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The Battle of Nicopolis took place on September 25, 1396, between the Ottoman Empire versus an allied force from Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire, France, Wallachia, Poland, the Kingdom of England, the Kingdom of Scotland, the Old Swiss Confederacy, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa and the Knights of St. John near the Danubian fortress of Nicopolis (Nikopol, Bulgaria). It is often referred to as the Crusade of Nicopolis, and was the last large-scale crusade of the Middle Ages. The battle is sometimes dated to September 28.

BackgroundEdit

There were many minor crusades in the 14th century, undertaken by individual kings or knights. Most recently there had been a failed crusade against Tunisia in 1390, and there was ongoing warfare in northern Europe along the Baltic coast. After their victory at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Ottomans had conquered most of the Balkans, and had reduced the Byzantine Empire to the area immediately surrounding Constantinople, which they later proceeded to besiege (in 1390, 1395, 1397, 1400, 1422 and finally conquering the Byzantine capital in 1453).

In 1393 the Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman had lost Nicopolis — his temporary capital — to the Ottomans, while his brother, Ivan Stratsimir, still held Vidin but had been reduced to an Ottoman vassal. In the eyes of the Bulgarian boyars, despots and other independent Balkan rulers, this was a great chance to reverse the course of the Ottoman invasion and free the Balkans from Islamic rule. In addition, the frontline between Islam and Christianity had been moving slowly towards the Kingdom of Hungary. The Kingdom of Hungary was now the frontier between the two religions in Eastern Europe, and the Hungarians were in danger of being attacked themselves. The Republic of Venice feared that an Ottoman control of the Balkan peninsula, which included Venetian territories like parts of Morea and Dalmatia, would reduce their influence over the Adriatic Sea, Ionian Sea and Aegean Sea. The Republic of Genoa, on the other hand, feared that if the Ottomans would gain control over River Danube and the Turkish Straits, they would eventually obtain a monopoly over the trade routes between Europe and the Black Sea, where the Genoese had many important colonies like Caffa, Sinop and Amasra. The Genoese also owned the citadel of Galata, located at the north of the Golden Horn in Constantinople, to which Bayezid had laid siege in 1395.

In 1394, Pope Boniface IX proclaimed a new crusade against the Turks, although by this time the Western Schism had split the papacy in two, with rival popes at Avignon and Rome, and the days when a pope had the authority to call a crusade were long past. Nevertheless, England and France were now at an intermission in the Hundred Years' War, and Richard II and Charles VI were willing to work together to finance a crusade. French negotiations for a joint crusade with Sigismund, the King of Hungary and the Holy Roman Emperor, had been underway since 1393.

PreparationsEdit

The initial plan was for John of Gaunt, Louis of Orleans, and Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, to leave in 1395, with Charles and Richard following them the next year. By the beginning of 1396 these plans had been abandoned. Instead, John of Nevers led a force of approximately 10,000 French[1], mostly cavalry from Burgundy, with an English contingent of about 1,000 men. There were also about 6,000 men from the Palatinate, Bavaria, and Nuremberg. However other sources[2] place the total number of troops under John as 8,000 men. This means that Sigismund contributed between 8,000 and 6,000 men from his Hungarian lands, with a total of 16,000 troops[3]. The French forces set off from Montbéliard in April of 1396, arrived in Vienna in May and June, and joined with Sigismund in Buda in July. Although he was Orthodox, Mircea the Elder, the Prince of Wallachia, also participated with a large force in the Crusading army. His principality now constituted the border between Christendom and Islam.

Wallachia (like Moldavia) was familiar with Ottoman battle strategies, as Mircea had inflicted several blows to the same Bayezid at the Battle of Karanovasa, the Battle of Rovine and the battles over the Principality of Karvuna in 1395. Johann Schiltberger, a Bavarian crusader who fell prisoner at Nicopolis, would later describe in his memoirs the conflict raised by the disagreement on choosing between two different warfare tactics: that of the Crusaders' army, with its bulk of forces constituted by the slow, typically Western heavy cavalry, and that of Mircea, who, prior to the battle, asked Sigismund to execute a reconnaissance mission, to evaluate the enemies’ status, and to conclude the optimal strategy. Sigismund agreed, and Mircea asked for the command of the Crusader forces and the right to be the first to attack, after carrying out his own reconnaissance mission with a Wallachian light cavalry party. Sigismund willingly consented, but the proposal was dismissed by John of Nevers and other Western knights, who rejected any change in traditional tactics (Nevers himself aimed for the honour to be the first to attack, as he traveled a great distance, and had spent much money in the expedition).

Nevers took the command of the combined force and marched south towards Nicopolis. The countryside was plundered along the way by the Crusaders, and the city of Rahovo (Oryahovo) was sacked, its inhabitants killed or taken as prisoners. A number of minor Ottoman forces were also captured.[4]

Siege of NicopolisEdit

The city was well-defended and well-supplied, and the crusaders had brought no siege machines with them. Nevertheless they were convinced that the siege of the fortress would be a mere prelude to a major thrust into relieving Constantinople and did not believe that Bayezid I would arrive so speedily to give them a real battle.[5] The Ottoman sultan Bayezid I, already occupied with his own siege at Constantinople, gathered his army and marched towards Nicopolis. His vassal Stefan Lazarević of Serbia (which was under Ottoman control since the Battle of Kosovo in 1389) joined him on the way, and they arrived on September 24, with about 20,000 men.[6] Bayezid I was warned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti about the crusaders' troop movements.

The battle Edit

The arrival of Bayezid's troops came as a complete shock to the Crusaders, who were having dinner when a messenger arrived with the news.[7] On the 25th, both sides prepared for battle. Before the battle began, the Ottoman prisoners from Rahovo were killed by the French, for unknown reasons. The French and English formed the vanguard, while Sigismund divided his troops into three: he commanded the Hungarian and German troops in the centre himself, the Transylvanians formed the right wing, and the Wallachians under Mircea the Elder formed the left. Bayezid formed his lines with a vanguard of cavalry protected by a line of stakes, a main line of archers and Janissaries, and the main body of Ottomans and Serbians hidden behind hills some distance away. Mircea the Elder of Wallachia advised a cautious battle plan, and requested to be allowed to attack first. Wallachian cavalry were to harass the Ottomans out of their positions so that the skilled horse archers would be able to easily pick off individual Turks, thus leaving the Turkish main line severely weakened and more prone to collapsing under the weight of a subsequent charge of the heavy Western knights. Mircea's proposal was refused by the other Crusaders, who thought that the Wallachian ruler only wanted to gain all the glory for himself. Thus, a straightforward sledgehammer-tactic was put in motion by the Westerners, a plan which would prove to be disastrous for the Crusader forces.

The French, mostly clad in superior armour uniforms, charged towards the Ottoman vanguard, but soon realized they would have to dismount when they reached the line of stakes. They did so, and began to remove the stakes, while under fire from the Ottoman archers. When this was accomplished, the unarmoured Ottoman infantry met the now horseless but well-armoured knights, who had the upper hand in close fighting. The French rushed forward to attack the cavalry and were again successful. Although they were still without their horses, the French pursued the retreating Ottomans all the way back to the hill. However, upon reaching the top, the now exhausted French forces discovered the main Ottoman army awaiting them. In the ensuing fight, the French were completely defeated. Jean de Vienne, admiral of France, was killed in combat, although he is described as having defended the French standard six times before he fell. Jean de Carrouges fell alongside Jean de Vienne. John of Nevers, Enguerrand VII de Coucy and Jean Le Maingre, Marshal of France, were captured. At this point, however, the battle was not yet lost.

Meanwhile, the riderless horses made their way back to Sigismund's camp. Sigismund came to the aid of the French, and met Bayezid's force on the hill. The battle was about evenly matched[8] until the Serbians arrived. Sigismund was persuaded by his companions to retreat; troops led by Hermann II of Cilli helped him to reach a Venetian ship for safety. Sigismund allegedly said of the French: "If only they had listened to me... We had men in the plenty to fight our enemies."

In the late afternoon, Stefan Lazarević led the charge of the 5,000 Serb Full plate armour knights left wing and encircled the undefended wings of Sigismund's troops. Bayezid and his ally and brother-in-law Stefan Lazarevic immediately recognized the well-known banner of another brother-in-law, Nikola II Gorjanski, fighting on Sigismund's side. A deal was made, and Sigismund's army surrendered. The Wallachian army, having witnessed the disastrous attacks made by the other crusaders and the surrender of Sigismund, retreated and started to head for home.

Aftermath Edit

On September 26, Bayezid ordered between 3,000 to 10,000 prisoners to be killed, in retaliation for the killing of the Ottoman prisoners in Rahovo by the French. He was also angry that he had lost so many men, especially in the early stages of the battle, despite his overall victory. He kept the younger prisoners for his own army. Those who escaped eventually returned home, although many perished on the way; Sigismund himself was allowed to escape with Nikola Gorjanski and Hermann of Cilli, and he took the sea route back home on a Venetian ship through the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean, suspecting the Wallachians of treachery. Charles VI was informed of the defeat on Christmas.

The knights of Western Europe soon lost their enthusiasm for crusading. Fighting would continue in Spain and the Mediterranean, and among the pagans of northern Europe, but no new expedition was launched from Western Europe to stop the Turkish advance in the Balkans after this defeat, until the period of the Renaissance.

England and France soon renewed their war. Wallachia continued its stance against the Ottomans, having stopped another expedition in the next year, 1397, and in 1400 yet another expedition of the Ottomans. The defeat of Sultan Beyazid I by Timur (Tamerlane) at Ankara in the summer of 1402 opened a period of anarchy in the Ottoman Empire and Mircea took advantage of it to organize together with the Kingdom of Hungary a campaign against the Turks. The Hungarians and Poles were defeated at the Battle of Varna in 1444, and Constantinople finally fell in 1453 to the Turks, followed by the Despotate of Morea in 1460 and the Empire of Trebizond in 1461, which brought an end to the last vestiges of the Byzantine Empire as well as the final remaining pockets of Greek resistance against the Ottoman Turks in both the Balkans and Anatolia.

The Battle of Nicopolis is also widely regarded as the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire, since hopes for its salvation had come to an end with the defeat of the Crusaders.

By their victory at Nicopolis, the Turks discouraged the formation of future European coalitions against them. They maintained their pressure on Constantinople, tightened their control over the Balkans, and became a greater menace to central Europe.[9]

Notes Edit

  1. Madden, Thomas F. Crusades the Illustrated History. 1st ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P, 2005 pg 185
  2. Grant, R G. Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2005 pg 122
  3. Grant, R G. Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2005 pg 122
  4. Madden, Thomas F. Crusades the Illustrated History. 1st ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P, 2005 pg 184
  5. Madden, Thomas F. Crusades the Illustrated History. 1st ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P, 2005 pg 185
  6. Grant, R G. Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2005 pg 122
  7. Madden, Thomas F. Crusades the Illustrated History. 1st ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan P, 2005 pg 185
  8. Grant, R G. Battle a Visual Journey Through 5000 Years of Combat. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2005
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica: Battle of Nicopolis

External links Edit

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