With over a thousand years of events to draw information from, it is easy to get lost in the intricacies of Hungarian history. There are countless dates to remember, but those who know their history may recall that there is one dreaded date that stood as a looming curse over 16th century Hungary: August 29. Over the span of two decades, it was this exact date on which three critical defeats were suffered by Hungary against the Ottoman Empire, all at the hands of Suleiman I.
The deathly trio that culminated in the Kingdom of Hungary being split into three territories began when Suleiman took Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) in 1521. The battle came as a startling, heart wrenching shock, because 65 years prior, Hungarians, Serbs, and their crusader allies had fought tooth and nail to defend the bastion in 1456, a victory which resulted in Mehmed the Conqueror withdrawing all the way back to Constantinople.
A Terrible Omen at Nándorfehérvár, but Just the Beginning
This time around, however, there was no John Hunyadi to heroically hold the fortress, while on the offensive there was a new, ambitious sultan determined to take the lands which had resisted his empire’s invasions into Europe for decades. In fact, the kingdom itself did not have a matured monarch, since King Lajos II was only 15 years old.
The fortress which was considered the strongest along the Danube was taken within two months, before Lajos II had even gathered an army to resist its invasion, never mind retake it.
Today marks the 500th anniversary of the loss of Nándorfehérvár to Suleiman I the beginning of his incursion. Suleiman would return in 1526, with the Hungarian capital of Buda in his sights.
Hungary Faces Terrible Odds at Mohács
Before reaching the city, the Ottoman forces were intercepted at a large marshy plain near Mohács by King Lajos II’s Hungarian army, commanded by Archbishop Pál Tomori and Count György Szapolyai… on August 29.
There are varying estimates on the size of both armies, but there is consensus that the Hungarians, roughly 25 thousand of them, were up against a significantly larger Turkish force of around 60 thousand. Not only did the Ottomans have a manpower advantage, they had more cannons too.
The Hungarian army may have fared better if it had retreated and waited for reinforcements from Transylvanian Voivode János Szapolyai, but even then, it is unlikely that they would have equaled the Ottomans in manpower.
The United Hungarian Kingdom Falls with its King
Furthermore, not only had other Christian powers chosen not to aid the Hungarians despite calls for help, but Hungarian soldiers themselves were vehemently against the idea of retreat.
Speculations aside, the battle of Mohács was one of Hungary’s most tragic defeats. A charge by Hungarian cavalry proved successful at first, but volleys from the arquebus of Suleiman’s janissaries and overwhelming cannon fire halted their momentum. Within two hours, the Turkish army had surrounded the army of the Hungarian King, resulting in a bloodbath with estimated Hungarian casualties greater than 10 thousand.
Louis II fled when he saw the battle was lost, but was thrown from his horse and drowned in the River Csele. Shortly after the defeat, the Ottomans chose to withdraw instead of continuing their invasion, and János Szapolyai, who had arrived too late, became king of Hungary until his death in 1540. Only one year after his death did the third August 29 event, the siege of Buda occur.
Hungary Split in Three Before the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars
A power vacuum had formed shortly after Mohács, resulting in a struggle between Szapolyai and Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, who laid claim on Hungary. Hungary was split between the Habsburg owned lands to the West, known as “Royal Hungary,” Szapolyai’s Eastern Hungarian Kingdom of Transylvania, and the Ottoman owned lands of Southern Hungary.
A Habsburg army led by Willhelm von Roggendorf laid siege on Buda in 1541. Attempted assaults proved unsuccessful, as the defenders were able to hold out until Turkish forces, their supposed allies, arrived. When Suleiman I’s “relief army” defeated the invaders on August 22, celebrations of liberation began.
But Buda was still in Hungarian hands, and this new siege was no longer a battle of steel but a battle of whit. Suleiman invited the Hungarian nobility, Queen Isabella and her son, the infant King János II Zsigmond, into his camp for a visit, and the royal family complied.
Turkish “Tourists” Take Buda in 1541
While the Hungarian nobility were paying a visit to the Sultan on August 29, Turkish forces were strolling into the castle for “sightseeing.” By the time the Hungarians had realized that the whole thing was a trick, the castle had been taken by the Sultan’s army.
After Buda was taken, the Sultan let the Hungarian nobility go, all of them except Bálint Török, a survivor of the Battle of Mohács and a potentially formidable rival. According to legend, this is when Suleiman told Török not to hurry, since “the black soup [coffee] is still to come!” The Hungarian nobleman would spend the rest of his days as a prisoner in the Yedikule Fortress of Constantinople.
While it has become a day of good fortune for the Turkish people, evidently a contributor to Suleiman winning the title of “the Magnificent,” August 29 is one of the most tragic recurring dates in Hungarian history.
The loss of Buda meant the loss of the seat of Medieval Hungarian power, and the consolidation of Ottoman rule in Hungary for 145 years. It would only be retaken in 1686 by the Holy League, which then proceeded on to another decisive victory against the Ottomans in no other place than the fields of Mohács in 1687.
In the featured photo, Mór Than’s depiction of the Battle of Mohács. Featured photo via Wikipedia