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Warfare in the Balkans - 1000 to 1453AD

In Western Europe medieval armies were dominated by the mailed knight, with increasingly heavy armour. By the end of the period the foot soldier makes something of a comeback through the crossbow and longbow. Whilst these developments did impact on the Balkans the horse archer albeit often armoured remained important. Armour was lighter and other types of light troops formed a substantial element of Balkan armies. Fortification, particularly for the Byzantines remained an essential base for both defensive and offensive operations1.

 The period neatly divides into two parts reflecting the fortunes of the Byzantine Empire. The years up to the sack of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 and the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1453.

 Byzantium

 Following the destruction of Bulgaria the Byzantines consolidated their control over the Balkans and even had the resources to intervene in Italy and Sicily. However, revolts by the Bulgars and Pecheneg raids over the Danube continued to weaken the Byzantine military machine. 

Byzantine Organisation

Manzikert ended the classical Byzantine organisation. After that disaster the provincial forces of the Themata were increasingly replaced by mercenaries and contingents from the landowning aristocracy. There were five main 'regiment's in the central army: 

Vardariots - Christianised Turks

Latinikon - Frankish knights

Varangian - Scandinavian then mainly English mounted infantry axemen.

Skythikon - Pechenegs then Cumans

Turcopouli - Usually Seljuks.

The death blow to the Byzantine military system came at the hands of the Seljuk Turks who controlled much of Anatolia as well as vast lands to the East. At Manzikert in 1071 the Sultan Alp Arslan destroyed a large Byzantine army commanded by the Emperor Romanus. Whilst this decisive battle is outwith our area of study the consequences were crucial for the whole empire. The Seljuks ravaged Anatolia depriving the Empire of its best recruiting grounds. From this time the Empire was forced to rely increasingly on mercenaries rather than native troops.

 There followed an inevitable period of civil war which culminated in the Battle of Calavrtya 1079 in Thessaly when the Byzantine General Alexius Comnenus defeated the rebels. This was a highly disciplined cavalry battle with extensive use of flank attacks and hidden movement2. Two years later Alexius deposed the Emperor and began yet another Byzantine revival under the Comnenus dynasty.

 Pechenegs and Cumans raided south of the Danube, the Bulgars revolted and the Seljuks reached the Asiatic gates of Constantinople. Alexius skilfully made peace with the Seljuks enabling him concentrate on the Balkans. The campaign began badly with the Bulgarians allied with Pechenegs and Cumans defeating Alexius at Silistra in 1086. However, he recovered suppressing the Bulgar revolt and defeated the Pechenegs at Leburnion 1091.

The Normans

 The Normans had established themselves in Southern Italy and Sicily since 1027. In 1081 Robert Guiscard crossed the Adriatic, captured Corfu and laid siege to the Albanian port of Durazzo. Despite the defeat of his fleet Robert maintained the siege over the winter until Alexius arrived with a relief army. At the Battle of Durazzo 1082 a second charge (after effective crossbow fire)  by Norman cavalry destroyed Alexius's Varangian Guard which included Anglo-Saxon axemen who had left Britain following the Norman conquest4 . As at Hastings it was the premature advance of these troops which contributed to the defeat. Robert's son Bohemund advanced to the Vardar river but was repulsed at Larissa by Alexius. With the death of his father in 1085 Bohemund returned to Italy.

 After a period of crusading activity in Syria Bohemond returned to attack Durazzo in 1106. However, Alexius had prepared a large fleet to counter him. Blockaded in his siege lines Bohemond was forced into a humiliating peace treaty. He died in 1108.

 War broke out again in the early 12th Century with clashes from Sicily to North Africa. Between 1146-49 the Norman fleet commanded by George of Antioch captured Corfu and sacked Athens Thebes and Corinth. He even brought his fleet to Constantinople in 1149. In 1155 the Byzantines took the war to Italy before being defeated at Brindis in 1156.

 William II launched a new Norman invasion in 1185 capturing Durazzo and Thessalonika. His advance on Constantinople was halted by Emperor Isaac II Angelus at the Battle of the Strymon in September 1185. This effectively ended the Norman attempts on the Byzantine Empire.

 Whilst due credit for Norman success has to be given to their mailed knights3 it was the combination of knights and crossbowmen which were responsible for land victories. Most warfare revolved around sieges and in this form of warfare the Norman fleets were vital. Horse transports were particularly useful enabling the Normans to deliver battle winning troops to key points by sea.

 The Northern Balkans  

CROATIA

At the beginning of this period Croatia was again in internal turmoil until Stephan I (1030-58) re-established control and settled religious matters. Peter Kresimir IV (1058-1075) established a united Croatia and Dalmatia with a boundary at the River Drina. Peter's death left an uncertain succession which encouraged the Normans and Venetians to grab coastal territory. The succession was eventually settled through papal intervention and Zvonimir (1075-1089) fought a series of wars as a papal vassal which economically ruined the country. On his death without a son there was a period of troubles. Koloman, King of Hungary reached agreement with leading Croatian nobles in 1102, uniting the kingship although the two countries retained their separate identities.

 In 1116 Venice again gained the Dalmatian towns with Byzantine support. Hungarian attempts to recover them in 1117 and 1124 failed. The second half of the 12th Century was dominated by civil war with parts of the country coming under Byzantine rule. By the end of the century King Bela III had recovered the lost territory including Dalmatia. The office of Duke of Croatia was usually held by a son or brother of the Hungarian King. Slavonia while part of the Dukedom developed closer ties with Hungary than Croatia itself.

 During this period the Croats developed within a Western military tradition following the adoption of feudalism from Hungary. However, the nature of the terrain continued to place greater importance on light troops.

 Whilst Northern Bosnia came under Hungarian control the south retained a fragile independence from the Serbs. Even in the north a large degree of autonomy  was achieved particularly under Ban Kulin (1180-1204). Militarily they were similar to the Serbs. 

SERBIA

Serbia during this period was under the loose control of the Byzantine Empire. The various Serb Zhupans (the largest being Rascia and Duklja) had a large degree of autonomy and regularly rebelled often with the support of Hungary. Details of these rebellions are sparse but we know that a Byzantine army led by Constantine Monomachus was destroyed by Vojislav in 1042 or 10435. For the rest of the century Dukljan entered a period of civil war finally settled after yet another Byzantine invasion.  In the 12th Century John Comnenus crushed Bolkan, the Zhupan of Rascia after he defeated the Hungarian invasion of Serbia in 1128. Many Serbs were resettled in Anatolia. Another Serb rebellion was subdued in 1152 and further conflict with Hungary was settled at the Battle of Semlin 1168. Hungary was forced to cede Dalmatia.  

Stephen Nemania became Grand Zhupan of Rascia in 1165 (possibly a few years later)  and proceeded to unify both the western (Rascia) and inland regions (Duklja or Zeta) of Serbia. Following a long war (1180-96) the Serbs gained a large degree of autonomy from the Empire. Although after his abdication in 1196 his sons warred with the elder Vukan grabbing Rascia from his base in Zeta. Stephen’s annointed successor, also Stephen, regained Rascia around 1204 possibly with Bulgarian or Bosnian help. By 1216 Zeta had been brought under Stephen’s control and he was crowned King of Serbia in 1217. 

The Serbian army during this period was primarily an infantry force armed with spear, javelin or bows. With the increasing wealth from mining mercenary knights were recruited to complement noble cavalry armed with bow and lance. This enabled the Serbs to fight effectively outwith their mountain strongholds. 

Bulgaria 

Following the collapse of the First Bulgarian Empire the country came under increasing oppressive Byzantine rule for nearly two centuries. There were several rebellions mainly social rather than nationalist in origin. The most serious was led by Petur Deljan who captured Skopje in 1040. However, the following year he was betrayed and captured by Byzantine Varangians commanded by Harold Hardrada, the later Prince of Norway and loser at the Battle of  Stamford Bridge 1066. 

The Pecheneg threat was finally destroyed following their invasion of Bulgaria in 1122. At the Battle of Eski Zagra the Varangians and mercenary knights led by John II Comnenus broke into the wagon-laager and slaughtered the Pechenegs en masse. The Pechenegs disappear from this time being replaced by the Cumans. 

The Bulgarians under John and Peter Asen revolted in 1186 following a further attempt to impose exorbitant taxes. An important element of the rebel armies came from the Vlachs who dwelt on the mountain slopes. They defeated Emperor Issac at Berrhoe 1189 and retained their territory despite losing at Arcadiopolis in 1194. The Kingdom was stabilised under Tsar Kaloyan (1197-1207) and peace was signed with the Byzantines in 1202. 

The core of the army consisted of  armoured Boyars and Bulgar horse archers supplemented by Vlach cavalry and Cuman horse archers.  

The Crusades 

The Crusades, whilst primarily aimed at the Holy Land impacted on Byzantium and the Balkans.

 The First Crusade (1096-1099) choose Constantinople as its assembly point. German contingents traveling through the Balkans (often at swordpoint). The Byzantines and Crusaders were suspicious of each others motives and it was with some relief that Alexius assisted the Crusading army Eastwards to their eventual capture of Jerusalem and the establishment of the crusader states. 

The Second and Third Crusades also involved conflict at Constantinople on route reinforcing the religious antagonism between Byzantium and Western Europe. It was however Western Europe who gained useful experience from their wars in the East. Byzantine fortifications with their double and triple walls influenced castle building in the West as did the use of mounted archers and a new understanding of the importance of reconnaissance and logistics. 

It was however the Fourth Crusade (1202-04) which was to be fatal to the Byzantine Empire. Assembling at Venice the Crusader army agreed to pay off its debts to the Venetians by capturing the Dalmatian port of Zara  from the Hungarians. At Zara, encouraged by Alexius,  son of the deposed Byzantine Emperor Isaac II they agreed with the Venetians to attack Constantinople. The land attacks failed, but the Venetians led by the 95 year old Doge, Dandolo gained a foothold on the sea wall and the Byzantine nobles agreed to elect Alexius as Emperor. When Alexius could not raise the promised cash, the Crusaders again attacked the city. After valiant resistance for several days the defenders panicked and the city was sacked. The Latin Empire of Constantinople under Count Baldwin of Flanders was established. 

Venice

 By the time the Fourth Crusade arrived in Venice the city was already an important player in the Balkans. The activities of Dalmatian pirates had forced the city to occupy coastal areas in the Adriatic and develop a strong fleet. Most of the northern territories were lost to Hungary in a war between 1097 and 1102. The Hungarians repulsed an attempt to retake them between 1172 and 1196. The alliance with Byzantium ended when Venice supported the Normans in 1170 seizing Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and Chios. 

It was the capture of  Constantinople which turned Venice into an imperial power. Carefully selecting strategic ports, largely ignoring the hinterland, Venice carved out an empire based on the lucrative trade routes along the Adriatic and Aegean. Eventually including Crete, purchased for 30lbs of gold. Venetian naval power was challenged in this period by Genoa. It took three major wars  (1253-99, 1353-55 and 1378-81) before the Genoese fleet was captured and Venetian maritime supremacy assured.  

Venetian power was dependent on its fleet. By the end of this period Venice had 3000 merchant ships many of which could be easily converted into warships or transports manned by 36,000 sailors. War galleys escorted trading vessels in a convoy system. Tactics had switched from ramming to firepower with Greek fire, catapults, bombards and crossbows. 

The overseas possessions became heavily fortified and defended by communal crossbow armed militias (30,000 men) supplemented by local feudal forces. Mercenaries formed an increasing part of Venetian armies following the Italian condotta system. The Arsenal in Venice had 16,000 workers, a third of the city's active male population. 

In the twenty years following victory over the Genoese in 1380, Venice expanded its territory to include most of Dalmatia, Corfu, the Greek Morea, Cyclades and Dodecanese islands. Despite several rebellions they held onto Crete and eventually gained Cyprus in 1489. The middle ages were the high tide of Venetian expansion. From the 16th century Venice would be on the defensive. 

The Latin Empire 

The capture of Constantinople resulted in the establishment of the Latin Empire under Emperor Baldwin. The remnant of the Byzantine Empire became the Empire of Nicaea (Western Anatolia) under Theodore Lascaris. Latin kingdoms were established in Thessalonica and much of Greece except Epirus which became a Greek Despotate6

Baldwin's elevation was short lived. Whilst besieging Adrianople in 1205 he was attacked by a Bulgarian army which included 14,000 Cumans. The harassing fire of the Cumans tempted Baldwin out of his defensive formation only to be turned and routed. A relief force led by the Venetian Doge Dandolo covered the retreat but Baldwin was never seen again. 

Military Organisation 

The Latin Empire including Achea was organised along western feudal lines with estates held by knights, the church and the military orders. In addition to the standard 4 months garrison duty estates were required to provide troops for a further 4 months a year. Auxiliary troops were provided by the local population as well as Slavs, Cumans and Bulgars6.

His brother Henry took the throne and established the Empire in Thrace. Allied to the Seljuks he attacked the Nicean Empire in 1211. The Niceans defeated the Seljuks and in 1224 drove the Latins out of Asia Minor and then Thrace. In Epirus the Despot Theodore Dukas took Macedonia (1215) and Thessalonica after the Battle of Serres 1221. Dukas was only halted by the Bulgarians at Klokonista 1230.

 In 1234 Nicean Emperor John Vatatzes besieged Constantinople in alliance with the Bulgarian Tsar John Asen II. The city was saved by the intervention of the Venetian fleet. Despite this setback John took advantage of Bulgarian weakness following the death of Tsar John Asen II and the Mongol invasion of Hungary and Northern Bulgaria. He extended the Empire into Macedonia and took the borders to Epirus by 1252. His death encouraged a Bulgarian counter attack which was defeated at Adrianople in 1255. The Bulgarian state was to play only a minor role in the Balkans for the rest of this period. 

In 1259 Michael VIII Paliaologos, arguably the ablest of the late Byzantine Emperors usurped the Nicean throne. His western border was immediately threatened by a shaky alliance of Epirus and Achea supported by King Manfred of Sicily. At Pelagonia 1259 the Nicean mercenary knights took the sting out of the Frankish charge while horse archers mowed down the Franks from the flanks. His borders stabilised Michael besieged Constantinople in 1261 supported by a Genoan fleet. The city fell almost by accident thanks to the betrayal of a gate by a group of farmers known as Thelematarioi. The Latin Empire ceased to exist although the Latin states in Greece survived. 

The Late Byzantine Empire

 With the Byzantine Empire re-established at Constantinople Michael rebuilt the army and navy. The Latin Principality of Achaea broke the treaty and defeated Michael's brother Constantine at Prinitza 1262 and Makry Plagi 1263 securing the Latin state for a generation. A more serious threat came from the Angevin, Charles of Anjou who after securing Sicily sought to expand in the Balkans. He inherited Achea in 1278 and Prince Nicephorus of Epirus  declared himself a vassal the following year. With this base Charles poured troops into Albania and besieged Berat. The relieving army fortunately captured the Angevin commander panicking the rest of the army which was destroyed in the retreat. The war of the Sicilian Vespers ended the Angevin threat to Byzantium.

The Late Byzantine Army 

By the 14th century the Imperial Guard regiments were limited to palace and ceremonial duties. The bulk of ‘native’ units were composed of pronoia troops who held the income from land in return for military service. The main field armies increasingly consisted of foreign contingents either mercenary or allied. Turks, Alans, Serbs and Bulgars all served at different times in substantial numbers.

Tactics were similar to western armies although allies fought in their own style. Most Byzantine warfare in this period was in any case limited to sieges and fortress defence,

 With Michael's death the new Emperor Andronicus II allowed the army and navy to deteriorate. In 1302 after being defeated by the first arrival of Ottoman forces at Nicomedia he hired the Catalan Company. This was a mercenary company of some 6000 troops led by Roger De Flor 8. After a successful campaign against the Turks, Roger was murdered by Alans at Adrianople in 1305. The Catalan vengeance resulted in the devastation of Thrace and much of northern Greece. Walter, Duke of Athens employed the company in 1310. However, he failed to pay them and they rebelled. At armies clashed at Kephissos in 1311 when Walter's knights charged into a mire created by the Catalans. The light infantry Almogavars  who formed the bulk of the Catalan company destroyed the Latins. They went on to conquer Athens establishing themselves there until its capture in 1388.

 The rest of the 14th Century was dominated by civil war with Serbs and Turks increasingly being used by both sides. By the end of the century the Empire only consisted of Constantinople, Thessalonika and the Morea. The Ottoman Turks surrounded Constantinople and the first siege lasted 8 years from 1391 to 1399.  

The Serbian Empire

 Stefan the first king of Serbia died in 1227. Under Radoslav and then Vladislav the country was under pressure from Hungary and allied itself to Bulgaria. Under King Uros (1243-76) the decline of Bulgaria and Epirus, together with economic growth associated with the mining industry, helped Serbia to become a significant Balkan power. Uros gained control of significant parts of Hum (Herzgovinia) and fought several wars with Dubrovnik before the city state bought off the Serbians with long term payments. His eldest son Dragutin rebelled with Hungarian support and deposed his father in 1276. His brother Milutin gained the throne in 1282 after Dragutin was injured, although he was probably deposed by the nobility who wanted a more aggressive foreign policy. 

Milutin raided south against the Empire invading Macedonia and repelling Byzantine inspired attacks by Nogaj Tartars. In the 1290’s he captured Skopje and swept westwards, briefly capturing Durazzo. By the end of the century a treaty was agreed with Byzantium which enabled Milutin to concentrate on his northern border held as an appendage9 by his deposed brother Dragutin. Civil war raged between the brothers until 1312 when they agreed peace terms which strengthened Milutin’s position.

 Milutin died in 1321 and after a period of civil war amongst his sons and nephew, the eldest, Stefan Decanski gained the throne. He expanded down the Vardar valley after defeating a Bulgarian army at Velbuzd 1330. The Serbian army 15,000 strong included 1000 Spanish mercenaries reflecting the increasing importance mercenaries had on warfare during the period and the value of Serbian mines to pay for them. Decanski took advantage of the victory to extend Serbian control over Bulgaria but did not attack the Empire. The Serbian nobility as usual were more anxious to gain booty from the rich Byzantine lands. They encouraged his son Stefan Dushan to grab the throne in 1331.

 Reflecting the wishes of his nobility Dushan raided south rather than supress the Bosnians in the west. After years of raiding he made significant gains in 1334 when peace was forced upon him by a strengthening Empire and Hungarian invasions in the north. The war with Hungary continued at a low level until 1346. This war did not stop Dushan from taking most of Albania during this period. The Byzantine civil war provided an opportunity for Dushan to consolidate his position in Albania and to advance into Macedonia. By 1346 he had proclaimed himself Tsar of Serbia, Albania and the coast. With expansion Dushan was able to consolidate his own power base adopting a Byzantine style imperial administration and his own code of laws in 1349. Taking advantage of the plague he captured Epirus in 1347 and Thessaly from the Catalans the following year. In the latter years of his reign he failed to take Bosnia but repelled invasions from the Byzantine Empire and Hungary. The lack of a fleet (Venice declined an alliance) impaired his dream of capturing Constantinople when he died in 1355. Stefan Dushan succeeded in doubling Serbia’s borders although his achievements should not be exaggerated. The Byzantine Empire was subjected to internal strife during the period and other gains were only won in the aftermath of the plague. He also failed to create the institutions which would hold the Serbian Empire together after his death.

Dushan’s heir Uros (1356-71) could not hold together the Serbian Empire. Thessaly, Epirus and Albania seceded and other parts of the empire were only nominally under Uros’ control.  

The fate of the Serbian empire was sealed at the battle of Marica in 1371. A Serbian army led by Vukashin advanced on Adrianople only to be surprised in a dawn attack by an inferior Ottoman force commanded by Lala Shahin. The Serbian leaders were killed and Serbian lands were grabbed by various independent nobles as well as the Ottomans. Marica was a decisive defeat for Serbia, probably more significant than the more famous disaster at Kossovo in 1389. 

Frankish States in the Aegean 

Following the capture of Constantinople in 1204 French ‘crusaders’ captured Thessalonika and most of central Greece east of the Pindos mountains, as well as much of the Peloponnese. They established a complex patchwork of states with in excess of thirty different dynasties of lordlings. The Byzantine Greek reconquest of Thessalonika (1224) and Constantinople (1261) left four main territories; Duchy of Athens and Thebes, Duchy of the Archipelago, Triarchies of Euboea and the Principality of Achaia. In addition there were smaller holdings linked to these territories and the islands usually under the colonial control of Venice or Genoa. 

These states fought primarily against the Byzantine Greeks who retained a foothold in the Peloponnese and to the north in the Despotate of Epiros. They were organised on western feudal lines although they integrated with the local population to a degree that has only recently been given proper recognition 10. Whilst subject to western power struggles particularly in Italy, the sword proved more powerful than dynastic connections as the Catalan Company and later the Navarrese companies aptly demonstrated. The states gradually collapsed, finally falling to the Ottoman tide by the end of the 15th century. Although Venice  held on until the 17th century in the islands. 

The Ottoman Tide

 Whilst the Ottoman origins are disputed the dynasty was founded by Osman I in northeastern Anatolia around 1280. Due to the declining Byzantine Empire these nomadic warriors, the Gazis (religious warriors) found it easier to expand westwards than against more powerful Muslim and Turkish neighbours. After establishing a strong base in Anatolia the first major appearance in the Balkans was ironically at the invitation of the Empire. In 1346 Orhan led 5500 Ottoman horsemen across the Dardanelles in support of  John VI Cantacuzene. In return he gained the Emperor’s daughter as a bride. In 1349 he sent 20,000 troops to retake Thessalonika for John VI from the Serbs and decided to keep the Gallipoli base donated by the Empire. 

From this base the Ottoman forces raided into Thrace and it was Murat I who captured Edirne (Adrianople) in 1361 making it his capital. The weakness of the Serbian and Bulgarian empires enabled the Ottomans to push out into the Balkans leaving Constantinople isolated. The two battles of  Marica 1364 and 1371 (see above) saw off the Serbian offensive and the Ottomans expanded into Macedonia and Bulgaria. By 1386 they had reached Nis and forced the Serbian Prince Lazar to accept Ottoman suzerainty. Troubles in Anatolia enabled Lazar to create a Balkan union which defeated an Ottoman army at Plosnik, on the Morava River in 1388. Murat returned to smash the Bulgarians detaching them from the Balkan union forces. After defeating Karaman in Anatolia he returned to the Balkans to face Lazar at Kossovo (1389).  

There are as many versions of this celebrated battle as chroniclers! However, it appears that the Serbian army which included allied Wallachian, Bosnian and Albanian troops fought off the first Ottoman attack but their counter attack failed to cross the Ottoman defensive ditch defended by archers and a few cannon. Murat’s son Bayezid then counterattacked together with other rallied cavalry and the Serbian forces began to collapse. There may have been some desertions to the Ottomans at this stage of the battle but more likely they simply routed. Murat was killed during the battle (probably by a deserter) and Prince Lazar and the other Serbian leaders were executed by Bayezid. The battle destroyed organised resistance to the Ottomans in the Balkans leaving only Hungary as the major enemy. 

Hungary succeeded in mobilising a European Crusade army which in 1396 advanced to besiege Nicopolis. Bayezid brought a relief army to a defensive position near the city. The western knights charged through the light horse and into the defensive ditches and stakes. Ottoman horse struck in the flank with a decisive ambush charge from their Serbian vassals. The crusader army was routed with heavy losses. 

The death of Bayezid at the hands of Tamerlane’s army at Ankara in 1402 resulted in a period of civil war which ended in the triumph of Mehmet I in 1413. He stabilised the Ottoman Empire and put down revolts in Albania and Transylvania as well as finally conquering Bosnia. His son Murat II (1421-51) developed the institutions of state and army which enabled the Ottoman Empire to complete its dominance of the Balkans. The Ottoman-Venice war (1425-30) ended with the capture of Salonika from the Venetians. 

Albania

 During this period Albania was held by the Byzantine Empire and then Serbia with Venice controlling the coast at various times. In the more mountainous north this control was at best limited with the Albanian tribes having a degree of autonomy. After the death of  Dushan northern and central Albania was abandoned to loose groupings of tribes headed by clan chieftains. 

The Ottomans under Mehmet I swept into Albania and by 1417 had captured the main towns and established Ottoman rule. The Venetians still held many of the important coastal ports.  Warfare continued led by the most important clan chieftain Gjon Kastrioti. His son Gjergi was sent as a hostage to the Sultan’s court, converted to Islam with the name of Skender. He rose to the rank of Beg before deserting and joining the revolt. Skenderbeg as he became known succeeded in partially uniting the Albanian tribes for the first time. For 25 years he led forces which rarely exceeded 10,000 in a series of victories against larger Ottoman armies. Most famously at Torviolli (1444) when he trapped 25,000 Ottomans under Ali Pasha and Abulena (1457) when he scattered an army of up to 80,000 Turks. 

Skenderbeg’s resistance was widely admired in western Europe and he received some supplies and troops from Venice and Naples. The core of his army remained his own tribal troops of light horsemen, a type that was to become better known in renaissance armies as Stradiots. 

By 1466 superior numbers began to take there toll on Albanian manpower. Sultan Mehmet II captured Kruja with an army reputed to be 150,000 strong. Skenderbeg died two years later and resistance finally ended in 1479. 

Hungary

 Whilst Skenderbeg resisted in the west a Hungarian Janos Hunyadi was having similar success against the Ottomans in the north, primarily in Transylvania. In 1443 he was a leading figure in the Crusade of Varna in which a Hungarian/Polish/Serbian army crossed the Danube, captured Smederevo and defeated an Ottoman army at Nis. Co-ordinated attacks were mounted from Albania, the Morea and in Anatolia by the Karamanlis. The Sultan Murat II reached a peace agreement with the crusaders which recognised Serbia under George Brankovic. However, under Papal pressure the crusaders returned the following year, albeit without Brankovic who had gained his objective. The two armies met at Varna. The crusader right wing was routed by the Anatolians and disaster was only averted by a desperate counter attack led by Hunyadi. The Polish King Vladislav then rashly charged the Janissaries central position and was killed causing the rest of the army to flee. Serbia and Wallachia reaffirmed their vassal status the following year. 

Hunyadi tried again in 1448 this time plundering Serbia with an army which included Wallachians, Poles, Bohemians and Germans. Murat caught him with a larger army at Kossovo. In the third day of the battle the Wallachians switched sides and Hunyadi was forced back to his wagon-fortress which covered his retreat.  

The Fall of Constantinople

 Mehmet II became Sultan in 1451 and immediately made the capture of Constantinople his primary objective. The city had been attacked at least six times previously by the Ottomans but never with this level of organisation. Forts were built north of the city to cut off  the waterway and a diversionary raid into the Morea kept the only immediate source of Greek support busy. The assault began on 7 April 1453. For seven weeks the garrison of only a few thousand troops held off the Ottoman assaults with little outside assistance11. On 29 May the walls were breached and Constantine XI the last Byzantine Emperor died with his troops. 

Whilst Constantinople no longer had the strategic significance of former years it gave the Ottomans a new imperial capital and commercial centre, Istanbul. It also deprived the west of a base from which to attack the Sultan’s defences. It also effectively ended the Byzantine Empire severing the link to the west since Roman times. 

Conclusion

  The fall of Constantinople ended an era of considerable complexity in the Balkans. Although states came and went with some rapidity three key states, Serbia, Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire dominated. Despite the coming of the Ottomans the medieval period established the much disputed outline of the modern nation states of the Balkans.

 

 

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