire army. General Doxat calculated that supplies were low and he had no hope of relief: when Köprülü arrived, Doxat offered to surrender the city in exchange for a safe conduct to Austrian lines for his men and himself. This appeared to be precisely the kind of craven conduct that the Turks had shown when they had given up the city in July 1737. There was popular outrage in Vienna at this cowardice: after a swift court-martial, Doxat, who had designed and built the massive new fortifications protecting Belgrade, was beheaded.

Doxat was not the last officer to be punished. By the end of the war in 1738, every senior commander had been cashiered, suspended from duty or lampooned in the press. Public outrage in Vienna grew as rabble-rousers asked: `Where is the new Eugene?’ The old prince had died barely two years before. He had no obvious replacement. The field commander, Field Marshal Seckendorf, was recalled and placed under house arrest to await court martial. He was a Protestant, and Father Peikhart preached from the pulpit of St Stephen’s that `a heretical general at the head of a Catholic army could only insult the Almighty and turn his benediction away from the army of his Imperial and Catholic Majesty’. For reassurance that the dynasty’s Catholic credentials were still paramount, the Emperor appointed his son-in-law, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, to the titular command for the 1738 campaign season, and he left for the southern frontier. This failed `to win the people’ until it was reported that young Lorraine had `issued orders calmly under fire’: at this point the court hailed him both as a second Eugene (unlikely) and as a true grandson of Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, who had saved Vienna in 1683.

Soon Seckendorf ‘s replacement, Count Königsegg, also suffered a loss of nerve and ordered a strategic withdrawal away from contact with the Ottomans; his junior officers protested, demanding he should pursue the enemy as Prince Eugene would have done. The Emperor decided that his inexperienced son-in-law possessed better credentials to lead the army to victory and gave him full command. Francis Stephen wisely fell sick and returned to Vienna, so the duty devolved back on Königsegg, while Francis Stephen and his wife, Maria Theresa, were rusticated to their duchy of Tuscany, to their delight. Meanwhile, the Emperor was `in the middle of the general discontent . . . violently agitated and in the agony of his mind exclaimed “Is the fortune of my empire departed with Eugene?”‘ He continued to look for a commander with some spark of daring. Running out of plausible candidates, he eventually chose Field Marshal George Oliver Wallis, of an old Jacobite family with a long record of service to the Habsburgs. Wallis had fought under Eugene at Zenta in 1697, at Petrovaradin, in the capture of Timi, soara, and at the occupation of Belgrade in 1717-18. He had been passed over before because he was not an easy subordinate: difficult, overbearing and hot-headed. His first instinct was to attack, although he had learned a degree of prudence in his later career. If Charles VI wanted a new Eugene, then the elderly Wallis was probably his best option.

By mid-July 1739 he had joined his new command of thirty thousand men encamped at Belgrade, and scouts brought him news that the Grand Vizier’s army was marching towards him from the east: their advance party was at the small town of Grocka on the Danube, a few hours’ march away. The events that followed were graphically described by a Scots officer in the British army on secondment to the Austrian command. The young Scottish nobleman, John Lindsay, 20th Earl of Crawford, had fought as a volunteer with Prince Eugene on his last western campaign in 1735, and joined the eastern army for the war in 1737. He left a remarkable manuscript account of the savage fighting. As Crawford relates, part of Wallis’ army was still north of the Danube with General Neipperg, and the advice was that he should wait for the additional 15,000 men to reach him. Wallis sent a messenger to Neipperg to meet him on the road to Grocka and began to march his men overnight to seize the village from the few Turks that supposedly held it. Then he could await the Grand Vizier on ground he had chosen. It was a good road from Belgrade through low hills, and it began to rise towards a line of higher ground behind Grocka.

Just before the village, the track narrowed and entered a gully that then opened out on to the plain before reaching the riverside town. It then came out in a southerly direction, heading towards higher ground. Wallis knew that speed was essential so he pushed forward with the cavalry – mostly cuirassiers and dragoons, with some hussars – sending them through the gully to take possession of the land below, driving away any Turks occupying the ground. Led by Count Palffy’s cuirassiers, they burst out of the gully and began to trot down into the more open ground in front of Grocka. It was first light, and they dimly saw a large body of men below them and then there was a sudden cacophony of fire from the front and from each side of the road. They still had the advantage of the higher ground, but it was clear that this was not just an Ottoman advance party. In fact the entire Ottoman force had taken up position on the hills and in the valley below, with a complete command of the road in front of the Austrian horsemen. Many had been killed or wounded in the first salvo of Turkish fire, and the ground was littered with dead or dying men and horses.

One of the wounded was the Earl of Crawford. He survived the battle, but was seriously injured by a musket ball in the groin, a painful, suppurating wound that would kill him ten years later. In the interval he managed to write his vivid account of the battle and what followed.

From dawn to mid-morning they kept the janissaries at bay, by constant carbine fire and support from the troops behind. At midday the infantry arrived, and eighteen companies of grenadiers pushed through the gap and heavy fire to relieve them. Through the morning the Grand Vizier had ordered men to move forward up the slope to the crown of the hills on either side of the Austrian cavalry so that they could envelop them, unleashing musket fire from directly above their makeshift positions. On the other side of the gully, Field Marshal Hildburghausen, in command of the infantry, ordered his men to storm the heights and throw the Turks back. Field guns were pulled up the slope and began to duel with the Ottoman artillery on the hillside opposite. The battle lasted the whole day, with more and more of the Austrians pushing through the gully while the Ottomans kept up a murderous fire. As night fell, the Grand Vizier pulled his men back in good order and, apart from the cries of the wounded, a still ness fell over the battlefield. The carnage was horrifying: in a single day from dawn to dusk, 2222 Austrians were dead and 2492 wounded. This was more than 10 per cent of Wallis’ entire force. The Palffy cuirassiers had lost almost half their number, including the majority of their officers. Even a year later, it was still like a charnel house. A traveller described how `Today one cannot go ten steps without stepping on human corpses piled on top of another, all only half decomposed, many still in uniforms. Lying about are maimed bodies, hats, saddles, cartridge belts, boots, cleaning utensils, and other cavalry equipment. Everything is embedded in undergrowth. In the surrounding countryside, peasants use skulls as scarecrows: many wear hats, and one even wears a wig.’ Some of Wallis’ senior officers suggested a hot pursuit, but he rightly feared another ambush: he did not want to face the Ottomans, now in the hills, again from positions designed to entrap him, as they had done so successfully at Grocka.

So a third campaigning season degenerated into a fearful torpor, only to be crowned by the ultimate misfortune. Belgrade, taken in 1717, had been turned into a fine town, but only for German speakers; it had been brilliantly fortified by the luckless Doxat. In the chaos of the campaign, it was surrendered by mistake to the Turks. The Grand Vizier, negotiating in his camp with Neipperg, managed to persuade him that the Ottomans were bound to capture the city, and, to save lives, it should be surrendered to him immediately. Neipperg eventually agreed, extracting a single concession. The fortifications built since the Treaty of Passarowitz, paid for by the Pope and Catholics throughout Europe, would be demolished so they did not fall into infidel hands. The vizier readily agreed, provided his janissaries should first occupy the gates and walls of the citadel.

After this agreement, which Neipperg had plenipotentiary power to negotiate, the court in Vienna redoubled its quest for scapegoats. Both men were recalled and imprisoned, while a court of enquiry eventually drew up forty-nine charges against Wallis and thirty-one against Neipperg. The latter, by signing away Belgrade, had committed a crime with `no precedent in history’. Both men looked likely to suffer the same fate as Doxat, but they were saved by the unexpected death of Emperor Charles VI in October 1740. His twenty-three-year-old daughter, the Archduchess of Austria, Maria Theresa, wanted to bring an end to the whole catastrophe, so she closed down all the investigations and pardoned those who had been punished. She restored their ranks and privileges, and even made up their lost pay.

The Red Apple

A red apple invites stones.

Turkish proverb

Early spring. A black kite swings on the Istanbul wind. It turns lazy circles round the Suleymaniye mosque as if tethered to the minarets. From here it can survey a city of fifteen million people, watching the passing of days and centuries through imperturbable eyes.

When some ancestor of this bird circled Constantinople on a cold day in March 1453, the layout of the city would have been familiar, though far less cluttered. The site is remarkable, a rough triangle upturned slightly at its eastern point like an aggressive rhino’s horn and protected on two sides by sea. To the north lies the sheltered deep-water inlet of the Golden Horn; the south side is flanked by the Sea of Marmara that swells westward into the Mediterranean through the bottleneck of the Dardanelles. From the air one can pick out the steady, unbroken line of fortifications that guard these two seaward sides of the triangle and see how the sea currents rip past the tip of the rhino horn at seven knots: the city’s defenses are natural as well as man-made.

But it is the base of the triangle that is most extraordinary. A complex, triple collar of walls, studded with closely spaced towers and flanked by a formidable ditch, it stretches from the Horn to the Marmara and seals the city from attack. This is the thousand-year-old land wall of Theodosius, the most formidable defense in the medieval world. To the Ottoman Turks of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was “a bone in the throat of Allah” – a psychological problem that taunted their ambitions and cramped their dreams of conquest. To Western Christendom it was the bulwark against Islam. It kept them secure from the Muslim world and made them complacent.

Looking down on the scene in the spring of 1453 one would also be able to make out the fortified Genoese town of Galata, a tiny Italian city state on the far side of the Horn, and to see exactly where Europe ends. The Bosphorus divides the continents, cutting like a river through low wooded hills to the Black Sea. On the other side lies Asia Minor, Anatolia – in Greek literally the East. The snowcapped peaks of Mount Olympus glitter in the thin light 60 miles away.

Looking back into Europe, the terrain stretches out in gentler, undulating folds toward the Ottoman city of Edirne, 140 miles west. And it is in this landscape that the all-seeing eye would pick out something significant. Down the rough tracks that link the two cities, huge columns of men are marching; white caps and red turbans advance in clustered masses; bows, javelins, matchlocks, and shields catch the low sun; squadrons of outriding cavalry kick up the mud as they pass; chain mail ripples and chinks. Behind come the lengthy baggage trains of mules, horses, and camels with all the paraphernalia of warfare and the personnel who supply it – miners, cooks, gunsmiths, mullahs, carpenters, and booty hunters. And farther back something else still. Huge teams of oxen and hundreds of men are hauling guns with immense difficulty over the soft ground. The whole Ottoman army is on the move.

The wider the gaze, the more details of this operation unfold. Like the backdrop of a medieval painting, a fleet of oared ships can be seen moving with laborious sloth against the wind, from the direction of the Dardanelles. High-sided transports are setting sail from the Black Sea with cargoes of wood, grain, and cannonballs. From Anatolia, bands of shepherds, holy men, camp followers, and vagabonds are slipping down to the Bosphorus out of the plateau, obeying the Ottoman call to arms. This ragged pattern of men and equipment constitutes the coordinated movement of an army with a single objective: Constantinople, capital of what little remains in 1453 of the ancient empire of Byzantium.

The medieval peoples about to engage in this struggle were intensely superstitious. They believed in prophecy and looked for omens. Within Constantinople, the ancient monuments and statues were sources of magic. People saw there the future of the world encrypted in the narratives on Roman columns whose original stories had been lost. They read signs in the weather and found the spring of 1453 unsettling. It was unusually wet and cold. Banks of fog hung thickly over the Bosphorus in March. There were earth tremors and unseasonal snow. Within a city taut with expectation it was an ill omen, perhaps even a portent of the world’s end.

The approaching Ottomans also had their superstitions. The object of their offensive was known quite simply as the Red Apple, a symbol of world power. Its capture represented an ardent Islamic desire that stretched back 800 years, almost to the Prophet himself, and it was hedged about with legend, predictions, and apocryphal sayings. In the imagination of the advancing army, the apple had a specific location within the city. Outside the mother church of St. Sophia on a column 100 feet high stood a huge equestrian statue of the Emperor Justinian in bronze, a monument to the might of the early Byzantine Empire and a symbol of its role as a Christian bulwark against the East. According to the sixth-century writer Procopius, it was astonishing.

The horse faces East and is a noble sight. On this horse is a huge statue of the Emperor, dressed like Achilles … his breastplate is in the heroic style; while the helmet covering his head seems to move up and down and it gleams dazzlingly. He looks towards the rising sun, riding, it seems to me towards the Persians. In his left hand he carries a globe, the sculptor signifying by this that all earth and sea are subject to him, though he has neither sword nor spear nor other weapon, except that on the globe stands the cross through which alone he has achieved his kingdom and his mastery of war.

The Equestrian Statue of Justinian as recreated by

It was in the globe of Justinian surmounted by a cross that the Turks had precisely located the Red Apple, and it was this they were coming for: the reputation of the fabulously old Christian empire and the possibility of world power that it seemed to contain.

Fear of siege was etched deep in the memory of the Byzantines. It was the bogeyman that haunted their libraries, their marble chambers, and their mosaic churches, but they knew it too well to be surprised. In the 1,123 years up to the spring of 1453 the city had been besieged some twenty-three times. It had fallen just once – not to the Arabs or the Bulgars but to the Christian knights of the Fourth Crusade in one of the most bizarre episodes in Christian history. The land walls had never been breached, though they had been flattened by an earthquake in the fifth century.

Islam’s desire for the city is almost as old as Islam itself. The origin of the holy war for Constantinople starts with the Prophet himself in an incident whose literal truth, like so much of the city’s history, cannot be verified.

In the year 629, Heraclius, “Autocrat of the Romans” and twenty-eighth emperor of Byzantium, was making a pilgrimage on foot to Jerusalem. It was the crowning moment of his life. He had shattered the Persians in a series of remarkable victories and wrested back Christendom’s most sacred relic, the True Cross, which he was triumphantly restoring to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Islamic tradition, when he had reached the city he received a letter. It said simply: “In the name of Allah the most Beneficent, the most Merciful: this letter is from Muhammad, the slave of Allah, and His Apostle, to Heraclius, the ruler of Byzantines. Peace be upon the followers of guidance. I invite you to surrender to Allah. Embrace Islam and Allah will bestow on you a double reward. But if you reject this invitation you will be misguiding your people.” Heraclius had no idea who the writer of this letter might have been, but he is reported to have made inquiries and to have treated its contents with some respect. A similar letter sent to the “King of Kings” in Persia was torn up. Muhammad’s reply to this news was blunt: “Tell him that my religion and my sovereignty will reach limits which the kingdom of Chosroes never attained.” For Chosroes it was too late – he had been slowly shot to death with arrows the year before – but the apocryphal letter foreshadowed an extraordinary blow about to fall on Christian Byzantium and its capital, Constantinople, that would undo all the emperor ever achieved.

In the previous ten years Muhammad had succeeded in unifying the feuding tribes of the Arabian Peninsula around the simple message of Islam. Motivated by the word of God and disciplined by communal prayer, bands of nomadic raiders were transformed into an organized fighting force, whose hunger was now projected outward beyond the desert’s rim into a world sharply divided by faith into two distinct zones. On the one side lay the Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam; on the other, the realms still to be converted, the Dar al-Harb, the House of War. By the 630s Muslim armies started to appear on the margins of the Byzantine frontier, where the settled land gave way to desert, like ghosts out of a sandstorm. The Arabs were agile, resourceful, and hardy. They totally surprised the lumbering mercenary armies in Syria. They attacked, then retreated into the desert, lured their opponents out of their strongholds into the barren wilderness, surrounded and massacred them. They traversed the harsh empty quarters, killing their camels as they went and drinking the water from their stomachs – to emerge again unexpectedly behind their enemy. They besieged cities and learned how to take them. Damascus fell, then Jerusalem itself; Egypt surrendered in 641, Armenia in 653; within twenty years the Persian Empire had collapsed and converted to Islam. The velocity of conquest was staggering, the ability to adapt extraordinary. Driven by the word of God and divine conquest, the people of the desert constructed navies “to wage the holy war by sea” in the dockyards of Egypt and Palestine with the help of native Christians and took Cyprus in 648, then defeated a Byzantine fleet at the Battle of the Masts in 655. Finally in 669, within forty years of Muhammad’s death, the Caliph Muawiyyah dispatched a huge amphibious force to strike a knockout blow at Constantinople itself. On the following wind of victory, he had every anticipation of success.

To Muawiyyah it was to be the culmination of an ambitious long-term plan, conceived and executed with great care and thoroughness. In 669 Arab armies occupied the Asian shore opposite the city. The following year a fleet of 400 ships sailed through the Dardanelles and secured a base on the peninsula of Cyzicus on the south side of the Sea of Marmara. Supplies were stockpiled, dry dock and maintenance facilities created to support a campaign that would last as long as was necessary. Crossing the straits west of the city, Muslims set foot on the shores of Europe for the first time. Here they seized a harbor from which to conduct the siege and mounted large-scale raids around the hinterland of the city. Within Constantinople itself, the defenders sheltered behind their massive walls, while their fleet, docked in the Golden Horn, prepared to launch counterattacks against the enemy.

For five successive years between 674 and 678 the Arabs conducted the campaign on a steady pattern. Between spring and autumn each year they besieged the walls and mounted naval operations in the straits that involved running battles with the Byzantine fleet. Both sides fought with the same types of oared galleys and largely with the same crews, as the Muslims had access to the seafaring skills of Christians from the conquered Levant. In winter the Arabs regrouped at their base at Cyzicus, repaired their ships, and prepared to tighten the screw the following year. They were in the siege for the long haul, secure in the belief that victory was inevitable.

And then in 678 the Byzantine fleet made a decisive move. They launched an attack on the Muslim fleet, probably in their base at Cyzicus at the end of the campaigning season – the details are either unclear or were deliberately suppressed – spearheaded by a squadron of fast dromons: light, swift-sailing, many-oared galleys. There are no contemporary versions of what happened next, though the details can be deduced from later accounts. As the attack ships closed on their opponents, they unleashed, behind the conventional volley of winged missiles, an extraordinary stream of liquid fire from nozzles mounted high on their prows. Jets of fire burned the surface of the sea between the closing vessels, then caught hold of the enemy ships, falling “like a flash of lightning on the faces in front of it.” The explosion of flame was accompanied by a noise like thunder; smoke darkened the sky, and steam and gas suffocated the terrified sailors on the Arab ships. The firestorm seemed to defy the laws of nature: it could be directed sideways or downward in whatever direction the operator wished; where it touched the surface of the sea, the water ignited. It seemed to have adhesive properties too, sticking to the wooden hulls and masts and proving impossible to extinguish, so that the ships and their crews were rapidly engulfed in a propulsive torrent of fire that seemed like the blast of an angry god. This extraordinary inferno “burned the ships of the Arabs and their crews alive.” The fleet was destroyed, and the traumatized survivors, “having lost many fighting men and received great injury,” lifted the siege and sailed home. A winter storm wrecked most of the surviving ships while the Arab army was ambushed and destroyed on the Asian shore. Discouraged, Muawiyyah accepted a thirty-year truce on unfavorable terms in 679 and died, a broken man, the following year. For the first time the Muslim cause had received a major setback.

The chroniclers presented the episode as clear evidence that “the Roman Empire was guarded by God,” but it had, in truth, been saved by a new technology: the development of Greek fire. The story of this extraordinary weapon remains the subject of intense speculation even now – the formula was regarded as a Byzantine state secret. It seems that at about the time of the siege, a Greek fugitive called Kallinikos came to Constantinople from Syria, bringing with him a technique for projecting liquid fire through siphons. If so, it is likely that he built on techniques of incendiary warfare widely known throughout the Middle East. The core ingredient of the mixture was almost certainly crude oil from natural surface wells on the Black Sea, mixed with powdered wood resin that gave it adhesive properties. What was probably perfected in the secret military arsenals of the city over the length of the siege was a technology for projecting this material. The Byzantines, who were heirs to the practical engineering skills of the Roman Empire, seem to have developed a technique for heating the mixture in sealed bronze containers, pressurizing it by means of a hand pump, then emitting it through a nozzle, where the liquid could be ignited by a flame. To handle inflammable material, pressure, and fire on a wooden boat required precision manufacturing techniques and highly skilled men, and it was this that comprised the true secret of Greek fire and destroyed Arab morale in 678.

For forty years the setback at Constantinople rankled with the Umayyad caliphs in Damascus. It remained inconceivable within Islamic theology that the whole of humankind would not, in time, either accept Islam or submit to Muslim rule. In 717 a second and even more determined attempt was made to overcome the obstacle that hindered the spread of the Faith into Europe. The Arab attack came at a time of turmoil within the empire. A new emperor, Leo II, had been crowned on March 25, 717; five months later he found an army of 80,000 men dug in the length of the land walls and a fleet of 1,800 ships controlling the straits. The Arabs had advanced their strategy from the previous siege. It was quickly realized by the Muslim general Maslama that the walls of the city were invulnerable to siege machines; this time there was to be a total blockade. The seriousness of his intentions was underlined by the fact that his army brought wheat seed with them. In the autumn of 717 they plowed the ground and planted a food supply outside the walls for harvesting the following spring. Then they settled down to wait. A foray by the Greek fire ships had some success but failed to break the stranglehold. Everything had been carefully planned to crush the infidels.

What actually ensued for the Arabs was an unimaginable catastrophe that unfolded in inexorable stages. According to their own chroniclers, Leo managed to deceive his enemies by an extraordinary diplomatic double-cross that was impressive even by the standards of the Byzantines. He persuaded Maslama that he could get the city to surrender if the Arabs both destroyed their own food stores and gave the defenders some grain. Once done, Leo sat tight behind the walls and refused to parley. The tricked army was then subjected to a winter of freak severity for which they were ill prepared. Snow lay on the ground for a hundred days; the camels and horses started to perish in the cold. As they died, the increasingly desperate soldiers had no option but to eat them. The Greek chroniclers, not known for their objectivity, hinted at darker horrors. “It is said,” wrote Theophanes the Confessor a hundred years later, “that they even cooked in ovens and ate dead men and their dung which they leavened.” Famine was followed by disease; thousands died in the cold. The Arabs had no experience of the surprising severity of winters on the Bosphorus: the ground was too hard to bury the dead; hundreds of corpses had to be thrown into the sea.

The following spring a large Arab fleet arrived with food and equipment to relieve the stricken army but failed to reverse the downward spiral of fortune. Warned of the dangers of Greek fire, they hid their ships on the Asian coast after they had unloaded. Unfortunately some of the crews, who were Egyptian Christians, defected to the emperor and revealed the position of the fleet. An imperial force of fire ships fell on the unprepared Arab vessels and destroyed them. A parallel relief army dispatched from Syria was ambushed and cut to pieces by Byzantine infantry. Meanwhile Leo, whose determination and cunning seem to have been indefatigable, had been negotiating with the pagan Bulgars. He persuaded them to attack the infidels outside the walls; 22,000 Arabs were killed in the ensuing battle. On August 15, 718, almost a year to the day from their arrival, the armies of the caliph lifted the siege and straggled home by land and sea. While the retreating soldiers were harassed across the Anatolian plateau, there was one further calamity in store for the Muslim cause. Some ships were destroyed by storms in the Sea of Marmara; the rest were overwhelmed by an underwater volcanic eruption in the Aegean that “brought the sea water to a boil, and as the pitch of their keels dissolved, their ships sank in the deep, crews and all.” Of the vast fleet that had set sail, only five ships made it back to Syria “to announce God’s mighty deeds.” Byzantium had buckled but not collapsed under the onslaught of Islam. Constantinople had survived through a mixture of technological innovation, skillful diplomacy, individual brilliance, massive fortifications – and sheer luck: themes that were to be endlessly repeated in the centuries ahead. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, the Byzantines had their own explanation: “God and the all-holy Virgin, the Mother of God, protect the City and the Christian Empire, and … those who call upon God in truth are not entirely forsaken, even if we are chastised for a short time on account of our sins.”

The failure of Islam to take the city in 717 had far-reaching consequences. The collapse of Constantinople would have opened the way for a Muslim expansion into Europe that might have reshaped the whole future of the West; it remains one of the great “What ifs” of history. It blunted the first powerful onslaught of Islamic jihad that reached its high watermark fifteen years later at the other end of the Mediterranean when a Muslim force was defeated on the banks of the Loire, a mere 150 miles south of Paris.


The WALLS had held firm, so that when the army of Sultan Mehmet finally reined up outside the city on April 6, 1453, the defenders had reasonable hopes of survival.

It is a tale of human courage and cruelty, of technical ingenuity, luck, cowardice, prejudice, and mystery. It also touches on many other aspects of a world on the cusp of change: the development of guns, the art of siege warfare, naval tactics, the religious beliefs, myths, and superstitions of medieval people. But above all it is the story of a place – of sea currents, hills, peninsulas, and weather – the way the land rises and falls and how the straits divide two continents so narrowly “they almost kiss,” where the city is strong, defended by rocky shores, and the particular features of geology that render it vulnerable to attack. It was the possibilities of this site – what it offered for trade, defense, and food – that made Constantinople the key to imperial destinies and brought so many armies to its gate. “The seat of the Roman Empire is Constantinople,” wrote George Trapezuntios, “and he who is and remains Emperor of the Romans is also the Emperor of the whole earth.”

Modern nationalists have interpreted the siege of Constantinople as a struggle between the Greek and Turkish peoples, but such simplifications are misleading. Neither side would have readily accepted or even understood these labels, though each used them of the other. The Ottomans, literally the tribe of Osman, called themselves just that, or simply Muslims. “Turk” was a largely pejorative term applied by the nation states of the West, the name “Turkey” unknown to them until borrowed from Europe to create the new Republic in 1923. The Ottoman Empire in 1453 was already a multicultural creation that sucked in the peoples it conquered with little concern for ethnic identity. Its crack troops were Slavs, its leading general Greek, its admiral Bulgarian, its sultan probably half Serbian or Macedonian. Furthermore under the complex code of medieval vassalage, thousands of Christian troops accompanied him down the road from Edirne. They had come to conquer the Greek-speaking inhabitants of Constantinople, whom we now call the Byzantines, a word first used in English in 1853, exactly four hundred years after the great siege. They were considered to be heirs to the Roman Empire and referred to themselves accordingly as Romans. In turn they were commanded by an emperor who was half Serbian and a quarter Italian, and much of the defense was undertaken by people from Western Europe whom the Byzantines called “Franks”: Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans, aided by some ethnic Turks, Cretans – and one Scotsman. If it is difficult to fix simple identities or loyalties to the participants at the siege, there was one dimension of the struggle that all the contemporary chroniclers never forgot – that of faith. The Muslims referred to their adversary as “the despicable infidels,” “the wretched unbelievers,” “the enemies of the Faith”; in response they were called “pagans,” “heathen infidels,” “the faithless Turks.” Constantinople was the front line in a long-distance struggle between Islam and Christianity for the true faith. It was a place where different versions of the truth had confronted each other in war and truce for 800 years, and it was here in the spring of 1453 that new and lasting attitudes between the two great monotheisms were to be cemented in one intense moment of history.

The Loss of Cyprus [1564–1570] I

Selim, Ottoman Sultan, Emperor of the Turks, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Shadow of God, Lord of the Earthly Paradise and of Jerusalem, to the Signory of Venice:

We demand of you Cyprus, which you shall give us willingly or perforce; and do not awake our horrible sword, for we shall wage most cruel war against you everywhere; neither put your trust in your treasure, for we shall cause it suddenly to run from you like a torrent.

Beware, therefore, lest you arouse our wrath…

Venice had now been at peace with the Turks for almost a quarter of a century: twenty-five years in which she had had a chance to restore her finances, build up her fleet, and erect ever more sumptuous monuments with which to dazzle friend and foe alike. She well knew, however, that that peace could not last indefinitely. Suleiman the Magnificent was not yet satisfied with his conquests. Recently, it was true, domestic affairs had claimed much of his attention; but since 1559 Turkish naval activity in the Mediterranean had been noticeably – and ominously – on the increase, and though much of it was centred on the North African coast and so somewhat outside Venice’s direct sphere of interest, it was nevertheless near enough to cause her misgivings. The great Khaireddin Barbarossa, at whose name all the maritime states of Europe had once trembled, was dead – though not before he had sacked and briefly occupied Nice and actually had the audacity to winter his fleet in Toulon; but his mantle had fallen on another freebooting captain, Torghud Ra’is, known to most Christians as Dragut, who had already proved himself more than worthy of it – capturing Tripoli from the Knights of St John in 1551 and utterly routing, nine years later, a Spanish fleet sent by Philip II to dislodge him.

It was, as likely as not, these two successes that now decided Suleiman to launch a major attack against Malta, with the object of expelling the Knights from the island just as he had expelled them from their earlier base at Rhodes some forty years before. He had no reason to think that the operation would prove any harder than its predecessor. Malta might possess one of the finest natural harbours in the world, but it was not a natural stronghold, and the Knights had only their own man-made defences in which to put their trust. Moreover their resources were quite unusually poor. Compared with the greenness and fertility of Rhodes, Malta was almost a desert island, rocky and treeless, possessed of no lakes or rivers and manifestly incapable of withstanding a prolonged siege through one of its long, rainless summers.

If, however, the Knights could expect little sustenance from their scanty, stony soil, that soil would show itself still more inhospitable to a besieging army. It followed that the force which the Sultan was to hurl against them in May 1565 had from the first to be largely self-supporting. And whereas Rhodes was only ten miles from the Turkish coast, Malta was nearly a thousand. Small wonder that Suleiman’s invasion fleet, carrying as it did not only the entire army with its horses, cannon and ammunition but all its food and water too, was said to be one of the largest ever seen on the high seas.

The story of the siege, with the heroic and ultimately successful resistance of some 600 knights – many of them, like the Grand Master Jean de la Valette, already old men – and rather fewer than 7,000 soldiers, including mercenaries and local militia, is one of the great epics of history: but it has no place in this book. Since their settlement in Malta in 1530 – the island having been leased to them by Charles V at the nominal rental of a single falcon, payable annually on All Souls’ Day – the Knights of St John had lost what little strategic importance they had once possessed. As hospitallers they still had a useful duty to perform; their Great Hospital, open to all, was famous throughout Christendom. As an aggressive fighting force against the Turk, they were negligible.

Malta itself, on the other hand, occupied a key position in the central Mediterranean, being a natural stepping-stone between Turkish-held Tripoli and Sicily – which latter formed part of the dominions of Philip of Spain. Had it fallen, with its superb harbour, into the hands of Suleiman, the consequent danger to Sicily would have been real and immediate, and that to South Italy scarcely less so. In the circumstances it was only surprising that the Gran Soccorso – the 9,000-strong Spanish force which ultimately came to the relief of the by now desperate Knights in September – was not more numerous, and that it had delayed so long. None the less, its appearance was decisive. The Sultan’s army, well over half of it incapacitated by dysentery and fever, raised the siege and re-embarked; and Christendom rejoiced. After five centuries of almost unbroken advance, the Turks had been halted at last. And a year later, almost to the day, came more, equally welcome news: Suleiman the Magnificent was dead.

The Turks had been halted; but there was no indication that they had been finally stopped. Indeed, by the time the eighty-five-year-old Pietro Loredan succeeded Girolamo Priuli as Doge in November 1567, there was already reason to suspect that the new Sultan, Selim II, was contemplating a major expedition of conquest. This time, however, he had his eye not on Malta but on Cyprus.

It was always said of Selim – nicknamed ‘the Sot’ – that his much-publicized determination to seize the island was due to an equally well-known penchant for its unusually potent wines. In fact its strategic value was as obvious as the wealth and fertility of its soil; the wonder is that his father Suleiman had not acted years before to rid himself of an unwanted Christian presence less than fifty miles from his own southern shores. In February 1568 reports reached the Rialto of various Turkish-inspired intrigues among the local inhabitants, many of whom were known to have no love for their Venetian overlords: there were ominous tales of Turkish ships taking clandestine soundings in Cypriot harbours, even of a huge mine being secretly prepared at Famagusta, ready to be detonated at the approach of the Turkish fleet. At the same time there arrived the more reliable but equally unwelcome intelligence that Selim, who had hitherto been continuing his father’s campaigns in Hungary, had concluded an eight-year truce with the new Emperor Maximilian II and was consequently free to devote all his resources to his new enterprise.

In the face of these reports, the Venetian Senate remained indecisive. Clearly some preparations must be made to meet the expected onslaught; on the other hand, Selim had willingly signed a peace treaty with the Republic on his accession. Besides, there had been similar alarms before, and quiet diplomacy – helped, on occasion, by a discreet and well-placed bribe – had usually done the trick. In any case nothing must be done that risked annoying the Sultan, who was as yet unused to power and whose character was known to be somewhat unstable. All through 1569 the argument went on, firm decisions being made even harder to reach by the disastrous harvest of that year, which caused a famine all through Italy, and – at midnight on 13 September – by a mysterious explosion at the Arsenal, which burnt out much of the area between it and the church of S. Francesco della Vigna, destroying the convent of the Celestia and three other churches besides. Inevitably, foul play was suspected, but was never proved.

Towards the end of January 1570, however, news reached Venice which impelled the Senate to action. The Venetian bailo in Constantinople had been sent for by the Grand Vizir, Sokollu Mehmet, who informed him in so many words that the Sultan considered Cyprus to be historically part of the Ottoman Empire and was determined that it should be his. A day or two later there followed mass arrests of Venetian merchants and seizures of Venetian ships in harbour. Immediate orders were given to take similar steps against all subjects of the Sultan and Turkish vessels in Venice. Appeals for help were dispatched to the Pope, Philip of Spain and various other Princes of Europe. The Captain of the Gulf, Marco Querini, hastened to Crete with twenty-five galleys and orders to fit out twenty more which were lying, unmanned and unvictualled, at Candia.

Although there was a party in the Senate that was reluctant to see the end of the long peace and that still believed that some accommodation with the Sultan might be possible, the chances of avoiding open war seemed to be diminishing fast. Then, in mid-March, came further, still more ominous reports from Constantinople. An ambassador from Selim was actually on his way with an ultimatum: either Venice must surrender Cyprus of her own free will or it would be taken from her by force. No longer could the Venetians doubt where they stood. According to a centuries-old custom, when the Doge and Signoria marched in formal procession to the various churches in the city, six banners would be carried – two white, two blue and two red. In time of peace, the white went first; during periods of truce, the blue; in war, the red. That Easter – which fell on 26 March, still two days before the arrival of the Sultan’s envoy – in the annual progress to the church of S. Zaccaria for vespers, it was the red banners that led the way; and on Easter Monday a certain Girolamo Zane was appointed Captain-General of the Venetian fleet, receiving his baton and standard from Doge Loredan at a special mass in the Basilica. Zane was seventy-nine years old, the Doge by now eighty-eight; already more than one observer of the ceremony must have asked himself whether, at this crucial moment in its history, the fate of the Republic was in entirely the right hands.

Less than six weeks later Pietro Loredan was dead, his place being taken by a former ambassador to both Charles V – who had loaded him with imperial honours – and to Pius IV, by name Alvise Mocenigo.1 Girolamo Zane, meanwhile, had sailed with seventy galleys as far as Zara, on the first stage of an expedition which was to end in fiasco and bring upon him humiliation and disgrace.

The original letter which the Sultan’s envoy delivered to the Collegio on 28 March has not come down to us. If, however – as seems likely – the version given at the head of this article is a reasonably accurate rendering, Selim’s ultimatum could hardly have been more clearly, or more offensively, presented. The Venetian reply was equally to the point: Venice was astonished that the Sultan should already wish to break the treaty he had so recently concluded; she was, however, the mistress of Cyprus and would, by the grace of Jesus Christ, have the courage to defend it. The envoy was then let out by a side door to escape the attentions of the furious crowd which had gathered outside the Doges’ Palace, and escorted back to his waiting ship.

As if in an attempt to make up for so much lost time, war preparations in Venice now proceeded apace. The Arsenal, its fire damage hastily repaired, was once again working flat out; to raise funds, meanwhile, the government was adopting ever rmore desperate measures, even going so far as to increase the number of Procurators of St Mark – the highest dignitaries in the state apart from the Doge himself – by eight, disposing of the new titles in return for loans of 20,000 ducats. Neighbouring towns and cities contributed according to their means, and, just as in the old days, rich citizens undertook to build or equip ships, or enlist private militias – sometimes of several thousand men – at their own expense. From the other Christian states to which appeals had been sent, the response was less enthusiastic. The Emperor Maximilian pointed out that his formal truce with the Turk still had five more years to run. The King of Poland was equally reluctant in view of his own exposed position. From France Catherine de’ Medici, now effectively the Regent, was quarrelling with Spain over Flanders and pleaded her nation’s old alliance with the Sultan, though she offered the services of her son, Charles IX, as mediator – an offer which was politely declined. The King of Portugal pointed out that he was fully engaged in the Orient, and that anyway his country was being ravaged by plague. The Knights of St John – who were, incidentally, the biggest landowners in Cyprus – offered five ships, but four of them were to be captured by the Turks soon after they left Malta. A letter had even gone off to the Tsar of Muscovy, but it seems unlikely that it ever reached him; in any event Ivan the Terrible was at war with Poland and it is hard to see what assistance he could have given. No appeal was addressed to Queen Elizabeth of England, who had been under sentence of excommunication since February.

That left Pope Pius V and Philip II of Spain. The Pope had agreed to equip a dozen vessels if Venice would provide the hulls. Philip, for his part, had offered a fleet of fifty ships, under the command of Gian Andrea Doria, great-nephew and heir of that Andrea whose hatred of Venice had twice led him to betray the Republic’s trust, at Corfu and Preveza, some thirty years before. Even this was a niggardly enough contribution; Venice had produced a fleet of 144 ships, including 126 war galleys. But Philip had always mistrusted the Venetians, whom he suspected (not without some cause) of holding themselves ready to make terms with the Sultan if the opportunity offered; and, as events were to show, he had given Doria – whose feelings against the Republic were no whit less hostile than those of his great-uncle – secret instructions to keep out of trouble, to let the Venetians do the fighting, and to bring the Spanish fleet safely home again as soon as possible.

From the start, the expedition seemed to be ill-fated. The Captain-General, who had understood that the Spanish and papal squadrons were to join him at Zara, waited there in vain for two months during which time his fleet was ravaged by some unidentified epidemic, causing not only many deaths but a general demoralization which in turn led to scores of desertions. On 12 June he sailed to Corfu, where he picked up Sebastiano Venier, the erstwhile Proveditor-General of the island who had recently been appointed to the same position in Cyprus. Here he heard that the papal squadron under Marcantonio Colonna was awaiting the Spaniards at Otranto – but of Philip’s promised fleet there was still no sign. Not till July was it learnt that Gian Andrea Doria had simply remained in Sicily, on the pretext that he had received no instructions to go further. After urgent protestations from the Pope, Philip finally sent his admiral sailing orders, which arrived on 8 August; even then, it was another four days before the fleet set forth from Messina and a further eight before it reached Otranto – a journey which, in the perfect weather conditions prevailing, should have taken no more than two.

Having at last joined his papal allies, Doria made no effort to call on Colonna or even to communicate with him; and, when Colonna decided to ignore this studied piece of discourtesy and take the initiative himself, he was answered with a long speech implicitly recommending that the whole expedition should be called off. The season was late; the Spanish ships were not in fighting condition; and, as Doria was at pains to point out, though his instructions were to sail under the papal flag, he was also under the orders of his sovereign to keep his fleet intact. Colonna somehow forbore to remind him who was to blame for the first two misfortunes, merely pointing out that both King and Pope expected their fleets to sail with the Venetians to Cyprus; accordingly, sail they must. Finally, and with ill grace, Doria agreed.

Girolamo Zane had by now moved on to Crete, where the papal and Spanish fleets joined him on 1 September – almost exactly five months since his departure from Venice. A council was called, at which Doria at once began raising new difficulties. This time it was the Venetian galleys that were unfit for war: if the allied fleet were to come to grips with the enemy, it would be either destroyed or ignominiously put to flight. Moreover, once they had left Crete there were no harbours in which to take refuge. Now, too, he revealed a fact that he had not, apparently, thought necessary to mention before: he must return to the West by the end of the month at the latest.

Colonna remained firm. The season, though advanced, was not yet prohibitively so; there were still two clear months before the onset of winter. Cyprus was rich in admirable harbours. The Venetian ships had admittedly been undermanned, but their long wait had given them plenty of time to find replacements and their crews were all once again up to strength. Altogether the combined fleets now comprised 205 sail; the Turks wer£ thought to number 150 at the most. Why, therefore, should they fear an armed encounter? Flight would indeed be ignominious, but to retire now, before even sighting the enemy, would be more dishonourable still.

At this point Zane – who at Colonna’s discreet suggestion had remained absent from the opening discussion – joined his colleagues and immediately tabled a written request that the expedition should be allowed to proceed. Doria still prevaricated, finally agreeing only on condition that the Spanish ships should be given preferential treatment: that they should be exempt from rearguard duty and that they should sail in a group apart, in such a way as to be able to disengage completely if they felt so inclined. It was no wonder that, by 7 September, while discussions were still dragging on, Zane addressed an almost desperate letter to the Council of Ten, complaining that Doria was obviously determined not to fight, that he was continually raising new objections and resuscitating old ones, and that although with patience and tact it had so far been possible to overcome these objections, he was throwing all their plans into confusion and disrupting the whole enterprise.

On the 13th, the fleet moved on to Sitia, at the eastern end of the island; and there, at Doria’s insistence, there was a general review at which it was revealed, to his ill-concealed satisfaction, that the Venetian galleys were indeed below strength, with only some eighty righting men per vessel as compared with the hundred-odd in the papal and Spanish squadrons. Once again he advised withdrawal, and although once again ultimately overruled he managed to delay departure three full days, long enough for Zane to sustain another severe blow: a report that the Turks had landed in Cyprus. It was now or never. On the night of 17 September the fleet sailed for the beleaguered island.

But off Castellorizo there came worse news still. Nicosia had fallen. Another council was called, at which Doria predictably redoubled his protestations. And now, for the first time, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, who as commander of the Neapolitan contingent was technically a subordinate of Doria’s but who had hitherto taken a considerably more robust line than his chief, also advised turning back. The capture of Nicosia, he pointed out, would mean a vast increase in the number of fighting men available for the Turkish fleet, and a corresponding upsurge in enemy morale – at the worst possible time, when the allied crews were becoming more and more dispirited. Colonna agreed with him; so, sadly and reluctantly, did old Girolamo Zane. One voice only was raised in favour of a continued advance: that of Sebastiano Venier, who argued that, however strong the Turks might be, they would almost certainly be a good deal stronger next year – when, incidentally, the allies were most unlikely to have a fleet of over 200 sail to throw against them.

They were brave words, but they failed to convince; and the mighty fleet, flying the banners of Christendom, turned about and sailed for home without having once sighted the enemy. In an almost pathetic attempt to salvage the last shreds of his reputation, poor Zane proposed that the allies should at least try to inflict some damage on enemy territory during their return journey; but once again his hopes were sabotaged by Doria’s impatience to get home. By the time he reached Corfu on 17 November – having stopped in Crete on the way – a new epidemic had broken out in his ships and he himself was, mentally and physically, a broken man. Lacking even the heart to return home, he wrote to the Senate asking to be relieved of his post. His request was granted, and on 13 December Sebastiano Venier was appointed Captain-General in his stead.

So ended one of the most humiliating episodes in the history of Venice. Unless it were argued that, having provided some three quarters of the combined fleet, she should not have lost time waiting for her allies but should have pressed on alone in June, she could not in fairness be held responsible; but neither could she escape her share of the disgrace, much of which fell on the undeserving head of old Girolamo Zane himself. Ordered back to Venice early in 1571, in the following year – the cause of the delay is unknown – he was summoned by the Council of Ten to answer several grave charges relating to his conduct during the expedition. After a long inquiry he was acquitted – but too late. In September 1572 he had died in prison.

The fate of Gian Andrea Doria was somewhat different. Philip II had been left in no doubt of the bitter feelings his admiral had aroused; Pope Pius, indeed, on receiving Colonna’s report, had sent the King a formal letter of complaint. But Philip chose to ignore it. Doria had obeyed his instructions to the letter, and was rewarded by immediate promotion to the rank of General, with seniority over all the commanders of the fleets of Spain, Naples and Sicily – in which capacity he was to do still further damage to the Christian cause before his unedifying career was over.

The Loss of Cyprus [1564–1570] II

Map of the Siege of Nicosia, by Giovanni Camoccio, 1574

In 1570 Venice had held Cyprus for eighty-one years. Queen Caterina had been replaced by a Venetian governor, with the title of Lieutenant: in him and his two Counsellors – the three together, known as the Rectors, were the Cypriot equivalent of the Signoria – rested in effect virtually all the civil power. There was in addition a Great Council, comprising all the nobility of the island over the age of twenty-five, plus certain of those resident Venetians who had settled there; of these latter, the nobles were immediately eligible, the rest – provided they were not members of the ‘mechanical’ trades-could purchase their seats after a five-year residence. But its functions were largely electoral, and even then its decisions were subject to the Rectors’ confirmation.

While the civil government was established at Nicosia, the military headquarters were at Famagusta. There the standing garrison of cavalry and infantry, and the Cyprus-based fleet, were under the command of a Venetian Captain – though in time of war he might expect a Proveditor-General to be sent specially out from Venice to assume supreme authority. Famagusta, unlike Nicosia, was superbly fortified: omnium urbium fortissima, as an astonished traveller described it. Historically, too, it was the island’s principal harbour, although by 1570 Salines (the modern Larnaca) had overtaken it in terms of commercial traffic.

The total population was about 160,000, still living under an anachronistically feudal system which the Republic had made little or no effort to change. At the top were the nobility, partly Venetian but for the most part still of old French Crusader stock like the former royal house of Lusignan. Much of the land was in their hands, but under the prevailing law of primogeniture there was an ever-increasing number of unpropertied younger sons who frequently constituted a problem to the government. At the bottom was the peasantry, many of whom were still effectively serfs, owing their masters two days’ service a week. For them, despite the extreme fertility of the island, life was a struggle and oppression an integral part of it. Between the two was the merchant class and the urban bourgeoisie – a Levantine melting pot of Greeks, Venetians, Armenians, Syrians, Copts and Jews.

Cyprus, in short, cannot have been an easy place to govern; it must be admitted, however, that the Venetians – whose own domestic administration was the wonder and envy of the civilized world – should have governed it a great deal better than they did. Perhaps the very strictness of the standards demanded of them at home increased the temptation to feather their nests once they were a safe distance away; probably, too, they were infected by the general atmosphere of venality which, we are told, prevailed in the island long before they took power. What is certain is that by the time the Turks landed in the summer of 1570 Venice had acquired a grim record of maladministration and corruption, and had made herself thoroughly unpopular with her Cypriot subjects. Even the rich nobility, however much they might oppress their own peasantry, objected to the way in which, as they saw it, the Republic was enriching itself at the island’s expense, and its official representatives, by less overt methods, following suit. They resented, too, their lack of any real power. The other, humbler, sections of the population felt much the same. Many indeed believed that any change of government could only be for the better – a sentiment which was not without significance when the moment of crisis came.

The joint expedition for the relief of Cyprus had been an unmitigated disaster; and yet, even if it had safely arrived at its destination, disembarked its fighting men and obeyed all its instructions to the letter, it could scarcely have saved the island. A major victory at sea might perhaps have proved temporarily effective, delaying the inevitable for a year or two; but since the Turkish invasion fleet that dropped anchor on 3 July at Larnaca numbered not less than 350 sail – more than double Colonna’s estimate – such a victory would have been, to say the least, unlikely. The truth is that, from the moment that Selim II decided to incorporate the island in his Empire, Cyprus was doomed.

It was doomed for the same fundamental reason that Malta, five years before, had been saved: the inescapable fact that the strength of any army in the field varies inversely with the length of its lines of communication and supply. Since Cyprus had neither the means, the ability, nor – probably – the will to defend itself, it could only be defended by Venice, from which all military supplies, arms and ammunition, and the bulk of the fighting men and horses would have to come. But Venice lay over 1,500 miles away across the Mediterranean, much of which was now dominated by the Turks. They, on the other hand, had only fifty miles to sail from ports on the southern Anatolian coast, where they could count on an almost limitless supply of manpower and materials.

Their success seemed the more assured in that the Cypriot defences, apart from those of Famagusta, were hopelessly inadequate. Nicosia, it is true, boasted a nine-mile circuit of medieval walls; but they enclosed an area considerably larger than the town and needed a huge force to defend them. They were moreover far too thin – the siege techniques of the sixteenth century were vastly different from those of the fourteenth – and despite the feverish last-minute efforts of Venetian engineers to strengthen them they stood a poor chance of survival against the massive artillery which had long been a speciality of the Turks. Kyrenia had once been a splendid fortress, but it had fallen long since into ruin; and though there too some work had recently been done to repair and strengthen the existing walls, it was unlikely to hold out for long. The fortifications of all other Cypriot towns were either negligible or non-existent; from the first it was understood that only in Nicosia and Famagusta was there any hope of prolonged resistance. Manpower too was in short supply. Accurate estimates of numbers are never easy, but it is unlikely that there were more than 20,000 fighting men including some 500 cavalry – in Nicosia when the siege began, and of these little more than half were fully effective. Fra Angelo Calepio, who was present throughout, tells us that there were 1,040 arquebuses in the magazines, but that they were not properly distributed nor were any instructions given as to their use, with the result that many soldiers found it impossible to fire them without setting light to their beards

For this and many other shortcomings in the defences of the capital, the principal blame must fall on the Lieutenant, Nicolo Dandolo. Uncertain, timid, forever vacillating between bouts of almost hysterical activity and periods of apathetic inertia, he was obviously unsuited to the supreme command – which would not have been his if Sebastiano Venier, the Proveditor-General designate who had sailed with Girolamo Zane’s expedition, had managed to reach the island. Through the agonizing months which were to follow, Dandolo was to prove a constant liability, his lack of judgement and immoderate caution occasionally giving rise to suspicions – as it happened, unfounded – that he was in enemy pay. Fortunately there were better men at Famagusta: the Perugian general Astorre Baglioni, who had been sent out from Venice in April as Commander-in-Chief, and the Captain, Marcantonio Bragadin, whose appalling fate when the siege was over was to earn him a permanent niche in the Venetian Hall of Fame – and his conqueror lasting infamy.

The Turkish invasion force had appeared off the coast of Cyprus on 1 July. Sultan Selim – the memory of his father’s humiliation in Malta still fresh in his mind – had spared no pains in its preparation, and had entrusted it to two of his ablest and most experienced commanders: Lala Mustafa Pasha for the land forces and Piale Pasha – a Croat who, with Dragut, had trounced a Spanish fleet under Gian Andrea Doria ten years before – for the fleet. After a lightning raid on Limassol, where it did considerable damage, sacking the town and a neighbouring monastery before being repulsed, it continued along the south coast to Larnaca. Here, owing to Dandolo’s timidity, Mustafa was able to land his entire force without opposition, settling in his men while he awaited further troops from the mainland. From Larnaca he then dispatched a blind Greek monk to Nicosia with the usual ultimatum: since Venice had no chance of successfully resisting his superbly equipped force of 200,000 men, let her now cede the island peaceably, thus retaining the friendship and favour of the Sultan. If she did not, it would be the worse for her. To this missive the Rectors in Nicosia sent no reply; they did, however, send an urgent appeal to Famagusta, asking for the return of Baglioni with reinforcements. The request was refused, on the grounds that the threat to Nicosia might well be a feint: the weight of the Turkish attack was still expected at Famagusta.

But Mustafa was not dissembling. When his reinforcements arrived on 22 July he set off that same evening for Nicosia; and two days later his immense army was encamped outside the walls of the city. Now once again a chance was lost: the Italian commander of infantry begged for permission to mount an immediate attack, while the enemy were still tired by their march of thirty miles through the heat of a Cyprus summer, and their artillery and heavy cavalry were still unprepared. Once again Dandolo and his fellow-Rectors declined to take the risk, and the Turks were allowed to dig themselves in undisturbed.

And so the siege began. The Turkish army, though not perhaps quite as numerous as its commander had claimed, must have been a good 100,000 strong; its cannon and light artillery were formidable and, in contrast to the pathetic firing-pieces of the defenders along the walls, were employed with deadly accuracy and expertise. Meanwhile Dandolo, fearing a shortage of gunpowder, had rationed its use to the point where even those of his soldiers who had fire-arms and knew how to use them were forbidden to shoot at any group of Turks numbering fewer than ten. Yet, however weak-spirited the Lieutenant, there were others around him who did not lack courage. Somehow the city held out, all through a sweltering August; and it was only on 9 September, after Mustafa’s men had given the noisiest and most jubilant welcome of which they were capable to a further 20,000 troops freshly arrived from the mainland, that the defenders finally yielded to the fifteenth major assault. Thus, after forty-five days, Nicosia fell. Even as the triumphant Turks swarmed through the city, the resistance continued, a final stand being made in the main square, in front of the Lieutenant’s Palace. Dandolo, who had taken refuge inside it some hours before while his men were still fighting on the ramparts, now appeared in his crimson velvet robes, hoping to receive the favoured treatment due to his rank. Scarcely had he reached the foot of the steps when a Turkish officer struck his head from his shoulders.

It was customary, when a besieged town had defended itself to the last, for the victorious commander to allow his men a three-day period of rapine and plunder. The usual atrocities followed, the usual massacres, quarterings and impalements, the usual desecration of churches and violation of the youth of both sexes; what was unusual was the sheer extent of the looting. Nicosia was a rich city, generously endowed with treasures ecclesiastical and secular, western and Byzantine. It was a full week before all the gold and silver, the precious stones and enamelled reliquaries, the jewelled vestments, the velvets and brocades had been loaded on to the carts and trundled away – the richest spoils to fall into Turkish hands since the capture of Constantinople itself, well over a century before.

As he and his army returned to the coast, Mustafa left a garrison of 4,000 janissaries to refortify the city. He still expected a Venetian relief expedition; if it came, an attempt to recapture Nicosia could not be discounted. Meanwhile, however, he had no intention of abandoning the offensive himself. Already on 11 September, two days after the fall of Nicosia, he had sent a messenger to the commanders at Famagusta, calling upon them to surrender and bearing, as an additional inducement, the head of Nicolò Dandolo in a basin. It would be their turn next.

Although Mustafa Pasha can hardly have expected that his ultimatum would have the desired effect and that Famagusta would capitulate without a fight, he must nevertheless have cursed its commanders for their stubbornness. Even Nicosia had given him more trouble than he had expected; but Famagusta promised to be a really formidable challenge. The old fortifications had been torn down at the end of the previous century and replaced with a completely new enceinte, incorporating all the latest advances in military architecture; and the town was now, to all appearances, as near impregnable as any town could be. Behind those tremendous walls the defenders were admittedly few: some 8,000 as compared with a Turkish force which, with new contingents arriving every few weeks from the mainland, probably by now fell not far short of the 200,000 of which Mustafa had boasted to Dandolo. On the other hand they had in Bragadin and Baglioni two first-rate leaders whom they already respected and for whom their love and admiration were to grow during the trials that lay ahead.

The army and the fleet, loaded to the gunwales with Nicosia loot, arrived at Famagusta on the same day, 17 September; and the siege began at once. Thanks to the courage and enterprise of the two commanders, it was from the first a far more dynamic affair than that of Nicosia, with the defenders making frequent sorties outside the walls and sometimes even carrying the battle right into the Turkish camp. All through the winter it continued, the Venetians showing no signs of weakening; in January, indeed, they were considerably strengthened, both materially and morally, by the arrival of a fifteen-hundred-man relief force, with arms and munitions, under the command of Marco and Marcantonio Querini, who had managed to break through the depleted Turkish blockade. In April the level of food supplies began to give some cause for concern; but Bragadin dealt with the problem efficiently enough by evicting over 5,000 ‘useless mouths’ from among the civil population and sending them out to seek shelter in the neighbouring villages. Towards the end of that same month Mustafa changed his tactics, ordering his corps of Armenian sappers to dig a huge network of trenches to the south. As the corps numbered some 40,000 and was further supplemented by forced labour from the local peasantry, work progressed rapidly: by the middle of May the whole region was honeycombed for a distance of three miles from the walls, the trenches numerous enough to accommodate the whole besieging army and so deep that mounted cavalry could ride along them with only the tips of their lances visible to the watchers on the ramparts. The Turks also constructed a total of ten siege towers, progressively closer to the town, from which they could fire downwards on to the defenders. From there, on 15 May, the final bombardment began.

The Venetians fought back with courage and determination. Again and again their own artillery would destroy whole sections of the Turkish siege towers, but to no avail; a few hundred sappers would get to work, and the towers would be as good as new by morning. Slowly, as the weeks dragged by, they began to lose heart. Hopes of the great Venetian-Spanish relief expedition, which had kept their spirits up through the winter and spring, had faded; powder was running short; food was even shorter. By July all the horses, donkeys and cats in the town had been eaten; nothing was left but bread and beans. Of the defenders, only 500 were still capable of bearing arms, and they were dropping through lack of sleep. On the 29th the Turks unleashed a new general assault, their fifth. The Christians held them back, but at the cost of two thirds of their number killed or wounded. On the 30th came another, on the 31st another still. Even then, Mustafa failed to break in; but that night the Venetian generals inspected their defences and their remaining stocks of food and ammunition and realized that they could hold out no longer. By a voluntary surrender they might still, according to the accepted rules of warfare, avoid the massacres and the looting that were otherwise inevitable. Dawn broke on 1 August to reveal a white flag fluttering on the ramparts of Famagusta.

The peace terms were surprisingly generous. All Italians were to be allowed to embark, with colours flying, for Crete, together with any Greeks, Albanians or Turks who wished to accompany them. On their journey they would not be molested by Turkish shipping, which would on the contrary furnish them with all the assistance they required. Greeks who elected to stay behind would be guaranteed their personal liberty and property, and would be given two years in which to decide whether they would remain permanently or not; those who then elected to leave would be given safe conduct to the country of their choice. The document setting out these terms was signed personally by Mustafa and sealed with the Sultan’s seal; it was then returned to Baglioni and Bragadin with a covering letter complimenting them on their courage and their magnificent defence of the city.

For the next four days arrangements for the departure went smoothly enough. Food supplies were sent in and, apart from a few minor incidents, relations between the Europeans and the Turks were friendly. On 5 August Bragadin sent word to Mustafa proposing to call and formally to present him with the keys of Famagusta; back came the reply that the general would be delighted to receive him. Donning his purple robe of office, he set off that evening accompanied by Baglioni and a number of his senior officers, escorted by a mixed company of Italian, Greek and Albanian soldiers. Mustafa received them with every courtesy; then, without warning, his face clouded and his manner changed. In a mounting fury, he began hurling baseless accusations at the Christians standing before him. They had murdered Turkish prisoners; they had concealed munitions instead of handing them over according to the terms of surrender. Suddenly, he whipped out a knife and cut off Bragadin’s right ear, ordering an attendant to cut off the other and his nose. Then, turning to his guards, he ordered them to execute the whole party. Astorre Baglioni was beheaded; so too was the commander of artillery, Luigi Martinengo. One or two managed to escape; but most were massacred, together with a number of other Christians who chanced to be within reach. Finally the heads of all those that had been murdered were piled in front of Mustafa’s pavilion. They are said to have numbered 350.

Now that the killing had begun it was very hard to stop. Mustafa himself, who seemed at last to have regained his composure, forbade his howling soldiery to enter Famagusta on pain of death; many, however, disobeyed his orders and ran amok through the city, killing any citizen they chanced to meet, burning and pillaging in a frenzy of blood-lust. Others headed for the port, where they found victims in plenty among the Christians preparing to embark for the West.

But the worst fate had been reserved for Marcantonio Bragadin. He was held in prison for nearly a fortnight, by which time his untreated wounds were festering and he was already seriously ill. First he was dragged round the walls, with sacks of earth and stones on his back; next, tied into a chair, he was hoisted to the yardarm of the Turkish flagship and exposed to the taunts of the sailors. Finally he was taken to the place of execution in the main square, tied naked to a column and, literally, flayed alive. Even this torture he is said to have borne in silence for half an hour until, as the executioner reached his waist, he finally expired. After the grim task was completed, his head was cut off, his body quartered, and his skin, stuffed with straw and cotton and mounted on a cow, was paraded through the streets.

When, on 22 September, Mustafa sailed for home, he took with him as trophies the heads of his principal victims and the skin of Marcantonio Bragadin, which he proudly presented to the Sultan. The fate of the heads is unknown; but nine years later a certain Girolamo Polidoro, one of the few survivors of the siege, managed to steal the skin from the Arsenal of Constantinople and to return it to Bragadin’s sons, who deposited it in the church of S. Gregorio. From here, on 18 May 1596, it was transferred to SS. Giovanni e Paolo, and placed in a niche behind the urn which forms part of the hero’s memorial. Here it still remains today.

Siege of Brusa 1317–1326

Forces Engaged

Byzantine: Unknown. Commander: Unknown.

Turkish: Unknown. Commander: Osman I and then Orkhan.

The capture of Brusa established Osman I (Othman) and his successors as the major power in Asia Minor, beginning the Ottoman Empire.

The peoples known as Turks originated not in the Turkey of today but in Turkestan in central Asia. In the middle of the sixth century a.d., they formed themselves into a large tribal confederation and then shortly thereafter split into eastern and western factions. The eastern Turkic tribes interacted strongly with the Chinese, most notably the T’ ang dynasty, and alternately aided or were defeated by the Chinese. The western Turkic tribes, however, were better known as conquerors for their occupation of territory stretching from the Oxus River to the Mediterranean Sea.

Their first major entry into western history came with their contact with Arabs spreading Islam past Persia and toward central Asia. The pastoral Turks became exposed to the civilizations of Persia and the Byzantine Empire and began a gradual conversion to western religions, mainly but not exclusively Islam. Soon Turkic soldiers served in Moslem armies, either as volunteers or as slave soldiers, forerunners of the Mamluks or the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire. They soon became ghazi, or border warriors, hired by Moslem governments to protect the northeastern frontier. At this point, the western Turks also split, the eastern faction becoming the Ghaznavids and the western becoming the Seljuks.

Most of the Turks embraced the more orthodox Sunni branch of Islam, and they spread the faith as well as practiced it. Based out of the city of Ghazna (some 90 miles southwest of modern Kabul, Afghanistan), the Ghaznavids in the tenth and eleventh centuries spread their power and religion eastward into India. Their most notable achievement was the introduction of Islam into India, though their use of forced conversions often made them more feared than welcomed. They were defeated not by Indian resistance but by the Seljuks.

Named for its first major leader, Seljuk or Selchuk, the western Turkic tribes also served Moslem governments. Their position on the Asian frontier attracted growing numbers of Islamicized Turkic tribes, and soon the land grants ceded by the Moslems proved inadequate for the needs of so many pastoral people. Their growth in numbers gave them an increased military strength as well as a growing need for grazing lands. As the Moslem Buyid dynasty grew weak and the Ghaznavids looked toward India, the Seljuks found conquest of the lands west of Persia relatively simple. They defeated the Ghaznavids in 1040 and then occupied Baghdad in 1055. They did not take the city to pillage it but to return it to Sunni control from the less orthodox Shi’ites. The marriage of the Seljuk chief to the sister of the caliph, and his resulting promotion to the position of sultan, established the Seljuks as the premiere military and political force in the Middle East.

Filled with religious zeal, the Seljuks conquered Armenia, the Levant, and into Asia Minor; Malik Shah, the most successful Seljuk military leader, scored a major victory over Byzantine forces at Manzikert in 1071. In spite of their desire to reestablish the Sunni sect of Islam, the Seljuks did not undertake the practice of forced conversions, which the Ghaznavids did in India. Though they made subjects of Christians and Jews, they did not persecute them; the Seljuks followed Mohammed’s teachings of religious tolerance. Once established in Asia Minor, they chose as their capital city Konia, a site occupied since the Hittites at the dawn of recorded history. It became a center for culture and learning. The orthodoxy of the Sunni Seljuks frightened Europeans, who rejected peaceful interaction in favor of militant Christianity and mounted the Crusades. Although the Crusades brought about no lasting European presence in the Middle East, and the Seljuks remained in power, they finally were doomed to destruction in the same manner that brought them to power: invasion from central Asia, the Mongols of the thirteenth century. Their occupation of Asia Minor ultimately weakened the Byzantine Empire to the point that it fell to the successors of the Seljuks, the Ottoman Empire.

The Campaign

The formation of the Ottoman Empire was very much a matter of timing and location. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, the power of the Mongols had waned, as had that of the Byzantine Empire. In the region in and around Asia Minor, a power vacuum formed. The people living in Asia Minor were basically still a steppe society, uncomfortable with a settled lifestyle and militarily aggressive. Such a combination had served to keep the Seljuks from ever establishing an extended dominion; attempts by political leaders to convince the people to settle down and pay taxes resulted in rebellion. The Turks followed strong leaders, no matter their birth, and, for a strong leader to maintain his following, he needed conquests to keep his people occupied and provide operating capital.

Osman I (or Othman) became the main prince of Asia Minor who attracted warriors. His land, awarded to him in 1290 for service to the Seljuks, was based on the town of Sorgut, supposedly established as a regional stronghold by Hannibal. Sorgut was located southeast of Constantinople, fairly near the Sea of Marmora. This meant that Osman’s lands abutted the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire. That location was the primary reason that warriors flocked to his banner; fighting Christians was more honorable and lucrative than fighting fellow Turks. Osman’s campaigns against the Byzantines were at times mere raids for loot and at other times intentional territorial acquisitions, and they both attracted the attention of Constantinople. Of all the Asia Minor princes, Osman was deemed the greatest threat.

Osman focused his attentions on three primary targets: Nicaea (modern Iznik), Nicomedia (modern Izmit), and Brusa (modern Bursa). He first laid siege to Nicaea in 1301. This action attracted the attention of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II to him. The Byzantine government dispatched a force of 2,000 men to relieve the siege, but Osman ambushed and destroyed them at Baphaeon. The local population evacuated the country-side and fled to Nicomedia. The emperor hired some Alan mercenaries to deal with Osman, but they too were defeated (1302 and 1304). Osman was unable, however, to overcome either Nicaea or Nicomedia, so he returned to raiding.

Brusa had once been a town as important as Nicaea and Nicomedia, but after the invasion of the Goths in the third century only the latter two were restored under Byzantine rule. Just before Constantine established the empire and Nicaea was still the regional capital, Brusa had its walls restored. It was such a good job of reconstruction that, when Osman began his siege in 1317, the town held out for more than 9 years. As to the details of the siege of Brusa, almost nothing exists. It was a long siege, and that is about all that can be said, other than some sources say it may have been intermittent rather than continuous. When it fell on 6 April 1326, Osman lay dying, so he never saw the inside of the city. His son, Orkhan, became the second leader of the dynasty that became known as the Ottomans. Upon his occupation of the city, he named it the capital of the emerging Ottoman Empire. Whatever damage that had been inflicted during the siege was quickly repaired and the town’s former elegance was restored. It became “a great city with fine bazaars and broad streets, worthy of the greatest of the Turkmen kings” (Muller, The Loom of History, p. 301).

Although Osman was the father of the ruling line, it was Orkhan who really established the power of the Ottomans. He succeeded in capturing Nicaea in 1331 after beating back a Byzantine relief force and then he took Nicomedia in 1337. All of this served to attract even more warriors to the Ottoman cause. Although there were occasional periods of peace (Orkhan married a Byzantine princess), for the most part the Moslem Ottomans and the Christian Byzantines were at odds. Orkhan’s son Suleiman led troops across the Dardanelles to conquer Thrace, and the empire’s capital was transferred from Brusa to Adrianople. In 1453, another of Osman’s descendants, Mehmet, captured Constantinople. He renamed the city Istanbul and it remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until its demise in 1919.

The Ottomans succeeded where the Seljuks failed because they were able to overcome their nomadic heritage. “The astonishing achievement of the Ottomans was breaking the cycle of birth, short life, then dissolution that characterized the earlier nomadic empires” (McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks, p. 36). This was the result primarily of the uncanny abilities of the first nine Ottoman sultans, who put together a 200-year chain of able rulers. By maintaining war against the Byzantines, then the Christians of southeastern Europe, and then the Shi’ites of Persia, the Ottomans were able to harness the warlike nature of their people. However, by adopting Christian/European advisors, military advancements, and technology, they gradually introduced a more settled lifestyle. The sultan ruled from the capital, and the provinces pretty much ruled themselves, but a common culture, religion, and economic life held the population together. Osman’s life of warfare against the Byzantines and his legacy of wisdom and strength in leadership turned the city of Brusa into an imperial capital and then, when it was left behind for bigger and better power centers, a beautiful city: “The successors of Orkhan beautified and sanctified the city by building mosques and tombs, the earliest Ottoman shrines” (Muller, The Loom of History, p. 301).


Koprulu, Mehmet. The Seljuks of Anatolia. Translated by Gary Leiser. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992; McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Turks. New York: Longman, 1997; Muller, Herbert. The Loom of History. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958; Parry, V. J. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.


Eugene of Savoy at the Battle of Belgrade by Johann Gottfried Auerbach.

Date: 15 June-22 August 1717 Location: modern Yugoslavia

There is no doubt that the blood which is going to flow on both sides will fall like a curse upon you, your children and your children’s children until the last judgment. GRAND VIZIER SILAHDAR ALI PASHA TO EUGENE OF SAVOY, APRIL 1716

Habsburg-Ottoman relations remained relatively calm following the peace treaty of Karlowitz (1699). Both empires waged wars on other fronts. The War of the Spanish Succession and the Hungarian insurrection of Ferenc Rakoczi II tied up Vienna’s resources. The Ottomans were fighting successful wars against the Russiansand the Venetians. Prince Eugene of Savoy, Imperial Field Marshal and President of the Viennese Aulic War Council, watched Sultan Ahmed Ill’s recent conquests in the Morea (Peloponnese) and Crete with great suspicion. On Eugene’s suggestion, the Habsburgs formed a defensive alliance with Venice in 1716, leading to Istanbul’s declaration of war against Vienna.

The war of 1716-17

The 1716 campaign resulted in major Habsburg victories. The Imperial army, 70,000 strong and commanded by Eugene, met the Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Damad Ali Pasha, the victor of the Morea campaign, at Petervarad (Peterwardein ), northwest of Belgrade on the right bank of the Danube. Without Tartar and Wallachian auxiliaries, even the paper strength of the regular Ottoman forces was hardly more than 70,000: 41,000 janissaries and 30,000 sipahis (Turkish cavalry). The battle of Petervarad (5 August 1716) ended with the defeat of the Ottoman troops with some 6,000 dead, including the Grand Vizier. Despite severe Imperial losses of 4,500 dead and wounded, Eugene decided to besiege Ternesvar, the centre of an Ottoman province since 1552 and a strong Ottoman fortress guarded by 12,000 men. Ternesvar’s defenders resisted the siege for 43 days, but eventually gave up the fortress on 16 October. During the winter, Eugene made preparations for next year’s campaign, the main objective being to recapture Belgrade, the strongest Ottoman military base that controlled the main invasion route against Habsburg Hungary.

The battle of Belgrade

On 15 June 1717, using pontoon bridges, the Imperial army under Prince Eugene crossed the Danube at Pancsova (Parceva), east of Belgrade. By 18 June Belgrade was surrounded and the Imperialists were busy building their protective entrenchments against the fortress (countervalation) and the approaching relief army (circumvallation). Eugene’s army had a paper strength of 100,000 men, over 100 field guns and a strong siege artillery train. Defended by the Danube from the north and the Sava from the west, Belgrade was guarded by 30,000 men and 600 cannons under San Mustafa Pasha. When the Ottoman relief army under Grand Vizier Haci Halil Pasha arrived on 27 July, Belgrade had been seriously destroyed by the Habsburg bombardment.

The paper strength of the Ottoman forces was well above 100,000 men. However, contemporaries noticed that regular troops composed only ‘a small proportion of their whole body. The rest… are a mob… ignorant of all discipline, and are neither armed nor trained sufficiently well to make a stand against a regular force.’ Knowing the weakness of his forces, the Grand Vizier chose not to engage Eugene’s army in an open battle. Instead, he kept up a deadly artillery fire on the Imperialists from his elevated position to the east of the city, against which the circumvallation gave little protection. The Imperialists were caught between the defenders’ and the Ottoman field army’s artillery fire. Eugene had to act quickly if he was to save his army, which was suffering not only from enemy fire but also from dysentery.

Hoping that the besieged would not be able to fight for some days after the large explosion on 14 August, Eugene decided to attack the Ottoman army on 16 August. While he left 10,000 men in the trenches facing the fortress, Eugene unleashed his remaining forces in the early morning when the thick fog cleared that had concealed the Imperialists’ movements. Thanks to the courageous Bavarians and at the expense of over 5,000 dead, the Imperialists destroyed the Ottoman army, capturing all 150 pieces of the Ottoman artillery and the Grand Vizier’s camp. The Ottomans, who lost perhaps as many as 10,000 men, retreated towards Niş. A day after the battle the defenders of Belgrade, who – blinded by Windy weather conditions – had remained passive during the battle, surrendered. On 22 August, Eugene and his men moved into the city.

The Austrians won through the boldness of his assault and the superb discipline of their infantry, which advanced with colors flying and drums beating despite Ottoman artillery fire. Holding their fire until they were but a short distance from the Ottoman lines, the Austrians launched a bayonet charge that broke up the Janissaries and produced victory. Ottoman casualties were estimated at 20,000 men, while the Austrians suffered only 2,000 casualties. Five days later, on August 21, Belgrade surrendered to the Austrians.

As their main army retreated south, their other force abandoned the siege of Corfu, releasing pressure on the Venetians. Realizing it was now too late to attack Belgrade, Eugene turned northeast to besiege Timisoara, capital of the Banat and last Turkish enclave north of the Danube. Though an attempt to storm the place on Charles’s birthday (1 October) failed, the garrison surrendered two weeks later after a relief force disintegrated en route through desertion. By the end of the year, the imperialists had overrun most of Wallachia west of the river Olt (Aluta)-the so-called Olteria or Little Wallachia.

Though a successful campaign, it was now obvious that the Austrians had seriously underestimated Ottoman strength, but it was decided to continue the war the following year to consolidate the gains. The arrival of Bavarian and other reinforcements brought Eugene’s army up to 100,000, strong enough to attempt the siege of Belgrade, and, assisted by the Danube Flotilla, the city was completely cut off and subjected to a regular siege. However, Eugene was running out of supplies as an Ottoman relief force approached in August. A lucky shot detonated the city’s largest magazine on the 14th, killing 3,000 of the defenders. Realizing that a sortie was now unlikely, Eugene sallied forth from his trenches with 60,000 men to surprise the Turks in the early morning mist. Fortified by drink and keeping close together, the imperialists poured devastating musketry into the disordered Turkish ranks, routing them and sealing the garrison’s fate. With the fall of Belgrade on 18 August, the Turkish position in Northern Serbia collapsed and the Habsburg frontier advanced south of the Danube to reach the fullest extent achieved during the Great Turkish War.

Charles had no intention of going any further. The Austrians were already beginning to doubt the wisdom of pushing deeper into the Balkan wastelands, and it was clear the Turks desired peace. This was very welcome given that Rakoczi had just arrived in Edirne, raising the spectre of renewed trouble in Hungary. Meanwhile the Turks were suspected of trying to reach a rapprochement with the tsar, and Spain had launched its attempt to recover its lost Italian possessions. Following long negotiations with Anglo-Dutch mediation, peace was concluded at Passarowitz (Pozarevac) on 27 July 1717, confirming Austria’s recent gains. It was not a moment too soon. Austrian units were already departing for Italy, while five days later, the emperor concluded the Quadruple Alliance with France, Britain and the Dutch, thus committing himself to the war with Spain.

The short successful war considerably extended Habsburg territory, indicating that Austria was now a major European power and raising the emperor’s prestige in the Reich. Prince Eugene was a genuine folk hero, and even other generals became household names.

The Battle of Belgrade was a watershed. After the Battle of Belgrade they were firmly on the defensive, no longer expanding in Europe but merely seeking to retain conquered territory.

The Habsburg -Ottoman war of 1716-17 was the briefest of the military conflicts between the two empires. With the conquest of Belgrade and the Ternesvar region, Prince Eugene of Savoy crowned his career as the most successful military leader of his time. The following peace treaty of Passarowitz (1718) restored the ‘natural’ Danube borderline between the two empires.