The Hussars ambush the fair of Hatvan in 1580


The “Small War” on the Borderland

Military actions between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary have been going on since the first decades of the 15th century until at least 1699. The 1,000-mile-long and 10-100-mile-wide Borderland was a perfect place for ambushes, raids, and hit-and-run actions: it was the cradle where the Hussar cavalry was born. 

Hungarian hussar, 16th century

As for the Ottomans, their military strategy was to “soften up” the enemy’s lands as far as they could: they destroyed the villages that were supporting the Hungarian and Croatian castles with food and spread terror deep behind the Borderland, too. It was the way of life between the “official wars” and this “small war” was considered normal unless artillery and siege engines were applied.

a high-ranking Ottoman officer

However, the quick Ottoman units were received by Hungarian warriors who had once been horse-archers themselves and hadn’t forgotten all of their horsemanship just yet. The Hungarians’ military success in Central Europe derived from the flexible use of both Western and Eastern warfare. They were faster than western cavalry but heavier than eastern riders. Read more about these horses here:

The Borderland was made up of a chain of castles and fortified places where the rate of Hussar cavalry and infantry was 1:1. The Turks could be beaten only by endless counter-raids and ambushes, long patrols deep behind the “Turk” lines, plundering lands that were actually inhabited still by Christian Hungarians or Slavs. As the contemporary saying went, “The castle can be defended only in the field” which meant aggressive warfare. 

Red line: the Borderland after 1541

The problem was always the money, of course. While the Imperial Western mercenaries were more or less regularly paid (and their pay was twice higher than the local soldiers’), the castle warriors and Hussars received their pay (or just a fragment of it) just months or even years later. They either starved and sold their weapons or took up jobs, cultivated a vinery or the lands. However, many decided not to work as it was “below them” and they were raiding the countryside, in better cases the enemy’s lands (which were inhabited by Christians, anyway).

The gold minted by King Louis II in 1517

The Borderland warriors considered themselves members of the Valiant Order and they had a certain unwritten code of honor that stopped them from selling their swords to the enemy, though. Ransoming high-ranking Ottoman officers was a major income, the source of survival in many cases. It was why there were so many duels, too. Capturing the Ottomans’ tax collectors who mainly belonged to the members of the Jewish community was also an effective way of making money.

Gold coin of Sultan Suleiman, 1520

However, perhaps the best business was the “hitting of a fair”. Fairs were regularly held in Hungarian market towns which were the centers of the surrounding areas. Plenty of animals were herded to these fairs and merchants arrived with hundreds of wagonloads of products. No wonder, that they were heavily guarded by the Turks. To them, a fair was an ideal place where they were able to collect their taxes. Hatvan was such a town like this; you can read more about this fortified Borderland town that happened to belong to the Ottomans in 1580:

The ambush of Hatvan on 21 April 1580

The endeavor seemed to have been organized well by the Hungarian Borderland warrior. It must have been kept in deep secret, unlike many similar actions. Also, the enemy’s attention had to be distracted. During the middle of April, the riders of Nádasdy Ferenc were raiding the area of Esztergom while the Hussars of Kanizsa castle were doing the same at Berzence castle. The cavalrymen of Upper Hungary were spreading havoc around Kékkő castle. Here is more about Kékkő castle, the ancient nest of the Balassi family:


Kékkő castle (Photo: Civertan)

The soldiers who attacked Hatvan were coming from the Hungarian Borderland castles of Eger, Diósgyőr, Tokaj, Cserépvár, and other castles in the area. We are lucky that the story of the case was written in the “Historia cladis Turcicae ad Nadudvar” which was a contemporary poetic work. Thus we know that Captain Karl Rueber of Tokaj castle (and not his elder brother, Captain Hans Rueber of Kassa castle) and the Hungarian warrior-poet, Balassi Bálint were involved, too. Balassi used to be a cavalry lieutenant from Eger castle at this time. 

Balassi Bálint
 The ambush was carried out just perfectly. The Hungarian cavalry and the yellow-coated German heavy cavalry managed to surprise the Ottomans who at first thought that it was just an attack of stray Hajdú soldiers. Well, it wasn’t. However, the Ottomans soon recovered from the initial shock and sallied from the town. When they were all out, they realized that the peril was even greater because many thousands of Borderland soldiers were facing them. They turned tail but they couldn’t close the gates behind them. The Christian riders were intruding into Hatvan city literally on their back. The German and Hungarian riders made a huge slaughter among the Jannisaries, Beslias, and the irregular marauders.
a Hungarian Hussar
According to the poem “Great many Turk peasants were slain as if in piles / as much as the corpses were reaching each other”
The slaughter continued in the streets, then the attackers began to plunder. Even Lord Balassa’s role was mentioned who, unlike a poet: “Valiant Balassa, with his footmen and horsemen /, was breaking up houses and money-stores / capturing children, toddlers / and many Turks were tied by their necks”
Hajdú soldiers plunder the peasants
The Christians took lots of booties, including many captives, and lots of “chief Turks”. The ad-hoc market called “kótyavetye” where they sold their booty was held in Eger. This was mentioned in the Chronicles of Szamosközy István, too. This raid was an unheard-of scandal for the Turks and it brought about the fall of the Pasha of Buda, Kara Üvejsz who protested against the “breaking of the Truce” in vain. He was removed in May 1580. His successor, Ali Kalajlikosz could not arrive at Buda before the summer, though. It was when Bey Sásvár of Szolnok Castle appeared on the scene, a renegade: read more about his outstanding life here:


Bey Sásvár had a big role in removing Pasha Üvejsz and it was Sásvár who acted as a caimacam, the substitute of the pasha, who was directing the Vilayet of Buda until Ali arrived. Sásvár had been aspiring for the position of the pasha in secret, though.

Bey Sásvár wanted to take revenge for the raid of Hatvan so he set out with a combined army of several Ottoman Sanjak districts and he was pillaging the area of Eger. He took lots of locals to the slave market. We know that he raided the village of Maklár where they killed the Reformed pastor and the schoolmaster on 20 June 1580. However, his revenge was stopped on 16 July by the Hungarian Hussars who severely defeated him at Nádudvar. It is not known whether his captives were freed or not.
Ottoman Sipahies
 Source: Szibler Gábor

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