The Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 was one of the last (together with the expedition to Varna in 1444) crusades in Europe. In it, the Hungarian-Croatian king and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund of Luxembourg, tried to defeat and drive away the Turks, who at that time had approached the Hungarian borders. At that time, the Ottoman Empire was a significant military power that, having already taken over most of the Balkans, posed a real danger of penetrating further into Central Europe.
Since Sigismund was a very influential ruler, he decided to turn to the Pope himself and all allies who would and could help. At that time, Constantinople was already surrounded by the Ottomans and was in danger of falling into enemy hands, which would lose control over the Bosphorus and the passenger passage to and from the Black Sea. The army began to gather as early as 1394 when Pope Boniface IX. declared a crusade against the Ottomans.
By 1396, almost all important European allies (France, Spain, Burgundy, Poland, German states, Hungary, Croatia, Wallachia, Venice, Genoa and many others) had joined the “Holy War”. Eventually the army split into two parts. The first part was commanded by Sigismund of Luxembourg himself with soldiers from Hungary, Croatia, Wallachia and Transylvania, as well as with German units. The other part of the army consisted mostly of French and Burgundian cavalry together with the rest of the army. Altogether, the Crusaders numbered about 30,000 soldiers, most of whom were well-equipped and trained heavy cavalry. This was a truly impressive army and everything looked as if the campaign had to be successful. Venice and Genoa offered their navies to transport the army while the rest of the forces moved along the Danube to the East.
In the summer of 1396 the soldiers of the Christian coalition who had gathered around Buda began to move towards present-day Northern Bulgaria. The idea was to restore the Bulgarian Empire in the Eastern Balkans with a military victory (Bulgarians also participated). The rest of the troops were to sail from the Black Sea along the Danube to the bulk of the army and join them. Even then, what would later determine the main battle began to happen, and that is the difference between how Sigismund viewed this military campaign and how the French commanders viewed it. Namely, Sigismund was much more experienced and knew the situation better here, while the French and Burgundians naively thought that they would take an easy victory.
The Crusaders crossed to the south side of the Danube at the Iron Gate, where the Danube is very narrow, and continued east. On their way, they first came across Vidin, which fell quickly. After Vidin they occupied Oryahovo. This city-fortress was inhabited by a mixed Orthodox-Turkish population. After the fort fell into the hands of the Crusaders, the French carried out a severe massacre of several thousand inhabitants and soldiers contrary to the advice of King Sigismund.
On September 12, the Crusaders arrive in front of the Fortress of Nicopolis. The fort was located on a large steep cliff along the Danube. From it, roads led to the interior of the country and as such was extremely important. Dogan Bey and his men were sure that Sultan Bayazid would help them. They were ready to defend the fort to the last man regardless of the crusade siege. As soon as he saw the Crusaders, Dogan Bey, begging for help, sent messengers to Bayazid as well as all the necessary information about the enemy. The Ottoman army was ready …
Since the Crusaders did not have siege weapons with them, they tried to break into the fort by climbing the walls with ladders, but the defenders successfully repulsed them. In the end, they decided that since the fort was completely surrounded, they would force the Turks to surrender by starvation. So two more weeks passed, and there was no progress. The encamped Christian soldiers spent their days getting drunk and telling jokes. Some of them did not even think that the Ottoman army would eventually appear at all. Two days before the battle, Christian scouts saw a huge Turkish army approaching them. When they told this to their commanders in the Christian camp there was a general panic. The Crusaders, intoxicated by the image of their own strength, were completely unprepared. According to the Ottomans, there were about 60,000 of them, many of them infantry, but also some janissaries and cavalry spahis as the heart of the army.
On September 24, Sigismund held a war council in consultation with all important unit commanders. He believed that his Transylvanian and Wallachian troops under the command of Duke Mircea of Wallachia should be sent to battle first. This part of his army was the least armed and of somewhat weaker morale. According to Sigismund, the French knights should march in an organized manner and break up the first ranks of the Turkish army, after which the rest of Sigismund’s units would surround the Turks and thus prevent maneuvers for the Turkish cavalry. The ambitious French rejected this proposal with disgust, believing that they should lead the first attack. The French cavalry wanted a glorious victory and were extremely motivated for battle. So much so that they competed over which of them would lead which part of the army. Sigismund knew that their decision was not wise but in the end he had to give in.
The morning of September 25 dawned. The Christian army looked to the south where the Ottomans were stationed on an elevated hill. Before the battle Sultan Bajazid left one part of the spahis behind the hill where the crusaders could not see them. Also in the woods to the right of the Christian forces was, as a surprise, placed 5,000 Serbian cavalry under the leadership of despot Stefan Lazarevic, who was a Turkish vassal. Among the crusaders were primarily French and Burgundian heavy cavalry, followed by troops assembled by King Sigismund. The Croatian Army was stationed on the right flank under Stjepan Lackovic. Also Nikola Gorjanski with his horsemen formed the center of Sigismund. He was accompanied by Count Hermann of Celje as a loyal friend of the king. Soldiers from German lands and knights’ hospitals also formed the center of Sigismund’s army while to the left were Transylvanian and Vlach units led by Duke Mircea.
After the initial turmoil of the armies, the French and Burgundian knights were the first to lose their temper, and with all their strength they marched violently towards the Turkish front line. Under the power of horses and armor, the first ranks were easily broken. The Ottoman infantry and even the Janissaries relented. But when they went uphill, the French cavalry encountered fierce resistance, and the problem was posed by numerous stakes driven into the ground that wounded horses. At one point the attack stopped. Sigismund was inclined to withdraw his forces into battle in order to maintain cohesion with the French units and come to their aid. The knights fell from their horses and in despair dismounted and fought on foot. The part of the French who reached the top of the hill approached Bayazid, but they were surprised by the rush of Turkish reserve spahis. The French army was completely destroyed, and those who survived were captured. Despite this, Sigismund’s units stood well. There was a terrible hand-to-hand fight between two equal opponents. After an hour it seemed that the Christian army was still winning. At that moment, 5,000 Serbian cavalrymen of Stefan Lazarević flew out of the nearby forest and crashed into the rear of Sigismund’s army. This was a decisive part of the battle after which a general schism arose in the Christian ranks. The soldiers began to flee in all directions, the army was routed. Sigismund escaped by sailing in a fishing boat to the Venetian galley on the Danube. Part of Sigismund’s army also fled to anchored galleys, and the rest by land to the West. The exact number of casualties in this battle is not known but it was large on both sides. After the battle, Bayazid had 3,000 prisoners executed in revenge for the crusade in Oryahovo, and a small portion of the remaining most distinguished knights were later redeemed with great compensation.
After the defeat at the Battle of Nicopolis, a new major European expedition against the Ottomans was not organized until 1444. In fact, what saved Europe and the further penetration of the Turks was the Mongol invasion from the East into Turkey. Sultan Bayezid was captured after the battle of Angora in 1402, and the empire entered a long period of instability that will last for the next 100 years …