THE LAST CRUSADER

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

A site in Varna commemorates the most important medieval battle you never heard of

knight.jpg

Hidden among the firs of a park by the busy Władysław Warneńczyk Boulevard in Varna is one of Bulgaria's strangest and most moving museums. There, inside one of two ancient Thracian burial mounds is the stone effigy of a sleeping medieval knight.

This is the symbolic grave of the Polish-Hungarian King Władysław III, who died in 1444 in a battle during what is considered to be the last Crusade in Europe.

The enemy was the then young Ottoman Empire. At that time, Constantinople was still Byzantine, but a great part of the Balkans was under Ottoman control, and the threat to Middle Europe was imminent.

On 10 November 1444, the armies of the 20-year-old King Władysław and General Jan Hunyadi, supported by smaller regiments of Walachians, Bosnians, Moldavians, Lithuanians, Croatians, Teutonic Knights, rebel Bulgarians and soldiers of the Pope were waiting for the enemy in the fields to the northwest of Varna, on the Black Sea.

The Christians were outnumbered, yet they considered their chances to be quite good. Jan Hunyadi was a seasoned and talented warrior and had often won battles against the Ottomans. The fear of a Christian victory was so strong that the 14-year-old sultan, Mehmet II, aware of his own inexperience, forced his father, the retired Murat II, to lead the army.

mound

The mound from which Sultan Murad II supposedly watched the battle

At Varna, Hunyadi's offensive tactics proved effective. After initial losses, the Christian armies gained advantage. Sultan Murat, who was commanding the battle from the top of one of two Thracian mounds, was already considering retreat.

Suddenly, in breach of Hunyadi's orders, Władysław III gathered his knights and attacked the sultan directly.

Historians have pondered over Władysław's decision. Was he too young and too attracted by tales of knightly valour? Was he too eager to show the opposition at home that he was a capable ruler and not a boy? Had he overestimated the power of heavy cavalry against the infantry Janissaries, who were protecting the sultan, or was he jealous of Hunyadi's military successes?

Whatever the reasons, here is how it ended.

Władysław fell into a pit and was killed. Most of his knights died in the melée. The Christian army retreated with heavy losses. The king's body was not found among the heaps of dead warriors.

The repercussions of the Battle of Varna, which was later dubbed "A Memorable Battle of the Nations," is still a matter of debate. Some see it as the tipping point in history when heavy cavalry was defeated by better organised infantry. Others speculate that even if the Christians had won at Varna, the Ottoman westward advance might have been postponed but would hardly have been halted.

However, the battle reshaped the politics of the day. The Ottomans strengthened their grip on the Balkans and nine years later captured Constantinople. Their push to the west continued all the way to Vienna.

The Christians never attempted to organise such a broad coalition against the common enemy. Chivalry was dead, too.

The symbolical mausoleum of King Władysław III

The symbolical mausoleum of King Władysław III

The battlefield near Varna received its first real monument in 1855 when, during the Crimean War, a group of Polish soldiers placed a memorial on the top of one of the Thracian mounds. In 1924, this part of the battlefield was turned into a park and a new memorial of Władysław replaced the older one. In 1935, the mound was transformed into a symbolic mausoleum. Two Bulgarian sculptors carved the stone effigy after the one the king had in Wawel Cathedral.

According to lore, the other mound was the place from which Sultan Murat II watched the battle, holding a spear on which the peace treaty broken by the Christians was impaled. In the 1930s, it also received a monument, albeit a peculiar one – the upper part of a stone water fountain erected by Sultan Mahmud II in Varna a century earlier.

The museum was completed in 1964, for the 520th anniversary of the battle. The exhibition hall houses a humble collection of medieval cuirasses and weapons. Most of them were not actually discovered on the battlefield.

Today, the place where the Memorable Battle of the Nations unfolded is the only quiet green spot in this part of Varna. Locals now come here to stroll and walk their dogs between the mounds that witnessed the end of the Crusades. If you look carefully enough, you can make out among the firs the moat dug by the Janissaries to protect Murat II. 

effigy

Some say that after the battle Władysław's head was severed and taken by the Ottomans. Several years later, other rumours appeared – that the king had survived and was living a quiet life as a monk in Salamanca, or as an aristocrat in Madeira. Officially, however, Władysław was dead and in the nave of the Wawel Cathedral, in Krakow, an ornate, but empty sarcophagus was installed. The effigy at Varna's museum has been modelled after it

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