In April 1396 a crusade set out from Dijon in France, bound for the Balkans. Its aim was to free the Balkans from the threat of the Turks and relieve the besieged city of Constantinople. It represented the last realistic hope to save the beleaguered Bulgarian Empire from the Ottomans.
The Nicopolis Crusade, as it became known, would be one of the last major crusades mounted by European Christendom against the Islamic East.
The Ottoman threat
During the 1380s and early 1390s a new power had arisen in the east. The Ottoman Empire was steadily expanding its influence to encompass a large section of western Anatolia and the Balkans.
In 1389, Sultan Murad I fought a major battle with the Serbs at Kosovo. The result was inconclusive but casualties on both sides were high. Both Murad and the Serbian king died in the fighting. For a while, Christendom saw the death of Murad as a success. Murad had been an aggressive and capable military leader, who’d virtually doubled the size of the Ottoman Empire. There was some hope that his death might offer the Balkans some respite.
However, first appearances can be deceiving. The battle left the Serbs exhausted; they had no reserves with which to replace their losses. The Ottomans, however, had no such problem. Furthermore, Murad’s son, Bayezid, turned out to be every bit as ambitious and capable as his father.
Constantinople under siege
Under Bayezid, the Ottomans forced Serbia to become a vassal state. Then, during the early to mid-1390s, Bayezid steadily conquered northern Greece before setting his sights on the Bulgarian Empire. By 1395 the Ottomans had overrun the Bulgarian Empire and it looked like Wallachia, to the north, might be next. Mircea the Elder’s Wallachian army finally managed to check Bayezid at the Battle of Rovine in 1395.
For now, the Ottoman advance into the Balkans had stalled. However, they remained in control of Greece and most of the territory formerly part of the Bulgarian Empire. Wallachia, Transylvania, Hungary and even Venice remained fearful of future advances.
Constantinople, the ancient capital of the eastern Roman Empire, was now isolated, surrounded by the hostile Ottomans. Thwarted in Wallachia, Bayezid turned his full attention to besieging Constantinople, which he’d been blockading since 1394.
A new crusade
In 1394, Pope Boniface IX called for a new crusade to help save Constantinople and free the Balkans from the Turks.
Support was easy to come by in the east, where no-one needed convincing of the danger. For Ivan Sratsimir, the Bulgarian Tsar, the crusade represented the last realistic hope of ever recovering his Empire.
The Knights Hospitallers, dedicated to the crusade ethos, were also keen to contribute. Elsewhere in Europe, individual knights and noblemen from Spain, Italy, Poland and Germany all answered the call to arms.
The Duke of Burgundy, keen to raise his prestige on the European stage, gave the crusade strong backing.
The King of Hungary’s emissaries to the Paris court made a great impression. A great army of 40,000 Turks, they claimed, were even now ravaging the good Christian folk of eastern Europe. It was enough to fire up a large section of the French nobility.
Richard II of England was also enthusiastic. However, his noblemen had strong reservations about a joint crusade with the French.
In the end, the only English contingent was small. Its most prominent member was Sir John Beaufort, John of Gaunt’s son via Katherine Swynford. Richard nevertheless hoped to be able to raise a larger force for the crusade the following year.
But who should command?
With so many different kingdoms and principalities involved, there was an obvious question mark over who should lead this crusade. This question would never be adequately resolved.
Even within the sizeable French-Burgundian contingent there was a degree of confusion. The Duke of Burgundy nominated his son John, Count of Nevers, as leader. However, John was only 24 and had little by way of military experience. There were no shortage of respected French and Burgundian knights available to advise John. The French knight Boucicaut was famous for his tournament accolades and chivalric reputation. And then there was Philip, Count d’Eu, Constable of France, with a reputation as a dashing solider.
In the end, the Duke chose the older and more experienced Enguerrand de Coucy to act as John’s principal advisor. This decision rankled somewhat with d’Eu, who believed it was he who should have been that counsellor.
There was further confusion in the command structure because John of Nevers was provided with a long list of counsellors, of whom de Coucy was just the most senior. Furthermore, the Duke’s instructions to his son were hardly specific. He told John to consult with them only “when it seemed good to him”.
Men of valour
No one doubted the individual combat skills and valour of the French-Burgundian contingent. Many had impressive reputations. Of all their number, Boucicaut reflected in many ways the image of the perfect knight. Chivalrous and aggressive, he was a champion of many tournaments and had attained the office of Marshal of France at the age of just 27.
Fired up by the prospect of fame and glory, Boucicaut was keen to lead the charge against the Turks. Anything less than being the first to engage in battle was an anathema to his valorous self-image. Many other French and Burgundian knights felt the same.
The crusade finally set off from Dijon in April 1396, collecting other crusaders enroute to the east. However, the King of France diverted its senior military advisor, de Coucy, almost immediately on an urgent diplomatic mission to Milan.
A sordid dispute
A dispute with Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the Duke of Milan, over Genoa was threatening to flare up into actual conflict. The primary bone of contention was a dispute over Milanese influence in Genoa. The French king despatched de Coucy to warn the duke to stay out of Genoese affairs.
However, this was not the only source of tension between the two. The duke’s daughter Valentina Visconti had married the Duke of Orleans. There had been, for some time, rumours of an affair between Valentina’s husband and the Queen of France. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because Valentina herself was too close to the King, the Queen arranged for Valentina’s exile from Paris.
The timing could not have been worse, coinciding as it did with the start of the crusade. It was an act that Gian Galeazzo Visconti took as a personal insult. Although there is no firm proof, he may have taken revenge by providing Sultan Bayezid with details concerning the strength and movements of the French crusaders.
De Coucy, having delivered his warning to the duke, and oblivious to any betrayal, took his leave of Milan to re-join the crusade.
A council of war
The crusade mustered at Buda, the capital of the kingdom of Hungary. Here the leaders of the crusade discussed their strategy. In addition to the French the other major contingent was provided by King Sigismund of Hungary.
Disagreement on the overall strategy quickly broke out. The previous year Bayezid had threatened to attack Hungary in May. It was now late July and, whilst the attack had not materialised, Sigismund was sure it was only a matter of time. That being the case, it was surely better to wait. It would be better to fight the Turks on ground of their choosing, after the enemy had already marched a significant distance and were far from their sources of supply.
However sensible this strategy may have been, it did not convince the French. As the French saw it, the fact that Bayezid had not attacked when he’d threatened made him a coward and a liar. De Coucy, acting as spokesman for the French, argued in favour of an aggressive advance into Ottoman territory. For the sake of unity, and despite his misgivings, Sigismund had little choice but to acquiesce.
De Coucy’s stance clearly ruffled feathers amongst the eastern Europeans. However, it also angered d’Eu. As Constable of France, d’Eu firmly believed that he, and not de Coucy, should have been the French spokesman.
The road to Nicopolis
Resolved to take the offensive, the crusaders proceeded eastwards from Buda, largely following the course of the Danube, heading in the direction of the Black Sea coast.
As they progressed eastwards, the French elements increasingly engaged in acts of pillaging against the native population. They overpowered a few minor Turkish garrisons as they marched east, but encountered no serious resistance.
The first significant engagement was at Oryahovo, in what is now north-western Bulgaria. A Turkish garrison there put up resistance for a day until King Sigismund persuaded them to surrender. The town capitulated after receiving assurances as to the safety of its citizens and their property. Unfortunately for the townsfolk, these assurances meant little to the French, who proceeded to pillage and massacre as soon as they entered the town.
Once the French rampage was finally over, they rounded up a further 1000 Turks and Bulgarians as hostages. Sigismund and the Hungarians were incensed that the French had blatantly ignored the terms of the surrender. The French, however, claimed rights of conquest and accused the Hungarians of trying to deny them their rightful spoils of war.
After Oryhovo, the crusade carried on eastwards, following the Danube, until it reached the heavily fortified town of Nicopolis.
The siege of Nicopolis
Nicopolis was a major fortified military and administrative centre for the Ottomans on the Danube. It effectively controlled access to the lower Danube and several important roads. There had been ample time for the Turks to prepare for the crusaders and stock up ready for a long siege.
The crusaders had brought no heavy siege equipment with them, however. Nevertheless, Boucicaut was quick to boast that courageous men with ladders could easily compensate for their deficit of catapults. Since this had never before proven true in all medieval history, it soon became clear that the absence of siege equipment was a major problem.
The crusaders had no choice but to settle in for a long siege. However, they could take some comfort from the fact that, as far as they knew, Bayezid was still bogged down besieging Constantinople. He had not come to Hungary in May and so, the crusaders reasoned, he would be reluctant to come now.
But Bayezid had a nickname amongst the Turks – ‘Yildirim Bayezid’, they called him. Translated it meant ‘Bayezid the Thunderbolt’ and there was a good reason why he was thus known.
The crusaders were about to discover that reason first hand.
Bayezid the Thunderbolt
By 1396 Sultan Bayezid was 36 years old. His first experience of military command had been fighting for his father against the Karamanids in Anatolia in 1387. Since then, he had fought in several campaigns and was, by 1396, a highly experienced general.
He had earned a reputation for moving rapidly against his enemies, striking suddenly and aggressively – like a thunderbolt. True to form Bayezid had been far from idle whilst the crusaders were marching eastwards into Ottoman territory. On learning of the crusaders’ movements, he immediately lifted the siege of Constantinople and force marched his army north.
And now, with the crusade complacently camped outside of Nicopolis, the Thunderbolt was about to strike.
The approaching storm
Not long after the siege had begun, scouts sent out by King Sigismund returned with troubling news. Bayezid’s army, they reported, was already at Timovo, just 70 miles south of Nicopolis. The news had also reached the besieged Turkish defenders who began to cheer and blow horns in celebration. But many, especially amongst the French, refused to believe it. Boucicaut insisted it was a trick to damage the morale of the crusaders, Bayezid could not possibly be so close. Boucicaut even threatened to cut off the ears of anyone he heard repeating such doom-mongering rumours.
Boucicaut’s bluster did not reassure the more experienced de Coucy, however. He decided to take a scouting party south to see for himself. Sure enough, it was not long before he encountered the rapidly advancing Turks. After fighting a sharp rear-guard action, he returned to the camp with the grim news.
The two armies now prepared for battle.
Strength of the armies
There are, as is often the case with these things, wildly varying estimates as to the number of men involved in the ensuing battle. One Turkish source estimated that there were 160,000 crusaders and only 40,000 Turks. At the other end of the scale, one Christian source estimated there were 16,000 crusaders facing as many as 200,000 Turks.
More realistically, it is likely that around 15,000-20,000 crusaders faced a slightly larger Turkish army.
The crusaders’ plan
The crusaders had relatively little time to prepare. In the council of war, held the night before the battle, a heated argument broke out.
King Sigismund and the eastern Europeans favoured a cautious plan. The Wallachians, who had the most experience of fighting Turks, should attack in the first wave, driving off any pickets and harrying the Ottoman front line. The main army could then attack, probing the Turkish line for weak points. Once the enemy began to buckle, the time would be right for the French knights to charge home and deliver the killer blow.
It was a plan based on real experience of fighting the Turks. Mircea the Elder of Wallachia, one of the plan’s chief advocates, was the only commander present to have ever defeated Bayezid before (at Rovine, the previous year).
The French, however, rejected this plan. It was an insult to their chivalric honour to expect them to hang back like cowards and follow mere peasants into battle. They even accused the eastern Europeans of conspiring to steal all the glory for themselves! Nevers, with the vociferous encouragement of Boucicaut and d’Eu, insisted the French knights should lead the attack.
Mircea’s skill and experience was rejected in favour of Boucicaut and d’Eu’s cavalier bravado.
At some point before the battle the crusaders turned their attention to the Ottoman and Bulgarian hostages, taken at Oryhovo. What was to be done with them? They could be left in the rear under guard of course. However, this ran the risk that a sortie from the Turkish garrison in Nicopolis might free them.
The decision was therefore taken, at the instigation of the French, to massacre them. Hapless Bulgarians were slaughtered alongside their former Turkish masters; the French seemingly unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between the two.
“Then must rule presumption”
The Battle of Nicopolis began on the morning of the 25th September 1396.
Early on, Sigismund requested the attack be delayed for two hours, whilst his scouts conducted reconnaissance on the Turkish lines. The attack could then proceed in full knowledge of their strength and dispositions. D’Eu rejected this idea, saying that it is just another attempt by Sigismund to grab all the battle honours for himself. De Coucy was not convinced, he saw good reason for Sigismund’s request and accused d’Eu of ‘presumption’. But d’Eu and a great many of the younger knights were insistent on attacking at once. Far from being prudent, the hawkish younger knights argued, following Sigismund’s advice was cowardly!
De Coucy asked Jean de Vienne, one of the older, more experienced soldiers, for his view. Vienne replied with no small degree of resignation, “When truth and reason cannot be heard, then must rule presumption.”
The attack would proceed at once!
Bayezid’s battle plan was to defend in-depth to soak up any assault. Then, when the time was right, he planned to mount a decisive counterattack.
In front of the main army, Bayezid placed several groups of relatively lightly armed irregular horse archers (Akinjis). These were tasked with harrying any advancing enemy. If directly attacked, they knew to withdraw and take refuge behind the main army.
Bayezid positioned his front line on the rise of a hill to gain the advantage of the higher ground. The army was protected by a dense row of stakes, designed to break up any cavalry charge, behind which the bulk of his infantry were positioned. These men were mainly Azabs, armed with composite bows, swords, and axes but not especially heavily armoured. They were supported by Janissaries, more experienced infantry with a reputation as highly skilled archers.
On each wing, Bayezid positioned a large number of Sipahi cavalry – armoured but not so heavily armoured as the western knights. There may also have been some Sipahis positioned in reserve at the centre, on the crest of the hill behind the infantry.
On the reverse slope of the hill were Bayezid’s final reserves – his household guard of elite Janissaries and Kapikulu heavy cavalry. Finally, concealed behind a rise on his left flank, were his Serbian vassals.
A sea of blue iron
Largely oblivious to all this, the cream of French chivalry formed up ready for the charge, arrayed in full armour. It was an impressive sight, shimmering in the morning sun, according to a Turkish source, the western knights looked like a sea of ‘blue iron’.
Then the trumpets sounded, and the crusaders charged straight at Bayezid’s centre, where his defences were strongest. The Akinjis unleashed their arrows and harried the charging knights as best they could before withdrawing out of harm’s way.
The knights mistook the tactical withdrawal of the Akinjis for a rout and, rather than wait for the main army to catch up, pressed home their attack.
As the charging knights came closer, the Azabs and Janissaries unleashed their composite bows from behind the safety of their stakes. The sky was filled with a dense cloud of arrows. However, the knights were all very well armoured and, to the defenders’ frustration, their volleys were inflicting fewer casualties than they had hoped.
A sea of stakes
Despite this, the dense sea of stakes represented an impassable barrier for mounted knights. Some tried to bulldoze their way through and only succeeded in impaling their horses on the stakes. At closer range, the archers were more effective, and were now deliberately picking off the more lightly armoured horses. Many knights were forced to dismount so they could rip up the stakes and allow their mounted compatriots to pass through.
All the while the Azabs and Janissaries continued to pelt the attackers with arrows. Casualties slowly began to mount.
A few breaks in the stake fence were eventually made, allowing the knights to start streaming through. Quite a few were now dismounted but their heavy armour made them more than a match for the more lightly armoured Turkish infantry. After a fierce fight the infantry at last began to break in places, withdrawing to the sides, but continuing to fire at the crusaders.
At this point some of the more experienced knights, such as de Coucy, shouted an order to hold, re-group and wait for the main army to catch up. However, many of the younger knights ignored them and continued to press home the attack, keen to win themselves glory.
Many of the knights who still had mounts therefore began a spontaneous, and somewhat disorganised, second charge, continuing up the hill, in pursuit of some of the infantry, and thinking that victory was already theirs.
The Sipahis on the flanks then counter charged. The Turkish cavalry enjoyed some advantage from charging into the flanks of the knights as they rushed up the hill. Further down the hill many of the crusaders were now unhorsed. However, the crusaders had much heavier armour than any of their foes and fought fiercely. The fighting was now at its most intense.
“The Ottomans are behind us!”
By this time the attack was fully bogged down, casualties were steadily mounting, and a great many knights had lost their mounts. Riderless horses were by now fleeing the fight, streaming back down the field towards the crusader lines. It was a sight that had a negative impact on the morale of the following army.
This was the moment Bayezid had been waiting for. He unleashed his reserve.
The elite Kapikulu charged home. Unlike the Sipahis they were heavily armoured. They were also fresh and highly experienced, armed with heavy maces, well equipped to fight western knights in heavy armour.
Inspired by the sight of the famous Kapikulu, the other Ottomans redoubled their counterattack. What remained of the French vanguard was now increasingly surrounded and overwhelmed. Some of the knights, realising their peril, shouted a warning “the Ottomans are behind us!” It was too late. The vanguard was lost. Those who were not already slain or overwhelmed were forced to surrender.
The impetuous charge of the vanguard had left the main crusader army far behind. The other crusaders were unable to catch up and engage the Ottomans in time to be of any help. By the time the main army engaged the Turks, the vanguard’s fate was already sealed.
The fighting was intense, but the crusaders were not done yet, even if the vanguard had been lost. For a while the battle looked evenly matched. However, Sipahi cavalry on the wings now pressed the crusader flanks and the sight of the fleeing riderless horses were causing some to lose heart.
Aware the crusaders were wavering, Bayezid unleashed his Serbian reserves who, until this time, had remained hidden on the left. The Serbians swept around and hit the crusaders hard in the flank. At this point the crusaders buckled.
Sigismund was persuaded to leave the field, fleeing on a venetian ship. Not long after his main army, increasingly at risk of being outflanked on both sides, agreed to surrender. The Wallachians and Transylvanians, forced back by the onslaught, withdrew from the field, looking to preserve what they could of their forces to fight another day.
The final chaotic stages of the battle were graphically described by Johann Schiltberger, a German knight who fought at Nicopolis with main army:
“When the horse and foot soldiers saw that the king had fled, many escaped to the [river] Tünow and went on board the shipping; but the vessels were so full that they could not all remain, and when they tried to get on board they struck them on the hands, so that they were drowned in the river; many were killed on the mountain as they were going to the Tünow. My lord Lienhart Richartinger, Wernher Pentznawer, Ulrich Kuchler, and little Stainer, all bannerets, were killed in the fight, also many other brave knights and soldiers. Of those who could not cross the water and reach the vessels, a portion were killed; but the larger number were made prisoners.”Johann Schiltberger
The Nicopolis crusade was over. It had ended in catastrophic defeat and humiliation. The Ottomans had suffered heavy casualties, but the crusader army had disintegrated.
Ultimately Bayezid’s military professionalism had triumphed.
The French craving for personal glory and obsession with conforming to an idealised chivalrous aesthetic had totally eclipsed any thought of sound military strategy.
It was this out-dated chivalric mind-set that led them to execute an unsupported charge against an enemy in prepared positions, commanding superior ground. This, coupled with an arrogant refusal to properly co-ordinate their attack with their allies, resulted in disaster.
Bayezid had foreseen the possibility of a head-on mass cavalry charge and prepared for it. The result for the crusaders was a catastrophic defeat.
After the battle Bayezid had to decide what to do the with many prisoners he had taken. At this point he discovered that the crusaders had massacred the hostages from Oryhovo. He was furious. He ordered all prisoners of noble rank, who were likely to command a significant ransom, to be separated from the rest. These he would ransom. Of the remainder, the younger prisoners (under the age of 20) he ordered to be taken as slaves. The rest of the prisoners were sentenced to death.
The executions began in the early morning of the day after the battle. Bayezid forced the captive crusader leadership to stand and watch. The killings proceeded all through the morning and into the late afternoon. At this point, Bayezid, sick of the bloodshed, ordered the remaining prisoners to be spared.
“The pride and vanity of these French”
Sigismund of Hungary was clear in his mind as to the cause of the defeat and would later complain to the Hospitaller Grand Master, “We lost the day by the pride and vanity of these French.”
Mircea the Elder returned to Wallachia, probably equally unimpressed with the French. He, perhaps more than anyone else, would have to live with the consequences of the defeat. Undaunted, in 1397 and again in 1400, he continued to successfully fend off Ottoman attempts to invade his country.
As to the French, an enormous ransom ensured the release of John, Count of Nevers. John returned to Burgundy, becoming its duke on the death of his father in 1404. De Coucy and d’Eu were less fortunate, both died in captivity, possibly from plague, before a ransom could be organised.
Boucicaut was extremely fortunate. He held no noble title. As a result, he was not initially selected for ransoming and was only saved because John of Nevers begged for his life. Thanks to the intervention of the count, he made it safely back to France. In 1415 he commanded the French vanguard at Agincourt, where his misguided chivalric approach to warfare would deliver equally disastrous end results.
The end of hope
For the Bulgarian Empire this was the end. The defeat of Nicopolis snuffed out any remaining last hope that it could be saved.
The remaining Bulgarian stronghold, Vidin, was taken by the Turks the following year. Its last Tsar, Ivan Sratsimir, was taken prisoner and imprisoned in the Ottoman capital at Bursa. He was dead by the end of year; Bayezid probably had him strangled.
The fate of Constantinople
After Nicopolis, Bayezid resumed his siege of Constantinople. Fortunately for the Balkans, Bayezid’s attentions were otherwise largely focused on consolidating his empire in the east for the next few years. Nevertheless, Constantinople would have to wait another six years for relief.
As it was, relief, when it came, did not come from the west but from the east. A dispute between Bayezid and the eastern Islamic warlord Timur came to a head at the battle of Ankara in 1402. There Bayezid finally met his own catastrophic defeat. Following Bayezid’s fall, the Ottoman empire descended into civil war. The siege of Constantinople was over at last. It would buy Constantinople a respite of half a century before the Ottomans were finally able to take the city.
End of an age
The defeat of Nicopolis sent shock waves around Europe. Up until this time there had still been some in the west who continued to entertain the possibility that perhaps, one day, a great crusade might somehow recover the Holy Land.
Such notions were more idealistic dreams than practical aspirations by the end of the C14th but there were still a few who took them seriously. Richard II of England certainly did and, if circumstances had been different, would have sent a significant force to bolster the crusade in 1397.
The defeat at Nicopolis did much to shatter these romantic delusions once and for all. There would be just one last major crusade against the Ottoman east, in 1443/4. It too would end in disaster at the battle of Varna. Unlike Nicopolis however, the crusader army at Varna would consist almost exclusively of central and eastern Europeans. The Nicopolis crusade was the last time that a major western European power like France or England would contribute such large numbers of knights to the cause.
Nicopolis, then, was one of the last gasps of the crusading age.
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If you are interested in the crusades, you might like to read our article on the trial of the Knights Templar here: https://medievalhistory.info/the-trial-of-the-templars/
References & further reading:
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Barbara Tuchman. Penguin. 2017.
Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade: 64 (Trade Editions). Dr David Nicolle. June 2001, Osprey Publishing
The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger: Guttenberg Project
Sigismund at Nicopolis (Fresco) – a photo by Ferenc Lohr (from Wiki Commons)
Image of Sigismund from the Chronica Hungarorum by Johannes de Thurocz (from Wiki Commons)
Portrait of Bayezid by Cristofano dell Altissimo (from Wiki Commons)
The Battle of Nicopolis – painting by unknown artist c.1870 (from Wiki Commons)
The Massacre of crusader prisoners – from the Master of Dresden Prayer Book (from Wiki Commons)