The Mongol Horde in Poland and Hungary

I know, I haven’t posted anything here in a few days.  When you see a dry spell like that, it means one of the following:

  1. I’m out of town.
  2. Writer’s block, I couldn’t think of anything new to write.
  3. I’m busy working on something for the website.
  4. Something else in the real world is keeping me busy.


This time it was number 3.  I started composing the next Xenophile Historian newsletter yesterday, and today I added two new sections to Chapter 8 of my European history.  Previously I had one long section covering Frederick II, the most interesting of the Holy Roman emperors, called “Frederick II, Il Stupor Mundi.”  But recently I realized that I had only given the briefest description of one of the main events of his reign, the Mongol invasion of Europe.  Therefore I split that section into three.  The first part, covering the years before 1240, remains the same, including the name.  The second part covers the invasion, and the third part, for events after the invasion, is now called “The Embattled Empire.”  Because the second part is completely new, here it is.


The Mongol Horde in Poland and Hungary

The ongoing struggle between the two most powerful leaders of Christendom not only scandalized Europe, but also put it in great peril. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, a barbarian chief named Temujin brought the tribes of Mongolia under his rule. In 1206 they convened a kurultai, a grand congress, at which Temujin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, the "Universal Ruler." Now that all of Mongolia was his, Genghis Khan sent his armies forth to conquer the rest of the world, for the same reason that the Arabs attacked the Byzantine and Persian Empires after Arabia was united; they needed to fight and loot somebody, and they could no longer do it to each other. Most of the Great Khan’s wars were inflicted upon Asia, but in 1221 one of his armies raided Iran, crossed the Caucasus and entered Russia. This raid was a roaring success; it caught the Russians and steppe barbarians before they could form a united front, and delivered a series of crushing defeats, before returning to Mongolia in 1223. Consequently you could bet your last gold coin that someday the Mongols would come back for more.

But first they had to take care of business at home. Genghis died in 1227. and the Mongols elected his son Ogotai to succeed him. Ogotai wasn’t as aggressive as his father, but many of the folks around him were, so the empire, which now stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria, continued to grow. New campaigns were launched in China and Iran, to finish the conquests that Genghis had started. It wasn’t until 1236 that the Mongols got around to invading Europe again.

Though thirteen years had passed since the first invasion, the Europeans had done nothing to prepare for the second one. They could not unite against a common enemy, to start with. The original Russian state had broken up in the mid-eleventh century; in its place were about eleven petty states, of which Novgorod was the biggest and Vladimir was the strongest. Nor would any help come from the west, while the pope and the Holy Roman emperor were locked in their vicious quarrel. Thus, when the Mongols returned they were able to defeat their opponents one by one, just like they had done the first time. From 1237 to 1240 they conquered the Volga Bulgars, the Russians, the Alans and the Cumans.(23) Next it was the turn of central Europe, and the Mongol army split in three for this; one force invaded Poland, one force invaded Transylvania, while the main force, led by Batu Khan (Genghis Khan’s grandson) and an excellent general named Subotai, invaded Hungary. No doubt they were planning to make the pasturelands of Hungary their advance base, the way the Huns, Avars and Magyars had done. Before the whole European campaign had started, Ogotai Khan’s strategists had predicted it would take sixteen to eighteen years to conquer Europe; because they had taken Russia and the Ukraine in four years, you could say they were ahead of schedule at this point.

The Mongols in Poland sacked Lublin, Sandomierz and Krakow, the capital, which the king of Poland had abandoned to them. Continuing on into Silesia, they encountered an army of Polish and German knights roughly the same size as their force and smashed it (the battle of Liegnitz, at modern Legnica, April 9, 1241); then they moved into Hungary to rejoin their comrades there.

Meanwhile in Hungary, a large group of Cumans (estimates of their numbers range from 40,000 to 200,000) fled across the border, offering to become Catholics and join the Hungarian army if King Bela IV would take them under his protection. The king accepted, but a lot of Hungarians did not trust the new recruits, especially after they saw the king take the side of the Cumans, in a dispute between them and the nobility. When the king ordered all his troops, including the Cumans, to assemble in the city of Pest, riots broke out and the Cuman khan was killed. Believing they had been betrayed, the Cumans pillaged the Hungarian countryside, instead of defending it. What remained of the Hungarian army advanced to the Sajó River, which was flooded at the time, and they captured the only bridge across it. The wet, forested terrain favored the Hungarians, and they had the element of surprise when they took the bridge, but their advantage was short-lived; in his most brilliant victory, Subotai outflanked and ambushed the enemy camp (the battle of Mohi, April 11, 1241). The Mongols overran all of Hungary after that, and the king fled to an island off the Dalmatian coast.

Unlike European armies, Mongolian armies move best in cold weather; during the winter of 1241-42 they crossed the frozen Danube, and even sent an experimental raid into Austria. However, Ogotai Khan died back in Mongolia, and word of his death reached the army in Europe the following spring. The whole royal family, including Batu, was expected to take part in voting for Ogotai’s successor, so Batu had to go to Mongolia. The army marched down the Danube to the Black Sea in 1242, and then headed east across the steppes. Bela IV returned from exile to take the Hungarian throne again, ruling until his death in 1270. Modern historians do not like the idea that one man, five thousand miles away from the action, can change the course of world events; they might point out that the Mongols did not have the resources to hold onto anything west of Russia for any length of time. Myself, I prefer to think that the khan’s death saved central Europe from some horrid atrocities. If the Mongols had continued into Germany or Italy, they would have made the tenth-century raids of the Magyars look puny by comparison.(24)


23. The Cumans were a Turkish tribe that settled the Ukraine in 1060, the last nomads to arrive before the Mongols. They were a tribe of many names: "Cuman" was the Greek/Byzantine name for them, while the Russians called them Polovtsy, other Turks called them Ghuzz or Oghuz, and the Mongols called them Kipchaks. Finally, if you meet a modern-day Hungarian with the last name of Kun (as in Bela Kun, the communist leader), you know he is descended from those Cumans who took refuge in Hungary in the 1240s.

24. Frederick’s favorite hobby was falconry, and he wrote a 589-page manual on the care and training of falcons which still exists, called The Art of Hunting with Birds. The book was richly illustrated with pictures like this one, which shows Frederick with a hooded falcon.


Later on, when somebody asked Frederick about the Mongol invasion, he said half-seriously that if the Mongols conquered his empire, he would like to become the Great Khan’s falconer!

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