Have you ever wondered why most Christian (i.e. Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) churches ring their bells at noon every day? Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458) ordered the bells of every European church to be rung every day at noon, as a call to pray for the Hungarian and Crusader victory defending the fortress at Belgrade (then Nándorfehérvár as a city within the Kingdom of Hungary) against the Ottoman Turks in July, 1456. The historical significance of the Siege of Belgrade determined the course of future Ottoman invasions, and stalled their advance until 1526 when Hungary was defeated at the Battle of Mohács.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 (only 3 years before the Ottoman siege at Belgrade) sent panic and fear throughout Europe and the Christian world. The loss of Constantinople was regarded as a calamitous setback for Christian Europe and the crusades. The victorious Sultan Mehmet II, encouraged by his momentious victory at Constantinople, began an advance into the Balkans and northward in the hopes of defeating Hungary and reaching Western Europe. Mehmed II would take Serbia in 1454-55; and the following year with an army estimated to be 70,000 strong (other historians have estimated that Mehmed’s army may have been between 100,000-300,000 men), he launched what would be a long and arduous march to Belgrade.
Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár) was a key stronghold of the southern defense system of medieval Hungary. The epic battle between the Ottoman Empire and Hungary would come to significantly influence the subsequent history of Europe and the spread of Ottoman domination in the Balkans. János (John) Hunyadi, an influential and famous Hungarian military commander, politician and noble, took the responsibility for coordinating and controlling the defensive operations along the southern borders of Hungary (a position he was appointed to in 1441). Hunyadi, knowing of the Ottoman advance in the Balkans, left 7,000 of his soldiers in Belgrade to build and strengthen its defensive capabilities in May of 1456. In the buildup to the Ottoman siege, John of Capistrano, a Franciscan monk appointed by the pope to recruit as many troops as it was possible, crisscrossed the Kingdom of Hungary and Western European powers to raise a volunteer force. By June, 1456 Capistrano’s army and the Hungarian forces (numbering approximately 45,000-50,000 in total) arrived in Belgrade and began to take up their defensive positions north of the city.
One of Belgrade’s greatest advantages was its geographic location at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Mehmet would similarly take advantage of Belgrade’s position by sailing over 200 ships up the Danube river with canons, supplies, siege weapons and equipment. The Ottomans would even establish founderies in Serbia to build and manufacture canons to support the siege. Legend has it that the bells of Constantinople were melted and used to manufacture the canons used against Belgrade in 1456. With the Ottoman forces firmly in control of the river at this stage, the Ottomans blocked Belgrade off from the Danube with a chain of ships, moored upstream of the castle, and began placing their heavy guns outside the western walls of the fortress. The bombardment of the fortress would began in July. Hunyadi however anticipated this tactical move by Mehmed’s forces, and devised a cunning attack to retake control of the river.
On July 13, 1456, a Hungarian fleet of vastly inferior vessels broke the line of the Turkish fleet with the assistance of the fortress commander, Mihaly Szilágyi. Both Hunyadi and Szilágyi (who was Hunyadi’s brother-in-law), had river units that were anchored on the Sava River west of Belgrade and further north on the Danube – and therefore out of reach by the Ottoman forces. Both commander’s led a two-fronted attack against Mehmed II and defeated the Ottoman river armada. With the defeat of the Ottoman fleet, the Hungarians had control of the Danube again meaning the supply of needed reinforcements to Belgrade could be provided uninhibited. Hunyadi could then join his forces, camped about 30 kilometres north of Belgrade, with Szilágyi to increase the defensive capability of the fortress.
The continued Ottoman siege against Belgrade proved insufficient to deal a deciding blow to Hunyadi’s forces. Hunyadi was compelled to lead a defensive fight due to the lack of enough calvary forces to attack the Ottomans full-out. After almost ten days of unsuccessful sieges, on July 21, 1456 Mehmed ordered a full attack on the fortress. By the night of July 21 so many Ottoman attackers had been killed that chaos broke out among Mehmed’s ranks. The next morning (July 22, 1456) Hunyadi rode out of the stronghold with a small contingent and entered into hand to hand fighting with Medmed’s tired and beleaguered army. The Sultan sent 6,000 fresh troops into combat, but these troops could not defeat Hunyadi. Mehmed’s army experienced casualties in excess of 50,000 men and, after the Sultan himself became wounded in battle, ordered a general retreat to Sofia in Bulgaria.
A hard-fought victory by Hunyadi’s forces altered the course of history in Europe. Unfortunately, Hunyadi could not capitalize on an Ottoman retreat and pursue the enemy. Pestilence would break out in the Hungarian camp and Hunyadi would succumb to illness shortly after the battle. With the Hungarian victory, Europe had put a halt to an Ottoman stronghold at the gates of Western Europe – for now. The Ottomans would return 70 years later to claim their revenge and eventually sit at the gates of Vienna to threaten Christian Europe. The ringing of church bells at noon each day is a potent reminder of the legacy of this battle, and the role that Hungary and other forces placed in defending Europe from the Ottomans. It has become increasingly difficult to relate the moments of history to generations of modern society. Battle are won and lost, but out of their ruins and legacy is forged a narrative of survival, formation and perseverance. That legacy defines people and nations, providing the context to our shared journey through history. The Siege of Belgrade may be but one spoke in the narrative, but it remains a defining event that shaped the course of history during a time when the Europe we know today could have been very different indeed.
Note: Cover image is a public domain reproduction of Titusz Dugovics Sacrifices Himself by Alexander von Wagner via Wikimedia Commons.