The Long Turkish War I


The Battle of Keresztes (Also known as the Battle of Mezőkeresztes) (Turkish: Haçova Muharebesi) took place on 24–26 October 1596. The battle was fought between a combined Habsburg-Transylvanian force and the Ottoman Empire near the village of Mezőkeresztes (Turkish: Haçova) in northern Hungary. The battle ended with a victory by the Ottoman Empire. Lord Kinross, a early 20th-century historian, said that if the Ottoman Empire had been defeated, they would have lost Hungary and part of Bulgaria.


A New Crusade

There were few opportunities to test these tactics in large battles during the Turkish War of 1593–1606, which mainly consisted of sieges and skirmishes like the Spanish operations in Flanders against the Dutch. Hostilities arose from the systemic problem of endemic banditry and unstable frontiers. The Habsburgs could do little for the Uskoks who were facing overpopulation and were forced to intensify their piratical activities in the Adriatic. Venice, the chief target of their seaborne attacks, encouraged them to redirect their attention to Ottoman Bosnia and Hungary after 1591. The pasha of Bosnia retaliated by besieging a Croatian border fort and was captured and executed by its defenders. Sinan Pasha, the energetic grand vizier, persuaded a reluctant Sultan Murad III to agree general war in 1593. As an opening move, Sinan seized the Habsburg embassy and enslaved its staff: an occupational hazard for those posted to Constantinople.

Rudolf’s advisers believed the war offered a golden opportunity to expand Habsburg influence in the region and extend control over Transylvania. The Croats’ minor victory convinced them the Ottomans were in decline and they thought war against the Turks would rally Christians within the Empire and so reduce problems there. Certainly Rudolf was roused from his depression, and readily embraced what he saw as his traditional role as defender of the true faith. The Reichstag reconvened in 1594 and voted another substantial tax grant, renewing this four years later and again in 1603. At least four-fifths of the 20 million florins promised actually reached the imperial treasury, along with a further 7 to 8 million paid when Rudolf appealed to the Kreis assemblies as well. The Habsburg lands raised around 20 million, and another 7.1 million flowed in from the pope, Spain and Italy. Even the maverick Henri IV of France promised assistance, and many Catholics, recently defeated in that country’s civil war, now flocked to the imperial standard. Others came from further afield, including Captain John Smith, the later founder of Virginia. The princes of the three subject principalities of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia followed suit, and although the Poles refused to help directly, their Ukrainian Cossacks attacked the Crimean Tartars and so prevented these from aiding the sultan. The imperial field army doubled to around 20,000 men, supplemented by about 10,000 Hungarians and about twice that number of Transylvanians and other auxiliaries.

After all the effort, the result was a crushing disappointment. Some of the assistance proved rather meagre in practice, as in the case of the Russian tsar who sent a huge consignment of furs that flooded the market and brought little return. Worse, imperial planning was unrealistic. Talks were opened with Morocco and Persia to open additional fronts, but an embassy from Shah Abbas did not arrive until 1600, by which time it was unlikely the emperor could win. The sultan managed to keep 60–100,000 men in the field and so generally held the initiative.

The war opened in the south, where the main Ottoman offensive made some gains at Croatian expense in 1593 before the onset of winter forced Sinan to suspend operations. Thereafter, the Croatian, Slovenian and Senj border defenders held their own. Other Ottoman assaults against both ends of Lake Balaton were driven off, and from November 1593 the Habsburgs made periodic counter-attacks from this sector, trying to seize the Turkish fortress of Stuhlweißenburg that guarded the south-western approaches to Buda. The next Ottoman offensive hit the crucial central Hungarian sector, scoring a major success with the capture of Raab in September 1594, thus outflanking Komorn and opening the way to Vienna. Habsburg efforts concentrated on reversing, or at least offsetting, this blow and Archduke Matthias managed to puncture the Ottoman salient by taking Gran and Visegrad the following year. The sultan retaliated by shifting the war north-eastwards, leading his army in person to take Erlau in 1596, and defeating a relief army at Mezökeresztes, the war’s only major field battle, that October. All attention now focused on the three principalities of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia that had defied the sultan and entered the war on the emperor’s side.

Intervention in Transylvania

Habsburg planners saw the new Transylvanian alliance as a means of extending Habsburg suzerainty, and even forcing that country back under royal Hungarian control. The moment seemed opportune, since the current prince, Sigismund Báthory, appeared to welcome a Habsburg takeover. Polish influence had been strong under his predecessor but was now on the wane due to that country’s new preoccupation with Sweden. Imperial troops retook Raab in 1598, stabilizing the main front, while mounting difficulties in the Ottoman Empire sparked widespread revolts there from 1599. The apparent success of Catholic reform in Austria contributed to the growing sense of confidence among the emperor’s advisers, and led to the fateful decision to invade Transylvania in conjunction with Prince Michael of Wallachia, who hoped to get Moldavia out of the bargain. A period of confused fighting ended with the Habsburgs’ complete defeat thanks to unofficial Polish intervention that restored Sigismund and installed Polish puppet-rulers in the other two principalities.

Rather than cutting their losses, the Habsburgs stepped up operations in the region, entrusting new, larger forces to Giorgio Basta whose subsequent conduct earned him the reputation of a cruel tyrant among Hungarian and Romanian historians. Basta was one of the many Italians in Habsburg service and had risen from drummer boy to commander of a company of mounted arquebusiers in Spanish service in Flanders. He came to Hungary with a Spanish contingent in 1597 and soon acquired a general’s rank. Schlick, Marradas, Collalto and Ernesto Montecuccoli all served under him, but his influence spread further thanks to his numerous theoretical writings and military commentaries, many of which heavily criticized his employers for failing to pay their soldiers properly. The subsequent campaign presaged much that later followed in the Empire after 1618. As the man on the spot, Basta was forced to act quickly in rapidly changing circumstances. It was often impossible to refer back to the imperial government in Prague where Rudolf’s intentions were, in any case, far from clear. Having successfully conquered Transylvania again with Prince Michael’s help in August 1600, Basta had his ally murdered the following year, because he considered him a liability. As the Poles refused to rescue him a second time, Sigismund abdicated in return for a Habsburg pension in June 1602, leaving the Transylvanian diet no choice but to pay homage to Rudolf in return for confirmation of its privileges.

It was a pyrrhic victory. The diversion of manpower to Transylvania weakened the defence of the other sectors, and the Turks advanced up the Save in the summer of 1600, taking Kanizsa and opening the way to Styria. Though Archduke Matthias captured Stuhlweißenburg in 1601, this was lost the following year to one Turkish army, while another broke into Styria. Worsening financial problems prevented a coordinated defence as parts of the imperial army were paralysed by mutinies, with some of the French and Walloons even defecting to the Turks. Matthias retrieved the situation by capturing Pest in October 1602, precipitating a crisis for the Ottomans who now faced revolts in five provinces. Sultan Mehmet died of a heart attack and was succeeded by his thirteen-year-old son Ahmet I. Shah Abbas seized his chance and attacked from Persia, recapturing Azerbaijan and Georgia by 1604. Faced with a war on two fronts, Ahmet opened peace talks with the emperor in February 1604.

By making excessive demands, Rudolf squandered this last chance to end the war before his own position collapsed. Prolonged warfare had devastated Transylvania to the extent that it could no longer support the Habsburg garrisons. With no prospect of help from Prague, Basta resorted to seizing the property of any nobles who opposed his government. Matters spiralled rapidly out of control once the general received secret instructions from the emperor to implement the Austrian policies of Catholic renewal. As in Austria, this began with the towns, with the intention to repopulate the country with Catholic settlers and discharged soldiers after the war. Other measures targeted Upper Hungary where General Jacopo Belgiojoso began evicting Lutheran pastors from the strategic town of Kassa in January 1604, while the garrisons of 90 border posts were rotated to replace the Hungarians with 12,000 German troops. The policy of confiscations was extended to Hungary where Matthias even seized the manors of István Illésházy, a Protestant magnate who was stripped of his post as Hungarian palatine. This proved too much and the disaffected Magyars now made common cause with the oppressed Transylvanians.

The Bocskai Revolt 1604–6

Opposition coalesced around István Bocskai, a Calvinist landowner from Wardein in Upper Hungary. Bocskai’s journey from loyal servant to rebel leader encapsulates how Habsburg policies were alienating many of their most influential subjects. He had led the Transylvanian auxiliaries during the initial campaigns but was distrusted on account of his religion by Rudolf, who deprived him of his command and had him brought to Prague in 1598. He escaped execution, and retired to his estates that became a centre for malcontents. Though hailed by the local Calvinist clergy as a Hungarian Moses, Bocskai avoided inflaming religious passions for fear of alienating potential supporters, drawing instead on widespread popular discontent at the seemingly endless Turkish war. Having intercepted letters from the conspirators, Belgiojoso advanced from Kassa with his 3,500 men to arrest Bocskai, but Bocskai escaped and rallied 5,000 haiduks by granting them noble status and distributing abandoned land. Belgiojoso retired on Kassa, but the disgruntled citizens opened the gates to Bocskai who entered in triumph on 12 December 1604. The fall of Kassa severed the communications between Belgiojoso in Upper Hungary and the 5,000 Habsburg troops holding down Transylvania. As more haiduks rallied to his standard, Bocskai was able to leave a blocking force against Belgiojoso and invade Transylvania with 4,000 light cavalry in January 1605. Though the Habsburgs had the backing of the Szekler people, their troops were scattered in isolated garrisons which had all fallen to Bocskai by September. The Transylvanian diet had already proclaimed Bocskai as their new prince in February, while he was welcomed as the ‘illustrious prince of all Hungary’ when he returned westwards with the rest of his army in April.

By now, the Habsburg position was on the verge of collapse. Basta had been recalled to the main Hungarian sector in July 1604, but despite having 36,000 men, he had been unable to relieve Pest, which fell to the Ottoman besiegers. The imperial army disintegrated as it retreated northwards, allowing the Ottomans to recover both Gran and Visegrad. Bocskai captured Neuhäusel and met the new grand vizier, Lala Mehmed Pasha, outside Pressburg on 11 November 1605 where he was crowned king of Hungary with a special crown made in Constantinople.

Bowing to pressure from his relations, Rudolf reluctantly replaced Basta with Archduke Matthias who was empowered to open negotiations with Bocskai in May. The Bohemian Estates mobilized 17,000 militia, including units commanded by Wallenstein and Count Thurn, to stem the rebels’ advance into Moravia during that summer. Many of Bocskai’s aristocratic supporters were growing concerned that he was simply exchanging Habsburg rule for that of the Turks. They also doubted his ability to control the haiduks, to whom he had promised so much, and felt that the rebellion had achieved its original objectives of halting re-Catholicization and liberating Transylvania. Following a ceasefire in January 1606, the Hungarian and Transylvanian nobility concluded the Treaty of Vienna with Matthias on 23 June at the expense of both Rudolf and their own supporters. Lutheran and Calvinist Hungarian nobles received formal toleration that was extended to the royal towns and Military Frontier, but denied to peasants. Hungarian political autonomy was strengthened by restoring the post of palatine, removing financial control from Vienna, reserving administrative posts for natives, and replacing the German troops with Hungarians in the frontier fortresses. Transylvanian autonomy was also enhanced. Bocskai renounced his new Hungarian crown but kept the courtesy title of king and was recognized as prince of Transylvania by the Habsburgs, who ceded the territory another five Upper Hungarian counties east of Kassa.

While Bocskai did not live long to enjoy his success, his revolt set an important precedent. Militant Catholicism had been reversed, not by the passive resistance that had failed so miserably in Inner Austria, but by armed force. Whereas the Austrian Protestants had used their influence in the provincial Estates to bargain local concessions in the 1570s, the Hungarians and Transylvanians established a viable alliance between their countries. It was an example the Bohemians were to follow in 1618.

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