Today in European history: the Crusade of Nicopolis (1396)

The early Ottomans advance deeper into Europe, hastening the end of the Bulgarian Empire.

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Although we think of “the Crusades” as the numbered (anachronistically) series of Christian military expeditions in the Middle East (and North Africa, and Greece that one time) that took place in the 11th-13th centuries, the Crusading movement actually encompassed much more than that. The Reconquista in Iberia was, for a time, treated as a Crusade, for example. There was also the “Alexandrian Crusade” of 1365, which brought Christian fighters back to the Middle East to sack the city of Alexandria. Crusades didn’t even have to involve Muslims. The Albigensian Crusade in the early 13th century targeted the Cathars, considered heretics by the Church, and the Northern Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries targeted the last pagan populations in Europe (mostly in the Baltics and Finland). There were also “Crusades” that were called to defend Christendom from Muslim—usually Ottoman—invasion. The 1396 Crusade of Nicopolis (which is often called the “Battle of Nicopolis” since the enterprise collapsed after just one engagement), was one such effort.

For roughly two centuries, from the late 1100s through 1396 (not long after this battle, in fact), the Balkans, the Danube Basin, and the western Black Sea coastal region were mostly controlled by the Second Bulgarian Empire. The Second Bulgarian Empire was more or less a revival of the First Bulgarian Empire (6th-11th centuries), after an interlude (1018-1185) during which those areas were controlled (at least nominally) by the Byzantine Empire. By the late 14th century, the Bulgarians were under heavy pressure from a relatively new player on the Balkan scene: the Ottomans.

The 1389 Battle of Kosovo reduced Serbia to the status of an Ottoman vassal, giving the nascent empire control over a sizable chunk of the Balkans. The Ottomans then captured the fortress of Nicopolis (modern Nikopol, a town in Bulgaria) in 1393, which positioned them right in the heart of the Bulgarian Empire. Frightened Bulgarian nobles appealed to the King of Hungary, Sigismund (d. 1437), for relief. Hungary and the Venetian territories along the Adriatic coast were next in line to be overrun if the Ottomans kept expanding, so Sigismund worked quickly to try to counter their advance. This was still very early in Ottoman history, and I suspect the Europeans saw them more as an onrushing horde—something akin to the Mongols, who were still recent enough to be remembered—than as the stable (albeit expansionist) empire they eventually became.

As a major Catholic monarch, Sigismund had the 14th century version of a direct telephone line to the Vatican. He used it to persuade Pope Boniface IX (d. 1404) to declare a crusade the following year, in 1394. I should note that this was smack in the middle of that whole unfortunate Western Schism affair, so there was actually another pope running around at Avignon and Boniface’s authority over the Church was in dispute. But everybody seems to have understood how serious the Ottoman threat was, and soldiers from all over Europe—the Holy Roman Empire (which Sigismund would later rule), France, Venice, Genoa, and more—heeded Boniface’s call and flocked to the Hungarian king’s banner.

The Ottomans, meanwhile, were ruled by Sultan Bayezid I (d. 1403), who was known as Yıldırım, or “Lightning,” and not because he loved a good thunderstorm. Bayezid knew how to fight and he was quite successful in all of his campaigns (until the very last one, which was a total disaster, but we’ll get to that). He was joined by his Serbian vassals under Stefan Lazarević (d. 1427), the very capable general whom he’d put in charge of Serbia after Kosovo.

There are diverging accounts of the sizes of the two armies. Contemporary Christian sources, no doubt trying to explain the Ottoman victory, said that there were only about 16,000 Crusaders facing over 200,000 Ottoman soldiers. There are few absolutes in history, so I can’t tell you it would have been completely impossible for the Ottomans to muster that many warriors at this stage in their history. But I can tell you that it would have been nearly impossible. Ottoman sources, probably trying to oversell their victory, said that about 60,000 Ottoman soldiers faced a Crusader army twice their size. This is also highly unlikely.

Historians generally believe that the early Christian accounts probably got the size of the Crusader army about right, and that the Ottoman army was either roughly comparable or, if it did out number the Christians, it was by no more than 10,000 men. The Crusader army was the usual mix of upper class knights with lower class archers and infantry, but the Ottoman army was a little different than we’re used to seeing in our accounts of it, in that the Janissary Corps wasn’t yet in existence and the Ottomans weren’t yet using firearms. This army would have been mostly levies and raiders on horseback, probably a mix of heavy cavalry and light cavalry/horse archers, joined by the Serbian heavy cavalry under Lazarević.

The Crusaders assembled at Buda (which hadn’t yet merged with the city of Pest on the other side of the Danube). Their chances of victory were immediately doomed by the same things that usually wound up dooming Crusaders: infighting among the commanders and an uncanny ability to choose the worst possible course of action at any given time. Sigismund argued that the Crusader army should let the Ottomans come to them. But the French contingent was the largest involved in the Crusade, and their de facto (because of his seniority) leader, Enguerrand VII de Coucy (d. 1397), insisted that the army should be bold and dashing (feel free to roll your eyes here) by taking the offensive and marching east, first to push the Ottomans out of the Danube region and then to continue on southeast to aid the beleaguered Byzantines. Obviously we can’t know if Sigismund’s defensive strategy would have been more successful, but my point here is that it couldn’t really have been any less successful that Coucy’s plan, which was, par for the Crusader course, the one their war council adopted.

On September 12, the Crusaders arrived at Nicopolis and resolved to take the fortress. How they planned on doing this is anybody’s guess, because they didn’t actually have any siege machinery (which in hindsight is a point in favor of Sigismund’s defensive suggestion). They apparently figured they had enough time to starve the garrison out. They were wrong, to put it mildly. After less than two weeks, long enough to let the Crusader army settle down and get bored but not nearly long enough to starve out the defenders, word came that Bayezid’s army was approaching.

Sigismund, who had some familiarity with the way the Ottomans fought from talking with other Christian lords in the region, proposed that the army set up with its infantry in the front to deal with the Ottoman vanguard, which was usually composed of the worst soldiers and was purely meant to hold the enemy’s attention while the much better mounted forces were free to move around, to engage in flanking maneuvers, to probe for a weak spot in the enemy line, etc. But the French leaders butted in again, insisting that noble knights (more eye rolling would be appropriate here) couldn’t possibly take second position behind a bunch of peasant infantry or whatever, and so it was the knights who were stationed at the front of the line.

When word came that Bayezid was nearby, Sigismund requested that the army stay put until his scouts could fully reconnoiter the Ottoman lines and report back, but again the French objected. This time it was a young French noble named Philip of Artois (d. 1397), who insisted that Sigismund was trying to deprive the brave French knights of their honor by delaying the advance. Though even Coucy thought that this was ridiculous, Philip’s determination to march off immediately meant that the rest of the army could either follow him and stay together or let him go and watch part of their already-too-small force get annihilated. They decided to stick together.

The French then led the rest of the army to its final set of blunders. Although accounts aren’t in total agreement on the details of the battle, they appear to have encountered the Ottoman vanguard as it was coming down a hill outside of Nicopolis, meaning that the mounted French knights were trying to charge uphill. As you might imagine, the charge was painfully slow, but even so the French knights were able to drive the irregular Turkish infantry off. Coucy now ordered his line to reform before proceeding, but the younger French nobles like Philip ignored him and continued charging up the hill piecemeal. By this point, to be honest, it wasn’t much of a cavalry charge anymore, since many of the horses had crapped out and a lot of the knights were on foot. Unfortunately for their chances at battlefield glory, they ran smack into the totally rested Ottoman cavalry, which routed the French line and captured many nobles, including Coucy’s nominal superior and the de jure leader of the French army, the very young John of Nevers (d. 1419).

(Sorry if this is confusing. As the son of the Duke of Burgundy—who paid for much of the expedition—and a member of the extended French royal family, John was picked as the French army’s official leader. But he was too young and green to be trusted with actual command and was supposed to defer to the far more experienced Coucy, as well as the seasoned knight/admiral Jean de Vienne, when it came to making decisions. He came under Philip’s sway, though, and while his personal bravery in the battle was apparently noteworthy, the result was the catastrophe we’re currently recounting.)

The Hungarians and other allied forces who were coming in behind the French must have felt like charging at the fleeing Frenchmen instead of the Ottomans, out of sheer anger. But they were too busy dealing with the Ottoman cavalry, which was not only charging down the hill but had availed itself of the confusion to flank and envelop the rest of the Crusader army. The final hammer came from the Serbian knights under Lazarević, whose cavalry charge turned the Crusader defeat into a rout. Sigismund was able to get to the Danube and escape on a boat to the Venetian ships that were stationed on the river. Many others tried to swim to those Venetian ships in full armor and drowned (I’m honestly not sure what they thought would happen when they dove into the river wearing ~80 or so pounds of armor). Whatever was left of the army surrendered.

One noteworthy bit of trivia associated with this battle is that among the French casualties was a knight named Jean de Carrouges, who participated in (and won, obviously) the last judicial duel ever fought in medieval France, back in 1386. Carrouges had fought under Vienne in several previous expeditions, mostly against English forces in Normandy and later Scotland. He probably should have skipped this one. The story of the duel is beyond our scope here but it’s fascinating enough to have generated a 2004 book about it that is being (probably “has been” by the time you read this) made into a movie. I don’t know if either of those are worth checking out.

Nicopolis signaled the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire (there wouldn’t be a third). The Ottomans subsequently marched on the Bulgarian capital, Vidin, and captured the last Bulgarian tsar, Ivan Sratsimir. He later died in captivity. Bayezid got a fat ransom from King Charles VI of France for the return of John of Nevers and several other captured nobles (Coucy and Philip of Artois were not among them, as they died in captivity), plus firmer control over the Balkans. Things were looking up for the Ottomans, until in 1402 Bayezid made the grave mistake of heading east to respond to the challenge of a wanna-be Mongolian warlord named Timur. The whupping that Timur laid on the Ottomans at Ankara, and Bayezid’s own subsequent death in captivity, sent the young empire into a decade-long tailspin, during which time it lost most of its territorial gains in Europe. Needless to say, they’d be back.