Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

The military education of Hunyadi János

Hunyadi János in the Chronicle of Thuróczi

Even the enemies of Hunyadi János (1407-1456) agreed that he was one of the greatest military leaders of the 15th century in Europe. Now, let us briefly list where he learned the art of war. Who were his masters?

Firstly, we must remark that both his physical and mental characteristics enabled him to learn both strategy and martial arts.

We know about his outstanding physical strength and Bonfini mentioned his kind and intelligent features, describing him as a patient person who was able to manage the perfect time of attack and defense alike.

Given this, who were the ones who polished his talent? 


1. Family traditions and the bodyguards of the king

We know that Vajk (Woyk filii Serbe), Hunyadi’s father came to Hungary from Wallachia. He appeared in King Zsigmond’s army in 1395 and soon became one of the king’s bodyguards. It was the campaign when the Hungarian king helped Voivode Mircea to regain his throne against Vlad who was that time, alas, siding with the Turks. (Note, I am using the Eastern name order for Hungarians.)

Vajk must have had his military tradition because his coat of arms had been issued in Wallachia, among the first Wallachian coat of arms. These were not given to anybody who was not a good soldier. Obviously, he could not return to Wallachia so he was not rich; but the (already tight-fisted) king gave him lands for his valuable services.

A word about the members of the king’s bodyguards: they were not just simple swordsmen but it was their job to contract mercenaries in times of war, on behalf of the king. Sometimes the bodyguards had their own men-at-arms, we will see that in the case of Vajk’s son in the 1430s. It is presumable that it was Vajk who introduced his son into the world of fencing. We do not know how many early fencing skills the child Hunyadi could learn from the Hungarian people around him: they had to know the ways of Hungarian fencing. We know that Vajk received Hunyad castle in Transylvania in 1409 which must have been a perfect place for the little Hunyadi János to get acquainted with the ways of soldiers. Let us not forget that he had a brother to practice with. 

Hunyadi’s statue in Budapest

A note: it has never been entirely ruled out that Hunyadi János was an illegitimate son of King Zsigmond which would explain much of his quick career. Yet, it remains to be theory.


2. Learning as a page from an Italian knight

A noble boy became a page at the age of 8 and when he reached his 14th year, he could become a “military page” according to the European customs. Hunyadi János became a page in Ozora castle and learned from the famous general of King Zsigmond, Pipo of Ozora aka Filippo di Stephano Scolari. Lord Pipo was among the founding members of the Order of Dragon which was established in 1408 by King Zsigmond. It would be quite wrong to think that the boy didn’t get close to the Italian style of longsword fighting. If Lord Pipo didn’t know the art of Fiore dei Liberi, the Italian way of martial arts, then who else?

Lord Pipo of Ozora

Unfortunately, Lord Pipo, one of the founders of the Order of the Dragon died in 1426, the Hunyadi boy had to leave before that time.


3. The Serbian school in the court of Despot Stefan Lazarevic

It is known that Despot Stefan Lazarevics of Serbia pledged fealty to King Zsigmond in Buda in 1426. Do you remember how formidable the Serbian heavy cavalry had been? When they were employed by the Sultan, they could get him out from immediate peril because of their martial skills. Let us not forget that Lazarevics was also a founding member of the Order of the Dragon.

Stefan Lazarevic

Hunyadi must have learned important lessons there and could have tried his sword against the raiding enemy on the Borderland. It was the time when he first encountered the Turks and their ways of war.

As the Despot died in 1427, the young man had to find a new master again.


4. In the army of Lord Újlaki László and Csupor Demeter and in the King’s court

The young Hunyadi learned contemporary Hungarian tactics from these warlike Hungarian lords. He was mentioned in 1430 without a rank, yet. Things have changed by 1434 when he became the bodyguard of King Zsigmond. He was mentioned as aulae nostre miles (our soldier of court). Noble boys were knighted when they reached the age of 21 as a rule. One thing is for sure, he wed the Hungarian Szilágyi Erzsébet in 1430 – which was not part of his military education but must have given him a higher sense of responsibility.

5. In the court of Prince Filippo Maria Visconti in Milan

Hunyadi was in King Zsigmond’s retinue when he went to Rome in 1431. The king allowed him to stay there from October 1431 to the autumn of 1433. He gained valuable experience from the condottieri warfare. Italian warfare and military tactics were the most developed parts of the military knowledge of the age. Hunyadi grew in skills, and wealth, and befriended the prince, too.

Filippo Maria Visconti

6. The Hussite warfare, the second most effective military knowledge of the 15th century

Hunyadi János went with the king to Basel and Bohemia in 1434 where he had plenty of opportunities to learn the ways of the Hussites. The Hussites developed a very effective Wagenburg tactic: they prepared carts for the battle, forming them into squares or circles. The carts were joined wheel to wheel by chains and positioned aslant, with their corners attached to each other, so that horses could be harnessed to them quickly, if necessary.

a Hussite “wagenburg”

In front of this wall of carts, a ditch was dug by camp followers. The crew of each cart consisted of 16-22 soldiers: 4-8 crossbowmen, 2 hand-gunners, 6-8 soldiers equipped with pikes or flails,  2 shield carriers, and 2 drivers.  In the first stage of a battle, the army placed the carts near the enemy army and by means of artillery fire provoked the enemy into battle. Then the infantry hidden behind the carts used firearms and crossbows to ward off the attack, weakening the enemy. 

Hussite warfare

As soon as the enemy’s morale was lowered, the second stage, an offensive counterattack, began. The infantry and the cavalry burst out from behind the carts striking violently at the enemy – mostly from the flanks. The enemy armies suffered heavy losses and the Hussites soon had the reputation of not taking captives. Hunyadi had realized in Italy how important it was to send the mercenary units into battle one by one but in Bohemia, seeing the disciplined Hussites who were outsmarting even the famous Swiss infantry, his experience was increasing.

When King Zsigmond (Sigismund) could finally manage to march in the city of Prague in 1436, Hunyadi was in charge of 50 mounted lancers which indicated his advancement among the bodyguards. Also, during the Hussite Wars, the Hussites launched raids against many bordering countries so as to weaken them. Hunyadi adapted the same warfare against the Ottomans: he placed the theatre of war on their land by leading smaller or bigger raids and campaigns behind the enemy’s border.

King Zsigmond (by A. Dürer)

Hunyadi and his brother must have received the news about the death of King Zsigmond and the coronation of King Habsburg Albert in Czechia. We find the Hunyadi brothers in the southern Borderland in 1438-39. It is assumed, that Hunyadi could be a member of the Order of Saint George (established by King Charles of Hungary in 1326) or a member of the Order of Dragon (1408). Sigismund’s order was particularly inspired by the knightly order of King Charles I. The Order of Dragon included the highest barons but later it was extended. Some say that many of the bodyguards belonged to them.

The insignia of the Dragon Order

You can read more about Hunyadi’s first major success in 1439 which was the basis of his sudden rise among the barons of the kingdom:

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