John Hunyadi and his wars with the Ottomans

By Bloodswan

John Hunyadi, also known by his Hungarian name of Hunyadi Janos is remembered today as a national hero in both Hungary and Romania. Nicknamed the White Knight, his resume reads like a lone crusade against the Ottomans. Having learnt his military trade as a young condottiere in Italy, Hunyadi used his own wealth to raise an efficient fighting force to face the Ottomans. A true professional he was also quick to learn and adopt new tactics and was one of the key figures during the often turbulent medieval history of Central Europe and the Balkans. Widely respected in Europe, he was often the object of the Ottoman Empire’s hatred.

The early years and rise of Hunyadi Janos

John was born into a noble family in the Hunguarian vassal state of Wallachia in 1387. His father, Vojk was a Wallachian Boyar. Vojk took the family name of Hunyadi when he received an estate around the Hunyad Castle from King Sigismund, in 1409. Erzsébet Morzsinay was the daughter of a small noble family from Hunyad. John married Erzsébet Szilágyi, a Hungarian noblewoman.

While still a youth, Hunyadi entered the retinue of King Sigismund, who appreciated his qualities. He accompanied Sigismund to Frankfurt during Sigismund’s quest for the Imperial crown in 1410. He would later take part in the Hussite Wars in 1420 and made a career as a condotierre, serving mainly in Hungary and the Balkans. For his services he received numerous estates and a seat on the royal council. In 1438 Sigismund’s successor, King Albert II made Hunyadi ban (a title given to local rulers) of Severin. Severin was located south of the defensible southern frontiers of Hungary, the Carpathians and Danube river complex and was subject to constant harassment by Ottoman forces.

War with the Ottomans

Upon the sudden death of Albert in 1439, Hunyadi, lent his support to the young King of Poland Wladislaw III and thus came into collision with the powerful Ulrich II of Celje, the chief supporter of Albert’s widow Elizabeth and her infant son, Ladislaus V. He took a prominent part in the ensuing civil war and was rewarded by Wladislaw with the captaincy of the fortress of Belgrade and the governorship of Transylvania.

The burden of the Ottoman War now rested with him. In 1441 he won victory at Semendria. In 1442, near Sibiu he annihilated an immense Ottoman force, and recovered the suzerainty of Wallachia for Hungary.

Later in the same year, he vanquished a third Turkish army near the Iron Gates. These victories made Hunyadi a prominent enemy of the Ottomans and renowned throughout Christendom, and stimulated him in 1443 to undertake, along with King Wladislaw, the famous expedition known as the “long campaign”. Hunyadi, at the head of the vanguard, crossed the Balkans through the Gate of Trajan, captured Nis, defeated three Turkish armies, and, after taking Sofia, united with Wladislaw’s army and defeated Sultan Murad II at Snaim. The impatience of the king and the severity of the winter then compelled him to return home in February 1444, but not before he had utterly broken the Sultan’s power in Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania. This forced Murad to withdraw into Anatolia.

The battle of Varna

Upon returning to Hungary he was asked by Pope Eugene IV, represented by the Legate Julian Cesarini, to resume the war with the Ottomans and drive them out of Europe. All the preparations had been made when Murad’s envoys arrived in the royal camp at Szeged and offered a ten year truce. Durad Brankovic, despot of Serbia bribed Hunyadi with vast estates in Hungary to support the acceptance of the peace. Hungary accepted the Sultan’s offer and Hunyadi in Wladislaw’s name swore on the Gospels to observe them. However, Julian Cesarini reminded King Wladislaw that he and Hunyadi had earlier sworn to never give up the crusade, so all future peace and oaths were automatically invalid.

Two days later Cesarini received word that a fleet of Venetian galleys had set off for the Bosporus to prevent Murad from crossing into Europe and reminded King Wladislaw that he had sworn to cooperate by land if the western powers attacked the Ottomans by sea. In July the Hungarian army recrossed the frontier and advanced towards the Black Sea coast in order to march to Constantinople escorted by the galleys.

Durad Brankovic, fearful of the sultan’s vengeance in case of disaster, privately informed Murad of the advance of the Christian army and prevented the Albanian army under Prince Gjergj Kastrioti from joining Hunyadi’s army. Upon reaching Varna, the Hungarians found that the Venetian galleys had failed to prevent the Sultan’s army from crossing the Bosporus. Hunyadi’s 20,000 strong army was now confronted by an Ottoman force of around 60,000.

A military council was called by Hunyadi during the night. During the concil, Julian Cesarini, insisted on a quick withdrawal. This would prove difficult however as the Christians were closed between the Black sea, Lake Varna, the steep wooded slopes of the Frangen plateau and the Ottoman army. Cesarini then proposed defense using a wagon fortification. Many of the Hungarian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Czech commanders backed him. Hunyadi had previously adopted this tactic from the Hussites and used it to great effect against the Ottomans, but Wladislaw and Hunyadi rejected the defensive tactics. Hunyadi declared: “To escape is impossible, to surrender is unthinkable. Let us fight with bravery and honour our arms.” Wladislaw agreed and gave Hunyadi the outright command of the army.

In the morning of November 10, Hunyadi deployed the army as an arc between Lake Varna and the Frangen plateau with a total of 3500 men from the king’s Polish and Hungarian bodyguards. The Wallachian cavalry was left in reserve behind the centre.

The right wing that lined up the hill towards the village of Kamenar numbered 6500 men. Bishop Jan Dominek of Varadin led this force, Cesarini commanded a banner of German mercenaries and Bosnians. The bishop of Eger lead his own banner, and the military governor of Slavonia, Franco Talotsi, commanded the Croatian army.

The left wing, a total of 5,000 men, was lead by Michael Szilagyi, Hunyadi’s brother in law, and was made up of Hunyadi’s Transylvanians, Bulgarians, German mercenaries and Hungarians. Behind the Hungarians, closer to the Black Sea and the lake, was the Wagon fort, defended by 300 or 600 Czech and Ruthenian mercenaries under Hetman Ceyka. Every wagon was manned by 7 to 10 soldiers and the Wagenburg was equipped with bombards.

The Ottoman centre included the Janissaries and levies from Rumelia deployed around two Thracian burial mounds. Murad observed and directed the battle from one of them. The Janissaries dug in behind ditches and two palisades. The right wing consisted of Qapikulus and Sipahis from Rumelia, and the left wing was made up by Akinjis & Sipahis from Anatolia, Arab mercenaries, and other forces. Janissary archers and Akinji light cavalry were deployed along the Frangen plateau.

When the battle began the light Ottoman and Arab cavalry assaulted the Croats of ban Talotsi. Christians from the left wing came to the Croatian’s aide with bombards and firearms and stopped the attack. They then chased the Ottomans and Arabs in a disorderly pursuit. As the Christian soldiers pushed forward they were ambushed and hit in their flanks by Anatolian cavalry and Arab camel riders. The Christians attempted to flee to the small fortress of Galata on the other side of Varna Bay, but most of them were slain in the marshland around Varna Lake and the river Devnya, where Cesarini also perished. Only Talotsi’s troops managed to withdraw behind the Wagenburg.

Wladislaw and Hunyadi deployed two cavalry companies from the centre and the Wallachian cavalry against the Arabs and Anatolian Sipahis, who were routed and their commander, Karaca Bey, killed. The Christians pursued them for quite some distance before returning to the battlefield. The Wallachian cavalry continued the chase and broke into the fortified Ottoman camp. After pillaging and looting, the Wallachians left the battlefield.

The other Ottoman flank assaulted the Hungarians and Bulgarians of Michael Szilagyi. Their push was stopped and turned back before the Sipahis attacked again. Hunyadi decided to help and advised the king to wait until he returned. He advanced with two cavalry companies against the Sipahis, defeated and pursued them for several kilometres.

With the European army seemingly close to victory, Murad decided to leave the battlefield. The young king Wladislaw, ignoring Hunyadi’s advice, rushed 500 of his Polish knights against the Ottoman centre. They overran the Janissary infantry and the king attempted to take Murad prisoner but surrounded by Murad’s Janissary bodyguards, Wladislaw was slain, his head cut off and paraded on a spear. The disheartened Polish cavalry was then smashed by the Ottomans.

Hunyadi returned only to discover that King Wladislaw had been killed. He tried in vain to salvage the king’s body but was forced to withdraw and lead the retreat of the remains of his army. It had suffered over 11,000 casualties including the deaths of several key figures.

The Ottomans lost between 8,000 to 20,000 soldiers. Although victorious the Ottomans were so shattered by the smaller Christian army that they were unable to pursue them and did not continue to Central Europe as they had previously planned.

Hunyadi’s reign and the battle of Kosovo

On February 1445 a provisional government consisting of five Captain Generals was formed. Hunyadi received Transylvania and four counties bordering on the Tisza river. However, the anarchy resulting from the division became uncontrolable and Hunyadi was elected regent of Hungary on June 5, 1446 in the name of Ladislaus V of Bohemia. His first act as regent was to proceed against the German king Frederick III, who refused to release Ladislaus V. Hunyadi began ravaging the German held regions of Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola and threatening Vienna. Hunyadi’s was forced to make a truce with Frederick for two years due mainly to threats from the Ottomans and Venetians.

In 1448, he received a golden chain and the title of Prince from Pope Nicholas V, and immediately afterwards resumed the war with the Ottomans. Hunyadi took his newly formed army and marched into the Balkans. Hunyadi’s old rival Durad Brankovic, intercepted Hunyadi’s planned Albanian reinforcements led by Gjergj Kastrioti (also known as Skanderbeg) and preventing them from ever reaching the assuming battle.

When Hunyadi arrived at the Kosovo field he realised that the Sultan’s troops were occupying the hills behind his own army. After a heavy fight a contingent of knights captured the hills and proceeded to build defences there, making use of war wagons.

The following day, Hunyadi attacked the Ottoman flanks with his cavalry. The Turkish flanks were losing ground until the Turkish light cavalry arrived to reinforce them. The Christian flanks were subsequently routed and the survivors retreated back to Hunyadi’s main force. When Hunyadi saw the defeat of his flanks, he attacked with his main force, composed of knights and light infantry. The janissaries could stop them and Hunyadi’s cavalry made progress through the Turkish centre until they were stopped at the Turkish camp. With the main attack havong been stalled, the Turkish infantry regrouped and successfully drove the Hungarian knights back. The light cavalry, who were now without the knights’ support were easily overcome. Hungarian forces retreated to their camp. During the retreat, the janissaries killed most of the Hungarian nobles and Hunyadi fled but was captured by Serbs under Ottoman command. Hunyadi was taken to the fortress of Smederevo where he was imprissoned. During the night, Turkish infantry fired missiles at the Hungarians who replied with cannons. On the next day, a final assault totally annihilated the remnants of the Hungarian army.

The two-day battle in Kosovo saw both sides take heavy casualties. After the loss at Kosovo, the Christian Balkan states were unable to resist the Ottoman advance. However Hunyadi and Gjergj Kastrioti both successfully defended Hungary and Albania respectively against the Ottomans.

Hunyadi was ransomed by his countrymen and soon led a small but successful campaign against Brankovic and forced him to accept a peace treaty.

In 1450 Hunyadi went to the Hungarian capital of Pozsony to negotiate with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III the terms of the surrender of Ladislaus V, but no agreement could be reached. Several of John Hunyadi’s enemies, including his old enemy Ulrich II, accused him of conspiracy to overthrow the King. In order to defuse this volatile domestic situation he relinquished his regency and title. On his return to Hungary at the beginning of 1453, Ladislaus named him count of Beszterce and Captain General of Hungary.

Above is the coat of arms of John Hunyadi. The Beszterce lions were adopted after he was named count of Beszterce. The ravens that appear on his coat of arms are interesting because his Latin name is Ioannes Corvinus, corvinus meaning raven.

The siege of Belgrade and the death of John Hunyadi

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II began rallying his resources in order to subjugate Hungary. His immediate objective was Belgrade. After settling differences with his domestic enemies, Hunyadi arrived at the siege of Belgrade at the end of 1455. At his own expense, Hunyadi restocked the supplies and arms of the fortress, leaving in it a strong garrison under the command of his brother-in-law Mihaly Szilagyi and his own eldest son Laszlo.

Hunyadi’s next step was to raise an army to relieve Belgrade’s forces and assemble a fleet of two hundred ships. His main ally was the Franciscan friar, Giovanni da Capistrano, who managed to gather a large crusading army made up mostly of peasants. Although they were only armed with farm equipment, such as scythes and pitchforks they flocked to Hunyadi and his small group of seasoned mercenaries and cavalry. However, before these forces could assemble, Mehmet’s invasion army of 70,000 arrived at Belgrade. On July 4, 1456, the siege began. Szilangyi had a mere 7,000 men to rely on.

Mehmet stationed his Rumelian forces on the right wing and his Anatolians on the left. In the centre were the Janissaries and other elite troops. Sipahis and light cavalry were posted at the rear so the main army could not be outflanked. The outnumbered defenders relied mainly on the strength of the formidable castle of Belgrade itself. Meanwhile, Hunyadi hurried towards Belgrade with a peasant army of 40,000.

On July 14, 1456 Hunyadi’s fleet arrived and destroyed the Ottoman fleet. But Mehmet was not willing to end the siege and ordered his artillery to bombard the walls. After a week of heavy artillery bombardment, the walls of the fortress were breached in several places. On July 21 Mehmet ordered an all-out assault on the city. The Ottoman army flooded into the city. Once in the city, the Ottomans began a determined assault on the fort. During this crucial moment of the battle Hunyadi ordered the defenders to throw tarred wood and other flammable material into their own city and soon a wall of flames separated the Janissaries fighting in the city from their comrades trying to breach through the gaps into the upper town. The fierce battle between the encircled Janissaries and Szilagyi’s soldiers began turning in favour of the Christians. The Hungarians had also managed to beat off the fierce assault from outside the walls. The Janissaries remaining inside the city were soon massacred while the Turkish troops trying to breach into the upper town suffered heavy losses.

The next day many of the Hunyadi’s peasant soldiers disobeyed Hunyadi’s orders and began attacking the Turkish camp. The Sipahis tried without success to drive them back and soon more Christians joined those outside the wall. What began as isolated skirmishes quickly escalated into a full-scale battle. Capistrano led his forces to across the Sava river to attack the Turkish rear and at the same time, Hunyadi although initially reluctant, started a desperate charge out of the fort to take the cannon positions in the Turkish camp.

Taking advantage of the Ottoman’s confused flight from the city, Hunyadi pursued the retreating Ottoman forces into their camp. After fierce but brief fighting, the camp was captured. Taken by surprise many of the Turks took flight. The Sultan’s Janissary bodyguard tried desperately to stop the panic and recapture the camp but to no avail. The Sultan himself advanced into the fight and killed a knight in single combat, but then took an arrow in the thigh. The wounded Mehmet raised the siege and returned to Istanbul.

Plague broke out in Hunyadi’s camp three later and he died on August 11th. Hunyadi died without achieving his ambition of regaining Constantinople but had been instrumental in holding off the advancing Ottoman forces in the Balkans for almost 20 years. He was buried inside the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Alba Iulia next to his elder brother John.

During the siege, Pope Callixtus III ordered the ringing of a noon bell to pray for the defenders, but in many places the news of victory arrived earlier than his order so it was transformed into the commemoration of the victory. The noon bell is still rung to this day for the memory of Hunyadi’s victory.

The Legacy of John Hunyadi

John Hunyadi rose to hero status with his campaigns against the Ottomans and with the rise of nationalism he was quickly claimed by many nations as their own. Romania claim him as theirs due to his Vlach origin whilst his career in Hungary obviously held him dear to Hungarian hearts. His son Matthias, was one of the most renowned kings of Hungary. John Hunyadi is traditionally considered a national hero in both Hungary and Romania.

John’s legacy lived on through his various successors. Not just Matthias Corvinus as previously mentioned but Hunyadi was also responsible for establishing the careers of both Stephen III of Moldavia and Vlad III of Wallachia (better known as Vlad the Impaler).

Among John’s noted qualities, was recognizing the insufficiency and unreliability of the feudal levies, instead regularly employing large professional armies. He recruited many Hussites, Italians and Germans into his armies and adopted many new styes of warfare, mainly from the Hussites. He helped develop the science of European warfare with an emphasis on tactics and strategy in place of over-reliance on frontal assaults and melees. Hunyadi was always quick and willing to learn and adopt new tactics. The use of wagon fortifications was adopted from the Hussites and proved very successful. A favourite tactic was to draw the Ottoman cavalry against the field fortifications then attack their flanks with his own cavalry.

Although he remained illiterate until late in life, his skills in diplomacy and as a tactician allowed him to serve his country well. After his death, Pope Callixtus III stated that “the light of the world has passed away”, referring mainly to Hunyadi’s defence of Christendom against the Ottoman threat.


Hungary and the fall of Eastern Europe by David Nicolle
The Ottoman empire 1326 – 1699 by Stephen Turnbull
Various internet sources