What Was the Golden Horde?

The Mongol Empire's Greatest Settled Force

Genghis Khan's grandson ruled the Golden Horde, which controlled Russia and parts of E. Europe
Golden Horde fighting at the Ugra River. via Wikipedia

The Golden Horde was the group of settled Mongols who ruled over Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova and the Caucasus from the 1240s until 1502. The Golden Horde was established by Batu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, and subsequently a part of the Mongol Empire before its inevitable fall. 

The Golden Horde's name "Altan Ordu," may have come from the yellow tents used by the rulers, but nobody is sure about the derivation.

In any case, the word "horde" entered many European languages through Slavic Eastern Europe as a result of the Golden Horde's rule. Alternate names for the Golden Horde include the Kipchak Khanate and the Ulus of Jochi — who was the son of Genghis Khan and the father of Batu Khan.

Origins of the Golden Horde

When Genghis Khan lay dying in 1227 he divided his Empire into four fiefdoms to be ruled by the families of each of his four sons. However, his first son Jochi had died six months earlier, so the westernmost of the four khanates, in Russia and Kazakhstan, went to Jochi's eldest son, Batu.  

Once Batu had consolidated his power over the lands conquered by his grandfather, he gathered his armies and headed west to add further territories to the realm of the Golden Horde. In 1235 he conquered the Bashkirs, a western Turkic people from the Eurasian borderlands. The following year, he took Bulgaria, followed by southern Ukraine in 1237.

 It took three years additional years, but in 1240 Batu conquered the principalities of Kievan Rus — now northern Ukraine and western Russia. Next, the Mongols set out to take Poland and Hungary, followed by Austria.

However, events back in the Mongolian homeland soon interrupted this campaign of territorial expansion.

In 1241, the second Great Khan, Ogedei Khan, suddenly died. Batu Khan had been busy besieging Vienna when he received the news; he broke the siege and began to march east to contest the succession. Along the way, he destroyed the Hungarian city of Pest, and conquered Bulgaria.

Succession Issues

Although Batu Khan had begun to move toward Mongolia so that he could participate in the  "kuriltai" that would select the next Great Khan, in 1242 he stopped. Despite polite invitations from some of the claimants to Genghis Khan's throne, Batu pled old age and infirmity and refused to go to the meeting. He did not want to support the top candidate, wanting instead to play king-maker from afar. His refusal left the Mongols unable to select a top leader for several years. Finally, in 1246, Batu relented and delegated a younger brother as his representative.

Meanwhile, within the lands of the Golden Horde, all the senior princes of the Rus swore fealty to Batu. Some of them were still executed, however, like Michael of Chernigov, who had killed a Mongol envoy six years previously. Incidentally, it was the deaths of other Mongol envoys in Bukhara that touched off the entire Mongol Conquests; the Mongols took diplomatic immunity very seriously indeed.

Batu died in 1256, and the new Great Khan Mongke appointed his son Sartaq to lead the Golden Horde. Sartaq promptly died and was replaced by Batu's younger brother Berke. The Kievans (somewhat unwisely) seized this opportunity to rebel while the Mongols were embroiled in succession issues.

The Golden Age

However, by 1259 the Golden Horde had put its organizational issues behind it and sent a force to offer an ultimatum to the rebellious leaders of cities such as Ponyzia and Volhynia. The Rus complied, pulling down their own city walls — they knew that if the Mongols had to take down the walls, the population would be slaughtered.

With that clean-up accomplished, Berke sent his horsemen back into Europe, re-establishing his authority over Poland and Lithuania, forcing the king of Hungary to bow before him, and in 1260 also demanding submission from King Louis IX of France.

Berke's attack on Prussia in 1259 and 1260 nearly destroyed the Teutonic Order, one of the organizations of German knightly Crusaders.

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 that 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.

Mongol Civil War and Decline of the Golden Horde

In 1262, Berke Khan of the Golden Horde came to blows with Hulagu Khan of the Ikhanate, which ruled over Persia and the Middle East. Berke was emboldened by Hulagu's loss to the Mamluks at the Battle of Ain Jalut. At the same time, Kublai Khan and Ariq Boke of the Toluid line of the family were fighting back east over the Great Khanate.

The various khanates survived this year of warfare and chaos, but the Mongol disunity on display would signal increasing problems for the descendants of Genghis Khan in the coming decades and centuries. Nonetheless, the Golden Horde ruled in relative peace and prosperity until 1340, playing different Slavic factions off of one another to divide and rule them.

In 1340, a new wave of deadly invaders swept in from Asia. This time, it was fleas carrying the Black Death. The loss of so many producers and taxpayers hit the Golden Horde hard. By 1359, the Mongols had fallen back into dynastic squabbles, with as many as four separate claimants vying for the khanate simultaneously. Meanwhile, various Slavic and Tatar city-states and factions began to rise up again. By 1370, the situation was so chaotic that the Golden Horde lost contact with the home government in Mongolia.

Timur (Tamerlane) dealt the tottering Golden Horde a crushing blow in 1395 through 1396, when he destroyed their army, looted their cities and appointed his own khan.

The Golden Horde stumbled on until 1480, but it was never the great power it had been after Timur's invasion. In that year, Ivan III drove the Golden Horde from Moscow and established the nation of Russia. Remnants of the horde attacked the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland between 1487 and 1491 but were soundly thrashed.

The final blow came in 1502 when the Crimean Khanate — with Ottoman patronage — sacked the Golden Horde's capital at Sarai. After 250 years, the Golden Horde of the Mongols was no more.