The Siege of Constantinople: Part One
Antigonos' arrival on Naxos went almost unnoticed -- there were no public laudations or cheering crowds lining the streets, only a somber committee of well-dressed noblemen and women who inquired of Constantinople and the Emperor of the Romans worriedly.
Command of Antigonos' escort had fallen to a distant kinsman, Theophilos Palaiologos -- a noted scholar who was more comfortable in his books than he was in a shirt of mail. Theophilos had the soft hands of a scribe. His portraits show a kindly man; bearded, his hair curling about his ears, the ghost of a smile upon his lips. In the years that followed, he would endear himself to Antigonos -- the boy, in the twilight of his own life, would remember Theophilos as Pater Secundus -- 'Second Father,' -- and ordered a great statue of the man erected in his gardens.
Upon meeting with the Duke of the Archipelago, Giacomo II Crispo and his wife Ginevra, Theophilos launched into an impassioned plea for aid.
Giacomo was so moved, we're told, that he immediately pledged to support Constantinople against the Ottomans; he provisioned three ships and seven hundred men, drawn across the Archipelago. Although Giacomo would not lead the expedition personally -- he had, some years past, suffered from an illness and never truly recovered -- his uncle, William, would represent the Duke.
A further five hundred men, under the command of one Niccoló Gattilusio, sailed out of Mytilene. The Gattilusio family would not let the Romans stand alone.
These reinforcements arrived in Constantinople on the 13th of March and the 21st, respectively, to much celebration. The Emperor Constantine publicly lauded both men; embracing them as brothers-in-arms, promising them that, upon the defeat of the Turk, they would receive bounteous rewards. In order to embolden the mood of his subjects, Constantine had the two contingents march through the streets in their full panoply, as he had done so with Giovanni Giustiniani Longo's men in January.
On the second of April, less than a fortnight after Niccoló Gattilusio's ships had sailed into Constantinople's port, the Ottoman army was sighted beyond the city's walls and the gates were sealed.
What followed was one of history's greatest sieges. The Ottomans strained against the Romans and their allies; first a tremendous bombardment hammered the walls, then the mass charges of Mehmed's irregular and crack infantry -- But both were repulsed by the impassioned, resolute defenders at much cost.
On the 18th of April, both the Ottoman army and fleet -- an impressive one hundred and forty vessels against the Emperor's forty -- made their first major effort to seize the city, working in unison with one another. At Saint Romanus Gate, the weakest link in Constantinople's long walls, the Janissaries advanced under the heart-beat thrum of drums, the clashing of cymbals and the skirl of pipes. The Emperor, alarmed at such an assault, ordered the city's many church bells to ring in response.
Under a bright man, the feared Janissaries and their opponents hacked and slashed at one another -- blood running through the ruined stonework, men crying out in agony as their guts spilled into their laps, or toppling soundlessly as they were run-through with blade and lance. The land assault was beaten back, but the defenders, after six days of continuous skirmishing and bombardment, collapsed where they stood, exhausted.
Meanwhile, Mehmed's admiral -- Baltaoglu -- sailed against the city's chain boom. The defenders' ships, anchored so that their prow-borne cannons faced the Ottoman fleets, came under an assault as tremendous as that faced by the men at Saint Romanus Gate. Turks swarmed up the sides of the ships -- largely Genoese and Venetian -- and were met with pikes, handguns and blades. The defenders were professional seamen all; incendiaries were snuffed out, missiles were hurled from their higher decks down onto the Ottoman longboats and, by the morning of the 19th, they were beaten off to the terrible embarrassment of Baltaoglu.
And then, on the 20th, four ships appeared: racing for the Queen of Cities, three bearing the flag of Genoa -- a red cross on white -- and the fourth, an Imperial vessel, carrying within its hold a great amount of corn purchased from Sicily.
Now Baltaoglu saw his chance for redemption. Once again, the Ottoman fleet sallied forth from their port: oarsmen straining to outdo their allies on the neighbouring ships. The Genoese ships, caught in a dead wind, floundered and found themselves surrounded. Again, Turks attempted to climb the sides of the higher ships, and found themselves beaten back from above.
The day drew on. Surely, the Ottomans must have told themselves, the Christian missiles would run out? Their men would grow too tired to swing a sword or pierce with a lance? The merchantman would surely be captured, the experienced Geneose captains knew, so drew their own vessels up close and lashed them together into an indomitable tower.
And then, God Himself intervened. The wind picked up. The Christian vessels fought their way through the Ottoman fleet, tooth and claw, their hulls smoking, hacked to raggedness by axes, sluicing blood.
Mehmed, having rode his horse into the tumbling waves on the shore, tore at his garments in rage, cursing Baltaoglu and his sailors.
And then he rode away in silence, fuming, as the defenders cheered the arrival of the four ships until their throats were sore and hoarse.