What was the Battle of Mohacs (1526)?


The Battle of Mohács (Hungarian: [ˈmohaːt͡ʃ]; Hungarian: Mohácsi csata, Turkish: Mohaç Muharebesi) was one of the most consequential battles in Central European history.

It was fought on 29 August 1526 near Mohács, Kingdom of Hungary, between the forces of the Kingdom of Hungary and its allies, led by Louis II, and those of the Ottoman Empire, led by Suleiman the Magnificent.

The Ottoman victory led to the partition of Hungary for several centuries between the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, and the Principality of Transylvania. Further, the death of Louis II as he fled the battle marked the end of the Jagiellonian dynasty in Hungary and Bohemia, whose dynastic claims passed to the House of Habsburg. The Battle of Mohács marked the end of the Middle Ages in Hungary.

Part of the Ottoman Wars in Europe and Ottoman-Hungarian Wars.


The Decline of Hungarian Royal Power (1490-1526)

After the death of the absolutist King Matthias Corvinus in 1490, the Hungarian magnates, who did not want another heavy-handed king, procured the accession of the notoriously weak-willed King Vladislaus of Bohemia, who reigned as King Vladislaus II of Hungary from 1490 to 1516. He was known as King Dobře (or Dobzse in Hungarian orthography), meaning “all right”, for his habit of accepting, without question, every petition and document laid before him. The freshly-elected King Vladislaus II donated most of the Hungarian royal estates, régales, and royalties to the nobility. Thus the king tried to stabilise his new reign and preserve his popularity among the magnates.

Given the naive fiscal and land policy of the royal court, the central power began to experience severe financial difficulties, largely due to the enlargement of feudal lands at royal expense. The noble estate of the parliament succeeded in reducing their tax burden by 70-80%, at the expense of the country’s ability to defend itself. Vladislaus became the magnates’ helpless “prisoner”; he could make no decision without their consent.

The standing mercenary army (the Black Army) of Matthias Corvinus was dissolved by the aristocracy. The magnates also dismantled the national administration systems and bureaucracy throughout the country. The country’s defences sagged as border-guards and castle garrisons went unpaid, fortresses fell into disrepair, and initiatives to increase taxes to reinforce defences were stifled. Hungary’s international role declined, its political stability shaken; social progress was deadlocked. The arrival of Protestantism further worsened internal relations in the country.

The strongest nobles were so busy oppressing the peasants and quarrelling with the gentry class in the parliament that they failed to heed the agonised calls of King Louis II (who reigned in Bohemia and Hungary from 1516 to 1526) for support against the Turks.

In 1514, the weakened and old King Vladislaus II faced a major peasant rebellion led by György Dózsa, which was ruthlessly crushed by the nobles, led by John Zápolya. After the Dózsa Rebellion, the brutal suppression of the peasants greatly aided the 1526 Turkish invasion as the Hungarians were no longer a politically united people. The resulting degradation of order paved the way for Ottoman pre-eminence.

King Louis II of Hungary married Mary of Habsburg in 1522. The Ottomans saw this Jagiellonian-Habsburg marital alliance as a threat to their power in the Balkans and worked to break it. After Suleiman I came to power in Istanbul in 1520, the High Porte made the Hungarians at least one and possibly two offers of peace. For unclear reasons, Louis refused. It is possible that Louis was well aware of Hungary’s situation (especially after the Ottomans defeated Persia in the Battle of Chaldiran (1514) and the Polish-Ottoman peace from 1525) and believed that war was a better option than peace. Even in peacetime, the Ottomans raided Hungarian lands and conquered small territories (with border castles), but a final battle still offered Louis a glimmer of hope. Accordingly, another Ottoman–Hungarian war ensued, and in June 1526 an Ottoman expedition advanced up the Danube.

European Events, and the Franco-Ottoman Alliance

King Francis I of France was defeated at the Battle of Pavia on 24 February 1525 by the troops of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. After several months in prison, Francis I was forced to sign the Treaty of Madrid.

In a watershed moment in European diplomacy, Francis formed a formal Franco-Ottoman alliance with Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent as an ally against Charles V. The French-Ottoman strategic, and sometimes tactical, alliance lasted for about three centuries.

To relieve the Habsburg pressure on France, in 1525 Francis asked Suleiman to make war on the Holy Roman Empire, and the road from Turkey to the Holy Roman Empire led across Hungary. The request of the French king coincided well with the ambitions of Suleiman in Europe and gave him an incentive to attack Hungary in 1526, leading to the Battle of Mohács.


The Hungarians had long opposed Ottoman expansion in southeastern Europe, but in 1521 the Turks advanced up the Danube River and took Nándorfehérvár (present-day Belgrade, Serbia) – the strongest Hungarian fortress on the Danube – and Szabács (now Šabac, Serbia). This left most of southern Hungary indefensible.

The loss of Nándorfehérvár caused great alarm in Hungary, but the huge 60,000 strong royal army – led by the king, but recruited too late and too slowly – neglected to take food along. Therefore, the army disbanded spontaneously under pressure from hunger and disease without even trying to recapture Belgrade from the newly installed Turkish garrisons. In 1523, Archbishop Pál Tomori, a valiant priest-soldier, was made Captain of Southern Hungary. The general apathy that had characterized the country forced him to lean on his own bishopric revenues when he started to repair and reinforce the second line of Hungary’s border defence system. Pétervárad fell to the Turks on 15 July 1526 due to the chronic lack of castle garrisons. For about 400 km along the Danube between Pétervárad and Buda there was no single Hungarian town, village, or fortification of any sort.

Three years later, an Ottoman army set out from Constantinople on 16 April 1526, led by Suleiman the Magnificent personally. The Hungarian nobles, who still did not realise the magnitude of the approaching danger, did not immediately heed their King’s call for troops. Eventually, the Hungarians assembled in three main units: the Transylvanian army under John Zápolya, charged with guarding the passes in the Transylvanian Alps, with between 8,000 and 13,000 men; the main army, led by Louis himself (beside numerous Spanish, German, Czech, and Serbian mercenaries); and another smaller force, commanded by the Croatian count Christoph Frankopan, numbering around 5,000 men. The Ottomans deployed the largest field artillery of the era, comprising some 300 cannons, while the Hungarians had only 85 cannons, though even this number was greater than other contemporary Western European armies deployed on the battlefields during the major conflicts of Western European powers.

The geography of the area meant that the Hungarians could not know the Ottomans’ ultimate goal until the latter crossed the Balkan Mountains, and when they did, the Transylvanian and Croatian forces were farther from Buda than the Ottomans were. Contemporary historical records, though sparse, indicate that Louis preferred a plan of retreat, in effect ceding the country to Ottoman advances, rather than directly engaging the Ottoman army in open battle. The Hungarian war council – without waiting for reinforcements from Croatia and Transylvania only a few days march away – made a serious tactical error by choosing the battlefield near Mohács, an open but uneven plain with some swampy marshes.

The Ottomans had advanced toward Mohács almost unopposed. While Louis waited in Buda, they had besieged several towns (Petervarad, Ujlak, and Eszek), and crossed the Sava and Drava Rivers. At Mohács the Hungarians numbered some 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers. The only external help was a small contingent of Polish troops (1,500 soldiers and knights) led by the royal captain Lenart Gnoiński (but organized and equipped by the Papal State). The Ottoman army numbered perhaps 50,000, though some contemporary and modern-day historians put the number of the Ottoman troops at 100,000. Most of the Ottoman Balkan forces registered before this battle were described as Bosnians or Croats.

The Hungarian army was arrayed to take advantage of the terrain and hoped to engage the Ottoman army piecemeal. They had the advantage that their troops were well-rested, while the Turks had just completed a strenuous march in scorching summer heat.

The Battle

Hungary built up an expensive but obsolete army, structured similarly to that of King Francis I at the Battle of Pavia and mostly reliant on old fashioned heavily armoured knights on armoured horses (gendarme knights). The Hungarian battlefront consisted of two lines. The first had a centre of mercenary infantry and artillery and the majority of the cavalry on either flank. The second was a mix of levy infantry and cavalry. The Ottoman army was a more modern force built around artillery and the elite, musket-armed Janissaries. The remainder consisted of feudal Timarli cavalry and conscripted levies from Rumelia and the Balkans.

The length of the battle is as uncertain as the number of combatants. It started between 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm, but the endpoint is difficult to ascertain. The few reliable sources indicate that Louis left the field at twilight and made his escape under cover of darkness. Since the sun would not have set until 6:27 pm on 29 August 1526, this would imply that the battle lasted longer than two to three hours (perhaps as long as four or five).

As the first of Suleiman’s troops, the Rumelian army, advanced onto the battlefield, they were attacked and routed by Hungarian troops led by Pál Tomori. This attack by the Hungarian right caused considerable chaos among the irregular Ottoman troops, but even as the Hungarian attack pressed forward, the Ottomans rallied with the arrival of Ottoman regulars deployed from the reserves. While the Hungarian right advanced far enough at one time to place Suleiman in danger from Hungarian bullets that struck his cuirass, the superiority of the Ottoman regulars and the timely charge of the Janissaries, the elite troops of the Ottomans, probably overwhelmed the attackers, particularly on the Hungarian left. The Hungarians took serious casualties from the skillfully handled Turkish artillery and musket volleys. The Hungarians could not hold their positions, and those who did not flee were surrounded and killed or captured. The result was a disaster, with the Hungarians advancing into withering fire and flank attacks, and falling into the same trap that John Hunyadi had so often used successfully against the Ottomans. The king left the battlefield sometime around twilight but was thrown from his horse in a river at Csele and died, weighed down by his heavy armour. Some 1,000 other Hungarian nobles and leaders were also killed. It is generally accepted that more than 14,000 Hungarian soldiers were killed in the initial battle.

Suleiman could not believe that this small, suicidal army was all that the once powerful country could muster against him, so he waited at Mohacs for a few days before moving cautiously against Buda. On 31 August, 2,000 Hungarian prisoners were massacred as the Sultan watched from a golden throne; the rain fell in torrents.

Aftermath and Legacy

The victory did not give the Ottomans the security they wanted. Buda was left undefended; only the French and Venetian ambassadors waited for the Sultan to congratulate him on his great victory. Though they entered the unguarded evacuated Buda and pillaged the castle and surroundings, they retreated soon afterwards. It was not until 1541 that the Ottomans finally captured and occupied Buda following the 1541 Siege of Buda. However, for all intents and purposes, the Battle of Mohács meant the end of the independent Kingdom of Hungary as a unified entity. Amid political chaos, the divided Hungarian nobility elected two kings simultaneously, John Zápolya in 1526 and Ferdinand of Austria in 1527. The Ottoman occupation was contested by the Habsburg Archduke of Austria, Ferdinand I, Louis’s brother-in-law and successor by treaty with King Vladislaus II.

Bohemia fell to the Habsburgs, who also dominated the northern and western parts of Hungary and the remnants of the Kingdom of Croatia, while the Ottomans held central Hungary and suzerainty over semi-independent Transylvania. This provided the Hungarians with sufficient impetus to continue to resist the Ottoman occupation, which they did for another seventy years.

The Austrian branch of Habsburg monarchs needed the economic power of Hungary for the Ottoman wars. During the Ottoman wars the territory of the former Kingdom of Hungary shrunk by around 70%. Despite these territorial and demographic losses, the smaller, heavily war-torn Royal Hungary had remained economically more important than Austria or the Kingdom of Bohemia even at the end of the 16th century. Of Ferdinand’s territories, the depleted Kingdom of Hungary was at that time his largest source of revenue.

The subsequent near constant warfare required a sustained commitment of Ottoman forces, proving a drain on resources that the largely rural and war-torn kingdom proved unable to repay. Crusader armies besieged Buda several times during the 16th century. Sultan Suleiman himself died of natural causes in Hungary during the Battle of Szigetvár in 1566. There were also two unsuccessful Ottoman sieges of Eger, which did not fall until 1596, seventy years after the Ottoman victory at Mohács. The Turks proved unable to conquer the northern and western parts of Hungary, which belonged to the Habsburg monarchs.

A book on the Turkish culture was written by Georgius Bartholomaeus with information obtained from Christian troops released by the Ottomans after the battle.

Mohács is seen by many Hungarians as the decisive downward turning point in the country’s history, a national trauma that persists in the nation’s folk memory. To indicate magnitude of bad luck at hand, Hungarians still say: “more was lost at Mohács” (Hungarian: Több is veszett Mohácsnál). Hungarians view Mohács as marking the end of Hungary as an independent and powerful European nation.

Whilst Mohács was a decisive loss, it was the aftermath that truly put an end to fully independent Hungary. The ensuing two hundred years of near constant warfare between the two empires, Habsburg and Ottoman, turned Hungary into a perpetual battlefield and her territories were split into three parts. The countryside was regularly ravaged by armies moving back and forth, in turn devastating the population. Only in the 19th century would Hungary re-establish constantly her former boundaries, with full independence from the Habsburg house coming only after the First World War; however, the Treaty of Trianon awarded much of its former land to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, and Hungary has never regained its former political power.

The battlefield, beside the village of Sátorhely, became an official national historical memorial site in 1976 on the 450th anniversary of the battle. The memorial was designed by architect György Vadász. A new reception hall and exhibition building, also designed by Vadász and partially funded by the European Union, was completed in 2011.

The year of battle of Mohács marks the end of Middle Ages in the Central European historiography.


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