When Emperor John VI left the Byzantine throne in 1354, he left behind an “empire” so reduced that it was only made up of Constantinople itself and a few territories in Greece. His co-emperor, the rebellious John V Palaiologos, succeeded to the throne. John V was later followed by his son Manuel upon his father’s death. Manuel’s reign was marked by humiliating defeats of Christian kingdoms of Eastern Europe by the Turks. He renewed the call for a Crusade against the Turks. The Crusaders who took part in it were defeated again in the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.
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The Twilight of the Byzantine Empire
Emperor John VI left the Byzantine throne to his young co-emperor John V Palaiologos in 1354. In the years that followed, the Byzantines steadily lost Thracian cities to the Ottoman Turks. Faced with the loss of Byzantium itself, John V came up with a drastic solution. He wrote to the Pope and offered to return to Catholicism if he would provide the Byzantine army with extra men.
Pope Innocent VI was happy to help with John V’s desire to convert to Catholicism. As for the Emperor’s need for extra troops, the Pope was powerless about it. He did ask several European rulers to help the Byzantines, but they either ignored him or sent too few men to help John V.
Pope Innocent VI died in 1362, and he was succeeded by Pope Urban V. He returned to Italy in 1369 after living in Avignon for some years. He moved to Viterbo as the condition of the Lateran Palace was not good at that time. John VI travelled to Viterbo and made another desperate appeal to Pope Urban V. There he submitted to the Pope and converted to Catholicism.
John V’s submission was useless as the Pope could provide only hundreds of men. The emperor tried Genoa and Venice next as he had no money to go home to Constantinople yet. The rulers of Venice and Genoa refused to help him. The Doge of Venice also reminded John V that he owed a lot of money to Venice. This loan was made by his mother so she could support his bid as emperor during the civil war. He was left stranded in Venice until his son Manuel came up with enough money to bring him home.
When he returned to Constantinople, he had no choice but to submit to the Ottoman Sultan Murad. He became nothing more than an Ottoman vassal with a reduced and impoverished territory. He also sent his son Manuel to the Ottoman court to assure the Turks that he would behave.
The Ottomans had a stable base in Thrace, so it was only a matter of time before they launched the attacks in Bulgaria and Serbia. Both kingdoms were beaten into submission, along with the Greek city of Thessalonica during the 1380s. Sultan Murad died during the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. He was replaced by his son Bayezid.
Bayezid forced Manuel to become a part of the Ottoman troops, and the prince had no choice but to submit. The Sultan also forbade John V from building Constantinople’s defences and threatened Manuel’s life if John V disobeyed. It was the last straw for the desperate John V. He stayed inside his own room until he starved to death in 1391.
Manuel fled from Bayezid when he heard that his father had died. He returned to Constantinople and ruled what was left of the once great Byzantine Empire. Bayezid allowed him to rule, but he sent Manuel a message that made it clear that the Ottomans would conquer Constantinople soon.
A New Crusade
The Turks first tried to besiege Constantinople in 1394, so Manuel had no choice but to ask other Christian kings for help. The problem, however, was that almost all the Christian rulers near him had submitted to the Turks. It was only King Sigismund of Hungary who answered his urgent pleas for help. Sigismund, in turn, pleaded with the Pope and other European kings to send soldiers to help them.
The antipope in Avignon and the Pope in Rome both issued a papal bull to start a new Crusade. As much as 10,000 French volunteers joined the Crusade, and they were led by John, Count of Nevers. A few Venetian and English soldiers also joined them, along with some Knights Hospitaller. They arrived in Hungary in June 1396.
The Battle of Nicopolis
Sigismund was so impressed with the entourage of the Count of Nevers that he became optimistic of their victory. The King added as much as 60,000 Hungarian soldiers to counter the Turkish threat. They crossed the Danube River, and easily captured a couple of Turkish strongholds. While Bayezid and the Turks were busy attacking Constantinople, the Crusaders started to attack the Ottoman stronghold of Nicopolis (in present-day Bulgaria). When Bayezid heard of this, he immediately left Constantinople and marched his men to Nicopolis.
The Crusaders were caught by surprise when they heard that the Turks were coming. The Turks and the Crusaders met on the 25th of September 1396 in Nicopolis. The French knights recklessly engaged the Turks in battle without waiting for the Hungarian soldiers, so they were easily defeated. Bayezid also hid the Ottoman soldiers in the woods near Nicopolis and attacked the Hungarian troops who followed the French knights. The Crusaders were slaughtered, and Sigismund only escaped by boarding a ship which took him across the Danube. The rest of the Crusaders drowned as they were trying to flee.
Many of the captured Crusaders were executed right after the battle, while some knights were imprisoned and ransomed. The defeat of the Crusaders in the Battle of Nicopolis left another bitter taste in the mouth of the Europeans. It was the last of the major Crusades the European nobility took part in, and this fiasco left Constantinople truly alone. The Ottomans, meanwhile, followed up their victory by capturing several Bulgarian cities.
Picture By Denis Barthel – http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afbeelding:IJzeren_Poort.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Madden, Thomas F. Crusades: The Illustrated History. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2004.
Uyar, Mesut, and Edward J. Erickson. A Military History of the Ottomans: From Osman to Atatu虉rk. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International/ABC-CLIO, 2009.
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