Hungary 1000 - 1500

By Bloodswan

The Magyars

The Magyars were the last in the line of invasion and settlement by nomadic steppe peoples. They were an amalgamation of various Finno-Ugrian and Turkish tribes. They appeared in the West at a time where the Carolingian empire had just fragmented. Most were already Christian though some were Jewish. Despite being nomadic they were far from barbarians. Their weaponry and art, both Turkish in style were superb. There were also a strong cultural links with Iran and Turkistan. After the mighty Avar state was finally destroyed by Charlemagne, the Magyars settled on the plains of Hungary.

In battle the Magyars relied on archery and this was primarily done on horseback. Once established on the Hungarian plains and after defeating the native Slavs, Vlachs & Albanians, the Magyars made no other attempts to conquer land. They did however continue raiding as far west as Italy and France. This surprisingly was done mainly for women because most of their women folk had been killed or taken from them during their migrations across the steppes.

During this period of settlement the Magyars greatest foe was the former Carolingian state of Bavaria. However the Magyars allied themselves with the Western states as much as they fought them and enjoyed success as well as defeat against or alongside them. The political fragmentation in the German part of the former Carolingian empire was a direct result of Magyar pressure.

The Slavs, Vlachs and Albanians were forced into the Carpathians by the Magyars but there was much cultural exchange between those who had stayed and Hungary itself remained largely Slavic with a Magyar ruling elite. Hungarian rulers still had large difficulties with the Slavic aristocracy. Magyar expansion westwards was halted by the battle of Lechfeld in 955 where the German king Otto the Great defeated the Magyars decisively .Paradoxically the catastrophic defeat at Lechfeld helped the Magyars wipe out the aristocracy and the Magyars rulers could impose their authority.

Hungary is born

In the year 1000 on Christmas day (as legend as it) Stephen was crowned the first king of Hungary and Hungary officially became Catholic. Under Stephen's rule, Hungary defeated two German invasions, helped Byzantium extinguish the first Bulgarian empire and extended Hungary's borders to the Carpathians. Feudalism started to gather momentum but the Magyars remained warlike and nomadic for much of the 11th century. Cities were inhabited by Germans or Slavs. Non-Magyars took up administrative roles but the army that defeated the German invasion was completely Hungarian. Steady moves toward European equipment did not come until the late 11th century. The Hungarians then faced invasion from the Pechenegs who were following in the Magyar's footsteps. They were defeated but rather than being exterminated they were allowed to settle and formed an important part of the army loyal only to the king. The Cumans were also similarly settled. The Pechenegs and Cumans retained their identity for several centuries until being absorbed into the Hungarian population.

Whilst successfully resisting invasion, Hungary also grew by taking over the kingdom of Croatia. This gave them the Adriatic coastline which would inevitably lead to conflict with the Venetians. Bosnia was also conquered and the first crusade passed by without too much damage. Russians, Germans and Italians were recruited into the armies and became part of the new feudal aristocracy but the bulk of the army still remained Hungarian as Otto of Freising tells us when in 1147 he described their "ugly" weapons and "terrifying" appearance. Most still fought as light cavalry with sabre, bow and spear with only soft felt or leather armour. Horse breeding remained the main occupation and the population remained semi-nomadic, living in wagons which could also serve as field fortifications. Towards the end of the 11th century and beginning of the 12th century wooden castles sprang up across the country which were garrisoned by the non-aristocratic freemen known as jobbagy.

Hungary in the 13th century

Not until the 13th century was Hungary fully westernised but even then the military obligation remained a personal matter between a man and his lord, not being so land-holding as in the west. Hungary's relationship with the Byzantines changed during this period and the two clashed over Emperor Manuel's efforts to rebuild Byzantine power in the Balkans. After Byzantium's collapse at the end of the century the two became allies once more and remained so until the final fall of Constantinople in 1453. Part of the Russian principality of Galich was temporarily conquered by the Hungarian feudal elite also during this time. By the mid 13th century the king's army became built around the royal household and the army became increasingly professional which left little role for the jobbagy. Archery declined in favour of the crossbow and the raising of cattle replaced horse breeding. Light missile cavalry were now only present as auxiliaries as the Hungarian cavalry were now heavily armoured as in the west. German and French influence on the military was now clear. Hungary still sought to expand, briefly conquering Serbia, campaigning against the Bogomil heretics of Bosnia, competing with Venice for Dalmatia and once again trying to conquer Galich.

The Mongol invasions

In 1237, the Mongol invasion of Russia drove the Kipchaks into Hungary and once again Turkish tribes were incorporated into the army. These Kipchaks were Muslims however and it created an uneasy relationship. Eventually the Kipchak khan was murdered and his followers fled to Wallachia. The Hungarian king, Bela tried to regain their service but it was in vain.

In 1242 the Hungarian army was virtually annihilated at the battle of Mohi (also known as the battle of the Sajo river) by the Mongols under Batu and Subodai Bahadur but the king escaped. The Mongols however did not stay long and Hungary was spared the fate of Russia. The Kipchaks would soon return to Hungary after the Mongols returned East. In the following decades the power of the Hungarian monarchy declined whilst that of the aristocracy grew.

The Angevin kings and beyond

With the death of Andrew III in 1301 the Arpad dynasty which had led Hungary since the days of Magyar conquest came to an end. After a brief struggle, Charles I Robert, a member of the Italo-French Angevin family (which already ruled Southern Italy and parts of Greece) took control. For Hungary the accession of Charles I Robert marked the start of a brilliant age. French Gothic and Italian renaissance culture spread across the country as did modern military ideas. Hungarian armies were brought under closer control from the royal family and were recruited from the peasantry. These were known as the Bandiera. The creation of a new order of chivalry, the order of St George also created a sense of noble brotherhood between king and his leading barons. Louis the Great, who succeeded Charles Robert in 1342 also recruited German and Italian mercenaries to be used against Venetian expansion in Dalmatia, pagan Lithuanians and Catholic Poles to the north and Orthodox Serbs to the south. Louis supported the pope in Italy and projected himself as a champion of the church but his dream of leading a great crusade against the approaching Ottomans was never realised due to divisions within the church.

Instead Louis' successors had to face the full might of the Ottoman Empire in a struggle which brutally highlighted the failings of the Bandiera system. As the Ottomans advanced deep into the Balkans, King Sigismund of Hungary called a crusade but the ill-disciplined and largely French host which answered his call met with total disaster at Nicropolis in 1396. Sigismund escaped and revived the military obligations of ordinary people once again through the militia portalis in which a certain proportion of the population had to serve. Local militias also provided local defence and a large number of Cumans and Alans were recruited into the army. Despite the threat posed by the Ottomans, Hungarian efforts were directed westwards as Sigismund was elected the Holy Roman emperor. Meanwhile vital territory was lost including Dalmatia to Venice.

Albert, Sigismund's successor encouraged the rise of "new men" such as the Italian condottieres and local knights such as Hunyadi Janos, who came to prominence in Transylvania. In 1437 the warlike jobbagy rose to revolt but were crushed by the alliance of the "three nations of Transylvania" - the Hungarian nobility, Saxon settlers and the Szekler frontier warriors who had remained largely free from the rule of the Hungarian rulers.

Hunyadi Janos

The great Hunyadi Janos rose to power and wealth through his military genius and loyalty to the crown. He was from the Vlach aristocracy of Transylvania that had become Catholic and Hungarian in culture. Having learnt his military trade as a young condottiere in Italy, Hunyadi used his own wealth to raise an efficient fighting force to face the Ottomans. In addition to Hussite mercenaries and personal followers he could also summon the peasant militia. Though he was often defeated when taking the offensive such as at Varna in 144 and Kossovo in 1448, his defensive efforts read like a lone crusade against the Ottomans. In 1442 alone he defeated the Turks at Sibiu, the Iron gates and the Ialomita river. A true professional he was also quick to learn and adopt new tactics. The use of wagon fortifications was adopted from the Hussites and proved very successful. A favourite tactic was to draw the Ottoman cavalry against the field fortifications then attack their flanks with his own cavalry. A large number of German reiters were recruited during this time by Hunyadi.

Matthias Corvinus, the black army and the battle of Mohacs

In 1458 king Matthias Corvinus, the 15 year old son of Hunyadi Janos rose to power. He ruled over a brief golden age but soon it would turn to disaster. In 1463 Bosnia was lost to the Ottomans. His barons soon rebelled and he recruited a standing army of Bohemian Hussites, German reiters and Serbian mercenaries loyal only to himself. With this "black army" he tamed the aristocracy and tried to turn central Europe into an empire powerful enough to fight the Ottomans. Well paid, trained and equipped the "black army" numbered 30 000 troops all skilled in winter warfare. This army fought against Poles, Silesians, Bohemians and Ottomans. Matthias failed to become emperor of Germany but he did capture Vienna. He won his central European empire but it collapsed almost immediately after his death in 1490. The "black army" was the first victim. Sent south against the Ottomans in 1491 but neither paid or supplied the "black army" robbed the local inhabitants and was consequently crushed by a baronial force. All that remained to face the Turks were the ill-disciplined private armies and the courageous but poorly led light cavalry.

In late August 1526 the Hungarian army was crushed at the battle of Mohacs. It was one of the greatest national disasters in Hungarian history. When the Ottoman army struck in 1526, Louis II mustered some 25 000 men and 85 cannon and faced the Ottoman army that was almost twice the size of the Hungarian one. It is worth noting that the Croatian and Transylvanian armies failed to support Louis for various reasons. The end result was a disaster with the Hungarians advancing only to be hit in the flanks by cannon fire and massacred. Louis lay amongst the slain but the Ottoman sultan Sulayman did not occupy the country. Instead Hungary was left to tear itself apart through civil war serving as a battle field for the rival Hapsburg-German and Ottoman-Turkish empires. Hungary as a medieval powerhouse in central Europe was no more.


Hungary and the fall of Eastern Europe by David Nicolle
The age of Charlemagne by David Nicolle
Various internet sources