1456, the heroic Siege of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade)
1456, the heroic Siege of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade)
Nándorfehérvár, “The Key to Hungary”
The planned construction of the southern military Borderland system of castles began in the 1410s, in the context of the military reforms of King Zsigmond (Sigismund) of Luxembourg. Pippo of Ozorai, Zsigmond’s general, played a major role in the construction of the system, but the organization was not interrupted by his death in 1426. A treaty concluded with the Serbian prince Istvan (Stephan) Lazarevich in May 1426 gave Hungarian control of nearly twenty southern fortresses without a fight.
At the same time, the castle of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) came under Hungarian rule. From that time until its fall in 1521, the fortress played a key role in the defense of the Hungarian frontier, both because of its geographical position and its size.
The key role of Nándorfehérvár was due to its geographical position, and if the Ottoman Sultan wanted to launch a major operation against Hungary, he had to march near Nándorfehérvár. The biggest problem when armies of the time were marching was the supply of drinking water, so troops tried to stay near some kind of running water. Let us recall, that Sultan Murad II could not take Nándorfehérvár in 1440, he spent 7 months before the walls, though.
The fact that food and supplies could also be delivered by water was also an important consideration. For a Turkish army with large numbers of men and animals attacking Hungary, therefore, an attack along the Danube was almost the only option. It was not possible to bypass the castle, because on the one hand, this would have deprived the Turkish army of the possibility of transport by water, and on the other hand the thousands of defenders who could be stationed in the castle would have posed a constant threat to the Turkish troops.
The castle was built according to the castle-building techniques of the time, and this is what caused its vulnerability. The artillery of the time was still developing and the walls of the castles were still relatively thin and high. High walls could easily collapse under sufficiently powerful cannon fire. The situation of the castle defenders was made even more precarious by the fact that the Turkish army was equipped with some of the most modern and largest artillery of the time.
Not to mention Hunyadi János, the “Turkish beater”, or as he was called in a contemporary Turkish source, the “cursed Jankó”, was the main organizer of the anti-Turkish struggle for nearly two decades.
The Turks are coming!
Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror took Constantinapolis, the capital of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and turned it into the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Then, he turned his attention to the north: Serbia and Hungary became his targets. Indeed, he gradually managed to occupy the bigger part of Serbia between 1454 and 1455. Thus, he eliminated the “bumper zone” between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. It was the zone that had been created as a result of General Hunyadi János’ Long Campaign of 1443-44.
You can read more about Hunyadi’s famous campaign here:
In Hungary, only a few people realized the Ottoman threat. One of them was Hunyadi János who was in charge of Hungary’s southern Borderland, and the other one was sent by the Pope, he was Giovanni da Capestrano aka Kapisztrán János, the Franciscan preacher whose task was to prepare a crusade against the Muslims. Hunyadi, just like before, was organizing an offensive war against the Ottomans in February 1456. According to this goal, he had the Diet order a general call to arms in Buda, in August 1456. However, Sultan Mehmed was faster because he launched his army in April 1456.
At that age, there was a serious problem, though: it was hard to find out the military target of the enemy. Sometimes it was realized only when the foe has already besieged the chosen castle. As a result of this, it was impossible to concentrate the Hungarian army before the siege was laid. The Ottomans took advantage of their superior numbers and often launched attacks to deceive the enemy. They assaulted Slavonia, the Lands of the Temes River, and Transylvania. Thus, it was already May when the Ottomans’ final target became obvious: it was Nándorfehérvár aka Belgrade. Here is more about the history of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade):
Hunyadi did his best to send reinforcement to Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade): he sent his feudal troops along with mercenaries whom he had hired from his own money. Nándorfehérvár was defended by his son-in-law, Szilágyi Mihály and Geszti János. (Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first.) Also, the Crusader army of Capistrano was approaching, the monk had almost 30,000 peasants in his army. All in all, the Ottomans still had a twice larger regular army, as for the irregular troops, their number was three times more than in the Christian army.
The siege of Nándorfehérvár began on 4 July 1456. Sultan Mehmed didn’t surround the fort, only from the south. Admiral Baltoglu’s fleet consisted of 200 Ottoman boats, they blocked the Danube River. However, the Sultan failed to assign troops who could have supported the fleet from the riverbank. Taking advantage of this, Hunyadi occupied both sides of the Danube River and his boatmen broke the Ottoman blockade on 14 July. This time, the Ottomans suffered lots of casualties. It was how Hunyadi’s army could enter the castle to relieve the exhausted guards, bringing lots of food to the starving garrison. There used to be 7,000 warriors with Captain Szilágyi but Hunyadi brought in 12,000 more soldiers.
According to the Chronicle of Thuróczi, when Sultan Mehmed II was informed of the defeat at the Danube, he said, “It will be more difficult, but we will get what we want!” Indeed, the Sultan still had every reason to be optimistic, his army still had a considerable advantage after the defeat.
Then, Hunyadi divided his army into two parts. The Crusaders, led by Capistrano, camped on the left bank of the Száva river, while Hunyadi, at the head of his army, joined the defenders of the castle. He went straight to the captains and said to them:
“(…)What are you afraid of? Or is this the first time you have seen a Turk? These are the ones we have so often failed! You’ve seen them so many times, why are you bothered by this sight now? Trust in Christ, for whose name we have shed our blood so many times, and we shall prevail again.'”
According to the Chronicle of Thuróczi János:
“At the same time, there was a great discussion in the Turkish camp. Emperor Mahomet (Mehmed II) called together the leaders of the Turkish army and addressed them thus:
-You all remember that my father, Emperor Amurat, had besieged Nándorfehérvár for seven months and still had not conquered it. So he retreated from the castle without victory, to his shame. But now it will be different! For what Amurath could not accomplish in seven months, Mahomet will accomplish in fifteen days!
The Turkish leaders looked at each other, all thinking that Hunyadi would not give up the castle so easily. But none of them dared to speak; at last, the Anatolian Voivode, the chief commander of the campaign, spoke:
– Oh, great Emperor! I am happy to speak before your majesty. Though I fear losing your favor with me, yet I must tell you that the Hungarians defend their castles more strongly than the Greeks.
The Emperor did not like these words, but he did not answer, but gave orders that the siege should be continued.”
The incessant artillery fire had reduced the fortress to almost rubble, and in terrain like this, it was easy to overwhelm. The passage of time, with its supply difficulties, the spreading plague, and the problems common to armies condemned to inaction, no longer favored the Turkish army, though. At the last minute, Hunyadi called four thousand more rested Crusaders into the castle, bringing the number of defenders to over twenty thousand.
The Ottoman cannons were under the command of a renegade Agha who used to be a Hungarian before. The stone-thrower cannon called “Grand Emperor” had played a major role in breaching the walls of Byzantium and now, it was used in the siege, too. Some of the cannons were 8 meters long. The Sultan’s artillery soon leveled the walls of the fort. Then, Sultan Mehmed ordered a general assault on the evening of 21 July. The Turks attacked using traditional tactics, with the inferior forces in front to draw fire from the defenders, followed by the Sipahis (heavy cavalry) and Janissaries (elite infantrymen) behind.
Many attacks were beaten back by the defenders but the attackers could penetrate the town. After midnight, the battle was fought around the walls of the castle, where five Turkish flags were flying over the walls. The Sultan had promised his fighters the promotion of a Pasha and a reward for planting the flag on the wall, and the Hungarians naturally tried to prevent this. Dugovics Titusz, a veteran soldier of János Hunyadi, then performed his heroic deed, becoming the symbol of the self-sacrificing Hungarian soldier. He heroically threw himself at the Turkish soldier who managed to plant the flag on the rampart, sacrificing his life.
However, modern historians claim it never happened because the figure of Dugovics was an invented person; but it is quite certain that similar deeds may have been witnessed during the siege. Historically, it can be assumed that several soldier figures are presumably embodied in the fictional Dugovics. After this, the Turks were driven out of the town in the dawn.
There was a great silence on the morning of 22 July between the two sides when Hunyadi banned all kinds of counter-attacks. Yet, five archers from the Crusader army crossed the Száva River and began to shoot at the Turks. Many soldiers joined them. The Anatolian Pasha sent a team of Sipahis to remove the troublemakers, but the ensuing clashes drew more and more Crusaders out of the castle. More and more of the fanatical Crusaders also crossed the Száva and occupied a hill near the Anatolian army. Seeing this, Hunyadi sent a message to Capistrano to stop it. The monk crossed the river in a boat to call his soldiers back: but he achieved a different effect with this. Seeing him cross the river, the rest of the Crusader army followed him. By this time, the Turks had been deployed against them and they left their cannons and their camp quite unguarded.
The Crusaders’ enterprise could easily have been fatal, the Sultan used the Rumelian cavalry against the attackers, which cut them off from the fortress and began a systematic destruction of the poorly equipped army. Capistrano first tried to order his men back to the ramparts, but when some two thousand Crusaders gathered around him, he started towards the Turkish camp, holding up the cross instead of his weapon. Meanwhile, he is recorded as shouting to the crowd following him, “He who has begun a good work in you will finish it” (New Testament, Paul’s letter to the Philippians 1:6).
Sultan Mehmed II made a grave mistake in counter-attacking, for he withdrew his cavalry, leaving the Turkish artillery unprotected. Hunyadi, recognizing the unexpected opportunity, gathered the rest of his heavy cavalry and, breaking out of the fortress, took the Ottoman gun emplacements in a brisk attack. He took the cannons and turned them against the Ottomans, and the Hungarians began firing from the rear at the Turkish cavalry charging toward the Száva River. Allegedly, the Christian artillerymen of the Turks decided to save their life and took Hunyadi’s side, it was how the cannons could be put to work so quickly.
Hunyadi’s action decided the battle. The Hungarian cavalry then flanked the Turkish cavalry caught between the two fires. In the meantime, the wild attack of the peasant Crusaders, with Capistrano at their head, reached the Turkish camp. By this time, the entire Hungarian army had poured out of the castle and joined the fighters. Finally, the soldiers of Capistrano and Hunyadi crushed the Ottomans in a fierce fight. All these unexpected developments caused an inexplicable fear and paralysis among the Turks, who eventually fled, and the Crusaders managed to capture the enemy camp.
Sultan Mehmed attempted to control the panic in the Turkish army by deploying the Sultan’s bodyguard of 5,000 Janissaries and made several attempts to retake his cannons, but failed because they were in well-fortified positions at the time of his command. The Sultan personally engaged in the fight, but after killing a Hungarian cavalryman in a duel, he lost consciousness from an arrow in his thigh. The Turkish army was then forced to flee, leaving all their equipment behind, and only the intervention of 4,000 Sipahis saved them from total annihilation. Only the thick of night put an end to the massacre.
The Hungarians returned to the castle for the night, expecting another enemy attack. The Turks, however, did not launch another attack, but completely evacuated the area under cover of night, transporting their wounded in 140 carts. When the Sultan regained consciousness and learned that most of his army had been destroyed, almost all of his officers had perished and the Turkish army had fled, leaving behind all its equipment, the 24-year-old monarch attempted to commit suicide by swallowing poison:
“Give me poison, a poison that kills at once! I would rather die than return to my country in such disgrace! But the servants had sense: they would not give poison to the Turkish Emperor. Therefore the Emperor must have thought that he had a conceited mind to rule the whole world, and lo, he was defeated by peasant hands, which had hitherto wielded hoes and not weapons. And he who, to the sound of many trumpets and drums, came cheerfully under the castle, now in the silence of the night, fled away in shame.” (Thuróczy)
However, the next day after the victory, Hunyadi did not feel his army was strong enough to attack the Sultan, so he strictly forbade his soldiers to attack the Turks without permission. The Christian army, however, was not united in its leadership, the Crusaders only took orders from John Capistrano.
The defeated Sultan then retreated to Constantinople with all his remaining forces. The victory brought the Ottoman Empire’s expansion in Europe to a halt for nearly seven decades. During this time, the European military organization went through a crisis, and the shortcomings of the Turkish military organization were exposed. Thus, when the Turks finally captured Nándorfehérvár in 1521, the consequences for Europe were not as serious as they had been in 1456.
The siege of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) was a huge triumph, we still commemorate it in Europe by tolling the bells at midday. However, the Pope ordered this custom not because of the victory but before it, when he called all Christians to pray against the Ottoman threat. You can read more about this here:
From Tagliacozzo’s description, it is known that there was not always enough agreement between Hunyadi and Capistrano, and the monk sometimes acted against Hunyadi’s will, even against his orders. This conflict was caused by the different intentions of the two great personalities. At the time of the siege, Capistrano, who was already seventy years old, wanted to be martyred, so he issued his orders with a momentary enthusiasm, while Hunyadi wanted to win, and his orders were influenced by decades of experience in the anti-Turkish struggle and by a consideration of realistic possibilities. In the events of the triumph of Nándorfehérvár, these two conflicting intentions complemented each other perfectly and resulted in the victory of the Christians.
After the victory, Hunyadi did not pursue the Turkish army, but with his characteristic vigor, he immediately started planning another anti-Turkish campaign. He mistakenly judged that the time had come to liberate Byzantium and drive the Turks out of Europe. Sadly, he did not have time to launch the campaign and died of a plague epidemic on 11 August, and Capistrano passed away in October, too.
The deaths of the two driving forces of success dashed their hopes, and the Crusader army that arrived in Hungary in the autumn of 1456 no longer marched against the Turks. The victory at Nándorfehérvár remained unused, but it proved to be a military success beyond all expectations and one of the greatest military successes of medieval Hungary.
Sources: Szibler Gábor, Dunavölgyi István and Ezerszínű Világ
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