Elizabeth towards War I


European matchlock musketeers of the Elizabethan period.

By the early 1570s the Puritans had grown significantly in numbers and in economic and political clout. They were not only unsatisfied, however, but increasingly discontented. At the same time that they were trying and failing to pressure the government into killing Mary Stuart, some of the more adventurous among them surreptitiously printed and distributed a First and then a Second Admonition to Parliament. These were bold, even treasonous complaints about how far the church had, under the Elizabethan settlement, departed from the gospel and from true religion. They reflected John Calvin’s absolute rejection of everything that the English reformers had retained from the time before Luther’s revolt, and they expressed the conviction that even the office of bishop was an abomination little less repulsive than the papacy itself. The authors of the Admonitions declared that in the pure first years of the Christian era the communities of the faithful had been led by deacons and elders, not by bishops, and that fidelity to Scripture and to Christ himself required a return to that aboriginal system. This was, in England, the genesis of Presbyterianism. Because it challenged the legitimacy of the church that Elizabeth had established upon becoming queen, it was taken as a challenge to Elizabeth herself. Her reaction should have surprised no one. Those responsible for publication of the Admonitions became hunted men, finally having to flee to the continent. They continued, from exile, to produce pamphlets condemning the Rome-ish corruptions of the Elizabethan church. That church became a dangerous environment for clergy of Calvinist-Presbyterian inclination, but their beliefs continued to spread.

Meanwhile the government’s program of killing Roman Catholicism through a slow process of discouragement, through harassment and disdain rather than murderous persecution, was not working out as hoped. The lifeblood of Catholic practice was the sacraments, and that loftiest of sacraments, the Eucharist, was not possible in the absence of a priest empowered to consecrate the bread and wine. Elizabeth and Cecil were not being foolish in expecting that, deprived of its priests, the Catholic community would atrophy, especially if at the same time it were punished in large ways and small and repeatedly accused of being disloyal to England and the queen. But eliminating the priesthood turned out to be considerably more difficult than it must at first have seemed. Among the Catholics purged from the English universities after Elizabeth ascended the throne was Oxford’s proctor William Allen, already well known as a scholar and administrator though not yet quite thirty years old. Like many of his academic coreligionists Allen drifted back and forth between England and the continent in the early 1560s, eventually deciding to become a priest and fixing his attention on the large numbers of onetime Oxford and Cambridge teachers and students who were now as adrift as he was. Many of these men had been drawn to the Catholic Low Countries, particularly to the universities at Louvain and Douai. It was at the latter that, in 1568, Allen found the financial support to start Douai College, a seminary where the faculty and all the candidates for the priesthood were English.

It is not clear that Allen began with the idea of developing a cadre of missionary priests to be sent back into England. His goal, rather, seems to have been to keep the intellectual life of the English Catholic community intact in preparation for a time when it would once again be welcome at home, and to engage the Protestant establishment in disputation while preparing a Catholic translation of the Bible. His college, in any case, attracted so many exiles that soon it was filled beyond capacity, and other seminaries were established elsewhere, most notably in Rome. As the students completed their studies and were ordained, some naturally yearned to return home and minister to the priest-starved Catholics of England. Such requests were granted, and the first of the young “seminary priests” slipped quietly across the Channel in 1574. As soon as the authorities became aware of their presence, the hunt was on. Inevitably the likes of Cecil and Dudley and Walsingham saw the products of Allen’s school as spies and instruments of subversion and wanted the queen to see them in the same way. Certainly the priests were a threat to the policy of trying to bleed English Catholicism dry with a thousand tiny cuts; almost from the moment of their arrival they infused fresh vitality into a community that was supposed to be dying. The first to be caught, Cuthbert Mayne, was a Devon farmer’s son who had taken two degrees at Oxford and become a Church of England chaplain before converting to Rome. He had then departed for Douai, where, in his early thirties, he enrolled in Allen’s seminary. Within months of his ordination he was back in the west of England and, under the patronage of a wealthy Catholic landowner, taking on the public role of steward in order to travel the countryside and deliver the sacraments. Captured inside his patron’s house by a posse of more than a hundred men, he was charged with six counts of treason, convicted, and offered a pardon in return for acknowledging the queen’s supremacy. Upon refusing, he was made an object lesson in how religion was once again a matter of life and death in England. He was hanged, cut down alive, and thrown to the ground so violently that one of his eyes was put out. He was then disemboweled, castrated, and quartered. By hanging him as a traitor rather than burning him as a heretic, the government was able to deny that it was returning to the Marian persecutions. In Mayne’s case as with the hundreds of priests who would follow him to the scaffold, the queen and her council maintained the fiction that they were killing Englishmen not for their beliefs but for seeking to deliver their homeland into the hands of foreign enemies.

As the suppression of Catholics entered a new, more desperate phase, so, too, and almost simultaneously, did the conflict with the Puritans. By the mid-1570s the queen had run out of patience with the practice known as “prophesying,” which was not a matter of making predictions but simply of preaching with a pronouncedly evangelical slant rather than staying within the boundaries prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. Somewhat oddly for a Protestant of her time, Elizabeth throughout her reign displayed a strong distaste for preaching and a determination to retain many of the trappings—clerical vestments, for example, and crucifixes—that growing numbers of her subjects were coming to regard as insufferable carryovers from the age of superstition. Such issues generated more and more heat as the 1570s advanced, until finally Edmund Grindal, the archbishop of Canterbury, was suspended for refusing to suppress prophesyings as the queen ordered. Canterbury remained an unoccupied see for years, and at times it must have appeared that Elizabeth was the head of a church of which she herself was almost the sole completely faithful member. It was her good fortune to have two sets of adversaries, the Puritans on one side and the Catholics on the other, who feared and despised each other far too much ever to combine against her. (Grindal, for example, had pleaded with the queen to stiffen the penalties for attending mass.) It also continued to be her good fortune to have the Queen of Scots as her most likely successor. So long as Mary Stuart drew breath, not even the most radical Protestant could possibly wish Elizabeth harm. The church that had taken shape under her direction was a peculiar and even improbable concoction of rather uncertain identity, no more Lutheran than Calvinist or Catholic. For the time being it was able to hang in a state of suspension easily mistaken for stability between the other contending parties.


In order to sell the story that the priests coming into England were the agents of a foreign enemy, England needed to have such an enemy. Though the pope would always be the ideal all-purpose bogeyman, no one could take him seriously as a military threat. The same was true of the Holy Roman Empire now that it was detached from Spain, run by a separate branch of the Hapsburgs, and fully occupied by intractable internal problems and external enemies as potent as the Turks. That left France and Spain, and so many factors made Spain the more compelling choice that not even the memory of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre could neutralize them for long. After the massacre, the Valois regime nominally headed by Charles IX made an effort to capture the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle and, upon failing, sensibly gave up on anti-Protestantism as the cornerstone of its domestic policy. Like England, it turned its attention to the most significant thing then happening in northern Europe: the ongoing revolt of the Dutch against Spanish rule, and Spain’s difficulty in bringing that revolt to an end. England and France alike were eager to contribute what they could to exacerbating Spain’s troubles. And England had a good story to tell in explaining its involvement: it could claim to be protecting the Dutch from the Roman Church (the Spanish Roman Church, specifically) and its Inquisition. England and France were also drawn together by the simple realization that it could be disastrous for either of them if the other became an ally of Spain’s. The 1574 death of King Charles at twenty-four did nothing to change the dynamics of the situation. He was succeeded by his nearest brother, the flamboyant Duke of Anjou, who as Henry II became the third of Catherine de’ Medici’s sons to inherit the throne. There remained one more brother, the young Duke of Alençon, who now assumed the Anjou title but is usually referred to as Alençon to keep him distinct from his brother. There was resumed talk, not particularly serious on either side, of marrying the young duke, disfigured by smallpox and bent by a spinal deformation but nearly twenty years old now, to the forty-one-year-old Elizabeth. Each side played the game in the faint hope that the other might attach more importance to it than it deserved.

Philip, meanwhile, was sinking deeper into the quagmire created by his rebellious Dutch subjects, and England and France were being drawn in with him. Philip had received from his father Charles V, thanks to the fifteenth-century marriage of Charles’s Hapsburg grandfather to the only daughter of the last Duke of Burgundy, a region of seventeen provinces, much of it reclaimed tidal plain, known for obvious topographical reasons as the Low Countries or—what means the same thing—the Netherlands. The rebellion had started in response to Philip’s efforts to impose a Spanish-style autocracy on the northernmost provinces, an almost fantastically prosperous center of trade and manufacturing where the Reformation had taken a strong hold and provided particular reason for resentment of Spanish interference. It had then spread southward as a newly appointed governor, the Duke of Alba, clamped down not only with harsh new taxes but with a reign of terror in which thousands of people, Protestants and Catholics alike, were brutally put to death. Militarily Alba was successful, bringing all but two of the provinces under control in years of hard fighting, but the savagery of his methods made reconciliation impossible. His successor Requesens tried to negotiate with the leader of the rebels, William of Orange, but resumed military operations after his overtures were spurned. In spite of crippling financial problems—Philip’s government was essentially bankrupt—Requesens, too, began to have some success, but he died in 1576 with the job of reconquest still incomplete. Much of what he had achieved was thereupon undone when his troops, finding themselves unpaid, went on a rampage of looting and vandalism. Their targets, necessarily, were the only provinces accessible to them: the ones still loyal to, or at least under the control of, Spain. Thus even the most Catholic sectors of the Netherlands were given good reason to hate the outsiders.

At this juncture, with his position in the Low Countries seemingly almost lost, Philip was rescued by the fact that his father, the emperor, had, in the course of his long career, produced illegitimate branches of the Hapsburg family tree on which grew a pair of genuinely brilliant figures. First among them was Philip’s younger (and illegitimate) half-brother Juan, known to history as Don John of Austria, a charismatic, even heroic character who in his youth had run off to pursue a military career in spite of being steered toward the church by both Charles and Philip. When he became governor-general of the Netherlands in 1576, Don John was almost thirty and not only a seasoned veteran of the Turkish conflict but the victor of the great Battle of Lepanto. He didn’t want the Dutch assignment but accepted it with the thought that it might give rise to an opportunity to fulfill an old romantic fantasy: that of invading England and liberating Mary, Queen of Scots. The situation he found himself in was very nearly unmanageable, but after two years he was making such good progress that William of Orange, in desperate straits and without hope of getting assistance from England, invited the Duke of Alençon, still under consideration as a possible spouse for Elizabeth, to become leader of the rebellion and, by implication, ruler of the Netherlands. Alençon was utterly unqualified to take command of anything, but he was eager to make a place for himself in the world and attracted by the possibility of carving a kingdom out of the Netherlands. The Dutch of course had no real wish to accept such an unprepossessing specimen as their chief but as brother and heir to the king of France he carried with him the implicit promise of substantial help. He eagerly accepted Orange’s invitation, discovered that there was no serious chance of getting meaningful assistance from his brother the king, and leaped to the conclusion that nothing could satisfy his needs more quickly and completely than a successful courtship of the English queen. Discussion soon resumed through diplomatic channels, and when word came from England that Elizabeth would never consent to marry a man she had not seen, Alençon made preparations to cross the Channel.

Augustus II of Poland (1670-1733)


“Friedrich Augustus. Elector of Saxony (1694-1733); king of Poland (1697-1704; 1709-1733).” A member of the Wettin dynasty and an elector of the Holy Roman Empire (Saxony), Augustus was elected king of Poland in 1697, after deeming that Warsaw was worth a Mass, converting to Catholicism, and agreeing to permit extraordinary privileges to the szlachta, even beyond the broad powers the nobility already enjoyed. In time this deal fatally weakened the monarchy within Poland. In foreign policy, however, Augustus enjoyed an independence his Vasa predecessors never had. This was facilitated by his personal control of a separate Saxon Army of 26,000 excellent troops, along with a discrete diplomatic service and bureaucracy. Together, these resources permitted him to conduct diplomacy and even war without consulting the szlachta in Poland or the Sapiehas in Lithuania. In 1699 Augustus forged an aggressive alliance with Peter I of Russia and Fredrik IV of Denmark that aimed to take advantage of the immaturity and inexperience of the new Swedish king, Karl XII. He immediately besieged Riga, launching the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Like the other members of this rapacious anti-Swedish alliance, Augustus greatly underestimated Karl XII. He and they all paid a heavy price for that mistake: Augustus’ Polish territories were invaded by Swedish armies. He lost and fled Warsaw in early 1702. Augustus subsequently was soundly defeated and lost most of his army at Kliszow (July 8/19, 1702). After recruiting over the winter, he took to the field with a new but undertrained and poorly equipped force, only to be smashed again by the Swedes at Pultusk (April 10/21, 1703). Augustus was expelled from Poland in favor of Stanislaw I in 1704, when the “Warsaw Confederation” that opposed him was supported by armed Swedish intervention. Civil war ensued in Poland, in which Augustus had support from the “Sandomierz Confederacy” of anti-Stanislaw nobles. This drew Karl back into Poland, where he completely defeated Augustus and his Polish allies in two small but sharp battles. Early in the new year Augustus lost again at Fraustadt (February 2/13, 1706). That opened the door to a Swedish invasion of Saxony and the fall of Dresden and Leipzig. Their fall compelled Augustus to agree to the Treaty of Altranstädt (September 13/24, 1706), renouncing his claim to the Polish throne. What saved Augustus was no effort of his own but the disastrous decision by Karl to invade Russia, which resulted in decisive defeat of the Swedish army at Poltava (June 27/July 8, 1709). That catastrophe, along with Karl’s wasted years spent in Ottoman exile, permitted Augustus to reopen the Polish war with Stanislaw I. With help from Tsar Peter, Augustus was restored to the Polish throne in 1709. He held onto it through the remaining years of the Great Northern War and afterward, until his death in 1733.

The battle of Fraustadt (February 1706) was next to the battle of Narva the greatest Swedish victory in the Great Northern Wart. A Swedish army of 10 000 men commanded by Carl Gustaf Rehnsköld attacked and almost annihilated a two times larger Saxon-Russian army near Poland’s western border. The Swedish war effort in Poland was before the battle seemingly close to a complete collapse because the Swedish main army led by Charles XII had their hands full in the east. But thanks to Rehnsköld’s victory at Fraustadt and Charles XII’s encirclement of the Russian main army in Grodno the campaign instead ended in a complete Swedish triumph. Before the year was over would Saxony sue for peace and accept Stanislaw Leszczynski as Polish king. The Swedish army could thereafter direct all its effort on defeating the last remaining enemy, Russia.

The battle itself, which according to the Swedish calendar happened 3 February, but according the Gregorian calendar (used by the Saxons) 13 February and according to the Julian calendar (used by the Russians) 2 February, have often been called a Swedish variant of Hannibal’s pincer movement in the battle of Cannae 216 BC. But the battle was actually planned by Rehnsköld as a frontal attack in which the Swedish numerical inferiority would be countered by thrusting through the enemy line with cold steel weapons before the enemies superior fire power could make an impact. Circumstances in the battle resulted however in the cavalry wings moving around obstacles and attacking the Saxon’s flanks in classic Hannibal style. In any way the battle ended with a total victory for the Swedish army. Over 7 000 Saxons and Russians were killed and just as many were captured. The Swedes only lost 400 men.

Spanish arquebusier



1568. Battle of Jemmingen. Spanish arquebusiers. Angel García Pinto for Desperta Ferro magazine

Gonzalo de Córdoba, (1453-1515).

“el Gran Capitan.” Castilian general who reformed the tercios, reducing reliance on polearms and bringing more guns to reinforced pike formations that could operate independently because of their increased firepower. He fought in Castile’s civil war that attended the ascension of Isabel to the throne. Next, he fought in the long war to conquer Granada. He was sent to Naples from 1495 to 1498 to stop the French conquest. He lost to Swiss mercenary infantry at Seminara, but adjusted his strategy and slowly pushed the French out of southern Italy. He used the same tactics in Italy that worked in Granada: progressive erosion of the enemy’s hold over outposts and the countryside, blockading garrisons, and avoiding pitched battles where he could. He fought the Swiss again, and won, at Cerignola (1503), handing them their first battle loss in 200 years. He beat them again that year at their encampment on the Garigliano River. Between fighting the French and Swiss he fought rebellious Moriscos in Granada and against the Ottomans in behalf of Spain and in alliance with Venice. He retired in 1506, well-regarded as a great general of pike and arquebus warfare.


“Third.” The name derived from the tripartite division common to early modern infantry squares, especially the main infantry unit in the 15th-16th-century Spanish system. Tercios started at 3,000 men, but heavy tercios could have up to 6,000 men each, formed into 50 to 60 ranks with 80 men to a file. They were super-heavy units of armored and tactically disciplined pikemen, supported by arquebusiers and lesser numbers of heavy musketeers on the corners. To contemporary observers they appeared as “iron cornfields” which won through shock and sheer mass rather than clever maneuver. Others saw in the tercio a “walking citadel” whose corner guards of clustered arquebusiers gave it the appearance of a mobile castle with four turrets, especially after the reforms introduced by Gonzalo de Córdoba from 1500. He wanted the tercios to better contend with the Swiss so he added more pikes at the front but also many more gunmen to replace the older reliance on polearms. These formations might have only 1,200 men. The new tercio was still heavy and ponderous on the move, but it was a more flexible unit with much greater firepower that could dig in for defense or advance to destroy the enemy’s main force as circumstances suggested. This reform first paid off at Cerignola (1503). At Pavia (1525), tercios destroyed the French under Francis I. For two generations after that most opponents declined battle against the tercios whenever possible, and they became the most feared infantry in Europe. They remained dominant for nearly a hundred years. Their demise came during the Thirty Years’ War when more flexible Dutch and Swedish armies broke into more flexible, smaller regiments. These units smashed the tercios with combined arms tactics that also employed field artillery and a return to cavalry shock.


Also “arkibuza,” “hackbutt,” “hakenbüsche,” “harquebus.” Any of several types of early, slow-firing, small caliber firearms ignited by a matchlock and firing a half-ounce ball. The arquebus was a major advance on the first “hand cannon” where a heated wire or handheld slow match was applied to a touch hole in the top of the breech of a metal tube, a design that made aiming by line of sight impossible. That crude instrument was replaced by moving the touch hole to the side on the arquebus and using a firing lever, or serpentine, fitted to the stock that applied the match to an external priming pan alongside the breech. This allowed aiming the gun, though aimed fire was not accurate or emphasized and most arquebuses were not even fitted with sights. Maximum accurate range varied from 50 to 90 meters, with the optimum range just 50-60 meters. Like all early guns the arquebus was kept small caliber due to the expense of gunpowder and the danger of rupture or even explosion of the barrel. However, 15th-century arquebuses had long barrels (up to 40 inches). This reflected the move to corning of gunpowder.

The development of the arquebus as a complete personal firearm, “lock, stock, and barrel,” permitted recoil to be absorbed by the chest. That quickly made all older handguns obsolete. Later, a shift to shoulder firing allowed larger arquebuses with greater recoil to be deployed. This also improved aim by permitting sighting down the barrel. The arquebus slowly replaced the crossbow and the longbow during the 15th century, not least because it took less skill to use, which meant less expensive troops could be armed with arquebuses and deployed in field regiments. This met with some resistance: one condottieri captain used to blind and cut the hands off captured arquebusiers; other military conservatives had arquebusiers shot upon capture. An intermediate role of arquebusiers was to accompany pike squares to ward off enemy cavalry armed with shorter-range wheel lock pistols. Among notable battles involving arquebusiers were Cerignola (April 21, 1503), where Spanish arquebusiers arrayed behind a wooden palisade devastated the French, receiving credit from military historians as the first troops to win a battle with personal firearms; and Nagashino, where Nobunaga Oda’s 3,000 arquebusiers smashed a more traditional samurai army. The arquebus was eventually replaced by the more powerful and heavier musket.

Arquebus vs archery

In terms of accuracy, the arquebus was extremely inferior to any kind of bow. However, the arquebus had a faster rate of fire than the most powerful crossbow, had a shorter learning curve than a longbow, and was more powerful than either. An arquebusier could carry more ammunition and powder than a crossbowman or longbowman could with bolts or arrows. The weapon also had the added advantage of scaring enemies (and spooking horses) with the noise. Perhaps most importantly, producing an effective arquebusier required a lot less training than producing an effective bowman. During a siege it was also easier to fire an arquebus out of loopholes than it was a bow and arrow.

On the downside, fired ammunition could not be picked up and reused like bolts and arrows. This is a useful way to reduce cost of practice ammunition or resupply yourself if you control the battlefield after a battle. The arquebus was more sensitive to humid weather. Gunpowder also ages much faster than a bolt or an arrow—particularly if improperly stored. Also, the resources needed to make gunpowder were less universally available than the resources needed to make bolts and arrows. A bullet must fit a barrel much more exactly than an arrow or bolt must fit a bow so the arquebus required more standardization and made it harder to resupply by looting bodies of fallen soldiers. It was also significantly more dangerous to its user. The arquebusier carries a lot of gunpowder on his person and has a lit match in one hand. The same goes for the soldiers next to him. Amid the confusion, stress and fumbling of a battle arquebusiers are potentially a danger to themselves. Early arquebuses tended to have a drastic recoil, they took a long time to load unless using the ‘continuous fire’ strategy, where one line would shoot and reload while the next line shot. When wet the guns were near useless; they also tended to overheat. During repeated firing, guns could become clogged and explode causing pieces of metal and wood to break off, which could be dangerous to the gunner and even those around him. Furthermore, the amount of smoke produced by blackpowder weapons was considerable, making it hard to see the enemy after a few salvoes. Prior to the wheellock the need for a lit match made stealth and concealment nigh impossible, particularly at night. Even with successful concealment the smoke emitted by a single arquebus shot would make it pretty obvious where a shot came from – at least in daylight. Bows and crossbows can shoot over obstacles by firing with high-arcing ballistic trajectories in order to reach the enemy when he has some frontal but no overhead cover (such as when your own troops are in melee with the enemy) — albeit with much less accuracy. An arquebus cannot do this.





Fedor Mateyevitch Apraxin, (1661-1728)


Russian admiral. Along with Peter I, Apraxin was the founder of the modern Russian Navy. In 1700 Peter appointed Apraxin governor of Azov, where he was ordered to build and sustain a Black Sea fleet for operations against the Ottoman Empire. He built blue-water ships and river boats and barges, based in large part on information Peter gathered in the West. Apraxin also built and oversaw new dockyards, warehouses, and repair facilities-in short, the full apparatus of a permanent navy-and roughly gathered related ship-building crafts and industries and workers under his control. In 1707 he moved north and was named “Admiral of the Baltic Fleet,” tasked with defending the new capital of St. Petersburg while Peter and the Army were away fighting Karl XII in Poland and Ukraine, as the Great Northern War (1700-1721) crested in the east and south. Apraxin drove away a small Swedish column and fleet sent toward St. Petersburg as a double feint to draw Peter back north. In 1714 he commanded a Russian fleet of 30 sail and 180 galleys which defeated a much diminished Swedish fleet at Hangö, or Gangut (July 27/August 7, 1714). Before the war was over, Apraxin drove the Swedish Navy from Karelian and Finnish waters and conducted amphibious raids and bombardments of coastal Sweden itself, even threatening Stockholm. Apraxin and the new Navy both declined in influence after Peter’s death, but even a number of years of neglect could not wholly erase the permanent changes wrought in the Black Sea and the Baltic.

Peter I was also devoted to the modernization of most aspects of Russian national life. He began with the military, building the Navy essentially from scratch to a force that at his death boasted fully 36 ships-of-the-line, 86 additional significant warships (frigates and galleys), and 280 support vessels. So dedicated was Peter to the Russian Navy that he made chopping down an oak tree a capital offense, and he also punished the collection of forest windfalls, reserving all hardwood for ship-building. He imported hundreds of foreign artisans, engineers, and mercenaries and sent Russian nobles abroad to study.

The United Provinces and England were already united against France on land. At sea, they acted in concert as the “Maritime Powers,” despite being hard rivals for trade in a world where English ships were making increasing inroads at the expense of the Dutch. In the lead-up to the Great Northern War, these maritime allies sought to maintain the Baltic balance of power principally because their own sea power was dependent on naval imports from the Baltic, most importantly of masts and hemp. They also hoped to bring armies from Denmark and Sweden into the Grand Alliance that was reforming against France.

With the Maritime Powers and Brandenburg neutral at best, Denmark was forced to seek allies in the east for any war against Sweden. It found a willing partner in Augustus II of Poland. In 1699, Peter I agreed to an anti-Swedish alliance with Augustus II and Fredrik IV, newly installed in Copenhagen. The deal was engineered by Johann Reinhold Patkul (1660-1707), a Baltic German who had spent some time in Swedish service. By this secret alliance, the three sovereigns declared an intention to wage a war of aggression leading to partition of the Swedish empire, in order to take advantage of the passing of the more formidable Karl XI and the youthful inexperience of the new Swedish king.

Karl XII now showed precocious strategic and diplomatic skills. He and his advisers secured support of the Maritime Powers for the status quo in Schleswig by promising to uphold the Treaty of Ryswick (September 20, 1697). Then, keenly focusing on the weakest of its three enemies, Sweden proceeded to knock Denmark out of the war with a bold amphibious operation. Over the protests of his naval commanders, Karl ordered the Swedish fleet to navigate the “Flinterend,” a dangerous passage between Sweden and the island of Sjælland (or Zealand). This enabled a landing of his army near Copenhagen in late July, followed by a quick advance on the city. The frightened Danish king agreed to exit the alliance and war by signing the Peace of Travendal (August 7/18, 1700). That permitted Karl to turn his army east, where it met and routed a much larger Russian force initially led by Peter, who had invaded Ingria in late October and was bombarding and besieging Narva with 35,000 men. The fight that ensued at Narva (November 19/30, 1700) in the midst of a snowstorm ended in a complete rout that dashed Peter’s hopes of annexing Ingria and Estonia.


Peter spent that summer campaigning to take more territory from the Swedes, this time in Karelia and Finland. His troops took Helsingfors and Åbo and occupied Helsinki that May, subtracting another province from the tax and recruitment tallies formerly collected by Sweden. By 1714 Peter had captured and occupied all the Baltic territories of the Swedish Empire, from Livonia to Estonia and Karelia. His “Admiral of the Baltic Fleet,” Fedor Apraxin, also defeated the Swedish Navy at Hangö, or Gangut (July 27/August 7, 1714), off the southern tip of Finland. That victory established Russian naval domination of the Baltic and opened Finland, and indeed Sweden itself, to Russia’s amphibious raids and coastal bombardments. In 1716, Peter even assumed temporary command of British, Danish, Dutch, and Russian fleets allied against the hard-pressed Swedes. In 1717 he visited Paris, where he made clear his intention that Russia would displace Sweden within the European balance of power system and as the dominant Baltic power. This bold proposal reflected new facts on the ground in the east and atop the waters of the Baltic Sea. It was therefore readily accepted by the other Great Powers.

Karl XII scraped together an army from a war-weary and disheartened kingdom, and moved to attack the Danes in Norway in 1717. He campaigned in Norway again during 1718. Seemingly not content with his extant enemies, Karl provoked Great Britain to declare war on Sweden by attempting to block British access to the Baltic trades vital to the Royal Navy and to prosperity, and by foolishly supporting the already hopeless Jacobite cause. Karl was shot and killed while fighting at the siege of Fredrikshald (Fredriksten) in Norway on November 30/December 11, 1718. The next year, a new, fully modern Russian battlefleet built by Peter over the course of the Great Northern War arrived off the Swedish coast. It bombarded several harbor towns, an affront to the national homeland that could not have been imagined in Stockholm 20 years earlier. The next year Peter’s northern navy won a significant victory at Grengham (July 16/27, 1720). That caused Sweden to finally sue for peace with at least the lesser of its carrion-eating neighbors.

With western Europe already enjoying the peace that followed the settlement at Utrecht in 1713, eastern European powers were also finally ready to settle. The anti-Swedish coalition also began to break apart in face of the realization that Peter’s Russia had replaced Karl’s Sweden-not just as a member of the club of Great Powers, but also as the main predator of the north. Concern for the regional balance of power if Sweden were to be further reduced to Russia’s advantage began to tell against the urge to carve up and divide Sweden’s remaining provinces. Great Britain, in particular, was concerned about Russian naval plans in the Baltic. In this concern, royal interest in endowing Hanover with a greater Baltic naval presence was matched by perceived national interests. At the diplomatic table, Sweden thus regained some lands from Poland, which was a major loser in the Great Northern War.

Russia’s victory in the Great Northern War was so complete that it was permanently established as Sweden’s replacement as a Great Power in the European system and as the dominant power in the Baltic.

The first challenge: Bayezid I’s siege of Constantinople (1394–1402) I


Contemporary Byzantine tradition ascribed the deliverance of Constantinople to a miraculous intervention by the Virgin Mary (Theotokos).


Constantinople in 1422; the oldest surviving map of the city.

Ottoman troops roaming the outskirts of Constantinople had seized almost all the lands surrounding the city by the year 1391, that is, a few years before Bayezid I embarked upon the actual siege operations. During the siege, therefore, the control of these areas, besides depriving the capital’s inhabitants of agricultural products grown there, enabled Bayezid to restrict overland movements to and from the city and thus prevent the transportation of food supplies and other necessities from elsewhere. The city’s gates seem to have remained closed throughout most of the blockade. In a fairly short speech written to commemorate the termination of the siege Demetrios Chrysoloras makes three allusions to the closed gates of the beleaguered capital, indicating the strong impact that this situation must have had on the citizens. According to an anonymous eyewitness account of the siege, Ottoman ships that patrolled the waters around Constantinople prohibited access to its harbor and limited contact with the outside world by means of the sea as well. Indeed, Bayezid’s strategy was to ensure the surrender of the Byzantine capital by pushing its population to starvation in this manner. Almost as soon as the siege started, therefore, scarcity of food became such a serious threat that Manuel II was compelled to turn immediately to Venice for grain supplies. However, the Emperor’s repeated appeals to the Senate of Venice between 1394 and 1396 received positive responses on three occasions only, once each year. At the end of 1394, the Senate ordered the shipment of 1,500 modioi (351 tons) of grain to Constantinople, the following year 7,000–8,000 staia (441–504 tons), and an unspecified amount in March 1396. Apart from the relatively small size of these annual shipments, it is not even certain that they ever reached Constantinople past the Ottoman ships that guarded the entrance to the city’s harbor.

The Byzantine capital may have experienced some relief from the constraints of the blockade at the time of the Crusade of Nikopolis, which engaged most of Bayezid’s armed forces in the Balkans during part of 1396. Nonetheless, immediately following his victory at Nikopolis (September 25, 1396), the Ottoman ruler brought his army back before Constantinople and, tightening his grip on the city, demanded its surrender. Thereafter, until the end of the siege in 1402, all sources reiterate the exhausted state of food reserves and the constant outbreaks of famine, which were accompanied by frequent deaths and numerous cases of flight from the city, sometimes to the Italians, sometimes to the Ottomans.

In a letter written in the fall of 1398 Manuel Kalekas describes how the population of Constantinople was worn out by famine and poverty. About two years earlier Kalekas had moved from the Byzantine capital to Genoese Pera, in part to avoid the siege and its privations, following the example of many other people who had lost hope after Nikopolis and fled from the city, leaving it “deserted like a widow.” In 1400 Kalekas again wrote about a famine and lack of necessities that afflicted those who stayed behind in Constantinople. He was on the Venetian island of Crete at this time where, just like in Pera, a fairly sizable group of Constantinopolitan refugees had taken up residence. The historian Chalkokondyles, too, reports the death and flight of large numbers of famine stricken inhabitants, but he draws attention to those who went over to the Ottomans rather than to territories under Genoese or Venetian rule as in the previous examples. Likewise, the aforementioned anonymous eyewitness of the siege notes that many citizens fled to the Ottomans, openly as well as in secret, because of the severity of the famine. According to Doukas, moreover, shortly after the Ottoman victory at Nikopolis the majority of the people began to contemplate surrendering the city to Bayezid as they could no longer endure the famine and shortages, but they changed their minds as soon as they recalled how the Turks had destroyed the cities of Byzantine Asia Minor and subjected their inhabitants to Muslim rule. Nonetheless, Doukas’ account of later events reveals that around 1399 the persistence of the siege and famine gave rise to a new wave of agitation among the common people of the capital in favor of surrender.

Concerning the last stages of the siege, sources are even more emphatic about the harsh famine conditions and give graphic descriptions of the consequent flight of citizens in order to deliver themselves to the Ottomans standing guard outside the city walls. In an encyclical composed in the sixth year of the siege, the Patriarch Matthew refers more than once to a severe famine. In the same text the patriarch also relates that he pronounced sentences of excommunication against certain Byzantine ambassadors, whom he suspected of intending to negotiate with Bayezid I the city’s surrender. While the patriarch does not explicitly draw any causal links between the famine and the concurrent arrangements for surrender, other sources are more direct in expressing such links. For example, the author of the exploits of the French Marshal Boucicaut recounts how the starving citizens of Constantinople, because they could not bear the outbreak of a serious famine circa 1400, escaped from the city by lowering themselves with ropes down the walls at night and turned themselves in to the Ottomans. Boucicaut’s lieutenant Jean de Chateaumorand, who was in Constantinople from 1399 to 1402, tried to reduce the hunger problem by sending his soldiers on small-scale plundering expeditions into the surrounding countryside whenever circumstances made it possible for them to slip out of and then back into the city without being noticed by the Ottomans. The anonymous eyewitness to the siege likewise indicates that Constantinople was seized by a terrible famine at the outset of 1400, which caused everyone to lose hope and compelled the majority of the inhabitants to go over to the enemy. Meanwhile a large group of men and women who managed to escape from the city by sea fell captive to the Turks near Abydos and Sestos as they were trying to sail through the Dardanelles. Finally, with reference to the spring–summer of 1402 a short chronicle notice reports that, as everyone inside Constantinople was famished, the populace took flight, while at the same time an embassy set out to deliver the city’s keys to the Ottoman Sultan.

The first challenge: Bayezid I’s siege of Constantinople (1394–1402) II


Sultan Bayezid breaks the siege at Nicopolis and comes close at night to the besieged castle of Nicopolis and encouarages the castle commander Dogan Bey. Source: Hünername, Doğan Kardeş, İstanbul 1969

When Emperor Manuel II traveled to the West at the end of 1399 in search of financial and military help, the pressures and hardships induced by Bayezid’s protracted siege had become excessive in Constantinople. During the next few years conditions inside the city continued to deteriorate, leaving almost everyone from the common people to members of the highest levels of society impoverished and hopeless. Dilapidated or demolished houses, unattended monasteries and churches, uncultivated gardens, vineyards, and fields were spread throughout the depopulated city that was daily losing growing numbers of inhabitants to Italian or Ottoman territories. Furthermore, those who remained in the city not only had to struggle with starvation and exhausted revenues but also had to protect themselves from opportunistic people who engaged in profiteering. The latter, consisting of a small group of wealthy merchants and businessmen who managed to continue participating in long-distance trade despite the blockade, endured minimal losses in comparison with the rest of the population. Judging from the exorbitant prices they charged for products they brought into Constantinople, the high interest rates they demanded for loans they handed out, and the investments they made in the city’s real-estate market at prices well below actual values, they seem to have more than made up for whatever difficulties their trading ventures abroad might have sustained as a result of the siege.

If, on the other hand, Manuel II’s departure for Europe in 1399 had initially aroused among the citizens of Constantinople expectations of western help, hopes were most certainly dwindling a year or two later, as the Emperor continued his tour of European courts without having accomplished much that was deemed satisfactory. Consequently, diverse groups of people who could no longer tolerate being confined inside a city with the social and economic conditions outlined above began to agitate in favor of surrender to Bayezid’s forces. As early as about the time of Manuel’s departure, the common people had been contemplating surrender, hoping that they would thereby escape starvation and misery. During the years that followed, in addition to numerous citizens who fled from the capital and individually turned themselves in to the Ottoman soldiers standing guard outside the city walls, several embassies were dispatched to the Sultan to propose to him the delivery of Constantinople. Patriarch Matthew reports in an encyclical he composed in 1401 that on three occasions, “a short time ago,” ambassadors had been sent out of the city to negotiate with Bayezid. The patriarch claims that on each of these occasions he threatened the envoys with excommunication, lest they should attempt to betray the city to the enemy.


Shortly before the battle of Ankara (July 28, 1402) “the inhabitants of Constantinople” sent another embassy to Bayezid, selected from the city’s notables. This time, however, because the Ottoman ruler was distracted by the recent challenge of Timur, they expected to be able to secure some concessions from him. The ambassadors were to inform the Sultan that the Constantinopolitans were ready to obey all his orders in the capacity of his vassals only, “since it was not possible for them to betray the city voluntarily at any time.” But, adds the same source, Bayezid would not hear of such a bargain, and the embassy ended without even a simple achievement as, for instance, the grant of freedom to the inhabitants to leave Constantinople for a place of their own choice, should Bayezid happen to capture the city. What the anonymous Byzantine author reporting this event does not realize, or does not want to admit, however, is that under the precepts of Islamic law, a concession such as the one he mentions would normally be granted to the inhabitants of a city that surrendered, and not of one that was captured by force. Yet the Constantinopolitans at large seem to have been familiar with the Islamic practice since, following the failure of the above-mentioned embassy, “they were all ready to surrender themselves to the barbarians without battle after the victory [of Bayezid over Timur].” This statement is confirmed by a letter John VII wrote to King Henry IV of England scarcely two months before the battle of Ankara, in which he stressed that the Byzantine capital was on the verge of submitting to Bayezid’s men and urged the rulers of the Christian West to hurry to the city’s aid. According to the historian Kritoboulos, too, sometime before Bayezid’s encounter with Timur, an agreement had been reached between the Ottomans and “the citizens” of Constantinople, in which the latter promised to deliver themselves and their city to the Sultan on a specified day.


There is no evidence indicating to what degree, if at all, the Byzantine government was involved in the preceding arrangements which the sources vaguely attribute to the “citizens” or “inhabitants” of Constantinople. Yet, just on the eve of the battle of Ankara, John VII, perhaps pressured by the determined conduct of the citizen body, is said to have made an agreement with Bayezid, promising to surrender Constantinople to the Ottomans immediately after the Sultan’s anticipated victory over Timur. About the same time, with or without the Emperor’s knowledge or consent, a group of archontes from Constantinople set out for Kotyaeion (Kütahya), in order to deliver the keys of the city to the Sultan. Before they had a chance to complete their mission, however, the news was heard that Timur’s forces had defeated the Ottoman army near Ankara and taken Bayezid captive. Delighted at this unforeseen development, the archontes bearing the city keys returned home, and Constantinople was thus saved from falling into the hands of the Ottomans.

The Battle of Kosovo – Reality and Myth


Kosovo Maiden

After the battle of the Maritsa River the Ottomans greatly extended their circle of vassals, who were obliged to contribute to the Empire’s further ascent and consolidation by paying annual tributes and joining forces with the sultan in his military expeditions. They placed the urban strip and important routes along the Aegean coast under their direct rule. In 1383 the Ottomans conquered Serres and its vicinity, expanding toward Thessalonika. The monks from Mt. Athos, whose main estates were threatened, then approached them. Through Gallipoli the Turks fostered ties with their territories in Asia Minor and established relations with the major maritime powers, Venice and Genoa, which had for decades been contending bitterly over the remnants of the Byzantine Empire.

The tactics of Ottoman expansion had already been perfected. They would become involved in local conflicts at the invitation of the feuding Christian lords, familiarize themselves with the terrain, take what they wanted, and make those they aided their dependants. They undertook expeditions far from their core territory. While ruling only Thrace they sent troops to Ioánnina and Berat in Albania, and later to the Dubrovnik hinterland. A ruler’s death or family clashes were usually used as the grounds for establishing direct rule. Turkish detachments turned up in all parts of the Balkan Peninsula long before the territory of the Ottoman state approached the region.

The Ottomans had already reached Prince Lazar’s territory in 1381, when the prince’s commander Crep smashed the Turks in the battle of Dubravnica (near present-day Paraćin, in the Morava river valley). The Turkish unit had probably strayed there after some military operation in Bulgaria. A few years later, in 1386, a much more serious attack followed. Sultan Murad himself led the army that penetrated into Serbia, all the way to Pločnik in Toplica. There was no battle at the time. On that occasion, or somewhat later, the Ottomans raided Graćanica monastery, where the tower and its books were set on fire.

On the other side, the inherited hostility between King Tvrtko and the Balšićs triggered a Turkish raid into the Bileća region, where commander Shahin was defeated in August 1388. A buffer zone existed between the territories of Prince Lazar and Vuk Brankovic´ on one side, and the Ottomans on the other, consisting of the territories of Turkish vassals (the Dragaši – Dejanovic´s in the east, Vukašin’s heirs in the south). However, it was obvious that the Ottomans were closing in.

Parallel with these events, the vast Hungarian Kingdom created by Louis I Anjou (1342–82), surrounded by vassal territories on all sides, was crumbling. When King Louis died in 1382, he was succeeded by his daughter Maria, who ruled with her mother, the daughter of Bosnian Ban Stjepan II, but was met by resistance from the nobility. The ruling Anjou dynasty had relatives in southern Italy, where part of the Hungarian aristocracy sought an heir for the deceased king. Charles of Durazzo took the Hungarian throne, but soon became involved in court intrigues and was assassinated at court in 1385. The queens were accused of the assassination and open rebellion followed. The queens were captured in 1386 and their palatine (highest court dignitary), Nicolas de Gara the Elder, was murdered. A large group was formed in support of Ladislas of Naples, while Sigismund of Luxembourg, the young queen’s fiancé, tried to rally nobles loyal to the queens.

At first King Tvrtko honored the king’s successor, his cousin, and took Kotor with her approval in 1384. However, when internal rebellion erupted in Hungary he openly sided with Ladislas of Naples, along with Prince Lazar, and challenged Sigismund of Luxembourg. Tvrtko provided refuge for the rebellious Croatian noble brothers Ivaniš and Pavao Horvat, Ivaniš Paližna, and others. For a while Ivanis¡ Horvat ruled Mac¡va and Belin, Hungarian territories in Serbia south of the Sava River. Starting in 1387, Tvrtko conquered territories in Croatia and subjugated cities in Dalmatia. The city of Split resisted the longest and the deadline for its surrender was set for June 15, 1389.

King Tvrtko I and Prince Lazar were cut off from their Christian surroundings because of the conflict with the Hungarian queen and Sigismund of Luxembourg, and were joined only by the supporters of Ladislas of Naples and the Croatian rebels. Both sides of the Hungarian feud sought allies. Florence sided with the Anjou, while Sigismund of Luxembourg was supported by Venice and Duke Visconti of Milan, alleged by his contemporaries to have supplied weapons to the Turks.

Sultan Murad headed for Serbia in the early summer of 1389. He assembled an army of vassals and mercenaries, along with his own troops. By way of his vassals’ territories he reached Kosovo, from which routes led in different directions. Upon receiving news of his approach, Prince Lazar, Vuk Branković, on whose land the battle was fought, and King Tvrtko, who sent a large unit under the command of voivoda Vlatko Vuković, joined forces.

There is reliable information as to where the battle took place: part of the Kosovo Polje (Field of Blackbirds) near Priština, where Murad’s turbe (burial stone) still stands, was noted in sixteenth-century maps. The date of the battle is indubitable: St. Vitus’s Day, June 15, 1389. It is also certain that Sultan Murad was murdered and Prince Lazar was taken prisoner and slain the same day. Some Christian warriors became Turkish prisoners, and Bosnian nobles from Vlatko Vuković’s unit were still being sought in 1403 in Constantinople.

Information regarding other important details was at first contradictory. King Tvrtko reported his great victory with some casualties, but “not many,” in letters to his city of Trogir and his ally Florence. The death of the Ottoman ruler gave the Byzantines, and others all the way to France, the impression that the Christians had been victorious. According to medieval notions, holding onto the battleground was crucial in rating the outcome. The Turks remained in Kosovo for a short time, then headed east so that their new ruler Bayazid could strengthen his position. Vuk Branković, the lord of the territory, remained in place and in power, and did not immediately yield to the Turks.

Indisputable contemporary witnesses stated that contradictory versions of the battle circulated from the very beginning. Five weeks after the battle, no one in Venice knew who had succeeded Murad, and the Venetian envoy was instructed to tell anyone he found in power that the Republic had been informed, “although not clearly,” of the war between Murad and Prince Lazar, “of which different things had been said, but were not to be trusted.” Chalcocondyles, a fifteenth-century Byzantine historian, directly compared the Christians’ claims with those of the Turks, who maintained that the sultan had been killed after the battle, while inspecting the battlefield.

As time passed the tales unraveled further. The leitmotif of treason emerged on the Christian side, first linked with the Bosnian detachment and a certain Dragoslav, and then becoming focused and remaining on Vuk Branković. In the first decades following the battle, the theme emerged of the slandered knight, who went to the Turkish camp to slay Sultan Murad. Under the influence of epic tales of chivalry, Murad’s assassin and Lazar’s traitor were linked together, both becoming the prince’s sons-in-law. In the late fifteenth century the topic of the prince’s dinner and Lazar’s toast was well known. An entire collection of epic poetry was created containing many picturesque details, very far from reality.

The general view of the battle and its consequences was also far from reality. The battle of Kosovo was not a Crusade, nor was it the defense of Christianity, because the hinterland was hostile. At the time of the battle, Sigismund of Luxembourg had started an expedition against the Bosnian ruler. Prince Lazar had managed to achieve peace, with the mediation of his son-in-law Nicolas Gara the Younger, while Tvrtko remained at war with King Sigismund.

The idea that the “fall of the Serbian Empire” took place at the battle of Kosovo is fundamentally wrong, because the state continued to exist for a further seven decades and experienced economic and cultural revival. According to folklore traditions, the battle of Kosovo set off migrations and ruptured the development of clans and families. Of all Serbian historical events, the battle of Kosovo has been the most popular episode, deeply engraved in the national consciousness. It served as an inspiration for courageous deeds and sacrifices up to the twentieth century, and was widely used in condemning and stigmatizing treason.

Disaster at Ankara

Battle of Ankara, 1402

The huge Turkish victory at Nicopolis made the position of Constantinople look even more perilous than ever. The city did not fall to an Ottoman siege this time, but the loss of the allied army on the Danube made it less likely in future for any European prince to urge a crusade to save it. Nevertheless, in 1399 Emperor Manuel II went in person to plead his cause in the courts of Europe. His pleas for aid were eventually answered, but help came from an entirely unexpected direction.

The campaigns of Bayezid the Thunderbolt had consolidated his rule on both sides of the Bosphorus: the European and Balkan front known as Rumelia, and the Asian side of Anatolia. So successful had he been in the latter direction that his conquests had brought him into contact with another emerging power: that of the heir of the Mongols called Timur Lenk (Timur the Lame), known to the west as Tamberlane.

While Bayezid had triumphed in the western part of what is modern Turkey, Timur had staked an equally formidable claim in the east, capturing the strategic city of Sivas in 1400. Throughout his campaigns along the Anatolian marches and in Syria diplomatic exchanges had continued between Timur and the Christian lands nearby. These included the emperor of Trebizond (Trabzon), who feared the Ottomans more than Timur and hurried to send tribute. Nor had Timur neglected to keep Bayezid I informed of his latest conquests, and the capture of Sivas was waved in front of his face as a taunt. Timur sought in particular the return from Bayezid’s protection of certain dignitaries who had escaped the fall of Baghdad. Bayezid’s response was to assemble his troops, drawing large numbers of vassal soldiers out of the Balkans and suspending the long siege of Constantinople just at the point when his blockade was beginning to show some effect. Envoys were sent to Timur and met him near Sivas. Timur made a grand show of reviewing his troops within sight of the envoys. The army included magnificently attired reinforcements recently sent from Samarkand.

Bayezid secured his rear by stationing nine ships at Gelibolu and another 20 in the Aegean. He then moved eastwards as quickly as possible to prevent a deep penetration of his territory by the enemy. His objective was the strategic city of Ankara, now Turkey’s capital and already important owing to its position at the crossroads of the routes from Syria and Armenia. Summer was coming to an end and the crops were ready for harvesting, so it was a bad time to be going on campaign. The sultan rejected the advice of his councillors to wait for Timur near the well-watered region near Ankara. Instead he left a reserve garrison there and continued eastwards.

Timur was being kept informed of the Ottoman movements by scouts and be beaded south-west from Sivas, following the curve of the Kizilirmak River. After six days of forced marches they reached Kayseri without meeting any opposition from Ottoman forces. They rested there for four days then rode for another four days across Cappadocia to the environs of Kirsehir, where the first armed contact was made with Ottoman scouts.

Three more days brought Timur’s Army to the camping grounds to the north-east of Ankara that had recently been vacated by Bayezid. Timur gave orders for immediate siege operations against Ankara’s mighty Byzantine walls. The city’s water supply was diverted and the mining of the ramparts began. Mongol troops were already scaling the walls when news came in that Bayezid had abandoned bis march to Sivas and was two days away from Ankara.

When the Ottoman Army arrived they were in a very poor state. The only source of water available for Bayezid’s troops was a spring that Timur had arranged to be fouled. They were therefore in no position to fall upon the rear of a besieging army, so Timur was given ample opportunity to organise his battle lines. They looked magnificent, being crowned at the front by the presence of war elephants from India.

Bayezid’s Army included Serbian troops under his brother-in-law Stephen Lazarevic and the Serbs scored the first gain of the day by driving back Timur’s left wing. But there were problems among the Ottoman ranks. Certain contingents from Anatolia were from a similar ethnic background to Timur’s own troops and his agents had been active among them. At Ankara they were fighting their own kind, not Balkan Christians. Many of them recognised their former masters in the opposing ranks and came over to Timur’s side. Faced by rear attacks along with the frontal assault the Ottoman Army began to give way. On the right wing Lazarevic’s Serbs hung on until forced to retreat to cover other contingents’ withdrawal. Soon only Bayezid and his janissaries were left. He held on until nightfall, then retreated with only 300 warriors left to accompany him. The enemy followed in hot pursuit and killed Bayezid’s horse from under him.

Osmanlı sultanı Yıldırım Bayezid Han ile Timur Han’ın, Ankara’da yaptıkları savaş (1402).

In a dramatic end to a dramatic campaign Bayezid the Thunderbolt was taken prisoner and with him went Johann Schiltberger, the boy who had been spared at Nicopolis and had then entered the Sultan’s service. Schiltberger gives us the best close-hand account of the last days of the great Sultan:

Weysit [Bayezid] took to flight, and went with at least 1,000 horsemen to a mountain, Temerlin surrounded the mountain so that he could not move and took him. Then he remained eight months in the country, conquered more territory and occupied it … and he would have taken him into his own country but he died on the way.

Other accounts tell how the city of Ankara quickly submitted. Timur’s Army headed west hunting down the remnants of Bayezid’s Army. They finished by plundering the vast wealth of Bursa, including its magnificent bronze gates. The extent of the disaster can be imagined when one notes that Bayezid’s son Suleiman had to escape across the Sea of Marmara on a Genoese galley. But far from massacring the escaping Turks the citizens of Constantinople generously helped ferry them across the Bosphorus to freedom, albeit for an enormous fee.

Bayezid the Thunderbolt was taken as a captive across Anatolia and died in March 1403, probably at Timur’s own hand. Timur’s Mongol Army devastated the Ottoman lands as far as the Aegean and then laid siege to Izmir, which had been won back from the lurks in 1344 by the Knights of Rhodes. His victory there ensured that Timur had succeeded where his prisoner Bayezid had failed and had extinguished the last Christian outpost on the mainland. But Timur had also captured the Sultan and driven his son into exile. It appeared that Timur the Lame had utterly destroyed the Ottoman Empire.