Zoltán Halász / András Balla  / Zsuzsa Béres (translation)

     Excerpt from the book”Hungary” (4th edition)/Corvina/1998)


     Originally published at:




The Mongol Invasion and the Second Conquest

It is the spring of 1241. The first sentries of dreaded Mongol forces appear at the north and north-eastern passes of the Carpathians. They are riding tiny, long-haired horses, and are wearing iron-plated armoury made of leather straps. After provoking and harassing the defending forces with feigned attacks, Batu Khan's forces concentrate their power and irrupt into Hungary through the Verecke pass, the route used by the Magyars at the time of the Conquest. The commander of the defending forces, the Palatine of Hungary, flees wounded from the scene of the battle. He just escapes death. The assailants first swoop down upon the northern part of the country, looting and massacring as the proceed forward. Later they come to grips with the main Magyar forces, led by Béla IV, in the valley of the river Sajó. During the night, the Tartars secretly cross the river and set fire to the Magyar camp. The greatest part of the besieged Magyar army, suffering an attack from the rear, is annihilated. The survivors flee towards the west and south. Soon the northern part of the country is completely under the assailants grip. When winter sets in, the Mongol forces cross the ice of the frozen Danube with ease and the whole of Transdanubia, the land west of Danube, is at their mercy. Only a few fortresses protected by stone walls hold out and, in fact, succeed in repelling the attack. The rest of the region up to its western border is occupied by the Mongols. From the western border, the Austrian Prince Friedrich mounts an attack, not against the Tartars, but against the surviving Magyar towns, and occupies Sopron and, for a short time, Győr. He imprisons Béla IV, who had fled to his court, and releases him only for a heavy ransom. The Tartars pursue the king, who is trying to organize resistance, and search for him everywhere. They follow his trail to Zagreb and Dalmatia. He finally takes refuge in Trogir. To quote a German chronicler: "After three hundred years, Hungaria was no more."


Source: Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929

Click on the map for better resolution


In fact, it did appear as though Hungary had been annihilated by the Mongol invasion. However, internal dynastic conflicts erupted within the Mongol Empire, resulting in the withdrawal of the Mongol hordes from the country in the summer of 1242. Hungaria survived the apparently fatal devastation. Its population decimated, its towns reduced to ashes, and its villages razed to dust, the country survived. Béla IV began the reconstruction of the country, building castles and fortified towns to forestall the threat of another Mongol invasion. He invited German, Walloon and Italian settlers, and by granting them special privileges, promoted urban development. The king, who was called "the second founder of the state", planned the construction of Buda Castle, raised the settlements of Buda and Pest to the rank of towns, and founded the Dominican convent on Margaret Island. On this island, which lies between Buda and Pest, his daughter Margaret - who was later canonized - lived as a nun. The Mongol invasion proved to be a turning point in more ways than one. The country's survival was proof of the strength of the people. However, the manner of reconstruction - though necessary under the circumstances - became the source of further internal strife and feudal anarchy. The king, fearing another Mongol invasion, encouraged feudal lords to build strongholds. These new strongholds, however, became a basis of a power in which the role of the king became more and more insignificant. At the same time, a growing number of lesser nobles were forced into positions of dependence by the greater lords as soldiers in their private armies. The stormy and glorious reign of Béla IV (1235-1270) was followed be renewed struggles over succession and battles between opposing factions. Later, with the death of king Andrew III, the male line of the House of Árpád became extinct, and thus, the right of inheritance through the female line became a possibility.


The Prosperity of the Angevin Period and the Stormy Reign of Sigismund of Luxemburg

In the early 1970s, the fragment of a Trecento-style statue was unearthed during archaeological excavations in one of the courtyards of Buda Castle. Further excavations uncovered over forty statues and fragments, a veritable graveyard of statues. In all probability, they had adorned the Friss (New) Palace of Sigismund of Luxemburg, later Holy Roman Emperor.

The statues of ladies, knights, court musicians, servants and guardsmen mark not only the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but also the beginning of a new age. Dressed in full-length gowns, richly gathered cloaks, pointed shoes and daring hats, they are an unexpected reminder of a flourishing, almost decadent Hungarian Trecento, whose mere existence was no more than a conjecture before the miraculous appearance of the archaeological foundings at Buda Castle. Charles Robert, the descendant of the Naples branch of the Angevin House and through his grandmother of the House of Árpád, became king after the death of Andrew III, the last monarch of the House of Árpád. At the height of the feudal anarchy, the barons, whose power was far greater than that of the king, fought battles and made alliances. However, by gradually overcoming the power of the barons, breaking the resistance of the renegade towns and putting an end to chaos, Charles Robert, who grew up among the modern financial and trading life of Naples and Milan, brought prosperity to feudal Hungary. Knights, soldiers, businessmen and artists from Naples and other Italian towns brought a new vitality. This is why the achievements of the Trecento appeared relatively early in Hungary as compared to other European countries, and why they formed a new kind of unity, merging local tradition and Gothic art in the works of succeeding generations.

Source: Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929

Click on the map for better resolution


Charles Robert was a realist in economic matters. He had no plans for conquest and held that his two greatest achievements were the introduction of a new Hungarian currency, the gold forint modelled on the Florentine design, and the meeting he arranged between himself and the Polish and Bohemian kings at his castle in Visegrád, which gave birth to important decisions concerning the development of foreign trade between their countries. His son, Louis I (1342-1382), came to be known as Louis the Great because of his dynastic and expansionist policies. His forces advanced as far as Naples, Treviso, and the Bulgarian Viddin, and he later acquired the Polish throne. Since he died without male issue, the throne was assumed by Sigismund of Luxemburg, Louis the Great's son-in-law. This fullblooded and gluttonous king, who lived for the pursuit of love and adventure and wasted enormous amounts of money, had one great aim - winning the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which he acquired in 1433. Sigismund made extensive use of the resources of Hungary to further his aims abroad, and loans linked to mortgages on the royal estates played a growing part in financing his ventures. This policy reached such proportions that by the middle of the fifteenth century, the estates of the great barons made up more than half the territory of Hungary. Central power was finally weakened to such an extent that only Sigismund's alliance with the powerful Czillei-Garai League could ensure his position on the throne. Meanwhile, the expansionist Ottoman Empire was posing a direct threat to the country, and after the resounding defeat at Nicopolis in 1396, all Sigismund could manage was feeble resistance against repeated Turkish attacks upon fortresses in the southern region of Hungary.

Sigismund's turbulent and stormy reign, however, also had its positive aspects; towns grew and flourished, and the multilingual and educated royal court exerted a favourable influence on the development of the arts and culture in general. Large-scale building schemes provided ample and long term work for the artists, for example, the building of the Friss (New) Castle in Buda, the castles of Visegrád, Tata and Várpalota. In Sigismund's court there were patrons such as Pipo Spano, a descendant of the Scolari family of Florence, who invited Manetto Ammanatini and Masolino da Pannicale to Hungary. Artistic frescoes were painted, beautifully illuminated codices were produced by the royal workshop, panel painting flourished, and so did sculpture.


The Hunyadi Era

When the noon-day bells chime from the church steeples of Europe, they serve as a reminder of a historic event that took place in 1456 under the medieval walls of Belgrade [Nándorfehérvár], the capital of present-day Yugoslavia. The protagonists were Murad, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and János Hunyadi, the outstanding military leader of the age. Belgrade was besieged from all sides by 300 thousand Turkish soldiers. The sultan had planned to capture the great southern stronghold and from there push into Hungary, and the west. Belgrade's defence was led by Mihály Szilágyi, Hunyadi's brother-in-law. The fate of the fortress was critically important for the future of Europe. Pope Calixtus III called for a crusade and sent Giovanni Capistrano, a Franciscan friar, later canonized, and an outstanding orator, to Hungary. He was to help Hunyadi recruit soldiers to relieve the forces at the castle.

Before the siege of the fortress began, Pope Calixtus III issued a bull calling for prayers for the defenders of the fortress and ordering the ringing of the bells at noon. The peoples of the southern region flocked to Hunyadi's army, and troops arrived from Poland, Germany, Vienna and Bohemia, composed primarily of artisans, students and peasants. There was a shortage of food and ammunition at the fortress, so their position appeared hopeless. However, at the last moment, Hunyadi arrived with his relief forces. His boats broke through the blockade set up on the Danube by the Turkish ships and succeeded in establishing communication with the beleaguered garrison. Hunyadi organized the defence of the stronghold and the counterattacked, destroying the Turkish forces. The Turkish army left Belgrade defeated and having suffered severe losses, including the loss of its fleet. Hunyadi's victory at Belgrade was the most severe defeat the conquering sultans had ever suffered, and for another half century, it saved Hungary from similar attacks by the Ottoman power.

János Hunyadi's (c. 1407/9-1456) career was an astonishing one. The youth who was descended from a family of the lesser nobility was first a page, and later the leader a mercenary unit. In the service of the Italian princes, including the Sforzas, he became acquainted with the techniques of organizing a modern mercenary army and learned the importance of the foot soldier and the artillery. His remarkable gifts as a military commander and statesman were responsible for his meteoric rise, in the course of which he became one of the greatest landowners in the country, a baron, Ban of Szörény, Voivode of Transylvania and the commander of the campaigns againts the Turks, as well as governor of the country.

The day after his victory at Belgrade, Hunyadi died a victim of the plague which devastated the war-stricken country. It seemed for a time that with his death the power of the Hunyadis had also come to an end. As a result of political intrigue, his older son Ladislas was executed by the king, and the younger son, Matthias, was taken as a hostage with him to Prague. However, in the year of the Belgrade victory, the neurotic king, Ladislas V, died suddenly in the Bohemian capital. A large-scale movement launched by the lesser nobility, townsmen, and of course, the Hunyadi faction, forced the barons participating in the Diet held at Buda Castle to elect fifteen-year-old Matthias as the ruler of the country. According to the chronicles, the resistance of the barons was broken by fifteen thousand armed nobles, who marched over the ice of the frozen Danube to the walls of the Castle. This action was so successfully accomplished, that after long weeks of procrastination, the decision favouring Matthias took only a few hours to make.

There are few figures in Hungarian history surrounded by as many legends, anecdotes and entertaining stories, as that of King Matthias. His image as the defender of the common people against the arrogant barons is just as much a part of Hungarian historical folklore as "Mátyás deák" (Student Matthias). In this characterization, Matthias roams the country in disguise, unveils injustice, rewards virtue, and conquers the hearts of young girls and beautiful women, who never even suspect that the clever, goodlooking traveller they hold in their arms is the king himself.

Obviously, tales and fables known to many peoples have exerted influence over Hungarian folklore (e.g., attributing the deeds of Harun-al-Rashid, memorialized in The Thousand and One Nights, and other legendary heroes to Matthias). It is also obvious, however, that the historical memory of a nation, as well as its nostalgia, is manifested in the tales about Matthias; for the reign of King Matthias between 1458 and 1490 was the golden age of medieval Hungary. With astonishing strength and political wisdom, the adolescent elected to the throne of the country broke the resistance of the various baronial factions opposing him and, with a series of measures, built up a centralized monarchy based on the absolute power of the ruler. He created a highly disciplined mercenary army supplied with modern weapons, and reformed the system of jurisdiction. This, together with the creation of a stable centralized power and public security, provided a solid basis for the development of industry and commerce. Matthias encouraged the growth of towns and made Buda his royal residence, which consequently became one of the most beautiful in Europe. To the Gothic Friss (New) Palace in Buda Matthias added a new wing in the Renaissance style which held his famous library, the Bibliotheca Corviniana. The first printing press was established in Buda in 1473. There was also an outburst of scientific activity. Hundreds of Hungarian students made their way to the universities of Vienna, Cracow, Padua and Bologna, returning to Hungary to spread the influence of the new learning. In Pozsony [now Bratislava] the Academia Istropolitana was founded; at the court of Matthias, Antonio Bonfini was writing his Rerum Hungaricarum Decades, and the Italian humanist Galeotto Marzio, was also active there. Janus Pannonius, the humanist poet famous throughout Europe, worked in Pécs. Nor were architecture and the fine arts neglected. The royal palace of Buda, the magnificent palace of Visegrád with its three hundred and fifty rooms and the fortress castle of Diósgyőr were all embellished with works by Hungarian and Italian artists, including Benedetto de Maiano, Verrocchio, Leonardo and others. A portrait of Matthias was painted by Mantegna.

Matthias pursued a vigorous and active foreign policy. In the early years of his reign he launched an offensive attack against the Turks. Later, he conducted an expansionist foreign policy towards Moravia and Silesia, and finally, against Austria. After occupying Vienna in 1489, he transferred his royal residence there from Buda, and it was in Vienna that he died in 1490. At the time of his sudden death, he left behind him a flourishing country which stood at the forefront of European development.


The Peasant Rebellion of 1514 and the Battle of Mohács

A contradictory and ominous political figure at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Tamás Bakócz had been, in the course of his career, royal secretary and Bishop of Győr under King Matthias's reign. Under the reign of Matthias's successor, Wladislas II, he was royal chancellor, Archbishop of Esztergom, and later a cardinal. A master of Machiavellian intrigue and a remarkable political strategist, trusted by Venice and mediator between Milanese and Florentine bankers and Buda, he rose in the course of a few decades from the son of a wheelmaking serf to the rank of the richest and most powerful men in the country. In 1510, Bakócz set himself the greatest objective of his life, the attainment of the vacant papal throne. He arrived in Rome at the head of a magnificent delegation, and for months he attempted to dazzle the Eternal City with sumptuous festivities on which he spent enormous sums of money. As far as the papal throne was concerned, his efforts remained fruitless, for the conclave elected young Giovanni Medici as the head of the Church. However, the new pope, Leo X, "consoled" Bakócz with a Bull which enabled him to declare a crusade against the Turks. The status of the serfs had deteriorated in the course of the preceding years due to increased oppression, including restriction of their freedom of movement. Bakócz and a section of the landowners were convinced that the serfs would march to the faraway battlefields, and consequently, the tense internal situation would become less dangerous. The majority of the barons and nobility, however, opposed putting arms in the hands of the peasants. When men from all parts of the country began to gather together for the holy crusade against the Turks, many of the landowners used force to keep their serfs at home. They oppressed the families of those who had gone, forcing them to accept the labour and duties of those absent from home. The crusading force, formed as it was of the dissatisfied masses, rapidly turned into an anti-feudal army. When Bakócz, urged by the alarmed feudal lords and nobles, suspended the crusade, the infuriated masses refused to obey his orders. György Dózsa, a Székely cavalry officer who had already proven himself in battle against the Turks, led his army to the Hungarian Great Plain where larger and larger groups of peasants joined him, and the towns on the plains also sided with them. Realizing the threat to their power, the barons and the lesser nobility temporarily set aside their differences at this point, and the cavalry of the nobility swooped down on the peasant army, which had laid siege to Temesvár [now Timisoara]. The peasant forces suffered decisive defeat at the hands of the experienced and well-armed nobility, and after the uprising had been finally crushed, ruthless revenge was taken on the peasants. Dózsa was captured, seated on a red-hot throne, crowned with a red-hot iron crown, and burned alive. Thousands of peasants were executed. The Diet was convened in the autumn of 1514 proceeded to pass a law depriving the serfs of all freedom of movement.

It was under these circumstances that the decisive attack of the Turks took place. After occupying two of Hungary's southern bastions, the Turkish Sultan Suleiman II (1496-1566) launched a large-scale offensive with a well-equipped army of eighty thousand in the summer of 1526. The Hungarian forces, led by Louis II, barely consisted of twenty thousand men who were poorly armed in comparison to the Turkish army. The decisive battle was fought at Mohács by the Danube river and ended with the annihilation of the Hungarian army. Fifteen thousand were killed in the battle, and the king himself died on the battlefield. This event was one of the tragic turning points in Hungarian history, and its efforts were felt for centuries to come. The territorial unity of medieval Hungary, together with its independence, were lost.

© Zoltán Halász
English translation by Zsuzsa Béres
Translation revised by J.E. Sollosy

Bibliographic data:
Title: Hungary (4th edition)
Authors: Zoltán Halász / András Balla (photo) / Zsuzsa Béres (translation)
Published by Corvina, in 1998
159 pages
ISBN: 963-13-4129-1, 963-13-4727-3