Part VI: The War of the First Holy League
Over the course of its meteoric rise, the Ottoman Empire had made a laundry list of enemies. The Italian republics of Venice and Genoa had both been expelled from some of their most lucrative eastern markets, serious blows to the mercantile states. The Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldova had both been reduced to tenuous servitude, while the great Hungarian Kingdom had been nearly driven over the Danube, only clinging on south of the river at Beograd itself. In Asia, the once numerous Anatolian beyliks had been reduced in number and size until only the once-mighty Karamanids and Çandarids still remained. The Greek rump states--the Despotate of the Morea, under de facto Venetian rule and the distant Trapezuntine Empire, under Genoese protection--both glowered resentfully against the Turks, both knowing that many of their countrymen still labored under the Turkish yoke. In the far east, the now-unified horde of Aq Qoyunlu also resented the Ottomans, seeing themselves as rightful hegemons of the Turkmen world. Finally, the crusader states of Rhodes and Cyprus both saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire as their God-given quest. As you can see, by 1460 the Ottoman Empire’s many enemies were more powerful than the realm that they despised. It was only a matter of time until these enemies made common cause against the Sublime Porte….
The spark came in Serbia. The Hungarians, led by their king Janos I Hunyadi, had been campaigning against the Serbian Despotate, hoping to expand Hungarian rule south of the Danube and secure his hold on Beograd. The Serbian Despotate was nominally a vassal of both Hungary and the Ottomans, and so Stepjan II asked for aid from the Turks. Mehmed dispatched Ballaban Paşa, the sanjak bey of Ohrid, with an army of 25,000 to support the Serbs. Janos, meanwhile, was forced to cross back into Hungary to deal with a rebellion, leaving behind 15,000 men under his son Ladislaus. Stepjan and Ballaban met and combined their forces, marching on the Hungarian camp at Arandelovać. However, the Turko-Serbian army, numbering 35,000, was taken by surprise when Hunyadi’s army fell upon them in an ambuscade in the pass of Mount Rudnik. Ballaban Paşa was killed by a stray arrow in the first few moments of battle and without a leader the Turkish force routed, leaving 5,000 men dead on the field. Hunyadi pursued them as far as the Serbian border, but was unwilling to press the attack into the Ottoman Empire itself.
The Battle of Rudnik was far from a decisive victory. Its true import came from across the Adriatic Sea. The previous year, Pope Pius II held a synod at Mantua and declared a crusade against the Turks, calling all of Christendom to arms against the heathens in a Holy League. It was met with a great deal of skepticism at first, with few actually taking up arms. But as news of Rudnik filtered west, many considered this ‘miracle’ victory as a sign that God was finally going to turn the tables on the Turks. The Venetians, who had long been at the brink of war with the Turks, openly declared war in the summer of 1460. Their archrivals, the Genoese, also declared war a few months later, citing a build-up of Turkish forces opposite Lesbos as evidence of a planned invasion. With the two great Italian republics at war, many other Christian states began to follow. Wallachia and Moldova both threw off the Turkish revolt and crossed the Danube in the latter half of 1460, while the King of Sicily began preparations for an invasion of Greece the following year. Dozens of other smaller states sent out knights and footmen on the various paths to the east as well. Most notably, Skansderbeg, the lord of Albania, resumed his war against the Turks.
Mehmed, of course, did not take this lying down. He dispatched an army under Zagan Paşa to attack the Venetian and Morean holdings in the south of Greece while he himself mustered an army to meet the Hungarians and Wallachians. Zagan’s army numbered some 15,000 men, while Mehmed’s force numbered more than 50,000. However, Mehmed failed to account for the small size of his navy, which was curb-stomped by eight Venetian and Genoese galleys off of Tenedos in September 1460. Over the winter of 1460-1461, even as the Ottoman forces marched to war, the Aegean was an Italian lake, with dozens of coastal cities both large and small being taken by amphibious assault. Few if any of the locals held anything other than seething hatred for the Turks, and so the Ottoman governors had difficulty putting together forces to expel the Italians.
In the spring of 1461, Zagan Paşa and his army finally arrived in Greece, having been delayed in chasing off a Genoese attack on Thessalonike. He was unable to cross to the Negroponte, and so the Paşa turned his attention to the Morea proper. Thomas Palaiologos had ruled under Venetian protection since his brother Demetrios had been killed defending Constantinople back in 1453, and he had spent his entire rule preparing for war with the Turks. First among his preparations was the Hexamilion, a wall stretching six miles across the Isthmus of Corinth. Thomas poured every last cent he had into expanding and increasing the Hexamilion. By 1460, the Ottomans found themselves facing down a complex of walls, with a series of earthen berms interspersed with thick, tall walls defended by men who had seen the Turks despoil countless homes and would be damned if they let them do the same to their homes. Even after several weeks of bombardment and assaults on the Hexamilion, Zagan Paşa was unable to take the wall and retired back into Boeotia. However, he did not retire fast enough, and in mid-July the Venetians landed an army of 12,000 men under Sigismondo Malatesta, a noted condottiere. On the shores of the Kopais Lake, Malatesta routed the Turks, personally killing Zagan Paşa and then riding down the exhausted Ottoman soldiers. Following the Battle of Kopais, the Venetians and other forces (a mixture of Genoese soldiers, rogue mercenaries and native revolts) rolled the Ottomans out of Greece, pushing to within sight of Thessalonike before being halted by a counter-attack.
As all of this was raging in Greece, Mehmed himself took the field in northern Rumelia. Wallachia and Moldavia were the first targets, as their revolt could cause a chain reaction that saw all of his vassals break away. The Danubian armies were commanded by two great leaders, Vlad Dracula and Stefan the Great, and if they were able to unite they could very easily form a serious threat to Ottoman control in Bulgaria. As such, Mehmed took a leaf out of the Byzantines’ book and tried to split them by intrigue. By means of spies he persuaded Stefan the Great that Vlad Dracula would attempt to usurp his principality even if they were victorious, and with a great amount of bribes and a promise of clemency in the event of Ottoman Victory, persuaded Stefan to withdraw back across the Danube. This left Vlad Dracula outflanked, and after a few weeks of skirmishing, he too withdrew back across the Danube, albeit after impaling several thousand Turkish prisoners on the south bank of the river as warning to the Turks. Mehmed then turned his attention westwards to Serbia, where the Hungarians had been joined by Sicilian and Papal armies, as well as a motley force of Crusaders from across western Europe. The coalition was making its way towards Constantinople at a slow pace, with concerns over leadership and supplies meaning that the Crusaders had only advanced as far as Niš by mid-autumn. Seeing this as an opportunity to defeat his opponents indirectly (the combined Crusader force outnumbered the Turkish host 3:2), Mehmed sent a number of irregulars north-west to attack the Latin supply lines, while he himself swung around to block their path forward and drive the Venetians back from Thessalonike.
This latter mission was at least partially successful, with Malatesta withdrawing back into Thessaly. However, with this avenue of expansion cut off, the Venetians sealifted Malatesta’s force across to the Hellespont in the spring of 1462. By this time, Mehmed was preparing to meet the Crusaders in the Balkan mountains and couldn’t spare any men to drive off the Italians. Fearing that the Venetians would take the straits and attack Constantinople itself, which was barely defended as-is, he sued for peace. The Venetians were ceded everything south of the Thessalian mountains as well as any islands or ports they had taken in Europe or the islands, as were the Genoese. The two Italian republics immediately began to feud amongst themselves, freeing up Mehmed’s forces to meet the Crusaders in battle.
Speaking of the Crusaders; They were having a hell of a time. This was less due to any enemy action (the irregulars in Serbia were a pain, but not a serious threat as they were being continuously resupplied by sea) and more due to the internal problems that beset every crusade. Janos of Hungary and Ferrante of Sicily scrapped over every decision to be made, with the papal legate having to run interference between the two everytime a decision of import was made. MEanwhile, all of the minor crusaders, many of who were veterans of the ongoing wars in the HRE and France, were running havoc, pissing off the locals and destroying supply depots before they could be fully captured. Over the winter of 1461-1462, the Crusaders wintered west of Sredets, and the conflict between the two kings finally came to a head. Pope Pius dispatched another legate with orders to excommunicate Ferrant if he didn’t shut up and follow Janos’ lead, which he did after no little amount of grumbling. Having finally established a unified command, Janos brought the Crusaders together following his long-term plan. The Crusaders would strike into Thrake, aiming directly for Constantinople and thus forcing Mehmed to face them on the field of battle. Janos was confident that his veteran soldiers would be victorious, as Mehmed’s armies had already been worn down by the previous years of constant warfare.
The crusaders took Sredets after a brief siege in the spring of 1462, opening up the road to Constantinople. As they descended into the Evros Valley, the Sultan marched to meet them. Mehmed had intended to spend the winter training new soldiers and reinforcing his tired host with garrison soldiers from Anatolia, but this had proved impossible due to the unfolding crisis in the east. There was also the slight problem of Skanderbeg, who had fought through the Balkan mountains to the plains surrounding Thessalonike, and had to be driven off by another Turkish army. The Albanian host still lurked somewhere in the mountains, and Mehmed was forced to leave a not insignificant host behind to defend the strategically vital city. As such, he was unprepared to fight the Crusaders when he was forced to intercept them at Haskovo, in May 1462.
The Crusaders had camped outside of the Ottoman fortress in late April. It was a large and imposing fortress, dating back to the Second Bulgarian Empire itself, and needed to be taken to secure the road to Constantinople. Mehmed, seeing this as an opportunity to envelop the invaders, marched to meet them. However, the city surrendered before the Turkish host arrived, leaving the Crusaders to turn and face the Turks with their full strength. When the battle was joined, Mehmed’s force numbered some 45,000, with some 10,000 cavalry and 10,000 janissaries in that number. The Crusader army numbered 60,000, with about 15,000 knights and the rest being footmen. Morale was tepid on both sides, with the Turks having it the worse. Privation in their winter quarters had undermined the morale of both armies, and many soldiers in both hosts just wanted to go home.
Battle was joined on 20 May 1462. Hunyadi adopted a defensive position on a ridge facing northwards, with a series of irrigation ditches between him and the Turks. The footmen were arrayed in three ranks, with mounted knights on the wings and dismounted knights and men-at-arms in the center. The few cannons with them were arrayed in triangular formation to give them the most cover. Hunyadi planned to meet the Ottomans with his full force, allowing them to attack the center while his flanks swung around to encircle them. Mehmed, on the other hand, arrayed his forces on open ground. His plan appeared to be to attack the Crusaders at a distance with his ranged forces and wear them down, then bait them into a charge across the ditches towards him where they would further be worn down. Finally, the Ottomans would meet the attacking Crusaders in a phalanx and crush them. This latter plan wasn’t….great, which has led many historians to speculate that Mehmed was affected by some sort of brain fever.
The battle began a few hours after dawn. Both armies’ skirmishers clashed in no man’s land, causing a few casualties before withdrawing. Mehmed’s archers and arquebusiers then advanced and opened fire. However, due to their range they had little impact on the Crusader ranks. Hunyadi gets an idea and orders the center to pull back a few dozen feet. This baits the Ottoman archers into advancing across one of the irrigation ditches, and the crusading knights then rush down the hill. They catch the Ottomans halfway across the ditch, ripping into their rear ranks. Mehmed rushes his men forward to cover the retreat of his valuable arquebusiers, which Hunyadi mistakes as the Turks advancing to close ranks. He orders his line forward and the Crusaders rush towards the canal. Mehmed sees them advancing and realizes that his line will be shattered by the sheer weight of the charge if he doesn’t act quickly. He rushes his men forward to the lip of the embankment, where they form up again. The two lines close shortly after noon. The fighting quickly devolves into a single giant scrum. In the chaos of the battle few of the heraldic crests of the Latins are visible, and many of the knights are killed by their fellow crusaders in the chaos. The only visible signal in the mess of mud and gore is the yellow of the janissaries’ robes, and so the Latins push towards that. The sky, which had been fairly cloudy, darkens completely while the two armies clash. The air is filled with screams and cries of dying and maimed men and the rush of arrows and the roaring thunder of cannons and arquebusiers and the sound of metal scraping against metal and blades slamming into shields and above it all the sound of metal piercing flesh. The muddy ground is soon choked with blood and bodies, impossible to stand on and even more difficult to move across. Wounded men are trampled by steeds, fallen knights and sipahis are dragged from their saddles and horses stampede across the country, panicked by the cacophony of pain and death. The more heavily-armed Latins start to push the Turks back, but then Mehmed appears, standing in his saddle and rallies his men. The battle once again degenerates into a chaotic free-for-all, swords and spears and axes flying like windmills. By this point the archers have exhausted their quivers and have joined the fray with daggers and awls, anything that can be used as a weapon. A square of pikemen, the Black Army of Hunyadi itself, starts to push forward through the chaos, but a rumor of Hunyadi’s death causes them to panic and flee, only being rallied by the appearance of the king himself. The primary mounted wings slam into each other and roil towards and away the ranks, with the Latins gradually pushing back the Ottomans. Finally, as dusk comes and what little visibility there is vanishes, the two armies withdraw back to their camps.
The Latins have lost nearly 25,000 either killed or wounded, with nearly 3,000 of those being knights. The Turks have lost 20,000, including nearly the entirety of the janissary corps. The survivors of both armies are exhausted. Both Hunyadi and Mehmed were confident that if battle was joined, they would be victorious, but were afraid that doing so would lose them most of their armies. Both had pressing issues back home--Hunyadi had to deal with Austrians encroaching on the Burgenland and Mehmed had to deal with the ongoing crapstorm over in Anatolia. As such, they both sued for peace.
The negotiations and agreements surrounding the treaty are too complex to go into here, so I’ll just skip to the end points: Mehmed would end the vassaldom of the Danubian Principalities. Hungary would annex Serbia all the way down to Kosovo. The Ottomans would cede everything in the mountains west of the Struma to Skanderbeg’s Albania. The Despotate of Epirus would be restored to the Orsinis under Sicilian vassalage. Thessalonike and the surrounding lowlands all the way to Kavala would be given to the Sicilians. Note that none of these indemnities were financial--Mehmed was willing to give up terrain, which could be retaken later, but not money, which he actively needed.
After concluding the peace, the Crusader army dispersed back to their various homelands and/or cessations. Ferrante oversaw the subjugation of the lowlands around Thessalonike, while Hunyadi returned to Hungary, leaving behind a small host under Ladislaus to pacify his new conquests. Meanwhile, a group of Dutch crusaders occupied Sredets and the surrounding country, as it had been omitted from any of the negotiations and was thus technically conquerable. Vlad Dracula and Stefan the Great, meanwhile, continued their campaigns in Bulgaria against the Ottoman forces there.
Mehmed, meanwhile, finally turned his attention eastwards. Anatolia was burning, both literally and figuratively, and it would take all the Sultan’s might to put it out.
 Butterflies result in Hunyadi becoming king in his own right in 1447
 Here, Stepjan II means that he was the second Serbian king names Stepjan. Many previous Serbian rulers adopted the title ‘stefan’, but not the name ‘Stefan’.
 Venetian name of Euboia
 The Hexamilion was a wall across the isthmus of Korinthos that had been constructed by Manouel II. It was captured and pulled down by the Turks under Evrenos Bey several times in the 1410s, but was reconstituted under Constantine XI
 The Kopais Lake was a large lake in central Boeotia that has since been drained.
 Rumelia was the Ottoman term for the Balkans
 Not yet the great; Mehmed focussed his efforts on Stefan as Vlad Dracula hated Mehmed on a personal level because the Sultan had repeatedly raped his brother, Vlad Radu