On August 29, 1526, the Ottoman Turks led by Suleiman the Magnificent defeated and killed the last Jagiellonian King of Hungary and Bohemia at the Battle of Mohács, which spelled the end of the Middle Ages in Central Europe.
After the death of Matthias Corvinus in 1490, the Kingdom of Hungary began to experience severe financial difficulties as magnates dismantled the national administration systems and bureaucracy throughout the country.
The medieval kingdom‘s defenses sagged as border-guards and castle garrisons went unpaid, fortresses fell into disrepair, and initiatives to increase taxes to reinforce defenses were stifled, paving the way for Ottoman pre-eminence.
The first Battle of Mohács
The Hungarians had long opposed Ottoman expansion in Europe, but in 1521, the Turks advanced up the Danube River, taking Nándorfehérvár (present-day Belgrade) and Szabács, leaving most of Hungary indefensible and open to further Turkish conquests.
When the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent launched an invasion in 1526, the Ottomans met no resistance from the Hungarians and advanced almost unopposed towards Buda.
Twenty-year-old Hungarian King Louis II eventually assembled an army, mostly reliant on old fashioned heavily armoured knights, and led his forces against the Ottoman army, more modern and built around artillery and its elite musket-armed Janissaries.
The Hungarian war council made a serious tactical error of choosing the battlefield near Mohács, an open but uneven plain with some swampy marshes, where the heavily-outnumbered Hungarian army advanced into withering fire and flank attacks.
Nearly the entire Hungarian Royal army was destroyed on the battlefield, and those who were not killed either fled or were captured. It is believed that 2,000 Hungarian prisoners were massacred as the Sultan watched from a golden throne.
During the retreat, Louis II fell off his horse while trying to ride up a steep ravine and fell into the stream where, due to the weight of his armor, he was unable to stand up and drowned. His death marked the end of the Jagiellonian dynasty in Hungary and Bohemia as their dynastic claims passed to the House of Habsburg.
The “age of trisection”
The Ottoman victory meant the end of the independent Kingdom of Hungary as a unified entity and led to the partition of the country between the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Principality of Transylvania, which lasted for more than a century and a half.
As such, the Battle of Mohács, added to the Turkish conquest of Buda in 1541, is seen by many Hungarians as the decisive downward turning point in their country’s history. For all intents and purposes, the Battle of Mohács marked the end of the Middle Ages in Hungary and Central Europe.
While Hungary’s western and northern fringes remained under Habsburg rule as “Royal Hungary”, the central wedge, including the former royal capital of Buda, was integrated into the administrative system of the Ottoman Empire, and its eastern half grew into the semi-autonomous Principality of Transylvania, ruled by the Hungarian Báthory family, also under Ottoman suzerainty.
During this so-called “age of trisection”, constant warfare between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs turned Hungary into a perpetual battlefield which devastated much of the land and reduced the whole south of the country to a wasteland occupied by only a few seminomadic Vlach herdsmen. Population growth was stunted, settlements perished, and the ethnic composition of the territory was fundamentally changed through deportations and massacres.
The “saviour of Vienna”
It wasn’t until the the 17th century, the balance of power in Central Europe began to shift from the Ottomans toward the Habsburgs. The Peace of Zsitvatorok, signed in 1606, between the emperor and the sultan more or less kept the territorial status quo but relieved the emperor of his tribute to the sultan and confirmed the Ottomans’ inability to penetrate further into Habsburg territories.
By 1682, clashes along the border seperating the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires intensified, and the incursions of Habsburg forces into central Hungary provided the crucial argument of Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha in convincing Sultan Mehmed IV and his Divan to allow the movement of the Ottoman army.
In April 1683, the Ottoman army, joined by Transylvanian and Hungarian forces, finally launched its full-scale offensive into Habsburg territory, reaching Belgrade by early May, and finally laying siege to Vienna in July.
Acting quickly to save the city and prevent another long siege, the Polish King John Sobieski marched a united Christian army towards Vienna, where he famously led the largest cavalry charge in history at the head of 3,000 “Winged Hussars” to deal the final deadly blow and save the Habsburg capital.
Marking the turning point in the 300-year struggle between the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires, the Battle of Vienna shook the Ottoman hegemony in Central Europe and set the stage for the reconquest of Hungary, Transylvania and the Balkans. Indeed, while the Pope hailed Sobieski as the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization”, the war with the Ottomans was not over yet.
The Treaty of Karlowitz and the Kingdom of Hungary
Joined by the Republic of Venice and the Russian Empire, a new “Holy League” was initiated by Pope Innocent XI and John Sobieski to recover previously ceded land and prevent further Ottoman expansion into Europe in what has been called a “14th crusade”. The so-called second Battle of Mohács in 1687 allowed the Habsburg forces to conquer large areas, including most of present-day Transylvania, before the decisive Battle of Zenta, a decade later, sealed the Ottomans’ fate in Europe.
The scale of the defeat forced the Ottoman Empire into signing the Treaty of Karlowitz in January 1699, which confirmed the then-current territorial holdings of each power. Notably, the Habsburg Monarchy was able to reclaim all of Hungary, except the corner between the Maros and Tisza rivers, effectively ending the trisection of the kingdom.
The Treaty of Karlowitz marked the end of Ottoman control in Central Europe, with their first major territorial losses after centuries of expansion, and established the Habsburg Monarchy as the dominant power in the region.
The term “Royal Hungary” fell into disuse after the Treaty of Karlowitz, with the Habsburg rulers referring to the newly enlarged dominion by the more formal term “Kingdom of Hungary”…
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.