Władyslaw III of Poland leading the cavalry charge in the Battle of Varna, a fragment from a painting by Jan Matejko. Photo: Wikipedia
The 576th year since the Battle of Varna in 1444, also known as the “Battle of Peoples" or the last medieval battle for Bulgaria, in which the Ottoman Empire routed the European Christian forces, was marked on Tuesday, November 10, 2020.
In recent decades, November 10 is far more widely known in Bulgaria for another historical anniversary, the formal end of the communist regime on November 10, 1989 (545 years after the Battle of Varna), at the time, however, epitomized solely by the deposing of Bulgaria’s long-time communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.
The 1444 Battle of Varna, near today’s Black Sea city of Varna in Bulgaria, saw the Christian European force led by Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III Jagello, also known as Varnenchik (Warnenczyk), King of Poland and Hungary, and made up of Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Wallachians, Bosnians, Croatians, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Germans, and Teutonic Knights pitted against the Ottoman Turks and their Janissaries (warriors forcefully converted to Islam when they were seized from their Christian families).
Polish and Hungarian King Vladislav III Jagello Varnenchik’s two campaigns against the Ottoman Empire – in 1443 and 1444 – are sometimes described as Crusades but are the last attempts to liberate Southeast Europe from the Ottomans and to preempt their subsequent incursions into Central Europe (which were successfully stopped only two-and-a-half centuries later by another Polish King, Jan Sobieski, during the 1683 Siege of Vienna).
The rump states of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396/1422) were conquered by the invading Ottoman Turks around the turn of the 15th century, prompting in 1396, Hungarian King Sigismund of Luxembourg (r. 1387-1437 AD, later Holy Roman Emperor in 1433-1437 AD), to stage the first united Christian European crusade-type campaign against the Ottoman Turks, which, however, ended in a disaster for the Christian forces in the Battle of Nicopolis (today’s Bulgarian town of Nikopol).
Several decades later, after reaching the region southeast of Sofia and retreating because of the winter in his first anti-Ottoman campaign in 1443, in 1444, King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III Jagello and his ally John Hunyadi led an army of some 20,000 European Christian warriors, including Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Wallachians, Ruthenes (Rusyns), Bulgarians, Croatians, Saxons, Lithuanians, and Crusader Knights of Pope Eugene IV (r. 1431-1477).
Before reaching Varna on the Black Sea coast, the Christian Europeans’ forces advanced along the Danube in Northern Bulgaria, with Bulgarian rebels led by Fruzhin, the heir to the Bulgarian throne in Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo), son of Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395), joining along the way.
On November 9, 1444, the Ottoman army, which is estimated to have been about 60,000-strong, approached Varna from the west catching the Christian forces between the Black Sea, the Varna Lake, and the Frangen Plateau.
In the ensuing Battle of Varna, on November 10, 1444, the European Christian army led by King Vladislav Varnenchik, the Transylvanian voivode John Hunyadi, and Mircea II of Wallachia was outnumbered roughly three to one by the forces of Ottoman Sultan Murad II.
The two armies faced one another on a front of about 3.5 km. In the rear of the Christian army, the Czech Hussites formed a wagon fort (Wagenburg) armed with bombards.
Even though at first the Christian forces seemed to have gained the upper hand, the brave Polish and Hungarian King perished in the midst of the battle when he led a charge of his personal guard of 500 knights against the 10,000 Janissaries in an attempt to capture Ottoman Sultan Murad II.
Breaching the last lines of the Janissaries, King Vladislav’s horse tripped or was killed, he fell on the ground, and was beheaded on the spot by a Janissary. This immediately disorganized the Christian army, leading it to retreat.
Neither the King’s head, nor his body could be saved during the remainder of the battle. Transylvanian voivode John Hunyadi organized the retreat of the surviving Christian forces, with many Crusaders taken captive and sold as slaves. While the Ottomans were ultimately victorious in the Battle of Varna, their losses were so substantial that they did not realize they had won until three days after the battle.
The bravery and tragic end of Polish and Hungarian King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) Varnenchik made him a hero in the folklore of many European nations.
A map of the Battle of Varna in 1444. Map: Wikipedia
For Bulgaria, the Christian Europeans’ defeat in the Battle of Varna sealed its fate for several centuries, a historical period known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396/1422 – 1878/1912). The battle also foreboded the end of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire with the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453.
Bulgaria has dedicated a memorial complex to the Battle of Varna in 1444 AD, and the heroism of the Polish King, known as the Vladislav Varnenchik Museum Park.
The Museum was first opened on the site of the Battle of Varna as a mausoleum in 1935, and then turned into a park museum with an area of 30 decares (app. 7.5 acres) in 1964, on the occasion of the 520th Year since the Battle of Varna.
Varna has moved to erect a monument of Vladislav Varnenchik in the city at the initiative of the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Warsaw, Poland, with the statue being a donation by renowned Polish sculptor Prof. Marian Konieczny from Krakow.