The battle of Nicopolis marked the end of one of the last great efforts of Christendom to organize an offensive to drive the Ottomans from Europe. The Islamic peril had grown in alarming proportions during the second half of the fourteenth century. Emboldened by their victory over the Serbs at Kosovo on June 15, 1389, the Ottomans threatened Byzantium with extinction. Encouraged by the Papacy and the Byzantine Emperor, Sigismund of Luxemburg, king of Hungary, appealed to rulers from throughout Christian Europe to join in a grand effort to drive the Ottomans from the continent. Sigismund gathered an army from throughout Christendom at Buda and proceeded along the Danube determined to liberate the Balkans from Islamic terror and save the Eastern Roman Empire.
Johann Schiltberger, a fifteen-year-old squire from Bavaria, in the service of a knight called Reichartinger, provided an eyewitness account of the events that unfolded during the crusade. The Ottomans captured the youth at the battle of Nicopolis and he spent the next thirty years of his life traveling throughout Asia as a slave of the Turks and the Mongols. When he finally returned home, he entered the service of Duke Albert III of Bavaria and wrote a journal of his travels, providing us with, among other things, a first-hand account of the Nicopolis campaign.
The crusaders reached the fortress of Nicopolis on the Danube in September, 1396. Meanwhile, the ambitious Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid the Thunderbolt, readied his army to confront the Christian force. With the Ottomans approaching Nicopolis, Schiltberger relates that “the prince of Wallachia, called Mircea, came and asked the king for permission to make a reconnaissance of the enemy.” In typical medieval fashion, he provides exaggerated numbers. Schiltberger claims that Mircea reconnoitered the Ottoman force with 1000 of his men; realistically, he probably engaged about 100 troops from his total force of 1000 in this type of operation.
After completing his reconnaissance, Schiltberger says that Mircea reported to Sigismund “that the enemy had 20 flags with him, and that under each flag there were over 10,000 men.” The numbers are completely out of proportion with what we know of medieval armies. A flag was the equivalent of a modern regiment. It usually numbered around 500 men, but not more than 1000. Any more than that could not be held together under a single banner in this midst of battle. Thus, if we accept that Mircea’s reconnaissance revealed 20 flags in the Turkish camp, it confirms the Ottoman chronicler Orudj bin Adil’s estimate of 10,000 Ottoman troops under Bayezid’s command, rather than the 200,000 claimed by Schiltberger.
The stage was set for a decisive confrontation between two forces of approximately equal strength, although the Ottomans may have enjoyed a slight numerical superiority. In the Christian camp, a council of war was now held. Schiltberger recalled that “the king wanted to prepare the battle order. Then the prince of Wallachia asked that he be permitted to lead the first attack, which the king heartily approved. But the duke of Burgundy [John of Nevers], hearing this, protested against this honor going to another, saying that he had come from afar with a great army… which had cost him a great deal.” Now the effects of the lack of a unified command and an overconfidence bordering on arrogance made themselves apparent in the Christian camp. The Byzantine chronicler Laonikos Chalkokondyles confirms that “the Celts [French], being proud and uncalculated, as usual, wanted the victory to be theirs alone, so, heavily armed, they attacked first, as if they could destroy the barbarians in one blow.” The crusaders made a serious blunder in not using troops experienced in combat with the Turks in the front lines. The king was conscious of this and wanted Mircea to lead the attack, but he lacked the authority to impose his decision. According to Trittheim, “Sigismund believed that one who knew the ways and customs of the enemy and who had fought with them before should be appointed to lead the assault.” The king was not alone in his desire to use experienced troops; a young Wallachian boyar who fell prisoner in the battle later recalled that Lord de Coucy “made it a habit to keep Wallachian noblemen, who knew the ways of the lands occupied by the Turks, near him as armed companions.” But pride and arrogance won out over sound strategy and tactics.
The fateful battle occurred on September 25, 1396. With the Ottomans occupying the high ground, John of Nevers led his heavy cavalry in a charge against the disciplined troops forming the Ottoman center; the lack of coordination and discipline among the patchwork army of crusaders proved fatal. “The Celts [French] were defeated,” Chalkokondyles relates, “and they began to flee in panic and without any order. They fell over their own army while the Turks pursued them…. Seeking to cross the Danube in haste, much of the army perished in the river.”
The battle of Nicopolis once again confirmed that the days when heavily-clad knights in shining armor would rule the battlefields of Europe were over. In his study of the battle, the Turkish historian Aziz Suryal Atiya concluded, “The victory was won by the party that possessed an unflinching unity of purpose, a strict and even ruthless discipline, prudent tactics, and wise leadership.” Nicopolis firmly established Ottoman military superiority. It would take two centuries for Europeans to bridge the gap. Bemoaning the battle of Mohács that transpired on August 29, 1526, and sounded the death knell of medieval Hungary, Bishop Paulo Giovio wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, explaining, “The Turks are better soldiers than ours for three reasons: first, because of discipline, which is rare among us; second, because they throw themselves into battle with fervent conviction, into the mouth of death, for they believe that each one has written on his forehead how and when he will die; and third, because the Turks live without bread and without wine, and usually rice and water are enough for them.”
The Christian force at Nicopolis was decimated. Many were killed and others were taken captive, including John of Nevers, who bore a large share of the responsibility for the debacle, and Marshal Boucicaut. Johann Trittheim recorded that “King Sigismund made it to the sea with difficulty and went by ship to Constantinople, escaping death. Palatine Ruppert returned to Heidelburg dressed as a poor beggar.” Many of those taken captive, such as the young squire Johann Schiltberger, were sold into slavery. Others were executed. Important noblemen, such as Marshal Boucicaut and John Nevers, were ransomed for large sums of money. John of Nevers went on to become duke of Burgundy (1404-1419); his son and successor, Philip the Good (1419-1467), would become one of the most illustrious rulers of fifteenth century Europe. Sigismund fled Nicopolis aboard ships that the Venetians had sent to the Danube to provide logistical support for the crusaders, while the Ottomans forced Schiltberger and other prisoners to taunt the king from the banks overlooking the river. Sigismund of Luxemburg, architect of the failed crusade made his way to the Byzantine capital, where he consulted with Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, and from there to Ragusa on the Adriatic coast; Sigismund only returned to Hungary three months after the disaster.
The battle of Nicopolis marked a monumental failure for Christian forces. In many ways, it marked the end of the era of the crusades. The damage to Christian morale cannot be underestimated. Even when the Ottoman Empire collapsed into chaos six years later, Christian Europe could not unite to drive Islam from Europe. Although Sigismund would frequently talk of organizing another grand effort against the Ottomans until his death in 1437, the battle of Nicopolis marked his last concerted effort he led to halt the Ottoman advance in southeastern Europe.
For more on the battle of Nicopolis and the situation in southeastern Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, see the new book by Dr. A.K. Brackob, Mircea the Old: Father of Wallachia, Grandfather of Dracula available on Amazon and at HistriaBooks.com.
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