On 10 August 1376 at Rhodes the Master of the Hospital Fr. Robert de Juliac spoke about something that from our distance seems like a planned Hospitaller campaign ad partes ducatus Athenarum i.e. in the Duchy of Athens, then still ruled by the Catalan Company (or more precisely - by its descendants). Probably the reason for Master’s statement was that at the time this Frankish state was in a condition of civil strife because of the war between the Catalan lords of the Western and the Eastern part of the Duchy of Athens – the Vicar-General don Louis and his cousin don Pedro Fadrique . Other reason could be that it was threatened by Turkish invasion of some sort. Whatever the reasons were, the certain was that probably in the same month (August, 1376) the Queen of Naples Joan I d’Anjou, who after 1373 took personally the sovereignty over Achaia, leased her Peloponnese Principality to the Order of St. John for five years at a yearly rent of four thousand ducats . Thus, she became the only Western monarch who gave any assistance to the crusading plans of Holy See and the Hospital. Meanwhile King Louis I d’Anjou whom Pope Gregory XI and the Hospitaller envoy Fr. Hesso Schlegelholtz again approached for support in 1375-1376, entered into a quarrel with Papacy and the Order. The problem was that he refused to recognize the newly-nominated Hospitaller prior of Hungary and perhaps this cause contributed to the fact that he also declined in any way the proposals to join the Crusade .
The political situation in Latin Greece was aggravated in 1377 by the death of the feudal overlord of the Catalan Duchy of Athens – King Frederick III of Sicily (1355-1377) in January. He left no man heir and his death was immediately followed by a conflict between the partisans of his daughter Maria and King of Aragon Pedro IV the Ceremonious (1336-1387) which reflected also into the Duchy . Meanwhile, over the Latin possessions in Greece, unless the Turkish, more tangible appeared another threat of foreign conquest - the Albanian. The expansion of Albanian tribes in the western part of Central Greece had recently taken alarming proportions under the military leadership of the Despot of Arta Gjin Bua Shpata (1358-1399) . These problems were likely to be among the first, discussed by the summoned of the new Hospitaller Baillie of Achaia Fr. Danielle del Caretto parliament of the barons and the prelates of Principality of Achaia in its capital Clarentza in the late 1376 or early 1377 .
While the Hospital was still establishing and strengthening its power over Achaia, the Master Fr. Robert de Juliac died at Rhodes on 29 July 1377. His post remained vacant until 24 September of that year, when Pope Gregory XI gave with a special bull the leadership in the Order to his protégé Fr. Juan Fernandez de Heredia (1377-1396) . Descended from Iberian Kingdom of Aragon, Heredia was among the most iconic and important persons in the history of Knights of St. John in 14th century in the West as well in the East . Since the mid-century, he successively held several senior positions in the Order at his home-country and in the Pope’s court in Avignon, and was, significantly enough, admiral of the fleet of Gregory XI during his historic voyage from Provence to Italy in the early 1377.
By appointment of Heredia Gregory XI presumably aimed as well as raising his favorite, the forcing of a contrived for a long time yet Crusade pro liberatione partium Grecie . At the time, with the hiring of Achaia from Queen Joan I of Anjou in 1376, the Order had practically succeeded to implement the plans, supported by Pope Innocent VI still in the late 50’s of the century. In all likelihood, Knights Hospitaller even exceeded these schemes, taking the possession over the whole territory of Principaility of Achaia in the mainland and some of the adjacent archipelagos - from the isle of Cephalonia in the west to isle of Euboea in the east. Having such large and relatively secured foothold, the Crusade to the Balkans under the supreme leadership of Order of St. John could now begin.
The passagium had been postponed for a time while Gregory XI left Avignon for Italy. After re-establishing of the Holy See in Rome, the crusading forces also gathered in Italy. The point of departure was in fact the capital of Queen Joan I – Naples. The supposed question that faced the not-large crusading army in Naples in the late 1377 and early 1378 was again to which one part of Latin Greece to proceed.
In the same year the Order of St. John had secured a lease on the town of Vonitsa, situated in the Gulf of Arta, from Maddalena Buondelmonti of Florence who was a widow of Leonardo Tocco (1357-1376-77?), Duke of Leucadia and Count of Cephalonia. This act seemed to be in connection with the joining in Italy to the Crusade of a certain group of Florentines. According to Anthony Luttrell, they provided “the finance and provisions” for the passagium . With their participation in the Crusade they had to be exempted from the restrictions of the papal interdict upon them (at the time the Papacy was in state of war with Florence, the so called "War of the 8th Saints"). Among the Florentines in the crusading camp were the two brothers of Maddalena Buondelmonti – Esau (his name appears in some Balkan sources under the form of Izaul) and Francesco . They were probably presented in the army as representatives of the interests of their sister, the Duchess. At the moment she ruled as a regent of her under-aged son Carlo I Tocco this part of the Latin possessions in West Greece, which theoretically was administratively governed by the Principality of Achaia. Therefore, Maddalena after the conclusion of the Hospitaller’s leasing contract with Joan I of Anjou in 1376 had automatically turned into vassal of the Hospital. In the subsequent events, related to the choice of the direction, in which the Crusaders made, we could see also the “long arm” of the “Florentine lobby” in the Angevine Kingdom of Naples. The latter had strong influence and interests not only in that part of Italy, ruled by Naples, but also in Latin Greece, thanks mostly to the representatives of the Florentine families Acciaiuolli and the related to them Buondelmonti who, after the 50’s of 14th century, had acquired large powers and authority in this area. These Florentines probably affected the plans of the new Hospitaller’s Master Heredia, who, as we shall see, having left Italy, unexpectedly directed his fleet against the lands of Albanian Despot Shpata in Epiros and Aetolia. Meanwhile the latter, after the death of Count Leonardo I Tocco, had launched a massive offensive against the mainland territories of the County of Ceffalonia.
At the date of the departure of the Master from Naples Shpata held the just acquired fortress of the Order of St. John, Vonitsa, under siege and had (some time before) conquered another Frankish possession, which were even more important strategically – the fortified town of Lepanto (Naupactos). Lepanto was captured by the Angevins during their campaign in Western Greece in 1306, and subsequently incorporated into the Principality of Achaia . The loss of Lepanto, situated near the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth, threatened the communications of the Latins in Greece with the West, and seemed like a reasonable cause for a war of Achaia against the Despotate of Arta.
So, to assume, in the early 1378 the Crusader’s army, composed by the mobilized Knights Hospitaller from all Catholic Europe (ar. 200-300 Knights or less, each with a squire and, perhaps, some auxilliares hired from Italy where numerous mercenaries had turned the peninsula in a battlefield during these years) and certain Florentines, departed from Italy under the leadership of Heredia to attack subsequently the domains of Shpata in Western Greece. The exact course of the army’s military actions is still disputable but, according to the information of the known and available to me historical sources, I am inclined to agree with the reconstruction of the sequence of the events as it was proposed by the French historian Jean Delaville le Roulx in the early 20th century . According to his version, the fleet first debarked at Lepanto, the crusading army besieged and captured it after attack against the Shpata’s garrison, and then headed north by sea and entered the port of Vonitsa, where its presence was explicitly documented between 24 and 29 April 1378 . From Vonitsa the army, among the leading officers of which were, except Fr. Heredia, the Hospitaller priors of Venice, Pisa and Capua, as well as the Admiral of the Order - the Italian Fr. Palamedo di Giovanni , marched inland, setting out towards the capital of Shpata – the well-fortified town of Arta in Epiros, which was besieged.
This unexpected at first view direction that took the Crusade, in my opinion, could find its explanation besides in the defense of the interests of the vassals of the Hospital in Western Greece, next in the more general context of supporting the Latin cause at the Balkans against the expansion of the Albanians and the political power of their leaders. The Albanian invasion to the land of Greece had had its long history at that moment. Albanian tribes originally inhabited a comparatively small territory, called Arbanon – a harsh, poor and wild mountainous and semi-mountainous land between Lake of Ochrid and the rivers of Shkumbi and Devoli that was left almost unruled by the Byzantines and Bulgarians. In the late 13th and the early 14th century began the expansion of the mountain tribes against the neighboring lands. This migration, and especially its first wave was predominantly centered towards the territories of the modern state of Greece. Local Byzantine authorities had to deal with them, and Emperor Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341) was forced to fight with a few powerful Albanian tribes during his campaign for conquest of the Despotate of Epiros in 1338. In the next decade Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan conquered the whole territory of Modern Albania and the Greek regions of Epiros, Thessalia and Acarnania. It is presumed that at the time one of the ancestors of Gjin Bua Shpata was made Protovestiarios by Dušan, which is a testimony for the already big political significance of his family. In Epiros a certain role for the successful Albanians' expansion played the infamous plague epidemic of mid-14th century, i.e. the so called “Black Death” which presumably devastated the lowlands and the littoral of the area. Afterwards big masses of Albanians from the mountains, presumably untouched by the epidemic, invaded the depopulated lands. In the civil strife in the Serbian Empire that immediately followed the death of Dušan, his brother Tsar Simeon Uroš Nemanjić, nicknamed Siniša (1359-1370), who was previously appointed for governor of Epiros and Acarnania, gave the high titles of despots to two local Albanian lords then ruling over the tribes in Epiros and big portions of land and some fortresses in the south – Peter Losha (1359-1374, ruled in the region of Aetolia and Arta) and Peter Bua (in the region of Acarnania). Presumably Despot Peter Bua was the father of Gjin. The capital of his lands was the fortress of Angelokastron and he died before the spring of 1359, when his son defeated and killed the last descendant of the ancient Greek despots of Epiros: Nikephoros II Orsini, in a bloodshed battle, infamously known to the Greeks, at the river of Acheloos in Southern Epiros.
This was just the beginning of the rise of the warlike Gjin, who succeeded the title of Despot from his father. At the head of his forces he incessantly attacked the last Greek stronghold in the area – Ioannina, after managed in the first half of the 70’s to capture Arta, to conquer the lands of Losha and therefore almost the whole territory of the old Byzantine Despotate of Epiros including the lands of north to Delvino and Muzekeia. His obvious goal was to establish his power over as much land as possible and perhaps to renew the ancient power of the Despotate – but this time under Albanian domination. From all testimonies we have, it could be said that Gjin was perhaps the most warlike among the other warlike Albanian chiefs whose descendants were to create so big problems of the Ottomans during the time of Scanderbeg.
Thus, the aggressive policy, led by the Despotate of Arta under Gjin Bua Shpata, appeared as an undoubted threat to the vassal to Achaia possessions of Maddalena Buondelmonti on the mainland, and even for the very center of the leased by the Order of the Hospital Principality in the Pelloponessos peninsula. An additional indication of the scale of the invasion of the Albanian tribes and their military force at the end of the 70’s of 14th century was a mention in one Catalan document for the presence of a military unit of one thousand and five hundred Albanian horsemen in the territory of the Duchy of Athens, which, as it was mentioned above, at the time was in internal state of turmoil because of the dynastic struggles for its possession. The leader of these Albanians, whose name was probably “Demetrios” (there is also a possibilty he belonged to the clan of Bua, same as Despot Peter and Gjin), was titled Count (lo comte) by the Catalans of the Duchy .
The clarification of the problems, related to the campaign of Heredia against Arta, does not end with that. While Master of the Hospital was heading for Greece with his fleet and troops, the political situation in West Europe became further complicated by the sudden death of Pope Gregory XI on 27 March 1378. On 8 April 1378 in the new/old seat of the Holy See – Rome, was elected the new pope – Urban VI (Bartolomeo Prignano, 1378-1389) who was Italian. Almost immediately after his ascension he entered into a conflict with the French cardinals, with most of whom Heredia was in close relations. As a consequence, only five months after the election of Urban V, began the so called Great Church Schism in the West, which was to continue until 1417 . A little later we shall find the Master of the Hospital and the majority of the Knights of Rhodes among the supporters of the Avignonese Antipope Clement VII (Robert de Geneva, 1378-1394). This emerging in the spring and the summer of 1378 huge internal conflict within the Catholic Church probably contributed to a kind of “abandonment” of the crusading venture in Greece, and the possible failure to be sent the necessary (and perhaps the expected, as Luttrell thinks) reinforcements to the campaign from the West .
Still under question is also the probable inclusion of the members of the so called “Navarrese Company” coming from Durazzo, in the Heredia’s campaign against Shpata . Furthermore, although the Albanian Despot is certainly identified as the main target of the Crusader attack, there exists a problem with the clarification of his possible allies . In some later historical sources, such as the works of Giacomo Bosio and Abbot Vertot, was persistently argued that during this campaign the Master Heredia fought with some Turks in Greece and that had even been captured by them rather than Shpata . With no other historical evidence to confirm these reports, it is difficult at first glance to accept their credibility. Moreover, in 1378 the Turks still seemed at distance far from the lands of Western Greece – between them and Epiros were situated the appanage of Manuel Palaiologos at Thessalonica (rather, actually, the Byzantine province because Manuel was still inprisoned in Constantinople by his brother Andronikos), the state of the Vukašin’s son King Marko (1371-1395) and a few other smaller Christian lordships (ruled by Albanian and Serbian nobles). However, a closer look at the political map of the region and the course of the events seem to indicate otherwise. A letter of Pope Gregory XI to the Hungarian king Louis I of Anjou shows that after the battle of Chernomen the Ottoman raids had already in 1372 reached “the borders of the Principality of Achaia and the Duchy of Athens”. In the next year at the request of the Venetian Senate the Amir Murad I sent a whole army of five thousand of his own troops in the Adriatic and Italy itself to fight as paid mercenaries for the war the Serenissima led against Padua . After the seizure of the power in Constantinople by Andronikos IV Palaiologos (1376-1379), his brother Manuel, who was at the time an active supporter of the anti-Ottoman policy, was removed from the appanage in Thessalonica and thrown as a prisoner into the tower of Anemas with his father. This event, together with the handing over of Gallipoli, in fact gave easier access and a new impetus to the Ottoman invasion on the ancient Roman road Via Egnatia (leading from Constantinople to Durazzo). By the evidence of the sources also seems likely that by 1377-78 the majority of the Christian lords (like King Marko, the brothers Dragaš, some Albanian chiefs - former vassals of Mrnjavčevićes, and, perhaps, Thomas Preljubović in Yoanina) of the present-day geographical region of Macedonia had already become vassals of the Ottoman Amir . The Byzantines, on the other hand, had been Ottoman vassals since 1371-72. In such conditions in 1378 the armies of Murad I should had had relatively free access to Western Greece, passing through their vassal territories. Therefore, in an acceptable explanation of the information, given by Bosio and Vertot, becomes the assumption that Gjin Bua Shpata hired some Ottoman soldiers from the forces of the Western udj that at the time probably reached the northwestern borders of Epiros (different names are mentioned in the sources about the towns used by the Ottomans as military bases in the region - that means they did not have such well established and constant center as Skopie and Elbassan later), and used them in the war against the controlled by the Order of St. John Principality of Achaia. Such a practice of hiring the Turkish troops by local Christian lords (or simply by those who got the money to pay, as the Venetians in 1373) was very well known in this age and common not only to the Ottomans but also to all of the other so called ghazi-beyliks in Anatolia. Furthermore, it was quite typical for the initial stage of the Turkish expansion into new areas, such as were the Western Balkans at this time.
If we turn for the last time to the motives for the campaign of Heredia against Arta, besides in the defense of the interests of the family of Buondelmonti and the Principality of Achaia they probably could be summarized in the following: the consolidation of the leased by the order of St. John domains that were threatened by the onslaught of Despot Shpata; the re-conquering of the previously lost Angevine possesions in Epiros and Aetolia, and, thus, probably the formation of a Frankish-Hospitaller hegemony over the most of the Mainland Greece. The last assumption could seem too ambitious, but in my opinion satisfactory explains the “so-strange” direction that took the Crusade and the circumstances about its conduct. As to the pure crusading goals and opportunities that could be pursued by such enterprise, they were expressed in the fact that the united under the leadership of the Order Latin possessions, ranging from Albania to the island of Euboea (real and fictitious by the summer of 1378), theoretically would constituted a serious barrier to the Ottoman advance in the Southern Balkans and the Turkish pirate raids in the Aegean. There existed also the possibility that the directing of the campaign towards Arta was something like a temporary deviation, and the true goal was to be the continuation to the already conquered by the Ottomans lands of Romania (at least, the direction was the same - to the north). However, even the Master and the Convent of the Order to have had such plans, serving probably the program-maximum of their old “Greek” project, they collapsed too soon, since on 23 August 1378 , while had still been besieging Arta, Fr. Juan Fernandez de Heredia fell into ambush along with his entourage and was captured by the troops of Gjin Bua Shpata.
This event constituted the end of the Crusade, and Heredia was held captive by Shpata until the spring of 1379 . For his liberation was demanded a huge ransom which at this point was clearly not within the reach of the Levantine treasury of the Order. For that reason the Knights Hospitaller borrowed large amounts of money from various local Frankish magnates, among them were the Grand Constable of Achaia Centurione I Zaccaria, the Florentine Rainerio (Nerio, Neri) I Acciaiuoli (1371-1394) and the wife of the Byzantine Despot of Morea Manuel I Cantacuzene (1349-1380) Isabel de Lusignan .
At the headquarters in Rhodes in February 1379, while the Master was still being captive to the Albanians, was held a General Chapter of the Order, which was attended by many Hospitaller senior dignitaries, who had gathered there on the occasion of the crusading campaign. Among the others there were presented personally the Prior of France Fr. Gerard de Vienne, the Prior of Auvergne Fr. Robert de Chatteneuf and the Prior of Thoulouse Fr. Gaucher (or Gautier) de La Bastide. The main question, discussed by the participants in the council was the recent non-canonical and inappropriate, according to the Statutes of the Order, election of Fr. Heredia for Master. At the meetings under the chairmanship of the eminent Grand Commander Fr. Bertrand Flotte, who was elected for a temporary deputy of the Master with the title of Lieutenant, had been adopted a number of regulations that restricted the power and the prerogatives of the Master and made him extremely dependant on the decisions of the Convent of the Order . On these decisions of the General Chapter undoubtedly held influence the inglorious defeat which the Aragonese brother suffered in Epiros several months earlier.
Thus, ultimately the project of Gregory XI for the papal-Hospitaller Crusade for “liberation of parts of Greece” proved a failure. One can speculate on the possibilities that could be found before the campaign of Heredia, if it was successfull, but all this remains in the field of the historical fiction. As a consequence of the defeat of this Crusade, led by the Master of the Hospital, in the late 70’s of the 14th century the long expected in Byzantium military aid from the West remained a distant mirage, and the political circumstances for further expansion of the Ottomans into the Balkans were better than ever.