Stories of heroism inspire people of all ages to act with courage and fortitude. Unfortunately, too many insist on living in a world without heroes.
John Hunyadi was a rare character—a real hero.
He signaled his determination to fight against the Ottoman Turks in this quotation: “We Have Had Enough of our men enslaved, our women raped, wagons loaded with the severed heads of our people, the sale of chained captives, the mockery of our religion…. We shall not stop until we succeed in expelling the Enemy from Europe!”
A Defeatist Society
John Hunyadi was a member of a noble family from a region of Romania called Wallachia. His birthdate is uncertain but is usually given as 1406. The exact place of his birth is likewise uncertain.
At the time, Christian Europe was threatened by the expanding Ottoman Empire. The Turks were eager to expand into Southern Europe. Their goal was the Habsburg capital, Vienna.
However, the nobility of Hungary and the surrounding regions were infested with defeatism. Muslim expansion into Christian Europe appeared inevitable. They thought the best they could do was make a good deal with the Ottoman Turks.
Hunyadi was trained in warfare by his father, uncles and other nobles. He mastered his military skills in the southern borderlands of Hungary that were exposed to Ottoman attacks.
Warlord of Wallachia
In 1441, he was appointed voivode (governor) of Transylvania by King Albert of Hungary at the age of 35. He was known as the “White Knight of Wallachia.”
King Albert proclaimed a general mobilization of the nobility against the Ottomans, but few armed noblemen joined the fight. Hunyadi was the exception. He led raids against Ottoman invaders and defeated them in skirmishes, contributing to his fame.
King Albert died of dysentery on October 27, 1439. The realm’s nobility offered the crown to Vladislaus, King of Poland. The new King appointed Hunyadi voivode (governor) of Transylvania in 1441. Hunyadi made a successful incursion into Ottoman territory that autumn.
First Tastes of Victory
Early the following year, the Ottoman Sultan dispatched 70,000 men to Transylvania. With only 15,000 men, Hunyadi inflicted a crushing defeat on the Turks. His vigorous offensive posture counteracted the numerical superiority of the Muslims.
Hunyadi’s victories made him renowned throughout Christendom.
On January 1, 1443, Pope Eugene proclaimed a new crusade. An army of 40,000 men took the field under King Vladislaus, with Hunyadi commanding under him. They crossed the Danube and took Nish and Sofia. The success of this “long campaign” further established Hunyadi’s reputation.
Defeat in Bulgaria
Hunyadi suffered his first significant defeat in the Battle of Varna. Late on November 9, 1444, a 60,000-man Ottoman army approached the city from the west. Pope Eugene’s legate urged a quick withdrawal. Hunyadi declared: “To escape is impossible. To surrender is unthinkable. Let us fight with bravery and honor our arms.”
Hunyadi deployed an army of 20,000 Crusaders in a two-mile-long arc. The light Ottoman cavalry began the attack. The Christian left stopped the offensive. The opposite Ottoman flank assaulted the Hungarians and Bulgarians. When that push was turned back, the Muslims attacked again. Hunyadi advised King Vladislaus to wait until he could return with two additional cavalry units.
The young King ignored Hunyadi’s advice. He and five hundred of his Polish knights charged the Ottoman center. They attempted to take Sultan Murad prisoner and almost succeeded. Unfortunately, Vladislaus’s horse either fell into a trap or was stabbed. The King was slain. On his return, all Hunyadi could accomplish was to organize the retreat of the demoralized remains of the Christian army.
Although Hunyadi was not at fault, he was humiliated by the loss at Varna. Hunyadi set off to organize a new crusade. He barraged the Pope and other Western monarchs with letters in 1445. He sent envoys to seek assistance against the Ottomans.
Pope Eugenius suggested postponing the Ottoman campaign. Hunyadi responded by explaining his military strategy to the Pope, stating that “Power is always greater when used in attack rather than in defense.”
Hunyadi led 24,000 soldiers in September 1448. Sultan Murad attacked Hunyadi on October 17. That battle lasted for three days, ending with defeat for the Crusaders. The Serbian Despot Durad Brankovic briefly imprisoned Hunyadi.
The ostensively Christian Despot—who had given his daughter in marriage to Sultan Murad—contemplated surrendering Hunyadi to the Turks. However, several Hungarian barons and prelates interceded. Hunyadi returned to Hungary in late December 1448.
A New Crusade
For the next four years, Hunyadi worked tirelessly to unify Christian forces.
In May 1453, the Muslims captured Constantinople. Europe buzzed with resentment. However, the defiant rhetoric brought no action. At one point, Hunyadi, exasperated at Emperor Frederick III’s dithering, shouted to him, “Enough words! Show us facts if you are a true Christian and a true Emperor!” Nonetheless, Frederick vacillated.
However, Hunyadi received assistance from an unexpected source. Callixtus III became Pope in 1455. His role as the first Spanish Pope was important because Spain was then fighting the Reconquista to force the Muslims out of southern Spain.
Pope Callixtus sent the seventy-year-old Franciscan friar and papal inquisitor, John of Capistrano, to preach an anti-Ottoman crusade. Disappointed in Germany and Austria, the friar was more successful in Hungary.
By July 1456, Capistrano raised a large, albeit poorly trained, force of peasants and local countryside landlords. They advanced towards Belgrade. Though poorly equipped, they abounded in Christian fervor.
Victory at Belgrade
Sultan Mehmet saw Belgrade, located at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, as the key to enlarging his dominions in Europe. Indeed, beyond Belgrade, no barrier would prevent the Turks from advancing to Vienna, the center of Europe.
Except for John of Capistrano’s peasants, Hunyadi’s troops stood almost alone.
Mehmet’s strategy was to encircle Belgrade. He moved his troops to the south and east of the fortress. Hoping to cut off the city from the north, he chained ships on the Danube together to blockade the river. Fortunately, Hunyadi and Capistrano’s troops occupied the western side of the river before Mehmet could cross the Sava.
Hunyadi assembled a fleet of 200 ships on the Danube. The flotilla destroyed the Ottoman fleet on July 14. The river ran red with Turkish blood. This triumph made it possible for Hunyadi’s troops to enter Belgrade.
John of Capistrano led his peasants across the Sava River to the Ottoman rear. At the same time, Hunyadi started a desperate charge out of the fort to take the cannon positions in the Ottoman encampment. As darkness closed in, unable to withstand attack from two directions, the Turks withdrew.
However, lifting the siege was not the end of the battle. The Turks attacked on July 21. Hunyadi repulsed the fierce attacks, breaking into the Muslim camp on July 22. Sultan Mehmed decided to resist, but his soldiers rioted, forcing him to retreat from Belgrade. It was one of the most remarkable victories in the history of Turkish wars.
Triumph and Death
The Crusaders’ victory generated enthusiasm throughout Europe. Processions celebrated Hunyadi’s triumph in cities and towns throughout the continent.
Meanwhile, a plague had broken out in the Crusaders’ camp. Hunyadi was taken ill and died on August 11, 1456.
Father Aeneas Piccolomini—who became Pope Pius II in 1458—summarized the prevailing sentiment as news of Hunyadi’s death swept through the continent that had so recently rejoiced at his great victory.
“After routing the Turks at Belgrade […], he survived for a brief time before dying of disease. When he was ill, they say that he forbade the Body of Our Lord to be brought to him, declaring that it was unworthy for a king to enter the house of a servant. Although his strength was failing, he ordered himself to be carried out to church, where he made his confession in the Christian way, received the divine Eucharist, and surrendered his soul to God in the arms of the priests. Fortunate soul to have arrived in Heaven as both herald and author of the heroic action at Belgrade.”
John of Capistrano also fell victim to the plague, dying two months after Hunyadi on October 23.
Hunyadi’s Historical Legacy
So, what was John Hunyadi’s lasting historical and moral importance?
His historical legacy is apparent. Had the Muslims taken Belgrade, the Ottoman Empire could have easily taken Vienna—and many points beyond. Muslim rule over this capital of the Habsburg Empire would have changed European history.
Of course, the Muslims would again attempt to take Vienna, laying siege to the city from July to September 1683. That attack was turned back by the devout Pole, Jan Sobieski—another story for another day. However, the example of John Hunyadi held the Muslims off for 230 years.
The historical consequences of his action are only part of the story. John Hunyadi’s career has a lot to tell twenty-first-century Christians.
Defeat Need Not Become Defeatism
First and foremost, God can change events that humans see as inevitable. He does not impose His will upon those who follow him. Instead, he requires them to correspond to His Grace and cooperate with His desires.
I Have Weathered Other Storms: A Response to the Scandals and Democratic Reforms that Threaten the Catholic Church
Hunyadi’s peers, the nobles of Hungary, wanted to give in. They were ready to “make a deal” with the Turks. They argued that Hunyadi’s intransigence would bring defeat, disaster and death. How many such naysayers abound in today’s world?
Hunyadi’s career proves that early defeats can lead to great victories, but only in the presence of determined leaders. It would have been easy for Hunyadi to retreat to his castle after his defeat at Kosovo in 1448. He stayed in the fight—and the great victory in Belgrade was the result.
In the Forefront of the Offense
Hunyadi fought alongside his troops. He placed himself physically and spiritually between his forces and the enemy.
Hunyadi always seized the offense, even when—perhaps especially when—he was outnumbered. He knew that the offense gets to choose the time and place of battle—an incredible advantage.
Hunyadi also understood that daring actions in pursuit of the right are often successful. But a prerequisite is knowing where to find the cause of truth and good. Hunyadi was not fooled by his contemporaries who wanted to find comfort. Modern Christians must also stand firm despite the obstacles.