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Duke Philip III of Burgundy’s Near East Espionage

By William E. Welsh

Duke Philip III “The Good” of Burgundy took responsibility in the early 15th century for overseeing intelligence missions to the Near East to assess the strength of the Ottoman Empire relative to the relief of the beleaguered Byzantines, as well as the possible recovery of Jerusalem. Although Constantinople still remained in the hands of the Byzantine Emperor in the 1430s, the light with which it shone had been greatly dimmed by the Turkish encirclement of the great city that had stood as a bulwark against the steadily expanding Ottoman Empire.

The French and Burgundians conducted themselves with caution in regard to new offensives against the Turks in light of the failed crusade of 1396 that ended in a disaster for the Franco-Hungarian crusader army when it was defeated by Sultan Bayezid I’s Ottoman army. Although the Latin rulers of Europe would have liked to roll back the Ottoman tide they exercised extreme caution for they did not wish to risk the destruction of their armies.

The situation in which the Byzantines found themselves in the 15th century was extremely dire. The Papal Curia and the Court of Burgundy were the most active proponents of a crusade against the Ottomans. They pinned their hopes not only on the Hungarians, but also on the idea of directly reinforcing the Byzantines by sea using Venetian or Genoan warships and transports.

With the approval of King Henry V of England and Charles VI of France, Philip the Good tapped his Flemish chamberlain Gilbert of Lannoy to travel to the East and gather first-hand information on the Muslim powers controlling the Outremer, Anatolia, and Egypt. Lannoy was perfectly suited for the task since as a young man he had accompanied Lord John of Warchin on a pilgramiage to the Holy Land in 1401. During that pilgrimage he had passed through Constantinople on the return leg. In addition to his impressive travels, Lannoy was also a veteran soldier who fought for Burgundy in the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War and with the Teutonic Knights in the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. He also was an accomplished diplomat who helped negotiate the Treaty of Troyes of 1420 through which English King Henry V and his heirs would inherit the French crown upon the death of King Charles VI.

Lannoy, who departed in 1420 and returned to Burgundy three years later, compiled his extensive observations in a work titled Voyages et Ambassades. He traveled to the Outremer via a circuitous overland route through Germany, Poland, and Russia to the Genoese colony of Kaffa on the Crimean Peninsula where he sailed across the Black Sea to Constantinople. In Constantinople he met with Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. From there he sailed to Alexandria, Egypt, with stops on the way at Cyprus and Crete. He traveled to Cairo, visited Christian sites in the Sinai, and sailed home via Rhodes and Venice.

One of the most informative parts of his travelogue for contemporary military planners was his description of the port of Alexandria. He detailed the installations, walls, and fortifications of its two harbors. The harbors had expansive quarters for principal traders, such as the Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans. Importantly, Lannoy noted the numbers of Mamluk troops defending Alexandria. In addition, he outlined the strategy and tactics, as well as the weapons, used by the Mamluks.

Sultan Mehmed II’s successful siege of Constantinople in 1453 proved that the Ottomans were a formidable power to be respected by the West.
Sultan Mehmed II’s successful siege of Constantinople in 1453 proved that the Ottomans were a formidable power to be respected by the West.

At the time, the Mamluk Empire, which encompassed Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, was ruled by Burji Sultan Al-Ashraf Barsbay. The Burji dynasty, which was established in 1382, was a Circassian Mamluk family.

Barsbay improved some aspects of Mamluk rule but allowed others to lapse. On the one hand, he instituted a number of reforms and cultivated higher learning. On the other hand, his reign was characterized by a relaxation in military discipline and neglect of the Mamluk army. Although the empire was at peace with its neighbors, it was experiencing ongoing internal problems. The lapse in military strength made the Mamluks vulnerable to depredations by Frankish pirates that prowled the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. In retaliation, Barsbay eventually ordered the confiscation of all of the property belonging to Frankish merchants in the trading hubs of Alexandria, Damietta, and Damascus.

Lannoy visited key Christian sites in the Sinai and pieced together from his own observations and those of pilgrims information on the roads and towns of the Holy Land. With respect to Jerusalem, he noted that the city’s low walls and weak towers left it ripe for capture, that is, if a crusader army got that far.

Lannoy’s observations relative to Ottoman Turkey were restricted primarily to an analysis of the Gallipoli Peninsula that the Turks used as a military base for operations against Byzantine-held Constantinople. Lannoy maintained that one of the primary objectives of the crusaders should be to seize the hilly peninsula in order to interrupt the flow of Turkish troops into Greece and Thrace.

At the time of Lannoy’s trip to Constantinople, Ottoman Sultan Murad II had been on the throne for two years. The Ottomans were still recovering from the devastating invasion of Turco-Mongol Emir Timur’s army in 1402. The Timurids had swept into Asia Minor that year and routed Bayezid’s army at Ankara. Bayezid, who was captured after the July 28 battle, died in captivity the following year. The Timurids lacked the administrative framework of Ghengis Khan’s Mongol Empire, and it evaporated after Timur’s death in 1405.

Following Timur’s departure, the Ottomans succumbed to a civil war fought among Bayezid’s sons. Mehmed Celebi emerged as the victor in 1413 when he became Sultan Mehmed I. He ruled the Ottoman Empire until 1421 when Murad II ascended to the throne. Each sultan worked diligently to restore lands lost in both Ottoman Anatolia and Rumelia (i.e., the Turkish-controlled parts of the Balkan Peninsula).

The resurgent Ottomans besieged Thessalonica in 1422. At the same time, Carlo Tocco, Despot of Epirus, who was an Ottoman vassal, threatened to conquer the Morea (Peloponnese Peninsula). Despot Andronicus Palaiologos governed Thessalonica, and Despot Theodore Palaiologos ruled the Morea. Both were younger sons of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II.

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.
Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.

Murad personally directed a siege of Constantinople the same year, but after three months was forced to lift it to defeat his uncle, Mustafa the Imposter, who unsuccessfully tried to seize control of the throne. Meanwhile, John VIII Palaiologos, the eldest of Manuel’s sons, who had been appointed co-emperor to assist his ailing father in administering the Byzantine Empire, sailed to Western Europe in 1423 seeking military aid, but was unsuccessful in the endeavor.

The failure of his mission could be tied in part to the schism that had separated the Latin and Orthodox churches since 1054. But the schism was not the only reason. The competing nationalist interests of Latin kingdoms, exemplified most glaringly by the Hundred Years War between England and France, made cooperation on a crusade highly unlikely.

The desperation of the Byzantine situation can be seen by Manuel II’s efforts to try to restore the bond between the two churches through negotiations. The diminishment of Ottoman power at the outset of the 15th century had dampened the prospects of a reunion, though, and Manuel II had focused his efforts closer to home. He had overseen improvements to the Hexamilion Wall that divided the Isthmus of Corinth from the Peloponnesian Peninsula, strengthened Byzantine forces in the Morea, and focused on retaining control of Thessalonica. The Byzantines had recovered the city in 1403 when the Timurids occupied Anatolia and Ottoman power temporarily waned.

While Lannoy was traveling back to Burgundy in 1423, the Turks destroyed the Hexamilion Wall and overran Morea. In a desperate bid to keep Thessalonica in Christian hands, Despot Andronicus ceded it to the Venetians, whose maritime possessions included the western islands of the Aegean Sea. Seven years later Murad II recaptured Thessalonica. By that time, Manuel II had passed away, leaving John VIII as the sole emperor.

Philip the Good dispatched another envoy, Bertrandon de la Broquiere, to the Near East in 1432. Whereas Lannoy’s observations focused heavily on the strength of the Mamluk Empire, Broquiere analyzed the military might of the Ottoman Empire.

Broquiere sailed to the Holy Land and landed in Jaffa after layovers in Corfu, Rhodes, and Cyprus. From Jaffa he traveled to Jerusalem and then turned north to Damascus.

In Damascus he spent time conversing with French adventurer Jaçques Coeur, as well as a Genoese trader from Kaffa who Sultan Barsbay had sent to purchase more slaves for the Mamluk army. After his visit to Damascus, Broquiere joined a caravan of 500 Muslims and 700 camels and mules bound for western Anatolia.

Bertrandon de la Broquiere experienced firsthand the formalities of the Ottoman court while accompanying the Milanese ambassador to Adrianople in 1433.
Bertrandon de la Broquiere experienced firsthand the formalities of the Ottoman court while accompanying the Milanese ambassador to Adrianople in 1433.

The caravan wound its way through Armenia and emerged from the Taurus Mountains onto the Anatolian Plain. When Turks in the caravan accused him of being a spy for traveling by land rather than by sea, Broquiere brushed off the accusation. “I answered … that the Genoans and Venetians were carrying on so bitter a war that I was afraid to venture by sea,” he wrote. They warned him that Albanian slaves were afoot in Anatolia and he had to exercise great caution to avoid being robbed. When the caravan headed due west toward Izmir, he veered northwest on his own to Brusa.

Upon arriving in Brusa, he stayed for 10 days in a Florentine hotel during which time he reconnoitered the Ottoman troops in the commercial town. Broquiere then crossed the Bosphorous to Constantinople where he met John VIII, who by that time had been reduced to the status of an Ottoman vassal. Having struck up a friendship with Milanese Ambassador to the Grand Turk Benedict Folco, he accompanied his newfound friend on his mission to meet with Sultan Murad II at Adrianople in Thrace.

Murad’s court greatly impressed Broquiere. The Burgundian envoy spoke highly of the sultan in his writings and even went so far as to cast some disparaging remarks against the Latin powers in comparison to the Ottomans. “Murad has hitherto met such trifling resistance from Christendom that, were he to employ all of his wealth and power on the object, it would be easy for him to conquer a great part of it.” Broquiere observed that Murad took in great wealth each year and was able to maintain an army that kept his empire in an “excellent state of defense.”

Murad held court in a crimson satin robe over which he wore a green satin mantle lined with sable. The wall of the chamber was lined by attendants, as well as 20 Wallachian hostages who were retained to ensure the compliance of their countrymen as Turkish vassals. Before Murad spoke with Folco, he heard a plea by a Bosnian lord who had chosen to side with the Turks against his ruler. Murad proved to be the consummate diplomat, inquiring as to the health and well being of the Duke of Milan. Before they discussed politics, though, they dined and were entertained by court musicians. Afterward, the sultan departed for his chambers.

Folco then made a bold request. He informed the pashas representing Murad that the Duke of Milan requested that the Ottomans respect the sovereignty of Hungary, Bosnia, Wallachia, Bulgaria as far as Sofia, and part of Albania. They informed Folco that he would receive an answer within 10 days. The pashas conveyed Murad’s response after the allotted amount of time. They informed him flatly that Murad regarded the duke’s request as unreasonable. The pashas related how Murad had deliberately refrained from advancing deeper into Hungary, as he might easily have done, out of respect for the Duke of Milan’s wishes. “It would be too hard for [Murad] to surrender all that he had won by the sword,” the pashas told the Milanese ambassador.

For his travel expenses, Murad gave Folco 5,000 silver coins before he departed. While he was in Adrianople, Broquiere saw many Christian slaves in chains who were brought to the capital of Rumelia for sale. “They begged for alms in the street,” he wrote. “My heart bleeds when I think of the shocking hardships they suffer.”

By that time it was apparent that the sole hope for the preservation of the Byzantine Empire lay in the reunification of the two churches; however, the Papacy demanded that the Greek Orthodox Church submit to it as the price for saving Constantinople. This put the Byzantine emperor in a terrible bind. If he acknowledged Papal supremacy, he risked alienating his people, for the Orthodox religion was a mainstay of Byzantine culture. If he did not, the Turks were bound to capture Constantinople and wipe the Byzantine Empire off the map in the process. During the 1422 siege, Turkish bombards failed to breach the walls, but artillery was growing more effective with each passing decade and it was only a matter of time before bombards would be able to knock down the walls.

John VIII Palaeologus traveled to Italy in 1437 with John Bessarion, the Metropolitan of Nicea, to discuss the possible reunification of the Orthodox and Catholic churches. They agreed to acknowledge Papal supremacy at the Council of Florence in 1439, but in the end it was still not enough to save Constantinople. Political animosities among the Christian rulers in Italy worked against a new crusade, as did the growing might of the Ottoman Empire.

Broquiere and Folco departed Adrianople on March 12, 1433. They visited Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia before continuing north to Buda where they parted ways. By that time, Bertrandon had given much thought to how to defeat the Ottoman Empire. Broquiere described in great detail Ottoman strategy, armaments, and military readiness in his work, The Travels of Bertrandon de La Brocqquiere, to Palestine: And His Return from Jersulem Overland to France, During the Years 1432-1433.

“Whenever the Christian powers take up arms against [the Ottomans], they have always had timely information of it,” he wrote. “In this case, the sultan has [the Christians] march watched by men assigned to this purpose, and he lays wait for them with his army two or three days’ march from the spot where he proposes to fight them.”

“Should he think the opportunity favorable, he falls suddenly on them, and for these occasions they have a particular kind of march beaten on a large drum,” wrote Broquiere. “When this signal is given, those in the lead march quietly off, followed by the others with the same silence.”

From Buda, Broquiere rode through Bavaria and Swabia to Basel where he attended a meeting of the Council of Basel conducted by Pope Eugenius IV. Afterward, Broquiere reentered Burgundy at Montbeliard. He presented himself in July to Philip the Good at the Abbey of Pothieres on the Cote-d’Or.

Upon his return to Burgundy, Broquiere presented Philip with a copy of the Koran, as well as a biography of the Prophet Mohammed translated into Latin by the chaplain of the Venetian consul at Damascus. He also gave the duke the Saracen clothes he had worn on his travels through the Near East. The duke gave the Koran to Bishop John Germain, the chancellor of the Order of the Golden Fleece, but retained the robes.

Based on his first-hand observation of the Ottoman Turks, Broquiere noted that the one distinct advantage he believed that Western Europeans had over the Ottoman Turks was that man-for-man they were better armed. He held that if the Greeks of the Morea and the Albanians joined the Latin crusaders they would be able to take on the Turks on even terms. This would be the case particularly if the 50,000 Christian slave soldiers in the sultan’s service deserted their Ottoman master and joined the crusaders. Once the combined Latin-Greek crusader army defeated the Turks, they could then focus on reconquering the Holy Land, Broquiere said. The prospect of retaking Jerusalem a second time would be sufficient to motivate the Western Europeans to join the new crusade.

This colorful depiction of the fall of Constantinople appeared in Broquiere's 1455 travel book. Philip the Good persuaded Broquiere to record his travel experiences for posterity.
This colorful depiction of the fall of Constantinople appeared in Broquiere’s 1455 travel book. Philip the Good persuaded Broquiere to record his travel experiences for posterity.

But the type of crusade that he suggested never occurred. A Polish-Hungarian crusader army met defeat at Varna in Ottoman-controlled Bulgaria on November 10, 1444. Although Hungarian Lord John Hunyadi fought with great valor, a foolhardy, ill-fated charge by the youthful King Wladyslaw of Poland and Hungary enabled Sultan Murad to triumph. Nearly a decade later, Sultan Murad’s son, Mehmed II “The Conqueror” captured Constantinople on May 29, 1453, following a 53-day siege in which his troops exploited gaps in the walls made by mammoth bombards.

Philip the Good was grateful for the information imparted to him by both Lannoy and Broquiere. Lannoy, a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece, appears to have continued serving as a Burgundian emissary to Christian kingdoms after his return from the Near East.

Philip arranged for Broquiere to marry Catherine of Artois in 1443. The duke presented Broquiere with the royal captaincy of the Rupelmonde Castle on the left bank of the Escaut in East Flanders. Both works endure as windows into the medieval world.

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