Battle of Nicopolis 1396 CE (Hungarian Crusade)

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Background

Although the Ottomans suffered substantial losses at Kosovo, they had enough resources to go on with their military campaigns. The new Sultan Bayezid I married the daughter of the Prince of Moravian Serbia, Shah Lazar, who died during the battle and his son Stefan became the vassal of the Ottomans. At the same time, Stefan was recognized as the leader of Serbia and granted autonomy.  With most of the central Balkans firmly under his control, the Sultan attempted to conquer the southeast of Anatolia and moved his forces there. Wallachian prince Mircea the Elder and the king of Hungary Sigismund I used that to capture the strategically important Nicopolis, situated on the banks of the Danube River in 1392 CE and also restored a Bulgarian princedom in Tarnovo. However, Bayezid gained a quick victory in his war against Turkish beyliksand in 1393 CE, took back the majority of the lost lands and even started conducting raids into Wallachia. Nicopolis was recaptured shortly after. Despite the fact that Mircea scored a victory against Bayezid I in 1395  CE at Rovine, it was clear to the Hungarian King that he would need additional forces to stop the Ottoman incursion, and he called for a crusade. The Hundred Years’ War between France and England had already been raging for decades and many of their neighbors were also involved. There was also the problem of the schism in the Catholic Church which now had two popes and the grudge between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, where the Sack of Constantinople was still a point of contention.

Still, as France and England had signed a truce a few years before, Sigismund found many allies. Both popes supported the crusade alongside the kings of England and France and the biggest feudal lord of France, the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe. Burgundians who formed the core of the crusading nominally led by the young son of the Duke, the count of Nevers, Jean. Philippe also had some seasoned commanders to balance his son’s inexperience. Knights Hospitaller, Venetian and Genoan navies and smaller groups of knights from England, Aragon Poland, Bohemia, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Teutonic Order also agreed to join. The majority of the Crusader army arrived at the city of Regensburg in April of 1396 CE to use the Danube River to travel downstream to Budapest. In July, they reached the Hungarian capital where Sigismund joined them. A secondary group consisting of Hospitaller, Venetian and Genoan navies converged in Rhodes, entered the Black Sea and moved into the Danube and upstream. In September, the Crusaders entered Bulgaria and reached the city of Vidin. The ruler was a vassal of the Sultan but upon the arrival of the crusading army, he opened the gates and allowed them to massacre the small Ottoman garrison. The army then moved against Oryahovo. The local population and garrison tried to surrender to Sigismund who accepted the offer but the Crusaders didn’t honor the agreement. Hundreds of Muslim and Orthodox citizens were killed and at least a few thousand were made prisoners.

Strength and Composition of Forces

Battle Map

On the 8th of September, the Hospitaller-led fleet reached Nicopolis and two days later, the Crusaders started the siege. As the fortifications were recently improved and the Crusaders lacked adequate siege equipment, they chose to blockade the city in the hope that this would force Bayezid I to attack them. Many legends claim that the Ottoman Sultan learned about the Crusader movement due to the betrayal of one of the European leaders but in any case, Bayezid I’s army was besieging Constantinople when the Hospitaller navy crossed the Dardanelles and that was the moment he lifted the siege and started moving to the north. The Sultan sent a message to his main vassal and relative Stefan Lazarevich to move towards Bulgaria at once. By the 24th of September, Bayezid I and Stefan Lazarevich were in the vicinity of Nicopolis. On the one hand, Sigismund probably used only a portion of his forces and the core of the Crusader army was from France. Other European contingents were much smaller than the Burgundian one. Taking all of this into account, 20,000 to 25,000 troops was an absolute maximum for the Crusaders. On the other side, the Ottomans lost a large number of their warriors at Kosovo less than a decade before Nicopolis. And Bayezid probably had at least some of his forces in Anatolia, as the situation there also wasn’t stable. So even with the support of his Balkan vassals, he probably had numbers similar to those of the Crusaders.

Battle

It is said that on the 24th of September, the Crusader forces were able to ambush a small group of enemy scouts and destroy it, which only made them more confident. They also executed the prisoners taken at the beginning of the war. There was no unity in their camp and when Sigismund, who had more experience of fighting Ottomans, offered a plan to use infantry for the initial attack, young French Knights led by Jean protested as they were sure that the King wanted to claim an easy victory. Sigismund failed to persuade the Frenchmen and implored them to attack slowly so his own troops could provide support. Regardless, on the 25th, the Burgundian Crusaders didn’t wait and galloped into the attack. Bayezid I placed his archers in the center on the slope of a hill with Akinji riders in front of them in the hopes that his light cavalry would be able to provoke the Crusaders to move against the archers who were also defended by stakes. Anatolian warriors were on the left while Balkan warriors were on the right. In the second line, the Sultan had his Janissary guard, the remainder of the warrior forces and the Serbian cavalry of Stefan. The Burgundians saw the akinjis and attacked what they thought was the main Ottoman force. However, the later were much quicker and started drawing the Crusaders towards the center while sending arrows their way. The akinjis managed to evade the heavy cavalry charge and retreat to the flanks while the Crusaders continued uphill, where they were met with another volley of missiles.

Although the Knights were in heavy panoply, their arrows failed to penetrate, their horses were wounded and killed.

Took 8 days to cross Danube

It is said that at this point, half of the Burgundians either lost their steeds or dismounted to remove the stakes. As this barricade was destroyed, the Crusaders attacked the Ottoman archers who had almost no armor and very light melee weapons. so soon after, the archers were routed and started retreating uphill. At this point, a smaller group of warriors moved to attack the Crusader’s head-on but withdrew shortly after the contact. Younger Crusaders were celebrating the victory and didn’t listen to their more experienced counterparts who advised to rest and wait for the remainder of the army. Jean and others were sure that they had won the day and just needed to pursue the Sultan in his retreat. So they continued moving uphill, and at this point were attacked by the warriors from the flanks and Bayazid I and his guard from the front. The Knights were now surrounded and formed a circle to defend themselves. Burgundian forces were slowly melting away and Sigismund who had just reached the slope of the hill tried to move and break the encirclement. However, his troops were attacked by the akinjis and archers who retreated at the very beginning of the battle. And now the whole Crusader army was surrounded. Wallachian and Transylvanian units managed to break the encirclement but then they retreated as their leader decided it was more prudent to save their troops.

Aftermath

Execution of Prisoners

Still, this gave Sigismund some room, and he almost managed to turn the battle around. Unfortunately for him, Bayezid I had one more fresh unit. Serbian knights commanded by Stefan were ordered forward to attack the left flank of the Crusader army. That caused a mass rout and as Burgundian forces were either killed or taken prisoner, nothing was stopping the Sultan from using his lighter cavalry in pursuit of the enemy. Most of the Crusader army was destroyed. Ottoman sources claimed that Bayezid I was furious that the Crusaders murdered their hostages and that for the first time in Ottoman history the Sultan gave the order to kill his prisoners. At least a few thousand Crusaders were executed, the remainder were enslaved and only a handful of noblemen were able to buy their freedom by paying a ransom. Thus ended one of the last Crusades. Seemingly no one was left to stop Bayezid’s invasion of Central Europe but soon he was faced by a threat from the east.

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