Transylvania—the Stronghold of Hungarian Sovereignty


There is no doubt that the autonomy of Transylvania, achieved by that tireless champion of Hungary’s unity Frater György, became an important locus of Hungarian statehood in the midst of German and Ottoman domination and a haven of Hungarian culture and identity that was significant for the nation’s future.

The trisection of Hungary resulted in the nation being split into two camps above and beyond the explosive religious division. The principality of Transylvania, being ruled by Hungarian princes nominated or approved by the Sultan, was an obvious stepping-stone for the Ottoman Empire’s expansionism. Because the isolation and weakening of the Habsburgs served Turkish interests, princes of European stature such as István Báthory (who was elected king of Poland), István Bocskai and Gábor Bethlen could develop Transylvania into a bastion of twofold resistance against the Habsburgs and the Counter-Reformation which they so strongly promoted.

At the end of the sixteenth century Transylvania was larger in area than the Hungary of today: 100,000 as against 93,000 square km. The principality comprised the so-called “Partium” as well, i.e. those northern and south-eastern counties that had been separated from the Hungarian rump kingdom by a Turkish-controlled wedge. The fertile and densely populated borderlands added considerably to Hungarian predominance. Estimates suggest that about 955,000 people lived at this time in the principality of Transylvania: about half a million Hungarians including 250,000 Székelys, 280,000 Romanians, 90,000 Saxons and about 86,000 “others”, mainly Serbs and Ukrainians. However, the core of Transylvania, i.e. without the counties and towns belonging to the “Partium”, was only 60,000 square km. and had a mere 650,000 inhabitants. This clarification is important because in the seventeenth century during domestic turmoil and external attacks the rich region of the “Partium” was temporarily occupied by the Turks. The significance of this relatively small principality can only be understood against this multiethnic and multicultural background. Just at the time when Hungarian spiritual and cultural life was almost extinguished in the parts of the country ruled by the Habsburgs and the Turks, Transylvania proved to be the bastion of tolerance and national culture.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century the matter of religious freedom and the battle between Reformation and Counter-Reformation could not be divorced from the political right of self-determination and the political aspects of the Turkish system of vassalage. The Ottoman Empire was uninterested in this religious conflict, yet the positions of the protagonists involved cross-border relations. However, the desire for reunification with Royal Hungary, especially in the sixteenth century, played an important role in the principality’s foreign policy. The Sublime Porte identified the Catholic position with the Habsburgs, their most formidable enemy, and the Protestant position with the Transylvanian protectorate. At a later stage alliances were made against the Habsburgs by rebellious Transylvanian princes and French kings, with the Sultan’s benevolent support—the result simply of the Turks regarding the enemies of their arch-enemy as their friends.

For almost two centuries, between the tragedy of Mohács and the forced peace of Szatmár following the failed fight for freedom by Ferenc Rákóczi II in 1711, the greatest and most courageous princes, magnates, soldiers, clerics, thinkers, poets and students endeavoured to salvage Hungary’s national existence from the clutches of the two greatest potentates, the Emperor and the Sultan. It was a constant conflict, a confusing tug-of-war between realism and illusion, between recognizing the situation and maintaining the claims of ancient greatness. During the era of foreign rule and domestic anarchy, concepts such as loyalty and treachery, freedom and suppression conformed to no clear-cut pattern with, on the one side, Christendom and, on the other, infidel Islam. Particularly during the period of Reformation and Counter-Reformation the sense of Christian unity was not always stronger than the aversion from “the Germans”, i.e. “the Habsburgs”, even amounting to hatred. In times of necessity the Defenders of Christendom joined even with the Turkish arch-enemy against Vienna and the excesses of the Counter-Reformation, to which was added the cruelty of foreign mercenaries.

Hungarian nationality and religious freedom were inseparable, particularly in the fight against the Catholic-Germanizing trend in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The choice between temporary agreement with the Turks, or uncompromising struggle against the infidel was a question which, in different circumstances and to different degrees, split Hungary’s political and intellectual élite more than once. When the nation’s survival, culture and statehood were being considered, the great national task was reunification of a country arbitrarily divided into three parts. The option of independent or less independent action, of bad or not so bad solutions, of the greater or lesser evil, called for some dramatic changes of course and infinite flexibility. The Ottomans and Habsburgs were enemies, and at the same time allies of divided Hungary. Hungarians, fighting in both camps, took part in bloody confrontations against one or the other on several occasions. Contemporaries interpreted the concepts of friend and foe very differently. In both camps there were champions of “the true cause of the beloved country”, who regarded those in the other camp as traitors. Especially during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the heroes and apostles of religious freedom from and in Transylvania were branded “guilty of high treason”, “power-hungry adventurers”, “Turkish mercenaries” and “enemies of Christianity” not only in Royal Hungary but also in the German literature of the time.

After the battle of Mohács the Reformation swept like wildfire over Hungary. A year before the fateful defeat, the Diet had still demanded that the followers of the Lutheran confession (at that time still almost exclusively Germans) be burned at the stake. The agents of Protestantism were Hungarian and German students from Hungary. For instance, in 1616 the University of Wittenberg alone counted 340 Hungarian students. Others studied in Basel, Geneva, Leiden, Utrecht and even Oxford. Up to the end of the sixteenth century 2,850 students from Hungary were registered at foreign universities (their ethnic origin was not recorded).

However, Lutheranism prevailed in the districts and towns of northern Hungary inhabited partly by Germans and Slovaks, and in Transdanubia, while the Hungarians, particularly in Transylvania, turned to Calvinism. Nationality and religious denomination overlapped, creating a bulwark against Islam (the Turks), Catholicism (the Habsburgs) and Orthodoxy (Romanians and Serbs). The Reformation thus embodied a national character; men of the cloth became the vanguard and mainstay of the national idea, and students returning from Switzerland and the Netherlands became creators of a national literature that arose from religious writings and Bible translations.

In his work The Three Historical Regions of Europe, quoted earlier, Jenö Szücs referred to the reasons for the delay in the change from Latin to Hungarian: “The lack of feudal courts and a chivalrous milieu delayed Hungarian becoming the written language by three centuries.” The earliest coherent literary relic in Hungarian—a funeral oration—was found in a Latin codex from the end of the twelfth century. The ancient Hungarian Mary Lament, one of the most beautiful poems in the language, originates from around 1300; the Legend of Princess (Saint) Margaret and the Legend of St Francis were written around 1310 and 1370 respectively; both survive only in later copies. They were probably the earliest Hungarian translations. The authors of religious texts and poems began to write in Hungarian only as late as the end of the fifteenth century. The first Hungarian-language books were printed in Cracow in 1527 and Vienna in 1536, and the first press in Hungary itself that printed in the native language was established in 1537. The most important book to be produced was arguably Gáspár Károlyi’s first complete translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1590.

A surprising aspect of the birth and upsurge of Hungarian culture was that so many of the greatest intellects between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries belonged to men of Croat, German, Slovak and Jewish origin. Their Hungarianness was the result of choice, not of accidents of birth. This was true, for example, of the Lutheran pastor Caspar Helth, who was active in the largely Hungarian-inhabited city of Kolozsvár. The Saxon cleric learned Hungarian only as an adult, and because of his love of the language he became its first great stylist and at the same time printer and publisher of Hungarian Bible translations and other works (1552–66). He is known in Hungarian literary history by the name Gáspár Heltai. The first bishop of the Hungarian Calvinists in Kolozsvár, originally called Franz Hertel, later become known as the Protestant philosopher and preacher, Ferenc David.

There was never religious persecution in Transylvania, and the principality even became the bulwark of religious tolerance, a rarity in the Europe of the day. The first Prince, János Zsigmond, changed his religion four times. His great successors provided for a peaceful coexistence of the various faiths; several Diets (1550, 1564, 1572) declared the right to religious freedom, first for Catholics and Protestants and later, after the split within Protestantism into Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians, for all creeds. During the “golden age” of Gábor Bethlen (1613–29) Transylvania served as a unique example of tolerance. Thus Bethlen recalled the Jesuits, expelled earlier from the principality, and even gave financial support to the Bible translation of the Jesuit György Káldor. For his own reformed Church the Prince founded a Calvinist academy, printing press and library, but at the same time he assented to a vicar-general for the Catholics and a bishop for the Greek Orthodox Romanians, and freed the Romanian clergy from their “bondage obligations” and the Jews from wearing the yellow Star of David. Romanian Orthodoxy counted as a “tolerated” religion because the Romanians did not constitute a nation of Estates (like the Hungarians, Székelys and Saxons since 1437); thus although Orthodoxy could be freely practised, its followers were denied political equality. Bethlen settled in Transylvania a group of Anabaptists, persecuted elsewhere in Europe.

In the mean time the Habsburg Counter-Reformation was proceeding with full force in the kingdom of Hungary. The central figure and architect of the successful re-Catholization was the Jesuit Péter Pázmány, Cardinal-Archbishop of Esztergom (1570–1637). He crossed swords with the Protestant preachers in Latin and Hungarian in his persuasive style, winning back thirty magnate families to the Catholic fold; in most cases everyone living on the magnates’ estates had to follow suit according to the principle of cuius regio eius religio that operated after the 1555 Religious Peace of Augsburg. Pázmány also founded a university in 1635 at Nagyszombat (Trnava), which still exists today in Budapest.

Re-Catholization exacerbated the confessional split between Hungarians in the west and east as well as the attitude towards the Turks. Hungarian poets, philosophers and politicians called the seventeenth century the century of “Hungarian decay”. Even though Turkish domination was the decisive factor in Hungary’s decline, the consequences of the intolerant and at times cruel rule of the Habsburg representatives in Royal Hungary and Transylvania counted too. For Protestants harried by the agents of the Counter-Reformation in Royal Hungary their persecutors were “worse than the Turks”. The so-called Fifteen Years’ War that broke out between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans in 1591 also plunged Transylvania into turmoil and misery.

The alliance of Emperor Rudolf and the young Prince Zsigmond Báthory (1581–97), nephew of the first elected Prince and later great King of Poland István Báthory, at first achieved significant successes against the Turks. This young, athletic prince at first appeared brave and attractive, but soon turned out to be a sinister and aberrant figure, like a Shakespearean villain. His decline into an unpredictable and bloodthirsty psychopath was hastened by his unhappy and unconsummated marriage to the Habsburg Princess Maria Christina. Zsigmond was impotent, and to keep this a secret—and compensate for it—he was constantly on the run from his wife and his country, which he plunged into chaos with his bizarre escapades. He announced his abdication no less than five times, only to return soon afterwards. Zsigmond left Transylvania first to the mercy of the imperial commander Giorgio Basta, then to the equally cruel intervention of Michael the Brave, voivode of Wallachia, and finally to the Turks, eager for revenge.

In the mean time Emperor Rudolf II strove by coercion to re-Catholicize predominantly Protestant Transylvania, mainly by forced conversions and confiscation of estates on trumped-up charges of high treason. His general Basta unleashed a reign of terror against the Hungarians of Transylvania with his mostly Walloon. Italian and Spanish mercenary troops. Although the inhabitants of the German towns in Upper Hungary looked up to the Princes Bocskai, Bethlen and Rákoczi as the champions of religious freedom, the conduct of the mercenary armies and their generals fuelled the dislike and later sheer hatred of Germans in general, and by extension the Habsburgs.

These punishments and atrocities inflicted by the imperial authorities provoked a revolt led by one of Zsigmond’s generals (and his uncle), István Bocskai, previously one of the Emperor’s most loyal supporters. In the midst of bloody chaos, this Calvinist landowner and gifted soldier raised an army of daring warriors, the Hajduks. Of Slavic background, they had originally been wild herdsmen of the plains, but later consisted mainly of Magyar refugees driven from their homes by the long war against the Turks and Germans and living on the fringes of society. Even though the expansion of Lutheranism aroused the Hungarians’ dislike of German influence, the Habsburgs’ unrelenting Counter-Reformation hit the German-speakers in the towns of Upper Hungary with particular force. Bocskai’s fight for political and religious freedom therefore gained the support not only of Hungarians, but also of German burghers and the lesser nobility.

Bocskai had been known as one of the Habsburgs’ most loyal followers and a Turcophobe, and his volte face and fervent calls also to the nobles in Transdanubia proved the most convincing argument that a patriot could make common cause even with the Turks in the interests of the country, the Hungarians and religious freedom. An attack by the new imperial commander Barbiano on Bocskai’s estates was crucial in this volte face. The Hungarian Hajduks changed sides from the Emperor to Bocskai who, with the help of Turkish and Tatar units, soon scored overwhelming victories. Elected Prince of Transylvania in 1605 as well as of Hungary—he refused the kingship that was offered to him—Bocskai concluded a peace treaty with the Emperor. This recognized his life tenure in Transylvania, which was enlarged by four counties. The Imperial powers also had to guarantee wide-ranging religious freedom for all ranks of the nobility, the free cities and the market-towns, extension of the nobles’ political rights, and restoration of the office of palatine. In November 1606 Bocksai mediated the Peace of Zsitvatorok between the Emperor and the Sublime Porte on the basis of the status quo. Soon after this he died, probably poisoned by his over-ambitious Chancellor, who in turn was hacked to pieces a few days later by the Hajduks.

Bocskai’s victories and diplomatic successes ushered in a new phase of Hungarian history. In an impressive testament, unpublished till about two centuries later, the Prince urged “the Transylvanians… never to separate from Hungary, even if they have a different Prince; and the Hungarians that they should never toss away the Transylvanians from themselves, but should regard them as their brothers, their own blood, their own limbs”. He considered the equilibrium between the Germans and the Ottoman Empire vital for Hungary, and he therefore unequivocally declared himself in favour of a strong Transylvanian principality under the aegis of the Sultan: “So long as the Hungarian crown is in the hands of a stronger nation, the Germans, and so long as the Hungarian kingdom is dependent on the Germans, it is necessary and useful to maintain a Hungarian prince in Transylvania, since he will protect the Hungarians as well.” Transylvania as the stronghold of Hungarian sovereignty until the re-emergence of a Hungarian kingdom, followed by a confederation between it and Hungary—this was the political credo of Bocskai. His statue can be seen next to Calvin’s on the monument of the Reformation in Geneva.

Although the Habsburgs succeeded in re-Catholicizing Royal Hungary, east of the Tisza the Reformation remained almost intact in the spirit of peaceful coexistence between the three recognized nations and respect for their diverse creeds. Referring to the Habsburgs’ destruction of Bohemian independence during the Thirty Years’ War, an anonymous late-seventeenth-century pamphlet entitled The Moaning and Wailing declared that the Habsburgs did not succeed in dressing the Hungarians “in Czech trousers”.


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