The science-fiction book 1632 by Eric Flint and its Ring of Fire series created an alternative universe where a small American miners’ town from 2000 AD with all its residents and buildings gets relocated to Thuringia, Germany, in the year 1631—right in the middle of the Thirty Year War. History is greatly affected by this and various changes take place all over Europe. After many adventures the story has now arrived at the point when a clash with the Ottoman Empire seems to be inevitable: No one knows what this alternative future might hold for either the western countries or the Kingdom of Hungary and the Principality of Transylvania. What would a modern American in Grantville think about Hungarians? What would a modern American of Hungarian descent think of Hungarians in the seventeenth century, and more importantly, what would the seventeenth-century Hungarians think of them?
When talking about any actions concerning the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century, Hungarians cannot be bypassed. So far there have been just a few Hungarian characters in this series: either villains, charmers, or the minions of the not-so-friendly Habsburg monarchy. So the readers need to see a more detailed picture as the story reaches out towards the attacking Ottoman Empire.
In order to show more than the tip of this political iceberg, it’s necessary to dig deeper into Hungary’s history, because in the year 1630 it had already been fighting an unequal war with the Ottoman Empire for a good 230 years. Considering the disparate sizes of the military forces, this indicates that Hungarian military power cannot be underestimated.
It’s hard to know how much of the military power—the local Hungarian nobles and castle captains of the captaincies of the Hungarian kingdom—were loyal to the Habsburgs in the 1630s. What was the magic of these soldiers that they could keep the overwhelming Ottoman Empire’s armies at bay for so long with so little monetary support? It was not a miracle that the Turks couldn’t reach Vienna in more than two hundred years’ time. It wasn’t the doing of the glorious Habsburg troops, either.
Vienna simply could not be reached from the two main directions from which the Turks had been trying to do so for hundreds of years. The Turks were either following the line of the Danube in the hope of taking the formidable forts of Komárom, Győr (Raab), and Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava) that were guarding the river with their cannons all the way to Vienna or attempting to cut through the densely fortified Trans-Danubian region.
A third way would have been to go all around the Hungarian lands and climb the Alps as Hannibal had done a couple of thousand years before the current era.
The only other option left for the Turks if they wanted to get anywhere near Vienna was to get there with Transylvanian assistance. Prince György Rákóczi I of Transylvania had it in his power to make the way free to the Turks during the 1630s.
First, however, some information about the nation that was able to prevent the Muslim invasion of Europe and was crippled by it:
When it comes to Hungary and Hungarians, people have mixed feelings. Whether they’re regarded as some kind of eastern freedom-fighters armed with Molotov cocktails who invented Vitamin C in their spare time, or low Balkan savages, the servile allies of Germans in both World Wars and the barbarian offspring of Attila the Hun, mostly they are just a simple people who try to survive between the West and East—as their seventeenth-century folk song says:
“The wage of a poor soldier’s lad is cheap:
it is two-three pennies for a day.
Still, he can’t even spend that because
he is shedding his blood for one homeland,
between two pagans . . .”
The two pagans are the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
Hungary’s twenty-first century situation derives straight from the seventeenth-century period being discussed. If Hungary hadn’t been weakened so much by the Turks, she never would have been occupied by the Habsburgs. So there would be no Slovakia nor Yugoslavia to speak of and the very existence of Romania as a state would be questionable and Transylvania would have remained within Hungary’s borders.
Origins of Hungarians, Romanians, and Slovakians
However insignificant Hungary may seem now, its central location made it quite significant between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In the seventeenth century, Transylvania was a principality led by and populated mostly by Hungarians. (Except, perhaps, for Count Dracula.)
Neither Romania nor Slovakia existed as countries at the Ring of Fire. The name Romanian was invented in the nineteenth century and was not used at the time of the Ring of Fire. The people who are now referred to as Romanians and who had dealings with the Turks in this time period were from Wallachia and Moldavia, two satellite states which were wholly subservient to the Turks. At the time of the RoF they were mostly called Wallachians ( “Oláh” in Hungarian).
The Wallachian and Moldavian population within Transylvania was not numerous and they didn’t belong to the three nations which formed an alliance in order to guard their religious liberties: the Hungarian nobles, the Secler Nation (“Székely Nemzet”, a distinct and ancient Hungarian group) and the Saxon Germans mainly from Thuringia, in their seven major Saxon cities. In German, Transylvania is called “Siebenburgen”—the land of these “seven cities”.
During Transylvania’s history up to the RoF, there was only one non-Hungarian prince. Mihail II, Prince of Wallachia, got hold of Transylvania’s throne for a very short time in 1599. During his rather tyrannic reign he wanted to cease the religious tolerance and introduce the domination of the Orthodox Church along with the exclusive use of the Romanian language. But he failed in his intentions and was chased away after a year. Wallachian and Moldavians are not discussed here in great detail since their role compared to the Hungarians’ in fighting the Turks was minor. If you wish to compare the striking difference between Transylvania and the two Romanian principalities, read the French traveler and diplomat Pierre Lescalonier’s book in which he shares his journey’s story from Istanbul through Wallachia to Transylvania in 1574. The young French knight felt like he was entering civilization when he arrived in Transylvania and was surprised to witness the people in the local Lutheran churches finishing their prayers after each sermon saying:
“Please, God destroy the Papist and the Muslim tyranny!”
Slovakians—or rather, the predecessors of those Slavic people now called Slovakians—in the 1630s were mostly south Slavic refugees finding asylum and protection on the Hungarian Kingdom’s northern fringe. The Hungarian highlands offered a protected melting pot for several ethnic groups with different Slavic origin—southern Slavs (Serbs and Croatians), Moravians from Bohemia, Rusyns from Moldavia—coexisted and provided a basis for the beginning of a future Slovakian nation. That area later—in 1918—became Slovakia, with great numbers of indigenous Hungarians who were turned into minorities and considered second-class citizens. So on a modern map, Slovakia roughly covers the northern part of what was the Hungarian kingdom in the 1630s.
Readers and writers within the 1632verse should be aware of the settlements’ seventeenth-century names; the modern Slovakian names weren’t used until 1918, but they’re the ones that are used on most English language maps. However, the German versions of these names, as well as the Hungarian versions, were used in the 1630s, so these are the ones used in this article as well as the older names for present-day Serbian, Croatian, Ukrainian, and Romanian towns mentioned. Eastern Europe is a difficult place. As the joke goes, Hungary is the only country in Europe that is bordered by itself.
Hungarians are neither Germans nor Slavs—or even Indo-Europeans.
Even their names are backwards to European norms. In Hungary the family name comes first and the given name comes second, as in China and Japan.
The origin of the nation is much debated. The official version says they are Finno-Ugric and came from somewhere beyond the Ural Mountains and settled in the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century AD. Others say that the Finno-Ugric theory was forced and fabricated by the Habsburg-influenced Hungarian Academy of Science in the nineteenth century and was reinforced by ruling communists in the twentieth century in order to deprive the nation of a richer and more heroic origin. Heroes can be dangerous. Hungarians used to have quite a rebellious reputation and having a famous and glorious past could have meant trouble for the oppressing communist ruling class or from a new-born neighboring nation like Czechoslovakia. In Central Europe, national history, patriotic literature, and poetry have always been as perilous as explosives, and that’s still true today.
Romanians like to point out in their history schoolbooks how barbarian the invading Hungarians had been when they arrived in Transylvania and how they had oppressed poor Romanians who could only keep their superior culture by running and hiding in the Carpathian Mountains to wait for the glorious 1918. Slovakians even fabricated a genealogy for Slovakian kings that dates back to a fictional “Great Moravian Empire” that allegedly had been destroyed by the arrival of the bloodthirsty Huns in the ninth century. [Most scholarship, the Internet and Wikipedia does not agree with this statement. -Ed] The point is always that the neighboring or oppressor nations are supposed to be older and superior in their culture and origin. An indigenous Hungarian person living in one of those new countries could get in trouble if he publicly denied those falsifications.
Unorthodox experts point out that Hungarian culture has many things in common with the Scythians and the Parthians, later with the Huns and their descendants, especially the Avars who had been found in the Carpathian Basin when our native Magyar tribe arrived here in 895 AD, led by Prince Arpad.
By now even Finnish scientists doubt that we would be so closely related; the Finno-Ugric theory is bleeding from a hundred wounds. Recent studies indicate that the Hungarian DNA, food, music, and folklore is strongly connected with those of the white-skinned Uigurs of north China. All agree that our vocabulary and grammar is clearly alien to the Indo-European systems, with many striking similarities in grammar and vocabulary to Irish Gaelic. Some say that the Celtic languages are also not of Indo-European origin.
As even the sound of Hungarian is as similar to German or to Slavic languages as Welsh is to English, the arriving immigrants were not able to mix well with the neighboring nations. The huge differences in every single thing, beginning from language on up to warfare and other habits made this very hard.
Both the Mongols and the Turks claim that they considered the Hungarians to be “brothers” from the historical past and that before attacking they had offered to join forces with them against the western Christian kingdoms. Yet the Hungarian language is not part of the Turkish language family, even though there are similarities. Some linguists say the Turks had taken lots of things from the Hungarians and not vice-versa. Turks could always learn our tongue easily in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and most Hungarian frontier soldiers could speak good Turkish. (Many nobles and town people had some German and Latin, too.) Truly, the Turks in the early twentieth century modernized their language (and writing), and they used Hungarian grammar as a basis to build up their modern grammatical system. Besides, these are only two countries in Europe where people use “Attila” as a first name, using it in a positive sense. These similarities don’t mean that these nations weren’t lethal enemies for three hundred years.
The Hungarians are the only nomadic peoples in Europe that both came from the East and were able to integrate—after their conversion to Christianity in 1000 AD—into the Roman Catholic part of Europe. Thus Hungary has become the outermost border of the western Catholic cultural sphere. On the other side of the Carpathian Mountains everybody is Orthodox—there are no Catholics there (except for some isolated–and oppressed–indigenous ethnic islands of Hungarians). Hungary and Poland are the borderline countries in a religious sense. Similar history and said faith made them good friends. Some fifty years before the RoF, Stephen Báthory, a Hungarian prince of Transylvania, became the crowned king of Poland. He was the one who had beaten the infamous Russian Ivan the Terrible three times during his wars between 1579 and 1581.
Interesting enough, some Polish historians believe that Poles were the descendants of Sarmatian Huns—that Hungarians are their relatives. Aside from their friendship, Hungarians remain the orphans of Europe.
Medieval History of Hungary Before the RoF
Early manuscripts indicate that Arpad the Land Taker and his dynasty descended from King Attila the Hun. Attila was not the monster his enemies portrayed him as. After he was poisoned by his new German wife, Ildico, in 453 AD, his empire collapsed. His headquarters was in the Carpathian Basin. After them another nomadic tribe remained in Pannonia: the Huns’ descendants, the Avars. A nomadic people, their cultural and ornamental heritage was identical with those of Arpad’s Magyars who followed them in the ninth century AD. Frankish king Carolus the Great, also known as Charlemagne, led wars against the Avars, and he vanquished them between 791-799 AD. Whether they were all slain or not, Charlemagne certainly returned home with vast quantities of treasures. Allegedly, even Attila’s famous crown was among them, although some say it was the Holy Crown of Hungary. The pious king gifted many of these treasures to churches and monasteries. The crown mentioned was sent to the Pope in Rome as a gift.
Following the arrival of Arpad’s Magyars in 895 AD, there were many Hungarian raids into Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries. Legend says that these campaigns’ secret aim was to find and take the stolen Hun treasures back. The nomadic warfare took Europe by surprise and only two or three attacks were successfully defeated—the Hungarian threat was equal to the Vikings’ attacks of the time.
It was Hungary’s first Christian king, Saint István (Stephen) I, who demanded the Holy Crown back from Rome and by receiving it he brought Hungary into the Catholic faith in 1000 AD.
It is rather characteristic of Hungarians’ attitude towards colonists coming into the country that King St. István wrote to his son in his Admonitions: “The kingdom with one language and one custom is frail and fallible. Therefore I order you, my son, to honor the guests and the foreigners with good heart so as they should stay here more willingly, rather than at another place.” Hungary embraced colonists coming from all over Europe.
King St. István decided to lead his people to the Roman Catholic church instead of siding with the Orthodox Byzantium. King Attila’s Holy Crown has always had a supernatural character among the Hungarians. No king was accepted without being crowned with it: the Holy Crown was a “person” and the kings and the nobility swore fealty to Him. Hungary was described as the Country of the Holy Crown. The Hungarian feudal system and law was attached to the crown rather than to the king. This law obligated the Hungarian nobles and gave them certain liberties and rights. Later, the Habsburgs also had to make an oath on this crown in order to be accepted as long as they themselves kept the crown’s laws. A great part of the Hungarian population called themselves “noble” or was privileged in this or that way. The petty nobles—sometimes owning altogether as many as seven plum trees—had the right to go to the nobles’ convocation and elect a king. It was a right that later Habsburg rulers didn’t like that much. The non-Hungarian residents of the country called themselves Wlachus Hungaricus or Germanus Hungaricus, meaning Germans or Romanians who considered Hungary their homeland.
Hungarians’ success and survival depended on blending their eastern heritage with the western civilization to isolate the hungry West (i.e., the Holy Roman Empire) from the greedy East (i.e., the Byzantine Empire and later the Ottoman Empire). It was not much liked for this, but the kingdom withstood all attempts to bring it down. Their special half-eastern and half-western military style made them the perfect bastion against the nomads from the east and the Germans from the west.
The Battle of Pressburg (Pozsony, now Bratislava) in 907 AD was a great example of the Hungarians winning over the greatest allied western armies of the age who wanted to deal with the intruding “barbarians” for once and for all.
The Arpad Dynasty ruled for three centuries until 1300 AD and Hungary was a considerable middle-power in Europe.
King Könyves Kálmán (Coloman the Learned or the Bookish King), 1074-96, was the first in Europe who declared in his laws that witches did not exist, saying: “De strigis vero quae non sunt, nulla questio fiat,” meaning “Witches do not exist so they are out of question.”
The Golden Bull of 1222 was an edict issued by King András (Andrew) II of Hungary. King Andrew II was forced by his nobles to accept the Golden Bull which was one of first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. The Magna Carta in England had been issued just seven years earlier than that.
King Béla IV, son of Andrew II, was the monarch who resisted the Mongol invasion in 1241-1242 and afterwards rebuilt the country. In Europe, only Hungary was partly successful in resisting the Mongols: in the second year of the war the invaders withdrew from the country when Khan Ögedej died. It is remarkable because they hadn’t withdrawn from any other of their already conquered territories. [There are questions as to the actual reason for the withdrawal, since it is considered problematic that Subodei knew that Ögedej had died when he began the withdrawal. Hungary got beaten badly at Mohi, with Béla losing 80% of his men. -Ed.] King Béla IV still had enough military power right after the Mongols’ exit that he could seize those western Hungarian counties back that had been taken by the Austrians while the king was fighting the Mongols. (A nice example of how their western neighbors “helped” when they were attacked from the East, it was repeated often enough during the following centuries.)
The Habsburg family should have been grateful to the Hungarian kings. It was László the Fourth who helped them win the battle of Morvamezö (Dürnkrut) in 1278 which led the first Habsburg to become emperor.
During the Middle Ages Hungary was a country that was compared to France and England both in economic and military strength. Hungary provided vast quantities of salt, silver, and gold to Europe, all coming from the Carpathian Mountains’ many mines. Beside the fall of Constantinople in 1453, part of the reason why Cristopher Columbus set sail to seek an oceanic route to India was that the productivity of these mines had decreased by the late 15th century.
Hungary’s first clash with the Turks was in the fourteenth century. Before the RoF the many wars with the Turks contributed to the development of the character and the quality of Hungarian warfare to such an extent that by in the seventeenth century they were a strong barrier against all Ottoman attacks aimed at Vienna. These wars are worth mentioning briefly since many Hungarians paid with their lives against the Muslim jihads against Europe.
The Hungarian-Turkish wars began at the reign of King Lajos (Louis) I, the Great, an Anjou king who ruled between 1342-1382 and was also King of Poland from 1370. He is acclaimed as the first European ruler who fought the Ottomans and beat them. The ongoing Turkish raids in southern Hungary began at this time as King Louis I got into a conflict with Venice in 1372 and the Venetians allied themselves with the Turks. Together they defeated the Hungarian and the Paduan army at Treviso, although the Hungarians were able to retain the Dalmatian seaside. King Louis’ attention then turned against the Turks. He moved into Wallachia where he was ambushed in the hills by the Romanians who were allied with the Turks. Fortunately he was able to defeat the raiding Turks invading Transylvania. During his Bulgarian campaign he defeated the Turks in a major battle in 1377. The victory gained Europe ten years before the Turks tried again; this time the Muslims attacked Serbia and defeated it at Rigómező (now Kosovo) in 1389.
The Turks took the first Hungarian frontier castle of Galambóc (Golubac, Taubenberg ) in 1391. Five years later the Hungarian King Zsigmond (Sigismund) of Luxembourg set out against the Turks in 1396. In his army there were many European knights and soldiers— Czechs, Spanish, Italian, and French. They were utterly defeated at the large-scale Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. Regrouping afterwards, the king decided to focus on building out his lines of defense in Hungary. He made a law that demanded the financing of one horse-archer per twenty houses. As a result of this, Hungary could maintain an eighty thousand-strong army to defend the country and was able to send forty thousand men campaigning abroad, according to a report from Venice in 1423.
When Mehmed I reunited the sultanate between 1413-1422, he allied with Bosnia and together they attacked Hungary and Croatia in 1415. Mehmed was able to make Bosnia a Sanjak—an administrative division within the Ottoman Empire—and kept sending armies against Wallachia and Hungary, without success. In the end it was he who asked for peace in 1419.
The next series of wars belong to the “Wars of Lower-Danube” period, the time of Turkish wars on the Balkans. Sultan Murad II tried to conquer the whole Balkans but was pushed back by the Hungarian General Pipo of Ozora in 1423. Pipo had two more successful campaigns against the Ottomans before he died in 1426.
Following some smaller raids, the Turks broke into Transylvania with a mighty army in 1432. It turned out to be the fifth Hungarian-Turkish war. The Turks crushed King Zsigmond’s two-thousand strong unit which was guarding the mountain passes and pillaged all over southern Transylvania, taking thousands of slaves to the Balkans.
There were many raids into Transylvania in 1435 and 1436 but the main Ottoman army tried to take the castle of Szendrő (Smederevo) in 1438, but the Hungarian-Serbian-Czech reinforcement chased them away. The Turks returned a year later, though, broke into Transylvania, and took Szendrő by surprise. They could do so because the Hungarian armies were weakened and held up by fighting a major peasant uprising which started in 1437. In 1441 Hungary’s greatest Turkish-fighter hero, János Hunyadi, began his career, campaigning deep into Serbia. The following year he defeated the Begler-Bey of Rumelia in Transylvania. Encouraged by Pope Eugenius IV, János Hunyadi led his “Long Campaign” against the Ottoman Empire, taking advantage of his enemies’ wars in Persia. In addition to his Hungarian armies, he was reinforced by Polish, Serbian, and Bulgarian soldiers, and he had German and Czech mercenaries as well. He almost reached Edirne, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan was forced to plead for peace, and so it was made in 1444 at Várad, Transylvania.
Unfortunately, the Italian Archbishop Cesarini absolved the Hungarian King Ulaszlo I (Wladyslaw III) from his oath in order to continue the Turkish war. János Hunyadi had advised the king not to attack the Janissaries headlong, but the advice was ignored. Thus this war of 1444 ended in a disaster at the Battle of Várna when the great European coalition was crushed in an open battle by the Turks. The king himself was slain in it, some say as a penalty for breaking his oath. After the battle it became obvious that the traditional knightly warfare was of little use against the Ottomans. Indeed, the main army of the Sultan could not be defeated anywhere in Europe in open battle until the seventeenth century. After the death of the king, Hunyadi—being the strongest aristocrat—was elected the Governor of Hungary. He tried to join the Albanian Skanderbeg in Macedonia, but was defeated again by Murad II at Kosovo in 1448.
When Constantinople fell in 1453, Hunyadi achieved new military victories on the Balkans. Despite this, Sultan Mehmed II led a huge army against Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade), the southernmost frontier castle of Hungary, in 1456. After a long and fierce siege, Hunyadi—with his peasant crusaders and heavy cavalry—broke out from the castle, took the enemy’s cannons and turned them against the Turks. This was such an outstanding victory over the “invincible” Turkish army that all Europe celebrated it. Hearing the good news, Pope Callixtus III proclaimed a new Catholic holiday and ordered that all the bells in Christendom should toll at mid-day in order to commemorate the fight. János Hunyadi died from the plague soon after the siege, but the bells still ring all over Europe every day at twelve o’clock, and the Pope introduced a new holiday known as “The Configuration of Jesus,” all of which proclaim that it is not Muslim land yet.
Hunyadi’s son was elected as King Matthias Corvinus. He had been fighting the Turks for almost ten years, taking back the castle of Galambóc (Golubac). He also took Jajca back in 1463 and controlled the rest of Bosnia. He could clearly see that however strong Hungary can be, its strength would not be enough against the Ottoman Empire—which is why he wanted to become the head of the Holy Roman Empire. This was the reason why Matthias led his campaigns against the Austrians and the Czechs, but in spite of his campaign’s western plans, King Matthias also continued to support the wars against the Turks. The king had a constant regular army made up of mercenaries called the Black Army. He adopted the most modern artillery units and tactics of the age, using armored wagons with musketeers on them in the Czech Hussite fashion.
He sent his troops to aid Prince Stephen III, ruler of Moldavia, who didn’t want to accept the Sultan as his overlord and turned against him. The Romanian prince finally defeated the Turks with the help of Hungarian-Polish armies.
The Turks attacked Hungary in 1475 and reached into the country as far as Nagyvárad (Oradea) but were driven out. The Muslims lost the castle of Szabács on the southern border the next year and suffered a sobering open defeat at Kenyérmező, Transylvania, in 1479. General Pál Kinizsi scattered their superior army during this tenth Hungarian-Turkish war. Kinizsi chased them deep into Serbia, gaining back territory again and again.
A Turkish army took the city of Otranto from Naples in 1480 and they began building out a beachhead against Italy. When asked, Matthias sent his brother-in-law, Neapolitan King Ferdinand II, two thousand one hundred soldiers at this time and they successfully recaptured Otranto. Very few of these soldiers, led by his General Balázs Magyar, returned home, and King Matthias was not even thanked for this help.
In 1490, five years after he successfully invaded Vienna, and when he seemed close to achieving his goal of becoming Holy Roman Emperor, King Matthias died, allegedly after eating a rotten fig, although poison wasn’t ruled out. At his death the kingdom fell into a severe economic crisis and a proverb was born: “Matthias died, so did justice.” The role of saving Christendom from the Turks later went to the Habsburgs who wanted to take Hungary into their possession rather than defending it from the Ottoman Empire.
Vladislaus II, the king after Matthias, sent the Black Army against the Turks. He wasn’t careful enough about financing his wars so the mercenaries rebelled after they were not paid. Their leader, General Kinizsi, ended up having to fight and defeat his formerly faithful men. Taking advantage of the death of Matthias and the weakness of the new king, the Turks made an attempt to take Nándorfehérvár (Belgrád) in 1492 but General Kinizsi routed them and led his army to Serbia. He repeatedly beat the intruding enemy back in the following years and succeeded in keeping Nándorfehérvár (Belgrád) again in 1494 when its defenders wanted to surrender the fort. He led one more campaign against the Ottoman Empire that year but he died soon afterward. His efforts had been rewarded in the peace treaty of 1495 that was sealed between the King and a Sultan for the next three years.
János (John) Corvinus, King Matthias’ illegitimate son and Duke of Slavonia, defeated the Turks in 1499 in Bosnia. It was at the time when Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia Lanzol, the father of Cesare and Lucretia) organized an anti-Turkish alliance between Hungary, France, Poland and Venice in the year 1500. The Hungarian army was able to reach Bulgaria but it was fruitless, except for the capture of the city of Vidin. This war was ended with a peace treaty in 1504 that was extended in 1510.
The next Turkish-Hungarian wars were fought near the Bosnian and Croatian Frontier castles and the Croatian armies defeated the enemy in the battles of Dubica, Jajca and Korenica. The hero of these fights was Peter Berislo, but his victories were over with his death in 1520.
Things became worse when Nándorfehérvár (Belgrad) was taken in 1521 and the Turks had a free way into the country. Suleiman the Magnificent arrived in 1526 with his modern and immense army of eighty thousand men with his one hundred and fifty cannons and Jannissaries armed with muskets.
The Hungarian royal power was in decline, and some say the hand of the Fugger bankers was also involved in this decline. There was no pope nor emperor elected during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries without these bankers’ involvement. The Catholic Fuggers had a role in triggering the Reformed movement, mainly through the commercialization of indulgences, which trading right was sold to them by the Catholic Church. We might refer to Anton Fugger’s letter to the emperor in 1518 wherein the banker urged the ruler to pay him back the loan of eight million guilders or face the consequences.
It is true that Austria was deeply in debt to the Fuggers and the Habsburgs were badly in need of money. In 1525 they owed ten million guilders to the Fuggers. Everybody would have wanted the rich mining towns of Upper Hungary. These mines had previously been rented by the Fuggers but King Lajos II took their right back to the Treasury of Hungary in 1525. In order to get the gold and silver mines back, Hungary had to perish.
There is a story about a forged letter, written on behalf of the Hungarian King Lajos II to his baron, János Szapolyai, who was ordered not to hurry with his considerable army of 15,000 soldiers to the battlefield of Mohács. The young king had to die.
Others say that Szapolyai, the Voivode of Transylvania, waited for the inevitable death of the young king to gain the throne for himself. In fact, Szapolyai was delayed and the opponents met on the field without him.
Nevertheless, young King Lajos II bravely took the challenge and faced Suleiman the Magnificent with his 24,500 strong army of knights and mercenaries at Mohács. After some initial success, the battle turned out to be a disaster and the king lost his life. He was said to have been drowned in a flooded stream during his escape. There is hearsay that there was a mark of a mercenary’s three-edged dagger on his plate armor and he may have been assassinated. Some one thousand other Hungarian nobles, bishops and aristocrats were also killed.
It is generally accepted that more than fourteen thousand Hungarian soldiers were killed in the initial battle. The modern pike-musket units which consisted of Polish, Hungarian and Czech mercenaries, were left behind by the fleeing cavalry. Finishing them off with the cannons, the Sultan personally supervised the beheading of two thousand captured Christian soldiers on the battlefield. Suleiman could not believe that King Lajos’ small, “suicidal” army was all that the once-powerful country could muster against him, so he waited at Mohacs for a few days before moving cautiously against Buda.
Though they entered the unguarded and evacuated Buda and pillaged the castle and surroundings, they retreated soon afterwards. It was not until 1541 that the Ottomans finally captured and occupied Buda. Between 1526 and 1541 there weren’t any Turkish soldiers permanently in the country.
The Battle of Mohács meant the end of the independent Kingdom of Hungary as a unified entity. Amid political chaos, the divided Hungarian nobility elected two kings simultaneously, János Szapolyai in 1526 and Ferdinand of Austria in 1527. Ferdinand took advantage of the situation and made a successful coup d’état. As a result, he was soon able to pay back his debt to the Fuggers.
Ferdinand claimed Hungary’s throne by inheritance and by referring to previous contracts, but János Szapolyai had been elected by the nobility. Moreover, the Holy Crown of Hungary was in King Szapolyai’s possession. The country became a battlefield between them and Ferdinand succeeded in chasing Szapolyai to Poland.
In the hope of finding a protector against the Ottoman Empire, the Hungarian nobility began supporting Habsburg Ferdinand, thinking that he would be the stronger. At this point, Suleiman entered the fray by declaring war on Austria and Hungary. Although he had only two weeks for the siege of Vienna in the autumn of 1529, it proved to be his first failure abroad. He tried again in 1532 and was delayed by the heroic defenders of a small Hungarian Frontier castle called Kőszeg.
On top of that, the Habsburgs had roused the Serbians of southern Hungary against the Hungarians and massacres and uprisings were destroying the country from 1526 on. In 1528, after pleading for help against the Austrian usurper from all the Christian rulers and the Pope, King Szapolyai humiliated himself by making a treaty in 1529 with Suleiman. King Szapolyai was made to kiss the Sultan’s hand at the battlefield of Mohács. In return, the Sultan gave him back the Holy Crown and restored him to power. The Sultan sent an Italian adventurer called Lodovico Gritti to act as a Governor over King Szapolyai on his behalf. The King could get rid of him only in 1534 when Gritti was not favored anymore by the Sultan.
Before long, many Hungarian nobles became disillusioned by the Austrians’ “help,” and sided with the national king, János Szapolyai. The two kings finally made a treaty in Nagyvárad (Oradea), 1538, and divided Hungary between them. Szapolyai agreed in this treaty to cede his lands to Ferdinand in the event he died without a heir. To everybody’s surprise, King János Szapolyai had a male child before his death in 1540. János Zsigmond II was crowned the same year of his birth, and ended up being Hungary’s last elected national King and the first Prince of Transylvania at the same time.
After King Szapolyai’s death, the Habsburgs sent a strong army to take the castle of Buda in 1541. Their formidable army was led by Willheim von Roggerdorf and they laid siege on Buda which was heroically defended for three months before Sultan Suleiman arrived and defeated the Austrian usurper’s army.
Having scattered the Habsburgs, Suleiman just walked into Buda and the Turks remained there for 150 years. Hungarian historians are very divided on this event, many feeling that if the Habsburgs hadn’t interfered into Hungary’s affairs, the Turks would have had a lot more difficulties in occupying the country.
After defeating the Austrians at Buda, Suleiman ceremonially watched the execution of six hundred German and six hundred Czech prisoners and then finally let Queen Isabella and her son go and “gifted” them the control over the territories over the Tisza river and Transylvania, in exchange for an annual tax.
Although those lands were not actually in Turkish hands, Suleiman thought that he could get ahold of them in the years to come. He was to be disappointed in the loyalty of his new “vassals” because Brother György, the Jesuit guardian of the young King János Zsigmond II, made tremendous efforts to raise an army and strengthen the Frontier against the Turks as well as against the Habsburgs. The Turks watched it with dismay and the next war with the Muslims broke out in 1550 when they came in force to widen further their occupied territories. Brother György succeeded in stopping them and the Pope made him an archbishop. Shortly after this, Ferdinand had the intelligent Jesuit statesman and general assassinated in 1551.
The aging Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, had dreams of becoming the second Alexander the Great but many heroic sieges at various Frontier castles stopped and delayed his hopes of taking Vienna. But it was he who brought down the sovereign Hungarian Kingdom, bonding Hungary to Vienna for a very long time and causing incredible destruction over the span of forty-five years before his death in 1566. The report of his victorious campaign of 1526 describes it like this: “The warriors of the Muslim faith had spread out all over the country and wherever they found the despised infidels, let them be in the fields or in the hills, killed the men by the sword and by the arrows and carried the women and the children to slavery. They devastated their houses and put their homes to the torch and collected all kinds of goods and huge treasures to themselves.” They herded tens of thousands to captivity and according to the records they left behind brutally massacred babies piled up by the hundreds.
Until the Habsburgs, Turks and Hungarians of Transylvania agreed to make a truce in 1564, the country had suffered constant wars. and great changes took place in every aspect of life. Even in times of “peace” there were raids and sieges all along the Frontier.
Dueling had become a favorite pastime between Hungarian and Turkish warriors who sought each other out by name. It is very entertaining to read their correspondence in which they challenged each other to duels. They used a very insulting vulgar style, identical to the famous letter of Cossacks sent to the Sultan in 1675.
In the meantime, Transylvania was divided from Royal Hungary and gradually became independent from the Turks as well. We must remark that King János Zsigmond II was a Unitarian, the only Unitarian ruler in world history. He was famous for introducing freedom of religion in 1557. After King and Prince János Zsigmond’s death in 1571, Prince István Báthory was elected in Transylvania. This is the beginning of the Transylvanian Principality that had finally come to its summit before the RoF period.
The history of Hungary fifty years before the RoF and until 1699
The Long War or as some call it, the Fifteen Years War between the Turks and the Habsburgs and Royal Hungary began between 1591-93. The Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburgs, and Royal Hungary allied themselves with Spain and the Pope but the Cossacks and the Persians were included as well. During this war numerous castles were taken back in Hungary. Transylvanians also joined in. The Hungarian, Transylvanian and Romanian armies defeated the Turks on their lands at Gyurgyevo (Giurgiu) in 1595 but the Sultan defeated the Christian army the following year at Mezőkeresztes. This battle proved to be the second Mohács and it was a turning point of the war: the armies were fighting back and forth and finally nobody had gained anything, just the locals and the soldiers suffered again. The Tatar raids had become usual and their destruction was twice that of the Turks’.
The Long War was finally ended in 1606 by Prince István Bocskay, the victor of Gyurgyevo (Giorgiu), who dictated the terms of the Peace of Zsitvatorok. He was the first great Transylvanian prince who stopped the Habsburgs’ intentions whereas they had tried to seize the properties of Hungarian nobles by accusing them of treason. He could achieve it by leading his Hajdu soldiers (armed herdsmen) against Vienna, conquering almost the entire Royal Hungary.
Bocskay was also the first who effectively defended the Protestant faith from the Habsburgs. After him came Prince Gábor Bethlen, and in 1630 Prince György Rákóczi I took the throne of the Principality. All of them led an independent country strongly against the Habsburgs’ interests. While they turned Transylvania into a “fairy garden” of Europe, their goal was to reunite Hungary under a national king and liberate the whole country from the Ottoman Empire.
Their concept was based on the idea of religious tolerance, and they didn’t trust that an Austrian-led Catholic Holy Roman Empire would serve the above-mentioned purposes. Their diplomatic activity and spy network was very good since they had to balance between two hostile empires.
The second Transylvanian-Turk war took place in 1636 when Prince György Rákóczi I defeated the Pasha of Buda and István Bethlen’s army. István Bethlen was Prince Bethlen’s younger brother and would have wanted the throne for himself but it turned out otherwise. After this Prince Rákóczi I got involved in the Thirty Years War, siding with the Swedes, which will be discussed elsewhere. His anti-Turk war shows how little he was a friend of the Ottoman Empire and how independent Transylvania was from the sultan.
Unfortunately, Prince György Rákóczi II, son of Rákóczi I, was not so fortunate. In alliance with the Swedes, he attacked Poland in 1657, hoping to get the Polish crown. His campaign had not been welcomed by the Turks, and his entire army was captured by the Crimean Tatars. Soon Transylvania was overrun by the Tatars and their terrible harvest sacked the “fairy garden” bare. The Prince died after being defeated again in 1660.
The newly elected Prince Apafi tried to regain the past power of the principality, but its days began to decline.
Another great figure of the age was the aristocrat, poet, and general Miklós (Nicholas) Zrínyi (1620-1664), the Hungarian-Croatian hero who had defeated the Turks many times in Habsburg service. Considering his character, he might be an even more appropriate person than Prince György Rákóczi I to interact with the RoF. Zrínyi was reputed to have been the greatest general against the Turks in his day but during his career gradually he had realized that Royal Hungary and Croatia could not rely on the Habsburgs’ mercy or whim in order to overcome the Ottoman Empire. After being bitterly disappointed in the Habsburgs, he was killed by a boar when hunting in 1664. His younger brother, Peter Zrinyi, was beheaded for treason in 1671. His person and activity will be also detailed later.
The Hungarians were getting more and more rebellious against Vienna and in 1678 there was the Thököly uprising in Upper Hungary. This high-born general, later Prince of Transylvania in 1690, put up a fierce fight against the Austrians, and he was not shy to ask for the Turks’ aid, although he had been a famous military leader against the Turks. He helped the Turks get a safe passage to Vienna in 1683. Imre (Emericus) Thököly didn’t directly take part in the siege of Vienna but without his involvment the Turks couldn’t have reached it. Thököly’s troops were able to capture the castle of Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg), and during that summer the majority of the western Trans-Danubian counties swore fealty to him. Why did all this happen? Finally the Hungarians in general had realized that their real enemy was Austria, mainly due to the politics of King Leopold I (1657-1705) who had intended to crush the remnants of the Hungarian feudal constitution and privileges as well as Protestantism with one blow. King Leopold I dismissed two-thirds of the frontier-castle warriors in 1671 and stopped calling the Diet together to govern Hungary. Moreover, he ceased to give the highest feudal offices to Hungarian nobles as had been the custom, ending the tolerance of religions according to the Treaty of Vienna, 1606. No wonder that Imre Thököly became more and more popular.
When the Turks saw that Thököly had successfully torn great territories out of Habsburg hands, they decided to attack Vienna. Without Thököly they would not have even thought of it. Likewise, it was the Polish Sobieski who defeated them since the Austrians would not have been able to defend themselves. After the siege of Vienna, the conclusion was very quickly drawn: Hungary must be liberated, and the Turks must be dealt with for good. They could not afford a new Turk attack nor a new Hungarian uprising. They had to attack if they wanted to survive. (In a way, the liberation of Hungary was indeed triggered by Thököly.) Thus, Pope Innocent XI organized the Holy League in 1684 with the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire, Poland, Venice, and later on with Russia. It was called a crusade and many soldiers, mercenaries, and nobles joined it from all countries of Europe. The Hungarian Hajdus and all kinds of dismissed castle-warriors and other soldiers from all over Hungary were a tremendous help to the Crusaders, not only because of their valiant warfare but also because they knew the land. The following war was so devastating that contemporary sources estimate the mercenaries’ destruction of the recaptured places worse than many years of Turkish devastation.
Finally they took Buda back and drove the Turks out, settling the war with the Treaty of Karlóca (Karlowitz) in 1699. There were no Hungarians present at the negotiations so they decided “sine nobis de nobis” – decided about us, without us. The peace was disadvantageous to Hungary: it left vast Hungarian lands in Turk hands, the Principality of Transylvania was not accepted as a sovereign state and so on. Hungary had to suffer three more Turkish wars in the eighteenth century.
History after 1699
Transylvania fell into the hands of the Habsburgs and Serbian marauders broke into the recently “liberated” land and scorched what they found. Soon German, Serbian, Romanian, and Slavic nationalities were settled on the depopulated areas by the Habsburgs.
Hungary rebelled against injustice and Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II waged a freedom fight against the Austrians between 1703-1711. It should be noted that the Serbs immediately took the side of the Habsburgs and had been burning and destroying the Great Hungarian Plains for eight years, while the Rusyns of the Subcarpathian Area joined Rákóczi along with the Slovakians. The Romanians of Transylvania supported the rebels en masse against the Habsburgs, as well. This insurrection was unsuccessful, closed by the Treaty of Szatmár, however the Hungarian nobility managed to partially satisfy Hungarian interests. The nobility’s rights remained more or less intact, and Hungary didn’t become a mere province of Austria.
After 145 years of Habsburg absolutism the country rose again in 1848-1849, led by Lajos Kossuth. It was the longest freedom fight and war of independence of all the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. The Austrians were able to put it down only with Russian help. The sixteen-year-old Franz Joseph turned to the Russian Tsar Romanov Nicholas I for half a million soldiers to field against his rebel subjects.
After the bloody punishment of the rebels, the Hungarians created the so-called “passive resistance” movement that was later adapted by the Irish freedom fighters. When the Habsburgs realized that a country cannot be oppressed only by force for long, the parties brought about the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. The Compromise re-established partially the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hungary, separate from, and no longer subject to, the Austrian Empire.
Hungarian regions of the state were governed by separate parliaments and prime ministers. Unity was maintained through the rule of a single head of state, reigning as both the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Franz Joseph ruled through the common monarchy-wide ministries of foreign affairs, defense, and finance, which were under his direct authority. The armed forces also belonged to the Emperor-King who was the commander-in-chief. So Franz Joseph had all the real power to decide foreign policy, to decide about the money, and to lead the army.
Due to the rebellious nature of the Hungarians and because of the tremendous fight they had had, the monarchy had the most developed policy in the world regarding the national minorities. In the nineteenth-century when North American natives were massacred and Welsh and Irish people were humiliated for their nationality, the minorities and ethnic groups of the Monarchy enjoyed a wide range of rights and independence that was envied by the Hungarian ethnic minoritiess that found themselves in Slovakia or in Romania after 1918.
Hungary was driven against its will into the first World War in 1914, led by the Habsburgs. The consequences were somewhat worse than after the Defeat of Mohács back in 1526. Hungary lost seventy-four percent of its territory and millions of indigenous Hungarians became utterly oppressed minorities in the neighboring new states.
Between the two world wars Hungary tried to reach a balance between the Germans and the Soviets and was able to get back some of the lost territories by playing Hitler against Stalin. Hungarian soldiers had to be sent to Russia and hundreds of thousands perished on the front. Meanwhile, toward the end of the war it offered the last asylum for Jewish people escaping the Germans. While Romania was able to leave its German allies, Hungary’s secret peace negotiations were turned down by the Western powers. The Allied Forces were afraid that if Hungary jumped out of the war, Hitler would immediately invade the country and all the Jewish people would face great peril. Yet that’s exactly what happened . . . the Governor of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, rebelled against the Germans and Hungary was invaded right away.
Despite that, after the war ended with Hungary being thrown to the Soviets, the Soviets treated the Hungarians as the last henchmen of Hitler. The Hungarian anti-communist revolution of 1956 was the only armed uprising against the Soviets in Eastern Europe; Budapest put up a fierce resistance for two full weeks against the Red Army as they waited for the promised reinforcements from the west and from the United States. After the bloodshed, the Communists could not afford to apply such strict measures as before, and a milder form of socialism was introduced.
Hungary was the first again in 1989 to open its borders to the west, and the first democratic elections were held here to crack communism. Now, the country is part of the European Union and a democracy, led by politicians whose fathers grew up under Communism.
Knowing this sorry future history, Hungarians of the Ring of Fire time are likely to turn against the Habsburgs with all their might.