SIEGE OF BELGRADE
4–22 July 1456
The sound of a bell ringing out from Catholic churches at noon every day is a familiar reminder of the Church’s presence. Modern Europeans have largely forgotten why it happens. The bell is tolled on the order of the first Spanish pope, Callixtus III, to mark the victory of the Hungarian king, John Hunyadi, over the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II at the siege of Belgrade in the summer of 1456. Following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans three years before, the onward march of Islam against the Christian West seemed unstoppable. When the Ottoman army of 30,000 or more arrived to besiege Belgrade, a key city on the road to Christian central Europe, it seemed unlikely that Hunyadi’s 4,000 regular soldiers could stop him. But against all the odds, an improvised force of Hungarians, Belgrade militia and crusading peasants rallied outside the city and inflicted a heavy defeat on a sultan still basking in the glory of his success at Constantinople. The bell still rings today to celebrate the salvation of Christendom from the onrush of Islam.
The capture of Constantinople in May 1453 was a shock to Christian Europe, though little had been done to aid the city. Mehmet II began to ponder the possibility of adding Rome to his conquests. The pope warned his Christian flock that Mehmet would not rest until he had ‘imposed the law of the false prophet upon the whole world’. One of the Ottoman sultan’s many expansive titles was indeed ‘world conqueror’. The long road to Rome for the sultan led through the Balkans. In 1454, the Serbian kingdom of George Brankovic was raided, and the following year a full-scale invasion captured southern Serbia and Kosovo. Although George signed a treaty with Mehmet to respect what remained of his kingdom, the sultan returned in 1456 with an army estimated at between 30,000 and 60,000, together with 300 cannon (many which had been used to destroy the walls of Constantinople) and 200 galleys plying along the rivers Sava and Danube. The object of the campaign was the strategic city of Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár in Hungarian) whose capture would open the way to Hungary and the Christian West. He positioned his army and camp on the headland by the city, and at the end of June 1456, began bombarding the walls.
There were two men intent on halting the Islamic tide. The first was János Hunyadi, a nobleman soldier from Transylvania, who had fought against the Ottomans for twenty years and in 1453 became Captain General of Hungary. Disliked by other Hungarian noblemen for his success, he was left alone to organize a response to the vast Ottoman forces approaching Belgrade. He sent his son László and his brother-in-law Mihály Szilágyi to reinforce the Belgrade garrison, bringing the number up to somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 men. Meanwhile, Hunyadi recruited soldiers and militia from across central Europe, though the exact number is not known.
The second man was an elderly Franciscan friar, Giovanni da Capistrano, a fiery preacher and member of the Italian Inquisition, who was sent by the Papacy to raise a crusade. He managed to create a people’s crusade among the peasantry. Many of his followers carried little more than farm implements – a scythe or a pitchfork. They moved towards Belgrade under Capistrano’s command. Estimates suggest that Hunyadi and Capistrano between them mustered 40,000 irregular and modestly armed fighters, though the real state and size of the army is open to conjecture.
The siege began on 4 July. Like the siege of Constantinople, the Ottomans hoped to make breaches in the walls large enough to allow the attacking troops to push through into the city. Belgrade was modelled on Byzantine and Arab castles and was among the best fortified positions in Europe.
The stout walls guarded three lines of defence, with the inner castle the toughest part of the structure. Hunyadi understood Mehmet’s methods well; he had visited the Ottoman camp in 1453 during the earlier siege, where it was said that a Hungarian had given the sultan advice on how to make the bombardment more effective. The walls of Belgrade withstood a great deal, but by the time Hunyadi arrived downriver with a fleet of 200 assorted vessels, the first breaches were opening up. His ships scattered the Ottoman river blockade, capturing and sinking more than twenty galleys, and he was able to bring supplies, food and thousands more men into the city. A week later, Mehmet judged that the time had come to take the city by assault.
On the night of 21 July, thousands of the elite janissaries forced their way through breaches in one of the walls and into the port area and the upper town. While veteran troops with Szilágyi held off furious attacks on the remaining outer walls, Hunyadi ordered his men to throw pieces of wood and other material covered with tar into the streets and there to set fire to them. Soon a sheet of flame separated the janissaries from the rest of the troops behind. The trapped men were slaughtered and the rest of the Ottoman attackers withdrew.What followed next is not entirely clear, but a number of Capistrano’s crusading peasants sallied out and attacked the Ottoman camp. The friar, though now seventy years of age, led 2,000 of them across the River Sava and into the rear of the Ottoman lines. Seeing the raid grow in size, Hunyadi had little alternative but to order a general attack.
His men charged the Ottoman line of cannon and then fell on the main body. So surprised were the Ottomans at the audacity of the assault that they broke. The remaining janissaries defending Mehmet were beaten back and the sultan was hit by an arrow in the thigh. Hunyadi managed to get the scattered garrison back together and ordered them to stay in the fortress and expect a return of the Ottoman army. But Mehmet had had enough. His army returned to Constantinople through Serbia, ravaging the countryside as it went.
The victory at Belgrade was unexpected, for the advantage had lain with Mehmet, but the victory proved to be a hollow one. Bubonic plague broke out in the Christian camp and Hunyadi died on 11 August, Capistrano on 23 October (later to be canonized). The Ottomans returned three years later and although Belgrade was held by the Hungarians until 1521, the rest of Serbia fell to a fresh campaign in summer 1459, to remain a vassal of the Ottoman sultans until the nineteenth century. The victory did, nonetheless, slow the Ottoman advance through Europe, which had seemed irresistible on account of the size, wealth and cruel fighting traditions of the sultanate. Not for nothing did Callixtus order the bells to be rung.