The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Europe | The Sixteenth Century

17: The Sixteenth Century

<< 16: The Rule of the Hunyadi || 18: Rise of Transylvania >>

THE last reserves of the national wealth and strength were dissipated by the terrible peasant rising of György Dózsa in 1514, of which the enslavement of the Hungarian peasantry was the immediate consequence. The "Savage Diet" which assembled on the 18th of October the same year, to punish the rebels and restore order, well deserved its name. Sixty-two of its seventy-one enactments were directed against the peasants, who were henceforth bound to the soil and committed absolutely into the hands of "their natural lords." To this vindictive legislation, which converted the labouring population into a sullenly hostile force within the state, it is mainly due that a healthy political life in Hungary became henceforth impossible. The same spirit of hostility to the peasantry breathed through the famous codification of the Hungarian customary law known as the Tripartitum, which, though never actually formally passed into law, continued until 1845 to be the only document defining the relations of king and people, of nobles and their peasants, and of Hungary and her dependent states.¹

Wladislaus II. died on the 13th of March 1516, two years after the "Savage Diet," the ferocity of whose decrees he had feebly endeavoured to mitigate, leaving his two kingdoms to his son Louis, a child of ten, who was pronounced of age in order that his foreign guardians, the emperor Maximilian and Sigismund of Poland, might be dispensed with. The government remained in the hands of Cardinal Bakócz till his death in 1521, when the supreme authority at court was disputed between the lame palatine István Báthory, and his rival, the eminent jurist and orator István Verbõczy, - both of them incompetent, unprincipled place-hunters, - while, in the background lurked János Zápolya, voivode of Transylvania, patiently waiting till the death of the feeble and childless king (who, in 1522, married Maria of Austria) should open for him a way to the throne. Every one felt that a catastrophe was approaching. "Things cannot go on like this much longer," wrote the Venetian ambassador to his government. The war of each against all continued; no taxes could be collected; the holders of the royal domains refused to surrender them at the command of the diet; and the boy king had very often neither clothes to wear nor food to eat. The whole atmosphere of society was one of rapine and corruption, and only on the frontier a few self-sacrificing patriots like the bán-bishop, Péter Biriszló, the last of Matthias's veterans, and his successor the saintly Pál Tomori, archbishop of Kalocsa, showed, in their ceaseless war against the predatory Turkish bands, that the ancient Magyar valour was not yet wholly extinct. But the number of the righteous men was too few to save the state. The first blow fell in 1521, when Sultan Suleiman appeared before the southern fortresses of Sabác and Belgrade, both of which fell into his hands during the course of the year. After this Venice openly declared that Hungary was no longer worth the saving. Yet the coup de grâce was postponed for another five years, during which time Suleiman was occupied with the conquest of Egypt and the

¹ The Opus tripartitum juris consuetudinarii regnii Hungariae was drawn up by Verbõczy at the instance of the diet in 1507. It was approved by a committee of the diet and received the royal imprimatur in 1514, but was never published. In the constitutional history of Hungary the Tripartitum is of great importance as reasserting the fundamental equality of all the members of the populus (i.e., the whole body of the nobles) and, more especially, as defining the co-ordinate power of the king and "people" in legislation: i.e., the king may propose laws, but they had no force without the consent of the people, and vice versa.

siege of Rhodes. The Magyars fancied they were safe from attack, because the final assault was suspended and everything vent on in the old haphazard way. Every obstacle was opposed to the collection of the taxes which had been voted to put the kingdom in a state of defence. "If this realm could be saved at the expense of three florins," exclaimed the papal envoy, Antonio Burgio, "there is not a man here willing to make the sacrifice." Only on the southern frontier did Archbishop Tomori painfully assemble a fresh army and fleet, and succeed, by incredible efforts, in constructing at Péterwardein, on the right bank of the Danube, a new fortress which served him as a refuge and sally post in his interminable guerilla war with the Turks.

In the spring of 1526 came the tidings that Sultan Suleiman had quitted Constantinople at the head of a countless host, to conquer Hungary. On the 28th of July Péterwardein, after a valiant resistance, was blown into the air. The diet, which met at Buda in hot haste, proclaimed the young king¹ dictator, granted him unlimited subsidies which there was no time to collect, and ordered a leveé en masse of the entire male population, which could not possibly assemble within the given time. Louis at once formed a camp at Tolna, whence he issued despairing summonses to the lieges, and, by the middle of August, some 25,000 ill-equipped gentlemen had gathered around him. With these he marched southwards to the plain of Mohács, where, on the 29th of August, the Hungarians, after a two-hours' fight, were annihilated, the king, both the archbishops, five bishops and 24,000 men perishing on the field. The sultan refused to believe that the pitiful array he had so easily overcome could be the national army of Hungary. Advancing with extreme caution, he occupied Buda on the 12th of September, but speedily returned to his own dominions carrying off with him 105,000 captives, and an amount of spoil which filled the bazaars of the East for months to come. By the end of October the last Turkish regular had quitted Magyar soil and, to use the words of a contemporary observer, one quarter of Hungary was as utterly destroyed as if a flood had passed over it.

The Turks had no sooner quitted the land than John Zápolya, voivode of Transylvania assembled a diet at Tokaj (Oct. 14, 1526) at which the towns were represented as well as the counties. The tone of the assembly being violently anti-German, and John being the only conceivable national candidate, his election was a matter of course; but his misgivings were so great that it was not till the beginning of November that he very reluctantly allowed himself to be crowned at a second diet, held at Székesfehérvár. By this time a competitor had entered the field. This was the archduke Ferdinand, who claimed the Hungarian crown by right of inheritance in the name of his wife, Anne, sister of the late king. Ferdinand was elected (Dec. 16) by a scratch assembly consisting of deputies from Croatia and the towns of Pressburg and Sopron: but he speedily improved his position in the course of 1527, by driving King John first from Buda and then from Hungary. In November the same year he was elected and crowned by a properly constituted diet at Székesfehérvár (Stuhlweissenburg). In 1529 Zápolya was reinstated in Buda by Suleiman the Magnificent in person, who, at this period, preferred setting up a rival to "the king of Vienna" to conquering Hungary outright. Thus the Magyars were saddled with two rival kings with equally valid titles, which proved an even worse disaster than the Mohács catastrophe; for in most of the counties of the unhappy kingdom desperadoes of every description plundered the estates of the gentry, and oppressed the common people, under the pretext that they were fighting the battles of the contending monarchs. The determination of Ferdinand to partition Hungary rather than drive the Turks out, which he might easily have done after Suleiman's unsuccessful attempts on Vienna in 1529-1530 led to a prolongation of the struggle till the 24th of February 1538 when, by the secret peace of Nagyvárad,² Hungary was divided between the two competitors. By this treaty Ferdinand retained Croatia-Slavonia and the five western counties with Pressburg and Esztergom (Gran), while Zápolya kept the remaining two-thirds with the royal title. He was indeed the last national king of Hungary till modern times. His court at Buda was maintained according to the ancient traditions, and his gyûlés, at which 67 of the 73 counties were generally represented, was the true national diet, the phantom assembly occasionally convened at Pressburg by Ferdinand scarcely deserving the title. Indeed, Ferdinand regarded his narrow strip of Hungarian territory as simply a barrier behind which he could better defend the hereditary states. During the last six years (1534-1540) of John's reign his kingdom, beneath the guidance of the Paulician monk, Frater György, or George Martinuzzi the last great statesman of old Hungary enjoyed a stability and prosperity marvellous in the difficult circumstances of the period, Martinuzzi holding the balance exactly between the emperor and the Porte with astounding diplomatic dexterity, and at the same time introducing several important domestic reforms. Zápolya died on the 18th of July 1540, whereupon the estates of Hungary elected his baby son John Sigismund king, in direct violation of the peace of Grosswardein which had formally acknowledged Ferdinand as John's successor, whether he left male issue or not. Ferdinand at once asserted his rights by force of arms, and attacked Buda in May 1541, despite the urgent remonstrances of Martinuzzi, who knew that the Turk would never suffer the emperor to reign

¹ He was just twenty.

² It was kept secret for some years for fear of Turkish intervention.

at Buda. His fears were instantly justified. In August 1541, Suleiman, at the head of a vast army, invaded Hungary, and on the 30th of August, Buda was in his hands, During the six following years the sultan still further improved his position, capturing, amongst many other places, Pécs, and the principal city of Esztergom; but, in 1547, the exigencies of the Persian war induced him to sell a truce of five years to Ferdinand for £100,000, on a uti possidegis basis, Ferdinand holding thirty-five counties (including Croatia and Slavonia) for which he was to pay an annual tribute of £60,000; John Sigismund retaining Transylvania and sixteen adjacent counties with the title of prince, while the rest of the land, comprising most of the central counties, was annexed to the Turkish empire. Thus the ancient kingdom was divided into three separate states with divergent aims and interests, a condition of things which, with frequent rearrangements, continued for more than 150 years.

A period of infinite confusion and extreme misery now ensued, of which only the salient points can here be noted. The attempts of the Habsburgs to conquer Transylvania drew down upon them two fresh Turkish invasions, the first in 1552, when the sultan's generals captured Temesvár and fifty-four lesser forts or fortresses, and the second in 1566, memorable as Suleiman's last descent upon Hungary, and also for the heroic defence of Szigetvár by Miklós Zrínyi, one of the classical sieges of history. The truce of Adrianople in 1568, nominally for eight years, but prolonged from time to time till 1593, finally suspended regular hostilities, and introduced the epoch known as "The Long Peace," though, throughout these twenty-five years, the guerilla warfare on the frontier never ceased for more than a few months at a time, and the relations between the Habsburgs and Transylvania were persistently hostile.

Probably no other country ever suffered so much from its rulers as Hungary suffered during the second half of the 16th century. This was due partly to political and partly to religious causes. To begin with, there can be no doubt that from 1558, when the German imperial crown was transferred from the Spanish to the Austrian branch of the Habsburg family, royal Hungary¹ was regarded by the emperors as an insignificant barrier province yielding far more trouble than profit. The visible signs of this contemptuous point of view were (1) the suspension of the august dignity of palatine, which, after the death of Tamás Nádasdy, "the great palatine," in 1562, was left vacant for many years; (2) the abolition or attenuation of all the ancient Hungarian court dignitaries; (3) the degradation of the capital, Pressburg, into a mere provincial town; and (4) the more and more openly expressed determination to govern Hungary from Vienna by means of foreigners, principally German or Czech. During the reign of Ferdinand, whose consort, Anne, was a Hungarian princess, things were at least tolerable; but under Maximilian (1564-1576) and Rudolph (1576-1612) the antagonism of the Habsburgs towards their Magyar subjects was only too apparent. The diet, which had the power of the purse, could not be absolutely dispensed with, but it was summoned as seldom as possible, the king often preferring to forego his subsidies rather than listen to the unanswerable remonstrances of the estates against the illegalities of his government. In the days of the semi-insane recluse Rudolph things went from bad to worse The Magyar nobles were now systematically spoliated on trumped up charges of treason; hundreds of them were ruined. At last they either durst not attend the diet, or "sat like dumb dogs" during its session, allowing the king to alter and interpret the statutes at his good pleasure. Presently religious was superadded to political persecution.

The Reformation had at first produced little effect on Hungary. Except in the towns, mostly of German origin, it was generally detested, just because it came from Germany. The battle of Mohács, however, severely shook the faith of the Hungarians. "Where are the old Magyar saints ? Why do they not defend the realm against the Turks ?" was the general cry. Moreover, the corrupt church had lost its hold on the affections of the people. Zápolya, a devout Catholic, is lauded by Archbishop Frangipan in 1533 for arresting the spread of the new doctrines, though he would not allow Martinuzzi to take the extreme step of burning perverts at the stake. These perverts were mostly to be found among nobles desirous of amassing church property, or among those of the clergy who clamoured for communion in both kinds. So long, however, as the old national kingdom survived, the majority of the people still clung to the old faith. Under Ferdinand the parochial clergy were tempted to become Lutherans by the prospect of matrimony, and! in reply to the remonstrances of their bishops, declared that they would rather give up their cures than their wives. In Transylvania matters were at first ordered more peaceably. In 1552 the new doctrines obtained complete recognition there, the diet of Torda (1557) going so far as to permit every one to worship in his own way so long as he did not molest his neighbour. Yet, in the following year, the whole of the property of the Catholic Church there was diverted to secular uses, and the Calvinists were simultaneously banished, though they regained complete tolerance in 1564, a privilege at the same time extended to the Unitarians. who were now very influential at court and converted Prince John Sigismund to their views. In Turkish Hungary all the confessions enjoyed liberty of worship, though the Catholics, as possible partisans of the "king of Vienna," were liked the least. It was only when the

¹ In contradistinction to Turkish Hungary and Transylvanian Hungary.

Jesuits obtained a footing both at Prague¹ and Klausenburg that persecution began, but then it was very violent. In Transylvania the princes of the Báthory family (1571-1604) were ardent disciples of the Jesuit fathers, and Sigismund Báthory in particular persecuted fiercely, his fury being especially directed against the queer judaizing sect known as the Sabbatarians, whose tenets were adopted by the Szeklers (Székelys), the most savage of "the three nations" of Transylvania, many thousands of whom were, after a bloody struggle, forced to emigrate. In royal Hungary also the Jesuits were the chief persecutors. The extirpation of Protestantism was a deliberate prearranged programme, and as Protestanism was by this time identical with Magyarism² the extirpation of the one was tantamount to the extirpation of the other. The method generally adopted was to deprive the preachers in the towns of their churches by force, Italian mercenaries being preferably employed for the purpose. It was assumed that the Protestant nobles' jealousy of the burgesses would prevent them from interfering; but religious sympathy proved stronger than caste prejudice, and the diets protested against the persecution of their fellow-citizens so vehemently that religious matters were withdrawn from their jurisdiction.

¹ At first the Habsburgs held their court at Prague instead of at Vienna.

² According to contemporary records the number of prelates and priests in the three parts of Hungary at the beginning of the 17th century was but 103, all told, and of the great families not above half a dozen still clung to Catholicism.

<< 16: The Rule of the Hunyadi || 18: Rise of Transylvania >>