Horde cavalry against the knights of Europe

Mongols on a hike

Spawn of Hell

Until some time, Europe was not particularly interested in the Mongols. But, as soon as life forced me to meet with them, the grades and the degree of attention immediately changed. For example, Pope Gregory IX called the Mongols nothing other than the messengers of hell, something like an unstoppable locust from the biblical texts.

There were reasons for the Europeans to use such epithets: the Mongols were a serious danger. Not that they possessed any advanced weapons, although they skillfully borrowed military-technical achievements from the conquered peoples. Nor did they collect huge armies of hundreds of thousands of people – they would not have been pulled by any logistics of the Middle Ages. No, the strength of the Mongols was in something else, and it was not a simple answer to a difficult question, but a combination of factors in general.

First, the Mongols were distinguished by military discipline, unprecedented for the feudal Middle Ages. The vertical of power was much stronger than that of the sedentary peoples. Yes, the actions of the commander in the context of “listen / not listen” were influenced not only by the “table of ranks”, but also by his personal authority. But far from to the extent that among the noble feudal lords, the most powerful of whom considered the commander “the first among equals” rather than a king and sovereign. As a result, the Europeans could not count on the level of command and control that the nomads from the east had.

The second factor is good tactics. The Mongols relied on light horse archers, which, if used correctly, could become a very effective antidote to heavy cavalry of the knightly type. Keep your distance and bombard the enemy with arrows until he is exhausted – and win.

No, of course it was not an easy walk and required a fair amount of tactical prowess. But in most cases it worked for itself. And, what is even more important, it corresponded to the capabilities of the Mongols.

After all, the knight was usually fed by at least dozens of peasants – it was thanks to the income from them that he bought extremely expensive equipment and an even more expensive war horse that could carry all this. In the case of the Mongols, the mobilization base was already ready – the nomad already knew how to shoot a bow very well. And he did not need a serious horse capable of carrying a knight in chain mail – plain, but unpretentious Mongolian horses approached.

Therefore, the Mongols could fantastically easily (for their victims – sedentary feudal lords) collect very representative contingents, and appear with them wherever there is something to conquer.

Good moment

Another advantage of the Mongols against Europe (which, of course, included Russia) was the grandiose fragmentation of the latter. In this feudal reality, it was impossible to establish a stable vertical of power – a knight could, for example, not come to war at all at the call of the overlord, if he considered it necessary. And he wouldn’t have had anything for that.

Politics was also a mess among the Europeans. It was impossible to count on the unification of the region against dangerous enemies. There were, of course, powerful people who, in theory, could gather everyone in a heap and send them to fight the Mongols – the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. But only in the 1220s – 1240s, these two people hated each other, like few others. And they regularly fought among themselves.

In addition, many territories, despite all the attempts of the rulers, were split between the sons. And nothing could save from such an outcome – even if you were Charlemagne himself. You will die, a generation or two will pass, and everything you have gathered will fall apart again. Medieval Poland – a country that took the hit of the nomads along with Hungary – was an excellent example of this fragmentation. There was no reason to count on serious unity.

Another advantage of the Mongols was that the Europeans were very weak – which is understandable, given all the internal strife – were interested in the Mongols themselves. No, there were some contacts and intelligence missions, of course, but their results were drowned in a heap of internal European problems and conflicts.

The Mongols themselves approached the matter exactly the opposite – they carefully collected information about the lands to which they were to go. Nobody was going to go nowhere in the hope of “maybe”.

The enemy is on the doorstep

The Mongol invasion west of Russia was more of a reconnaissance battle than a serious conquest of everything in a row – to see what would happen. Only Hungary was planning to take it as a springboard for action in the future. But for the population and rulers of neighboring Poland, which became the arena for auxiliary Mongol operations, everything looked as serious as possible.

The task of the Tumen sent to Poland was to defeat the troops of the local feudal lords, which they would definitely try to put up against the conquerors. Just so that they do not become enemy reinforcements in the main direction of the strike – in Hungary.

This was by no means an empty whim – despite the reigning fragmentation and feudalism, strong rulers could well find and attract at least temporary allies. So Heinrich the Pious – the ruler of one of the most powerful principalities in Poland, Silesia – did not remain without friends. Their roles were played by the Czech King Wenceslas, limited contingents of the Teutonic Order, the Templars, and a group of mercenaries and volunteers. The latter, of course, did not consist of any volunteers, but of professional military personnel.

Heinrich gathered all these forces. And while this was happening, the Mongols who came out from the territories of Russia in January 1241 beat everyone who tried to resist hard. In March, they robbed and burned Krakow – and continued to destroy everything they could reach. This behavior made sense – the nomads urged the local feudal lords to quickly go out into the field in order to defeat them, and with a sense of accomplishment, go to Hungary to strengthen the main forces.


Heinrich understood that the enemy was extremely serious. It took time for the allies to approach, and he pulled it as best he could. For example, he tried to divert the advancing tumen to the city of Wroclaw, but the enemy understood that the main thing at the moment was the army of the Silesian prince, and not the city, and bypassed him.

Battle of Legnica in 14th century miniature

By April 9, it was no longer possible to drag out for time – Henry with a 6-thousandth (although much larger numbers are called) army was sitting in his castle. There was nowhere to retreat, and the imposing size of the army did not allow to take a siege – it would still not work to feed such a horde. And then the prince decided to give a field battle.

He did not have very many chances – the army of the main ally, the Czech king, had not yet come up. And those who remained were, in many respects, a “patchwork” army from many contingents – including foreign ones. But it was better to die with music.

Henry divided the army into 5 parts. On the one hand, this reduced the force of the first blow, and on the other, it left reserves in case the nomads performed their favorite trick with a false retreat.

The Polish prince began by sending two detachments to attack. The result was predictable – the initial success of the heavy cavalry, but then archery, encirclement, heavy losses. Heinrich did not doubt all this, and immediately struck a second blow, sending two more groups into the attack.

This came as some surprise to the Mongols – for some time it even seemed that they were about to be defeated. But the nomads pulled the battle literally by a thread. Rumor has it that they managed to confuse the enemy, shouting in Polish: “Run, run!” But whether it is so, or is it about the later excuses of survivors, but beaten witnesses, it is difficult to say.

Be that as it may, 4 out of 5 of Henry’s troops were defeated.

Then the prince spat on everything and led the last group into the attack. But the outcome was already a foregone conclusion. In addition, the Mongols decided to lay out one of the trump cards – the smoke mixture obtained in China. She not only frustrated spear attacks, but also beat the endurance of European riders and horses.

At the end of the day, Henry’s army was utterly defeated. The prince himself, realizing that everything was in vain, tried to retreat to the nearby Wroclaw, but was caught, brought to the leaders of the Mongols, and beheaded.

Mongols approach Legnica with the head of Heinrich the Pious

After that, Tumen moved to the nearby city of Legnica – the battle was named after him. The Mongols offered the residents to open the gates, but there were no fools inside – everyone understood that they would simply cut them, rake the valuables out of the city, and burn everything. Having received a refusal, the nomads decided not to get involved – the Polish troops were already defeated, and now they should have gone to Hungary to help the main forces.

But that was already a completely different story.

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