Battle of Lechfeld
In 894 nomadic Magyars raided into the Kingdom of Moravia, north of the Danube. The origin of the Magyars is uncertain. Their language is linked in Europe only with Finnish, and tradition has it that one group of Magyars settled in Finland, while the other went south and established itself on the Hungarian plain. Their own legends have the Magyars entering Hungary with the Huns, leaving it to resettle in the Caucasus and Volga regions and then reentering Hungary at the end of the ninth century. Under their leader Arpád, the Magyars entered Hungary to stay in 896, the year generally given for the founding of the Hungarian state. They easily subdued the scattered population of the central plain and then crushed Moravia in 906 and German forces in 907. A century later they conquered Transylvania.
A long period of warfare followed. The Magyars ravaged Swabia, Bavaria, and Thuringia, obliging German princes to buy them off or incorporate them into their armies. After being defeated by King Henry I in 933, the Magyars shifted their attention elsewhere. In 934 and 942 they raided the Byzantine Empire, reaching Constantinople. In 954 the Magyars struck west, cutting a wide swath of destruction through Bavaria and Burgundy all the way to Aquitaine. This raid gave some urgency to calls by Saxon emperor Otto I for a coalition against them.
In 955 the Magyars again invaded Germany. Their civil leader Bulcasú and military chieftain Lél (Lehel) led a force variously estimated at 50,000–100,000 horsemen. The Magyars were confident but departed from their usual light cavalry tactics to lay siege to the city of Augsburg beginning on August 8. With its walls in poor repair and the defenders badly outnumbered, Augsburg appeared easy prey for the Magyars, but Otto hastily put together a force of some 10,000 men from Saxony, Bavaria, Franconia, Swabia, and Bohemia and hurried to the relief of the city.
Only a day after the siege had begun the Magyars learned of Otto’s approach. They abandoned the siege and made camp next to the nearby Lech River. Otto arrived and set up his camp knowing that he was heavily outnumbered. His force consisted largely of heavy cavalry, and he hoped to use his heavier and better- disciplined force to smash through the far more numerous Magyars. This had been the foundation of a victory in 933 against the Magyars at Merseburg by Otto’s father, Henry the Fowler.
The battle took place under a scorching sun at Lechfeld, on the Lech River, on August 10, 955. Otto planned to attack in waves by nationality. Bavarians formed the first three waves, and Franks the fourth wave. The fifth wave was Otto’s own Saxons, followed by lines of Swabians and a rear guard of Bohemian cavalry. As the Germans rode down the eastern side of the Lech, a force of Magyars rode undetected in the opposite direction on the western side of the river and then crossed it to attack Otto’s rear area and supply train. This force of Magyars easily scattered the defending Bohemians and Swabians as well.
The Magyars appeared poised to crush Otto in a great pincer movement, but their lack of coordination (largely the result of their smaller force halting to loot the baggage train) proved their undoing. Otto ordered the Franconians to turn and deal with the attack to his rear; they soon came on the Magyars unhorsed and wiped them out. Otto then turned to deal with the main Magyar body to his front and ordered the charge.
The Germans rode forward in good order. The Magyars managed to get off one volley of arrows before the Germans reached their lines, but shields deflected most of the Magyar missiles. Superior discipline and the bravery of the coalition forces won the day, with Otto, sword in hand, joining the fighting.
The Magyars broke and were annihilated. Most of those who stood and fought were slain, and many others drowned trying to escape across the Lech. The battle extended over a 20-hour period, but for several days the Germans rounded up Magyar survivors. Both Bulcasú and Lél were among those executed. The Germans maimed a number of the prisoners they did not execute before setting them free.
Otto decided not to press his luck by invading the Magyar homeland. His victory had accomplished his aim of ending Magyar raids into Germany, and it convinced the Magyars to accommodate the new Holy Roman Empire, especially in matters of religion. The victory at Lechfeld brought Otto international recognition and led to the formal establishment of the Holy Roman Empire. Otto officially received the title of Holy Roman Emperor from Pope John XII in 962, assuming the mantle of Charlemagne as defender of the faith. Otto visited Rome the same year and reaffirmed the temporal power of the pope but as a vassal of the German king. The struggle of popes versus emperors continued, helping to delay the unification of both Germany and Italy until the second half of the 19th century, with great consequences for European history.
Balász, György, and Károly Szelényi. The Magyars: The Birth of a European Nation. Budapest: Corvina, 1989.
Falco, Giorgio. The Holy Roman Empire. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980.
Reuter, Timothy. Germany in the Early Middle Ages. London: Longman, 1991.