3. Maria Theresia, Turks (18th-17th c)

The Napoleonic Wars had largely passed Hungary by (although not a few of her men served in the Austrian armies, and landowners did well from high prices for agricultural produce). In the 1790s, under the impact of the French Revolution and, in particular, the Paris Terror, Vienna introduced strict policing and censorship; at the same time, and inspired by the very ideas that frightened the Habsburg Court, a considerable number of Hungarian intellectuals -- writers, poets, lawyers, even clergymen, most of them Freemasons -- formed a Jacobine Circle and circulated documents briming with lofty ideals amongst themselves. Its prime mover, the Abbé Ignatius Martinovich, might have been a police informer, but he was arrested with the others and was among the half dozen executed; the sentences of the rest were commuted to long periods of incarceration in remote fortresses, notably Kufstein (from which events released them after a few years).

Before that the country was torn in its attitudes to Joseph II (1780-90), who aimed to impose enlightened government from above. In this spirit he refused to be crowned, so as not to be tied by a Coronation Oath (indeed, he had the Holy Crown and other regalia placed in a museum in Vienna), would not call Parliaments, and made German the only official language of government in Hungary too. For these reasons routine Hungarian historiography decries him; yet many enlightened and progressive Hungarians of the period -- such as Count Francis Széchényi, who founded the National Library from his own collection, and Francis Kazinczy, who did more than any other contemporary for Hungarian literature (and was one of those later imprisoned at Kufstein) -- supported many of his reforms, notably in education, and served him loyally. On balance, his fault was the arrogance of the means he chose, not the underlying ideas he pursued.

Joseph II was the son, too long kept in the background without a proper role, of Maria Theresia (1740-80), the second Queen Regnant in Hungarian history (the first had been in the 14th century). Married to Francis, Duke of Lorraine, and Holy Roman Emperor -- hence her descendants are, strictly speaking, Habsburg-Lorraines -- Hungary, which enabled her to fend off Frederic the Great of Prussia, might have disembarrassed itself of the Habsburgs before she came to the throne.

Her father Charles III (1711-40) (Charles VI as Emperor) was the last Habsburg in the male line. As the Hungarian constitution then stood, when the monarch had no male heir Parliament could elect a king of its choice to succeed him. However, Charles III -- a man of undoubted charm, tact, diplomatic skill and goodwill -- had managed to persuade Parliament to incorporate the Pragmatica Sanctio, which recognised his daughter's right to succeed him, into Hungarian law, together with additional clauses that "perpetually and indissolubly" linked the Kingdom of Hungary and the Hereditary Lands in a personal union (Acts I-III of 1722), much as England and Scotland had been in the 17th century through the person of their common monarch.

The persuasive powers of Charles III were all the more impressive in that an anti-Habsburg civil war -- led by Francis II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania , and one of the most romantic characters in Hungarian history -- that lasted from 1703 to 1711, with tacit financial support from Louis XIV of France, had been terminated but eleven years earlier, admittedly on singularly generous terms (negotiated and signed at Szatmár, in north-eastern Hungary, by Count John Pálffy on behalf of the King and Baron, later Count, Alexander Károlyi on behalf of Rákóczi). The main reason for its eruption had been mounting discontent due to the high-handed policies of Charles's father Leopold I (1657-1705) who -- bigoted, dour, surrounded by Spanish priests and courtiers -- had attempted to govern Hungary through a secret committee, the Camarilla, from the Hofburg at Vienna.

In particular, Leopold I had tried to suppress religious liberty with sword and fire (a good half and more of the population was Lutheran or Calvinist: by Act I of 1608 they were permitted to pratice their religion freely); imposed arbitrary taxes to pay for the foreign troops employed to do so; had leading opponents of his policies -- notably Counts Peter Zrinyi, Francis Frangepán and Francis Nádasdy -- illegally executed (at Wiener Neustadt, just across the border in Austria: no Hungarian Court would have countenanced a charge against them); treated land reconquered from the Turks as newly acquired ownerless land (terra nullius), to be distributed among favoured courtiers and successful army suppliers without regard to Hungarian claims and rights rooted in previous ownership.

Of Transylvania he constituted an hereditary Habsburg Duchy, refusing to re-join it to the rest of the country from which it had been cut off. (Maria Theresia later made of it a Grand Duchy; re-unification with the rest of Hungary had to wait until 1848.) Moreover, in 1699, at the Peace of Karlóca (Karlovac), he made totally unwarranted concessions to the Turks, handing them back large and strategically important areas, notably the region of Temesvár, that had been reconquered from them by force of arms.

Yet -- in large part due to the efforts of Pope Innocent XI, who had persuaded the reluctant Leopold I to act and other European Powers to contribute men and money -- the expulsion of the Turks from Hungary had been rapid after Buda was retaken from them, in September 1686. For near on a century and a half it had been the administrative centre of the area, about one third of the country, that the Turks held occupied, known as the Turkish Conquest (török hódoltság): this included most of the central plains to the southern foothills of the Carpathians, and the south-eastern portion of Transdanubia, more or less to the line of Lake Balaton.


The region under Turkish occupation had largely separated Royal Hungary -- its territorial extent limited to the west and north of Transdanubia and to the Highlands in the north and north-east, its capital at Pozsony (Pressbourg, renamed Bratislava by the Czechs in 1920) -- from Transylvania (which also included the so-called Partium, adjacent portions of the plains). Owing to this separation Transylvania, previously always an integral part of Hungary, had become an elective, independent Principality that managed, most of the time, to recognise both the King of Hungary and the Sultan as its nominal suzerain.

However, the borders between these three parts of Hungary remained fluid and permeable, notably to trade and ideas, despite continuous skirmishing warfare between Turks and Hungarians, and occasional larger campaigns. Transylvania, in particular, often played a decisive role in Hungarian politics, both as a haven of religious toleration and by supporting -- especially under Princes Stephen Bocskay (1605-6) and Gábor Bethlen (1614-29) -- Royal Hungary in thwarting Vienna's repeated attempts to reduce the Kingdom to the status of an hereditary Habsburg province (as Bohemia had been after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620).

Last updated: December 1997

Return to
Contents page
Continue with
4. The coming of the Turks
(16th c)
Go back to
Hungary page