János Hunyadi, 15th century Hungarian leader

János Hunyadi (c.1387 – 1456) was a 15th century Hungarian leader who was instrumental in repelling the Ottoman Turks. The son of a knight, he rose to the rank of general in the Hungarian army and served as governor of the Hungarian kingdom for six years. Hunyadi was born in Transylvania, in what is now Romania, around 1407. His father, Woyk, was a knight who had received Hunyadi castle (also in present-day Romania) from the king. This raised the family’s standing, and young János entered the knighthood.

He soon showed himself a natural leader, eventually earning a place of favor in the royal court. He married the daughter of distinguished noble and military leader, and he accompanied the king and his troops on several trips to other countries. He was introduced to new military techniques in Italy and Bohemia and adapted them to his own method of fighting. He scored a number of small but decisive victories against Ottoman forces, and was soon considered one of Hungary’s best fighters.

János Hunyadi

During the civil war that followed Albert I’s death in 1439, Hunyadi supported the candidacy of Vladislav. When Vladislav I assumed the throne, he made Hunyadi governor of all of Transylvania, as well as the captain of Belgrade (he was known in Belgrade under the name Sibinjanin Janko), count of Timis, and head of all southern Hungarian border forces. János Hunyadi became one of the first European commanders to employ a large-scale regular army instead of relying on mercenaries or untrained peasants.

In the fall of 1443, the infamous “Long campaign” began. János Hunyadi and some 30,000 troops attacked several Turkish strongholds in the Balkans, and pushed back the Ottoman threat significantly. By the beginning of February 1444, the Ottoman sultan Murad II acknowledged defeat and sued for peace. A ten-year truss was signed, but it was broken only a few months later when a Venetian fleet was dispatched to the Dardanelles to further weaken the Ottomans’ European strongholds.  The Ottoman forces staged a pre-emptive attack. Led by Hunyadi and the young Hungarian king Ulászló, the Hungarian troops fought bravely, but lost the battle. Ulászló was killed and Hunyadi was almost captured.

The battle against Ottomans

Hunyadi was still important and influential, and he was made Hungarian governor in 1446. He faced a setback in 1448 when his army was defeated by Ottoman forces in Kosovo, and his influence was diminished. Probably his greatest regret during these years was that he could not go to Constantinople to help fend off Ottoman forces in 1453.

In 1456, however, János Hunyadi launched a campaign to save Belgrade (capital of Serbia), which had recently fallen to the Ottomans.  He allow both mercenaries and untrained peasants to fight with his regular army, and the battle, waged on 22nd July, was a decisive victory for Hunyadi – one that kept the ottomans out of Hungary for another 70 years. Hunyadi did not live to see any of the fruits of his labor; he fell ill and soon died, a victim of an epidemic that had swept through his troops.

Hunyadi coat of arms

Battle of Belgrade

At the end of 1455, after a public reconciliation with all his enemies, Hunyadi began preparations. At his own expense he provisioned and armed the fortress, and leaving in it a strong garrison under the command of his brother-in-law Mihály Szilágyi and his own eldest son László, he proceeded to form a relief army and a fleet of two hundred corvettes. As no other baron was willing to help (fearing Hunyadi’s growing power more than the Ottoman threat), he was left entirely to his own resources.

                                                             Giovanni da Capistrano

His one ally was the Franciscan friar, Giovanni da Capistrano, who preached a crusade so effectively that the peasants and yeomanry, ill-armed (most of them had but slings and scythes) but full of enthusiasm, flocked to the standard of Hunyadi, the kernel of whose host consisted of a small band of seasoned mercenaries and a few banderia of noble horsemen. All in all, Hunyadi could build a force of 25-30,000 men.

Mehmet set up his siege on the neck of the headland and started firing on the walls on June 29, 1456. He arrayed his men in three sections. The Rumelian (that is, European) corps had the majority of his 300 cannons, and his fleet of 200 or so river vessels had the rest. The Rumelians were arrayed on the right wing and the Anatolian corps was arrayed on the left. In the middle were the sultan’s personal guards, the janissaries, and his command post. The Anatolian corps and the janissaries were both heavy infantry type troops. He posted his river vessels mainly to the northwest of the city to patrol the marshes and make sure that the fortress wasn’t reinforced. They also kept an eye on the Sava to the southwest to avoid the infantry’s being outflanked by Hunyadi’s army.

Sultan Mehmet II

Despite Hunyadi’s orders to the defenders not to try to loot the Turkish positions, some of the units crept out from demolished ramparts, took up positions across from the Turkish line, and began harassing enemy soldiers. Turkish spahis (provincial cavalry) tried without success to disperse the harassing force. At once more Christians joined those outside the wall. What began as an isolated incident quickly escalated into a full-scale battle.

Giovanni da Capistrano at first tried to order his men back inside the walls, but soon found himself surrounded by about 2,000 Crusaders. He then began leading them toward the Ottoman lines, crying, “The Lord who made the beginning will take care of the finish!”

                                                                  Siege of Belgrade

Capistrano led his crusaders to the Turkish rear army across the Sava river. At the same time, Hunyadi started a desperate charge out of the fort to take the cannon positions in the Turkish camp.

Taken by surprise at this strange turn of events and, as some chroniclers say, paralyzed by some inexplicable fear, the Turks took flight. The sultan’s bodyguard of about 5,000 Janissaries tried desperately to stop the panic and recapture the camp, but by that time Hunyadi’s army had also joined the unplanned battle, and the Turkish efforts became hopeless. The sultan himself was badly wounded and rendered unconscious. After the battle, the Hungarian raiders were ordered to spend the night behind the walls of the fortress and to be on the alert for a possible renewal of the battle, but the Turkish counterattack never came.

Battle of Belgrade

Under cover of darkness the Turks retreated in haste, bearing their wounded in 140 wagons. At the city of Sarona, the sultan regained consciousness. Upon learning that his army had been routed, most of his leaders killed and all his equipment abandoned, the 24-year-old ruler was barely prevented from committing suicide by taking poison. The surprise attacks caused heavy losses and much disarray. Thus, during the night a defeated Mehmed withdrew his remaining forces and returned to Constantinople.

Hunyadi plaque

János Hunyadi has often been regarded as a hero by all of the local nationalities; each in its own way has claimed him as their own. It’s commonly said that he fought with his head rather than his arm. Among his more progressive qualities, he was among the first to recognize the insufficiency and unreliability of the feudal levies, instead regularly employing large professional armies. His notable contribution to the development of the science of European warfare included the emphasis on tactics and strategy in place of over-reliance on bravery (or foolhardiness) in battle.

Hunyadi /Sibinjanin Janko‘s tower in Zemun, near Belgrade

Though he remained illiterate until late in life (something not uncommon during the age he lived in), his natural diplomatic, strategic, and tactical intelligence allowed him to serve his country well. Although other leaders of the time were credited in their own right with having fended off the Ottoman invasion of Europe in the 15th century, such as Vlad III Dracula and Skanderbeg, none were quite as successful as Hunyadi.

János Hunyadi after the battle of Kosovo Polje


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