Author: Warren H. Carroll

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, or St. John of Capistran, the theologian and preacher, with the Turks threatening southern Europe in 1455:

"In September the preaching of the crusade began, with Pope Calixtus III sending cardinals for that purpose to France, Germany and Poland. The Pope's countryman Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples took the cross November 1 and agreed to supply 15 galleys for the crusading fleet. Afonso V of Portugal, now ruling in his own right, pledged 12,000 men for a year. St. John Capistrano, the fiery Observant Franciscan preacher, raised men for the crusade throughout Hungary and Transylvania, reaching past the aristocracy to the common people.

"They moved quickly for the age, but except for St. John Capistrano, they were still not in time. Muhammad II the Conqueror was a man before whom any delay could be deadly. On April 7, 1456 the news reached Hungary that he was on the march for Belgrade with a force of almost the same size that had taken Constantinople -- about 80,000 men and 300 cannon. Sixteen-year-old King Ladislas Postumus of Hungary fled in panic to Vienna, and many of the once boastful Hungarian nobles abandoned Belgrade for their home estates. Hunyadi's field army and the garrison of Belgrade held firm, perhaps 16,000 in all; and St. John Capistran brought at least 8,000 crusaders with him, though many of them were poorly armed and little trained. The odds in favor of the Turks were therefore between three and four to one. On June 29, the feast of St. Peter and Paul, Pope Calixtus III called on all archbishops, bishops, and abbots in Christendom for prayer, fasting and penance for deliverance from the Turks, who three days later had fully invested the city of Belgrade.

"July 4 was a Sunday. St. John Capistran said Mass in Belgrade castle, and instructed the many priests present not to participate in any way in the battle, except by their prayers and assistance to the wounded. The odds shook even the redoubtable Hunyadi, who proposed retreat if it were possible; Capistran replied that he and his crusaders would never leave Belgrade, but would go down fighting to the last man like Constantine XI if Hunyadi abandoned them. There was no doubt of the total loyalty to the great preacher of the crusaders he has raised; if he would stay they would stay, and John Hunyadi would not be outdone by them in courage. Instead of retreating he advanced, with 200 boats on July 14 to win a naval battle on the Danube while St. John Capistran stood on the shore praying and holding up a crucifix which Pope Calixtus III had sent him. This victory enabled the resupply of the garrison and the city.

"Belgrade could not now be starved out; it must be taken, if at all, by assault. Its walls had been shattered by the overpowering Turkish cannon; Hunyadi did not see how they could be defended, and he was right. Again he proposed retreat; again St. John Capistran interposed his absolute veto. The grand assault began in the evening of July 21 and by midnight the Turks had broken into the city at several points. But that was not, as Constantinople, the end of the battle -- only its beginning. All through the night and into the following day Hunyadi and Capistran commanded from a high tower, Hunyadi directing his troops, Capistran holding up the papal crucifix. The Christians would not yield; they contested every street, almost every building. The Turkish artillery could not help the attackers now; the gunners could not see inside the city, where they were as likely to hit their own men as the Christians. As the sun rose it became apparent that the Christians were prevailing. Some of the Turks were retreating back through the breaches; great numbers lay dead or wounded in the bloody streets. Turkish attempts to send reinforcements into the city were met by masses of flaming brushwood flung into the breaches.

"By noon the city was virtually clear and the Turks were fought out, but Hunyadi and Capistran were not done. In early afternoon they counterattacked, streaming across the wrecked walls and into the fields beyond at a measured pace, with the 71-year old Franciscan in their midst, still holding up his crucifix. Hunyadi seized some of the Turkish guns and turned them on their makers. An arrow found its mark in the Sultan's body; though the wound was not serious, it underscored his defeat, and in the evening he was in full retreat, abandoning his camp and the city. For the moment at least, the infidel advance had been halted. Pope Calixtus III called it "the happiest event of my life".

"In the full heat of summer the thousands of unburied corpses in and around Belgrade rotted and bred disease, and the consequent plague carried off both the victors, Hunyadi after only a few days, the lean and whipcord-tough Capistran only after three months of struggle. In the long sweep of history the victory of Belgrade was of only marginal significance for Christendom, but it did hold up the final Turkish triumph in the Balkans for a generation -- along with the remarkable fight waged by the ex-Muslim and reconverted Christian "Skanderbeg" (George Castriota) in Albania, whom Pope Calixtus III in December 1456 named "Captain- General for the Turkish war," and who maintained a successful resistance until his death in 1468. But the triumph at Belgrade shows what might have been done by a united Christendom and a great martial Pope at the siege of Constantinople.

A History of Christendom, Vol. III Warren H. Carroll