29 August 1526

A 1588 illustration from an Ottoman manuscript shows the Ottoman cavalry at the Battle of Mohacs on 29 August 1526. They pursued and butchered thousands of the fleeing Hungarians as the battle drew to a close.

The role of leadership was an important one at the battle on the plain of Mohács that destroyed the Hungarian king and nobility and opened the way to centuries of Ottoman domination of south-central Europe. But it was a role shared by two very different men: the first was the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman I, scion of the Osmans, later known as the ‘Magnificent’; the second was his grand vizier, Ibrahim Pasha, a young Greek whom Suleiman had met when he was governor of Magnesia. Ibrahim became his close companion and adviser, eating at the sultan’s table, even sharing his tent. The victory over the Hungarians was celebrated as Suleiman’s triumph, but it was sealed by the two men who fought side-by-side that day.

The conflict between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire went back many years, but by the early sixteenth century, Ottoman encroachment had become more insistent. In 1521, Belgrade fell to the sultan and regular raids were carried out further north towards the Danube. Suleiman’s reputation as a military leader to be reckoned with was secured by the capture of the island of Rhodes in 1522, but he then rested on his laurels. In 1525, the elite janissary guard staged a violent protest against the failure to make war again (for they relied on booty to supplement their meagre pay). Suleiman quelled the rebellion, distributed 200,000 ducats to his troops, and sounded the drum of conquest on 1 December 1525, summoning his people to war. He could have moved east against Persia but decided to return to Hungary; he knew that the kingdom was divided politically and that little help was to be expected from the other Christian monarchies of Europe, occupied with the crisis of the Reformation. He was impelled as Sultan to expand the territory of Islam as a step towards achieving a universal monarchy; for him, expansion against the infidel Christians was a sacred obligation.

A monument in the Hungarian town of Mohacs commemorates the comprehensive defeat of the Hungarian king and army in the Battle on 29 August 1526.

On 23 April 1526, Suleiman and Ibrahim left Constantinople with 100,000 men and 300 guns. It took almost three months before the cavalcade reached Belgrade. Torrential rain had swollen all the rivers, but Ibrahim pushed ahead to make sure they were bridged. Ibrahim was also trusted to sweep aside the few Hungarian troops still found on the road to the Danube. The fortress of Peterwardein was stormed and the garrison of 500 decapitated on Ibrahim’s orders. The Hungarian forces in the path of the Ottoman army, led by Pal Tômôri, the martial Archbishop of Kalosca, retreated back to the Hungarian plain. Here a waterlogged steppe 10 kilometres (6 miles) wide reached south from the small village of Mohács, ending in a line of tree-covered hills. It was there, on the edge of the plain nearest the village, that the Hungarian King Louis and the cream of Hungarian nobility set up their camp. The final number in the Hungarian force is open to conjecture, but is generally thought to be between 25,000 and 30,000, though reinforcements were arriving from Bohemia, Croatia and Transylvania, totalling perhaps 30,000 more.

As Suleiman’s army drew up among the hills and woods on the far side of the plain of Mohács, the Hungarian nobles pressured the king to fight the battle there and then rather than wait for help. They were confident that the heavy cavalry, armoured man and horse from head to toe, would be able to smash the advancing Turks by a combination of sheer weight and their fiery élan.

The Hungarian tactic was unsophisticated. Suleiman by contrast thought out how best to be certain of victory. The general of the akinci, the light troops and skirmishers, advised the sultan to let his front line bend inwards as the Hungarian heavy cavalry attacked. This would allow strong forces on either side of the curved line to attack the Hungarians on both flanks and eventually to encircle them. Estimates suggest that there were perhaps 45,000 fighting troops with the sultan, both cavalry and foot soldiers, and an unknown number of guns, a balance less uneven than the later Christian accounts suggested. Both armies took time to reach battle stations and the Hungarians, determined to take the offensive, finally charged the Ottoman line in the middle of the afternoon, commanded by the redoubtable Archbishop Tömöri in his golden armour.

The battle details vary among contemporary accounts, but the general picture confirms that the Ottoman plan worked almost like clockwork. The Hungarian cavalry charged the first line, commanded by Ibrahim Pasha himself. The Turkish account of the battle, written by the contemporary historian Kemal Pashazade, attributed the victory to the prowess of the vizier, ‘whose lance was like the beak of the falcon in vigour and whose sword, thirsty for blood, was like the claws of the lion of bravery’. Embroidered though the account was, Ibrahim organized the fall-back that created the fatal crescent shape.

When King Louis and the reserve saw the Turkish line bend, they eagerly attacked across the plain, expecting victory. They arrived just as the first Hungarian charge, which almost reached Suleiman himself, was spent. The Ottoman cannon opened a murderous fire while the Hungarian horsemen were assailed from both flanks by the light infantry and cavalry clustered around them. The doomed army fought, according to the accounts, bravely but vainly. By evening it was destroyed. Among the slain were three archbishops, five bishops, 500 Hungarian nobles and the king himself, drowned when he tried to escape across the marshy ground. His body was found a month later buried in the mud.

The defeat was comprehensive. Ottoman soldiers took no prisoners, meaning that more than 20,000 Hungarians died that day, tearing the heart out of the Hungarian nation. Ibrahim’s generalship so impressed Suleiman, who had also bravely stood his ground while lances and arrows struck his breastplate, that he presented his vizier with a heron’s feather covered with diamonds as a token of his esteem. On 31 August, Suleiman noted only the following in his diary: ‘The Sultan seated on a throne of gold receives the salutations of the viziers and officers; massacre of two thousand prisoners. Rain falls in torrents.’

The Ottomans proceeded to the Hungarian capital of Buda. Suleiman had not intended it to be sacked, since the citizens had prudently sent him the keys to the city as a sign of supplication, but his troops were eager for booty and hard to control. Buda and Pest, the twin towns of the Hungarian capital, were both burned down and their treasure ransacked. Hungary was left temporarily to its own ruined devices, but three years later southern Hungary came under indirect Ottoman authority. Once again, Ibrahim and Suleiman proved an irresistible partnership, whose leadership inspired and disciplined an army that was otherwise motley, hard to control and greedy for loot.