Nicopolis: The Failure of Bravery in the Last Western Medieval Crusade [1396 CE]

While traveling through the Balkans in the spring of 2013, my wife and I found ourselves in the Bulgarian town of Nikopol on the Danube, better known historically in Western Europe as Nicopolis [Victory City, so named circa 1059 CE during a period of Byzantine influence].

We were hurried past the site of the conflict. The Russians destroyed many sites of historical interest and demolished virtually all the historic military strongholds they took along the Danube during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. One of the few to survive in riparian Bulgaria can be found in the tiny river port of Vidin, close to the Romanian and Serbian borders.

I mentioned to our Bulgarian concierge my disappointment that the battlefield of 1396 was not better preserved and more prominently featured in the town’s attractions. She was unaware of the conflict, but researched the subject on the Internet overnight. As this crushing Christian defeat marked the effective end of the Medieval European Crusades against Islam and led directly to the demise of the Second Bulgarian Empire, I found myself in the anomalous situation of dealing with a significant local topic in history that was not vividly remembered or even more vividly misconstrued by the Balkan indigenes I met.

By 1396 crusading had become simpler for King Sigismund of Hungary, who was also later the head of the Holy Roman Empire, that post-Carolingian amalgam of petty German states, Slavic dependencies, and largely disaffected Italians. No lengthy trip to the Middle East was required: the Ottomans had brought Islam into Europe and could be attacked simply by crossing the frontier of Sigismund’s lands.

Sigismund put together a coalition including forces from Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire, France, Wallachia, and Bulgaria, with crusading Knights Hospitaller adding a touch of the exotic, and Venice and Genoa providing water transport. As usual, the French presented difficulties exceeding their numerical contribution.

The Gallic leadership disdained to bring siege engines for attacking the Turkish held fortress of Nicopolis, boasting that ladders were easy to make and worth more than catapults when used by brave men. But the French crusaders spent two weeks before the walls of Nicopolis feasting, drinking, playing games, and insulting the courage of the enemy as Sultan Bayezid I approached with his army and its Serbian allies in a series of forced marches.

A brave and competent Frenchman, Coucy, left camp and ambushed a large group of Turks in a mountain pass, slaughtering many of them. His action was admired by some of the crusaders, but caused jealousy in the French high command, who accused him of glory seeking, and interpreted his success as further proof that the Ottomans were not a serious foe.

Sigismund, drawing on years of experience fighting the Turks, advised the French that the Ottomans typically used a vanguard of poor quality expendable troops to tire the Christian front lines. The fatigued crusaders would then be surrounded by elite Turkish cavalry.

The French, with the serene confidence that comes from ignorant courage, refused to follow peasant foot soldiers into the fray as Sigismund recommended, and announced that they would lead the Christian forces with a charge into the Ottoman host. As the French got drunk over dinner, Sigismund made what plans he could. Bayezid was less than a day’s march away.

Elder voices in the French camp counseled prudence, but were shouted down by overconfident youth and the high command. On the day of the battle, September 25th, the French charged ahead of the crusading army through the expendable Turkish vanguard, and fought their way through the second line of infantry only to be faced with and surrounded by Bayezid’s elite troops, which had been held in reserve. Some French fled. Many went down fighting. When the eldest son of the Duke of Burgundy, nominal commander of the French, was taken for ransom, the survivors surrendered.

The aristocrats were kept alive for the sums they would fetch. The commoners were executed on the battlefield.

Sigismund escaped the slaughter of his army, taking a fishing boat to a Venetian ship waiting in the Danube. He summed up the battle saying “We lost the day by the pride and vanity of these French. If they believed my advice, we had enough men to fight our enemies.”

Coucy died in captivity in 1397 as ransoms were being negotiated.

The Turks went on to dominate the Balkans for more than 400 years. Viewed from such a perspective, the dissolution of Ottoman power in the Balkans in the 19th century was one proximate cause of the First World War.

Further Reading:

• Barbara Tuchman details the campaign in A Distant Mirror.

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