The Siege of Belgrade
The empire of Rome finally reached its end, not in the fifth century, as ordinarily considered, but in the fifteenth; not at Rome, but at Constantinople, where the Eastern empire survived the Western for a thousand years. At length, in 1453, the Turks captured Constantinople, set a broad foot upon the degenerate empire of the East, and crushed out the last feeble remnants of life left in the pygmy successor of the colossus of the past.
And now Europe, which had looked on with clasped hands while the Turks swept over the Bosphorus and captured Constantinople, suddenly awoke to the peril of its situation. A blow in time might have saved the Greek empire. The blow had not been struck, and now Europe had itself to save. Terror seized upon the nations which had let their petty intrigues stand in the way of that broad policy in which safety lay, for they could not forget past instances of Asiatic invasion. The frightful ravages wrought by the Huns and the Avars were far in the past, but no long time had elapsed since the coming of the Magyars and the Mongols, and now here was another of those hordes of murderous barbarians, hanging like a cloud of war on the eastern skirt of Europe, and threatening to rain death and ruin upon the land. The dread of the nations was not amiss. They had neglected to strengthen the eastern barrier to the Turkish avalanche. Now it threatened their very doors, and they must meet it at home.
The Turks were not long in making their purpose evident. Within two years after the fall of Constantinople they were on the march again, and had laid siege to Belgrade, the first obstacle in their pathway to universal conquest. The Turkish cannons were thundering at the doors of Europe. Belgrade fallen, Vienna would come next, and the march of the barbarians might only end at the sea.
And yet, despite their danger, the people of Germany remained supine. Hungary had valiantly defended itself against the Turks ten years before, without aid from the German empire. It looked now as if Belgrade might be left to its fate. The brave John Hunyades and his faithful Hungarians were the only bulwarks of Europe against the foe, for the people seemed incapable of seeing a danger a thousand miles away. The pope and his legate John Capistrano, general of the Capuchins, were the only aids to the valiant Hunyades in his vigorous defence. They preached a crusade, but with little success. Capistrano traversed Germany, eloquently calling the people to arms against the barbarians. The result was similar to that on previous occasions, the real offenders were neglected, the innocent suffered. The people, instead of arming against the Turks, turned against the Jews, and murdered them by thousands. Whatever happened in Europe,—a plague, an invasion, a famine, a financial strait,—that unhappy people were in some way held responsible, and mediŠval Europe seemed to think it could, at any time, check the frightful career of a comet or ward off pestilence by slaughtering a few thousands of Jews. It cannot be said that it worked well on this occasion; the Jews died, but the Turks surrounded Belgrade still.
Capistrano found no military ardor in Germany, in princes or people. The princes contented themselves with ordering prayers and ringing the Turkish bells, as they were called. The people were as supine as their princes. He did, however, succeed, by the aid of his earnest eloquence, in gathering a force of a few thousands of peasants, priests, scholars, and the like; a motley host who were chiefly armed with iron flails and pitchforks, but who followed him with an enthusiasm equal to his own. With this shadow of an army he joined Hunyades, and the combined force made its way in boats down the Danube into the heart of Hungary, and approached the frontier fortress which Mahomet II. was besieging with a host of one hundred and sixty thousand men, and which its defender, the brother-in-law of John Hunyades, had nearly given up for lost.
On came the flotilla,—the peasants with their flails and forks and Hunyades with his trained soldiers,—and attacked the Turkish fleet with such furious energy that it was defeated and dispersed, and the allied forces made their way into the beleaguered city. Capistrano and his followers were full of enthusiasm. He was a second Peter the Hermit, his peasant horde were crusaders, fierce against the infidels, disdaining death in God's cause; neither leader nor followers had a grain of military knowledge or experience, but they had, what is sometimes better, courage and enthusiasm.
John Hunyades had military experience, and looked with cold disfavor on the burning and blind zeal of his new recruits. He was willing that they should aid him in repelling the furious attacks of the Turks, but to his trained eyes an attack on the well-intrenched camp of the enemy would have been simple madness, and he sternly forbade any such suicidal course, even threatening death to whoever should attempt it.
In truth, his caution seemed reasonable. An immense host surrounded the city on the land side, and had done so on the water side, also, until the Christian flotilla had sunk, captured, and dispersed its boats. Far as the eye could see, the gorgeously-embellished tents of the Turkish army, with their gilded crescents glittering in the sun, filled the field of view. Cannon-mounted earthworks threatened the walls from every quarter. Squadrons of steel-clad horsemen swept the field. The crowding thousands of besiegers pressed the city day and night. Even defence seemed useless. Assault on such a host appeared madness to experienced eyes. Hunyades seemed wise in his stern disapproval of such an idea.
Yet military knowledge has its limitations, when it fails to take into account the power of enthusiasm. Blind zeal is a force whose possibilities a general does not always estimate. It is capable of performing miracles, as Hunyades was to learn. His orders, his threats of death, had no restraining effect on the minds of the crusaders. They had come to save Europe from the Turks, and they were not to be stayed by orders or threats. What though the enemy greatly outnumbered them, and had cannons and scimitars against their pikes and flails, had they not God on their side, and should God's army pause to consider numbers and cannon-balls? They were not to be restrained; attack they would, and attack they did.
The siege had made great progress. The reinforcement had come barely in time. The walls were crumbling under the incessant bombardment. Convinced that he had made a practicable breach, Mahomet, the sultan, ordered an assault in force. The Turks advanced, full of barbarian courage, climbed the crumbled walls, and broke, as they supposed, into the town, only to find new walls frowning before them. The vigorous garrison had built new defences behind the old ones, and the disheartened assailants learned that they had done their work in vain.
This repulse greatly discouraged the sultan. He was still more discouraged when the crusaders, irrepressible in their hot enthusiasm, broke from the city and made a fierce attack upon his works. Capistrano, seeing that they were not to be restrained, put himself at their head, and with a stick in one hand and a crucifix in the other, led them to the assault. It proved an irresistible one. The Turks could not sustain themselves against these flail-swinging peasants. One intrenchment after another fell into their hands, until three had been stormed and taken. Their success inspired Hunyades. Filled with a new respect for his peasant allies, and seeing that now or never was the time to strike, he came to their aid with his cavalry, and fell so suddenly and violently upon the Turkish rear that the invaders were put to rout.
Onward pushed the crusaders and their allies; backward went the Turks. The remaining intrenchments were stubbornly defended, but that storm of iron flails, those pikes and pitchforks, wielded by the zeal of enthusiasts, were not to be resisted, and in the end all that remained of the Turkish army broke into panic flight, the sultan himself being wounded, and more than twenty thousand of his men left dead upon the field.
It was a signal victory. Miraculous almost, when one considers the great disproportion of numbers. The works of the invaders, mounted with three hundred cannon, and their camp, which contained an immense booty, fell into the hands of the Christians, and the power of Mahomet II. was so crippled that years passed before he was in condition to attempt a second invasion of Europe.
The victors were not long to survive their signal triumph. The valiant Hunyades died shortly after the battle, from wounds received in the action or from fatal disease. Capistrano died in the same year (1456). Hunyades left two sons, and the King of Hungary repaid his services by oppressing both, and beheading one of these sons. But the king himself died during the next year, and Matthias Corvinus, the remaining son of Hunyades, was placed by the Hungarians on their throne. They had given their brave defender the only reward in their power.
If the victory of Hunyades and Capistrano—the nobleman and the monk—had been followed up by the princes of Europe, the Turks might have been driven from Constantinople, Europe saved from future peril at their hands, and the tide of subsequent history gained a cleaner and purer flow. But nothing was done; the princes were too deeply interested in their petty squabbles to entertain large views, and the Turks were suffered to hold the empire of the East, and quietly to recruit their forces for later assaults.