Post-classical history


Up to 1526 the medieval Hungarian kingdom included not only the modern state of Hungary, but also areas then known as Upper Hungary (mod. Slovakia), Transylvania (mod. western Romania), and Slavonia and Dalmatia (the Adriatic coast of mod. Croatia). Hungary converted to Christianity in the reign of King Stephen I (1000-1038), who stabilized the kingdom after a period of civil war. After 1018 Hungary figured as a place of transit for pilgrims going from the West to Constantinople and the Holy Land. Pilgrims followed the river Danube, passed the city of Gyor, and crossed the country via the royal center of Székesfehérvar and southward in the direction of Belgrade.

The Earlier Crusades, 1096-1290

The idea that King Ladislas I (1077-1095) was asked to become the military leader of the First Crusade (1096-1099) was an invention of later Hungarian historiography, influenced by his canonization in 1192; in fact the king died before the crusade was proclaimed by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont (1095).

Many of the armies of the First Crusade crossed Hungary in 1096. The badly disciplined and often rapacious contingents of the so-called People’s Crusades especially provoked hostile reactions, while the crusaders seem to have been shocked by the Hungarians’ oriental way of life, which gave rise to unfavorable depictions in medieval historiography of the crusade. The French leader Walter Sans-Avoir passed through the country with only minor incidents, but later the army of Peter the Hermit conquered the southern border castle of Zemun (Hung. Zimony, part of mod. Belgrade). In the second wave of the People’s Crusade, the crusaders of Gottschalk were annihilated by the royal army led by King Koloman (1095-1116) near Székesfehérvar; the army of Emicho of Flonheim was defeated while besieging the castle of Moson on the western border. Godfrey of Bouillon’s army, which gave hostages to the king, marched through the country peacefully.

The Second Crusade (1147-1149) saw an important change in relations between Hungary and crusaders, when King Conrad III of Germany and King Louis VII of France were received solemnly by KingGéza II (1141-1162). This event evidently had a major significance for the reception of the military orders in Hungary: the orders of the Temple and the Hospital of St. John settled in the country during this reign, receiving property from the king and his queen Eufrosina. Moreover, the foundation of a separate Hungarian hospitaller order, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Stephen, has been recently attributed to Géza II; its rule was approved by Pope Urban III in 1187. The order’s center was at Esztergom-Szentkiraly near Székesfehérvar, and it is last mentioned in sources in 1439; however, its history has often been confused with that of the Hospitallers of St. John.

The impact of the Second Crusade was surpassed by that of the campaign of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa during the Third Crusade (1189-1192). This expedition communicated chivalric ideas to the Hungarian royal court, and motivated a larger-scale Hungarian participation in the crusade. In the event, most of the 2,000 Hungarians who joined were ordered home from Thrace by King Béla III (1172-1196) as a result of the tensions between crusaders and Byzantines, but a few of them fulfilled their vows. Béla III himself took a crusade vow during the 1190s but died before he could go.

The military orders were enriched with substantial properties by Béla III and his sons Emeric (1196-1204) and Andrew II (1205-1235). The first known master of the Templars in Hungary appeared in 1194; their central seat was at Vrana on the Adriatic coast, which became the headquarters of the Hospitallers in Hungary after 1336. Most of the possessions of the Hospitallers and Templars were situated in the western, more developed part of the country, mostly in Transdanubia, Slavonia, and Croatia. The Hospitallers settled around the royal centers of Esztergom, Buda, andSzékesfehérvar, and also had houses in the rich coastal cities of Biograd na Moru, Zara (mod. Zadar, Croatia), and Sibenik. The first master of the Hospitallers in Hungary was mentioned in 1186; by the fourteenth century the order had eighteen commanderies. Though recruited mostly from non-Hungarians, both orders were integrated into Hungarian society by their public notarial activities, provided at so- called places of authentication (Lat. loca credibilia), which also provided an important part of their revenues.

The Teutonic Order also found its way into Hungary when it was settled by King Andrew II in the Burzenland, a sparsely populated area of southern Transylvania, in 1211. Through his wife and his brother-in-law Ludwig IV, landgrave of Thuringia, the king had family ties to Hermann von Salza, grand master of the order; it was invited primarily to defend and advance the frontiers of the kingdom against the heathen Cumans, a nomadic people settled to the east of Hungary. The order’s privileges were gradually extended to an extent that was eventually considered intolerable by the local lay and ecclesiastical magnates. The aspirations of the order also came to be unacceptable to the centralized Hungarian kingdom. After provoking royal authority by activities such as illegal minting, they were expelled by royal troops in 1225, despite their successful policy of castle building and the support they enjoyed from the papacy.

The only Hungarian crusading expedition to the Holy Land was launched by King Andrew II as part of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). The popes had frequently had occasion to remind Béla III and Andrew II of their crusading vows. The Hungarian crusade was further delayed by the capture of the Hungarian city of Zara in 1202 by the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). Andrew also had aspirations to the throne of the Latin Empire of Constantinople as a result of his marriage to Yolande (1215), daughter of the future Latin emperor Peter of Courtenay, although these were never realized. Andrew II finally departed in September 1217, together with his cousin Duke Leopold VI of Austria, and accompanied by his dignitaries, bishops, and abbots. An army of some 2,000-3,000 crusaders embarked on 10 large ships and an unspecified number of smaller vessels, hired mostly from Venice, at the port of Split. Yet even this limited enterprise tried the country’s financial resources: the king gave up his rights over Zara to Venice in compensation for the ships, but also spent much of the royal treasury. The Hungarian contingent in the Fifth Crusade was largely led by John of Bri- enne, king of Jerusalem, while Andrew II apparently kept a distance from the military operations. The active Hungarian involvement was limited to a relatively short period of time, from 4 November 1217 up to January 1218.

The campaign was not entirely unsuccessful, as the Hungarians pillaged Bethsan, and besieged and almost captured Mount Tabor; they were defeated only once, in the mountains of Lebanon. The decision of Andrew II to return home in early 1218 was regarded as treason by many contemporaries, but it was justified by the local military situation and the unstable political climate in Hungary. The return to Hungary by land took longer than the outward journey by sea, but it offered the opportunity of establishing marriage contracts and buying precious relics. A few Hungarian nobles remained in the East and fought in the Damietta campaign. A horde of thirty-two Eastern coins found in Hungary in 1982 is probably connected with this crusade.

During the thirteenth century, some Hungarian crusade vows were fulfilled by attacks on heretics in Bosnia and Bulgaria, or by assistance to the Byzantines, as in the case of a contingent of 300 crusaders in 1231-1232, mentioned in letters of Pope Gregory IX. The great Mongol invasion of Hungary (1241-1242), which culminated in the defeat of King Béla IV at the battle of Muhi (11 April 1241), brought forth calls for a new crusade. However, the crusade was prevented by the rivalries between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor and ultimately by the death of the pope. Similarly, in 1281 Hungary faced the second Mongol attack without any foreign help.

The Hospitallers were authorized to organize the defense of the southern borderlands by Béla IV in 1247, but when they proved unable to do this, they lost this responsibility by 1260. The long process of settling and Christianizing the heathen, nomadic Cumans (from 1242), as well as King Ladis- las IV’s controversial favor toward them, increased ten sions between the papal legates, the Hungarian church, and the king, who was twice excommunicated; a Cuman rebellion (1282) and a Mongol incursion into northern Hungary (1285) were defeated by royal armies. After 1290 inner turmoil paralyzed the kingdom’s political activities abroad. This state of affairs ended only after the accession of the Angevin dynasty in the person of King Charles Robert (1307-1342).

The Later Middle Ages and the Ottoman Threat

Hungarian participation in the later crusades reached its peak between 1342 and 1490. By this time several long-lasting campaigns by the Angevins of Hungary aimed at conquering the kingdom of Naples had failed, while papal- Hungarian relations were consolidated by the peace of 1352 between Louis I the Great of Hungary (1343-1382) and Queen Joanna I of Naples. After 1353 Hungary became one of the most important foreign allies of the popes in Avignon. As a consequence, Louis I obtained a tithe of church incomes first for four, and later for seven years, to be used for crusading against the Ottoman Turks and heretics in the Balkans, and against the pagan Lithuanians, and for assisting the papacy in Italy. In fact Louis I never fought against the Ottomans, although he twice fought their allies: the Bulgarians of Vidin in 1365 or later and the Wallachians in 1375. He established a foundation at Mariazell in Styria in memory of his victory, although some scholars have suggested that this explanation is a fiction of the fifteenth century.

Crusades launched under the pretext of combating heresy became an integral part of Hungarian strategy to advance the southern borders of the kingdom into Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia, and Wallachia. This strategy had limited success, as a result of local pro-Ottoman parties and rivalries between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox powers, and it was disastrously weakened by the defeat of the Serbs by the Ottomans at the battle of Kosovo Polj (1389). From this time on, the Ottomans were able to raid southern Hungary at any time, resulting in a period of continuous warfare between Hungary and the ever more menacing Ottoman Empire.

The years between 1389 and the Nikopolis Crusade of 1396 were a spectacularly active period of anti-Ottoman warfare, which attracted Germans and Burgundians for short campaigns intended to counter the enemy advance. From 1394 King Sigismund (1387-1437) negotiated with the papacy and European courts with a view to organizing a major crusade against the Turks. Sigismund’s troops took the castle of Nikopolis Minor on the lower Danube in 1395. Meanwhile Western crusaders assembled in Hungary: Burgundians and Germans coming by land, and French by sea. They joined Sigismund and the Hungarian royal army under the Palatine Leustak Ilsvai and the voivod of Transylvania, Stibor, arriving at the departure point of Orsova on 13 August 1396. The combined crusader army of some 15,000-20,000, together with light cavalry under Prince Mircea of Wallachia, advanced slowly and besieged every fortress on the road. While assaulting the fortress of Nikopo- lis, they were surprised by the army of Sultan Bayezid and fought a battle by the Danube on 25 September (or 28 September according to some scholars). As a consequence of poorly chosen battle tactics, the best equipped crusader knights began the battle, but were stopped by obstacles and pits, and then either annihilated or captured within a few hours by the Turkish janissaries and the Serbian heavy cavalry fighting on the side of the Ottomans. Sigismund escaped to Constantinople. Over the succeeding decades he adopted a new and effective defense strategy that involved military, financial, and recruitment reforms, the import of firearms, and the organization of a system of fortifications on the southern border. This system was centered on Belgrade and was supported by a large administrative hinterland.

After Sigismund’s death (1437), Ottoman attacks intensified, and were stopped only by the successful three-month defense of Belgrade in 1440. The response to the Ottoman advance in the Balkans was increasingly seen as a common task of Christendom, with the popes at its heart sending regular financial aids, trying to harmonize the diverse interests of the European powers and attempting to organize large crusades, although without any significant results. Hungary became the main theater of the anti-Ottoman wars, in addition to the eastern Mediterranean, and a permanent papal legate resided in Buda. As a sign of Rome’s goodwill, these papal representatives were usually very active and high- ranking figures, especially in the sixteenth century. They included the cardinals Tommaso de Vio, Lorenzo Campeg- gio, and Giovanni Antonio Burgio.

The last active phase of the Hungarian wars against the Ottomans was represented by the activity of John Hunyadi (Hung. Hunyadi Janos). This nobleman and professional soldier proved to be the most talented warlord of his time, with outstanding tactical sense. He advanced deep into the Ottoman Empire during the so-called Long Campaign of 1443-1444, during which he occupied Sofia and reached Varna. However, he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Sultan Murad II’s army at Varna on 10 November 1444. The deaths in this battle of King Vladislav I (king of Poland as Wladislaw III) and of the papal legate Giuliano Cesarini, as well as another defeat of Hunyadi at Kosovo Polje in October 1448, made clear the limits of Christian military potential in the Balkans, although Hunyadi was able to advance into Ottoman territory again in 1445, in cooperation with a Burgundian fleet in the Black Sea.

By the mid-fifteenth century, the human and economic resources of the Ottoman Empire far surpassed those of Hungary, overburdened by the costs of defense and often involved in the affairs of other kingdoms as a result of dynastic unions. The relative weakness of Hungary is one of the reasons why the kingdom did not assist Byzantium in 1453, while even the successful defense of Belgrade in 1456 was partly due to good luck. Sultan Mehmed II personally led an army of 90,000 troops against the carefully reinforced city on 2 July 1456. John Hunyadi mobilized a force consisting of 10,000 regular troops and some 20,000 poorly equipped and undisciplined crusaders organized by the papal legate Juan de Carvaljal and the Franciscan friar John of Capistrano, as well as a flotilla on the Danube. The Christian forces surprised the Ottoman besieging army, broke through its lines on 14 July, and finally overran the Ottoman artillery with an assault on 22 July and put the sultan to flight. However, the plague killed Hunyadi and Capistrano after the victory, and Serbia (1457) and Bosnia (1463) collapsed in the face of the Ottoman advance, though some of their territories were incorporated into the Hungarian frontier defense zone. The years between 1466 and 1521 could be characterized as a period of static warfare, with minimal differences between peace and wartime. By that time the kingdom was defended by two parallel lines of castles established on former Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian territories, extending from Orsova and Timisoara in the east via Belgrade to Senj, Klis, and Skradin on the Adriatic coast.

The election of Matthias Corvinus as king of Hungary (1458-1490) was largely due to the anti-Ottoman achievements of his father, John Hunyadi. King Matthias, a better strategist than his father, followed a defensive policy toward the Ottomans, and an aggressive one against his Christian neighbors (the Holy Roman Emperor, Poland, and Venice) and the Hussites of Bohemia, whose king George of Podébrad had been declared a heretic in 1466. The Hungarian king received significant and regular financial aid from the popes, amounting to some 250,000 golden florins in 1459-1476. He developed one of the best mercenary armies of his time, but even with this military machine, he had only minor successes against the Ottomans: a campaign in Bosnia in 1463-1464, the capture of the castle of Szabacs (15 February 1476), and the dispatch of an expeditionary force to the kingdom of Naples during the occupation of Otranto by the Turks (1480-1481). Nevertheless, his rhetoric and excellent humanistic propaganda secured him a more positive fame in Europe. His general Pal Kinizsi defeated a huge raiding army of 15,000 Turks in the most outstanding battle of the period (13 October 1479) at Kenyérmezô (mod. Cîimpul Pîinii, Romania) in southern Transylvania, but his policies with respect to the Ottomans were criticized at home, and even led to a revolt against him. Matthias’s marriage alliance with the court of Naples (1476) involved him in Italian conflicts to the extent that the papal aids were stopped and his attempts to get possession of the exiled Ottoman prince Cem (Djem) were upset.

Kings and Queens of Hungary

in the Period of the Crusades

(Hungarian forms of names in parentheses]

Ladislas (Laszlô) I




Stephen (Istvan) II


Béla II


Géza II


Stephen (Istvan) III


Ladislas II (Laszlô)


Stephen IV (Istvan)


Béla III


Emeric (Imre)


Ladislas (Laszlô) III


Andrew (Andras) II


Béla IV


Stephen V (Istvan)


Ladislas (Laszlô) IV


Andrew (Andras) III




Otto of Bavaria


Charles (Karoly) I


Louis (Lajos) I the Great




Charles (Karoly) II


Mary (again)


Sigismund (Zsigmond) of Luxembourg 1387-1437

Albrecht of Austria


Vladislav (Ulaszlo) I


(king of Poland as Wladislaw III)


Ladislas (Laszlo) V Posthumus


Matthias (Matyas) Corvinus


Vladislav (Ulaszlo) II (also Bohemia)


Louis II (Lajos)


After Matthias’s death, the country never recovered militarily or economically. The supremacy of the estates, the middle nobility, and the magnates, as exercised through the diets, blocked royal efforts to centralize power, weakened the fiscal system, and thus hampered the possibility of any centrally organized campaigns. In fact effective state administration had been paralyzed long before the Ottoman attacks of the 1520s. The Ottoman menace again brought regular financial help from the papacy (amounting to 106,000 golden florins in 1501-1502), but it was not used with the expected effectiveness, since the kingdom had no clear anti-Ottoman strategy. Nevertheless, this foreign aid was vital and greatly helped to balance the constant deficit of the defense budget, and it was often paid directly to leaders in the border areas.

In 1513 Pope Leo X declared a new crusade. It was launched in Hungary on 23 March 1514 under the leadership of the Hungarian cardinal Thomas Bakôcz, but the court and magnates remained indifferent to it, and it was officially cancelled on 15 May. However, by this time it was too late, and the crusade developed into a bloody civil war between some 40,000 peasants and the conservative establishment of the nobles. By July 1514 the main peasant force had been defeated by John Szapolyai, voivod of Transylvania; its leader, the lesser noble George (Gyorgy) Dôzsa was executed, and internal order was reestablished. The bloodshed of this war was not the main reason for Hungary’s subsequent defeat by the Ottomans, as was long believed. It did, however, show how traditional religious conviction could cause a crusade to develop into a revolt in an unstable social environment, for which the economic and legal position of the nobility and their selfish reluctance to defend the country were responsible.

The papacy and the Hungarian monarchy tried to develop the military potential of the country, but the lack of coordination between local and foreign efforts brought these efforts to naught. In 1518 the papal delegate Nicolaus of Schonberg even prevented a Hungarian-Turkish peace treaty in order to push the king into a more offensive strategy, all in vain.

This failure was a telling sign of the way that papal crusade efforts tended not to coincide with the actual military needs and possibilities in Hungary itself. By 1521 the fall of Belgrade to the Turks, together with the lesser strongholds of Zemun and Szabacs, marked the collapse of the first line of border castles. In 1526 the final blow came when the Hungarian army was defeated at the battle of Mohacs (29 August 1526), where King Louis II Jagiello died.

The defeat of Mohacs led to the Ottoman occupation of Buda (1541) and the division of Hungary into three parts: the largest was Turkish Hungary, comprising the Hungarian plain and Slavonia; the northern and eastern rump became imperial Hungary, which passed under the rule of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty; Transylvania was ruled by its own princes, mostly under Turkish overlordship. The Habsburgs also took over the idea of Hungary as the “bastion of Christendom” (Lat. antemurale Christianiatis), originally conceived by King Béla IV after 1241-1242 in connection with resistance to the Mongols, and later extensively used to describe both the country and its leadership.

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