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The Battle of Nicopolis (1396 AD) LanF.gif (968 bytes) LanS.gif (973 bytes) LanR.gif (969 bytes) lgde1.gif (1022 bytes)


“If the God droped the sky on our heads, we would maintain it with the tops of our lances!” declaration of the French knights at the crusade’s military council.

By the late 14th Century Bulgaria struggled desperately against the danger of Islam invading Europe. In 1393, Turnovo, the capital of Bulgaria fell and the king Ivan Shishman is besieged by Islamic invaders in Nicopolis (Bulgarian fortress on the Danube River). On 3 July 1395 the last medieval Bulgarian king Ivan Shishman is killed defending the fortress of Nicopolis. The once mighty Byzantine Empire had been reduced to little more than the city of Constantinople itself and ottoman sultan Bayezid I besieged the city. His father, sultan Murat has created the infantry of Janissaries that was composed of Christian children robbed from their family and converted by force to Islam. They are raised in the Islamic religion in order to create elite troops. The Janissaries take a paramount importance in the military and political sphere of the Ottoman dynasty.

In response to a crusade preached by Pope Boniface IX a Christian army of 10,000 under the leadership of John of Nevers, son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, marched to the relief of Christians savagely oppressed by the soldiers of Islam. On 22 September 1396, at Nicopolis they met the Ottoman army and its Serbian and Arab allies in a battle. Ignoring the advice of their Hungarian and Transylvanian allies, the Crusaders charged the Turks and were in turn smashed by the Ottoman heavy cavalry and Serbian mercenaries. The defeat of 1396 blew away the last hope of Bulgarian people for delivery. Thus, this year is considered as the year when Bulgaria plunged into the Dark Ages under the oppressive Islam domination for almost 5 centuries.

In the famous Battle of Nicopolis, a Christian army of French, English, Germans, Italians and Knights Hospitallers under the leadership of John of Nevers, son of the Duke of Burgundy, and the Bulgarian infantry and Hungarian army under King Sigismund of Hungary give a heroic combat against the Islamic army of Ottomans and its Serbian and Arab allies.

Jean Froissart emphasizes the dramatic defeat of the Christian Army in his picture Battle of Nicopolis, Brugge, XVth century

Battle of Nicopolis between Crusaders and Turks (1396)

(Bibliothèque nationale de France, FR 2646) fol. 220
Jean Froissart, Chroniques
Flandre, Bruges, XVe s.
(190 x 200 mm)

nicopol.gif (22787 bytes)

The Battle of Nicopolis, Jean Froissart, Brugge, XVth century

In the late 14th century the eyes of Western Europe began to turn to the east as the old enemy began to reassert himself - the Turks. With a fervour that had not been seen for decades, the chivalry of western Europe responded by marching east to their greatest ever disaster.


John of Nevers, son of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy leaded an army of 10000 Frenchmen eastward to Danube. He was joined by 2000 German Knights under the command of Friedrich, prince of Hohenzollern, 1000 Englishmen under the Lord of Lancaster, Polish, Austrian, Lombard, Croatian soldiers and Knights Hospitallers from Rhodes. The admiral Tomanice Nico commanded the fleet of 44 galleries equipped by Venice and Genoa and joined later on by ships from Rhodes. They joined a 30000 army under King Sigismund of Hungary marching along the Danube. The objective of Sigismund was to take the strong fortresses of Nicopolis and Dorostolum and using them as strongholds to chase the Islam invadors out of Europe. sigizmun.jpeg (25427 bytes)

The King of Vidin Kingdom (remnant of the Second Bulgarian empire), Ivan Sratzimir joined the Christian army. The fortress of Vidin was the strongest defense in the North-West Bulgaria and the action of Bulgarian King providing significant resources and cavalry troops facilitated greatly the Crusaders. Afterwards he will be besieged and overwhelmed by Ottomans, and sent imprisoned in Anatolia. The Christian army continued eastwards capturing Bulgarian towns with the help of christian population, and advancing deep into Bulgarian territory. Crusaders brought no siege equipment, trusting on their courage to route the Turks. Instead, the fortress of Nicopolis held for over two weeks, waiting for reinforcements.

The Ottoman sultan, Beyezid I Yildirim or Lightning (nicknamed this way to acknowledge the great rapidity of his actions), was not rushed into reaction, and waited for his entire army to muster before responding. He gathered enormous army - some 200 000 Islam Jihad warriors, according to the crusader chronicles and some ottoman chronographs. However, the ottoman army most probably did not exceed 130 000. With the Crusaders stalled at Nicopolis, the sultan saw his chance. Together with his loyal Serbian allies, led by despot Stephen Lazarevitch, Beyezid marched to the town's rescue, choosing a defensive position straddling the road to the city with his flanks protected by ravines. Ottoman army formed up some four miles south from the Crusader camp, and invited attack.

At the military council before the battle, Sigismund advised a cautious approach and proposed to use his own horse-archers as the first attack, with the Crusader cavalry in reserve to deliver the decisive blow against the ottoman lines. The French crusaders refused any role that denied them the first attack and declared “If the God dropped the sky on our heads, we would maintain it with the tops of our lances!” Against the advice of the king and leaving the Hungarian army behind, they rushed to meet the enemy. They charged the centre of the ottoman army, where they thought there was a cavalry force for them to attack. Once the French knights came within range, they pushed aside the first ottoman line made of horse-archers, azepis and Arab light cavalry. Then, they carried on the charge against the second defence line of Janissaries. Here, the French cavalry rushed straight into a trap, revealing well dug-in archers behinds rows and rows of sharpened wooden stakes planed in the ground. The ottoman arrows rained down on the crusaders causing huge casualties and the chronicler wrote “… no rain neither hail can flow so densely from the sky“. So, the crusaders were forced to dismount or disembowel their horses.


On the ground, the French knights fought terrifying battle against the Janissaries and succeeded to broke their lines killing more than 10,000 enemies. Despite taking heavy casualties, crusaders broke through to third Ottoman line, and were also able to hold off an attack by Ottoman cavalry. When they reached the top of the hill, where the sultan quarter was, they discovered the Serbian cavalry and Anatolian spahis kept in the rear as reserve. Cut off from the main part of Christian army, crusaders began the retreat. Attacked from all sides by Islam fanatics and their Serbian allies, they were defeated and massacred, and finally many of them captured. nico396s.jpg (8746 bytes)

Meanwhile, far to the rear, the Hungarian royal army was moving towards the battle. Sigismund preferred to slaughter the disorganized ottoman infantry instead of rushing to help the encircled French knights. Having defeated and massacred the Western crusaders, the ottoman sultan committed his main forces against the Christian army. Sigismund, leading his royal bodyguards, also entered into the dreadful battle. Bayezid was wounded and his horse killed but nevertheless he continued the ferocious fighting. It almost looked like the Christian army might win the day until the Serbian allies of Bayezid, led by Stephen Lazarevitch, emerged from an ambush and charged the Hungarians. This attack by the Serbs broke the Hungarians, and when Sigismund's banner was cast down, the whole army dissolved. In the middle of the dramatic battle in view of the terrible fight given by French knights, the hero of Wallachia (Romania), Mircea the Brave has deserted the Christians and joined the victorious arms of ottoman sultan.

The appalling behavior of the French knights, the complete lack of coordination and battle planning were the major cause of the disaster. The Christian army was divided into independent troops that were defeated and massacred one by one. It was a devastating loss. The French took severe casualties, including Philip, Count of Bar, and Jean de Vienne, the Admiral, although many more were captured. Sigismund escaped by ship, but John was captured and later ransomed. John's ransoming was the exception; Bayezid, enraged by the heavy losses (around 60 000 Islam Jihad warriors perished according to several authors and estimates), slaughtered most of his prisoners the next day organizing the horrendous massacre ceremony immortalized by the painting of Jean Froissart. The few Christians that survived were given to the victorious Islamic soldiers as slaves.


Jean Froissart shows in his painting Massacre and dismemberment of Christian prisoners the sufferings and misery and of the Christians who believed that Islamic soldiers respect the military customs

The ottoman sultan Bayezid Ist orders and observes the slaughtering and the dismemberment of Christians prisoners after the battle of Nicopolis.

(Bibliothèque nationale de France, FR 2646) fol. 255v
Jean Froissart, Chroniques
Flandre, Bruges, XVe s. (170 x 200 mm)

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French survivors returning with accounts of the disaster were imprisoned and the defeat sent a wave of fear across Europe. Powerless against the well organized and hugely backed Islamic invasion in East Europe, the Western monarchs and Italian republics will find a new way to profit from it. For centuries the Ottoman empire will be the best ally of French, Italian and German monarchs and republics in their attempt to overpower the East Europe. Only in late XIX century the Western powers would find a better Asiatic ally formidable enough to keep their eastern neighbors down - the Russian empire.

The final crush of Christian states in Balkans struggling desperately against the tyrannical Ottoman dynasty invading Europe and devastating Balkans under the banner of Islam, will arrive with the disaster of the Battle of Varna, 1444. This defeat will fade away the last hope of Bulgarian and other Christians for delivery and end any serious attempts to prevent the invasion of East Europe by Ottomans for centuries.


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Other Resources

Available from the De Bellis Bookstore: David Nicolle's Nicopolis 1396: The Last Crusade (Campaign Series #64) on the French-led crusade against the Ottomans in Bulgaria, with 14 color plates.
The crusade of Nicopolis / Atiya, Aziz Suryal: London, 1934.
The cursade of Nicopolis, and a classified bibliography of the crusade in the fourteenth century (Thesis Summary) / Atiya, Aziz Suryal - In: Bulletin of the Institute of historical Research 11 (1933/34), S. 185.
Some remarks on recent historiography of the crusade of Nicopolis (1396) / Veszprémy, László, In: The Crusades and the Military Orders, 2001, 223-230.
Studia Balkanica, 1, 1970, Zwei Notizen uber einige Mittelalterische Festungen in Nord - Ostbulgarien.
Etudes Balcaniques VII, 3, 1971, Die Bezeinungen des Konigs von Vidin Ivan Srazimir zu den Osmanischen Herrschern.
Etudes Balcaniques, 3, 1977, Zur lokalisierung der Stadt Vicina; Studia in Honorem V. Besevliev, S., 1978, Drei falsche Topografische Identifizierungen.
Athenes,t. II, 1970, Die Festungen an der Underen Donau im 12- 14 Jh. - Actes du II -e congres int. du Sud - Est Europeen.
Byzantinobulgarica, VII, 1981,Mittelalterische Stadte an der Westkuste des Schwarzen Meeres nordlich des Balkangebirges.
England and the crusade of Nicopolis, 1396 / Bell, Adrian - In: Medieval life 4 (1996), S. 18-22.
The English at Nicopolis / Tipton, Charles L. - In: Speculum 37 (1962), S. 528-540.
Le contingent franco-bourguignon à la croisade de Nicopolis / Schnerb, Bertrand - In: Annales de Bourgogne 68, 3 (1996), S. 59-75.
Le temps de la croisade bourguignonne: l'expédition de Nicopolis / Magee, Jim - In: Annales de Bourgogne 68, 3 (1996), S. 49-58.
Le Maréchal Boucicaut à Nicopolis / Housley, Norman J. - In: Annales de Bourgogne 68, 3 (1996), S. 85-99
Les prisonniers de Nicopolis / Richard, Jean - In: Annales de Bourgogne 68, 3 (1996), S. 75-83.
Euguerrand de Coucy VII and the Campaign of Nicopolis / Savage, H. L. - In: Speculum 14 (1939), S. 423-442.

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