Hunyadi’s Long Campaign in 1443-44 


When Hunyadi János, perhaps the greatest military leader of the 15th century, is mentioned, people tend to remember three main things about him: his victory at Nándorfehérvár aka Belgrade in 1456, the Long Campaign, and that he was the father of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary. Let’s talk about the Long Campaign between October 1443 and January 1444.

It is important to note that the young King Ulászló (Władysław III Warneńczyk) of Hungary and Poland (1424-1444) fought on Hunyadi’s side during the campaign. You can read the history of the previous years on my page: and:

King Ulászló I (Władysław III Warneńczyk)

As we have read before, the kingdom was still on the brink of civil war and anarchy. We know that this was the reason why the Ottomans took advantage of the situation and attacked the previous year, but were severely defeated by Hunyadi’s sword. However, the Ottoman envoys were in Buda, hoping for the victory of their superior forces, unaware of the defeats. They were ready to offer peace to King Ulászló if he ceded Nándorfehérvár, also known as Belgrade…

Let us read Hunyadi’s letter to the king, sent in August 1442:

“If they (my note: the Turks) do not offer us peace on just terms, then we will have to endure with a strong soul the internal and external troubles that weigh heavily on us. We must face external threats a thousand times more than allowing the country to be mutilated by derogatory peace terms, thus making the country smaller. We will not allow anyone to cut out even a small piece of our homeland, either temporarily or forever.

We will not allow our country, which we inherited from our venerable ancestors in a great and powerful state, to be dismembered by unjust peace terms. There is no greater dishonor for us than to weaken the country day by day out of carelessness and defeatism. On the contrary, we should have strengthened the country by following the example of our ancestors. In this way, the continuation of the war would encourage us to achieve a better peace, as compared to another peace that could only be bought by tearing off parts of the country. We do not need such a peace! With our strength, weapons, and achievements, we will fight for a more just and reasonable peace for ourselves.”

Even if we consider Hunyadi’s recent victories and the Ottoman Empire’s new troubles in the Karaman Province, it would have been quite a daring thing to attack the Turks. Especially when the young king’s throne was not so secure.

Do you remember the daughter of the late King Zsigmond, the widow of King Habsburg Albert? Queen Elizabeth of Luxembourg was still strong in the northern and western parts of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Was the Holy Crown of the Hungarians not in the hands of the German King Frederick III (later Emperor), as well as the usurper baby King László V, son of Queen Elizabeth and Habsburg Albert? Fortunately, Cardinal Cesarini arrived from Rome in May 1442 to make peace between the Queen and the Polish-Hungarian King Ulászló I.

Then the queen gave in and died mysteriously in December in Győr, a few days after signing the treaty. Her followers rebelled, and civil war was only a spark away. But Cesarini intervened.

Cardinal Cesarini Giuliano

Hunyadi had excellent Italian contacts and he must have known that the Pope was sending his envoy to pave the way for a new war against the Ottomans. Hunyadi was supported by Baron Újlaki Miklós and soon the barons of the kingdom met in April to discuss the war against the Turks. Finally, they voted for a special military tax: the nobles should pay one gold ducat for each household they owned in their villages. Unfortunately, most of this money ended up in the pockets of the lords.

However, the planned crusade seemed to strengthen the king’s position. But he desperately needed some more victories. In 1443, the Pope issued a proclamation calling Hunyadi’s victories “a miracle of God” and alerting people to the Muslim threat. All European rulers were called to arms. Papal promises were made to equip a navy, and one-tenth of the Pope’s worldwide income was dedicated to the crusade, at least on paper.

But the reality was different. According to a letter written by King Frederick III’s chancellor Gaspar Schlick to Cesarini, there would be no help from Europe. Frederick apologized, claiming that he had problems in Bohemia. Venice reluctantly provided six galleys to block the Bosphorus, but they had second thoughts.

According to Bonfini, despite the reluctance of the European kings, several knights came from France and Germany as volunteers. It was only Cardinal Cesarini who was able to raise some money for the king. As a result, he became his trusted clergyman and we will see how this led to both of their deaths in the Battle of Várna in 1444.

Pope Eugene IV

However, Hunyadi was right to place the theater of war on the enemy’s land. Immediately after the decision, Hunyadi left Buda and started collecting money for the war. The gold of the Serbian despot Brankovics was quite helpful to him, but he also invested 32,000 gold pieces from his income into the campaign. He ordered the Saxons of Transylvania to contribute to the campaign with wagons built in the Hussite style, along with cannons, artillery, and all kinds of equipment. We know that at least 600 Hussite-style wagons used in the campaign were produced in Hungary.

a Hussite war wagon with a gun

He also recruited 10-12,000 mercenaries, the core of his army. As for the other high-ranking Hungarian nobles, we know that only Marcali, Cudar, and Pálóci joined with their men. Polish and Moldavian troops also came under his banner.

With the mercenaries hired by the Pope, the king’s army grew to 15,000 men when it set out from Buda on July 22, 1443. We can add Hunyadi’s 10-12,000 professional soldiers from Transylvania and the Serbian cavalry of Despot Brankovics, 8,000 horsemen, who joined the army after crossing the border at Nándorfehérvár / Belgrade in October. In total, there were about 35,000 men, a considerable force at that time. As they moved towards Edirne, the capital of the Sultan, more and more Balkan troops joined them. The army’s supplies were carried on 3,000 wagons.

Sultan Murad II is taking Hunyadi’s head: a wishful thought, it never happened…

Historians are not sure who led the Wallachian troops (2,000 horsemen) to Hunyadi’s flag, because Voivode Basarab Dan II of Wallachia, Hunyadi’s friend, had been deposed by Vlad Dracul. Vlad Dracul was on the side of the Turks this time. As for Vlad, we know that he later visited Hunyadi’s camp and suggested that they turn and flee while they still could.

The so-called Long Campaign lasted no more than 5-6 months, but it was so-called because of the unusually frequent military clashes with the enemy. Besides, it was no small thing to lead a campaign in winter, 2,000 kilometers back and forth across enemy territory. You can read about the preparations for this campaign here:

but Hunyadi János was very much alive

The ultimate goal of King Ulászló I and Hunyadi János was to drive the Ottoman Empire out of Europe. The first target of their crusade was Edirne (Drinápoly, Hadrianopolis), the capital of Sultan Murad II. The Serbian horsemen of Despot Brankovics proved to be very useful guides after crossing the Danube in October 1443. Their marching order took shape, while the units of Hunyadi and Újlaki (about 12,000 men) followed the vanguard throughout the campaign. They were followed two days later by the main army led by King Ulászló I.

After a few days, the vanguard (this time led by Hunyadi) encountered the first Ottoman forces around Jagonida. After scattering them, the 35,000-strong army moved on with its 3,000 wagons, including at least 600 Hussite war wagons supplied by experienced Bohemian mercenaries. The Bohemian mercenaries paid by Cardinal Cesarini and the German-French knights totaled about 5,000 men.

With most of the Sultan’s army occupied in Morea, the Ottomans could only send their soldiers from Serbia and Bulgaria. Upon hearing the news of Hunyadi’s arrival, Murad ordered his Janissary troops to take up positions in the passes of the Balkan Mountains. The Ottoman Emperor rushed to assemble his army, which numbered some 150,000 men.

The first major battle was against Bey Szinán, who was defeated, and then the Crusaders took the fortress of Krusevác and razed it to the ground. They then set their sights on Nis and took it without much ado. After looting and burning the city, the Crusaders received news that three Ottoman armies were approaching.

Hunyadi attacked them and defeated the armies before they could unite. First, he defeated the 10,000-strong army of Bey Isaac / Iszák, then he defeated the second army coming from the direction of Sofia, led by Begler Bey Khászim (30,000 soldiers). Finally, he turned to Bey Turachán and his 20,000 soldiers dealt with him accordingly. Usually, the enemy was stopped by the wagon fortress of the mercenaries and Hunyadi’s heavy cavalry attacked the enemy from another direction.

Hussite style war-wagons

The victory at Nis (Nissza)

Shortly thereafter, on November 3, Hunyadi was informed that a huge Ottoman army was skulking around him, presumably intending to attack the king’s army at Nis. It was about 30,000 soldiers, led by the Rumelian Pasha Kaszun, who had managed to gather the units that Hunyadi had recently scattered. They wanted to cut him off from the king’s army.

Hunyadi immediately turned north, but even he was frightened when he saw the enemy at the Nisava River at dusk. The enemy was three times stronger than his army, as he later admitted in his letter to Baron Újlaki. (Újlaki later joined the army.) After a short hesitation, he bravely gave the order to attack the enemy. His heavy cavalry charge hit the Rumelian Pasha’s army so hard that his men fled. In all, 2,000 Ottomans were killed and 4,000 captured, while the fleeing soldiers were hunted down by the local Balkan villagers.

The tombstone of Baron Újlaki

Nine flags were captured and there was a rich bounty. Many high-ranking Ottoman officers were taken prisoner, such as Bey Kese of Vidin, Bey Omár of Sofia, Bey Ali of Sumla, the son of Timurtas, Pasha Balaban of Tokat, Bey Kaszim of Rumelia, and Bey Kursolch and Kovjanov, as well as Bey Zsivan and Bey Hamzsa. Among them were Bey Isaac of Philippopolis, Bey Dan of Zetnice, and Mahmud Cselebi, the brother-in-law of Sultan Murad, as well as the Sultan’s Chancellor, Bey Kapus and Pasha Chalil, the brother of the Grand Vizier.

In all, Hunyadi scored four victories in two days against an enemy at least twice the size of his army. I dare say it was an unprecedented military success. Hunyadi joined the king’s army on November 8th. King Ulászló didn’t allow him to dismount from his horse, but greeted him from the saddle as an equal, thus honoring him. A few days later, they left for Sofia in the above-mentioned marching order. These were the days when Sultan Murad II quickly made peace with Emir Ibrahim of Karaman to hurry home and save what he could.

It was also the beginning of the career of a famous Albanian military leader, Scanderbeg alias Gjergj Kastrioti (1403? -1468), who had been trained as an Ottoman officer from the age of nine. However, he was encouraged by the appearance of Hunyadi and escaped from the Ottoman camp at the Battle of Nis with 300 Albanian horsemen. His escape was very clever. He withdrew his cavalry from the Battle of Nis and didn’t fight Hunyadi, and later they were never able to join forces.

Hunyadi János in the Chronicle of Thuróczi

In the confusion that followed Hunyadi’s victory, he sought out the Sultan’s scribe and obtained official permission on Murad’s behalf. He took his riders home to his father’s castle, Kruja. There he gave the forged “pherman”, Sultan’s order, to Pasha Szábel, who was in charge of the castle. In this way, he was able to regain his family’s stronghold without having to fight for it.

Bey Iskander aka Skanderbeg

Within a month, he had regained the lands taken by the Ottomans and became Prince of Albania. Skanderbeg renounced Islam, returned to Christianity, and ordered others who had embraced Islam or were Muslim colonists to convert to Christianity or face death. Nevertheless, he is a divisive figure for some modern historians. Hunyadi’s long campaign had much to do with his success.

The Long Campaign in 1443-44

After defeating four Ottoman armies in two days, Hunyadi János joined the main body of the army led by King Ulászló I. Soon they were marching towards Sofia and occupied the deserted city on December 1, 1443. They were only 7-8 days’ march from the Ottoman capital of Edirne, according to the estimated speed of Hunyadi’s heavy cavalry. It was in Sofia that they received the news of the arrival of Sultan Murad from Asia, who was in Philippopolis with a huge army.

Sultan Murad II

Why did the Crusaders choose the harder route?

Interestingly, the Sultan was able to reach the Zlatica Pass earlier and fortify it. They flooded the roads and cut down the forests to create a hellish route for the Crusaders. But how did the Turks know that the Hungarian army had chosen this particular northern pass instead of the southern route along the Marica River?

Historians note that the Christian army could have taken a different route, but they were intentionally led to this particular pass, which became a death trap. Why? According to some theories, the Serbian guides led the army that way because Grigor and Stefan, the sons of Despot Brankovics, were hostages in Istanbul. Besides, the daughter of the despot was the first wife of the Sultan.

Despot Brankovics

It could be a conspiracy theory because in December the despot Brankovics offered Hunyadi 100,000 gold ducats and asked him to leave Hungarian troops to hold the regained Serbian territories for him in case of a retreat. He did not seem to worry much about his sons and daughter.

There were three passes on the Zlatica mountain and each of them was fortified by the Ottomans who decided to listen to the advice of Bey Jesze, son of Vrenez, who thought that the Christians should be allowed to attack and waste their army. The Asian troops remained in reserve, waiting for the opportunity to attack the tired enemy, while the European troops of the Sultan dug in.

In any case, the Hungarian army could have turned south, following the Marica River, but instead, they marched towards Murad, who was waiting for them in the right places. It was a very cold winter and Hunyadi’s soldiers started to starve. There was also a disease that decimated them.

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At the Pass of Zlatica

The Crusaders arrived at the entrance of the pass on December 10 and set up camp. Two days later, Pasha Halil launched his attack against them, causing panic in the camp. Only Hunyadi was able to stop the runners and reorganize them for battle. He quickly had many sharpened stakes erected against the attacking Sipahi cavalry. This forced the enemy to dismount and fight on foot. They were able to push the attackers back, but Hunyadi could not launch his counterattack because of the approaching dusk.

The next day he and his men attacked the Ottomans, but the bloody battle was inconclusive. The Hussite wagons could not be used on this icy and slippery terrain. Then Hunyadi pretended to withdraw his army and the Crusaders retreated to lure the Turks. But wisely, the Janissaries didn’t move from their safe positions. The situation was hopeless, and the battle continued with dogged determination. Finally, after three days of fighting, the king gave the order for a real retreat.

a Sipahi cavalryman

The retreat

Retreating, however, was almost as dangerous as attacking the enemy. Hunyadi decided to move his army to the Nis Pass and take up positions there. First, Hunyadi got rid of the burdens he didn’t want to carry and slowed down the troops: he had the horseless Hussite wagons burned and the surplus supplies and bounties destroyed or hidden. Treasures and weapons were buried in the ground, thrown into wells, or the abyss. Pasha Kászim was sent after the retreating Christians, followed by several larger Ottoman armies.

Remaining intact, the Christian army crossed Sofia on December 20, on its way home. This time, Hunyadi and his men followed the main army by a day’s march. That is why Pasha Kászim ran headlong into him and was defeated at Melstica.

Hunyadi János

The last battle at Kunovica

On January 1, 1444, most of the army crossed the Kunovica Pass. Only Hunyadi’s contingent remained on the other side, fighting all the way. Their fights were not in vain, they repulsed the attack of Bey Turakhan’s army. However, this time Hunyadi needed all his strength because the Hungarians wanted to run away four times, but he stopped them each time and was able to put them back into the battle order. In this battle, Hunyadi ordered the Polish pikemen to aim at the Turkish horses instead of the riders. It is recorded that the Christians were protected by armor, so they were not easily injured, while the Ottomans suffered severe wounds from the Hungarian sabers, which cut down to the bone.

It was the time when Gothic armor appeared in numbers in Hungary

Fortunately, King Ulászló hurried to his aid with reinforcements. It was the first time during the campaign that the king engaged in armed combat. He was even wounded by an arrow in his hand. The victory was finally achieved and high-ranking Ottomans were captured. Pasha Kászim was taken prisoner, but Hunyadi saved his life, unlike 170 captives who were executed.

King Ulászló was still marching in Serbian territory when he received Sultan Murad’s request for a truce. Murad had to hurry back to Asia Minor to put down the rebellious Emir of Karaman. This offer of peace was flatly rejected by King Ulászló. The Crusaders arrived in Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) on January 25. On February 2, they marched triumphantly into the Buda Castle amidst great celebrations. The coats of arms of the Hungarian and Polish nobles who took part in the campaign were hung in the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin in Buda. The Polish ones were Peter Scekoczin, Peter Schamatuli, Paul Vojniczki, Jan Tarnov. Hunyadi was rewarded with the lands of Kucevo and Branicevo, but he gave them to his brave soldier Marnavich György, who distinguished himself in the battle of Kunovica.

Hunyadi János, Governor of Hungary


Conducting a 2,000-kilometer winter campaign in hostile territory with 35,000 soldiers would be a difficult task even today. This campaign ensured that the Hungarian Kingdom remained the main rival of the expanding Ottoman Empire in Europe. Moreover, Hunyadi was able to break the invincible reputation of the Turks by defeating them in a series of shocking battles. Hope was also planted in the hearts of the Balkan nations. However, the joy and support of these people faded quickly when the Orthodox churches were set on fire by the Crusaders. The Crusaders were very good at alienating the Balkan people, encouraged by Rome. However, the Long Campaign could have been successful if it had started a few months earlier. Due to the slow marching speed (5-6 kilometers per day) and the harsh winter, they could not reach their destination. On the way home, the pace was almost 20 kilometers per day. As for Hunyadi’s cavalry, we can calculate 65-70 kilometers per day…

Christian mercenaries

Some notes: The city of Ragusa sent a bitter letter to the Pope on February 10, 1444. They said that they had managed to block the Ottomans on the sea, but the Pope had abandoned them. At the same time, we know a letter of Pope Eugene IV from February 1444 in which he claims the honor of the whole campaign as his and Cardinal Cesarini’s.

We will see the role of these high priests in the future: how they would make King Ulászló break his oath and ruin the very favorable peace with the Ottomans. However, the infamous breaking of the oath has another interpretation. You can read about it in the following articles. Unfortunately, history took a worse path when King Ulászló and Hunyadi marched towards Várna later in 1444.

The campaigns of Hunyadi János

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