I will first set the stage in three steps, then describe the battle, tell what happened after, and close with the novel.
The Ottoman Empire vs. The Kingdom of Hungary
Troops of the rising Empire of the Ottoman Turks first set foot in Europe as mercenaries in a local conflict in 1345. For the next half-century, such borrowed troops took part in almost every struggle of Balkans kingdoms. But the Empire itself, bypassing Byzantium, soon began conquest, too.
In 1371, the Ottoman Empire defeated the combined force of Southern Slav principalities on the banks of the river Marica, and took today's Macedonia. The same year, the first Ottoman raiding parties reached the Kingdom of Hungary. Four years later, the first military confrontation came: when the King of Hungary led a punitive campaign against Wallachia (today's Southern Romania), whose ruler rebelled against his demands for vassaldom, and got Ottoman relief forces.
For the next 150 years, the Kingdom was one of the Empire's two main rivals in the region (the other being Venice), the sides fought several major and innumerable smaller battles. The brunt of the fighting was suffered by the wide region from Bosnia to the Western banks of the Black Sea. (And suffered from both sides: it did happen that a Serbian despot took hostage the leaders of the supposed liberation army.) There were relatively few Ottoman intrusions beyond the border castles into Hungary proper (most of them were into Transylvania). Which is understandable when considering the strengths of the sides.
I'd sum up the strengths of the Kingdom of Hungary in three points: the good exploitation of geography for defense within and beyond borders, and cavalry.
- The Kingdom of Hungary occupied the Carpathian basin: mountains all around. A double ring of strategic royal castles (called végvár = c. 'frontier castle'), built from after the Mongol Invasion (there was ensuing conflict with the Golden Horde until just before the Ottoman arrival), could control all roads in and out.
- The smaller Slavic, Romanian and Bulgarian principalities to the South and Southeast could serve as buffer states. In their hegemonic aspirations, Hungarian kings repeatedly forced the rulers of these into vassaldom. The most famous being Vlad Ţepeş, aka Dracula, a voivod of Wallachia (rather than Count in Transsylvania as Bram Stoker had it).
- For most of the time, the main force of the army was still the old feudal army, but it was effective.
The one great weakness was weakening central power. Partly because from 1301, none of the mostly imported dynasties lasted more than two kings, and struggled with the feudal class for legitimacy.
In contrast, the core strengths of the Ottoman army: motivation, cannons and numbers.
- The armies were diverse: both cavalry and foot soldiers; and proud feudal bands, well-trained professional soldiers, and loot-hungry mercenaries at the same time. But there was another significant attraction: a rise in the ranks, that is social mobility, was possible from all three groups, with any social (and any religious) background.
- The Ottoman Empire was among the first (if not the first) to recognise the strategic value of cannons, especially in sieges. And the Sultans strove to have the best, biggest and most cannons in the region -- say in the 1453 taking of Constantinople, the giant cannons of a Transsylvanian gunsmith played a crucial role.
- The Ottoman Empire was big, really big -- meaning lots of manpower. The loss of a large army did not hold up the possibility of assembling another for a generation.
On the long term, there was no question who would endure in this match-up. This fact was not lost on some -- above all, the Hunyadis.
John Hunyadi was a nobleman of Wallachian origin who rose to be a baron in the wake of some military successes. So when in 1456, just three years after the Fall of Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire thought to take on the next big opponent by cracking its defenses at the weakest point, along the Danube, only Hunyadi realised the strategic importance of the végvár Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár in Hungarian), and rushed there with his own troops.
The c. 20,000 soldiers inside and the giant guns and 60-70,000 men outside (modern estimate) fought to a standstill. But, waiting on the sidelines was a makeshift crusader army of c. 30,000 peasants recruited by a friar. These started a foolhardy attack across the Sava river, but then the knights saw opportunity in the chaos in Ottoman lines, and Hunyadi's cavalry joined in what became a rout. Unlike the battle I'm about to describe, this was a strategic victory: no further major invasion was attempted for 70 years.
John Hunyadi died of plague spreading on the battlefield. But his son would become Hungary's last strong king as Matthias Corvinus. He only had relatively minor battles with the Ottoman Empire: sieges of individual castles, punitive expeditions on the Balkans, and sending a relief army to eliminate the (rarely remembered!) beachhead the Ottoman Empire established in Italy, at Otranto.
However, Matthias prepared for a bigger showdown. On one hand, learning (and recruiting) from the Hussites, he built a large standing army (the first in post-Roman Europe) of mercenaries, fed by punitive taxes. On the other hand, he thought to match the Ottomans' economic strength by expanding -- in the other direction, conquering with armies or dynastic deals most of Austria, today's Czech Republic, and even a bit of modern Saxony in East Germany. He also curtailed the power of the barons.
But Matthias died early (in his then seat Vienna in 1490), and the barons soon brought back the pre-Hunyadis status quo. And this time, the Ottoman Empire was circumspect and took its time in preparing the ground: remaining buffer states were assimilated, and strategic Southern castles were taken one by one.
Then, in 1526, Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent felt the time was right for a big invasion. The Hungarian troops had to meet it on the open field -- and in the Battle of Mohács, they were slaughtered in a decisive defeat.
An early culprit for the loss at Mohács was the supposedly coward young king, who drowned in a creek when the losers fled the battlefield. Later, it was more common to lay the blame at the feet of the selfish barons, who weren't too willing to send their troops, especially the strongest who was a day late for the battle (some claim on purpose: he became the next king). (I was taught this version at school.)
However, I think both of these are BS: the Ottoman victory at Mohács was like a replay of the English victories at Crécy and Agincourt, except with cannons in place of longbows. That is, a strategic retreat lulled a foolish feudal army of mounted knights into firing range; a few ten thousand more knights would only have meant a bigger massacre. And there was a reason for lack of foot soldier support like at Belgrade.
12 years earlier, the Church wanted to organise another crusade against Ottoman advances. But the noblemen hindered their peasants from leaving their fields. This conflict grew, in the end, the crusade turned into a massive peasant revolt. It was crushed summarily -- and was followed by the legal enactment of the Second Serfdom. This involved a ban on serfs bearing arms.
Just three years after Mohács, another invasion army passed through for the First Siege of Vienna. From there, Western history books usually jump straight to the Second Siege of Vienna (1683), but in truth, there were several other invasions in the 150 years in-between (some aiming for but not reaching Vienna).
For, first, the new king of Hungary played a triple game. On one hand, he paid tribute to Sultan Suleiman. But he also had trouble from the West: the Habsburg Duke of Austria used his chance to invade, too, and claimed the Hungarian crown. I Ferdinand (whose mother tongue was Spanish!) had a mighty overlord in the person of his elder brother, Holy Roman Emperor Karl V (whose mother tongue was French and Flemish!). So, on the other hand, after long battles, the king of Hungary secretly promised inheritance to Ferdinand I for de-facto peace. In truth, all the while, he planned to wiggle free from both foreign influences - but that never really worked out, armies criss-crossed Hungary on punitive missions and looting raids.
Worse, the year after the king's death, in 1541, both Ferdinand I and Sultan Suleiman sent a large army towards the then royal capital of Buda. The latter, claiming to protect the deceased king's infant son's rule, defeated the former. Then Sultan Suleiman sought to tidy up things with a bloodless coup.
While Suleiman invited a number of the freewheeling barons for a coffee in his tent, some of his troops went for a night sight-seeing in Buda castle. The latter suddenly pulled out swords and took over walls and main buildings. The barons were next seen in a prison near Istanbul. The infant king and his mother were ordered to move to Transylvania.
|A surviving memory of Ottoman times in Budapest: the tomb of Gül Baba, with modern statue, on a hill overlooking the Danube. Gül Baba was a fighting dervish and poet, who arrived in Buda with the 1541 takeover, but died soon afterwards. The holy man was so revered that allegedly Suleiman I himself was among the coffin carriers. The tomb, built 1543-1548, became a pilgrimage site, and remained to this day -- for which reason it was restored in 1885 and again in 2000 with money from the Turkish state. Own photo 05/10/2008.|
This was the start of what historians in Hungary call the Tripartition: the Central and Southern parts of the former Kingdom of Hungary came under direct Ottoman control; Transylvania remained autonomous, though most of the time paying tribute to the Sultan; and the North and West fell to Austria (as its provinces of Royal Hungary and Croatia).
However, war was far from over. There was no agreed border, wide regions suffered both double taxation and regular raids. These raids and further political machinations led to bigger invasions almost semi-annually.
This was also a second chivalric age, with all the contradictions of the first -- say, it happened that an Ottoman commander buried a fallen castle captain and took his orphaned pages under his own tutelage; and it happened that the Sultan received his Hungarian liege king on the battlefield of Mohács, for good measure with the bones of the unburied dead heaped up on both sides of his passage.
Despite Austria being part of a giant Habsburg Empire at the time (which extended beyond the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation to Spain and Sicily), the Ottoman Empire remained the superior force. The reason its invasions only got to nab further smaller parts of Hungary was distance: Ottoman invasions were timed for the summer, to pass the Balkan mountains after thaw and return before winter.
The 1552 Campaign
In 1551, the de-facto lord of Transylvania, bishop of Nagyvárad (today Oradea in Romania, German: Grosswardein) George Martinuzzi (who was of Italian-Croatian descent) began an intrigue that would cost him his life. He sought a reunification under Ferdinand I, invited troops, Ferdinand sent an Italian margrave with troops from Germany and Spain. But religion -- Ferdinand I was a re-catholiser, while the child king and much of the Transylvanian elite was Protestant and wanted to remain so -- foiled an agreement, the invited troops took over by force.
Suleiman was furious. He first sent his trusted commander the Governor-General of Rumelia (Bulgaria), Sokollu Mehmet Pasha (who used to be a Janissar, and of Bosnian Serb origin) to take the castle above the city of Temesvár (today Timişoara in Romania; German: Temeschwar), but that proved a failure. The much larger punitive mission that followed was unusual for a number of reasons.
- For one, the Sultan was sick and preoccupied by Persia, so the invasion was one concocted by ambitious underling Kara Ahmed Pasha, as a self-paying enterprise.
- Second, instead of a direct hit on treacherous Transylvania or scheming Austria, the strategy was something ingenious on the level of the original Schlieffen Plan: with a push North across territory with weaker castles, Transylvania proper was to be isolated, and the flanks cleared for an eventual invasion of Vienna.
- Third, the enemy was to be misled and employed with raids all along the border from Croatia to Transylvania. Key among these was a campaign led by the Governor of Buda, Khadim Ali Pasha, to block eventual relief efforts in the center.
|Map of the 1552 campaign, showing all major sieges and troop movements.|
The red outline border is the Kingdom of Hungary's c. 1500, the darkest shade in the Ottoman occupied area (on the South) is conquest until Mohács, the coloured Tripartition areas are as of c. 1566-1591.
My own drawing on map from Castles in Hungary.
Ali Pasha first had to re-take Szeged from a counter-attacking army from Transylvania, but the enemy got too disorganized in looting to seriously resist that. But then the campaign moved according to plan -- though they were late.
Ahmed Pasha's main army first took upon Temesvár, which wasn't fully repaired since last year and was manned by 2310, on 24 June. After one month of bloody battle and no relief forces in sight, rebellious commoners and mercenaries forced the castle's captain to negotiate a handover. However, this wasn't at all to the liking of the mercenaries on the Ottoman side, who spent much blood but were denied the loot.
So on 27 July, when the line of the castle inhabitants passed through the Ottoman lines, some began to loot them -- which escalated into wholesale slaughter. This was to affect the decisions of the defenders of further castles to be besieged...
First was Lippa (today Lipova in Romania), whose captain (a Spanish nobleman from the Habsburg army occupying Transylvania), the same man who led the failed attack on Szeged and who failed to follow orders to relieve Temesvár, just fled.
Meanwhile, Ali took two castles to the West resp. North of Buda, then eliminated an army sent from Austria. After taking further castles and large areas without a fight, the two Ottoman armies united for the siege of Szolnok.
Szolnok was a city at a strategic position: on the Tisza river, at the crossing of the main North-South and East-West roads. Consequently, it got a newly built major fortress, well-staffed with mercenaries. But over the eight days while the Ottoman armies arrived and encamped, all the mercenaries deserted, the captain and the rest was captured.
The unified Ottoman army -- contemporary sources report up to 250,000, modern estimates run from 80,000 down to 40,000, depending on estimated battle depletion -- marched further North. At the entrance of a valley towards mountainous Northern Hungary, the advance units reached Eger on 11 September (yes).
The Siege of Eger
Eger was a city and bishopric seat, with a castle built after the Mongol invasion. As Kara Ahmed Pasha expected, the Habsburg Empire did not reinforce it strategically, not even sending mercenary reinforcements. The castle captain reinforced walls and sought units from nearby cities and noblemen on his own money. Together with commoners and peasants from nearby places, only 1918 people gathered inside.
The battle started on 16 September with a cannon duel. At this time, castles weren't yet built to fully exploit cannons, they were only useful from the distance. And the first thing to do... was to try to take out the enemy's guns. Some horseback raids from the castle also helped.
However, ultimately the bigger Ottoman guns had a safe distance. From then on, while some cannon balls also landed inside, their main role was: destroying the walls. The only thing the castle could do was re-lay stones in the cover of the night. But, towards the end of the siege, on long sections people were fighting literally on top of rubble heaps.
After days of cannonball erosion, came the charges. Units ran towards the relative safety of the foot of the walls, carrying long ladders that had metal hooks on top, erected them, ran up -- and fell to their deaths.
During the nights, the Ottoman commanders sent teams to dig tunnels for mines, which crews from the castle dug in again. Though, the miners may have succeeded once: on the evening of 4 October, a giant explosion blew up the tower in which gunpowder was stored (though bad handling is more likely).
Two men were key for the defense.
Drawing of István Dobó, based on the relief on his onetime gravestone. From the Hungarian Electronic Library
|One was castle captain István Dobó, who decided to make a last stand. Which he enforced mercilessly.|
He had his soldiers take an oath. When the usual siege psychological warfare began (Monthy Python based the "I fart in your general direction!" sketch in Monthy Python and the Holy Grail on real practice), he forbade any communication. Later, he responded to death threats by hanging a coffin with his name on it on two staffs atop the wall.
On 30 September, Ottoman troops breached the outer gate. Since the bastion above it would have made an excellent position for cannons, Dobó had the inner castle cannons fire on the bastion -- with his own trapped soldiers inside -- until it collapsed on the heads of the entered troops.
On 3 October, using a secret tunnel exit, the officer heading one of the units sent by a nearby city agreed the handover of the castle with the Ottomans, and led a unit in -- but they were caught, and Dobó had them executed publicly as traitors breaking their oaths.
The other key man, Gergely Bornemissza (funny surname means: drinks-no-wine), was a student turned royal officer, son of a blacksmith, who constructed the unconventional weapons.
He directed counter-tunnelling against miners, then dug his own mine tunnels under the battlefield, to blow them up at critical times. Against the protective wooden planks the attackers kept above their heads, and the mobile siege towers used in later attacks, Bornemissza made various firebombs.
From 4 October, the Ottomans began to build earthen ramps. Bornemissza constructed multiple-exploding bombs, drums with scattergun filling, and stuffed large mill wheels full of guns and bombs with fuses. The deadly effect was noted in Ottoman sources, too.
When everything failed, Kara Ahmed Pasha ordered a final all-out charge on the walls, which lasted two days (12-13 October). It started with cannon fire and a mock attack on one wall section, to draw the limited troops away from another section where troops could emerge suddenly from a forest.
This time, Dobó called everyone into battle -- including women. The women of Eger became legendary, and again Ottoman chronicles mention them too. They threw stones and poured hot water, molten bitumen and lead down the siege ladders.
This battle was extremely bloody. On the second day, Turkish officers chased their soldiers into battle with drawn swords. After it ended, Ahmed Pasha and Ali Pasha reportedly had a big fall-out, then decided to pull out before they get vulnerable to a cavalry rout -- and before winter breaks.
So for three days, cannons fired farewell, while the cavalry set fire to the deserted villages nearby. On 17 October, Ahmed Pasha's troops left, the next day, Ali's, too -- their back units had to suffer the raids of Dobó's cavalry.
|The castle within the city of Eger today. The wall encircling the road ascending the hill was added after 1552. The rest is the old inner castle: the outer castle with the old gate was to the right, but it was demolished in 1701. Photo from Wikipedia.|
The 1552 invasion ended with a costly loss and failed to reach the cities in Northern Hungary, yet the -- lasting -- territorial gain was significant. Though for the time being, Transylvania remained in Austria's hands, on the long term, the loss of Szolnok meant semi-independence for Transylvania (restored by 1558), and thus the Tripartition status quo.
The Ottoman Empire set a bounty on the head of Dobó and Bornemissza. In 1553, after Dobó's second-in-command was killed by peasants when he tried to collect some levy, Bornemissza became Eger's castle captain. He began to reinforce the castle, but the next year, he was lured to pursue a raiding party and captured. In 1555, Ahmed Pasha, who became Grand Vizier in the meantime, had him hanged in Istanbul.
Dobó fared somewhat better. In 1553, he was named the Prince of Transylvania. However, the anti-Habsburg local nobility overthrew him after only three years. Thereafter (and, in fact, prior to Eger, too) he excelled in avariciousness: tax evasion, violent conflicts with neighbouring aristocrats. The latter became his undoing when in 1569, an intrigue got him arrested for conspiracy against Ferdinand I (by then Holy Roman Emperor). In 1572, soon after being cleared and released, he died as a broken man.
According to legend, Dobó 'killed' the last besieger of Eger when a veteran of that battle visited his grave: filled with anger, he shot his gun at the tombstone, but the bullet bounced right back at him.
|István Dobó's remains were re-discovered in his home Dobóruszka (today Ruská in Slovakia) just in June this year, and reburied with pomp and history-kitch. Photos from Index.hu.|
Sultan Suleiman would die of old age in 1566, during another last-stand battle (holding up another invasion of Vienna) at Szigetvár in Southwest Hungary. His successors tried no further major invasions. Austria for its part invited engineers from Italy and began the reinforcement of castles around the new 'border', creating a new végvár system, with Eger turned into one of the strongest.
So, in 1591, Austria thought they gained the upper hand. Alas, that was a miscalculation, the Ottoman Empire stopped the grand invasion and quickly hit back -- the beginning of a long bloody stalemate called the 15 Years' War. (Read about this and the emergence of pro-Turkish sentiments in History is written by the victors (and re-written by later victors).)
Despite its improved strength and 3,400 defenders, in 1596, a surprise Ottoman attack also took Eger: mercenaries rebelled and captured the castle captain, then left the gates unguarded while negotiating surrender -- only the 300 converting to Islam were left alive. In the 91 years of Ottoman rule, Eger was transformed into an important local centre.
|Kethüda minaret in Eger, the most Northern of the Ottoman Empire that is still standing. Photo from Eger city homepage.|
The Stars of Eger
National romanticism in literature had a strong role in the creation of nations.
The modern concept of the nation evolved from the aristocratic nation, the sense of community of the feudal class of larger and more stable kingdoms. Considering the multitude of regional, religious, language, political and class identities in and across the many warring, expanding, dividing, collapsing states, that was only natural.
Though the extension of the nation to commoners started towards the end of the 100 Years War in France, it really took off with the centralisation allowed by technical advances. Most importantly, printed media -- which also standardized language -- that were read widely thanks to widening education.
To create a sense of common destiny, you can't underestimate the importance of creating a "memory" of common history. This was primarily achieved by the arts: authors would trawl through old chronicles and legends and epics, and re-publish them or take them as inspiration with the new interpretation. That is, figures who in their time may have fought for the Cross, king, glory or personal enrichment -- and in fact may have been a great nuisance to many in their age -- ere turned into heroes somehow representing the modern nation. Think of Dumas's works, Beowulf, Kalevala, Niebelungenlied, Wilhelm Tell, Joan of Arc, and so on.
Now the Siege of Eger was uniquely well-suited for the romantic nationalist narrative:
- A relative wealth of recorded detail, and recorded close in time,
- the against-all-odds victory of the few against the many,
- all the besieged were Hungarians, that in contrast with the big but mercenary-staffed castle that fell before it,
- lack of help from the imperial overlords (who were still overlords a century ago),
- the besieged pulled together regardless of class, even gender.
|Stars of Eger book cover, illustrated with a frame of the 1968 movie adaptation. That was a megalomaniac project for the film industry of such a small country: they even constructed a replica Eger castle in a valley near Budapest, the ruins of which still stand.|
Now, in truth, the besieged people's willingness to fight to the death to defend their own appears to have been more local in nature (see the traitors from one of the auxiliary troops sent), and their battle cries were Christian ("Jesus Christ!" against "Allah Akbar!"). However, even these discordant details aren't missing from the book written by Géza Gárdonyi.
Compared to other national romanticist authors, Gárdonyi went to unusual lengths to get a richness in historical detail (and achieve historical correctness apart from the omission of the negative sides of his heroes).
With years of work, Gárdonyi sought out every written source preserved in the Austro-Hungarian empire, collected oral histories around Eger. From these, he wrote up a complete list of named individuals, assembled a day-by-day timeline. He studied local geography from a ballistic viewpoint, and also the famed underground tunnels.
To get good descriptions of the soldiers, citizens and culture of the Ottoman Empire, he even travelled incognito to Istanbul to see things still off-limits to Western tourists.
For real success with readers, a third pillar, a good storyline was needed. So Gárdonyi chose young Gergely Bornemissza as the main character, and fictionalised his early years with an odyssey across post-Mohács Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. He got a fictional adversary in the person of a Turkish soldier who wants his amulet back from Bornemissza, even kidnapping his son. So Gárdonyi could show the Turkish camp through the eyes of Bornemissza's wife, as he took her incognito into the castle via a secret tunnel, in the course of which that explosion of a wall section is explained as the foiling of another attempted intrusion across the tunnels. Gárdonyi also ended the story right after the victory at Eger, implying Bornemissza's later demise only in a half-sentence.
Towards the end, there is a poignant but fictious scene: coming into the castle alone, a Turkish widow whose husband died in a Hungarian raid exchanges Bornemissza's son for her own (who hid inside a box that was part of the loot).