How Hungary Defied the Mongols

Learning from their past mistakes, Hungarians were ready for the second Mongol invasion


In the 13th century, Hungary faced an existential threat that would fundamentally reshape its society and military strategy. The Mongol Empire, under the leadership of Nogai Khan, launched its second invasion of Hungary in 1285, with the aim of subduing the kingdom once and for all. This came after a devastating first invasion in the 1240s, which left Hungary critically weakened, with a significant portion of its population slaughtered and its cities and towns razed. The memory of this catastrophe had a profound impact on the Hungarian psyche, fostering a determination to bolster the kingdom’s defenses against future threats. This commitment to transformation and resilience would be tested in the winter of 1285 when the Mongols returned.

Building the Bulwark: Hungary’s Strategic Overhaul

King Béla IV, in the aftermath of the first invasion, recognized the urgent need for Hungary to fortify itself against further Mongol incursions. His strategic response was multifaceted, focusing on overhauling the military and strengthening the kingdom’s defenses. One of his initial steps was the reorganization of the Hungarian cavalry into heavily armored knights, modeled after their Western European counterparts. This shift marked a significant departure from the primarily light cavalry that had previously constituted Hungary’s forces.

Statue of king Bela IV on the Hungarian Parliament

Statue of King Bela IV on the Hungarian Parliament

The Rise of Stone Castles

Understanding the critical role of fortifications in defending against invaders, Béla IV championed the construction of stone castles across the kingdom. By the end of his reign, Hungary boasted approximately 100 new fortresses, with stone walls enveloping its most crucial cities. This network of strongholds played a pivotal role in the kingdom’s defense strategy, providing refuge for civilians and a base from which Hungarian forces could launch counterattacks against the Mongol invaders.

The Crucial Role of Crossbowmen and Heavy Cavalry

In addition to the construction of fortresses, Hungary sought to enhance the effectiveness of its military forces. Deals with the Venetians brought skilled crossbowmen into the Hungarian ranks, adding a new dimension to the kingdom’s combat capabilities. Furthermore, the decision to extend knighthood and nobility to new settlers equipped for combat incentivized the augmentation of Hungary’s heavy cavalry. These strategic enhancements significantly bolstered the kingdom’s defensive and offensive capabilities.

Hungary replaced light cavalry with the heavy one

Hungary replaced light cavalry with the heavy one

The Second Invasion: A Test of Mettle

The true test of Hungary’s transformations came with the second Mongol invasion. Led by Nogai Khan and Talabuga, the Mongol forces, numbering between 30,000 and 50,000 men, aimed to exploit what they perceived as weaknesses within the kingdom. However, they were met with a Hungary vastly different from the one they had devastated decades before. The improved fortifications meant that many local villagers could find refuge in regional castles, depriving the Mongols of plunder and forcing them to contend with Hungary’s bolstered defenses and military might.

Starvation and Siege: The Mongol Setback

As the Mongols advanced, they found Hungary to be a forbidding landscape. The network of stone castles not only provided a safe harbor for the populace but also stymied the Mongols’ traditional tactics of quick and devastating raids. Starvation began to afflict Talabuga’s forces as they struggled to find food and supplies, a direct result of the effective Hungarian strategy of withdrawing to fortified positions and adopting a scorched-earth policy in areas vulnerable to Mongol attack.

The network of stone castles provided a safe harbor for the populace and more

The network of stone castles provided a safe harbor for the populace and more

The Turning Point: Hungarian Victory

The decisive encounters unfolded in Transylvania, where the Mongol forces encountered the reinvigorated Hungarian army. This army, now comprised of heavily armored knights and bolstered by the strategic defensive works initiated by Béla IV, delivered a crushing defeat to the Mongols. Talabuga’s contingent was particularly devastated, suffering significant losses and ultimately being forced to retreat in disarray. Nogai Khan’s forces fared little better, finding themselves trapped in a landscape transformed by fortification and military preparedness.

Legacy of Resistance: The Aftermath of Victory

The second Mongol invasion of Hungary stands as a testament to the power of strategic transformation and resilience in the face of formidable threats. The Mongol failure to subdue Hungary not only marked the end of major Mongol incursions into Central Europe but also underscored the effectiveness of Hungary’s comprehensive defensive strategy. The kingdom’s ability to learn from past defeats, to innovate in its military and architectural strategies, and to unify in the face of external threats was instrumental in shaping the course of European history.