c. 1490

Konstantin Mihailović was born in Serbia around 1430 and was among Mehmed II’s many captives taken at the siege of Novo Brdo in June 1455 (see document 3.1). He was thereafter trained to serve as one of the sultan’s janissaries and fought in a wide range of campaigns over the next decades. Over those years he earned enough trust to eventually find himself at the head of a garrison of some fifty janissaries at Zvecaj in Croatia and was captured once more when Hungarian forces took that fortress in 1463. The former Christian turned janissary now shrewdly switched sides again and capitalized on his unique position. He toured many of the leading courts in Central and Western Europe, including France, Bohemia, and Poland, sharing all that he knew of the Ottoman world. In the same years, until at least 1490, he wrote all of it down in a text that he called a “chronicle” and a “report,” now known to modern scholars as his “memoirs.” The earliest text, likely first written in Konstantin’s Serbian, is now lost, but translations in Polish and Czech have survived. In them Mihailović offered his readers a wide range of information about the Ottoman world – its religious traditions, history, diplomacy, government, and military affairs. The passage translated here offers his recollection of the battle for Belgrade. The events took place only a year after his capture at Novo Brdo, so it is not known whether he would have yet been actively serving as a janissary. But the account nevertheless provides a key witness to the events from the point of view of the Ottoman camp.

Source: Konstantin Mihailović, Memoirs of a Janissary, ed. Svat Soucek, trans. Benjamin Stolz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975), 49–55.

Chapter 27: How Emperor Machomet Deceived Despot Đurađ under Truce

The Turkish emperor, Machomet, made a truce with the Despot never to bother him before his death and that of his son Lazar and to support him faithfully and truly, as was mentioned previously about this. For Emperor Machomet made the truce with the Despot in order that he might take Constantinople or Stambol more easily.1 This turned out indeed to be so. And as soon as Constantinople was taken, immediately the next year, without having denounced the truce with the Despot, the Turkish emperor marched upon the Serbian or Raškan land against the Despot with all his might. The Raškans, having heard this, gave the Despot to know that “The Turkish emperor is marching upon us with all his might. What have we to do? Earlier we told you that the Turkish dog would deceive us; know, therefore, Your Highness, this is our view: Rather than give up our wives and children before the eyes of our brothers to be distributed among the heathens, we want to venture our necks and fight them. Therefore, Your Grace, march to our aid with as much might as you can. We have one army in Sitnica and another in Dubočica or Kislina. Therefore, Your Grace, knowing this, do not delay.”

The Despot answered them: “I cannot raise troops so quickly, for there is no King Vladislav in the Hungarian land who would gladly help me in this; therefore leave it all as it is. If you surrender to the Turkish emperor I will, by God, free you with God’s help.” The Emperor, having arrived in Constantine’s land at a plain called Žegligiovo, on the border of the Raškan land,2 hearing about the troops who were in Sitnica and Dubočica (Kislina), encamped here four weeks not knowing what to do nor which army to turn against. The army that was in Dubocica attacked his army bravely and fought and killed many Turks and also some famous Turkish leaders. Then the Emperor himself, having arrived with all his might, attacked them beside a mountain called Trepanja. The Turks say that as long as they have lived it is unheard of that from so few men there was such a battle with such a large force. And they say that if that abovementioned army had all been together with them, it would have decisively defeated the Turkish Emperor. And thus the poor wretches were defeated. Some were killed and others escaped. And one lord named Nikola Skobaljić was impaled with his uncle.3

And from there the Emperor marched and surrounded a city which they call Novo Brdo,4 “Mountain of Silver and Gold,” and having attacked it, conquered it, but by means of an agreement he promised to let them keep their possessions and also not to enslave their young women and boys. And when the city of Novo Brdo had surrendered, the Emperor ordered that the gates be closed and that one small gate be left open. Having arrived in the city the Turks ordered all the householders with their families, both males and females, to go out of the city through the small gate to a ditch, leaving their possessions in the houses. And so it happened that they went one after another, and the Emperor himself, standing before the small gate, sorted out the boys on one side and the females on the other, and the men along the ditch on one side and the women on the other side. All those among the men who were the most important and distinguished he ordered decapitated. The remainder he ordered released to the city. As for their possessions, nothing of theirs was harmed.5 The boys were 320 in number and the females 74. The females he distributed among the heathens, but he took the boys for himself into the janissaries, and sent them beyond the sea to Anatolia, where their preserve is.

I was also taken in that city with my two brothers, and wherever the Turks to whom we were entrusted drove us in a band, and wherever we came to forests or mountains, there we always thought about killing the Turks and running away by ourselves among the mountains, but our youth did not permit us to do that; for I myself with nineteen others ran away from them in the night from a village called Samokovo.6 Then the whole region pursued us, and having caught and bound us, they beat us and tortured us and dragged us behind horses. It is a wonder that our soul remained in us. Then others vouched for us, and my two brothers, that we would not permit this anymore, and so they peacefully led us across the sea.

And the Turkish Emperor Machomet took from the Despot all the Raškan land as far as the Morava, and left him [the land] from the Morava to Smederevo.7

Then the Emperor, having arrived at Adrianople, took eight youths of this same group among the chamberlains. These youths agreed to kill the Emperor on night watch, saying among themselves, “If we kill this Turkish dog, then all of Christendom will be freed; but if we are caught, then we will become martyrs before God with the others.”

And when the night watch came, they had made preparations, each having a knife on himself. And when the Emperor was to go to his bedchamber, then one of them named Dmitar Tomašić left them as an ignoble traitor and told the Emperor what was to happen. Then the Emperor ordered them seized and brought before him. The Emperor, having seen a knife on each one, asked them: “Who led you to this, that you dared attempt this?” Their reply was in a word: “None other than our great sorrow for our fathers and dear friends.”

Then the Emperor ordered that hens’ eggs be brought and ordered that they be placed in hot ashes so that they would be baked as hard as possible. And having taken them from the ashes, he had a hot egg fastened under each one’s knee so that their muscles would shrink and burn. Then he ordered that they be carried by wagon to Persia with the eggs [attached], not allowing them to be removed from them until they cooled off by themselves. And after a year he ordered that they be brought back; and seeing that there was nothing to them, he ordered them beheaded, and several of us, having taken the bodies in the night, buried them beside an empty church called “Does Not See the Sun.” And so it happened to those youths in Constantinople. And the one who had warned the Emperor he made a great lord at his court, but later such a serious illness – some sort of consumption – befell him, that he dried up to death. And his heathen name was Haydari. And so the Lord God deigned to visit that upon him for his ignobility and faithlessness.8

Thereafter Emperor Machomet did not want to have any Raškan boys in his bedchamber. So he took six boys and had all their genital organs cut off to the very abdomen; and so one died and five remained alive. They are called in their language hadomlar, which means in our language “eunuchs.” And these guard the Emperor’s wives.

Chapter 28: What Incident Happened to the Despot at the Hands of the Hungarian Governor Janko for His Great Acts of Kindness9

There was a great plague in Smederevo and because of this act of God the Despot went out of Smederevo to a mountain in the open air near Belgrade and rested there, having put up his tents, until the act of God passed. With him he had a small number of men; nevertheless he had his son Lazar with him. And he sent a message to the Hungarian Governor and also to Michael Szilágyi, for he ruled Belgrade at that time, and he requested of them that he might freely rest there. Janko [John Hunyadi] the Hungarian Governor and Michael Szilágyi of Belgrade, vowing to him cunningly and falsely, solemnly authorized him to stay there in security both day and night as long as he wished, and what is more authorized him, “Whatever you ask of us we will be glad to do for you.” The Despot, relying on their vows, released the chamberlains from his entourage and lay there confidently as befitted the term, having no concern for anyone.

And in two weeks Michael Szilágyi left Belgrade with several hundred cavalry and attacked the Despot in the night and cut off two fingers of the right hand, and the Despot was captured there but his son Lazar escaped. And they carried the Despot to Belgrade. There they assessed that he give one hundred thousand gold pieces. The Despot had to leave them his wife, named Jerina, and he himself rode to Smederevo in order to raise that sum of money. And the Despot promised to pay out that money without delay to a certain knight named Galvan.

This same Galvan, having several hundred cavalry in his reserve, rode with a small number of men to Smederevo for the money, and the money was immediately given to him. But the Raškans, pitying their lord, assembled without the knowledge of the Despot or his son Lazar and rode against the abovementioned Galvan to overtake him, so that they overtook them and attacked his reserve first, and decisively defeated them. And having killed Lord Galvan and having taken the money, they rode away with it and no one knew where those men went with the money.

King Vladislav [Ladislaus V of Hungary], having heard of this ignoble deed of Governor Janko and his brother-in-law Michael Szilágyi, His Grace King Vladislav was grieved by it, and so was the Celje prince, for he had for a wife the Despot’s daughter. And the late King Vladislav of glorious memory ordered that the Despot’s wife be released without any hindrance, and Michael Szilágyi having heard the King’s order released her. And the Raškans, asking their lord the Despot to forgive them for having taken the money without his command, the King himself and the Celje prince had to cause it to be forgiven them. And then they brought the sum of money in its entirety and returned it to the Despot. Then the Despot wanted to send the money to King Vladislav. The King did not want to take it, saying, “Sir Despot, I have no right to that money.” Therefore the Despot sent the King a gift of fifty thousand [gold pieces] and the King gave him in return for this a certain castle in Hungary.10

And through such a deed much evil befell the Governor. And the Celje prince was killed by Janko’s son because Janko feared him on account of the Despot.11 And Smederevo together with other fortresses, after the death of the Despot and his son, Lazar, came into the possession of the Bosnian king, Tomaš; for the Bosnian king, Tomaš, had [for a wife] Lazar’s daughter. And the Bosnian king was very weak besides, for he feared the Turkish emperor. The Raškans, because of the abovementioned deed of the Governor, preferred to give Smederevo to the Turks than to the Hungarians.12 And had there been good will between them at that time, then the Hungarians would have held Smederevo and other fortresses such as Belgrade to this day. For every man will gain more for himself by noble goodness than by accursed evil.

Take, for example, King Matyas [Matthias I of Hungary]. Did he leave much behind him by dint of his fierce struggle and great expenditure? Had he spent half as much against the heathens as he spent here, he would have driven the heathens back across the sea and would have had a great and glorious name from east to west, and from the Lord God an eternal reward, and from the people, honor and praise. Moreover, all Christians would have interceded for him with the Lord God, and also the heathens would have had him in their memory. Therefore take note: When Christian carries on a struggle against Christian, all of that is loathsome before God and before the world. Also take note of this: The heathens are brave not only in themselves, but because of Christian discord. For Christian discord is heathen bliss and joy, and our hatred and common malice bring the heathens victory.

Chapter 29: How Emperor Machomet Attacked Belgrade but Gained Nothing13

Emperor Machomet, knowing the deed that happened to the Despot at the hands of Janko, noted that such discord existed among the Christians.14 Having prepared himself he marched toward Belgrade and assaulted it and decided to transport himself across the Sava to the other side on foot and to encamp along the Danube, entrench himself securely and emplace cannon so as not to allow the Hungarians to reach the fortress, but certain men dissuaded him, saying, “Fortunate Lord, that is unnecessary for you.” Then the Hungarians arrived and encamped beside the Danube and from there as many as they needed reached the fortress.

And that was the first of the Emperor’s sorrows, that they had dissuaded him from that.15 The second of the Emperor’s sorrows was that the highest lord after the Emperor, named Karadiabassa [Karaca Bey], was standing on a rampart alongside the great cannon observing, and a cannoneer fired from a great cannon into a wall, and a stone, having torn loose from the wall, struck Karadiabassa in the head.16 He was not alive for long. The third sorrow was that the Emperor wanted to batter the wall for two more weeks and breach it, but Smagilaga [?] dissuaded the Emperor, saying that it was not necessary, trusting in the janissaries, for he had been appointed highest lord over them by the Emperor.17 Then the Emperor took his advice and ordered him to storm; and so they stormed until they got into the city. Four hundred and some janissaries were listed wounded, and also some, but not many of them, killed. Then, in a short time we saw the janissaries running back out of the city, fleeing, and the Hungarians running after them and beating them. And so the walls were occupied again more heavily than before. The fourth sorrow was, as far as the cannon were concerned, that the wagons, ropes, racks, and all the accouterments that are required for cannon were in a heap, and all covered by one roof; and someone set fire to it in the night and it all burned to ashes and the cannon were left bare. The Emperor ordered several tents to be left, and himself set off as if he wanted to take flight, in order that they would be enticed from the fortress to those tents, which in fact happened: they ran out of the city to gather up those tents. The Emperor, seeing that foot-soldiers had come a long way out of the city in gathering up the tents, turned upon them swiftly with cavalry and here they [the Turkish cavalry] beat them and killed them all the way to the earthworks.18

And the same man who had advised the Emperor not to batter the fortress any more, that it was sufficient, fearing lest the Emperor recall that to him, when the Emperor had defeated the foot soldiers who had run out of the city and had ridden away from there, leaving the guns and everything else, this same janissary officer returned. Wanting to show the Emperor some sort of bravery in order that he might come back into favor, he attacked among the infantry along the earthwork, and was killed there.

But the greatest sorrow of all was that the Lord God did not grant that Belgrade be captured by the Turks.

1Mihailović is undoubtedly right in his assertion that Mehmed II would have kept the truce with the Serbian Despot only as long as convenient; however, it is also true that George Branković made the Turkish attack inevitable by negotiating with Pope Nicholas V (d. 1455), who was trying to organize another crusade. Ottoman intelligence found out about it, and Mehmed II may then have considered the occupation of Serbia a strategic necessity, before another Christian army under Hunyadi headed for Edirne and Istanbul.

2Mehmed II set out on his second Serbian campaign in the spring of 1455. Starting from Edirne, he followed one of the usual routes westward, via Sofia, Küstendil (still in Bulgaria) and Kratovo (in Serbia). Our author’s remark that the sultan arrived “in Konstantin’s land at a plain which they call Žegligiovo, on the border of Raškan land,” may mean that the Turks passed through the area of Küstendil, where a Bulgarian prince by the name of Konstantin had been confirmed in 1371 as Ottoman governor –

hence the new name of classical Ulpianum and Byzantine Iustiniana Secunda. The region of Žegligiovo is just west of there, between Küstendil and Skopje.

3As Mehmed II invaded Serbia in the spring of 1454, the Despot fled to Hungary; the sultan did not encounter any real resistance in open warfare in the field, but his chief objective was the seizure of important fortified places: thus he took Ostrovica near Rudnik, a small but important fortification because the Serbian crown treasure was kept there; he gave up, on the other hand, on the extremely well-fortified Smederevo. The campaign ended, the sultan returned with the bulk of his army to Edirne; then only, in the fall of 1454, did the Christian counteroffensive take place: the relatively small force under Firuz Bey, left at Kruševac, was overwhelmed by Hunyadi, who then pushed forward to Vidin and then withdrew to Hungary, while two Serbian groups clashed with the Turks in southern Serbia: this is the double encounter described by Konstantin Mihailović. One group [of Serbs] was positioned on the Sitnica river near Kosovo Polje (just west of Priština) and did not become involved in any significant fighting; the other group, however, under Nikola Skobaljić, was in the area of Dubočica near Leskovac. It was between Skobaljić and a Turkish army which marched in from Macedonia that the two main clashes occurred: at first on September 24 near Vranja, when Skobaljić gained the upper hand; then on November 16 on the Trepanja brook, where he [Nikola] was defeated, taken prisoner, and impaled. In all these encounters there was no question of the main force of the Ottoman troops or of the presence of the Sultan, who had long returned to Edirne.

4The author presents as one campaign of the Ottoman sultan what were in fact two campaigns in 1454 and in 1455. Novo Brdo was taken in the second.

5The fall of Novo Brdo took place on June 1, 1455, after a siege of forty days.

6Samokovo is a village in Bulgaria between Sofia and Plovdiv, on the old imperial road to Constantinople.

7Mehmed II thus occupied about half of Serbia – the southern half.

8This story is unknown to us from other sources. By and large it is not impossible.

9The events that Mihailović narrates in this chapter took place at the time when he was in Turkish captivity; he must have heard about them mainly after his return in 1463, thus after the extinction of the remnants of independent Serbia.

10Branković was staying at his estate of Kupinik (now Kupinovo) on the Sava just west of Belgrade, when he was attacked by Michael Szilágyi on the night of December 17, 1455. He was taken to Belgrade, and his wife Irina had to stay prisoner until he would pay ransom money and give up two fortified places. The King of Hungary, Ladislas Posthumous, who had reached majority in 1453, was by then sixteen years old and was beginning to show his own will in the face of the power of the Hunyadi party. He invalidated the demands of Hunyadi’s brother-in-law and saved the Despot from humiliation.

11This happened after the siege of Belgrade, on November 9, 1456, thus after Hunyadi’s death. Belgrade was then governed by Hunyadi’s elder son Ladislas. Intense animosity existed between the “Hunyadi party” and royal authority, at this time represented by the king’s uncle, Ulrich II of Celje, ban of Croatia. When a royal army arrived at Belgrade in November, the young king and his uncle were admitted inside, but the drawbridge was raised and the king and his uncle were virtual prisoners of Hunyadi’s son. In the ensuing altercation Ulrich II was killed, and the king saved himself only by means of apparent conciliation.

12Branković died on Christmas Eve 1456, and his son and successor Lazar, on January 20, 1458. During his short rule, Lazar tried to maintain good relations with the Turkish sultan, pay the tribute, and observe the usual obligation of sending auxiliary troops when summoned to do so. It seems that in this period of intense diplomatic activity, there was a “Turkish” party at Smederevo, led by Michael Angelović, who may have been a brother, according to some sources, of Mahmud Paşa, the Ottoman grand vizier. These two seem to have been natives of Novo Brdo.

13The account of Belgrade offered here strikes one as an eyewitness report, or at least as one heard from an eyewitness. Konstantin, taken prisoner at Novo Brdo in June 1455, had by then spent only one year on the Turkish side. His presence at the siege would thus seem most unlikely if he had to participate as a janissary, but possible if he was there in some other capacity.

14Konstantin is referring here to the attack on the Despot by Hunyadi’s brother-in-law Michael Szilágyi, described in the previous chapter. Whether these events were the main spur for the sultan to launch his campaign is at best uncertain. The strategic importance of Belgrade must have been a principal factor in Mehmed II’s decision to conquer it. It would shield his possessions to the north and the southeast and open the door to new conquests to the north and northwest.

15It was Karaca Paşa, beylerbey of Rumelia, who proposed to the sultan this maneuver. The paşa would cross the Danube (not the Sava) and take up a position with his cannon on the northern bank, so as to fight off any aid that would come from Hungary. However, some of the other leaders, especially the akinji commanders, dissuaded the sultan from approving the proposal. This is at least how certain Ottoman historians tell it. Konstantin’s account is the same except for the important detail that not the Danube but the Sava river is meant. It is probably a confusion in the author’s memory, unless he is right that the Turkish commander was planning to take up a position to the west of Belgrade along the southern bank of the Danube from where he still could shell Christian troops trying to cross the river from the north, and the ships that might come sailing down from Novi Sad.

16It was the same Karaca Paşa who was killed in this manner. The event is reported in a similar way by Ottoman historians (see, for example, document 33).

17According to standard Ottoman sources, the janissary commander’s name was Hasan Ağa, not Ismail Ağa. Konstantin may be the only source that claims that the Ağa of the janissaries persuaded the sultan to order an assault too early. Altogether, the Turks seem to have tried to storm the city three times, the last assault coming on July 22, the day of their withdrawal. The assault mentioned here should have been the first or the second. There was considerable in-fighting and rivalry among the various commanders and dignitaries around the sultan, and an attempt on the part of the Ağa to distinguish himself and his troops over the others seems quite possible.

18There are contradictions in other sources about this thrust of the Christians all the way to the Turkish camp, and about the outcome, some claiming that only the personal intervention of the sultan saved the situation. Konstantin’s version supports the reports that the Christians were lured by a Turkish ploy. See documents 30, 32, and 33.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!