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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jun 1, 2020

For two days’ walk a trail of corpses lead from the bridge over the Sajo River. Arrows protruding from fallen Hungarians, limbs bent at unnatural angles, leading to a dense marsh where armoured bodies lay sunk in the bloodied water. Riders picked over the bodies, collecting unbroken arrows, still usable weapons and armours while finishing off survivors. Great piles of loot were made, to be divided among the troops, and Batu Khan, grandson of Chinggis, took the royal tents of the Hungarian King, Bela IV, for himself. Bela had escaped, but the Mongol riders would pursue. In the aftermath of the carnage at the battlefield at Mohi, the rest of the Hungarian Kingdom and Europe itself seemed open to Mongol horsemen. Batu and Subutai may have envisioned leading their men into the cities of Italy, Germany and France, but within  a year they pulled their forces back from Europe. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


The Mongols considered the battle of Mohi, over the 10th and 11th of April, 1241, among their greatest victories, a hard fought battle over a determined enemy. Though the battle over the bridge was close, Mongol losses running high and certain princes wishing to retreat, in the end Batu and Subutai outplayed the Hungarians and destroyed the royal army. Yet King Bela IV had escaped, as had his brother Prince Coloman, and a number of Hungarian nobles had not been present, never providing their troops to Bela in the first place. Nonetheless, the battle’s outcome was a massive disaster for the Hungarians. Alongside the sheer volume in manpower lost, many of the Kingdom’s highest ranking figures had been killed. From top bishops, archbishops, the Knights Templar within the Kingdom, to Bela’s chancellor, were among the fallen. In one stroke, the head of the Hungarian administrative apparatus was nearly severed. Though Bela and his brother Coloman survived, they were on the run, desperate to get as far from the Mongols as possible. In the even terrain of the Great Hungarian Plain east of the Danube River, it was hard to get far enough. 


Prince Coloman reached Pest, where the Hungarian army had rode from so confidently a week prior. He urged the inhabitants to flee, but was rebuffed, the wall-less town choosing then to begin building ditches and defences. Coloman rode on to Zagreb in Croatia where he succumbed to his injuries in May. Bela rode to his territories west of the Danube River, near the Austrian border where his wife and young children were. There they were invited to seek refuge in Austria by its Duke, Frederick. Bela headed to the Austrian fortress of Hainburg, where he was promptly imprisoned, the Austrian Duke demanding an exorbitant ransom from the Hungarian King: at least 1,000 marks in coin, another 1,000 in gold, silver vessels, jewels, and five western counties of Hungary to be ceded to Frederick. Bela reluctantly paid, then rejoined his family in Hungary before fleeing south to Croatia. Duke Frederick sought to take these territories by force, but due to local resistance, was only able to hold three. Angered, he began extorting money from refugees seeking shelter in Austria! Bela reached Zagreb around May 18th, in time to bury his dear brother Coloman, in some accounts forced to give him an unmarked grave to avoid it being descretated by the Mongols. In his absence, Hungary was left to the Mongols. In the Hungarian Plain where fortifications sat on level ground and consisted of wood or earthworks, the Mongols were unstoppable. Historical sources and archaeology show horrific destruction, depopulation and indiscriminate slaughter. In some regions of the plain population loss reached as high as 70% , many villages permanently abandoned. Remains of people trapped within burning buildings abound. The few locations built in difficult to access sites, such as mountaintops or thick marshand protected with stone, fared better, but these were rare and of little consolation to the majority. Demographically, this caused a massive shift with refugees flooding out of the plain to western and northern Hungary, territory more rugged and easily fortifiable. We have evidence of desperate, impromptu defenses built around churches, often the only stone buildings accessible. Ditches and earthworks were dug in concentric layers around churches, incorporating the local cemeteries and features. Arrowheads and bodies are always found, indicating only hopeless last stands.


At Pest, Batu and Subutai linked up with Qadan, Burundai and Bojek, the commanders who had campaigned through Transylvania. The hastily constructed defences of Pest were easily penetrated, the town burned down by the 30th of April. From Pest, the Mongols ravaged the cities on the east and north banks of the Danube River, unable to cross it. By July 1241 Mongols riding west along the north bank of the Danube reached the Duchy of Austria. Austria’s Duke Frederick defeated some Mongol parties, in the process making a fascinating capture: an Englishman, banished from England around 1220, who had wandered east, developed a skill for languages and eventually wound up in Mongol service, where he was richly rewarded for his talents. He was sent as envoy to King Bela at least twice, before meeting his fate in Austria. Finding resistance stiff and yet still unable to find an unguarded crossing point over the Danube River, the Mongols soon turned back from Austria.  To terrify the defenders on the west side of the Danube, the Mongols piled bodies of the slain on the east bank, and were said to have speared small children on lances and parade them ‘like fish on a spit.’ Waiting for the river to freeze, Mongol forces were left to harass central and eastern Hungary for the remainder of 1241.


An emotional eye witness account of the horrors of the 1241 occupation is recorded for us by the Archbishop of Varad, Master Roger, sometimes called Rogerius. Written shortly after the invasion, Roger describes his own harrowing journey on the run from the Mongols, including first hand information from other survivors. Roger had fled Varad, modern Oradea in Romania, shortly before the city was destroyed by Qadan. Watching from the forest, he saw Qadan leave only the castle standing before withdrawing. After several days, the castle’s defenders came down from the walls to rebuild the town, thinking their deep moat and wooden towers had scared off the Mongols. One day at dawn Qadan’s riders reappeared,  killing those outside the walls then surrounding the castle, setting up seven catapults which bombarded the walls ceaselessly day and night; towers and newly fortified sections of the walls were all demolished. The defenders were killed, and the women and survivors who fled into the church were trapped when the Mongols set it aflame. Withdrawing again, the Mongols waited several days before returning again to kill those survivors who had come out for food.  Roger saw this carried out several times; a German village on the Çris River which he nearly stayed in was obliterated shortly after his departure; Cenad, where he hoped to flee, was destroyed before he could arrive; and for a while he found refuge at a fortified island, accessible only by a narrow passage and gates. After his servants abandoned him, stealing his money and clothes, Roger left the island for the nearby forest, from where he watched Mongol forces arrive. Setting up on one side of the river, the Mongols tricked the defenders into mobilizing there, anticipating the Mongols would try a river crossing. Then, another group of Mongols struck the now undefended gates, striking the defenders from the rear and taking the island. Horrific slaughter ensued, and once again after a few days the Mongols returned to kill those survivors who, through hunger, were forced to come out to search for food. 


Knowing many people hid in the forests, the Mongols sent captured persons into the forests with messages that they would spare anyone who gave themselves up before a set deadline, allowing them to return to their homes.  Having found the Royal Seal from the corpse of Bela’s Chancellor at Mohi, they dispersed forged documents in the name of the King, sending this message to discourage flight.


“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 Tatars; therefore, do nothing except pray that merciful God may permit us to crush the head of our enemies.” 


Starving and scared, many complied and returned to their villages, Master Roger among those leaving the forests. The Mongols appointed basqaqs to govern these regions, both Mongols, subject peoples and Hungarians who had sided with them. Roger describes attaching himself to a man who had “already become a Tatar in deeds.” In this way, the well educated churchman accompanied his new master to weekly meetings of the overseers, who installed, over summer 1241, a regional administration. Courts and local governments were established to maintain a sort of justice- one which involved the overseers collecting numerous beautiful women for their own purposes. The villagers were to resume life and bring in the harvest. Once collected, the Mongols rode out, took what they needed for their own men and horses, and burned the rest. With a cold winter and continued depredations in spring 1242 preventing planting, a horrific famine followed.


Roger makes this interesting statement after the Mohi battle: “First they set aside Hungary beyond the Danube and assigned their share to all of the chief kings of the Tatars who had not yet arrived in Hungary. They sent word to them on the news and to hurry as there was no longer any obstacle before them.” Evidently, the Mongols anticipated not just raiding Hungary, but allocating its territory and people to the princes and the Great Khan as they had elsewhere. Over 1241 at least, the Mongols were still expecting to stay in the region and continue to expand. 


With much of his kingdom left in the hands of the Mongols, King Bela tried to organize some sort of resistance. While in Zagreb in summer 1241 Bela corresponded with the Pope , Gregory IX, for help from the west. Gregory essentially shrugged off Bela’s pleas, informing him no help would come as the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, were locked in conflict. The Kaiser in his letters to King Henry III of England and  Louis IX of France did say they should unite against the incursion, and his son Konrad, King of Germany, collected a crusading force, but this all came to naught. Konrad’s army advanced some 80 kilometres east of Nuremberg in July 1241 before dispersing, the Mongol threat to Germany proper having dissipated for the time being. By September, the German nobility was rebelling against Konrad and civil war breaking out, while the Saintonge War between France and England began in early 1242. While Pope Gregory had ordered the preaching of crusade against the Mongols, he died in August 1241, his successor surviving only three weeks, leaving the position vacant until Innocent IV’s election in 1243.  Bela would see no aid from the west.


The winter of 1241-1242 was brutally cold, exacerbating the famine and suffering in eastern Hungary. The few fords and ferries over the Danube River were guarded by Hungarian defenders on the river’s west bank, but as the temperature dropped precipitously and ice began to form on the river, they knew it impossible to watch the full length of the frontier. Despite efforts to break the ice, the Danube froze around Christmas 1241. To test the ice, the Mongols left a group of horses unguarded, and when they saw Hungarians cross the ice to herd the horses back over the river, they knew it was safe to cross. Batu and Subutai took their riders over the river, falling on the untouched western edge of Hungary.  Once more, unfortified sites and villages suffered greatly from Mongol riders. But here the terrain was more rugged, fortifications more common and there had been time to improve defenses and plans. 


In the first days of 1242, Batu directed his energies against Esztergom, the kingdom’s preeminent political and religious centre. Hungarian prisoners were sent forward to build a wall of bundles of twigs before the moat, to screen 30 siege engines. The population felt confident behind their moats, walls and wooden towers, but stones lobbed from the catapults destroyed the towers and homes within the city. Next, they hurled bags of dirt into the moat, the garrison unable to clear it due to the precision of Mongol archers. With it apparent that the walls would soon be breached, the townsfolk set fire to the suburbs, destroyed the fine fabrics, buried gold and silver, killed horses and generally hid everything of value, then retreated to the citadel. Once Batu learned he had denied his prize, he was furious. The stone citadel was surrounded with wooden palisades, but they were unable to take it- a Spaniard named Simon led a skilled defence with able balistarius, referring either to crossbowmen or counter siege engines, keeping the Mongols at bay. Perhaps with good reason, it was a commonly held belief in Europe that crossbows were a weapon feared by the Mongols.


The Chinese catapults the Mongols utilized were designed for use against walls of pounded earth- common in China and Central Asia, and highly effective against earth works and wooden walls, as among the Rus’ principalities. A stone walled fortress however, proved resilient. See, the Chinese catapult was a traction catapult, sometimes called a mangonel, and was powered entirely by manpower. Large teams of men, each holding a rope, would pull on one end of the catapult arm, thus propelling the given projectile. Such a machine was, comparatively speaking, easy to build and take apart, and could be fired relatively quickly. To increase the velocity of the projectile, it was a matter of increasing the size of both the team and the machine. However, their range and strength was less than the cunningly designed counterweight trebuchet, which began to appear in the 13th century. The Mongols would, in time, require these counterweight trebuchets in order to take the greatest of Song Dynasty fortifications, Xiangyang, as the classic traction catapult proved insufficient to the task of those mighty walls protected by wide moats. Likewise, it seems stone fortifications, which in Central and Western Europe were often built on high points difficult to access, proved beyond the means of the traction catapult. Esztergom’s outer walls had fallen, but the stone central castle withstood their efforts, and if the defenders had their own counter batteries, Batu may have been infuriated to watch his own men and machines for the first time targeted by enemy catapults. Batu was certainly in a foul mood: when 300 ladies from the city came out in their finest clothes to beg for mercy, Batu ordered them robbed and decapitated before finally leaving the city. Nothing stood of Esztergom except the citadel, the surrounding suburbs a smoking ruin. 


Szekesfehervar, one of the Kingdom’s chief cities, similarly withstood a brutal assault. Everything outside the city walls was obliterated but the able garrison, possibly a group of Hospitaller Knights, built their own siege weapons to counter those of the Mongols. The siege lasted only a few days before the Mongols moved on. The ferocious pace the Mongols had taken  cities in Eastern Hungary was not repeated in the western part of the Kingdom, where the enemy refused to meet the Mongols in the open field. With depleted numbers Batu may have lacked the will to conduct prolonged, bloody sieges, his siege weapons struggling against stout stone walls. With the garrisons refusing to rush out for feigned retreats, Batu found his operational abilities reduced.


While Batu struck Esztergom at the start of 1242, Qadan had been sent south to hunt down Bela IV, who had moved on from Zagreb.  After a flight down the Dalmatian coastline, Bela took refuge on an island just off shore before finally going to sea, narrowly avoiding Qadan’s riders. At one point, he sailed close to the shore to view Qadan’s army, who could only watch in frustration. Early in the season with limited pasture, Qadan only had a small force, but took out what anger he could, burning down numerous settlements from Zagreb itself past Dubrovnik, before abandoning the pursuit in March. Qadan cut through the Serbian Kingdom and the southern edge of the Hungarian Kingdom, taking Belgrade, before meeting with Batu in Bulgaria. 


And it is the end of March, 1242 that we reach the most controversial topic of the campaign, as Batu began to pull back from Hungary, having found no great success in the territories beyond the Danube. This was no hurried rush to escape the country however. The earlier mentioned Master Roger was still in Mongol service at this point, recording that up until the withdrawal began, he was under the impression Germany was to be the next target. Roger then describes the journey as slow, loaded with booty, weapons, herds of cattle and sheep, methodically searching hiding places and forests to find both persons and goods they had missed in their first advance. Upon returning to Transylvania, where the rugged region and thick forests provided much cover for survivors, and castles had since been refortified, Batu ordered a renewed onslaught. Roger states succinctly, “With exception a few castles, they occupied the whole country and as they passed through, they left the country desolate and empty.”


Orda and Baidar returned through Poland, burning Krakow a second time. Batu reached Bulgaria, where the King, Ivan Asen II, had died in July 1241, leaving only young heirs and anarchy to succeed him. With the kingdom already in chaos the Mongols were fuel to the fire, and Bulgaria may have submitted to them. A Mongol army reached the borders of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, where Emperor Baldwin II defeated them, only to be defeated in a second engagement. We lack information on the meeting beyond that: as per the suggestion of historian John Giebfried, this may perhaps be a description of Baldwin falling for a feigned retreat. Baldwin, it must be noted, had granted shelter to Cumans fleeing Hungary, a cardinal sin in the eyes of the Mongols. The attack seems to have been limited, though Baldwin must have felt in a tenuous position with Mongols on his northern border and soon on his eastern with Baiju’s subjugation of the Seljuqs in 1243.


 Before reentering the steppe, the Mongols began reducing rations for their many prisoners- at this juncture, anticipating the worst, Master Roger fled into the woods. The rest were told they may return home, and the jubilant crowd made it several kilometres down the path before the Mongols rode them down for sport. In the steppe, Batu’s route was slow, allowing men and horses to rest after years of hard campaigning. His younger brother Shingqur led Mongols forces in the suppression of a Qipchaq rebellion later in the year, pursuing them all the way to the northern Caucasus. Batu and his army wintered in that same region before marching north, in 1243 reached the Volga River where he set up his encampment. He never returned to Mongolia.  


    I’m sure you sat through that whole section screaming “But what about Ogedai’s death!” Ogedai Khaan died on the 11th of December, 1241. It’s often presented that the army had to hurry back in order to elect Ogedai’s successor as per custom.  But as we have just noted above, the Mongols continued to campaign in Eastern Europe after they pulled back from western Hungary. In fact, based on the time it took Batu to reach the Volga steppe, his pace was downright leisurely- and he never returned to Mongolia, Subutai himself staying with Batu for a few years. Ogedai’s successor, his son Guyuk, was not elected until 1246, and Guyuk had left the army in 1240 before even the fall of Kiev. To put simply, the withdrawal in 1242 was not in order to elect the new Great Khan. We must ask if a messenger could have even reached Batu before his withdrawal began at the end of March 1242.  Assuming the messenger left immediately on the discovery of Ogedai’s body in December 1241, that’s less than four months to cross the entirety of the Eurasian steppe in the middle of winter, a tough ride even for a Mongol. Sources such as Rashid al-Din indicate Batu didn’t learn of Ogedai’s death until well after the departure from Hungary. 


    If not withdrawing because of Ogedai’s death, then what was the reason? Numerous theories have been proposed, some more convincing than others. Some have suggested the attack was never intended as more than a raid, though we have pointed to statements suggesting otherwise. Historian Denis Sinor suggested the Hungarian plain provided insufficient pasture for the Mongols’ vast herds of horses, though Sinor’s math for the matter leaves something to be desired. Based on environmental data, Nicola di Cosma suggested an exceptionally wet spring forced the Mongols to turn back. While the data may suggest a wetter spring, the historical sources do not indicate this was an issue for the Mongols in 1242. They certainly do mention occasions when it was an issue for the Mongols, such as the so-called ‘second Mongol invasion of Hungary,’ of Nogai Khan, where numerous sources reference foul weather hamphering Mongol efforts.  Of course, every nation in Europe likes to claim their heroic efforts inflicted so many losses on the Mongols that it forced them to turn back. Despite the campaign being a greater effort than popularly portrayed, the Mongols were routinely victorious in field battles, so support from that quarter is rather lacking.


    Historian Stephen Pow has recently offered a new explanation based on close examination of the historical sources. He suggests a shift in Mongol goals over 1241-2, a realization based on Mongol losses and frustration with continuous sieges and strong stone fortresses. The withdrawal, in his view, was not a full retreat with intent of never returning, but a temporary strategic retreat. Recall, if you will, our episode on the final conquest of the Jin Dynasty, wherein, due to struggles with the mighty fort of Tongguan, Ogedai, Tolui and Subutai temporarily withdrew from the Jin Empire for a season to restrategize. With a new plan of attack, the Mongols successfully bypassed Jin defences and overwhelmed the empire. Pow’s suggestion is essentially that this was the intention as to Europe. Finding their catapults and efforts having little success against stone fortifications, and having suffered losses over the continued campaigning, Batu and Subutai decided to pull back in early 1242 to rest men and horses and determine a new plan to overcome Europe. They considered Hungary conquered, and once reinforcements had been gathered, they fully intended on returning and extending their rule. The campaigning on their departure from Hungary was to consolidate the conquered territory. However, political matters evolving in the aftermath of Ogedai’s death meant Batu’s attention was drawn away from Europe for the time being. If you found that all a bit confusing, don’t worry- we’ll be interviewing Dr. Stephen Pow himself in the next episode to discuss his theory, and the other suggestions, in greater detail.

    As for Hungary, King Bela IV returned to his kingdom late in 1242 once he was sure the Mongols were gone. What he found was a shattered hull, the Great Hungarian Plain mostly depopulated through massacre and flight.  Bela spent the next decades rebuilding his kingdom and preparing defences. The erection of stone castles by both him and the nobility was encouraged, the great majority of which were built west of the Danube on the border with Austria where most of the population now was. The Danube itself was to be a great defensive line, fortifying the important crossing points. To defend the now depopulated Hungarian plain, Bela invited the Cumans back into Hungary almost immediately, granting them this empty pasture. To secure their loyalty, Bela married his son, Stephan, to the daughter of a lead Cuman Khan -possibly a daughter of Khan Kuthen. Further marriage ties were organized with neighbouring states, with unsuccessful efforts to build an anti-Mongol coalition, all for the inevitable return of Mongol armies.But that is a topic for another episode; our next task is an interview with historian Stephen Pow on the theories of the Mongol withdrawal from Hungary, 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!