The Magyars, Hungarian ancestors, began raiding into western Europe in 862 against the outposts of the Frankish kingdom in the Danube Valley. Under pressure from the Pechenegs, they moved westward, eventually moving into the Carpathian Basin in 895. Over the next 10 years, they gained control of the entire basin.
From here they continued to raid Europe over the next 55 years, reaching as far west as the Pyrenees mountains. During this time, their raids were successful enough that the Byzantine Empire and several other kingdoms chose to pay off the Magyars to gain relief from invasion.
Their raids were finally brought to an end in 955 at the Battle of Augsburg when King Otto I of Germany defeated the Magyars. The prehistory of the Magyars, because of lack of written record, has been constructed from their language, which is part of the Finno-Ugric language group. Other languages in this group are Finnish and Estonian.
It is believed that the Magyars were originally part of a group of people who lived in western Siberia. Today most of the peoples in this group live in Russia, except the Hungarians and those living in the Baltic region and Finland. The name Magyar is taken to mean “speakers” and is derived from the Finno-Ugrian mon, which means “speak,” and er, which means “man.”
Sometime during the 10th century b.c.e., the Magyars moved south out of western Siberia into the area between the Ural River and the Aral Sea. They lived in this area until sometime during the second century b.c.e. when they moved westward into the Don Basin.
During the first century c.e., the Magyars moved into the region near the Azov Sea and the Black Sea and discovered the use of iron and horses, most likely from their exposure to their neighbors the Scythians and Sarmatians. Interaction with these Iranian peoples can be seen through the incorporation of Iranian words into their language.
They then came under the influence of Turkish peoples. In the sixth century the Magyars joined the Onogurs, a Turkish tribal alliance made up of 10 tribes. (Onogurs means “10 peoples.”) The Onogurs, including the Magyars, were then incorporated into the Turkish empire in 552, but then the Magyars gained their independence again in the early part of the seventh century, only to be incorporated into the Khazar Khanate in 630.
The Magyars gained their independence from the Khazars in 830—at the time settled in the area between the Don and Lower Danube Rivers. In 862 they launched their first raid against a western European kingdom and raided the Frankish tribe. These raids continued over the next several years, sometimes launched alone, and other times while allied with other kingdoms, such as the Turkish Kabars and the Moravians.
In 894 they allied with the Byzantines under Emperor Leo the Wise. The Byzantines were involved in a war with the Bulgars under Czar Simeon. The campaign that year was a success for the Magyars and Byzantines. Unfortunately for the Magyars, they set themselves up for their own defeat. In 894 there was a massive movement of Turkish peoples from the east that pushed the Pechenegs from their homeland.
Fleeing the Turkish invasion, the Pechenegs moved west into Magyar land and signed an alliance with the Bulgars against the Magyars. With the Magyar armies away fighting the Bulgars, the Pechenegs had little trouble overrunning the Magyars, who found themselves caught between the hostile kingdoms of the Bulgars and the Pechenegs. The Magyars had little choice but to flee to the west to avoid their destruction.
Under the leadership of their chieftains Árpád and Kurans, the Magyars moved across the Carpathian Mountains into the middle Danube valley. Over the next 10 years, the Magyars would secure control over the valley, including destroying the Moravian kingdom in 906.
With the death of Kurans, caused by Bavarian intrigue against the Magyars in 904, Árpád became the sole ruler of the Magyars and their tradition of dual rulers ended. Arpad died in 907 and was succeeded by his son. The Magyars finished the conquest of their new homeland and they continued raiding. Their raid into Italy in 899 was at the invitation of the emperor Arnulph of the eastern Frankish kingdom.
Looking for help against his rival King Berengar I of Lombardy (who had a claim on the imperial crown), Arnulph sent 5,000 warriors on a raid into Italy. While the Magyars’ initial attack on Venice was repulsed, the Magyars were able to defeat Berengar in battle at the river Brenta.
With the death of Emperor Arnulph in 899, the Magyars saw their chance to raid the Frankish empire, which was in turmoil because of the emperor’s death. In 900, the Magyars launched their first raid into Bavaria. The raids into Bavaria continued over the next 33 years and became more destructive. In 910 the Magyars defeated the Germans at the Battle of Augsburg, where they led them into an ambush by pretending to flee.
The Magyars, like most of the nomadic peoples from the steppes, were excellent horsemen. They were also very proficient with bow and arrow. They would launch a sudden attack and then pretend to flee from the enemy. They drew their enemy into a trap, where they could encircle the enemy and destroy them with arrows in close combat.
Another part of the success of the Magyars was due to the weakness of the western kingdoms, who were engaged in internal fighting (in Germany and Italy) fending off other external threats (in France the Normans and Saracens). Even the Byzantine Empire found it more useful to submit to the Magyars, using them as an ally against the Bulgars. A standard Magyar strategy was repeatedly to raid an area to compel the ruler to pay the Magyars to leave the area alone.
In 924 the Magyars launched a raid into western Europe. Raiding through Bavaria, Swabia, Alsace, Lorraine, and Champagne on the way west, they then crossed the Rhine and raided Franconia before returning home. At this point King Henry the Fowler decided to buy nine years of peace from the Magyars and used this time to reorganize and strengthen the German cavalry better to defend against the Magyars.
In 926 the Magyars launched a raid into northern Italy. Moving through Ventia and Lombardy, they were repulsed in their attempt to cross the Pennine Alps by soldiers from Burgundy and Vienne. They crossed the Maritime Alps and raided into Provence and Septimantia in southern France all the way to the Pyrenees.
Returning through the Rhone Valley, they fought several inconclusive battles with the troops from Burgundy and Vienne before returning home. When the nine-year truce King Henry had purchased in 924 expired and he refused to renew it, the Magyars turned their attention back to Germany in 933.
The Magyars sent an army into Germany to convince them to continue paying tribute. Meeting the German army near Merseberg, the Magyars suffered a defeat at the hands of the Germans, resulting in the loss of German tribute money. Henry and his son Otto I the Great fortified eastern German to protect it from the Magyars.
The Magyars turned to easier targets to the south of the Carpathian Basin, raiding the Balkans region and the Byzantine Empire. Launching a campaign into this area in 934 and in 942 against the Byzantine Empire, the Magyars began receiving regular tribute from the Byzantines and others in the area.
The Byzantine tribute would continue until 970, when the Magyars allied themselves with the prince of Kiev, who invaded the Balkans and was defeated by the Byzantines. In 951 Prince Henry of Bavaria defeated the Magyar troops in northern Italy and then raided their province of Pannonia. A civil war in Germany (953–955) between Otto I and his son Ludolf allowed the Magyars to raid western Europe again.
With a force of between 50,000 and 100,000 warriors, the Magyars raided through Franconia and Bavaria. Then with help from Conrad, duke of Lorraine, who was allied with Ludolf, the Magyars crossed the Rhine River at Worms and moved into Lorraine, then moving into northeastern France, Rheims, Chalons, and into Burgundy. From there they moved into northern Italy, raided Lombardy, and finally returned home.
In 955 with a force of 50,000, the Magyars moved into Bavaria and laid siege to the city of Augsburg. The Magyars believed that Ludolf and Conrad were still at war with Otto. Instead, the rebels had made peace with Otto and joined him in attacking the Magyars. With a force of about 10,000 heavy cavalry, the Germans moved to attack the Magyars, who lifted their siege and prepared for battle with the Germans.
The battle was fought on August 10, 955. The Magyars were initially successful and captured the German camp. Otto repulsed the Magyar attack and then had his forces attack and drive the Magyars from the field with heavy losses, including the capture of the Magyar camp. During the final attack Conrad was killed.
At the Battle of Augsburg (also known as the Battle of Lechfeld), the Magyar raids into western Europe finally ended. With their defeat at the hands of the Byzantines in 970, the time was ripe for the Magyars to cease their raids. The Magyars turned to farming and became influenced by the Roman Catholic Church.