"Live not for yourself, but for glory." - A Magyar General
A Brief History of Hungary before 1400
The earliest credible record of the emergence of the Magyars was in 837 A.D. by the Byzantine historian, Georgius Monachus. It is in this record that a pagan people called the Ungri or Hun (1) were sought for an alliance by the Bulgarian Empire to fight against a Macedonian rebellion. These Huns were defeated and the Macedonian rebellion succeeded.
With the fall of the Bulgarian Empire, the seven Magyar tribes moved west and settled in a region called Etelkuzu, located near the rivers Dnieper and Prut. It is here that the Magyars began to be acquainted with history. The new Grand Prince of this tribal federation and region granted by Khagan of the Khazars and approved by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine was Arpad. This would be a defining and significant event in Magyar history.
Arpad, Grand Prince of the Magyars
During these early years of Arpad’s rule, the Magyars would regularly raid the neighboring East Slavic tribes and sell their captives to Byzantium. A few records exist today of the description of the Magyars during this time. In no way were they ever considered barbarians. They were sophisticated and respected by the Byzantines and other local rulers. Ahmad ibn Rusta, a Muslim geographer recorded:
"These Magyars are a handsome people and of good appearance and their clothes are of silk brocade and their weapons are of silver and are encrusted with pearls."
The Magyars, entrusted by other rulers intervened in territorial disputes and struggles. With their numbers strengthened, the Magyars invaded the Carpathian Basin in 894. It is widely disputed why the Magyars invaded the Steppe. Some believe the Magyars were forced to migrate due to increasing pressure of other warring tribes especially the Petchenegs. While others believe the Magyars had planned the invasion to seek out better territory for their future country. In any case, the Magyars invaded the Carpathian Basin. The Magyars did not face much resistance and they secured their borders within twelve years of stepping into the region. As the Russian chronicler, Nestor summarizes:
“Coming from the east, they marched in haste over the high mountains, which are called the mountains of the Magyars, and began to fight against the Volochi, the people of East Francia and the Slavs who inhabited these countries. The Slavs had originally lived there, and the Volochi had subdued the country of the Slavs. Later, however, the Magyars drove out the Volochi, subdued the Slavs, and settled in their country. Since then, that region has been called Hungary.”
Following the conquest of the Carpathian Basin, the Magyars developed from a confederation of tribes into the Kingdom of Hungary. This kingdom was ruled by the Arpad dynasty and was considered the eastern-most bastion of Christianity. The Kingdom of Hungary grew into a very formidable feudal state, as they conquered territories including Croatia and Transylvania. In 1217, the King of Hungary, Andrew II led the 5th Crusade into the Holy Land. Andrew II created the largest royal army in the history of the Crusades. However, when he needed money to continue operations and tried to tax his serfs, the nobility rebelled. The King was forced to sign the Golden Bull of 1222, which became the very first constitution in Europe. It restricted the King’s power and gave more power to the lower nobility. It guarded against tyranny and allowed the nation to share in political power.
During the late 13th century, Hungary defended its lands with moderate success against the Mongols.(2) However, in 1301, King Andrew III unexpectedly died without any male heirs. The Arpad Dynasty saw Hungary become a powerful kingdom and have its greatest extent into Europe. Yet with the death of Andrew III, the Arpad dynasty died with him and Hungary would fall into anarchy for several years. The Barons of Hungary, vying for riches and power elected foreign kings to rule their land. The House of Anjou, a prominent family in Europe ruled Hungary from 1308 to 1382. During these years, Hungary experienced a golden age. Europe was in peace and Hungary prospered.
The death of King Louis the Great of Hungary in 1382; had severe repercussions for the state. In a bitter battle, the late king’s son in law, Sigismund of Luxembourg rose to power in 1386. The golden age of Hungary was declining and many nobles were angry with Sigismund for his cruelty during the succession struggle. Even with domestic trouble, Hungary began to fear the Turkish threat. In 1388, the Turks had conquered Bulgaria and defeated Serbia in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. With the threat of the Turks a serious reality, Sigismund led a crusade against the Ottoman Empire in 1396.
Sigismund I of Luxembourg, King of Hungary
On September 25, 1398, the combined forces of Hungary, France, Venice and the Knights Hospitaller were defeated by the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Nicopolis.(3) Sigismund barely survived the battle and fled on a fishing boat to the Venetian ships in Danube. This defeat would be the very last crusade in the middle ages and led to the continued dominance of the Ottoman Empire in the East.
French charge into the Ottoman lines, The Battle of Nicopolis
With the failed Crusade against the Ottomans, King Sigismund of Hungary had a daunting picture ahead of him. By 1399, Hungary was declining in fortune. The only relief for the Hungarians was that the Turks were occupied with the Timurid Empire in the east. Hungary could breathe slightly, but everyone knew the Turks would be back. Would the Turks destroy the Magyar state such as they did to Bulgaria and Serbia? Could Sigismund bring Hungary back to its former glory? These questions plagued the Magyars and it was only a matter of time until the answers would be given.
(1) - It must be noted that Hun should not be confused with the nomadic Huns who scourged Europe under the leadership of Attila the Hun in the 5th century. Many Hungarians to this day believe their ancestry can be traced back to Attila the Hun and his tribe, but it is hotly debated by most historians. Some ancestries may be able to be traced back to these nomadic huns, but the overall claim is strictly incredible.
(2) - The Mongols invaded Hungary twice during the 13th century. The first invasion was a complete disaster for the Hungarians as over half their entire nation's population died during the invasion. The Mongol advance only stopped due to Ogedei Khan's death in 1242. Due to his death, the Mongol's retreated and the rest of Europe was spared the horror the Hungarians had endured. The second invasion fared better for Hungary as they were able to defeat the Mongols repeatedly in the mid 1280s.
(3) - Many Hungarians including King Sigismund insisted that the defeat was solely the French's fault. The young French knights continued their cavalry charge into the Ottoman lines even with the persistent advice of other commanders to hold until the Hungarians arrived to assist in the attack. Their foolishness as Sigismund said, led to the entire failure of the Crusade.