The Magyars of Hungary
By Steven Lowe

Saint Stephen   The Hungarian State   Arms and Armour   Religion and Beliefs   References

The Hungarians, unlike their Slavic neighbours, speak a language of the group known as Finno-Ugric. Despite claims of Hunnish descent, it is thought that they came from the Ural Mountains in Russia and migrated east, then south in contact with Turks and Iranians, taking on a nomadic, herding lifestyle. The word Hungary is though to have come from On Ogur ("ten arrows"), the name of a Magyar tribal confederation.

In the fifth century AD the Magyars migrated - some west to the Don River, others south to the Caucasus Mountains. About 800 AD, seven Magyar tribes contributed 20,000 men to the Khazar army, and in 836 a Magyar army allied with the Bulgars, attacked a Byzantine fleet near the mouth of the Danube River. In ensuing decades they took control of large areas of southern Russia, raiding Slav settlements for booty and slaves and in 862, they raided the eastern Frankish Empire.

In 889, the Magyars under their leader Arpad, apparently fleeing the Turkic steppe race known as the Pechenegs (or Patzinaks) landed in the middle of a war between Byzantium and Bulgaria. The Byzantines bribed them to attack the Bulgars, which they did with initial success. But the Bulgarian Kijnaz (king) Symeon made an alliance with the Pechenegs, who drove the Magyars up the Danube valley into the region now known as Hungary.

This area was nominally under Frankish rule, but had been sparsely populated since Charlemagne’s destruction of the Avar state in 803 and the Magyars were able to move in virtually unopposed. Frankish Emperor Arnulf even found them useful in subduing a rebellious vassal. But once in place they were impossible to get rid of. They defeated several attempts to bring them to heel, and eventually wrested the region from Frankish control.

The territory they now owned – the Danube basin – was surrounded by the Transylvanian and Carpathian mountain ranges but had access eastward to Bulgarian and Byzantine territories, and westward to Italy and the rest of Europe. It was a virtual fortress from which they could raid east, west and south with almost total impunity.

In 898-9 Emperor Arnulf made use of the Magyars to raid Italy, but on their return they swept through Bavaria, a Frankish possession, returning home laden with loot. There are 33 raids on record between 898 and 955, ranging through Italy, Germany, France and Burgundy, and even reaching the Atlantic coast and crossing the Pyrenees into Spain.

After a serious defeat in Germany by Henry the Fowler of Saxony in 933, they were on the rampage again the following year, this time eastward. They attacked Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire, reaching the walls of Constantinople. The Byzantines paid them a “tax” for 15 years. In 948 Horka (war-leader) Bulcsu concluded a ten year peace with Byzantium and was baptised a Christian.

However, beginning in 947, Germany under Otto I (the Great) began to expand into Hungary’s sphere of influence, re-taking Bavaria, invading western Hungarian settlements, subduing the Czechs and in 951, conquering Italy, where Otto had himself crowned King in place of the Magyar vassal Berengar II.

In 955 Otto destroyed the Magyar army at the decisive, day-long battle of Augsburg. According to legend, only seven men escaped home to Hungary. But Germany had suffered too heavily to take advantage of the victory and there was an uneasy peace for fifteen years.

Meanwhile peace with Byzantium had encouraged trade and cultural relations. Christianity also flourished, as Catholic missionaries arrived from Germany. In 973 Geza I and all his household were baptised, and a formal peace concluded with Emperor Otto I. Geza’s only son, Vajk, was baptised Istvan (Stephen) and went on to be canonised a saint. Geza enlisted Bavarians to serve as his bodyguards, and settled large estates on them.

Saint Stephen

In 996 Stephen married the sister of Henry III of Bavaria. A war of succession after Geza’s death the following year was won by Stephen with a mixed army of Hungarians and Bavarian heavy cavalry. He went on to become the best-loved and possibly the most important figure in Hungarian history. To forestall Christian countries warring on Hungary as a nation of “heathen barbarians”, Stephen applied directly to Rome for recognition as the first King of Christian Hungary, independent of both German and Byzantine Emperors.

Stephen freed slaves and established churches, encouraging his nobles to do the same. He re-distributed land, minted silver coinage, and laid the foundation of a legal system. Friendly relations were begun with Byzantium (the Hungarian royal crown was Byzantine work), and Stephen’s son and heir married a Byzantine princess and Stephen had his own Varangian Guard in imitation of the Byzantine Emperor.

In 1014, Stephen aided Byzantine Emperor Basil II in his war against Bulgaria, and later repelled German and Pecheneg invasions. Latin became the court language, and Hungarian almost vanished from official records. Stephen died in 1038, and was canonised in 1073.

After Stephen’s death wars of succession disrupted the realm (with some periods of quiet) till the early 13th century. Many claimants brought in foreign help – German, Polish, and in the 12th century, Byzantine. Hungary lost independence to these foreign helpers to the extent of doing homage, at various times, to both Western and Byzantine Emperors.

Despite the conflicts, Hungary grew in population, prosperity and territory.

The Kingdom of Croatia was annexed and administered by a ban (viceroy). Monks coming from Germany, Italy and France raised cultural standards and enabled other progress, such as a change from stock-breeding to growing crops and vines. Gold, silver and salt were mined and new towns were founded. Though Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenos (1143-1180) invaded ten times in twenty-two years in an attempt to impose Byzantine sovereignty, he never seriously threatened Hungarian independence.

The Hungarian State

The free population of Hungary was by now made up of three major parts. The freemen (known as the nation) were descendents of the original Magyar invaders, and were nobles in all but name. They had the duty of bearing arms and were totally exempt from taxation. The invaders had, however, been considerably diluted by the descendants of the freedmen (freed slaves who corresponded to villeins) and of immigrants who had become assimilated into the Magyar state.

In the middle of the 12th century, Otto, Bishop of Friesing (Henry II’s brother) wrote:

"These Magyars do not have an attractive face; they are hollow-eyed, of small stature, their language and morals are barbaric; so that we must blame Fate, or admire Divine patience that has given such a beautiful country to these people who are more like monsters."

"Their village dwellings are rather miserable: they are built of reed, occasionally of timber, and still less frequently of stone. In summer and autumn they live in tents."

"When the king goes to war, they all follow without argument. One in ten, or one in eight villagers – or more if necessary – are despatched to the war with full equipment. Those who stay behind cultivate the land."

"The king’s person is surrounded by foreigners; there are quite a few, and they are called dignitaries. Only their dignitaries and the aliens copy our people’s warfare and the shine of or armour."

In 1122 the nobles rose up and forced the Golden Bull – Hungary’s equivalent of Magna Carta – upon King Andrew II, for his abuses of royal power. After Andrew died in 1235, his son Bela did what he could to restore royal authority but his efforts were brought to nothing by the Mongol invasion of 1241.

The Mongols almost completely destroyed the Hungarian army, and ravaged the countryside from east to west. Bela barely escaped, and Hungary was only saved from destruction when the Mongol Khan, Batu, returned home with his armies, possiblt to contest the succession on the death of the Great Khan, Ogotai. The population was halved in twelve months, through massacre, plague and starvation. Bela repaired the damage, built a chain of border fortresses, and called in colonists to repopulate the country.

With the death of Andrew III in 1301, the Arpad dynasty came to an end. The throne was then taken over by foreign descendants of Hungarian princesses. Hungary continued to be ruled by foreigners for centuries to come.

By the 1440’s the Turks had occupied large areas of the northern Balkans. Ladislas V of Hungary (Wladislaw VI of Poland) was defeated and killed at the battle of Varna, in an ill-fated crusade against them. However, his successor Janos Hunyadi kept Hungary free from Turkish rule.

In 1526 King Louis Jagiello met defeat and death against the Turkish army of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent at the battle of Mohacs (near Belgrade). Half of Hungary now paid homage to the Turks and the rest was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted until the First World War.

Arms and Armour

Like most nomadic steppe-dwellers, the early Magyars were light cavalry, armed with a composite bow of wood, horn and sinew (and rather flatter than those of their neighbours, according to Osprey). They also used the curved sabre, light spears, and less often the mace. The sabre was distinguished by turned-down quillons and a curved hilt. The aristocracy wore finely crafted metal armour (probably lamellar), which was favourably commented upon by those of other nations.  Less exalted Magyars probably wore leather lamellar or thick felt for protection. The Magyar helmet seems to have been of similar design to those of their Turkic neighbours – spangenhelms of conical shape, possibly with a spike at the crown. Shields were apparently rare. The Magyar saddle was light and comfortable, and was widely copied, and stirrups helped with stability and control. Endrey states that they were great archers, and they had a “superb military organization”, a claim that is borne out by their success against some of the most professional armies of their time. He states that Henry the Fowler, after being defeated by the Magyars in 924, copied their light cavalry and was thus able to defeat them in his turn in 933.

They favoured light, mobile tactics, showering arrows from a distance, and feigned retreats, turning to annihilate the enemy when they were strung out in pursuit. However, contact with western European warfare and the changing needs of a society no longer based on a nomadic lifestyle brought a new orientation. In the 11th century Geza I and Stephen I recruited heavy cavalry from Bavaria and used them with great effect against the native Hungarian troops of their rivals. Also, after the Mongol invasion of 1241, Bela IV replaced light archers with a smaller force of heavy cavalry.

I have been unable to find contemporary illustrations of the “old-style” Magyar warriors, unless fig. 5 is a member of the early aristocracy. It comes from a metal jug found in Hungary. The figure is of a mounted lancer, with mail shirt, helmet and coif, and splinted greaves and vambraces. There is no sign of bow, sword or shield, though this may not be significant. The helmet has a plume or tassel attached and the lance is equipped with a pennon very similar in shape to those shown in Bulgarian illustrations.  The horse is decorated with tassels as well, and its tail is braided. The warrior has a captive dressed either in lamellar armour or a quilted garment. He also sports a human head as a trophy.

A metal ewer in the form of a mounted knight is in very simple form, but seems characteristic of the heavy Bavarian cavalry recruited by Geza and Stephen.

A Hungarian helmet shown in “Arms and Armour of the Crusading Period” by Nicolle, is very similar to those prevalent in Poland, Russia and elsewhere – tall and conical, of four panels riveted directly to each other and bearing a spike on top, perhaps to carry a plume.

Religion and Beliefs

The early Magyars were shamanists. They believed in a dualistic universe, where a black shaman and a white shaman were engaged in a never-ending battle between Good and Evil. They believed that everything good in the world had been created by the White Shaman, and that everything evil had been created by the Black Shaman.

In their service with the Khazars, they were exposed to Islam and Christianity, as well the Judaistic beliefs of the Khazars. After conversion to Christianity in Stephen’s reign, many of the old beliefs survived, though as people became less and less aware of their basis and philosophy, they dwindled to mere superstitions.


Balasz, G. and Szelenyi, K., The Magyars – Birth of a European Nation, Corvina Press, Budapest 1989.

Barta, I et al, ed. Pamlenyi, E., A History of Hungary, Collet’s, London, 1975.

Endrey, A., Hungarian History; Part One, The Hungarian Institute, Melbourne 1978 (a rather partisan view of the Magyars, but worth reading for extra information).

Gutman, J., Survival of the Strong, Military History magazine, August 1991.

Heath, I & McBride, A  Byzantine Armies 886-1118,Osprey, London, 1979, 1984.

Macartney, Prof. C.A., Hungary: A Short History, University Press, Edinburgh, 1962.

Nicolle, I., Arms and Armour of the Crusading Period, publisher unknown.

Nicolle, I., The Age of Charlemagne, Osprey, London, 1984.

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Figure 5.

This page was last update on the 30th May 2001

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