The Siege of Svigetvar

After his loss at the Siege of Malta the year before, Suleiman the Magnificent turned his attention to expansion into the Kingdom of Croatia and Hungary in 1566. As the massive Ottoman army approached, its foragers and scouts were constantly ambushed and harassed by men of Croatian Count Nikola Zrinski, whom even defeated the Turkish vanguard at the Battle of Siklos. In response, Suleiman decided to make an example of him and marched straight to Zrinski’s ancestral seat of Svigetvar.

Zrinski was a skilled tactician, and a veteran of decades of border skirmishing with the Ottomans and their subjects in the Balkan marches. However, the odds were daunting: he had just 2300 Croatian and Hungarian knights and men at arms to face Sulieman’s 150,000. Svigetvar was very defensible, with two walled sections of the town (one with a medieval castle) separated by the swampy tributaries of a river, and a final star fortress with two baileys. But at 65-1 all Zrinski could hope to do was hold out long enough for Holy Roman Emperor to come to his aid (which he wouldn’t because the Hapsburg administration and the German princes were paralyzed with fear, but Zrinski didn’t know that).

Suleiman arrived on 2 August and was easily repulsed after ordering an immediate assault. So the Ottomans settled into a siege, with their usual constant bombardments, mining and the occasional surprise assault. Zrinski didn’t even entertain the frustrated sultan’s peace envoys, despite the increasingly more lavish promises by Suleiman. By the beginning of September, the New Town fell, the Old Town and castle were burned to the ground, and all that remained was the fortress, held by Zrinski and 600 grim survivors of the previous month. But the Ottomans suffered much worse – 20,000 warriors dead. Moreover, disease caused by the marshy ground was rampant, and Suleiman himself died of dysentery on 6 September. His advisers and viziers, at great pain, kept his death a secret lest it break up the army. They ordered a last assault for the next day.

But Zrinski had other plans. His fortress walls were rubble, the buildings inside were ablaze, and he would attack. As the sun poked over the horizon, with flaming embers drifting down from above, and the drums and yelling of the Turks permeating the air, Zrinski beseeched his men to accompany him on one final charge. They followed.

The stage was set for an epic clash on the causeway. As the Turks surged across the causeway they were surprised to see the gates of the fortress open before them. The surprise turned to horror as they glanced the giant maw of a great mortar leveled at them. The monstrous belch flung nails, cooking utensils, spare daggers, and even door hinges, into the Turks. 600 immediately were slain, and thousand more wounded. More importantly, it cleared the causeway. At the van, Zrinski charged across and his men crashed into the surprised Turks in the Old Town. They cleared the plaza and took the fight into the charred narrow streets and alleyways. But numbers matter, and no 600 men in history could stand against those odds. Zrinksi and his men were overwhelmed.

But that isn’t the end of Zrinski’s tale. Thousands of victorious Turks swarmed into the fortress in bloodlust to butcher the remaining inhabitants. But before he charged, Zrinski had the extensive powder magazine lit with a slow fuse. As the Ottomans were gleefully looting the remains, a massive explosion leveled the fortress, killing thousands and wounding thousands more.

In its state, the Ottoman army could not continue on to Vienna, and it slowly drifted back to Constantinople. Cardinal Richelieu of France called Zrinksi’s defense of Svigetvar, “the battle that saved the civilization”.

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