“By Allah, they rode like men riding to a wedding, their great horses and long lances overthrowing all who opposed them, and their plate-armor turned the finest steel. Yet they fell as the firelocks spoke until only three were left in the saddle – the knight Marczali and two companions. These paladins cut down my Solaks like ripe grain, but Marczali and one of his companions fell – almost at my feet.
“Yet one knight remained …”
— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”
The politics of eastern Europe, in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, were complicated as always. As Gottfried von Kalmbach rode back from Russia, in the spring of 1526, he entered a mess of treachery, incompetence and cruel rivalries to equal anything he had seen before. And Gottfried had seen much for a man not yet thirty.
There had been no strong and intelligent king of Hungary since Matthias Corvinus died in 1490. Soldier, superb administrator, and patron of the arts, he had instituted a number of significant reforms and created a standing army. That had involved reducing the powers of his nobles and magnates, however, and they wanted that power back, even at the expense of the land’s safety.
They placed the notoriously weak King of Bohemia on Hungary’s throne, preferring him precisely because he was weak. They disbanded the standing army, and allowed the frontier fortresses to decay through lack of inclination to stand the cost. They were never enthusiastic for the nation’s defense, unless they could get their rivals to do the paying, so nothing was done. They cancelled Corvinus’s reforms and crushed the peasants back into the dirt.
In consequence, the peasants rose en masse in 1514, led by a soldier named György Dózsa. Their revolt was crushed without mercy. Villages were destroyed, infants killed, rebels by the thousand impaled, torn apart between horses, and burned alive. Dózsa died chained to a red-hot iron throne. The leading part in these atrocities was taken by John Zapolya, voivode of Transylvania. From what this blogger can discover, even as tyrants of that region went, he was a charmer – a worthy successor to Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, who had perished in 1476.
Zapolya’s treatment of the rebel peasants won him the nobles’ and gentry’s liking, however. He was appointed guardian of Hungary’s boy king, Louis II, who succeeded the weak Bohemian, but Zapolya’s rival, Stephen Báthory, was made the land’s Imperial Governor, or Palatine, a much bigger plum. (Báthory, by the way, belonged to the same family as Elizabeth, the notorious “Blood Countess”, although she lived and indulged her sadistic whims later.)
Zapolya and Báthory hated each other. Their inability to act together was a gift to the energetic young Turkish Sultan Suleiman, who had just ascended the throne of the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman sent a demand for tribute to King Louis, which Louis rejected. Suleiman immediately marched on the crucial stronghold of Belgrade, and took it, a laughably easy project. Belgrade had a garrison of only 700 men, and received no reinforcements. Words fail.
Suleiman might have proceeded against Hungary at once. Instead, he chose to attack and reduce the great fortress of the Knights of St. John at Rhodes, in 1522. The Order had plundered the Turks for centuries, and Suleiman was determined to end its depredations. Gottfried von Kalmbach, one of the Knights, fought like a tiger through the siege, though he was expelled later for a drunken, undisciplined brawler and whoremonger. Suleiman succeeded in taking Rhodes and dispossessing the Knights, but it cost him 60,000 soldiers’ lives. He was unable to carry out his intentions towards Hungary for years.
It was obvious that the Sultan was coming. Gottfried, no subtle politician, became aware of it while still in Russia. Zapolya, voivode of Transylvania, craved to be Hungary’s king, but there was another, stronger claimant in the person of Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria. His elder brother Charles was Holy Roman (in fact German) Emperor, and Ferdinand had married Anna Jagiellonica, the daughter of a former king of Bohemia and Hungary. Zapolya very possibly struck a treacherous bargain with Suleiman before the Turkish army set out, to counter Ferdinand.
Zapolya wasn’t the only double-dealer mouthing Christian piety while playing the Turkish game. There was also, conspicuously, the Valois King of France, Francis I. From 1520 he fought a series of wars with the German (miscalled Holy Roman) Empire, and courted Suleiman the Magnificent as an ally to get an advantage over his Christian rival. He continued kissing up to Turkey like a showgirl to a billionaire, even after Suleiman broke the defense of Rhodes and dispossessed the Order of St. John.
Gottfried considered that he had a score to settle with the Turks over that business. Besides, he was German. Beyond Hungary and Austria lay the German lands, among them his native Bavaria. If Suleiman took Hungary, he was unlikely to stop there. King Louis (who was only twenty) had numerous German mercenaries in his service. Gottfried swiftly joined them. To his utter disgust, when Louis called the country to arms, the nobles were slow to answer, even in that plain emergency. The southern border was undefended, except by Pál Tomori, Archbishop of Kalocsa, with a few thousand men.
Before going to meet the Turkish army, Gottfried made friends with some Magyar knights, particularly the valiant Albert Marczali, last of his family. The Marczalis had held the castle of Szentgyörgyvár in Zala county until the middle of the fifteenth century. Perhaps they had somehow displeased King Matthias, because he bestowed the castle, lands and villages on the Báthorys in 1479. Most sources I’ve seen aver that the Marczalis had died out by then, but to this blogger it looks as though they remained extant. Albert’s presence at Mohacz shows that.
He knew how desperate Hungary’s situation was, and that no help would come from other Christian states. Any Hungarian with his eyes open knew. Marczali began picking a group of knights to ride with him, if the chance came, in an all-or-nothing charge aimed at killing the Sultan himself on the field of battle. Suleiman had already proved his determination and energy; if he was slain, there was always the hope that his successor would be a weakling or voluptuary, more interested in opium and odalisques than war. But first he had to be slain.
Gottfried was among the knights who joined Marczali’s band and committed to his purpose. Altogether there were thirty-two. They knew the established Ottoman procedure; how the Sultan attended the fighting behind entrenchments and gun-wagons, protected by his personal guard of Solaks. Janissaries armed with long flintlocks flanked them. It would be a suicide charge, and they knew that too; they might succeed in their purpose, but it was foolish even to dream that any of the thirty-two would return.
Gottfried, rakehell that he was, had spent some of his initial time in Hungary with a girl on each arm, and then found a mistress in the spectacular person of a Magyar noble’s wife. Her name was Aranka, and conceivably she was an ancestor of the Gabor sisters. Currently wed to her third husband and still young, the first two having died in battle, she wasn’t averse to a lover on the side. Like Rhett Butler, she never held fidelity to be a virtue.
Knowing his death was near, Gottfried had an attack of Teutonic sentimentality. He thought of his ancient lineage and the proud von Kalmbach arms. As a Knight Hospitaller he had worn the Order’s mantle and eight-pointed cross. Since his dismissal, roaming as the whim took him, he had worn any armor that came to hand, with a plain garment. Now he resumed the blazon of his breed – per pale argent and purple, a chief and bear passant counterchanged. On his helmet he mounted the von Kalmbach crest, a gauntleted hand gripping a broken sword. If he perished, he meant to do so with shield, surcoat and horse-caparison flaunting the device of his ancient house.
King Louis had sent the war-summons to his magnates and nobles, to Croatia in the west and Transylvania on the south-east. They had answered with firm promises. The Croatian prince was to come to the battle, and the voivode Zapolya was to hold the Transylvanian passes unless it became clear that the Ottomans would not take that route. If that happened he was to come and support the main Hungarian army – with all possible speed.
The Turkish host, about 100,000 strong, made an arduous two-month march through the Balkans. The Hungarian host gathered slowly and piecemeal; the Croatian contingent, for instance, arrived slowly, though it did come, under its Count Christoph Frankopan, about five thousand strong. The main army under Louis did not wait for the Croatians, but picked the battlefield near Mohacs, in many ways a puzzling choice since while it lay on open plains, the ground was uneven and contained swampy areas, an impediment to the cavalry that was Hungary’s greatest strength in war.
The Transylvanians under Zapolya, 10 or 12 thousand of them, did not arrive at all.
King Louis’ army numbered about 28,000 in full; the Croatians and Arbishop Tomori on the right wing, and on the left wing, a smaller cavalry force under Peter Perenyi, Bailiff of Temes. Ten thousand infantry and the Hungarian cannon occupied the front lines of the center – and among the infantry were mercenary German landsknechte with harquebuses and long pikes, the toughest foot soldiers anywhere, the match even of janissaries and the Swiss. In fact, at Bicocca and Pavia, landsknechte had crushed the Swiss pikemen who opposed them.
Behind them, the Hungarian heavy cavalry and a few thousand Polish knights waited for the onset. Albert Marczali, with Gottfried and thirty others, looked calmly upon what he expected to be the field of his last battle. Barring a miracle, so it would be. All thirty-two had the same consuming thought, to await their chance, charge against all odds, and kill Sultan Suleiman.
The Turkish host arrived in the early afternoon. 20,000 Rumelian cavalry formed the right wing, and the center consisted of the relentless janissaries, slave soldiers of the sultan taken as children from Christian lands, reared with no calling but war and no master but the Sultan, forbidden to marry, dedicated to battle, convinced that death in the Ottoman cause meant eternity in the Seventh Heaven of Light. In the forefront were three hundred of the superb cannon that were Suleiman’s pride. For Turkish artillery was unmatched. Gottfried remembered the Ottoman gunners’ skill from Rhodes.
The Rumelian cavalry charged, roaring, the hooves of their horses shaking the earth of Mohacs. Archbishop Tomori and Count Christoph led their own horsemen to meet them. Tomori and his riders particularly had gall in their hearts and grim scores to settle. They cut down the Rumelians, rode over them, routed them completely, and left the corpse-littered earth soaked in blood. The Ottoman command promptly deployed regular troops from the reserves, and they proved a different matter from the Rumelian irregulars, yet the Hungarian right still forced a way through them, coming so close to Suleiman that their arrows endangered him, one sticking in his breastplate.
“Now!” Marczali cried in exultation. “Now is our chance, brothers! Ride!”
They rode, and how they rode. The words REH puts into Suleiman’s mouth in “Shadow of the Vulture” are probably not one whit more than the truth. Close together, on big powerful horses, in the finest plate suits the sixteenth century armorers could make, they galloped for Suleiman’s position, Magyars, Poles, Austrians, perhaps a few Transylvanian knights who could not stomach their voivode’s treachery, and at least one German.
In front of them the cannon boomed and bellowed, leaping from the ground in their gun-limbers with each shot. Past the sharpened stakes set in the ground to protect the gun-crews the thirty-two raced, some of them going down, shot by Turkish musketeers, some hurled from their mounts as the stakes ripped out the war-horses’ bellies. Their long lances drove through gunners’ and janissaries’ bodies alike before they broke. Then they employed their huge swords and maces. Marczali and von Kalmbach remained in the lead, side by side, reaping Turkish soldiers like grain as they galloped past the cannon entrenchments. The firelocks of the Sultan’s personal guard continued to speak, and more knights fell in the suicide charge. Janissaries sprang behind the war-horses and hacked at their hind legs, crippling them, heedless of the hoofs that kicked out their brains or the swords that clove them to the breast-bone. Their scimitars and firearms killed the knights who found themselves afoot, plate suits or none. Now a dozen of Marczali’s picked band were left, in among the Sultan’s own Solaks, slaying them fiercely even as musket balls and arrows pierced them.
The survivors were close enough to see Suleiman himself, now, see his eyes and moustaches. Gottfried laughed hoarsely. A janissary’s dreadful scimitar-cut ripped the remnant of his helmet from his head. His sweat-drenched tawny hair exposed to the sun, his berserk blue eyes glaring, he spurred his horse onward beside Marczali and one other knight whose name has not survived. They died, almost close enough to Suleiman to touch him, so that only Gottfried was left, blood spilling through the joints of his armor. He swung his two-handed sword and brought Suleiman to the ground, the Sultan’s own blood pouring through a rent in his mail. Janissaries stood over him to protect him, while others crippled Gottfried’s horse and closed in to finish him. Gottfried went down, bleeding and trampled, sure that this was death, nor did he regain consciousness until the battle was over. He remembered nothing that had happened after he struck down the Sultan, but the horseman who bore him out of the tumult told him that he had struggled upright and was fighting like a titan, even though half conscious. If he had remained down all would have supposed him dead. As it was, his savior got him across his saddle somehow and got him back to the Hungarian lines.
Gottfried heard more, none of it comforting. Out-flanked by the Turks, the Hungarians had failed to hold their positions, and those who did not run were killed or captured. Trying to rally and counter-attack, they walked into the deadly harquebus fire of the Turkish infantry, and those who survived that fell before scimitars and spears. The heroic Pál Tomori died on the field. King Louis, fleeing at twilight, fell and drowned in the Danube, dragged down by his armor. Report had it that Suleiman, pale with blood loss from the wound Gottfried had given him – the huge Bavarian cursed sulphurously to learn that Suleiman lived – had looked sadly on the youthful monarch’s body. “May Allah be merciful to him, and punish those who misled his inexperience,” he reportedly said of Louis. “It was not my wish that he should thus be cut off, while he had scarcely tasted the sweets of life and royalty.”
That tender sentiment did not prevent a massacre of two thousand prisoners after the battle. The Sultan retreated from Buda for a time, because he could not believe that the little army he met at Mohacs was the entire Hungarian opposition. Once he realized that it was actually so – within a fortnight – he had Buda and Pesth sacked, while his dreaded Akinji ranged far and wide through Hungary under their merciless leader, Mikhal Oglu. When the Grand Turk returned to Istanbul he took some 100,000 captives with him into slavery.
Gottfried von Kalmbach survived, as he had survived Rhodes. He stayed drunk throughout his convalescence, which he asserted did him more good than the doctors. The husband of his mistress, Aranka, had died at Mohacs with many others, and she married for a fourth time in Vienna before the year 1526 ended. Gottfried cheerfully attended her wedding, tumbled a girl whose name he could not remember afterwards, while the church bells were pealing, and went his way.