The Battle of Várna, 1444; Part Three

The Battle of Várna seemed to have been decided before it began: the Genoese ships transported Sultan Murad’s army across the Bosporus, allegedly in exchange for one gold piece per soldier. Thus, they received 49,774 gold pieces which included the rental fees of their cannons. Not as if the other Christian ships had done any considerable effort, not to mention that only half as many of them were there as the Pope had promised to send. According to the hearsay, they remained passive because they were also bribed.

Yet, it is a fact that if the western and Bízantine forces had kept themselves to the original plan, the European part of the Ottoman army could have been defeated with this relatively smaller Crusader army. 

You can read about the previous events here:

So far, the Crusaders had not encountered a larger Ottoman unit. Now, on 10 November 1444, they had to realize that the main body of the Ottoman army camped barely 4 km north of them, neatly blocking the way home.

The military leaders were divided in the morning, and many recommended withdrawing towards the south, getting around the Ottoman army. Cardinal Cesarini, the one who had instigated the king to launch the campaign by telling him that an oath given to the pagans was not a valid obligation, now wanted to wait for the Christian reinforcement coming from the ships. He would have surrounded the army with a wagonburg (fortified camp surrounded by wagons). Obviously, he didn’t know that there would be no such Christian army coming from the sea.

Finally, it was Hunyadi who saw just one possible solution: they had to attack the Turks at once if they wanted to survive. He suggested that they should cut off the wings of the enemy, then turn against the Janissaries. They took his advice.

However, the whole thing began with bad omens. The page of the king accidentally dropped the king’s helmet which got a dent. Then, Ulászló, dressed in full armor, mounted his horse but the animal bolted and kicked him, bending the shoulder piece of his armor. The horse became so savage that it had to be replaced with another.

The next bad omen happened when the army was deployed and the flag-bearer was appointed. The flag of the kingdom was given to the 60-year-old Bátori István, the Judge of the Country, he was the father-in-law of Lord Szilágyi Mihály. According to the ancient Hungarian military habit, his spurs were taken away. King Ulászló stepped to him and asked whether he was ready to carry the flag which was decorated by the cross of Saint George. It was the very moment when the wind broke the shaft of the flag in two. It fell to the ground at once.

Hunyadi deployed the army so it was facing north. On the left side, he was protected by Lake Devnya and its marshland. His left wing stood at the lake, led by Szilágyi Mihály, the brother-in-law of Hunyadi. The main force was led by the king himself while Frank Tallóci, Bán (Duke) of Croatia led the right wing. The slightly curved battle line was supported by the wagonburg behind the right wing where the cannons were deployed. The wagons were guarded by the seasoned Czech mercenaries of Čejka Herman.

There were about 4,000  mercenaries and Transylvanian soldiers in Szilágyi’s left wing, along with men from the Temes Region, led by Orros György. As for Tallóci, he had the armed men of the bishops and the Polish auxiliary forces under his command. There were five bishopric units, the fifth was led by Cardinal Cesarini himself. The troops of Bishop Dominis János of Várad stayed in reserve.

King Ulászló was surrounded by 3,500 Hungarian and Polish knights and royal troops. Hunyadi was detached from them, he was supposed to lead his contingent of Wallachian troops where he thought it would be needed. At first, they stood behind the king’s units.

The statue of Hunyadi at Várna, Bulgaria

Sultan Murad appointed a higher ground as his seat from where he could see the whole battle. His logistic unit immediately dag trenches around it. They herded 500 camels around the trenches which were loaded with bags containing money, expensive textiles, and silk. The Janissaries were supposed to cut the bags in case the Christians got close to the Sultan. They trusted the greed of the mercenaries would gain time for the Murad to flee.

The Ottoman battle line followed the Crusaders’ line in a semi-circle shape. The Rumelian troops stood on the right wing while the sultan deployed the main force a bit behind them. The Anatolian soldiers of Bey Karadzsa were deployed on the left wing, nearly 30,000 men. Farther to the left, there were Asab and Akindji soldiers whose job was to make a mock attack against the Hungarian right wing so as to lure them out of their position. 

The battle began on the morning of 10 November 1444 and lasted until evening. The Asabs and Akindji soldiers, 10-13,000 men attacked the Hungarian right-wing about 9 A.M.

At this time, the 10,000 Janissaries, the elite defense forces, haven’t joined the battle yet, they were still standing in their square formation.

Bán (Duke) Tallóci repelled the attack on the right wing, and headlong he began to chase the running Turks. He was followed by the troops of the Rozgonyi Simon, Bishop of Eger, and by the men of Dominis János, Bishop of Várad. Thus, they were lured out and the 10,000 Rumelian Sipahi riders attacked them, led by Pasha Daud. The men of the bishops and Cesarini got frightened and were withdrawing toward the sea. The above-mentioned bishops and Cardinal Cesarini fell but the soldiers of Tallóci could get into the wagonburg. It was how the right wing of the Crusaders was nearly annihilated in the morning. According to gossip, Cesarini was killed by the Hungarians who wanted to take revenge on him for his advice.

Fortunately, Hunyadi’s 3,000-men-strong heavy cavalry saved them. They beat the Sipahis back and killed Bey Karadzsa. It was when the Wallachian troops fell on the Ottoman camp and looted it. On the way back, the riders of Hunyadi ran to help the king’s units who were wavering.

The Ottomans tried to lure the Hungarians into a trap on the other side as well but they could not outsmart Lord Szilágyi there.

On the contrary, it was Lord Szilágyi, leading the Székelys and the Transylvanians who could surprise them. He charged at the enemy and they were cutting them for four hours. They were getting tired at last but the Sipahi riders finally fled.

The Battle of Várna, in the Polish Chronicle of 1564

All in all, Hunyadi’s initial plan seemed to have worked. The Ottomans had only the Janissary regiments and the 10,000 riders of Seháb ed Dihn left. It was almost dusk when 5,000 Christian horsemen attacked and beat the remaining Ottoman cavalry. The Crusaders were even giving a chase. Practically, the battle has been won against a twice stronger enemy. Some of the Ottoman cavalries fled as far as Edirne.

At this point, disaster struck. Seeing the retreating Turks, the king wanted to have his share of the glory. King Ulászló charged with his 500 Hungarian-Polish knights against the Janissary square which was protected by sharpened stakes as well. They held out for a while, then opened up and swallowed the king and his men. A few moments later, the king’s horse bolted and threw him to the ground. It was a Janissary called Khodzsa Hizir who beheaded the young king of Hungary and Poland. It has happened in Hungarian history the first time that a Hungarian king was killed in battle.

King Ulászló attacks the Janissaries, by Jan Matejko

The head of Ulászló was put on a spear and it was carried around for everyone to see, then it was brought to the sultan.

 Seeing this, the Turk right wing was returning and the Crusaders were leaving the battlefield. Then, Hunyadi attempted to save what he could and organized the retreat. Yet, he was not able to save the defenders of the wagonburg whose soldiers were fighting until the next morning and died on the spot. However, a part of them could break out and return home.

This plate is commemorating King Ulászló, Military History Museum, Budapest

Hunyadi took home the remnants of the army, they mourned the loss of the king and the cardinal, Tallóci, Rozgonyi along with the death of 10-12,000 men. However, the Ottomans lost about 20,000 soldiers. According to Jókai Mór, Sultan Murad said that “I would not wish such a bloody victory to anyone, except to my foe”.

Let us pay tribute to the Hungarian, Polish, Wallachian, Saxon, and Bohemian heroes, and let us not forget those who caused their fall by letting the Ottomans through the Bosporus.

The symbolic tomb of King Ulászló in Wawel, Poland

It is true, that Murad was not strong enough to chase the retreating Crusaders. The Ottoman army moved to the southern part of Greece. For some reason, Vlad Dracul, the Wallachian voivode captured Hunyadi but he released him at once when the Hungarian Palatine Hédervári threatened him with war. Then, Vlad escorted Hunyadi to Brassó (Kronstadt, Brasov) in person.

At home, Hunyadi had to face anarchy after the king’s death and he was the only person who was strong enough to make order in the country. No wonder that soon he became the Governor of Hungary.

Hunyadi János in the Thuróczi Chronicle, 1499

If you like my writings, please  feel free to support me with a coffee here:

This article contains Amazon ads. By purchasing through these links, you can help my work at no added cost to you. Thank you!

My work can also be followed and supported on Patreon: Become a Patron!  

[wpedon id=”9140″ align=”center”]

Hungary in the age of Hunyadi János