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.

Navarino, 1827 Part I

A European coalition united by the cause of Greek liberty defeats the Turkish navy to create an independent Greek state and further weaken the grip of the Ottoman Empire in Europe

Early on a bright Saturday morning in October 1827, a combined fleet of British, French and Russian warships was slowly manoeuvring into line a few miles out from the entrance to Navarino Bay in the western Peloponnese. In the van were the British ships under Admiral Codrington, who, as the senior ranking officer, it had been agreed should assume overall command. Some 5 miles to the rear were the French and Russians. Bottled up inside the bay, a large Ottoman fleet made up of Egyptian, Turkish and Tunisian vessels lay at anchor. What was to happen next hung delicately in the balance and to a large extent would be determined by events out of the immediate control of the supreme commanders.

Although officially the fleets were not at war, the ships of the western allies were intent on entering the bay at the ready. Charles McPherson, a sailor aboard the British frigate Genoa recalled that the ‘tubs were filled with shot and everything else prepared’. The men were at battle stations, and at six bells in the forenoon watch (11.00) they mustered into position encouraged by their officers; Lieutenant Broke with the words:

Now, my men, you see we are going into the harbour today. I know you’ll be right glad of it; at least, I suppose you would be as much against cruising off here all winter as I am. So, I say, let’s in today, and fight it out like British seamen, and if we fall, why there’s an end to our cruise. I hope, when the guns are to man, you’ll all be at your stations.

Many of the men had been up most of the night, so if they could they took the opportunity to grab some sleep between the guns as the ships advanced towards an unknown outcome.

If the two fleets were not at war, the question was, why were they so primed for action, for the Ottomans, led by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, too were at the ready. The European allies, as was to become more common practice in recent times, were acting as mediators in a bloody conflict between Greek revolutionaries or freedom fighters and their Turkish over-lords. The Greeks had raised their banner of liberty on 25 March 1821 in a bid to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire, and with their supporters had swiftly taken control of much of the Peloponnese. In the following euphoria a revolutionary government was installed in Nafplion, but its continuing survival was heavily dependent on aid and money from abroad. If the mood of the people throughout Europe and America might be moving in favour of ideas of national liberation encouraged by the French Revolution, their governments were more cautious, and the nascent Greek government had to put all its diplomatic efforts into achieving official international recognition as the revolt dragged on. In a mismatch of resources with the Turks, the Greeks had one advantage, their skill as sailors. The rebels’ initial success had been largely due to their makeshift navy, whose efforts had prevented the Turks from reinforcing their troops from the sea. Initially caught on the back-foot and bottled up in their few remaining strongholds, when the Turks finally reacted, they did so in strength and with ruthless ferocity. To quell the revolt, in 1822 Sultan Mahmud II turned to his semi-autonomous Egyptian vassal, Mehmed (Muhammad) Ali Pasha. Mehmed Ali and his son Ibrahim had spent the years since Napoleon’s invasion reforming and modernizing Egypt with the help of European expertise, and as a result he possessed a modern, disciplined army and navy, trained in the main by French officers. Mehmed and Ibrahim were also ambitious and the Sultan was wary of their growing power. As an inducement for them to commit to helping the Ottoman cause, the Sultan offered the Pashliks of Crete to Mehmed and the Morea (the Peloponnese) to Ibrahim if they would re-conquer the Empire’s lost territories.

Crete had never been totally lost to the Turks but it still took two years for Mehmed’s Egyptian troops to finally bring the island to heel. With Crete subdued, the Sultan’s plan was to use it as a stepping-stone to bring the Greek islands back under control and to invade the Peloponnese. In the meantime, an army coming overland from the north would have the Greeks squeezed within a pincer movement. The Sultan’s plans were delayed when the Greek navy managed to thwart the Turks’ attempts to take the important islands of Samos, Spetses and Hydra, stalling their invasion of the Peloponnese and forcing the Turkish fleet to withdraw to Bodrum, where they waited to be joined by an Egyptian fleet out from Alexandria. Ibrahim had decided to concentrate his efforts on the Peloponnese and a vast armada of 400 ships, including 54 warships and transports carrying 14,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry and 500 artillerymen plus their 150 cannon, the largest seen in the eastern Mediterranean since Napoleon’s invasion, set off for its rendezvous.

The planned invasion got no further when a Greek fleet of up to 75 ships engaged 100 of the Ottoman fighting ships in open water off Cape Gerondas close to the island of Leros. Using their favourite weapon, the fireship, the Greeks managed to destroy six enemy warships, but at considerable cost. Nevertheless, the Turks were obliged to delay again and winter in Crete until, in February 1825 on French advice Ibrahim decided it would be to his advantage not to wait for the calms of summer that suited the lighter Greek ships but to launch his invasion now.

On the 23rd and 24th Ibrahim landed the advance party of his army at the Turkish-held former Venetian stronghold of Modon (Methoni). Having taken his opponents by surprise he was soon making good the Turkish losses, aided in part by civil war and dissention between the Greek factions. He set about ravishing the countryside, securing Turkish positions and besieging Greek strongholds. The harbour and forts at Navarino were taken in early 1825 and followed by Argos within striking distance of Nafplion. In the meantime, the Turkish army under Reshid Pasha had advanced on Missolonghi, where the poet Lord Byron had died (1824), from the north. After a prolonged siege the town eventually fell in 1826 after it was starved into submission with Ibrahim’s aid. Next June Reshid was in Athens, the last major stronghold in central Greece. After six years of brutal warfare the Greek revolt was floundering.

While many Philhellenes across Europe and America had been galvanised by Byron’s death and the devastation of the Morea to continue the fight for Greek liberty, their governments were still sitting on the fence, wary of their rivals and the consequences of intervention on the international balance of power and the established order. Without official foreign backing, the revolt looked doomed. However, reports that Ibrahim intended to make the Peloponnese into a wasteland and then people it with immigrants from Egypt, coupled with the courage of the beleaguered fighters, played into the Philhellenes’ hands and enough public support was mobilized to finally persuade the British, French and Russian governments to act. The Russians were already committed to helping their Christian Orthodox brethren, and perhaps gain a little territory at Turkish expense for themselves, and with the sympathetic George Canning replacing Castlereagh as Britain’s Foreign Secretary the policy of non-intervention brokered by Prince Metternich, his Austrian counterpart, at the conclusion of the Napoleonic War began to unravel. To pre-empt Russian unilateral action, in July 1827, Canning, now Prime Minister, persuaded France and Russia to sign the Treaty of London whereby the three powers agreed to induce an armistice between the belligerents and start peace negotiations. The terms of the Treaty urged the Sultan to recognize the independence of Greece while remaining its supreme ruler. The Porte, the Ottoman government in Constantinople, was understandably unwilling to make such concessions from a winning position, while the hard-pressed Greek provisional government at Nafplion was happier to accept the terms.

As the diplomatic posturing got underway, the Greek government were quite willing to talk, but this did not put an end to the fighting, which continued, in part encouraged by Western volunteers leading groups of irregulars. Particularly responsible were Sir Richard Church and Lord Thomas Cochrane, an army and a naval commander, who had so wholeheartedly thrown themselves into the Greek cause that although they were theoretically acting on behalf of the government they were independently waging their own war against the Turks. Their activities led to the Turks protesting that they could not negotiate while hostilities were continuing. Back in Egypt, Mehmed Pasha was tiring of the lack of progress in bringing the war to a conclusion and vacillating in his commitment to the Sultan. Thrust into this volatile situation with the task of keeping the peace and promoting the peace negotiations was the recently-appointed Commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Codrington. How the Treaty was to be enforced had been left unclear, so in the knowledge that the Turks were reluctant to accept mediation, the British government had issued a clarification to Codrington setting out a specific course of action for him to pursue going forward:

In the event anticipated of the refusal of the Porte to admit the mediation and to consent to an armistice, you will then, in the first place, have to enter on friendly relations with the Greeks, and next to intercept every supply sent by sea of men, arms, destined against Greece and coming either from Turkey or Africa in general.

Further instructions from Canning emphasised that the desire of the Allies was to enforce the armistice without recourse to military intervention, but in the event of all other means being exhausted, Codrington was free to resort to military force. It was with the purpose of maintaining the armistice that Codrington had arrived with a squadron of ships at Navarino in October 1827 in the wake of a large fleet of Ottoman reinforcements.

Codrington was a bluff, highly experienced navy man. He had joined at the age of 14 and gone on to distinguish himself as captain of HMS Orion at the Battle of Trafalgar under Nelson over twenty years previously. Courageous in action, he was conscientious and naturally cautious in his planning, and his devotion to his officers and crew was rewarded with their loyalty. It might be thought that his direct manner, which had brought him into conflict with his superiors when speaking up on behalf of his men, would make him unsuitable for the delicate role of mediator and leader of an uneasy alliance. Even if he was not a natural diplomat, Codrington took his task seriously, scrupulously attempting to maintain an air of impartiality and acting out his peacekeeping orders, as he saw them, in good faith; but his membership of the London Philhellenic Committee reveals where his true sympathies lay. His fellow admirals were not necessarily so restrained in their judgement. Also veterans of the Napoleonic wars, as were many of the lesser ranks on both sides, the admirals were united in their sympathy to the Greek cause. Marie Henri Daniel Gauthier, Comte de Rigny, had fought with courage against the British during the blockades of Cherbourg and Le Havre in 1811, and the commander of the Russian fleet, Count Lodewijk van Heiden, was a Dutchman who had offered his services to the Tsar’s navy during the complicated period of shifting alliances that pitted him against the French and then with the French against the British. With the recent history of the allies so fresh in the minds of many of the participants, it was only to be expected that Codrington had misgivings about how collaboration between such recent enemies might be effected. Even Ibrahim Pasha had fought during the recent wars, taking on the British in Alexandria in 1807 and forcing them to retreat out of Egypt.

Unlike Codrington, who had not served in the Mediterranean for over forty years and had only just over six months to get acquainted with the region, de Rigny had been sailing these waters for the last five years and was experienced in local sensibilities and on good terms with the Egyptians. With a tactful, easy-going nature, he was prepared to take things as they came, even by force if necessary. The two commanders were initially wary of one another and with the overall command of the fleet falling to Codrington there was naturally some unease on the part of de Rigny at first. They had first met in Smyrna at the beginning of August after Codrington had completed a familiarisation tour starting out from the British base at Malta that took in Nafplion, where he was required to restore some order between rival political factions. It was there that he had learned of the Treaty of London and he travelled on to Smyrna to receive instructions from Stratford Canning, cousin of George and the British Ambassador in Constantinople. Although Codrington and de Rigny both wanted to alleviate Greek suffering, they also found common cause in the need to stamp out indiscriminate piracy, something the Greek sailors were engaged in to supplement their meagre livelihoods. Because the Treaty had been drawn up by politicians far from the events unfolding on the ground, it was vague enough to offer some differences of interpretation, but both were of the view it would eventually lead to Greek independence. Austria’s non-signatory of the Treaty left possible areas of disagreement as to how to deal with its neutrality, especially as in reality the Austrian captains tended to interpret the terms of their neutrality in favour of the Turks.

It was as the British and French admirals were getting acquainted in Smyrna that they received the news that Mehmed Ali Pasha had had another change of heart and a large Turco-Egyptian fleet of around a hundred ships had left Alexandria on 5 August to support to Ibrahim’s campaign in the Peloponnese. Under the command of Ibrahim’s brother-in-law Moharrem Bey, the Egyptian fleet of three frigates, nine corvettes, four brigs and six sloops had been supplemented by an Imperial squadron from Constantinople under Tahir Pasha comprising of two ships-of-the-line, five frigates and nine corvettes, and a Tunisian squadron of three frigates, a brig, six fireships and forty transports manned in all by 30,000 sailors, carrying 3,500 guns and over 4,500 men including 600 Albanian irregulars. Five of the warships had been built in France, and assisting the Turks were six former French naval officers under the leadership of Captain Jean-Marie Letellier, all of whom had served under Napoleon. In Mehmed’s words to his son, ‘It is not the sort of fleet you have seen hitherto. It is now a brilliant fleet in the modern style, and such as has never been seen before in the Muslim world.’ Ibrahim would assume overall command of the fleet as well as the land army when it arrived in the Peloponnese and it would be with Ibrahim that the allied commanders would have to deal.

Prime Minister Canning had warned Mehmed Pasha not to get further involved in the conflict on the side of Turkey as it might provoke a ‘hostile collision’ despite the best endeavours to avoid it. Disregarding Canning’s attempted intervention, the fleet arrived at Navarino Bay on 7 September. The bay offered a deep natural harbour just over 3 miles (5km) long by nearly 2 miles (3km) wide, protected along its length from the open sea by the small thin island of Sphakteria, leaving access to the bay by two narrow channels to the north and the south. The shallow northern channel is narrowed further by the presence of a sandbank that prohibits the passage of larger vessels. The southern wider channel, flanked by rocks, is just over half a mile (1,000m) wide, leaving enough room to pass through safely. Within the enclosed area of the bay, slightly to the north of the centre, lies the tiny island of Chelonisi. The town, which sits by a promontory at the southern end, is known by its ancient name of Pylos today and is mainly remembered as the home of the legendary wise King Nestor who supplied ships in support of the Greek cause in the Trojan War. A fort built in 425BC by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War on the northern promontory became the site of a castle after the Frankish conquest in the 13th century, and the settlement became known as Navarin in French or Navarino in Italian. The fortress and harbour then changed hands several times, having been fought over by the Venetians and Genoese, been held by the Spanish Navarrese Company and again by Venice before falling into the hands of the Turks in 1501 who used it as a base for piracy and their naval operations in the Ionian and Adriatic seas. In the aftermath of the Battle of Lepanto, Turkish naval vessels were scuttled near the northern entrance making access hazardous, so in 1572 the Turks replaced the Frankish castle, now known as the Old Castle (Palaiokastro), with a new fortress (Neokastro) to guard the wider southern entrance. Navarino continued to be a desired possession and during the Morean War of 1685 Neokastro fell to the Venetians before coming back under Ottoman rule when the Turks retook the Peloponnese in 1715. Navarino was then made the centre of a new Sanjak of the Morea and resumed its role as a base for the Ottoman navy. During the early success of their uprising, the Greeks took Neokastro, slaughtering the garrison before the Turks were able to react and attempts to send reinforcements were kept at bay by the Greek navy. Navarino fell back into Turkish hands in 1825 only when Ibrahim launched his brutal counter-offensive.

At first, the departure of the Turco-Egyptian fleet from Alexandria drew a different response from the two allied admirals. At this stage, as neither of their squadrons was as yet at full strength and the Russians were still on their way from the Baltic to join the allies, they were heavily out-numbered. As soon as Codrington learned that the ships had arrived at Navarino where Ibrahim was camped, he left Nafplion and four days later he had positioned his squadron outside the Bay with the intent of bottling up the Ottoman fleet where it could do no harm. In contrast de Rigny, reading Ibrahim’s intended strategy correctly, had decided to cruise off Kythera in the hope that the Turks would break out from Navarino and make for Hydra in an attempt to knock out the Greek navy’s main base, and he could then engage them at sea. In reality, neither the French nor British, with only 28 fighting ships between them, were really in a position to push for an encounter. Furthermore, the diplomatic message from home was to continue to encourage negotiation, even though the deployment of the Ottoman fleet in the Peloponnese was seen as an infringement of the terms of the Treaty that the powers had laid out.

Contact having been made between Codrington and Ibrahim, the niceties of diplomacy through intermediaries began to prove difficult for men more used to action rather than talking. Codrington’s negotiating position was made more difficult by his awareness of the continued activities of Cochrane and Church. This meant he had to try to keep them on a leash while at the same time holding Ibrahim back from any retaliation. Ibrahim protested, again with some justification, that he was being asked to uphold a ceasefire and engage in talks as the Greeks carried on operations regardless. Indeed, at that very moment Church was eyeing up Patras and Cochrane planning a revolt behind Turkish lines in Epirus, beyond the agreed combat zone. If Ibrahim was to pull back, the Turks wanted guarantees, but as things stood they felt they were free to interpret matters in their own interest. So, on 21 September, while the talks continued and despite the warnings against any hostile action, a part of the Turco-Egyptian fleet slipped out of Navarino, apparently making for Hydra as de Rigny had anticipated. Codrington was now forced in the circumstances to prepare for a possible battle even though he was heavily outnumbered. Luckily for the British, it was then that de Rigny and the French squadron made a timely appearance at Navarino, putting a halt to the Turks’ plans. The more aggressive de Rigny added his own warnings to the Turks with the result that Ibrahim now felt it prudent to invite Codrington and de Rigny for a face-to-face meeting on 25 September.

The face-to-face conference took place in Ibrahim’s tent outside the town walls from where, seated on his sofa, he had a fine view of the bay. The meeting was carried out within an atmosphere of the utmost politeness and protocol. Important matters were only to be discussed after coffee and the smoking of a chibouque, a Turkish tobacco pipe with a ten-foot long stem. When it was time to get down to business, Codrington and de Rigny frankly pointed out to Ibrahim that under the terms of the Treaty it was their duty to intercept any reinforcements being sent to him for use against Greece. In return, Ibrahim politely pointed out that he was a soldier and under orders from the Sultan to attack Hydra. The admirals acknowledged his own sense of duty but warned him that if he put to sea they would be forced to act, and it would be an ‘act of madness that the Sultan could not applaud’ for him to engage with them as the destruction of his fleet would surely follow. They added that although his obstinacy would offer them the opportunity as military men to distinguish themselves, their priority was the maintenance of good relations between their respective countries. Ibrahim in response declared that as his government had not foreseen such a situation of confrontation between the two fleets, he promised he would suspend operations until he received further instruction from Constantinople. The admirals on their part said that the Greeks had accepted the mediation of the Allies and Codrington would put a stop to the activities of Church and Cochrane.

On 13 October, the Russians finally arrived to rendezvous with the British south of Zakynthos, followed closely by the French, bringing the three squadrons together for the first time. Codrington met Heiden and de Rigny aboard his flagship the Asia, but not together. Insisting that he needed to head for Zakynthos for provisions, de Rigny excused himself before the Russian admiral came on board. The Allies were by no means fully ready for action and their combined force was still outnumbered by the Turco-Egyptian fleet. Although Heiden’s complement was complete, comprising his flagship, the Azov, three other ships-of-the-line (Gangout, Ezekiel and Alexander Nevsky) and four frigates (Constantine, Povernoy, Elena and Castor), the British lacked two ships-of-the-line, the Genoa and Albion, both undergoing repairs at Malta, while Captain Hamilton in the frigate Cambrian had been sent off to track Ibrahim’s progress to Kalamata and ensure the safety of the Greek population. There were only four French ships present, two ships-of-the-line, Trident and Breslau, and two frigates, Sirène and Amide.

Codrington informed his fellow commanders of his latest orders and intelligence from Constantinople and the three were in general agreement that pressure should be put on the squadrons of Ibrahim’s fleet to return to their respective home ports. De Rigny acknowledged this might entail the Allies’ entering Navarino bay, so he would be obliged to abandon his surveillance of Hydra. He returned the next day from Zakynthos just as the third French ship-of-the-line, Scipion, joined the fleet from Kythera having been refitted with a new mast. Once the Allies had taken up position outside Navarino, de Rigny made contact with the renagadoes, the French naval officers employed by Ibrahim to help in the preparation of his defensive line. Through them de Rigny may have been able to gain inside knowledge as to the Turks’ activities and then it only remained to persuade them not to fight their fellow countrymen. With their work done all left Navarino on 17 October aboard an Austrian ship, except for Letellier, who was sick.

Codrington met Heiden aboard his flagship on 16 October, where he was made aware of Heiden’s opinion that the Tsar had probably already declared war. Heiden and Codrington got on well, but for his part Codrington continued to stick by his orders, insisting that war was not inevitable. Even so his patience was running out. His squadron was nearing battle ready, with every man at his post, and the talk amongst the ratings was, as Charles McPherson of the Genoa put it, of ‘the impending conflict’. On 18 October the three admirals met aboard Codrington’s flagship Asia. The Allies were faced with a dilemma, and it was forcing their hand. They could continue the blockade through the winter – this would be difficult, expensive and ineffective in curtailing Ibrahim’s activities on land – they could move into the bay in the hope that their mere presence would impede the enemy fleet and bring about a change of heart on his part, something they thought unlikely, or they could enter the Bay to actively impress on Ibrahim that he must obey the treaty.

The admirals unanimously chose the latter course. For Codrington it was the only option that could bring a halt to Ibrahim’s ‘brutal war of extermination’ and end the suffering of the Greek population. Both de Rigny and Heiden were of the opinion this would inevitably lead to bloodshed, but Codrington still misread the Turkish mind. He assumed Ibrahim would see the futility of the situation and relent, not understanding the overriding Ottoman sense of honour and fatalism. To safeguard themselves from criticism the three drew up a protocol outlining their reasons for taking independent action in view of the vague nature of their instructions.

The next day the Genoa and Albion arrived from Malta accompanied by the brig Mosquito bringing the fleet nearly up to full strength. In the meantime, Captain Hamilton had reported in person that Ibrahim’s troops were carrying out a brutal scorched earth policy that was reducing the population of Messenia to starvation. Codrington sent Hamilton back to Kalamata, accompanied by the sloop Philomel and the Russian frigate Constantine to add weight. Hamilton’s mission was to contact the Greeks and make whatever effort to protect them from the ‘barbarities’ of Ibrahim’s army, and to push the Ottomans back within the confines of Navarino. At the same time, he sent a letter signed by the three admirals to Ibrahim, who he assumed was in Navarino, via Colonel Craddock aboard the cruiser Dartmouth. The letter accused Ibrahim once again of violating the armistice, something that Ibrahim would defiantly have rejected if he had seen it, but he was actually at Modon preparing to lead his army in person. It was now too late to deter Ibrahim and the various ships returned to the fleet. Whatever Ibrahim’s misgivings about taking on the Allied fleet, the mood in Constantinople was not conciliatory and instructions had been sent to him the same day to continue with the plan to attack Hydra regardless of the consequences. Events were rapidly moving towards an inevitable showdown.

By now the die was cast and Admiral Codrington gathered his senior commanders together aboard the Asia to give them their operational orders, orders based on sound intelligence. He was well informed on the size of Ibrahim’s fleet and its disposition, backed up by the topographical survey written by Captain Leake that would be published in his Travels in the Morea in 1830, and the local knowledge of Greek pilots and fishermen. In addition, as a keen historian, his reading included Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and the description of the encounter that took place at Navarino during which a combined Athenian naval and military force overcame the Spartans encamped on Sphakteria island. Thucydides gave a detailed topographical description and the problems the Athenians encountered with the weather. Captain Leake too reported that the exposed area outside the southern entrance was problematic to maintaining a position, especially during winter. Codrington noted that the Athenians had sailed around the island through the passage by ancient Pylos, an option no longer practical due to the increased size of the ships. There was a similarity with the present situation, as the Turks had a gun battery guarding the bay on the island. The Spartan fleet was also drawn up in the confined space of the bay blocking both entrances, and it was here that the Athenians took them on, after failing to entice them into open waters.