Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

Battle of Kosovo Polje, 1448

It was the second lost battle that took place in Kosovo Polje (the first was in 1389) against the Ottoman Empire. In the Hungarian language, we call the place “Rigómező”.

This time, it was the Hungarian army of Hunyadi János, Governor of Hungary, and the Wallachian troops who were defeated after a three-day-long bloody fight by the army of Sultan Murad II. It was the last Hungarian attempt to liberate the Balkan but this battle has sealed the fate of the Christian states of the Balkan.

If you wish to read about the death of King Ulászló and the Battle of Várna in 1444, you can do it here:

Having returned from Várna, Hunyadi, the richest and most powerful aristocrat of Hungary became the Governor of the kingdom. He had to fight against the Bohemian Hussites in the northern part of the country and he had troubles with the German Emperor Frederick III. Yet, he hasn’t given up on attacking the Ottomans and driving them out of Europe.

In autumn 1445, in alliance with the Prince of Wallachia, and with the support of Burgundian ships, he led a lightning campaign against the Lower Danube, where he unsuccessfully besieged the castle of Little Nicopolis. Then he led his army against the Cilli (aka Cillei) counts who were occupying Slavonia (April-May 1446), and then in late autumn 1446, tried to force King Frederick of the Germans to evacuate the occupied Hungarian lands. Neither of these operations was militarily successful.

King Frederick

In 1447, he came to terms with Frederick, the Cillis, and the leader of the Czech Hussites. These Bohemian forces led by John Jiskra, occupied the north-western parts of the kingdom in the name of Ladislas V. Later, Jiskra’s warriors became the core of the famous Black Army of Hunyadi’s son, King Matthias Corvinus. For the time being, Hunyadi could turn against the Ottomans again.

Hunyadi attempted to persuade the Pope and the European powers to cooperate with him in 1447 but in vain. It was
only with Alfonso of Aragon, King of Naples, that he succeeded in agreeing on a specific plan. Alfonso undertook to pay a hundred thousand Florins to raise 16,000 mercenaries. Hunyadi promised to raise the same sum, and he promised to use the whole money, with Wallachian assistance, to expel the Ottomans from Europe. Unfortunately, nothing came of the plan, even though Hunyadi offered Alfonso the Hungarian crown.

King Alfonso V.

He did, however, succeed in renewing the alliance with George Kastrioti of Albania, who had resisted Ottoman pressure for many years. Hunyadi could also count on the support of the Voivode of Wallachia, whom he had already helped by force of arms in taking the throne in the winter of 1447-48. A serious threat, however, was the stance of the Serbian despot George Brankovič, who had been in bitter conflict with Hunyadi since 1444, and whose hostile actions could have meant the failure of the entire campaign.

To finance the campaign, as was customary, a tax was levied: one golden Florin per four house steads. Transylvania, the territory Hunyadi ruled directly, provided much of the army’s equipment, but he also received assistance from other towns. He requested above all the manufacture of carts and cannons, including mortars. All this filled an alleged total of two thousand carts.

The structure of the army reflected the lessons learned at the disaster of Varna in 1444. The aims of the campaign again included the mobilization of the Balkan peoples, so Hunyadi employed a large contingent of light infantry. (6,000 men, armed with hand shield, bow, and sword). It suggests that these early “hussars” had an attacking function in battle. The defense was to be provided by the wagons and the small-caliber guns (cerbottana) mounted on them, in the good old Hussite fashion.

Nonetheless, the backbone of the army remained the armored cavalry, with about 15,000 riders. As mentioned before, supplementing these were some 8,000 light cavalries, mostly from Wallachia. The total strength of the army was thus around 30,000, larger than four years ago and better suited for an attacking campaign. Like in 1444, however, its success still depended on surprise and the assistance of the Balkan people. Hunyadi’s declared objective was to unite with the Albanian forces of Skanderbeg and then proceed together to take Saloniki. He followed the same route as in 1443, he turned west at Niš and then south, and in the Toplica valley, he marched towards Kosovo Polje.

Some sources claim the Serbian despot George Brankovič, whom Hunyadi had abandoned in 1444, betrayed his plan to Sultan Murad, and so the surprise factor was lost. In fact, the Sultan had known of Hunyadi’s preparations since midsummer and had ample time to prepare for whatever action the 30,000-strong Hungarian army took. 

The sultan gathered his forces in Sofia, from where he could intervene anywhere necessary. Murad could mobilize his entire army, and so it is hard to imagine what kind of surprise Hunyadi could have been thinking about. Although the Hungarian commander knew that the Sultan was making preparations in Sofia, he left his army’s rear unprotected, for which there can be only one explanation: he seriously underestimated the strength of the Ottoman army and still believed that by uniting with his Balkan allies he could break them in a single battle. It was no doubt a tragic error.  

The Hungarian army left its camp beside the Danube on 28 September, and two weeks later was on the northern edge of the Kosovo Polje plateau. Since the Sultan’s army appeared at the same place one or two days later at the Christians’ backs, this meant that Murad left Sofia before being informed of Hunyadi’s change of direction. There could have been no question of surprise on the Ottoman side. Like in 1444, they forced the Hungarian army into a similarly restricted situation as at Varna. 

Hunyadi, as in 1444, was forced to face the Turks in battle. He could have made a forced march south to unite with the Albanians but in case he had been defeated, the Ottomans could invade Hungary.

Kosovo Polje aka Rigómező

Kosovo Polje is a plateau about 40 km long and 14-17 km wide surrounded by 800-1000-meter-high gently-rising hills. The River Sitnica meanders across the plateau, and several streams from the surrounding hills – including the Lab in the north – flow into it. Kosovo Polje was at the intersection of the main transport routes through the West Balkans, and its medieval principal town was Pristina, once a Serbian royal seat.

The plateau is not completely flat but is divided by hills of different sizes, separated by small expanses of marshland.  To the southeast, the marsh is bounded by a ridge on whose eastern edge lay the grave of Murad I, who died in the First Battle of Kosovo in 1389.

This was the place, almost right in the valley of the river, where Hunyadi was in camp when he heard of the arrival of the Sultan. The Ottoman army was advancing along on the road out of the Lab valley from Pristina, a few kilometers to the east of Murad’s grave, and threatening to occupy the strategically important hill.

Hunyadi sensed the danger and took the hill with his cavalry in a hard struggle. He set up the wagon fort on the hill and placed the army around it, clearly in attacking formation. The hill was taken and the camp was set up on 17 October. The Hungarian army was thus separated from its water supply, but a cavalry charge launched downhill seemed to promise success.

The outnumbering Turkish army took up a position on the north of the marsh, at the Hungarians’ previous place, beside the Lab stream. We know that the Sultan mobilized the Janissaries, the mercenary cavalry, the Asian and European cavalry, the Akinjis, and the Azaps, and even brought nomadic Tartars in support. The Azaps alone numbered ten thousand; there must have been as many Akinjis and a minimum of six thousand Janissaries and Porte mercenaries so that taken together with the Anatolian and Rumelian
cavalry and the mobilized Balkan garrisons, the Ottoman army must have had a total strength of at least fifty thousand.

Murad arranged this strength in the traditional configuration. In the center were the Janissaries and the Azap infantry and in front of them the artillery dugouts. The Anatolian cavalry was on one wing and the Rumelian cavalry and the Akinjis on the other. At the rear, the army was defended by a camp fort assembled from baggage. The Sultan had armed the equerries, camel drivers, and other auxiliary personnel in the camp, and set a few thousand regular troops alongside them. 

The Hungarian army’s center must have been occupied by Hunyadi’s armored horsemen, with the offensive infantry behind them, in front of the wagon fort. The barons’ militias, which later fell in the battle, were probably also placed in the center.

On the wings were assorted cavalry, the light horsemen in front, including the Wallachian auxiliaries, and behind them the armored cavalry. There were several barons with substantial combat experience, such as Hunyadi’s brother-in-law Székely János of Szentgyörgy, Marcali Imre, and Bebek Imre. (Note, I use the Eastern name order for Hungarians where family names come first.) Hunyadi reinforced the wagon fort in the same way as the Sultan: the wagons were fastened to each other by chains, and some of the guns were set on the wagons and others between them, on the ground. The enormous wagon fort had to serve as a refuge for the entire retreating army if necessary.

a Hussite “wagenburg”

According to Aeneas’ account, the battle was preceded by a curious scene. The story is that before the battle, eight prominent Turks appeared in the Christians’ camp and “appalled at the shedding of human blood” offered peace and a hundred thousand Florins in tribute. If this was true, it was clearly the customary trick of oriental warfare, with the purpose of making the enemy over-confident.

The battle began on 18 October. It is probable that the Hungarian left and right wings swept into attack simultaneously, and the Anatolian and Rumelian corps drew back, but according to plan, and not in confusion. There was no panic-like retreat: the Turkish historians talked of “defeat” only so as to magnify the later victory. According to a later source, the Turks then employed the same kind of encircling maneuver as they had at the Battle of Várna. The same Turkhan Bey who had led the Akinjis in 1443 came on the
the rear of the Hungarian left wing, together with the Anatolian cavalry, who had turned around.

The Christian forces, including the Wallachians, were caught in the pincers and destroyed. It is also possible that the latter surrendered without serious resistance. It is probable that the cavalry on the right wing crumbled in the fight with the Rumelian
cavalry after their turn and the remnants were unable to interfere effectively in the course of the battle after the center was destroyed. 

Seeing the apparent success of the cavalry charge on the wings, Hunyadi launched an attack with his armored cavalry, what the Turkish chroniclers mentioned as the “iron wall”, the lightly-armed attack infantry behind them, against the Azaps and Janissaries in the center. The Turks attempted to interrupt the charge with burning camels and a hail of arrows, and then in a well-disciplined maneuver, separated to open up a passage for the Christian cavalry.

The charge was impeded by the reinforced camp of baggage and wagons and the Turkish infantry came from behind on the confused cavalry, slaughtering the horses on their unarmoured, rear ends. The arrested ranks were further pressed by those coming behind them, and they stamped each other down. Some of the horsemen, deprived of their horses, broke their way through and sought refuge in a nearby village, whose houses the Turks set fire to.

The enormous losses suffered in the center are indicated by the list of fallen barons: Bebek Imre and László, Marcali Imre, Szécsi Tamás, Losonci Benedek, Bánfi István of Alsólindva and their men, a great many unknown soldiers, all lost their lives on the field.

Serbian troops in the battle

Nothing is known of Hunyadi’s part: later Ottoman historians claim he forced his way back to the wagon fort, others that he escaped
towards Serbia. The latter version is supported by the fact that he was taken into captivity by Branković, and in any case, he would hardly have been able to make his way north from the wagon fort through the victorious Turkish army the next day.

It is not clear whether the Christian infantry advancing in the wake of the cavalry charge also penetrated the gap which opened up, or clashed with the wall of the Turkish infantry after it closed. All that is certain is that grim hand-to-hand fighting ensued and continued until dusk. Then the remaining infantry retreated to the wagon fort and waited for the Turkish charge under cover of the wagon-mounted cannon.

It is not impossible that a small section of the cavalry also managed to fight its way back to the fortified camp. None of the sources mention the involvement of Hungarian cavalry in the fight that began on 19 October.

The battle was lost, just as it was 78 years later at Mohács, in the failure of the cavalry charge: the infantry, deprived of their cavalry support, had no chance of breaking through the Turkish army. Perhaps you might like this writing about cavalry charges:

According to Hunyadi’s report, they fired at each other all night with “machines”, but it is clear from the events of the previous day that this was no longer the artillery duel of two equal forces. There can be no question of Hunyadi leading his cavalry from the wagon fort in a night assault against the Janissaries.

The truth is illustrated by one Ottoman account. The Turkish infantry, under the cover of the night, approached within one arrow’s range of the Christians’ wagon fort, and from there fired on them with cannon and handguns, a fire which was returned from the wagon-mounted cannon. The objective of the artillery fire was not so much to cause losses as to prevent the defenders from resting, something also alluded to in a comment by Hunyadi. On the dawn of 9 October, the Turks launched the final charge from such close range that the wagon fort defenders could not make good use of their guns. The Ottomans broke into the wagon fort with lances and swords and in a gory slaughter ground down the resistance. The “Germans and Bohemians”, i.e. the infantry, were killed to a man.

An Akinji is dragging an armored knight

 The Ottoman victory is usually described as being very bloody, but the tens of thousands of dead which the Western chronicles recorded belong to the world of legend. Many of the Janissaries must have fallen in the grim close combat, and there must also have been significant losses among the Spahis, but the number of dead could not have been more than ten thousand.

The losses among the Hungarian army are similarly difficult to estimate. The greatest losses were suffered by the infantry and the cavalry which charged in the center. That was where the barons and probably a large part of the horsemen serving in the militias fell. There were probably fewer casualties on the wings, where the engagement lasted a shorter time and there were greater chances of escape. Altogether, there were about 8-10,000 casualties and many were taken prisoner, like Rozgonyi Sebestyén who was ransomed years later, from the Genovese. 

Regent Hunyadi also fell into captivity and was taken by Branković’s men to Szendrő (Smederevo, Serbia).

Szendrő castle (Photo: Duja)

The despot had good reason to be angry with Hunyadi, and his time for revenge had come. He permitted Hunyadi to establish contact with Hungary’s governing barons who, upon hearing of the Regent’s escape and captivity gathered in Szeged and started negotiations with the despot. Branković set very hard terms: Hunyadi had to return the despot’s estates in Hungary, engage his younger son Matthias to Branković’s granddaughter Elizabeth Cilli, and leave his elder son Ladislas (László) in Smederevo.

After satisfying these terms, Hunyadi was allowed to leave the despot’s court in December. Hunyadi naturally had no intention whatever of keeping to the agreement, but in his weakened political position following the lost battle, neither could he think about

The defeat at the Battle of Kosovo finally proved that the Hungarian tactics based on a decisive armored cavalry charge were ineffective against disciplined Janissaries who could open up a gap and a large number of Turkish cavalry capable of similar tactics. Against such an army, only a much larger, trained infantry, kept permanently under arms, and light cavalry of similar size could have engaged the Ottomans with any chance of victory. Such an army would demand similar financial resources as the Ottoman Empire had, and Hunyadi’s Hungary was not in that class.

For that reason, Hunyadi’s concept of the decisive battle would not have been viable even if the Hungarian army had by some stroke of fortune succeeded in defeating the Ottoman army in open battle. For the Sultan, as is well illustrated by the example of Nándorfehérvár, the destruction of almost his entire infantry and the severe loss of his cavalry was not an impediment to him replenishing his army to a force of equal combat effectiveness within a few years. After 1448, no Hungarian military leadership ever attempted to break the Ottoman Empire by a single decisive battle on its own territory.

Excerpt from Pálosfalvi Tamás: “Nikápolytól Mohácsig 1396–1526” (From Nicopolis to Mohács 1396-1526. Zrínyi
Kiadó, Budapest, 2005)

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