The Nicopolis Crusade

In 1389, the Ottoman Sultan Murad, I led his army into Serbia following a defeat at the hands of a Serb-led coalition at Plocnik some years previous. In the battle that followed at Kosovo polje, the Field of Blackbirds, the Ottomans won a great victory and Serbia became a vassal of the young Ottoman Empire. However, it came at a high price. In the course of the battle, Murad was assassinated by a Serbian knight making a false surrender. While this is the common belief, the circumstances of Murad’s death remain unclear. His oldest son, Bayazid, quickly took control after executing his younger brother Yakub. After marrying the Serbian princess Olivera Despoina and setting her brother Stefan Lazarevic on the Serbian throne, Bayazid made his way back into Anatolia. However, the Ottoman state had no peace, and the new Sultan was forced to move at a pace most would find unbelievable, earning him the nickname, Yildirim, the Thunderbolt.

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Sultan Bayazid the Thunderbolt from an Ottoman family tree. By Ottoman miniature painter (Badisches Landesmuseum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By 1391, Bayazid had won control of all of Western Anatolia, bringing the Ottoman Empire to direct borders with the Emirate of Karaman, ruled by his troublesome brother-in-law Ala ud-Din Beg. To celebrate his conquests, Bayazid called for a conference at Edirne (formerly Adrianopolis, conquered by Murad), the Ottoman capital in Europe. This conference highlighted a rising tension between Bayazid and the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, Manouel II. Earlier in life Manouel had been an enemy of the Ottomans, and the passage of time had done nothing to smooth his hostility. Bayazid for his part had already begun to cast his eyes on Constantinople, the Queen of Cities and capital of the Roman Empire. Other matters in the Balkans soon drew Bayazid’s attention.

In 1393, Bayazid moved into the remnants of the Second Bulgarian Empire, having heard of Bulgarian negotiations with Ottoman enemies. With the fall of Tarnovo in the summer, he had nipped this threat in the bud and Ivan Shishman, the former Tsar, was kept under close watch at Nicopolis. Bayazid continued to move, dealing with border skirmishes with the Sultan of Sivas, Qadi Burhan al-Din in Anatolia. By winter he was back in the Balkans, and called for another conference, this time in Serres, a Roman princedom in Macedonia. News that Manouel II was plotting to reconcile with his nephew and rival for the throne, Ioannes, was a cause for concern. So Bayazid called Manouel, all of the Roman princelings, and Stefan Lazarevic, to report to him. Strangely enough Bayazid did nothing more than berate the assembly for not governing their lands well and sent them on their way.

In the spring of 1394 his intentions became clear: Ottoman forces began to move into Thrace and construct a series of castles to encircle Constantinople. Bayazid was going to lay siege to the city. However when the Roman and Latin princes of Greece decided to move toward independence Bayazid left his preparations and struck west. Macedonia and Thessaly were both annexed outright, and the Latin Duchy of Athens forced into vassalage.

In 1395, Bayazid seemed intent on reducing the Despotate of Morea when news from the north called him back. Mircea cel Batran, or Mircea the Old, was Voivode of Wallachia and self-proclaimed champion of Balkan Christianity. He was also allied to the powerful Sigismund I of Luxembourg, the king of Hungary. Taking advantage of the Ottoman focus on Greece, Mircea had launched an invasion. Bayazid replied in kind, living up to his nickname by striking like a thunderbolt into Wallachia. While ultimately ending in a stalemate the invasion had the aftereffect of destabilizing Wallachia and sending Mircea straight into the arms of Sigismund.

  Ottoman success had finally caught Western Christendom’s attention. The rapid rise of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans since they first entered the area under Murad I had been a cause of concern in Europe. By 1395, Bayazid was almost in complete control of the Balkans. Bulgaria was dying a slow death, the Roman Empire’s authority extended little beyond Constantinople’s famed triple walls, and now with Mircea the Old pleading in Buda for aid the situation had reached a critical stage.  However, Western Christendom had problems of its own.

The Western Schism, which had begun in 1378 when two popes, both elected by the Curia following Gregory XI’s death, had split Europe in two. The Hundred Years’ War between England and France had also flared up again, creating further chaos. With the threat of the Ottomans looming over them though, a strange thing began to happen. Richard II of England and Charles VI of France agreed to a cease-fire in 1384 and started to plan for a joint Crusade to end the Hundred Years’ War permanently and heal the Western Schism.

A desire for a real chivalric culture of peace, love, and understanding had become popular in both England and France and the two kings realized that all this energy needed a powerful outlet. Richard and Charles reaffirmed the peace in 1389 and headed by Charles’ tutor Philip of Mezieres preparation and organization for a Crusade was underway.

  In 1392, Charles VI laid down the first concrete plans for what was to become the Nicopolis Crusade with his uncle, Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Sigismund had already started calling for aid by this time, and the first joint Anglo-French army arrived in Hungary. In 1394, Richard II, Philip II, and the French king’s brother Louis I, Duke of Orleans organized a joint planning session with Sigismund. A massive Anglo-French army would be gathered to wage a Crusade for the salvation of Constantinople.

Philip II, Louis I, and the English king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster were appointed to hold joint command of the Crusade. The following year was set as the departure date. Crusade taxes were levied in Burgundy, France, and England. By the end of the year, Philip II had the money needed to fund the Crusade and John of Gaunt had gathered 1,500 men-at-arms. Contracts with Venice to provide naval support were agreed on. Finally in June and again in October that year the Roman Pope Boniface IX issued a papal bull for the Crusade, preaching it to the masses. The Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII, did not like being left out and copied him, preaching the Crusade to his flock as well.

However in 1395 the plan began to fall apart. Negotiations to finalize the contracts with Venice dragged on for months, and it was not until May the planned summit between Sigismund, Philip II and Louis I at Lyons could take place. This ended all hopes of the Crusade getting off on schedule. Further problems resulted as France experienced internal turmoil while bickering with England over whom Richard II should marry, now that his first wife, Anne of Bohemia, was dead. This moved John of Gaunt to cancel his Crusade obligations, and he delegated his responsibilities to John Beaufort, his eldest illegitimate son. However, Beaufort never went on Crusade, due to a revival in Anglo-French tensions. Philip II followed his lead and pulled out, delegating his obligations to his eldest son, Jean I, Count of Nevers. Louis I then pulled out entirely and the Crusade, which had stood as the best hope for peace in Western Europe, had become little more than a Burgundian expedition.

In April 1396, the Crusade finally left France for Hungary, under the command of Jean. By late July, the Western Crusaders had reached Buda, the capital of Hungary, and the leadership met with Sigismund and Mircea the Old to decide how to proceed.

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An older Sigismund of Hungary. Pisanello [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

From the start, the campaign was fraught with problems. Sigismund feared Bayazid and knew the Ottoman Sultan would attempt to invade Hungary. He had called the Crusade in hopes of having at his disposal the force necessary to defend his lands. However, the Crusaders had come to lift the Siege of Constantinople, not to support Hungary and overruled the angry Sigismund at the Buda conference. Instead, they opted for a massive strike into Ottoman territory, forcing Bayazid to meet them on the field of battle as soon as possible. This choice seemed to be the right one in the eyes of the Western leaders as Sigismund’s much-feared invasion never materialized. As a result, they labeled him a coward. The territory the Crusaders chose, with the aid of Mircea, was the former lands of Ivan Shishman.

Meanwhile on the other side of the line Bayazid had hardly been sitting still.  He ended the possibility of Bulgarian collaboration with Mircea by having the former tsar, still at Nicopolis, beheaded and the city invested with an Ottoman garrison. He then turned to Constantinople and with the ring of castles now complete settled in for a siege. However, the Ottoman fleet was unable to cut off the Romans by sea and even with the ring of castles cutting them off by land the Queen of Cities remained supplied. Bayazid was quickly growing impatient and attempted to assault the city, but the triple walls, which had saved Constantinople so many times before, saved the city again. News reached Bayazid relatively quickly of the Crusade, and he left only a small holding force behind while rallying an army at Edirne. In the meantime, he issued orders to his irregulars and scouts to not engage. The Crusaders were at this time advancing into former Bulgaria.

When they arrived at Vidin, the city surrendered to them. As it turned out, Vidin was ruled by Ivan Sratsimir, the younger half-brother of Ivan Shishman. While technically an Ottoman vassal, Ivan Sratsimir had claimed the title of tsar following the execution of his half-brother and had aspirations to restore the Bulgarian Empire. After negotiations with Ivan Sratsimir were concluded the Crusader-Hungarian force proceeded to the next fortress, Rahowa. Here they encountered resistance from the Ottoman garrison. Rahowa held out for five days before surrendering. When the Crusaders entered the city, they massacred the Turkish population before moving on.

On September 12th, the Crusaders and their allies arrived at Nicopolis, the last major fortress to besiege. Unfortunately the Ottoman commander, Dogan Beg, proved far more skilled then the Western leaders expected. Neither the Crusaders nor the Hungarians had brought siege weapons, probably hoping to reduce any obstacles by starvation. Alternatively the Crusaders hoped to force Bayazid to break the blockade. While the siege continued, the Ottomans made real progress and Bayazid met Stefan Lazarevic on the 22nd. That same day a Hungarian scouting party encountered the main body. The Crusader-Allied army, surprised, dispatched more scouts and located Bayazid’s newly fortified camp on the 24th, just south of Nicopolis (he had just arrived the previous day). In reaction, the Crusaders prepared to leave Nicopolis (executing their prisoners beforehand) to face Bayazid on the open field the morning of the following day, September 25. The battle of Nicopolis had begun.

The Crusader army was a diverse group of men drawn together from all walks of life. The central component of the Crusader forces at Nicopolis was the Franco-Burgundian cavalry.  Jean I, Count of Nevers and his personal household contingent and Burgundian vassals formed the core part. The other leading commanders, the epitome of French chivalry and valor, were Jean Boucicaut, the Marshal of France, Philip de Artois, the Constable of France, and Jean de Vienne, the Admiral of France. Enguerrand VII de Coucy, Henri de Bar, and James I de Bourbon were other prominent knights and lords present with the main body but had joined the Crusade after the march had begun.

Jean I, Count of Nevers

Jean I of Nevers, later duke of Burgundy. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

While the Crusade was passing through Germany, it was joined by men from the Palatinate of the Rhine, the Duchy of Bavaria, and the city of Nuremberg. Many other Germans besides joined the Crusade. Also, there may have been a small English detachment serving under the Earl of Huntingdon, but this is disputed. Lastly, we know of contingents from Aragon, Poland, and many other Christian powers. Naval support was provided by the Hospitallers, Venice, and Genoa.

On reaching Buda in Hungary King Sigismund joined his men, mostly light infantry, and cavalry, to the Crusader forces. The Hungarian army was remarkably varied and while centered around a superficial knightly class was made up predominantly of horse archers and mixed infantry (especially crossbowmen).

The Wallachians of Mircea the Old also joined the Crusade with what remained of his army, though he was Orthodox, not Catholic like the Crusaders. While organized along tribal lines rather than feudal the Wallachians were known as some of the best soldiers in the Balkans. The Crusader army in total then numbered somewhere in the ballpark of 16,000 men.

The Ottoman army was the living legacy to the brilliance of Murad I. Bayazid Yildirim owed much of his success to the new model army that his father devised and that he perfected. This new army was not based on tribal ties, but instead on a professional, standing, basis. The core was the Ottoman ruler’s household, divided into an inner and outer “service”. These men were called the kapikulu, or slaves though most of those in service would have long since been manumitted. This included the elite palace cavalry corps (the Six Regiments) and the Yeni Ceri (Janissary) infantry battalions.

The majority of the Ottoman troops were divided up between two large formations, the Anatolian, and Rumelian corps. Comprised of men from the eastern and western halves of the state respectively, the organization of these troops was much more streamlined than in the West. The cavalry were divided into timariots, (regulars maintained by Latin-style fiefs called timars), maasli, (regulars supported by the state) akinjis, (irregular frontier warriors) and musellems (irregular mounted pioneers). Infantry were divided up between the yayas (irregular spearmen) and the azaps (semi-regular skirmishers).

To this forces must be included the Serbian army of Stefan Lazarevic. Latin feudalism had entered the Balkans earlier in the century and had been embraced by the Serbs. Stefan Lazarevic’s army was organized into a mainly heavy cavalry force supported by mercenaries and a general levy though it appears that only the Serbian knights themselves took the field at Nicopolis. The Ottoman army in total then numbered somewhere in the ballpark of 15,000 men.

The final preparations were underway. The previous evening Sigismund had advised caution to his allies, suggesting to first of all discover whether or not the Ottomans planned to attack and second to send Mircea’s troops out in front to clear the field of akinijs ahead of the main assault by the Franco-Burgundians. This plan was met with resistance by the other leaders, angered at being denied the right to lead the charge.

Jean, I was more outraged then anyone and countered that Sigismund wanted the glory for himself. This brought to a head what had so far been the Crusade’s biggest problem: Sigismund and Mircea thought in the mold of eastern style warfare. The Hungarian king’s plan was backed by a belief that he could harass the Ottoman lines into weakening enough to collapse upon contact with the Franco-Burgundian knights. The concept of first man in combat gains the most glory, so dear in the contemporary West, was foreign in the Balkans, even with Hungary fielding knights of its own. The matter reached its height when Robert de Artois, Count d’Eu, made the following speech:

“Yes, yes, the king of Hungary wishes to gain all the honor of the day. He has given us the vanguard, and now he wishes to take it away, that he may have the first blow. Let those who will believe what he sends to us, but for my part I never will… In the name of God and Saint George, you shall see me this day prove myself a good knight.”

This brought the second problem to the fore. Western thought in general and French thought, in particular, focused on the superiority of the knight over all others on both the battlefield and in society. Even though this certainly did not hold true even in Europe itself anymore, the lesson was hard learned. Sigismund was caught in a vice, but could not risk alienating the French and Burgundians. He caved to their demands, allowing the knights to take vanguard.

The line was organized thus: The Franco-Burgundian knights all took a position out in front. King Sigismund took command in the center with the Hungarians and the German Crusaders. The Transylvanians under Stephen Laczkoivc (subject to Sigismund) took a position on the right, and the Wallachians took a position on the left.

Bayazid had none of the problems that afflicted the Crusaders and already formed his men in a classic crescent formation. He had established a fortified camp with the purpose of forcing the Crusaders to attack him, another classic move. The Rumelian regulars were deployed on the right, the Anatolians on the left. In the center, behind the stake barricade, were the azaps and Yeni Ceri. In front of the barricade were the akinjis. Behind the main lines, hidden from view, was the household division of Bayazid with his personal guard in the center and the Six Regiments divided into three each on his right and left. On the further left was the knights of Stefan Lazarevic.

Sigismund was reluctant to engage the Ottoman lines and intended to play a waiting game with Bayazid. However, the French had no such ideas. Jean had lost all patience and unable to hold it in any longer shouted the charge straight into the Ottoman light cavalry. Surging forward on their great horses the greatest warriors of Western Christendom collided head on with the akinjis. Jean himself commanded from the front, earning him the nickname ‘sans Peur’, the Fearless. The Ottoman skirmish cavalry at first appeared to have broken on impact, but it was, in fact, a clever ploy by Bayazid.

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The battle of Nicopolis. By J. Schiltberger (J. Schiltberger, Ein wunderbarliche…) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Turning around the skirmishers led the Crusader knights into the wall of stakes. At first they attempted ride over the wooden barricade but their horses were not bred for leaping, especially over sharpened logs. Realizing they would have to dismount, the knights began to leave their horses. On that signal, the azaps and Yeni Ceri took out their bows and opened fire. Under a hail of arrow fire, the French and Burgundians tore the stakes out of the ground and took many casualties. Finally, they managed to clear a path through the barricade but because they could not remount their horses Jean ordered his men to advance on foot. The other knights followed his lead and engaged the azaps and Yeni Ceri. Some of the akinjis and regular cavalry were also drawn into the melee. Even without horses the Western knights were still formidable opponents, and the Ottoman infantry was devastated, especially the azaps, who soon broke and fled for real. In a testament to their skills, the Yeni Ceri managed to maintain their cohesion and begun an orderly retreat, drawing the dismounted Crusaders with them.

When they reached the hills, the main body of the Ottoman regular cavalry moved to engage. However, they withdrew almost as quickly as they came. The Franco-Burgundians continued to struggle uphill only to walk into an ambush by the Ottoman household troops led by Bayazid. The regulars then rejoined, to surround the Crusaders on three sides. Within minutes, the entire body was either dead or captured. Among the first group was Jean de Vienne, who was slain defending the French banner and among the latter group Jean I, Count of Nevers.

Meanwhile on the other side of the field the horses of the French and Burgundian knights had begun to return to camp. King Sigismund, who had already ordered the center forward in an attempt to support the charging knights, now knew something was wrong. The fresh troops first encountered the reformed Ottoman infantry on the plateau before facing the mounted regulars. The resulting contest was far more equally matched, but Bayazid had one last trick up his sleeves. As the day passed into the late afternoon, the Serbian knights of Stefan Lazarevic burst from cover and hit the king of Hungary’s undefended flanks.

The Transylvanians and Wallachians had retreated during the march (neither Mircea nor Steven Lazarevic felt any great loyalty to Hungary, and were more concerned about their people), and left the center exposed. The Serbian knights threw themselves toward the main Hungarian banner and overthrew it. Seeing the lead banner fall, the Hungarian commanders prevailed on Sigismund to disengage. The King agreed, and his forces retreated in good order to the banks of the Danube, where the joint Hospitaller and allied Italian fleet was waiting. The remaining Crusader-Allied senior leadership was able to embark safely, but many others were not so fortunate as there was not enough room for everyone on the ships. As word of this spread, a panic broke out in the ranks. A few ships were sunk in the chaos by overloading. As the water was low in September, many Crusader-Allied troops were able to ford the river safely by swimming or crossing further downstream where it was broken up by islands. The Ottomans took advantage of the chaos, isolating bodies of Crusaders on hill tops (including the famous incident of the “Knight of Poland”, who sacrificed himself to keep the Ottomans from being able to fire on the fleet from the heights), or hunting them in the space between the hills. However, Bayazid was largely content to watch his enemy self-destruct. Observing this as his ship sailed for Constantinople, Sigismund famously remarked on the French:

“If only they had listened to me… We had men in the plenty to fight our enemies.”

The battle of Nicopolis, the last great battle of the Crusading Era was over. The Ottoman dominion was reaffirmed.

In the aftermath of the battle much happened. The outcome of the Nicopolis Crusade was a surprise to the powers of Western Europe. In one single horrific afternoon, the flower of the west were either struck down or captured. For those who were caught the culture shock left a profound and lasting effect. Islamic culture did not have the same codes toward the treatment of prisoners that Christian culture had.

The worst came when Bayazid, in a fit of anger over the massacres and the heavy casualties his men suffered in the first phase of the battle executed a large number of Crusaders he had taken prisoner. Only the most wealthy (Like Jean I) or young (like Johann Schiltberger) survived. The exact number is unknown (ranging from 300 to 10,000), but it seems likely that Bayazid wanted to execute even more, holding off out of awe from the peaceful way in which the executed went to their deaths. This was perhaps an even wider shock to Western Europe, and never again would a Crusade be launched against the Ottomans. Left alone the Ottoman Empire continued to expand, only to be nearly destroyed in 1402 when Bayazid was defeated and captured by the great Turko-Mongol conqueror Timur-e Lang, or Tamerlane at Ankara.

 

Sources:

Norman Housley, The Later Crusades, 1274-1580: From Lyons to Alcazar.  New York, 1992.

Aziz Atiya, The Crusades of the Later Middle Ages. New York, 1965.

Aziz Atiya, The Crusade of Nicopolis. New York, 1978.

George  Nafziger and Mark Walton, Islam at War: A History. Westport, 2003.

Buchan Telfer, trans, The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger. London, 1979.

David Nicolle, Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade, illustrations by Christa Hooks. Oxford, 1999

Caroline Finkel, Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. New York, 2005.

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