Hungarian War with the Holy Roman Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The war between Matthias I Corvinus of Hungary and Emperor Frederick III for control of the Danube region resulted in the creation of a short-lived Danubian Empire under Hungarian control.

Summary of Event

The first war between Matthias I Corvinus, king of Hungary, and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III started in 1459 as a result of Frederick’s desire to enforce his claims to the Hungarian throne. The clash ended with the Treaty of Wiener Neustadt of 1463-1464 Wiener Neustadt, Treaty of (1463-1464) , which confirmed the Habsburg claims to Hungary in the event that Matthias should die without an heir. Subsequent relations between the two monarchs seemed friendly: Frederick even asked Matthias for help against the heretical Czechs in 1467. The friendship, however, was short-lived. Matthias supported the uprising of Andreas Baumkircher, a nobleman from Styria, against the emperor (1469-1470), while Frederick refused to cede the title of king of Hungary, which he had held since 1459. Frederick and Matthias, then, each believed himself to have legitimate grievances against the other. They broke openly in 1470, at their meeting in Vienna. Hungarian and Holy Roman Empire War (1477-1487) Matthias I Corvinus Frederick III (1415-1493) Jan Zelený Vladislav II Beckensloer, Johann Dobeš of Boskovice and Černá Hora Matthias I Corvinus Frederick III (Holy Roman Emperor) Baumkircher, Andreas Vladislav II (king of Hungary) Beckensloer, Johann Zelený, Jan Dobeš of Boskovice and Černá Hora Zápolya, István Dávidházy, István

Matthias tried to isolate the emperor diplomatically by allying with Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and the Knights of the Teutonic Order, while calling a truce with Vladislav II, king of Bohemia. The emperor, however, attempted to woo Vladislav to his side. Matthias had a claim to the Bohemian throne, and had even taken the title king of Bohemia. Frederick chose to endorse the claims of Vladislav to the title and formally invested him with the kingdom of Bohemia on June 10, 1477. In addition, Johann Beckensloer, archbishop of Esztergom and adviser to Matthias, had fallen from favor with the king. In 1476, he fled to Austria and was granted asylum by Frederick III. Matthias interpreted these acts of Frederick as deliberate provocations, and on June 12, 1477, the Hungarian king responded by declaring war on the Holy Roman Emperor.





Matthias immediately led his army into Lower Austria, where his troops, under the leadership of the Czech captain Jan Zelen , pillaged and plundered the country up to Vienna. They took the most important castles, including Bruck an der Leitha, Trautmannsdorf, and Klosterneuburg, as well as several small towns—contemporary sources report that more than one hundred castles and thirty towns were seized. Matthias’s army also besieged Vienna, Hainburg, and Krems. By August, Frederick had sued for peace. Matthias demanded compensation of 752,000 florins. This figure was too high for the emperor, and hostilities dragged on for another few months. Ultimately, the monarchs agreed on a figure of 100,000 florins, and the peace treaty was signed on December 1, 1477. Matthias was formally acknowledged king of Bohemia by Frederick on December 13. This second campaign of Matthias in Lower Austria lacked pitched battles; it was fought only through sieges and by capturing towns and castles.

Though it seemed that the peace treaty would solve the problems of King Matthias I Corvinus and Emperor Frederick III, new conflicts emerged quite early and the treaty never came into practical effect. It was Matthias’s support of the rebellious bishops of Salzburg and Passau and the emperor’s permanent support of Beckensloer that were still ruining the relations between them. There was, however, no open war, since Matthias then had his army in the south fighting the Ottomans.

Mattias’s forces were victorious over the Ottomans at the Battle of Kenyérmező (1479) Kenyérmező, Battle of (1479)[Kenyérmezo, Battle of (1479)] . They continued to fight the Turks, traveling next to Bosnia and Serbia (1480-1481) and even to Italy, where they helped to retake Otranto (1481). Frederick took advantage of the Hungarian forces’ long absence from home: He attacked Hungary with the very troops designated by the Imperial Diet to help fight the Ottomans, but this campaign was stopped near Győr in January, 1481. A new truce was signed in Vienna that May. However, despite the best diplomatic attempts of third-party mediators, including the dukes of the Holy Roman Empire and even the pope, this truce did not last either.

Matthias launched a third invasion of Lower Austria in March, 1482. Both of the rivals were better prepared for the war than they had been in 1477. Frederick now had five thousand to six thousand mobile troops: He no longer had to rely solely on his strongholds for defense. Matthias, on the other hand, invaded with a diverse and resourceful army of heavy and light cavalry, infantry, and artillery—about eight thousand to ten thousand men in all. Most of the Hungarian forces were mercenaries, led among others by famous Czech captains Jan Zelen and Dobeš of Boskovice andČerná Hora, as well as the Hungarian István (or Stephen) Zápolya, the later captain of Lower Austria.

The war started with an Austrian attempt to recapture the castle of Merkenstein from the Hungarians in March, 1482. The castle’s defenders successfully repelled the attack, and they used the battle as a springboard for their own campaign. Matthias’s invasion proceeded similarly to that of 1477, but this time his goal was different. Although before he had sought only to weaken the emperor, he now wanted to conquer and occupy Frederick’s lands. Accordingly, his first step was to take the border stronghold of Hainburg, the gateway to Austria. Hainburg, however, was very well protected by the Austrian mobile troops, who attacked the Hungarians attempting to besiege the fortress. Finally, King Matthias himself came in June to lead the siege, and the town surrendered on September 30, 1482. The way was now open to Lower Austria. Further attempts to reconcile the two opponents were made by the pope and by Venice, but Matthias’s demands were simply too high for Frederick to accept.

The war continued in 1483 with further attacks on towns and castles. The two sides were fairly evenly matched, however, and Hungary’s only significant gain was the capture of Klosterneuburg by Boskovice. The fall of that castle drove the emperor out of Vienna, and in November, 1484, he settled in Linz, the most important Austrian city still in his hands.

All that remained for Matthias to declare victory was to capture Vienna. The Hungarian forces spent nearly a year carefully preparing for this final battle. On March 11, 1484, Hungary destroyed Austria’s mobile troops in the decisive Battle of Leitzersdorf, Leitzersdorf, Battle of (1484) the largest open battle of the war. At first, the battle went against Hungary’s forces, under the command of István Dávidházy, but the Austrians’ undisciplined celebration in the face of victory left them ill-prepared for a second wave of attack led by Boskovice, and they were soundly defeated.

With its mobile troops gone, Austria no longer had any means of breaking Hungary’s sieges. Matthias therefore followed the Battle of Leitzersdorf by laying siege to two key towns supporting Vienna. He took Bruck an der Leitha (March-April, 1484) Bruck an der Leitha, Siege of (1484) , and, after a siege of eight months, Korneuburg Korneuburg, Siege of (1484) fell in December, 1484. Finally, Vienna lay defenseless before the Hungarians, without its emperor to rally the inhabitants to its defense, without mobile troops to attack besieging forces, and without nearby strongholds to provide either supplies or military support.

The siege of Vienna Vienna, Siege of (1485) began on January 29, 1485, and, though the citizens of Vienna were able to make several sorties on the Hungarian army and to communicate with the emperor in Linz, they never received Frederick’s military support. They were forced to surrender on June 1, 1485. Matthias immediately proclaimed himself duke of Austria. His proclamation was premature, however: Even with the capital firmly held by the invaders, other Austrian strongholds continued to fight.

The war did not truly come to an end until the capture of Wiener Neustadt, Wiener Neustadt, Siege of (1487) an eminent stronghold of the emperor. It was taken, after a long siege, on August 17, 1487. By then, Matthias had conquered Lower Austria, Styria, and Carinthia. The military campaign was over. What followed were mainly diplomatic meetings and negotiations to discuss the parameters of Frederick’s capitulation to Matthias. The emperor, though, was stubborn to the end. No formal peace treaty was ever signed, and the conflict was still not completely resolved at the time of Matthias’s sudden and unexpected death in Vienna on April 6, 1490.


Due to Matthias’s sudden death, Hungary’s annexation of Austria was extremely short-lived. The impact of the conquest, however, survived the conquest itself. The lands surrounding the central Danube briefly came under the sovereignty of Matthias I Corvinus. This represented a significant humiliation to Frederick III—the Holy Roman Emperor and the last such emperor to have that title validated with a papal coronation ceremony. It also meant that a new Central European Empire came, however briefly, into being. This ephemeral empire of Matthias I Corvinus, including Hungary, parts of Bohemia, and Austria, was an expression of Matthias’s struggle both to legitimize his kingship and to dignify it in relation to the empires of Frederick or the Ottomans.

The result of this drive for legitimacy was a fleeting glimpse of the Austria-Hungary of the future, which, however, quickly split again into separate kingdoms without a strong and motivated monarch to hold it together. For Hungary, the war had significant long-term economic and military consequences. Three separate campaigns in ten years took a significant toll on the nation’s coffers, without ultimately producing any compensatory revenue. Militarily, Matthias’s war in Austria diverted his resources and attention from the Ottomans to the west, which gave the Ottomans time free from assault to build up and consolidate their own imperial forces. The war thus definitively eliminated any realistic hope of controlling the Ottomans’ flow into Central Europe, which was perhaps its single greatest consequence. For Austria and the Habsburgs, the war represented merely one of many episodes that would eventually lead to their final acquisition of power over Hungary in 1526.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bak, János M., and Béla K. Király, eds. From Hunyadi to Rákóczi: War and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Hungary. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Social Science Monographs, 1982. Collection of articles on Hungarian warfare and its influence on the society. Chapter 7 concentrates on the mercenary army of Matthias.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engel, Pál. The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary, 895-1526. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. Chapter 18 provides a modern account of the reign of Matthias.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Press, Victor. “The Habsburg Lands: The Holy Roman Empire, 1400-1555.” In Handbook of European History, 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation, edited by Thomas A. Brady et al. New York: E. J. Brill, 1994. Places Frederick’s reign and his territorial sovereignty within the context of dynastic and national rivalries within the empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rázsó, Guyla. Die Feldzüge des Königs Matthias Corvinus in Niederösterreich 1477-1490. Wien: Heeresgeschichtlichen Museum, 1977. A detailed overview of the war. In German.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Veszprémy, László, and Béla K. Király, eds. A Millennium of Hungarian Military History. Boulder, Colo.: Atlantic Research and Publications, 2002. A fundamental discussion of the development of Hungarian warfare in the fifteenth century appears on pp. 54-82.

Apr. 14, 1457-July 2, 1504: Reign of Stephen the Great

1458-1490: Hungarian Renaissance

1463-1479: Ottoman-Venetian War

1478-1482: Albanian-Turkish Wars End

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

1526-1547: Hungarian Civil Wars

Aug. 29, 1526: Battle of Mohács

Sept. 27-Oct. 16, 1529: Siege of Vienna

1576-1612: Reign of Rudolf II

Categories: History