A Last Bastion – The Mongol Siege Of Esztergom: Up Against The Walls (For The Love of Hungary Part 27)

As the morning mist began to lift only to reveal a leaden sky, I began the climb up Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Esztergom. Up to this point I had been sleepwalking through the lower part of the city. Castle Hill would demand much more of me. This was not so much a climb as it was an ascent. In my present state of physical stupor, scaling Castle Hill was strenuous in the extreme. Though the weather was cool and overcast, it did not take long before I was sweating. Walking uphill toward the castle helped me understand that the hill was as much a part of the castle’s defensive architecture, as the works of man. Any foe hoping to subdue Esztergom would be forced to reckon with the hill’s formidable topography. Coupled with the stone defensive works constructed atop it, potential conquerors were faced with a near impossible task. Castle Hill would not defeat me on this day. I slowly made my way to the top without opposition. The Mongols in the mid-13th century happened to not be nearly so lucky, it was on the slopes of Castle Hill where they finally met with defeat.

A Mongol Manhunt - Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A Mongol Manhunt – Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A King’s Ransom – The Search For Bela IV
In the Mongol siege of Esztergom was the beginning of a new and more secure Hungary. Prior to their arrival in northern and western Hungary, the Mongol hordes had laid waste to the entirety of eastern Hungary. They had destroyed the Hungarian Army at the Battle of Mohi during the spring of 1241. They then proceeded to rape, pillage and plunder almost all the villages and settlements across the Great Hungarian Plain. The Magyar inhabitants had little in the way of defenses to put up any kind of resistance. The most formidable fortresses were made of nothing more than earthworks and wood. The Mongols found these easy to penetrate and easier to destroy. The region’s agriculture and population was nearly wiped out. Once the Mongols headed towards the Danube, the odds of a repeat performance looked likely. If they could get across the river, western Hungary would be theirs for the taking.

Esztergom, as the capital of Hungary and seat of royal power was squarely in the Mongol’s sights. While it only had a population of 12,000, Esztergom was Hungary’s largest city at the time. During the Middle Ages, an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population lived in scattered settlements. Some of the larger population centers, such as Esztergom, did have castles and defensive works made of stone, but there were very few of those in the entire country. Certainly not enough to stop the Mongol assault or protect most of the population. The Mongols were particularly fixated on Esztergom. As the royal capital, it was the home of Hungarian King Bela IV who had barely managed to escape the rout at Mohi with his life. For the Mongols, their conquest would not be complete until they captured and killed Bela. He knew this, so instead of going back to Esztergom he fled the country. He made his way to an island off the coast of present-day Croatia.

The Defeated Victor - Royal Seal of Bela IV

The Defeated Victor – Royal Seal of Bela IV

Lightning Advances – Magyar and Mongol Horsemen
With their king nowhere to be found, the Hungarians were resigned to the same fate that had befallen so many of their countrymen. This was ironic. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the Magyars (Hungarians) had swept into the Carpathian Basin and penetrated the frontiers of Central Europe using tactics now employed by the Mongols. Lightning advances by expert horseman had been a Hungarian hallmark. Nomads no more, they were now settled and virtually defenseless against a more powerful version of what they had once been. The Mongols on horseback were a weapon of mass destruction that swept all before them. The light infantry and cavalry of the Hungarians offered only tepid resistance. They were up against an all-conquering force that looked to be unstoppable.

On Christmas Day in 1241 a Mongol force of approximately 100,000, thundered across the frozen Danube into western Hungary. It was not long thereafter that they appeared on the outskirts of Esztergom. While the peasants and upwards of 300 nobles from the area in and around Esztergom were slaughtered, those lucky enough to find their way within the city’s hilltop citadel held out hope that they could somehow withstand the Mongol onslaught. During their retreat, the townspeople had employed scorched earth tactics. This deprived the Mongols of foodstuffs and valuable treasure. It is also served to infuriate them. It was now the dead of winter, with the weather looking just as bleak as the defender’s prospects of survival.

For the Mongols, the situation was not ideal either. They were on tactically suspect terrain when it came to siege warfare, reduced to using catapults to try and breach stone walls. When this tactic failed, the Mongol commander Batu Khan decided to order his troops to storm the walls. This was also repulsed when crossbowmen within the walls unleashed a torrent of arrows. The Mongol force was decimated. Batu Khan called off the siege and accepted defeat. The Hungarian victory was a signal success, but it did nothing to expel the Mongols from the Carpathian Basin. That would come about later in 1242 when news arrived that the Great Khan had died. The Mongols subsequently pulled out of Hungary, heading back eastward to take part in the election of a new leader.

Towering Above All - Esztergom Castle as it looks today

Towering Above All – Esztergom Castle as it looks today (Credit: Batomi)

Securing The Kingdom – A Hard Lesson Learned
Bela IV soon returned to his devastated kingdom. He set about on the monumental task of rebuilding Hungary. This meant not only resettling the land, but also ensuring that when the Mongols tried to invade again, the kingdom would be ready. The siege of Esztergom had offered the Hungarians a lesson in how to defend themselves against these rapacious, nomadic horsemen by building impregnable hilltop castles and citadels out of stone. Bela IV soon propagated a construction program to place these across the Hungarian Kingdom. These fortresses, along with heavily armored knights and crack shot crossbowmen, had turned the tide of victory during the siege of Esztergom. They would also turn the tide toward a more secure Hungary. The Mongols would never again get anywhere close to Esztergom.

The Mongols, Mohi & Hungarian History: Precursor & Predictor of the Future

You are unlikely to find the Battle of Mohi in any European History textbooks. Even in Hungary, where the battle resulted in cataclysm, it has fallen out of the historical consciousness. This is unfortunate because it was a defining historical event for the Kingdom of Hungary. The battle and its aftereffects were the beginning of several historical trends that would reoccur in Hungarian history. The battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. The Mongol Army under the command of Batu Khan used their mobile calvary to rout the Hungarian forces. Following the battle, the Mongols rampaged across the Carpathian Basin causing destruction on a tremendous scale. Yet within a year and a half they withdrew. Their legacy of conquest was short lived. The same could not be said for other conquerors of Hungary who in future centuries would set down deeper roots.

The Battle of Mohi - Historical Print

The Battle of Mohi – Historical Print

Mohi – Precursor & Predictor of the Future
The battle does not fit easily within the traditional Hungarian historical narrative. The early Middle Ages are ancient history to Hungarians. Prior to the Mongol Invasion, Hungary had experienced three centuries of successful state building in the Carpathian Basin. The Arpad Dynasty produced good rulers who created a regional power respected and feared by its neighbors. It looked as though Hungary might become the great power of Eastern Europe. This is largely forgotten due to invasions and occupations which further shaped Hungary.  Including the Ottoman Turkish occupation, Habsburg Absolutism, the dismemberment of historic Hungary at Trianon and Soviet imposed Communist rule.

Hungary as a successful flourishing state – which is certainly what it was before the Battle of Mohi – goes against the grain of today’s popular Hungarian historical narrative. Hungarians now understand their history as moments of greatness followed by luckless defeat. This was not really the case until the Battle of Mohi. The battle began a historical trend that would reemerge in the ensuing centuries: an ascendant Hungary cut down before it fully takes flight. Mohi is an illuminating event because it is reflective of Hungarian history.

Burial Site at Mohi In Eastern Hungary (Credit: Sebastian Mrozek)

Burial Site at Mohi In Eastern Hungary (Credit: Sebastian Mrozek)

Division & Conquest
Trend # 1: Political turmoil leads to disunity
In the years leading up to Mohi, the Kingdom of Hungary was rocked by divisions between the nobility and the king. In 1235, King Bela IV ascended the throne. Almost immediately he began to reverse the privileges that had been granted the nobility by his father King Andrew II. These privileges had included donations of vast estates to the nobles. They had also been given greater political rights which increased their power and weakened the throne. Once he took power, Bela IV began to re-confiscate the land which the nobles now saw as rightfully theirs. The nobles also tried to challenge the king’s authority, but Bela limited their political rights. They were not even allowed to petition him in person, they had to send written petitions instead. Bela had moved the Kingdom toward autocratic rule. He might have been able to get away with this, but as the Mongol threat grew on the eastern horizon, Bela IV suddenly needed the nobles to provide forces to protect the Kingdom, but they were now ambivalent. Their indifference would prove costly. This type of divisive political turmoil has been a hallmark of other Hungarian historical disasters.

Second Class Citizens – The Coming of the Cumans
Trend #2: Failure to assimilate foreigners
The Cumans were a tribe of nomadic warriors who had been pushed westward into the Carpathian Basin by the Mongol advance. The Cumans were good warriors. They were willing to fight with the Hungarians against the Mongols as long as they could settle in the country. Bela IV realized this was to his advantage. He allowed them to settle within the lands of the Kingdom. They were Christianized as well. Despite this, the majority of the populace would not accept them. This led to riots and infighting. Bela supported the integration of the Cumans since they bolstered his power. The nobles were embittered by his favoritism towards what they saw as nothing more than primitive nomads. This furthered the division and disunity prior to battle. The situation with the Cumans is indicative of the Hungarian attitude throughout their history towards foreigners in general. Other peoples may be allowed to live within the Kingdom (see the nationalities prior to World War I), but they were second class citizens. This us versus them mentality towards outsiders would have disastrous consequences not only at Mohi, but many more times for Hungary in the future.

King Bela IV - barely survived the Mongol Invasion and then led the rebuilding of Hungary

King Bela IV – barely survived the Mongol Invasion and then led the rebuilding of Hungary

The Second Founding
Trend #3: Victory From Defeat
Following defeat at Mohi, the Kingdom of Hungary was reduced to a wasteland by marauding Mongol forces. One-fifth of the population was killed and sixty percent of the settlements were destroyed. The Kingdom lay in ruins. Bela IV fled all the way to the Dalmatian Coast. He barely escaped with his life and throne intact. It could have meant the end of Hungary, but it led to a new beginning. Bela IV put a vast amount of resources into building fortified, hilltop castles. In a ten year period of rebuilding that began after the Mongols withdrew from Carpathian Basin in 1242, over forty castles were constructed. The Hungarian army was reorganized with heavy armored Calvary. The next attempted Mongol invasion met with defeat. The Kingdom recovered and was soon flourishing once again. This was an incredible achievement, so much so that Bela IV is now seen by many historians as the second founder of Hungary. His reign would last for thirty five years.

Rising From The Ashes
This type of recovery would be repeated several more times by Hungarians. The Ottoman Turkish occupation, the heavy hand of the Habsburgs and the imposition of Communism by the Soviet Union all changed the history of Hungary for the worse. Nonetheless, Hungarians have always found a way to make the best of a bad situation. They have managed to overcome invasion and occupation.  Even in disunity and defeat, they rise from the ashes and recreate their kingdom, their nation and their history.