The Mongol invasion of Europe

In the winter of 1241 the Mongol armies had arrived at the very doorsteps of Europe. The immediate reason was that the Cumans, a nomadic people who the Mongols regarded as their subjects, had left their normal grazing lands north of the Black Sea and sought refuge in Hungary. The Mongols insisted that the Hungarian king return them, and when he refused they went on the attack.

The Mongols had no problems operating during the winter months — indeed, this was when rivers were frozen and easier to cross — but winter-warfare was not common in Euroep. The Mongols operated with two separate armies —  one in Hungary and one in Poland. Altogether they may have assembled between 100,000 and 150,000 men. Eventually they came as far as the walls of Vienna and reached several towns under the control of the Hanseatic League of merchants. On March 24, 1241, they sacked Krakow in today’s Poland.

After the initial confusion, the Europeans eventually put together a common defense. The Mongols were met by a collection of Polish, Czech and German forces, together with a contingent of chivalric knights sent by the pope. Two battles ensued — at Legnica, Poland, on April 9, 1241, and, in a far larger confrontation, at Mohi, Hungary, two days later. The Europeans were defeated on both occasions. In fact, the European armies seem to have been more or less obliterated. In the summer of 1241, Europe was defenseless against further attacks.

But the Mongols did not move further west. Suddenly news reached them from Mongolia that Ögedei Khan, Genghis Khan’s son, had died in December 1241, and that there was going to be a kurultai where his successor was to be selected. Since several of the Mongol commanders in Europe had pretensions to succeed him, they needed to be back in Mongolia to protect their positions. It also seems Western Europe was of little interest to the Mongols. Europe had large forests which were difficult for their cavalry to penetrate and besides, compared with the prosperous cities of Persia and the Middle East, there was not much to loot. Although the Mongols conducted new raids in Poland in 1259, 1286 and 1287, they never again bothered with a large-scale invasion.

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