Post-classical history

The Later Crusades


The Eastern Crusades in the Later Middle Ages

The evacuation of Frankish holdings on the mainland of Palestine marked a period in the history of the crusades, but not their end. Over subsequent generations, the failure to mount a large, still less effective, western European military campaign against the Mamluks or, later, the Ottoman Turks, shifted the emphasis of wars of the cross while transforming their nature. They became diffused over widely separated front lines in Iberia, the Balkans, eastern, central and northern Europe, narrowly conceived and recruited political campaigns in Italy and small enterprises – often little more than piratical raids – in the Levant. The absence of international action altered the role of crusade ideology, rhetoric, liturgy, ceremony, politics and finance. Crusading did not decline after 1291. It changed, as it had over the previous two centuries since the First Crusade.

This explains the apparent contradiction of crusading throughout the later middle ages; its ineffectiveness failed to destroy sustained communal commitment to the idea or understanding of its ideology and ideals. This was not caused by some sort of collective escapism or mental atrophy. Rather, the crusade mentality, transmitted through long habit, current liturgy and constant renewal in fresh appeals for alms, tax, purchase of indulgences and, occasionally, armed service, framed a way of regarding the world. This mentality, widely dispersed through society, allowed the expression of faith and identity through social rituals and religious institutions without the necessity of individual political or military action. The relative scarcity of crucesignati was masked by cultural ubiquity. Independent of fighting and wars, crusading evolved as a state of mind; a means of Grace; a metaphor and mechanism for redemption; a test of human frailty, Divine Judgement and the corruption of society. Crusading became something to be believed in rather than something to do.

Holy war also remained a prominent feature of later medieval Europe for external reasons. The eastern Mediterranean outposts remained under threat. The Mamluk empire gradually consolidated its hold on its thirteenth-century conquests, resisting Mongol attacks on Syria around 1300 and widening its aggression to the seas and coasts of the northern Levant. The Christian enclave of Cilician Armenia, sporadically paraded as a possible base for reconquering the Holy Land, was finally annexed by the Mamluks in 1375. Cyprus remained a target for Egyptian attack far into the fifteenth century. Yet despite a flood of written advice, strenuous diplomacy and occasional assaults on the Levant coast, no major western campaign was assembled to reverse the verdict of 1291. Western European presence in Palestine was reduced to well-heeled pilgrim tourists, spies, merchants and visiting clergy. By the mid-1330s, the Franciscans were established as representatives of the Roman church in Jerusalem, under Mamluk licence.1 Taking over the Latin sectors within the Holy Sepulchre, as well as the Coenaculum (Upper Room), the tomb of the Virgin Mary and the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, they devised a package of ritual site-seeing, rerouting the Via Dolorosa and inventing suitably moving ceremonies, including overnight vigils in the church of the Holy Sepulchre and, later, special knightly dubbings with a sword allegedly that of Godfrey of Bouillon. Christian military aggression against the Mamluks only interfered with this steady pilgrim trade. A treaty in 1370 between Egypt and Cyprus explicitly or implicitly secured lasting visiting rights for Latin Christian pilgrims, at a fixed price, providing the circumstances for the continued popularity of this form of religious adventure tourism, which, by 1400, had developed into a routine itinerary of chaperoned site-seeing. However, from the 1330s, a new power disrupted the thirteenth-century settlement. The land-based Ottoman sultanate of north-west Asia Minor gradually established itself as the greatest threat to the integrity of Christendom since the Mongols in the 1240s, and one that proved more durable and more immediate. By the time western Christendom began to succumb to ineradicable and violent religious schism in the sixteenth century, the Ottomans had conquered Greece, the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Mamluk empire, including Palestine, and were battering at the gates of Austria. There remained plenty of scope for anti-Muslim crusading.


One of the most characteristic literary genres of the later middle ages could be described as ‘recovery literature’, books, pamphlets and memoranda concerned with the crusade, the restoration of Jerusalem and the advance of the Turks. The clerical and lay elites of western Europe found it almost impossible to let go of the Holy Land as a political ambition or vision of perfection. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, governments, moralists, preachers and lobbyists returned again and again to a subject in which practical and moral objectives were fused together. One early fourteenth-century master of the Hospitallers called the crusade ‘the nearest route to Paradise’; another grizzled veteran insisted it could ‘cure all ills and transform sadness into joy’.2 The mountain of written advice thrown up in the two centuries after 1291 consistently associated the recovery of the Holy Land or the defence of the church with personal redemption, honour and the resolution of Europe’s internal political, social and religious problems. Such ideas circulated as state papers as much as literary ephemera. All rulers contemplating a crusade demanded detailed advice and evidence from their own councillors or agents, from recognized interested parties, for instance the military orders or the Venetians, or from self-appointed experts and lobbyists who disseminated their ideas through networks of contacts, patronage and self-promotion. The former chancellor of Cyprus, Philip of Méziéres (1327–1405), ran a corps of propagandists and supplied a stream of pamphlets and longer works. Marino Sanudo Torsello produced a large volume of history in support of his memoranda, engaged a lively scriptorium that produced maps and other crusade literature and exploited his own extensive links with courtiers in England, France, Avignon, Naples and Byzantium.3 Such figures were taken seriously. Sanudo attended meetings of the French royal council in the 1320s that discussed his plans; seventy years later one of Meézieères’s agents received a grilling from the dukes of Burgundy and Gloucester over his crusade proposals.4 These theorists, lobbyists and pamphleteers were not writing necessarily for their own amusement. The context was official interest and action. These writers inhabited the circles they wished to influence, lobbyists and their audience sharing an emotional susceptibility to crusade ideology. The practical intent of these schemes should not be minimized, even if their details fail to convince. Philip VI’s doctor Guy of Vigevano’s recipe for slug soup was a serious prescription for the avoidance of poisoning on crusade.5

The weight of crusade advice reflected a continuing confidence in prospect for the recovery of the Holy Land. Schemes were accompanied by elaborate explanations, with statistics, historical evidence and proofs that varied from the impressive to the banal and absurd. They contributed to setting the strategic orthodoxies that determined planning. The overwhelming fourteenth-century consensus advocated a series of seaborne expeditions to destroy the economic and political power of Egypt. A few voices, usually Iberian, advocated using the land route across North Africa to attack the Nile, but only the advent of the Ottoman threat to eastern Europe revived ideas of using the land route of the First and Second Crusades. Some doubts of the efficacy of mass crusades surfaced, suggested by experience and expense. Sanudo calculated the cost of the initial expeditionary force to Egypt at over 2 million florins, ten times the ordinary annual income of the papacy, an order of magnitude confirmed when governments themselves estimated costs of such campaigns.6 This awareness of cost explains the often criticized concentration on methods of fundraising that accompanied any serious venture. However, financial problems failed to dissuade governments at least from investigating the possibilities of action, even if difficulties in raising the necessary sums acted as a material disincentive and political block.

However, theory rarely directed action. Neither Sanudo’s ideas in the 1320s nor Mézières’s in the 1390s were followed. When, half a century later, Bertrandon de la Broquière doubted the feasibility or wisdom of a crusade against the Turks, his employer, Duke Philip of Burgundy, ignored him in pursuit of his plans against the Ottomans.7 Apart from identifying the difficulty of eastern crusading, the tendency of writers and lobbyists to couch their schemes in the widest context of international reconciliation indicated why their ideas remained unfulfilled. Discussing the obstacles to crusading hardly made them disappear. Equally limiting was the extraordinary conservatism of much crusade advice and theorizing. Rarely at any time in the later middle ages were schemes for eastern crusades uncoupled from the comfortingly familiar call for the recovery of the Holy Land, even when the clear danger came from the Ottoman Turks. Such traditional propaganda paralleled the flourishing Holy Land liturgies of masses, prayers and processions that persisted across western Europe into the sixteenth century. Linking wars against the Turks with the historic struggle to recover the Holy Land increased the receptiveness of those, at least among courtly elites, whose pious and financial contributions were being sought.

Such traditionalism was never entirely shed by promoters of wars of the cross. However, the new threat of the Ottoman Turks coincided with and possibly provoked fresh interpretations of crusading among humanist historians and scholars, who sought to present the past as a model to inform present and future public behaviour. The drama and success of the First Crusade continued to inspire, but humanist crusade enthusiasts adopted a distinctive perspective. The Florentine chancellor Benedetto Accolti’s long history of the First Crusade (1464–6) consistently referred to the Turks and other Muslims as ‘barbari’, barbarians, implying a classical comparison.8 For humanist scholars, the crusades and their failure provided a commentary on the state of civil society in the west as well as the more familiar religious exegesis. On this reading, Latin Christendom had inherited theimperium of classical Rome, thus the conquest of Palestine was doubly a recovery, of religious space and imperial lands. For some apologists in this line of thought, not least Pope Pius II, who tried hard to organize a new general crusade, the two aspects of crusading united in the institution of the papacy, Christ’s vicar and residual legatee of the Roman Empire. The rise of the Ottomans allowed the lack of successful crusading to stand as an illustration of the political as well as moral decadence of Latin Europe in contrast with the disciplined, united and successful Turks, forcing its retention as a central issue of public debate into the sixteenth century.


After 1291, and the failure of Nicholas IV’s plans to launch an immediate new crusade to recover the Holy Land, international expeditions were seriously planned on three occasions.9 The Council of Vienne (1311–12) authorized a sexennial clerical tax for the crusade. A year later Philip IV of France hosted an elaborate ceremony in Paris at which he, his sons and his son-in-law, Edward II of England, took the cross. Such gestures had become familiar in the courts of western Europe without necessarily indicating more than a desire for diplomatic respectability, like joining the League of Nations and about as effective. However, Philip invested propagandist effort and possible personal devotion to the cause of the Holy Land. The aura of St Louis was eagerly embraced. Active steps towards a crusade also secured legitimate access to church funds, otherwise highly contentious. While Philip’s sincerity should not be dismissed too easily, his death and that of Pope Clement V in 1314, a papal interregnum (1314–16), the collapse of Edward II’s political position after his defeat at Bannockburn (1314), and a European famine (1315–17) effectively ended the Vienne crusade. However, Philip V of France sought lay taxes for a new crusade and his successor, Charles IV, attempted to revive serious planning in 1323, sponsoring a flotilla for the east, although it never embarked.10

Between 1331 and 1336, Philip VI of France negotiated, planned and prepared for a new Holy Land expedition.11 He took the cross in October 1333, having secured papal appointment as the church’s ‘Rector and Captain-general’ and the desired massive financial subsidy from Pope John XXII the previous July. Philip jointly sponsored an anti-Turkish naval league with Venice, Byzantium and the Hospitallers (1332–4), and briefly toyed with a small preliminary expedition. However, French policy seemed more directed towards a new general passagium on the precedent of 1248 or 1270. While undoubtedly attracting the greatest chance of heavy papal subventions, such a strategy flew in the face of the realities of contemporary international politics. Only if Philip were able to engineer peace on his frontiers and across western Europe could his planned departure in 1336 be achieved. With the dispute between the papacy and the German king, Louis IV, unresolved, Italy at war and the Iberian monarchies disengaged, prospects seemed clouded. More damaging were relations between France, England and Scotland. Although Edward III of England had been involved in crusade diplomacy from at least 1332, the English attempts (1332–5) to subdue Scotland and oust Philip’s ally David Bruce (1329–71) as king of Scots rendered serious cooperation impossible. A new pacific pope, Benedict XII, was reluctant to allow Philip any flexibility in how he spent (or, more properly, diverted or misspent) the crusade taxes. The French king, aware that the English might take advantage of his absence, made his departure for the east dependent on a settlement in Scotland. Raising men, money and materials also proved far more difficult than Philip had anticipated. The crusade project was cancelled in 1336. The fleet intended for the Levant was subsequently directed to the Channel for the early preliminaries of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), a conflict that sounded the knell not just for Philip VI’s crusade schemes but for any substantial international campaign in the eastern Mediterranean. Benedict XII’s cancellation of the crusade removed a diplomatic restraint from both parties, which precipitated the outbreak of open hostilities a year later.

It has been argued that the somewhat sclerotic organization for the crusade before 1336 suggested a lukewarm attitude to the venture, especially among certain of the factions that dominated Philip VI’s court, and that the crusade was abandoned because it looked increasingly risky. While the latter is self-evident, the accusation of a lack of commitment underestimates the chances Philip took, not least in expending political capital trying unsuccessfully to extract a lay subsidy in 1335–6. Equally, the crusade helped Philip establish the claim by his new royal dynasty, the Valois, to the authority inherent in the religion of monarchy created by his Capetian predecessors, especially St Louis. The administrative and diplomatic effort had been considerable, and reached beyond France in the embrace of clerical taxation and authorized preaching. What is more, as predicted by one French crusading hopeful, failure or deceit would attract ‘la honte du monde’, disgrace in the eyes of the world.12 Reactions varying from resigned embarrassment to savage denunciation for hypocrisy echoed around the courts and commentators. Contemporaries accused Philip of using the crusade as a smokescreen behind which he prepared war against the English. Some ascribed his failures in that war to this supposed deceit. Decades later, Philip of Mézières, a boy in Picardy at the time, recalled clearly the unfortunate consequences of Philip VI’s failure.13 The memory was stitched into the narratives of recent events popular around 1400 on both sides of the Channel. The ambition of 1332 and, still more, the decision of 1336 remained to haunt the Valois kings of France.

The last concerted diplomatic effort to arrange a new general passagium directly against the Mamluks had to await the great truce in the Hundred Years War 1360–69. King Peter I of Cyprus (1359–69) was eager to enlist western aid for his ambitious policy to protect Cypriot trade in the Levant by destabilizing the Mamluk regime and its grip over the trade routes that passed through Alexandria.14 Recent relaxation of papal embargoes on western commerce with Egypt stimulated Peter to bolder action. In 1361, he had taken the southern Turkish port of Adalia. In 1362, tapping the traditional enthusiasms of western chivalry, Peter gave notice of a new campaign to recover the Holy Land, a declaration he followed with a personal visit to the major capitals of Europe, from England, Flanders and France to Poland and Bohemia. He had managed to gain Pope Urban V’s support at a conference at Avignon in March and April 1363 attended by a large and distinguished gathering, including King John II of France, Amadeus count of Savoy, the Master of the Hospitallers and the English Thomas of Beauchamp earl of Warwick. The climax of the conference came with the reception of the cross by these luminaries and the new papal legate Elias of Périgord, Cardinal Talleyrand, a veteran diplomat. New crusade taxes were proposed, preaching authorized and indulgences offered. The protagonists at Avignon became immortalized in Andrea Bonaiuti’s fresco of the Church Militant in St Maria Novella, Florence.15

The results of Peter I’s grand tour of Europe in 1362–5 fell short of the extravagant hopes of the Avignon conference. John II and Cardinal Talleyrand both died in 1364. Crusade management devolved on to Peter I, and his advisors, the new crusade legate Pierre de Thomas (d. 1366), already legate in the east, and his chancellor, Philip of Mézieères. Money from Pope Urban paid for a significant body of hired troops, including English mercenaries, possibly from the English Free Company based at Pisa. Leaving Venice in June 1365, Peter made his rendezvous with Cypriot and Hospitaller reinforcements in August, the combined fleet perhaps numbering 165 ships, capable of carrying a substantial body of men – as many as 10,000 has been suggested – and their horses. Recruits came from as far as Scotland, France, Geneva and England. The English mercenary contingent was commanded by an English noble, possibly the earl of Hereford.16 However, the polyglot nature of the forces at King Peter’s disposal did not tend to cohesion or unity of purpose, tactics or strategy. While the decision to attack Egypt’s main port, Alexandria, was the king’s, even on the first day of fighting one group of barons almost immediately suggested a withdrawal to avoid pointless casualties, implying that they thought the whole enterprise futile.

The campaign comprised a stunning victory, an embarrassing retreat and a huge, if tainted, profit. Against all expectations, Alexandria, one of the best-defended ports in the Mediterranean, fell by storm on the first day of fighting, 10 October 1365. Once inside the city, the Christians spent the following week massacring thousands of civilians in rapidly securing vast quantities of booty from one of the richest entrepûts in the world then known to Europeans. It was not a pretty sight; but it appeared, not least to Egyptian eyewitnesses, thoroughly effective, even if the parallels lay less with Constantinople in 1204 than with Damietta in 1249. Sudden success prompted an immediate row. Later apologists depicted King Peter, Pierre de Thomas and Mézières arguing for the retention of Alexandria as a lever to secure the return of Jerusalem. Others, equally well versed in crusade history, insisted the military position of the crusaders was untenable. Better to cut and run with the enormous booty than insist on a futile sacrificial gesture. Prudence prevailed, the Christians evacuating Alexandria on 16 October.

Peter possibly agreed with this analysis. He would have understood that without a promise of a massive relief force, the road from Alexandria led nowhere. Cypriot interests lay in disrupting Alexandrian trade to favour their own ports. By presenting the west with such a dramatic, startling and lucrative victory, the first on such a scale since 1249, Peter may also have hoped to provide impetus for fresh anti-Mamluk commitment at a time when popes and princes were increasingly distracted by the Turks further north. The novelty of Peter’s crusade scheme of 1362–5 lay in the active leadership by an eastern Latin ruler of a western crusade, a coalition as obvious as it was rare. If Peter hoped to create a sensation, he succeeded. Encomiasts, such as Mézières, and the fashionable French poet and musician Guillaume de Machaut, in his verse epic La Prise d’Alexandre left vivid – if politically and morally pointed – accounts.17 The English monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham recorded that not only did the cost of spices rise as a consequence of the sack of Alexandria but many English and Gascons returned from Egypt with ‘cloth of gold, silks and splendid exotic jewels in witness of such a victory achieved there’.18 Despite criticism of the evacuation and the easily caricatured greed of the troops, the capture of Alexandria retained its lustre as a campaign honour whose renown Geoffrey Chaucer, who knew many of the real veterans, was careful to borrow for his Knight in the Canterbury Tales.19

Yet Peter I’s strategy, whether of conquest or trade war, failed utterly. The 1365 crusade disintegrated with the evacuation; the next western crusading venture was conducted by the count of Savoy in 1366–7 in the Dardenelles and Black Sea. A few further Cypriot raids on the Levantine coast over the next few years and another extensive western progress by King Peter in 1367–8 achieved nothing. Peter himself was assassinated in 1369, a victim of Cypriot feuding that rarely declined from the vicious. In fact, he had begun negotiations with the Mamluks in 1366. After his death, a Cypriot-Egyptian peace treaty was agreed. As it transpired, this ended the last crusade specifically directed at the Mamluks who controlled the Holy Land. Priorities changed, despite the cloak of traditional rhetoric. While both Cyprus and the Hospitallers of Rhodes regularly secured truces, treaties and accommodations with the Mamluks, the new power of the Ottoman Turks redirected the use of the crusade.


Traditional eastern Mediterranean crusading operated in the context of a much wider application of wars of the cross. Crusade institutions – vow, cross, indulgence, privileges – continued to be associated with an expanding list of armed conflicts. The professionalism of recruitment and organization, by encouraging vow redemptions, alms and legacies, extended the social reach of involvement while risking the frustration of those forced to be non-combatant participants in an increasingly ritualized activity. By concentrating on the redemptive benefits of the cross to encourage donations, sermons de cruce lent themselves to wider penitential and eschatological themes than the crusade. By precept and analogy, crusading was stitched into the broad evangelism of the church and, hence, into religious experience, attitudes and expectations. The crusade also became a feature of state public finance. The availability of huge sums of money derived from church property through regular crusade clerical taxation and fundraising often proving irresistible to lay rulers.

The Registers of official correspondence of Innocent IV, a distinguished canon lawyer who himself wrote on the theory of just war, had shown just how extensively the crusade was applied to a variety of political conflicts.20 Preaching of the cross was ordered against Frederick II; his son Conrad IV; the duke of Bavaria; Hohenstaufen supporters generally; Livs and Balts in Livonia and Prussia; Mongols; the irreligious in Sardinia; Muslims in Spain, Africa and Palestine; Greeks threatening the Latin Empire of Constantinople; alleged heretics in Italy, Lombardy and Bosnia; and Ezzelino of Romano. At other times, targets included the Drenther peasants in the diocese of Utrecht (1228–32); Stedinger peasants of the Lower Weser (1232–4); Russian Greek Orthodox (beginning in 1240); Finns (certainly in 1257 and from 1348); political opponents of the kings of England (1216–17 and 1265); Sicilians and Aragonese (1283–1302); Piedmontese cultic followers of the charismatic Fra Dolcino (1306–7); a gazetteer of Italian city states from 1255, including Venice (1310) and Milan (from 1360); the Canary Islands (planned in 1344); various Turkish emirs in the Aegean (from the 1330s); fourteenth-century mercenary companies, or routiers (from 1357), that fed on the opportunities and spoils of the Anglo-French and Italian wars; supporters of both sides during the Great Schism of the papacy (1378–1417), chiefly in the 1380s; Bohemian Hussites (from 1420); and, of course, the Ottomans. Of the scores of campaigns of the cross in the centuries after Louis IX’s defeat in 1250 some answered urgent military necessity or traditional strategic ambition. Others were the result of allies’ political pressure on the papacy to grant status and access to church funds to assist recruitment, diplomacy and war finance. The papacy was not necessarily a soft touch. Gregory IX instituted a careful investigation into the alleged heresy of the Stedinger peasants in the diocese of Bremen before authorizing a crusade to suppress then in 1232.21 John XXII refused to accept the arguments of Philip V of France in 1318 that his enemies, the Flemish, were on a level with Saracens because, as excommunicates, their hostility to French policy impeded an eastern crusade.22 John’s successors remained reluctant to apply crusade formulae on behalf of the French during the Hundred Years War. Some popes were more enthusiastic for wars in the eastern Mediterranean; others for wars in Italy; others for a generally more pacific approach to Christendom’s ills.

This expanded use of crusading followed changing patterns of international politics and diplomacy. Intractable disputes in the western Mediterranean between Naples, Sicily and Aragon in the late thirteenth century were superseded by bitter internecine Italian rivalries throughout the fourteenth century, driven by revived German imperial interest in the peninsula, papal absence in Avignon (1309–77) and the rise of the signoria in the endlessly competing city states of Tuscany and Lombardy. To all of these, crusading privileges were assigned at some stage. The Hundred Years War may not have attracted crusading, except during the Great Schism, but much of the rhetoric advocating a negotiated peace was constructed in the context of first the recovery of the Holy Land and then defence against the advancing Turks. Far from an expression of cultural antiquarianism, the crusade retained practical resonance. It also continued to supply an ostensibly neutral and generally respected context and excuse for diplomatic settlement and compromise, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. Crusade talk was not necessarily cynical, hypocritical or sentimental double speak, although such elements existed. During the two long periods of truce between England and France in the 1360s and 1390s, crusade planning and action were conducted through the cooperation of former enemies. Failure to secure peace could elicit accusations of hindering the cause of the Holy Land or Christendom. Traditional formulae persisted into the sixteenth century.

Nonetheless, by the fifteenth century, the scope of crusading – action, institutions and rhetoric – had contracted, its nature changing as a consequence. Again, the dialectic of decline misses the point. Very crudely, in terms of material activity and international political attention, crusades to the Holy Land dominated the period 1188 to 1250; those in Italy from 1250 to the late fourteenth century; the wars with the Turks from the late fourteenth to the end of the sixteenth century.23 The Italian and Turkish conflicts inevitably merged more seamlessly into their local, political, non-crusading settings than had the campaigns to Palestine or Egypt, even if the legal status was presented by the papacy as identical. Outside Iberia and, to a lesser extent after 1300, north-eastern Europe, the crusade was attached primarily to defensive operations: to resist Mamluks, Turkish pirates or the Ottomans; to extirpate the routiers; or to defeat those who, in papal eyes, were trampling on the church’s rights and threatening its patrimony in Italy. Even where the military campaigns were offensive, such as in the Aegean in the 1330s and 1340s or during the Italian wars, the conventional justification remained that of defence, Christendom in danger. This persuasive device had formed part of the language of crusading since the 1090s. Yet before 1250 many of the wars supported by such justifications had actually been campaigns of aggression, notably the attacks of Egypt. After 1250, no similar offensives left the drawing board. Even the Nicopolis campaign of 1396, which saw a western European army fighting the Turks on the Lower Danube, was framed as part of the defence of Hungary, even if optimists hoped for a subsequent war of reconquest. By the fifteenth century the problem of crusading had become subsumed into the perceived problem of Europe, a question of cultural and political survival against what appeared, at least until the successful defences of Belgrade (1456) and Rhodes (1480), an inexorable force. As Pius II warned in 1463: ‘Christendom is reduced to an angle of the world.’24

The strategic shift during the fourteenth century from plans to reinvade the Near East to desperate attempts to shore up the frontiers of Latin Christian Europe itself coincided with a contraction of crusading destinations. Louis IX’s Egyptian campaign had no successors: it was the last occasion when a substantial land army from western Europe attempted to conquer or reconquer territory in the eastern Mediterranean. Nicopolis and Belgrade apart, all subsequent attacks on Mamluks and Turks represented either naval raids or rapid seaborne assaults, equivalent to the small, fast-moving scorched-earth sorties of the Hundred Years’ War known as chevauchées. Of the attacks on Smyrna (1344), Adalia (1361), Alexandria (1365), Tripoli (1367, 1403) or Beirut (1403), only Smyrna was occupied (1344–1402). The exception was Rhodes, conquered and settled by the Hospitallers (1306–10). However, the success of the Hospitallers had not come as a result of a general crusade. Their presence in Rhodes until 1522 illustrated how Christian warfare in the eastern Mediterranean became a function of local interests – Venice, Genoa, Cyprus as well as the Hospitallers – rather than the imperatives of western Christendom. The elaborate fiscal administration established by the Second Lyons Council in 1274 was used as a universal system for less than half a century. The last general clerical crusade tithe, imposed and levied throughout Christendom, was granted by the Council of Vienne in 1312 and collected between 1313 and 1319. Thereafter the system was employed for regionally or nationally limited taxes. During the thirteenth century, central ecclesiastical administration of non-fiscal crusade matters, such as privileges, protection of property and legal immunities, was placed under the papal penitentiary, which acted as a sort of curial clearing-house. Yet this more coherent and more bureaucratic structure wholly failed to translate into crusade action.

Some of the main features of crusading enterprise of the thirteenth century and before fell away in the generations after 1250. The wars in the Baltic were almost exclusively subcontracted to the Teutonic Knights or to the kings of Denmark and Sweden. There was limited international participation in Iberian wars against the Moors, which, as well as being infrequent, had become the preserve of royal governments, until the later fifteenth century as much vehicles of finance and self-image as serious attempts to oust the Muslims from Granada. The mainly unsuccessful attempts by successive popes from the 1230s to launch crusades against the Greeks in defence of Latin Romania were compromised by parallel attempts at the union of the Roman and Greek Orthodox churches from the 1270s. After the death of Charles of Anjou in 1285, strenuous and persistent diplomatic efforts to involve the French royal family in Greece produced few tangible results. By 1320, despite the anti-Latin policies of the Byzantine emperor, Andronicus II, prospects for an anti-Greek crusade had effectively ended. Never popular in the west, such plans had consistently failed to be supported by extensive preaching or successful fundraising. After the 1320s, western policy turned to attempts to ally with the Greeks against Turkish pirates and acquisitive emirs in the Aegean. As with the Greeks, moves in the years before and after 1300 to accommodate another former enemy, the Mongols, removed another crusade target. The Mongol successor state of the Golden Horde in what is now southern Russia and the Ukraine began to operate within the orbit of the secular politics of eastern Europe, one competing power amidst the rivalries of Lithuania, Poland, Novgorod, Hungary and the Teutonic Knights. Only rarely could the interests of a Christian power extract a papal grant of crusade privileges against the Golden Horde, as in 1345, when the Genoese were defending their Crimean trading base at Caffa.25 Only a very few new applications for crusading privileges appeared, such as the abortive plans and attempts to conquer the Canary Islands in 1344–5 and 1402, justified by the principle of the expansion (dilatio), not just defence, of the faith, later a potent argument employed in the European penetration of the Atlantic and the Americas.26


As another symptom of contraction, one of the most prominent military, ideological and institutional features of active crusading was attacked and transformed. By 1291, the reputation of the military orders had long been equivocal. No observer could ignore their contribution to the cause of the cross on all fronts. Yet other clerical interest groups resented the orders for their papally protected privileges. Their demands for profit from their extensive estates in the west, although justified as a means of funding war in the east, aroused resentment from their tenants. Secular rulers, notably the kings of France, relied on their banking skills, especially those of the Templars, to help manage royal finance. Rulers regarded the orders’ autonomy and supposed wealth with envy and suspicion even as they employed their leaders in secular government. The Masters and regional heads of the orders occupied important positions as representatives of large landed corporations in all the kingdoms of western Europe. In Spain, their autonomy was gradually eroded by the determined royal patronage and increasing control, until they became by the end of the middle ages almost an arm of the state. Hermann von Salza played a major political role in imperial politics under Frederick II and, as a prince of the empire, helped create a unique order-state in Prussia. In France, the Temple in Paris acted as a sort of national bank in the thirteenth century, closely integrated into servicing royal finances. In England the Priors of the Hospital sat in the House of Lords, some even acted as the king’s treasurer, such as Joseph Chauncy (1273–80) or Robert Hales (1381), the veteran of the Christian attack on Alexandria in 1365 who paid for his involvement in government with his life at the hands of rebels in London during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.27

However, the loss of the Holy Land in 1291 cast the very function of the orders into doubt. The Teutonic Knights, in the years around 1300, were vigorously attacked by the local Livonian church hierarchy, who accused them of cruelty, greed, friendship with pagans, larceny and violence against the church. The Knights were saved by their continuing role as defenders, with their blood and treasure, of the Christians of Livonia against the pagan Lithuanians. Even so, their escape from papal censure and suppression was a close-run thing.28 The Order of St John could still claim their original hospitaller calling. Yet, almost from the earliest days of the militarized religious communities in the mid-twelfth century, writers had noted the rivalries and divisions between the orders, from the Egyptian wars of the 1160s to the civil wars of later thirteenth-century Outremer. Sermons and chronicles may have included elevating anecdotes of the special Christian heroism of members of the orders, yet the darker aspect of their reputation could not be dispelled, especially once mainland Outremer fell.

The loss of the orders’ great fortresses in Syria and Palestine represented a potentially terminal threat to the orders’ occupation. Reform was suggested at the Second Lyons Council of 1274. Scandal had never been far from some military orders, unregulated by local ecclesiastical authority and institutionally introspective as their calling made them. The suppression of the Swordbrothers in 1237 could be seen only as an extreme – or publicized – example of the pitfalls inherent in a corporate ideal that insisted on the awkward marriage of religious conventual exclusivity with close and necessary involvement in secular affairs – war, diplomacy, finance and property. Some of these temporal snares were common to all religious orders, many of which attracted similar complaints of corruption throughout the middle ages. However, the military orders were more vulnerable. Their vocation, perched at an extreme of cultural acceptability, had always been controversial in some quarters. Unlike other religious orders, the success of a military order could, in a sense, be tested by tangible, not just imagined spiritual, results. Defeat in the Holy Land indicated clear failure. The cause could only be God’s displeasure, provoked by contumacious sin. The military orders thus stood as symbols – potential scapegoats – for the perceived moral failings of Christendom.29

Criticism, not all of it consistent, grew in scope after 1274. The orders were accused of being corrupt. Their ineffectual worldiness required the disendowment of their estates situated away from the frontlines. The orders should be amalgamated into one super-order to provide a well-funded, disciplined core for attempts to recover and defend the Holy Land. Some even argued that rule in a reconquered Holy Land should be vested in such a united order and its head, a Bellator Rex, recruited from one of the royal houses of the west. There was no consensus behind these ideas, the Master of the Temple, Jacques de Molay (1292–1314), for one arguing against union. Some critics appeared as enthusiastic for the idea of military orders as they were hostile to their practice. Others admired the model of an order-state pioneered by the Teutonic Knights. These ideas did not remain the preserve of theorists and lobbyists. In 1291, Nicholas IV instructed provincial church councils to consider the orders’ future. At least four (Arles, Canterbury, Lyons and Norwich) supported a merger, as did Charles II of Naples, son of Charles of Anjou and a claimant to the throne of Jerusalem.30 While between 1305 and 1307 the Masters of the Temple and Hospital added their own opinions, unsurprisingly supportive of their orders, the weight of advice 1290–1312 urged at least reform of the orders, if not union or a new order altogether.

The arrest, persecution, trials and final suppression of the Templars did not, therefore, come from nowhere.31 Beginning with the arrest of all Templars in France on Friday 13 October 1307 (allegedly the origin for the ill-omen of Friday 13th), punctuated by torture, confessions, recantations and burnings, the sordid process was driven by officials of the king of France, appeased by the papal Curia and the other monarchs of western Europe. The attack culminated in the order’s suppression by Clement V at the Council of Vienne in 1312 and the final, brusque execution by burning of the last Master in Paris in 1314. The assault on the Templars became notorious for the luridness of the accusations against them, the barbarism of the use of torture by French inquisitors, the inconsistent leadership of Clement V, the confused defence mounted by the order and the single-minded ruthlessness of Philip IV of France and his ministers, especially Guillaume de Plaisians and Guillaume de Nogaret. The ambitious but sporadically spendthrift Philip IV may have wanted control of Templar propertied wealth. He may also genuinely have believed them to have failed in their holy mission, to which he possibly held a sincere attachment.32

If so, he was by no means alone. Pious conviction, self-righteous brutality and myopic moral certainty are familiar partners. There existed sufficient belief in the justice of their cause among the French persecutors and the watching secular and ecclesiastical elites of western Christendom to sustain a campaign of oppression that reeked of hypocrisy, mendacity and avarice as well as cruelty. The charges of blasphemy, sodomy, irregular and obscene ceremonies, the common currency of formal ecclesiastical abuse, were lent added plausibility by the perception of dereliction of duty. The low grade of Templar membership, comprising a worryingly high number of dim, often elderly and politically inadequate minor nobility, did not enhance their defence or inspire confidence in the order’s long-term value or viability. The garbled accounts of peculiar, half-remembered admission rituals may indicate some strange practices, not uncommon in closed, secretive elite male societies. Yet the confessions to the substantive charges appear mainly to have been extracted under torture, the trauma of public humiliation and sudden loss of liberty or the threat of violence. When led to the stake by his persecutors in 1314, the unfortunate Jacques de Molay insisted on his and his order’s innocence of all charges, a protestation in extremis from an unsubtle man of apparent sincere faith that perhaps should command credence. Clement V refused to bow to French pressure to condemn the order, merely citing its irredeemable loss of reputation as the cause for its suppression in 1312 without a verdict of guilt or innocence. Clement even wrong-footed the French persecutors by granting the confiscated Templar property to the Hospitallers.

The Templar scandal exerted a significant influence on the future direction of the two largest surviving military orders. The Teutonic Knights narrowly avoided the similar, perhaps better-merited, fate of dissolution after another inquiry begun by Clement V in 1308. Fresh from having only just escaped condemnation by Boniface VIII, the order at Riga was briefly excommunicated in 1312–13. Hard lobbying and the order’s role in Prussia and German imperial politics saved them, rather than any marked change in public or private behaviour, which continued to attract hostile comment, including a critical papal verdict in 1324 over the Livonian affair, before resurfacing prominently at the Council of Constance (1414–18).33 The Hospitallers too were not immune to external scrutiny, some of it highly critical, at times menacing, as when Pope Innocent VI threatened to impose reform from without.34

Both orders learnt from the Templar debacle that protection lay in physical security. After 1291, the Hospitallers, like the Templars, had been based in Cyprus; the Teutonic Knights in Venice. Between 1306 and 1310, the Hospitallers conquered the island of Rhodes, transferring their headquarters there in 1309. The same year, the Master of the Teutonic Knights moved to the distant safety of Marienburg (Marlbork) in Prussia. Both orders were now settled in their own order-states. The timing was hardly accidental, precisely coinciding with the trials of the Templars. From these moves the orders gained protection and a restatement of their vocations as warriors of Christ on the frontiers of Christendom. Whatever the compromises with supposed enemies across the religious frontier – and there were many – the relocation of the military orders altered their role. The Teutonic Knights effectively abandoned the eastern Mediterranean while the Hospitallers created an independent eastern Mediterranean principality. Although still supported by estates across all of Europe – Rhodes receiving its western profits in the form of annual ‘responsions’ – both orders now operated behind their own palisades as sovereigns, at no one’s beck and call except their own. By doing so, they helped shape the later medieval pattern of devolved and local campaigns in the east, which replaced the grand international expeditions of earlier generations in tackling the great new crusading venture of the later middle ages.


One of about ten emirates arising from the debris of the collapsed Seljuk sultanate of Rum in the later thirteenth century, the Ottomans fed on the carcass of the Byzantine empire.35 While their rivals to the south engaged in piracy in the Aegean, attracting naval leagues under papal auspices in 1332–4 and 1343–5, leading to the capture and occupation of Smyrna (1344–1405) and a futile campaign by Humbert, dauphin of Vienne (1345–6), the Ottomans posed a different problem. Originating in the area around Bursa in north-west Asia Minor, the Ottomans, followers of Osman and his son Orkhan (1326–62), began to annexe lands along the Sea of Marmora, reaching the Bosporus and Dardenelles by the 1330s. While other Turkish mercenaries were defending Smyrna from the Christian Holy League, in 1345 Orkhan was hired by a claimant to the Byzantine throne, John VI Cantacuzene, to fight in Thrace during the imperial civil war, first against rival Greeks then against invading Serbs. The Ottomans soon secured their own bases in the Gallipoli peninsula, Gallipoli itself falling in 1354. An Ottoman empire was being created in Europe, not Asia, on land, not around easily accessible coasts.

Alarm at Ottoman advances in Thrace led to the first crusading coalitions to stop them. An offshoot of the crusade plans of Urban V and Peter I of Cyprus, a small expedition commanded by Count Amadeus VI of Savoy in 1366–7 succeeded in capturing Gallipoli and a number of Black Sea ports.36 This hardly gave the Ottomans pause. Around 1369, they took Adrianople (Erdine), which became their capital. By the end of the century, after their defeat of Serbia at Kossovo in 1389, they dominated the Balkans between the Danube and Gulf of Corinth. While the spirited but ill-conducted crusade that was crushed at Nicopolis on the Danube in 1396 served only to consolidate Ottoman power, their defeat by Timur in 1402 spared central Europe immediate further assault. Under Murad II pressure was resumed. Gradually, assisted by confessional and political bickering among their Christian opponents, the Ottomans conquered the whole of the Balkans, as well as Asia Minor and Anatolia. The capture of the long-isolated Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmed II the Conqueror led to the absorption of the rest of Latin and Byzantine Greece by the mid-1460s and Venetian Negroponte in 1470. After a generation of relative peace after Mehmed’s death, Selim I the Grim and Suleiman I the Magnificent conquered Mamluk Syria, Palestine and Egypt (1516–17), Belgrade (1521), Rhodes (1522–3) and most of Hungary after the crushing victory at Mohacs (1526). Vienna was besieged, but not taken, in 1529. This transformation of the political map of eastern Europe and the Mediterranean was conducted on the ideological terrain of the wars of the cross. Yet, the improbably successful defence of Belgrade in 1456 aside, no crusade had done much to prevent it.

Remarkably, compared with the number of sermons preached, taxes levied and indulgences sold, active crusading against the Turks remained a sideshow. Even at the height of the Ottoman threat to central Europe, when in 1463 Pius II was pointing to their presence ‘from the Black Sea to Hungary, from the Aegean shore to the Danube’, planners felt the need to associate their grander schemes of resistance with the pipe-dream of the recovery of the Holy Land.37 Yet this was no distant war that relied on dedicated rhetorical fictions and religious empathy to render it immediate, as was the case with the Holy Land. The Greek émigré Cardinal John Bessarion argued, in 1463, that the Ottomans threatened ‘our country, our homes, our children, our family, and our wives’ as they wished ‘to subjugate the entire world starting with Italy’.38 Four years earlier, a papal legate told Henry VI of England that Ottoman dominance of the Danube threatened the Rhine and hence English interests directly. The later fifteenth-century English House of Commons feared lest the Ottoman conquests interrupt the supply of bowstaves from the Crimea.39 Scare-mongering of Italy in danger did not appear fanciful when Otranto was briefly occupied in 1480. The chances of a Turkish conquest of Rome, of Italian Renaissance artists serving an Ottoman sultan were not entirely remote. As a barometer of their success, the demonized Turk replaced the Saracen as a western European catch-all bogeyman.

Yet this perception of the Ottomans as constituting a danger to the traditional integrity of Latin Christendom took generations to become established in the imagination and policies of the west, never fully eradicating the luminous image of the lost Holy Land as a metaphor of Christian failure. There were several reasons for this. The initial victims of Ottoman conquest were as liable to be schismatic Greeks as Catholics. The tangled politics of Byzantium, Latin Greece and the Christian Balkans lacked the resonance of the recovery of the Holy Land, which was sustained by a widespread liturgy of supplication, intercession and sacrament. Only in the fifteenth century did the Turk even compete for the prayers of the faithful.40 Confusion and wishful thinking, often attendant on crusading, were rife. When Urban V authorized his new crusade in the east in 1363, he made no distinction between the Mamluks and the Turks.41.

Conceptual obstacles paled beside practical difficulties. The early strategy (c.1332–67) of small naval leagues or modest amphibious attacks on the littoral of Greece and Asia Minor hardly matched the military resources of the Ottomans as they advanced into the Balkans. The Ottomans’ was a land empire, not a thalassocracy. A further debilitating problem lay in the implacable enmity between potentially the most important providers of transport, the Genoese and the Venetians, the former as often as not actively allying with the Turks to steal material advantage over their ancient commercial rivals whose empire the Ottomans were eroding. The alternative, a mass land attack by western powers in conjunction with local rulers, never materialized, except in very attenuated forms in 1396, 1444 and 1456. Even the growing acceptance of a land route for a new crusade, while recognizing the plight of eastern Europe, was often justified in terms of Godfrey of Bouillon, not Mehmed the Conqueror.


The nature of the Ottoman threat distinguished them from previous Asiatic opponents of Byzantium.42 By 1300, the Ottomans had lost or adapted their steppe-based nomadic culture, which had first brought them to Asia Minor. Long before the establishment of their capital at Adrianople (Erdine), their political system revolved around a settled polity, no longer reliant on pasturage and a nomadic lifestyle. Being an Ottoman depended on loyalty to the ruling dynasty not ethnic origin or identity: Ottoman, follower of Osman/Uthman, the eponymous, semilegendary founder of the dynasty’s greatness. As with Christian political communities, religious observance supplied the signifying social and propagandist glue. In this, the Ottomans copied the Byzantines. Just as Latins and Turks and other barbarians had perennially become Byzantine before 1204, so Greeks became Ottomans, including, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, members of the imperial family itself and their courtiers. Although insistent on Islam, the Ottomans were not fighting religious wars, even if they relied on traditional jihad rhetoric. Their early proximity to the Byzantine frontier probably encouraged this, an inscription in their first capital Bursa describing Sultan Orkhan as a ‘mujahid, sultan of the ghazis (i.e. holy warriors), ghazi son of ghazi’, a useful recruiting and disciplining ploy.43 However, Ottoman policy was essentially secular: dynastic aggrandizement, wealth, power, domination, not conversion. They allied with peoples regardless of religion. They tolerated the faiths of their subjects provided they remained loyal. Ottoman success was a product of cultural similarity and contact with their neighbours and adversaries. The great fifteenth-century Albanian resistance leader and Christian hero Scanderbeg (d. 1468) had begun his career as an Ottoman hostage, becoming a Muslim in the service of Murad II, who gave him his name – Alexander Bey. He converted to Roman Catholicism to ease an alliance with the rulers of Naples across the Adriatic.44 Western travellers who stayed at the Ottoman court, such as the Burgundian spy Bertrandon de la Broquière in the 1420s, did not depict them as barbarians. The French crusader Marshal Boucicaut, a veteran of Nicopolis, defender of Constantinople in 1399 and attacker of the Syrian coast in 1403, once offered to serve under Bayezid I (1389–1403).45 While in the 1460s, Pius II and his agents were content to fall back on tired if lurid hyperbole of barbarism, the Turks as ‘savage beasts in human form’, Cardinal Bessarion recognized the rational secular imperative behind Ottoman policies: ‘He invades foreign lands so as not to lose his own.’46 The Ottoman conquest of Byzantium hardly fits a scheme of an immemorial clash of cultures or religion, Gibbon’s ‘World’s Debate’.

The history of Asia Minor and the Balkans in the later middle ages cannot be explained in confessional terms. The rhetoric of religious confrontation imposed (and imposes) a pattern on events favoured by contemporary apologists, diplomats and polemicists that hardly corresponded to experience. Despite the individual and collective human tragedies inevitable in military conflict and conquest, the Ottoman advances did not constitute unalloyed disaster. Late medieval Byzantium had failed to bring order, peace and civility to the region once under its sway, a failure reaching back beyond 1204 into the twelfth century. The Ottomans restored the geographic, political and economic coherence of the old Greek empire. The Turks entered Europe as vassals and allies of the Byzantine emperor. The Ottoman empire as such, as opposed to the Ottoman dynasty, began in Europe, not Asia. Rival Greek imperial dynasties in the fourteenth century married into the Ottoman sultan’s family. Serb Christian cavalry fought for the Turks at Nicopolis in 1396 (against crusaders) and at Ankara in 1402. Genoese helped Murad II defeat a dangerous western crusade in 1444. Christian allies fought with the Turks at the final storming of Constantinople in 1453, an event actually welcomed by some disaffected Greek Orthodox divines. Holy war remained largely a western luxury that Greeks and other inhabitants of the Balkans could ill afford. In the region of Thessalonica, the people’s preferences expressed this complexity. Conquered by the Turks in the 1380s, the region was restored to Byzantine control in 1403. Under the Ottomans, direct taxation increased (via the kharaj or poll tax on non-Muslim ‘People of the Book’, Christians and Jews) but the rents paid by peasants to landlords decreased, lightening the net fiscal burden. After 1403, the Greeks maintained the Ottoman tax regime, two-thirds of proceeds going to the monks of Mt Athos, who, in 1384, had advocated support for the Muslim Turks against what they regarded as a heretical Greek emperor (John V Palaeologus).47 Such cross-currents were typical.

The crusade against the Turks consequently failed to correspond with the political context or military requirements of the Ottoman advance. Western efforts fell into two general phases. The first, interrupted by the collapse of Ottoman power after their defeat by Timur the Lame in 1402, concerned the defence of Byzantium, a task that had failed utterly by the 1460s. The second, consequent on the first, lay in the defence of Latin Christian territories in eastern and central Europe. At the heart of the muddled western response to the Turk lay a reluctance to abandon the conceptual reassurance of Holy Land polemic even in the face of detailed advice and evidence of how Ottoman power worked from spies and veterans of Turkish wars. The traditional Manichaean designation of ‘Christian’ and ‘infidel’ wholly failed to encompass the reality of the politics of the Ottoman advance, let alone its military dimension. The old view of a Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Christian bastion weakened by Latin indifference or hatred of Greeks, of a Muslim enslavement of a resentful Christian peoples, does not match events. Unlike the wars to defend the Holy Land, here the compromises of political realities contradicted the imperatives of religious idealism.

The political fragmentation of the Balkans and Asia Minor in the thirteenth century provided the essential context for the creation of Ottoman power. The Byzantine empire of the twelfth century was replaced by rump successor Greek states at Nicaea (then, after its recapture in 1261, Constantinople), Epirus and Trebizond. These competed with established Latin territories in Greece, based in the statelets of Athens in Attica and Boeotia, Achaea in the Peleponnese and Venetian holdings in the Aegean archipelagos, at Euboea (or Negroponte) and ports scattered along the southern Peloponnese and Ionian coast. To the north the Bulgarians and Serbs maintained independent kingdoms, while successive kings of Hungary attempted to extend their authority south of the Danube into Bosnia and eastwards to Wallachia. In Asia Minor, a similar disintegration had occurred with the collapse of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum in the mid-thirteenth century. By the early fourteenth century, authority had devolved on to competing Turkish emirates, such as those of Aydin, Menteshe and Tekke along the west and south-west coast of Asia Minor, and the Ottomans in the northwest and Karaman in the south-east. To survive and thrive, each of these principalities from the Danube to the Taurus Mountains, including the enfeebled, renewed Byzantine empire, pursued a complicated round of shifting alliances and hostilities with and against their neighbours based on advantage, not cultural or religious affinity. The most fertile ground for Ottoman expansion proved to be in the Christian, especially Orthodox Christian Balkans, not in Muslim Anatolia. The fragmented political control concealed wide varieties in the nature of these competing powers. None of them, even in extremis, constituted fertile ground for new mass crusades. The Italian cities, although boasting long crusading traditions, appropriately operated their strictly commercial and imperial policies according to profit, not eternal salvation. The Latin states of Frankish Romania, ruled by a western military aristocracy scattered across central Greece and the Peleponnese, had never attracted western crusaders in any numbers. The Slav Balkan princes sought autonomy, not Latin or Roman Catholic domination. Help for Byzantium was complicated by religious suspicion on both sides and contingent on a unification of eastern and western churches that the Greeks, mindful of Latin behaviour since 1204, consistently repudiated.

Even when the menace of the Turks was recognized in the west, the obstacle of church union remained.48 The price of a substantial western crusade, from the papacy’s point of view, was Greek obedience to Rome, for Byzantine emperors a fatal dilemma. To secure western military aid on such terms risked alienating the people for whom they were seeking the aid in the first place. In principle, a form of ecclesiastical accommodation was feasible. Sections of the Armenian Orthodox church had entered into communion with Rome in the twelfth century. However, the legacy of 1204, the increasing equation of the Greek Orthodox church with the Byzantine state and its cultural identity, and the rise of a popular Greek mysticism known as the Hesychast movement in the early fourteenth century impeded reconciliation. Rome’s inescapable insistence on papal supremacy institutionalized the division. The first attempt at reunion, at the Second Lyons Council of 1274, a diplomatic stunt by Michael VIII Palaeologus to secure a papal alliance against Charles of Anjou’s designs on the Balkans, was repudiated by Michael’s successor, Andronicus II, in 1282. However, after the civil wars of the 1340s and 1350s, the alternative to an alliance with the west was submission to the Ottomans. John V offered reunion in 1355 and visited Rome and the west in 1369, a journey repeated by Manuel II in 1400–1401 and John VIII in 1423. The renewed Ottoman pressure after 1420 persuaded elements of the Greek elite, led by the distinguished humanist scholar John Bessarion (1403–72), with the support of John VIII, to agree to church union at the Council of Florence in 1439.49 Bessarion made his career in the west, for thirty years a loud advocate of a new crusade, later a cardinal of the Roman church and only narrowly defeated for the papacy itself in 1455. Bessarion embodied the possibilities of church reunification, but he operated on a rarefied plane of high politics, diplomacy and cosmopolitan scholarship. His accommodation held little appeal for the majority of his fellow Greek Orthodox countrymen. Moreover, the alternatives of the fourteenth century, church union or the Turk, were no longer realistic. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror wished to replace Byzantium, now little more than the city of Constantinople. Church union had no effect. The west provided inadequate aid. No pan-Christian alliance was possible in the shifting sands of Balkan politics: rational self-interest of local rulers and the power of the Ottomans made sure of that. Within Byzantium, the Union of Florence was generally repudiated, causing a damaging conflict between the Orthodox hierarchy and the last two emperors, John VIII and Constantine XI. The last Byzantine emperor never resiled from the Florence agreement, expelling anti-union clergy. In his city’s final death agony in 1453 he was sustained by Italian troops, who proved more loyal than many of his Orthodox subjects. In a final irony of Byzantine history, the Orthodox patriarchate was restored to Constantinople by its Turkish conqueror.50

The drive towards church union failed to grasp the essentials of the Byzantine predicament. While continued economic and commercial prosperity sustained the noble and urban Byzantine elites, as well as the Italian commercial predators, for the Byzantine imperial government, irreversible loss of territory meant loss of revenues. Constant frontier warfare dislocated agriculture; necessarily higher taxes provoked peasant and aristocratic alienation from the imperial administrators in Constantinople. Lack of funds and manpower forced Byzantine rulers to abandon serious naval commitment, isolating them further. Compelled to hire land armies for protection and support in the regular civil wars, emperors and imperial claimants frequently found they could not pay their troops, who seized lands instead: the Catalan Company in central Greece in 1305–11; the Ottoman Turks in Thrace after 1345. This military dependency on private, non-imperial armies became entrenched by incessant political feuding. By the 1340s, the Byzantine emperor was so poor that he pawned the crown jewels in Venice, replacing the royal regalia with glass replicas. Donations for the upkeep of the great church of Saint Sophia went to pay Turkish mercenaries. Despite their cosmic pretentions, the Byzantine emperors became Ottoman dependants, then tributaries, by the 1380s vassals of the sultan. The still lucrative commercial system was run by others; at one point the Genoese controlled 87 per cent of Bosporus customs. The Orthodox church constituted the only robust, independent power in the Greek polity, which impeded western assistance. The contrast between ancient claims and contemporary debility was tellingly captured by a witness to Manuel II’s visit to Henry IV of England at Christmas 1400:

how grievous it was that this great Christian prince should be driven by the Saracens from the furthest East to the furthest Western Islands to seek aid against them… What dost thou now, ancient glory of Rome?51

Yet, by the late fourteenth century, Greek emperors were more often than not allies and vassals of the Turks, not their implacable foes. Manuel himself, less than a decade earlier, had served for six months in the army of Sultan Bayezid I in Anatolia. Such were the contradictions of Byzantine survival.

By 1400, Byzantine emperors survived on sufferance. The Byzantine civil wars of 1346–54, between John V Palaeologus and John VI Cantacuzene made the Ottomans arbiters of the empire. Sultan Orkhan married a daughter of John VI in 1346, Muslim polygamy proving a diplomatic boon. John V’s proposal for a new western crusade in 1355 coincided with some of the bitterest fighting of the Hundred Years War and renewed papal crusades in Italy. In 1358, John V recognized Ottoman power when one of his daughters married a son of Sultan Orkhan. Fresh attempts by John V to enlist western aid in the late 1360s only produced the limited intervention of Amadeus of Savoy’s crusade in 1366–7. Once in control of most of the Balkans north of Attica and south of the Danube, Sultan Bayezid began an eight-year blockade of Constantinople in 1394. The western crusade of 1396 achieved nothing, although it temporarily drew some fire from the siege of Constantinople. The capital was reprieved for half a century by factors outside its control. These did not include the crusade. Until their wholesale adoption of gunpowder in the fifteenth century, the Turks lacked the ability to destroy the still-formidable walls of Constantinople. They also lacked control of the sea, depending on western allies such as the Genoese for shipping and technical expertise. Only in the decades surrounding the final attack on Constantinople did the Ottomans become a naval power, a fundamental prerequisite for achieving Mehmed II’s goal of recreating a Mediterranean empire based on Constantinople. The loss of western naval hegemony ultimately sealed the fate of the maritime Latin east just as lack of military power doomed mainland Greece and the Balkans. In the fourteenth century, the Ottoman empire in Europe and Asia Minor had rested on a series of loose overlordships and alliances, with power delegated to vassals. By contrast, in the fifteenth century a highly centralized and disciplined Ottoman polity emerged after the restoration of the empire following Timur’s withdrawal to central Asia and death in 1405, and the resolution by 1413 of the family power struggle in favour of Mehmed I. Acquiring a navy and cannon, the Ottomans restored their control over the sub-Danubean Balkans in a generation. Short of a miraculous revolution in western European priorities, the fall of Constantinople appeared inevitable.


The western response to the Turkish conquests rarely reached the pitch of an armed crusade, despite sporadic papal appeals and offers of crusade privileges stretching back to the 1360s and 1370s. The expedition of Amadeus of Savoy in 1366–7, an adjunct of the papal-Cypriot schemes of 1362–5, exposed the limits of what could be achieved. Raiding, even occupying strategic maritime bases, such as Gallipoli or Smyrna, while helping the local interests of Latin rulers in the Aegean and in Rhodes, hardly impinged on the Turkish land advance. The prerequisite for any serious crusading venture lay in the establishment of peace in western Europe. The dissipation of efforts in the 1360s were overtaken by the resumption of the Hundred Years War in 1369 and the papal schism from 1378. Only after the Anglo-French truce of 1389, which ushered in a generation of wary peace, were new international schemes devised to fight the infidel. The first target, in keeping with aristocratic attitudes, was not the Turk at all, but a more traditional, if peripheral, foe.

In 1389–90, the Genoese took advantage of the truce to invite the French government of Charles VI to sponsor an expedition to capture the Tunisian port of al-Mahdiya. The Genoese probably hoped this enterprise would further their interests in the area after their own annexation of the island of Jerba, south of al-Mahdiya, in 1388. The French embraced this opportunity for unequivocally meritorious warfare. Lavish tournaments at Smithfield in London and especially at St Inglevert near Calais helped recruit English nobles in an appropriately chivalrous setting. The expedition was commanded by Charles VI’s uncle, Louis II, duke of Bourbon.52 In France recruitment was limited to 1,500, probably not including archers. The English contingent, made up mainly of well-placed but second-rank courtiers, was led by John Beaufort, an illegitimate son of Richard I’s powerful uncle John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, who contributed twenty-five knights and 100 archers.53 The Genoese supplied a fleet estimated as twenty-two galleys and eighteen transports. Although both Avignon and Roman popes offered indulgences, the al-Mahdiya expedition resembled a strenuous jaunt, on a par with the Baltic reisen, rather than a serious attempt to conquer territory in North Africa. Although there may have been processions and prayers for victory at home, no lay or ecclesiastical central funds were allocated or granted. Leaders were expected to be of gentle birth, capable of paying their own way. Despite the indulgences and the chroniclers’ language of crusading, there is no clear evidence that a single participant actually took the cross.

Sailing from Genoa in July 1390, the Franco-English army besieged al-Mahdiya for nine weeks, fighting off relief attempts. Cooperation appeared good between the different elements in the army, Louis of Bourbon consulting the English, whose archers played a prominent role in the action. However, once peace terms were offered by the Hafsid ruler of Tunis, all contingents outside Duke Louis’s household rejected his wishes and accepted them. The weeks before al-Mahdiya cost few lives; disease proving more lethal.54The campaign achieved nothing of concrete value, although it may have enhanced French links with Genoa. It is hard to locate the 1390 campaign within the tradition of the sporadic penetration of north Africa, conducted in this period largely by Castilians and Portuguese. Rather, it should be seen as part of Genoa’s commercial strategy taking advantage of the Anglo-French truce of 1390. Both governments could appreciate the diplomatic benefits of this mechanism of reconciliation. Nobles and knights on both sides of the English Channel were eager to justify their status on exotic and laudable battlefields, not just in the service of crown and country. Many veterans of 1390 also found their way to Prussia and eastern Europe. The al-Mahdiya adventure provided a dress rehearsal for the Nicopolis crusade six years later.

The early 1390s saw a recrudescence of old-fashioned crusade dreaming. The victories of Bayezid I had brought him to the southern frontiers of Hungary, whose new king, Sigismund, sought military help from the west. This coincided with the emergence at the French and English courts of a new crusading policy. Promoted by the energetic veteran lobbyist Philip of Mézières, now settled in Paris, schemes were bandied about for a crusade that would seal the new peace between England and France, heal the papal schism and liberate the Holy Land. Individual commitment was secured through membership of Mézières’s New Order of the Passion (Nova religio passionis), which between 1390 and 1395 attracted the patronage of Charles VI (although he lost his mind in 1392) and Richard II (1377–99), as well as scores of English and French knights. Through royal favour, personal diplomacy and targeted pamphleteering, Mézières and members of his order influenced the language of diplomacy, creating a discernible atmosphere of crusading enthusiasm and expectation.55

Coincidentally or not, concrete plans were put in train at least from 1392. The lead came from the Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, who used the crusade schemes to assert his power against his brothers for control of French affairs after the onset of Charles VI’s madness. He was also probably a genuine enthusiast. By 1394 a plan had crystallized under which Duke Philip, his nephew and rival, Charles VI’s younger brother, Louis, duke of Orléans and John of Gaunt would embark for Hungary the following year. Philip began collecting money from his lands in Burgundy and Flanders; Louis and Gaunt may well have received royal funds. By the end of the year, Gaunt had raised 1,500 men, although these may have been destined to police a Gascon revolt. Venice had been approached and Sigismund was expecting the army in 1395. As in 1390, crusade bulls were issued by Popes Boniface IX (Rome and Benedict XIII (Avignon), although the latter only in the spring of 1396, shortly before the expedition departed. Also in common with the al-Mahdiya expedition, there is no clear sign that any of those involved in this enterprise actually took the cross.56

However, delays in coordinating western aid with the plans of the Hungarians, diplomatic difficulties between England and France and domestic political problems, in Gascony and at the fractious French court, sabotaged this ambitious programme. The three putative leaders withdrew. Gaunt delegated his role to his bastard John Beaufort, the al-Mahdiya veteran. Philip the Bold appointed his son and heir John of Nevers to lead his troops. Louis of Orléans abandoned the project altogether. English involvement became peripheral. Beaufort may have joined the expedition when it embarked in the spring of 1396, but it is not certain. No unequivocal evidence of English participation exists. If individuals or private companies enlisted, it is unlikely they included a substantial or officially sponsored regiment.57 The expedition devolved on to the household of John of Nevers, a circle of Burgundian knights and a smattering of French nobles sympathetic to the Burgundian faction at court, many of them with past or future experience of war in Prussia, Tunisia and Greece. The total of men at arms probably came to a few hundred, the whole Franco-Burgundian force to a few thousand, hardly Mézières’s great redemptive crusade. Except as a make-weight for Sigismund’s border defence, it is difficult to imagine what could be achieved by such a force. As well as its size, the decision to travel to Hungary by land severely limited its options, precluding action independent of Hungarian plans.

Although serious in intent, and courageous in battle, the leaders of this western army appear to have been seduced by wishful self-esteem, not sober strategy. Hopes of battering a path to Constantinople, of sweeping the Ottomans aside in one fell encounter or even, as some apparently envisaged, continuing to Jerusalem, were entirely illusory. Sigismund probably appreciated this, advocating a defensive strategy once the western army arrived in Hungary. Yet he played along with Burgundian fantasies to acquire powerful – and free – reinforcements. The policy was born of the crusade diplomacy after 1390 and the eagerness, demonstrated at al-Mahdiya, of French nobles to engage in what was still almost universally regarded as meritorious warfare far from home. The fourteenth century had witnessed the institutionalization of the cult of chivalry into a legion of secular orders, such as those of the Garter in England (1348) or the Star in France (1352). Many of these orders of chivalry, such as the Neapolitan Order of the Knot, dedicated to the Holy Spirit (1352), enjoined service in an eastern crusade on its members, an obligation that had more to do with personal self-image than the exigencies of Balkan politics or Levantine warfare. The 1396 campaign provided an occasion for the honouring of such commitments.58

Leaving Burgundy in April 1396, John of Nevers’s army reached the Hungarian capital Buda late in July. Intent on forcing a hurried and incomplete response from Sultan Bayezid, the combined western and Hungarian army advanced down the Danube into occupied Bulgaria. After capturing the frontier fortresses of Vidin and Rahova, where the poorer, unransomable defenders were indiscrimately massacred, they laid siege to Nicopolis further downstream. Here Bayezid I’s army caught up with them. On 25 September, the coalition Christian forces were destroyed by the Ottomans and their Serbian allies. The Christian allies took the initiative by seeking an assault against the advancing Turks. Refusing to remain as a powerful reserve and failing to coordinate their attack with the Hungarians, the French cavalry broke itself on the Turkish infantry and first rank of horse before reaching the main column of Turkish heavy cavalry, the sipahis, when they were cut to pieces. John of Vienne Admiral of France and William of La Trémoille Marshal of Burgundy were among the slain; John of Nevers, Philip of Artois constable of France, Marshal Boucicaut and Enguerrand of Coucy were among the captured. They later attracted huge ransoms, collectively perhaps as much as 500,000 francs. The Hungarians, deserted by their Wallachian and Transylvanian levies, fared little better at the hands of the Serbians under Despot Stephen Lazarevic. The Turkish victory was overwhelming and indisputable, as crushing a defeat of French arms as Agincourt nineteen years later, where exactly the same mistakes were made. There, as at Nicopolis, the French cavalry insisted on attacking a line of archers and infantry protected by rows of stakes. It says much for poor French generalship of the period: one of the chief tacticians at Agincourt was the Nicopolis veteran Marshal Boucicaut.59

The disastrous Nicopolis campaign has been described melodramatically as ‘a final failure’. ‘There would be no more crusades.’60 Others have acknowledged the defeat as decisive as well as crushing. In confirming Ottoman military strength, and the adhesiveness of their Balkan clients, it exposed the ineffectiveness of western arms, traditional crusade strategies and the feeble hold Sigismund possessed over his allies. Only the irruption of Timur into western Asia in 1400 and his defeat of Bayezid in 1402 at Ankara saved Constantinople and central Europe. In Christian Europe, Nicopolis has been credited with Sigismund abandoning aggression against the Ottomans for his German and Bohemian interests and the disintegration of Anglo-French unity, with wide implications for the survival of Richard II’s regime (it fell in 1399) and the renewal of the Hundred Years War (in 1415). However, both immediate and long-term effects can be exaggerated. Only a relatively small army had been engaged at Nicopolis. The popular court poet and chronicler Froissart was told only 700 French knights were involved.61 The failure to coordinate the land attack with naval operations ran counter to contemporary experience and advice. The disaster of 1396 failed to disarm enthusiasm for fighting the infidel. Neither technically nor generically was Nicopolis the last crusade. Nicopolis did not lead to the conquest of Hungary, Bayezid’s aggression turning eastwards in 1397–1400. The reaction to Nicopolis in France did not match that to other defeats during the Hundred Years’ War. In England, chroniclers’ almost universal silence indicates minimal impact. Nicopolis did not mark a watershed between crusading optimism and pessimism.

The response to the Nicopolis defeat did reveal how crusading was viewed. On their release from Ottoman captivity and return to France in 1398, John of Nevers and his companions were ecstatically received as heroes. The manner of their defeat had inspired a familiar round of hand-wringing introspection. On 9 January 1397 churches across France conducted grief-laden memorial services. Writers close to the French court and in contact with survivors were in no doubt that vanity and folly had led to the Frenchmen’s destruction, although the bravery of individuals was accorded due praise. Nicopolis was transformed into a morality story of sin, redemption and heroism, a paradigm of the image of later medieval crusading itself. The well-informed official chronicler from the monastery of St Denis eschewed easy clichés in highlighting the contrast between the lavish feasts, ornate tents, gawdy clothes and loose women of the Christians with the God-fearing, prudent, discreet Bayezid, a suitable instrument of God’s chastisement of sinners despite his ‘Turkish superstition’.62 Secular writers transmuted events into good stories with a didactic purpose. Froissart’s almost wholly fantastical account of the 1396 campaign, written before 1402, emphasized the scale of the Ottoman threat, inventing threats by Bayezid to march on Rome and feed his horse on the altar in St Peter’s.63 This was no simple call to return to arms, but a polemic to end the papal schism and unite Christendom, precisely the Anglo-French policy that had preceded Nicopolis, a view that did nothing to disturb underlying assumptions about chivalric honour or the efficacy of holy war. Similar themes of folly, pride, Christendom’s disorder, catastrophic defeat, the papal schism and a utopian desire to sweep the Islamic tide back as far as Jerusalem dominated the earliest literary response to the news of Nicopolis, Philip of Mézières’s Epistre Lamentable et Consolatoire (Letter of Lament and Consolation), written by the veteran propagandist, now pushing seventy, in the first weeks of 1397.64 Mézières’s overlaying of pragmatic assessment of responsibility with revivalist cliché stood for a whole body of thoughtful contemporary opinion, mirrored in most other literary, historical, even diplomatic considerations of the eastern question. His ideas were not simply rhetorical flourishes or the eccentricities of a lonely, disappointed political has-been. Instead of flummery distractions, chivalry and holy war were inescapable weapons in the combat with Islam, a view the defeat at Nicopolis, in the hands of literary observers, at least, did much to reinforce. However, the response to Nicopolis confirmed a more damaging trait. Westerners’ reactions were hobbled by a crippling solipsism that explored their own cultural disposition obsessively while failing in any sustained or serious fashion to comprehend or dissect the nature of their opponents. This, too, accorded with some of the longest traditions of crusading and did not end with the great defeat on the Danube.


The Nicopolis expedition had been a largely Burgundian affair, an element in the increasingly fevered power struggle around the throne of the insane Charles VI. The tradition of Burgundian leadership of western crusade planning continued until the end of the Valois line of dukes in 1477.65Burgundian writers, and others, repeatedly reminded fifteenthcentury dukes of their gallant holy warrior ancestor John of Nevers, not least to deflect attention from his subsequent career as duke, a shifty, devious figure hardly inspiring pride, let alone honour or glamour.66 As counts of Flanders as well as dukes and counts of Burgundy, the Valois dukes could lay claim to two of the grandest dynastic and regional crusading traditions. Their championing of the crusade and the need to tackle the eastern question served a similarly consistent political purpose. Once the prospect of dominating the French government evaporated after the English victories of 1415–20, Duke Philip the Good turned his attention to consolidating his autonomous authority in Burgundy, Flanders and the Low Countries. Although lacking the important asset of a crown, for over half a century Duke Philip and his son Charles the Rash sought to assert a role as independent rulers in the west, taking advantage of the Anglo-French war and a weak German empire. Leadership ship of the crusade enhanced self-image and status, allowing dukes a distinctive, independent diplomatic role. It also gave access to clerical taxes: Philip the Good received three grants of ecclesiastical tenths from his lands in the Low Countries between 1449 and 1455 alone. His crusade policy was further underpinned by huge ducal revenues in which even the massive Nicopolis ransoms made little dent.

However, to achieve these political, diplomatic and fiscal benefits, a crusade policy needed to be validated by action. Here the Burgundian dukes’ record appears equivocal; energetic over many decades but always falling just short of substantial military commitment. In an apparent attempt to overcome the solipsist myopia of previous generations, spies were despatched on extensive journeys to the east to survey both the Turkish and Mamluk enemies in the 1420s and 1430s. Earlier crusade texts were collected and if necessary translated.67 Philip employed Jean Germain bishop of Châlons (1436–61) as a pet court crusade expert for over twenty years, even supplying him with a translation of the Koran by the Venetian chaplain of Damascus, where Bertrandon de la Broquière had obtained a copy in 1433 during his reconnaissance tour of the Near East.68 Germain peddled an erudite if muddled mixture of historical exegesis and vapid exhortation over two decades. Among other courtiers were eastern experts, such as Ghillebert of Lannoy (the spy sponsored by Philip the Good and Henry V of England in 1421) and Brocquière, and soldiers with experience of fighting the Turks, such as Geoffrey of Thoisy, with twenty years’ active involvement in campaigns in north Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea from the 1440s to 1460s, or Waleran of Wavrin, a veteran of operations around the Black Sea in 1444–5. For decades, the Burgundian court attracted foreign crusade enthusiasts, lobbyists and diplomats, becoming a sort of clearing house for crusade schemes, however crackpot. When John Torcello, on behalf of John VIII Palaeologus, presented a plan for an anti-Turkish crusade to the Council of Florence in 1439 it was submitted for Burgundian scrutiny, only to be dissected and rejected by Duke Philip’s expert, Brocquière, unsurprisingly given John’s prediction that, following the defeat of the Turks, Jerusalem would fall within weeks.69 Into the 1470s, any serious and many fanciful crusade schemes received an airing at the ducal court.70

Crusading found institutional expression through the ducal chivalric order, the Order of the Golden Fleece (1431). Key noble, court and military figures were knights or companions of the order, which acted as a permanent forum for testing and arousing enthusiasm. In the 1460s, its chancellor, William Filastre bishop of Tournai, led Burgundy’s response to the crusade plans of Pius II; in 1473 the order’s chapter supplied the setting for a new papal crusade appeal.71 A generation earlier, Jean Germain acted as the order’s chancellor and used its chapter meeting at Mons in 1451 to expand on his crusade ideas. One consequence of this meeting was the great Feast of the Pheasant, held at Lille on 17 February 1454 to promote Burgundian commitment to the eastern holy war. Constantinople had fallen the previous May; the duke was in the middle of active planning for an anti-Turkish expedition. The climax of the feast’s entertainment consisted of a tableau including the Lamentation of the Holy Church, delivered to the duke and assembled knights, according to tradition, by one of the organizers of the revels, Oliver de la Marche, dressed as a woman, in a white satin frock and wimple, under a black cloak, perched in a castle carried on the back of a fake elephant that had been led into the hall by a grim-looking giant dressed as a ‘Saracen of Granada’. (Oliver later explained the allegory; the elephant stood for exotic Constantinople; the castle, faith; the weeping lady, the church; and the giant, the Turk.) Once the affecting protest had finished, the Golden Fleece King of Arms (i.e. chief herald) entered with a live pheasant. On this remarkably or chemically quiescent bird more than 200 vows of varying implausibility were sworn to fight the infidel. One of the more sensible vows came from Ghillebert of Lannoy, the spy of thirty years before. The whole event was lavish beyond fancy; even Oliver de la Marche’s professional eye noticed the excess of extravagance.72

The Vow of the Pheasant acted as the focus for a wider assault on the interests of the new crusade. The visual and ritual high-jinks of the Lille festivities were matched by widely circulated written memoranda, such as the Florentine James Tedaldo’s eyewitness account of the fall of Constantinople; public assemblies of the Order of the Golden Fleece; religious ceremonies; verses, such as those of the Lamentation itself; and music, the great Burgundian composer Guillaume Dufay (c.1400–1474) writing a four-part motet on the same subject. Duke Philip was investing heavily in creating an atmosphere of engagement in which crusading, while not necessarily the most rational occupation, became respectable, accepted and unexceptional. However playful the crusade junketing, it was mirrored by a genuine, if sentimental, commitment to holy war, a prerequisite of princely stature.73 In a forbidding international climate for organizing a crusading army, such ludic gestures kept the issue tangibly, excitingly alive.

Duke Philip’s practical crusading achievements fell far short of the intoxicating and possibly intoxicated demonstrations at Lille. A striking feature of the Feast of the Pheasant was its secularity, despite the tableaux of the church and another of divine grace. Nobody took the cross; there were no clerics on view. Jean Germain had been banished to the margins. The morally dubious pagan progenitor of the Order of the Golden Fleece, Jason, featured in the Lille tableaux, not the biblical hero Gideon and his fleece moistened by heaven’s dew promoted by Germain as the order’s inspiration.74 Yet without active promotion by the church, the court’s obsession was likely to remain confined to itself. Popular engagement with the anti-Turkish posturing of the Burgundian court in the 1450s and 1460s only came with preaching, the sale of indulgences, local church processions and taking the cross. In practical terms, the Burgundian crusade activity fell into three categories; specific planning of grand crusades; general diplomatic encouragement; and regular, small-scale material and military assistance for Christian rulers in the east. Philip the Good’s third marriage to the forceful Isabella of Portugal (1430) associated Burgundy with one of the continuing Iberian traditions of holy war, leading to plans for joint action, for example in Greece in 1436–7. John of Nevers had established good relations with the Hospitallers in Rhodes on his release from captivity in 1397–8. His son provided regular aid for Rhodes, as in 1441 and 1444, when Geoffrey of Thoisy assisted in the defence against the Mamluk attack on the island. Burgundian ships and men campaigned in the Black Sea in 1444 and 1445. In 1472–3 Charles the Rash promised to provide money and galleys to assist the Venetian plan for a two-pronged assault on the Ottomans. As so often, nothing came of this. A similar fate befell the two most intense efforts in crusade planning, 1451–4 and 1459–64.


One of the most significant western interventions in eastern Europe attracted only modest Burgundian assistance. After church union was agreed at the Council of Florence (1439), Pope Eugenius IV attempted to coordinate relief for Constantinople. In 1442–3, the pope appointed a legate to eastern Europe, Cardinal Julian Ceasarini (previously a legate on the anti-Hussite crusade of 1431), and tried to orchestrate with Venice a western naval blockade of the Dardenelles while a Hungarian and Serbian army, under John Hunyadi of Transylvania (1440–56, regent of Hungary 1445–56), attacked Rumelia, as the European provinces of the Ottoman empire were known. With the Venetians holding aloof, no western flotilla had arrived to block Ottoman passage of the straits by the time the large Serbo-Hungarian force, strengthened by levies from Bohemia, Moldavia and some western volunteers, launched an attack through Bulgaria towards Thrace in the late autumn and winter of 1443–4.75 It proved a great success. Nish and Sofia were taken and the Ottoman capital at Erdine (Adrianople) threatened, before the invaders retired to Belgrade. However, plans for 1444 were compromised by a contradiction in allied war aims. The Hungarians and Serbs sought their own advantage, security of frontiers for one, restoration of independence for the other. They had little interest and some suspicion of the legate’s desire to relieve Constantinople. The locals were the more realistic. By the 1440s, much of Thrace had become thoroughly Turcified. There was no Byzantine empire to restore. Sultan Murad II exploited these divisions by offering peace terms to George Brancovic of Serbia (1427–56) and King Ladislas IV of Hungary. Brancovic accepted; Ladislas, after some equivocation, did not. The negotiations delayed assembling a new army, giving the Ottomans time to prepare their defences.

A western fleet of twenty-two or twenty-four galleys arrived in the Dardenelles in July 1444, mainly contributed by the papacy, Burgundy and Venice, manned by Venetians. Remaining immobile on station, the fleet totally failed to prevent Murad crossing the Bosporus north of Constantinople in October 1444 with a very large army. Neither did it make any attempt to harry the Black Sea coast or join up with the land army that advanced from the Danube to the Bulgarian port of Varna with just such an intention. The fleet’s Venetian captain, Alvise Loredan, declined to risk his ships, provoke the Turks or assist the Hungarians, perhaps fearful of the competitive dangers of committing Venice too actively in the interests of other land powers. The Ottoman and Hungarian armies met on 10 November at Varna. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Hungarians fought all day, the battle itself ending without either side gaining a clear advantage. However, losses were horrifying. King Ladislas and Cardinal Cesarini were both killed. Morale evaporated. The remnant of the Hungarian army under Hunyadi withdrew, leaving victory to the Ottomans. Varna confirmed Ottoman control of Rumelia while exposing the diplomatic fragility of their opponents. Peaceful accommodation, even under duress, seemed preferable to many Serbs, Hungarians and Poles, a point reinforced by Varna’s catastrophic casualties and the passivity of the Venetian naval commanders. Aggression was not as obvious a reaction to Ottoman power along the Danube or in the Aegean as it appeared in the council chambers of Rome or the banqueting halls of the Low Countries. The reluctance of eastern rulers to agree among themselves, still less to fight at western behest, placed a bar to foreign aid. Hunyadi, now regent of Hungary (for Ladislas V), reflecting his own territorial vulnerability as lord of Transylvania, did pursue an aggressive policy. In 1448 he obtained crusade indulgences from Nicholas V for a foray into Serbia that ended in defeat by Murad II at Kossovo, the site of the great iconic Serbian defeat by Murad I in 1389. No western crusaders accompanied him. After Varna, eastern and central Europe was left largely to its own devices. Western rulers’ political interests were concentrated in Greece, the Aegean and Cyprus; their emotional anxieties focused on Constantinople.


In 1453, Mehmed II decided to risk a full assault on Constantinople, despite undefeated enemies on his eastern (Karaman) and western (Hungary) frontiers. The city would unite his empire, remove a potentially troublesome base for hostile troops and help define a universalist imperial ideology. Heavy artillery and temporary naval supremacy supplied the immediate means of conquest. The final siege by land and sea began in April 1453.76 The last Greek emperor, Constantine XI, was politically and financially bankrupt, short of fighting men and bereft of allies willing to come to his aid, both Hungary and Venice holding back. His ramshackle, depopulated city was defended by a garrison of only a few thousand, afforced by Italian professionals. Constantine could only wait behind the great walls of the city and hope for relief that never came. After weeks of heavy pounding, the Turks moved in for the kill early on the morning of 29 May 1453, when the attackers swarmed into the breaches in the western land walls. The final scene saw the few defenders, the Italians prominent among then, in a desperate last stand within the walls. Constantine was killed in the press, his body possibly mutilated and his head taken as a trophy to the victorious sultan. The second sack of Constantinople may have been as damaging as the first in 1204. Perhaps as many as 4,000 Greek civilians died, about a tenth of the remaining population; many others were enslaved or ransomed. Within a decade, the last mainland Greek outposts had been engulfed; the surviving Latin holdings appeared even more precarious.

The Italian humanist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, soon to be Pope Pius II, lamented at the news of Constantinople’s conquest, ‘a second death of Homer and Plato’.77 A more traditional polemic of grief soon prevailed: the church in danger, the heritage of Christ defiled. To the same extent such reactions failed to stimulate a serious counter-attack, they missed the significance of the event. The mayhem, death and destruction, not least of artefacts and libraries, should not be ignored. Yet the human tragedy needs its own perspective. Greek cultural exchange with the west had flourished for generations. Greek learning was not something that reached western Europe in the luggage of Constantinopolitan refugees in 1453. The Byzantine state had comprehensively failed as a political institution. The fate of eastern Christendom lay not in the malignity of western holy warfare or diplomatic indifference, but in the operation of indigenous forces. The advent of the Ottomans was not the unalloyed disaster some have imagined, certainly not for the Ottomans, their allies, local Balkan groups they fostered and patronized, their Muslim subjects or even the Greek peasantry. Certain Greek elites suffered, but religious persecution played no part in fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Ottoman culture. Many Greeks who did not flee found Ottoman service, some even favour as converts to Islam. Ottoman culture, as eclectic and sophisticated as any in Europe and western Asia, introduced no new barbarism. The assumption of Christian superiority of culture or ethics is a damaging legacy of the age of colonialism and a feature of ill-informed modern demonization. The Ottoman triumph provided the lands of former Byzantium with security and a revived economy. By recreating the old territorial Byzantine empire, the Ottomans succeeded precisely where the crusaders of 1204 and generations of Greek rulers had failed. After 1453, Constantinople once again became the centre of the eastern Mediterranean world, resonant in its new name, Istanbul, ‘in the city’, ‘downtown’.

The reaction in the west to the fall of Constantinople varied from genuine concern to ritual hysteria. In courts from Germany to the Iberian peninsula, elaborate plans were instigated for a new crusade. The papacy sought to galvanize Christendom in a new meritorious and redemptive cause through the assertion of papal leadership. Nicholas V issued a crusade bull, Etsi ecclesia Christi (30 September 1453). The German imperial Reichstag discussed the Turkish war on three occasions in 1454–5, Philip of Burgundy attending the diet at Regensburg in April 1454. The assembly at Frankfurt in November 1454 was addressed by Piccolomini, whose speech was widely circulated.78 Large numbers of exhortatory pamphlets were produced, some using the new technology of printing. Nicholas V’s successor, Calixtus III, maintained the momentum by authorizing preaching, clerical taxes and the sale of indulgences. The taxation aroused predictable clerical resentment. While the indulgence campaign proved financially effective, for example in England, the ubiquity of pardoners excited suspicion and encouraged widespread fraud.79 Con men and crusading were not unfamiliar partners. Calixtus, despite age and debilitating gout, displayed obsessive energy in promoting the new venture, selling papal assets, including plate, dinner services and precious bindings from the volumes in the new Vatican Library created by his immediate predecessor. Galleys were constructed in the Tiber. Calixtus persuaded Alfonso V of Aragon (also king of Naples), whose secretary he had once been, to take the cross in November 1455. The German emperor Frederick III followed suit. Leadership of the crusade served the interests of his Habsburg family lands bordering Hungary while allowing Frederick to play a genuinely imperial role within Germany. In this company, Philip of Burgundy, even though he began to raise secular taxes for the crusade in his dominions, was conspicuous by his failure to take the cross, partly a reflection of his anomalous position as one of the richest and most powerful rulers in Europe who nonetheless remained subordinate to other monarchs. His French overlord, Charles VII, refused his cooperation or approval of the scheme.

In the autumn of 1454, Philip proposed an expedition for the following year. The lack of German response, Charles VII’s opposition and the death of Nicholas V (April 1455) postponed action. Beyond raising money, hardly much of a burden for any prince, Philip did remarkably little in the way of military or naval preparations. The timetable slipped. Alfonso V suggested a massive amphibious attack for 1457 to no effect. Crucially, Venice, at peace with the Turks since 1454, refused to become involved. While the western powers dithered, Mehmed II extended Ottoman control over Serbia (1454–5) preparatory to an attack on Hungary and the middle Danube. The fantasies of the Burgundian nobles at Lille or German princes at Frankfurt or the courtiers of Alfonso V, saturated with images of the historic Holy Land wars of the cross, not only proved impossible to realize, they failed to address the actual threat to fellow Latin Christians on the Danube. The failure of western rulers to organize an international expedition of any significance after 1453 relegated traditional mass crusading to the lumber room of military strategy, as Jean Germain put it, ‘the old expeditions and campaigns overseas that are called crusades (croisiez)’.80 Western inaction confirmed that the only effective assistance crusading institutions could provide against the Ottomans lay in moral support, financial help, limited small-scale, mainly naval expeditions and the encouragement of locally based resistance.


The successful defence of Belgrade in July 1456 exemplified just such limited crusading.81 Mehmed II advanced up the Danube in the summer of 1456, laying siege to Belgrade in the first week of July. He hoped, once the city had fallen, to press on to Buda before the campaign season ended. Facing him at Belgrade, the modest garrison was minded to come to terms. However, unexpected reinforcements arrived, led by John of Capistrano, a seventy-year-old Observant Franciscan with a long history of enthusiasm for crusading and moral rearmament. His interest in the recovery of the Holy Land and the Turkish question stretched back to the 1440s, part of his order’s longstanding involvement in preaching against enemies of the church, including heretics and Jews. Well connected, John had visited the Burgundian court in March 1454 and attended the German imperial diet at Frankfurt in November. He began preaching the crusade. By the spring of 1455, John was in Hungary concocting with a probably sceptical Regent Hunyadi an absurd plan for a huge international crusade of 100,000 men. More constructively, John toured the region preaching and establishing his credentials as a religious reformer. Credibility among crusade preachers assumed great importance. A few years later Pius II acknowledged the damage from past deceit, corruption and idleness: ‘People think our sole object is to amass gold. No one believes what we say. Like insolvent tradesmen we are without credit’.82 Only ostentatious displays of simplicity and sincerity could anaesthetize such feelings. John exuded the right balance of personal holiness and practical direction.

John’s preaching in Hungary, begun in May 1455 but reaching a crescendo of intensity between February and June 1456, was carefully orchestrated. Reflecting both his age and careful organization, progress was measured: 375 miles in fourteen months, less than a mile a day. In February 1456, in a well-publicized ceremony at Buda, John took the cross from the papal legate, John of Carvajal. According to John, at least, his evangelism was enormously successful, especially with ‘the lesser folk’. Hunyadi’s strategy appeared to have two elements. He concentrated on enlisting a reluctant nobility while John and his fellow preachers provided the focus for raising the general popular military levy, based on the so-called militia portalis system in use for a couple of generations.83 This system of peasant military levy meant these nonnoble recruits possessed at least rudimentary arms and probably some basic training. John’s transparent sincerity mitigated any social or fiscal resentment a summons from the nobles may have aroused, his appeal deliberately transcending secular hierarchy. Little was left to chance. Local bishops lent their support. News of his preaching was carefully spread before his arrival. Sometimes, congregations were disappointed, one being kept waiting for over a week without John appearing. Recruits also came from outside Hungary, mainly Austria and Germany, including, apparently, hundreds of students from Vienna university, perhaps seeking a glamorously adventurous summer vacation away from the lecture halls. John’s efforts formed only the centrepiece of a campaign that led to a summer of cross-taking in parts of Hungary, attracting very positive reports. Observers may have been pleasantly struck by the focus on raising men rather than the more usual touting for money. John’s contribution may have been exaggerated in his own writing and the hagiographical accounts that soon clustered around the events of 1456. Nonetheless, he raised a significant army, perhaps some thousands strong, even if its cohesion suggests it was held together by more than the friar’s personality alone.

Despite apologists’ sentimental insistence on the wondrous and miraculous, John of Capistrano’s crusader army, while not necessarily the collection of inspired and devoted civilian innocents of propaganda and legend, played an important role in the defence of Belgrade. They supplied numbers and vital morale. The Hungarian garrison was too small to combat the Turks outside the walls of Belgrade and, without relief, was unlikely to have withstood Turkish bombardment indefinitely. Mehmed may also have relied on the longstanding reluctance of elements in the Hungarian nobility to fight if an accommodation were available. The arrival of John’s troops from 2 July onwards allowed for more aggressive tactics. They helped Hunyadi break the Turkish naval blockade around the city on 14 July. A week later, on the night of 21–2 July, they stood with the garrison in the breaches of the battered city walls to repulse the main Turkish assault. The following day, as Mehmed began to organize his retreat, they formed a major element in the counter-attack that swarmed over the Turkish forward positions, inflicting further heavy casualties and seizing large amounts of matériel. The success of John’s recruiting effort seems to have wrong-footed Mehmed, whose plans depended on a relatively rapid seizure of Belgrade if his further targets were to be met. The crusaders’ appearance in strength dashed hopes that his initial superiority of numbers and control of the rivers would force Belgrade’s surrender. That Ottoman forces were stretched is confirmed by their precipitate withdrawal once the desperate ploy of a night-time frontal assault failed.

The well-attested tensions between John’s crusaders and Hunyadi added lustre to the image of a providential force whose faith triumphed where military prowess and professionalism had failed. In fact, much of the antagonism between the two groups revolved around the disposition of booty and Hunyadi’s lack of control over the crusaders, a consequence of the decision earlier in the year to give John a measure of autonomous authority over his recruits. However, John showed his understanding of the proper relationship of his army to Hunyadi when, the day after the Turks’ departure, he summarily disbanded his troops when they tried to assert their independence by claiming sole credit for victory and, thus, ownership of its spoils.84 John and his crusaders’ reputation owed most to the search, then and since, for heroes who could be shown achieving temporal success through living up to the highest spiritual standards crusade rhetoric demanded. Undoubtedly, John’s spiritual charisma helped bond his army together and to the cause. His banners spoke both of crusading and the morally strict programme of his order. Revivalism had perennially fuelled crusade enthusiasm, especially in default of the secular discipline or coercion of enforceable lay hierarchies and secular lordship. But such effervescent popular crusading tended to evaporate quickly, John of Capistrano’s crusade proving no exception. His army disbanded and he himself died of the plague in October 1456. Thereafter garrisons and truces kept the Ottomans at bay and out of Hungary until the 1520s, not crusaders, indigenous or foreign.

The more conventional efforts of Calixtus III wholly failed to defend Hungary. His fleet only managed to set out in August 1456, meeting with modest success during a tour of duty that lasted until late 1457. Lemnos, Samothrace and Thasos were recovered in the Aegean; a Turkish fleet was defeated at Mytilene in the summer of 1457, and an uplifting but pointless raid was conducted down the Levantine coast to Egypt. Pope Calixtus milked these successes. The naval victories were commemorated by a medal, that at Belgrade by the institution in 1457 of general observance of the Feast of the Transfiguration on 6 August, the day news of the triumph had reached Rome a year before. It was also the date of the battle of Mytilene.85 Yet such gestures did little to deflect the consolidation of Ottoman power south of the Danube and in Greece. The flow of the Ottoman advance may have been stemmed, but there was no counter-attack. The overwhelming presence of Turkish dominion from Serbia to Cilicia remained unaltered, a fact that preyed heavily on Calixtus III’s successor, called by some ‘the last crusader’.


By the time of his election as Pope Pius II in August 1458, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (1405–64) had been promoting an anti-Turkish, anti-Muslim eastern crusade for over twenty years. A distinguished scholar, man of letters and experienced diplomat, Pius had been heavily engaged during negotiations in the earlier 1450s. On elevation to the throne of St Peter he immediately renewed calls for a crusade (October 1458), convening an international conference at Mantua (summer 1459–January 1460). Although the attendance at Mantua was meagre and the response decidedly tepid, Pius drove the meeting to agree on a new expedition, imagining at the end of it that he had a plan, with fixed promises of men and funding. Optimism soon ran into the sand. International prospects were poor. England had slipped into civil war. The new French king, Louis XI, continued his predecessor’s hostility to Philip of Burgundy’s participation. Louis had little time for his previous protector’s posturing, regarding Philip as spoilt, arrogant and ‘of no great intellect’.86 In Italy, the succession to Naples dragged the pope into a conflict that pitted France against Aragon. Pius hardly helped. After 1453, he appeared to hanker after an old-fashioned general crusade to defeat the Turks and recover Jerusalem. This increasingly looked like code for enhancing papal supremacy rather than a serious military proposal. His and his advisors’ language when discussing the Turks became crudely abusive. However, by placing the crusade at the centre of his pontificate, Pius was staking papal authority and even, as he admitted in 1462, respect for the church hierarchy itself.87

This explains the otherwise bizarre, pathetic or tragic coda to his reign. By early 1462, Pius had decided the only way to rescue his crusade and papal authority was to lead the expedition personally, to say to the faithful, ‘Come with me,’ not, ‘Go on your own.’ This represented the height of impracticality. Pius was prematurely old, a semi-invalid. A crusade, he very publicly acknowledged in 1463, would kill him. Perhaps he reckoned a heroic gesture of martyrdom would shake Christendom to reform where tens of thousands of his erudite words had not. Pius had come late to the priesthood, in his forties, after a successful public and private life as a layman; he had fathered a number of children. His mid-life conversion left him with an originality of perspective and freedom of thought denied his more institutionalized clerical colleagues. Freshness of vision, high intellect and impressive articulacy produced his remarkable elision of the crusade with papal supremacy and his own spiritual journey.

Prospects for action were better than in 1459. Philip the Good, although in his mid-sixties, recommitted himself to the venture. Venice was close to war with the Turks, reversing their neutrality of a decade earlier. Pius relaunched his crusade in October 1463, this time as a limited project directed at the Turks.88 The full panoply of preaching, cross-giving, Holy Land indulgences, privileges and financial apparatus was rehearsed. The pope’s leadership became central. To his cardinals Pius made no bones over his personal vocation: ‘we shall in a sense be going to certain death’, a noble end that may have appealed both to his religious faith and his classical imagination.89

The autumn of 1463 saw serious diplomatic efforts to gain material support. Pius negotiated with sceptical Italian states while securing a grand alliance between the papacy, Venice, Hungary and Burgundy. On 22 October Pius rather pompously declared war on Mehmed II. Ancona was fixed as the muster point for the international force. The Venetians would transport the army across the Adriatic to join either the Hungarians or Albanian freedom fighters under Scanderbeg. Typically, after another lavish crusade fête at Christmas 1463, Philip of Burgundy ratted, but did send a company of 3,000 men under his bastard Anthony, who set out for Ancona in May 1464. Other small contingents began to move south. The only cardinal to provide a galley was Rodrigo Borgia, nephew and protégé of the crusade fanatic Calixtus III, later Pope Alexander VI of ill-repute.90Given his notorious pluralism and greed, Rodrigo could certainly afford it. Pius himself assembled a fleet of galleys to meet him at Ancona before taking the cross at St Peter’s on 18 June 1464, perhaps the only pope in office ever to do so to fight the infidel. Now seriously ill, he must have realized his mission to Ancona, whither he set out in late June, could only be pour encourager les autres and for the salvation of his own soul. The Venetian flotilla of twelve galleys commanded by the doge himself was late. Elements of the papal force, seeing how the land lay, began to desert. It was said that the curtains of Pius’s litter had to be drawn to shield him from the sight of his disintegrating army.91 On 14 August, soon after reaching Ancona, Pius, as he had expected, died. His crusade died with him.

The Ottoman problem did not. By 1481, when Mehmed the Conqueror died, Venice had lost its Aegean capital Negroponte (1470), the Hospitallers in Rhodes had narrowly survived a massive siege (1480), and Otranto, in southern Italy, had briefly been occupied. In Rumelia, there were no Turkish retreats, even if further conquest ceased under Bayezid II, only to be renewed with a vengeance by Selim the Grim and Suleiman the Magnificent. However, the crusade increasingly assumed a walk-on part in the drama. Bulls continued to be issued. Men still took the cross and rulers the money. The efficacy of the ideal continued to receive obeisance, sometimes genuine, sometimes not. In Hungary, recognized as ‘the wall, bastion or shield’ of Latin Christendom, defence was the priority.92 Hunyadi’s son, Matthias Corvinus, used crusading rhetoric to bolster his royal credentials as a monarch from a parvenu dynasty. However, income from papal crusade funds, while useful, made little impression on the cost of Hungary’s military establishment. The recrudescence of crusade enthusiasm in the Iberian peninsula looked to other theatres of holy war, even when its promoters sought to associate them. When Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 to assert his claim to the kingdom of Naples, he placed the adventure in the context of a desire to fight the Turk and recover Jerusalem. The sincerity of the emotion need not be doubted, even if its implementation was outside practical politics. By initiating a sixty-year war in Italy, Charles VIII destroyed any serious chance to fulfil his ambition. His priorities were very clear. As for so many of his predecessors, the crusade became always the next thing to be done, always just one more military or diplomatic coup away.

Crusading refused to fade away. It still addressed central issues of politics, war, faith and community. International crusading remained a matter of courtly speculation, diplomatic trope and academic, and occasionally scholarly, debate. Popes continued to promote crusading with literary vigour, although the frequency and eloquence of their bulls were not matched by deeds. Increasingly the cruciata, through its taxes or sale of indulgences, became a matter of pious fiscality, in Spain a significant feature of public finance, jealously guarded by sixteenthcentury monarchs. Indulgences remained popular. In England alone, between 1444 and 1502 there were twelve indulgence sales campaigns on behalf of crusades against the Turks. One of the earliest surviving pieces of English printing was an indulgence form issued to Henry and Katherine Langley of London on 13 December 1476.93 In 1464, a new curial finance department was established, the papal privy purse, specifically to receive crusade money. While the Ottomans presented a vital danger, talk of the recovery of Jerusalem remained the familiar small change of diplomatic parley and bombast, as in Francis I’s attempt to impose an Italian peace in 1515. His later treaty with the Turks (1536) dealt a serious blow to the concept of a confessional foreign policy. Yet old habits died hard. In 1498, the Roman poet laureate promised the new French king Louis XII a Roman triumph and a greeting by Apollo if he liberated the Holy Land and Constantinople.94

The atmosphere more than the apparatus of crusading infected the language used to describe battles with the Turks. One account of the attack on Lesbos in 1501 is decorated by a lay crusade sermon supposedly delivered by the French king’s lieutenant, compete with promises of papal indulgences, salvation, temporal and eternal honour and glory.95 Ironically, on the eve of the Lutheran revolt against papal indulgences in 1517, the greatest challenge to the theology of crusading yet mounted, reassuring anachronism gave way to some appreciation of reality. None of the debates or decrees of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–17), which discussed an expeditio against the Turks, mentioned Jerusalem.96 The febrile and hostile politics of Italy, France and Spain prevented any but verbal activity. Religious disunion of a sort unknown in the west for centuries soon complicated responses to both crusading and the Turk. The greatest Muslim threat to Christendom, the advance of the Ottomans to the suburbs of Vienna in 1529, occurred in the same year German evangelical princes signed the ‘Protest’ from which the name Protestant derived. Thereafter, although many Protestants were far from squeamish about holy war or fighting the Turks, crusading assumed a partisan status, a weapon, if at all, of a splintered confessional affinity some, at least, of whose ideological assumptions and roots had been attacked if not hacked off. Crusade institutions remained in the papal armoury, especially in support of Habsburg campaigning around the Mediterranean. For the Roman Catholic faithful, the ideal still shone. Pope Paul III’s summons to the great reforming council at Trent in 1544 announced its purpose: ‘the removal of religious discord, the reform of Christian morals, and the launching of an expedition under the most sacred sign of the cross against the infidel.’97

But Paul hoped the council would abolish or restrict bulls for crusade indulgences, efforts thwarted by Spanish opposition for reasons of income not salvation. Yet that part of the game was up. Roman Catholic crusade apologists were increasingly reluctant to emphasize the offer of indulgences; their sale was abolished by Paul V in 1567. Crusading retained its place as an appropriate vehicle for Roman Catholics to use in fighting holy war. Yet religious division rendered its theology anathema to significant sections of Christian society who sought and found other ways and means to articulate and pursue violence in the name of their God.

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