Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

The beginning of King Matthias’ Reign

What was the position of the Kingdom of Hungary when King Matthias began his reign in 1458? Was it much different than in the age of Zrínyi Miklós (Nikola Zrinski), nearly two hundred years later? Or today? Let us scrutinize the early stage of his reign with the aid of Zrínyi Miklós and Bajzsi-Zsilinszky Endre. Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first…

Verily, young King Matthias began his reign in a quite unfriendly political environment. Although Sultan Mohamed II, the conqueror of the Byzantine Empire had been dealt with during the warlike governing years of his father, Hunyadi János. However, Matthias simply could not turn the head of his horse towards the Turks while his back was not secure.

The domains of the Hunyadi family

The death of László, the elder brother of Matthias was still fresh

The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III was openly his enemy and George Podjebrad of Bohemia did his best to undermine any peace talks between Matthias and the German ruler. On top of this, the Hungarian lords vividly remembered the reign of the former Hungarian king who was a Habsburg called King László V. The very king who had cowardly executed Hunyadi László, the elder brother of Matthias who trusted the safe conduct promised by the king.
Hunyadi László, elder brother of Matthias
King Habsburg László V had been the king of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, also he was the younger brother of the Emperor. His short and weak rule in Hungary certainly didn’t improve the political reconciliation between the two countries. On 14 March 1457, King László V. (r. 1453-1457) ordered the capture of László, the eldest son of Hunyadi János, the victor of the Battle of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrad). The feud between Hunyadi László, the young head of the country’s most powerful noble family, and the young king’s circle had dragged on since the death of the great general, Hunyadi János (1456).
King László V was the second Habsburg ruler in Hungary, the only one who was born there.
The young ruler, King László V, and especially his baronial patrons (e.g. Cillei Ulrik, Garai Miklós), looked with concern and envy on the Hunyadi fortune, which had grown enormously over the decades, and repeatedly demanded the surrender of certain castles, especially the retained Nándorfehérvár. Hunyadi László refused to do so, and in a dispute with his supporters, he murdered Cillei Ulrik, who had come to Nándorfehérvár (Belgrad) to enforce the king’s demands.
Hunyadi János, László’s father (a portrayal from the 16th century)
The civil war between the Hunyadi party and the court came within arm’s length, although László sought reconciliation and the king promised forgiveness. The eldest son of Hunyadi, therefore, traveled to Buda, but the court council meeting there sentenced him to forfeiture of property and land, and together with his brother Matthias and his supporters (e.g. Bishop Vitéz János of Várad), he was thrown into prison on 14 March 1457. Hunyadi László was executed after two days; according to legend, the executioner struck him three times without success because of his thick hair – at which point he should have been pardoned – and only cut off his head for the fourth time.
The mourning of Hunyadi László
King László V passed in 1457 and Matthias became the next king of Hungary. Szilágyi Erzsébet, Matthias’ mother was said to have threatened the Germans at the coronation of her son, Matthias, saying that “one year will not be spent and we are going to shed the blood of many Germans, our horses will wade in German blood up to their knees.”
Hunyadi László’s grave in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia)
Admittedly, German-Hungarian political relations have never been very good since the appearance of the Hun Attila.
Yet, Matthias made unbelievably great efforts to change the traditional anti-German politics of Hungary and he was chasing the unwilling Emperor to ally with him.
The Emperor was openly supporting the Hungarian oligarchs who rebelled against Matthias and had himself crowned as King of Hungary; he had the nerve of inviting “Voivode Matthias” to this coronation. It was an open provocation. However, young Matthias proved to be a strong ruler. Matthias broke the oligarchs by force and managed to turn Pope Pius II, the former friend of the Emperor to his side. The Pope sent 20,000 gold Ducats to Matthias and sent along one of his nephews to learn military arts in the Hungarian court.
King Matthias in Garamszentbenedek
Emperor Frederick did not seem to care about the Ottoman peril. Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Endre (1939) cites the words of Cardinal Carvajal that he told to Emperor Frederick:
“Please, consider Your Majesty if the Hungarians didn’t resist the Turks, many Christian countries would have already been destroyed. And this hostility is endangering Christianity with ultimate ruin. This is why I would like to know the reasons which make you rage war against the Hungarian king. If they are true claims, I am ready to launch a Crusade and conquer the entire Hungary for you.” The Emperor needed a day to find his reason: it was that he had the Hungarians’ Holy Crown in his hands but this reasoning was easily refused by the Cardinal.
Emperor Frederick III, brother of King László V.; 1415-1493; allegedly he was one of those who poisoned Matthias in 1490

Bajcsy-Zsilinszky writes about this in 1939: „The Emperor had been trying to paralyze Hunyadi János during his entire career and the Holy Roman Empire did not support him, without the smallest whiffle of Christian solidarity. He was just a spectator and not a supporter of the heroic struggle of the Hungarians against the terrible all-sweeping imperialism of the Ottoman crescent moon. (…) …the old German plan to break the Hungarians’ rule over the Danube Valley and finish their sovereignty was simply not feasible during the reign of King Habsburg László V. due to the freshly gained renown of Hunyadi János. (…) Yet, the situation changed after the election of King Matthias.  `The wounds of the Hungarian nation have been reopened` as it was said later by Prince Rákóczi II Ferenc. The Emperor had the Hungarian Crown with him, and he was neither willing to cede the Holy Crown nor give up his claims for the Hungarian throne.”

Antonio Bonfini, the historian of Matthias (1487)
According to Count Zrínyi, Matthias was hindered from turning against the Turks by the Emperor but Zrínyi in 1657 could not dare to write as boldly as Bajcsy did:
„(Matthias) could not rest because the annoyance against the German Emperor has so much filled his heart that he could hardly bear it himself. Bonfinius (my remark: the king`s historian) had tried to find the reasons for this feeling but he admits he couldn`t. The wisdom says: `Coelum sursum, terra deorsum, cor autem Regis inscrutabile.` (The sky is high, the ground is low, and the heart of the king is unfathomable.) Who is going to see the reasons of this king who was born to glory and knew that it would be more worthy and necessary to make war against the pagan Turks but he left this behind? Leaving it despite suffering great damages: the wars that Bey Ali had done in Dalmatia, taking twenty-thousand people away to captivity and the destruction of another Turk army which was plundering the land up to Szeged, taking thirty-thousand people to slavery; yet, the king decided to turn against the German Emperor. Verily, it is believable that the reason was neither small nor just one just like great ships cannot be pulled by a single oar, similarly, the great things of a country can never happen because of just one reason but for many…”
Soldiers of the Black Army

Zrínyi Miklós (died 1664) appreciated not only the martial talent of King Matthias of Hungary (died 1490) but also praised his political skills. However, Count Zrínyi could not write more straightforwardly about the conflict between Matthias and the Germans because of his own contemporary Habsburg Emperor. Nevertheless, he recommended we learn from Matthias’ strong-handed negotiations:

“Let all people learn from this and no one should start anything mildly, rather, the action should have a hand and a leg one acts with; if he operates slowly and demurely, he will not get an award for it. Qui timide petit, docet negare. (Who he asks for things timidly, will teach others to refuse.)”
The combined coat of arms of King Matthias

As we had done before, let us follow the writing of Zrínyi who was not accidentally taking his time to write about King Matthias (Mátyás). The parallel is unmistakable if we read what Zrínyi wrote about it in his work born in 1657:

“Mátyás could barely take a good hard grip on the rod of the country, he has had at once three such enemies and armies against him whereas each of them thought to swallow him along with his country. There were two world-owning emperors among them, the German and the Turk, the third one was the Bohemian Giskra in his own country (in Hungary) who was as hard to exterminate as killing off the maggots from the rotten wound. 

Come on, brave king, let’s see whether you can be compared to Hercules, the son of Jupiter who had killed two dragons in his cradle at the same time, killing one with each hand. But your situation was even more difficult than his, having your hands full with two enemies already, tell me, what would you do with your third foe, with your traitor servants? Add to this the poverty of your country, the emptiness of your treasury, and the overall confusion in the country for the fear of these great enemies: what are you going to do, where will you begin? 

Your general, Nagy Simon has been just defeated, your valiant army is fleeing freely from the Germans, and Vas County is burning with smoke: you can see it from far away. But what worth the gold would have if it burned in a fire, and what would be the worth of a good helmsman if he could steer the boat around only in good weather?

The young King Mátyás

Fate has created these confusions and wars to make Mátyás’ road to glory and immortality harder. So the king has pulled together all his cleverness and strength and promised to give amnesty and offices to all the traitors, winning them over to his side.
Then, he sent again Nagy Simon and Count Szentgyörgyi Zsigmond, his former enemy, against the Roman Emperor who had been defeated this time…thus shaking the German thoughts off from the head of the haughty Emperor; who had been menacing, now has begun to fear his prey whom he had held in his house, namely the Crown (my remark: the Holy Crown of the Hungarians was kept in possession of the Emperor and without this crown, no legitimate ruler could be called the king of Hungary, that’s why Matthias had to pay a horrible ransom to get it back later); the Emperor would be happy already if this crown were not in his hand, he thought he would suffer harm if he kept it for long. But the magnanimity of the king saved the Emperor from this fear; he cast a milk loaf into the throat of the Emperor as Aeneas did it to Cerberus, cast seventy thousand gold pieces to cover his stingy eyes. (Mean: ransoming the Crown)

The Sacred Crown of the Hungarians

On the other hand, Rozgonyi Sebestyén was driving out the Bohemians from their many holes but he was unable to throw Giskra out without the king; the king set out against him with his full force and entire army; being greater, his untamable soul has tamed him, turning Giskra, the captain of thieves into his faithful and valiant follower. (My remark: later, Giskra’s Bohemian Hussite mercenaries became the core of the king’s Black Army, the first standing army in Europe.) Other kings would have waited to catch him for a long time, fighting against the wind, pursuing him from town to town; but our king had not thought of these vain thoughts; instead, he wished to serve the common good and didn’t pursue to be praised…

 

In the third part, the Turk has beaten the country. Hali Bey, a famous and valiant soldier of his age, has tried the luck of the king twice, once between the Száva and the Danube Rivers, and once in Transylvania. Yet, he had paid dearly for having given a try because both he and his army have winded up disgracefully; for he left behind his booty and the lives of half of his warriors and all his honor and this gave a deservedly good reason to him to write to his own Sultan that although the years of the Hungarian king are young, yet his renown and wisdom, luck are mature and thick; and the Sultan should not feel ashamed for the defeat of his army nor regard him off-handed if he wanted no harm coming to the Muslim Empire because of this child.

The action of the king has been proof of Bey Hali’s letter because he has marched against Jajca Castle which was so strong that it would have been impossible to take for anybody else, except Mátyás who touched it in a Hungarian manner and took it easily, causing eternal dishonor and annoyance to the Turk Sultan. Sultan Mahomet wanted to take revenge, set out with lots of preparations, surrounded Jajca, trying to retake it with a hard siege. 

(See Jajca Castle here:  https://www.hungarianottomanwars.com/ottoman-occupied-lands/jajca/ )

Jajca castle

Yet, the king hadn’t fallen asleep like the Emperor had done before and he sent his army, letting Szapolyai Imre (who was called Scribe Imre at that time) go ahead of them. 
Beat him, Sultan, if you dare this scribe, face the king’s army if you want to seem as terrible as you tell it to the world.
No, Mahomet did not wish it, knowing that wherever the Hungarian army was heard to come, the king was among them whom he did not think a good idea to face. The Sultan has gone from Jajca like the smoke, leaving behind his tents, cannons, his great wealth. Who scared him off? It was God, who gifted such a terrible power to the name of the king that nobody dared to meet him on the field, so much so that even the little girls were singing this song everywhere about Sultan Mahomet: “When he saw the flag of the king, he let the mouth of his good horse run.” 

The statue of young Mátyás király at Somorja

Conclusion: Hungary was surrounded by many mighty enemies but the young king was able to fight them despite his young age. He beat the Bohemians, the Germans, and the Turks with the help of his capable generals. In his work, Zrínyi was visibly yearning for a king like him. 

Sources: Zrínyi Miklós, Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Endre, Őseink és unokáink https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100064700707283

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Young King Matthias on horseback