Post-classical history

Chapter Ninety-Four


The Fall

Between 1430 and 1453, the Turks triumph, the Crusades die, and Constantinople surrenders

THE FIERCE YOUNG OTTOMAN SULTAN MURAD II had grown into a fierce mature ruler. He had laid siege to Constantinople twice, both times withdrawing only after the payment of tribute and the surrender of yet more Byzantine lands. He had ruthlessly wiped out budding revolts in Wallachia and Serbia, both now under his control; after capturing the massive Hungarian fortress of Golubac, on the Danube river, he had forced the Hungarians to make it over to him permanently; in 1430 he seized Thessalonica; he had begun to invade the Venetian-held lands on the Adriatic Sea; and in 1431, his troops had knocked down the Hexamillion Wall, built by Manuel to block just such an extension of Turkish power.1

In Rome, the cardinals and pope talked hopefully of another crusade, this one perhaps involving the Hungarians, the Polish armies, the Venetians; the Duke of Burgundy had expressed interest; the Serbs might be persuaded to join in.

But such a crusade resisted full organization. Talk went on, while the only resistance to Murad was mounted by Hungary.

THE KING OF HUNGARY, Albert II, had succeeded his father-in-law Sigismund in 1438 on the thrones of both Hungary and Germany.

He took the Hungarian capital city of Alba Regia for his home, and at first directed his energies against the Bohemians, who were refusing to recognize his kingship. The Castilian traveler Pero Tafur, visiting his headquarters during the first Christmas of his reign, found him at the Bohemian border city of Breslau with “a great army”; he was impressed by Albert II’s courtesy (“honest in his bearing . . . an open and vigorous knight”), and even more astounded by the cold winter. “So cold is the city that [the king] and his courtiers go about in the streets seated in wooden vehicles like threshing machines,” he marveled. “No one with any money rides on horseback for fear of falling, for the streets are like glass owing to the continual frosts. . . . It was so cold that my teeth almost fell out of my mouth.”2


94.1 The Wars of Murad II

The Bohemians were not easily reduced, however, and in 1439 Albert II decided to turn southward against the Turkish front in Serbia. After an undistinguished campaign in which nothing particular happened, he was journeying back towards Vienna when he grew ill; he died at the Hungarian city of Neszmély on October 27, not quite finishing out two years as king of Hungary. He had never actually managed to be crowned king of Germany, and died as king-elect.

His venture against the Turks had produced one unexpected effect. In order to prevent Hungary and Poland from unifying against him, Murad II had sent an ambassador to the king of Poland, Wladyslaw III, with an offer. The Turks would help the king’s younger brother, Casimir, take complete control of Bohemia, removing it completely from the control of either Germany or Hungary and instead making it a subject kingdom of Poland—as long as Poland promised not to help the Hungarians attack the Turkish front.3

Wladyslaw III, only fifteen years old, was still under the guidance of his advisors. He accepted the treaty, but the Turkish ambassadors had not yet even left Krakow when news of Albert’s death arrived, along with an offer from the Hungarian nobles to recognize Wladyslaw as king of Hungary in his place. The German electors had settled on Frederick of Hapsburg, Albert’s first cousin: “Not so noble a man” as Albert, says Pero Tafur, but “exceedingly wealthy . . . [and] he knows well how to keep what he has.” But the Hungarians had concluded that separating their own realm from Germany, and from its Bohemian troubles, was a better route.4

Wladyslaw III accepted the Hungarian crown, which annoyed Murad II. When his messengers returned to his capital city of Edirne and told him that Poland and Hungary were now under a single ruler, he declared the treaty with Hungary void and began to gather his forces for an attack. Meanwhile, Albert II’s widow gave birth to a posthumous son, four months after Albert’s death. A minority of the Hungarian nobles lobbied for retracting the offer to Wladyslaw in favor of the infant. Fighting broke out, and Murad II must have believed that the divisions in Hungary would make the country vulnerable. In 1440, he advanced forward to Belgrade, the gateway into Hungary, and laid siege to it.5

To his shock, the siege failed. Belgrade, built between two rivers, was further protected by a double wall and five forts, and its harbor was shut off with a chain that ran between two strong towers. The Turkish army was equipped with stone throwers and cannon, but after several months of bashing at the walls without effect, Murad II ordered a secret tunnel built under the walls, beginning the construction a good distance away and behind a high hill to conceal it. Belgrade’s defenders discovered the tunnel, booby-trapped it with gunpowder, and waited until it was filled with advancing Turkish foot soldiers; then they set off the explosion, killing every last man in the tunnel. Murad retreated. In all, he had lost nearly fifteen thousand men at the siege.6

Fighting continued in Hungary over the right of Albert’s infant son to claim the throne, but the Turks were further stalled by the resistance of the Hungarian count John Huniades, a native of the eastern wooded area of Transylvania. Appointed by Albert II as military governor for Szörény, the lands near Wallachia, Huniades now offered his allegiance to Wladyslaw.

His skill stood in Murad’s way. Huniades, a well-educated man in his late thirties, had served under the Emperor Sigismund and was widely rumored to be Sigismund’s illegitimate son. He had studied military strategy in Milan and fought in the Hussite Wars. He now turned this experience, and a natural bent for craftiness, to the service of the Hungarian army. In 1442, he defeated Murad’s troops badly when the Ottoman sultan tried to invade Transylvania through the narrow pass called the Iron Gates. Then he went on the offensive. Beginning in 1443, he marched directly across the Balkan mountains, into the teeth of the Turks: an audacious and aggressive move known as the Long Campaign.

The Hungarian advance led to a string of Turkish losses; and in February 1444, Murad II chose to accept a ten-year truce with Wladyslaw and John Huniades. This sudden capitulation was only partly related to the Hungarian victories. His oldest and best-loved son Aleddin had just died of a swift and unexpected illness; Murad II was grieving and weary. He was only forty, but he had been sultan for twenty-three years, all of those spent at war. Right after signing the truce, he summoned his next son, twelve-year-old Mehmet, to join him at Edirne. There he announced that he intended to abdicate the sultanate and hand it over to the child and his hand-selected vizier, Halil Pasha.7

This appeared to be a sign of weakness.

Suddenly, it seemed that the long-discussed Crusade might actually happen. A papal legate was dispatched to assure both Wladyslaw and John Huniades that they were not bound by the terms of the truce they had just signed, since Murad was an infidel. He sweetened his persuasions by promising Huniades that the pope would recognize him as king of Bulgaria if he could manage to drive the Turks out of the old Bulgarian lands. It worked; both men agreed to ignore the treaty and join a multinational attack against the new young sultan.8

They remained committed—even when other potential Crusaders started to back out. John VIII refused to take the risk of annoying the Turks into another attack on Constantinople. The Serbian leader, whose daughter was married to Murad, decided that he would be better off working his family connections than trying to kill his daughter’s new family. The Venetians never came up with the expected ships. By the time the Crusaders had planned to march along the Danube, into the Turkish front, the force had shrunk to the Hungarians under King Wladyslaw and John Huniades and a small Wallachian force commanded by Vlad Dracul, now prince of his home country. He was willing to fight, but he was not hopeful about the chance for success: “The Sultan has hunting parties larger than this army,” he told his colleagues.9

But the Hungarians had triumphed too often; Huniades was stubborn, and Wladyslaw young and ambitious. They marched towards the Turkish-held city of Varna. At their approach, the Turkish vizier begged Murad II to come out of retirement and lead the return attack. Murad did (somewhat to the dismay of young Mehmet); he approached Varna himself at the head of a hundred thousand men, outnumbering the Hungarians three to one. Eyewitnesses say that when he joined the battle on November 10, 1444, he carried a standard with the ripped pieces of the peace treaty nailed to its top.10

The Hungarian army was savaged. Wladyslaw III, aged twenty, was killed in the fighting; his body was never found, although rumors circulated for years that he had survived and was wandering through the east as a pilgrim, always searching for Jerusalem. The survivors fled; John Huniades and Vlad Dracul both escaped into Wallachia, where they had a private falling-out that ended with Huniades in a Wallachian prison.

The Battle of Varna was the last Christian attempt to organize a crusade against the Turks. It had barely been a crusade, but the slaughter at Varna quelled even the urge to use the name.

In the aftermath, all of the thrones changed occupants.

Murad came back to the head of the Ottoman empire, demoting his resentful son to heir apparent once again. In Hungary, Albert II’s young son Ladislaus, now five years old, was unanimously elected to replace the dead Wladyslaw. Poland went through three years of interregnum before settling on Wladyslaw’s younger brother Casimir as their own king.

Germany was still under Frederick of Hapsburg; Sigismund’s union of Germany with its neighbors had now completely dissolved. Eight years after the Battle of Varna, Frederick would be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Nicholas V—although he controlled little else apart from Germany. And although neither he nor Nicholas V knew it, he would be the last Holy Roman Emperor to ever be crowned in Rome.

IN 1448, JOHN VIII—who had been forced to congratulate Murad II, his overlord, on the victory at Varna—died in Constantinople. He had been married three times but had no sons. In his place, his younger brother Constantine took the throne.

Constantine XI Palaeologus was forty-five years old, twice widowed, and emperor of a shabby, demoralized, poor empire. He had fewer than nine thousand soldiers in Constantinople, and half of those were mercenaries. The walls of the city were crumbling, in places gapped through. He did not defy Murad II, but when Murad died in 1451 of a stroke, he faced a new sultan who did not intend to let Constantinople remain unconquered.

Mehmet II had retreated silently into the shadows, waiting for his father to die. The two had never been on close terms; Murad had preferred his two older sons, Mehmet’s half brothers, but both had died young. Now Mehmet returned to Edirne. He was nineteen years old, withdrawn and cautious, and the only person who did not underestimate him was the vizier Halil Pasha. “The late Sultan was a lenient and conscientious friend to you,” he wrote to Constantine XI, when the Byzantine emperor had annoyed him by suggesting that Constantinople might decide to support a rival for Mehmet II’s throne. “The present Sultan is not of the same mind. If . . . [you] elude his bold and impetuous grasp, it will be only because God continues to overlook your cunning and wicked schemes. . . . If you want to recover the places which you lost long since, try it. But know this . . . all you will achieve is to lose what little you still have.”11

Halil Pasha himself had set his affairs in order; he thoroughly expected to be done away with. But Mehmet II kept him on. The vizier was experienced, well liked, and well connected; Mehmet II did not necessarily want his father’s right-hand man in the sultan’s palace, but he was able to push away his dislike, when necessary, for the good of his reign. On the other hand, Mehmet’s infant half brother, son of his father’s new young wife, was a potential rival. As soon as he arrived at Edirne, Mehmet invited his stepmother to his throne room and gave her a sincere welcome. When she returned to her rooms, she found the body of her baby son, strangled while she had been away.12

Mehmet did not fritter his strength away in multiple campaigns. He at once arranged truces with Hungary, Venice, Wallachia, and the Greek cities on the southern peninsula, which allowed him to put all of his energies into building a new fortress. Called Boğazkesen, “Cutter of the Strait,” it stood on Byzantine land, on the western shore of the Bosphorus Strait. He assigned his entire workforce to build it, completely finishing it in less than twenty weeks. The Cutter of the Strait stood directly across from a fortress built by his grandfather Bayezid on the Turkish shore. It had only one purpose—to serve as a base for the conquest of Constantinople—and for twenty weeks, the citizens of Constantinople had been perfectly aware of this as they watched the fortress rise, stone by stone. Mehmet had ignored Constantine’s diplomatic protests. The emperor had no power outside the city’s walls, and the sultan’s one wish was to breach those walls and bring Constantinople to an end.13

In November 1452, the Cutter of the Strait claimed its first victim. As soon as the fortress was completed, Mehmet had announced that all ships passing through the strait would pay toll. A Venetian merchant ship refused to stop and shell out the tax; Turkish cannon blasted the ship to bits, killing most of the crew. The captain was hauled out of the water and impaled on the shore where other ships could see him.14

The storm was coming. Constantine set his people, that winter, to collecting weapons, repairing the walls, gathering provisions. A Hungarian cannon maker named Urban came to the city and offered his services; he was too expensive for Constantine, so with regret the emperor turned him away. He went to Cutter of the Strait instead, where Mehmet promptly hired him.15

At the beginning of April, Mehmet began to move his forces into place. He established his own headquarters right across from the gate known as St. Romanus and established other camps all along the walls. Monstrelet says that he had 200,000 men; the Venetian eyewitness Nicolò Barbaro guessed 160,000, the Greek chronicler Chalkokondyles 400,000. Among them were at least 60,000 archers and 40,000 horsemen; some of the foot soldiers armed only with scimitars, but others with iron helmets and French chain mail. “There were very many bombards and culverins,” Monstrelet says; bombards were wide-mouthed cannon that hurled granite balls, culverins smaller cannon that could be fired by hand. One of the bombards, according to Monstrelet, shot out stones “weighing eighteen hundred pounds.” This was the work of the renegade Hungarian cannon maker; it had taken sixty oxen pulling thirty wagons to haul it from its forging place in Edirne (once called Adrianople) to the city’s walls, and road workers had spent two months fortifying bridges and roadways ahead of it; the stones it hurled were more than seven feet around. The sultan hoped to use these to break through the triple land walls west of the city. No attacking force had ever before succeeded in this, but no attacking force had ever used cannon that hurled seven-foot stones either.16

The bombardment began on April 4, 1453.* It continued for fifty-five days; on each one of those days, the cannon launched 100 to 120 massive stones against the city’s walls. Barbaro, who was inside the city during the attack, records that the first Turkish attempt to storm through the gaps knocked in the walls came on April 18. It was driven back by the defenders, stones piled back into the walls.17

The most vulnerable wall of the city was the one lining the edge of the Golden Horn, the finger of water that ran from the Bosphorus inland. The Horn itself was blocked with a massive chain, the chain guarded by towers. But Mehmet had planned for this. His engineers had outfitted about seventy of his ships with wheels. In the night of April 22, his men hauled the ships by land over the hills north of the Golden Horn and then slipped them into the water, behind the protective chain. When dawn came on the twenty-third, the Golden Horn was filled with enemy ships.

It was at this point that the defense of the city began to seem more like a deathwatch.

Two more attempted invasions through breaches in the walls took place on May 7 and May 18, both pushed back by the pitifully small garrison within. Constantine, losing heart, sent a message to Mehmet asking for terms on which the sultan would withdraw: “Either I shall take this city,” Mehmet sent back, “or the city will take me, dead or alive. . . . The city is all I want, even if it is empty.”18

On May 28, the bombardment suddenly ceased. Silence settled over the city. And then, just after midnight, a final attack—every man, every cannon, every horse, every archer Mehmet commanded—was flung against and over the city walls. Constantine himself came out, sword in hand, to join the fighting. His body was never found, probably buried in a mass pit along with thousands of others; there were so many bodies, both Turkish and Byzantine, says Barbaro, that they floated in the Sea of Marmara “as melons float through the canals of Venice.”


94.2 The Golden Horn

By the morning of the twenty-ninth, Constantinople belonged to the Turks. Mehmet himself came in through the St. Romanus gate and went directly to the Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral of the Greek church, to say the first Muslim prayers inside it.19

The day after the conquest, Mehmet arrested his vizier Halil Pasha and had him executed. He was strong now, and he no longer needed the old man.20

THE TURKS called it “The Conquest,” but in the West it was known as “The Fall.”

There was no more emperor in the east, no more Christian jewel on the Black Sea. The chain connecting the fifteenth century to Constantine’s dream was broken. For the ideal of holy crusade, the conquest of 1453 was a postscript to the Battle of Varna; for the ideal of a holy empire, it was simply and purely the end. The old trade routes were no more. The old hopes were dead. The old promises were empty and hollow.21

The conquest was the beginning of many other things: the Muslim advance into the west; a new wave of Greek thought, moving westward as Byzantine scholars fled from Constantinople into the courts of Europe; the seeds of new nations; the roots of new wars.

But endings were easier to see than beginnings. Even for the Ottomans, who saw victory rather than the end of the world, the sack of the city was a period and not the start of a new sentence. The single detailed Ottoman account of the siege speaks less of triumph than of severed limbs and severed heads, of fire and charred remains, of dust and death and destruction.

And, from the furthest reaches below to the top-most parts, and from the upper heights down to ground level, hand-to-hand combat and charging was being joined with a clashing and plunging of arms and hooked pikes and halberds in the breaches amidst the ruin wrought by the cannon . . . a veritable precipitation and downpouring of calamities from the heavens as decreed by God.22


*The 1453 siege of Constantinople is one of the most-studied (and familiar) in Western history. Much more detailed accounts can be found in the illustrated and readable The Fall of Constantinople: The Ottoman Conquest of Byzantium, by David Nicolle, John Haldon, and Stephen R. Turnbull (Osprey Publishing, 2007), and in the narrative history Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, by Roger Crowley (Faber and Faber, 2005). The comprehensive 800-page study The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453: Historiography, Topography and Military Studies, by Marois Philippides and Walter K. Hanak (Ashgate Publishing, 2011), offers a survey of the research and sources available.

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