Blessed Bernard of Baden
The man who would retake Constantinople
Join me today as we encounter a Christian knight who took his stand in one of Christendom’s darkest hours.
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Name: Bernard of Baden
Lived: c.1428 - 1458
Feast: July 15
In the same year that Bernard, the second son of Jacob the Margrave of Baden was born, the Hungarians failed to recapture the castle of Golubac in modern Serbia.
The Hungarians and their allies were trying to regain some of the ground lost to the relentless advance of the Ottoman Turks under Murad II. The Hungarians used the new technology of canons to pound the walls of Golubac, but as they were preparing to close in, the Ottomans arrived in force. The Hungarians and their allies retreated over the Danube, harried by the Muslim forces, and it was as if their failure had opened the door. Soon, Bosnia and Serbia would be gobbled up and added to the Ottoman domains, and Christians would be forced to pay the terrible tax of their sons, kidnapped, raised far from family, forcibly converted to Islam, and made part of the Janissary corps.
Other Europeans watched and worried. The monk and preacher Bartolomeo de Giano captured the creeping feeling of doom in a letter.
“For you see, it just was two hundred years or so ago that all of Asia down to Antioch and beyond was inhabited by Christian peoples. Now, little by little this fire has consumed Asia” (W. L. North translation)
This, of course, was after the loss of the Christian holy land. And that was after Christian Egypt and Africa had been occupied and cut off from the Christians of Europe.
“Don’t you believe that what I fear could happen, namely that by the just judgment of God this fire shall advance so far that it could occupy the border of [European] Christians? What then are those wretched Christians doing now? … They play around - or rather hurt themselves - with lances and dances!”
The last great impediment to the forces of Islam was Constantinople, the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire, now better known as the Byzantine Empire.
Far away in Baden, modern Germany, the Turkish advance did not seem quite so threatening. Bernard was born into the ruling family of Baden. The rulers of Baden held the title of Margrave, a variant of Marquis, because they were rulers of a borderland, a ‘march’ or ‘mark’ of the Holy Roman Empire. However, the Margraves of Baden were facing off against the Swiss and beyond that, the Italians. It was hardly a wild frontier.
From Baden, it was easy to suppose that the Emperor at Constantinople would deal with the Turks, as his predecessors had dealt with threats from the East for centuries. The margraves of Baden had their own problems to worry about. Meanwhile, around them, Europe was blooming in the period we call the Renaissance, the rebirth of classical culture. Scholars were returning to Greek and Latin sources. Johannes Gutenberg was printing off the first editions of his Bible on his printing press, and the last of the medieval antipopes, Felix V, was being persuaded to reconcile with the church.
Bernard was raised to be a knight, going on campaign with his father and older brother in Italy and Switzerland as well as spending some time at the court of his uncle René of Anjou. As he grew up, he turned out to have very useful skills for a young aristocrat. He was a good fighter and an effective leader. But he was even more talented at what came after the battle, when it was time to make peace. Bernard was good at getting people to agree, but it wasn’t because he was a sleazy diplomat. Bernard seemed to care because he really did care.
The Renaissance produced a new kind of man: worldly, witty, well read. It produced men like Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini, though student of the classics that he was, he preferred to Latinize his name as Aeneas Sylvius. He had gone from working the family farm with his poor father to become a scholar, writer, traveller, ladies’ man, spy, and celebrated poet. For a time, Aeneas Sylvius had been a supporter of Felix V, but in his writings Aeneas Sylvius was unsparing. For most of his life, as Amadeus of Savoy, the future antipope had sported a beard. When he had to shave it off to become Pope, Aeneas Sylvius was not impressed:
“[Antipope Felix previously had] a long, full beard which covered all the blemishes on his face and … [and] lent a kind of dignity; and when he appeared without it, with his insignificant face, slanting eyes (for he squinted) and flabby cheeks, he looked like a very ugly monkey.” (Florence Alden Gragg translation)
If Aeneas Sylvius was a man of his times, young Bernard of Baden was a man from an earlier time. He was a throwback to the knightly ideals of the first and third crusade, stories told over and over again by the medieval poets. He was a warrior, but also a peacemaker. He gave away so much of what he had to the poor that his contemporaries were slightly scandalized. When his men stopped at night and began to drink and eat, Bernard’s first thoughts were always of God, confessing and praying with his chaplain. Bernard mortified his body, and under his shining armour he wore an itchy hair shirt. He seems to have decided to remain celibate.
There was always work for a warrior and diplomat, and Bernard thrived, campaigning with his father and brother. And so it was that he was entrusted with his own company of crossbowmen, leading them around Europe in the service of his uncle René of Anjou, in the fateful year of 1453.
1453 was the year when Bernard’s father died. He decided to split his lands between his boys, into three portions. This arrangement was a disaster. There were too many people in charge, and after less than a year the brothers met to find a new arrangement. Bernard gave his holdings to his older brother Karl for a term of ten years, until he was 36 - an age Bernard would never reach. The deal was that he would receive a generous income from his older brother. When he had the money, Bernard divided it into three portions: a third for the church, a third for the poor, and the last third stretched to meet his needs.
Now Bernard was a young knight in search of a cause. He took his weapons and small entourage and made his way where any young knight would go: to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III. Bernard arrived at the imperial court just in time.
That was because 1453 was also the year of a catastrophe that shook Christendom. On May 29th, 1453, the armies of the Ottoman Turks led by Mehmet II finally entered the city of Constantinople. It had been a long siege, with massive Turkish artillery hammering the walls, and a woefully undermanned Christian group of defenders fighting to the last in a city that had been a bulwark against the armies of Islam for seven hundred years. The brotherhood of the Knights Hospitaller sent out a sad report:
After the great Turk had besieged Constantinople by land and sea, on the twenty-ninth of the May just passed he seized the city by force of arms, killed the emperor of Constantinople, cut off the heads of many nobles, gave the entire city over to plunder, and cruelly tortured many. (W. L. North translation)
The loss of Constantinople was devastating. In many ways, the loss of Constantinople was as devastating as the sack of Rome a thousand years before. Constantinople had just always been there, and even with the schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, everyone assumed the Byzantines would muddle through. One scribe added a marginal note to a description of the event: “nothing worse than this has ever happened or ever will happen.”
At the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, everyone was scrambling for information. Aeneas Sylvius was there, having entered the church and swiftly risen to the rank of bishop. His diplomatic skills had placed him in Frederick’s court where the nimble-minded Aeneas Sylvius despaired at the slowness of a king his own subjects called Erzschlafmütze, the “snoozer in chief”. He tells us that at first there was conflicting information coming from the East. Federick and his court heard that Constantinople had fallen. Then they heard that it had, in fact, been saved with a naval action, and they were hopeful. But report after report came in confirming that the city had fallen, and the terrible truth began to sink in.
It was not merely that untold Christians would be persecuted and have their sons stolen for the Janissary Corps. It was also obvious that Mehmet II would not be content with Constantinople. He would push further into Europe, unless something was done to stop him. The Knights Hospitaller thought the solution was obvious. “This is why all Christian kings and princes should turn their minds to some sort of pact so that they may resist the ferocious power of this tyrant who has been roused to destroy Christians,” the knights advised. Even the cautious king Frederick thought that was probably a good approach. There needed to be a new crusade. But the old crusades had been conducted by a more faithful Europe and a less corrupt church. To men of the Renaissance, the idea seemed old fashioned. And anyway, most aristocrats were busy with their own affairs. Where was Frederick going to find someone of sufficiently high birth, military skill and moral credibility to help him launch a crusade?
And then Bernard of Baden arrived.
The young man’s talents, diplomatic skills and sincere faith impressed everyone - even the cynical Aeneas Sylvius said that this young man was on a holy path.
The Emperor Frederick realized he had found the standard-bearer for his crusade.
And so, Bernard went into the world to announce the crusade. We can guess at his thinking from the way he went about it. In the past, crusades had been hampered by logistics. Armies came from the various nations of Europe, but they often ended up arriving at different times so that there was never a big enough army to strike a decisive blow. The trick was to coordinate their departure by sea from Italy, and to make sure that the seas were safe for the transport ships. So Bernard began his work in the maritime cities of Italy. He would secure transportation and naval support from Venice and Genoa, and then this would reassure the lords of Europe when he went to them for cavalry and infantry troops.
When Bernard got to Genoa, there was an outbreak of the plague. He fully understood the urgency of his mission, so he went in anyway. Bernard got sick. He kept riding anyway, dragging himself across Italy to continue announcing the crusade. But as he travelled, his condition grew worse and worse.
At Moncalieri, he was unable to go on. He stopped at a Franciscan monastery, but he grew worse, and died on July 15th, 1458. The moment had passed, and Europe was already accommodating itself to the new reality of an occupied Constantinople. The banner of the crusade had fallen.
It’s worth noticing that Bernard died far from his home in the middle of a journey. He can’t have had much of a reputation in Moncalieri. But his contemporaries said that Bernard was always willing to stop, give what he had, and to protect the weak in a just cause. He must have been doing this on the way, because otherwise it is hard to see why this foreign knight calling for a failed crusade attracted the following that he did. Locals began to come to the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Moncalieri where his remains were kept, asking for help and healing. Soon, Bernard’s remains became the object of pilgrimage, and he was venerated locally, as he still is today.
Oddly enough, the man who would take up the banner that had fallen with Bernard was none other than the cynical and worldly Aeneas Sylvius. His maneuverings in the Church hierarchy eventually brought him to the top, and he became the Pope Pius II, leaving his worldliness behind - well, mostly. He still loved to watch horse races, but he insisted to anyone who would listen that he was only watching out of the corner of his eye and was 90% conducting important diplomatic business. And he quietly finished his tell-all autobiography, which would cause something of a scandal after his death.
But the overriding desire of Pius’ reign as pope was to form the crusade for which Bernard had died. Perhaps in the encounter between young Bernard and the worldly Aeneas Sylvius, it was the Renaissance man who found himself changed.
Pope Pius II’s autobiography reveals the tremendous difficulty of the task. Even as the pope, even with a lifetime of diplomatic experience, Pius II was stymied. Most of the nobles of Europe refused. I wonder how often Pius II asked himself how Bernard of Baden would have approached the problem. As he neared the end of his life, Pius II hit upon a desperate strategy. No one was coming forward to lead the crusade. No one wanted to take the first step. He addressed the college of Cardinals:
“We [that is, the royal we, meaning Pius II himself] cannot delay longer nor do we wish to. Now we may fulfill our dearest desires. Now it is right to fight for the Faith as has always been our heart’s longing. … We too will lay down our life for our flock since in no other way can we save the Christian religion from being trampled by the forces of the Turk. We will equip a fleet… We will embark, old as we are and racked with sickness. We will set our sails and voyage to Greece and Asia.” (Florence Alden Gragg translation)
Pius II got as far as Ancona, on the Italian coast. The crusade got stuck there the way crusades so often did - hung up on logistics. But Pius was not well. He had never fully recovered from exposure in the Scottish snows on a secret mission when he was a younger man, and now he was old and sickly. He died at Ancona, and the crusade died with him for the second time.
The advancing might of the Ottomans would not be stopped until the next century. Constantinople has never been recovered. Indeed, the prospect of a Muslim Europe is as immediate today as it was in 1453. So what can we learn from the heroic but tragic figure of Bernard of Baden, the man who would retake Constantinople?
Bernard was always a man out of time. Even when he was alive, he seems like a figure out of the great crusades. There’s still a sense of missed opportunity about Blessed Bernard - the cause of his canonization has remained stuck despite several failed attempts, which is why he’s only Blessed Bernard, and not Saint Bernard. But to me, it is this very sense of missed opportunity that makes Bernard of Baden so interesting, a manly blessed if not a manly saint. Bernard of Baden is a sign of contradiction. One noble warrior, riding under the sign of the cross, trying to rouse Christians who think they have better things to do than save themselves. Alone, the warrior carries the weight of a terrible mission against impossible odds, but he is not crushed under the weight. He even stops to help those in need along the way.
And then he rides on.
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