The Battle of Nicopolis on 25th September 1396 was the final action of one of the last flowerings of the Crusader spirit and, like just about all its predecessors, it was an ignominious failure.
A new Crusade
In 1395 the Sultan of the Ottoman Turks, Bayezid, had begun a campaign of conquest into mainland Europe. He besieged and captured the fortress of Nicopolis (modern day Nikopol) on the Danube in Bulgaria in July 1395, killing the Bulgarian tsar in the process, and this caused panic further west as the threat to Christian Europe became fully appreciated.
Pope Boniface IX, like so many popes before him, called upon the faithful to launch a crusade to defend Christianity against the forces of Islam. The call was heeded by Jean de Nevers, the son of the Duke of Burgundy, and by July 1396 he had assembled an army that was headed by 10,000 Frenchmen, augmented by troops from Germany, England, Poland, Austria and other countries. When the army reached Buda it was joined by King Sigismund of Hungary who contributed a huge force of 30,000 men.
The aim of the crusade was to sweep the Turks out of Europe and then continue through Syria to Jerusalem, which would in turn be recaptured. First, however, they needed to seize control of Nicopolis.
The Nicopolis campaign
Knowing that the first task was going to be to capture a well-defended fortress, it is surprising that the European army did not equip itself with siege equipment. However, they did not, and so were unable to do anything other than surround Nicopolis and wait for it to fall. This gave the Turks time to await reinforcements, which arrived in the shape of Sultan Bayezid himself (nicknamed the Thunderbolt) at the head of a large army, which dug defensive positions on the road leading to the fortress.
The battle began when the French mounted knights, acting on their own initiative, attacked the Turks. They made good progress until they came up against the Turkish defences of sharp stakes planted in the ground, which forced them to dismount. Even fighting on foot they killed many Turkish soldiers but were eventually cut off from the rest of the army and suffered heavy losses with many of them being taken prisoner.
The Hungarian infantry also enjoyed initial success but were then beaten back after being ambushed by the Sultan’s Serbian allies. King Sigismund was able to escape by taking a ship up the Danube, but Jean de Nevers was captured and held for ransom.
On the following day Bayezid took revenge for his heavy losses by killing most of his prisoners and giving the rest to his soldiers as slaves.
Another Crusader failure
Bulgaria was now firmly under Turkish control and would stay that way for the next 500 years. Although the term “last Crusade” is commonly applied to an action in 1443-4, the Nicopolis crusade was the last occasion on which a Pope would call on the nations of Europe to wage war against Islam.