The Battle of Dürnkrut

  By Raider, 1 January 2007; Revised 1 January 2007
  Category: Hungarian History
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Military Force and Internal Situation of Hungary

In the 13th century, the power of the lords continuously grew, thanks to the plentiful royal land donations. Béla IV tried to restore the old days, but he failed and, after the Mongol invasion, the donations continued to the "faithful barons”. Though these barons were faithful, indeed (due to the shocking Mongol invasion), their sons chose a different way. During the rule of the child king, Ladislaus IV (the Cuman), the barons became so powerful that one of them even murdered a member of the royal family (Béla the Duke of Macsó and Bosnia) in public and remained unpunished. As Ladislaus reached the age of majority he made an attempt to beat them. Instead of restoring the old land-structure of the kingdom, he chose an eastern autocratic way of governing with the help of the Cumans. (His mother was a Cuman princess.)   He spent practically all of his life in internal warfare.

The disintegration of the royal estate and power structure changed the old military system of the country. The rising class of the royal servants (servientes regis), or in their new name, nobles, (originally nobilis was an exclusively aristocratic title), had the right to serve directly under the royal banner instead of the counties’. Many of them became the familiaris of some lord. Familiarity is often called the Hungarian form of vassality, but, in truth, the Hungarian familiares were very different from the western type vassals in some aspects. At the time of the battle of Dürnkrut, the king was still able to raise an army from the remnants of the county system and from the Cumans, but he needed some of the barons and their private armies to have a capable army.

King Ladislaus meets Emperor Rudolph; a copy of Mór Than's painting
King Ladislaus meets Emperor Rudolph; a copy of Mór Than's painting

After the Mongol invasion Béla IV also reformed the army to increase the ratio of heavy cavalry, but the overall number of the heavy cavalry was still low compared to a Western European army. On the other hand, the Cumans brought new blood to the horse archer traditions and had a great role in the royal army.

Alliance against Bohemia

During the Mongol Invasion Frederick, the Duke of Austria and Styria, blackmailed and"robbed” the Hungarian king, Béla IV. Although in the following year Béla recaptured the lost territories and the status quo ante bellum was restored, hostilities didn’t cease to exist. In 1246, the last of the Babenbergs, Frederick, died in a battle between Austrians and Hungarians. His duchies became masterless. Hungary and the rising power of Bohemia also wanted to seize the Babenberg legacy and a long struggle began between the two kingdoms. After some years of war, Bohemia and Hungary divided the territories. Hungary got Styria while Bohemia got Austria. But this treaty didn’t solve the problem and the war continued. In 1260, Ottokar II of Bohemia defeated Béla IV in the battle of Kroissenbrunn (or the first battle of Marchfeld) and annexed the whole Babenberg legacy. Ottokar also tried to conquer Hungary itself. He failed, but the Hungarians would regain the last castle from him only in 1277.

With these conquests, Bohemia became the strongest within the Holy Roman Empire and Ottokar had the ambition to become the Emperor. He failed. The electors did not want an emperor so powerful and elected an insignificant count, Rudolf Habsburg (1273). The Bohemian king did not recognized him as an emperor because the Duke of Bavaria took part in the elections, instead of him as an elector. In 1274, Rudolph declared that the Ottokar had illegally captured the Babengberg lands. According to law, the emperor had the right to donate masterless lands.

Rudolph was too weak to defeat Ottokar, so he tried to ally himself with Ladislaus IV of Hungary. Realising this danger, Ottokar also tried to arrange problems with Hungary, but he wasn’t trusted and the Hungarian court chose Rudolph. After his failed attempt to ally with Hungary, Ottokar offered Rudolph the Babenberg territories, but the emperor wanted to crush him and rejected said offer. The war then began.

The Battle

On August 26th, 1278, the three armies clashed. Rudolph and Ladislaus had the high ground, thanks to the king’s Cumans who served as excellent scouts and destroyed every Bohemian troops which fell behind. Their actions slowed down Ottokar and practically blinded his army.

Imperial and Hungarian troops stood separately: Hungarians on the left side, Imperials on the right side. The Hungarians had ca. 15 000 cavalry, among them 5000 Cumans. Rudolph had 2000 knights, all of them with their retinues. All together ca. 10 000 men.

The first line of Ladislaus’ army were the Cumans and the Hungarian light cavalry. The second and the third line consisted of medium and heavy cavalry. The second line was led by palatine Matthew Csák, the third line was led by Stephen Gutkeled, the royal judge (iudex curiae regis), two immensely powerful barons. The young king (he was only 16 years-old) stood on a hill behind his army and personally did not fight. A German chronicle mentions that Hungarian kings usually stand in well protected areas because Hungarian troops generally move fast and often change their positions in battle, while Germans usually stand still in melee.

Rudolph made two lines from his knights (Austrians, Styrians and Suabians) and providently  formed a reserve of 60 knights under Ulrich von Kapellen. The emperor fought alongside his knights.

Ottokar had a large army of 30 000 men. This army consisted of auxilliary troops from different countries. The Bohemian king divided his army to fight separatedly with the two enemies. On the right, against the Hungarians, he placed Bohemians (1st line), Moravians (2nd line) and Poles (3rd line) led by Milota Dedic. On the left stood German knights from Thuringia and Messen (1st line), Poles (2nd line) with Bavarians and Brandenburgians (3rd line.) Ottokar fought on the left, in front of Rudoph.

The battle started with the attack of the Cumans and Hungarian light cavalry. The showers of arrows injured or killed many Bohemians and disintegrated their formation. This disarrayed Bohemian right was charged by the Hungarian heavy cavalry. They fought well.  A German source compared their capacities to the famous French knights’. The Hungarians reached the Bohemian camp and began looting.

Meanwhile, Ottokar pushed back Rudolph’s troops. Even the emperor’s life was in danger. At this moment, the Imperial reserve under Ulrich von Kapellen flanked the Bohemian army and now Ottokar had to retreat. Finally, the return of the Hungarians to the back of the Ottokar crushed retreating Bohemians and the Iron and Golden King -as Ottokar was called- died with his men.


Although the short lived Bohemian great power was defeated (the great king was dead), Bohemia managed to preserve its influence and remained an important power of the region.

Emperor Rudolph donated the Babenberg lands to his sons and these lands became the core of the future world-wide Habsburg Empire.

King Ladislaus returned to Hungary with the loot. The continuous Bohemian danger ceased to exist and the western border was secured. The temporary victory gave him a bright reputation, but his struggle for restoring royal power ultimately failed. A papal legate forced him to accept anti-Cuman laws and only two years after Dürnkrut, where he won with the help of the Cumans, he had to beat a Cuman rebellion. Finally, he was killed by Cuman assassins in 1290.