Post-classical history

Liegnitz, Battle of (1241)

A battle fought on 9 April 1241 on the field of Wahlstatt near Liegnitz (mod. Legnica, Poland) in Silesia between a Mongol army led by Khan Qaidu and a Christian coalition under the command of Henry II, prince of Silesia, consisting mainly of Polish nobles and knights of the Teutonic Order.

Qaidu’s contingents formed the northern and smallest wing of a very powerful Mongol army group, of which the southern wing, led by Great Khan Batu, had conquered Krakôw in March and taken Hungary, chasing the Hungarian king Béla IV through most of the Balkans. After raids in Poland, where only Breslau (mod. Wroclaw, Poland) was saved through a miracle by the Dominican prior of the city, the army of Qaidu united with large contingents of Batu’s army because scouts reported a large Christian army at nearby Liegnitz.

At Liegnitz the Mongols succeeded in breaking up the Christians’ battle formation with heavy showers of arrows from their composite bows, followed by a feigned retreat. They then mounted a counterattack upon the flank and rear of the Christian army, exploiting their mobility, which was far greater than that of their heavily armored enemies. The Mongols seem to have been able to produce a cover of heavy smoke during the counterattack, but whether this was done by the use of gunpowder is much disputed and uncertain. The Mongol victory was total. According to contemporary chronicles, 30,000-40,000 Christians fell. Their ears were cut off as war trophies and filled nine large sacks; Henry’s head was displayed on a spear outside his castle. Northern Europe now lay open to the Mongols, but they turned south and returned at the end of the year to Mongolia.

Contemporaries in Western Europe were convinced that the northern Mongol army would continue to the flat lands of Mecklenburg, Holstein, and Denmark, which were very suitable for horses. In fact, Qaidu’s move to the south can probably be explained as a result of an internal power struggle among Mongol leaders rather than by tactical considerations. The Mongol victories were met with disbelief and terror in the West, and the “Mongol question” was discussed at councils and church meetings as far away as Braga in Portugal. Mongol military superiority was generally acknowledged and was soon explained by the healthy and austere life of the steppes and the Mongols’ blind obedience toward their leaders, but it was also widely believed that Jews had provided Qaidu with weapons and acted as his spies.

An immediate result of the battle of Liegnitz was the preaching of a general crusade against the Mongols, which collected substantial financial resources but attracted participants almost exclusively from eastern Europe and was organized too late to be involved in any battle. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, had decided in July to mobilize a common European army against the Mongols that should also include Denmark and its naval forces, but the Mongols had withdrawn before it could be mobilized. A more important long-term result was the decision at the First Council of Lyons (1245) to dispatch four groups of papal envoys to the Mongols, which were soon to be followed by others. The rest of the thirteenth century was characterized by Christian attempts to convert the Mongols and to make alliances with them against the Muslims in the Near East.

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