Episode 6: A Conversation with Swords

Last week we left Otto, for the n-th time, snatching victory from the jaws of near certain defeat. But success in this final civil war had come at a steep price. The main battlefield of Bavaria and its capital Regensburg lay in ruins. Equally the area around Augsburg had been devastated and the Hungarian raids had taken their toll on Lothringia. As it happened the fighting did not end with Liudolf’s surrender. In particular the Bavarians did not want their duke Henry back. Led by the descendants of the previous ducal family, they kept on fighting all the way into May 955. Duke Henry brutally suppressed these uprisings including by blinding the archbishop of Salzburg, an act of unprecedented brutality on an anointed bishop.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 6 – A Conversation with Swords

You may have noticed a slight change in music?  Yes, you have a one-time opportunity to hear my insanely talented sister, Isadora Silveira Camargos whose new single, Smile and fly has just come out. As a special treat you can listen to the whole song at the end of the podcast – enjoy.

But now back to our show. Last week we left Otto, for the n-th time, snatching victory from the jaws of near certain defeat. But success in this final civil war had come at a steep price. The main battlefield of Bavaria and its capital Regensburg lay in ruins. Equally the area around Augsburg had been devastated and the Hungarian raids had taken their toll on Lothringia. As it happened the fighting did not end with Liudolf’s surrender. In particular the Bavarians did not want their duke Henry back. Led by the descendants of the previous ducal family, they kept on fighting all the way into May 955. Duke Henry brutally suppressed these uprisings including by blinding the archbishop of Salzburg, an act of unprecedented brutality on an anointed bishop.

But even their surrender in May 955 did not end the plight of the Bavarians. Come July, more Hungarians than anyone living had ever seen anywhere before broke into the country. They occupied and devastated Bavaria between the Danube and the Alps. The crossed the river Lech south of Augsburg and moved into Swabia, burning and plundering the land all the way to the Iller river. And on August 8th, 955 they began the siege of Augsburg.

The Hungarians or Magyars have been a feature on this podcast in each of the last 5 episodes. Their annual raids have come like clockwork almost every year, usually timed around periods of political weakness or civil war. But so far we have heard little about the Hungarians themselves. Time to remedy that. Before I start on this, sincere apologies for all the bodged pronunciations. Hungarian, like so many other languages are not my forte.

The Magyars are assumed to have originated from the Ural mountains and appeared in what we today call Hungary in the late 9th century. In the absence of written records and only sparse archaeology, the main way to trace them is by their distinctive language, which is part of the Finno-Ugric language family. This family comprises about 20 languages, including Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian as the best known, but also include languages spoken by small groups in western Siberia. Historians have concluded from this and chronicles written in the 13th century that the proto-Hungarians may have spent a significant amount of time in the steppes of Siberia. The foundation myth even assumes that their first leader was a brother of Attila the Hun. During their wanderings the Magyars also picked up a lot of their culture, political organisation and language from the Turks, though the exact process of this assimilation is lost in the dawn of time.

They appear in written history in the year 895 when the Byzantine emperor Leo the Wise asked for their help in fighting the Bulgars. At that point they lived somewhere between the Dona and Volga rivers. Their support to the Byzantines became quite costly as they got caught in one of those domino effects that occurred from time to time in the depths of the Asian steppes. The Magyar’s neighbours to the east, the Petcheneggs had come under pressure form another group further east and mounted a lightening attack. The Magyar’s in their panic fled across the Carpathian mountains. And there they were in luck. The two powers that had controlled the area we now know as Hungary, the Carolingian empire and the kingdom of Moravia were in steep decline. Under their leaders Arpad and Kursan they took over the Carpathian basin, which included Hungary as well as Transylvania (now part of Romania), Croatia and parts of Slovakia. Kursan died in 904 and from then onwards the descendants of Arpad ruled Hungary until 1300. However, their rule was more of a primus inter pares with the leaders of the seven Magyar stems having significant autonomy.

Almost from the moment they arrived, the Hungarian started raiding in the west. They undertook about 70 raids in 50 years, usually targeting East Francia and Italy, but also the Bulgar kingdom to their south and Byzantium itself.

Their success was mainly down to their composite bows. Composite bows are made from laminating would and animal bone to create small and powerful bows. Having a powerful small bow means the archers can operate on horseback. That gives them the speed and agility to position themselves wherever their long-distance weapons have the largest effect. The most efficient way to fight was to shoot great volleys of arrows into the sky that would fall on their enemies like hail. The reliance of the Hungarians on horse-based archers was, at least initially almost complete. Their raiding bands would consist entirely in horse mounted fighters without a baggage train or other support. Their troops could therefore appear and disappear much more quickly than the infantry troops. They did not take provisions as they usually lived off the land they were plundering.

But, like all miracle weapons, the composite bow had its drawbacks. The biggest one was the weather. The lamination would weaken in humid conditions, reducing the power of the bows. Without their fearsome bows, their lack of armour made them easy prey for armoured knights and even well-trained infantry.  Therefore, Hungarians only ever raid in the summer months when it is dry and they prefer the south. This humidity effect has been cited as one of the main reasons the Mongols did not take over Germany in the 13th century despite their crashing victories against the Poles and the Teutonic knights.

The annual raids were a significant part of the Hungarian economy, bringing in gold and coin, but most importantly slaves. The actual Magyars themselves were a quite small nation of maybe 60,000 people who ruled a much larger population in Hungary that served them as agricultural workers. Some of these were workers who had lived in the area before the Hungarians took over, others had been dragged there as slaves.

These raids were strictly business. The riders were not motivated by any ideology or ambition to conquer. All they wanted was to get hold of valuables and slaves and get home quickly. That is why they typically focused on the richest and least defended places, i.e., monasteries. They would occasionally attack cities, but only when they were rich and poorly defended, a combination usually quite rare.

The business-like approach made them attractive as allies to be called in to support one or other party in a political dispute. Since they had no intention to stay, you could pay them to terrify your opponents and afterwards they would go home, albeit laden with gold. That might have been the calculation of Otto and Liudolf during the civil war of 954, when either, or both, called them in to help.

I am wondering whether the Hungarians did not see the raid of 954 as a bit of a failure. On paper it looks very impressive. They plundered Bavaria, Swabia, Lothringia, then entered France where they turned south and, still stealing everything and anything, ran through Burgundy and Provence, where they turned left and sacked Northern Italy, before getting home. Running the route on Google maps suggested that they did a 4,000km round trip. This had sure yielded quite a bit of gold and coin, but what about the salves. Dragging hundreds or even thousands of slaves across Europe on foot must have slowed down the Hungarian army. On top of that you have the logistical challenge of feeding and guarding them. Given these challenges, it makes sense for the Hungarians to think about establishing permanent posts along the way where they could deposit plunder for future sale.

And finally, by the 950s the geopolitical landscape had fundamentally changed. In the early years of their raids, both superpowers in their orbit were weak. But between 920 and 950 the East Francian empire unified and recovered under Henry the Fowler and Otto. At the same time the Byzantine empire experienced huge successes against the Muslims in the south and the Bulgars to their north. That meant outside periods of internal struggles, raising had become harder and required much more manpower. There was even a question whether the risk return ratio of this kind of business was still attractive.

In the massive raid of the year 955 all of these strains come together:

The Hungarians muster the largest unified force to enter Germany they have ever fielded. It was led by three of the most important chieftains, including Bulcsu, who had grown up at the imperial court in Constantinople and held the title of Harka or chief judge and chief warlord.

It is quite likely that they have been called in by the last survivors of the former ducal house of Bavaria, who had been so brutally suppressed by duke Henry. That would explain why they travelled through Bavarian territory at quite a pace and targeted Augsburg, the city of one of Henry and Otto’s strongest supporters, bishop Ulrich of Augsburg.

Finally, they set down for a proper siege having brought along siege machinery and people to operate them. That suggest they were intending to stay for good, establishing a permanent staging post for future raids. Augsburg seemed a nearly ideal place for that. It was founded by the Romans and sat at the intersection of what was left of the old Roman road network. Its fortifications were comparatively weak as it had just been besieged the year before, its walls were low, and they had no towers.

The siege of Augsburg begins on August 8th, 955. The city’s defence consists of a troop of armoured knights, led by the bishop’s brother and the local populace, presumably equipped with knives and pitchforks. Given the weakness of the walls, best guess is, they can hold out a while but not very long.

Let’s leave the citizens of Augsburg staring at the enormous Hungarian host outside their walls and look at what has happened further north. 

King Otto had returned to Saxony after the siege of Regensburg. There he had received some Hungarian ambassadors who he rightly assumed to be spies trying to get an understanding of the state of the royal armies. A few days after he had sent them home he received note from his brother Henry that the Hungarian army had broken into Bavaria. That was probably around end of June, early July. Now time is of the essence. Otto needed to muster an army, any army fast. What he got was a bit of a motley crew.

He immediately jumped on his horse and with his household troops rode hell for leather south. But, he did not manage to bring along more than his elite fighters since the Slavs had again risen up, so that most of the Saxon armies needed to stay on the eastern border.

Equally his brother Brun did not send any troops from Lothringia, either because there simply wasn’t enough time or because he feared the Hungarians would go around Otto’s troops and raid Lothringia as they had done the year before.

That means apart from his personal bodyguard of Saxons, Otto’s army consisted of 3 contingents of Bavarians under Otto’s brother Henry, 2 contingents of Swabians, led by their new duke Burchard, 1 contingent of Franconians led by, surprise, surprise, Konrad the Red and, even more surprising a large contingent of Bohemians, led by our old fratricidal friend Boleslav. Given Otto’s army was made up of in total 8 contingents, one of which consisted of allegedly “1,000” Bohemians, it gives us a high estimate of 8’000 men, though it is likely that the number was considerably lower. If we work of the assumption that total Magyar population in Hungary was 60,000 of which 20,000 were fighters, and they would not have sent all of them suggests a high estimate of 10,000 Hungarians. They may have had camp followers and salves along to operate the siege engines, which suggests the overall army may have been larger. In nay event, the Hungarians outnumbered Ottos troops by a margin.

Practically everything that I will say about how the battle unfolded is heavily debated, given that we have only 2 sources close to events and another three written many years later and all five give different accounts. There are also Hungarian chronicles written even later.

What is not disputed is that, on August 8th, the Hungarians begin the siege of Augsburg. The city nearly fell on their first attempt when they pressed on the eastern gate in large numbers. However, the armoured knights scored a success when they killed one of the Hungarian leaders. Shaken by this loss, the Hungarians retreated.

With the Hungarians back in their camp, the citizens of Augsburg work through the night strengthening their weak defences, building palisades and digging trenches.

On the morning of the 9th the Hungarians come back, now fully equipped with ladders and siege engines. I guess moral in the city was severely dampened when they saw the great host arriving.

But no major attack takes place. What had happened? One of these last surviving members of the former ducal family had come to the Hungarian camp and told them that Otto’s army had arrived. The Hungarians sat down for a war council and decided that if they beat the field army first the city would fall immediately.

In the afternoon the Hungarian army moved off onto the Lechfeld, a large floodplain of flat gravel near Augsburg to offer battle. The terrain suited them and their fighting style plus they had won a battle there already in 910. Their horses could move rapidly over the full range of the plain. Otto had no choice but to accept the battlefield. If he had tried to lure them into a more suitable terrain for his army, the Hungarians would have simply ridden away and evaded battle.

Next morning, the 10th of August 955, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, Otto took his troops down to the Lechfeld. He had lined up his eight detachments as follows. The first three battlegroups of Bavarians were in the front. Then came Konrad the red’s Franconians, followed by Otto himself with his bodyguard. Then the 2 divisions of Swabians and finally the Bohemians with the baggage train. During the march down he kept his troops within the cover of a wooden area to avoid being pelted by Hungarian arrows.

Whilst Otto’s soldiers snuck through the bushes to avoid being shot at, they did not see that the Hungarians had gone behind his army and attacked the rear guard.  That was very successful. They captured the train, dispersed the Bohemians and caused heavy damage to the two Swabian columns that had marched just ahead of the train. But once they had captured the baggage, their discipline broke down. That allowed Konrad the Red to bring down his Franconians, fall on the plundering Hungarians, beat them back and free their prisoners. When Konrad and the Swabians re-joined the army, it became clear that the Hungarians had inflicted major damage with three out of his 8 columns severely weakened.

Otto then addressed his troops. He said: “As we all know they fight almost without any armour and, what is our greatest relief, without the help of the lord. Their only shield is their bravery, whilst we can hope for the protection of the lord. We, as masters of all Europe, would have to be ashamed were we to surrender now. We rather want to die in glory than being beaten by our enemies, taken away in servitude or even be strung up like feral animals” Basically he says – we have the better armour, we have the help of the lord and guys, if you do not get yourself in gear, we will all be strung up like rabid dogs.

That seems to have worked. Though the first item on the list was probably the most important. As you may remember, the fighting style of the Magyars was horse-based archery. The riders would attack and then feign retreat. With their fast horses they would create a gap over the pursuers until they are at perfect shooting distance.

The maximum impact was achieved by shooting volleys of arrows into the sky that would come down on the attackers like hail. The ideal distance to achieve that was somewhere between 200 and 500 metres. Had the enemy come closer the Hungarians had to shift to individual point-blank shots, which were less efficient and if the enemy got even closer it was down to hand to hand combat.

Henry the Fowler had proven that an army of heavy armoured knights could break a Hungarian force. The way to do that is to get through the death zone of 200 to 500m from the Hungarian lines without getting killed and crash into the lightly armoured horsemen at full tilt. Once amongst them, the knights with their strong armour and huge swords could easily slaughter.

And that is likely what happened at the Lechfeld. The Hungarians feigned retreat, but Otto’s highly trained personal troops and the battle-hardened Bavarians pushed through the death zone at speed, crashing into the Hungarian lines. There might have also been a flank attack by the armoured knights who were defending Augsburg. These knights had left the city the night before to join up with Otto, but have not found him in the dark. When they saw Otto’s troops attacking the Hungarians dead ahead, they joined the melee from the sides causing more chaos in the Hungarian lines.

There are other theories, one of which is that after the raid on the train, the remaining Bohemians crossed the river Lech and attacked the Hungarian camp. The Hungarians than raced to the ford at Augsburg to protect their plunder. When they got stuck on the river crossing, Otto and the Bohemians fell on them from both sides.

In later Hungarian chronicles the defeat s blamed in a sudden rainfall. German chroniclers mention excessive heat so that there may have been a summer thunderstorm later in the day.

What makes the difference between the battle on the Lechfeld and the battle of Ried in 933 is that this time the Hungarians did not escape. At Ried, the Hungarians could just turn their horses around and run back to Hungary. This time their route had been blocked. Bridges were either taken down or well defended and fords guarded. After the battle, the Hungarians split up into smaller groups which were picked off one by one, probably mostly by the Bohemian troops of Boleslav, though the Saxon chroniclers prefer to credit the Bavarians.

The honourable mention of Bavarian bravery may have something to do with the fact that their duke and Otto’s brother, Henry, died during the battle from long term effects of a wound he had received not on the Lechfeld but at his battle against Otto in Birten in 938. He missed the one opportunity to use his undeniable prowess with the sword to do something for the kingdom, rather than just for himself.

Henry had not been king for 19 years and an albatross around king Otto’s neck both when he rebelled and when he was a friend. He left a four-year old son, also called Henry who inherited both the duchy of Bavaria and his father’s temperament. Whilst Henry was denied his great ambition, his grandson also called Henry will ultimately realise the dream of his branch of the family.

Another loss was Konrad the Red, who in the heat of the battle loosened the straps of his helmet inviting Hungarian arrows to his throat. For those of you who have read ahead, you already know that Konrad’s great grandson also called Konrad would end up on the throne.

The impact on the Hungarian was earthshattering. Otto had captured the three leaders of the Hungarian army, and, contrary to precedent, did not exchange them for gold or concessions, but had them hung from the gallows. We do not know much about domestic politics in Hungary, but from the battle on the Lechfeld onwards the descendants of Arpad tightened their grip on the country. Arpad’s grandson Taksony took control after the battle on the Lechfeld and agreed a lasting peace with king Otto and allowed German missionaries into Hungary. His son and successor Geza further consolidated the power of the Arpads whilst promoting Latin Christianity and an alliance with Otto the I and his successors. Finally his son and successor King/Saint Stephen formally converted to Christianity in the year 1000 and married Gisela, granddaughter of none other than our old friend Henry, duke of Bavaria. Their descendants would rule Hungary until 1300 and attach it firmly to the Western European cultural, religious and political system. Their neighbours to the south, the Serbs and Bulgarians would link up with the Byzantine cultural and political world, embracing orthodox liturgy and Greek culture.

From this point forward Hungarian raids ended for good, making it Otto’s greatest military and political success that made his reputation not just in the 10th century but until today. He may have already been the leading figure in the former Carolingian empire, but after the Lechfeld he was clearly an imperial figure. The chronicler Widukind of Corvey reports that the assembled troops declared Otto emperor on the field of battle, just like the ancient roman legions had done in antiquity. Sadly, Widukind is not always the most reliable source and this scene may have been just imperial propaganda.

Despite this resounding success, the campaigning year of 955 was not yet over. Otto had to return to Saxony, where the Abodrites, a Slavic people living in what is today Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the very north-east of the country by the Baltic sea had stirred up trouble. Well, they did not do it by themselves. They were instigated by the descendants of Wichman Billung, the guy Otto offended in his first year in office by promoting Hermann Billung to marcher count. Old grudges last long, not just in the 10th century.

The Abodrites had raided Saxony whilst duke Hermann Billung could not hold them off given troops had been dispatched to fight Liudolf. After the battle on the Lechfeld in August 955, Otto and Margrave Gero joined Hermann with some of the forces that had fought the Hungarians. They progressed down into Abodrites land and when the leaders of the tribe offered peace, felt strong enough to reject it. And that could have easily turned out to be a fatal mistake. When they reached the Rechnitz river, they suddenly found themselves trapped. They could not cross the river as the ford was guarded by Abodrites troops. They also could not turn back, as the enemy had closed the path behind them with barricades of fallen trees. After sickness broke out in the camp and food supplies ran low, Gero was dispatched to negotiate but was told to go where his master had told the Abodrites to go just days earlier.

We know Gero as the butcher of the 30 Slavic leaders at a feast, so trust him not to hold back. He was so enraged by the Abodrites’ refusal that he told them that they would attack the next morning so we can all see where what goes when.

In the night Otto brought up all the heavy weapons and bowmen to the river shore, to make it look as if they would force their way across in the morning. At the same time, Gero and his cavalry travelled downriver and crossed a few miles from the camp. When the Abodrites set up formation to defend their side of the river, Gero fell on them from the side and routed their forces. Their leader was decapitated and 700 Abodrites were executed, others were blinded or had their tongue cut out. After that display of Christian charity, the remainder were offered baptism.

That was a pretty close shave. If Otto had died in that battle, the kingdom would have easily fallen into chaos. His son Liudolf was with the king and even if he had survived with the wounds of the civil war still raw, his accession to the throne would not have been smooth. Otto’s other son, also named Otto was just 1 year old. Nothing makes it so obvious that in the 10th century you can swing from towering success to total disaster in a heartbeat.

But total disaster is avoided, and Otto is now truly an imperial figure, all that is left to do is to go to Rome and get this crown, the crown of Charlemagne, he always believed was owed to him. But before he does that we need to take a look at the situation in Northern Italy. And for that, I am afraid you will have to wait until next week.

I really hope you are going to join us again.

And now we get to what you all been waiting for, Isadore Silbvei9ra Camargos new single, Smile and Fly, available on Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music and all other purveyors of fine audio entertainment!