Elvira Tamus (@evtamus) has just started a PhD at the University of Cambridge on Franco-Hungarian diplomatic relations in the sixteenth century. Here, she explores the memory of St John of Capistrano, a medieval crusader saint – and a figurehead for the anticommunist politics of modern Hungary.
John of Capistrano (Italian: Giovanni da Capestrano, 1386-1456) was one of the most important preachers of the fifteenth century. The Italian priest and friar became one of the major figures of the Franciscan Observant movement who was active in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1440s and 1450s. Importantly, Capistrano played a key role in the crusaders’ victory at Belgrade over the Ottomans in 1456. He died soon after the siege, but his reputation as one of the heroes of Belgrade made him a venerated figure across Europe. In Hungary, his cult became exceptionally popular due to the hundreds of miraculous events that occurred at his grave. His legacy remained an important reference point throughout the Christian-Ottoman conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was revived in the first half of the twentieth century within the Catholic Church in Hungary. In this post, I explore the legacy of John of Capistrano by analysing the connection between the Franciscan Observant movement and the anti-Ottoman military endeavours, the perception of Capistrano’s role in the Siege of Belgrade, and his veneration from the fifteenth until the twenty-first century.
The first Observants arrived in the Kingdom of Hungary in the middle of the fourteenth century, in order to support the Observant missions in Bosnian and Bulgarian territories. After the Council of Constance in 1414-1418, the number of their monasteries and friars gradually grew. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the Observant movement was one of the greatest promoters of anti-Ottoman ideas, preaching on behalf of papal crusading aspirations. Hungary was frequently presented by the papacy as the ‘bulwark of Christianity’, due to the increasing expansion of the Ottoman Empire towards Central Europe. The Observants received large-scale support from two of the wealthiest and most influential aristocrats of Hungary: John Hunyadi (1407-1456) and Miklós Újlaki (1410-1477), who made great efforts to defend Hungary’s southern fortress system. In 1453, the fall of Constantinople further enhanced the concerns of the Christian world, and especially those of the Holy See, about the Ottoman expansion.
As a member of the Observant movement, John of Capistrano was an assistant and friend of the Franciscan missionary, Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444). Capistrano fervently argued for a rigorous discipline in Franciscan monasteries. He preached against Jews, heretics, Hussites, and the luxurious lifestyle of the urban population. In the spring of 1455, Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458) called on Capistrano to join the organisation of an anti-Ottoman war in Hungary. Interestingly, Capistrano offered reconciliation for non-Catholics in his preaching:
Those who want to help us against the Turks are our friends. Serbs, schismatics, Wallachians, Jews, heretics, and pagans are welcome, if they want to fight with us in these difficult times.
Capistrano received his official commission to recruit crusaders from the Spanish papal legate, Juan Carvajal in February 1456 in Buda. Capistrano and his Observant peers managed to gather thousands of crucesignati in the course of less than three months. Giovanni da Tagliacozzo provided the most important contemporary historical account of the crusade:
All those who came were commoners, peasants, poor people, or priests, laymen and friars, students... hermits, mendicants. They had few weapons, and did not have horses apart from those that were pulling their food...
The level of military experience and equipment of the ‘peasant crusaders’ was insufficient, even if we count the regular armies of John Hunyadi and Mihály Szilágyi, the captain of Belgrade. The ‘peasant nature’ of the crusade can be explained by the absence of Hungary’s political elite – the king of Hungary, Ladislaus the Posthumous (1444-1457) fled to Vienna, while most of the aristocrats ignored the papal call for the crusade and were not present at Belgrade.
The siege of the fortress took place between 4 and 22 July 1456. Tagliacozzo’s remarks reveal Capistrano’s key role in the desperate situation:
The captain of the crusaders went forward with his whole army… by playing various musical instruments and crying the holy name of Jesus… And they started to mock the enemy, and shouted scornful words at them… Christ’s servant ordered the entire crusading army to cross the river Száva...
Capistrano was ordered by Hunyadi to stay far from the castle but he did not obey. Subsequently, the Ottoman cavalrymen attacked the crusaders and left their cannons unattended. Hunyadi utilised the situation, broke out from the castle with his army of more than ten thousand soldiers and defeated the Turks from behind. As Tagliacozzo concludes:
So all the Hungarians agree that our blessed father was the liberator of the entire kingdom.
Capistrano had ambitious plans to continue the crusade against the Ottomans. In a letter written to the pope, he even envisaged capturing Jerusalem. However, the plague and famine that broke out during the siege and the intensifying conflict between the peasants and the regular army made Capistrano decide to send the crusaders home. The victory was widely celebrated across Europe, particularly in Rome. Indeed, this event stopped the Ottoman forces from carrying out significant attacks on Hungary for almost seven decades.
John of Capistrano died of plague in Újlak (today Ilok, Croatia) on 23 October 1456. His grave immediately became a shrine, the centre of his cult, where five hundred miracles were reported between the 1460s and 1526. Capistrano was considered a ‘healing saint’, who was also believed to protect and liberate Christians from Ottomans. The miracles were noted down with the goal of initiating Capitrano’s canonisation procedure. The campaign was supported by the local magnate Miklós Újlaki, the citizens of Újlak, and Capistrano’s fellow Observants. However, due to various political and ecclesiastical obstacles, such as the Ottomans’ expansion to Hungary in 1526, or several expressions of doubt regarding the credibility of his miracles, Capistrano was canonised only in 1690.
Nevertheless, Capistrano’s cult was nurtured by Franciscan Observants active in Hungary throughout the intervening centuries. The crusade preparations in 1513 are a good example. The first major Ottoman attacks against Hungary didn’t take place until Selim I became sultan in 1512. In response, Pope Leo X (1513-1521) announced a new crusade against the Ottomans in 1513. The Observants were commissioned to preach by the archbishop Tamás Bakócz, and they recruited 50000 crusaders by the spring of 1514. Capistrano’s cult was still going strong. (The crusading endeavours, in the end, turned into a peasants’ revolt against the Hungarian landed nobility, because of a social tension caused by the continuous limitation of peasants’ rights.)
Capistrano’s story is not just about the crusades.
Capistrano’s story is not just about the crusades. His cult was revived in Hungary in the twentieth century. After the end of the Second World War, the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations faced severe difficulties under the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. The political regime that came after, led by Regent Miklós Horthy (1920-1944), proclaimed a so-called Christian-national ideology. Several armed commandos, supported by the Ministry of Defence, pursued the perpetrators of Soviet crimes, often just as violently, in order to eliminate the “communist threat”. In the early 1920s, a Hungarian Franciscan friar and military chaplain called István Zadravecz suggested that Capistrano be declared the official patron of the Royal Hungarian Army. In June 1921, Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) approved his idea, but the Protestant members of the political elite disagreed. One of them, the Lutheran bishop Sándor Raffay, insisted:
…you can set a statue for Capistrano, but you cannot give him an army, because this army belongs to a nation and not to a certain denomination.
In 1921, Zadravecz ordered the artist Sándor Unghváry to make an altarpiece for the Church of Mary Magdalene of Buda, which was the garrison church of the army at the time. In the painting, Capistrano and Zadravecz are depicted together, surrounded by the crusading army on the right and by Regent Horthy’s army on the left. This way, the painting drew an obvious parallel between the fifteenth-century Ottoman menace and the contemporary “communist threat”. The picture caused general indignation among the Protestant churches and increased their displeasure at the strengthening of Capistrano’s veneration. Nonetheless, a statue portraying Capistrano was inaugurated in the Buda Castle in 1922.
And in 2002, a chapel was built in Kiskunmajsa to commemorate the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which was fought against the Soviet-style Hungarian People’s Republic on 23rd October 1956, exactly five hundred years after Capistrano’s death. The chapel’s patron saint is John of Capistrano – his wood statue is in front of the building, and the message is that the Ottoman and the Soviet dangers are parallels.
We should continue to ask ourselves why some medieval figures are better remembered than others today – and whose interests those memories serve.
The Italian Franciscan Observant friar, John of Capistrano, became one of the most significant figures of late medieval Hungarian history thanks to his key contribution to the glorious defence of Belgrade. His legacy was re-evaluated from time to time as the political context in Hungary changed, but Capistrano never lost his place in the religious and collective memory of the region as one of the greatest military heroes of Christendom, Europe and Hungary. Remembered as a Christian warrior across Europe, today Capistrano is venerated as a saint of the Hungarian Catholic Church and the patron saint of its Military Ordinariate. On his feast day (23 October) every year, an official delegation from Hungary participates in the civil and church festivities commemorating the saint in his hometown, Capestrano (Abruzzo, Italy). This tradition was initiated by Géza Mihályi, a member of the Hungarian community in Rome, who emigrated to Italy after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and was buried in Capestrano in 2018.
John of Capistrano’s cult is still going strong today. But we should remember that, within the last century, he has not just been remembered as a medieval crusader and venerated as a saint. He has also been reinvigorated to support anticommunist politics in both the 1920s and the 2000s, and knowing this, we should continue to ask ourselves why some medieval figures are better remembered than others today – and whose interests those memories serve.
“We should continue to ask ourselves why some medieval figures are better remembered than others today – and whose interests those memories serve.”Tweet
 P. Kulcsár, Kapisztrán János [John of Capistrano] (Budapest, 1987), p.185.
 Kulcsár, p.194.
 Kulcsár, pp.199-200.
 N. Housley, Religious Warfare in Europe, 1400-1536 (Oxford, 2008), pp.66-7.
 A. Lukács, “Keresztes hadjáratot hirdető szobor a Hadtörténeti Intézet és Múzeum előtt” [“A crusade preaching statue in front of the Military History Institute and Museum”], in K. Peregrin & L. Veszprémy, eds. Európa védelmében. Kapisztrán Szent János és a nándorfehérvári diadal emlékezete [In the Defence of Europe: The Memory of St John of Capistrano and the Triumph of Belgrade] (Budapest, 2013), pp.169-75, p.169.