Hungarian Army Composition
Mercenary Knights (Armigeri)
Hungarian Light Cavalry
Hussars (Serbian Gusars)
Wallachian and Moldavian Light horse
Mercenary Infantry of the Hunyadi era
Handgunners or Arquebusiers
The core of any Hungarian army was the heavily armoured Knight of the Banderium.
These Knights were equipped like those of their Western counterparts.
The effect of their charge being regarded as the climax of battle. The heavy cavalry employed by the Hungarians fall into two main categories, Hungarians and Mercenaries.
Hungarian is used here to indicate native Nobles recruited into the Banderium of the Barons. They were equipped at the expense of their commander and only offered themselves for service. It is likely that such Knights did not come with the usual combat effective support group seen in other European Countries. Emperor Sigismund made a specific order for the Nicopolis campaign of 1396 that Knights should be accompanied by two mounted archers. The implication being that this was not a normal state of affairs. The temperament of these Nobles also appears to have been more cautious that that of their Western Cousins. There are no obvious examples of Hungarian Knights displaying the impetuous behaviour of, for example their French counterparts. This in some way may be explained by the presence of mercenaries within a Banderium which might have acted as a stabilising influence. Though it has to be said any army consistently faced with the light horse tactics used by the Ottomans tended to adopt a very cautious approach to their battles, the Polish are a prime example.
Mercenary Knights (Armigeri)
Often referred to in the sources by the Italian term
Armigeri these men were equipped as Knights and organised in the basic lance
or Gleve system prevalent in Germany and Italy at the time. Each lance being
a men at arms or Knight and a support group of between three to five less well
equipped retainers. Whether employed in distinct units or as individual lances
they differed from the Hungarian Nobility in that they were highly disciplined
professionals. There were also two distinct types of mercenary units, foreigners
The Hungarian mercenary units first appear to have been recruited in Louis' reign. Knights of the Kings household were given commissions (dispositio) to recruit between fifty and eighty men at arms. These men at arms were expected to supply a support group of two to three mounted archers (pharetriarii). These archers were likely to be comparable to those raised by the Militia Portalis and are discussed under Hungarian Light cavalry.
Foreign mercenary units tended to be recruited from Germany or Bohemia. Probably for no other reason that they were the most readily available at the time. There is no evidence of how these mercenaries were recruited but it is likely that this varied from unit to unit. The core of Matthius' mercenaries originated from the army of Jan Jiskra as did many of his senior commanders so they were probably on a rolling contract, as long as they were paid they served. Others may well have been on fixed contracts. Janos Hunyadi certainly seemed to have little difficulty in recruiting and replacing these mercenaries when ever required.
Froissart mentions mounted crossbowmen at Nicopolis in 1396. It is generally assumed and likely that this is a mistaken reference to light bow armed cavalry (see Light cavalry). However Bonfinius mentions mounted arbalesters at a battle in 1441 (Sava). These are deployed with the Knights on the wings of the army and are differentiated from the light horse who form a skirmish screen. Based on Hunyadi's known preference for using German mercenaries and the well documented use of mounted crossbowmen in the Holy Roman Empire it is probable that these were such mercenaries.
The Hungarian army contained various types of Light horse.
Hungarian Light Horse, Hussars (Gusars), Szekely, Cumans, Wallachians and Moldavians
Hungarian Light Cavalry
These are the archers recruited by the Militia Portalis and appearing in the retinue of Hungarian Knights. They appear to have been recruited directly from the wealthier peasants of Hungary. Their role may well have varied. Those recruited as part of a Knightly retinue, be it as a mercenary or part of a Banderium, may well have been expected to form rear ranks to their Knights. Much like the western practise with retainers. This is based mostly on supposition. As stated previously Sigismund requested such archers to accompany his Knights at Nicopolis. Froissart implies the presence of these archers, though he describes them as mounted crossbowmen. However at the battle it was the Transylvanian and Wallachian contingents that were expected to clear away the Ottoman Akinji skirmishers. This feature appears time and again in Hungarian battles of the 15th Century. Reliance is placed on foreign or specialist light horsemen to act as skirmishers or counter skirmishers. These were often Wallachians (Varna and Kosovo Polje), Serbians (the long campaign and many of Matthius' battles) or Szekelers and Tatars from within Hungary itself. What is notably absent from the primary sources of the 15th Century is the use of native horse archers as massed skirmishers. The Militia Portalis may well have been an effort to create an effective light horse contingent like those of the Wallachian or Serbians. One later edict for the Militia Portalis requests light horsemen armed with bows, lance and armour. All this suggests that the native Hungarian light horsemen may not have been sufficiently skilled or equipped for a dedicated battlefield role in the 15th century and many may in fact have become the infantry element of the Hungarian armies.
Formally created in the reign of Matthius these light horsemen were the primary
defence against Turkish raiders. Operating in and around Hungary's southern
defences they attempted to intercept Turkish incursions. The origin of the Hussars
though stems from the 1427 when Serbia submitted to Ottoman authority. Though
the Serbs would periodically resist Ottoman control the Turks now had access
to Hungary's borders. The instability in Serbia also led to what Hungarian sources
describe as 'robbers and evil doers ' raiding across the borders. These raiders
were called Gusars (mounted robbers). To combat these Gusars and their Turkish
counterparts it seems that the border districts recruited their own horsemen.
Often as not these Hussars where recruited from the Gusar elements themselves.
It should be pointed out that parts of Southern Hungary had until 1426 been
part of Serbia and where ceded to the Hungarian Crown by Stephen Lazarevich.
These first Hussars were irregulars with no position in Hungary's military.
Traditionally the Hussar equipment was a large shield and light lance though
whether this evident from the start is unknown and probably unlikely given the
disparate sources of recruitment.
Whether these Hussars gained their place in the Hungarian army as a distinct type of soldier, in their own units, prior to the reign of Matthius cannot be proved for certain. However by the time of Janos Hunyadi's Long campaign there appear units of Rac horsemen who played a significant part in the campaign. Rac derives from the name of the Serbian fortress/city Ras and is often used to describe Serbia as a whole. The majority of the Rac horsemen where undoubtedly part of the contingent supplied by Serbia itself for the campaign. In Matthius' reign the Hussars were equally referred to in the sources as Rac. The primary reason for this being that the majority of Hussars were supplied by Serbian exiles or mercenaries. So it is quite possible that the Hungarians had either their own 'home-grown' Rac horsemen or at the very least were hiring mercenaries of their own by the time of Janos Hunyadi. Certainly Serbian troops in Hungarian employ are mentioned at the siege of Belgrade in 1456 where they were dismounted to provide crews for the boats used to break the Ottoman naval blockade. Their original duties are mentioned as being fortress garrison troops.
The numbers of Hussars available to the Hungarians rose dramatically from 1459 when the Serbian State was finally absorbed by the Ottoman Empire. This led to an influx of refugees and Noble exiles to Hungary. It is no coincidence that the formal creation of Hussar units dates from this time. The basic unit was a Turbae comprising some 25 Hussars. Recruitment was at the demand of the Crown and they were paid direct from the Royal treasury. By 1474 there were sufficient Hussar companies to allow large scale independent action. While the main Hungarian army was besieged at Wroclaw Hussar groups under Stephen Szapolyia and Paul Kinizsi captured and burned the Polish towns of Poznan and Crarow. These Hussars also completely destroyed the Polish supply lines which contributed greatly to Matthius' success.
The decline in Royal authority and more importantly finances after Matthius' death caused a rapid decline in the number of Hussars available to the Hungarians. It is worth noting that the impact of the Hussars during Janos and Matthius' lifetime was sufficient to create a permanent place for them in the Hungarian army.
The precise origins of the Szekely are unknown and subject to a long running
scholarly debate. What is known is that they were a separate ethnic group from
the Magyars and they believed they were direct descendants from the Huns.
By the 13th century the Szekely formed the largest Hungarian speaking group in Transylvania. Their lands covered some 12,000 kilometres and were divided into seven districts called szek (seats). The name Szekely does not apparently originate from this. Six of these districts, comprising the vast majority of the Szekely were in one block in the South of Transylvania, the seventh formed a small enclave near the town of Tuda. The Szekely lands were outside of traditional Hungarian law, even the Voivode of Transylvania had no authority within their borders. Instead the administration of law fell to the Count of the Szekely. The Count was appointed by the King and was usually a Hungarian Lord, often but not always the Voivode of Transylvania as well. From 1462 the two offices were combined on a permanent basis.
Through out this period the Szekely remained a semi-nomadic people who made their living from horse and cattle breeding. As such they were regarded as some of the finest light horsemen available to the Kings of Hungary. This in some way goes to explain why the Szekely were able to retain their unique life style while other ethic groups like the Cumans (see below) became absorbed into Hungarian society. The only obligation the Szekely had to the Hungarian Crown was supplying troops for military service.
The Szekely were divided into six tribes, each subdivided into four branches. These divisions were purely political and military in origin and spread over the entire Szekely lands. Each branch was obligated to provide the Hungarian Crown with 100 horsemen for military service. This gives an obligated total of 2400 horsemen. This appears to have been further supplemented by a militia only obligated to serve for 30 days. In 1473 the Szekely militia is recorded as being made up of three distinct groups, those that serve with three other mounted men, individual horsemen and finally infantry. It is probably no coincidence that this mirrors the last two 'ranks' of the Szekely Social structure. There were three orders of rank, the Primores, the Primipili and the community. The Primores were equivalent to Nobles, though Chieftains would probably be more accurate. They provided the military leadership. The Primipili have been described as a sub-officer class probably responsible for their own local militia. The community were the bulk of the Szekely Nation and would have provided the mounted common soldiers and an infantry militia. Though there is almost certainly no connection the officer and three mounted men mirrors the early Ottoman arrangement for Spahis recruitment.
So the Crown could rely on 2400 Szekely cavalry when they were needed and a militia for local defence as well. Janos Hunyadi certainly used a large number of Szekely and 'Saxon' troops at the battle of Vasaq in 1442. The Venetian Baduario reports that Matthius' army in the 1470's had some 16,000 Szekely horsemen. When compared to a figure of 4,000 from 1430, which is the combined totals of available Saxon and Szekely troops this appears to be a massive rise. This is however not necessarily an unbelievable figure. Matthius relied on mercenaries for his army and it is more than likely given the preference for competent horsemen that the Szekely would have been prime candidates for recruitment. The figure of 1430 also matches quite closely to the numbers the Saxon and Szekely communities had to provide to the Crown so probably should not be taken as indicative of the number of soldiers potentially available.
The Szekely appear to have fulfilled a similar role to the Serbian Hussars providing Light Horse. Baduario describes the Szekely as armed with lance, Shield and bow. Given their background of semi-nomadic herders its seems more than likely that this was indeed their primary military function. There are however several anomalies with Szekely troops. At Vasaq in 1442 a group of Szekely are described as elite and assigned to a bodyguard role. At Varna Szekely are described as forming up with the heavy cavalry. It is possible that some Szekely were more Hungarian in their weapons and battlefield role. In both cases above they were Janos Hunyadi's troops so may have represented a bodyguard element associated with him as Count of the Szekely.
1239 is the traditional date given for the arrival of the Cumans in Hungary. These nomadic horsemen would provide the Hungarian Kings with another vital source of light cavalry. Like 'native' light horsemen the Cumans were horse archers, skilled in skirmishing. The Cumans appear to have fought under their own chieftains and formed their own tribal units. In the 13th and the early 14th Centuries Cuman units appear frequently in the sources. King Ladislas IV was known as 'the Cuman' not only because his mother was a Cuman princess but for his continual support for the Cuman people against that of the Catholic Church. The main power of the Cumans was broken in 1280 (82 in some sources) when their revolt was crushed at the battle of Lake Hod and large numbers migrated out of Hungary. Never the less Cuman light horse continued to play a part in the armies of Hungary. The Cumans supported Charles Angevin in the critical early years of his reign. Charles success against the nobles of Hungary was in no small part due to the Cumans. The Cuman troops finally disappear from the sources towards the end of the reign of Louis the Great. It appears that the Cumans merged into the society of Hungary. This settled existence not only eroded their culture but probably caused a rapid erosion of their horse and archery skills as well. Even though Cumans appear as a distinct ethnic group in later sources they are no longer mentioned in military terms. The loss of the Cuman archers may in part explain why Sigismund attempted in 1397 to enforce the creation of the Militia Portalis
for a more information on the Cumans of Hungary see Andras Paloczi Horvath's book Pechenegs, Cumans, Iasians (steppe peoples in medieval Hungary)
Wallachian and Moldavian Light horse
Hungary employed light horse from both these nationalities. For more detailed information on their light horse see the Moldavian pages. The Hungarians had an additional source of Rumanian cavalry, those from the Transylvanian region. Transylvania location put it in an ideal position to accept refugees from other Balkan states. These refugees bolstered the already substantial Rumanian population of the area. Janos Hunyadi's family were just such refugees, arriving sometime during Micea the Old's struggle with the Ottomans. These refugees and the native Rumanians of Transylvania provided significant numbers to the Hungarian forces. Janos Hunyadi's troops are invariably described as containing large numbers of Transylvanians a description unlikely to be used to describe troops of Hungarian descent. At the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1448 there was a large contingent of Wallachians, it has however been convincingly argued that these were in fact mostly Transylvanian troops and not external Wallachians. See the battle of Kosovo Polje for more details
Infantry were very much a secondary concern in Hungarian warfare. They rarely appear in the native primary sources. As such it is very difficult to obtain a clear idea of just what infantry was available to the Hungarians. Sources tend to include infantry when they were mercenaries. The anonymous Chronica de Gestis Hungarorum, more usually known as the Hungarian Illuminated Chronicle mentions seventeen hundred mercenary spearmen fighting for one of Charles Angevin's rivals at the battle of Rozgony, June 15, 1312. It is only in the late 15th century under the Hunyadi's that there is sufficient evidence to form a reasonably coherent picture.
Up until the time of the Hunyadi's the mainstay of the infantry were foot archers. These foot archers almost certainly represented the poorer elements of the various levies of Hungary. The tradition of mounted archery in Hungary and surrounding Nations makes in almost inevitable that a massed levy would produce significant numbers of foot archers as well. Theoretically the Generalis Exercitus was an entirely mounted levy however Italian sources and drawings of the Italian campaigns of Louis the Great show a significant number of foot soldiers present. These foot soldiers are described and drawn carrying composite bows and many have sabres. The drawings of these foot soldiers tally closely to that of mounted figures representing Hungarian light horse. It seems likely that at least some of these infantry were those of the militia too impoverished to afford to fight mounted or those whose mounted skills had declined to such an extent that it was no longer possible for them to serve in their expected role. Transylvanian and Szekely foot archers also appear in the sources, especially those dealing with Janos Hunyadi. The Transylvanian Great levy could have raised large numbers of peasant bowmen. Transylvania's borders were more exposed that that of Hungary itself and it suffered frequent Ottoman raids. The end result appears to have been a highly effective local militia. This militia probably did not see service outside of Transylvania except with one notable exception at the siege of Belgrade in 1456.
Saxon was the name used to describe the significant
German population settled in Transylvania. German immigration to the region
started as early as 1150. By 1300 there were three large areas of Saxon population
in Transylvania. The largest in size and importance was the settlement around
the town of Sibiu (Hermannstadt in German). Sibiu was situated on of the few
easily navigable routes through the Carpathian mountains to the black sea. As
such it was a major trading town and defensive stronghold. In 1224 King Andrew
II granted significant rights to the Saxons of Sibui. Much like the Szekely
the Saxons were given practical autonomy in return for a special annual tax
to the Crown and some military obligations. These military obligations were
the supplying of 500 warriors for internal defence and 100 warriors for foreign
service. This document, subsequently called the Andreanum, is the only direct
record of Saxon military obligations. By the reign of Emperor Sigismund the
Saxons of Sibui had organised into eight Seats, each centred on a different
town around and including Sibui. To this Sigismund added an additional two towns,
already mostly Saxon in population. The second major area of Saxon settlement
was started by the Teutonic Order during their brief involvement in Hungary
during the 1420's. The removal of the Order in 1225 did little to stem the tide
of Saxon settlement. This area was centred on the town of Brasov and like Sibui
straddled a trade route through the Carpathians. The third geographical area
was centred on the three districts of Kyralia, Rodna and Bistrita. These districts
and that of Brasov appear to have enjoyed similar rights to that of the Saxons
of Sibui. There were additional settlements of Saxons especially in the towns
of Transylvania but they were a minority and the smaller settlements probably
became absorbed into the general Transylvanian population. The precise numbers
of men the Saxons could supply the Crown are unknown, even the figures of the
Andreanum cannot be used as proof for the later period. A figure of 4,000 men
is quoted for a combined levy of Saxons and Szekely in 1430. Given that the
obligated number of Szekely was 2400 men then this would leave 1600 Saxons.
A not unreasonable figure for a population that supposedly made up only 15 or
so percent of Transylvania's total population.
What is not recorded is just how the Saxons fought. Given the Germanic origin of the settlers it is not unreasonable to assume that their style of warfare mirrored that of the German States. Hungarian Saxons apparently fought alongside German mercenaries employed by Janos Hunyadi. If accurate this implies that the wealthier Saxons were equipped as knights. The bulk of the Saxons though probably fought on foot as spearmen, crossbowmen and in the later period handgunners. For a population centred on towns and responsible for defending them the above would make sense. Also given the difficult terrain of Transylvania and the limited lines of communication infantry were much more effective than they would be on the plains of Hungary. The battle of Vasaq in 1422 saw Janos Hunyadi use large numbers of militia troops to defeat a Ottoman force. The army is described as including large numbers of townsmen and this is probably a reference to Saxons.
Mercenary Infantry of the Hunyadi era
Infantry would always be a secondary arm for the Hungarian army. However under
the Hunyadi's they played a much more important role. The infantry described
above continued to be used but the major change was the employment of large
numbers of mercenaries. Mercenary foot began to appear in significant numbers
under Janos Hunyadi, first in his position as Voivode of Transylvania and then
as Regent. The process continued under Matthius and at its height his 'black
army' included some 10,000 mercenary infantry.
The majority of Janos Hunyadi's foot were ex-Hussite troops from Bohemia and it is no coincidence that their employment dates from the same time that Janos adopted the Hussite warwagons. Matthius incorporated almost all of Jan Jiskra's Bohemian troops in 1462 and continued to employ Bohemians in preference to all others. Germans formed the next largest foot contingent followed by Silesians.
In 1480 Matthius wrote a description of his infantry, this is the first definitive source for how they were employed.
'some are light foot soldiers, others are heavily armoured,
and some are clipeati, who demand double pay because of their servants. In addition
there are gun experts, but they are not efficient in firing as the rest of the
infantry; they do best from behind the pavises at the start of the battle or
in sieges. We make it a rule that a fifth of the infantry are arquebusiers.
We regard the heavy infantry as an immovable wall that, if necessary, would fight and die to the last man where they stood. When opportunity presents itself the light infantry make forays, but, if their attack loses its impetus or if they are hard pressed, they fall back behind the heavy infantry All the infantry and arquebusiers are surrounded by Armati and clipeati like a fortress. The pavises all round them give the impression of a fortress, behind which the light infantry shelter and fight as from castle walls, attacking when the time is right.'
This translation is taken from Armies of the Middle Ages, Volume 2 by Ian Heath, published by Wargames research Group.
The clipeati were heavily armoured men equipped with pavises. From Matthius' description they formed a solid shield wall from which other elements of the infantry could fight from. Matthius also mentions they receive double pay because of their servants. This could mean that the pavises were very large possibly mantlets and required several people to move them easily. Given Matthius' use of 'castle wall', 'fortress' and 'immovable wall' it is quite likely that these pavises of the clipeati were designed to create a defensive line. Use of such large pavises is not unknown in other parts of Europe, though they were normally restricted to siege warfare. More importantly the Hussites used man portable mantlets to create a second line of defence within their Tabors. This combined with the heavy Hussite presence amongst the mercenaries makes the use of large pavises or mantlets a reasonable assumption.
Armati was the name applied to armoured men who usually fought alongside the Clipeati. There is no direct evidence as to what the Armati were armed with. However given the parallels that can be drawn between the Clipeati and Hussite forces it is reasonable to assume that the Armati would act in a similar fashion to their 'support' squads. That is to say armed with pole arms which could be used to fight from, over and around wagons, or in this case the pavises of the Clipeati.
Handgunners or Arquebusiers
The handgun was a popular weapon in the hands of the Hussites and its use spread through out the Balkans. Janos Hunyadi requested handguns, cannons and associated ammunition prior to the long campaign from the towns of Transylvania. So domestic production of these items is probable. As described by Matthius the handgun was not at that time a efficient battlefield weapon and required protection for the gunners. The use of tabor war wagons was long established as the ideal way to deploy handgunners in relative safety. The Hungarians clearly expanded on this by using the Clipeati as a protective screen. Nearly every major battle that Janos Hunyadi fought in has references to handgunners. Varna there were some 600 handgun armed Bohemians defending the Tabor. Kosovo Polje there were 2,000 handgunners defending the Tabor. Though usually described as German or Bohemian there are also references to Transylvanian handgunners as well, the army of 1475 had 2,000. Not unreasonable if the area was producing the weapons.
Though never implicitly identified in the sources the usual assumption is that these light infantry were archers or crossbowmen. KomJathy in A thousand years of the Hungarian art of war says of the light infantry,
'The main assignment of both lines was to protect the third line of musketeers and the fourth line of light infantry with bows, lances, and axes.' And
'During attack they approached the enemy lines, protected by the musketeers' fire: once the enemy line was broken, hand-to-hand combat was carried out by the light infantry.'
He unfortunately does not list the original sources for these statements though most of it is clearly based on Matthius' description. The numbers of archers available to the Hungarians and their vulnerability to hostile cavalry makes their use from behind more formidable foot a logical choice.
Under Janos Hunyadi the Hungarians began to use warwagons, not surprising given the large numbers of ex-Hussites employed as mercenaries. These wagons appear to have differed little from their original Hussite counterparts and fulfilled a very similar role, see Hussite pages for more details on warwagons. See Hungarian Tactics and battles for a more details on how they were used.
Copyright © 2002 Matthew Haywood
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