Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-Five

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The Mongol Horde

Between 1229 and 1248, the Mongols terrify the world

THE UNIVERSAL KHAN was dead, and his conquests had been divided up between his sons: his youngest, Tolui, in the heartland, the flat grassy Mongolian steppes; his second, Chagatai, in Central Asia between the Amu Darya river and the northwestern edge of the steppes; the two sons of his dead oldest son Jochi in the western lands, beyond the Aral Sea. And as the overlord of all of them, his third son Ogodei: the Great Khan, presiding (at least in theory) over the entire realm from his homeland near the Kherlen river.

The Mongol armies had backed away from the west, at Genghis Khan’s death; a token force remained north of the Caspian Sea, where the Kiev warriors had fallen, but most of the Mongol strength was now turned towards the east. A decade and half before, the north of the Jin empire had fallen into their hands fairly easily. But the subjugation of the rest, to the last corner, was a different proposition. The Jin had moved their capital from the ransacked Zhongdu to Kaifeng, farther south, and there had reestablished their government. Their territory was shrunken, much of their farmland in the hands of the enemy; so for the last years, they had been mounting campaigns against the Song land below them.

Once Ogodei was firmly on the Great Khan’s seat, he dispatched additional troops to press the invasion of the Jin. The Mongols were fierce fighters, but not invincible; in both 1230 and 1231, Ogodei’s great general Subotai was beaten back by Jin counterattacks.

While he fought his way doggedly forward, another Mongol division, commanded by the general Sartaq, made its way towards Goryeo. In the summer of 1231, they reached the Yalu river and prepared to attack.

It was not the first time that the Mongols had been to the Yalu. Back in 1218, during Genghis Khan’s push westward, a Mongol detachment had chased fleeing steppe peoples known as the Khitan into the peninsula. When the Khitan holed up at the Goryeo city of Kangdong, the Mongols asked the military dictator Choe Chung-heon to send them aid.

Choe Chung-heon had agreed, cautiously; as one of his officials pointed out, the Mongols were known to be “the most inhuman of the northern barbarians.” But another advisor, the Commissioner of Men and Horse, warned, “If we disregard them, I believe we will regret it later.” To prevent reprisals, Chung-heon sent troops and provisions: a thousand men and a thousand bags of rice.1

Once they had defeated the Khitan, the Mongols demanded tribute as payment for delivering Goryeo from the Khitan menace, and then left; most of them, anyway. Forty-one men, according to the Goryeo-sa, were left at the border town Uiju. “Practice the language of Goryeo,” they were instructed, “and wait for our return.”2

Now, in 1231, the Mongols were back. On August 26, General Sartaq ordered his men to cross the Yalu, and the war to swallow Goryeo began.

By 1231, Choe Chung-heon was dead; his son Choe-U headed the military state that had enfolded Goryeo’s civil government. A figurehead monarch, King Gojong, still sat on the throne, but Choe-U was responsible for facing the Mongol threat.

As the Mongols advanced, the towns in front of them emptied, the people surrendering or fleeing. Choe-U called the standing army of Goryeo out to face the enemy. Unexpectedly reinforced by five thousand outlaws, sent by the notorious bandit chief Yu-ke-hsia from his hiding place near the Yalu, the Goryeo army put up a startlingly fierce resistance. The northwestern city Kuju held out so stubbornly that the Mongols themselves paid grudging respect: “I am accustomed to seeing the cities of the world fought over,” General Sartaq is reported to have said, afterwards, “but I have never seen anyone being attacked like this and, to the end, not surrendering.” The Mongols attacked Kuju with catapults, with siege towers, with tunnels, with flaming fagots soaked in human fat; only when Choe-U himself authorized the surrender of the city did the commander, Pak So, open the gates. Sartaq, in admiration, spared his life.3

The Mongol invasion pushed through the north of the country, getting closer and closer to the capital city Kaesong, until by the end of the year Choe-U had decided to appeal for a peace. He managed to swap an enormous tribute (twenty thousand horses, ten thousand bolts of silk, and numerous other riches) for a halt in the Mongol progress. Most of the Mongol troops withdrew, leaving military commanders in charge of the captured territory. They were supposed to cooperate with the Goryeo court in Kaesong. But, feeling unsafe, King Gojong, Choe-U, and all the top officials sneaked out of Kaesong, crossed the strip of water between the Goryeo coast and the nearest island, Kanghwa, and reestablished themselves on the island. The Mongols demanded their return; but they refused, able to supply themselves quite well by sending ships farther south to the unconquered coast. The Mongol commanders had no experience with water; they were reduced to shouting threats across at the king, fruitlessly ordering him to come back.4

For the next few years, Goryeo and the Mongols existed in this state, half peace, half war, half occupied; while on the mainland, the Mongol conquests continued.

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45.1 Mongol Conquests in the East

SUBOTAI AND HIS MEN had almost reached Kaifeng, the Jin capital. They had been helped, in their advance through the Jin territory, by the Southern Song. Subotai, knowing that the Jin (still in possession of a strong army) would have their most formidable defenses erected to block an approach from the north, had negotiated, with the Song, passage through the lands below Kaifeng, so that he could send part of his attack force around to assault the city from its more vulnerable southern side.

The massive circular detour soon attracted the attention of the Jin. The Jin emperor Aizong sent an appeal south to the Song, reminding them of an old Chinese proverb: When the lips are gone, the teeth will soon become cold. The Mongols had destroyed “forty kingdoms,” he warned, and if the Jin fell, the Song would be next.5

But the Song declined to intervene. The bulk of the Jin army hastily shifted from the Yellow river, where it had gathered to ward off the expected northern attack, to the far side of the capital city. But Subotai had held more than half of his troops back. As the southern Mongol force appeared on the horizon, the reserve troops descended from the north. Trapped, the Jin army was slaughtered. The Jin emperor, Aizong, was pinned inside Kaifeng along with hundreds of thousands of his subjects.6

The siege went on for over a month, in summer heat; inside the city, the Jin ate their horses, then grass, then boiled their saddles and the skins covering the military drums to make soup. Soon, they ate the dead. Weakened by hunger and then by plague, the defenses finally collapsed. As Subotai’s men poured into the city, Aizong killed himself.7

Subotai did not immediately turn on the Southern Song. He had been summoned north by Ogodei to take charge of the next offensive: three thousand miles in the opposite direction, all the way over on the western side of the Mongol territory.

These were the lands awarded to Batu and Orda, the two sons of dead Jochi. Orda, the oldest, had been given already-conquered territory on the lower Syr Darya river, south of the Aral Sea. Batu’s portion had been the lands across the Volga river, beyond the Caspian Sea: an inheritance that had not yet been conquered by the Mongols, and was not yet theirs to give. Now the Great Khan intended to help his nephew lay hold of his promised lands.8

Subotai, now in his midfifties, had been serving the khans since the age of seventeen. He had fought in the west already, helping Jochi to shatter the Kievan forces at the Kalka in 1223. He had absorbed the lessons of western warfare and practiced them in the east. Now, heading back towards Europe, he was at the apogee of his profession. Batu, nominally the leader of the campaign, was a straw boss; the European campaign had Subotai’s fingerprints all over it. Unrelenting sieges, crafty maneuvering of light and highly mobile troops, calculated ferocity intended to terrify the next foe into surrendering: the patterns practiced in Goryeo and the Jin empire were repeated again and again, stamping Subotai’s mark into European land.

Late in 1237, Subotai and Batu crossed the Volga; the Mongols were accustomed to fighting in the bitter cold, and the frozen countryside posed no challenge to them. A breakaway strike force, commanded by the veteran general Chormaghan, veered to the south and crossed the Caucasus range into Georgia. Already battered by the Mongols in 1219, Georgia now lost its capital city, Tbilisi, and most of its eastern reaches; the Georgian nobles were pressed into the Mongol ranks.9

Meanwhile, Subotai and Batu had terrified the first Rus’ city in their path. They captured Riazan’ on December 21, just before the Christmas Mass. “They burned it all,” says the contemporary Voskresensk Chronicle, “and killed its prince and his princess, and seized the men, women, and children, and monks, nuns, and priests; some they struck down with swords, while others they shot with arrows and flung into the flames.” Moscow fell, as did Kiev after a ten-week siege; so many panicked Kievans crowded into the Church of the Tithe, hoping for safety, that the second floor gave way and the church collapsed inward. Six years later, a traveler passing through Kiev made note of the skulls and bones still piled on the deserted streets.10

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45.2 Mongol Conquests in the West

By 1240, all of the Rus’ principalities except for Novgorod, the most distant, were under Batu’s rule; his nonexistent inheritance had finally been fleshed out with captives. Subotai, after resting his army, pressed on in the spring of 1241: across the Carpathian Mountains, into Hungary.

To most Europeans, the Rus’ were still a distant and mysterious people, but Hungary was their doorstep. Fifty thousand Mongol warriors now swarmed down on it from the mountains, while another twenty thousand marched sideways into the lands of the Polans to block reinforcements. The Duke of Greater Poland, Henry the Pious, did his best to drive them back; but his own personal retinue of trained soldiers was small, and although the Teutonic Knights joined him, the Christian army was badly outnumbered. When they met the Mongols on April 9, near the town of Liegnitz, Henry’s knights were slaughtered, along with the farmers and metalworkers Henry had drafted to fill the ranks. Henry fell with them. When the survivors finally began to clear the field, Henry’s stripped and headless body was recognized by his wife only because he had six toes on his left foot.11

Two days later, four hundred miles to the south, Subotai and the rest of the Mongols came face-to-face with the Hungarian army at the Sajo river. In the lead rode Béla IV, son of Andrew of Hungary, king since his father’s death six years earlier. The Hungarians were heavily armored, ready to fight, well supplied by the nearby towns of Buda and Pest, on either side of the Danube. Subotai backed his own men slowly away; and then, when the Hungarians advanced, encircled them.12

The Hungarians were probably doomed even before Subotai’s feint. In front of the Mongol advance, refugees had fled across the Carpathians into Hungary, and Béla IV had welcomed them. His noblemen had not been as pleased by the influx of foreigners. Summoned by their king, the Hungarian nobility showed up to fight, but the monk Rogerius of Apulia, who survived by hiding in a nearby swamp, noted afterwards that they “were discontented, and . . . lacked the needed will and enthusiasm. They even hoped that the king would lose the battle, making them even more important.”13

The Mongols had plenty of enthusiasm. They fought viciously, hurling boulders at the Hungarian crossbowmen with catapults, tossing Chinese firecrackers and minibombs of flaming tar into the midst of the knights. Sixty thousand Hungarian soldiers fell on the field; in an echo of Kiev, a passerby several years later describes “fields white with bleaching bones.” Béla IV escaped from the field, but Subotai sent an assassin after him: Kadan, a younger son of Ogodei himself. Kadan had helped lead the charge against Henry of Poland, and after the victory had ridden hard south to be present at the second battle.14

He pursued Béla IV through the dukedom of Austria and back around into Croatia, but gave up when Béla crossed into the Adriatic and took refuge on a small rocky island; the Mongols generally did not like to cross oceans, even when their prey was in sight. Instead, Kadan went back to his general.

Subotai had just dispatched a scouting party to go even farther westward: to the borders of Frederick’s Holy Roman Empire itself. They got within sight of Vienna, on the edge of the empire. Rumors of the quick-moving invaders spread, terrifying all who heard. A Hungarian priest announced that the Mongols were, in fact, the Antichrist. “Tribulation long foreknown and foretold has come upon us . . . with a ferocity already described by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures,” wrote a Polish Franciscan to his brethren. “They are the sword of the Lord’s anger for the sins of the Christian people,” mourned the Count Palatine of Saxony, in a letter to a fellow duke.15

It seemed that the end of days had come. And then, as quickly as the sky had clouded over, the storm blew away.

Even as Subotai’s scouts were gazing at Vienna’s distant spires, Ogodei Khan was dying. Before the great Mongol general could organize an attack on the Holy Roman Empire, he received the news that his old friend and master was dead. At once, he collected his troops and headed home.

Batu remained in the west, governing his conquered lands from Sarai, his new capital city on the lower Volga; his kingdom became known as the Golden Horde. But back in the Mongol heartland, a family feud had broken out over the succession to the title of Great Khan. Subotai intended to be there for the election of the next Mongol overlord.16

He never came west again. In Karakorum, he found the Mongol clans divided in support of Genghis Khan’s grandsons; and the four years of infighting that followed brought a temporary end to Mongol conquests.

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