'Prince' John Sigismund and 'Voivode' Stephen Báthori

Political developments in the decades after 1556 bore great similarity to those between 1526 and 1551. King Ferdinand reacted belligerently to Isabella's return, and the war lasted, with occasional pauses, until the mid-1570s.

In 1557, the aristocrats in the Upper-Tisza region who rallied to the House of Szapolyai gained control of the most important royal fortresses, those at Várad, Huszt, and Tokaj. Only Gyula and Világos managed to hold out. Two counter-attacks by General Puchaim brought only minor successes, in Zemplén county. Isabella's realm once again extended as far as Kassa. However, at the end of 1557, thanks mainly to the efforts of the captain-general {1-633.} of Upper Hungary, Imre Telekessy, the initiative passed to Ferdinand's supporters.

After 31 January 1559, when King Ferdinand concluded an armistice with the Ottomans, the fighting became less intense in Transylvania, but the lull was short-lived. The death of Queen Isabella on 15 November set off a new wave of hostilities. Kassa's captain-general, Ferenc Zay, persuaded Menyhárt Balassa, Isabella's captain-general for Hungary, to change sides. This notorious act of betrayal was followed by many aristocrats from the Upper-Tisza region. As a result, by the end of 1561, Gyulafehérvár's effective authority did not reach beyond the counties of Bihar and Máramaros counties — with one noteworthy, and more distant exception, Munkács castle. Over the next few years, a few castles — notably Szatmár, Tokaj, and Nagybánya — did change hands, but the fighting brought no major territorial change. On two occasions, after the forces of 'John II' were defeated at Hadad on 4 March 1562, and during General Schwendi's offensive in the summer of 1565, it seemed that the Habsburg camp might threaten the survival of the Szapolyai state. By 1566, the sultan's armies were once again on the move in Hungary, and the new Habsburg monarch, Maximilian I (1564-1576), learned the same lesson as his father: the fortunes of war in Hungary could always be altered by the Ottomans' military might. In 1566, Suleiman the Magnificent lost his life in the siege of Szigetvár. In 1567, the brave Schwendi managed to invest Munkács. Finally, on 17 February 1568, a peace treaty was signed at Adrianople (Drinápoly), bringing two and a half decades of relative calm to war-weary Hungary; the treaty had the effect of turning any attempt against the Szapolyais into a risky provocation.

Hostilities ceased during the ensuing diplomatic parleys. On 10 March 1571, Emperor Maximilian got Transylvania's lords to ratify the Speyer peace treaty. The terms of that treaty applied only to the Szapolyai dynasty, and John Sigismund died on March 14, but when Stephen (István) Báthori was chosen to succeed him, {1-634.} Maximilian dared not to intervene directly. He did try indirectly to alter the course of events in Transylvania by turning a blind eye to the activities of Kassa's captain-general, Johann Rueber. When Gáspár Bekes, who contested the Hungarian throne and colluded with Vienna, was defeated on 10 July 1575 at Kerelőszentpál, this kind of covert intervention came to an end.

The latest, bloody wars had shifted the battlefront eastward, but otherwise produced no clear-cut results. The situation was reminiscent of that before György Fráter's demise. There is a striking, and almost tragicomic, similarity between the protracted peace talks that ran concurrent with the fighting and the course of events prior to 1551.

The Speyer Treaty, much like the earlier Várad accord, endorsed the principle of a united Hungary. To be sure, 'John II' surrendered the title of king that he had received from his father and György Fráter, and contented himself with being qualified Prince (princeps, Fürst) 'John Sigismund', a title that could be passed on to his male heirs. The treaty provided that if he abdicated or lost his realm, he would receive as compensation the Silesian principalities of Oppeln and Ratibor. The Speyer Treaty was to be kept strictly secret. The stillborn Szatmár accord, signed by John Sigismund and Maximilian in 1565, was also supposed to be kept secret, but the emperor had divulged it to the Sublime Porte in the hope that fear of Turkish retaliation would bring the Transylvanians to heel — much as his father had done in 1540. But the case of the Speyer Treaty, Maximilian abided by the provision of secrecy.

The new state's international status remained marked by uncertainty even after the conclusion of the Speyer Treaty. Only the Porte, Poland, and France had recognized the sovereignty of Isabella and, later, of John Sigismund. The state had no name. Its rulers adopted the title of Hungarian King: Isabella's formal qualification was 'Queen of Hungary', and that of John Sigismund, 'John II, elected King of Hungary'. For a long time, Stephen {1-635.} Báthori was acknowledged abroad (except in Istanbul) simply as voivode. France's occasional offers of assistance were insubstantial, and of little consequence, although in 1555–56, Paris was actively involved in facilitating Isabella's return. The Romanian principalities served mainly to put external pressure on Transylvania. In 1556, the rulers of Moldavia and Wallachia, Alexandru Lăpuşneanu and Pătraşcu, acted on Turkish instructions to attack Transylvania, thus facilitating Péter Petrovics's venture. On the other hand, in 1561, Jakab Heraklides — of Greek origin, he had benefited from the Habsburgs' help to become Moldavia's voivode, and came to the known as the 'despotic voivode' (Despot vodă) — gave assistance to Balassa and his associates in their rebellion.

The Ottomans' attitude toward Hungary remained unaltered. They considered that Eastern Hungary was essentially in their domain, and that those who ruled there did so on sufferance. Accordingly, the sultan would exact tribute and insist that the Hungarian ruler could govern only after he had the sultan's assent, which in written form was called an athname. Suleiman's athname for John II was couched in exactly the same terms as the letter of alliance sent to King John in February 1528. When Stephen Báthori was elected, the Porte's emissary, a Hungarian renegade named Amhát, was waiting in the wings with a firman that had been drafted in Istanbul and which the prescient Ottomans had already addressed to Báthori. The text was new, and the tone commanding, but the essence was the same:

'Stephen Báthori, Transylvania's voivode! [...] Transylvania has been under my protection for a long time. I regard it in the same way as my other possessions, and give it the same protection against all enemies. My will is that all feudal lords, officials, fortresses, towns, palaces, fortifications, villages, provinces, prisons, and municipalities be kept in the same state and order as before; whatever belongs to {1-636.} Transylvania, whether in Hungary or Transylvania, belongs to my empire [...]

Therefore, exercising my authority, I grant to you, in accordance with your loyalty toward me, the country of Transylvania. [...]

In keeping with your loyalty toward me, you must be at one with your lords and reach peaceful agreement with them. [...]

'You must always act in concert with the beglerbeys of Buda and Temesvár, and thereby prevent the enemy from deceiving you.'[9]9. EOE II, p. 459.

Within these guidelines, the Ottomans continued to allow their Hungarian vassals to govern themselves freely. Their policy regarding Transylvania was driven by a single, and realizable objective: to prevent the reunification of Hungary. As long as the Szapolyai dynasty, and, later, Stephen Báthori and his successors avoided taking any steps in that direction, they were free to do as they wished.

When, in 1565, Vienna divulged to the Porte the secret of its agreement with John Sigismund, the young 'elected king' decided to personally pay his respects to the sultan and convince the latter, much as his father had done thirty years before, of his loyalty. Construing the attacks on Transylvania to be a breach of the peace treaty, the sultan led an army against Hungary. When John Sigismund hastened to Belgrade to meet the sultan, he was handed the above-noted athname. The Ottomans' punitive campaign touched only Habsburg Hungary; Szigetvár fell, and so did royal Hungary's last strongholds in the eastern Great Plain, at Gyula, Világos, and Jenő.

Everyone understood the full portent of the Ottoman reprisals. The Ottomans aimed to conquer Hungary, and the goodwill that they professed toward Gyulafehérvár was no more than a tactical element in their strategy. Occasionally, as a great favour, they would throw back a crumb from their booty. Thus, in 1554, {1-637.} Petrovics got Lugos and Karánsebes, and, a few years later, the small fort at Deszni, Zaránd county, was returned to John Sigismund. None of this stopped the Ottomans from pressing their claim (much as in 1546–51) to Transylvania's major border forts, at Lugos, Sebes, Várad, Kereki and Sarkad — in 1556–57, when Ferenc Bebek was intriguing against Isabella, and subsequently, when Gáspár Bekes responded positively in the hope of winning their support.

The disappearance of the Szapolyai dynasty led to a palpable change in the Ottomans' policy toward Transylvania. At first sight, the change did not seem significant, for it did not affect basic principles. In March 1572, Sultan Selim II (1566–1574) solemnly notified Stephen Báthori that he recognized the latter as successor to King John and John Sigismund, thus as a ruler with full royal prerogatives. But even at the time, the more vigilant observers saw an ill omen in the Porte's attempt to expand the frontier zone — taxed by both sides — at the expense of Transylvania. Another, ostensibly minor change was that the sultan's court officials, from chief pashas down to interpreters, began to demand personal gifts of greater value than before. Sometimes, they merely evoked a practice dating from the 'late King John', but at other times, they brazenly demanded that the gifts match the value of those flowing in from the two Romanian principalities. The Ottomans showed their true colours in 1576, when Murad III acceded to the throne and not only reiterated a demand for the border fortresses but also increased by 5000 forints the annual tribute from Transylvania. Báthori did not have the slightest intention of raising a protest, and even so, he was sent a reminder that the Porte could have got greater benefits if it had chosen to support Gáspár Bekes.

In fact, the former pretender Gáspár Bekes had gone into exile, and a few years later, he would do battle in Poland as Báthori's bravest general. However, from that time onward, the sultan would routinely hold in reserve, in Istanbul, an alternative candidate for {1-638.} prince of Transylvania. From 1580 to the time of the Fifteen-Years' War, this shameful role was played by renegade Hungarian aristocrat, Pál Márkházi. Thus Transylvania was being prepared for the servitude that characterized the Romanian voivodeships, and the Ottomans exploited every opportunity move closer to that objective.

Báthori did all in his power to prevent such opportunities from arising. He paid the higher tribute, made sure that the troops in the border forts stayed clear of Turkish territory, and pursued the Moldavian voivode, Bogdan, when the latter was exiled by the Ottomans.

Clearly, the development of Eastern Hungary, now called Transylvania, remained constrained by the interests and demands of its two mighty neighbours. And yet, its history took a significantly different turn after 1556.