Desperate Victory at the White City

Julian Cesarini, John Hunyadi, and John of Capistrano in the Szeged Pantheon.

Words come in and out of fashion. One that has come into play in recent years is “resistance.” Playing on the image of the old French and similar Resistance groups against the Nazis in occupied Europe, we’ve seen American liberals, a powerful and privileged class, presenting themselves as some sort of doughty rebels outnumbered and outgunned by the forces of evil and yet … resisting. This is more political theater than anything else.

There are times and places in history where a real resistance was waged, for decades and even centuries, against a seemingly powerful and inexorable foe. One such twilight conflict was the bitter centuries-long struggle of Balkan peoples, most of them Christians, to push back the European conquests of the Ottoman Turks. Of course, the Turks remain in Europe to this day. But there is a long history ranging from 1355 when the Ottomans first established themselves on the Gallipoli Peninsula to the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922 when the question was very much in play on where exactly the line of the Turkish advance would be drawn. 

Today’s Turkey openly talks of territorial ambitions in Greece and Bulgaria, so perhaps this conflict has not completely ended. But this tale of resistance lasting five and a half centuries is a storied one, filled with defeats, subjugation, heroes, collaborators, and victories. The conflicts waged often were—to use a word decidedly not in fashion—crusades, wars of the cross, defensive conflicts to reclaim what had been lost in invasions under the banner of the crescent: crusade versus jihad. Despite Western dislike for the former term and skittishness about the latter, the two words roughly correspond. 

To speak about Crusade in our time is to walk through an ideological minefield given progressive and revisionist scholarship. And yet, when it is spoken of in popular speech, the images are usually about the First or Third Crusades taking place in the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th centuries: Pope Urban II, the Holy Sepulcher, Godfrey de Bouillon, Bohemund, the battle of Hattin, Saladin, and Richard the Lionheart. And while Eastern Orthodox Christians vividly remember the horrors of the Fourth Crusade, which saw Latin Crusaders sacking Orthodox Byzantine Constantinople, the later crusades fought against the Muslim Turks are much less clear in the collective memory of the West.

An important new book from the University of Toronto Press is a welcome contribution to providing English speakers with valuable and varied perspectives on one of the most often forgotten (by Western Europeans and Americans) and interesting of these later crusades. The Crusade of 1456, Texts and Documentation in Translation by historian Dr. James D. Mixson of the University of Alabama gathers a wealth of information about the siege and battle of Belgrade in July 1456. These events saw the mighty Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror of Constantinople, face a ragtag army led by the veteran Hungarian warrior John Hunyadi. The translated sections are documents about preparations for crusade in the wake of the fall of Byzantium, firsthand accounts of the battle from three eyewitnesses, accounts of the battle as the news spread across Europe, a longer, more literary account by one of the eyewitnesses written years later, and a final section that looks at the cultural memory of the battle among Austrian, Hungarian, Greek and Turkish sources in the immediate decades after the battle. 

The result is a rich and fascinating kaleidoscope of one key historic event, a qualitative advance in research and, as far as I know, the first English-language book dealing solely with this battle. A description of Belgrade in 1456 is to be found in many a book on the Medieval Balkans, on the Papacy and the Levant, or on Hungarian history but never with such specificity and depth. It is as if long lost voices are heard again for the first time after the sleep of ages, with startling freshness and power. It is a worthy attempt, and I think a successful one to liberate this historical event and its circumstances from the dated scholarly vision of that sees Southeastern Europe as “somehow backward, dark, exotic and ambiguous,” as Dr. Mixson puts it.

The Ottoman advance in the Balkans had been steady and growing for a century. Serbs and Bulgarians were dealt crushing blows. Two crusades aimed at stopping the Turks and helping Constantinople, at Nicopolis in 1396 and at Varna in 1444, ended as hard-fought Turkish victories. In addition to set battles, Turkish raiders (akıncılar) relentlessly sought plunder and captives along the frontier with the Christians. Hunyadi himself, a capable soldier, had been on the losing side against the Turks at Varna and at the second battle of Kosovo in 1448. 

News of the fall of Constantinople and the death of the last Emperor of the Romans had horrified Christendom. Constantine XI died a Catholic, reconciled to Rome as had his brother before him. But aid from the West to the besieged city had been too little too late (although Nicopolis and Varna had been earlier Catholic efforts to help the Byzantines before that last fatal siege). Both Popes Nicholas V and his successor Calixtus III called for a new crusade. Key to any counteroffensive against the advancing Turks was Hungary, antemurale Christianitates, the Bulwark of Christendom. And Hungary meant at the time one particular leader, that “Champion of Christ” (as one eyewitness calls him) John Hunyadi—nobleman, statesman, soldier. His son would be a king, but Hunyadi was Regent of Hungary and Voivode of Transylvania. Hunyadi is, of course, a Hungarian national hero still.

Belgrade, “the White City” (in Hungarian Nándorfehérvár), would be perhaps the greatest moment of a distinguished career for Hunyadi. It would be the last of many battles, most of them against the Turks. And the last victory, fought only three years after the fall of Constantinople. Belgrade would be that most astonishing of things, a Christian victory against a numerically and technologically superior foe, the Turks at the time being probably the world leaders in the use of artillery, and with the money to hire the best. The Franciscan John of Tagliacozzo, one of three key eyewitnesses to the battle, noted in a letter that the Turks had hired four of the best artillerymen in the world: a Venetian, a German, a Hungarian, and a Bosnian.

Although the book is properly a mosaic of voices—papal documents, eyewitnesses, official letters, ancient histories—and several interesting figures, two personalities dominate, both on the battlefield and in the documentation. The first is the just mentioned heroic Christian military commander Hunyadi, still honored with several statues in the Hungarian capital, including the 1906 Habsburg monument in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. The second figure is far less remembered today, for rather obvious reasons, but perhaps a figure even more extraordinary than the Hungarian commander: the Franciscan friar Saint John of Capistrano (1386-1456), sometimes called the Soldier Saint although the only “weapons” he carried were a crucifix and a banner. Capistrano also has a heroic statue in Budapest, outside the Military Museum and, of course, is remembered in the distinctive 18th century Spanish mission church bearing his name in California.  

While Pope Calixtus III hoped for a grand crusade against the Turks that would include soldiers from Aragon, Burgundy, Italy, and from the Papacy itself, in the end the army that fought at Belgrade would be mostly Hungarian and Serbian and, as far as sheer numbers are concerned, raised mostly by John of Capistrano himself. Hunyadi’s seasoned veterans and family retainers, and the troops of his Serbian allies, would be joined by thousands of fervent peasants inspired directly by the Italian friar’s devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. Most of Europe did not fight. Even many of the Hungarian nobility, rivals or enemies of Hunyadi resentful of his position, remained aloof from the battle. This would be one of those campaigns—one thinks of the French Vendée or the anti-Jacobin army raised by Cardinal Ruffo in Naples—where peasant power would be key. Several of the translated documents mock the European nobility and royalty who refused to fight while victory was won by the simple folk. 

A gifted preacher, fervent in his efforts to preach to Jews and convert heretics, a healer of the sick powerful in the preaching of repentance, a man of iron who converted the masses throughout Central Europe, John of Capistrano was as a young man, a follower of the ascetic Saint Bernardino of Siena. John had studied to be a lawyer before having a spiritual conversion and joining the Franciscans. He had been a papal envoy to foreign courts. Now at the age of seventy he raised levies of thousands of peasants to fight the Turks. The banner he held, along with his crucifix, was that of his spiritual father San Bernadino. Writing later to the King of Aragon, Pope Calixtus III (himself a Spaniard) would sum it up quite vividly:

Rustic men held up not by arms, but by faith and devotion alone, with only one athlete of God, the most unconquered voivode John [Hunyadi], and one religious friar, John of Capistrano, completely destroyed the great power of the evil Turk.

In a surprisingly modern tone, especially given John of Capistrano’s much noted zeal for orthodoxy, John of Tagliacozzo records Capistrano calling on all to unite to defeat the Turk, no matter their background: “All who wish to come to our aid against the Turks are our friends. Serbians, schismatics, Wallachians, Jews, heretics and whatsoever infidels who wish to fight with us in this storm, let us embrace them as friends.” The Franciscans on the battlefield did not themselves spill blood. They encouraged the faithful, exhorting them to fight, visited the sick, said Masses, succored the poor and the suffering during the campaign

The actual battle would consist of a siege, a blockade, a running riverine battle between flotillas, and brutal hand-to-hand combat lasting hours through the night to midday. At times it seemed that the Sultan’s elite janissaries would win the day but in the end a sally towards the Ottoman rear by the unarmed John of Capistrano leading thousands of peasants and an assault by Hunyadi on the massive but immobile Turkish guns would bring this most improbable of victories to a conclusion. Capistrano would laconically write to the Pope: “We have not been destroyed. Everyone thought we could no longer resist the power of the Turks.” The victors captured part of the Turkish flotilla, catapults, and the still relatively novel artillery pieces, including one monster sixteen feet long. Hunyadi would famously remark that the Turks used so much artillery against the Belgrade citadel that “it was no longer a fortress but a field.”

Not all the details of the battle are perfectly clear. One of the delights of the book is the ambiguities, nuances, and slight differences of the various accounts. But Mehmet II may have been wounded in the fighting. His field commander, the Beylerbey of Rumelia, Karaca Bey was killed. The “Padishah of Islam,” as one Turkish chronicler calls him, was defeated. “By divine ordinance God did not make possible the conquest of the castle” (Belgrade’s citadel). Church bells would ring at noon across Europe commemorating the startling victory.

A furious Mehmet II would lick his wounds on the long road back to Constantinople. Both John Hunyadi and John of Capistrano would die before the end of the year of the plague that swept across the victorious army. The canonized Capistrano’s coat of arms would feature a sword piercing a crescent moon. The elderly Serbian prince Durad (George) Branković, a key Hunyadi ally in the battle, would also succumb by December of that year. Michael Szilagyi, the Belgrade citadel commander and Hunyadi’s brother-in-law, would be captured in battle by the Turks four years later and beheaded. 

The Hungarians, and Central Europe, would have a respite of several generations as a result of the hard-won victory. Sixty-five years later Belgrade would eventually fall to the Turks in 1521, to Mehmet II’s great-grandson Suleiman the Magnificent. After conquering Belgrade, the city and its fortifications were destroyed, and its Christian population deported. Suleiman then conquered most of Hungary before being stopped before the gates of Vienna in 1529. Much of Hungary was to be ruled by the Ottomans, often through Christian proxies, until 1699. Belgrade too was eventually regained by the Serbs in the early 19th century, almost four centuries after its fall.

The resistance at Belgrade by an unlikely army led by a Hungarian warlord and a Franciscan friar would pass into national legend. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remarked in a controversial speech recently that Hungary had a right to protect its identity and culture, and that this included defending its borders from foreign invaders, even from the mass migration from the lands of Islam now seen in many other parts of Europe. “This is why we fought at Nándorfehérvár/Belgrade,” he said, “this is why we stopped the Turks at Vienna, and—if I am not mistaken—this is why, in still older times—the French stopped the Arabs at Poitiers.” 

In contrast with those “chosen traumas” said to be littering national psyches, the battle of Belgrade falls into that category of “chosen victories” that today’s Western powers that be would prefer were left to non-Western peoples to celebrate. Erdogan’s Turkey annually marks both the fall of Constantinople and the 11th century battle of Manzikert. In late 2022, it will mark the centenary of the defeat of the Greeks in Anatolia. Saladin’s Hattin victory is a perennial favorite of both Arab Nationalists and Islamists. 

Celebrating victory at Belgrade/Nándorfehérvár or Lepanto or Vienna or the fall of Tenochtitlan or Charles Martel’s victory at Poitiers would have been completely normal in the past. In today’s Europe, however, such celebration is sure to mark one out as a right-winger, or worse, a right-wing nationalist or xenophobe (Hungary actually has excellent relations today with Turkey). But that type of criticism by the usual suspects seems a small price to pay for honoring one’s ancestors and remembering both one’s complicated past and the stirring heroism of ancient histories.

Alberto M. Fernandez is a former U.S. diplomat and Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C.