The siege of Belgrade by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet (Mohammed) II the Conqueror in the summer of 1456 aroused considerable contemporary attention and has remained an event of great interest to historians ever since. The fall of that fortress city, less than three years after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, could have opened the gates of the European heartland to the Turks, and that would certainly have changed the history of the world. The battle for Belgrade also witnessed the emergence of the first peasant movements in Hungary, then one of the most powerful states of Christendom. The appearance of large numbers of armed peasants in Transylvania in 1437
1438 signaled both a peak in the cycle of peasant discontent and a prelude to several minor rebellions–and one major one.
Peasants had taken up arms soon after the disastrous crusade of Sigismund, emperor of Germany and king of Hungary, against the Turks in 1396. Sigismund’s army had been annihilated by a numerically superior–and better led–Ottoman force. That defeat pointed to the elementary need for Hungary to increase the size of its armies. But the pool from which soldiers had generally been recruited in the past, the mass of lesser nobility, was already reduced in size–partly by the Black Death, and partly due to the gradual impoverishment of that stratum of Hungarian society. Many of the lesser nobles could no longer afford the expensive armor, weapons and horses necessary for late-medieval warfare. The Hungarians thus recognized that they had to turn to a relatively untapped source, the peasantry, to reman their armies.
So it was that an army comprised mostly of peasants defended Belgrade and Christendom in the summer of 1456 against Mehmet II’s Turkish host. The leader of that hodge-podge army was legendary Hungarian General János Hunyadi.
Hunyadi’s name may not be widely known in the West, but his memory has been honored since 1456, albeit unknowingly, in Catholic countries all over the world, by the ringing of church bells every day at noon.
János (the Hungarian name for John) Hunyadi was a truly universal folk hero of his time. In a Serb epic, he is Sibinyanin Janko; the Slavs generally called him Ugrin Janko (John the Hungarian). To the Romanians, who claim he was of Wallachian extraction, he is Ion of Hunedoara. To the Bulgars and Macedonians he is Jansekula. Greek folk singers arbitrarily changed his name to Janko of Byzantium. Dukas, the Greek historian, compared him to the two most valiant figures of Greek mythology, Achilles and Hector.
It is generally believed that Hunyadi was born in 1387. The earliest document dealing with the Hunyadi name is a royal patent signed by King Sigismund on October 8, 1409, in which the ruler donated Hunyadvár, a castle in Transylvania, to Serba Vojk. Vojk, János Hunyadi’s father, thereupon changed his name to Hunyadi.
There is some doubt over the identity of Hunyadi’s real father. According to contemporary gossip spawned by János Hunyadi’s phenomenal rise in fame and fortune, his birth was the fruit of an illicit love affair between King Sigismund–a notorious womanizer–and Vojk’s wife, Erzsébet Morsina, either before or after her marriage to Vojk.
That version of his origin–which, if true, would indicate royal blood–is vehemently disputed by Romanians, who are proud of Hunyadi’s Wallachian heritage.
Regardless of his background, it is indisputable that his father had become a loyal subject of the Hungarian king. János Hunyadi married a Hungarian noblewoman (Erzsébet Szilagyi), and he reared his children as Magyars. He regarded himself as a Hungarian nobleman and went down in history as one of Hungary’s most celebrated heroes.
Hunyadi grew up a deeply religious man. His comrades at court frequently saw him slip out of bed late at night to spend hours on his knees in devout prayer in the royal chapel. He was also most definitely a born soldier. Initially fighting as a mercenary condottiere in Italy, he later came to be filled with a zealous dedication to one great cause–fighting the Ottoman Empire, then regarded as the greatest enemy of his country and his church.
Until 1441, Hunyadi’s campaigns were only preliminaries to the protracted warfare against the Turks in which he won his fame as ‘Törökverö’ (Scourge of the Turks). In 1437 Sigismund appointed Hunyadi chief of defense of southern Hungary, which stretched from eastern Transylvania to the Adriatic. After Sigismund’s death that same year, the next king of Hungary, Ladislas (Laszlo) V, made him captain of Nandorfehervár (Belgrade) and the voivode (prince) of Transylvania. As if by providence, the king put the right man in the right place at the right time.
The years preceding Hunyadi’s appointment saw a gradual Turkish advance on the Balkan Peninsula toward Hungary. ‘The Turks are coming!’ was a cry that could be heard with increasing frequency throughout the terrified southern regions of the country. Whole villages were being destroyed, thousands killed, and thousands of others, including women and children, taken captive to be sold in the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish raids had developed into a military campaign against Transylvania, where, occasionally, the sultan’s troops were assisted by the Wallachian Prince Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Dragon). Dracul’s son, then held as a hostage by the Turks, would succeed his father as voivode in September 1456. Called Prince Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), he put 20,000 persons to death during the six years between 1456 and 1462. He refused tribute to the sultan, repeatedly defeated the Turks, and, as his name suggests, impaled his prisoners. Finally killed in 1476, Vlad Tepes is a controversial Romanian national hero whose other sobriquet,’son of the dragon,’ or Dracula, served as the inspiration for Irish author Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire.
After he was appointed commander of southern Hungary, János Hunyadi decided it was time to put a halt to Turkish intrusions. The first to receive his ‘calling card’ of war was Beg Iszhak, commander of the Turkish garrison occupying Szendro. As punishment for past raids, Hunyadi caught up with Beg Iszhak’s troops and forced them to make a stand. Iszhak assumed that, as usual, the Magyars would attack the main body of his army with cavalry. Instead, Hunyadi sent his own elite foot soldiers to meet the central Turkish force in hand-to-hand combat. At the same time, the Hungarian cavalry attacked the flanks of the Turks, who–unprepared for mounted assault–were soon dispersed. Hunyadi’s horsemen then turned their attention to the foot soldiers in the Turkish center, who were already flagging from fighting the Magyar infantry. The battle was an unmitigated disaster for Beg Iszhak and put an end to his marauding on Hungarian soil.
In the following year, 1438, Hunyadi prepared another fateful surprise for another Turkish potentate, Mezid Pasha, at Nagyszeben, Transylvania. By that time, Hunyadi was so feared by the Turks that the night before the battle Mezid ordered his elite troops to concentrate on Hunyadi and his bodyguards. ‘To kill the lion, his heart must be pierced,’ Mezid exhorted his men. ‘We can defeat the Hungarian army if we get Hunyadi…dead or alive! Don’t miss him! He wears a silvery helmet and carries a shield emblazoned with a raven. Mounted on a white horse, he is always found in the thick of the battle!’
Thanks to a spy in the Ottoman camp, Hunyadi knew that he would be their main target. Simon Kemény, in an act of the highest loyalty to his leader, offered to don Hunyadi’s battle armor to draw the enemy’s fire and thus secure freedom of action for Hunyadi. After some hesitation, Hunyadi agreed and ordered his elite Székler troops to surround and protect Kemény.
During the battle the following day, almost everything happened the way Mezid Pasha had calculated. His troops overwhelmed the Hungarian hero on the white horse. Seeing him fall, the Turks triumphantly began shouting, ‘Hunyadi is dead! Hunyadi is dead!’
But the celebration was premature. Hunyadi, wearing Simon Kemény’s armor, suddenly appeared with his troops and swooped down upon Mezid’s troops with a vengeance. That was Mezid’s last surprise and ultimate terror, for he died at Nagyszeben, together with his son and many thousands of his soldiers. Mezid’s severed head, along with rich booty, was sent to Buda. Also among the casualties was Hunyadi’s younger brother, also named János. Simon Kemény’s self-sacrifice would be remembered in a poem by the great Hungarian poet Mihaly Vörösmarty.
Mehmet was furious about the defeat suffered by Mezid and was anxious for vengeance. Later in the same year, he sent an even larger army under the leadership of Beglerbeg Sehabeddin to conquer Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania. To ensure victory, the sultan put his entire European army at Sehabeddin’s disposal. Hunyadi’s army stood waiting for the Turks at the Iron Gate, the narrows where the Danube River leaves Hungary. Although his forces totaled only 15,000, they were crack soldiers.
While the Turks enjoyed numerical superiority, they regarded the upcoming clash with great apprehension. Their commander, however, did not share their feelings. ‘My sword is like a menacing cloud,’ he assured them, ‘but instead of rain, blood will pour in its path. Do you think I am like Mezid? Under my wings you have nothing to fear.’
Sehabeddin would soon regret his boasts. This time, Hunyadi placed his troops in a rectangular formation with the sides and rear protected not only by cavalry but also by armored ‘ironside’ battlewagons. An innovation used by the Bohemian Hussite leader Jan Zizka earlier in the century, the wagons were filled with soldiers and chained together to prevent penetration by the enemy. At the height of the battle, the battle wagons were suddenly wheeled into the fray and, executing a crisscross movement, created panic among the Turkish troops.
Just as Sehabeddin had predicted, blood did pour forth from a menacing ‘cloud of swords’ and redden the ground, but it was mostly Turkish, not Hungarian, blood that soaked the earth that day. The few Turks who escaped the battlefield were hunted down by Serb and Wallachian irregulars.
The news of Hunyadi’s victory spread throughout Europe and brought a measure of hope for those countries still suffering under Ottoman rule. In the following year, the Hungarian general fought and won six more battles, liberating Serbia in the process. The Turks felt jinxed in fighting against Hunyadi, and they referred to him as ‘that damned devil, Janko!’
Although other European powers applauded Hungary’s efforts in ousting the Turks, none of them offered any significant aid. Only the Holy See in Rome took seriously the great cause of expelling the Turks from the Continent.
In the ensuing years, peace treaties were signed and broken, alliances changed, and treachery was always afoot. Hunyadi and his troops continued to fight the Turks, winning some battles and losing others. In 1444 at Varna, acting against Hunyadi’s advice, King Ladislas V engaged the enemy in close combat and was killed by Janissaries (elite Turkish infantry, originally recruited from Christian youth who had been seized to form a bodyguard for Mehmet). Hunyadi was captured and imprisoned by Vlad Dracul. He was later released through Hungarian intervention. In 1447, Hunyadi avenged his humiliation when he led an expedition into Wallachia, killed Dracul and his son Mircea, and set up a loyal retainer, Vladislav II, in his place.
In 1448, at Kosovo in the heart of the Balkans, Hunyadi’s troops again lost a battle. A Serbian lord, angered at looting by Hunyadi’s troops in his territory, imprisoned the defeated warlord for a time. Comrades in arms until then, the Hungarians and Serbs now parted ways, never to be united again in struggle against a common enemy.
On May 29, 1453, Europe experienced one of her darkest hours. Constantinople, the capital of Christian Byzantium, fell to the Ottoman Turks. The conquerors took cruel and barbaric advantage of the survivors, many of whom were monks and nuns. The world-famous church Hagia Sophia became the scene of a bloody orgy, after which horses were stabled in the cathedral.
In Hungary, the fall of Byzantium was considered especially grave news. It was clear that the sultan’s next move would be against them.
In December 1455, the young Sultan Mehmet II began making plans for the capture of Belgrade (then known as Nandorfehervák). He believed that once Belgrade fell he would have little trouble with the Hungarians. He would ‘be in Buda [the Hungarian capital], eating [his] evening meals in peace in two months,’ he was quoted as saying. The sultan ordered his army to assemble at Edirne in order to be ready for a campaign in the spring of 1456.
When the 16-year-old king of Hungary, Ladislas Posthumus, heard of the Turkish plans to seize Belgrade, he and his court, accompanied by his uncle Count Ulrich Cilli, bán (viceroy) of Croatia and one of Hunyadi’s lifelong enemies, fled Buda for the safety of Vienna.
In those trying days only the new pope, Calixtus III, who called Hungary the ‘Shield of Christianity,’ did everything in his power to come to Hunyadi’s aid. He sent a Franciscan monk, John of Capistrano, to arouse the people of Hungary. An impassioned orator, John succeeded in recruiting thousands from all walks of society to fight the infidels.
The sultan’s army arrived at Belgrade weeks earlier than Hunyadi and his brother-in-law Mihaly Szilagyi, the commander of the city, had expected. When Hunyadi’s army and Capistrano’s Crusaders arrived, the city’s garrison numbered only 6,000 troops.
It has been estimated that the Ottoman army had anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 men, but most historians agree that the lower number would be the more accurate figure. At any rate, that force surpassed by far anything the Hungarians had seen in the past. The Turks’ white tents appeared like ‘freshly fallen snow,’ one observer remarked.
The mainstay of Mehmet’s army consisted, as always, of the fearsome Janissaries. It also included more than 300 cannons, of which 22 were of huge size. The Turkish fleet at Belgrade probably had 200 ships.
Hunyadi’s personal army consisted of about 10,000 well-armed, well-trained veterans, most of them light cavalrymen. The crowd of Crusaders probably came to about 30,000 soldiers. Altogether, his army numbered about 60,000 to 75,000, depending upon which source one considers. Most of those troops, with the exception of Hunyadi’s personal army, were peasant levies. As one eyewitness reported, only commoners joined the Crusaders from villages and towns of Hungary. Additional volunteers, however, also came from Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Austria.
When Hunyadi arrived at the city in early July 1456, he found it already encircled by the Ottoman army while the Turkish navy lay astride the Danube River. His first task was to break the naval blockade, which he succeeded in doing on July 14, sinking three large Ottoman galleys and capturing four large vessels and 20 smaller ones. That done, Hunyadi could transport his troops and much-needed food into the city.
Meanwhile, Turkish heavy artillery bombardments breached Belgrade’s walls in several places and rubble filled up the trenches. On July 21, Mehmet ordered an all-out assault, which began at sundown and continued all night. The Janissaries led the attack, and the ferocity of their charge carried them within the walls. Hunyadi, however, directed the defense with great resourcefulness. He ordered the defenders to throw tarred wood, sulfur-saturated blankets, sides of bacon and other flammable material into the moat, and then set it afire. Soon a wall of flames separated the Janissaries fighting in the city from their comrades outside the walls. Those caught in the moat were burned to death or seriously injured, and the Janissaries remaining inside the city were massacred by Hunyadi’s troops. On the morning of the 22nd, a lull in the fighting set in, allowing more reinforcements to cross the river and relieve Belgrade’s defenders.
The next day, while the Turks were burying their dead, something unexpected happened. Despite Hunyadi’s orders to the defenders not to go outside the walls, some of the Crusader units crept out from demolished ramparts, took up positions across from the Turkish line, and began harassing enemy soldiers, yelling and shooting arrows at them. Some Turkish spahis (provincial cavalry) stationed nearby tried to disperse the harassing force, but without success. Then some more Crusaders joined those outside the wall. What began as an isolated incident quickly escalated into a full-scale battle.
John of Capistrano, who at first tried to order his men back inside the walls, soon found himself surrounded by about 2,000 Crusaders. He then began leading them toward the Ottoman lines, crying, ‘The Lord who made the beginning will take care of the finish!’
The Turks soon found themselves faced with an angry human avalanche. Taken by surprise at this strange turn of events and, as some chroniclers say, paralyzed by some inexplicable fear, the Turks took flight. The sultan’s bodyguard of about 5,000 Janissaries tried desperately to stop the panic and recapture the camp, but by that time Hunyadi’s army had also joined the unplanned battle, and the Turkish efforts became hopeless. The sultan himself was badly wounded and rendered unconscious. After the battle, the Hungarian raiders were ordered to spend the night behind the walls of the fortress and to be on the alert for a possible renewal of the battle, but the Turkish counterattack never came.
Under cover of darkness the Turks retreated in haste, bearing their wounded in 140 wagons. At the city of Sarona, the sultan regained consciousness, but probably wished he hadn’t. Upon learning that his army had been routed, most of his leaders killed and all his equipment abandoned, the 24-year-old ruler was barely prevented from committing suicide by taking poison.
The Turkish casualties at Belgrade were unprecedented. They lost 50,000 men in the battle, and another 25,000 were slain by Serbs during their retreat. Losses to Belgrade’s defenders and Hunyadi’s relief force totaled less than 10,000.
The sultan’s defeat was hailed as a glorious victory for Christendom. Te Deums (ancient Latin prayers of thanksgiving) were sung in churches, church bells sounded and bonfires burned in celebration. The old truism, ‘victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan,’ was proved again. Even those who had been hostile or indifferent toward Hunyadi now joined in singing praises to his victory.
Pope Calixtus, on learning of the Hungarian warlord’s victory, described Hunyadi as ‘the most outstanding man the world had seen in 300 years.’
After the triumph at Belgrade, many expected that the time had come to drive the Turks out of Europe, and perhaps even recapture Constantinople. But that was not to be. On August 11, 1456, Hunyadi died, probably from the plague that had been ravaging Belgrade even before the siege. Two months later, John of Capistrano, the spiritual leader at Belgrade, followed him to the grave.
The jubilation of victory turned to sorrow when the world learned of Hunyadi’s untimely death. Even Sultan Mehmet II paid him tribute: ‘Although he was my enemy I feel grief over his death, because the world has never seen such a man.’
Although the Turks would not attack Hungary for another 70 years, political strife continued to haunt the kingdom. On his deathbed, Hunyadi told his countrymen: ‘Defend, my friends, Christendom and Hungary from all enemies….Do not quarrel among yourselves. If you should waste your energies in altercations, you will seal your own fate as well as dig the grave of our country.’
Unfortunately, the future leaders of Hungary more often than not failed to heed János Hunyadi’s advice.
This article was written by Tom R. Kovach and originally published in the August 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!