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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Dec 20, 2021

    Perhaps no Khan of the Golden Horde in the thirteenth century has had his reputation so maligned as Töde-Möngke. This younger brother of Möngke-Temür ruled the Jochid ulus from around 1282 until he gave up the throne in 1287. His reign is, at the most charitably, usually described as Töde-Möngke being dedicated to religious pursuits, leaving real power in the hands of the rising prince, Nogai. At worst, as in the sixteenth century Qara-Tawarikh of Öttemish Hajji, Töde-Möngke suffered from a debilitating mental condition that left him hopelessly unable to deal with the strains of governance, or indeed even the world around him. Here, based on the research of our series historian conducted during the process of his Masters thesis, we’ll offer a somewhat more nuanced portrayal of Töde-Möngke, who appears to have acted with a little more energy than he has generally been credited with. Along the way, we’ll also deal with the Second Mongol Invasion of Hungary, which occurred during his reign.  I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Töde-Möngke, or Tuda-Mengu as he’s known to Turkic speakers, was a younger brother of the previous Khan of the Golden Horde, Möngke-Temür and therefore a grandson of Batu Khan. Like his brother, his life before he became Khan is entirely unknown to us. His older brother died as early as 1280, or as late as 1282, depending on the source. Literature has often placed Töde-Möngke’s rise to power as being through the efforts of prince Nogai maneuvering him to the throne, and entering into a power sharing agreement. However, the primary sources do not portray such a manner of succession.


    Möngke-Temür died of complications following an operation on an abcess in his throat. There is no indication of a preferred successor. He instead left behind nine sons, who in the works of the Mamluk historians Baybars al-Mansuri and al-Nuwayri, immediately squabbled for the throne. His brother Töde-Möngke though, as apparently the oldest surviving descendant of Batu, is described by these sources as essentially fighting off his nephews to take the throne himself. Whether it was open fighting is not particularly clear: the process was probably a mix of threats, bribery and promises over several months, far from unusual in a Chinggisid succession. We might assume that Möngke-Temür died around 1280-1281, and it took until early 1282 for the ascension of Töde-Möngke to be finalized. For anyone claiming Nogai controlled this process, there is simply no mention of his involvement in any of the contemporary sources, nor is there evidence for Professor Vernadsky’s claim that, at the time of Töde-Möngke’s enthronement, that Nogai was also enthroned as a “Khan of the Manghit tribe.” As far as we can tell, there is no reason to assume Nogai was not among the princes and commanders who simply backed Töde-Möngke at the quriltai.


    The first years of Töde-Möngke’s reign are somewhat hazy, but a few details can be made out by comparing the various sources he’s mentioned in. It appears his most notable efforts were related to diplomacy. Though modern writers often by this point give Nogai most control over the Golden Horde’s foreign policy, there is little direct evidence for this. In fact, Töde-Möngke seems to have acted with a bit of vigour in this area. A Mamluk embassy sent with gifts to Möngke-Temür in 1282 arrived too late, and found Töde-Möngke on the throne. The gifts were instead given to Töde-Möngke, and friendly relations commenced. There is nothing particularly distinct in the embassy’s first description of Töde-Möngke, in comparison to his late brother. This first embassy, as recorded by the Mamluk chroniclers, does not describe Töde-Möngke as a Muslim; this is interesting, as not only is Töde-Möngke’s status as the second Muslim khan of the Golden Horde is one of the most notable things of his reign to modern authors, but we would think that the Mamluks would also have been quite interested by such a prospect following Möngke-Temür, who is generally agreed to have been a shamanist-animist. But Töde-Möngke’s 1283 letter to the Mamluk Sultan Qalawun was markedly different. In this second letter, Töde-Möngke espouses at length about his conversion to Islam, how he had established sharia law in the Golden Horde, and asked for an Islamic name as well as banners from the Mamluk Sultan and his puppet ‘Abbasid Caliph. If Töde-Möngke was such an intensely devout Muslim, how did the previous embassy fail to note it?


    Well, Professor Peter Jackson offers an intriguing explanation. First we must look to the year prior to Töde-Möngke’s letter. In June of 1282, a new Il-Khan had taken the throne following the death of Abaqa. This was Tegüder Ahmad, the first Muslim Il-Khan, who we have covered in a previous episode. Soon after taking the throne, Tegüder sent envoys to both the Golden Horde and to the Mamluk Sultanate, informing them of his enthronement and conversion to islam. The letter he sent to the Golden Horde does not survive, but his letters to Cairo do. Here these letters serve as a warning; telling the Mamluks that the Mongols were at peace, and that as a Muslim it would be easier for the Mamluks to submit to Tegüder. 


    What Professor Jackson suggests is that Töde-Möngke, upon learning of a Muslim on the throne of Hülegü, worried of rapproachment between the Ilkhanate and the Mamluk Sultanate. While Töde-Möngke maintained the peace with the Il-Khans, there was no advantage to him if Sultan Qalawun submitted to, or made peace with, Tegüder.  Recall how the Jochids may have seen the Mamluks as their vassals; this was not to the Jochids’ liking to have their vassals submit to another power. But more immediately, there would be economic and potentially military consequences. The Golden Horde’s trade ties, especially the sale of slaves, to Cairo would presumably lessen, if not dry up, if there was no Egyptian need for these slaves who made up the heart of the Mamluk army. And if the Ilkhanate no longer needed to worry about its border with the Mamluks, then they may be less willing to maintain peace with the Jochids, and could potentially bring its full might to bear on its shared frontiers with the Golden Horde. For Töde-Möngke, it was much better for war to continue between the Ilkhanate and Mamluks. Hence, his letter in 1283 to Qalawun, loudly proclaiming his conversion to Islam; essentially, a means to “out-Muslim” Tegüder’s claim, and discourage Qalawun from feeling he needed to respond too kindly to the Il-Khan’s letter. In the end, Töde-Möngke needn’t have worried much; Tegüder was overthrown and executed by Arghun in 1284.


    But Jackson’s theory raises the question: did Töde-Möngke convert to Islam just for the sake of diplomatically outmaneuvering Tegüder Il-Khan? Possibly, though doubtful. The fact that non-Mamluk sources, including Rashid al-Din, make no mention of Töde-Möngke’s Islam may be telling, though he also casts doubt on Tegüder’s Islam too, in an effort to delegitimize pre-Ghazan Khans who were Muslims. It could be that Töde-Möngke happened to convert in a similar time to Tegüder’s ascension, or was simply quiet about it during the initial Mamluk embassy. Whatever the case, he may have been initially ambivalent of the Mamluk alliance, but upon learning of Tegüder’s conversion via his letter, found it more useful to fully embrace Islam, or at least loudly alert the Mamluks of it. Regardless, by 1283 Töde-Möngke claimed to the Mamluks that he was a Muslim.


    Generally speaking, Töde-Möngke sought peace on his frontiers with other Mongol Khanates. We’ve already noted how Tegüder’s letter spoke of peace between him and Töde-Möngke. There is no record of fighting between the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate during Töde-Möngke’s reign, and it seems likely that Töde-Möngke maintained the treaty established by Möngke-Temür and Abaqa. The front between the Golden Horde, the Chagatai Khanate and the Ögedeids seems to have likewise remained quiet. Given that Qaidu in 1282 was able to fully assert his authority and place Du’a on the Chagatayid throne, then divert resources to continual attacks on Khubilai’s northwestern frontier, it seems that a truce, perhaps uneasily, was kept in Central Asia. Here, this may have been in large part to the efforts of Qonichi, the head of the line of Orda and ruler of the Blue Horde. Qonichi seems to have acted largely as an independent monarch: both Rashid al-Din and Marco Polo portray Qonichi as answering to no one. Modern scholars have often presumed that Qonichi’s independence was a result of Nogai weakening the Golden Horde Khan. Yet it is not at all apparent that Töde-Möngke held lesser or greater influence over the Blue Horde khans than either his predecessor or successors. Instead, it may well be that the relationship between Töde-Möngke and Qonichi was much the same as it had been under their predecessors: the occasional consultation, perhaps tribute or troop demands, but no real oversight or interference. Qonichi and his son and successor, Bayan, are known to have sent friendly messages to the Il-Khans, and given their apparent interest in neutrality, and position on the east wing of the Golden Horde bordering Qaidu’s dominions, that Qonichi must have sought neutrality with these khans as well. 


    In this region Töde-Möngke carried out one significant diplomatic maneuver: in 1283, after consultation with Nogai, Qonichi, and after years of lobbying by the high ranking lady Kelmish Aqa, Töde-Möngke released Khubilai Khaan’s captive sons Nomukhan and Kököchü. After nearly ten years in captivity, the boys were finally allowed to return to the Yuan Dynasty. The effort, clearly enough, was intended on warming relations with the Great Khan. Perhaps Töde-Möngke was a believer in unity between the Mongol Khanates, and did not seek to bring further turmoil between them. Whatever the case, he maintained a non-hostile diplomacy with his cousins, but did not succeed in achieving any empire-wide peace, if that was his intention. The increasingly withdrawn Khubilai hardly showed great interest in the return of Nomukhan, let alone in turning any energy to whatever overtures Töde-Möngke hoped to convey with such an effort. It would take another twenty year for any real strides at peace to be made across the Empire. 


    Non-aggressive diplomacy to other Mongols does not mean Töde-Möngke engaged in peaceful relations with all his neighbours. He may simply have been an adherent to the belief, as espoused by the thirteenth century writer ibn Wasil, that if the Mongols stopped killing each other then they could conquer the world. Regarding the Rus’ principalities, Töde-Möngke’s policies much resembled Möngke-Temür’s, and he continued to assign or rescind yarliqs, or patents, granting a given Rus’ prince right to his title. Töde-Möngke did not interfere in the succession of the princes; he respected the Riurikid tradition, and confirmed who was presented to him. 


In the first years of his reign, Töde-Möngke regularly provided armies to Alexander Nevskii’s son Andrei, who was in a protracted dispute with his brother Dmitri for the title of Grand Prince of Vladimir.  According to the Nikon Chronicle, Töde-Möngke even sent one of his own sons at the head of an army to assist Andrei.  While at point Dmitri Alexandrovich did flee to Nogai, careful readings of the Rus’ chroniclers do not make it apparent that Nogai provided either army or yarliq to support Dmitri in opposition to Andrei as Töde-Möngke’s candidate. For these campaigns between princes, the troops Töde-Möngke sent always used the opportunity to raid and pillage extensively. As the Chronicle of Novgorod records, “in the winter of [1284], Knyaz Dmitri came to Novgorod with his brother Andrei with an armed force, and with Tartars and with the whole of the Low Country, and they did much harm and burned the districts.”


    Most of the activity we can unambiguously write of Töde-Möngke taking part in, even as a participant, can be dated from the first years of reign; roughly, 1282-1284. By the middle of the 1280s, though, Töde-Möngke’s presence nearly disappears. This is best exemplified in 1285, when Nogai and another prince, Töde-Möngke’s nephew Tele-Buqa, attacked the Hungarian Kingdom. The sources make no mention of Töde-Möngke’s involvement, in either ordering or organizing the attack in any fashion.  What seems to have occurred is that Töde-Möngke, depending on the source, either went insane or began to devout himself entirely to Islam, growing weary or disinterested in governance in favour of his religious pursuits. Rashid al-Din, the Mamluk Chroniclers and Öttemish Hajji’s sixteenth century history all portray Töde-Möngke effectively abandoning the duties of the Khan. In Mamluk Egypt, Baybars al-Mansuri described Möngke-Temür’s widow, Jijek-Khatun, acting as a regent during part of Töde-Möngke’s reign; it could be that, as Töde-Möngke withdrew from the running of the state around late 1284, Jijek-Khatun became the effective leader of the Golden Horde, as she may have done in the final days of her husband’s illness.


    The inception of the 1285 attack on Hungary is difficult to pinpoint. Someone in the Golden Horde certainly picked a good time to take advantage of matters in Hungary. Following the devastating invasion of the 1240s, the Hungarian King Béla IV had invited the Cumans to return to the kingdom, marrying his son István to a Cuman princess to ensure their place as the first line of defense should the Mongols return. In 1272 after the sudden death of István two years into his reign, his son Laszló, or Ladislaus, the product of the union with the Cuman princess, ascended the Árpádian throne. Only a young boy, his first years were spent tossed between powerful barons who jockeyed for power, while his mother was regent-in-name only. Perhaps because of this, Laszló preferred his mother’s people, the Cumans, and as he grew older lived among them, wore their clothes and took Cuman mistresses— to the horror of his lawfully wedded Christian wife. Hence, Laszló’s epithet, Laszló the Cuman. Laszló’s favouring of the Cumans led to Papal and baronal efforts to clamp down on their privileges and assimilate them, the catalyst for a large Cuman revolt in 1280. Laszló was forced to lead the Hungarian army to defeat the Cumans, culminating at Lake Hód in 1282. Many fled to the Golden Horde, pursued by Laszló right into Horde territory,  and brought word of upheaval in the Hungarian kingdom. Certainly, this was as good a time as any for a Jochid army to ravage Hungary. Any one in the Horde could see that.


    But then from whom did the idea for the attack arise? Nogai, whose expanding ordu along the Lower Danube bordered Hungary, is often attributed as the mastermind behind the attack. It would not be out of line given how he had spent his time in the Balkans since 1270, which was a series of raids and threats across southeastern Europe. However, medieval sources which discuss this aspect tend to suggest Tele-Buqa was the impetus. And it seems logical: if Töde-Möngke had delved into his religious fervour, and the Golden Horde was effectively without a head, then all of the princes may have been eyeing the succession. Tele-Buqa, the oldest son of Tartu, the older brother of Möngke-Temür and Töde-Möngke, was perhaps the most promising candidate. Likely the oldest of Batu’s great-grandchildren, Tele-Buqa was a combative, ambitious individual, and probably closely affiliated with the court in Sarai. Seeing perhaps first hand his uncle Töde-Möngke’s dereliction of duties, the dream of the right to rule inherent to every Chinggisid must have stirred within him.  But Tele-Buqa had a problem: perhaps no more than 20 years old in the mid-1280s, there had been no real wars in his lifetime, in which Tele-Buqa could have gained glory for his name, and thus make himself a real candidate at the quriltai.


    This idea then, is that Tele-Buqa himself organized the Hungarian campaign, as means to build his reputation in order to seize power from his uncle Töde-Möngke. Considering that Baybars al-Mansuri records Tele-Buqa ordering Nogai to take part, this seems quite probable. But it can’t be totally ruled out that Töde-Möngke himself had originally taken part in the planning. If we assume his foreign policy had been to seek peace with the other khanates, and resume conflict with non-subjugated peoples, then it would be hardly out of line. Tele-Buqa may have been officially delegated responsibility to lead the attack by Töde-Möngke, prior to any incapacitating attack the latter suffered.


    Launched in the February of 1285, the so-called Second Mongol Invasion of Hungary led by Tele-Buqa and Nogai, is nowhere near as well understood as the first. It was certainly not on the scale of the former, and likely had no intention of conquering the kingdom but a raid aiming to take advantage of instability. It has no comparable overview to the first invasion’s eyewitness accounts of Master Roger or Thomas of Split, but it does appear in a wide range of sources: Rus’, Polish, and even Mamluk chronicles; Hungarian and other European letters and charters, and even some archaeologically. Though generally overlooked in favour of its more famous predecessor, when it does appear in popular discussion usually the second invasion is portrayed as a dismal failure, where newly constructed stone castles and well-armoured Hungarian knights, learning the lessons of 1241, overcame the Mongol armies.


The most recent reconstructions, building on the works of Tibor Szőcs, Peter Jackson, Michal Holeščák and our own series researcher, Jack Wilson, generally paint a more nuanced picture. In short: the surviving sources describe a series of small engagements with no great clash between Mongol and Hungarian armies. If King Laszló had defeated Nogia and Tele-Buqa in open battle, then that would have been described and glorified somewhere. It’s difficult to imagine a King as battered by the nobility and papacy missing the propaganda coup of defeating the Mongols in the field, yet no such battle is recorded.


 Instead, after entering the Kingdom through what is now Slovakia, Nogai and Tele-Buqa’s armies broke into smaller parties and sought to ravage as much of the kingdom as possible. In some regions, particularly the  Sáros and Szepés counties, local resistance was stiff. One defender, Master George of the Soós noble house in Sáros county, enjoyed particular success, and a number of Hungarian charters attest to his victories over Mongol parties — and his habit of sending the heads of defeated Mongols to King Laszló. Speaking of Laszló, based on the charters he issued, which record the location of their issue, it seems he stayed as far away from the Mongols as possible, remaining in Buda and Pest until after the Mongol withdrawal, upon which he made a survey of the damaged territory. There is no medieval source describing the King facing the Mongols in any battle.


But despite charters playing up victories over Mongol arbans, it seems that Nogai and Tele-Buqa’s campaign was rather successful, though specific movements are hard to trace. They pushed as far west as Pest, where two Mongol forces were memorably described converging below the city walls. It does not seem that major cities were assaulted, and given the fact the attack lasted only a few weeks, such hard points were certainly bypassed in favour of speed, overrunning and destroying unfortified towns and villages. When the Mongols began to withdraw around April 1285, they do not seem to have been in retreat, but returning triumphant; described as ladden with a great number of prisoners, it seems they had felt their raid was a success, acquired the booty they could carry and decided to return to the Golden Horde, appearing victorious, and Tele-Buqa doubtless ready to play up the raid as a great victory.


Their withdrawal through the Carpathians though, was to permanently stain the memory of the campaign. When Nogai turned south through Transylvania to return to his Danube territory, he faced stiff resistance from local Vlachs, Saxons and Szekély, who freed a number of prisoners. Their success over Nogai has likely been greatly overstated though, given that he had strength enough to campaign in Bulgaria and Thrace later that same year. But it was Tele-Buqa who was to feel the brunt of the misfortune. In the best recorded episode of the campaign, noted in Rus’, Polish and Mamluk chronicles, while attempting to cross the Carpathian mountains to return to the Horde a vicious snowstorm caught his army. Losing the trail, pounded by the elements and likely assaulted by local defenders, all in addition to some sort of epidemic, his men starved or died of exposure.  Losses were massive, his loot abandoned in the mountains. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle has Tele-Buqa make his way out of the mountains, on foot, with only a wife and a single mare. 


While Nogai may have been rather happy with his bounty, Tele-Buqa had suffered a humiliating defeat. His chances of earning his election over Töde-Möngke must now have seemed slim. Envious of Nogai’s good fortune while desiring the Jochid throne, it seems a little something in Tele-Buqa snapped that day.  Over the next year he made his plan. He enlisted his brother, Könchak, and two sons of Möngke-Temür, Alghui and To’rilcha, and together they schemed and schemed. 


The conspirators launched their plot in 1287. In the accounts of the Mamluks, Töde-Möngke willingly abdicates, giving the throne to Tele-Buqa in order to spend the rest of his days in religious devotion. This was, presumably, the official version of events sent to the Mamluks, in order to not sour relations between the new Khan and the Sultan. Within the Horde, as recorded by the less favourable Rashid al-Din and the latter Öttemish Hajji, it seems the justification spread by Tele-Buqa and his allies was that Töde-Möngke was insane and totally unfit to rule. Thus, sometime in 1287 Töde-Möngke was pushed from the throne, and Tele-Buqa enthroned as the new Khan of the Golden Horde, splitting power between himself and his allies. The final fate of Töde-Möngke is unknown, but presumably Tele-Buqa did not long allow a potential rival claimant to enjoy his retirement. 


Töde-Möngke, after his removal, seems to have become a favourite for folk tales in the Golden Horde, predominantly humorous ones reflecting stories of his insanity— and likely reflecting the insanity being the official excuse spread by Tele-Buqa within the Golden Horde. Öttemish Hajji, in the sixteenth century, records a few of these stories, though noted that many more vulgar versions existed that he dared not repeat.


The first amusing tale goes as follows.  An ambassador came for an audience with 

Töde-Möngke, but the nobles worried that he would say meaningless things before them. However, knowing that Töde-Möngke would say whatever they told him to, (and indeed, that was what kept him on the throne), they came up with a plan. The nobles tied a rope around Töde-Möngke’s hands, and would pull on it to stop him from speaking if necessary. The next morning, the ambassador came before the Khan. After initial pleasantries, Töde-Möngke asked if there were many mice in his country. The ambassador, presumably after a moment of confusion, responded with “a lot.” Next, Töde-Möngke asked if it often rained in his country; once again the ambassador answered in the affirmative. When Töde-Möngke began to ask his next question, the nobles began to pull on the rope, to which Töde-Möngke told the ambassador, “I would ask you more, but they are pulling the rope!” Hurriedly the nobles ushered the ambassador out of the room, giving him a fine fur coat and a horse to distract him. 


    Returning to his country, the ambassador was asked by his sovereign what kind of person Töde-Möngke was. The ambassador said, “I saw the Khan only once, and could not see him again, but he asked me these questions.” The ruler and his advisers pondered over the questions, and came to these conclusions: “It is good that he asked how much rain we receive, for all peoples benefit from rain. And it is good that he asked  about the mice, as they harm everything.” But no matter how much they discussed it, they could not comprehend his words, “They are pulling on the rope!”


Funny stuff, right? Maybe your sense of humour is a bit different from the sixteenth century Volga steppe. We’ll share one more. On another occasion, Töde-Möngke led a campaign, and on his return suffered an attack of insanity. Whenever these fits occurred, he was totally unresponsive, and on this occasion remained so for 15 days. The army, unable to move during this time, faced starvation. With the situation drastic, it was decided to dress up a young man as a woman, and parade him before Töde-Möngke, hopefully causing him to remember his wife and desire to return home. Upon showing him to Töde-Möngke, the Khan immediately jumped up, got on a horse and rode off.  When Öttemish Hajji reports at this interval that more obscene versions of the story exist that are unfit to be shared, we’ll let you fill in your mind what happened before he got on horseback. 


    Töde-Möngke then, in the company of a few courtiers, rode off like a madman to see his wife, only to suddenly grow angry that a mountain on the horizon wasn’t moving. He then promptly got off his horse, laid down on the ground and refused to move until the mountain did. They lay there for hours, until one of the courtiers had a clever idea, telling the Khan that they could outsmart the mountain by moving under the cover of night. 


We shouldn’t rely too much on Öttemish Hajji’s humorous anecdotes as genuine reflections of the thirteenth century. But even here, where Töde-Möngke is at his most incompent, he is still portrayed as capable of going on campaign, and suffering not constant illness, but periodic fits. Perhaps he suffered a condition that resulted in him being immobilized temporarily, physically or mentally, which worsened over his reign, causing him to try and seek assistance through religion and prayer, having run out of alternative means to save his body and throne. The process of which forced him to leave the daily running of governance to Jijek-Khatun. Tele-Buqa, unsympathetic to his uncle’s plight, chose to portray it entirely as insanity in order to justify his coup. Thus, was Töde-Möngke, Khan of the Golden Horde, grandson of Batu, great-great-grandson of Chinggis Khan, remembered in history. Our next episode deals with the reign of Tele-Buqa Khan and his princely junta, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us continue bringing you great content, then consider supporting us on patreon at, or liking, sharing and leaving a review of this podcast. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.