It was the Ottoman Turk sultan Mehmed II who conquered Constantinople, bringing about the final fall of the Roman Empire in the East. While the defenders of the city were overwhelmed by sheer numbers; the invaders were assisted by the Byzantine feuds and internecine fighting that went on in the upper echelons of the empire.
Mehmed’s father Murad, retired briefly from 1444-6, returning to put down a revolt of the Janissaries[i]; possibly organised by the Grand Vizier Chandarli Halil Pasha. Mehmed’s two older brothers died in mysterious circumstances and Mehmed ascended the throne at the age of eighteen, for the second time, in 1451 on the death of Murad.The Europeans believed that Mehmed was too young to constitute a threat and Mehmed made a series of treaties with Hungary, Serbia and Venice and sent good will messages to others including the Prince of Wallachia and the Knights of St John. Mehmed also swore to be at peace with the Byzantines sending a fulsome message to Emperor Constantine XI Paleologus. Perhaps the message was overdone because Constantine was one of the earliest rulers to suspect that Mehmed could be a danger to the west.
Mehmed saw the capture of Constantinople as a means of securing the loyalty of his Janissaries, a loyalty he meant to retain by giving them the spoils the to-be captured city. He had also decided to make jihad on the west and the elimination of Halil Pasha. Mehmed intended that these four aims would be complimentary. From the beginning of his reign Mehmed commenced a programme of strengthening the Ottoman navy.Some of the Ottoman ruler’s subjects in Asia Minor thought to take advantage of Mehmed’s inexperience and within weeks were disillusioned to find the young sultan and his army ready to punish their daring. Mehmed returned home via the Bosphorus, following reports of an Italian squadron sailing in the straits.
Preparing for the Fall
Constantine XI Paleologus
In 1449 Constantine XI Paleologus[ii] became emperor. He was the brother of his predecessor John VIII Paleologus. Constantine had helped defend Constantinople in 1422 against a siege by Mehmed’s father Murad. Murad had been informed by a Holy man, allegedly descended from the Prophet Mohammed, that the city would fall on Monday 24th August. When this prophecy failed to become reality the superstitious Murad withdrew his troops.The Byzantines had been assisted by the machinations of one of the defenders intriguing with the Ottoman opposition, who planned to replace Murad with his youngest brother Mustafa[iii]. Murad had to return home to stop the outbreak of civil war.
John Paleologus VIII
In November 1423 Emperor John Paleologus began a tour of Europe in a last ditch attempt to see allies to shore up the failing Byzantine Empire. He left the nineteen year old Constantine in charge while he was away, giving him the title of Despot. The Venetians paid John’s expenses for the month he stayed with them, but were unwilling to do more than defend their own interests. If John was able to persuade other countries to help, The Venetian Republic would join in to support the empire.John toured through Italy meeting the reigning dukes, he also visited Hungary; but nowhere could he enthuse the rulers sufficiently to underwrite or assist in the defence of Byzantium against the infidel. By his return in November 1424 he found that an Ottoman-Byzantine peace treaty had been signed, committing the Byzantines to payment of large amounts of tribute. In March 1430 Thessalonika passed from Venetian rule to the Ottomans. The city fell after a siege and was sacked in Ottoman tradition[iv].
The Byzantine Empire was short of funds and this was clearly visible in the state of the buildings in the capital.‘The Emperor’s palace must have been very magnificent, but now it is such a state that both it and the city show well the evils which the people have suffered, and which they still endure.’[v]
wrote a Castilian traveller Pero Tafur. The citizens of the empire had little hope of assistance from outside and many able-bodied men and women emigrated to safer havens.Religion Raises its Head
Disputes in Christendom between the Pope and the Council of Constance merely added to the disarray. In 1437 John Paleologus and the Patriarch left Constantinople in an attempt to persuade the heirs of the Empire in the West to support the little that remained of the Empire in the East. The esoteric deliberations of the church council held in Ferrara and then in Florence finally achieved agreement between the Roman and Orthodox churches. A decree of union; ‘Laetentur Coeli’[vi] was read out from the steps of the cathedral in early July 1439. John Paleologus returned to his capital with very little to show for his absence.The Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria had already condemned the Orthodox delegates at the council, who had signed the decree of their behalf. In 1442 the emperor’s brother Demetrius tried to seize the throne, in the name of Orthodoxy. Although assisted by the Turks Demetrius’s attempts at a coup failed. But Orthodox dissatisfaction with the Decree of Union grew.
The Pope was meanwhile committed to raise a crusade against the enemies of Byzantium. The Ottoman menace was increasing; in 1439 the fortress of Smederovo, near Belgrade, had surrendered and in 1441 the Ottoman army had marched into Transylvania. The Hungarians, clearly next on the Ottoman list of potential conquests, and the Serbians formed the bulk of the crusade.
Philip V of Burgundy
The crusade got off to a rousing start and the Sultan found himself under attack at home and abroad. However in November 1444 Murad smashed the Crusader’s army, ending the last crusade from the west against the Turks. This disaster was the end of all John Paleologus’s hopes. His brother Constantine found a new ally in Philip V, Duke of Burgundy. Philip had already provided ships for the failed crusade and in the summer of 1445 sent a contingent of his own men to Constantine’s lands, the Morea[vii]. The combined forces forced the Ottomans to retreat from the Delphi area. In November 1446 Murad, who had retired in favour of Mehmed, now returned to the throne and swept through the lands which returned to his sovereignty. His army boasted a new secret weapon; heavy artillery.John Paleologus had named his brother Constantine as his successor. His two surviving brothers both wanted the role of emperor for themselves, but Constantine’s mother declared herself Regent and ruled for him until he could arrive from the Morea. His short reign was spent attempting to find succour in the west for the defence of what little remained of the Byzantine Empire. France and England were still reeling from the after-effects of the 100 Years War and few of the other rulers were in a position to aid the stricken remnants of the Roman Empire.
The FallThe Ottomans had already built a fortress on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and the year after his ascension Mehmed had a second fortress built. But this fortress was built on the European side of the straits, on Byzantine land and built over their ignored objections. The fortress was built in just over nineteen and a half weeks, utilising the skills of over one thousand stonemasons.
By the time of the final fall the city of Constantinople was surrounded by a small island of land; an empire of a few square miles. Over the centuries the dependent lands had split off to form their own countries; or become subsumed into the empire of the Ottomans.Ready for the attack on Constantinople the Ottoman invasion fleet consisted of
‘Not less than six triremes and ten biremes, fifteen oared galleys, some seventy five fast long boats, twenty heavy sailing barges for transport and a number of light sloops and cutters.’[viii]The armada assembled off Gallipoli in March 1453, while the army[ix] gathered in Thrace.
It was not until 2nd April 1453 that the Ottoman troops appeared before the walls of Constantinople. Among the troops was a new modified version of a weapon introduced over a hundred years before; the cannon. In 1452 a German engineer named Urban appeared before Mehmed, offering him cannon that would bring down city walls. Mehmed rewarded him with everything he needed and four times the salary requested.
By January the following year Urban had created a 27 foot monster that threw balls weighing1340lbs for a mile, before burying themselves 6 foot in the earth. Two hundred men prepared the roads for this new weapon of mass destruction’s transport to Constantinople.Complying with Islamic law Mehmed sent a message to Constantine proclaiming that all the empire’s subjects families and properties would be spared in the event of immediate and voluntary surrender. The offer was rejected and on the 6th April Mehmed’s cannon opened fire. The bombardment continued for 48 days.
Mehmed had decided that he needed to control the Golden Horn and set his engineers to create a roadway to transfer ships. On 21st April some seventy Turkish ships were lowered down into the Horn; the great harbour in Constantinople was no longer secure and a further three and a half miles of wall now required defending, with very limited resources.The 29th May was chosen as the date of the final assault. This news was not hidden from the defenders of Constantinople. The defenders had 36 hours to make their preparations. On the 29th wave after wave of attackers hit the city, allowing the defenders no respite.
The defenders included a contingent of Genoese, who left the city walls when their leader Guistiniani Longo fell; returning to their ships. The Emperor begged Longo to stay at his position well aware of the effect of his departure. Mehmed, aware that something was wrong with the defenders of the city, launched another Janissary attack. The Janissaries and Turkish troops gained footholds in the defences, and Ottoman troops started pouring into the city through breaches in the walls.The Ottoman troops had been promised three days of looting as allowed by Islamic tradition; but such was their violence and rapacity that Mehmed called an end to the looting the same day. There were few objections as there was little left to plunder.
After the FallAfter the fall of Constantinople Mehmed engineered the fall of Halil Pasha, whom he blamed for the ending of his first brief reign from 1444-6. Pasha was executed and from now on Mehmed chose his Grand Viziers from amongst his personal entourage. Formerly the viziers had been chosen from the aristocracy or from the ulema[x].
Mehmed regarded himself as the only legitimate heir of the Roman Empire:‘The world empire must be one, with one faith and one sovereignty. To establish this unity, there is no place more fitting than Constantinople.’[xi]
Mehmed, from now on known as the Conqueror, claimed to unite the Islamic, Turkish and Roman notions of sovereignty, appointing a new Greek Orthodox Patriarch and bringing the Chief Rabbi and the Armenian Patriarch to Constantinople. The Ottomans regarded Mehmed as their most prestigious ruler and he saw himself as fighting on behalf of all Muslims.Bibliography
Byzantium – The Decline and Fall – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003The Ottoman Empire – Halil Inalcik, Phoenix 1997
The Ottoman Empire – Andrina Stiles, Hodder & Stoughton 1991En.wikipedia.org
[i] The Ottoman state practised devshirme (a rounding up of Christian boys from the Balkans in lieu of a monetary tax) on a yearly basis. The most talented of these child slaves were trained for work in the palace and the chance to work directly for the sultan. The remainder of the year’s crop were placed in the Janissaries, troops nominally loyal to the Sultan alone and rewarded by being allowed to loot cities. All the devshirme were converted to Islam.
[ii] Also known as Constantine Dragases
[iii] Mustafa was killed in early 1423, garrotted by a bowstring, which became standard practise for a Sultan’s male siblings.
[iv] That is not to say that Christians would have differed
[v] The Decline and Fall - Norwich
[vi] Let the heavens rejoice
[vii] The Peloponnese; Constantine was its Despot
[viii] The Decline and Fall - Norwich
[ix] Up to 100,000 strong
[x] Religious hierarchy
[xi] The Ottoman Empire - Inalcik