Post-classical history

Nikopolis, Crusade of (1396)

A large crusade recruited from much of western Europe and Hungary, defeated by the Ottoman Turks near the frontier fortress of Nikopolis (mod. Nikopol, Bulgaria) in 1396.

The Turks had penetrated the Balkan peninsula during the 1360s and demonstrated that they were a major military power when they vanquished the Serbs at Kosovo Polje in 1389. A struggle followed between Hungary and the Ottomans for the domination of the principalities on both sides of the Danube. The Turks had suzerainty over Serbia and the Bulgarian kingdom of Vidin, having annexed the other Bulgarian kingdom of Turnovo (including the stronghold of Nikopolis) in 1393. Vlad, voivod of Wallachia, sought Ottoman help against his rival Mircea the Great, who turned to King Sigismund of Hungary. Sigismund (of Luxembourg), a German, had acceded to the Hungarian throne on his marriage to Maria, queen of Hungary, in 1387.

The Crusade of Nikopolis (1396)

The Crusade of Nikopolis (1396)

The Turks launched raids north of the Danube from 1391 onward. The Hungarians mounted a retaliatory expedition in 1393, recapturing Nikopolis Minor on the north side of the river. King Sigismund was able to gauge the extent of the Ottoman menace, and called on the leaders of western Europe for assistance, sending an embassy the same year. Louis, duke of Orléans, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, all pledged their support, while King Charles VI of France dispatched a small force under the constable of France, Count Philip of Eu. The following year, the three dukes sent their own ambassadors to the king of Hungary. Further east, the new Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos, cast off his status as vassal of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, leading to the siege of his capital, Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey), by the Turks.

The Ottoman advance constituted a menace to Italian navigation in the Black Sea, and Venice joined the Christian coalition that was taking shape. In the spring of 1395, ambassadors of Sigismundof Hungary and Manuel II Palaeologos came to Venice and Paris to plan the expedition, to which Charles VI promised to add a French corps. However, at the end of the year, the dukes of Lancaster and Orléans withdrew from the project, believing that they could not leave France, even though a truce had been signed between England and France in 1392. Philip the Bold also decided he could not leave France; his place was taken by his eldest son, John, count of Nevers. Venice, Genoa, and the Hospitallers agreed to participate in the expedition, while the rival popes at Rome and Avignon issued crusade bulls.

During the spring of 1396, men took the cross throughout much of western Europe: the areas that particpated included England, Germany, Savoy, and Italy, but France is the best documented. Poems by Eustache Deschamps and pamphlets by Philippe de Mézières were written in favor of the crusade. The unrealistic plan developed at the court of France was to expel the Ottoman Turks from Europe, restore the Latin Empire of Constantinople, and go on to recover the Holy Land from the Mamlûk sultanate. The nominal head of the French army was John of Nevers, but Philip of Eu, Marshal Boucicaut, and Enguerrand of Coucy led their own troops, leaving France at different times and taking different routes. In July, the different Western forces assembled at Buda, where they joined the Hungarian army. The total Christian forces numbered between 15,000 and 20,000 men, according to modern estimates.

The plan of campaign elaborated with the Hungarians was to march down the Danube accompanied by a supply fleet as far as Nikopolis, where the Christian land forces were to meet a Genoese, Venetian, and Hospitaller naval force sailing upriver from the Black Sea. They would then go on to Constantinople to raise the Turkish siege. A small corps was diverted to Wallachia to restore Mircea to the throne.

In early September the crusaders reached Ottoman territory at Vidin, held by the Bulgarian prince Ivan Stratsimir, who surrendered the town; the Ottoman garrison was massacred. This was followed by an attack on Oryakhovo (Rahova), when the French knights raced to be first to reach the walls. The Turkish commander offered to surrender, but the French insisted on taking the place by storm. They massacred not only the Turks, but also the Orthodox population except for the richest citizens, who had to pay a ransom, and then burned the town.

The crusaders arrived at Nikopolis, a near-impregnable site protected by strong fortifications, around 10 September and immediately laid siege to it by land and from the river. The Genoese and Venetians (the Hospitaller fleet not having arrived) cut off communications by water. The French constructed ladders to be used in assaults, while the Hungarians dug two large mines up to the walls. However, siege machinery was in short supply, and the sources give no indication that the crusaders had artillery with them. Deluded by their early victories and the absence of any news of the sultan, the crusaders turned the siege into a blockade, spending their time in debauchery, with little thought of security.

When the crusaders entered Ottoman territory, Sultan Bayezid I was occupied with the siege of Constantinople. After receiving news of their arrival, he began to summon troops from his Asian and European dominions, and assembled these together with his Christian allies at Philippopolis (mod. Plovdiv, Bulgaria). He marched toward Nikopolis and established his camp not far from the Danube on 24 September. The same day, Mircea of Wallachia and Enguerrand of Coucy made a raid to reconnoiter the positions of their enemies and had a victorious encounter against a small Turkish corps.

The battle took place the next day. Bayezid had chosen the place: he disposed his light cavalry and foot archers on the slopes of a hill beyond a wooded ravine, while the Serbs and Sipahi cavalry remained hidden behind the hill. As had been decided in Paris, the French formed the vanguard. They foolishly rushed ahead of the Hungarian and allied troops against the Ottoman light cavalry; many impaled their horses on prepared stakes and were forced to dismount, which began to spread panic in the Hungarian ranks. Nevertheless, this force of mounted and unmounted men was able to defeat the enemy infantry and attacked the cavalry. They thought they had gained victory, but when they reached the top of the hill, exhausted, they discovered the fresh forces of Bayezid. Then, according to the Chronicle of Saint-Denis, “the lion in them turned into a timid hare” [Chronique du religieux de Saint-Denis, ed. Louis Bellaguet, 6 vols. (Paris: De Crapelet, 1839-1852), 2:510]. The battle became a rout: Mircea and his Wallachians had already fled, and the French were either killed or taken prisoner as they tried to save themselves. The Hungarians had been attacked by the Serbs; Sigismund’s fall in a desparate melée was the signal for a general flight. Sigismund was able to escape on a boat, and eventually made his way back to Hungary via Constantinople and Ragusa (mod. Dubrovnik, Croatia).

The next day Bayezid took vengeance on his Christian prisoners for the killing of the Ottoman garrisons. Jacques de Heilly, who had fought for the Turks before, saved the lives of John of Nevers, Marshal Boucicaut, and some others. Eventually the Turks tired of cutting off heads, and the survivors were enslaved. With the support of King Charles VI, Philip the Bold entered negotiations with Bayezid for the release of his son. He raised a huge ransom with the help of Italian financiers, the Hospitallers, and the king of Cyprus, and sent it to Bayezid, along with tapestries of the story of Alexander.

The crusade of Nikopolis was a total failure, and the Ottomans were able to pursue their expansion in the Balkans. Military commanders failed to learn lessons from the battle for a long time. With the notable exception of John Hunyadi in the fifteenth century, they did not learn how to fight the Turks, while Boucicaut, who drew up the French plan of attack against the English at Agincourt in 1415, fell into the same trap there as at Nikopolis.

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