Mongol invasion of Europe

The Mongol Empire, showing it progress towards Europe.

The Mongol invasions of Europe were centered in their destruction of Russian principalities, such as Kiev and Vladimir, under the leadership of Subutai. The Mongols then invaded the Kingdom of Hungary and the fragmented Poland, the former invasion commanded by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, and the latter a diversion commanded by Kadan, also a grandson of Genghis Khan, though both invasions were also masterminded by Subutai. Historians have debated since the thirteenth century, whether or not the Eastern European campaigns of the Mongols had macrohistorical importance. Most military historians believe they essentially were diversions, meant to frighten the Western powers sufficiently to keep them out of the Mongols' affairs in the East, specifically in Russia. The evidence does indicate that Batu Khan was primarily interested in securing the western frontiers of his Russian conquests, and only after the swift destruction of both the Hungarian and Polish armies did he begin thinking about the conquest of Western Europe. Mongolian records indicate that Subutai was planning a complete conquest of the remaining European powers, beginning with a winter attack on Austria and other states of the Holy Roman Empire, when he was recalled to Mongolia upon the death of Ögedei Khan.


To the Mongols, the European invasions were a third theater of operations, second to both the Middle East and Song China. The Mongol incursions into Europe helped to draw attention to the world beyond the European space, especially China, which actually became more accessible for trade as long as the Mongol Empire itself lasted since the Silk Road was protected and secure. In the mid-thirteenth century, as Muslim sultanates also fell to the Mongols, there was some possibility—although this did not materialize—of a Christian-Mongol alliance against Islam. To some extent, the Mongol Empire and the Mongol invasion of Europe served as a bridge between different cultural worlds.

Invasion of Europe (1241-1242)

15th century depiction of the Battle of Wahlstatt. The souls of the killed Christians are carried away by angels, while those of the Tartars are swallowed by hell.

The Mongols invaded central Europe with three armies. One army defeated an alliance which included forces from the fragmented Poland and members of various Christian military orders, led by Henry II the Pious, Duke of Silesia at Legnica. A second army crossed the Carpathian mountains and a third followed the Danube. The armies re-grouped and crushed Hungary in 1241, defeating the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohi on April 11, 1241. A devastating Mongol invasion killed half of Hungary's population.[1] The armies swept the plains of Hungary over the summer and in the spring of 1242, regained impetus and extended their control into Austria and Dalmatia as well as invading Moravia. The Great Khan died, and all the "Princes of the Blood" (of Genghis Khan) went back to Mongolia to elect the new Khan.

After sacking Kiev,[2] Batu khan sent a small group of Mongols to Poland. A part of them destroyed Lublin and defeated an inferior Polish army. But other parts saw difficulty near the Polish-Galich border. This was not, however, the main Mongol force. The Invasion of Poland and Hungary were not reconnaissance operations, but retaliations for the killing of Mongol envoys (also around the issue of escaping Cumans) as well as an occasion to plunder. The Mongols suffered significant casualties at Olmutz in Moravia, in a fight with a numerically superior "pan-European army" in a terrain disadvantageous for the use of cavalry.

The Tatars then reached Polaniec on the River Czarna, where they set up camp. There, the Voivode (military commander, sometimes hereditary) attacked them with the remaining Cracovian knights, which were few in number, but determined to conquer or die. Surprise gave the Poles an initial advantage and they managed to kill many Mongol soldiers; however, when the Mongols realized the actual numerical strength of the Poles they were fighting, they regrouped, broke through the Polish ranks and defeated them. During the fighting, many Polish prisoners of war found ways to escape and hide in the nearby woods; their initial success sent the Polish knights searching for loot, resulting in their defeat. Though victorious, the Mongols were horrified by their losses and decided to withdraw their army out of fear that a fresh army should attack them, leaving their fallen behind.

The Mongol army reached Sieciechów without causing further damage to the countryside, hiding out in the great forest for a couple of days in order to throw off any pursuers. However, when the their scouts informed them that there was no pursuit, they emerged and turned back towards Ruthenia, where they replenished their ranks with fresh troops and returned to Poland to avenge their defeat. The attack on Europe was planned and carried out by Subutai, who achieved perhaps his most lasting fame with his victories there. Having devastated the various Russian Principalities, he sent spies into Poland, Hungary, and as far as Austria, in preparation for an attack into the heartland of Europe. Having a clear picture of the European kingdoms, he brilliantly prepared an attack nominally commanded by Batu Khan and two other princes of the blood. Batu Khan, son of Jochi, was the overall leader, but Subutai was the actual commander in the field, and as such was present in both the northern and southern campaigns against Russian Principalities. He also commanded the central column that moved against Hungary. While Kadan's northern force won the Battle of Legnica and Güyük's army triumphed in Transylvania, Subutai was waiting for them on the Hungarian plain. The newly reunited army then withdrew to the Sajo River where they inflicted a tremendous defeat on King Béla IV of Hungary at the Battle of Mohi. Subutai masterminded the operation, and it would prove to be one of his greatest victories.

Invasion of Hungary

Around 1241, Hungary looked much like any other feudal kingdom of Europe. Although the throne was still inherited by the successors of Árpád, the authority and power of the king was greatly curtailed. The rich magnates cared less about the national security of the whole kingdom than about petty feudal quarrels with their fellow landlords. The Golden Bull of 1222 authorized the magnates to rebel against the king in some circumstances, and made the king only "primus inter pares," first among equals. Bela IV tried to restore the king's former authority and power without much success. Thus, Hungary lived in a state of feudal anarchy when the Mongols began to expand toward Europe.

Mongol invasion of Hungary

The Hungarians had first learned about the Mongol threat in 1229, when King Andrew granted asylum to some fleeing Russian boyars. Magyars, left behind during the main migration to the Pannonian basin, still lived on the banks of the upper Volga River; in 1237, a Dominican friar, Friar Julian, set off on an expedition to lead them back, and was sent back to King Bela with a letter from Batu Khan. In this letter, Batu Khan called upon the Hungarian king to surrender his kingdom unconditionally to the Tatar forces or face complete destruction. Bela did not reply. Two more Mongol messages were brought to Hungary: The first, in 1239, by the defeated Cuman tribes, who asked for and received asylum in Hungary, and the second, in February, 1241, by the defeated Polish princes.

Only now did King Bela call his magnates to join his army in defense of the country. He also asked the papacy and the Western European rulers for additional help. Foreign help came in the form of a small knight-detachment under the leadership of Frederick, Prince of Austria, but they were too few to influence the outcome of the campaign. The majority of the Hungarian magnates did not believe in the seriousness of the Mongol danger; some of them perhaps even hoped that a defeat of the royal army would force Bela to discontinue his centralization efforts and, thus, strengthen their power.

Although the Mongol danger was serious and real, Hungary was not prepared to deal with it, as in the minds of the people (who had lived free from nomadic invasions for the last few hundred years) a new invasion seemed impossible. The population was no longer a soldier population. Only the rich nobles were trained as heavy-armored cavalry. The Hungarians had long since forgotten the light-cavalry strategy and tactics of their ancestors, which were almost the same as those now used by the Mongols.

The Hungarian army (some 60,000 on the eve of the Battle of Mohi) was made up of individual knights without tactical knowledge, discipline, or talented expert commanders. Inasmuch as the Hungarian army was not expert in nomadic warfare, King Bela welcomed the Cuman king, Kotony, and his fighters. Soon a rumor began to circulate in Hungary that the Cumans were the agents of the Mongols. On the other hand, Batu Khan himself justified his invasion of Hungary because Bela had given asylum to the Cumans who were regarded as rebels and traitors in the Mongol Empire.

If this was true, then King Bela had taken an unnecessarily great risk which proved to be detrimental to his plans. When some hot-headed Hungarians attacked the Cuman camp and killed their king, the Cumans escaped to the south, looting, ravaging the countryside, and slaughtering the surprised Magyar population. The Austrian troops moved back to Austria shortly thereafter to "enlist more Western help." The Hungarians remained alone.

Arriving at the Hornád river without having been challenged to a fight by the Mongols, the army encamped on April 10, 1241. The Mongols began their attack the next night. Soon, it was clear that the Hungarians were losing the battle. The king escaped with the help of his faithful and brave bodyguard, but the rest of the army was either killed without mercy by the Mongols or drowned in the rivers while attempting an escape.

The Mongols now systematically occupied the Great Hungarian Plains, as well as the slopes of the northern Carpathian Mountains, and Transylvania. Where they found local resistance, they mercilessly killed the population. Where the people did not offer any resistance, they forced the men into servitude in the Mongol army and the women and children were killed or carried off. Still, tens of thousands avoided Mongol domination by taking refuge behind the walls of the few fortresses or by hiding in the huge, jungle-like forests or the large marshes alongside the rivers. The Mongols, instead of leaving already defenseless and helpless peoples behind and continuing their campaign through Pannonia to Western Europe, spent the entire summer and fall securing and "pacifying" the occupied territories. Then, during the winter, contrary to the traditional strategy of the nomadic armies which started campaigns only in springtime, they crossed the Danube and continued their systematic occupation including Pannonia. They eventually reached the Austrian borders and the Adriatic shores in Dalmatia.

During the spring of 1242, Ögedei Khan had died at the age of fifty-six after a binge of drinking during a hunting trip. Batu Khan, who was one of the contenders to the imperial throne, returned at once with his armies to Asia (before withdrawal, Batu Khan ordered wholesale execution of prisoners), leaving the whole of Eastern Europe depopulated and in ruins. But Western Europe escaped unscathed.

A few older Hungarian historians claim that Hungary's long resistance against the Mongols actually saved Western Europe. Many Western European historians reject this interpretation. They point out that the Mongols evacuated Hungary of their own free will, and that Western Europe was saved by the sudden death of Ögedei Khan, not by the struggle of the Hungarians. A number of other European and American historians have discussed whether the Mongols would have been able to, or even wished to, continue their invasion into Europe west of the Hungarian plain at all, given the logistical situation in Europe and their need to keep large number of horses in the field to retain their strategic mobility.

The Mongolian invasion taught the Magyars a simple lesson: Although the Mongols had destroyed the countryside, the forts and fortified cities had survived. To improve their defense capabilities for the future, they had to build forts, not only on the borders but also inside the country. During the remaining decades of the thirteenth century and throughout the fourteenth century, the kings donated more and more royal land to the magnates with the condition that they build forts and take care of their defenses.

End of the Mongol advance

Some western historians attribute European survival to Mongol unwillingness to fight in the more densely populated German principalities, where the wetter weather affected their bows. The territory of Western Europe, with more forests and with many castles along with many opportunities for the heavy cavalry to counter-attack possibly made Western Europe a more formidable opponent. Also, despite the steppe tactics of the Avars and early Hungarians, both were defeated by Western States in the ninth and tenth centuries. A significant number of important castles and towns in Hungary had also resisted the formidable and infamous Mongol siege tactics.

But the probable answer for Batu's stopping after the Mohi River, and the destruction of the Hungarian army, was that he never intended to advance further. He had made the Russian conquest safe for the next ten generations, and when the Great Khan died and he rushed back to Mongolia to put in his claim for power, it ended his westward expansion.[3] Subutai's recall at the same time left the Mongol armies without their spiritual head and primary strategist. Batu Khan was not able to resume his plans for conquest to the "Great Sea" (the Atlantic Ocean) until 1255, after the turmoil after Ögedei's death had finally subsided with the election of Möngke Khan as Great Khan.

Mongol infighting

From 1241 to 1248, a state of almost open warfare existed between the son of Jochi, Batu Khan, and the son of Ögedei, Güyük. The Mongol Empire was ruled by a regency under Ögedei's widow Töregene Khatun, whose only goal was to secure the Great Khanate for her son, Güyük. There was so much bitterness between the two branches of the family that Güyük died in 1248 on his way to confront Batu to force him to accept his authority. He also had problems in his last years with the Principality of Halych-Volhynia, whose ruler, Daniel of Galicia, adopted a politic of confronting the Golden Horde and defeated some Mongol assaults in 1254. He was only defeated in 1259, under the Berke's rule. Batu Khan was unable to turn his army west until 1255, after Möngke had become Great Khan, 1251, and he had repaired his relations with the Great Khanate. However, as he prepared to finish the invasion of Europe, he died. His son did not live long enough to implement his father's and Subutai's plan to invade Europe, and with his death, Batu's younger brother Berke became Khan of the Kipchak Khanate. Berke was not interested in invading Europe as much as halting his cousin Hulagu Khan from destroying the Holy Land. Berke had converted to Islam before and watched with horror as his cousin destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate, the spiritual head of Islam as far as Berke was concerned. The Mamluks of Egypt, learning through spies that Berke was both a Muslim and not fond of his cousin, appealed to him for help and were careful to nourish their ties to him and his Khanate.

Both entities were Turkic in origin. Most of the Mamluks were of Turkic descent and Berke's Khanate was almost totally Turkic also. Jochi, Ghenghis Khan's oldest son, was of disputed parentage and only received 4,000 Mongol warriors to start his Khanate. His nearly 500,000 warriors were virtually all Turkic people who had submitted to the Mongols. Thus, the Khanate was Turkic in culture and had more in common with their brother Muslim Turkic Mamluks than with the Mongol shamanist Hulagu and his horde. Thus, when Hulagu Khan began to mass his army for war against the Mamluk-controlled Holy Land, they swiftly appealed to Berke Khan who sent armies against his cousin and forced him to defend his domains in the north.

Hulagu returned to his lands by 1262, but instead of being able to avenge his defeats, had to turn north to face Berke Khan, suffering severe defeat in an attempted invasion north of the Caucasus in 1263, after Berke Khan had lured him north and away from the Holy Land. Thus, the Kipchak Khanate never invaded Europe; keeping watch to the south and east instead. Berke only sent troops into Europe twice, in two relatively light raids in 1259 and 1265, simply to collect booty he needed to pay for his wars against Hulagu from 1262-65.

Later campaigns

Against Poland (1259 and 1287)

In 1259, 18 years after the first attack, two tumens (20,000 men) from the Golden Horde, under the leadership of Berke, attacked Poland after raiding Lithuania. This attack was commanded by Nogai Khan and general Burundai. Lublin, Sieradz, Sandomierz, Zawichost, Kraków, and Bytom were ravaged and plundered by Mongol army. Berke had no intention of occupying or conquering Poland. After this raid, the Pope Alexander IV tried without success to organize a crusade against the Tatars.

An unsuccessful raid followed in 1287, led by Talabuga and Nogai Khan. Lublin, Mazovia, Sandomierz and Sieradz were successful raided, but they were defeated at Kraków. Despite this, Kraków was devastated. This raid consisted of less than one tumen, since the Golden Horde's armies were tied down in a new conflict which the Il-Khanate initiated in 1284. The force sent was not sufficient to meet the full Polish army, nor did it have any siege engineers or equipment to breach city walls. It raided a few caravans, burned a few small towns, and fled when the Polish army was mustered.

Against Lithuania (1259, 1275, and 1277)

The Mongols under Burundai, a famous general of Batu, also successfully raided the Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the campaign of 1259. There were other raids against Lithuania in 1275 and 1277, as the Lithuanians were emerging as a rival to Mongol power.

Against Thrace (1265)

During the reign of Berke there was also a raid against Thrace. In the winter of 1265 Nogai Khan led a Mongol raid of two tumens (20,000 soldiers) against the territories of Bulgaria and Byzantine Eastern Thrace. In the spring of 1265, he defeated the armies of Michael VIII Palaeologus. Instead of fighting, most of the Byzantines fled due to powerful Mongol army. After this Thrace was plundered by Nogai's army, and the Byzantine emperor made an alliance with the Golden Horde, giving his daughter Euphrosyne in marriage to Nogai. And also Michael had sent much if valuable fabrics to Golden Horde as tributary since then.

Against Bulgaria (1242, 1271, 1274, 1280, and 1285)

In the return after the premature end of the invasion of Europe, Mongols devastated Bulgaria. In 1271, Nogai Khan led a successful raid against the country, which was a vassal of the Golden Horde until the early fourteenth century. Bulgaria was again raided by the Tatars in 1274, 1280, and 1285. However, the Bulgarian king accepted the suzerainty of Khan Tokhta (Toqta), Mongol control loosen after Nogai and Chaka's deaths.

Against Serbia (1293)

In 1293, Nogai Khan led a Mongol raid into Serbia, who forced the king Stefan Uroš II Milutin to acknowledge him as overlord.

Invasion of Hungary (1284/1285)

In the mid-1280s, Nogai Khan led an invasion of Hungary alongside Talabuga. Nogai led an army that ravaged Transylvania with success, where cities like Reghin, Braşov and Bistriţa were plundered and ravaged. However Talabuga, who led an army in Northern Hungary, was stopped by the heavy snow of the Carpathians and the invading force was defeated near Pest, Hungary by the royal army of Ladislaus IV and ambushed by the Székely (Hungarian speaking Romanians) in the return. As with later invasions, it was repelled handily, the Mongols losing much of their invading force. The outcome could not have contrasted more sharply with the 1241 invasion, mostly due to the reforms of Béla IV, which included advances in military tactics and, most importantly, the widespread building of stone castles, both in response to the crushing defeat of the Hungarian Kingdom in 1241.


The Mongol invasion of Europe at the time that these attacks took place was viewed in a similar light to the various attacks on the Roman Empire that in the end brought that imperial episode in the history of Western Europe to a close. Later, the Ottoman incursions into Europe were regarded in a similar light, that is, as an epic battle between the civilized and uncivilized world, a view of military conflict that had also informed the struggle between the Greeks and Persians. The Ottomans, though, would be perceived as an even greater threat, perhaps because Ottoman attacks took place over a longer period. In contrast, the Mongol invasion was confined to the East, often regarded by West Europe as a buffer-zone.

For their part, the Mongols were no more nor less civilized or advanced than Europeans at the time, and in many respects their incursion into and towards the European space opened European eyes to a world beyond their own borders. Interest in China increased, for example. This opened up trade and commerce and use of the Silk Road by European merchants. Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to travel along the Silk Road and spent seventeen years in the service of Kublai Khan. Lane says that this facilitation of cultural exchange was not accidental but that the Mongols regarded themselves as "cultural brokers," so often it was their own policies that "launched these exchanges … they initiated population movement, financed trade caravans, established industries and farms and created the markets for the goods that began to crisscross their vast empire." They "remained involved in the whole business of commercial and cultural exchange at every level," he says, "and in every area."[4][5]

The Mongols were as great a threat to the Muslim world in the Middle East, where they actively sought Christian support against the Mamluks of Egypt. This alliance did not materialize but for a while it seemed to be realizable.[6]The king of Armenia, King Hayton, actively sought this alliance but it had little support in the Christian world, where the Mongols were regarded as "treacherous and bloodthirsty pagans."[7] In fact, through establishing diplomatic relations with the various Mongol successor states to the Empire, Europe found itself re-thinking its worldview:

Western Europeans were exposed to the true size and scope of the Eurasian landmass; they were exposed to different cultures, beliefs, values, attitudes, and institutions; the papacy and Europe were thus forced out of their narrow religious-geographic perspective; they began to realize that they had to deal with and relate to the non-Christian world with its many different peoples, religions, and cultures. The Europeans gradually assigned the Mongols and other Asians a permanent place in the natural order of things; they no longer tried to force all peoples into a specific Biblical niche or role as they initially did during Europe's narrow Christian view of the world and all people in it. The Westerners realized that they could not refuse to recognize and deal with the rest of the world simply because it was non-Christian, that they could not ignore and pretend that all non-Christian peoples and cultures did not exist. Thus the Mongols and Asians were incorporated into the West's intellectual framework in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.[8]


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, The Mongol invasion: the last Arpad kings. Retrieved October 16, 2008.
  2. University of Toronto, The Destruction of Kiev. Retrieved October 16, 2008.
  3. Timothy May, Khanate of the Golden Horde (Kipchak), Alamo Community Colleges. Retrieved October 16, 2008.
  4. Lane (2004), 97-98.
  5. Sh Bira, The Indo-Mongolian Relationship: A Retrospective Outlook On Buddhism, Mongolian Culture. Retrieved October 16, 2008.
  6. Saunders (1971), 80.
  7. Saunders (1971), 114.
  8. Gregory Guzman, Christian Europe and Mongol Asia: First Medieval Intercultural Contact Between East and West, in Mark D. Johnston and Samuel M. Riley, Essays in Medieval Studies (Chicago, IL: Loyola University). Retrieved October 16, 2008.


  • Chambers, James. 1979. The Devil's Horsemen: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. New York, NY: Atheneum. ISBN 9780689109423.
  • Hildinger, Eric. 1997. Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C.E. to A.D. 1700. New York, NY: Sarpedon. ISBN 9781885119438.
  • Lane, George. 2004. Genghis Khan and Mongol Rule. Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Medieval World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780313325281.
  • Morgan, David. 1986. The Mongols. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 9780631135562.
  • Nicolle, David, and Richard Hook. 1998. The Mongol Warlords. London, UK: Brockhampton Press. ISBN 9781860194078.
  • Reagan, Geoffry. 1992. The Guinness Book of Decisive Battles. New York, NY: Canopy Books. ISBN 9781558594319.
  • Saunders, J.J. 2001. The History of the Mongol Conquests. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812217667.
  • Sicker, Martin. 2000. The Islamic World in Ascendancy: From the Arab Conquests to the Siege of Vienna. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. ISBN 9780313001116.
  • Sinor, Denis. 1999. The Mongols in the West. Journal of Asian History. 33: 1. Retrieved October 16, 2008.
  • Soucek, Svatopluk. 2000. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521651691.


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