Battle of Kosovo Polje (Rigómező), 1448

It was the second lost battle in Kosovo Polje against the Ottoman Empire (the first was in 1389). In Hungarian, 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 by the army of Sultan Murad II after three days of bloody fighting. It was the last Hungarian attempt to liberate the Balkans, but this battle sealed the fate of the Balkan Christian states.

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

After returning from Várna, Hunyadi, the richest and most powerful aristocrat in Hungary, became governor of the kingdom. He had to fight the Bohemian Hussites in the north of the country and had problems with the German Emperor Frederick III. But he didn’t give up on attacking the Ottomans and driving them out of Europe.

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

King Frederick

In 1447 he came to an agreement with Frederick, and the Cillis as well as with 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 King Ladislas (László) V. Jiskra’s warriors later became the core of the famous Black Army of Hunyadi’s son, King Matthias Corvinus. For the time being, Hunyadi was able to turn against the Ottomans again.

Hunyadi tried in vain to persuade the Pope and the European powers to cooperate with him in 1447. It was
Alfonso of Aragon, King of Naples, that he was able to agree on a concrete plan. Alfonso promised to pay one hundred thousand florins to raise 16,000 mercenaries. Hunyadi promised to raise the same sum, and he promised to use all the money, with the help of the Wallachians, to drive the Ottomans out of Europe. Unfortunately, nothing came of the plan, although Hunyadi did offer Alfonso the Hungarian crown.

King Alfonso V.

He did, however, succeed in renewing his 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 helped by force of arms to take the throne in the winter of 1447-48. A serious threat, however, was posed by the attitude 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.

As was customary, a tax was levied to finance the campaign: one golden florin for every four households. Transylvania, the territory directly ruled by Hunyadi, provided much of the army’s equipment, but he also received help from other cities. In particular, he requested the manufacture of carts and cannons, including mortars. All of this is said to have filled two thousand carts.

The structure of the army reflected the lessons learned from the disaster at Várna in 1444. The objectives 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 shields, bows, and swords). This suggests that these early ‘hussars’ had an offensive function in battle. The defense was to be provided by the wagons and the small caliber guns (cerbottana) mounted on them, in good old Hussite fashion.

However, the backbone of the army remained the armored cavalry, with some 15,000 horsemen. As mentioned earlier, this was supplemented by some 8,000 light cavalry, mostly from Walachia. This brought the total strength of the army to around 30,000, larger than four years earlier and better suited to an offensive campaign. As in 1444, however, success still depended on surprise and the support of the Balkan population. Hunyadi’s declared aim was to unite with Skanderbeg’s Albanian forces and then move together to take Thessaloniki. He followed the same route as in 1443, turning west at Niš and then south, marching through the Toplica valley towards Kosovo Polje.

Some sources claim that the Serbian despot George Brankovič, whom Hunyadi had abandoned in 1444, had betrayed his plan to Sultan Murad, thus removing the element of surprise. In fact, the Sultan had known of Hunyadi’s preparations since midsummer and had plenty of time to prepare for whatever the 30,000-strong Hungarian army might do.

The Sultan gathered his forces in Sofia, from where he could intervene wherever necessary. Murad was able to mobilize his entire army, so it is hard to imagine what kind of surprise Hunyadi had in mind. Although the Hungarian commander knew that the Sultan was making preparations in Sofia, he left the rear of his army 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 undoubtedly a tragic mistake.

The Hungarian army left its camp on the Danube on 28 September and was on the northern edge of the Kosovo Polje plateau two weeks later. Since the Sultan’s army appeared a day or two later in the same place behind the Christians, this meant that Murad left Sofia before being informed of Hunyadi’s change of direction. The Ottomans could not have been taken by surprise. As in 1444, they forced the Hungarian army into a situation similar to that at Várna.

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

Kosovo Polje aka Rigómező

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

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

It was here, almost in the valley of the river, that Hunyadi was camped when he heard of the Sultan’s arrival. The Ottoman army was advancing on the road out of the Lab valley from Pristina, a few kilometers east of Murad’s tomb, and threatened to occupy the strategic hill.

Sensing danger, Hunyadi and his cavalry took the hill in a fierce battle. He set up the wagon fort on the hill and placed the army around it, clearly in an attacking formation. The hill was taken and the camp was established on 17 October. The Hungarian army was cut off from its water supply, but a cavalry charge down the hill seemed to promise success.

The Turkish army outnumbered the Christian army. They took up a position to the north of the marshes, on the site of the former Hungarians, by 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 to support them. The Azaps alone numbered ten thousand; there must have been as many Akinjis and at least six thousand Janissaries and Porte mercenaries so that together with the Anatolian and Rumelian cavalry and the mobilized Balkan garrisons, the Ottoman army must have totaled at least fifty thousand men.

Murad arranged this force in the traditional formation. In the center were the janissaries and the Azap infantry, with the artillery dugouts in front of them. The Anatolian cavalry was on one wing, the Rumelian cavalry and the Akinjis on the other. In the rear, the army was defended by a camp fort made of baggage. The Sultan had armed the horsemen, camel drivers, and other auxiliaries in the camp, and placed a few thousand regular troops alongside them.

The center of the Hungarian army must have been occupied by Hunyadi’s armored cavalry, with the attacking infantry behind them, in front of the wagon fort. The barons’ militia, who were later killed in the battle, were probably also positioned in the center.

On the wings were several asserted cavalry, the light horsemen in front, including the Walachian auxiliaries, and behind them the armored cavalry. There were several barons with considerable battle experience, such as Hunyadi’s brother-in-law Székely János of Szentgyörgy, Marcali Imre, and Bebek Imre. (Note that I am using the oriental name order for Hungarians, where surnames come first). Hunyadi reinforced the wagon fort in the same way as the Sultan: the wagons were linked together with chains, and some of the cannons were placed on top of the wagons and others between the wagons, on the ground. The huge wagon fort had to be able to shelter the entire retreating army if necessary.

a Hussite “wagenburg”

According to Aeneas, the battle was preceded by a curious scene. The story goes 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 usual trick of oriental warfare, designed to make the enemy overconfident.

The battle began on 18 October. The Hungarian likely left and right wings attacked simultaneously, and the Anatolian and Rumelian corps withdrew, but according to plan, not in confusion. There was no panicky retreat: Turkish historians spoke of “defeat” only to exaggerate the later victory. According to a later source, the Turks then used the same kind of encirclement maneuver as at the Battle of Várna. The same Turkhan Bey who had led the Akinjis in 1443 came to the rear of the Hungarian left wing came to the rear of the Hungarian left wing together with the Anatolian cavalry who had turned back.

The Christian forces, including the Wallachians, were caught in the pincers and destroyed. It is also possible that the latter surrendered without serious resistance. The cavalry on the right wing likely collapsed in the fight with the Rumelian cavalry after their turn, and the remnants were unable to interfere effectively as the battle progressed 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 called the “Iron Wall”, the lightly-armed infantry behind them, against the Azaps and Janissaries in the center. The Turks tried to break the charge with burning camels and a hail of arrows, and then, in a well-disciplined maneuver, broke off to open a passage for the Christian cavalry.

The charge was hindered by the reinforced camp of baggage and wagons, and the Turkish infantry came up behind the confused cavalry, slaughtering the horses on their unarmoured backs. The trapped ranks were pressed further by those coming up behind them, and they trampled each other down. Some of the riders, deprived of their horses, broke through and took refuge in a nearby village, whose houses the Turks set on fire.

The enormous losses suffered in the center are shown 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 number of unknown soldiers lost their lives on the field.

Serbian troops in the battle

Nothing is known of Hunyadi’s role: later Ottoman historians claimed that he forced his way back to the wagon fort, others that he fled towards Serbia. The latter version is supported by the fact that he was taken prisoner 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 that had opened, or whether they clashed with the Turkish infantry wall after it had closed. What is certain is that fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued and continued until dusk. The remaining infantry then retreated to the wagon fort and waited for the Turkish assault under cover of the wagon-mounted cannons.

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

The battle was lost, as it would be 78 years later at Mohács, by the failure of the cavalry charge: the infantry, deprived of their cavalry support, had no chance of breaking through the Turkish army. You may like this article on cavalry charges:

Hungarian knight (the COA of Razinyai Bocskai Péter, 1414)

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 an artillery duel between two equal forces. There can be no question of Hunyadi leading his cavalry from the Wagenburg in a night attack against the Janissaries.

The truth is illustrated by an Ottoman account. The Turkish infantry, under cover of night, approached within an arrow’s throw of the Christians’ wagon fort and from there fired on them with cannons and small arms, which were returned by the wagon-mounted guns. The aim of the artillery fire was not so much to inflict casualties as to prevent the defenders from resting, a point also alluded to in a comment by Hunyadi. At dawn on 19 October, the Turks launched the final assault from such close range that the defenders of the wagon fort could not make good use of their guns. The Ottomans broke into the fortress with lances and swords and crushed the resistance in a bloody massacre. The “Germans and Bohemians”, the infantry, were killed to the last man.

An Akinji is dragging an armored knight

At the end of the battle, the Wallachian auxiliaries (4-8,000 horsemen) abandoned the Bohemian and German soldiers and sided with the Turks. As the Ottoman troops slaughtered the Germans and Bohemians, Sultan Murad II ordered the Wallachians to be killed as well, but before killing them all he gave them back their weapons.

The Ottoman victory is usually described as very bloody, but the tens of thousands of deaths recorded in Western chronicles are the stuff of legend. Many of the Janissaries must have fallen in the fierce hand-to-hand combat, and there must have been significant losses among the Sipahis, but the death toll could not have exceeded ten thousand.

The losses of the Hungarian army are also difficult to estimate. The greatest casualties were among the infantry and cavalry, who attacked in the center. This is where the barons and probably most of the militia horsemen were killed. There were probably fewer deaths on the wings, where the engagement was shorter and there was a greater chance of escape. In all, there were about 8-10,000 casualties and many were captured, such as Rozgonyi Sebestyén, who was ransomed by the Genovese years later.

Governor Hunyadi was also captured and taken to Szendrő (Smederevo, Serbia) by Branković’s men.

Szendrő castle (Photo: Duja)

The despot had good reason to be angry with Hunyadi, and his time for revenge had come. He allowed Hunyadi to make contact with Hungary’s ruling barons, who, hearing of the governor’s escape and capture, gathered in Szeged and began negotiations with the despot. Branković set very strict conditions: Hunyadi had to return the despot’s estates in Hungary, betroth his younger son Matthias to Branković’s granddaughter Elisabeth Cillei, and leave his elder son Ladislas (László) in Szendrő / Smederevo.

Having fulfilled these conditions, Hunyadi was allowed to leave the despot’s court in December. Hunyadi, of course, had no intention of honoring the agreement, but in his weakened political position after losing the battle, he could not think of revenge.

The defeat at the Battle of Kosovo / Rigómező finally proved that Hungarian tactics based on a decisive armored cavalry charge were ineffective against disciplined janissaries able to open a gap and large numbers of Turkish cavalry capable of similar tactics. Against such an army, only a much larger, well-trained infantry, permanent in arms, and light cavalry of a similar size could have engaged the Ottomans with any chance of victory. Such an army would require financial resources similar to those of the Ottoman Empire, and Hunyadi’s Hungary was not in that class.

For this reason, Hunyadi’s concept of the decisive battle would not have been viable even if, by some stroke of luck, the Hungarian army had managed to defeat the Ottoman army in open battle. For the Sultan, as the example of Nándorfehérvár well illustrates, the destruction of almost all his infantry and the heavy loss of his cavalry did not prevent him from rebuilding his army to an equally effective force within a few years. After 1448, no Hungarian military leader ever attempted to break the Ottoman Empire in 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), and the information about the Wallachian troops is from Szabó Ottó.

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