A State is Born

Perhaps the most important change was that public opinion became convinced of the necessity for an independent Transylvania. There were, to be sure, some reverses after the break with the Habsburgs in 1556. In the autumn of that year, Saxons in Szeben rebelled against their leaders, who had made a deal with the Hungarians and (indirectly) with the Ottomans. The royal magistrate, Johannes Roth, died in the clash, but Péter Haller and his companions managed within a few days to end the rebellion, which had incidentally brought to the surface other, social cleavages.

Menyhárt Balassa's 'treason' in 1561 swept along into Ferdinand's camp not only the majority of aristocrats in the Tisza region but also their familiars, the rural nobility. Only a few would subsequently submit again to the authority of Gyulafehérvár. But when the Székelys, incited by Balassa, sought remedy for their grievances by rallying to Ferdinand, their 'attack' was mercilessly {1-639.} crushed by John II's troops. Neither of these rebellions had much success, for the ruler always had enough supporters to impose his will. Over a decade would elapse before Bekes managed to 'revive' the resistance of the Székelys and some hot-headed Transylvanian aristocrats. By then, Stephen Báthori was laying the foundations of a peaceful state that would last for twenty years.

A few decisive events marked this process of consolidation. These events, which otherwise fitted into what seemed to be a self-perpetuating pattern, served to clarify a whole series of thorny but crucial questions.

The first important event was young Szapolyai's visit to the sultan in 1566. There was much distress in Transylvania at the Habsburgs' diplomatic 'betrayal', and few were prepared to accompany their prince on such a dangerous visit. (In this respect, too, history was repeating itself, considering the circumstances of King John's negotiations with the Ottomans in 1528–29.)

The foregoing fifteen years had produced numerous crises (1551, 1556, 1557–59, 1561) in the relations between Szapolyai's realm and the Ottomans. Contacts between the two parties, involving meetings of minor officials or protracted diplomatic missions, had been sporadic and inconclusive. The meeting of the two rulers marked the end of this difficult period. Their countries enjoyed trouble-free relations for the next thirty years, although Transylvania was of course in a subordinate position.

The second turning point was the conclusion of the Speyer Treaty. Its significance lay less in the acknowledgment of John Sigismund as prince, which in any case was superseded by his untimely death and the extinction of the Szapolyai dynasty, than in the delineation of the Hungarian Kingdom and Transylvania. Despite intervening complications, those boundaries were put into effect.

Up to this time, the territorial extent of the principality was defined for all practical purposes by the aristocrats and noblemen {1-640.} who submitted to the authority of Gyulafehérvár. Moreover, in the Hungarian system of landholding, the nobility's estates often consisted of villages scattered over as many as three or four counties. Thus, in the Upper Tisza region, the territories of the two countries merged in mosaic fashion. The counties of Bereg, Ugocsa, Szatmár, and Szabolcs had been controlled by Habsburg supporters ever since 1561, yet they encompassed many villages that came under the authority of Transylvania. In 1571, John Sigismund gave up these 'dependencies', and Maximilian reciprocated with respect to villages and estates, belonging to his supporters, that lay within districts transferred to Transylvania. This allowed the frontier line to be drawn with some precision: Máramaros, Kraszna, Közép-Szolnok, and Bihar counties were given to the principality (except for Nagybánya and Erdőd). The agreement precluded further territorial demands by either party.

In theory, the territorial settlement was disadvantageous for Transylvania, for it had previously encompassed the whole of the region east of the Tisza. In reality, the agreement merely confirmed the results of several decades of war. Moreover, the treaty did not freeze all borders. First of all, many districts of the southern counties (including Karánsebes, Lugos, and parts of Zaránd and Békés counties) were annexed to Transylvania, although they were not mentioned in the Speyer Treaty and lay outside the territory formerly under the voivode's authority. Thanks to an agreement concluded in 1585, Nagybánya and its district was returned to the principality in compensation for properties of the Báthori family, located in Hungary, .

Finally, the greatest merit of the boundary settlement was that it eliminated a chronic source of conflict between Vienna and Gyulafehérvár.

The third decisive event involving Transylvania came soon after the conclusion of the Speyer Treaty. After John Sigismund's death, the rulers of his lands were faced with a choice between two {1-641.} equally lawful possibilities. One was to implement the terms of the Speyer Treaty: the extinction of the Szapolyai dynasty presented an opportunity to unify the remnants of Hungary. The other possibility was provided by the diet that met at Gyulafehérvár in 1567. Evoking the athname issued by Suleiman in Belgrade, the feudal estates enacted a provision for the free election of a ruling prince. The Transylvanians' choice was clear. On 25 May 1571, they elected — 'without any further debate or comment' — Stephen Báthori of Somlyó as their ruler. Thus, as in 1556, they affirmed that independence was not contingent on the ruling dynasties.

The election also served to clarify the Habsburgs' claims and intentions. Emperor Maximilian decided not to dispute the feudal estates' right to choose their ruler. In confidential negotiations, he accepted the Transylvanians' concession that the new prince would formally hold the title of voivode and, accordingly, swear allegiance to Hungary's monarch. For all practical purposes, they ratified the Speyer Treaty while ignoring its essential terms. In the process, a constitutional fiction, linked to the Szapolyai family, was dispelled, for even after the dynasty's extinction, Vienna dared not to challenge the autonomy of Hungary's eastern parts.

The fourth turning-point was Gáspár Bekes's rebellion, or more precisely, its defeat. The latter contributed to the evolution of the Habsburgs' policy, for henceforth, their insistence on the new Hungarian state's subordination became purely theoretical. In practice, they would forego attempts at intervention and act as if Hungary was independent: 'His Majesty the Emperor treated the voivode and his kin with imperial indulgence [...] As before, [Rueber, the captain-general of Kassa] was instructed to maintain good-neighbourly relations.'[10]10. Imre Lukinich, Erdély területi változásai (The Changes in Transylvania's Territory) (Budapest, 1918), p. 172.

Bekes's defeat at the battle at Kerelőszentpál had a deep impact in Transylvania as well. Báthori dealt harshly with the rebels; he had many of the enemy officers hanged right on the battlefield. Bekes managed to flee, but many of his high-ranking {1-642.} accomplices were captured by the prince, tried for a capital offense, and sentenced to death. Miklós Wesselényi, a prosecuting judge of long experience, broke down in tears when he read out the sentence. As a last resort, the defendants evoked Hungary's legal traditions in seeking to appeal to Hungary's king — i.e. Bekes's covert supporter, Maximilian. Báthori, who only a few years earlier modestly referred to himself as a simple voivode of the Habsburgs, now had the diet pass a bill declaring that the King of Hungary no longer had judicial powers over Transylvania and the Partium (the parts of Hungary recently annexed to the principality). The death sentences were carried out, while the principality secured its independence in an important constitutional area.

The fifth, and last, significant event came on 15 December 1575, when Stephen Báthori was elected King of Poland. The Habsburg monarchs could demand homage from the lawfully-appointed Szapolyais or the voivode Báthori in full consciousness of their prerogatives, but the same was not the case with regard to the crowned monarch in Cracow. When Báthori (now styled 'Prince of Transylvania') appointed a voivode to administer Transylvania in his absence (first his older brother Kristóf Báthori, named on 28 January 1576, and, from 1 May 1581, the latter's son Zsigmond), Vienna did not even attempt to reiterate its formal demands. What's more, after the death of Stephen Báthori, the Habsburgs failed to challenge Zsigmond Báthori's right of succession, thus tacitly acknowledging the Transylvanians' right to freely elect a prince.

The decades after 1556 saw the resolution of some lesser legalistic issues. Back in 1552, King Ferdinand had invalidated all grants of land made by Isabella and John II. The difficulties arising from this decision were finally erased by the Speyer Treaty. The election to the Hungarian throne of Archduke Maximilian in 1559, was the last occasion when the nobility of the counties in Hungary proper that were under Szapolyai rule (in the region, contiguous {1-643.} with Transylvania, known as the Partium, i.e. 'parts') were invited to the Hungarian Diet. Still, Vienna made attempts until the late 1570s to tax the inhabitants of the Partium.

To be sure, it was not these incremental changes that made the principality autonomous, for its secession had been accomplished earlier. But the measures served as an essential condition of the principality's external security and internal peace; without them, much energy would have been wasted in coping with external threats and domestic discord. Transylvania had won a respite, and with it the opportunity to develop and consolidate.

Thanks to cool heads and artful tactics, the opportunity was put to good use in staving off potentially disastrous dangers. A weakened Transylvania soon would have sunk to the same dismal state that marked the Balkan peoples under Ottoman rule. With the settlement of the Habsburg relationship, Transylvania's most difficult problem remained its relations with the Sublime Porte. Many power-hungry people were tempted to exploit the turbulence that accompanied the province's evolution to statehood. The initiatives that István Maylád took in 1540 could well have driven Transylvania into a state of subjection to the Ottomans; the quarrelsome Romanian nominees to voivodeships did just that in the case of Moldavia and Wallachia. When Péter Petrovics and, later, Gáspár Bekes tried to win the Ottomans' favour by offering to relinquish the country's principal frontier fortresses, there loomed the danger that a contest for power would deliver Hungary to foreign oppression. Another case in point was the lamentable role played at the Porte by Pál Márkházi.

If Transylvania managed to overcome these dangers, it was thanks to a number of factors that distinguished it from its Romanian neighbours. One differentiating factor lay in the social structure. Hungary's partition had slowed down the evolution of feudal society but did not alter the basic social structure. The rulers were backed by considerable social forces intent on protecting their {1-644.} own interests. This was not the case in Wallachia and Moldavia, where, as an indirect consequence of Turkish pressure, the middle and lesser propertied strata were ruined, leaving the voivodes with only a small boyar class to depend on.

Another factor, equally or perhaps even more important, was that the Transylvanians, being the inheritors of the Hungarian kingdom, could count on Habsburg help in times of trouble. To be sure, this assistance never proved to be truly effective, but even the appearance of Habsburg support was sometimes sufficient to ward off the Ottomans. The tragic events of 1551–56 left one positive legacy: for over twenty years, the Ottomans refrained from overt intervention. Rather than risking an attack that might drive the principality into the arms of Vienna and Prague, the Porte settled for a 'freely loyal' Transylvania.

A growing number of people, in Gyulafehérvár and elsewhere, came to an understanding of this basic fact. After 1556, a Turcophile orientation became an essential part of the policies pursued by the rulers of Eastern Hungary, despite the fact that the actors in charge of the principality's policy-making changed frequently during that decade.

The central figures in the events of 1556 soon passed from the scene. Péter Petrovics died in 1557, and Queen Isabella in 1559. The torch was carried on by the advisers of the young Prince John II, all of whom had served, or had been educated at Isabella's court. The executors of John Sigismund's testament did not challenge the diet's choice of Báthori; they were satisfied with a secret accord that amounted to another Speyer agreement. And, as noted, Gáspár Bekes's challenge may have been endorsed by Vienna but still ended in failure.

Personnel changes in the governing elite reflected the peculiarities of the structure of power. The rulers — the Szapolyais, then the Báthoris — descended from Hungarian aristocrats. The most influential advisers at Isabella's and John II's courts were aristocrats {1-645.} and nobles from the Partium and Western Hungary, such as the chancellor, Mihály Csáky, or Kristóf Hagymássy, Tamás Varkocs, Ferenc Bebek, Menyhárt Balassa, Stephen and Kristóf Báthori, and Gáspár Bekes. In the socio-political elite of the period, only the Kendi family was truly Transylvanian, and it continued to end up the loser in political battles.

The structure of power remained unchanged in another respect as well: neither the Székelys nor the Saxons enjoyed much influence in or over the government at Gyulafehérvár. The former had challenged the regime for a few months, then fell silent. In the case of the Saxons, their German consciousness only grew with the passage of time. Since their Habsburg sympathies found no political outlet, they wisely submitted to the ruler of the day, and this, without asking to share in the burden of government. They paid their taxes, and readily made further financial contributions to the state; beyond this, the Saxons' only concern was to preserve their privileges.

Indeed, one feature of the power structure was that even some foreign-born courtiers enjoyed greater influence than the leaders of these two 'nations'. Isabella and her son welcomed the advice of two Poles, Stanisław Niezowski and Stanisław Ligęza. Later, their physician, the Italian Giorgio Biandrata (or Blandrata) became a kind of 'Grey Eminence'.

The rulers' political will was naturally reflected in the composition of the ruling elite. Fifteen years of adversity had taught Isabella not to tolerate potential rivals in her entourage. In August 1558, she ordered the assassination of three prominent aristocrats, Ferenc Bebek, Ferenc Kendi, and Sándor Kendi. The organizer of this murderous plot was Menyhárt Balassa. If, in 1561, the same Balassa chose to renege on John Sigismund, it was because as the king's wealthiest subject, he had ample reason to fear disfavour.

Thus, in the decades after 1556, the fate of the new state of Transylvania was shaped by Hungarian monarchs and Hungarian {1-646.} political leaders, a task that they accomplished with growing self-confidence. Transylvania remained what it had become in the blood-soaked era of transition: an eastern remnant of the medieval Hungarian state. The region was severed from the mother country by external forces, adopted a new form of government, and pursued a radically new foreign orientation. Yet the ruling elite, its spirit unbroken, continued to nurture a traditional outlook and Hungarian consciousness.