The Mongols’ First Invasion of Hungary



The Mongol Empire was the most expansive and powerful political entity in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Dominating much of modern-day Asia, the Mongol Empire, at its peak, covered an astounding spread of land, extending as far as Hungary to the west, Korea to the east, Russia to the north, and northern India to the south.

In order to expand their empire to such magnitude, the Mongols undertook many major conquests, and military conquests have tremendous effects in terms of facilitating cultural diffusions. With the movement of large groups of people due to military actions such as the transportation of huge armies, it is inevitable that they bring with them cultural components everywhere they go. The special thing about cultural diffusion through military conquest is that it is perhaps the most direct way to influence another culture, because it impacts the lives of people very dramatically, such as by forcing them out of their original lands and homes and perhaps then living with the army of people from a different culture. Moreover, military conquest gives rise to temporary governments that are set-up by the invader, or the “outsiders” with respect to the local culture. This further promotes cultural diffusion, as the locals would be forced to bond with the ruling class’s culture and the rulers would also inevitably be influenced by the local culture.

Some reasons why we felt that this particular military conquest was important was that it caused a huge amount of damage in a short span of time, and left dramatic long term and short term impacts on the inhabitants of the region of Hungary. In this section, we will be discussing the Mongols invasion of Hungary and its effects in three sections: the invasion, the withdrawal, and the short term and long term effects.




The InvasionFigure 1:

In 1241 C.E., under the lead of Batu, son of Jochi and grandson of Chinigiz Khan, several Mongol commanders such as Qadan, Orda, Baydar, and Subetei invaded Hungary with 130,000 soldiers by crossing through the Carpathian arc from various paths, such as through the Verecke Pass and the Tihuta Pass. The Mongols defeated Polish and Hungarian armies in two battles in the spring of 1241, and continued to devastate Hungary, even forcing King Bela IV of Hungary to flee to Austria and pursuing him until the Dalmatian coast. The following subsections are focused on the Mongols’ reason to invade Hungary and the two major battles during the invasion: the Battle of Mohi and the Siege of Esztergom.

Why Hungary?

While there are many, one of, if not the most widely accepted reason for the Mongols’ first invasion of Hungary was that of revenge on the Cumans. After the Mongols conquered the Kievan Rus states, the Cumans sought refuge with King Bela IV of Hungary for refuge, who accepted them under the condition that they participate in the military services. Hearing this, Batu sent Bela IV an ultimatum to turn over all the Cumans or they would invade Hungary (Rogers, Greg S.). King Bela IV refused, thus Batu invaded Hungary.

The Battle of Mohi:

The Battle of Mohi, also known as the Battle of Sajo River, occurred on April 11, 1241. In this battle, Batu and Subedei, one of the Mongol commanders under Batu, crushed the Hungarian King Béla IV’s army, which was known for having the best cavalry in all of Europe.

The Mongols carried out a three-pronged assault on Hungary (Sinor 12). The main army, which included around 80,000 soldiers, swept through Hungary through the Carpathian Mountains, and stopped on the banks of the Sajo River. King Béla IV settled his army, which outnumbered the Mongols by around 20,000 men, on the opposite bank.

Batu attacked first, with him and Shiban leading a frontal attack while Subedei led his division northward in an attempt to find a shallow region in the Sajo River to cross and attack the Hungarians from behind. Batu and Shiban struggled in their advance, but they eventually drove back the Hungarians with the help of catapulted explosives. Once across Sajo, Batu ordered his division to retreat and line up in single file, forcing the Hungarians toward Subedei, who was coming from behind.

Soon, Subedei arrived and the Hungarians were now encircled by Mongol archers. The Hungarians attempted to charge the Mongol army, but the cavalry divisions were able to hold them down. A sect of the Hungarian army managed to escape the Mongol’s enclosure, but many of them were pursued and shot down by mounted Mongol archers. While the losses suffered by the Mongols were rather unclear, the Hungarian army lost 60,000 of 100,000 of its men. Also, King Bela IV managed to barely escape (Sugar 26).

Siege of Esztergom:

While Batu was met with success throughout much of the first invasion of Hungary, the Siege of Esztergom that happened in January 1242 was one of the few exceptions (Rogers, Clifford 30). Following the decisive victory in the Battle of Mohi previously mentioned, Batu and his Mongol army were able to essentially freely pillage the small villages and towns in Hungary without muchh major resistance. However, major cities in Hungary still resisted, with one example being that of Esztergom, then the capital and the largest, wealthiest city in Hungary. The chronicle of Roger of Torre Maggiore, the Italian archbishop of Split contains much description regarding this siege.

Not long after Christmas Day of 1241, the Mongol army, then composed of about 100,000 men, reached the outskirts of Esztergom.The peasants and around 300 nobles from the area in and around Esztergom were slaughtered by the Mongols along their advance, but some were lucky enough to escape into the walls of Esztergom. As they retreated into Esztergom, the Hungarians employed scorched earth tactics, depriving the Mongols of essential resources such as food.

Esztergom was not an easy place to conquer, as the Mongols’ infamous style of horseback warfare were inapplicable. Batu first tried to breach the stone walls of Esztergom with siege machines such as large catapults; after failing, he ordered his soldiers to storm the walls, and the Hungarians defended against this with a magnitude of crossbowmen, who held the Mongols back with rains of arrows. Unable to breach the city walls, Batu called the siege off and accepted defeat. Though a successful battle for the Hungarians, the Siege of Esztergom was not enough to dissuade the Mongols’ continual plundering and looting in the rest of Hungary, which only stopped when the Mongols mysteriously retreated in the spring of 1242.

The Withdrawal:

With much historical record regarding the Mongols’ movements throughout Asia, historians today have a clear picture of the military campaigns in the Mongols’ first invasion of Hungary. However, one military event has remained mysterious despite the well-kept records of its occurrence and process, puzzling Mongol scholars worldwide and bringing about much controversy: the Mongols’s withdrawal in Hungary.

As previously mentioned, the Mongols’ first invasion of Hungary was going extremely well, aside from the Siege of Esztergom and some other major cities. However, in 1242, the Mongols went into western Hungary through Danube, yet suddenly began to withdraw southward through Serbia and Bulgaria back to Russia. Mongol sources gave no explanation regarding this “abrupt departure,” but historians mainly believe in four major reasons for this “Mongol Withdrawal”: the climate ill-suited for the Mongols’ horseback warfare, the lack of pasture and food to support the Mongol army, the revenge on the Hungarians, or the Cuman nomads, and the political unrest at home, i.e. Karakorum (Buntgen and Di Cosmo. P. 2).

I will first discuss the former two reasons, which are inclined towards the natural climate in Hungary at the time. The winter of 1241 in Hungary saw heavy snowfalls, and the subsequent thaw and high precipitation led to “an increase in marshlands and swamps,” which impeded the Mongols from advancing because of the inconvenience for horseback travel. Moreover, dendroclimatological evidence suggests that the summer of 1242 was exceptionally cold, which probably impeded agricultural practices and the growth of grass to use as fodder for Mongol horses. With this decrease in the carrying capacity of the Hungarian region, the Mongols likely retreated due to the inability to sustain their massive army and inconvenience of fighting on unfamiliar terrains.

The other two potential reasons for the withdrawal were relating to the political environment at the time. Firstly, some scholars have theorized that the Mongols did not invade Hungary for the sake of conquest and gathering resources; rather, they were getting revenge on the pastoral Cuman nomads living in the region, with whom the Mongols had some conflicts with before (Buntgen and Di Cosmo, P. 2).” Following this line of reasoning, the withdrawal was only natural — they wrecked havoc on the Cuman nomads, and left after being satisfied with their revenge. The other reason might have been the political instability back at Karakorum caused by Ogodei Khan’s death in December 1241. With Ogodei’s death comes the election of a new Khan, and this was an event Batu, the son of Ogodei and the leader in this invasion of Hungary, could not take lightly. If he had continued fighting in Hungary, it was likely that whichever one of his brothers who becomes the new Khan would attack him from his backside, which would likely result in a dire situation for Batu and his army. Thus, he withdrew from Hungary and went back to the southern Russian steppe to develop what would later become the Golden Horde. However, one notable counterargument is the recording by Rashid Al-din, who claimed that Batu did not know of Ogodei’s death when he decided to withdraw from Hungary.

Short and Long Term Effects:

The most apparent short term effect of the Mongols’ invasion on Hungary and its inhabitants was that of the loss of population. However, the problem is that we do not have enough data to conclusively determine just how much population the Hungarians lost, and scholars have come up with estimates that run from as high as 50 percent to as low as 10-15 percent (Laszlovszky 422). Whether 50 percent or 15 percent, a significant portion of the Hungarian population was eliminated during the Mongol invasion, and this had tremendous impacts on Hungarians’ livelihood and the losing of territory, which will be expanded upon below. The Hungarian plain region was hit the hardest by the Mongols’ first invasion, as 45-80% of settlements were pillaged, looted, and destroyed (Font 691). There were only about eighty fortified places that escaped this fate, including all of the few stone-walled cities in the region, such as Esztergom. One of the most significant problems caused by the Mongols’ massacre and pillaging is a major famine, as the Hungarians were left with no resources and a diminished agricultural workforce due to the death of men in war.

Moreover, The Duke of Austria and Styria, Frederick I, took this chance of the chaos of the Mongols’ invasion to occupy three counties of Hungary. In the later half of 1242, after the Mongols had finally withdrawn, the Hungarians had to pull together their remaining troops and attack these three counties in order to retrieve them. They would be fought over until 1246, when Frederick I died (Somer). Hungary was eventually able to retrieve the three counties.

Speaking from the long term, though devastated, Hungary remained intact as a nation. The Mongol invasion actually had some positive effects, in that the threat of another invasion became the source of national unity for Hungarians. With this, Bela IV, having returned to Hungary after the Mongols’ withdrawal, was able to effectively push extensive developments in the Hungarian defenses, especially in building new stone castles, whose effectivity can be seen from many successful defenses against the Mongols’ invasion, and some improvement of the army, including expanding the number of heavily armored cavalry and knights. Due to these developments, Bela IV went down in history as the “Second Founder of Hungary,” in recognition of all the efforts and progress during his reign in reconstructing and fortifying the country of Hungary against foreign invasion (Sennyey 61).

The Mongols’ first invasion also dramatically affected Europe as a whole. King Bela IV was forced to ask for help from other European powers, such as the Holy Roman Empire, which raised the tension between them and the Mongols, as they feel threatened by the Mongols’ power. Also, other survivors, such as Roger of Torre Maggiore, the archdeacon of Nagyvarad in eastern Hungary, also told of their experience with the Mongols, mostly from the perspective of a captive; their descriptions further consolidated the Mongols’ image as a mighty yet brutal people (Sweeney 34).





While it is undeniable that the Mongols’ first invasion of Hungary was brutal for the Hungarians from many perspectives, the cultural crossings prompted by this invasion is equally evident. First, the Hungarians were forced to mingle with the Mongol culture, as the Mongol army under Batu swept through Hungary, giving the Hungarians a taste of the Mongol army’s unmatched might during their golden age. Amongst the vast number of captives held by the Mongols, some survived to tell the tale, providing contemporaries then and scholars nowadays with valuable information regarding the Mongols’ culture and way of life, especially in the army. Second, having been forced to seek refuge under King Bela IV and with the experience from defending Hungary during the first invasion of the Mongols, the Cumans were able to easily integrate into the Hungarian culture. Third, King Bela IV was forced out of his country to seek refuge in Austria and turn to other European leaders for help. This dramatically increased the Mongols’ fierceness in the eyes of contemporary European powers, causing them to join together in order to defend against the Mongols, promoting cultural contact during the process. Moreover, the previously mentioned conflict between Austria and Hungary largely caused by the chaos brought on by the Mongols went on for years even after the Mongols’ withdrawal from Hungary, kindling frequent, though unwanted, cultural clashes between the Hungarians and the Austrians.


Figure 1

Figure 2: An artwork depicting the Mongol invasion of Hungary, by Johannes de Thurocz


*Some sources used were not explicitly cited in-text; they are contained in the list below.

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