Hunyadi János (1407-1456)

Hunyadi János in the Chronicle of Thuróczi

General Hunyadi János, the legendary hero of the Hungarian-Ottoman wars and governor of Hungary between 1446 and 1453, died in Zimony on 11 August 1456, when a plague epidemic broke out in the camp at Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade). He is considered perhaps the greatest military leader of the 15th century in Europe. I have already written a lot about Hunyadi’s fights on my page, but now I would like to give you a summary of his life, based on the research of Tarján M. Tamás.

Hunyadi János, Governor of Hungary
Thanks to the victories of the chief captain and Transylvanian voivode, who also served as governor between 1446 and 1453, the Ottomans avoided war with Hungary for decades after the hero’s death, giving Hungary valuable time to develop its national Renaissance.
Hunyadi János in the Thuróczi Chronicle, 1499
Hunyadi’s origin is still a matter of debate, partly because of the lack of information, but also because of the sources from the time of King Matthias Hunyadi (1458-1490), as the chroniclers of our Renaissance king tried to give their patron as distinguished ancestors as possible. According to current historiography, Hunyadi was the son of Vajk, the son of Serba, a “kenezius” leader from Wallachia, and Morzsinai Erzsébet, born around 1407.
Hunyadi János’ coat of arm
However, the story that Erzsébet’s child was born to her (alleged) lover, King Sigismund of Luxembourg (reigned 1387-1437), and that Vajk took care of the child only on his “orders” is much more appealing to lovers of legends. The supporters of the adventurous story believe that Serba’s son Vajk was rewarded for his services with a considerable estate in the county of Hunyad and that young János’s career rose to such an extent that the emperor even took him to his imperial coronation in 1433.
Hunyadi’s coat of arms
Leaving aside the controversies surrounding the person of the hero who defeated the Turks, it can be said that even the camp of those who “recognize” Vajk as the father is not united since Romanian historiography tries at all costs to trace Hunyadi back to Romanian ancestors, and even labels him and his son Matthias as Romanians. Apart from the fact that the nobility of Wallachia was still mostly of Hungarian origin at that time – so Kenezius (Kenéz) Vajk could have been one – there is no doubt that both the lord and his successors considered themselves Hungarian nobles in the terminology of the time and that they put the interests of the Hungarian Kingdom first in politics. (My note: According to others, Vajk’s family may have had Cuman roots.)
To put an end to the debate on Hunyadi’s origin, let us read the latest DNA research:  

As mentioned above, Hunyadi did indeed rise through the ranks of the court, becoming one of Sigismund’s favorite retainers, serving under both Pippo of Ozora and Stephen Lazarevich of Serbia, and traveling all over Europe with his emperor. The Turk-fighting hero also spent two years at the court of the Visconti dukes of Milan, where he learned the Italian way of fighting from the condottiere – mercenary commanders. You can read more about his military education:
Thanks to his travels and experience in the Hussite and Turkish wars, Hunyadi learned several tactics, which he introduced into his army and combined ingeniously in battles. During his ‘apprenticeship’, in 1433, Hunyadi married Szilágyi Erzsébet, who bore him two sons, László and the future king Mátyás (Matthias). During the reign of Sigismund of Luxembourg, Hunyadi fought his way up to the title of knight, and during the reign of the late king’s son-in-law Albert (r. 1437-1439), he even attained the title of Duke of Szörény.
Vajdahunyad castle, Hunyadi’s fort (Photo: Kocsis Kadosa)
He sided with King Ulászló Jagelló of Poland (r. 1440-1444) in the struggle for the throne after 1439 and played a major role in the armed victory over the widowed Queen Erzsébet. During the four years of the young king’s reign, Hunyadi’s estates increased considerably and he also acquired the title of voivode of Transylvania. In 1441 he defeated the army of Bey Isa near Szendrő, and in 1442 he defeated Bey Mezid, who was attacking Transylvania. More about this:
The campaigns of Hunyadi János
For a time, after Hunyadi’s successes, it seemed a realistic goal for Hungary to try to drive the Turks out of Europe in a crusade with the help of the revolting Balkan peoples. In July 1443, the Transylvanian voivode set out on a ‘Long Campaign’ in the Balkans, defeating many of the Beys in the process, as well as mutinying and liberating large parts of Serbia and Bulgaria; the victories made it seem as if the expulsion of the Turks was within reach, but in reality the talented commander only won victories over small provincial armies, not against the Sultan’s main forces.
The lands of Hunyadi János in 1456
In the summer of 1444, when Murad tried to make a favorable peace with the Hungarians through Bey Mezid, the papal legate Cesarini dragged Ulászló and Hunyadi into a hopeless war in which the Hungarian armies suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Várna in November. King Ulászló lost his life on the battlefield, and Hunyadi had great difficulty returning home.
My side note: I have written a three-part series on the Battle of Várna, here is the first part:


As the only possible heir to the throne was the minor King László V (r. 1453-1457), who was detained in Vienna, a transitional system had to be introduced in Hungary, where from 1445 seven captain generals and from 1446 Hunyadi János as governor ran the affairs of the kingdom. For seven years, the general was the first man in the country to rule with many rights and under the supervision of a council of state. During this period, Hungary fought a victorious war against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (r. 1440-1493), tried unsuccessfully to expel the Bohemian mercenary leader Giskra from the Highlands, and in the Second Battle of Rigómező (Kosovo Polje), at the head of a Serbian-Albanian-Hungarian alliance, Hunyadi was again decisively defeated by the Sultan. Here is more about this battle:
After the battle, the general was held prisoner for a long time by his rival, the Serbian prince George Brankovic, who released him only after paying a huge ransom. After Rigómező, Hunyadi realized that Hungary alone could not muster enough troops to liberate the Balkans, so he turned his attention to defending the borders in the absence of European allies. When King László V came of age in 1453, our hero resigned as governor and devoted his life to fighting the Ottomans.
Hunyadi János
After Hunyadi’s battle at Rigómező, he launched several smaller campaigns into Serbia and Bulgaria, but he was unable to hold off the main army of Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1451-1481), who had conquered Constantinople and then Serbia in 1455. The final test of the great commander came in the last year of his life, 1456, when the Sultan marched against the strongest stronghold of the southern fortress system of the Hungarian Borderland, Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade), the key to Central Europe.
Nándorfehérvár, 1456
Hunyadi – and his brother-in-law Szilágyi Mihály – were abandoned by the baronial leagues and the Diet, and had to defend the castle with the income from their own estates and positions, but they still managed to triumph on 22 July 1456, with the help of the crusading army of the monk John Capistrano. In the last of countless battles, the great soldier won his most important victory at Nándorfehérvár, which deterred the Ottomans from waging war against Hungary for half a century. Read more about this victory here:
Saint Capistrano leading the peasant crusaders at the Siege of Nándorfehérvár / Belgrade in 1456
Hunyadi, who arrived with a relief army, had a lion’s share in the victory, and the triumph – as so many times before – once again raised the possibility of driving the Ottomans out of Europe for good. Although Hunyadi supported the idea, he had neither the time nor the energy to carry it out, for on 11 August 1456 he was swept away by the plague that ravaged his camp. In the political turmoil that followed his death, there was no opportunity to capitalize on the victory, but thanks to Hunyadi, Hungary’s borders remained intact for many decades.
The tombstone of Hunyadi János at Gyulafehérvár / Alba Iulia (Transylvania, Romania)
/Source:Rubicon, author: Tarján M. Tamás/

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