Battle of Lechfeld

Summary

The Battle of Lechfeld on August 10, 955 was the final point of the Hungarian invasions and the greatest military victory of Otto the Great. Since 899, the Hungarian horsemen had devastated large parts of Central Europe with their plundering campaigns. The battle bears the name of the area where the fighting took place. However, the exact location of the battle on the Lechfeld is disputed among experts.

The victory on the Lechfeld was one of the greatest military conflicts in the East Frankish-German Empire. The battle is often referred to as the “birth of the German nation”. In any case, Otto succeeded in asserting his supremacy in the East Frankish Empire against internal and external enemies, which led, among other things, to his being proclaimed Pater patriae, “Father of the Fatherland,” after the battle; a success that subsequently earned him the imperial crown.

In 955, the warlike conflicts between Magyars and the East Frankish Empire had already lasted for almost 60 years. In the previous year, almost the entire south of the empire had risen up against Otto in the Liudolfin revolt, which was used by the Magyars to make their most far-reaching move to date via Bavaria and Belgium to northern France, back via northern Italy and Croatia. On December 17, 954, Otto I held an Imperial Diet in Arnstadt, Thuringia, which ended the conflict with Liudolf with his formal submission. In addition, Otto”s son Wilhelm was elected Archbishop of Mainz. This created the domestic political conditions for the coming conflict with the Hungarians. But this was not the end of the rebellion in the south. At the Battle of Mühldorf am Inn in 955, Count Palatine Arnulf was killed. Archbishop Herold of Salzburg fell into the hands of Duke Henry I of Bavaria and was blinded on his orders.

In the spring of 955, Hungarian envoys arrived at Otto”s, ostensibly to affirm their friendly disposition. However, they were probably to spy on his strength after the uprising. In any case, shortly after their departure, it was reported that the Hungarians had crossed the borders of the empire and challenged the king to a field battle.

At first, the Hungarians marched into the Bavarian area between the Danube and the Alps to Augsburg, where they probably set up their main camp at Gunzenle. Here they first began with the siege of the city of Augsburg.

This siege of the Hungarians is unusual, considering their previous behavior of quickly conquering large cities or bypassing them. It seems that they were not interested in a quick raid with profitable plunder, but they probably tried to gain control over Bavaria and Swabia. It can also be suspected that they were called to help by some opponents of Henry I in the Liudolfin revolt. Although the city was poorly fortified, the Augsburgs initially managed to repel the Hungarians. The hardest fought was the eastern gate, whose defense was personally supervised by Bishop Ulrich, who had already held the city against the Hungarians in 924. Only when one of the leaders fell did the attackers break off their attacks.

The following night, Bishop Ulrich had convent women parade through the city in processions to make intercessions to the Mother of God. Then, the next day, the Hungarians appeared at the gates with siege equipment. Driven by their leaders with whips, they again attacked the wall until they were called back by a bugle call.

Through Perchtold, one of the rebels in the Liudolfin revolt, the Hungarians had been warned of the approaching East Frankish army and were now gathering for the field battle. The Augsburgs, for their part, sent every expendable man to Otto”s nearby camp.

March

The location of Perchtold”s castle (the Reisensburg) and the chronologists” chronological data suggest the area around Ulm or Günzburg as a possible place of the assembly camp of the East Frankish troops. Units of the Bavarians, the Franks and the former rebel Conrad the Red arrived there. Otto”s home force of the Saxons had to be left in large part as a defense against the Slavs in the east (about 2000 men). Also the Lorraine units (as many troops) did not come to the agreed meeting point.

In the last marching camp before Augsburg, the defenders of the city joined the army. Otto then set the next day for the field battle and ordered a general fast in preparation.

Ambush in the forest

On the morning of August 10, the commemoration day of St. Lawrence, the Bavarian and Frankish soldiers assured themselves of their mutual loyalty in a military peace ceremony and set off for the battlefield. Although the marching route was covered by trees (the Rauhe Forst west of Augsburg is suspected to be one of them) to protect against the arrows of the Hungarians, the latter managed to bypass the army and roll up from behind; in doing so, they put Bohemia and Swabia to flight and captured the troop. However, since they went on to plunder immediately after their success, Conrad the Red was able to beat back the Hungarians in his turn with the warriors from the fifth pile.

The meeting on the Lechfeld

Little is known about the course of the actual field battle. Otto”s pep talk and his being the first to advance seem to be fiction. At least we learn from the sources that the brother of Bishop Ulrich, Dietpald of Dillingen, fell. And also Conrad the Red was fatally hit by an arrow in the neck when he loosened the bands of the armor and drew air. The decisive factor in the battle could have been a summer thunderstorm – Widukind reports of great heat – so that the heavy rainfall would have caused the miracle weapon of the Hungarians, a composite bow, to literally go off the rails, causing the cavalry army of the Hungarians to lose considerable striking power. However, this event is not mentioned by Widukind, who one might suspect would not have misappropriated it as a divine intervention in the war effort, and so the influence of the weather on the battle remains questionable. Overall, it seems likely that Otto followed a similar tactic to his father Henry I in 933 at the Battle of Riade to get the Magyar horsemen within range of his armored riders, i.e. first relatively lightly armed warriors challenged the Hungarians, who then met the fully equipped army.

Cut off retreat

At the end of the field battle, the Hungarians were in retreat – and in such numbers (still about 20,000 men) that the Augsburgs initially assumed a renewed attack as the horsemen rushed toward their city. Widukind of Corvey reports about the brave resistance of some Hungarians, but they could not turn the battle. Gerhard of Augsburg, in his Vita Sancti Uodalrici, reports “that those who saw them coming from the bulwarks of the city of Augsburg thought they were returning without being affected by the battle, until they saw them hurrying past the city to the other bank of the Lech River.” Therefore, one could assume that some Hungarian army leaders had managed to break off the battle in order to escape complete annihilation, or that the retreat was only feigned in order to move Otto”s warriors out of their battle order, as the Hungarian army had already managed to do in the Battle of the Lechfeld in 910. If this was indeed the case, their plan did not work this time. The older Saint Gall annals even report a second battle in which the Bohemians defeated the retreating Hungarians. In fact, however, they tried to reach their camp on the Bavarian bank of the Lech. But here, too, the rains of the previous days had a disastrous effect. The Lech and the other rivers flowing from the Alps to the Danube had swollen to such an extent that it was not possible to cross in a short time under the threat of the enemy. Therefore, some scattered units tried to find shelter in the surrounding villages. The few warriors who managed to escape these massacres were ambushed in the hinterland at occupied ferries and fords. They were slain or drowned. On the run, among others, the leaders Bulcsú, Lehel and Sur were captured and brought together with other nobles to Henry I in Regensburg, which had fallen back into his rule only in May 955 as a result of the failed Liudolfin revolt. The latter had them hanged as one of his last official acts before his death on November 1.

For the Hungarians, the catastrophic outcome of the battle brought about a fundamental change in society. After the class of mounted warriors had lost considerable power, the Magyars mixed more and more with the resident Slavs and became sedentary. They vacated the territories in what is now Austria and retreated to what is now western Hungary. Grand Prince Géza asked Otto for missionaries and disempowered the old warrior nobility, the counterpart of the Arpadians. His son Stephen the Saint eventually married the Bavarian princess Gisela from the house of the East Frankish emperor.

For Otto, the victory on the Lechfeld initially meant a consolidation of his rule. In gratitude, he consecrated a bishopric in Merseburg to the namesake saint of August 10, St. Laurence, to whom he attributed the victory, and St. Laurence

For the common people, the Battle of the Lechfeld marked the end of a period characterized mainly by constant invasions of the Magyars, Vikings and Slavs. After a time when people lived in a near expectation of the Apocalypse and expected the return of Jesus for the end of the millennium, an era of earthly expectation of the future began.

The banner of Archangel Michael displayed by Otto”s legio regia at the Battle of Lechfeld and the positive outcome of the battle caused the Archangel to be chosen as the patron saint of Germany.

On December 1, 2013, it became known that an amateur archaeologist had come across the remains of a magnificent Hungarian horse harness on the Lechfeld near Todtenweis, 15 km north of Augsburg. Historians consider the conspicuous ornaments and the silver and partly gold-plated buckles and pendants to be particularly remarkable. These valuables indicate the possession of a Hungarian leader. Both the Archaeological State Collection and the Bavarian State Office for the Preservation of Monuments described the find as the first direct archaeological evidence of the battle. In 2021, the discovery of a sword near Königsbrunn became known.

The fastening system on the Lechrain near Augsburg

According to some researchers, most of the individual battles of the Battle of the Lechfeld took place on the eastern side of the Lech between Thierhaupten and Mering. The Lech plain lies about 30 to 70 meters above sea level below the adjacent hill country.

In fact, on the Lechrain between Thierhaupten, Mering and Landsberg, a veritable system of early medieval ramparts (Ungarnwälle) of various sizes has been preserved. Shortly behind Thierhaupten lies the Eselsberg on a hill. A few kilometers to the south, the Pfarrerschanze offers the typical picture of a larger Hungarians” rampart. Only about 1000 meters to the south lies the large high medieval Pfalzgrafenburg near Sand on the Lechrain, which could also originally go back to a Hungarian fortification.

The next clearly early medieval fortification is the ring wall in Ottmaringer Holz near Kissing. Between Sand and Kissing lie the castle sites near Mühlhausen and Friedberg as further possible sites of Hungarian fortifications built over in the High Middle Ages. Shortly before Friedberg, the ring wall in Kirchholz near Haberskirch has been preserved somewhat set back from the Lechrain. Behind Mering the “Hartwald” protects the ramparts of the “Vorderer” and the “Hinterer” Schlossberg. The Ringwall Mittelstetten near Mittelstetten in the district of Fürstenfeldbruck reminds in its conception of the neighboring two “Schlossberge”. The two redoubts in Westerholz near Kaufering sit directly on the high bank of the Lech. The larger of the two is also often interpreted as being of Hungarian origin.

In the hinterland, several other ramparts of presumably early medieval origin can be traced in the terrain. The most extensive is the “Schwedenschanze” near Aichach, whose ephemeral outer rampart system is comparable to the ring wall in the Ottmaringer Holz near Kissing. Michael Weithmann even saw evidence of such a Hungarian-period protective fortress in the slope ditches of the high medieval ancestral castle of the Wittelsbach dynasty (Wittelsbach Castle). About 40 kilometers east of the Leche plain, above the hamlet of Wagesenberg near Pöttmes, the earthworks of one of the most impressive Hungarian protective castles in Bavaria have been preserved (Schanze Wagesenberg).

These fortifications could be the castles mentioned by Widukind of Corvey, which are said to have been manned mainly by Bohemian troop contingents. Widukind is considered by many historians to be not a very reliable source. However, his statements about the fortifications on the Lechrain are confirmed by the numerous, unusually well-preserved castle complexes with pronounced rampart-ditch systems.

However, the question arises here why the Magyars should have confronted the East Frankish units on the plain directly under this fortification line – which probably originated as a border protection between the tribes of the Alamanni and the Bavarians. The Hungarian scouts and army commanders must certainly have noticed this regular trap. However, it is speculative whether this castle system was planned to defend against the Hungarians. Certainly, older fortifications were reactivated and expanded at short notice.

Possibly, the actual main site of the Lechfeld Battle is to be located west of the Lech River in the area between Augsburg and Günzburg. In view of the archaeological situation, this opinion held by some historians (Georg Kreuzer) is quite plausible. The district local historian Walter Pötzl identifies the area between Steppach, Stadtbergen, Pfersee, Kriegshaber, Oberhausen and Neusäß as an ideal terrain for a field battle. However, according to Pötzl, the main camp of the Hungarians should have been located on the eastern side of the Lech, i.e. under the castle-occupied Lechrain.

Since the end of 2008, there has been renewed discussion about the actual site of the Battle of the Lechfeld. The museum “955 – Information and Presentation Pavilion Königsbrunn” has been established on the Lechfeld, in the center of which a large tin figure diorama with over 12,000 hand-painted tin figures recreates the course of the battle. After the communities of Königsbrunn, Friedberg, Mering, Kissing and Augsburg had applied for the location of the museum, the center of Königsbrunn was chosen as the museum location in the fall of 2009, in the direct vicinity of the local long-distance trade museum Mercateum, the largest walk-in globe in the world based on historical map material.

Hungarian-period fortifications on the Wertachleite

On the western side of the Lech River, there are far fewer comparable castles. However, the Haldenburg near Schwabegg (town of Schwabmünchen) is considered a particularly characteristic large castle of this era. Shortly after the battle on the Lechfeld, the Siebnach fortress may have been built, whose layout was probably derived directly from the Haldenburg.

North of the Haldenburg lie two ground monuments of unknown period on the Wertachleite near Straßberg (Bobingen). Here, especially the sectional rampart Straßberg is considered as a smaller possible Hungarian fortress.

Shortly after the battle, the Hungarian side began to create myths about the outcome. It is said that a second battle was successful, that many hostages were executed in Hungary in retaliation, or that the captured Lehel killed the German emperor with his horn.

German historians in the Middle Ages took pains to add a trial before executions to preserve the appearance of vindication.

In Bavaria, a wide variety of legends surround the Battle of the Lechfeld, such as that of St. Ulrich, Bishop of Augsburg, who in the course of time became a participant in the battle. In Straubing, the story is told of a young archer who was enfeoffed with the county of Bogen in gratitude for his bravery. At Keferloh, the men of the Count of Ebersberg are said to have rounded up the captured horses of the Hungarians and sold them, which gave birth to the Neukeferloh horse market.

Since the chroniclers of the early Middle Ages often included biblical passages and ancient writers in their reports, their explanations gave rise to different interpretations. Thus, the size of the German army varies between 3000 and 26,000 men, the army of the Hungarians, according to one source, even counted 128,000 men. Considering that at that time already 50 armored knights were called a “force”, the smaller figures usually seem more plausible. This becomes clear in the source information of Widukind of Corvey. He speaks of “as it were” eight legiones, of which the army of Otto I is said to have consisted. He gives the Bohemian legio with a thousand men, but describes the fifth legio as the largest, also with a strength of a thousand men.

In its aftermath, the importance of the battle on the Lechfeld increased. It was stylized as Germany”s battle of destiny and was artistically dressed up and used for propaganda by various sides.

Illumination

One of the first depictions of the battle comes from the chronicle of Louis the Great from 1358, in which Lehel strikes down the German emperor with his horn (see above). Following the fashion of the time, further depictions from the 15th century show stylized armored horsemen fighting Orientals, such as the Legends of the Augsburg Saints of 1454 and no less than two depictions in the Chronicle of Sigismund Meisterlin in 1457 by Hektor Mülich and in 1479 by Konrad Bollstatter.

Reproductions

With the advent of printing, the battle also became the subject of reproducible media. For example, a woodcut from 1488 in the chronicle of Johannes von Thurocz shows lancers and Orientals. Likewise, a woodcut by Hans Weiditz the Elder from 1520 depicts the battle as a fight between contemporary lansquenets and Orientals, similar to the chronicle by Sebastian Münster from 1559, which shows only lansquenets.

Finally, in the 17th century, a demand for independent representations of the battle began to develop. In this context, a devotional picture by Wolfgang Kilian from 1623 depicts angels handing a cross to Bishop Ulrich in front of the battlefield. A 1624 commemorative painting by Daniel Manasser shows the bishop in a baroque frame on the battlefield behind the action. Similar to the devotional picture by Wolfgang Kilian, an elaborate copperplate engraving by Bartholomäus Kilian from 1664 shows Bishop Ulrich being presented with a cross in the midst of the battle, below which is a contemporary city view of Augsburg. The Hungarians depicted here clearly show Ottoman features.

Painting

The paintings in the “Historical Gallery” in the Maximilianeum were created from 1852 onwards under the direction of Leo von Klenze and show the main moments in world history. The battle on the Lechfeld is also represented in a painting by Michael Echter entitled “The Battle of Hungary near Augsburg”.

Wall and ceiling painting

Through the veneration of Bishop Ulrich, the Battle of the Lechfeld also found its way into churches in the form of frescoes. Thus in the years 1716-1721 in the parish church of St. Ulrich in Hohenfels there was a painting, presumably by Cosmas Damian Asam, which shows King Otto together with the bishop in battle. Near Deggendorf, W. Haindl painted Bishop Ulrich giving communion to King Otto before the battle in the Ulrichsbergkirchlein in 1751. He follows a legendary model of Dominicus Custos from 1601. In the following time the bishop was depicted more and more as a participant of the battle. In a ceiling fresco in the church of St. Ulrich in Seeg by Johann Baptist Enderle from 1770, Ulrich and Otto can be seen rushing to the battle. Finally, another Baroque ceiling fresco from the parish church of St. Ulrich in Eresing shows the saint in the thick of battle. In the 19th century, battle continued to be a motif for ceiling frescoes, as in 1856 in the church of Königsbrunn by Ferdinand Wagner. Here Ulrich prays with the urban congregation. Behind it are the siege of Augsburg and the field battle.

However, murals on this theme are not only found in churches. Paintings of the Weavers” House in Augsburg in 1608 by Johann Matthias Kager also showed Ulrich and Otto in battle, but have not survived. Today, only a fresco with weathering damage can be seen from this cycle, showing Otto and Ulrich entering the city after the battle. In 1846, a fresco by Julius Frank was created in the old Bavarian National Museum (today: Museum Fünf Kontinente), on which Ulrich is again found next to Otto in the battle. More modern is the depiction of the young Count of Bogen in battle on a mural in the old town hall of Bogen and the mural in the town hall of Kissing, which shows Otto in battle and Ulrich outside the town.

Ulrich”s Cross

Probably the most popular depiction of the battle, the so-called Ulrich”s Cross of 1494, shows the saint being presented with a cross by angels during a fall-out. This is an engraving on the version of the relic of the cross of St. Ulrich and Afra by Nikolaus Seld, which is now kept in the Heiltumskammer in Augsburg. In the form of the Order of the Crux Victorialis, which was awarded to cavalrymen from the 16th to the 18th century, the Cross of St. Ulrich shows Ulrich and Otto in battle.

Representations in literature

The events surrounding the Battle of the Lechfeld were also the subject of historical novels, such as “Schwabenblut – Ein Heldenroman aus alter Zeit” (Swabian Blood – A Heroic Novel from Ancient Times) by Florentine Gebhart in 1928 and “Wolfsfrau und die Schlacht auf dem Lechfeld – Ein Krimi aus der Ottonenzeit” (Wolf Woman and the Battle of the Lechfeld – A Thriller from the Ottonian Period) by Torsten Kreutzfeldt in 2001.

St. Ulrich”s festival week 1955

To mark the 1000th anniversary of the battle, the so-called Ulrich Stone with stone mosaics by Hans Selner and Hanns Weidner was erected at the Lechhauser Lech Bridge in 1955. The diocese of Augsburg took the commemorative year as an opportunity to commit the faithful to the papal magisterium, ecclesiastical moral law and tradition within the framework of an “Ulrich Year” and to rally behind their bishop Joseph Freundorfer (1949-1963). From July 2 to 11, 1955, a festive week took place, marked above all by the Occidental Movement. At the opening ceremony, Federal President Theodor Heuss, who was greeted by Minister President Wilhelm Hoegner on Ulrichplatz, called the victory on the Lechfeld the first all-German achievement in history. Prominent political representatives included Hasso von Manteuffel, Walter von Keudell, Hans-Joachim von Merkatz and Rudolf Lodgman von Auen. The presence of Robert Schuman underscored the European dimension of the event. At the closing rally in the Rosenaustadion, Heinrich von Brentano delivered his first public speech as foreign minister to an audience of 60,000. At the height of the Cold War, the accession of the Federal Republic to NATO and the neutrality of Austria in 1955, in which a part of the German public, including prominent Catholics, wanted to recognize the model for the solution of the German question, Brentano implored Catholics not to slacken in the defense of freedom against “the new paganism” of a “secular fanaticism.” This was aimed not least against the suppression of Christianity, the Church and any kind of freedom in the Soviet Union and in the GDR, which had been shaken by a new church struggle since 1954. In contrast, the medievalist Theodor Schieffer opposed a superficial updating of the event of 955, which he understood and appreciated from its very own premises.

48.1710.81Coordinates: 48° 10′ N, 10° 49′ E

Sources

  1. Schlacht auf dem Lechfeld
  2. Battle of Lechfeld