The Golden Horde and the Mongol Mission to Conquer Europe
Before Mongol emperor Genghis Khan died in 1227 AD, he divided his vast empire into four khanates (fiefdoms) among three sons and a grandson. The westernmost of these regions was ruled by the Golden Horde, first headed by Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu Khan. Genghis’ son Jochi was to have ruled the huge territory, but he died six months before Genghis could bestow the vast area on him. So it went to Batu, Jochi’s son. Batu’s assignment: Conquer Europe.
Batu and his descendants did in fact succeed in their assignment, but the Golden Horde empire would eventually crumble under the weight of the Black Plague and warfare by Tamerlane. Later, the Poles and Lithuanians repelled and defeated the Golden Horde.
What Was the Golden Horde?
The Golden Horde, also known as the Kipchak Khanate, ruled Eastern Russia from 1240 to 1480. The name possibly came from the golden color of the ruling khans’ yurts (tent-like dwellings). They were also known as the Ulus of Jochi, after Batu’s father.
Sacking of Suzdal by Batu Khan in February, 1238. Mongol Invasion of Russia. A miniature from the sixteenth century chronicle. ( Public Domain )
Kipchak Khanate controlled Khwarizm, the Crimea, the northern Caucasus, Bulgaria, Siberia, and the former Volga Bulghar region. The Golden Horde was still a subset of the overall Mongol Great Khanate Empire, which had its headquarters in Karakorum.
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Unlike the Mongols of the Far East, who settled in cities, the Golden Horde kept its ancestors’ nomadic way of life and subsumed other nomads west of traditional Mongolian territory. Batu and his successors stayed in power by preserving the Mongol ruling class and by using the principle of indirect rule. The regions and nations they ruled paid tribute to the Golden Horde (known by the Mongols as the Altan Ordu), but kept some of their own leaders and governmental systems.
Mongol Influence on Conquered Peoples Was Deep
The Mongol influence on medieval Russia and other regions was deep and lasted for a long time. The Mongols helped unify the incipient Russian state by providing new political institutions and fostered the rise of a Muscovite (Moscow) autocracy. Russian princes were vassals of the Golden Horde and paid tribute.
The capital of the Golden Horde, at Sarai on the Volga River north of the Caspian Sea, was a vital center of commerce and trade. The Mongols oversaw an exchange of goods and ideas between West and East. The Golden Horde and Mongols in general were known for religious tolerance. The official religion of the Golden Horde khanate became Islam.
Genrikh Semiradsky, ‘Alexander Nevsky in the Horde’. 1876. The Russian Museum. ( Public Domain )
Early on, the Golden Horde was a part of the larger Mongol Empire, but by the early 14th century the alliance was mostly ceremonial and symbolic. The Golden Horde maintained the Mongol census and postal service, but forewent other customs and traditions.
Golden Horde on the Map
Genghis Khan and his followers had ruled some parts of the Kipchak Khanate but not all. Batu and his men went on to conquer lands to the west. By 1235, the Golden Horde conquered the Bashkirs, a Turkic people of the Eurasian borderlands. By 1236, Batu Khan added Bulgaria and by 1237, southern Ukraine. It took three more years, but by 1240 Batu’s horde conquered what was then known as Kievan Rus, which are now in the area of northern Ukraine and western Russia.
Batu was still not satisfied. He decided to go after Hungary, Poland, and Austria. But the great Khan Ogedei died, and so Batu returned to contest for the Great Khanate of all Mongols. Batu broke off a siege of Vienna in 1241 and he and his army and retainers started to return East. They destroyed the Bulgarian city of Pest along the way.
The Mongols in Hungary 1285. Széchényi National Library, Budapest, fol. 64 verso, Inv. no. Clmae 404 (the picture is of a 19th century reproduction). From the Chronicum Pictum in Hungary's National Library. ( Public Domain ) The dismounted Mongols, with captured women, are on the left, the Hungarians, with one saved woman, on the right.
Batu never arrived at the Mongol capital because he did not support the man who was to become the Great Khan. There was a vacuum in the leadership until Batu sent his younger brother a few years later to help select the khan.
In 1256 Batu died. The Great Khan Mongke appointed his son, Sartaq, as the khan of the Golden Horde, but Sartaq died not long after. Then Batu’s younger brother Berke took over.
Golden Horde Conquers, Then Brings Peace
Eventually the Golden Horde conquered parts of Northern Europe, including Poland, Lithuania and Hungary. Berke also demanded that Louis the Ninth of France submit to his authority. In 1259 and 1260, while he was bringing Prussia to heel, Batu and his men nearly destroyed the Teutonic Knights , who had been Crusaders.
The Golden Horde at the Battle of Legnica (legnitz) 1241. From ‘Legend of Saint Hedwig’. ( Public Domain )
“For the Europeans who lived quietly under Mongol rule, this was the era of the Pax Mongolica. Improved trade and communications routes made the flow of goods and information easier than ever before. The Golden Horde's justice system made life less violent and dangerous than before in medieval Eastern Europe. The Mongols took regular census counts and required regular tax payments, but otherwise left the people to their own devices so long as they did not try to rebel.” (ThoughtCo.com)
Fall of the Golden Horde
The Golden Horde under Berke Khan fought his relative Hulago Khan of the Ikhanate in 1262.
Simultaneously, the forces of Kublai Khan and Ari Boke did battle in the East, vying for the Great Khanate.
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Some of the weapons of the Golden Horde included spears, arrows and bows, armor, flail weights and axes. ( CC0)
The khanates survived, but this strife was the first signal that they were vulnerable. Even so, the Golden Horde went on successfully until 1340, when fleas brought the Black Plague to Asia and Europe, killing many taxpayers and producers. The losses hit the Golden Horde hard.
As of 1359, there were four claimants to the throne of the Great Khanate. Also, Slavic and Tatar city-states began to rise. The world of the Mongols became so roiled that the Golden Horde lost contact with the main government center in Mongolia.
The armies of Timur or Tamerlane crushed the Golden Horde in 1395 and 1396. Timur looted the Golden Horde’s cities and appointed a rival khan.
By 1480, the Golden Horde was so weakened that Ivan III of Russia drove the Mongols out of Moscow and established the Russian state. In a dying gasp, remnants of the Golden Horde attacked the kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania from 1487 to 1491 but were easily defeated.
Top Image: ‘Mongols at the Walls of Vladimir’ by Vasily Maksimov. Depiction of Mongols of the Golden Horde outside Vladimir - presumably demanding submission before sacking the city. Source: Public Domain
By Mark Miller
Sczcepanski, K. What was the Golden Horde? Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-golden-horde-195330.
U.S. Library of Congress, CountryStudies.us. The Golden Horde. Available at http://countrystudies.us/mongolia/21.htm.
Stearns, P. Russia in Bondage. Available at https://www2.stetson.edu/~psteeves/classes/mongolimpact.html