"Bulla Turcorum" - John Hunyadi, the Siege of Belgrade and why the Noon Bells ring in Church

22 July 1456, The Ottoman siege of Belgrade ended with a victory of the Hungarian warlord John Hunyadi and John of Capistrano’s crusaders, commemorated to this day with ringing the noon bells in church.

"... the Pope praised Hunyadi to the stars and called him the most outstanding man the world had seen in 300 years." (Jacob Calcaterra, Milanese ambassador to the Holy See)

"The Battle of Nándorfehérvár" as Belgrade was known in Hungarian, mid-19th century painting by an unknown Magyar artist, showing John of Capistrano in the centre and John Hunyadi on horseback to the left.

The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 is seen often enough as the end of the Middle Ages. However, the printing press was already invented and so was gunpowder, rich trade cities and their burghers and merchant princes challenged the nobilities’ privileges just as pikemen and archers had broken their superiority on the battlefields, the Bible was translated in national languages and the interpretational sovereignty of the church questioned by the precursors of the Reformation, but the utterly medieval idea of Crusades and fighting the infidel was efficacious still, somehow. Not quite with the upper echelons of society like 300 years before, though. One was far too occupied with fighting Hundred Years’ Wars, getting to grips with the idea of a national state and what not. But since the Ottomans as the new emerging superpower on the intersection between Europe and Asia began to campaign deep into the Balkans, quixotic Western chivalry, usually from the same mould as the ones who charged into the arrow storms of Crecy and the burghers’ pole arms at Courtrai believing in their own aristocratic invincibility, along with professionals from the still existent chivalric orders and incited hoi polloi crusaded against the Turk. While the states east of Vienna fought for their very survival against an invader with well-led, well-equipped and highly motivated armies that usually wiped the floor with crusaders and locals alike. When the news of Sultan Mehmed’s capture of Constantinople reached the West, however, a few weeks before the last battle of the Hundred Years’ War was fought at Castillon, the Holy Roman Habsburgs were just about to recover from their devastating conflict against the Hussite heretics in Bohemia and the Borgia popes in Rome along with the powerful Italian city states preferred to be at each others’ throats, panic began to spread. The threat was real enough. With his new capital established in Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II, already known as Fatih, the Conqueror, prepared for his big push into Central Europe along the Danube. In his way lay the Hungarian fortress city of Nándorfehérvár, Kriechisch Wyssenburg, Belgrade. With an army of 70,000, an artillery park of 300 pieces and a river fleet of 200 vessels at his command, the Conqueror began the siege on July 4, 1456. 

Belgrade (Kriechisch Wyssenburg, Greek White Castle), from Sebastian Münster's "World Chronicle" (1545)

Fifty years earlier, during a momentary lapse in Ottoman power, the Serbian Prince Stefan Lazarević had led his new capital on the junction of the rivers Sava and Danube into something of a Golden Age and established a New Constantinople in more than an Orthodox Christian sense. By the end of his rule in 1427, the White City housed about 50,000 people and Stefan’s biographer Constantine the Philosopher praised her buildings “as mighty as Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem” shadowing her surroundings like “the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens”, the “most Tsar-like of all cities”, along with the state-of-the-art fortifications of the upper and lower city. However, Stefan’s successor Đurađ Branković had to cede her to the Hungarians and in 1455, the warlord John Hunyadi, anticipating where his old enemy Mehmed’s first major blow would fall, gave the fortress the finishing touches. 50 years old by then, Hunyadi had fought the Ottomans for almost 20 years with varying success, to say the least, but assembled a hard core of professional soldiers, cavalry, infantry and artillery, presaging his son Matthias Corvinus’ Black Army of Hungary, and he knew how to worry the modern Turkish soldiers on the battlefield. On the other hand, he worried the local Hungarian, Croatian and Serbian lords enough with his internal power play that they feared him more than the Turks. And left him, more or less, on his own. The westerners, fearing the advance of the Ottoman Turks on a more insubstantial level, practically followed suit. Already in 1453, Pope Callixtus III had preached a crusade that fell on deaf ears. And even the fire and brimstone hatemonger John of Capistrano couldn’t entice the princes of the Holy Roman Empire to take the cross at the Diet of Frankfurt two years later. He had more success in the southeast, in Bavaria and Austria, and finally in Hungary, where the Ottoman threat was already manifest. Thus, he managed to gather several ten thousands of peasants, bolstered by German knights and led them to Hunyadi as the crusaders of the “Soldier Saint”, as he became known. Pope Calixtus III donated a considerable amount of money from the alms bag for Hunyadi’s war chest and gave ideological support. Allegedly by issuing a papal bull against the foreboding appearance of Halley’s Comet and by ordering the whole of Christendom to ring the church bells at noon time and pray for the crusader’s victory at the Siege of Belgrade. By then, the defenders of the White City under Hunyadi’s brother-in-law Michael Szilágyi already fought for their lives.

Alexander von Wagner (1838 - 1919) "Titusz Dugovics Sacrifices Himself" (1859) by grabbing the first janissary over the wall , wresting the regimental colours from him and dragging the wretch down with him over the fortifications of the upper city on 21 July 1456.

ten days, the White City lay under artillery barrage like Constantinople three years earlier. But this time, Mehmed Fatih had three times the ordnance at his disposal and concentrated the fire on an area of about one tenth of the fallen Roman capital. Szilágyi held, though, with the people of Belgrade getting the worst of it. On July 14, Hunyadi’s advance guard finally arrived on the scene. The old warhorse had scraped together a river flotilla from God knows where and managed to strike his first decisive blow against the highly professional Ottoman navy on the Danube. His ragtag vessels manned by Danube boatmen and a contingent of his experienced and well-equipped mercenaries-turned-marines sank three of Mehmed’s war galleys and destroyed or captured the bulk of his guard and supply vessels, cutting the besieger’s communication lines with the capital and allowing Hunyadi to get supplies and reinforcements into the city. A week later, the relief army arrived on the scene, made up from Hunyadi’s hard core of about 5,000 professional soldiers and Capistrano’s crusader rabble of some 50 – to 60,000 men and Mehmed ordered an all-out assault on the fortifications of Belgrade. The under city fell in the night of July 21, but Szilágyi held the upper town against the crème of the Ottoman army in brutal hand-to-hand fighting. The next day started with something of a surprise when Capistrano’s crusaders, probably about to loot the depleted Ottoman camp against Hunyadi’s express orders, were suddenly engaged in melee with Mehmed’s household cavalry. The Kapikulu Sipahis were swamped by the mob before they could properly deploy and charge and Capistrano saw his chance, followed up with several thousand more and pushed the Ottomans back into their camp. Now Hunyadi stepped in and led his professionals against an equal number of Mehmed’s lifeguards who desperately tried to stem the tide and bring something resembling order into the chaos of the battle in the camp. Hunyadi threw them, Mehmed himself was wounded in close combat, the Janissaries, who still fought in the streets of the lower and upper city were cut off, cornered and slaughtered. The battle and the siege were over and John Hunyadi had won against the odds. Mehmed withdrew what was still left of his force back to Constantinople and the Kingdom of Hungary, along with Central Europe, was safe for the next 70 years from Ottoman incursions. The news of the victory at Belgrade reached the Pope on August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration. By then, John Hunyadi and John of Capistrano both lay on their death beds with the plague that had broken out in the crusader’s camp. Hunyadi died on August 11, Capistrano followed in October. Pope Callixtus’ order to ring the noon bells to pray for the defenders of Belgrade became a celebration, though, and a commemoration of victory over the Turks carried on to this day, even if the actual reason for ringing the noon bells every day is, by and large, forgotten.

And more about the 1456 Siege of Belgrade on: