The Effect of Killing the Christian Prisoners at the Battle of Nicopolis
By Kelly DeVries
Crusaders, Condottieri and Cannon: Medieval Warfare in Societies around the Mediterranean, eds. L.J. Andrew Villalon and Donald J. Kagay (Brill, 2003)
Introduction: When the reports [of defeat] were made known and published, nobody could describe the great grief which they caused in France, both on the part of the duke of Burgundy, who doubted whether he would be able to get his son back for money, and [thought] that he would be put to death, and on that of the fathers, mothers, wives, and male and female relatives of the other lords, knights and squires who were dead. A great mourning began throughout the kingdom of France by those whom it concerned; and more generally, everybody lamented the noble knights who had fallen there, who represented the flower of France … All our lords had solemn masses for the dead sung in their chapels for the good lords, knights and squires, and all the Christians who had died. . . But it may be well that we had more need of their prayers on our behalf, since they, God willing, are saints in Paradise.
So wrote the anonymous biographer of the French marshal, Jean II le Meingre dit Boucicault, as he concluded his account of the battle of Nicopolis, lost to the Ottoman Turks on September 25, 1396. The marshal himself was held as a prisoner, captured that day when he, with most of the European crusaders who had ridden out of France, England, Burgundy, the Low Countries, Italy, Germany, and Hungary met defeat at the hands of Sultan Bayezid I (1389-1402). But Boucicault was one of the lucky ones. He was not yet a “saint in Paradise.” The marshal had been spared execution because of his noble status and friendship with John the Fearless, count of Nevers, heir to the lands of Burgundy, titular leader of the crusaders at Nicopolis, despite his youth (he had not yet reached the age of twenty-five). According to Boucicault’s biographer, John pleaded with Bayezid on behalf of the marshal. Putting his thumbs together to indicate their brotherhood, the future duke of Burgundy convinced the Ottoman military leader not to slay Boucicault. Jean Froissart, whose chronicle also contains a version of this story, asserts that the future duke’s gesture really indicated how much ransom money Boucicault was worth rather than any feelings of friendship that the two men shared. The result was the same, however: Boucicault’s life was spared.
But why did John the Fearless need to plead for the life of his marshal? Indeed, why were so many “saints” sent to “Paradise” at Nicopolis, especially as it seems that few of the crusaders actually perished in the battle itself? The answer is tragically simple. The Ottoman Turks acted against the customary laws of war, which bound both Christians and Muslims even when fighting one another: no prisoner of war was ever to be executed, especially if he was a noble! Following the battle, the sultan put to death the majority of prisoners. It was this act more than any other which caused the mourning throughout Europe referred to in the opening quotation, and it was this act which stayed in the memory far longer than even the defeat in battle did. Invariably, it provoked an outpouring of Ottoman atrocity stories, stories which would grow and be embellished throughout the next century. Finally, it was this act more than anything else that terrified western armies, many of which would refuse to go against the Ottoman Turks again until the sixteenth century.