Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

Szilágyi Mihály, the kingmaker

The COA of Szilágyi Mihály

Szilágyi Mihály of Horogszeg (cc1400-1460) was a Hungarian General, Regent of Hungary, Count of Beszterce (Bistrița, Bistritz, also Nösen), Head of Szilágyi-Hunyadi League, and Chief Captain of the Lower Parts of Hungary, Voivode of Transylvania. His person was very important in making Hunyadi János and his son, Hunyadi Mátyás aka King Matthias Corvinus powerful. Thus, he has contributed mightily to the defense of the Kingdom of Hungary and Western Europe against the Ottoman Empire’s onslaught. Please, note that I am going to use the Eastern name order for Hungarians whereas family names come first.

In the first third of the 15th century, the strength of the Ottoman Empire was tied up in wars and domestic political tensions in Asia Minor, but after overcoming crises, the Ottoman state continued its European expansion with renewed vigor.

The Southern Borderland of Hungary in the first years of the 16th century

After the Empire conquered a significant part of the Balkans, a new chapter in the history of the Hungarian-Ottoman wars began in the 1440s. During the period of raids and city sieges, several warlords engraved their names in history, including Hunyadi’s brother-in-law, Szilágyi Mihály, whose name is considered by Hungarian historical memory mainly because he was the captain of the castle during the triumph of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) in 1456.

Hunyadi János (photo: Thaler Tamás)

Szilágyi and Hunyadi János

Verily, Szilágyi’s success was closely connected to the rise of the military genius, Hunyadi János. Szilágyi was of a common noble family, they derived their name from the village of Horogszeg, it was their estate in the county of Temes. His sister, Szilágyi Erzsébet, was the wife of Hunyadi János. Szilágyi began his career in his brother-in-law’s service as vice-comes of Torontál County.

Szilágyi COA

We do not know whether he had any part in fighting against the Peasant Uprising of Budai Nagy Antal in 1437 but it is more likely that he might have been among the Székely troops who helped to put down this most destructive rebellion. Here you can read more about the Hungarian Székely border guards of Transylvania:

 He had just one brother, Osva, and his two sisters were Erzsébet and Zsófia. He married Báthori Margit between 1440-45. They probably gave birth to several children, but none of them reached adulthood. We know that Szilágyi fought against the Turks in the battle of Várna and in the Second Battle of Rigómező (1448). Here you can read more about these battles:

On May 29, 1453, Byzantium was forced to his knees by the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II which caused shock and fear throughout Europe. The Kingdom of Hungary prepared for the inevitable Ottoman attack by strengthening the southern frontier fortress system.

Hungary became the greatest rival of the Ottoman Empire in Europe

At the same time, Pope Callixtus III (1455–58) sought to devote all the resources of the Church to the organization of a crusade. Although Buda was informed in April 1456 that the Turks had begun the campaign against Hungary, a significant part of the high priestly and baronial bands did not march to the southern frontier. Likewise, the German and Bohemian crusaders recruited in Europe, mostly German and Czech, were only near Vienna at that time. 

Hunyadi János (16th century picture)

The Ottoman army consisted of nearly 100,000 people, which was also supported by their navy on the Danube River. Under the leadership of Sultan Mehmed II, they reached the walls of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) at the end of June 1456. In the castle, Szilágyi Mihály commanded the defense of about 7,000 people, while Hunyadi János, with 10,000 soldiers, was outside the castle, nearby. There were further 25 to 30,000 armed peasants, recruited by the Franciscan preacher St. John of Capistran in the southern counties of Hungary, gathered at Zalánkemén. The siege began on July 4 and lasted for almost three weeks.

Nándorfehérvár / Belgrade, the gate of Hungary

As a result of the continuous fire of Turkish cannons, by July 21 the castle walls had become equal to the ground. Then, the Sultan, trusting his superiority, ordered a general assault but it was repelled by the heroic defenders. The decisive battle took place the next day. Even before Mehmed ordered another assault, Capistran’s crusaders crossed the Sava River and began to shoot the Turkish camp with arrows. 

Sultan Mehmed II

When the Ottoman main forces turned against the charging but not well-armed peasants, the castle defenders sallied out, and the Turks, trapped between the two fires, retreated in panic for fear of being surrounded. This final charge was led by Hunyadi János but Szilágyi Mihály, Kanizsai László and Rozgonyi Sebestyén were also there, leading their iron-clad knights.

Saint Capistrano (Kapisztrán)

Sultan Mehmed, the conqueror of Constantinapolis, was chased away from the castle, amid great bloodshed. The Ottomans suffered a devastating and sobering defeat. This victory has protected western Europe from Ottoman destruction for the next seventy years. We know, that both Hunyadi and Capistrano died in the plague right after the siege. However, Szilágyi Mihály survived it and later he rebuilt the castle of Nándorfehérvár from its foundations. But there were more troubles on the way before that. Read more about the Victory of Nándorfehérvár here and find out why the bells are being tolled at noon all over Christendom:

After this, Szilágyi didn’t stop supporting the Hunyadi family against the Cillei Clan with all his might: Lord Cillei Ulrik, the tutor of the young and spoiled king was his lethal enemy. As it turned out, King László V. and his 4,000 soldiers arrived quite late to aid Nándorfehérvár, it was on 8 November 1456. Of course, he was accompanied by Lord Cillei.

Cillei Ulrik

Hunyadi lászló, the elder son of Hunyadi János went to greet the king, with his uncle, Szilágyi Mihály. They invited the king and Cillei, along with a few lords to Nándorfehérvár but they closed the gates before the bodyguards. The next day, Hunyadi László had a short argument with Lord Cillei, then drew his sword and slew him. Allegedly, Szilágyi took part in the murder, too. Then, Hunyadi László forced the young king to appoint him as the Chief Captain of the kingdom.

King lászló V. of Hungary

On the way home to Buda, King László stopped at Temesvár (Timisoara) where he was humiliated by Lady Szilágyi Erzsébet, the widow of late Hunyadi János. The king had to make an oath that he would not take revenge on the Hunyadi sons for the death of Cillei. Moreover, the king had to accept Hunyadi László and Mátyás (Matthias) as his brothers. Upon arriving at Buda, the king declared his oaths not valid and arrested both Hunyadi sons. He had Hunyadi László beheaded on 16 March 1457 in Vienna. The 14-year-old Mátyás was sent to Prague where he was held in captivity.

Szilágyi Erzsébet with her son, Matthias in Hunyad castle (by Vajda Zsigmond, 1890)

 The slaughter of Cillei Ulrik led to further trouble, as Katalin, the wife of Lord Cillei Ulrik was the daughter of Despot Brankovics. Szilágyi was supervising the reinforcement of Nándorfehérvár castle and he was keeping an eye on the Ottoman raiding parties, too. We know, that he defeated one of Mehmed’s Grand Vizier’s raids around Nándorfehérvár in 1457. At the end of 1457 (according to some as early as 1456) he was in another kind of deadly danger: György Brankovics, the Serbian Despot attacked him. When Mihály and his brother, Szilágyi László were traveling in a four-horse carriage around the castle of Nándorfehérvár, Brankovics set a trap for them. Mihály jumped off the carriage and got on a horse, and managed to avoid death, but his brother, László, died of his wounds. However, Mihály did not leave the death of his brother unpunished. 

Despot Durad (György) Brankovics of Serbia

A few days after this, he quickly gathered his troops and ambushed Brankovics at Kölpény, near the Sava river. After a stubborn resistance, Brankovics lost his two fingers of his right hand, and Szilágyi captured him. Szilágyi took away several lands of Brankovics that the Despot owned in Hungary, then reconciled with him. Later, the lands of Brankovics were given back to him because Szilágyi needed the Despot’s support: he wanted to rely on him in the king-making of the Hunyadi-sons. We know that Brankovics died in his wounds in 1456, though.

Hunyadi László

In 1457, After the execution of his nephew, Hunyadi László, Szilágyi singled out Transylvania as the basis for a life-and-death struggle for supreme power, because the Hunyadi party was the strongest there and in the adjoining Hungarian Partium. The kingdom was on the brink of civil war. In Transylvania, the counties and the Székelys welcomed him with open arms, the gates of the castles opened before him, only the royal Saxons turned against him.

Hunyadi László’s grave in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia)

His political weight was appreciated and he became the leader of the Hunyadi – Szilágyi League. Abruptly, King László V. died in Prague on November 23, 1457. Peace had to be made among the barons. In the first days of 1458, in Szeged, Szilágyi agreed with the leaders of the rival baronial party and succeeded in electing his nephew, Matthias, as a king. The royal election assembly gathered in Buda at the end of January, and Szilágyi deployed his armies on the Pest bank of the frozen Danube to emphasize his intention.

The Saxon town of Beszterce (Bistrița, Bistritz, Nösen) Photo: Wikizoli

The soldiers and the assembled noblemen proclaimed the younger son of Hunyadi János as a king on the ice of the Danube. However, Matthias was still imprisoned in Prague at that time. Szilágyi was elected by the Diet (on the ice of the Danube, too) as the Governor of the country (regent governor) for five years until the 15-year-old Matthias became fit to rule.

the statue of young King Matthias at Somorja

Szilágyi and Hunyadi Mátyás

As Matthias (ruled 1458–90) was still a minor, Szilágyi acted as Governor. He immediately went to Buda and took over the royal castle from Palatine Garai in order to give it to Matthias. At the same time, he arranged for the release of Matthias from his captivity, who, on his return home from Prague, hurried to express his gratitude to his uncle: he gifted him the town of Beszterce along with the County of Beszterce, together with the Radna Valley. Szilágyi was given back his domains in Kolozsvár and in Doboka, too. 

Szilágyi’s governor signet

Previously, the Saxon town of Beszterce had just defeated Szilágyi’s armies. Now, Szilágyi rushed to the castle with his troops from the Hungarian Great Plain and took the city by force. His troops raped some of the inhabitants, blinded others, cut off the hands, noses, or ears of many of them. Matthias, who had a hard time tolerating his uncle, was indignant at his atrocities in Beszterce. The young king locked him in the castle of Világos, later he also sent an order to kill him. Fortunately, the new pope, Pius II (Enea Silvio Piccolomini), intercepted by his ambassador, so Matthias withdrew his order just in time.

Pope Pius II

Soon, the Turkish threat called Lord Szilágyi to the southern parts of the kingdom, and he was able to devote less and less energy to politics. Nevertheless, young King Matthias was trying to be independent of his tutors, and all this provoked a conflict between the governor and the king before long. Matthias, taking advantage of his uncle’s absence, convened a Diet where he curtailed the governor’s powers, then had him resigned from his office. It angered Szilágyi who sought contact with rival baronial circles and allied himself with the enemy of the Hunyadi Clan, the Garai family in Simontornya castle. Things turned out just too bad and Matthias arrested and imprisoned him in Világos castle. 

However, Lord Szilágyi freed himself with the help of his cook: while Lábatlan Gergely, the captain of Világos castle was away, the cook and three loyal men alarmed the guards that the Turks were coming. The warriors left the castle and Szilágyi disarmed the few men who were guarding the gate, with the help of a few peasants whom he had hired. He took control of the castle and sent a message to Matthias. The king pardoned him and they made peace in Várkony. In 1459, Szilágyi was fighting the Turks again with renewed vigor. The king appointed him as the Chief Captain of the southern parts of the kingdom and Szilágyi was made the Voivode of Transylvania as well. 

The signature of Szilágyi Mihály

In the autumn of 1459, Ottoman armies broke through the southern frontier, they were following the line of the Danube all the way to Futak, destroying everything. They were led by Bey Ali Mihaloglu. Szilágyi first hurried to fortify the castles near the Lower-Danube, and then, defeated the Turks with the help of Szokolyi Péter.  In 1460, Matthias affirmed the peace with Szilágyi. Also, the king removed 12 high-ranking noblemen from his court who was the enemy of his uncle. 

Szilágyi Mihály (a romantic painting from 1880)

In response to the Turk attack, Szilágyi led a retaliatory campaign in Serbia in 1460. He fought a battle against Bey Ali Mihaloglu at Posasin, near Szendrő (Smederovo) castle in Serbia. Unfortunately, he had a lot smaller number of warriors so his army was surrounded by the enemy. He was taken as a prisoner, captured by Bey Ali Mihaloglu who sent him to Constantinople, where he was tortured and allegedly sawed in half because he didn’t want to betray the weak points of Nándorfehérvár castle. Finally, the 60-year-old warrior was beheaded by Sultan Mehmed II. 

a wishful thought: Hunyadi János at the feet of Sultan Murad II

Lord Szilágyi Mihály had no adult children born from his wife, Lady Báthori Margit. Szilágyi Mihály is commemorated in the Serbian epic poetry as Mihajlo Svilojevic or sometimes “crni ban Mihail”, while Ottoman chronicles referred to him as “Kara Mihal”. Without his deeds, the star of the Hunyadi family perhaps could not have risen so high. 

a not well-known portrait of King Matthias (16th century)


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