By Peter Konieczny
The events of the year 1241 came as a shock to medieval Europe – an army had entered the very heart of the continent and inflicted massive destruction and death. No one knew where they had come from, or why they were here. Many believed that this was the first sign of the Apocalypse. When the Mongols mysteriously withdrew from Hungary, more questions were asked, including “will they back?” For those who managed to survive, these events were traumatic and heartbreaking. Little wonder that they felt this was the end of the world.
The battleground for this invasion centered on the Kingdom of Hungary. The country lies on the western end of the Eurasian Steppe, a vast plain of grasslands that extends into Russia and Ukraine, and from there into Asia almost to the Pacific Ocean. For thousands of years the steppe was home to dozens of nomadic tribes, who traveled its lands with great herds of horses, sheep and cattle, seeking out new pastures. It was also a very violent land, as these tribes fought each other over scarce resources and, if powerful enough, would launch raids into countries such as China and Iran.
The Mongols are coming
During the first half of the thirteenth century things began to change on the Eurasian Steppe. Genghis Khan had been able to unite the Mongolian people under his rule, conquer the other tribes and add them to his empire. United, the peoples of the steppe became a major military force, able to exploit their mastery of mounted warfare tactics to strike at northern China and central Asia. Their skill in battle was matched by a reputation for ruthlessness and destruction – more than once the people of an entire city were executed, and whole regions that were once prosperous were turned into uninhabited wastes.
Around the time of Genghis’ death in 1227, the idea of Mongol domination over the entire world had become the mantra of his heirs as their armies started to push out from the steppe and conquer new lands. This would include reaching into Russia and Eastern Europe, but here the main reason for the Mongol advance was not the riches of Europe – instead it was the pursuit of a defeated foe.
The Qipchaqs, also known as the Cumans, were another nomadic steppe people that roamed the lands north of the Black and Caspian seas. The Mongols sought to conquer them and add their warriors to their own armies, and after years of fighting the Qipchaq resistance crumbled. As some surrendered and others fled, one group of close to 20,000 families came to Hungary. Their leader, Kuten, asked the Hungarian king, Bela IV, for permission to settle in parts of his country, and in return they would convert to Christianity and serve him as loyal followers. Bela accepted the Qipchaqs and became their king. Bela then moved them to a sparsely populated part of his territory.
The presence of the Qipchaqs in Hungary was not welcomed by other peoples. In his work Epistle of the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tatars, Master Roger, an Italian who was serving as the canon of the cathedral of Varad, complained that these people:
began to roam around Hungary, they caused severe damage to the pastures, crops, gardens, orchards, copses, vineyards and other goods of the Hungarians, as they had an enormous amount of cattle. And what was even more horrible, they – for they were wild people – inhumanly raped the virgins of the poor and defiled the bed of the powerful, whenever they had a chance. True, their women were bedded by the Hungarians as if they were worthless. Should a Hungarian offend a Cuman, either in person or goods, justice was rendered to the Cuman right away, so that no one would dare to commit anything similar. But should a Cuman harm a Hungarian, the Hungarian was not rendered justice, and if he dared to pursue the matter, he might get lashes for his words. Thus enmity emerged between the people and the king.
It didn’t take long for the Mongols and their commander, Batu Khan, to come after the Qipchaqs, seeking to complete their conquest. Batu, a grandson of Genghis, had completed his conquest of Russia by the year 1240 and still had a military force of over 100,000 men at his disposal. He first sent a messenger to Bela IV, to give the king the following letter:
I, Chayn, messenger of the heavenly king, to whom he has given on earth to exalt those who submit to him and cast down his adversaries, I wonder at you, king of Hungary, that although I have sent you messengers thirty times, you have sent me back none of them, nor did you send me messengers of your own or letters. I know that you are a rich and powerful king, and that you have many soldiers under you, and that you govern alone a great kingdom. Therefore it is difficult for you to submit to me voluntarily. Further, I have learned that you keep the Qipchaqs, my slaves, under your protection. Whence I charge you the henceforward you do not keep them with you, and that you do not make me your enemy on their account. For it is easier for them to escape than for you. Since they, having no house and continually on the move with their tents may possibly escape. But you, living in houses and possessing fortresses and cities, how can you flee from my grasp?”
Hungary in peril
King Bela received the letter, and now realizing the seriousness of this threat to Hungary, he rushed to his eastern border to make sure that his fortifications there were strengthened and well manned. He then returned to the city of Pest, where he summoned his nobles and the Qipchaqs to come with their armies, so that plans could be developed to defend the kingdom. The Hungarian nobility came, but grudgingly. Ever since Bela had gained the Hungarian throne in 1235, he had been forcing his nobles to return land and power to royal control, which brought resentment and distrust that had only been heightened by the presence of the Qipchaqs. Some nobles were secretly hoping that the Mongols would humiliate and defeat Bela and his Qipchaqs, while others felt that this meeting was unnecessary as they believed that the Mongols were no threat to Hungary.
Meanwhile, Batu was also busy planning his invasion of Europe. He was aware that the Hungarians had alliances with the rulers of Poland, Bohemia and Bulgaria, and he wanted to make sure that these peoples would not come to Bela’s aid. Therefore, his forces, at least 100,000 strong, were divided into three groups. These made diversionary attacks on Poland and Romania, while Batu led the main force to the borders of Hungary.
On March 15, 1241, before all the Hungarian lords could gather in Pest, messengers reported to Bela that the eastern fortifications had been overwhelmed by the Mongols and that some of their horsemen were already within a half day’s march of Pest. The Hungarian king remained cautious, and ordered his arriving nobles to remain at Pest for the time being. The command was greeted with cynicism from the nobles, and Ugrin, archbishop of Kalocsa, felt insulted that he had to sit and wait while his country was being destroyed. He disregarded the order and on March 17 he led his men in pursuit of the invaders. Soon they came across a Mongol unit, which fled upon seeing the Hungarians. Ugrin chased them for hours, only to be led into a marshy field. As the Hungarian horses got bogged down in the marsh, the Mongols turned around and unleashed their arrow barrage. The archbishop’s force was destroyed, although Ugrin himself managed to get away.
This early defeat may have worried some Hungarian nobles, but the arrival of Frederick, Duke of Austria, restored their confidence. Bela had asked for Frederick’s help, and the duke had now brought his army to Pest. However, Frederick’s motive for coming was not necessarily to help the Hungarian king, but to upstage him and show that he was a much better leader. He did not listen to Bela’s order to remain on the defensive, but instead attacked some Mongol scouts and drove them away from Pest. Frederick even killed one of their ‘leaders’ and cut off the arms of another, before returning to the Hungarian camp where he received a hero’s welcome.
With the Mongols repulsed for the moment, the Hungarian nobles turned their attention to their Qipchaq allies. Noting the physical resemblance between these people and the Mongols, the nobles accused Koten, the Qipchaq leader, of secretly colluding with the invaders. Before Bela could get a handle on the situation, a mob of Hungarians descended upon Koten’s residence, shouting “He has to die! He has to die! He is the one who brought about the destruction of Hungary!” They entered the house and murdered Koten and some of his followers. The rest of the Qipchaq army revolted and started fighting with the Hungarians. Farms and villages were burnt to the ground, and within a few days the whole Qipchaq force had disbanded and left the Hungarians, some returning to the Mongols and submitting to Batu. Because of all the turmoil, Frederick decided it would not be wise to remain and took his army back to Austria.
The Battle of Mohi
While the Hungarians were fighting their allies, Batu led his army very slowly into the country. Perhaps he was waiting for the flanking armies in Poland and Bulgaria to join up with him, or believed that the Hungarians would continue to weaken themselves with time. In the end, the Hungarians had to initiate the fight themselves. Once the fighting with the Qipchaqs was over, Bela was cajoled by his nobles into marching against the Mongols. The two sides made contact in early April at the Sajo River, halfway between Pest and Hungary’s eastern border. Bela took control of the main bridge over the river, near the village of Mohi, and set up a fortified camp. The Hungarian and Mongol armies were about equally matched, at around 50,000 men each.
Batu took up position on the opposite side of the river, in a heavily wooded area. The Mongol commander wasn’t sure he could defeat these adversaries, so he ascended the top of a hill near his camp, where he prayed and meditated for a day and a night. Then he went to survey the Hungarian army and its camp. To his great surprise, his prayers were seemingly answered. The camp pitched by Bela and his advisors was too small, and all the tents were squeezed together with no open areas between them. This made movement within the camp very difficult in the daytime and almost impossible at night. Furthermore, the Hungarians had used their wagons to make a perimeter wall around their camp, which further hindered both soldiers and horses. Upon seeing this, Batu commented “they are crowded together, like a herd of cattle in narrow stalls, with no room to move about.”
On the night of April 10 Batu set in motion his plan to destroy the Hungarians. First, a small force was sent to attack the troops protecting the bridge over the Sajo River. Bela responded by sending men under the command of his younger brother, Prince Coloman, and Archbishop Ugrin to hold the bridge. The Hungarians forced the Mongols to withdraw, and for the rest of the night there was no activity. But at dawn, Batu made a second, more serious attempt to capture the bridge. Seven catapults were brought forward, and the Mongols used a rolling barrage of artillery and arrows to drive the Hungarians off the bridge. As the Mongols crossed over, a second army appeared behind the Hungarian camp.
During the previous night, Subutai, an experienced Mongol general, had led half of the Mongol force under cover of darkness to a place downstream from the Hungarian camp. They found a ford on the Sajo – unbelievably the Hungarians had not bothered to place guards along the river – and crossed to the other side. From there, the Mongols headed back to the Hungarian camp and arrived at precisely the right time. Bela and his men were completely surrounded. The overcrowded camp made it impossible for them to organize properly, or establish some kind of defense. The Mongol catapults soon started pounding the camp, and then archers shot flaming arrows causing fires to break out in the tents.
The Hungarians, who came to Mohi overconfident and ill-prepared, now feared for their lives. At this point, Subutai deliberately opened up part of his lines. Bela took this opportunity to flee, and when the Mongols made no effort to stop him, the rest of his army dropped their weapons and tried to rush out through the opening. This was exactly what the Mongols wanted, and once the Hungarians had abandoned the camp, Subedai’s forces attacked. Thomas of Split, the main authority on the battle, described what happened next:
When (the Mongols) saw that their enemies were exhausted from running and unable to stretch out their arms to fight or their legs in flight, they began to rain spears upon them from all sides and to cut them down with swords, sparing no one, and butchering them like animals. Left and right they fell like leaves in winter; the whole way was covered with their wretched bodies; blood flowed like the stream of a river. The hapless country far and wide was red, stained with the blood of her sons.
Those who managed to get past the Mongols found themselves fleeing right into a large marsh, where many of them drowned. In the end, of the 50,000 Hungarians who came to Mohi, only a very few escaped the slaughter.
Bela was one of those few who did get away. His personal bodyguard was heroic in fighting off the Mongols, but the Hungarian king probably owed his life to the fact that Batu had ordered that he be captured alive. Bela continued his flight into Austria, where he hoped to gain Duke Frederick’s protection. Instead, the duke imprisoned him. One chronicler wrote that the king was “like the fish trying to avoid being fried in the pan that jumps into the embers and gets roasted, in order to avoid the bad he came to worse.” He was forced to sign agreements to give up parts of his territory to the Duke, as well as all that remained of Bela’s treasury. Once he gained these concessions, Frederick freed the Hungarian king, and Bela made his way to the island of Trau, in the Adriatic Sea, where he was able to keep away from the pursuing Mongols.
In the meantime, Batu was making the most out of his victory at Mohi. His troops had found the royal seal on the body of Bela’s vice-chancellor, and the Mongol commander forced some captured Hungarian clerks to write a general proclamation in the king’s name, which said:
Do not fear the ferocity and madness of the hounds and do not dare to leave your houses, because, although on account of some unforeseen circumstances we had to leave behind the camp and our tents, yet by the favor of God we intend gradually to recover them and fight a valiant battle against the (Mongols); therefore do not thing except pray that merciful God may permit us to crush the heads our enemies.
The fake proclamation, bearing the royal seal, was sent to countless towns and villages, and persuaded many people to remain in their homes unprepared. This clever ruse enabled the Mongols to roam throughout much of the countryside without meeting resistance. But even in places like Pest, where the inhabitants tried to build some extra defenses, the Mongol attack was just too powerful. Thomas of Split reported that here, “the deadly arrows of the (Mongols) penetrated to their mark every time and brought death even more surely. For no breastplate, shield or armor was proof against the shots leveled by the (Mongols’) hands.” Pest fell after two or three days of fighting, after which Batu ordered that everyone in the city be killed and that all its buildings be burned.
The worst victims in this invasion were the poor Hungarian peasants, who were forced to work as slaves for the Mongols or had fled their homes and were seeking safety in the forests and mountains. Food was becoming scarce, and when the harvest was ready in the fall of 1241, the Mongols sent the peasants to collect it, after which they took all they required for themselves and their horses, and burned the rest.
Those who tried to escape also found hardship and danger. One memorable account comes from Master Roger, who relates how he tried to escape from the Mongol soldiers and seek safety in any place they could find. He would come across villages and towns that were completely abandoned, or had only, “the corpses and skulls of those slaughtered by the invaders.”
Roger often traveled through thick forests to keep out of sight of Mongol soldiers, and he would hide in caves or ruined houses to avoid being found. He describes how he would enter deserted homes, “overturning corpses to look for hidden flour or meat or some other foodstuff.” At other times Roger would scavenge from peasant gardens or from the forest floor, even eating hemlock roots. When he came across other people, they had little to offer him. At one place all they had was some black bread made from a little flour and crushed acorn shells.
There were very few places where people could take refuge. Most towns fell easily to the Mongols, as did monasteries and the simple earthwork castles that supposedly protected the country. Only a handful of stone castles held out against the Mongols, and most of those were on the western edge of Hungary. Roger’s account and other sources reveal that some people found safety by going to mountainous or inaccessible areas and building fortifications there.
The Mongol withdrawal from Hungary
With the arrival of spring in 1242, the Austrians and Germans thought that the Mongol armies would soon reach them. As the Europeans prepared for the invasion, messengers arrived reporting that Mongol troops were already in these countries. But these forces were merely diversions to keep the Germans and Austrians occupied while the rest of the Mongol army withdrew from Hungary. The Mongols, who had come so far into the heart of Europe, were now marching back to Russia, taking with them thousands of captives. This turn of events was as perplexing to the Europeans as it was a relief. Some believed that the Mongols had been defeated, while others heard a rumor that Batu had drowned while crossing the Danube. But for most, it did not matter to them why the Mongols left, just that they were gone.
The question of why the Mongols left Hungary and returned to Russia continues to vex historians. Many believe that Batu had just received news of the death of the Mongol ruler Ogedei and decided to withdraw in order to be closer to the homeland in case civil war broke out. Another theory suggests that the Mongol horses had devoured all the available grassland in Hungary and the Mongols had to move on.
While both of these factors may have contributed to the decision to pull out, another reason may have been that the Mongols were victims of the recently coined term ‘catastrophic success.’ Batu and his forces had wiped out the Hungarian nobility at the Battle of Mohi, and then spent more than a year plundering and destroying the countryside. They were so thorough that nothing was left for them to control – no political structures remained, nor did any officials who could govern on the Mongols’ behalf. In the Mongol empire, local authorities were necessary as the Mongols were too busy with war to administer their conquered territories. Batu wanted to capture the Hungarian king so he could force him into submission and then have him rule the land under the Mongols. Bela could have secured Hungary for the Mongols, and helped them to prepare for future invasions into the rest of Europe, but the king escaped, leaving the Mongols without any way to govern Hungary. Nor could Batu continue with his invasion, for his army had sustained losses and it would be too risky to fight more battles until reinforcements were sent from Mongolia. At this point, Batu simply decided to abandon the country, knowing that in a few years Hungary would recover enough that he could return and then force its rulers to surrender.
Fortunately for the Kingdom of Hungary, the opportunity for another invasion never came. Mongol forces occasionally raided into Eastern Europe in the years and decades after, but Batu was too preoccupied with internal Mongol politics to set out on another major campaign. The Mongols continued to rule as overlords over large parts of Russia and Ukraine into the late fifteenth century, but in Eastern Europe the stories of their terror and destruction became the stuff of mystery and legend.
Archdeacon Thomas of Split, History of the Bishops of Salona and Split, translated by Damir Karbić, Mirjana Sokol, James Ross Sweeney (Central European University Press, 2006)
Master Roger’s Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tatars, translated by János M. Bak and Martyn Rady (Central European University Press, 2010)
Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the West: 1221-1410 (Longman, 2005)
Alexander V. Maiorov and Roman Hautala (eds.), The Routledge handbook of the Mongols and Central-Eastern Europe: political, economic, and cultural relations (Routledge, 2021)
Denis Sinor, “The Mongols in the West,” in Journal of Asian History v.33 n.1 (1999)