Who Was John Hunyadi?
Starting with the 14th century, a new power rose in the Eastern Mediterranean, a power that, by the end of the 14th century, became the strongest state in Anatolia and the Balkans.
I am, of course, referring to the rising Ottoman Empire. Worried by the rapid Ottoman conquests, the Pope, French nobles and King Sigismund of Hungary led a Crusade to the Balkans, but Sultan Bayazid smashed their forces at the Battle of Nicopolis. Luckily for the Europeans, the Sultan suffered a devastating defeat a few years later at Ankara. Bayazid himself was captured, and in his absence, his sons soon divided his empire between themselves. Civil war quickly followed the division of the empire, and it was not until 1413 that Mehmed I succeeded in reestablishing the unity of the empire.
It took even longer to fully reestablish the strength of the former strength of the empire, but by the late 1430s, the Ottomans were as formidable as they were under the reign of Bayazid, and large-scale raids and attacks were launched against the neighbours of the empire.
The Kingdom of Hungary was the strongest opponent of the Ottomans throughout the course of the 15th century. One man, in particular, made a name for himself in resisting Ottoman expansion. I am referring to John Hunyadi, one of Hungary’s richest and most influential noblemen.
The exact date of Hunyadi’s birth is unknown, but most historians believe that he was born sometime in the late 1400s. There are debates about his parentage also, but he was probably the son of a Wallachian nobleman who moved into the Kingdom of Hungary under the rule of King Sigismund. Other theories also exist about Hunyadi’s parentage, according to which he was the illegitimate son of King Sigismund, or according to an even wilder claim, he was the illegitimate son of Serbian ruler Stefan Lazarevic. However, historians usually dismiss these two latter theories.
During his youth, Hunyadi served as a household knight of King Sigismund and accompanied the king to Italy in the 1430s. It is believed that during this time, Hunyadi became familiar with the most modern arms and military tactics of the age. Following the king’s departure from Italy, Hunyadi followed Sigismund to Bohemia, where Sigismund’s forces were fighting with the Hussites, and the ever-observant Hunyadi familiarised himself with the wagon fort tactics of the Hussites.
When Sigismund died, Hunyadi served his successor Albert until Albert died in 1439. Hunyadi did not support his infant son to succeed Albert but rather backed Wladylslaw of Poland. It was in the service of Wladyslaw that Hunyadi rose to prominence, and he played a crucial role in defeating Wladyslaw’s enemies, for which he was rewarded by becoming the governor of Transylvania and one of the most trusted advisors of the King.
During the next few years, Hunyadi established himself as a formidable general when he regularly defeated large Ottoman raiding parties attacking Transylvania. His most famous victory was scored against Mezid, the Beglerbey of Rumelia, when Hunyadi attacked the Ottoman army while it was retreating from Transylvania and recaptured the slaves and looted the Ottomans plundered on their raid.
In 1443, under the leadership of Hunyadi and Wladyslaw, an anti-Ottoman campaign was launched in the Balkans. The Crusaders scored some victories, but the Ottomans succeeded in barring their passage through the Balkan mountains and the horrid winter conditions, in the end, forced both sides to sue for peace.
Peace was temporarily reestablished between the Ottomans and the Hungarians in August 1444. With peace restored, Murad II, worn down by the endless wars, decided to abdicate and was followed on the throne by his 12 years old son Mehmed.
The abdication of Murad took his neighbours by surprise, and the ascension of a green boy to the Ottoman throne was seen as an opportunity by the Pope, whose legate convinced Wladylslaw to break the peace. Thus in the autumn of 1444, Wladyslaw and Hunyadi again lead an army against the Ottomans.
The Crusader force was hastily assembled and not very large. Still, they banked on the Genoese blocking the crossing of Ottoman troops into Europe (the main Ottoman army was repelling an attack from the Karamanid Emir), but their hopes proved to be futile. In the meantime, Murad II was called back by Grand Vizier Chandarli Halil Pasha and was able to cross into Europe with his army.
The two armies met at the Battle of Varna. Although the Crusaders were badly outnumbered, the initial phases of the battle were not decisive, as using their wagon forts, the Crusaders could hold off the Ottomans. The battle was decided by the death of Wladyslaw, who foolishly charged Murad’s positions with his heavy cavalry and was killed in the fighting. News of his death led to a panic in the Crusader army, and the battle turned into a rout. Hunyadi himself was barely able to escape from the chaos.
Governor of Hungary
Following Wladylaw’s death, the Hungarians chose to accept Albert’s son, Ladislaus as their king, but Ladislaus was still only a boy and under the guardianship of Frederick III of Austria. Thus, Hunyadi was elected as the governor of Hungary until Ladislaus came of age.
In the following years, he continued his fight against the Ottomans. He invaded the Ottoman vassal Wallachia in 1447, deposing Vlad Dracul and putting his puppet Vladislav on the throne of Wallachia.
The next year he led another anti-Ottoman campaign into the Balkans, but he could not link up with the army of Skanderbeg and had to face Murad II alone at Kosovo Field. By this time, the Ottomans adopted the Hungarian tactics that nearly defeated them at Varna, and the numerical advantage of the Ottomans decided the Second Battle of Kosovo. Hunyadi’s army was annihilated, and Durad Brankovic captured him while escaping. Brankovic only released him after the payment of a hefty ransom.
His defeat in Kosovo weakened his internal position, and in the next years, his enemies tried to limit his authority. In 1453, he was forced to give up his governorship.
He led campaigns against Jan Giskra, who ruled much of Upper Hungary, but failed to dislodge Giskra and, in the end, came to an accommodation with him.
Between 1453 and 1456, Hunyadi made peace with some of his chief rivals and mutually promised to aid one another to oppose King Ladislaus naming foreigners into the leading positions of the government of the country. Hunyadi also made peace with Ulrich of Celje, another very powerful nobleman, and his younger son Matthias married Ulrich’s daughter to seal the peace between the two houses.
His fight against the Ottomans also continued, and in 1454 he defeated a 30,000-strong Ottoman army at the Battle of Krusevac.
He faced Sultan Mehmed in person two years later at the Siege of Belgrade. Emboldened by his conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed attacked Belgrade in the summer of 1456. He hired mercenaries to strengthen the garrison, which his brother-in-law and his eldest son led.
Hunyadi stayed behind and decided to raise another force to lift the siege. Estimates vary, but he was believed to have raised some 15,000 soldiers, many of whom were battle-hardened mercenaries before he set out for Belgrade. His force was augmented by a large Crusader force led (perhaps as many as 40,000-50,000) by John Capistrano, though these men were little more than peasants armed with whatever weapons they had, and their military value was limited.
Hunyadi also assembled a fleet, as the Ottomans blockaded the Danube with their own fleet. Unless the naval blockade was broken, Hunyadi would have been unable to reinforce the garrison.
At first, it was the two fleets that clashed. After a long and gruelling battle, after which, according to the chroniclers, the Danube was running red with all the spilt blood, the Hungarians emerged victorious. Hunyadi was able to reinforce the garrison with his mercenaries.
There was not enough food for the Crusaders, so the bulk of the Capistranos force made camp on the bank of the Sava, opposite the Ottoman army.
Hunyadi’s reinforcements had arrived just in time to save the defenders, and after a day of heavy fighting, the defenders repelled an all-out Ottoman attack on July 21.
The next day, against the orders of Hunyadi, the Crusaders attacked the Ottoman forces. The ill-disciplined and equipped Crusaders were in danger of getting massacred. The quick thinking of Hunyadi saved the day when he ordered an all-out cavalry assault against the Ottomans and captured their artillery. Attacked from two sides and their own artillery turned against them, the Ottoman army was defeated, and his generals forced Sultan Mehmed II to retreat from Belgrade.
Unfortunately, Hunyadi did not live long to bask in the glory of his victory. A plague broke out in the Christian camp, and three weeks after his greatest victory, the legendary warrior succumbed to the plague.
Thanks to his relentless resistance against the expansion of the Ottomans, John Hunyadi is today remembered as a great hero in both Hungary and Romania, both countries claiming him as their own.
Imber, Colin (2009). The Ottoman Empire, 1300–1650: The Structure of Power (2 ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.
Engel, Pál (2001). The Realm of St Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary, 895–1526. I.B. Tauris.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler