Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars between 1372-1699

Types of soldiers in the “Hungaries” around 1600

The “Hungaries” in 1550

The “Hungaries”

Let me make an attempt to summarizing the types of soldiers who were fighting on the battlefields of the “Hungaries”. To make it clear, the word “Hungaries” is a term invented by an American friend of mine that she applied for the early-modern conditions in Central Europe. It consists of three (or four?) lands: the lands of Royal Hungary where a Habsburg king wore the Hungarian Holy Crown who kept the ancient Hungarian Constitution and law in order to be able to count on the crucial military support of the  Hungarian Noble Estates. He had to do so because whenever he tried to turn the Kingdom of Hungary into a mere province of the Holy Roman Empire or Austria, the Hungarian lords began to side with the Transylvanian Principality that was ruled by strong-handed Hungarian princes. The Habsburgs didn’t want to cede western Hungary to them, did they?

The Principality of Transylvania was a semi-independent country, the Ottomans had to endure the independence of their “vassal”. At times, the Habsburg ruler paid more annual taxes to the Sultan (sorry, “gifts”), than the Transylvanian prince. Also, the princes were denying military support from the Turks and there were times when the Transylvanian forces could even defeat Ottoman armies.

The third area of the “Hungaries” was the middle of the Kingdom of Hungary, the Ottoman Occupied Land. A land, that the Turks could never integrate into their empire, unlike the Balkan states. The “Turks” who occupied that land were not really Turks, 92% of them were basically South-Slavic or Albanian mercenaries who manned the main castles and tried to control the countryside. The latter was rather complicated, though. Reportedly, the countryside in the mid-17th century was safe only for travelers who were guarded by a sizeable military unit. The fourth stand-alone territory of the Hungaries may have been the Partium, a dangerous land on the Eastern side of the Tisza River, stuck between the Ottoman Lands, Royal Hungary, and Transylvania. It was sometimes owned by the Habsburg troops, sometimes by the Transylvanians but always within reach of the plundering “Turk” irregular cavalrymen.

Let us remark here, that except for Transylvania and the Ottoman Lands, the Turk raids could penetrate deep behind the borders. In Royal Hungary, nobody was safe from them, no matter how far they lived from the Borderland. Villages could be burned and peasants could be enslaved by these riders anytime even at the Polish or Moravian border or at Lower Austria. The 1,000-mile-long Borderland could not hermetically isolate the Ottoman Empire and the rest of the world.

The Borderland in 1664

At places, it was narrow but there were many wide zones that could be 50-mile-wide: a no-man’s land where the wretched inhabitants paid 50% of their taxes to the “Turks” and 50% to the Christians. To make things worse, the Hungarian Hussars and Hajdús could also appear from nothing at any places in the Ottoman Occupied Lands where they were burning and plundering the “Turk” (= in fact local Hungarian or Croatian) villages. The Hungarian soldiers had to do it because the Habsburg kings never paid them or just partially. Raids were needed to avoid starvation. Sometimes they were not “raiding” the “Turk” lands, they were just collecting taxes for the original Hungarian landlord who had been chased away from his land half-a-century ago.

It might be somewhat strange to our 21st-century thinking that the Christian monarchs and princes awarded their men with lands that were located deep in the Ottoman Lands. And the hired Hajdú soldiers of the new landlords set out to collect the taxes, totally ignoring the borders. It is as if the Hungarian state would collect taxes from Transylvania or from other post-1918 states, regardless of border changes. But let us take a look at those soldiers who had been able to block the Ottoman conquest through many generations, against all the odds. Of course, their fight could not have been maintained without the HRE and the Habsburgs who had to finance – at least partially – the costs of the defense because, after all, the Kingdom of Hungary was the battlefield that prevented the fights taking place in Austria.

Hungarian reenactors at Tata, Hungary: look at the Hussar armors

The Hussars and the Valiant Order

Talking about armies, according to contemporary records the Habsburgs in 1635 were able to muster an army with 40,000 soldiers, without the castle-warriors of Hungary and Croatia.  The French were able to boast with a 150,000 strong army and the Spanish had 300,000 soldiers. At the same time, Sweden had an army of 45,000 and the Dutch could call 50,000 men to arms. Let’s take a quick look at how the Hungarian circumstances and soldiers differed from contemporary western standards.

Western mercenaries (Tata)

Wars were expensive, a standing army was not affordable in the west. Yet, we can regard the guards of the castles as a kind of standing army. In 1577, the Habsburg king had 16,612 soldiers defending the Hungarian castles while the Croatian lands were defended by 7,000 Christian warriors of the king. They were facing about 40,727 “Turk” soldiers who manned the Ottoman garrisons. The Hussars were light or semi-heavy cavalrymen who constantly were patrolling the countryside, creating mobile warfare that was the only effective way against the Ottomans who did the same.

Reenactor, dressed like a Turk (Tata)

The rate of cavalrymen and infantrymen was 1:1 in these forts. According to the contemporary saying, “a castle can be defended only in the field” so this flexible warfare was the way of life. It was the age when so-called “Hussar-castles” were added to the existing Borderland castles: these were spacious outer fortifications that allowed the cavalry to have more room so as to carry out their hit-and-run actions. Here is an article describing Hussars and their role in a battle:

The Hajdú soldiers

The Hajdús were mostly light infantrymen, but by the 17th century, many of them were mounted soldiers. You can read more about their origin here:

It was Prince Bocskai István of Transylvania who made a major move concerning them by granting collective nobility to almost 10,000 of them. He settled them in the Partium and all the Transylvanian rulers relied heavily on their support in the future. Bocskai had 40,000 Hajdú warriors in all. Only 25% of them were “privileged” Hajdús whose nobility was limited to the area of their living place. The others were “free-Hajdús”, simply mercenaries hired by him or other Hajdú soldiers who were in the service of Hungarian landlords from Transylvania. So we can see how formidable strength the Hajdús had. Yet, there were Hajdú soldiers on the Habsburg king’s pay, too. Sometimes these Hajdú soldiers were busily fighting against each other. However, they never sold their swords to the Turks and we can find only a few of them in West European battlefields.

The collective COA of Hajdúnána town

The insurgent nobility of the counties and the bands of the high nobility

The Hungarian and Croatian countrysides have been severely militarized since the appearance of the Ottoman conquerors. Generations grew up who had to pay more attention to their sons’ martial education than in luckier countries. It applied not only for the noblemen but for the peasants and the burghers as well. Only half of the forts of the Borderland were in the Habsburg king’s hand. Many castles were in the second line of defense that was maintained and financed by their owners, the local Hungarian and Croatian nobility. Often the fighting value of these noblemen is despised but it would have been hard to hinder the Turks without them. Still, they made surprises, like the insurgent nobility at Fülek castle (about 12,000-18,000 men) who defeated the Turks in an open battle but many more such examples can be made. As for Transylvania, the insurgent nobility’s number was about the same.

a Hungarian nobleman

The Hungarian Székely border guards of Transylvania

Neither King Szapolyai nor the princes of Transylvania could have gained power without the help of these seasoned soldiers. Their number may have reached 40,000 in the 16th century but a hundred years later they could muster only 20,000 swords that were not a negligible number, either. They tried to keep their ancient liberties that were similar to the Hajdú soldiers’ so they were easily manipulated by anyone who promised them so. However, bear in mind that both Székelys and “privileged” Hajdús had a huge advantage over western mercenaries: they didn’t really need to be paid at all. And they fought out of conviction. Here is my writing about the Székelys:

Other armed groups:

There were German, Scottish, Spanish, and other foreign mercenaries who were employed by the Habsburg ruler or by the Transylvanian princes. Many of these mercenaries settled in the “Hungaries” because, in spite of the Turk wars,  food was still plentiful, compared to Western Europe. In Transylvania, there were the local Saxons. The Saxon towns provided mercenary infantry combined with the artillery and train in case of war but their contribution was not as big as in the Middle Ages. At last, but not at least, we have to mention the peasant soldiers who could appear in each army. As for the Occupied Lands, we know of villages that joined forces and maintained their private “army” against marauders or raiding parties. The martial traditions of the Hungarians are preserved in several folk dances where their skills with the sword and the ax can be clearly traced down, just take a look at this video:


A Hungarian commander, 1593


All in all, now you can see better how these layers of fighting classes were very effectively blocking the mighty Ottoman Empire’s expansion for hundreds of years. Naturally, this short writing is just the tip of the iceberg: the more we read about the deeds of these men, the more amazing facts we can learn.

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