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The Decline of Hungary
During the High and Late Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Hungary was one of the strongest states in Medieval Europe. The kingdom was large and was made up of many more territories than just modern Hungary. Though it was never sparsely populated, the great territory and mineral wealth allowed many Hungarian kings to become the dominant power in Central Europe.
One good example of this would be King Louis the Great, who ruled from 1342 to 1382. Louis’s armies conquered the Kingdom of Naples in the 1340s and 1350s. He was never able to hold onto his conquests, but the ability of Louis to wage war effectively so far from his homeland showed the power he had.
Another example of this would be Matthias Corvinus. He ruled from 1458 to 1490. He waged war on his neighbours for most of his reign and conquered Bohemia and most of Austria during his reign, even capturing Vienna.
However, the strong-willed and heavy-handed Matthias curbed the power of nobles, and his oppressive regime became quite unpopular among the upper classes of Hungary. When Matthias died in 1490, he had no legitimate heir, and the nobles ensured that his bastard son did not follow his father on the throne. The Hungarian nobles elected the week willed Wladyslaw as the new king of Hungary.
The turmoil that followed the death of Matthias led to the loss of all of his conquests in Austria. The greedy nobles made their new weak-willed king reduce the taxes, which led to the Crown’s inability to pay for the professional standing army of Matthias. In a few years, the formidable Black Army (at its peak, some 28,000 battle-hardened veterans, armed to the teeth with the latest technology) disintegrated and left Hungary without a standing army.
Suleiman the Magnificent Attacks Hungary
Suleiman attacked Hungary again in 1526. He raised a huge army of between 50 and 100,000 men that had a core of professional soldiers, janissaries and household cavalry. He also had a considerable artillery train of 300 guns, a number that dwarfed the artillery train of contemporary European armies.
The Hungarians raised their own armies to face Suleiman, but as the intentions of the Ottomans were not clear for quite some time, the Hungarian armies were spread out throughout the kingdom. The main army of 25 to 30,000 under the command of the King was stationed in central Hungary.
Another force under the command of the Voivode of Transylvania was blocking the passages through the Carpathian mountains, while a third army in Croatia. By the time it became clear where the Ottomans wanted to invade, the Ottoman army was closer to the main Hungarian force than the other Hungarian armies.
Foolishly the commanders of the main army decided to face the superior Ottoman forces in the fields near the town of Mohacs in late August 1529. The King’s army was outnumbered at least 2 to 1, and reinforcements were not that far by the time the battle began.
The Battle of Mohacs ended in a disaster for the Hungarian Royal Army. In a quick battle that lasted 3 to 5 hours, the Ottomans annihilated the Hungarian army, which may have lost more than half of its initial strength. Worse than the loss of the crucial manpower were the people who perished in the fighting.
The battle was also a political disaster because King Louis died during his retreat when he fell into a river and drowned. The nobles of Hungary elected two rival kings, which led to a civil war that tore the country to pieces.
In the 15 years that followed the battle, the Kingdom of Hungary was divided into three parts. Its Western and Northern parts became known as Royal Hungary and were ruled by the brother-in-law of King Louis, Ferdinand Habsburg, the younger brother of Emperor Charles V.
The Ottomans directly conquered the central part of the kingdom, and the Pashalik of Buda became an Ottoman province. Transylvania decided to go its separate ways from the Habsburgs and elected the Voivode of Transylvania, John Zapolya as their new king. His state later became known as the Principality of Transylvania.
The Road to Mohacs
Royal power was chronically weakened in the period between 1490 and 1526. Though the kingdom was able to get by without a professional standing army in the absence of aggressive foreign war, the garrison forces on the southern borderlands between Hungary and the Ottomans were also reduced thanks to the lack of funding that went there.
During most of this period, the nobles believed they were safe, as largescale warfare and military operations were rare. Sultan Bayazid II and his son Selim waged war against their fellow Muslims in Asia. Things changed with the ascension to power of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1520.
Suleiman’s father Selim crushed the Mamluk rulers of Syria and Egypt. He conquered the former Mamluk Sultanate and annexed its territory to the Ottoman Empire. Selim also crushed the rising Safavid dynasty of Iran at the Battle of Chaldirah. The defeat checked the advances of Shah Ismail.
With his eastern enemies conquered and checked, Suleiman was free to pursue a more proactive foreign policy in Europe. Though it is also believed that Suleiman first sent offers of peace to Hungary, the boy king Louis, or most probably his advisors, declined these offers, which led to war.
Suleiman captured the crucial border fortress Belgrade in 1521. The neglect with which the kingdom treated its border defences now hit them where it hurt most. Suleiman’s forces picked off most of the border fortresses in the early 1520s; by the time his main army advanced onto Hungary in 1526, the road onto Buda, the kingdom’s capital, was open.
If the greediness of the nobles and the weakness of royal power were not bad enough on their own, the Kingdom of Hungary was further weakened by internal tensions.
In 1514 a vast peasant uprising broke out. The force that turned against its own kingdom was intended to be raised as a Crusader force that would attack the Ottomans, but things went badly off the rail. The disgruntled peasants turned on the nobles and rampaged through the Kingdom.
The nobles who saw it as a challenge to their power and status raised their forces and crushed the uprising under the leadership of the Voivode of Transylvania. In the aftermath of the uprising, the peasants lost most of their freedoms and became tied to their lands for all intents and purposes, like the serfs of an earlier period.
Imber, C. (2009). The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.
Sziklay, J., Varju, J., Fraknói, V., Marton, J., Bán, A., & Cziklay, L. (1902). Catholic Hungary 1001-1901: Volume I-II. Nándor Gottermayer Bookbinding Institute.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler