Hungarian War with the Holy Roman Empire (1477–1485)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Hungary vs. the Holy Roman Empire (chiefly Austria)


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III wanted to assume the throne of Hungary; Matthias Corvinus, elected to that throne, resisted.

OUTCOME: Matthias Corvinus’s resistance to the Holy Roman Empire was highly successful, and Hungary dominated much of central and southeastern Europe from 1485 until the death of Matthias in 1490.

When, as a child, Ladislav V (Posthumous; 1440-570) was proclaimed king of Hungary by its ruling magnates, the great Hungarian general and hero John Hunyadi (1387-1456) was appointed his guardian and became, for a while, the country’s governor. Upon Hunyadi’s death, however, Ladislav’s powerful uncle, Ulrich of Cilli (d. 1456), well aware of the country’s devotion to the general, had his eldest son assassinated and his younger son, Matthias Corvinus (1440-90), imprisoned in Prague. Ladislav died suddenly, unmarried and childless, the following year, and the Hungarian nobility proclaimed Matthias king at a Diet convened in 1458 in Buda and Pest. Matthias proved a most able monarch, not only quelling dissension within Hungary, but successfully defending against Ottoman incursions with the help of a 30,000-strong standing army, made up of mercenaries (most of them defeated Hussites) and known, after its commander “Black John” Haugwitz, as the Black Army.

These military operations were made possible by Matthias’s most successful governmental reform, the establishment of a mercenary army. Beginning in 1462, with the hiring of the last remnants of the formerly Hussite Czech troops of Jiskra, and continuing with systematic recruitment of domestic and foreign professional soldiers, in the 1470s, Matthias kept approximately 20,000 men at arms. The army was financed by the extraordinary war tax (called subsidium), four to five times higher than the regular portal levy, which the king collected almost every year. Such subsidia had been occasionally levied earlier under the threat of attacks from the Ottomans, but Matthias made the war tax into a regular income of the crown. First he called diets to approve it (an innovation, for the noble diets of the 1440s did not insist on their right, in contrast to the European-wide practice, to approve taxation) in return for strengthening the power of the counties. Later the noble deputies found it cheaper to empower the king for years in advance, rather than spend weeks at the diet. With this special income, by the end of Matthias’s reign the treasury’s income may have been in some years as high as 800,000 florins, a sum not very much lower than the budget of western European monarchies. Still, the country’s own resources, although stretched to their limits, did not suffice to pay up to 600,000 florins for a standing army. Hence, the mercenaries (after Matthias ‘s death, called from their commander, the `Black’ Haugwitz, the `Black Army’) had to be steadily deployed in campaigns with opportunities to acquire booty. Last but not least, newly conquered territories had to finance the wars fought for acquiring and keeping them. (Contemporary opinion does not make it clear whether they did this or not. The sources are insufficient and Matyas’s hold on the conquered regions was too short to draw a reliable balance sheet.)

According to the description of the court historian, Antonio Bonfini, the muster of the 28,000 man army at Wiener Neustadt in 1487 was the most impressive military show he had ever seen. By that time Matthias’s troops were certainly equal to the best military forces of their time. The combination of foreign mercenaries, Hungarian banderia and the light cavalry (Hussars) of the noble levy and Hungarian professional soldiers, applying their traditional hit and run tactics, remained unbeaten in the northern and western theatres.

The Hapsburgs, however, under Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (1415-93) repeatedly contested Matthias’s right to rule. At last, in 1477, when the marriage of Frederick’s son Maximilian (1459-1519) to Mary of Burgundy (1457-82) dramatically enhanced the power of the House of Hapsburg, Frederick pushed harder for control of Hungary. In response, Matthias secured allies from among Frederick’s enemies in Austria and Germany, and launched a series of highly destructive raids into Austria during 1477, 1479, and 1482. In 1485, Matthias laid siege to Vienna, which soon fell to him.

Having concluded a peace agreement with King Vladislaus in 1478, Matthias could concentrate on his Austrian campaign against Frederick. Some of the most notable battles of the Austrian-Hungarian War include:

Siege of Hainburg

Battle of Leitzersdorf

Siege of Vienna (1485)

Siege of Retz

Siege of Wiener Neustadt

Emperor Frederick failed to procure help from the Prince-electors and the Imperial States. In 1483 he had to leave his Hofburg residence in Vienna and fled to Wiener Neustadt, where he also was besieged by Matthias’ troops for 18 months until the fortress was captured in 1487. Humiliated, Frederick fled to Graz, and later to Linz in Upper Austria.

The Habsburgs – although a powerful force concerning marriage politics – were relatively weak when it came to martial affairs. They had few resources that could contend with the Black Army of Hungary, an early standing mercenary force under capable commanders like Stephen V Bathory or Lawrence of Ilok, which conquered most of the Lower Austrian territories. Following the occupation of Vienna and other cities, the war came to an end with an armistice in 1488, although the Habsburgs rankled with the peace. In 1490, Matthias’ unexpected death led to a reversal of his gains, with Matthias’ son John being too young to succeed and the Hungarian nobles too selfish to protect the monarchy.

Matthias occupied Vienna for the next five years-until his death in 1490.

When Matthias Corvinus died from a stroke on 6 April 1490, Frederick was able to regain the Austrian lands. However, he could not enforce the Habsburg succession to the Hungarian throne and in 1491 his son King Maximilian I signed the Peace of Pressburg with Vladislaus Jagiellon, who was elected Matthias’ successor in Hungary. The treaty arranged for the return of Matthias’ conquests, and the agreement that Maximilian would succeed Vladislaus should he produce no heir. This did not happen as Vladislaus’ son Louis II was born in 1506, but the Habsburgs did exert significant pressure on the Jagiellonians with the 1515 First Congress of Vienna in which they arranged two royal weddings of Vladislaus’ daughter Anne with Maximilian’s grandson Ferdinand and of Maximilian’s granddaughter Mary with Louis II. The double wedding celebrated at St. Stephen’s Cathedral decisively advanced the Habsburg succession agenda.

During his reign in Hungary, the new Polish king would go on to undo many of Matthias’ efforts, unmaking the reformed system of taxation, the standing army, and the centralized authority of the monarch. Hungary’s nobles would act in complicity with this, contributing to the weakening of the country until 1526, when Hungary was defeated by the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Mohacs, whereby King Louis II was killed. The Habsburg archduke Ferdinand of Austria by his marriage with Anne of Bohemia and Hungary claimed the succession, he was enfeoffed with the Bohemian kingdom by his elder brother Emperor Charles V and also reached the consent of the Hungarian magnates. He was crowned king in Pressburg (Pozsony) on 24 February 1527, laying the grounds for the transnational Habsburg Monarchy.

Further reading: Jean Berenger, History of the Hapsburg Empire, 1273-1700 (London: Longman Publishing Group, 1995); Pal Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary, 895-1526, trans. Tamas Palosfalvi (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001); Domokos Varga, Hungary in Greatness and Decline: The 14th and 15th Centuries, trans. Martha Szacsvay Liptak (Corvino Kiado and Stone Mountain, Ga.: Hungarian Cultural Foundation, 1982); Adam Wandruska, The House of Hapsburg: Six Hundred Years of European Dynasty, trans. Cathleen and Hans Epstein (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975).