Today in European history: the Battle of Varna (1444)

Of all the 15th century Ottoman battles in the Balkans (“Rumelia” to use the Ottoman term) prior to the conquest of Constantinople, the most important was probably the Battle of Varna in 1444, particularly if you pair its effects with those of the (second) Battle of Kosovo in 1448. Varna broke a major Hungarian-Polish alliance that had been formed to counter the Ottoman threat, so major in fact that it had been given the Crusader imprimatur (the “Crusade of Varna,” also known as “the Long Campaign”) by Pope Eugenius IV (d. 1447). The Ottoman victory here, combined with Kosovo, suppressed the Hungarian threat long enough to give the Ottomans time to focus on Constantinople, the big prize.

Source: Today in European history: the Battle of Varna (1444)


6 thoughts on “Today in European history: the Battle of Varna (1444)

  1. In retrospect the 150-year-long Ottoman advance into Europe seems inevitable and unstoppable. But at the time it was a thing of fits and starts, with long interludes of peace and several moments where things could have been dramatically different. Varna’s one of the extreme examples of this; it was a close-run battle, coming after a European campaign that had dramatically exposed Ottoman weakness and really stretched the young Ottoman state to its limit.

    An underlying issue: from the 1390s until the Conqueror closed the Straits in 1453, Rumelia was an overseas possession. There wasn’t an Ottoman navy yet, and the Straits were still open to international commerce, so the Ottoman supply line was always dangerously vulnerable to disruption. And the Ottoman provinces of Bulgaria and northern Greece, alone, didn’t really have the resources to fend off a determined Christian assault.

    The fall of Constantinople gets a lot of attention as, well, the fall of Constantinople, and also because of its transformation into a very different sort of city as the Ottoman capital. What gets less attention is that it solved a major strategic problem for the Ottomans and unleashed them to make war across a broad arc of European territory from Albania to the Pruth.

    Doug M.

    1. The Ottomans had their capital at Edirne starting in the 1360s and during the interregnum Suleyman Çelebi’s territory was entirely on the European side of the Bosphorus. The Ottomans had to do just as much work to expand against the Turkish beyliks in Anatolia as they had to do to expand against the Christian principalities in Rumelia. The notion that one was “overseas” to them and the other wasn’t is not one that I find particularly compelling.

      1. I’m not married to it being “overseas from Anatolia” — although I’ll note that once you got much beyond Edirne, the Ottomans were never more than a fairly thin scrim of political and social elites over demographics that usually remained firmly Christian. Anatolia had large regions that were solidly Muslim and Turcophone, with Christians and Jews fairly small minorities. Rumelia beyond Thrace? Not so much. Even the parts that eventually went mostly Muslim, like Bosnia and Albania, stayed ethnically and linguistically distinct and didn’t Ottomanize.

        But let that bide. Sure, Rumelia had the capital and may have been economically more important from quite early on. Here’s a comparison: the contemporary English possessions in France. It’s half forgotten now, but for 300 years England owned a huge chunk of France, and in the 1400s came very close to conquering it all. English kings were constantly going back and forth across the Channel, and the French possessions took up a huge amount of their attention and bandwidth. Ultimately they lost them all, because the challenges of ruling two kingdoms separated by water, in a strategically challenging environment, were just too great. But in (say) 1420 it really looked like they were going go scoop all of France and create a super-kingdom stretching from Ireland to the Alps.

        So, for a century or so the Ottoman domain was in a similar position: two lobes, separated by water, with the Byzantine remnant sitting in the middle, a bone in the throat. In a way they were worse off, because they had no navy. So it was often difficult for them to move armies across the Straits, while Christian forces could come into the Black Sea at will. You don’t have to insist on the center of gravity being on one side of the Straits or another to see how strategically problematic that was for them.

        Doug M.

      2. You’re confusing “Ottomanize” and “Islamize.” The Ottomans had no interest in conversion until very late in their history and even then didn’t pursue forced conversion with any zeal. The parts of the empire that were Muslim before the Ottomans showed up stayed Muslim and the parts that were Christian stayed mostly Christian. Linguistically the European territories maintained local languages, but so did all the empire’s Arab territories, Armenian territories, Kurdish territories, etc.

        Most empires in history were a “thin scrim of political and social elites” over larger local populations. I’m not sure what makes the Ottomans unique here.

        I’m also not sure where this “no navy” stuff comes from. The Ottomans won their first naval victories in the early 14th century. They were using their navy to conquer territory around the Black Sea in the early 1400s. They had fortresses on both sides of both the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus by the late 1300s. They weren’t a naval power until after Constantinople, but it’s not like they had no naval capability before then.

      3. We’re talking about the 14th-15th centuries, so not a lot of Arab or Kurdish territories at that point. But at all times, Anatolia had far more Turkish-speaking Muslims than Rumelia. Yes, the Ottomans showed little interest in conversion of subject peoples — though not none; Albanians, Bosnians, and Bulgarian Pomaks all converted in large numbers. But large areas of Anatolia were Turkish — or Turcophone Muslim if we want to be precise —
        from very early, while Rumelia never saw large-scale settlement of Turks outside of Thrace plus a few other small areas like Dobrudja.

        Look at the empire in 1444. Wallachia and Serbia are tributary but not under Ottoman occupation. Morea is still Byzantine. Albania, the Ottomans have a couple of fortresses. Kosovo is flipping back and forth but at this moment it’s just been handed back to Serb rule, with the Ottoman siege of Novo Brdo still a decade ahead. Dobruja is Ottoman but there’s almost no Turkish settlement north of Varna — that’ll happen in the 16th century. So at this point Ottoman Rumelia is pretty small: basically it consists of modern Bulgaria and Macedonia, Dobruja, and northern Greece.

        By the end of Mehmed’s rule the Ottomans have picked up Morea, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, and most of the Aegean islands, and the Empire-in-Europe roughly doubles its size. But that all comes a bit later, after Varna.

        But, again, my point isn’t whether the Ottomans were a “European” or “Asian” empire. My point is that they had two pieces of empire separated by a strait that they didn’t control, and for a century this was an ongoing strategic headache for them. To give a specific example, after the fall of Thessaloniki in 1430 the annoyed Venetians sailed into the Straits and shut down all commerce for several months. Murad finally had to pay them to go away, because otherwise the Empire would have been cut in two.

        Navy: okay, fair point. Let’s say, before Mehmed the Ottoman navy was small and couldn’t compete with either Venice or Genoa. Again, specific example: when the Ottomans first threatened Venetian hegemony in Morea and the Aegean, the Venetians simply wiped out the Ottoman fleet at Gallipoli in 1416.

        Doug M.

      4. Anatolia was mostly Turkish before the Ottomans developed, they had nothing to do with that process. Of the conversion that happened in Europe only the Albanian case can be said to have had any state impetus behind it. The Ottomans didn’t Islamize or Turkicize their empire, not in Rumelia, Anatolia, the Levant, Iraq, or anywhere else, so their failure to do so in Rumelia is not at all remarkable.

        But yes, the young Ottoman Empire didn’t hatch fully formed into the world and took a while to find its footing. If that’s where this is going then I have nothing else to say and I’m not sure to what you were responding to begin with, since nobody has ever argued otherwise.

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