The first stage of Hungarian-Ottoman wars: the reign of King Nagy Lajos (Louis I the Great)
The Ottoman-Hungarian wars began during the reign of our King Lajos I, an Anjou king who was also King of Poland. History claims him the first European ruler who fought the Ottomans and beat them in a bigger battle. Also, we can count on Turkish raids in southern Hungary from this period on.
Let us take a bit closer look at this valiant and real „chivalric king”.
King Lajos who earned the epithet “the Great”, had reigned for four decades (1342-1382) and it was the age when the Kingdom of Hungary reached one of the summits of its medieval might and splendor.
Looking at the pages of the Képes Krónika (Illuminated Chronicle, 1360) one might readily believe the legend that „there were three seas washing the borders of Hungary during his reign”. (This is only true if we count the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea as separate ones; the third was the Black Sea.)
Having inherited a powerful and rich country, he could afford to spend his immense income, coming from the silver and gold mines of the Carpathian mountains, on conquering wars.
As for the neighbors were concerned, at first, he had to stabilize his rule by invading Wallachia and Moldavia in 1344, thus establishing a system of vassalage.
King Lajos was also the king of Poland (1370-1382) but it was a personal union between the two kingdoms, he didn’t pay for more than three trips to Poland. The Polish lords rebelled against the foreign rule but he was able to pacify them in 1374 by giving to them a wide range of privileges which were the basis for the special legal situation of the Polish nobles in the times to come…
The Hungarian king managed to strengthen the royal power in his country, he had no enemy inside his kingdom. No usurpers, no mighty oligarchs. The king had the greatest domains and income, unlike in less fortunate western kingdoms of the age.
The disastrous epidemics of the Black Death in 1348 left the country quite intact, causing much less harm than in West Europe, partly because the kingdom was not so densely populated and the people didn’t suffer from the sister of the plague, the famine, as there was an abundant amount of food.
After the king had finished his campaigns against Naples in Italy by 1352, he could increase his power at home and restrict the rights of the Hungarian noblemen one step further.
On one hand, as it was declared on the Diet of 1351, all noblemen were regarded as equal to each other, regardless of their wealth while on the other hand, all the heirless lands got inherited by the crown.
So far, one-tenth of the peasants’ income had to go to the Church as a rule but from now on, the landlords received one-ninth of the products.
There were peace and order, the country was prospering and no outer enemy had trodden the land since the second Mongolian invasion of 1285 which was promptly defended anyway.
Nevertheless, our chivalric king spent almost all his life in wars.
King Lajos had to take care of the Serbian state that he considered to have grown just too strong. His 80,000-strong army defeated the Serbian Czar Dušan’s armies in the duchies of Mačva and the principality of Travunia in 1349.
When Czar Dušan broke into Bosnian territory he was defeated by Bosnian Stjepan II with the assistance of Lajos’ troops, and when Dušan made a second attempt he was decisively beaten by Lajos in 1354. In the meantime, King Lajos annexed Moldavia in 1352 and established a vassal principality there.
Soon, the Hungarian and Serbian monarchs signed a peace agreement in 1355. It was three years after the Turks had set foot in Europe and a year after that Gallipoli Castle had fallen to them in 1354. A decade later, the capital of the Ottoman Empire became Edirne (Drinápoly), in Europe.
It was not so visible from Hungary that this age was also the glorious century of the Ottoman Empire that began to extend over the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.
We call the Turks Ottomans or Osmanli after Sultan Osman I who died in 1326. A fierce and very effective enemy cast his eyes on the ripe cities of the west but the remnants of the Byzantine Empire were still in-between.
King Lajos’ latter campaigns in the Balkans were aimed at drawing the Serbs, Bosnians, Wallachians, and Bulgarians into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.
It was relatively easy to subdue the Balkan Orthodox countries by arms, but to convert them was a different matter. Despite Lajos’ efforts, the people of the Balkans remained faithful to the Eastern Orthodox Church and their attitude toward Hungary remained ambiguous if not hostile.
Thus, the rulers of Serbia, Walachia, Moldavia, and Bulgaria became his vassals. Not his friends, though. They regarded powerful Hungary as a potential menace to their national identity. For this reason, Hungary could never regard the Serbs and Wallachians as reliable allies in subsequent wars against the Turks.
Sadly, the Hungarian politics of this age can be made partly responsible for the weakening of the Balkanian people against the Ottoman invaders. Many smaller Balkanian nations had to seek the help of the Turks against the expansion of the Hungarian Kingdom which tried to use them as buffer states.
At the same time, we will see that the conquering Ottoman Empire was indeed bringing a sort of peace into the lands of chaos-torn Balkanian states, not to mention lower taxes to the simple people.
The first clash between the Turks and the Hungarians took place in 1366 during King Lajos’s Bulgarian campaign.
The first Hungarian-Ottoman military encounter in 1365-67
King Louis I of Hungary had 58 campaigns abroad and there was just one attempt by the Mongols in 1344 who tried to break into the kingdom. His conquests were mainly temporary and despite his victories, he could not hold the new lands for long.
Most of his campaigns were led by his generals like the famous Lord István Lackfi but he had other legendary soldiers like Miklós Toldi who was famous for his physical strength.
When leading a campaign, the king was fighting in the first line, though.
In fact, I would not call the king’s campaign to Bulgaria the first Ottoman-Hungarian war but it is true that it was the first time when the soldiers of Louis met some Turk auxiliary troops who were supporting the Bulgarians in 1366.
Besides, we do not know much about the outcome of the particular clash and anyway, it was not that important as far as the campaign was concerned. Yet, it could be used to justify his campaign, saying he was fighting the Muslims…
How did the whole thing start?
Let us not ignore the visit of the Byzantine Emperor Palaiologos John who went to Buda and met Louis there at the beginning of 1365. He was looking for allies against the Turks and could persuade Louis to help him. In exchange for his aid, he promised he would convert to the Catholic church, though. The Emperor even left his son, Manuel at Buda as a hostage.
Louis was aware of the Ottomans’ threat but could not persuade the Pope to declare his campaign as a Crusade. The Pope didn’t really believe that the Greek could be converted so easily and suggested to Louis not to lead the campaign in person, saying that „he had already succeeded in angering the Serbians, the Bulgarians, and the Wallachians just too much and they would join forces against him the moment he would put his leg into the Balkan”.
Anyway, in the spring of 1365, Louis headed a campaign against the Bulgarian Tsardom of Vidin, targeting Ivan Sratsimir who didn’t want to become his vassal.
King Louis moved in and captured Vidin, Severin, Orsova, and Belogradcik but he never got any further in Bulgaria and soon had great difficulty in holding the captured castles.
Louis had considered the area as his zone of influence and that was why he had interfered in the Bulgarian civil war that was raging between the sons of the former Bulgarian ruler King Alexander. This king had a son from his Jewish wife, he was Ivan Sisman and there was his half-brother, Ivan Sratsimir from the king’s second wife who was Wallachian. Sisman had sworn fealty to Sultan Murad I, giving his elder sister to the harem in 1364.
To make things worse, Ivan Sisman captured the Greek Emperor John while he was heading home. As it was, Louis had wanted to take Bulgaria since 1358 quite intentionally and now he was trying to do so under the pretext of re-taking Gallipoli and it was handy that the Bulgarians were aided by the Muslims.
Yet, his Bulgarian success was just temporary.
As for the Turk auxiliary forces, the Ottomans had long been aiding the rulers of the Balkan with troops when they were fighting against each other.
It was not without example: John VI Kantakouzenos could gain the throne of Byzantium by relying on the swords of Ottoman troops. He struck a bargain with the Ottoman Turks, giving Orhan Bey his daughter, Theodora, for his harem and permitting him to take Greek Christians as slaves. The Greco-Turkish force prevailed and John VI entered Constantinople in triumph in 1347.
When Sultan Murad I took Edirne and turned it into his capital in 1362, the Ottomans’ intentions were made clear. Turk raiders burned the Bulgarian, Greek, and Serbian lands, in preparation for their conquest.
Next time, King Louis marched against Bulgaria in 1366. Now, he could gain the Pope’s support. This time, there were troops from Venice and France, and Italy and it was a real Crusade.
The above-mentioned first clash with the Turk auxiliary troops took place somewhere near the city of Nicopolis (Nikápoly) in 1366. According to the Ottoman chronicles, it was a Muslim victory while the Christian sources claim the opposite.
As for the Christians, the victory was commemorated by building a church in Mariazell, Austria.
According to a historian called Bánlaky, Louis’ successful general called Amádé attacked and took the city of Gallipoli from the sea. General Amádé went on and the Crusaders took Várna and sent a delegation to Ivan Sisman to free the Emperor. Sisman agreed and let the Emperor go but Amádé had to withdraw his troops in exchange for that. The Crusaders and the Amádé’s Hungarian troops could not join their forces as a result of this.
We know that Louis received a Venetian delegation in his castle in the Vértes Hills, in Hungary at the end of 1366. They were talking about an alliance against the Ottomans. It is for sure, that Louis attacked Bulgaria in 1367 again. We know that there were 300 Paduan soldiers in his army, sent by Francesco Carrara. Allegedly, there were clashes with the Turks again.
The king’s Bulgarian campaigns went on between 1368-69 and all he could achieve was to alienate the locals by his forcing them to convert to the Catholic Church.
Finally, Ivan Sratsimir joined forces with the Wallachians and got rid of his Hungarian liege-lord in 1369. His half-brother Sisman was readily helping them in this. (I wonder why they hadn’t done it so at the very beginning…)
Yet, it was not Loius the ultimate loser in this war but rather the Bulgarian nation which had been so much weakened in this fight that the Turks could totally gain their lands by the 15th century and Bulgaria was freed only in 1878.
As for me, I would not call these wars anti-Ottoman fights, they just increased the havoc in the Balkan.
The next time, the Hungarian and Ottoman weapons clashed was in 1372, during the Venetian war where the Venetians were allied with the Turks…
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