When you're talking about the most ultimate face-ripping asskick-a-tron murder-machines from the latter days of Medieval history, one group in particular stands out – the balls-out warriors of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Badass hordes of scimitar-swinging wildmen armed with gunpowder rifles, iron cannons the size of VW Jettas, unlimited money, and even more limitless numbers of men willing to lay down their lives for the cause, these guys were tough-as-shit skullcrackers who were on a Mission from God to conquer the shit out of every infidel in their path, and even though they were constantly at war with roughly twenty-seven different Westernized European armies at any given time in their history they still kicked so much ass that in some ways all it took to be an Epic Legendary Hero in 15th-century Europe was to go toe-to-toe with these guys on the battlefield and not have them pull down your pants and stab you in the grundle in front of all of your troops.
John Hunyadi, the White Knight of Wallachia, not only avoided being de-tainted by Ottoman cannonballs, he actually somehow managed to beat the hell out of them on multiple occasions – an almost-unparalleled feat of badass heathen-smiting generalship that rivals the epicness of that ridiculously-gigantic run-on sentence I just unleashed on humanity in that last paragraph (seriously, an somewhere in the world an English professor is suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm and he doesn't even know why).
Hunyadi trampling some jerk's throat.
One of the greatest and most accomplished battlefield commanders of the Medieval era was born in Hungary in 1407, and, although we aren't one hundred thousand percent sure about it, it seems pretty likely that he was actually born of peasant stock. His background is a little iffy – we know his mother was Hungarian, and we're pretty sure that his father was either Romanian, Serbian, Wallachian, Klingon, Transylvanian, Bulgarian, and/or Hungarian (take your pick).
What we do know is that Janos Hunyadi has one of the most badass origin stories you'll ever hear. Basically, the first time he appears in history is during a hardcore battle where King Sigismund of Hungary was fighting for his life against a seemingly-overwhelming number of Turkish warriors. Suddenly, when things were all going to hell around him, the King saw some fucking insane knight in full plate armor ride out of nowhere and plow, by himself, straight on into the teeth of the enemy and immediately proceed to start kicking the ungodly living shit out of everyone he could get his sword on. The King didn't recognize this warrior's heraldry – his tunic was white and his shield depicted a raven with a gold ring in its beak – but by the time the battle was over and this White Knight was basically standing beaten and bruised in a knee-deep pile of his enemies, the King immediately (and understandably) made him a member of his Royal Bodyguard.
Awesomely enough, there is some evidence to suggest that Hunyadi had bought the armor on his own, created his own shield logo based on his parents' favorite things, and taken this shit into combat despite the fact that he was neither a nobleman or a member of the Hungarian armed forces.
He's the one in the center with all the dead bodies around him.
While this was a pretty extravagant display of awesome manslaughter-related shit, in the grand scheme of Hungarian-Turkish relations the battle really wasn't much more than a minor skirmish. The trouble with the Turks had really got going a few decades earlier, in 1396, when a badass conquest-monger known as Bayezid the Thunderbolt (a man I do intend to get to in due time) blitzed a huge Turkish army into Eastern Europe, waved his arms around, and nonchalantly declared "all this shit is mine now, biznatches". The Pope shit a brick when he got the text and ordered a Crusade, and Bayzid the Thunderbolt was simultaneously attacked by an equally-massive horde of mail-clad warriors from Venice, Genoa, France, Burgundy, Germany, Wallachia, Hungary, and Bulgaria (with a few Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller sprinkled about for extra flavor).
Bayezid massacred the entire force nearly down to the last man. Then he laid waste to the entire Balkans.
Well by 1439 the Turks had pressed their way all the way up to the Hungarian border, and John Hunyadi (who had cut his teeth fighting Jan Zizka's troops in Bohemia and had since been promoted through the ranks and appointed commander of the southern defensive borders) was going to make damned sure that no Turks were going to be spear-humping Hungary in the face on his watch – no small task considering that a coalition of like fifteen countries (including his own Hungarians) had recently been utterly and unpleasantly crushed by the Turkish onslaught already.
But Hunyadi didn't give a fuck. When the Turks blitzed into Transylvania, he did the only thing that made sense to him: Kick ass.
Dude was so hardcore he needed MOUSTACHE ARMOR.
First, the Turks besieged Nagyszeben. Hunyadi ambushed them, captured their supply train, liberated all the prisoners they'd taken during their campaign, and broke the siege. When the Turks got pissed and hunted Hunyadi down, he dressed another guy up in his armor, send him on a one-man scouting mission, and then when the enemy took the bait and charged that poor chump the real Hunyadi came out of fucking nowhere with a massive formation of Hungarian and Polish Heavy Cavalry and T-boned their shit with a solid wall of lances and horse meat. This pissed off the Turkish Commander like you wouldn't believe, so that guy took 80,000 warriors and marched straight on after the Raven Knight with one order – kill that fucking guy. At a place called the Iron Gates, Hunyadi crammed his under-sized army Leonidas-style in a mountain pass, fought like hell, then staged a fake retreat – the Turks pursued Hunyadi through the pass, and once the entire army was inside the pass the Hungarians sealed it off, turned around, and wiped out their entire army.
Thanks to his over-the-top power of Being Awesome, John Hunyadi defeated three Turkish invasions in seven years – a feat unprecedented in European history at this time. Then, in 1443, the Raven Knight took the fight to the enemy, charging through the Gate of Trajan into enemy-controlled lands in a daring attack. In a series of gore-fest destruct-o-matic slugmatches known as the Long Campaign, John Hunyadi defeated three Turkish pashas, turned back an attack by the Sultan's Army, captured Nis and Sofia, liberated Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania, and once gave Skanderbeg a flying bro-hoof after surviving an insane battle that (in my mind at least) probably resembled the final sequence of The Avengers.
It was the first time any European commander had taken the fight to the Turks and not ended up with their helm looking like a tin can of tomato sauce that had just been run over by a semi.
Carrying the Hungarian flag over the wall.
Well you know how jackass bosses and record execs and other similarly-minded bloodsuckers feel about success, and so unfortunately for Janos (Janos is the more-badass-sounding Hungarian form of the name John... I am using them interchangeably simply because I enjoy confusing my readers as much as possible at all times), as soon as he proved he could beat the Turks at their own game (i.e. conquering shit), everybody was suddenly telling Hunyadi to go out there and throw the Ottoman Empire out of Europe entirely. Hunyadi tried to tell them, "no dude it's cool I did what I could but I don't have enough peeps to go a hell of a lot further", but the Pope and the King and other authority-types who didn't know shit about military commandering were all like, "naw dude you're rocking out with your cock out, bro, you got this shit." So, ok, whatever, the Pope called yet another Crusade, and, what's worse, instead of having Hunyadi lead it, the King of Hungary tried to steal all the glory and take charge himself with Hunyadi basically serving as an "advisor" instead of "Asskicker Prime".
Oh, right, and as if this wasn't a clusterfuck enough already, someone tipped the Turks off as to what the hell was going on – to the point where the Italian ships that were supposed to be blockading the Bosporus from Turkish reinforcement transports were actually being paid to ferry enemy troops across. So, yeah, when the Crusaders showed up hoping to surprise attack the enemy, they instead found 100,000 battle-hardened Turkish troops ready for a little beat-down vengeance. At the Battle of Varna, the idiotic King first got his ass kicked, then gave command to Hunyadi, who almost – ALMOST – pulled it out before once again being cockblocked by his boss – right as things were starting to turn, the King did an idiotic thing and charged his personal Guard straight-on into the Janissaries, who of course proceeded to kick the shit out of him and impale his head on a pike. When the King died, the Crusader army disintegrated and fell into disarray. Janos Hunyadi tried to rally the men, but failed, and on the way home he was captured and imprisoned by Vlad the Impaler's father, which I can't imagine was a particularly fun time.
Janos is high in the running for Greatest Portrait Ever.
Hunyadi survived dungeons in Transylvania, Wallachia, and Serbia, finally got home, formed a professional mercenary army known as the Black Guard, and spent the next ten years serving first as Governor of Hungary, then as Regent to the new King (who was not yet old enough to rule).
The Raven Knight's final act of badassitude took place in 1456, when the Turks once more got pissed and marched on Belgrade with a huge force of 100,000 men who had just finished conquering and plundering the most heavily-fortified city in the world – the once-mighty Constantinople.
Hunyadi, with only 6,000 men of the Black Guard at his disposal, put his sons in charge of the defense, fortified the walls with stone and cannons, and then went off to recruit more troops. The Turks showed up, besieged Belgrade, and blasted the walls with 200 cannons, but just as they were breaching through into the city John Fucking Hunyadi showed up Gandalf the White-style with a relief force of 30,000 pitchfork and scythe-toting peasants he'd recruited from the surrounding countryside. The Turks, completely not expecting to get shanked in the ass with a scythe, were caught off-guard, and after ferocious house-to-house fighting the Hungarians managed to drive them back.
They didn't return for 70 years.
Hunyadi died a few months after his victory, probably of a disease he'd contracted during the siege. He's currently the national hero of Hungary and Romania, and his second son, Matthias Corvinus, would go one to become King of Hungary, and is now regarded as one of the most beloved and effective rulers in the country's history.
Not bad for a peasant boy who bought his own armor and wore it into battle without receiving orders to do so.
"Defend, my friends, Christendom and Hungary from all enemies...
Do not quarrel among yourselves.
If you should waste your energies in altercations,
you will seal your own fate as well as dig the grave of our country."
Roman Catholic Saints
Engel, Pál, Tamás Pálosfalvi, and Andrew Ayton. The Realm of St. Stephen. I.B. Tauris, 2005. Famous Nations. G.P. Putnam, 1891.
Lukinich, Imre. A History of Hungary in Biographical Sketches. Ayers, 1937.
Mikaberidze, Alexander. Conflict and Conquest in the Islamic World. ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Turnbull, Stephen. The Ottoman Empire. Osprey, 2003.