Today in European history: the Battle of Mohács (1526)

The Ottoman Empire sweeps into central Europe and splits the once powerful kingdom of Hungary in two.

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Today’s anniversary commemorates the first of two battles fought near the Hungarian town of Mohács a little over a century and a half apart, and so we should be careful not to confuse today’s engagement with the 1687 Battle of Mohács. While both of these battles involved the Ottoman Empire, the circumstances surrounding them could not be more different. That 1687 battle involved an Ottoman Empire that was retreating and shrinking, and represented its final expulsion from Hungary. This 1526 battle is its bookend, fought by an Ottoman Empire that was expanding rapidly and just entering Hungary for the first time. Needless to say in 1687 the Ottomans suffered a defeat at Mohács, while in 1526 they won a major victory.

Despite their differences, these battles are linked by more than just location and one of the participants. They also played a role in Hungary’s incorporation into the Habsburg Empire. In the case of the second Battle of Mohács that connection is pretty straightforward—it was the Habsburgs who defeated the Ottomans and thereby conquered Hungary from them. But it was this earlier battle that gave the Habsburgs a foot in the Hungarian door, so to speak. While the outcome left the Ottomans in control of most of Hungary, its side effect—the end of the Jagiellonian dynasty’s Hungarian branch—left Croatia, Bohemia, and the small part of modern Hungary that the Ottomans didn’t control under Habsburg domination.

This is all pretty weighty historical stuff for Mohács, a town that numbers about 18,000 residents today. But there’s a simple explanation for why such a small town saw two such important battles. Mohács, located in the extreme southern part of Hungary right on the Danube River, is an obvious place to meet an invading army in battle or to usher a fleeing ex-occupier back whence it came.

The Ottoman Empire in the 16th century was still very much expansion-minded, so there’s no mystery why Sultan Suleyman I (later “Suleyman the Magnificent,” d. 1566) wanted to conquer Hungary: it was there, on his frontier, waiting to be conquered. He’d already taken some Hungarian-controlled territory, in particular the city of Belgrade (now in modern Serbia) in 1521. But Suleyman also wanted to get after the Habsburgs, both to counter their competing expansion (which he rightly saw as a threat) and because he was engaged in serious diplomacy with King Francis I of France, which would eventually lead to a formal alliance in 1536. The French were also Habsburg rivals—the fact that they made an alliance with a Muslim power against the Christian Habsburgs suggests the depth of their animosity—and Francis agitated for Suleyman to attack his enemies from the east. Which Suleyman was happy to do.

Suleyman I, in one of the most disturbingly oversized turbans I’ve ever seen, as immortalized by the Italian painter Titian sometime around 1530 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Hungarian (and Bohemian and Croatian) king, Louis II (d. 1526, and yes that’s a spoiler), had married Mary of Habsburg in 1515. She was the sister of Charles V, who became King of Spain in 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. I mention his marriage because it will come up again later. In response to Suleyman’s invasion, Louis called up the royal army and…proceeded to deploy it so incompetently that as it turns out he would have been much better off just surrendering immediately.

Louis and his commanders didn’t know where Suleyman’s army (which was between 50,000 and 100,000 men) was going, so he split his army into three: one force under nobleman John Zápolya east to Transylvania, another force of mostly Croatian knights, and his own army that numbered maybe as many as 30,000 men and waited in the Hungarian capital of Buda (the western side of the modern city of Budapest). By the time it became clear that Suleyman was headed in Louis’ direction, it was too late for the other two parts of the army to come to his aid.

Louis then made the almost inexplicable decision to march out to meet the Ottomans near Mohács, on a wide-open swampy plain. I don’t know if he figured the swampy terrain would reduce the mobility of the Ottoman cavalry, but even if he was right it wouldn’t have mattered, because the Ottoman army didn’t rely on cavalry by this point in its history. It relied on its firearm-wielding infantry, the Janissary Corps, and on its field artillery, which the Hungarians probably should have known since the Ottomans adapted Hungarian tactics in modernizing their military. The Ottoman army was probably around double the size of the Hungarians and had 200-300 artillery pieces against somewhere around 50-70 Hungarian big guns. In a real turning of the tables from less than a century earlier at Kosovo, it was the Hungarian army, still reliant on heavy cavalry, that looked woefully anachronistic compared with the Ottomans.

Louis’ decision to meet this superior-in-every-way force in the open field was…interesting, let’s say. There’s no guarantee that hunkering down inside Buda would have led to a different outcome, though on the other hand it’s very difficult to imagine that the outcome could have been any worse. Louis’ final mistake came when the Ottoman army began to arrive at Mohács, when there may have been a window (thanks to the terrain) in which he could have marshaled his whole army and attacked a portion of the Ottoman force while they were tired from their march and before they had a chance to prepare for the battle. The Hungarians elected to wait, for some reason. Chivalry, I guess? If so, then at least they didn’t compromise their principles.

You already know who won the battle, but those Hungarian knights did do some damage, routing a first Ottoman wave of Balkan conscripts. The problem for Louis was that the Ottomans pretty much expected their first wave to rout—that’s why they filled it with the conscripts. The goal was to make the enemy expose itself to flanking attacks by the regular Ottoman cavalry, cannon fire from the field guns, and musket volleys from the Janissaries. Which is what the Hungarians did here. The whole battle lasted only a few hours, starting in the early afternoon and ending by nightfall. Louis tried to flee under cover of darkness, but he was thrown from his horse into a river and drowned, weighed down by the plate armor he inexplicably wore even though, in addition to being ridiculously heavy, it was mostly obsolete against a firearms-heavy army like the one the Ottomans fielded.

The whole thing was so easy from the Ottoman perspective that Suleyman halted his army at Mohács after the victory, because he figured there just had to be a bigger, more capable Hungarian force out there, heading his way. Once it became apparent that this wasn’t the case, the Ottomans marched to Buda and sacked the place. Most of Hungary was now theirs, though it turned out to be kind of a mixed blessing. Control of Hungary also meant consistent Hungarian resistance to Ottoman rule and invited a constant stream of Habsburg attacks on Ottoman territory throughout the 16th century. These weren’t successful, but they occupied imperial attention and resources.

Ah yes, the Habsburgs, I almost forgot about them. They don’t factor in this story until the very end, when they took advantage of political chaos in what was left of Hungary to stake their own claim. Louis belonged to the Hungarian-Bohemian-Croatian branch of the Jagiellonian dynasty, which ruled Poland-Lithuania and would do so until the end of the 16th century. Hungarian and Croatian (the crowns had been in union since the 12th century) nobles had chosen his father, Vladislaus II (d. 1516)—who was at the time the King of Bohemia—to succeed the very powerful Matthias Corvinus in 1490. They didn’t want another powerful king on the throne and Vladislaus seemed more pliable. Indeed he pretty much let the nobles do as they liked, which is a big part of the reason why by 1526 the Hungarian military had deteriorated as compared to what it had been in the 15th century under Corvinus. To keep his more powerful neighbors on good terms, Vladislaus married both of his children to Habsburg royals. His son Louis married Mary of Austria in 1522, while his daughter Anne married Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in 1521.

Hungarian nobles, as you probably gathered from the previous paragraph, had the power to choose their king. The easiest thing to do in these cases was to ratify the son and heir of the previous king, assuming everybody was OK with the previous king, but Louis died at Mohács without a legitimate heir. So the nobles got to work finding a successor, but with Hungary now divided and most of it under Ottoman control, they split into two camps. One group, with Ottoman support, elected John Zápolya, who was also Louis’ brother-in-law and probably the most powerful noble in Hungary. But the nobles in the rump part of Hungary that wasn’t under Ottoman control (“Royal Hungary”), along with the nobles in Bohemia and Croatia, decided to pick Anne’s husband, Ferdinand. Both claimed to rule all of Hungary, but in practice the kingdom was divided.

Ferdinand went on to have quite the regal career, eventually succeeding his brother as Holy Roman Emperor in 1556. Of course that didn’t do anything to bolster his claim over central and eastern Hungary, which remained in Ottoman hands until the next Battle of Mohács. But the claim didn’t disappear, either. So when the Ottomans finally lost their Hungarian possessions in 1687, instead of regaining its independence Hungary simply shifted from one empire to another. Hungary as an independent entity wouldn’t reemerge until after World War I.