Hungary’s Castle Defense Strategy in the Aftermath of the Mongol Invasion (1241-1242)
By Stephen Pow
Fortifications, defence systems, structures and features in the past, Zbornik Instituta za arheologiju / Serta Instituti Archaeologici, Vol. 13 (2019)
Abstract: Following the Mongol withdrawal from Europe in 1242, there was a flurry of castle-building in the Kingdom of Hungary. During a year-long Mongol occupation, there had been much slaughter and destruction. Judging from surviving documents, the main reason for Hungary’s fortification reforms was to defend against the Mongols, yet the new castles were built mostly in the western part of the kingdom. This has led some historians to argue that the castles were really built to defend against Hungary’s European rivals, or that the Mongol threat was merely used by its monarchs to gain papal concessions.
Here it is argued that the primary reason for this castle-building in the thirteenth century was in fact the Mongol threat. Building trends support the view that Hungary’s ruler strongly emphasized securing the Danube with fortifications in order to bolster the defense of the Medium Regni where a sizeable population remained, while the defense of eastern areas, already heavily depopulated, relied on various measures. Castle-building depended on the local availability of labor, suitable sites, and building materials. Thus, the locations of new castles reveal an overarching Hungarian strategy, but one that was shaped by the kingdom’s material and manpower limitations.
Introduction: There was a dramatic shift in the Kingdom of Hungary toward building stone castles located on highly defensible sites in the immediate aftermath of the first Mongol invasion of Hungary (1241–1242). Erik Fügedi’s important study revealed the weakness of Hungary’s fortresses and walled towns in the face of repetitive but effective Mongol siege tactics before these reforms. Fortified sites constructed on level ground and defended by wooden and earthen parapets proved extremely vulnerable to Mongol tactics – intense arrow fire, use of incendiary materials, and heavy bombardment by catapults operating in conjunction with waves of prisoners who filled the moats to enable attackers to overrun the fortifications – as we see with the rapid fall of Pest in 1241.
Top Image: Mongols in Hungary from the year 1285 depicted in the Illuminated Chronicle