“In this year, after existing for 350 years, the kingdom of Hungary was annihilated by the Tatars.” This terse statement by the Bavarian monk Hermann of Niederaltaich appears in the annals of his monastery for the year 1241. At almost the same time, the Emperor Frederick II wrote to the English King: “That entire precious kingdom was depopulated, devastated and turned into a barren wasteland.” Contemporary witnesses and chroniclers still called the Asiatic attackers “Tatars”, although these already identified themselves as Mongols.
The “Mongol storm” had been in progress in Asia and Eastern Europe for half a generation, buffeting Russians, Cumans and Poles, yet Hungary was the first to be hit with full force by Genghis Khan’s successors. On 11 April 1241 at Mohi by the confluence of the Sajó and Hernád rivers, the Mongol horsemen led by Batu Khan annihilated the numerically superior but ill-led and barricaded Hungarian forces. Amid indescribable chaos the majority of the country’s religious and lay dignitaries were slaughtered, and it was as if by a miracle that the king and some of his young knights escaped. The Mongols followed in Béla’s tracks as far as Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, and finally even besieged the Dalmatian island city of Trogir, where he had taken refuge: in the Mongols’ eyes a country was not definitively vanquished while its rightful ruler still lived. For months the siege of Trogir continued, and the king and with him Hungary—indeed probably the West itself—were only saved by the sudden death of the Great Khan in far-away Karakorum. When this news reached Batu Khan in the spring of 1242, he promptly turned his Mongols around to be present at the contest for the succession. They pulled out of Hungary, laden with plunder and numerous prisoners: even thirteen years later, the missionaries Carpini and Rubruquis, travelling through the region of Karakorum, met Hungarian slaves still in bondage.
The Mongol storm resulted in a deep disruption for the Magyar population from which, according to medievalists such as György Györffy, Hungary never completely recovered. Györffy calculated that some 60 per cent of the lowland settlements were destroyed. The inhabitants who survived the massacres and abductions were threatened by starvation and disease. Failed harvests caused by destruction of the fields and the impossibility of tilling them added to the catastrophe. The situation was somewhat less severe in the regions west of the Danube, as these were only plundered and torched during the Mongols’ advance and never occupied; here the population loss amounted to about 20 per cent. The Slavs of Upper Hungary as well as the Székelys and Romanians of the Transylvanian mountains had come off fairly lightly. In all, according to older estimates, about half of Hungary’s 2 million inhabitants in 1240 became direct or indirect victims of the Mongol invasion.
The attack did not take Béla IV by surprise since he, alone in Hungary and perhaps in all the West, had recognized the deadly danger posed by the Mongols’ obsessive expansionist dreams of world domination. Owing to its still existing relationships with the Russian principalities, Hungary was quickly informed of events in the East, including the ruinous defeat of the Russians and Cumans by the nomad horsemen in 1223. Moreover, while still crown prince Béla had despatched a group of Dominican monks to the East in order to convert to Christianity the Hungarian tribes who, according to tradition, had remained in the old homeland; in his search for Magna Hungaria, the land of the early Magyars, Friar Julian actually came across people beyond the Volga with whom he could communicate in Hungarian, and it was from these “relatives” that he heard of the Mongols’ unstoppable westerly advance. After their return in 1237 one of the friars wrote an account of his travels and sent it to Rome. When Julian set out a second time on his adventurous journey to the East to scout out the Mongols’ intentions, he could no longer reach the ruined homeland of the distant tribesmen, who had by then been overwhelmed. Julian hurried back to Hungary with the terrible news and accurate information about the Mongols’ military preparations. Furthermore, he brought a threatening letter from Batu Khan to King Béla, calling upon him to surrender and hand over the “Cuman slaves” who had taken refuge in Hungary. Béla did not reply to the ultimatum. However, unlike the Pope and the Emperor, who had for years been entangled in a controversy over the primacy of Rome, the King took the Mongol threat seriously, being fully aware that if the charges and demands were ignored by those threatened, a devastating campaign would always follow.
Béla IV therefore suspected what was in store for his country, and prepared for battle. He personally inspected the borderlands, had defence installations prepared on the mountain passes, and tried to assemble a strong army. It was not his fault that, despite these precautions and warnings to the Hungarian nobles, and appeals to the Pope, Emperor Frederick II and the kings of Western Europe, the Mongols descended upon Hungary and wrought devastation following their victory at Mohi. Though intelligent and brave. Béla was not a general and did not have a powerful professional army at his disposal. Even before his father’s Golden Bull the nation’s warriors, formerly ever ready for battle, had become “comfortable landowners” and were no longer a match for the Mongol hordes operating with remarkable precision and planning.
Another factor was present, with consequences hardly ever considered by Western historians with no knowledge of the Hungarian language although it had decisive consequences already in the earliest days of the Hungarian state, and contributed to other great disruptions in the nation’s history—defeat by the Ottomans and Habsburgs. This factor was an ambivalence towards everything foreign. Oscillation between openness and isolation, between generous tolerance and apprehensive mistrust was probably the main cause of the essentially tragic conflict with the ethnic group which would eventually form the backbone of the Hungarian army: the Cumans. Although this Turkic people had repeatedly attacked Hungary in the past, they later sought refuge and support from the Magyars, especially in view of the unstoppable advance of the Mongols. While still crown prince, Béla endorsed the Cumans’ conversion by the Dominicans and accepted the oath of allegiance of one of their princes who converted together with 15,000 of his people—a bishopric was established for these so-called “western” Cumans. Ten years later the “eastern” Cumans also fled from the Mongols across the Carpathians, giving Béla the support of another 40,000 mounted warriors against the impending invasion from Asia. Before admitting them he had them baptized, yet the integration of this nomad people into the by then Christianized and westernized Hungarian society led to tensions and rioting. When the Mongol offensive was already approaching, the distrustful Hungarian nobles attacked and murdered the Cuman Prince Kötöny, whereupon his soldiers, swearing vengeance, took off to Bulgaria leaving in their wake a trail of carnage and destruction. Thus four weeks before the crucial battle at Mohi the King lost his strongest allies.
The same groups of nobles who had aggravated existing tensions in the early phase of the Cumans’ assimilation then complied only hesitantly and reluctantly with the king’s appeals to be in readiness with their contingents. In their accounts the two important witnesses of the Mongol onslaught, Master Rogerius and Thomas of Spalato, revealed clearly the profound differences between the king and a section of the magnates. According to a contemporary French chronicler, Batu Khan heartened his soldiers before the battle of Muhi with the following derogatory slogan: “The Hungarians, confused by their own discords and arrogance, will not defeat you.” The barons, as already mentioned, were incensed mainly by the fact that Béla sought to withdraw his father’s prodigal donations, and that he overrode their opposition in bringing the Cumans into the country and then giving them preferential treatment. They even spread the rumour that the Cumans had come to Hungary, as the Mongols’ allies, to stab the Hungarians in the back at the first opportunity.
The Italian cleric and chronicler Rogerius, who lived through the Mongol invasion, saw this differently. He praised Béla IV as one of the most notable of Hungary’s rulers, who had done a great service to the Church by his missionary work among the pagan people: he had tried—as they deserved—to subdue the “audacious insolence” and insubordination of his barons, who did not balk even at committing high treason. Rogerius defended Béla against the accusation of not having taken steps in time to avert the danger from the Mongols. On the contrary, the nobles had been urged early and repeatedly to gather their regiments and rally to the King. Despite Béla’s obvious inability to impose order on the army, Rogerius blamed the nobles whose antagonism to the King not only denied him vital support in the battle, but virtually willed his downfall—“because they thought that the defeat would only affect some of them and not all.”
Added to the mistrust of foreigners and the discord within their own ranks was the indifference of a silent Western world. The priestly chronicler accuses the European princes of failure to answer the Hungarian King’s calls for help; none of Hungary’s friends had come to its aid in its misfortune. Rogerius does not exclude even the Pope or the Emperor from blame; all had miserably failed. In a letter to Pope Vincent IV Béla wrote in 1253: “We have received from all sides…merely words. […] We have received no support in our great affliction from any Christian ruler or nation in Europe.” The Mongol nightmare determined, consciously or unconsciously, not only the King’s exchange of letters with the various popes and potentates, but also his foreign policy. By far the most important and lasting psychological consequence of the Mongol invasion was the inference “We Hungarians are alone”. The sense of isolation, so characteristic of Hungarians, hardened from then on into a “loneliness complex” and became a determining component of the Hungarian historical image. The calamities of the sixteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries set this reaction into concrete.