How Mongol Invasion Shaped Hungary’s Defense Strategy

How Mongol Invasion Shaped Hungary’s Defense Strategy


Mongol invasion of 1241. had a major impact on the Kingdom of Hungary. This impact was most obvious in terms of Hungarian defense strategy, engendering a shift that would allow the kingdom to both survive the second Mongol invasion and hold off Ottoman attacks for almost two centuries with minimal outside help.

Before the Mongol invasions, Hungarian cities and forts were largely situated on level ground and defended by wooden and earthen parapets. These however proved very vulnerable to Mongol siege tactics – arrow fire, usage of incendiary materials and artillery bombardment. As a result, upon the Mongol departure, Hungary departed on a spree of castle-building. Some 147 and 172 new castles were built between 1242. and 1300. Vast majority of these were built not in the central plain, but in the western and northern borders. This has led some scholars to conclude that new castles were aimed against Bela’s European rivals, but on another look, this conclusion is mistaken.

Carpini had already envisioned Poland and Hungary as a bulwark of Christian Europe against the Mongol invasion. And Bela IV had specifically referred to Europe as an entity facing this invasion. Location of the castles was not informed by geographical proximity, but rather by experiences of the first invasion with regards to defensability of certain sites and areas, which were further reinforced by geographical, demographic and financial realities.

Lessons of the First Invasion

Main lesson of the first invasion was that Hungarian fortifications in the Carpathian Basin had proven inadequate. There, very few fortresses or towns survived the year-long Mongol occupation. Fortified sites in Croatia, and some in Hungary, deterred or resisted the Mongols much more effectively. All sites that had resisted the Mongols either possessed the stone citadels or were themselves constructed from stone, and were situated on elevated sites. This was the case in Hungary with citadel of Esztergom, city of Szekesfehervar and a monastery of Pannohalma – the only places in the Carpathian Basin that had survived the Mongol occupation, though Pannohalma likely suffered heavy damage. Vast majority of the cities and places that had survived the occupation were located in the mountainous west and north of the country. In Croatia, Mongols were unable to take fortresses in the mountainous terrain, such as Klis, or located on land outcroppings – such as Trogir, which was on an island, or Split and Dubrovnik, located on peninsulas. Overall, elevation and/or significant bodies of water were a major determinant in survivability of the strongholds. This was noticed, and reflected in the new construction.

Danube as a Defense Line

Bela IV and his advisors developed what was essentially a multi-layered strategy in case the Mongols returned. Despite allegations of many modern historians, it seems clear that Bela did genuinely fear the possibility of a renewed attack. Julian’s warning of Mongol attack from 1238. and warnings received in 1241. itself all proved accurate. And Mongol attack was aimed at Bela himself and other leading men of the kingdom, making Bela keenly aware of the threat – Bela had in fact lost his brother in the war. This was complete opposite to European behaviour where nobles were usually captured. Thus, it makes no sense that Bela will have considered European kingdoms as a greater threat. In fact, what he did after the attack was to make alliances with Polish and Rus leaders, specifically in order to gain intelligence on Mongol plans and movements.

Bela IV thus implemented lessons of the 1241. invasion, and one of these was strategic value of the Danube. Despite the lack of preparation and a previous catastrophe at Mohi, Hungarians had managed to hold back the Mongols for ten months at Danube. Thus it made sense for Danube to be fortified and prepared as a primary defensive line against any repeated invasion, as Bela IV did not want to gamble royal army in another open battle.

The Knights Hospitaller played a key role in Bela IV’s defense reforms. They were placed in key positions and engaged in castle-building, as Hungarians themselves were not skilled in it. Knights were to fortify and repopulate Transylvania while providing sixty knights against the Mongols and fifty knights to garrison castles in the kingdom’s west against Christian foes. The Order also garrisoned a castle on Margaret Island, one of key points on the Danube defense line, separating Buda and Pest. They were present there until 1290., when Mongol threat had receded.

Danube-centered defensive strategy had significant impact on development of Hungary’s capital. Newly constructed castle in Buda (Obuda) had survived the 1241. invasion, and Bela IV established “New Buda” on the castle hill west of the Danube. By 1255., new city – constructed on the hills – was already fortified with stone walls. The other linchpin of this defensive system was Visegrad, situated at a hilltop at a Danube Bend. A small castle had already existed there, but by 1259. at latest, a whole new castle had been constructed.

These constructions were hastened by Mongol incursion of 1247. – 1248. While probably not a full-scale invasion, and in fact may have been mostly rumors, it certainly hastened development of the defensive system. Cumans were settled in depopulated areas, while densely populated areas to the west of the Danube were fortified with castles – possibly reflecting strategic considerations, but also simply because they could afford building the castles.

Social and Military Reforms

One of major reasons for Hungarian military defeat against the Mongols was the fact that majority of Hungarian army consisted of light cavalry and wooden castles. Bela IV thus attempted to adress this shortcoming by giving land grants in exchange for obligation of newly made nobles equipping heavy cavalry. In addition, nobility was given the right, and indeed obligation, to construct new stone castles – something that until then had been a solely royal prerogative. Barons and nobility became the foundation of kingdom’s military strength, as they were the only ones who could supply sufficient numbers of heavily armored cavalry.

Bela IV also introduced a large number of crossbowmen into Hungary, something that will become a major feature of Hungarian armies henceforth.


Bela IV’s reforms would play a large part in times to come. They fundamentally changed Hungarian military and the society as a whole, creating a state that will face the Ottomans in the 14th and 15th centuries. Just as importantly, however, the invasion shaped Hungarian attitudes towards the foreigners and especially the West. Cumans had been given a refuge, yet conflict with Hungarian nobles caused them to riot and ultimately rebel, denying Hungarians their help when it was needed the most. West meanwhile had sat silent and immovable, observing the events while offering little or no help – a situation that will repeat later during wars with the Ottomans.

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