Battle of Lechfeld and the Magyar Threat

lechfeld

Date: August 955 Location: near Augsburg, southern Germany

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In the year 896 the Hungarians (also known as Magyars) crossed the Carpathian Mountains from the steppes adjacent to the Black Sea. 1 They were primarily warriors, horse archers, when they settled on the plains of the middle Danube, whence they made periodic incursions into western Europe. Their invasions came to an abrupt halt in 955, however, when the East Frankish king, Otto I, annihilated their swarms in an encounter generally known as the battle of Lechfeld.

In 894 nomadic Magyars raided into the Kingdom of Moravia, north of the Danube. The origin of the Magyars is uncertain. Their language is linked in Europe only with Finnish, and tradition has it that one group of Magyars settled in Finland, while the other went south and established itself on the Hungarian plain. Their own legends have the Magyars entering Hungary with the Huns, leaving it to resettle in the Caucasus and Volga regions and then reentering Hungary at the end of the ninth century. Under their leader Arpad, the Magyars entered Hungary to stay in 896, the year generally given for the founding of the Hungarian state. They easily subdued the scattered population of the central plain and then crushed Moravia in 906 and German forces in 907. A century later they conquered Transylvania.

A long period of warfare followed. The Magyars ravaged Swabia, Bavaria, and Thuringia, obliging German princes to buy them off or incorporate them into their armies. After being defeated by King Henry I in 933, the Magyars shifted their attention elsewhere. In 934 and 942 they raided the Byzantine Empire, reaching Constantinople.

Mercenary service had its pitfalls for the Magyars. An unequivocal example comes from the role of the Hungarians in a major rebellion against Otto in 954, just one year before the so-called battle of Lechfeld. The principal rebels were Otto’s son and heir apparent, Liudolf (Duke of Swabia), as well as his son-in-law Conrad `the Red’ (Duke of Lothringia), and Arnulf (Count Palatine of Regensburg), the leader of a powerful Bavarian clan, the Liutpoldings. The motives of the rebels were varied. Liudolf was apprehensive about Otto’s marriage in 951 to the fertile Adelheid, who had already borne him three children. Conrad was jealous of the growing influence that Otto’s brothers, Henry, Duke of Bavaria, and Brun, Archbishop of Cologne, were exercizing over the king. Arnulf, whose father had been Duke of the Bavarians, wanted to regain this title for himself and his clan. In addition Otto had lost some support from the nobles of Saxony, his heartland. The primary supporters of the king were his brothers, Duke Henry of Bavaria and Archbishop Brun of Cologne. The power of the king seemed in jeopardy.

Early in the year 954 the Magyars became involved in these civil wars as mercenaries. Liudolf accused his uncle, Henry, of inviting them to attack him and his allies. The Bavarian duke then angrily responded that it was the rebels in Liudolf ‘s camp who had induced the Magyars to invade. Modern historians are divided between those who believe that Liudolf, Conrad, and the Liutpoldings were responsible for the Hungarian intervention and those who are convinced that Henry was behind it all along. However, the case against Duke Henry is implausible. Liudolf ‘s accusations were subterfuge. As Duke of Bavaria, Henry had often threatened the Hungarians; and he had recently acquired the Italian frontier lordships of Friuli and Verona, giving him control of territories stretching from the headwaters of the Adriatic to the borders of Swabia and Franconia. Henry not only defended Otto’s kingdom against Hungarian invasions from the southeast, but he was also in a position to attack their territories, which he had already done on at least one occasion. The Liutpoldings, who wanted to regain the ducal title and who had a tradition of alliances with the Hungarians had on the other hand the strongest motives to employ the Magyars to support the rebellion.

The chronology of the Hungarians’ part in the uprising supports this contention. The steppe warriors began by entering Bavaria in March; however there are no reports that they caused any destruction there, an indication that the Liutpoldings, who were in control of Bavaria at that time, had instigated their expedition. They then swept swiftly through Bavaria and neighboring Swabia, where Liudolf actually provided them with guides to Rhine Franconia. On Palm Sunday (19 March) they arrived in Worms, Conrad the Red’s power center, where he greeted them, treated them to a lavish banquet, and gave them many `gifts’ of gold and silver. Widukind is unambiguous on this point. Conrad concluded a treaty with the Magyars, in which they promised to pillage only the estates of his enemies in Lower Lothringia, who had gone over to Archbishop Brun. The duke then personally led them to Maastricht, where he left them to their own devices to do what they had promised. This is an example of classic mercenary behavior very similar to how it was practiced during the great age of mercenary service in the late medieval and early modern periods.

When simply viewing arrows on a map, the Magyar expedition of 954 gives the illusion of a spectacularly successful undertaking. It is doubtful, however, that the campaign yielded much. In Lothringia the Hungarians began with an attempt to storm the monastery of Gorze. Yet, despite the fact that the walls had been torn down, they failed to take the abbey. On 2 April they attacked the monastery of Lobbes, which was only lightly fortified. The milites who guarded this abbey drove them off in disarray when heavy rains made it impossible for them to use their archery. A few days later (6 April) the Magyars attempted to storm the fortified episcopal city of Cambrai, only to be repulsed once again. The Hungarian leader Horka Bulksu ordered the pillaging of the nearby church of St Géry. Taking a small number of captives, whom they drove along with whips, the Hungarians departed Lotharingia. However they had great difficulty keeping their chattels together, for Flodoard reports that most escaped. Eventually they reached Burgundy, where they suffered numerous ambuscades plus an outbreak of disease in their camp. Finally they crossed the Alps into Italy and returned to the Carpathian Basin in early June with little to show for their efforts.

Rather than being an impressive achievement, this Hungarian expedition reveals the basic weaknesses of forces that depend on steppe tactics alone. This incursion, which swept rapidly across a large part of Europe, was obviously made up solely of mounted archers. Although they wreaked havoc, moving about swiftly, surprising their victims, taking captives and devastating a few unprotected villages, they were unable to storm even poorly fortified localities. Incursions by mounted archers deep into the bowels of Europe with pillaging in mind were not very profitable. Steppe warriors were limited by the carrying capacities of their mounts, and captives could (and obviously did) slip away.

The disappointing yield of the 954 expedition brought about a major change in Hungarian strategy. In 955 they invaded the East Frankish kingdom once again, but on this occasion with a very large army that consisted of impressed infantry forces and a siege train that was prepared to invest the city of Augsburg. Rather than moving rapidly as they had done the year before, dashing through Bavaria and Swabia into Rhine-Franconia, thence onto Lower Lothringia, Burgundy, and Italy before returning to their camps in the Carpathian Basin, this army moved at a glacial pace.

A year earlier Otto’s forces had been unable to catch up with their swarms; however, in 955 the Hungarian army, obviously looking for a pitched battle, waited for the king in the environs of Augsburg, where the broad plain of the Lech River (the Lechfeld) offered an ideal site for their tactics, a steppe-like environment surrounding Augsburg on three sides. In the year 910 the Magyars had destroyed an East Frankish army there by feigning a retreat to draw their lumbering opponents onto the treeless landscape of the Lechfeld where their archery annihilated them.

In 955, however, the Magyars did not come as mercenaries, for there was no one remaining to pay them. The rebellion against Otto had collapsed almost completely by the Spring of 955. Liudolf was in the custody of his uncle, Archbishop Brun, and Conrad, who had surrendered earlier, lost his ducal title, though he retained some comital lordships and had joined the king against the Magyars. As for the Count Palatine Arnulf, he had perished when Otto captured Regensburg in the Spring of 955. It is possible that their leaders harbored dreams of a conquest of the East Frankish kingdom. On the other hand it is more likely that they hoped to gain a decisive victory that would allow them to demand tribute once again. The tactical plan was to meet Otto’s forces in a pitched battle on terrain where the mounted archers could prevail. By laying siege to Augsburg the Hungarian leadership wanted to tempt Otto to march in relief and then draw the king’s soldiers onto the Lechfeld as their ancestors had done in 910. Because they had advanced slowly into Bavaria, a well-rested Magyar force awaited the king’s army, exhausted from more than two years of almost constant fighting, marching to and fro across the face of central Europe. Otto foiled the Hungarians’ plans, however, when he protected his men from their archery by leading them through the Rauherforst, a woodland west of Augsburg. When the Hungarians attempted to feign retreat and to lure his army onto the Lechfeld, Otto’s pursuit was cautious, he avoided ambushes, and he returned to the safety of Augsburg as night fell. On the days that followed events took a decisive turn, but not in favor of the Hungarians. Heavy rains caused severe flooding in eastern Bavaria cutting Magyar lines of retreat.

Only a day after the siege had begun the Magyars learned of Otto’s approach. They abandoned the siege and made camp next to the nearby Lech River. Otto arrived and set up his camp knowing that he was heavily outnumbered. His force consisted largely of heavy cavalry, and he hoped to use his heavier and better-disciplined force to smash through the far more numerous Magyars. This had been the foundation of a victory in 933 against the Magyars at Merseburg by Otto’s father, Henry the Fowler.

The battle took place under a scorching sun at Lechfeld, on the Lech River, on August 10, 955. Otto planned to attack in waves by nationality. Bavarians formed the first three waves, and Franks the fourth wave. The fifth wave was Otto’s own Saxons, followed by lines of Swabians and a rear guard of Bohemian cavalry. As the Germans rode down the eastern side of the Lech, a force of Magyars rode undetected in the opposite direction on the western side of the river and then crossed it to attack Otto’s rear area and supply train. This force of Magyars easily scattered the defending Bohemians and Swabians as well.

The Magyars appeared poised to crush Otto in a great pincer movement, but their lack of coordination (largely the result of their smaller force halting to loot the baggage train) proved their undoing. Otto ordered the Franconians to turn and deal with the attack to his rear; they soon came on the Magyars unhorsed and wiped them out. Otto then turned to deal with the main Magyar body to his front and ordered the charge.

The Germans rode forward in good order. The Magyars managed to get off one volley of arrows before the Germans reached their lines, but shields deflected most of the Magyar missiles. Superior discipline and the bravery of the coalition forces won the day, with Otto, sword in hand, joining the fighting.

The Magyars broke and were annihilated. Most of those who stood and fought were slain, and many others drowned trying to escape across the Lech. The battle extended over a 20-hour period, but for several days the Germans rounded up Magyar survivors. Both Bulcasu and Lél were among those executed. The Germans maimed a number of the prisoners they did not execute before setting them free.

Otto decided not to press his luck by invading the Magyar homeland. His victory had accomplished his aim of ending Magyar raids into Germany, and it convinced the Magyars to accommodate the new Holy Roman Empire, especially in matters of religion. The victory at Lechfeld brought Otto international recognition and led to the formal establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto officially received the title of Holy Roman Emperor from Pope John XII in 962, assuming the mantle of Charlemagne as defender of the faith. Otto visited Rome the same year and reaffirmed the temporal power of the pope but as a vassal of the German king. The struggle of popes versus emperors continued, helping to delay the unification of both Germany and Italy until the second half of the 19th century, with great consequences for European history.

References Balasz, György, and Karoly Szelényi. The Magyars: The Birth of a European Nation. Budapest: Corvina, 1989. Falco, Giorgio. The Holy Roman Empire. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980. Reuter, Timothy. Germany in the Early Middle Ages. London: Longman, 1991.

2 thoughts on “Battle of Lechfeld and the Magyar Threat

  1. One key question: Why didn’t Otto conquer Hungary, after his glorious victory? He was very much a conqueror. Could it be he only defeated an expeditionary force?

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  2. Oh, I forgot to mention another important point. The great German army defeated by the Magyars in 907 was ‘invading’ Hungary. That was a three-day long defensive battle. Still, I’d like to say thanks for the effort, after all, the information ‘out there’ is so poor, this is pretty good! Thanks!

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