On November 10, 1444, the crusading Catholic armies of Hungary and Poland, commanded by King Władysław III, were defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Varna, during which the Polish King was killed.
By the end of 14th century, the Ottoman Turks, once just one of many Turkic tribes wandering the Anatolian steppe, had expanded steadily westward, mostly at the expense of the decaying Byzantine Empire, establishing themselves in the Balkans, and even moving their capital to Adrianople, which they renamed Edirne.
But following its disastrous defeat against the Mongol conqueror Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402, the rising Ottoman Empire was plunged into a decade-long civil war from which it looked as if it would never recover. Sultan Mehmed I eventually restored order, and by the time he died in 1421, his son Murad II was in good position to resume the Ottoman expansion in Europe.
The new Sultan began his reign by laying siege to Constantinople, forcing the Byzantine Emperor John VIII to cede away all the territory outside the city walls, before launching a series of campaigns to reassert the Ottomans’ control over the Balkans, from the Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Hungary, now ruled by King Władysław III of Poland.
In 1443, with Murad distracted by revolts in Greece and Albania, Władysław’s great Hungarian general János Hunyadi launched a counter-offensive known as the Long Campaign. In the dead of winter, the combined Polish and Hungarian forces invaded Serbia, crossed the Balkan Mountains and overran most of Bulgaria, forcing a shocked Murad to sue for peace and to resign the throne to his twelve-year-old son, Mehmed II.
Fearing an Ottoman invasion encouraged by the young and inexperienced new Sultan, Pope Eugene IV called for a new crusade. An audacious plan was drawn up by which Władysław, with Hunyadi as his commander in chief, would lead a crusader army south into Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria, while the Venetian and Papal fleets would blockade the straits between Europe and Asia, cutting the Ottomans off from reinforcement from Anatolia and allowing the Polish King to rampage unopposed across the Balkans.
But upon receiving news of the crusade, the young Sultan Mehmed immediately asked his father to return to the throne to lead the Ottoman army into battle. A more seasoned commander, Murad then convinced the Venetians’ hated rivals, the Genoese, to transport him and his army across the straits, for the hefty price of a ducat a head.
With the crusaders still busy battling their way along the Danube, Murad crossed into Europe right under the nose of the Papal fleet and began marching north to confront the Christian army. And by the time Władysław and Hunyadi reached the city of Varna on the Black Sea, they faced a numerically far superior Ottoman army.
Ignoring Hunyadi’s cautious advice, Władysław led the bulk of his forces against the Ottoman center in an attempt to capture the Sultan, but the Ottoman ruler’s elite bodyguard repelled the attack. Władysław was killed, his head displayed on a pike, and the crusaders eventually retreated after taking enormous losses.
The Battle of Varna was the last major effort by the Christian powers to expel the Turks from Europe. The Ottomans extended their control over the Greek rulers in the Peloponnese and, with now no threat from the west, proceeded to conquer Constantinople, which fell in 1453.
While King Władysław most probably died at the Battle of Varna, his body was never found. And according to a Portuguese legend, the Polish King survived and journeyed in secrecy to the Holy Land, before settling on the Portuguese island of Madeira, where he lived incognito and had a son… Christopher Columbus.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.