By the beginning of the 17th century Hungary seemed to be set to remain divided into three parts: Royal Hungary, the Turkish Conquest, and Transylvania. The only major effort to dislodge the Turks, known as the Fifteen Years War (1593 - 1606), had petered out without achieving more than local successes (such as the re-taking of Gyôr in 1598): by the Treaty of Zsitvatorok (1606) peace, to last twenty years, was concluded with the Turks and re-integration of Transylvania into Royal Hungary -- an aim until then pursued in regular, if intermittent, negotiations for more than half a century -- was no longer sought.
The Counter-Reformation had come to Hungary too, but here it proceeded by open debate, argument and a flood of tracts (by 1600 well over five hundred had been published). The Parliament called to approve the coronation* of Matthias II (1608-19) -- who replaced his increasingly deranged brother Rudolf I (II as Emperor, 1576 - 1608) on the throne -- passed Acts that granted religious liberty for those who adhered to one of the Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist or Orthodox churches, and that established the equal standing of Catholic and Protestant candidates for some of the highest offices of state. (Another Act also divided Parliament into separate Upper and Lower Chambers: up to then the bishops, magnates and elected county representatives had, in principle at least, sat and debated together.)
* A constitutional requirement, whose misreading has given rise to the erroneous view -- held, in particular, by numerous West European historians -- that Hungary's monarchy was elective, like Poland's.
16th century advances of the Reformation in Hungary culminated with publication of the first complete translation of the Bible, in 1590, by Caspar Károli. The counterattack was led by Peter Pázmány, from 1616 to his death in 1637 Cardinal-Archbishop of Esztergom (and founder of the University that still thrives in Budapest): his published sermons, treatises and pamphlets -- marvelous blends of theological reasoning, earthy similes and gentle, frequently ad hominem, irony -- are a pleasure to read to this day. (They were both well educated: Károli had studied at Wittenberg and in Switzerland; Pázmány in Cracow, Vienna and Rome.) Mention must also be made of Count Nicholas Zrinyi (the Younger, to distinguish him from his great-grandfather), author of important works on political and military matters, as well as poetry. And the poems of the soldier-poet Baron Valentine (Bálint) Balassa, who died in action against the Turks in 1594, can still be enjoyed today. Hungarian literature dates from their writings.
The Turks had conquered most of the area they held by the 1550s, despite the heroic resistance of outnumbered garrisons in numerous fortified places: Köszeg, Eger, Drégely, Szigetvár -- the last held unto death by Count Nicholas Zrinyi the Elder -- to name but the most famous. Yet, time and again, armies that could have come to their relief were kept standing idly by, a few days' march away, by the Spanish or Italian generals given command of them and keen to preserve them intact. Indeed, the High Command (Hofkreigsrat) at Vienna kept objecting when Hungarian commanders in the field "rashly" engaged in military actions that could "annoy" the Turks who were invading the country.
Such pusillanimity was a grave disappointment: Ferdinand I (1526-64), the first of the long line of Habsburg Kings, had been elected to the then vacant throne in the expectation that he, and his successors, would obtain armed assistance against the Turks from the Empire (the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, to give it its full designation). After all, only Hungary stood between the Turks and the Empire; moreover, his brother the Emperor Charles V was at war with Francis I of France, who had allied himself with the Turks despite sporting the title Most Christian King.
Initially resistance to the Turkish advance had also been impeded by the division of loyalties between two Kings. John I (1526-40) -- John Zápolya (sometimes also written Szapolyai), up to then Governor of Transylvania -- had also been elected to the vacant throne, some six weeks earlier than Ferdinand, largely because he still had an intact army. However, within two years he became a client of the Turks, and was then left in possession of Buda and the centre of the country until his death in 1541.
But after it the Turks seized Buda from his baby son John Sigismund in a bloodless coup. The infant John Sigismund and his Regency Council (except for some, notably Valentine Török, who were taken to Istanbul in chains) were then permitted to retire to, and retain, Transylvania. It was from this time that it gradually evolved into an independent principality, whose first Prince John Sigismund became. It was governed in his name by Bishop, later Cardinal, George Martinuzzi (who preferred to be known as Friar George) until he was assassinated in 1551, certainly with the knowledge, and possibly at the behest, of Ferdinand I.
The election of two Kings -- both by incomplete, separate, Parliaments convened in a country that was in disarray -- followed the crushing defeat inflicted on the Hungarian army by Suleiman I the Magnificent at Mohács on the 29th August 1526. Of twenty-eight thousand Hungarians who had faced the Turk some twenty-four thousand, among them most of the bishops, senior office holders, dignitaries and leading men of the realm, perished; the young and yet childless Louis II (1516-26) himself was killed as he fled the field, leaving the throne vacant. Only the ambitious John Zápolya had failed to arrive in time for the battle with the army he was bringing from Transylvania -- it is concievable, but cannot be proven, that he tarried on purpose.
Mohács had not been the first clash with the Ottoman Turks, who had been at the borders of Hungary since the 1370s, but had up to then been kept at bay. However Suleiman I -- an exceptionally gifted and energetic Sultan -- had found a country that was enfeebled and impoverished by the lackadaisical reign of Ulászló II (1490-1516), of the Polish House of Yagello, and his son Louis II, not yet ten when he was crowned. The thirty-five years of their reigns undermined central authority, exhausted the Treasury, encouraged factional dissension, led to neglect of defensive measures, and had given rise to a major peasants' revolt in 1514, whose bloody aftermath further weakened the country.
Last updated: December 1997
5. Matthias, Hunyadis, Sigismund
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