Hungary and Transylvania, Part 2: The Lay of the Land: The Neighbors and the Inhabitants


When talking about Hungary and Transylvania, basically and historically we mean one country that used to fill the Carpathian Basin with a corridor to the Adriatic Sea through Croatia. The valleys of the Danube and the Tisza Rivers provided very rich fields and pastures while the huge Carpathian Mountains protected the land on three sides between 895 and 1541 AD.

The total area of the Hungarian Kingdom used to be 325,400 square kilometers. Now, in the twenty-first century it is 93,000 square kilometers while present day Transylvania now is 105,000 square kilometers. Transylvania was bigger in the seventeenth century than now because the lands east of the Tisza and huge parts of the Hungarian Highlands in the north belonged at various times to the Principality of Transylvania, ruled under the likes of Prince Bocskai (1605-6), Prince Bethlen (1613-29), and Prince George Rakoczi I (1630-48).

At the time of the Ring of Fire, Royal Hungary was under the rule of the Habsburgs who considered it as their very valuable but dangerous larder.

The Turkish-occupied lands covered more than the size of modern-day Hungary.



Royal Hungary

The Kingdom of Hungary was divided into six administrative parts: the Croatian Captaincy, the Slavonian Captaincy, the Captaincy Between the Lake Balaton and the River Drava, the Captaincy Between the Danube and Lake Balaton and on the Highland the Captaincy of Mining Towns and the Captaincy of Upper Hungary. On the right side of the Occupied Lands, between it and Transylvania lay a land by the River Tisza called Partium. This rich agricultural area usually belonged to Transylvania but it was the subject of constant dispute between the prince and the reigning sultan.

Let’s begin the description of the 1630s situation with the south-western and western part of the country, going from the Croatian Captaincy through the Trans-Danubian Captaincies up to Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava), towards Vienna.


The Croatian Captaincy and the Slavonian Captaincy

Croatia and Slavonia became part of Hungary in the eleventh century. Beginning with King Saint Laszlo I, the Hungarian kings wore the title of “King of Croatia and Slavonia.” The king nominated two leaders called “Bán” who governed from its capitals, Zagrab and Varasd, on his behalf. Being an integral part of Hungary, Croatians and Slavonians remained mostly Catholics and bravely fought alongside the Hungarians against Venice and later against the Ottomans. This deep friendship did not include their southern Serbian neighbors. Enmity between Croats and Serbs also dates back to this time. As a minor buffer state, Orthodox Serbia tried to maintain a balance between Hungary and the Ottomans. However, by the time of the Triumph of Nándorfehérvár (now Belgrade) in 1456, Serbia had been consumed by the Turks. The Turks managed and governed Serbia as they did with the Balkans and tried to integrate these territories into their empire the best they could. Parts of Hungary and Croatia have had one hundred fifty to two hundred years of Turkish rule but the Balkan states suffered it for between four hundred to five hundred years. The resulting differences between their social and economic development are clearly visible. Partly because of their Catholic faith and partly because of common enemies, Croats are friendlier to Hungarians than to Serbians up to this very day.



The Captaincy Between the Lake Balaton and the River Drava and

The Captaincy Between the River Danube and the Lake Balaton

Looking from the west, the Croatian-Slavonian and the Trans-Danubian Captaincies directly separated the Austrian territories from the Turks. On the other side of the captaincies was the eastern frontier, and it went along the shores of the long Lake Balaton. It is called the Trans-Danubian region and was known as Pannonia in Roman days. The major castles and forts which guarded this side of the Turkish Frontier were manned mostly by Hungarians and by some Croats. Along the whole length of the frontier there were generally between 19,000 and 23,000 warriors on the Habsburg payroll. Their pay was three to four times lower than the western mercenaries’, and it arrived late or never. Some of these soldiers died of starvation. Since these captaincies are the nearest to Austria, we can examine their finances.

According to the records of the Viennese court of 1578, in a time of peace they could spare 1,400,000-1,600,000 Rhine thalers/florins to maintain the frontier castles. This amount partly consisted of the tax called “Türkenhilfe” that came from the Austrian and Czech regions. The court thought that only thirty to forty percent of the total expenses could be collected from Royal Hungary.  Expenses always tended to be higher than income. While the pay of 16,724 frontier-warriors for one month was 83,700 florins in 1578, they also spent 1,000,871 florins for the upkeep of the castles annually. In the first part of the seventeenth century this amount decreased because they paid only 12,548 soldiers and that cost 53,477 florins per month. The money for maintaining the castles was reduced to 641,624 florins per year, and it did no good to the defense.

The market price for mercenaries in the 1600s when hiring 6,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry was 480,000 florins a year in Hungary. In contrast, the Transylvanian Prince Gábor Bethlen paid 75,000 florins to his 20,000 strong army per month or 450,000 florins for half a year. Bethlen’s bodyguard consisted of 500 warriors, and he gave them 3,326 florins a month—39,912 florins a year.

At the time of the Ring of Fire, the income budget of Royal Hungary was about 200,000 florins, and 160,000 of it was spent on administrative expenses. Only 40,000 florins could be spared for military purposes. The cities of Royal Hungary contributed to this amount with 77,219 florins in 1626. Of course, it is questionable how much of the money finally reached its destination. Only the half or one-third of the frontier-warriors could be paid from Royal Hungary’s income. On top of that, the Habsburgs’ debts were over ten million florins in November, 1578, and that wasn’t reduced by the 1630s. In the 1603s the price of keeping a 30,000-strong army in western Europe was two million florins. An equal number of Hungarian soldiers would have cost just 1.3 million florins (or thalers) at that time.

During the 1630s, the Habsburgs were supposed to pay from their annual budget one or one and a half million florins for keeping up the frontier. This amount included only the pay of the soldiers; the supplying and maintenance of the castles would have been another one million florins. The poor, neglected condition of the castles and the unpaid soldiers’ misery became the usual state of affairs. Without the utter extortion of the Hungarian peasants, and the nobility’s desperate help to collect the expenses, the Turks could have walked right into the middle of Vienna. It is no surprise that the warriors of the castles cultivated their own fields when they were not fighting the Muslims. Many times, the warriors collected their food from the Turkish territories or from the local villages, causing further misery. The peasants and the common folks were burdened with manual labor to build or maintain the forts. The Diet of 1554 declared that each peasant had to work six days a year at the nearest castle without getting paid. The nobility was also taxed with similar obligations; for example, they needed to provide four wagons for three days a year, one wagon per each one hundred of their peasants.

It was this time period which gave birth to the Hungarian proverb: “There is neither money nor broadcloth.” Soldiers used to receive their payment partly in money and partly in a low-quality broadcloth, the so-called dreadnought.

At the same time there were approximately forty-five thousand well-paid Turkish soldiers garrisoned on the opposing side, not counting the irregular raiders. Almost every single Hungarian castle was defended to the last man or the last handful of gunpowder, except when foreign mercenaries held them as happened at Szolnok or Temesvár. When a fort went down, sometimes a whole county or dozens of villages changed masters. Sadly, most of the castles are in ruins now; the Habsburgs thought them useless and dangerous and exploded them when they “liberated” the country from the Turks, or did so after the 1703-1711 Hungarian rebellion led by Prince Ferenc Rákoczi II.



The Hungarian Highland:

The Mining Towns Captaincy and the Captaincy of Upper Hungary

These captaincies were on the northern part of Hungary, in the Carpathian Mountains. The first one was closer to Vienna, bordering Bohemia, while the second captaincy had a friendly border with Poland. Many Germans dwelled in their mining towns like Besztercebánya (Neusohl, Banská Bystrica) and Körmöcbánya (Kremnith, Kremnica), producing lots of gold and silver. Hungary in the Middle Ages provided vast quantities of salt, silver, and gold in Europe, all coming from the Carpathian Mountains’ famous mines. Beside the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul), part of the reason why Christopher Columbus set sail to the Indies was that these mines’ productivity had decreased by the late fifteenth century. Yet these mines were quite productive in the 1630s, and the possession of these cities was strategic. They produced iron ore and mercury as well. Many “tilting-mills” (mills that used trip hammers to crush the rock to more easily extract the ore) could be found there, too. A very fertile land lay between Pozsony and Vienna, the Csallóköz plains where agriculture was quite developed. Sopron on the west and the lands around Tokaj could boast world-famous wine production. Innumerable grey cattle were also herded toward Austria and Silesia and sold there at a very cheap price. It was the time when the gap between Western and Eastern Europe became highly defined; due to the Turkish wars, Eastern Europe began to export raw materials and received the industrial products from the West in return.

The capital of the western part of the Highland was Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava), the gateway to Vienna. It was never occupied by the Turks, who would have been destroyed by the cannons of Komárom before ever reaching it on the river Danube. Pozsony, just eighty kilometers from Vienna, was a coronation town and the seat of kings and princes and palatines. Laws and acts were issued by its Diets, and all the important people had a house there. The Holy Roman Empire’s Austrian emperor could rule over Hungary only by being elected by the nobility of the Diet and crowned with the Holy Crown. A Hungarian king had to swear to rule according to the Hungarian laws and traditions, giving all the rights to the nobility that had been granted earlier on. Many times the Habsburgs had tried to take away the Hungarian feudal rights and turn Hungary into one of their provinces where they had the right to rule by inheritance rather than election. Due to the Hungarian nobility’s resistance, they were never able to carry it out. The Austrians needed the Hungarians’ rich resources and their manpower very badly while the Hungarians realized that they wouldn’t be able to finance the fight against the Ottomans alone, especially not with an Austrian enemy on their Western border, as well. In addition to this delicate balance, the Transylvanians were gaining more and more ground in the 1630s.

The other key city of the eastern Highland was Kassa (Kaschau, Kosice), the capital of the Captaincy of Upper Hungary. Whoever took it would have control over half of the Highland. All three great princes of Transylvania (Bocskay, Bethlen, and George Rakoczi I) began their wars against Austria by taking it. Interestingly enough, two of the great Transylvanian princes’ lands, Bocskay’s and Rakoczi’s huge family estates, were in Upper Hungary and in the Partium between Transylvania and the Upper Captaincy. All in all, the Hungarian Highland was a very wealthy area that was worth fighting for.


The Turk-Occupied lands

The middle section of the Carpathian Basin—roughly the plains between and around the two major rivers the Danube and the Tisza—was the area occupied by the Ottoman Empire, a tongue penetrating into the country from the south. It was divided into six administrative units by the Turks: the central Buda Eyalet, the Bosnian Eyalet (with the capital: Banja Luka / Orbászvár), the Temesvár Eyalet (bordered by Transylvania, with Temesvár as its capital), the Váradi Eyalet, the Egri, and the Kanizsai Eyalet. Between the Occupied Lands and Transylvania there lay an area called the Partium, on the eastern side of the River Tisza. It mostly belonged to Transylvania, although from time to time the Turks tried to seize its castles.

The Occupied Lands had probably the most fertile lands of Europe with a rapidly decreasing Hungarian population. In 1541 when the Turks first got hold of these lands, the entire Hungarian nation consisted of approximately 4.5 million people. When the Turks were cleared out before 1700, one million Hungarians were missing due to the wars with the eastern Janissaries, Tatars, and the western mercenaries. An entire spoken dialect of the Hungarian language became extinct during this one hundred fifty- to two hundred-year period. The Turk-occupied part of the country was more or less a war-zone during this time, including the whole frontier with its numerous forts and castles. Turkish raids were not uncommon on lands controlled by the Habsburg-led Hungarian Kingdom to the north or west. Even the more peaceful Transylvania suffered Turkish raids, coming from the eastern side of the Occupied Lands. Warring was constant despite the peace treaties between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Due to the unceasing wars, this middle section of Hungary was never integrated into the Ottoman Empire in the way as the Balkans had been.


Few know that the core of the formidable Muslim Janissary warriors as well as a great number of the Turkish army occupying Hungary actually consisted of Serbs and Albanians, new converts to the Islam from the Balkans. (Ninety-one percent of the soldiers were from the Balkans and only two-and-a-half percent arrived from Asia.) The Janissary units were created by collecting young boys from the entire occupied territories in Europe, an awful and grievous slave-tax imposed on the locals. These orphans became the best warriors, received a harsh military training, and were loyal to the death to their emperor and their faith. They had no camp-followers nor women around them: four warriors shared a tent and the youngest was their trainee who served them food and satisfied their sexual desires. One of these warriors’ weapons—next to the musket and the sabre—was the yatagan. It was a wicked long dagger-sized sword, having an inward curved blade with the sharp edge on the inside. The hilt was made of the end of a bone and there was no cross guard at the blade to defend the hand as it was said that a true Muslim warrior was not supposed to parry a sword but to attack the infidel. The Janissary infantry was the most steady basic component of any Ottoman army, and they firmly withstood the deadliest attacks of mounted knights and volleys of any artillery or musketry. Initially the Janissaries were very well supplied and trained musketeers, but by the time of the Ring of Fire, this knowledge had declined considerably. According to Turkish contemporary sources, the Janissaries’ muskets were old-fashioned and not well-kept, and four soldiers had just one. They also neglected to practice shooting twice a week as it is described in a Turkish script from 1606 called “Laws of the Janissaries.” The script described how the designated area of shooting practice would be found next to the training houses. The Janissaries were supposed to go there every Wednesday and Thursday to learn shooting. If somebody should hit the target, he would receive a silver cup or a piece of gold. If someone doesn’t know how to shoot, the Avdji Bashi would show him. Gunpowder and fuse were regularly given to the Janissaries to practice and learn from each other, and they made the bullets themselves by melting or chopping the lead pieces. But the script went on to say that these things had been forgotten for a good while; they received neither gunpowder nor fuse anymore. Even when they got some fuse, they made candles of them and burned them in their houses.

In order to compensate for the decline of their artillery power, during the 1630s, the Turkish military leaders tried to hire mercenaries—mostly from their Christian subjects—and supplied them with muskets.

These things contributed to the softening of discipline, and during the first part of the seventeenth century the Janissaries’ pay had also been delayed more often. Sultan Osman II was the first Ottoman emperor to be deposed by rebelling Janissaries in 1623, during the heyday of Prince Gabor Bethlen of Transylvania. No wonder that the prince could keep the Turks at bay with his clever diplomacy, envisioning a united Christian attack against the weakened Empire.


The Turkish people lived mostly in the fortified settlements of the elayets and in their districts (called Sandjaks in Turkish) that guarded the borders. They collected the taxes from the locals but except for raids and punishing campaigns, they were quite indifferent. At the time of the Ring of Fire, the Turks could control only their forts and the roads between the settlements; the land was not safe for them to travel without stronger troops. The Muslim grip was a bit loosened in this period.

The conquered villages and towns were given to the Turkish nobles as feudal lands by the sultan. The new feudal lords became the chain-clad Muslim knights called spahis but their feudal gifts couldn’t be inherited by their sons. The sultan could take the land back at any minute. So the new landlords were not the kindest masters and tried to squeeze as many taxes as they could from the land. It was not in their interest to build and develop the economy: sometimes they could hold their lands or office only for a few years before it was given to someone else. By the time of the Ring of Fire, the discipline of the spahis had loosened as well; when they were called to arms, three-fourths of them just didn’t show up.

As for taxes, the Christians sometimes had to pay thirty percent more, according to Sharia law, in order to be allowed to follow their faith—be it Protestant or Catholic. The Turks didn’t differentiate between infidels; this is one reason why huge numbers of people in the Occupied Lands were targeted for conversion by Protestants. Meanwhile, in Croatia and in the Trans-Danubian territories which were controlled by the Hungarian Kingdom, the people remained mostly Catholics. Many more Hungarians living under Turkish rule embraced the Protestant faith. The Muslims allowed the existence of all Christian churches with only some restrictions such as Christians not being allowed to renovate or build their churches and not being allowed to train new priests. Tolling the bells was also forbidden. Due to the frequent wars and raids, the land was depopulated in huge areas, and many villages were wiped out.

Hungarian peasants were hostile to the Turks, and controlling them was not easy. At the same time, occasional friendships developed between Turkish and Hungarian warriors and between Muslim landlords and Christian villagers. A mutual respect was developed between the enemies and their culture, attire, and warfare was equally and mutually affected by each others’. Music, food, and fashion mixed together and both cultures were enriched by many new elements.

The locals tried to evade Muslim taxes by keeping more and more pigs instead of cattle. Pigs were declared unclean by the Muslim imams, so this is the time when eating pork became a very typical Hungarian habit.  Elsewhere beef was the favorite. During the entire Middle Ages, Hungarians always ate more meat than other European peasants. In the seventeenth century Royal Hungary was providing great herds of their grey cattle to the West in enormous quantities, as well as herds of horses. While grain production decreased, wine production substantially increased since Turks were not great wine consumers. The peasants kept more and more animals because it was easier to hide them from the pillaging armies in the swamps of the flatlands. Many people took refuge in the vast swamps to save their lives. Whole villages lived in the “green fortress.” At first the Turks tried to drive them out, but when their soldiers got lost in the marshland, they tried to burn the peasants out. By the seventeenth century they had realized that this didn’t work, and they had to make a compromise with the population. The peasants were allowed to herd their cattle as far as Strassburg or Prague if they paid taxes to the oppressors.

The hardened herdsmen who were guarding these animals became members of a new soldier-class, the so-called “Hajdu” soldiers. From time to time they had to cross the dangerous Ottoman-controlled territories to reach their destination, facing unheard-of perils along the way. The Hajdus had been given a major military role in Bocskay’s and Bethlen’s wars, and George Rakoczi I also relied on them. The Hajdus were all Protestants and hated the Turks. Whoever became a renegade and converted to Islam was never accepted again by the Hungarians, not even in Transylvania. Another reason why Protestantism spread so rapidly among Hungarians was that the Catholic Habsburgs could be opposed this way, too. This religious separatism from both oppressors may be compared to the situation between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant English when national interests struggled behind the mask of religion.

Some major cities enjoyed a bit more freedom because they were under the sultan’s command and paid their taxes directly to his treasury. The Turks had wanted to finance the upkeep of their local forces from taxes collected in Hungary, but they could never achieve this. The treasury had to send a huge amount of money annually to support their army.

There was an interesting verbal agreement between the new Turkish lords and some of the former Hungarian ones: they divided the tax up among themselves. Behind the frontier castle line—which was the longest fortified border in medieval Europe—the Hungarian villages didn’t cut their contacts with their former Hungarian landlords. These lords had to abandon their estates when the enemy appeared and fled to the north, either to Trans-Danubia or what had been called Pannonia in the ancient Roman days. The nobles who fled to the Kingdom of Hungary never gave up their rights over their former lands and properties in spite of the Ottoman conquest. They kept sending their tax-collectors to their formally owned villages and towns and their former subjects tried to pay them what was rightful—or at least as much as they could. Sometimes the villagers sought out their former landlord without being asked. Was it out of a servile loyalty to the old lords or simply a bitter defiance against the new Turkish lords? Or was it simply that neither the old nor the new lords had the proper control? It is strange, but the peasants and the townfolk paid their taxes even from the far-away settlements, not only from the warzone. Many times this way they paid double taxes and sent the Hungarian lord’s part by themselves to the north, even if they had to pay the Turks the same or higher amount. Apparently sometimes the locals agreed with their Turkish lord and were not overtaxed, but at times they couldn’t. It is likely that without the greed of Hungarian nobles, the Occupied Lands would have become similar to the Balkans. Sometimes the taxes were just symbolical gifts: a pair of boots or some horses. But politically, this taxation habit was an indication that the former lords had never given up their rights, and this was the way they tried to retain some control over their former subjects. Even fields, villages, and tax-rights located on the Occupied Lands were donated or sold to nobles and warriors for their services by the prince of Transylvania or by anyone who had the right to grant lands.  After all—many researchers of this period agree on this—it was the Hungarian feudalism that finally won over the Turkish feudalism.


The Principality of Transylvania

(In Hungarian: Erdély, German: Siebenburgen, Romanian: Dacia)

The relationship between Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire was determined by the Muslim political view that Transylvania had always been a vassal state to them. Sultan Suleiman the Great “established” the principality after 1541.

Transylvania’s independence cannot be compared to that of either Wallachia or Moldavia. Here the Turks were only nominal overlords and received symbolic taxes from time to time; its extent was different. It had become traditional, though, that the princes, elected by the Diet of Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia in Romanian, Karlburg in German), the capital, still had to receive an authorization called ahdname from the sultan in order to take the throne. Sometimes this “acceptance” came after, sometimes before the elections; it all depended on the current military power-relations. The prince of Transylvania was allowed to reign as he would in his country but was not permitted to act against the Ottomans’ interest in his foreign policy. The foreign diplomacy was carried on according to the actual strength of the players. In the case of Bocskay, Bethlen, and Rakoczi I, ruling in the Ring of Fire period, Transylvania was a rather free country. The prince was ruling firmly over a sovereign country much like any absolute ruler.

Transylvania was equally far away from both empires, and the principality was able—due to its outstandingly effective spy and diplomatic networks—to balance skillfully “between the two pagans” during the 1630s.

As Miklos Zrinyi had cited from Machiavelli: “La forza caga alla ragione addosso“–”Force shit on reason.” The power at this time was dwelling in the hand of the princes who made Transylvania the “Fairy Garden” of Europe. Transylvania was where the very first law was created in Europe declaring freedom of religion was promulgated—at Torda, as early as 1568. It was the only place in Europe where the Jews could live undisturbed, in accordance with their faith and habits, as Prince Bethlen declared it.

Among the Transylvanian princes was István (Stephen) Báthory, who was Prince of Transylvania (1571-1586) and then King of Poland (1576-1586). He fought back the Russians and defeated Ivan IV the Terrible in 1580 and conquered almost the whole Baltic region for Poland. He was trying to bring together an anti-Ottoman alliance, uniting Transylvania, Hungary, and Poland into a single kingdom, thus getting rid of the Habsburgs and the Muslims at the same time. As King Matthias realized in the late fifteenth century, Hungary had to find partners to become strong enough against the Turks. King Matthias had wanted to conquer Austria and Bohemia to form this power and could have almost done it, had he not been poisoned in Vienna in 1490.  Prince István Báthory’s concept was to make a coalition with Poland and, inspired by these concepts, all of the following princes of Transylvania wanted to defeat the Austrians in order to be strong enough against the Turks. Sadly, the Habsburgs also thought that they would be the best leaders in defeating the Turks. So it was a stalemate.

During the so-called Long War or Fifteen Years War (1591-1606), Transylvania joined the Christian coalition against the Ottoman Empire, mostly because of Prince Báthory’s politics. In the 1630s, it was Transylvanians who manipulated the Turks, rather than the opposite. There lived people who were born fifty or sixty years before 1630 and consequently had first-hand experiences from the Long War as well as from the wars of Prince Bocskay and Prince Bethlen.


The capital of Transylvania was Gyulafehérvár, and another important city was Kolozsvár.

Transylvania was based on the alliance of three orders: the Hungarians, the Seclers (Székely), and the Saxons along with the equilibrium of four religions, the Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical (Lutheran), and Unitarian, all of which was led by the Protestant Hungarian nobility. There were some Romanians living there as well, but their nobility and religion were not part of this union, though the Orthodox church was tolerated. Later the Jews were also given all the rights they wished for.

The principality’s army was comprised of the following parts:

  1. Court Corps: the personal guard of the Prince, his regular professional cavalry and artillery;
  2. The troops of the country: insurgent nobility of the counties and the bands of the high nobility;
  3. The Seclers (Székely): three military classes of Seclers doing military service for collective liberties; infantry, cavalry, and leaders (“Primors”);
  4. Saxons: mercenary infantry of Saxon towns combined with the artillery and training provided by them;
  5. Infantry of taxed towns;
  6. Hajdus: warriors with collective liberties in the flatland border area (in and around the Partium);
  7. Riflemen: local peasant soldiers with collective nobility;
  8. Allied and foreign mercenaries.

The General of the Country was the supreme commander while each field army had its own general.  The leader of the Saxon troops was the Royal Judge.

This well-armed and small but high-quality army contributed well to Transylvania’s balancing policy. This modern and partly uniformed army fought successful battles: in Russia (1579); Austria (1606 and 1619); Moldavia (1653, 1654); Wallachia (1594); Bohemia (1619, 1644) and in Poland (1657), continuously avoiding the pressure to wage wars in alliance with the Ottoman Empire. The princes had good military skills, and their tactics were different from either the Ottoman or Western customs.

The Seclers (Székely) are a subgroup of Hungarian people living mainly in the easternmost part of Transylvania, in the Seclerland (Székelyföld). According to the earliest Hungarian manuscripts, they were the descendants of the Huns, left behind in Hungary when King Attila died. The chronicle said they had greeted Prince Arpad in 895 AD with great joy when he entered the Carpathian Basin.

In the Middle Ages, the Seclers, along with the Transylvanian Saxons, played a key role in defending the country against the eastern intruders. Their name derives from the Hungarian word meaning “frontier-guards.”  The Secler territories came under the leadership of the Count of the Seclers, the Comes Siculorum, initially a royal appointee from the non-Secler Hungarian nobility.  From the fifteenth century onward, the princes of Transylvania held the office themselves.

The Seclers were considered a distinct ethnic group, the natio Siculica, and formed part of the Union of Three Nations. These three groups ruled Transylvania from 1438 onward, usually in harmony though sometimes in conflict with one another, under the authority of the king or the prince. They divided their hilly lands into Seats and didn’t have to pay taxes like other common folks; it was their privilege in exchange for their military services. These mountain folks preserved a surprising amount from the ancient Hungarian nomadic military tactics and were considered as very sturdy, stubborn, and impulsive people whose discipline was legendary. They were also renowned for their resourcefulness and quick-wittedness and above all, insistence on their freedoms.

Unfortunately, they had lost much of their military value by the time of the RoF. They were ill-equipped and only seventy percent of the Secler Seats were able to send soldiers to the prince in 1630.

Almost all of the Seclers remained stubborn Catholics, but some of them embraced the Unitarian faith that had been born in Transylvania and Poland. They are the Hungarians who preserved the most ancient folklore of this nation. To this day, they still have dances that haven’t changed since the time of Gábor Bethlen. You can find today more than one million of them in the Seclerland, still fighting for their human rights. Seclerland’s area now is 13,000 square kilometers, roughly half size of Belgium but 2,000 square kilometers bigger than the newborn Republic of Kosovo, established by the Western powers in 2006. Seclers would undoubtedly be among the first to ally with Americans from the future.

The Saxons

The seven German cities of southern Transylvania (Siebenburgen) are: Beszterce (Bistritz), Nagyszeben or it is called just Szeben (Sibiu, Hermannstadt), Kolozsvár (Klausenburg), Brassó (Kronstadt), Medgyes (Mediasch), Szászsebes (Mühlbach), Segesvár (Schassburg). Szeben (Hermannstadt) was an important cultural center within Transylvania, while Brassó (Kronstadt) was a vital political center for the Saxons.

Most of the Transylvanian Saxons embraced Lutheranism, with a very few Calvinists, while other minor parts of the Transylvanian Saxons remained staunchly Catholics or were converted to Catholicism later on. In Transylvania being a Saxon meant being a Lutheran and the Lutheran Church was a Volkskirche; i.e., the national church of Transylvanian Saxons. The town of Birthalm (Berethalom, Biertan), with its fortified church, was the seat of the Lutheran Evangelical Bishop in Transylvania between 1572 and 1867.

In the 1630s, the military value of these seven cities, similarly to the Seclers, had decreased. In contemporary muster-lists their soldiers were described as “good musket, bad musket but has a sword . . . has a lance . . . has an iron pitchfork . . . has a cudgel . . . he is blind . . . this is deaf . . . this one is crippled . . .” Their training and discipline were also deficient.

Warfare between the Habsburg monarchy and Hungary against the Ottoman Empire from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries reduced the population of Transylvanian Saxons. Later new settlers appeared, but by the end of the twentieth century they had almost all disappeared due to the systematic ethnic cleansing under Romanian domination.


Hungarian Soldiery at the Ring of Fire

It is very important to commemorate the everyday heroism of Hungary’s ordinary soldiers, whether they were simple castle-warriors, Hajdus, or Hussars. Their three hundred years of ceaseless struggle, generation to generation, kept the country and perhaps Europe and the Protestant faith alive. Armies are made up of individual soldiers, and Hungary’s armies were as different as its people.

According to contemporary records, the Habsburgs in 1635 were able to muster an army with forty thousand soldiers, without the castle-warriors of Hungary and Croatia.  The French were able to boast of a one hundred fifty thousand-strong army and the Spanish fielded three hundred thousand soldiers. At the same time, Sweden had an army of forty-five thousand and the Dutch could call fifty thousand men to arms. Hungarian circumstances and soldiers differed, though, from the contemporary western standards.


The Hajdus were armed herdsmen who worked all over Hungary and the Occupied Lands, taking their grey cattle to markets abroad. They were either detested and despised by mercenary generals, like Wallenstein, or praised by others, like Basta. Almost all of them were Calvinists, and more and more of them went to military service in the first part of the seventeenth century.

Prince István Bocskay was the first great general who hired the Hajdus in numbers against the Habsburgs. He began to settle economic privileges on them in exchange for military service. He very cleverly established Hajdu-towns for them near the Tisza river, where the borders of the Occupied Lands, Royal Hungary, and Transylvania met. They were given collective nobility but they cannot really be compared to Cossacks. All succeeding princes of Transylvania relied on them and gave them additional rights.

The Hajdus were both cavalry and infantrymen. While the riders were fighting in formidable light cavalry units armed with their sabres and battle-axes, the foot soldiers were surprisingly steady and reliable troops, famous for their skills with rifles and muskets. In their attire they were not much different from the Turks, save that they wore no turbans. Their hairstyles during this age looked very much like those of punks or teenagers’ haircut in 2015 because the scalp was almost entirely shaven except for a mop of hair hanging down or grown as a narrow fringe that closely resembled the Turks’ fashion. Besides this, there was no Hungarian warrior without a big mustache.

The Hajdus had a savage reputation; their officers had to keep strong discipline among them to keep them from plundering the countryside. Palatine Miklós Esterházy issued a military order in 1620 in which he decreed that “. . . all soldiers must hurry to their designated places when they hear the alarm of the drums with their weapons and whoever tried to defy the loyalty or the order, would receive a shameful punishment . . . bickering is forbidden . . . who draws a sword on his comrade, will lose half an arm . . . at night everyone must stay at his unit, except the guards and the patrols . . . the soldiers may go out the castle only with the officers’ leave . . . the gates can only be opened or closed at the designated times with a cry ‘Jesus’. . . whoever would break his oath, must be cut in four parts . . .”

Like the Hussars and some of the frontier-warriors, the Hajdus elected their lower officers freely. That was still the practice at the time of the Ring of Fire, although it was strictly discouraged by the generals and princes on both sides.

The battle-value of these soldiers was as great as their bad reputation. Balázs Németi, a Hajdu captain, gained renown for them at Osgyán, at the ford of the Sajó river, 1604, when he stood in battle against General Basta who greatly outnumbered him in soldiers and in equipment alike. Németi had four thousand Hajdus and four thousand armed peasants but could not resist Basta’s mercenaries. When he tried to take up positions on the other side of the river, the peasants thought everything was lost and fled. Despite the valiant fight the Hajdus carried on, the battle was soon hopeless. Németi gathered five hundred of his hard men and got into the stately home of Osgyán to cover the retreat of his soldiers. The small palace was only surrounded by a weak fence and Basta soon destroyed the buildings with his cannons. The defenders tried to break out but in vain; most of them died in the attempt, and only a few succeeded. Németi was seriously injured and was taken into captivity. Basta wanted to know more about Prince Bocskay’s army so he had Németi hung upside-down on a tree, but the tough captain betrayed nothing. Then he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. When he was escorted to the place of execution, he grabbed the executioner’s sword and killed him. He cut down many mercenaries as well before he went down.


The frontier-warriors were permanently garrisoned in between one hundred to one hundred twenty castles along the Hungarian frontier. This frontier was longer than the Polish, the Spanish, or the Russian chain of castles and was held for a longer time against the Ottoman Empire than any other military structure in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. The Hungarian frontier had its little brothers in Poland called the swiat kreswy and the Croatian cosjstvo i junstvo, but none of them were under attack for such a long time as the Hungarian/Ottoman border.

These castle-warriors were either landless nobles who had lost their lands to the Turks or peasants who had run away from their villages because of the same enemy. Mostly they were cavalrymen, many of them hussars. They were generally underpaid or not paid at all. As a letter of complaint that was sent to Vienna from the castle of Keszthely in 1668 says: “. . . the soldiers haven’t had any payment for four years now . . . they are threatening to abandon the fort . . . there is a smaller garrison on the Lake Balaton castle-line called Zalavár where there had been ninety Hajdus but now there are only four left.” The soldiers had to use the surrounding villages for feeding themselves, and they wrote to the Emperor in the hope of getting their pay: “We have to guard the gates of your Majesty’s castles with sticks and are almost naked.”

The upkeep of a warrior was 3.5 quintals of grain per year. So a garrison of 500 men needed 1,750 quintals of grain annually. Yet food was scarce, and more often than not the warriors themselves had to cultivate the fields to survive. Originally many of them had found refuge in taking up arms instead of working as peasants; the landlords tried to force them back in vain. Being a frontier-warrior became a kind of privilege, and the former peasants didn’t want to return to life as serfs. Moreover, they despised the humble farmers, though they also had to work the fields around their castles many times to stay alive. Many of them had a vineyard or kept grey cattle and traded with the products. For instance, they cultivated their vineyards in front of the Turks in the hills overlooking Lake Balaton, with arms in readiness. In spite of the general depression of prices in the seventeenth century, the Hungarian wine was very much sought after.

When the frontier-warriors had no money at all, they ambushed the Turks and tried to take captives. They shared the plunder among themselves and kept the captured Turks in the castles until their ransoms had been paid. Turkish prisoners were the major source of income for the captains of frontier castles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It seems as if the general non-payment was one of the triggering causes for protecting the frontier so effectively. The warriors harassed the Turks and ambushed them, attacking them wherever they could so as to get some money. It also turned out to be a rather effective method of warfare because the attacker always enjoys the advantage in these kind of surprise attacks. The attacker can also focus a bigger unit at a weaker point of the defense, and the Hungarians had an excellent information spy network.

Defending the frontier castles only from behind the walls would have meant total failure. The constantly moving light cavalry units knew the land and knew the enemy’s positions. In the 1630s, the roads were controlled by the patrols of these warriors so the Turks could travel only with very large armed escorts, even in the Occupied Lands.

Another advantage was the warriors’ masterful knowledge of martial arts and horsemanship. Duels were in fashion, where Hungarians and Turks met in lethal competitions for fame and money. In winter time, the frozen Lake Balaton served as the greatest dueling field where the opponents frequently met. The greatest frontier warrior duelist, Captain György Thury, had no less than six hundred successful duels against the best Muslim warriors who had come to challenge him from even the corners of Asia. Although Vienna banned duels, they had been going on even in time of “peace.” Truce between the empires was a meaningless word on the frontier where things were changing every minute, and a very violent life dictated the rules. Hungarian warriors were adopting Turkish habits, and Turkish soldiers learned Hungarian ways. Soldiers spoke each other’s languages, and generations grew up in opposing castles knowing their enemies’ names and deeds.

The castle-warriors considered themselves a kind of “valiant order,” as if they were the afterthoughts of Hungarian knights who lived a long time before. They were not the same as the Western ordo bellatores, the holy warriors or knights as we know of them; they did not view themselves as the defenders of Christendom anymore. Their fixed idea in the 1630s was not that they were the  propugnaculum Christianitatis, the “bastion of Christians,” but that they were the defenders of freedom of their religion and the liberators of their country from the embrace of the “two pagans.” The concept of Pro Patria et Libertate–”for the Homeland and for Liberty” was taking shape.


The loyalty of the foreign mercenaries in Eastern Europe always had to be questioned, and it always depended on their pay. We also know that mercenaries were infamous for their cruelty against the local population in an age when logistics were not provided to feed an army.

In Hungary, though, it was also a bit different: the land was so depopulated and poor (or the peasants were so expert in hiding) that there was almost nothing to plunder, so feeding the armies was a double nightmare for each mercenary general. It was partly the reason why Prince Bethlen could beat Wallenstein.

The lay of the Hungarian land was different from the western terrain and didn’t offer the “proper” options to deploy a typical western mercenary army in order to fight a battle in their fashion. The divided countryside—the plains and marshes varied with scattered hamlets and woods or valleys among the low hills, as well as the impenetrable Carpathian mountains and their well-guarded passes—was suited perfectly to unexpected ambushes, hit-and-run raids, and snares.

On top of that, each city or castle had to be taken by siege. The mercenary armies were superior in military techniques and firepower but they couldn’t take advantage of it. Most Imperial armies in Hungary were defeated not in a single battle but were rather eroded and crushed by hundreds of harrassments by light cavalry units who knew the land well.

The Hungarian soldiers’ pay was very low compared to the westerners’, but their loyalty couldn’t be bought because they fought for their country, their religion, and their families. While the German mercenary General Mansfeld could easily sell his cannons to the Turks, and it didn’t cause him a moral crisis to offer his sword to them, Hungarian soldiers treated this kind of person as a turncloak, and even the Transylvanians would cast them out forever. The Turks preferred to hire Albanian and South Slavic mercenaries or even Westerners. The Western mercenaries were not welcome in the Hungarian frontier-castles, either, because everyone knew that they easily yielded the forts to the enemy if their pay didn’t arrive or they simply decided that they wouldn’t fight against an overwhelming enemy.

Still, foreign mercenaries were employed by the Transylvanian princes—Scots and Germans who received three times higher pay than Hungarians, often deservedly enough. The heroism of the Scots defending the castle of Lippa (Lipova) in 1596 became legendary.

The mercenaries fought in closed formations, and learning them required long and hard training. This style demanded blind obedience and iron discipline so that the formation could work smoothly—it was a matter of life and death. The huge war machine didn’t allow for any individual bravery or initiative because its efficiency would have been reduced. Meanwhile, the mercenaries fighting in formation knew that they could survive better and might even win the battle if they and their comrades would just obey orders. They were part of a clockwork, thus they could not give in to fear so easily. The orders and their comrades’ attention had been always a great psychological support to them in a chaotic, bloody, smoky, and loud battle situation. This inner cohesion contributed a great deal to their battlefield value, despite having the lowest status of any society. Unlike in the Ottoman army, the mercenaries’ cavalry never left the foot soldiers alone on the battlefield.

Cossacks were also employed by the Habsburgs, as they were cheaper than anybody else, and they had a reputation equal to the Tatars. In Prince Bocskay’s time, the Cossacks were hired either by the Habsburgs’ Hungarian vassals like Homonnai Drugeth or by the Turks themselves. Homonnai’s Cossacks were scattered by Rákóczi, and they ran until they reached Bártfa (Bardejov) in current day Slovakia. An Austrian chief officer, Siegfried Kollonitsch, hired first six hundred, and then two thousand, Cossacks. Their pay was given to them in cloth and salt-cubes.


The hussars were originally typical Hungarian light cavalrymen and they became famous for their special skills and warfare. Their name derives from the Hungarian huszár, and the world adopted their name, first mentioned in Hungary in the fifteenth century. The nomadic Hungarian warfare arose when the Ottoman Empire attacked Hungary because the Turks used light cavalry that had to be answered in kind.

Hungarians were quick to relearn their nomadic skills and adopted many elements from the Turk attackers as well. There are two kinds of hussars: the light raiders and the armored ones with eagles’ wings and feathers attached to them. The latter were introduced in Poland in 1580 by the Hungarian Prince Báthory who became the Polish king as well. The Polish winged hussars with their fierce and almost anachronistic-looking mass attack were world-famous in the 1630s; even Gustav Adolf adopted from them the use of the sabre and the lance after 1621. These armed hussars were not much different from the chain-clad spahis, though. Yet, it was the armored hussars’ attack which decided the battle at Vienna when Sobieski led his cavalry against the Ottoman besiegers in 1683.

Most of the castle-warriors of the frontier were hussars but not all hussars were castle-warriors.




One thought on “Hungary and Transylvania, Part 2: The Lay of the Land: The Neighbors and the Inhabitants

  1. Mike Stern

    I don’t know if there atr going to be more articles on Hungary and environs, but it probably would be worth mentioning that “Transylvania was also one of the few European countries where Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, and Unitarians lived in mutual tolerance, all of them belonging to the officially accepted religions – religiones recaepte, while the Orthodox, however, were only tolerated.” (Wikipedia – Because of this, the precepts of religious tolerance bein pushed by the Grantvillers and the USE constitution should be able to find fertile ground among the people and nobility of Transylvania.

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