“Beatwixt two heathens”: the Habsburgs and the Ottomans

King Szapolyai János and King Habsburg Ferdinand

Many people think it was the Habsburgs alone who saved Christendom from the Ottoman onslaught. However, the Ottomans could have never conquered western Europe without the Hungarians and Croatians. We have to consider the efforts of the Kingdom of Hungary and Croatia between 1368–1541, which was the first part of the anti-Ottoman wars. Between 1541 and 1699 we have to look into the struggles of the Valiant Order and Transylvanian Principality as well. Note, I am not belittling the heroic deeds of the Germans or other westerners who fought against the Turks.

As for the Habsburgs, they had an ugly hand in restraining the Hungarians from defending Europe against the Turks. Hungarians do not feel a great love towards them, perhaps with the exception of King Habsburg Albert who controlled Hungary from Buda instead of Vienna.

King Albert of Habsburg (reigned 1437-39)

After the death of Hungarian King Sigismund (also Emperor of the HRE between 1433-37), the Habsburgs did their best to conquer Hungary. They hindered the efforts of Hunyadi János and his son, King Matthias Corvinus. You can read more about the chronologies of Ottoman wars until 1552  here:


Do you still remember the Long Winter Campaign in 1442-43 and the siege of Nándorfehérvár aka Belgrade in 1456? The Battle of Breadfield (Kenyérmező), 1479? The southern chain of Hungarian Borderland forts? Who stopped the Ottomans there? Hundreds of fights can be added to the list.

the double chain of Hungarian castles against the Ottomans before 1521

The Habsburgs didn’t give any help to King Louis II when Suleiman attacked the country in 1526. Not as if other monarchs had given more help, though. For one, the French king was Suleiman’s ally: King Francis I established the Franco-Ottoman alliance and invited the Ottomans to attack Hungary, to weaken the Habsburgs.

Moreover, King Louis II’s wife, Queen Mary von Habsburg made it impossible to settle a reasonable truce with the Turks: literally, she sent her husband to die at Mohács. Some say it was she who had the poor king assassinated at Mohács. Anyway, she quickly invited his brother, Habsburg Ferdinand into the country.

Queen Habsburg Maria

Habsburg Ferdinand, king of Czechia attacked Szapolyai János, the elected, crowned, and legitimate king of Hungary a year after the Battle of Mohács with the mercenaries of Emperor Charles V, the ones who had sacked Rome. Thus, Hungary was stabbed into its back by a Christian neighbor. The Dual Kingship commenced which tore the kingdom into two. Its consequences were severe. Soon, King Szapolyai had no choice but to ally with the Sultan. However, the Turks were rather targeting Vienna and tried to seize it. Sultan Suleiman knew he did not have enough troops to control Royal Hungary (including Transylvania) at that time, and he was very much obsessed with picking the “Golden Apple” of Vienna. Here is more about the “Golden or Red Apple” concept:


Do you still, remember the sieges of Kőszeg in 1532 and Eger in 1552? The Hungarian, Croatian, and German soldiers stopped the Ottoman expansion brilliantly. There was no help from the Habsburgs. As for Kőszeg, read its story here:


The Hungarian-Croatian Borderland was about 1,000 miles long and the Hungarian-Croatian members of the Valiant Order fought in its castles for generations, protecting Vienna and the rest of Christendom, heroically. Due to their military knowledge which was a blend of Western and Eastern warfare, they were very effective against the Ottomans. Think of the development of Hussar and Hajdú soldiers. Without them, Europe would have suffered a lot more. At least, Cardinal Richelieu thought so when he mentioned the siege of Szigetvár castle, in 1566, saying that “it was the fight that saved our civilization”.

The Siege of Szigetvár, 1566

How are they being omitted from popular history articles and TV series? I have always heard about the mighty Habsburgs who drove the Turks out. Not a word about the underpaid and starving members of the Valiant Order who had been doing the job between 1526 and 1699. Here is a summary of the Valiant Order:


A Hungarian Hussar commander, in 1591

Buda fell to the Turks in 1541 because King Ferdinand attacked King Szapolyai’s newborn baby, his heir. It was the reason why Hungary was split into three parts and not the defeat at Mohács in 1526. Had Ferdinand not wanted to seize Buda for himself, the Kingdom of Hungary would have remained intact. Anyhow, it would have been a stronger country than the semi-independent Principality of Transylvania which eventually was born from East Hungary in the decades to come.

Hungary in 1550

Later, the Habsburgs financially bled the country dry but the greatest losses occurred mainly during the Long War (1593–1606) which they could not win because of the alienated and angered Protestant Hungarian Pince Bocskai István. Now, Bocskai’s statue is standing in Genf, at the Wall of Reformation. Read about him here:


Prince Bocskai and his Hajdú soldiers

Based on Szibler Gábor’s research, I have a full series that tells you the history of this most devastating war, the Long War aka 15-Year-War. Here you can read them:


 Again, the Habsburgs sabotaged the liberation of Hungary in 1664 when they undermined the efforts of Count Zrínyi Miklós (Nikola Zrinski) who was counting on German-French help. But it didn’t serve the Habsburg dynastic interests so it was not supported. I wrote about him in several articles on this page.

Zrínyi on his Winter Campaign

Then, the siege of Vienna in 1683 woke the Habsburgs up and they had to decide whether they create a grand coalition and wipe out the Ottomans from Hungary or the Hungarians would seize their country back. Do you know why did the Ottomans attack Vienna in 1683? Let us remember the Hungarian high-ranking nobleman, Prince Thököly Imre. He should not have been alienated by the Habsburgs. It was he who opened the road for the Ottomans to reach the walls of Vienna: otherwise, they could have never walked there unhindered because the cannons of Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg) were blocking their path.

Three Hungarian infantrymen (Hajdú) from 1591

Thököly would have become the Prince (or king?) of the entire Hungary (not just the northern lands of Hungary and Transylvania) if Vienna had fallen to the Ottomans. It is known, that the Ottomans would have provided him bigger rights and independence than Transylvania ever enjoyed. And we know that Transylvania was a rather independent country, just let’s recall the time of Prince Bethlen Gábor and Prince Rákóczi György.

The “Hungaries” in 1683

It would have been just a question of time and Thököly had turned against the Ottomans. Cleverly, the Habsburgs realized this threat and “liberated” Hungary before it would happen. They had to attack, instead of waiting for a possible combined Turkish-Hungarian assault, knowing that King Sobieski of Poland might not come to protect them again. Of course, the 1,000-mile-long Military Borderland system could not have been paid for without the help of the Habsburgs and the Germans but some historians already doubt it. They say that the local Hungarian and Croatian lords paid just as many soldiers in their private castles as the king employed in the royal forts of the frontier. Considering the rich silver, gold, and copper production of the Mining Town District in North Hungary, the amount of money going to the Treasury was bigger than the sums that were grudgingly issued for the upkeep of Hungarian castle guards.

Prince Thököly Imre (by Somogyi Győző)

It was the underpaid Hungarian Hajdú soldiers or Borderland warriors, though who stopped the Ottomans before 1699 only by making a battlefield from their country. The Habsburgs used Hungary as a battlefield, draining lots of money, grey cattle, and food from it in the meantime. Hungary was called the “Bulwark of Europe”. No wonder, that the locals were getting restless, and the rebel “kuruc” Hungarians were gaining ground rapidly after they got disillusioned with the western help, especially after the death of Zrínyi Miklós in 1664. The “kuruc” warriors had a famous song, the “Song of Tyukodi”: they sang that their blood was shed between two pagans, namely the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. Here you can listen to it:


Also, the ethnic consequences were severe. After the Ottoman wars were ended and peace was made in Karlóca (Karlowitz) in 1699, the Habsburgs instigated the Serbs against the Hungarians. The soldiers of the Valiant Order were sent away and the new Border Guard District was organized by the Habsburgs who employed Serbian soldiers. At the same time, the reconquered lands were not given back to their previous owners unless they were able to pay 10% of their value.  The king’s  Neoacquistica Comissio denied giving lands back to the Hungarians. Instead, they brought in German settlers to replace the indigenous Hungarian population who had perished while defending the area.

Against all the odds, Hungary didn’t become a mere province of Austria but was able to keep its constitution and laws: Prince Rákóczi Ferenc II had to fight a 13-year-long War of Independence to establish better conditions for new negotiations between Hungarians and Austrians. Nevertheless, Hungarians were trying to fight for their freedom in 1848-49 but the Habsburg kings put them down with the help of the Russian Czar. Except for internal affairs, the Hungarians didn’t have power against the Habsburgs until 1918.

The pink dots indicate the modern borders of Hungary (Source: the Internet)

Let us commemorate the heroes of the Valiant Order, without them there we would live in a very different Europe now but let us also pay respect to the heroic foreign soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the Ottoman wars. Hungary suffered such ethnic losses during the three hundred years of Ottoman wars that paved the way to the disintegration of the country in 1918. You can read more about these ethnic changes that were pointing at the Treaty of Versailles after WWI that sealed the fate of the historic kingdom of Hungary:


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