The Battle of Nicopolis

  By Raider, 1 January 2007; Revised 1 January 2007
  Category: Hungarian History
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In 1366, an illustrious visitor arrived at the Hungarian court at Buda. John V Palaeologus, the Byzantine emperor, asked for help from Louis the Great against a powerful new enemy, the Ottoman turks. Louis had a good reputation as a fighter against pagans. He took part in crusades against the Lithuanians and defeated the Golden Horde. So the emperor tried to convince King Louis to launch a crusade to expel the Ottomans from the Balkans, but he failed. The question did not interest Louis. The Ottoman danger was too far away and insignicant for him. Additionally, the arrogant behaviour of the emperor offended Louis. Finally, the king asked the emperor to convert all of his subjects to catholicism before he would help. Naturally, demands like this couldn’t be accepted and the emperor had to return empty-handed.

The first encounter of the Hungarians and the Ottomans was in 1375 at Wallachia. A rebellious voivode of Wallachia was aided by Ottoman auxilliary troops. The battle ended with a Hungarian victory and the Ottoman question shelved.

In 1382, Louis the Great died without a male heir.  He had only to daugh

Death of Palatine Garai
Death of Palatine Garai
ters, Hedwig and Mary. Mary was the heiress of Poland while Hedwig inherited Hungary. Elizabeth Kotromanic, the widow of Louis, shortly after her husband’s death, had Mary crowned as queen of Hungary in order to maintain the union with Poland. But the lords of Poland chose Hedwig instead of Mary as their new queen and her plan failed. The union dissolved.

Mary was betrothed to the younger son of the Holy Roman emperor (and king of Bohemia), Sigismund of Luxemburg, who was raised at the Hungarian court. The dowager queen, who actually ruled the country, hated Sigismund and opposed the marriage. She preferred a French prince. In 1385, Sigismund, with the help of Bohemian and Moravian troops, forced Mary to marry him. Meanwhile Charles king of Naples, the nephew of king Louis, claimed the throne as the closest male heir of the king. He was supported by many noblemen and lords who did not want women on the throne. In 1385, Mary was deposed and Charles was crowned as Charles II the Short. His reign was also short. He ruled from December 1385 to February 24th, 1386. He was assassinated by, presumably, the order of queen Elizabeth. (It was a great scandal in contemporary Europe.) Charles II left an underage son, Ladislaus of Naples, the later pretender.

Mary returned to the throne, but, shortly after she and her mother were kidnapped by a supporter of the late Charles II,
Queen Elizabeth was strangled and Mary was kept in custody.

Sigismund, as the only possible candidate, was crowned as co-ruler in 1387, and, after his coronation, managed to free his wife. In theory, Mary and Sigismund ruled jointly, but the power was in Sigismund’s hand. When Mary died, in a horse accident in 1395, Sigismund remained the sole ruler of Hungary.

During the political turmoil, the royal power began to decline and the political system of the Anjous collapsed. The amount of royal castles drastically decreased. When Louis the Great died, the crown had 160 of the 300 castles. Sigismund had only 70; a great land-owner aristocracy came into existence. There was not enough royal property to maintain the honor system. Some honors remained (voivodship of Transylvania, county of Timis (hung. Temes), bandom of Slavonia etc), but most of them were abolished. The rich gold mines of Hungary gradually depleted, and the royal income drastically decreased. The king was not able to rule alone any more. He had to make coalitions to hold power.

Naturally, the end of the honor system caused changes in the military. The banderia remained, but the weight of the armed baronical retinues within the banderia increased. Due to the decrease of royal income, the usage of foreign mercenaries in large quantities became unavailable. The army of Sigismund lacked steppe style horse archers, since the Cumans and Szeklers assimilated the Hungarians and fought the same way.

While Hungary was in the state of chaos and Sigismund tried to consolidate his power, the Ottoman Empire expanded, and, in 1389, defeated Serbia, a vassal of Hungary, at Kosovo Polje. Serbia became an Ottoman vassal under despot Stefan Lazarevic. From that year, Ottoman regular incursions of Ottomans (and Serbians)  began in Hungarian territory.  Sigismund took the danger seriously and, every year between 1389 and 1392,  he personally led a campaign against the Ottomans and the Serbians.

In 1392, after a serious Ottoman incursion, Sigismund organized a large scale counterattack. All noblemen were ordered to take part and Sigismund asked for foreign help. His army was aided by Bohemian, Silesian, and Austrian knights. Even Sigismund’s borther-in-law, Richard II of England, sent a notable contingent of knights. This considerable army met with the army of sultan Bayezid I (the Thunderbolt) at Keve. The Ottoman sultan avoided the battle and withdrew. Sigismund pursued him awhile, then returned to Hungary. The campaign did not bring a solution to the Ottoman conflict, but convinced Sigismund and christian leaders that the Ottoman Empire is not an equal foe of an army of knights. This is why Sigismund began to organize a great international crusade to crush Ottoman power.

The Crusade

Pope Boniface IX declared the crusade in 1394 and, in the following two years, King Sigismund, using his family connections, organized the campaign and made the necessary preparations.

In 1394, the Ottomans expelled Mircea, the Elder voivode of Wallachia, and he led an army to Wallachia to overthrow the Ottoman vassal, Vlad, and  to help Mircea reclaim his principalty.

In 1396, a large crusader force gathered at Buda, among them high ranking noblemen like John of Nevers the heir of Burgundy, Boucicaut the marshal of France, Jean de Vienne the admiral of France, Philippe d’Artois the connetable of France, Ruprecht the Pfalzgraf, the Grand Master of the Hospitallers etc. All in all, the largest of the contingents was the French –Burgundian (1100-1200 men) led by John of Nevers (Fearless John). But there were Germans, Bohemians, Englishmen, Knights Hospitallers etc. It is know from contemporary documents that, in the retinue of John of Nevers, there were 108 knights, 107 sergeants, 12 archers and 22 crossbowmen. It seems that the bulk of the army was heavy cavalry and only cca. 10% was the ratio of infantry. The overall number of this force was cca. 5000 men. King Sigismund left the inexperienced Hungarian noblemen behind to defend the borders and brought along the strongest part of the banderia. His army numbered cca. 10 000 – 12 000 men and the siegecraft. Later, Mircea the Elder also joined the crusaders with 6000-8000 Wallachian troops. The whole army had 25 000 men at best. It was still a very powerful army as they said: "If God dropped the sky on our heads, we would maintain it with the tops of our lances!"

The crusaders were aided by a Venetian fleet. This fleet should have precluded the Ottoman forces to cross the Dardanelles.

The crusader army slowly progressed. They pushed back Ottoman influence step by step. They besieged and captured Vidin, Rachova and soon after reached Nicopolis. They had already besieged the castle for two weeks when the Bayezid I arrived with his army of 30 000 men.

The sultan placed the asabs (light infantry) on the first line of the Ottoman center. Behind them, stakes and other horse traps were made and the janissaries (cca. 2000 men) of the second line used these as defense against the cavarly. The Anatolian sipahis (medium cavalry) stood on the right wing, while the Rumelian sipahis formed the left wing. Akinci light

King Sigismund and his army
King Sigismund and his army
cavalry formed the vanguard before the army. Bayezid made a reserve force of 5000 Serbian heavy cavalrymen under his vassal, Stefan Lazarevic.

There was a heated dispute in the crusaders war council. The Wallachian voivode Mircea and king Sigismund suggested that Hungarian and Wallachian cavarly attack the Ottoman sipahis as a first line to destroy or, at least, to keep them busy, while the crusader knights beat the Ottoman center. The Burgundians and the French heavily opposed this suggestion.  They wanted the glory of the first charge. Finally, Sigismund had to accept their demands, so the knights of the western crusaders formed the first line. In the second line, Wallachian cavalrymen formed the right wing and Transylvanian troops (led by voivode Lackfi) the left wing. King Sigismund and the rest of the Hungarian troops stood in the center.

The French began the battle. As soon as the knights perceived the akincis, they charged. The heavily armoured knights easily trampled those akincis, who did not keep out of their way, attacked and breached the asabs’ line. Soon, they reached the stakes. The knights dismounted and attacked the janissaries on foot.  At that moment, the sipahis of the wings flanked and crushed them.

The second line slowly followed the first. They routed the remnants of the asabs and strongly pushed back the sipahis. Finally, the Ottoman reserve of 5000 heavily armed Serbian horsemen flanked the Hungarians, and, when the royal standard fell, the crusaders began to flee.

The Ottomans successfully captured notable high ranking noblemen like Philippe d’Artois or Leusták Jolsvai, the count palatine of Hungary. Sigismund managed to reach a Venetian galley on the Danube and sailed Constantinople (then to the Adriatic and to Hungary).


Military reforms and changes in grand strategy

King Sigismund had to realize that the traditional offensive strategy failed.  Instead of fruitless campaigns, he chose another way. A line of border castles were built in the southern frontier, which successfully resisted Ottoman forces till 1521. It is worth mentioning the name of the executor of this remarkable achievement. It was Filippo Scolari, also known as Pipó of Ozora, the count of Timis (hung Temes) a powerful baron of Sigismund. Defense in the castles was combined with local counterstrikes.

Sigismund also tried to organize a cordon sanitare of vassal states and allies. While Louis the Great tried to subdue the southern neighbours, Sigismund bribed them and granted offices and estates in Hungary. For example, the former Ottoman vassal, Stefan Lazarevic, became one of the largest landowners of Hungary. Sigismund didn’t care how they stopped Ottoman forces as long as they did it. (Lazarevic with annual tax, Mircea of Wallachia with arms.)

Hungarian military was also reformed. To compensate for the lack of light cavarly, a law ordered every noblemen to raise one horse archer after 20 (later 33) mansions of serfs. This law assured a large, but low quality force. Unfortunately, Hungary lacked a quality light cavalry when it was most needed. He also temporarily (till the end of the Ottoman threat) suspended the law regulating the maximum length of the noblemen's military service.

After his failure in the south, Sigismund turned to the west. He was elected king of Germany in 1410. As the first ruler of the christian world, he mediated between England and France in the Hundred Years War. He had to deal with the papal schism, the hussite herecy and rebellion (He became the king of Bohemia in 1419), and, finally, he was crowned as emperor in 1433.

In 1402, Timur Lenk defeated the Ottoman empire and this crisis gave some time to the Balkans and Hungary.