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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 25, 2020

“I, Khan, the emissary of the heavenly king, to whom he gave power over the earth to lift up those who subject themselves to me and lay low those who resist, am amazed at you, king of Hungary – that when I will have sent you envoys thirty times, you do not send any of them back to me, and send me neither your messengers nor letters. I know that you are a wealthy and powerful king, that you have many soldiers under you, and alone you rule a great kingdom. And, therefore, it is difficult for you to submit yourself to me voluntarily. However, it would be better and more beneficial if you were to voluntarily submit to me! I have understood, in addition, that you are keeping the Cumans, my slaves, under your protection, for which reason I command you not to keep them with you any longer, and do not have me as your enemy because of them! It is easier for them to escape than you because they, lacking houses and migrating about with tents, might perhaps get away. But you, living in houses, having castles and cities – how will you escape my hands?”


So reads the famous ultimatum sent by Batu, grandson of Chinggis Khan, to Bela IV, King of Hungary. Our previous two episodes have covered the rapid Mongol campaign across the western steppe from 1236-1240, conquering the Volga Bulghars, the Alans, the Cuman-Qipchaqs and the Rus’ principalities. Having just taken Kiev in December 1240, Batu and mighty Subutai cast their eyes to Eastern Europe: Poland, the Hungarian Kingdom and beyond. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquests.


The man standing between Europe and the Mongols was Bela IV, King of Hungary, a great power of Europe. The Magyars, as the Hungarians call themselves, came to Europe as nomadic horse archers like the Mongols, conquering the Pannonian Basin -Hungary- in the 8th century and raiding western Europe. At Lechfeld in 955 they were defeated by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I and some fifty odd years later these pagans officially adopted Christianity with the baptism of Stephen I, first King of Hungary, on Christmas Day 1,000. In the following centuries they abandoned the old ways, but with a still formidable military the Hungarian Kingdom emerged as the lead power between the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and the Rus’ principalities to the east. Controlling not just modern Hungary but large swathes of Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, the Hungarian monarch controlled a diverse realm, the crossroads between Catholic and Orthodox Christendom.


Bela IV made few friends after his coronation in 1235. Born in 1206, the same year Chinggis Khan declared his Empire in distant Mongolia, Bela had a rocky relationship with his father King Andrew, whose decentralization of the kingdom through rich land rewards to the nobility frustrated Bela. Their tension progressed, Bela essentially making himself an autonomous monarch in Hungary’s Croatian territory. With Bela’s marriage to a Byzantine princess, Andrew urged the Pope to annul the union and forced Bela from the Kingdom. Ultimately he let his son return, making him ruler of Transylvania in the 1220s, where Bela came into regular contact with the Cumans. Cuman presence increased with the eastern upheavals from Mongol expansion, Cuman Khans fleeing to Hungary for asylum and baptism. Bela was drawn to the Cumans as a pillar of support against his father, while also boosting his reputation as a good Christian ruler by encouraging missionary work among them, styling himself King of the Cumans. Bela’s first years as King after 1235 saw the reclamation of crown lands and reduction in privileges of the nobility while expanding the Kingdom. Border territories were taken from Bulgaria and in 1238 Bela’s brother Coloman extended their rule in Bosnia by force. Bela’s efforts made him unpopular among the aristocracy of the kingdom, who felt their rights trampled upon.When a large body of Cumans under Khan Kotjen sought refuge in Hungary in 1239, Bela was only too happy to welcome them. 40,000 skilled mounted archers loyal directly to Bela provided him a massive bodyguard against a possible uprising from the barons of the kingdom, and Bela heaped rewards and rights to them.


Bela was not unaware of the Mongols’ western expansion. One contemporary author, Thomas of Spalato, records that the Hungarians had heard so many rumours of impending Mongol invasions that when news came of their arrival in the 1240s, it was treated as a joke. Bela certainly had up to date information from refugees like Kotjen Khan and Mikhail Vsevolodovich (Vsye-vo-lod-o-vich), Prince of Chernigov, and the Domincian Friar Julian returned with letters from Batu demanding Bela’s submission, preceding a number of Mongol envoys.  Contrary to popular depictions and contemporary accusations, Bela was not a monarch sitting idly on his hands; he had foreknowledge and some measures were enacted. Passes through the Carpathian mountains, the shield dividing the Hungarian plain from the Eurasian steppe, were blocked with wooden barriers and fallen trees, and some fortresses in Transylvania were refortified. The crux of his defense relied on the Cumans; their horse archery and experience in steppe tactics were a mighty aid to the already formidable Hungarian army. Bela was the only monarch in Europe preparing for their arrival. Of course, nothing went to plan. Tensions flared between the Cumans and the kingdom’s sedentary population. The sources speak of anger at Cumans herds allowed to roam through peasants’ fields, distrust at the close proximity of pagans, all encouraged by Hungarian lords eager to undermine Bela’s powerbase, to dire consequence.


On the fall of Kiev on the 6th of December, 1241, Batu and Subutai moved their army west and broke off into columns. The total force for the invasion of Europe is difficult to gauge, estimates of around 50-60,000 troops being common. Intelligence was carefully collected, strengths assessed. Batu was fearful of being outflanked by the enemy, and it was deemed necessary to send a portion of the army into Poland, at that time divided into five duchies- Bela IV’s sister was married to a lead Polish Duke. Despite some modern comments, the whole campaign was no mere raid. Structurally it differed little from the previous years of campaigning and the Mongol belief in world hegemony was well established. At the borders of Hungary and Poland at the start of 1241, Batu anticipated a conquest of both, and likely expected to push into Germany as well.


The army split into two main theaters. One group under Orda and Baidar was to strike Poland, preventing the Polish duchies from aiding the Hungarians. The main army was to conquer Hungary, certainly intending to use its grassland as a forward base for further operations. Batu and Subutai lead the main army, sending three smaller detachments to penetrate various passes along Hungary’s Carparthian frontier, allowing them to surround the enemy.  We’ll deal first with the Polish invasion.


 In January 1241 the first Mongol scouts entered Polish territory, followed by Orda’s main force in February, generally estimated around 10-20,000 men. Orda, Batu’s older brother, moved quickly in two main divisions under himself and Chagatai’s son Baidar. The attack on Poland was swift and ferocious: by the 13th of February, Sandomierz, capital of a Polish duchy, was taken. An engagement at Tursko saw the Polish knights get the better in the initial clash, only to be destroyed when the Mongols regrouped and surprised them. From Sandomierz they followed the Vistula River, sending contingents north to harass, pillage and burn, causing confusion as to their movements and hampering the already slow Polish response. On the 18th of March, the army of Boleslaw V, ‘the Chaste,’ Duke of Sandomierz, was destroyed at Chmielnik (Hhe-myel-nik); shortly afterwards, the Mongols sacked the Polish capital, Krakow. Boleslaw V fled to the kingdom of his brother-in-law, Bela IV.


The Polish High Duke at that time was not in Krakow, but in his home duchy of Silesia. Henry II the Pious was the lead member of the fragmented Piast dynasty, duke of Silesia and High Duke of Poland since 1238. His preparations were slow and by the time he readied his army, the Mongols were in Silesia, western Poland.  Henry was supposed to wait for aid from his brother-in-law, King Vaclav I of Bohemia, but found the Mongols approaching too quickly, following the Oder River to the Silesian capital of Wroclaw [Breslau]. On the 9th of April, 1241, Henry’s army met the Mongols under Orda and Baidar at Legnica, better known as Liegnitz or Wahlstatt [German, ‘vahlstaht’], west of Wroclaw. 


The Liegnitz battle is not recorded as well as Mohi, and a considerable amount of details were added by later authors. Illustrative of this is the notion that a contingent of Teutonic Knights under their Grand Master Poppo von Osterna were present, and that Qadan or Qaidu led Mongol contingents there. In reality, Poppo von Osterna was not Hochmeister until 1253 and the Teutonic Order provided no troops for the battle- though the Templars provided 500 peasants from their landed estates. Qadan, a son of Ogedai, was not present, as he led an army into Transylvania, and Qaidu, the grandson of Ogedai famed for his conflict with Kublai Khan, was certainly absent, as he was only about 10 years old!


Liegnitz is often presented as the Mongols easily overwhelming the Polish and German forces of Henry II, but the medieval chronicles demonstrate that the Europeans made a good show of themselves. A Polish Fransciscan reported that another Polish friar, Benedict, was told by the Mongols that they were on the point of retreat when Polish resistance collapsed. The 15th century Polish writer Jan Dlugosz describes the Poles holding their own against the Mongols in the first half of the battle. But the Mongols had a trick: a standard bearer waved his banner violently and sent forth a smokescreen, so foul the Poles lost order. Stephen Haw postulates that this poisonous smoke was gunpowder, or perhaps firelances. For the Poles who had never encountered such devices, it was overwhelming. Polish order collapsed and they were overrun. Nine sacks of ears were said to have been filled, and Duke Henry was decapitated, his severed head paraded on a lance before neighbouring cities. The suburbs of his capital at Wroclaw were destroyed, though the citadel held out.


Mongol losses may have been high, as they were unwilling to meet King Vaclav of Bohemia’s army. Small parties were briefly sent into eastern Germany where the town of Meissen, just west of Dresden, suffered an attack, but Orda and Baidar moved south to link up with Batu, cutting through the Bohemian Kingdom, modern Czechia. Stiff local resistance in Bohemia proper convinced Orda to pass through Bohemian controlled Moravia. Fortified points were bypassed for speed, but villages in the countryside suffered. Through the Vlara Pass they entered the Hungarian Kingdom on its northwestern border in May 1241. As that takes us to Hungary, let skip back a few weeks. 


After the deparuture of Orda and Baidar in February 1241, Batu and Subutai took the rest of the army to Hungary, dividing their forces to overwhelm their foe at multiple points. On March 12th, Batu and Subutai crossed through the Verecke Pass, the northeastern route the Magyars themselves first took to enter Hungary. Ogedai’s son Qadan took his contingent through the Bargo Pass into northern Transylvania. One of Tolui’s sons, Bojek, took his force through the Oituz pass into central Transylvania, and the noyan Burundai diverted far south, coming up through the Tornu Rosu Pass into southern Transylvania, linking up with Bojek at Alba Iulia. 


At the beginning of March King Bela IV began gathering his forces at Pest, one half of the city which forms modern Budapest. His requests to foreign rulers for aid were largely ignored. Bela had in mind an orderly countermarch against the Mongol army. But things quickly slipped from his hands. Some of the nobles held their forces back, refusing to come in the first place. The Mongols broke through the Carpathians quicker than anticipated and news came in of nobles going ahead to face them without support. Denis, the Kingdom’s Palatine, fled to Pest, having failed to repel the Mongols on their exit from the Verecke. Bishop Ugrin of Kalocas (Kalots-ash) defied Bela’s order and likewise marched ahead to engage the Mongols, and only barely escaped with his life. The Duke of Austria, the quarrelsome Frederick II, came to Bela’s call for aid, defeated a small Mongol party in a skirmish near Pest and withdrew. The Bishop of Varad fought the Mongols near Eger, where he was defeated and Eger destroyed. Reports kept coming to Bela of his forces allowing themselves to be destroyed piecemeal by the Mongols, while yet more Mongol forces kept showing up from new directions and rumours swirled of destruction in Poland. 


On top of that the tensions between Cumans and Hungarians had not abated. News of Cumans among the Mongol forces led to cries that Bela’s Cuman allies were spies for Batu. Bela placed the Cuman Khan Kotjen and his family under guard in Buda, but in an assault led almost certainly by Hungarian and German nobles, Kotjen and his retinue were killed. In turn, this prompted a pogrom from Hungarians in the area against the Cumans. The remaining Cumans refused to risk their lives for ‘allies’ who treated them such, and abandoned the Hungarians, leaving a trail of destruction as they flew en masse to Bulgaria, some making their way to the Latin Empire of Constantinople. This was just a goddamn mess for Bela, but he was forced to action. At the start of April a Mongol army approached Pest and Bela marched out. The Mongols fled and for a week Bela pursued them, reaching the village of Mohi on the Sajo (shah-yo) River, finding a larger Mongol army arranged on the opposite bank, a single bridge across the only passage. It was the 10th of April, only one day after the Mongol victory at Liegnitz.


Bela had just followed Shiban, Batu’s younger brother, into ground of Batu’s choosing. Batu and Subutai commanded a force estimated around 20-30,000 men, the rest of the army still ravaging Poland and Transylvania. The village of Mohi, where the Hungarians made camp, sat near the Sajo River in the northern edge of the great Hungarian plain, flat rolling grassland ideal for cavalry, while the thick trees along the river kept much of the Mongol army hidden. When Shiban’s messengers ran ahead with news of the size of the Hungarian army, Batu was unnerved, climbing a mountain to convey with Eternal Blue Heaven for a day and night to pray for victory, urging the Muslims in his army to likewise pray.  As the Hungarian army settled into their camp at Mohi, Batu viewed them from a nearby burial mound. Seeing how the Hungarians had packed themselves tightly within a laagar, a wagon fort, Batu was not impressed, likening them to sheep trapping themselves within a pen. 


Batu had hoped King Bela would try to cross the bridge, but by digging in at Mohi, Bela was forcing Batu to act. Thomas of Spalato wrote that a Rus’ prisoner escaped the Mongols and warned the Hungarians, and Bela stationed a guard at the bridge. Frustrated, Batu had to force a crossing- neutralizing his army’s mobility and playing to strengths of the Hungarian’s heavier armour. But Subutai came up with a plan. While Batu took his men over the bridge, under the cover of night Subutai would take a force downstream and build a pontoon bridge to cross and outflank the Hungarians. 


It didn’t go well. The waters downstream were deep and in the darkness, progress on the pontoon bridge was slow. Too slow for Batu, who in his impatience or belief Subutai was on schedule, ordered an assault, sent a close comrade in a heavily armoured elite unit to push the Hungarians off the bridge. The Hungarians held firm, crossbowmen proving deadly. Bela’s brother Coloman, the Bishop Ugrin and the Master of the Knights Templar in Hungary led the counterattack and repulsed the Mongols. Coloman was said to have personally thrown the Mongol commander off the bridge. The Mongols were forced back, and the Hungarians returned to their camp jubilant. Both European and Chinese sources written from Mongol documents indicate Mongol losses were heavy- as an aside, Mohi is the first battle on European soil described in any detail in a Chinese source. This source, the Yuan Shih, indicates the princes among Batu’s forces were greatly perturbed by the losses, and desired to withdraw and replan. The Polish friar C. de Bridia wrote that the Mongol vanguard actually broke on the bridge and fled. Batu was furious at Subutai’s failure to cross the river, though Subutai was not to be swayed. In response to voices urging retreat, Subutai told them “If my lord wishes to retreat, then retreat by yourself. Until I reach the Magyar city on the Danube River, I will never return!”


The Hungarians left a light guard on the bridge while the distant Hungarian camp slept soundly. Only a few hours after the initial clash, early on April 11th before dawn, the Hungarian bridge guard was rocked by the sudden crashing of stones descending on them from the darkness. The Mongols had set up their Chinese catapults and were ‘shelling’ the enemy position. Demoralized with losses mounting, when the Mongols charged they broke through the defenders. Survivors ran back to the camp, shouting alarm, but the Hungarians were slow to rise, not having anticipated an attack so soon. Subutai’s forces crossed his pontoon bridge, and by 6 A.M. the Hungarian camp was surrounded.


Though Bela’s decision to circle the camp with a wall of wagons offered some protection, the space was too small for the large army. Panic set in as thousands of men woke to cries of anguish and Mongol arrows raining among them, while the Mongols tried to set the wagons on fire. In the densely packed camp men tripped over tents and tent ropes, crushing each other in the fray. Confusion now reigned, and Bela’s fortifications trapped his men. Prince Coloman, the Bishop Ugrin and the Templars rode out to force back the Mongols but were unable to rally more men to join them. Coloman and Ugrin were seriously wounded while the Templars, despite brave efforts, were killed to a man. 


A cry ran out. An opening! The Mongols had left a gap, and many ran to take it. This was a trap. Men surrounded with no escape will fight to the death; but provide an avenue for survival, and they’ll take it. In the disorganized rout no formation or protection was to be had. As if herding their sheep, the Mongols followed along both sides of the Hungarians, ensuring none veered off trail. Once the prey was exhausted, the Mongols fell upon them. Survivors were led directly into a marsh where many drowned, encumbered in their armour, weak from injuries and exhaustion. The Bishop Ugrin met his end in these waters, one among many of the nobles, bishops and archbishops of the kingdom who fell. Bela and his brother Coloman barely escaped, with Coloman seriously injured. So ended the battle of Mohi, the back of organized  Hungarian resistance broken. 

    Hungary, and the rest of Europe, now seemed open to the Mongols, but just under a year after the victory at Mohi, Mongol armies departed from Europe. Why was this? What did they do in that year in between? Since most popular accounts cut from the Mohi victory straight to the Mongol withdrawal, we will give you, our dear listeners, more detail on the what the Mongol presence in Europe actually looked like beyond these battles, and the consequences for Hungary. If it wasn’t Ogedai Khaan’s death in December 1241 which caused the Mongol withdrawal, then what was it?  Theories have abounded from a lack of pasture, poor weather, to a gradual conquest having been the intention. While we will return to Hungary’s fate and later interactions with the Mongols in future episodes, we will also be interviewing Dr. Stephen Pow in a forthcoming episode to discuss the theories, and his own thesis, around the Mongol withdrawal in more detail, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast and to continue helping us bring you more outstanding content, please visit our patreon at Thank you for listening, I am your host David and we will catch you on the next one!