Geoffrey's Crusade 5: Boniface, Baldwin, and the Bulgarians

Baldwin I of Constantinople

As the crusading French, Venetians and others celebrated their great victory in Constantinople, a victory they could scarcely have imagined was possible, others were keeping their head down or leaving the city entirely. Niketas, our Byzantine source, at first enjoyed the protection of a Venetian born acquaintance, a merchant of the city who clad himself all in armour and pretended to be one of the conquerors himself. The Venetian laid claim to Niketas’ household, declared that he had reached it and its spoils first, and turned back any would-be plunderers.

But as the pillaging and violence in the city heated up, this man despaired of successfully defending his claim and his friends, and he urged them to leave. So on April 17th, 1204, they made their way with infants and possessions on their shoulders, their servants, understandably, having abandoned them. They went as the “captives” of friendly Venetian Constantinoplites, going as if they had been taken at spear-point, yet there was danger all the same. 

They inched along, exposed in the street, people they knew coming out to escort them on their way to the gates. Women and girls were in the centre, Niketas’ very pregnant wife included, and they rubbed their faces with mud to try and discourage unwanted attention. And passing soldiers, daggers at their belts and swords hanging by their horses, watched them closely. Some of these were loaded down with spoils already, while others would halt the party to see if there wasn’t a bit of fine cloth or silver hidden about them somewhere. Still, they made out. They made it out through the gates, where Niketas hurled himself to the ground and reproached the walls of his city. 

How could they alone be insensible to this disaster? “Neither shedding tears nor lying in ruins upon the earth. ‘If those things for whose protection [they] were erected no longer exist, being utterly destroyed by fire and war, for what purpose [did they] still stand?’” 

Niketas railed against those walls for a time, then turned aside, and he and his family went away weeping to the city of Selymbria, while behind them, the struggle for power and position within Constantinople was just beginning.

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And now, back to the story.

With the Halloween special and the episode on sacred theft, it feels like a long while since we’ve been talking about Robert, Geoffrey, and the rest, but that’s what we’ll be doing today. We’ll be finishing up their story, and that of the Fourth Crusade. So far I’ve covered the spoils of the crusaders’ victory at Constantinople, at least in terms of movable wealth, religious and otherwise, but there was another kind of treasure at stake, that of titles, and of one title in particular.

As as is often the case in this story, Geoffrey gives us a pretty positive presentation of things, and maybe a sanitized one? He says that as had been previously set out, a council of twelve men was chosen, ecclesiastics and Venetians, to select the new emperor, and though there was no shortage of applicants for the job, there were only ever two real choices: Boniface of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders. 

In Geoffrey’s depiction, the leading lights of the crusade saw the situation clearly, and perceived equally well how it quickly it could all come apart, how severely an unhappy loser could harm them all were he to feel slighted enough to take his ball and go home. If the throne should go to Boniface, then what might Baldwin do out of bitter jealousy, and what if the reverse were true? And if the Venetians were to make the push for their own doge, if the Venetian Great Council should even allow it, then wouldn’t both men abandon them in anger? 

These were not idle questions, and those who asked had other examples from previous crusades to ponder, with Geoffrey mentioning the 11th-century falling-out between Godfrey de Bouillon and Raymond de Saint-Gilles in particular. The solution they hit upon was for it to be arranged ahead of time that the loser of the election would receive a kind of consolation prize, a great gift of land that would insure they remained supportive, content, and in the region. Once that was all arranged, and with the agreement of both leading candidates, the election went ahead.  

It was held in a rich chapel within a palace, the Boukoleon Palace according to Robert, and all around it, the crusading lords gathered, surrounded by their men, for all were eager to know the decision. They waited, and when the moment came, they watched the Bishop of Soissons emerge and speak the name of the new emperor: Baldwin of Flanders. 

He was a reasonable choice, widely respected and in command of more men, and, quote, “A cry of joy was raised in the palace, and they bore the count out of the palace, and the Marquis Boniface of Montferrat bore him on one side to the church, and showed him all the honour he could. So was the Count Baldwin of Flanders elected emperor, and a day appointed for his coronation, three weeks after Easter (16th May 1204). And you must know that many a rich robe was made for the coronation.”

So that was all extremely pleasant and nice, but was it so?

Robert didn’t think it was. And admittedly, he was not an insider in all of this like Geoffrey. Rather, he’s thought to give us the word that was going around on things, and in this case, that word didn’t sound so good. He speaks of fifteen days of infighting over the composition of the electoral council itself, with each important lord kept putting forward his own men as simply the best and most reliable when it came to making really important choices like picking a good emperor, like picking someone like them. And then when it came time to hear the announcement, he says, the larger part “greatly feared and suspected that the Marquis [de Montferrat] would be named.” And when he wasn’t, then all were “right glad of it,” except of course for those who were “sore displeased thereat.”

So that doesn’t sound quite as chummy as in Geoffrey’s depiction, and, as I feel like I’ve said many times already in this story, the Niketas version made it all look even less amicable. Why was Baldwin chosen? According to Niketas, it was because the Venetian doge said so.

Boniface had been the leader of the crusade, had married Isaac’s widow and moved into the Boukoleon Palace, and he was assumed by many among both conquered and conquerors to be all but certain for the throne, but he was also a little tainted by his past-affiliation with Alexius, and then there was the fact that Dandolo didn’t want to give power to someone like Boniface, among other things a powerful Lombard lord whose people might easily sweep south and into Venice, should it ever come to that. He wanted someone more compliant, someone less ambitious, less experienced in statecraft, and less well-situated to bring his power to bear against the doge’s city if things went wrong. And Dandolo got just what he wanted. 

The big day arrived, and all the abbots and barons on horseback brought the new emperor to the Hagia Sophia. There, he was dressed in robes and shoes set with precious stones, and a rich cloak with gems forming eagles “that shone so that it seemed as if the cloak were all alight.” He was taken before the altar, where the counts Louis and Saint-Pol carried banner and sword, and Boniface the crown. And the bishops came and blessed the crown, and they made the sign of the cross over it, and they placed it on his head. 

Emperor Baldwin waited sceptre in hand while mass was sung. Then, a white horse was brought to him, and with no foreboding tumbles on the way, he was taken back to the Boukoleon Palace. He was set on the imperial throne, and all did him reverence. Then they feasted, the emperor “and all the barons in the palace with him,” and “when they had eaten, then the barons departed and all went their ways to their habitations, but the emperor remained in his palace.” The palace, remember, where Boniface had recently lived. 

So what now? Baldwin had an empire in theory; the crusaders had all kinds of things, in theory, and Niketas writes of the Latin conquerors divvying up their world in a grab for territory. They had its most important city, so surely they had the whole thing, and could claim, trade, and tax, to their heart's’ content. From North Africa to Spain, to Persia, and to the northern regions, everything was apportioned. And Robert has something of the sort happening too, with Henry, the emperor’s brother, demanding one kingdom so that he might go off and conquer it, and Louis de Blois another, and Hugh of Saint-Pol a third, and so on. However, if anything was actually to be had from those kingdoms, then they were still going to need to go out and take them. 

Emperor Baldwin himself went touring the countryside, his brother Henry going before him, not so much on a military campaign as a triumph proceeding westwards towards Adrianople. Everywhere he went, the people surrendered and honoured him, and all seemed well. But all was not well. There were various threads starting to unravel, and some sooner, some later, they were going to threaten the Latin Empire, its unity, and its existence. 

One thread was that the conquerors would not be smoothly and seamlessly taking up the apparatus of the Byzantine rulers. Niketas wrote that Baldwin refused to receive leaders of the military and civil bureaucracy. He did not take them under his own rule, and he lost much potential support as well as valuable experience when he denied the local elite any way of finding a place in his new regime. He also offered no alternative employment to the kingdoms that were springing up everywhere within the old Byzantine territory, quote/unquote “empires” even, in the Greek successor states of Trebizond, Epirus, and Nicaea.

And while this was happening within that territory, there were equally important blunders to be made without. Potential Seljuk and Bulgarian alliances were going to be proudly rejected, and a basically inadequate military force was going to be exposed to hostility from too many sides. 

But that was a little ways in the future still. For now, concern may have centred around two men. On the one hand was Boniface, Marquis of Montferrat, and on the other a former emperor: Alexius Doukas, otherwise known as Mourtzouphlos.

The latter, you might be forgiven for having forgotten all about. Maybe you thought him dead, of betrayal, or plague, or public misadventure, or he just slipped your mind entirely, melting in among the other imperial also-rans of the early 13th-century. But he hadn’t gone anywhere, or at least, he hadn’t gone very far. 

In Geoffrey’s account, we find him fleeing before the advance of crusaders coming out of Constantinople. We find him taking refuge with another old familiar face. We find him want to join forces with Alexius Angelos, and if you’re having trouble keeping track of your Alexiuses, that would be the treacherous brother that had displaced Isaac back in 1195, the uncle of the Alexius that the crusaders had originally brought to Constantinople to put on the throne. He was the one who now welcomed Mourtzouphlos in, who invited him to solidify their alliance by marriage to his daughter, who had him round to share a meal, and to go to the baths, and who then had him held down on the floor, and his eyes plucked out. 

Geoffrey put the event to use, finding some propaganda value in the story. Look at this cruel brand of treachery, he said; can any people who were capable of such a thing ever have deserved to rule over the land? The justification of what he and his fellow crusaders had done was never far from his mind.

In Robert, the unfortunate Mourtzouphlos, who had after all only overthrown his ineffectual overlords and sought to defend his people - and seize supreme power along the way - hardly fared any better. There is no mention there of putting out the eyes, but there is mention that he was unlucky enough to come across Henry and his men in a narrow pass and so be taken prisoner. Emperor Baldwin conferred with his men, and some said the prisoner should be hung and others that he be drawn and quartered. But it was the doge who thought him too highly-born for hanging and suggested a more fitting end, and so Mourtzouphlos and his imperial ambitions were pushed from the top of the Column of Theodosius, and shattered on the ground below. “For a high man, high justice,” Dandolo is said to have joked.

The ex-emperor’s story was over, but there was plenty of ambition still to go around, and after this break, we’ll talk about some of that.

The other figure of immediate concern was of course Boniface. Geoffrey has him fully participating in Baldwin’s coronation, and with no sign of a grudge, but he also him pretty quickly maneuvering to better his situation. There was already a parcel of land allotted to him, but he pushed for a trade. Couldn’t he instead have the Kingdom of Thessalonica? It was closer to his wife’s brother, the King of Hungary, and besides, it was to have been his brother’s in 1180. And Baldwin agreed. Or according to Geoffrey he did. Robert has him refusing, saying he couldn’t give what wasn’t his but rather the Venetians’ and the Barons’, but still refusing. However it played out, at some point, things became less and less agreeable between the two.

They were on the move, heading west, Boniface generally a little behind as he was travelling with his wife, we read, and thus his household and all that goes with it. He was moving to install himself and his family in Thessalonica, while Baldwin was on his victory tour, accepting fealty and, as Geoffrey frames it, pursuing Alexius, the eye-gouger. At some point, Baldwin lingered, Boniface caught up and set his pavilions nearby, and tensions came out into the open. 

They were heading towards Thessalonica, and Boniface made his feelings very plain. If they went any closer, if the emperor entered into his land, into Boniface’s land that he had heard was waiting ready to give itself up to him, then Boniface would follow him no further. In Robert, it’s very much an ultimatum: the emperor would turn aside or Boniface would go back to Constantinople and do what he must for himself. In Geoffrey, it’s more of a request: don’t go to Thessalonica. Let me. Let me install myself and gather up all resources that you need, and then let us go together against the Bulgarian king. Do not ruin my land. Baldwin’s response is also framed slightly differently in the two sources, but it would come to the same thing in the end. 

In Robert, Boniface’s position is presented as being painfully unreasonable, an egotistical assault upon the crusaders’ cause, and it was responded to accordingly. Niketas on the other hand has Boniface dumbfounded at his comrade’s betrayal. And Geoffrey, who was back in Constantinople at the time, expressed bitterness towards both sides. Who had advised the emperor to deny Boniface’s request, and how ill-advised were they both? What ill-fortune had they brought upon themselves and upon Christendom itself? Whoever was the more ill-advised of the two, the Marquis de Montferrat was turning away in disgust and anger. Baldwin was going on to Thessalonica, and Boniface was going to go do as he’d said, and carve something out for himself.

Boniface and his people came first to a castle, very strong, and very rich, and called Demotica, and the people surrendered to him - because of treachery, Robert says; because they recognized his wife, the former empress, Geoffrey says. And then he went on to Adrianople, and this one wasn’t held by some local leader who’d had a series of emperors knocked from their perches above him and had little reason to hope that help would soon arrive. It wasn’t going to surrender immediately. This one was held by Eustace of Flanders. It was defended by the people who Emperor Baldwin had left there, and that was where Boniface was pitching his tents and pavilions and laying siege to his fellow crusaders, a sign of just how seriously things had gone awry. 

Eustace responded to his awkward predicament by dispatching messengers for Constantinople where the Venetian doge and the Count of Blois governed in the emperor’s absence. And they and the other barons were incensed. What idiocy was this, that threatened to corrode all they had won by their conquests and bring it to ruin. They agreed to send negotiators to attempt to undo this war before it really got going, and naturally, one of those negotiators would be Geoffrey, who was well known and liked by Boniface. 

The marquis received the envoys with good will. He heard them out, and he defended his actions as being provoked by the emperor’s obstinate refusal to give over what was his. But he agreed to turn his cause over to the care of the council in Constantinople. The siege was raised, and Boniface returned for now to his wife in Demotica, Geoffrey and the others went back to Constantinople, and messengers were sent out to inform Baldwin of what had happened. 

It was fortunate for the crusaders that they did, and that they reached Baldwin when they did, because they didn’t find him idle. He had taken Thessalonica and then received word of Boniface’s doings behind him, and as you’d expect, he was no happier to hear the news than Louis and Dandolo had been. He and his men had set out immediately to relieve Adrianople and cut Boniface and his men to pieces. Fortunately for both sides, the messengers reached him first.

They told him that the barons in Constantinople sent health and greeting to him as their lord, but also that they complained to him and to God of those whose council had brought discord between and he and Boniface, cleverly making it an issue of bad advice and not a bad emperor; they said that they would not suffer him to go to war and asked him to submit to their ruling on the matter just as Boniface had. The emperor told them he would need some time, and he took the matter to his council. 

Of course, this was the council that had in the first place advised him on the break with the marquis, and they were beyond angry at the challenge from Boniface and from the barons. And Robert has this anger extending well beyond the council. The outrage in the host was such that when they heard the arrangements that been made for peace, they voiced loudly that it would not matter; if they caught up to the marquis, they were still going to cut him up. And their mood was not at all improved when they heard from the very same messengers that in their absence from Constantinople, the remaining spoils had been divided. They were beside themselves then with righteous fury, on the cusp of killing the men who had brought the news in a violent mob action, and only the intervention of Baldwin and the others leaders managed to calm them slightly.  

In the end, the men agreed not to kill the messengers, and Baldwin and his council agreed that they and could not lose the friendship of the doge and the others in Constantinople, and Boniface agreed to return to the city to hear what they had to say, though he didn’t actually promise to abide by it.

As he and his men made their way home, Boniface was being informed of this and summoned to do as he’d promised and present himself, but that must have been a difficult choice in itself. He had made some enemies by that point and knew full well that Baldwin bore no great love for him, knew that many others also were now against him. But he went. He went, he stuck to his demands, and he received what he had asked for all along: the Kingdom of Thessalonica, which he departed for with his wife and all his people. But neither he nor his emperor were going to have very long to enjoy their winnings, for though I’ve been focusing here to a large extent on the dangers they presented to each other, there were other threats on the immediate horizon.

One of those threats gets a bit of foreshadowing in Robert’s telling. Back when Mourtzouphlos had been emperor, there had come to the crusaders a man named John, seeking their aid in his cause, and promising his own aid in return. What he had wanted was to be crowned by them as King of Wallachia. It was a land within the empire, and he promised to hold it for them, and to come to Constantinople with 100,000 men, and if this was clearly an exaggeration, then it at least should be acknowledged that this John did have the friendship and service of the Cumans, the Turkic horse people with whom he regularly raided Byzantine lands. So absolutely, he could have pressed a substantial amount of weight down on the crusaders’ side of the scales, but they hadn’t been interested. They’d answered that “neither with him nor with his help had they any concern; and let him know of a surety that they would trouble him and work him evil if they could,” and Robert noted that this was and would be a “shame and grevious pity.”

So keep that in mind, as we roll things forward again to Emperor Baldwin’s reign, and as we see Boniface heading for Thessalonica and Baldwin and the doge continuing to divide up the land and send out lords to lay claim to it. And as Geoffrey tells it, “the covetousness of this world, which has worked so great evil, suffered them not to be at peace, for each began to deal wickedly in his land, some more, and some less, and the [people] began to hate them and to nourish a bitter heart.”

Boniface tasted a little of that bitterness as he made to move into his new home. The governor Baldwin had left in Thessalonica had most inconveniently died, and in the space he left, a high-ranking Greek had sized a few cities and made war on the marquis, while another Greek, who Boniface believed to be his ally, left the host without warning, occupied his own city, and also made war. 

Meanwhile, Baldwin was having problems too. For one thing, his wife had died. She’d been pregnant when he’d left, so she hadn’t travelled with them, but since giving birth had left and made her way by sea to Acre. There she had heard that Baldwin had been made Emperor in Constantinople, but there too she took sick and passed away, one of many spouses who never saw their family again once they had departed. And in addition to this heavy personal blow, Baldwin was hearing that Adrianople was threatened once again, but this time not by his crusading rival. This time it was in revolt.

At times in this story, it’s been too easy to think of the protagonists of the Fourth Crusade as interacting with a kind of parade of NPCs, Alexius, Isaac, Alexius again, and Alexius again again, somehow wielding power over an all too vaguely conceived people, of a city, and of an empire. And, out of convenience, I’ve at times called those people Byzantine because that is what we tend to call them, but as you may already be aware, that’s not what they tended to call themselves. Rather, it’s a more modern term, derived from the pre-Constantine name of the city. “Greeks” came to be used at times, as the empire became more overwhelmingly, though never exclusively, Greek speaking, and that’s what Robert seems to call them but again, that’s not how they would self-identify. They knew themselves as Romans. 

And the Romans were fighting back against the invaders. Roman leaders were opposing Boniface, as I mentioned a moment ago; they were fighting with Baldwin’s brother Henri; they were fighting with Geoffrey’s nephew, also named Geoffrey. I want to make clear here that they were not passive observers in this, bowing to whichever lord rode their way. They were rising up at Demotica and Adrianople, and there they were either asking for or accepting help from the man we’ve recently met as John, the one who was once to have looked to the crusaders for help and friendship, but received neither. 

Now John the Wallach, as you might read of him in Robert’s telling, will also appear in history as Johanitsa, but if you go looking for him in your own research, you might do better to look for Kaloyan, the King of the Bulgarians. Having been rebuffed in his attempts to deal peacefully with his new neighbours, Kaloyan was now employing other means, and he was going to be there at Adrianople as Baldwin tried to take back the city from its rebellious Romans in the spring of 1205.

The crusader army that made to besiege Adrianople was not as large as it might have been, for there were many off fighting elsewhere at this point. When Baldwin and Louis de Blois departed from Constantinople, they went with the numbers they could pull together relatively quickly and joined the men that had mustered in the area. After them, came a force commanded by the old Venetian doge, even with his age and poor eyesight, his presence perhaps necessitated by the fact that there were few senior men left in the city. Most were away pursuing their prizes and carving out territories, and Count Hugh of Saint-Pol, who had remained, had died of gout. So Dandolo went himself.

They all gathered before Adrianople, in their pavilions outside of missile range, and prepared to besiege it. They first constructed siege engines, and then in the days that followed, they shot and were shot at. They dug beneath the walls, removing the soil as secretly as possible and shoring up the tunnels with dry timber. It was after a few weeks of this, that Kaloyan made his first move.

He started by sending out a Cuman raiding party, to attack the sheep and horse grazing around the edges of the besiegers’ camp, and in doing so to get a sense of his enemy’s organization and response. And the response to this probing attack was highly illustrative. 

At first sight of the approach Cumans, the crusaders took immediately to lance and horse and charged. The raiders wheeled about, firing arrows behind them as they went, and the crusaders followed. They had not yet learned not to eagerly follow bodies of horse archers, lightly armed and on swift horses, that went easily into retreat, and they received heavy casualties before giving up the chase. Recognizing their foolishness, the emperor and his council let it be known that if they were attacked again, they were to form up before the camp and they were not to go charging after anyone.

But the next day, April the 14th, Kaloyan repeated the maneuver, and having read his opponent’s response to his feint, this time the trap was well and truly set. His Cuman allies, a larger party this time, did as they had before, rushing in as if on an attempted raid and then withdrawing as the response came, fleeing before that response, leading the crusaders on. Their pursuers, quite against the arranged plans and apparently at the instigation of Count Louis de Blois’s angry rush, followed even further than they had before, far enough to exhaust their heavy horses in the extended charge, and far enough to be among the pits that had been dug for the purpose, and which men and mounts plunged into, and among Kaloyan’s troops that had been hidden in ravines and around the hilltops above. 

And I’ll read from Niketas here in describing what happened next. 

The Latins, exhausted from the exertion of the chase, with horses thoroughly spent, were ensnared by the unwearied Cuman troops, cut off, and encircled. Overpowered by the multitude of Cumans in hand to hand combat, they were thrown from their horses. One was surrounded by many; the throats of the stiff-necked were exposed to the scimitar or to the noose, and many of their horses were mutilated. As [their enemy] fell upon them like a never-ending black cloud, they could not disentangle themselves from the horses or find any means of escape. So fell the flower of the Latin host and those who were far-famed for their prowess with the lance.

Those who could, fled, making for the camp, and it was Geoffrey de Villehardouin coming to meet them with a body of men around which they could rally that stopped the route from rolling right through and into the camp. Now, lesson at last learned, they held their ground in the face of Kaloyan’s attacks, waiting, not chasing, until night came, and their enemy at last retired. In the darkness, torches were lit in large numbers, as if an army remained to offer battle. Then Geoffrey, Dandolo, and the rest, slipped away, leaving no men but all their tents behind them, and marched until dawn, with Geoffrey commanding the rear-guard, ever uneasy that Kaloyan’s pursuit, when it inevitably came, might find them and finish the job. 

It had been a disaster. Count Louis was dead, and many more with him, and Emperor Baldwin, well his fate was at first unknown. Robert reported that none ever knew what became of him, but as Niketas and Geoffrey noted, he was taken prisoner, and there are all sorts of stories of how he may have been abused, tortured, starved, or perhaps, depending on who you listen to, treated with perfect decency. Some would say his skull would become an ornamented drinking cup, and Niketas has Kaloyan ordering his limbs cut off at the knees and elbows before having him cast down into a ravine to live out a last three days in pain as food for the birds. What is certain is that Baldwin would die in captivity, one more emperor of Constantinople departing from our story. 

And we’ll continue that story in just a moment. But first, a quick break.

In the days that followed, Geoffrey and Dandolo and the rest of the survivors would continue their flight from Adrianople, wary of the pursuing army that might easily destroy them, if only it caught them. One party of knights would split off, making their own way more quickly back to Constantinople where they’d spread dismay over the uncertain fate of their colleagues, and then later face recriminations for having cowardly abandoned them. 

The rest of them were reinforced by groups that had been rushing to join the siege at Adrianople, the parties encountering each other with nervous aggression followed by relief, and then deep sadness. They made their way, day by fearful day, to Rodosto, a rich and strong port city whose Greek speaking Roman population did not, or could not, oppose the sudden arrival of this armed body of men. For now at least, the crusaders were safe. And they would be safe to watch bitterly as 5 ships of crusaders headed home from Constantinople arrived, refused their prayers to stay on, and then sailed away. Safe to curse the name of Peter of Frouville, who had abandoned all his people and belongings for a spot on one of those ships. Safe to call for Baldwin’s brother Henry to take his place. Safe, but not feeling terribly safe.

All about them on the land, Kaloyan’s forces went as they would. The crusaders had the worst of their encounters, but worse still was the lot of the Romans in the provinces where now-desperate crusaders plundered, and then Kaloyan’s men plundered again. As they marched from Rhaedestus to Constantinople, there was little the men of the fourth crusade controlled. They settled into strong points, few and far between, and they fought against a tide that rolled in against them, from the northwest, and from Roman leaders like Theodore Laskaris, first Emperor of Nicaea, from the southeast.  

Help was sent for, to aid the cause of the Latin Empire, sent to the pope and any and all that would listen, but it wasn’t coming. If anything, as those 5 ships passing Rhaedestus indicated, it was leaving, and other blows were in store for the crusaders. In May of that year, just over a month after the flight from Adrianople, Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian doge, died in intestinal agony. He’d lived a remarkable life and, no matter where you sit on the spectrum of Dandolo legends, had clearly been an astonishingly vigorous 90-something, but that final campaign had been too much for him. And the crusade lost another of its leaders.

If all of this sounds like it’s spiralling towards disaster, straight from its flawed beginnings to its inevitable demise, then that’s not far from the truth. The record of what follows is full of Kaloyan’s victories, of cities sacked and their occupants slaughtered, whether Crusaders or Romans. Henry, initially regent and later emperor in replacement of his brother, did not roll over and die, but there was death all around. His marriage to Boniface’s daughter, which would have shored up the bond between to two, now more crucial than ever, was short lived, as the new empress soon died, thought not so soon that he couldn’t tell the marquis she was pregnant when the two next met, so perhaps her death was caused by childbirth. His forces campaigned on both sides of the water, and had some successes, but dealing with both Kaloyan and Theodore Laskaris was burdensome, especially when the two actually started cooperating, and Geoffrey attests that the crusaders were scattered and everywhere “distracted and oppressed by war,” and that Emperor Henry was himself torn. He wanted to relieve Adrianople from its suffering under one siege, but he needed to rescue Peter of Bracieux, and Payen of Orléans from another besieged city, and then the people of Thierri of Loos at quite another, or else lose them. He could not be everywhere. 

But then, his luck seemed to turn. Theodore offered a truce, at a price, and he bought that truce, allowing him to finally, after a number of false starts in that direction, go and break up the siege of Adrianople, and even to briefly go on the offensive entering Kaloyan’s land and gather up many provisions. Finally, on his return to Adrianople, there was more good news. There was word from Boniface. 

The marquis had really been off in his own world, engaged in all kinds of trouble around Thessalonica while Henry was putting out fires from Constantinople, with enemies everywhere between, and the two had not seen each other in some time. Now, messengers arrived from Boniface, asking for Henry to meet him by a certain river, and Henry happily agreed. 

The two met in a fair field, and stayed there for two days, sharing news that the other would not have known. They said that “as God had granted that they should come together, so might they yet again defeat their enemies. And they made agreement to meet at the end of the summer, in the month of October, with all their forces, in the meadow before the city of Adrianople, and make war against [Kaloyan]. So they separated joyous and well content. The marquis went [west], and the Emperor Henry [east].”

They were never to make that appointment though. Not long after, Boniface’s rear guard would be ambushed as he travelled. He’d rush back and into the fight, but in the process he’d be wounded by an arrow beneath the shoulder, and he’d bleed and he’d bleed. His followers would try to keep him on his horse, but as he grew fainter, they lost hope, and abandoned him to his attackers and to his fate. 

The crusaders were one lord less, their one-time leader mourned by Geoffrey as “one of the best barons and most liberal, and one of the best knights in the world!” But Niketas would take a very different angle, writing that his death, quote, “came to the delight of all Romans - this surly man was fond of gold, pertinacious, opinionated, a monster who preyed on Romans. To the Thessalonians the arrow was the answer to a prayer and truly believed to be wrought, if not discharged, by the hand of the Almighty … he was an unbearable and unappeasable evil. Having received the gaping wound, he was sent on his way to Hades by the Romans with malignant glee.”

The head of Boniface of Montferrat would be cut from his body and would be presented to Kaloyan as a gift, but Kaloyan himself wouldn’t have long to enjoy his present. He’d besiege the city that had recently been Boniface’s, but he’d encounter trouble, and there are all kinds of stories as to what kind. 

My favourite is actually that of one of our sources here, Robert de Clari. He says that the trouble was inflicted by none other than St Demetrius, whose body lay in the city and was said not to allow the city to be taken by violence. Faced with this most recent threat, St Demetrius had appeared in the night, and in Kaloyan’ tent, and speared him where he slept. There were other versions, tellings that relied less on saints rising from the dead to distribute stabby justice in the darkness, more garden-variety betrayals and assassinations, but it all came to the same thing in the end. The Bulgarian menace that had haunted the crusaders and their Latin Empire was gone, but Baldwin, Dandolo, and Boniface too.

Emperor Henry wasn’t though, not quite yet. He survived Kaloyan’s challenge. Robert tells that he lived to marry the daughter of his successor, and to crown Boniface’s son in Thessalonica. But that was where he died, in 1216. His death, the same year as Pope Innocent III’s, ended what would turn out to be a unique period of relative calm in the rule of the Latin Empire, which would itself stagger on until 1261 when Constantinople was taken by the Nicaeans, some would say retaken by the Byzantines, and when our friends the brothers Polo would leave the city on a little business venture.

Even that wasn’t quite the conclusion of the story of the Fourth Crusade though. Of the crusader states that had sprung up during those years at the beginning of the 13th century, some would even be there to be absorbed into the Ottoman Empire when it came. That spiralling disaster I spoke of would go on spiralling on for a long time still, long after its initial protagonists had passed on from this world. 

As for our narrators, Niketas would live out the rest of his life at the court of Theodore Laskaris, in Nicaea, dying around the same time as Henry. And Robert de Clari and Geoffrey de Villehardouin, would of course survive those tumultuous years to record their versions of events. And how Robert would end his, is, I think, a good note for us to end on too. I’ll be back in a few weeks with something new and medieval. Thanks for listening, everyone. To quote Robert de Clari:

Now have ye heard the truth, in what manner Constantinople was conquered, and in what way Count Baldwin of Flanders became emperor thereof, and my Lord Henry his brother after him; for he who was there and who saw these things and who heard the testimony thereof, Robert of Clari, Knight, hath also caused the truth to be put down in writing, how the city was conquered; and albeit he may not have recounted the conquest in as fair a fashion as many a good chronicler would have recounted it, yet hath he at all times recounted the strict truth; and many true things hath he left untold, because, in sooth, he cannot remember them all.


  • Geoffrey de Villehardouin. Memoirs or Chronicle of The Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, translated by Frank T. Marzials. J.M. Dent, 1908.

  • Three Old French Chronicles Of The Crusades: The History Of The Holy War; The History Of Them That Took Constantinople; The Chronicle Of Reims, translated by Edward Noble Stone. University Of Washington Publications In The Social Sciences, 1939.

  • O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates, translated by Harry J. Magoulias. Wayne State University Press, 1984.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

  • Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Viking, 2012.

  • Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. Viking, 1995.

  • Queller, Donald E. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 1201-1204. Leicester University Press, 1978.

The Travels of Johann Schiltberger 1: The Battle of Nicopolis

The Battle of Nicopolis

"I, Johanns Schiltberger, left my home near the city of Munich, situated in Bayern, at the time that King Sigismund of Hungary left for the land of the Infidels. This was, counting from Christ’s birth, in the thirteen hundred and ninety-fourth year, with a lord named Leinhart Richartingen. And I came back again from the land of the Infidels, counting from Christ’s birth, fourteen hundred and twenty seven. All that I saw in the land of the Infidels, of wars, and that was wonderful, also what chief towns and cities I have seen and visited, you will find described hereafter, perhaps not quite completely, but I was a prisoner and not independent. But so far as I was able to understand and to note, so have I [noted] the countries and cities as they are called in those countries, and I here make known and publish many interesting and strange adventures, which are worth listening to."

So begins Schiltberger’s written account of his great journeys, and so begins our story. Schiltberger could not have known that when he left his home near Munich it would be thirty years before he would see that land again. He may have expected adventure, war, and possibly death, but surely he could not expect to live as a prisoner to a Sultan and to a Khan, and to travel with them through Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine, to Egypt, Arabia, India, and the Central Asian steppe, to see Constantinople, Damascus, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Samarkand. At the end of this journey, he would see Bavaria again. There, he would tell of great battles such as at Nicopolis and Angora, of sieges and slaughters, and of far-flung peoples. He would speak of their religions, their social practices, and their saints and heroes. He would tell of miracles and monstrous beings.

Our source for these stories is the snappily titled The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, a Native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa,  and it is a text that can be viewed in many different ways. It is an adventure story, a prisoner narrative, a travel guide, the tale of a kind of Bavarian Marco Polo, an early 15th century autobiography, an anthropological inquiry, a work of comparative theology, and a text with a long and curious history in the European response to a lasting Ottoman threat. 

As we shall see, the book’s protagonist is at times curiously absent from its pages, often emerging only to assert “I was present there, and I also saw this.” At times, we will know his role. We will read of his rushing forward with a spare horse when his lord’s has fallen in battle, but more often we shall need to remind ourselves. When, for example, we read the description of a resistant city besieged, its walls taken, and large portions of its population put to death, there is little to suggest that Schiltberger partook in this killing, but he most likely did. On other occasions, he explicitly will tell us that he was not there, saying, “but I have heard in the infidel country from those who have seen it… .” 

He says he has heard, or that he has seen, but this will not always be true. Though in many ways a reliable source, Schiltberger did not himself record his journey. That task is thought to have been taken up by a now unknown Munich scribe, and, as we’ll discuss, either he or Schiltberger seems to have sometimes drawn upon various other travel narratives in creating the text. We have, in short, a fascinating and at times bizarre story of warfare, slavery, and exotic encounters. Its origins may at times be murky, but it remains always interesting, both in its historical context and, quite simply, as a great adventure. Over this and the next few episodes, we’ll be following this story, but we’ll also be looking at the world he’s moving in and the events through which he passes. 

When Schiltberger departs in 1394 it is from a childhood and family of which, essentially, nothing is known. His date of birth is sometimes given as 1381, May the 9th, midday, which is quite specific, but it also appears to be sourced to an unsupported marginal note, so make of that what you will. Of his name, Schilt, or Schild, can mean “shield” or might be applied to a maker of shields but also in names came to identify people by the signs on their houses; -berg would most likely indicate the resident of a mountain or a town situated on or near a mountain. That aside, his early years are dark to us. 

His Bavaria had been granted to Count-Palatine Otto of Wittelsbach in 1180 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Within the Holy Roman Empire, Bavaria had expanded through marriage, purchase, and conquest, until 1253 when power decentralized, eventually coalescing around 4 duchies, Munich being one of them. At that Munich court, Schiltberger would eventually serve as chamberlain, something like a royal secretary and administrator, and as commander of the bodyguard to Albrecht III, a Wittelsbach. It is generally believed that his book was recorded there within that court culture, but that was all a long way off, many years, miles, and misadventures away.

Schiltberger’s narrative transports us almost immediately to an event that will cause fear and sadness in western Europe and expose central Europe to future Ottoman incursions. We open the first chapter and find it entitled “of the first combat between King Sigismund and the Turks.” He had left his home in 1394 and right away, in the first chapter, it’s 1396, and he is showing us the Battle of Nicopolis. But we may need a little context first. 

In a long and storied life, King Sigismund would be King of Hungary, Germany, Bohemia, and Italy, and, for a time, Holy Roman Emperor. As a little side-note here - Sigismund is also responsible for founding the chivalric Order of the Dragon, the military order devoted to combating the Ottomans from which Vlad Drakulya of Wallachia got his name, meaning “the son of the dragon,” and thus how we got a book named Dracula. Drakulya actually had something in common with Schiltberger, living as he did, as a prisoner with of the Ottomans for a time. And this was quite a common practice, for the sons of Ottoman vassals to be held as hostages to insure their fathers’ loyalty. 

Getting back to Schiltberger, he reports that Sigusmund, then King of Hungary, had appealed to Latin Christendom for assistance against the Ottomans who increasingly threatened his lands, and many fighters - we’ll get into just how many later - answered this call. That they would do so was far from a forgone conclusion. 

The French, who would make a substantial portion of this response, had had a hard hundred years of plague, peasant uprisings, roving mercenary bands, and warfare. 

Cycles of the plague periodically devastated the population, threatening the coming on of the end times, and contributing to massive social instability. These are the years of the Black Death we’re talking about, so in the 1300s you have the population of Europe plummeting. An estimated 30-50 percent  of it succumb in mysterious and horrible circumstances, and even at the low end of this very broad range that’s well over 20 million people dying. 

In the 1350s, peasants, known derisively as jacques, tired of raids and killings at the hands of brigands; they tired of  the unceasing demands and abuses of a knightly class, itself stretched thin by the cost of warfare and ransom; … they tired of starvation. They rose up in a jacquerie against the nobles and the clergy, and further death, destruction, and instability resulted. 

Routiers, soldiers of various nationalities released from service and experienced in plunder and war, roamed the countryside. These “free companies” took villages and even castles for profit and further tipped the state of things into one of chaotic discord. 

The Church itself was, by the end of the century, in no position to provide reassurance, stricken as it was by the Western Schism, that great division by which Latin Christians found themselves cast out into excommunication by the one of the two Popes which they did not follow. 

Meanwhile, a little skirmish now termed the 100 years war had intermittently idled and raged, draining away blood, bodies, treasure, and, one might have thought, interest in further foreign adventure. 

A peace, however, was established between the French and English crowns, binding them by the marriage of Richard the second to the daughter of Charles the sixth. Though it would not turn out to be a lasting one, this truce was to allow for a crusade against the Ottomans in the century’s closing years, and King Sigismund was not alone in wanting one. Pope Boniface the ninth was calling for war upon the Ottomans from his seat in Rome. The republics of Venice and Genoa saw their interests threatened by Ottoman expansion. In the Balkans, lords such as the Bulgarians looked for an opportunity to free themselves from the Ottoman threat, even if they, being of the Orthodox tradition, also distrusted the assistance of western crusaders. Meanwhile in France, one of its most powerful figures, Phillip the Duke of Burgundy, was leaning eagerly towards the glory of a righteous war, any righteous war, and it was on Hungary he would settle, signalling to Sigismund that now was the time. The king’s calls for aid would be answered, but exactly who would be answering is an interesting topic in itself. 

There had been plans taking shape in the early 1390s for a crusade, its target not yet determined.  In 1394 those plans crystallized around a joint expedition to be lead by the dukes of Burgundy, Orleans, and Lancaster, and by year’s end Hungary was selected as the destination. Initial considerations are said to have included the involvement of the kings Richard the second and Charles the sixth, but in the eventual expedition, leadership would fall neither to dukes nor to kings. Instead, it would be the son of Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy. Jean de Nevers, only later to be known as “the Fearless” for his part in all of this, would be leading the French contingent. 

There were also other figures with military experience along. There was a great of deal of collective experience contributed by men such as the renowned Marshal Boucicaut; Enguerrand de Coucy; Philipe de Artois, the constable of France; and Jean de Vienne, admiral of France. However, some sources, both contemporaneous and modern, have pointed to comparatively young and untested leadership as being partially responsible for the disaster to come. 

As Jean and his followers moved east, they did so in great style, and we can read of this in Froissart’s Chronicles of the time:

"The lords of France made vast preparations for their expedition to Hungary, and solicited the company and service of different barons, knights, and squires. Such as were not asked, and had a wish to go thither, made application to the constable of France, the count de la Marche or the lord de Coucy, that they would take them in their company. Some were accepted: but those who were not, considering the great distance Hungary and Turkey were from France, greatly cooled in their ardour; for, as they were not retained they were not sufficiently wealthy to perform the journey with credit to themselves. Nothing was spared in the preparations for the young John of Burgundy with regard to horses, armour, emblazonments, dresses, silver and gold plate, and the duke’s officers were fully employed in the business. Large sums of florins were given to the servants of John of Burgundy, who paid them to the different workmen as they finished and brought home their works. The barons, knights, and squires, to do him honour, exerted themselves to make their equipments as handsome as possible."

And this will come up again, when the crusaders depart from Buda to meet the Ottomans, that there is a tremendous concern for appearances. We read, “The lords of France were desirous of making a handsome figure, and examined well their armour and equipage, sparing no money to have them as complete as possible. Their appearance was grandly magnificent, when they took the field from Buda, the principal city of Hungary.” Phillipe de Mezieres, a near life-long enthusiast of crusading in general made similar observations, that “they go like kings, preceded by minstrels and heralds in purple and rich garments, making great feasts of outrageous foods.” In these tellings at least, the movement of the crusaders becomes an immensely proud celebration, a parade, a travelling righteous carnival, and, in great literary style, it sets things up nicely for the fall. 

This word “crusader” which we’ve been using requires some examination here. We are, after all, well past Pope Urban II’s 1095 call at Claremont for war in the holy land. We are not even bound for Palestine, though Froissart has some of these crusaders making plans for pushing on and making their way there after crushing the Ottomans. The word Crusade has actually been applied with varying criteria, at times including only certain military actions in Palestine and at others extending to wars against internal, Christian, opponents such as the Cathars, the Hussites, and, in continuing the near-annual get togethers even after their enemy’s conversion, the Lithuanians. Perhaps a less muddying way to think of this is simply as Church sanctioned violence, but we should not lose sight of how significant that sanctioning was.

Going on crusade involved first “taking the cross,” making a vow of commitment, often a very public act, and affixing the cross to one’s clothes as an outward sign of that commitment. In doing so, certain legal privileges were obtained, and often these were very practical necessities to encourage enrollment. For example, there was, in theory at least, protection for the knights’ holdings while they were away. They hardly wished to return to find, as some did, their castles compromised or their family taken or killed, and just as they may worry for the state of their possessions, they may worry for the state of their soul. 

The world through which they struggled was not an easy one in which to live a Christian life, and some knights were quite troubled by the contradictions posed by their unavoidably violent earthly activities. Some wrestled, as did the knight Tancred, as to “whether to follow in the footsteps of the Gospel or the world.” Taking the cross offered an answer to the problem, a way to strive within the world, to engage in a just war, a devotional war. This was, in a sense, military life as prayer. 

All of this brings us to the plenary indulgence, a full pardon with no further penitential practice required to wipe one’s slate clean; this is what had been offered at Claremont and since then: a way back from all that one had done. 

One can easily project greed for treasure and glory back upon those who answered this call and those that followed, and you wouldn’t always be wrong, but we shouldn’t lose sight of how expensive, difficult, and dangerous crusading was. For a taste of that danger, and the hardships of knights at war more generally, we can read the 15th century chronicle, The Deeds of Don Pero Nino:

Knights who are at the wars eat their bread in sorrow; their ease is weariness and sweat; they have one good day after many bad; they are vowed to all manner of labour; they are for ever swallowing their fear; they expose themselves to every peril; they give up their bodies to the adventure of life in death. Mouldy bread or biscuit, meat cooked or uncooked; today enough to eat and tomorrow nothing, little or no wine, water from a pond, bad quarters, the shelter of a tent or branches, a bad bed, poor sleep with their armour still on their backs, burdened with iron, the enemy an arrow-shot off. “Ware! Who goes there? To arms! To arms!” With the first drowsiness, an alarm; at dawn, the trumpet. “To horse! To horse! Muster! Muster!” As look-outs, as sentinels, keeping watch by day and by night, fighting without cover, as foragers, as scouts, guard after guard, duty after duty. . . Such is their calling, a life of great fatigues, bereft of all ease.

As we can see, success, financial, military, or life-preserving, was no guarantee with such enterprises. We should not, out of 21st century skepticism, disregard too easily the role of religious motivations in taking up these commitments. 

As for Schiltberger, we really have no idea how he felt about the whole thing. It’s one of the things that is most striking in reading his story now, that we have little idea of how he feels about anything really, so we cannot say what his or, perhaps more relevantly, his lord’s motivations may have been. Were they seeking treasure, glory, political advantage, religious redemption, or the defence of Christendom? We simply do not know. 

We do know that he and his lord were among those responding to King Sigusmund’s call for aid, and we have some idea, or rather a great range of ideas, as to who else was there. Schiltberger initially puts the number at “many people from all countries,” but we can do a bit better than that. Sigusmund is said to have boasted - actually this is attributed to a variety of  sources - that not only would he drive the Turks out of Europe, but if the sky should fall then he was prepared to support it on the tips of his lances. Supporting this claim are estimates on the high end of up to 130k men with 60k horse, but supporting 60k horses would be an appalling endeavour in itself and there’s little to suggest 130k soldiers being present at the Battle of Nicopolis. Radu Rosetti once mentioned examining the battlefield and seeing no way for 100k men in total to have been present let alone 130k on the one side and, as Schiltberger has it, 200k on that of the Ottomans.  More reasonably, Schiltberger estimates that 16k men opposed the Ottomans that day, and Rosetti argues for something similar, in the range of 10-20k facing 10-20k. 

And who exactly were these “many people from all countries”? Who joined with Sigusmund’s Hungarians? We’ve already seen that there were of course many French fighters. There were also Central European knights and nobles, Germans such as Schiltberger and his lord, and large contingents of Transylvanians and Wallachians; men came from the low countries, what we’d call the Netherlands and Belgium; the Venetians provided naval aid and transport; and there may have been English knights, or perhaps only English speaking Knights Hospitallers of Rhodes. All in all, the Battle of Nicopolis would be very much an international affair with Serbs, Albanians, Bulgarians, Bosnians, and a variety of Christian-born janissaries figuring amongst the “Turkish” side. 

Commanding the Ottomans was Sultan Bayezid I. We will be discussing the Ottomans in much greater detail in the following episode, but we should spend a moment here on Bayezid. In 1389, at the Battle of Kosovo, Bayezid’s father, Murad, had led a large Ottoman army into battle against Prince Lazar’s Serbian forces. The result had been a mutually destructive victory for the Ottomans that had left both commanders dead upon the field. Murad had possibly been slain by a Serbian knight who first declared his intent to desert to the Ottoman in order to get close enough to stab him, and I say possibly here because there are other versions of Murad’s death, one’s which don’t involve deceit. However it occurred, the news was apparently greeted with relief by Charles VI who is said to have thanked god in Notre-Dame, but there would soon be fresh reasons to worry, as power passed to Bayezid. 

What kind of leader was Bayezid? He would solidify that power by killing his own brother. He apparently earned the nickname Yildirim, or Thunderbolt, for his swift and decisive military actions. On campaign as a Sultan, he counted a Serbian prince and a Byzantine emperor among his vassals. As an administrator, he sought to centralize power. He shifted it from the beys, or lords, men who might easily attempt to make their own empires should they perceive their relative strength to be up to the task, and relocated it within an increasingly bureaucratized Sultanate, complete with growing numbers of troops who were directly loyal to himself and not only through vassal beyliks. In the years before Nicopolis, he expanded Ottoman control within Anatolia before gaining conquests in Greece and Bulgaria and beginning one of the interminable sieges of Constantinople that characterize that city’s history. That’s where he may have been when news reached him of the forces which Schiltberger accompanied and he went north to meet them. 

Froissart’s Chronicles, admittedly a fascinating but not entirely reliable blend of fiction, rumour, and 2nd or 3rd hand historical account, paints a picture of the build up to this meeting as a 20 paces at dawn kind of affair. Bayezid had let it be known that he’d be coming for the Hungarians in the month of May with an immense army, and that he would cross the Danube and offer them combat. A period of frustration then ensues for Sigusmund and his allies as they wait for a Sultan’s army that does not materialize. They send out scouting parties and expert men into Anatolia to seek him out, and find no sign that he would threaten them that summer. Thus without an immediate opponent, they resolve to look for one, and they proceed South to attack his European holdings. Froissart at this point has one of Bayezid’s men fleeing from one of these holdings, searching for his master, and eventually finding him in Cairo. There, we’re treated to a fully fleshed out discussion on what ought to be done in response. However, the more realistic assessment seems to put Bayezid at Constantinople, busy in the work of besieging the city before coming North. Of the rest of the preamble, Schiltberger has little to say. 

With Schiltberger, we get the bare minimum until we reach the battle. Sigusmund takes possession of one city with 300 men. He moves on to another, laying siege for 5 days before capturing it also, killing many Turks and taking many prisoners. 200 men are left there, and the army moves on, to Nicopolis. At Nicopolis, another siege is established by land and by water, this one lasting 16 days, and it does not end in victory. It ends with the news that Bayezid is coming, and he has 200k men. 

Before we get to our battle, let’s pause for a moment on the nature of fighting at the time, not so much in its strategic outlines or in the details of this body or that of cavalry circling out in preparation for a flanking maneuver. I want instead to return to The Deeds of Don Pero Nino. It’s a work of glorification, a celebration of its author’s master, but I think it really nicely conveys a sense of claustrophobic chaos and also of how hard battle was on the survivors, and on their equipment. We’ll dip in as our protagonist has just struck down through the top of an opponent’s shield, splitting his head down to the eyes. 

"While Pero Nino was doing among the enemies of his lord the King as a wolf does among the sheep when there is no shepherd to defend them, it befell that an arrow struck him in the neck. ... The arrow had knit together his gorget and his neck; but … he felt not his wound, or hardly at all; only it hindered him much in the movement of the upper body. And this pricked him on the more to fight, so that in a few hours he had swept the path clean before and had forced the enemy to withdraw over the bridge close against the city. Several lance stumps were still in his shield, and it was that which hindered him the most. ... the people of the city, seeing the havoc that he wrought, fired many crossbows at him, even as folk worry a bull that rushes out in the middle of the ring. He went forward with his face uncovered and a great bolt there found its mark, piercing his nostrils through most painfully, whereat he was dazed, but his daze lasted but little time. Soon he recovered himself, and the pain only made him press more bitterly on than ever. At the gate of the bridge there were steps; and Pero Nino found himself sorely beset when he had to climb them. There he did receive many sword blows on head and shoulders. At the last, he climbed them, cut himself a path and found himself so pressed against his enemies that sometimes they hit the bolt embedded in his nose, which made him suffer great pain. It happened even that one of them, seeking to cover himself, hit a great blow on the bolt with his shield and drove it further into his head. Weariness brought the battle to an end on both sides. When Pero Nino went back, his good shield was tattered and all in pieces; his sword had its gilded hilt almost broken and wrenched away and the blade was toothed like a saw and dyed with blood. … the fight had lasted for two whole hours, and … his armour was broken in several places by lance-heads, of which some had entered the flesh and drawn blood, although the coat was of great strength."

The battle we’re concerned with will perhaps not seem so colourful after that, but in any case, it seems to have been lost for the crusaders before they began. We can see it in Schiltberger, and it is elaborated upon in Froissart and the other contemporary sources. We’ll start with Schiltberger’s telling of the story. 

The Wallachian Duke makes the first move, asking Sigusmund’s permission to go and “look at the winds”, a really delightful description of reconnaissance. He returns to tell the king that he has seen 20 banners, with 10k men behind each one. So the King begins to make his plans, and those same Wallachians ask to lead the attack. This is, after all, not their first run-in with the Turks, and they have experienced this enemy in battle. But here the Burgundian leader steps forward, and says [no, I have come a great distance with 6,000 men, and I have no intention of giving up that position of honour.] In Froissart, this episode is much more expansive, with Jean de Nevers seeking counsel and disagreement among the French leaders. Some argue that they should respect the Hungarian king’s position and his reasons. Others say that this would be base cowardice and in any case the Hungarian king is only trying to snatch away from them the glory of the day, this last position being that of a lord left embittered that his opinion was not asked before that of another lord, so bitter in fact, that he seems to have spurred the attack on immediately. In Schiltberger we only see Sigusmund begging the Burgundian to reconsider, but Jean instead gathers his men and attacks. He cuts through 2 enemy formations but finds himself mired in a third. Looking around, he sees his forces surrounded and largely unhorsed and he surrenders.

Let’s look to Schiltberger for the rest of the battle:

"When the King heard that Jean de Nevers was forced to surrender, he took the rest of the people and defeated a body of twelve thousand foot soldiers that had been sent to oppose him. They were all trampled upon and destroyed, and in this engagement a shot killed the horse of my lord Leinhart Richartinger; and I, Johanns Schiltberger his runner, when I saw this, rode up to him in the crowd and assisted him to mount my own horse, and then I mounted another which belonged to the Turks, and rode back to the other runners. And when all the [Turkish] foot-soldiers were killed, the King advanced upon another corps which was of horse. When the Turkish King saw the King advancing, he was about to fly but [Stephen, Prince of Serbia,] known as the despot, seeing this, went to the assistance of the Turkish King with 15k chosen men and many other bannerets, and the despot threw himself with his people on the king’s banner and overturned it; and when the king saw that the banner was overturned and that he could not remain, he took to flight."

And that was it for the Hungarians and their supporters. King Sigusmund reaches a boat on the Danube to escape and so does the Knights Hospitallers’ Grand Master. Many others would drown in the attempt, falling beneath the surface as they tried to swim across, cast violently from overcrowded ships, or struck back as they climbed aboard, those who had already reached safety lashing down in desperation at their hands and faces. What had gone wrong? Sigusmund is said to have remarked to the Grand Master that they had “lost the day by the pride and vanity of these French,” and there does seem to be some truth to this remark. That Burgundian led charge was apparently made against a body of infantry that had actually driven long stakes into the ground, sharpened points ready to break any such cavalry charge. Not the best situation to ride into, and many were unhorsed as they, one way or another, penetrated that line. After this initial impetuous charge against the stakes, there appears to have been a pause in which older knights argued that they should reorder their ranks and await their allies, but they were not listened to. The French believed that they had already encountered the enemy in its entirety and in pursuit could rout them, winning the day and slaughtering those who ran before them. In their heavy armour,  they reached the crest of a hill or plateau and found instead a fresh reserve of Bayezid’s men which he’d held back. They were not infantry irregulars this time, like those already broken on the field below. These were the mounted sipahi, and they enveloped the disordered crusaders and forced their surrender. 

Meanwhile, large numbers of riderless French horses were stampeding into their allies on the plain, causing chaos, and the sight of this actually leads the Wallachians to withdraw. They thought the day lost, and they knew their own land would soon be threatened, as it had been before. Besides this, they had little reason to put much faith in those they fought alongside. Wallachia had long sat uneasily among more powerful neighbours, and had reason to fear that Hungary would impose political dominance as well as Catholicism, for Wallachia was Orthodox and in the religious sphere of Constantinople rather than Rome. The western knights inspired no more confidence, with disorder and debauchery that had grown especially bad when they’d reached the schismatic lands, and a “war as sport” attitude that could only be disagreeable for a people prepared to defend their land against an immediate and formidable threat. 

What else had gone wrong? Excessive concern with luxury, with glory, and with pride seems to have played a role, and so did divisions, distrust, and the lack of clear command structure, this last something which had plagued French military efforts for some time and must have badly affected the loose alliance. Among the western knights there was a lack of understanding of their adversary and, according to the chronicles, a lack of respect for the Ottomans as a military power. There was also a tremendous lack of preparedness for this endeavour. For example, when they besieged the city of Nicopolis, they did so without siege equipment, and were apparently content in the bravery of the men they threw against the walls and in their nightly banquets. 

In other sources, the question arises as to whether in fact Sigusmund’s forces adequately followed up on the French assault, and there are reports of bitter complaints from the western knights that their supposed allies had not sufficiently supported them.  

But all of these reasons, valid or not, give no thought to the strength and effectiveness of the Ottoman forces. Without going into too much detail on the Ottomans here, this was a military empire in its expansion phase. Its armies were clearly skilled and experienced, sharpened by consistent large-scale combat, and capably led.

The truth of any explanations are hard to assess at this point. The twin demons of hubris and immoral behaviour do make for a convenient narrative following a defeat, for they do well to answer the question “how could we have lost?” in a way that is perhaps not too uncomfortable. Another interesting narrative that arose in the aftermath, was that of the Turk as God’s instrument, the rod with which he lashed at his people for their sin. It’s an idea that will pop up in the 15th and 16th centuries with Erasmus and Luther, but it also appears here in response to Nicopolis. 

Some sources indicate a shifting of the narrative as survivors such as the Burgundian leader arrived home, greeted as glorious in battle. Boucicaut’s chronicler, on the other hand, offers the simple response of widespread sadness:

"When the reports [of defeat] were made known and published, nobody could describe the great grief which they caused in France, both on the part of the duke of Burgundy, who doubted whether he would be able to get his son back for money, and [thought] that he would be put to death, and on that of the fathers, mothers, wives, and male and female relatives of the other lords, knights and squires who were dead. A great mourning began throughout the kingdom of France by those whom it concerned; and more generally, everybody lamented the noble knights who had fallen there, who represented the flower of France … All our lords had solemn masses for the dead sung in their chapels for the good lords, knights and squires, and all the Christians who had died. . . But it may be well that we had more need of their prayers on our behalf, since they, God willing, are saints in Paradise."

News of the defeat actually spreads quite slowly. It’s easy for us to forget now, but solid information would likely have been carried home at the pace of the survivors, many of them wounded, who escaped Nicopolis and avoided drowning in the Danube. They had lost nearly everything in the process, and on their way they would lose even more. They could be beaten, robbed, or slain on the road, and some reached home only to die shortly after as a result of what they had been through. So you have, by some reckonings, at least 3 months elapsing before confirmation arrives in Paris. The first men spreading stories of the defeat there were not rewarded for their pains. Their account was greeted with incredulity, and perhaps for fear of the panic it may cause, orders were given for their imprisonment, with death by drowning a pending possibility. However, the arrival of Jacques de Helly, perhaps on Christmas Day, carried confirmation of the worst, and the worst went beyond the matter of mere defeat, for the killing had not simply stopped at Nicopolis when the fighting had.   

On the morning after the battle, Bayezid had risen and walked the area, seeing first the site of Sigismund’s encampment and then turning to the battlefield and taking in all that had happened. Seeing so many of his people there dead, he was filled with grief and with rage. He swore that their blood would not go unavenged and he gave orders for the prisoners to be brought before him the following day. That next day, the prisoners were gathered and tied with cords, and Jean the fearless was brought forward to witness Bayezid’s revenge. The future duke interceded on his friends’ behalf, indicating by signs either their brotherhood or their wealth, and Bayezid, moved either by mercy and respect or an interest in profiting from the lively ransom business of the time, gave consent for some of the surviving French leaders to be spared. Those who were not so rich or notable to be included in this lucky twelve remained bound before Bayezid. We’ll end this episode with Schiltberger’s description of what happened next:  

"Then they took my companions and cut off their heads, and when it came to my turn, the king’s son ordered that I should be left alive, and I was taken to the other boys, because none under 20 years of age were killed, and I was scarcely 16 years old.Then I saw the lord Hannsen Greiff, who was a noble of Bayern, and four others, bound with the same cord. When he saw the great revenge that was taking place he cried with a loud voice and consoled the horse- and foot-soldiers who were standing there to die. “Stand firm”, he said “when our blood this day is spilt for the Christian faith, and we by God’s help shall become the children of heaven.” When he said this he knelt, and was beheaded together with his companions. Blood was spilled from morning until vespers, and when the king’s counselors saw that so much blood was spilled and that still it did not stop, they rose and fell upon their knees before the king and entreated him for the sake of God that he would forget his rage, that he might not draw down upon himself the vengeance of God, as enough blood was already spilled. He consented, and ordered that they should stop, and that the rest of the people should be brought together, and from them took his share and left the rest to his people who had made them prisoners. I was among those the king took for his share, and the people that were killed on that day were reckoned at ten thousand men.

The king then sent a lord named Hoder of Ungern, with sixty boys, as a mark of honour to the king-sultan; and he would have sent me to the king-sultan, but I was severely wounded, having three wounds, so for fear that I might die on the way I was left with the Turkish king. Other prisoners were sent as an offering to the king of Babilony and the king of Persia, also into WhiteTartary, into Greater Armenia, and also into other countries…

I was taken to the palace of the Turkish king; there for six year I was obliged to run on my feet with the others, wherever he went, it being the custom that the lords have people to run before them. After six years I deserved to be allowed to ride, and I rode six years with him, so that I was twelve years with him; and it is to be noted what the said Turkish king did during these twelve years, all of which is written down piece by piece."