János Hunyadi Defends Hungary Against the Ottomans Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

János Hunyadi defended Hungary against Ottoman invaders, which delayed the Ottoman conquest of Europe and contributed to the development of a Hungarian national identity.

Summary of Event

In 1437, Hungary fell into chaos when King Sigismund Sigismund (king of Hungary and Holy Roman Emperor) died without leaving a male heir. Sigismund’s daughter, Elizabeth, however, was married to Albrecht, king of Austria, whom Sigismund had designated his successor. Albrecht, however, died after two years without an heir but leaving Elizabeth pregnant. Some Hungarians then supported Elizabeth as regent but others, demanding a male king, elected Władysław III Władysław III , then king of Poland, as King Ulászló I of Hungary. This action precipitated a civil war. [kw]János Hunyadi Defends Hungary Against the Ottomans (1442-1456) [kw]Hunyadi Defends Hungary Against the Ottomans, János (1442-1456) [kw]Hungary Against the Ottomans, János Hunyadi Defends (1442-1456) [kw]Ottomans, János Hunyadi Defends Hungary Against the (1442-1456) Ottomans;invasion of Hungary Hunyadi, János Hungary;Ottoman invasion of Hungary;1442-1456: János Hunyadi Defends Hungary Against the Ottomans[3180] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1442-1456: János Hunyadi Defends Hungary Against the Ottomans[3180] Hunyadi, János Władysław III Ladislas V Posthumous Giovanni da Capestrano Murad II Mehmed II

Sultan Murad II Murad II , taking advantage of the confusion, expanded into Walachia (part of what is now Romania) and resumed raids into Hungary across the Danube River. In response, Władysław III appointed János Hunyadi (nicknamed Yanko by the Turks) as captain general of Belgrade and voivade (military leader) of Transylvania and charged him with defending Hungary’s southern border. Hunyadi, son of a minor Vlalch (Romanian) nobleman, Vajk Oláh, and reputed to be an illegitimate son of King Sigismund, was an effective leader. Previously, Hunyadi had been appointed to high command by Sigismund and had been made ban (commander) of Szörény by Albrecht. As the “white knight” of the Serbs and Hungarians, Hunyadi led cavalry charges wearing shining silver armor, quickly winning victories over Władysław’s domestic opponents and over the Ottomans along the 200 miles (320 kilometers) that makes up the southern Hungarian border.

His decisive victory at Bataszek Bataszek, Battle of (1441) in 1441 against Elizabeth’s supporters was his first victory of national significance. He defeated a Turkish army under Mezit Beg at Nagyszeben in Transylvania and routed another Turkish army of an estimated eighty thousand men near the Iron Gates on the Danube in 1442. Soon after, Sultan Murad II offered to sign a treaty of peace, but Hunyadi persuaded Władysław to take the offensive against the Turks in 1443. Following Sigismund’s prior effort, Hunyadi attempted to generate enthusiasm for a new Crusade to drive the Turks out of Europe. Support from western Europe was minimal; only Pope Julian accompanied the Crusade Crusades . Thus, the Crusaders were primarily Poles and Hungarians and, later, Walachians, along with a few Serbs, Bulgarians, Bosnians, and Albanians.

Giovanni da Capestrano, defender of Belgrade in 1456 and later canonized as Saint John of Capistrano, from a painting by Bartolommeo Vivarini at the Louvre, Paris.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The Crusade crossed the Danube in July of 1443 and captured Nish in what is now western Serbia with great losses to the Ottomans. Next, they occupied Sofia (now in Bulgaria), and attempted crossing the Balkan Range in midwinter. After winning a victory on Christmas Eve near Phillipolis, they found the weather, supply problems, and increased Turkish pressure insurmountable, so Hunyadi ordered a return to Buda. Arriving in February, 1444, his chilled and gaunt army, led by King Władysław on foot, triumphantly entered the city singing hymns and flaunting Ottoman banners. Murad II, essentially a man of peace, did not pursue the Crusaders across the Danube but negotiated a ten-year truce on July, 1444, at Szeged, in which Serbia and Walachia were freed from Ottoman rule and the Hungarians agreed to not cross the Danube or press claims on Bulgaria.

Julian Cesarini Cesarini, Julian , the papal cardinal legate, however, persuaded Władysław that word given to an “infidel” need not be honored, so Hunyadi and Władysław again invaded the Balkans in 1444, leading an army of about 20,000 Hungarians and Walachians. Murad, however, succeeded in returning from a campaign in Asia Minor and confronted the Hungarians with 100,000 men at Varna Varna, Battle of (1444) on November 10, 1444. Hunyadi and Władysław were decisively defeated. Władysław was unhorsed and decapitated and his head was mounted on a lance, as was a copy of the broken treaty. These symbols were returned to Bursa, then the Ottoman capital, for public display as a warning to the perfidious. Cardinal Julian fled and was never seen again, dead or alive, reportedly having been executed by his own defeated troops. Most of the army was killed in battle or beheaded on the field.

Hunyadi, however, escaped and returned to Hungary, where he successfully mediated the dynastic conflict. Elizabeth had died, leaving her very young son, King Ladislas V Posthumous Ladislas V Posthumous , under the protection of his uncle, Emperor Frederick. The Hungarian diet of 1445, an assemblage of nobles, sent negotiators to Frederick requesting return of Ladislas as king, but in the interim, the diet appointed a council of regency to restore internal peace. Failing to retrieve Ladislas, the 1447 diet elected Hunyadi governor with limited sovereign rights. Hunyadi succeeded in restoring peace in most of the country, although he was defeated by a Czech leader Giskra, who retained control of Northwestern Hungary.

János Hunyadi and Giovanni da Capestrano leading the charge at Belgrade.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

In 1448, allied with Albania’s leader, Skanderbeg Skanderbeg , Hunyadi again invaded the Balkans. They were again defeated by Murad II in the Second Battle of Kosovo Kosovo, Second Battle of (1448) (Rígomezö in Hungarian). As a result, Serbia lost its independence, Bosnia became an Ottoman vassal state, and Hungarian military power was crippled. Skanderbeg retreated to Croia in Albania, where he remained independent for two decades. Hunyadi, however, still succeeded in holding back Ottoman advance into Hungary.

In 1450, Hunyadi abandoned his supporters in the diet and allied himself with the Habsburg party. In this way, he acquired new Moravian territories and became the legitimate regent for the child king. In 1452, the Austrian and Bohemian Estates forced Emperor Frederick to release Ladislas from tutelage. Ladislas was then instated as king of Hungary, but allowed Hunyadi to remain de facto regent.

After capturing Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II Mehmed II , the son of Murad II, conquered most of Serbia during 1454 and 1455. In 1456, he besieged about 7,000 men in the fortress of Nándofehérvár (Belgrade) with an army of about 100,000. Hunyadi and the monk, Giovanni da Capestrano, John of Capestrano broke through the Ottoman fleet blockading the Danube and entered the citadel of Nándofehérvár. After severe bombardment breached the fortress walls, the Turks penetrated the citadel. Here, Hunyadi ordered his men to hide, while the Janissaries scattered to plunder the town. At a prearranged signal, the Hungarians fell on the disorganized Turks, killed many, and drove the remainder out of the city, where many more were trapped in the moats and burned to death. The Hungarians and Capestrano’s Crusaders then charged the remaining Turks, wounded the sultan, and broke the Ottoman army on July 22. The Ottomans thereafter retreated, leaving their siege guns behind and did not again invade Hungary for seventy years. Hunyadi died of the plague two weeks after the battle, and Capestrano also died a few months afterward. Hungarian affairs again lapsed into internal conflict.


Hunyadi was immediately and uncritically hailed as the person who saved Hungary and Europe from the Ottomans. He thus became the national hero around whom Hungarian national identity has centered. Critical analysis, however, shows that Hunyadi was far from an invincible military leader, having commanded at two major military disasters. He also failed to end the Ottoman threat as his actions only delayed the advent of Ottoman control. His effect on Hungarian political evolution lies mostly in having prepared the way for Hungary’s first centralized royal government. This government, however, did not survive Ottoman conquest seventy years after Hunyadi’s death.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bak, János M., and Béla K. Király, eds. From Hunyadi to Rákóczi: War and Society in Medieval and Early Modern Hungary. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Includes a critical essay, “János Hunyadi, the Decisive Years of His Career, 1440-1444,” written by Pál Engel. Also contains useful background material on fifteenth century Hungary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bideleux, Robert, and Ian Jeffries. A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change. New York: Routledge, 1998. This comprehensive work explores, among other topics, the history between the Ottomans and the Hungarians before, during, and after Hunyadi’s time. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Held, Joseph. Hunyadi: Legend and Reality. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. Critical evaluation of Hunyadi’s career and an extensive description of the social and political environment of the times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire. New York: William Morrow, 1977. Analyzes Hunyadi’s battles with the Turks from the Turkish point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muresanu, Camil. John Hunyadi: Defender of Christendom. Translated by Laura Treptow. Iaşi, Romania: Center for Romanian Studies, 2001. Considers Hunyadi as soldier and statesman. Although this work might be difficult to locate and obtain, it is one of only a few sources in English on Hunyadi. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pamlényi, Erving, ed. A History of Hungary. London: Collets, 1975. A detailed history with good introductory material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sugar, P. F., ed. A History of Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Includes an essay by János M. Bak entitled “The Late Medieval Period,” which outlines the political and cultural history of Hunyadi’s regime.

Categories: History