John Hunyadi
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John Hunyadi


John Hunyadi
  John Hunyadi (1406-1456)

John Hunyadi

John Hunyadi (1406-1456) (W)

John Hunyadi depicted in the 15th-century Thuróczi chronicles.

John Hunyadi (Hungarian: Hunyadi János, Serbian: Sibinjanin Janko, Romanian: Ioan de Hunedoara; c. 1406 – 11 August 1456) was a leading Hungarian military and political figure in Central and Southeastern Europe during the 15th century. According to most contemporary sources, he was the son of a noble family of Romanian ancestry. He mastered his military skills on the southern borderlands of the Kingdom of Hungary that were exposed to Ottoman attacks. Appointed voivode of Transylvania and head of a number of southern counties, he assumed responsibility for the defense of the frontiers in 1441.

Hunyadi adopted the Hussite method of using wagons for military purposes. He employed professional soldiers, but also mobilized local peasantry against invaders. These innovations contributed to his earliest successes against the Ottoman troops who were plundering the southern marches in the early 1440s. Although defeated in the battle of Varna in 1444 and in the second battle of Kosovo in 1448, his successful "Long Campaign" across the Balkan Mountains in 1443-44 and defence of Belgrade/Nándorfehérvár in 1456, against troops led personally by the Sultan established his reputation as a great general. The pope ordered that European Churches ring their bells at noon to gather the faithful in prayer for those who were fighting. The bells of Christian churches are rung at noon to commemorate the Belgrade victory.

John Hunyadi was also an eminent statesman. He actively took part in the civil war between the partisans of Wladislas I and the minor Ladislaus V, two claimants to the throne of Hungary in the early 1440s, on behalf of the former. Popular among the lesser nobility, the Diet of Hungary appointed him, in 1445, as one of the seven "Captains in Chief" responsible for the administration of state affairs until Ladislaus V (by that time unanimously accepted as king) came of age. The next Diet went even further, electing Hunyadi as sole regent with the title of governor. When he resigned from this office in 1452, the sovereign awarded him with the first hereditary title (perpetual count of Beszterce/Bistrița) in the Kingdom of Hungary. He had by this time become one of the wealthiest landowners in the kingdom, and preserved his influence in the Diet up until his death.

This Athleta Christi (Christ's Champion), as Pope Pius II referred to him, died some three weeks after his triumph at Nándorfehérvár/Belgrade, falling to an epidemic that had broken out in the crusader camp. However, his victories over the Turks prevented them from invading the Kingdom of Hungary for more than 60 years. His fame was a decisive factor in the election of his son, Matthias Corvinus, as king by the Diet of 1457. Hunyadi is a popular historical figure among Hungarians, Romanians, Serbians, Bulgarians and other nations of the region.

First battles with the Ottomans (1438-1442) (W)

The Ottomans had occupied the larger part of Serbia by the end of 1438. In the same year, Ottoman troops — supported by Vlad II Dracul, Prince of Wallachia — made an incursion into Transylvania, plundering Hermannstadt/Nagyszeben, Gyulafehérvár (present-day Alba Iulia, Romania) and other towns. After the Ottomans laid siege to Smederevo, the last important Serbian stronghold in June 1439, Đurađ Branković, Despot of Serbia fled to Hungary to seek military assistance.

King Albert proclaimed the general insurrection of the nobility against the Ottomans, but few armed noblemen assembled in the region of Titel and were ready to fight. A notable exception was Hunyadi, who made raids against the besiegers and defeated them in smaller skirmishes, which contributed to the rise of his fame. The Ottomans captured Smederevo in August. King Albert appointed the Hunyadi brothers Bans of Severin, elevating them to the rank of "true barons of the realm". He also mortgaged a Vlach district in Temes County to them.

King Albert died of dysentery on 27 October 1439. His widow, Elisabeth — Emperor Sigismund's daughter — gave birth to a posthumus son, Ladislaus. The Estates of the realm offered the crown to Vladislaus, King of Poland, but Elizabeth had his infant son crowned king on 15 May 1440. However, Vladislaus accepted the Estates' offer and was also crowned king on 17 July. During the ensuing civil war between the two kings' partisans, Hunyadi supported Vladislaus. Hunyadi fought against the Ottomans in Wallachia, for which King Vladislaus granted him five domains in the vicinity of his family estates on 9 August 1440.

Hunyadi, together with Nicholaus Újlaki, annihilated the troops of Vladislaus' opponents at Bátaszék at the very beginning of 1441. Their victory effectively put an end to the civil war. The grateful King appointed Hunyadi and his comrade joint Voivodes of Transylvania and Counts of the Székelys in February. In short, the King also nominated them Ispáns of Temes County and conferred the command of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade, Serbia) and all other castles along the Danube on them.

Since Nicholas Újlaki spent most of his time in the royal court, in practice Hunyadi administered Transylvania and the southern borderlands alone. Soon after his appointment, Hunyadi visited Transylvania where the child Ladislaus V's partisans had maintained a strong position. After Hunyadi pacified Transylvania, the regions under his administration remained undisturbed by internal conflicts, enabling Hunyadi to concentrate on the defence of the borders. By effectively defending the interests of local landowners at the royal court, Hunyadi strengthened his position in the provinces under his administration. For instance, he obtained land grants and privileges for local noblemen from the King.

Hunyadi set about repairing the walls of Nándorfehérvár, which had been damaged during an Ottoman attack. In retaliation for Ottoman raids in the region of the river Sava, he made an incursion into Ottoman territory in the summer or autumn of 1441. He scored a pitched battle victory over Ishak Bey, the commander of Smederovo.

Early next year, Bey Mezid invaded Transylvania with a force of 17,000 soldiers. Hunyadi was taken by surprise and lost the first battle near Marosszentimre (Sântimbru, Romania). Bey Mezid lay siege to Hermannstadt, but the united forces of Hunyadi and Újlaki, who had in the meantime arrived in Transylvania, forced the Ottomans to lift the siege. The Ottoman forces were annihilated at Gyulafehérvár on 22 March.

Pope Eugenius IV, who had been an enthusiastic propagator of a new crusade against the Ottomans, sent his legate, Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini to Hungary. The Cardinal arrived in May 1442 tasked with mediating a peace treaty between King Vladislaus and Dowager Queen Elisabeth. The Ottoman Sultan, Murad II dispatched Şihabeddin Pasha—the governor of Rumelia—to invade Transylvania with a force of 70,000. The Pasha stated that the mere sight of his turban would force his enemies to run far away. Although Hunyadi could only muster a force of 15,000 men, he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Ottomans at the Ialomița River in September. Hunyadi placed Basarab II on the princely throne of Wallachia, but Basarab's opponent Vlad Dracul returned and forced Basarab to flee in early 1443.

Hunyadi's victories in 1441 and 1442 made him a prominent enemy of the Ottomans and renowned throughout Christendom. He established a vigorous offensive posture in his battles, which enabled him to counteract the numerical superiority of the Ottomans through decisive maneuver. He employed mercenaries (many of them recently disbanded Czech Hussite troops), increasing the professionalism in his ranks and supplementing the numerous irregulars mustered from local peasantry, whom he had no reservations about employing in the field.

Battle of Varna and its aftermath (1444-1446) (W)

Although no major Ottoman forces had been defeated, Hunyadi's "long campaign" stirred enthusiasm throughout Christian Europe. Pope Eugenius, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and other European powers demanded a new crusade, promising financial or military support. The formation of a "party" — a group of noblemen and clerics — under Hunyadi's leadership can be dated to this period. Their main purpose was the defence of Hungary against the Ottomans. According to a letter of Đurađ Branković, Hunyadi spent more than 63,000 gold florins to hire mercenaries in the first half of the year. An eminent representative of Renaissance humanism in Hungary, John Vitéz became Hunyadi's close friend around that time.

The advance of Christian forces in Ottoman territory also encouraged the peoples of the Balkan Peninsula to revolt in periferies of the Ottoman Empire. For instance, Skanderbeg, an Albanian noble, expelled the Ottomans from Krujë and all other fortresses once held by his family. Sultan Murad II, whose main concern was a rebellion by the Karamanids in Anatolia, offered generous terms of peace to King Vladislaus. He even promised to withdraw the Ottoman garrisons from Serbia, thus restoring its semi-autonomous status under Despot Đurađ Branković. He also offered a truce for ten years. The Hungarian envoys accepted the Sultan's offer in Edirne on 12 June 1444.

Đurađ Branković, who was grateful for the restoration of his realm, donated his estates at Világos (present-day Șiria, Romania) in Zaránd County to Hunyadi on 3 July. Hunyadi proposed King Vladislaus to confirm the advantageous treaty, but Cardinal Cesarini urged the monarch to continue the crusade. On 4 August Vladislaus took a solemn oath of launching a campaign against the Ottoman Empire before the end of the year even if a peace treaty were concluded. According to Johannes de Thurocz, the King appointed Hunyadi to sign the peace treaty on 15 August. In a week, Đurađ Branković mortgaged his extensive domains in the Kingdom of Hungary — including Debrecen, Munkács (present-day Mukacheve, Ukraine), and Nagybánya (present-day Baia Mare, Romania — to Hunyadi.

King Vladislaus, whom Cardinal Cesarini urged to keep his oath, decided to invade the Ottoman Empire in autumn. Upon the Cardinal's proposal, he offered Hunyadi the crown of Bulgaria. The crusaders departed from Hungary on 22 September. They planned to advance towards the Black Sea across the Balkan Mountains. They expected that the Venetian fleet would hinder Sultan Murad from transferring Ottoman forces from Anatolia to the Balkans, but the Genoese transported the Sultan's army across the Dardanelles. The two armies clashed near Varna on 10 November.

Although outnumbered by two to one, the crusaders initially ruled the battlefield against the Ottomans. However, the young King Vladislaus launched a premature attack against the janissaries and was killed. Taking advantage of the crusaders' panic, the Ottomans annihilated their army. Hunyadi narrowly escaped from the battlefield, but was captured and imprisoned by Wallachian soldiers. However, Vlad Dracul set him free before long.

At the next Diet of Hungary, which assembled in April 1445, the Estates decided that they would unanimously acknowledge the child Ladislaus V's rule if King Vladislaus, whose fate was still uncertain, had not arrived in Hungary by the end of May. The Estates also elected seven "Captains in Chief", including Hunyadi, each being responsible for the restoration of internal order in the territory allotted to them. Hunyadi was assigned to administer the lands east of the river Tisza. Here he possessed at least six castles and owned lands in about ten counties, which made him the most powerful baron in the region under his rule.

Hunyadi was planning to organize a new crusade against the Ottoman Empire. For this purpose, he bombarded the Pope and other Western monarchs with letters in 1445. In September he had a meeting, at Nicopolis, with Waleran de Wavrin (nephew of the chronicler Jean de Wavrin), the captain of eight Burgundian galleys, and Vlad Dracul of Wallachia, who had seized small fortresses along the Lower Danube from the Ottomans. However, he did not risk a clash with the Ottoman garrisons stationed on the south bank of the river, and returned to Hungary before winter. Vlad Dracul soon concluded a peace treaty with the Ottomans.

Belgrade victory and death (1455-1456) (W)

Envoys from Ragusa (Dubrovnik, Croatia) were the first to have informed the Hungarian leaders of the preparations that Mehmed II had made for an invasion against Hungary. In a letter addressed to Hunyadi, whom he styled as "the Maccabeus of our time", the papal legate, Cardinal Juan Carvajal made it clear that there was not much chance of foreign assistance against the Ottomans. With the Ottomans' support, Vladislav II of Wallachia even plundered the southern parts of Transylvania in late 1455.

John of Capistrano, a Franciscan friar and papal inquisitor, started to preach an anti-Ottoman crusade in Hungary in February 1456. The Diet ordered the mobilization of the armed forces in April, but most barons failed to obey and continued to war against their local adversaries, including the Hussites in Upper Hungary. Before departing from Transylvania against the Ottomans, Hunyadi had to face a rebellion by the Vlachs in Fogaras County. He also supported Vlad Dracula — a son of the late Vlad Dracul — to seize the Wallachian throne from Vladislav II.

King Ladislaus V left Hungary for Vienna in May. Hunyadi hired 5,000 Hungarian, Czech and Polish mercenaries and sent them to Belgrade, which was the key fortress of the defense of Hungary's southern frontiers. The Ottoman forces marched through Serbia and approached Belgrade in June. A crusade made up mostly of peasants from the nearby counties, who had been roused by John of Capistrano's fiery oratory, also started to assemble at the fortress in the first days of July. The Ottoman siege of Belgrade, which was personally commanded by Sultan Mehmed II, began with the bombardment of the walls on 4 July.

Hunyadi proceeded to form a relief army, and assembled a fleet of 200 ships on the Danube. The flotilla assembled by Hunyadi destroyed the Ottoman fleet on 14 July. This triumph prevented the Ottomans from completing the blockade, enabling Hunyadi and his troops to enter the fortress. The Ottomans started a general assault on 21 July. With the assistance of crusaders who were continuously arriving to the fortress, Hunyadi repulsed the fierce attacks by the Ottomans and broke into their camp on 22 July. Although wounded during the fights, Sultan Mehmed II, decided to resist, but a riot in his camp forced him to lift the siege and retreat from Belgrade during the night.

The crusaders' victory over the Sultan who had conquered Constantinople generated enthusiasm throughout Europe. Processions to celebrate Hunyadi's triumph were made in Venice and Oxford. However, in the crusaders' camp unrest was growing, because the peasants denied that the barons had played any role in the victory. In order to avoid an open rebellion, Hunyadi and Capistrano disbanded the crusaders' army.

Meanwhile, a plague had broken out and killed many people in the crusaders' camp. Hunyadi was also taken ill and died near Zimony (present-day Zemun, Serbia) on 11 August. He was buried in the Roman Catholic St. Michael's Cathedral in Gyulafehérvár.

“[Hunyadi] governed the country with an iron rod, as they say, and while the king was away he was regarded as his equal. 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 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.



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