We tell the story of George Kastrioti, better known as Scanderbeg. Scanderbeg was a 15th century Albanian nobleman who played a pivotal role in resistance against the Ottoman Empire.
He was a skilled military leader, but he also had the support of the people behind him.
Using his military prowess, he was able to score several unbelievable victories against the Ottomans, despite being outnumbered.
To this day, Scanderbeg is an important part of Albanian national identity and pride.
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It's the 2 September 1457. A large Ottoman army is besieging the most important stronghold in Albania, the fortress of Krujë.
There is a relaxed atmosphere in the siege camp and why shouldn't they be? Scanderbeg, the leader of the rebel army, has not been seen or heard from in months. As the soldiers amble out of morning prayers, a dull rumbling is heard…
The soldiers look wearily at each other. Before anyone can react, Albanian cavalry charged through the camp in every direction. Chaos erupts. The soldiers desperately try and form up lines to battle. In the midst of the dust and the confusion, Scanderbeg is visible at the head of the charge, his goat headed helmet gleaming in the morning sun as he cuts through the Ottoman soldiers like butter.
This is the incredible story about George Kastrioti better known history as Scanderbig.
Welcome to our Anthology Of Heroes, where we go through all countries from A to Z, detailing the life of one interesting person for each episode. Hopefully someone you haven't heard of. Rebels, renegades, traders and misfits find them all here.
In our very first episode, I'll take you through the life of George Kastrioti, an Albanian nobleman who defended his tiny homeland of Albania against the most professional and largest army in the world, the Ottomans.
His unorthodox tactics and endless energy earned him fame across a bickering Christian world of the 15th century. Strap in, because this is actionpacked from beginning to end.
George Kastrioti was born in 14 five likely in the Kastrioti village of Sinë in the northwest Albania. He was one of nine children born to the noble Kastroiti family that owned several villages across Albania. Unlike in other parts of Europe, there were no kings in Albania.
The Kastrioti family was part of a loose Christian political elite that helped govern the country. The country itself was split roughly into a Catholic north and a Greek Orthodox south. Highborn families such as his held political power in different parts. Leading families like the Kastrioti’s would haggle trading deals with Albania's neighbors, such as the Venetians, which bordered Albania to the south, but recently the Ottoman Empire. We don't know too much about George's early life. It's fair to assume he would have had a good education and likely learned a few languages and had some military training. But at 18, his life would change completely when he was sent to the court of Murad II, the Ottoman Sultan. It was common to send high born children to the court of the Ottomans, half hostage and half guest. This Ottoman policy was known as Devshirme and was widespread throughout the Balkans. Local lords didn't have much choice in the matter and referred to it amongst themselves as the blood tax.
The policy employed a heavy mix of Ottoman and Islamic propaganda mixed with a first rate education. At the court of the Sultan, a young man like George would arrive and be tested physically and mentally. The best and brightest of the recruits went on to join the Janissary Corps, the most elite troops in the Ottoman army, made up entirely of exhaustion recruits from across the Balkans. This was to be George’s new pathway in life. Training to become a Janissary was long and rigorous. They were trained in engineering rivalry, artillery, bowmanship and all other aspects of warfare. They had to remain celibate and to distinguish themselves from other troops. They Could not grow beards and were to memorize the Quran and be able to recite it on cube.
And at the end of it all, they were expected to convert to Islam, discarding their original Christian faith. After this, they swore themselves to the Sultan and to defend Islam. By the end of it all, a recruit was fully indoctrinated into Ottoman life. Many never saw their families again. This system was used to great effect to subjugate Balkan countries to Ottoman rule. Sometime during George's training, Sultan Murad wandered through the training ground and found his eye immediately drawn to young George, who seemed boundless in his energy and utterly dedicated to his training.
Over the next year of his schooling, Murad became a sort of surrogate father to George, even going as far to pay for his further education. Murad grew very fond of the young man, inviting him to dine with him and introducing him to his biological son, a young man of George's age called Mehmet, who, like him, had a military mind.
Murad was right to see talented George, but years from now he would forever regret the day he laid eyes on him. After George completed his education, he went on to serve the Ottomans loyally. He made a name for himself as a brilliant tactician and brave leader and was always found in the front line alongside his troops. He was well liked by his men and rose quickly through the ranks of the Ottoman military. Back in Albania, his father John was aware of his son's growing influence at the Ottoman court. He was fearful George was to be installed as a local ruler to replace him. This was a genuine concern that George had now spent most of his early life with the Ottomans. He had fought many battles in the name of Murad II. His old life in Albania would have been a distant memory at this point. It's during these first few campaigns that George would gain the nickname Scanderbeg. Due to his military skill, and because Albania is close to Macedonia, home of the famous Alexander the Great, his soldiers began to refer to him as Is Skanderbeg, Turkish for Lord Alexander. As time went on, this was bastardized into other languages and eventually became Scanderbeg. If that seems like a stretch to you,hey, I don't know what to tell you. That's the story!
but we'll refer to him as Scanderbeg going forward.
In 1430, John Kastrioti's fears became a reality. An Ottoman army easily overran his own troops in a pitched battle, forcing him to sign a humiliating peace treaty and greatly reducing his ancestral lands. Skanderbeg was not present, but would have been well aware of the war against his own family. As Ottoman rule began to creep into Albania, the people were unhappy, specifically the nobles who were seeing their power and privileges reduced continuously.
Scanderbeg's relatives requested his help to defend Albania, but the call was ignored. Skanderbeg was busy, busy suppressing other rebellious coalitions all across the Balkans, who, like his countrymen, were unhappy with the Ottoman rule. Not long after, John Kastrioti died, with his land holding severely reduced and his most gifted son serving loyally the person who was responsible for taking them away, it seemed the Kastrioti family was destined to fade into obscurity.
But I can promise you that is not the way this story is going to go.
With his father dead, Skanderbeg's likely expectation was he would inherit his father's land and become the new lord. This is a fair assumption at this point. He had served half his life in loyal and unflinching support of the Sultan. But perhaps fearing an Albanian rebellion should Skanderbeg return home, Murad instead gave Scanderbegs land to another janissary with no cultural ties to Albania. Skanderbeg launched a formal request to have this reconsidered, but there was no change.
He was furious at this decision. How was this just? He had given up his family, his country, and had given his life for this man, and this was to be his reward?
But he was no fool. He had put down too many rebellions to believe he could stand up to the might of the Ottoman army. His anger would simmer beneath him and he would bide his time. Now is probably a good time to discuss the social and political landscape of Albania in the 15th century. Albania is a rugged country, full of steep mountains, deep valleys and winding rivers. Outside a few large towns, village life was fairly isolated. It wouldn't be uncommon for the nearest town to be a couple of days away, ride by horse. Peasants who lived in these villages had allegiance to local lords, but were largely left to their own devices. Their way of life had remained stagnant for long periods of time and they were not used to social or religious change. At the time, Albanian politics were heavily influenced by its main trading partner in the south, the Venetian Republic. But as the Ottomans gained more ground in the Balkans, they were beginning to impose changes in taxation, military conscription, religious practices and trade. Some of these changes were met with stubborn resistance.
The most hated of these changes was the timar system. This was a tax collecting right to an individual as a reward for military service. So a soldier who had served the Ottomans loyally for 20 years might be granted the right to collect taxes in, say, ten villages. This could be an incredibly lucrative position to be in, as the soldier only needed to pay a set amount to the sultan. Anything on top was theirs for the taking. This system was not unique to the Ottomans and something had been in place in the European countries since late Roman times, but had not been previously imposed in Albania. The timar system had helped the Ottomans expand quickly from Anatolia and into Europe, but came to a grinding halt when confronted with the proud and stubborn Albanian peasantry who were unused to and unwilling to be squeezed for every cent by a foreign soldier.
The hatred of policies such as this led to many rebellions starting up all across the Balkans. But these were all small scale, usually organised by minor local lords. Without a centralisation of resources and command, these isolated rebellions were doomed to repeated failures against the might of the Ottoman Empire.
Taking us back to Skanderbeg. It had been six years since the death of his father and six years since he was denied the Lordship he felt he deserved. At this moment, we find Skanderbeg fighting in the Battle of Nish against the combined Christian forces, led by the brilliant John Hunyadi, who I'll be covering in a later episode. Skanderbeg was in command of a portion of the army, but an Ottoman general had overall command. As Hunyadi and the Christians bore down on the Ottomans, they began to route and Skanderbeg decided this was his moment to defect.
Taking advantage of a chaotic retreat, he abducted the Ottoman imperial secretary and forced him to sign an edict. The edict named Skanderbeg the governor of Kruje, the capital of his family lands back in Albania, imperial decree in hand, at the head of 300 soldiers, he marched boldly into Kruje.
He presented the decree to the Ottoman governor and with no reason to doubt it, accepted it and granted him entry to the fortress without a drop of blood being spilled. Except the secretary who was killed after riding the fake decree. Oh, and the Ottoman sentries, who were killed during the sleep... I guess there was some bloodshed.
Skanderbeg had done it. He had taken back Kruje, the most important city of Albania and the key to the rest of the country. But boy, oh, boy, the battle was only just beginning. After taking Kruje, Skanderbeg moved quickly. The speed of his actions proved that he had been planning something like this for a long time. In the Kruje Cathedral the very next day, he
addressed the people wanting to be seen as a liberator, not another warlord:
“It is not I who has given you this nation and superiority. It is not I who has given you this city. It is you who has given them unto me. It was not I who put arms into your hands. I found you ready in arms. I found you everywhere bearing the signs of liberty on your hearts, on your faces, in your swords and in your lances”
t the conclusion of his speech in full view of his subjects he dramatically renounced Islam in favor of his original Christian faith and vigorously encouraged his subjects to do so as well, some say under penalty of impalement. So, hang on. What just happened here? Had Skanderbeg always been Christian and only paying lip service to Islam? A quote from Skanderbeg exists about his time in the Ottoman court that says, quote:
‘Although we lived together as family, as it were, in one and the same course of life, although we ate at the same table and through we did in a manner breath jointly with one and the same soul, nevertheless, neither they nor any man alive ever heard me mention my country… neither was there any man that heard me use any speech, or utter and word and at any time, which might reveal me to a Christian or a free man’
To me, it's clear Skanderbeg was a pragmatic and goal oriented man. Many of his family were born Christian and converted to Islam and vice versa. To him, religion was a means to an end. If he needed to worship God in a mosque, a Greek church or a Catholic church, it made no difference.
To serve the Ottomans as a Christian would have been virtually impossible.
Likewise, if he was to lead the Albanians as a Muslim, he would have struggled to find support. Really, he just did what he needed to do.
The time to strike the Ottomans was now. They were still reeling from their defeat at Ness. Skanderbeg knew he had to kick them while they were down. He recruited for his army with Albanians unhappy about Ottoman rule, and moved quickly to take local garrisons. While this was good for the short term, he knew the Ottomans would quickly recover. He needed to start thinking strategy and long term. Skanderbeg called a meeting to discuss a coordinated response against the Ottomans. In the city of Lezhë on the Albanian Venetian border, the most important nobles assembled. The lords agreed that the smallscale rebellions they had put together were easily crushed and agreed to pool their resources. Skanderbeg was unanimously nominated as the best person to command these forces. However, this was no Disney movie. Even as a commander, it was agreed his authority would be limited.
These nobles were not used to giving up power. What they were agreeing to was the necessity to maintain the status quo, specifically, their status quo. They agreed to provide the bare minimum manpower and authority to Scanderbeg whatever they felt necessary for the defense of the Albanian territory. With his reputation as a talented commander, the nobles feared what he could do at the head of a large army. But they knew they needed him. After much bickering to ensure they maintained significant influence, they eventually agreed Skanderbeg would be the “first among equals” in what was to be known as the League of Lezhë.
With the agreement now secured, Skanderbeg traveled across the towns of Albania, recruiting locals to join his cause. The peasants were drawn to him. He was one of them and he made sure he was seen as a man of the people. He ate with them, shared their living quarters and dressed simply. He was aware of his tenuous position and he did all he could not to alienate his new followers. By behaving like royalty with lofty speeches promising to restore the old way of life, his ranks began to grow. His newly formed army commenced raiding outlying Ottoman guard posts and the horses stolen. These raids became his very first cavalryman. Thanks to the plunder taken from these raids, he was able to start paying and training his troops. Contributions from the League members and the Pope also began to trickle in.
But as his fame grew internationally, some members of the League felt he was overstepping his boundaries. Some even reached out to the Venetian government to remove this quote unquote tyrant. His policy of promoting recruits on skill instead of noble birth further alienated him from them. Skanderbeg knew he was going to be in for a real fight soon. He could not risk talentless officers in key positions. And after moving to increase his authority even further, tensions in the League were running very high. As his recruiting drive went on, networks of his old friends within the Ottoman army kept him up to date with the troop movements. Because of these spies, the newly formed Albanian army would win their first engagement with the Ottomans.
So far, so good. But in 1444, a peace treaty was signed between the Christian Coalition under John Hunyadi and the Ottomans.
The Ottomans could now focus entirely on the Albanian rebellion.
The Ottomans came out swinging. In late June 1444, a large Ottoman army of around 25 to 400 men marched into Albania. Skanderbeg was aware of the movements and in command of around 80 men, mostly new recruits. He planned an ambush in the narrow valley of Torvioll in western Albania.
This was the first of many battles where Skanderbeg would use the landscape to his advantage. He posted a small force at the end of the valley and he waited.
The Ottoman army entered the valley and upon seeing only a token force, rushed forward, eager for a quick victory. Once Skanderbeg saw that the Ottomans were fully committed, he gave the signal and hidden troops sprang from the rear and side of the valley, raining hell on the Ottomans below. Being battered from all sides, discipline quickly broke down. The huge army tried to squeeze out of the narrow valley, starting a stampede as men trampled each other in order to get out first. It was a bloodbath. The Ottomans lost between 8 and 22 thousand troops, while the Albanians lost a max of around 4 thousand, with some estimates much lower.
The first attempt to break the Albanian spirit of resistance had been a disaster. The Turkish commander, who barely survived, was asked to explain what went wrong and he blamed the, quote, fortune of war. Nice.
From this unlikely victory, the Albanians gained prestige piles of loot recognition throughout Christian Europe. But most importantly, they gain the knowledge that with the right use of tactics, landscape and just a little bit of luck, maybe, just maybe, they could resist the Ottoman onslaught.
If you look at a map of Europe during this time, we've got one on our Facebook and Instagram, if you'd like to see. It's difficult to see Albania on a map if you didn't know where it was. On the contrary, you could not miss the enormous Ottoman Empire from Aleppo in the east to Sofia in the west. It was an empire built on expansion, so why bother resisting at all? Well, since the Ottomans had begun pushing into Christian Europe, there were always rumours circulating of a new crusade. If a crusade was called, it would mean monetary aid and manpower from the strongest European nations. The Ottomans were large, but they weren't undefeatable. Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, still held out, as did various small Christian and Muslim states to the empire's western borders. And another large Islamic empire, the Mamluk Sultan, lurked beneath the borders in the south. Eastern Europeans were tough and later, history shows, some incredibly impressive and able leaders who did not take Ottoman vassalage lying down, rebelling over and over again, despite the odds and previous losses.
Ultimately, their freedom was worth the gamble, despite the odds.
Over in the Ottoman royal court, sultan Murad II had decided to abdicate to make room for his son, Mehmet II, the very same Member who Skanderbeg knew from his youth at the Ottoman capital, was now his greatest enemy. An enemy who would soon to be known to the world as Mehmet the Conqueror. But that's down the road for now. Mehmet was hot headed and inexperienced.
Ottoman ruler succession was dicey at the best of times, but Mehmet really made a mess of it. Upon his ascension, the Janissaries requested a bonus to their pay. This was somewhat of an unwritten rule that occurred when a new sultan began his rule. A nice way of saying, hey, thanks for not rebelling against me. Mehmet rejected the request and the Janissaries rebelled.
In the chaotic next few months, Skanderbeg plunders the Ottoman border towns, even pushing into Ottoman territory itself. The damage was so severe that Murad II, who had to return to the throne in order to avoid a civil war, sent Skanderbeg a peace offering all of his father's lands in exchange for peace. Skanderbeg's decisive response took peace off the table forever after:
“I have not set myself down to content with you in foul and unbecoming language, but with the arms and the just fury of war!”
Skanderbeegg had talked the talk and now he needed to walk the walk. What he needed was allies, and currently he was only losing the ones he had. Venice currently enjoyed a monopoly on trading in Albania and they worried that a centralized government might affect their profit margins. It was better to keep the nobles of Albania divided and bickering for easy leverage, rather than having a unified, powerful government. Even so, the Republic couldn't or wouldn't face Skanderbeg in battle, instead putting a bounty on his head for anyone that could kill him.
With this, the already fractured League of Lezhe broke apart entirely and Skanderbeg assumed a de facto dictator role, much to the annoyance of other Albanian nobles, many who now actively conspired against him.
Skanderbeg needed allies and there was nothing to be found in the east. So he turned west and found King Alfonso the Fifth, aka Alfonso the Magnanimous. Jeez. Who wouldn't love that title?
Alfonso was the ruler of Aragon modern day eastern Spain. He had some lofty ambitions of conquering some of the lands held by Venice and the Ottomans, and Skanderbeg seemed like a great tool to help him secure these. The alliance was sealed. With money and troops flowing in, Scanderbeg and his men began pushing back against Venice, pillaging the border force. To counter this, a joint Ottoman Venetian force begins attacking Albanian territory. Once again, Skanderbeg and 6 thousand of his troops deliver a humiliating defeat to the combined Ottoman Venetian forces. Afterwards, Venice quickly sues for peace, promising a yearly tribute of gold. Skanderbeg ratifies the agreement, but this gold will never arrive and it will become a constant source of friction between the two nations.As if there wasn't enough already!
Back at the Ottoman court, rumours of a Western crusade swirl once again. Murad II, cautious as usual, commands a general retreat of an army advancing into Albania. But before leaving, the Ottoman troops besiege an important geographic city of Svetigrad, a key point along the Ottoman invasion route into Albania. Skanderbeg tried to lift the siege, but without modern artillery, he could do little more than slow it down.
And eventually the castle was taken. This was the only engagement he had ever lost at this point, and spoiler this was the only engagement he would ever personally lose!
Realizing he would need some serious firepower if he was going to start taking down fortresses, Skanderbeg tries to set an alliance up with the kingdoms of Serbia and Ragusa, that's modern day Croatia.
The responses from both were vague and noncommittal. Meanwhile, further north in Hungary, John Hunyadi and the Christian Coalition were barely keeping their heads above water in a prolonged war with the Ottomans. Skanderbeg had wanted to send some troops to support the coalition, but because of these lukewarm responses from Serbia and Ragusa, he was unable to spare any. Partly due to this hornyardi's, greatly outnumbered forces were smashed by the Ottomans at the Battle of Kosovo, and the Ottomans took another step into Europe, further encircling the tiny Albanian state.
The situation was desperate.
The Ottomans had finished up all other military engagements and could now focus their full military might on Albania. In desperation, Scanderbeg offers Venice 6000 gold pieces for them to attain the status of protectorate of Albania, effectively offering Albania as a junior partner in alliance with Venice. Their chilly response, however, left little room for doubt:
“We don't want property that belongs to someone else.”
With this, the League of Lezhë collapses entirely as all remaining nobles desperately try and strike the best deal they can with the Sultan in order to keep their lands. Skanderbeg, with some support from King Alfonso, prepared to stand against the Ottoman onslaught at Kruje…
In the middle of June 1466, Scanderbeg gathers a handful of men still loyal to him.
In a stirring speech he tells his men of a vision he had a vision of St. George personally handing him a flaming sword and instructing him to destroy the enemies of Christianity. After this speech was concluded, angels were sighted above the fortress. These visions, along with his prophecy, helped steady the morale of his men, who knew how unlikely their survival was to be. Skanderbeg leaves the fortress of Kruje with 4 thousand defenders and enough supplies to hold up for 16 months and gives command of it to one of his best generals well versed in siege warfare. Under his command, no crop left outside the city is not burnt, any structure is destroyed. The Ottomans would find no pasture or comfort in the surrounding countryside. With this done, the Ottoman war machine soon arrives and commences preparation for the siege.
From the get go, Skanderbeg does not give them a moment's peace, personally leading hit and run cavalry attacks on the camp before melting back into the countryside. In one of these attacks, Skanderbeg instructs his best general, Moisi Golemi, to attack from one side of the camp. And once the Ottoman troops were committed to the fight, he, with his own group, tore in from the other side, destroying and killing whatever they came into contact with before regrouping to retreat. Sources say that Scanderbeg was fearless and in the very front line of the melee:
Throughout the fight his shield was so battered that its shape was scarce to be discerned.
In another attack, Skanderbeg lured the Ottomans into a narrow valley near the fortress. They believed he had accidentally trapped himself and blocked the exit waiting for the next day to finish him off.
Unknown to them, the valley had a small passage leading up and out that Skanderbeg knew well. Under cover of night he led his troops out of the valley and when morning came the Ottomans found that they were now the ones trapped! With one band of his troops blocking the exit, the other picked off the invaders from above. It was a battle of Torviollall over again.!
Skirmishes aside, the main assault and Kruje was not going any better. The city was virtually built into a mountain and walls were well guarded by an experienced general. Disease soon began to spread through the Ottoman camp and morale plummeted. Sultan Murad packed up the siege, his last siege ever, dying soon after of old age.
He had bought with him 100 thousand of his best troops and ten of the most advanced cannons in the world, and was decisively and humiliatingly defeated by 8 thousand Albanian peasants and their crafty, determined leader.
There's an accompanying legend of this battle that I thought it was too cool not to share. The legend goes that one night the garrison at Kruje sent out a herd of goats with candles attached to their horns down a back road leading away from the fortress. The Ottomans believed it was the garrison trying to sneak away at night and sent troops to catch them, which were met by the real forces led by Scanderbeg, which crushed them. To give thanks to these animals, Scanderbeg had an iron helmet fashioned with a goat head on top. Who knows if this is really true, but the helmet was actually created. We know this because it still exists today.
We've got a picture of it up on Facebook and Instagram. It's really well worth a look.
After this Skanderbeg's popularity soars all across Europe, cash donations and the usual honorary titles flow in from across the continent. The Pope builds him up as a hero of Christendom needing some good news after Hunyadi’s recent defeat. With the newfound wealth, a series of small forts are constructed and the walls of Kruje are rekitted with a rounded rock to better absorb impact from cannon fire. They would definitely need it.
The victory was impressive and the cash well received. But Skanderbeg knew luck had played a big part of it. And he also knew that once the Ottomans returned, they would bring more men and more cannons. Albania was still very vulnerable. To ensure complete protection, he offers King Alfonso the protectorate status of Albania, the same deal he had offered Venice previously. But he slips in the condition that he would not need to pay tribute to Alfonso until the Ottomans were driven from Europe. A crafty play, Alfonso agrees to the partnership, formally making Albania a vassal of the crown of Aragon. On 3 February 1 451, Mehmet II ascends to the Ottoman throne, this time with fewer problems.
Mehmet, who had become known for his secretive nature and speedy troop mobilisation, gets a taste of what's to come in Albania. Gathering an army of his best 250 men, he marches west, wanting to put down the rebellion once and for all.
Scanderbeg spies report that the army approaching had been split into two groups, with the intent of pincer in the Albanian forces in the middle. Not wanting another siege, scanderbeg marches his troops out to meet the threat head on, ambushing the first force, taking them by surprise and routing them before marching back to meet the other Ottoman army, beating them also.
In this engagement, many high profile Ottomans are caught. A few are ransomed, while others are released for free. The legend goes that many of the officers believed they were about to be killed and begged Scanderbeg for mercy. In response he invited them to have dinner with him. He treated them well, showed them respect and then released them after. He wanted to show his enemies and also potential allies that he had enough confidence in his ability to not need to take advantage of the unfortunate. While this was a risky move, it helped raise further opinion of him in the eyes of his troops.
Not for the first time, Scanderbeg or his envoys traveled through the Balkans and Italy seeking support for his cause. Throughout his life, whenever he was not actively on campaign, vanderbag will be on the road seeking support from whoever will give it. Christian lords across Europe were more than happy to dish out praise and new titles, but unwilling to support them with any real cash or manpower, as many of them were bogged down in their own internal conflicts. The very next year, once campaign season starts again, the Ottomans are back heading into Albania when news of their arrival reaches him. Scanderbeg is mid-siege of an Ottoman fortress, and he leaves the siege with one of his generals as he prepares to meet the Ottoman force personally.
Unfortunately, the general that he left failed to fortify his position and many Albanians are slaughtered by the Ottoman Relief force. Among those are a handful of Aragones siege experts, the cream of the crop of Alfonso's supporting troops that cannot be easily replaced.
After this blunder, a handful of Albanian officers desert Scanderbeck's cause, a trend that seems to follow whenever he or his subordinate loses the battle. Although the defections would hurt, one particular one would have stung more than the others. Moisi Golemi, Skanderbeg's most distinguished commander and close friend, had defected. As Scanderbeg again rebuilds and fortifies his position, golemy returns to Albania at the head of a 160 strong Ottoman army. Having fought side by side, the two men knew exactly what the other was capable of. There would be no underestimating the other this time. Golemy was known as a master of subtlety and was the brain behind many of Skanderbeg's earlier ambushes. Knowing this, Scanderbeg wasted no time and pushed for a pitched battle. According to legend, Golemi challenged Scanderbeg to single combat, but retreated back into his ranks once Scanderbeg approached. The battle was hard fought, with both commanders in the front line. But finally the Ottomans gave way. Under the charge of Skanderbeg'’s shock cavalry. After the battle, Golemi abandoned his defeated troops and returned to Skanderbeg, begging his old friend for clemency.
Skanderbeg granted this request and restored the disgraced commander to his former glory, even returning his lands. A few sources claim this defection to the Ottomans was actually a ruse and was planned all along by Golemi and Skanderbeg, deliberately leading the troops into an ambush.
Whatever the case, turncoat or forgotten hero, Golemi was popular with the troops in the same way as Scanderbeg was. Clemency was a better option. To this day, Golemi is a popular Albanian hero and I even managed to find a ballad written about him online. I couldn't find an English translation. If anyone has this, please let me know and I'll share it.
Despite his busy schedule, it would seem Scanderbeg still found time for other activities. Scanderbeg's son, John II was born on 1456. The happy event, however, was overshadowed by yet another defection. Scanderbeg's nephew Hamza realized John would now inherit Skanderbeg's land and titles, not him. So he traveled to the Ottoman court and petitioned member to let him lead an army against his uncle. He told Mehmet that the population had turned against him and the nobles wanted him removed from power. With all the family drama of a modern soap opera came Skanderbeg's most unbelievable battle that would set his place in history forever. After knowing his usual lure and ambush tactics would not work against his nephew, Skanderbeg commanded his army to disband, to break into smaller groups and hide away in the mountains.
He ordered them not to engage the Ottoman forces under any circumstances until he gave them the order. Weeks turned to months. There was no resistance at all offered to the Ottomans. As they marched through Albania, the invading army grew bolder, with rumours circulating that Skanderbeg had been abandoned by his men. Skanderbeg himself cleverly fanned the flames by sending an ambassador to Rome, stating that Albania had fallen to the Ottomans. All the while, the local population loyally never revealed his position.
The people had definitely not turned against him.
On 2 September 1 457, the time had come. Skanderbeg summoned his army, a total of around 9000 men. And out of the mountains they marched, taking a relaxed Ottoman army completely by surprise. In order to fool the enemy into believing they were more numerous. Skanderbeg ordered his troops to clang their weapons together upon advance and sent numerous small scale cavalry attacks to disguise the size of his army.
Hamza tried in desperation to calm his panicked troops and assure them that the Albanians were few and it was a trick, but it was no good!
The cavalry whipped back and forth through the camp, kicking up dust as they went, while Bowman picked off anyone who made it to the edge of the camp. It was chaos.
The Ottoman host was huge, with around 50 to 80,000 troops. Casualties, too, were equally staggering. 30 to 45,000 captured or killed! Somewhere in the middle of the fight, Skanderbeg's disobedient nephew was scooped up and sent King Alfonso in chains.
This was Scanderbeg's greatest victory and as a testament to the popularity he had, his troops could have easily returned home instead of waiting in the mountains, and the peasantry likewise could have given away his position at any time. This victory brought him the breathing room he and his exhausted troops desperately needed. At this rate, even the Ottomans could not replace the troops as fast as he was killing them. A ceasefire was agreed for three years. The Pope, despite offering him little assistance, was not thrilled at the idea of a ceasefire.
“My dear son, we answer that the Roman Catholic Pontiff does not give permission to anyone to make a treaty with infidels. There can be no agreement with them without offending God.”
Despite the Pope's thoughts that peace timing was ideal, king Alfonso had just died and his son Ferdinand I had a loose grip on the Italian peninsula. Scanderbeg answered his call for aid and crossed into Italy and spent the next year helping him suppress rebellions around Italy, trying to build a strong relationship like the one he had with his father. But with Skanderbeg out of Albania, sultan Mehmet broke their truth and sent three detachments into Albania within a one month time span.
Hearing this, Scanderbegg quickly left for Albania to rally as men.
Lightning fast as usual, he defeated each army one after the other, making clever use of the terrain and surprise tactics to isolate smaller contingencies. As the Ottomans worked to consolidate their power around the Balkans, their relations worsened between them and Venice. Waves of fear swept across Christian Europe.Constantinople. The last bastion of the ancient Roman Empire had fallen. The old heart of Christianity was now in the hands of Islam.
Pope Pius II reinvigorated a call for a Crusade, officially declaring it in 1463. Venice was one of the first to answer the call, championing Skanderbeg of all people. As its leader, the Battle of Ohrid could be called the first of this would be Crusade, and it's also the first instance of Venice and Albania fighting on the same side.
Skanderbeg's favorite tactic, luring troops out of well defended positions, worked again. Many highprofile officers are caught and ransomed. Skanderbeg distributed all wealth evenly between troops, regardless of nationality or creed. Unfortunately, though, not long after this impressive victory, pope Pius II, who was ill for some time, died.
ithout a strong religious figure had to drive the cause. The Crusade support melted away, this time for good. Sultan Mehmet likely breathed a sigh of relief. With the Crusade now officially cancelled, the Ottomans gaze again turns to Albania.
But they tried a different approach, this time a propaganda campaign. Noticing the Albanian pride surrounding Scanderbeg, they reason that they could simply replace one Albanian with another. This new figure was recruited through the derv scheme system like Skanderbeg, and rose through the Ottoman ranks, just like Skanderbeg. Enter Ballaban Badera, or “Ballaban Pasha”, as he was known to the Ottomans.
Balaban Pasha likely had the career trajectory Skanderbeg would have had if he had never deserted zealously loyal to the Sultan, who was apparently the first janissary to scale the walls of the recently conquered Constantinople. Balaban at first tries to flatter Scanderbeg with expensive gifts, but is deeply insulted when Scanderbeg sends back a pick and a shovel, reminding the Islamic convert of his peasant roots.
After his flattery falls short, he sets his troops out to ambush Skanderbeg's camp, but with no success. In fact, very soon after, he himself is caught off guard when Scanderbeg ambushes them! The battle that followed was bloody, probably the bloodiest yet.
During the melee, Skanderbeg is knocked to the ground and a few of his close bodyguards are separated from the main body of troops. Seeing their invincible leader apparently killed, the Albanian forces begin to route. Desperately, the now wounded Skanderbeg and his bodyguards cleave a path back to the Albanians. Just barely stopping a rout. Skanderbeg reforms the lines and the re-energised Albanians and Venetians push back against the Ottomans. The Ottoman troops begin to give ground and eventually turn and run. Balaban was a gifted general, but he did not have the sheer force of personality Skanderbeg seemed to command on the battlefield.
This victory came at its highest cost. Yet Scanderbeg lost twelve high ranking officers and many members of his own family were taken as prisoners, including the much loved and now much forgiven, apparently, Moisi Golemi. Scanderbeg offered a humongous ransom for his return, and based on the clemency he had shown in the past, maybe there was a chance.
But the Sultan was a different man and he refused.
There would be no clemency shown to these men. He was acutely aware of how many troops he had lost to plants conceived by this group and instead of releasing them, ordered them to be skinned alive in Constantinople. After his defeat, Balaban Pasha, who had managed to escape the bloodshed, assembled another army of around 40 thousand men.
Again doing all he could to avoid a pitch battle against Skanderbeg, he tried to bribe a number of his top lieutenants, but like his flattery, this got him nowhere. These men had stood by Scanderbeg through thick and thin. Their loyalty could not be bought.
Balaban splits his army in two with the intent of pincering Scanderbeg's outnumbered troops.
One will be led by himself and another led by another Albanian born jannisary: Jakup Arnauti.
Despite the advice of his generals, Skanderbeg takes an offensive approach, determined to crush both armies before they can join and encircle him. With 10 thousand troops he decisively defeats Balaban's 200 troops and promptly marches back to meet Anauti's remaining force. Anauti's army is caught off guard, expecting to meet up with Balaban's force.
But even though the troops were surprised, Arnaut iand his men were fresh and ready. Scanderbeg's men were tired and he knew he could not sustain a pitch battle for long. So in the midst of the battle, he cuts a path through the enemy lines towards their commander, knowing that if he was to fall, the army would probably melt away.
With the battle raging on all sides, the two Albanians fight it out. Anauti was good, but Skanderbeg was better and he bought Anauti down with a well placed spear through the chin.
Just as he predicted, seeing their leader brought down, the army routed. And once again, the Albanians had won the day, bedraggled and bleeding, but very much alive Skanderbeg and his men returned to Kruje once again as heroes.
After these two crushing defeats, sultan Mehmet really began to tighten the noose. He had started to understand the risk that this one man posed to his empire and now takes a more personal involvement in the campaign, delegating less and less to his commanders.
This shows the importance he placed on this tiny, stubborn region that seemingly no one could subdue. He sets to construct the formidable Elbasan fortress in Albanian territory, intending to use as a stronghold for future attacks, Balaban Pasha returns again with a large force intent on taking Kruje once and for all.
Meanwhile, Mehmet begins peace talks with Hungary and Venice. The negotiations, while inconclusive, keep them from actively reinforcing Skanderbeg. With Ferdinand I unable to help, it looks likely that Skanderbeg once again will have to square off against the Ottomans alone.
Skanderbeg again travels to Rome, begging for aid from the new Pope and is detained there for many months as the cardinals bicker about how much money they should give him.
After many hollow promises, scanderbeg leaves in frustration with just 2300 gold pieces, yet another title and a fancy sword.
A plaque was erected in Rome in the palace where Scanderbeg lived during this time. It's still there today, actually, and we've got a picture of it on our Instagram and Facebook page.
On returning to Albania, he finds the situation at Kruje dire.
The city is surrounded by impressive Ottoman siege works. But there's some good news. Venice, having recently cancelled the peace talks with the Sultan, are now able to supply some troops. In addition to this, few of the members of the Old League of Lezhe realise their fate will be linked to Scanderbegs should Kruje fall. They too agree to provide some troops and supplies that they'd been hoarding. One of these nobles is Lekë Dukagjini, a respected military commander from the northern parts of Albania, who agrees to serve personally under Scanderbeg.
Men like this were desperately needed. After the recent loss of his twelve lieutenants Scanderbeg and Dukagjini planned their next moves. Their total force was around 13 thousand men and they were divided into several groups.
Once again, they relied on the element of surprise. Each group ploughed into the Ottoman siegeworks in quick succession.
As the Ottoman reserves were sent to bolster one section, another group of Albanians would emerge, and then another. And once all the Ottoman reserves were engaged, the militia inside Kruje sallied out and smashed into the siegeworks from behind.
Balaban Pasha himself is killed in the clash. And seeing their commander fall, the rest of the army, now surrounded on all sides, offered surrender. Skanderbeg was ready to accept, but his commanders weren't with the memories of the recent skinning of their comrades fresh in their mind.
They wanted blood.
The Albanians circled around the trapped Ottoman troops, looking for any reason to commence the slaughter. Apparently, an Albanian word translating to “upon them!” was shouted by Dukagjini. And with this, the massacre began.
Those that couldn't get back to Elbasan Sand castle were butchered indiscriminately. The second siege of Kruke was broken and once again, scandal baker entered the city to cheering crowds as its saviour. But the long siege had taken a toll on Albania's already very shaky economy. The continual sieges and pillaging of the countryside had seriously impacted the farmlands across the country. At this point, the country had been more or less at war for 20 years. However, the unlikely victory drove many new recruits to flock to Skanderbeg's cause, with a good amount coming from the north, likely hearing of Dukagjini’s victory and the plunder he had taken.
Ranks of his army swell again up to 16 thousand men. But they still desperately needed allies. And with Hungary now pacified, Venice was the only one still standing. Two months later, drawing on his seemingly infinite supply of manpower, Mehmet and the boys again returned to Kruje.
Little is known about this siege, but it seems Skanderbeg was not prepared for it. And for the first time since the initial siege, he sallies out of Kruje to give the civilian population time to flee into the mountains as he holds the line. He and his men met the Ottomans in an open field battle. The battle was seemingly inconclusive and afterwards Skanderbeg and his troops escape into the mountainside.
Mehmet sends a few scouting parties after him, but without success. With Skanderbeg on the run and the Albanian army in no shape to fight the Ottomans, they ran, sack the already devastated countryside. But they're still unable to take Kruje and eventually they give up.
It saddens me to tell you that this would be the last battle Scanderbeg would fight in. The Ottomans were able to draw troops, equipment and money from a huge empire. What would take Scanderbeg months of pleading, begging and borrowing could be achieved in the Ottoman court by the signing of a pen. Next year, in 1468, Scanderbeg returns to Italy in order to drum up support for a new campaign.
[On the way there, he catches malaria. And after 25 years of constant, tireless defense of Albania, George Kastrioti breathed his last.
Mehmet, upon hearing about his death, said, quote:
“At last, Europe and Asia are mine. Woe to Christendom. She has lost her sword and her shield!”
The fires of rebellion would continue to burn in Albania for many years after the death of Scanderbeg and would even see some real success under his son, John II. But without the force of personality that was Scanderbeg and the changing environment of Europe, never again would the Albanians experience widespread success against the Ottomans.
Personally, Skanderbeg is one of my favorite historical persons and it's always a surprise to me that he's not better known. His ingenious tactics, use of the landscape, guile and kinship with his people enabled him to win victory after victory against the most professional standing army in the world while being outnumbered two to three times over.
What I need to continually remind myself is that when he kicked off his rebellion he was not a young man and the energy and devoutness to his cause for a quarter of a century is astounding. I have no doubt that if it wasn't for his early death he would have continued the rebellion until it was just him standing. Skanderbeg has played a key role in the development of Albanian identity. Prior to the rebellion, Albania was a loose collection of bickering petty kingdoms and after it we see the emergence of a united people. From the 16th and 19th century, Scanderbeg was largely forgotten in the now Islamized Albania and his reputation as a defender of Christendom meant he was better remembered in Western Europe. Even so, the Albanian people did not lose their independence that made them such a tough obstacle.
Edward Knight, an author who traveled to Albania in 1879, wrote this about his travels quote:
Even after so many centuries [the Turks] seem to merely temporarily encamped in Albania. They have pachas and garrisons in the town, but the natives enjoy a surprising amount of independence, and are allowed to go pretty well as they like. Indeed the government is very weak here, neither feared nor respected, merely tolerated’
But once Albania got its independence in the 19th century it was Skanderbeg who came to symbolise a core part of Albanian identity. In the many documents attributed to him that we still have today, Skanderbeg would ever only sign his title as Lord of Albania. Reflecting his single minded goal. He desired none of the titles heaped upon him by popes or monarchs. Lord of Albania was more than enough.
Nowadays, Scanderbeg has become an almost mythical figure and a cornerstone of Albanian identity. And to this day, now over 500 years since Skanderbeg's death the imposing black eagle against a red background of House Kastrioti flies proudly atop Kruje Castle as the national flag of an independent Albania.