Bocskai's Insurrection and the Rebirth of the Transylvanian State

While Transylvania agonized, the pointless bloodletting dragged on in Hungary. The imperial coffers in Prague stood empty, and few were willing to help with loans. Rudolph's government resorted to arresting the wealthiest Hungarian aristocrats, on {1-758.} fabricated charges, in order to confiscate their property and thereby raise money. The principal executor of this sordid stratagem was a man not unfamiliar with Transylvania, István Szuhay. The most famous of his victims was István Illésházy. Meanwhile, the official persecution of Protestants spread to Hungary, which, like Transylvania, suffered the depredations of mercenary soldiers and of the Ottomans. The public's trust in the Habsburgs was shaken not only in Transylvania but also, for the first time, in royal Hungary.

The arrogance of imperial officials and officers and the dissatisfaction and fear that suffused the feudal estates combined to make the situation explosive. The military governor of Upper Hungary, General Giacomo Barbiano, Count of Belgioioso, was informed by a turncoat that István Bocskai, who had withdrawn to private life years earlier, entertained contacts with Gábor Bethlen, the leader of the 'exiles' — a group of nobles from Transylvania and the Partium who had sought refuge with the Ottomans. In early October 1604, Barbiano personally led an operation to seize Bocskai. The aristocrat faced the alternatives of losing his possessions, or resisting. He chose to fight, and was favoured by a lucky circumstance: Barbiano's hajdú troops, men who were believed to fear neither God nor man and to be interested only in money and looting, were also Protestants, and the evidence of religious persecution turned them against the emperor. On the night of October 15, the hajdús, stationed near Álmosd, in Bihar county, revolted, and with Bocskai's help they routed the general's advance guard. Bocskai's forces numbered no more than 4,000, while Barbiano still disposed of some 8,000 soldiers, but after tarrying for a few days in nearby Várad, the Habsburg general ordered a withdrawal to Kassa. However, the town gates were shut in their face, whereupon most of Barbiano's soldiers deserted, leaving the general with a bare fifty men.

On 11 November, Bocskai and his hajdú force made ceremonial entry into Kassa. They were greeted by Gábor Bethlen, who {1-759.} had arrived a few days earlier bearing a sword of honour from Ahmed I as well as the sultan's decree naming Bocskai Prince of Transylvania. The first Turkish-Tartar reinforcements arrived soon afterwards.

Giorgio Basta, who had become imperial governor for the whole of Hungary, cut short his military operations against the Ottomans in the Esztergom district and moved against the insurgents. His force prevailed in the battles at Osgyán and Edelény but failed to take Kassa, and in mid-December he was compelled to order a withdrawal. The garrisons of all fortresses in the region east of the Tisza except Nagyvárad turned against the emperor and rallied to Bocskai.

Between April and June 1605, the highly mobile hajdú regiments — aided by Turkish and Tartar cavalry — overran most of royal Hungary. Led by Illésházy, many Hungarian aristocrats and nobles joined Bocskai with some enthusiasm; the others were driven by necessity to submit to him. Even Transdanubia was swept clear of German and Italian mercenaries. By the end of June, the front-line units of Gergely Némethy had laid siege to Sopron, but they withdrew at the approach of a large imperial army. After a short respite, the Hungarians returned to the attack. Némethy fought and won a battle on September 27–28 near Szombathely, then sent raiders into Austrian provinces and as far as the outskirts of Vienna. By this time, Bocskai disposed of more than 40,000 soldiers.

The imperial court was acutely short of cash; its last sources of credit, two Bohemian banks, had just declared bankruptcy. With great difficulty, it assembled its forces and, in late November, launched a counter-offensive that proved comparatively successful. Led by Count Tilly (who would earn fame, or rather notoriety in the Thirty Years' War), the imperial army reoccupied the western, non-Turkish part of Transdanubia.

Earlier, on 20 April 1605, a diet convened at Szerencs had acclaimed István Bocskai ruling prince of Hungary. Euphoria {1-760.} reigned, and Bocskai's hopes and expectations were great: perhaps he could realize Stephen Báthori's dream and, without any Habsburg involvement, reunite Transylvania with the rest of Hungary.

Bocskai's envoys in Istanbul were instructed to request that the sultan recognize him not simply as prince, but as 'King of Hungary'. Breaking with a policy that had been in effect since 1540, the Ottoman ruler assented. The glittering crown that he sent to Hungary was presented to Bocskai on 11 November 1605 by no less than the Grand Vizier, Lalla Mehmed.

The Turkish potentates were probably unaware that before setting off for this ceremonial encounter, Bocskai had taken the precaution of naming an heir to his title in the person of the seventeen-year old Gábor Báthori, telling his chief commander, Bálint Homonnai: 'If something happens to me while I am with the Ottomans, please draw the right conclusion and never again trust the Turkish people!'[16]16. Kálmán Benda, A Bocskai-szabadságharc (The Freedom-fight of Bocskai) (Budapest, 1955), p. 117. A similar scenario had been played out on three occasions during the fifty-year span of the Transylvanian principality, in 1529, 1532, and 1566. Bocskai enjoyed widespread renown as a former slayer of Ottomans, and perhaps he had more to fear than his predecessors.

The Habsburgs were still capable to defending their interests in Hungary, for by the autumn of 1605, the hajdú army had been driven out of the western counties. The Hungarians did not possess sufficient resources to tip the equilibrium between the two great powers that were vying for control of their country. Thus the situation that had prevailed since 1526 was essentially unaltered, and common sense dictated that the hopeless struggle be brought to an end as soon as possible.

The Ottomans' latest actions induced Bocskai to caution. The pashas had used the alliance as an excuse to recapture Esztergom and Visegrád, then proceeded to keep the two towns in the sultan's domain. The grand vizier also had designs on Érsekújvár. This important fortress was saved thanks only to the Archduke Matthias, {1-761.} who was exercising wide discretion in Hungarian affairs: he ordered the garrison to surrender to the besieging Hungarians before the Ottomans arrived.

The combined effect of all these factors was that within a few months, the prince abandoned his dream of restoring the Kingdom of Hungary and devoted his energies to ending the 'long war'. To this end, he first had to clarify his international status. If he took the title of King of Hungary, he would fatally antagonize the Habsburgs. Instead, he set aside the crown presented to him by the Ottomans and concentrated on gaining control of the whole of Transylvania.

At first, the efforts the Turkish-appointed 'prince of Transylvania' and of the exiles aroused little interest in the province. Memories of the recent past were too fresh in people's minds, and their yearning for peace too strong to let them fathom the full import of Bocskai's latest plan. The prince himself had little direct involvement in Transylvania. His immediate entourage consisted mainly of hajdú captains (Balázs Lippai, Balázs Némethy), Hungarian aristocrats (Homonnai, Illésházy, Ferenc Mágócsi), and popular Hungarian officers (Miklós Segnyey, and Mihály Káthay, formerly the imperial captain of Kálló castle, whom Bocskai named chancellor). Apart from Gábor Bethlen, only two of his close associates were familiar with Transylvania, and neither was a native of the province: Ferenc Rhédey, an officer active in Upper Hungary, and the Sabbatarian Simon Péchi, who became Bocskai's secretary.

Thus the three 'nations' had some cause to be suspicious of Zsigmond Báthori's onetime confidant, Bocskai. In Transylvania, only a few disillusioned hajdú officers and Hungarian aristocrats had joined his insurrection prior to the end of 1604. There was little to stop the province's imperial commissioners from launching an attack on Bocskai's rear, in the region east of the Tisza; they disposed of a regular force of 5,000 soldiers and could readily mobilize some 20,000–25,000 Székelys. Instead, they remained inactive {1-762.} as the garrisons of Jenő, Lugos, and Karánsebes surrendered in quick succession to officers of the 'insurgent' Bocskai. The latter well understood where the key to the Transylvanian problem lay: he advised the Székelys that they could retain their liberties if they stayed neutral in the struggle.

The insurgents took their first military initiative in the east in January 1605. László Gyulaffy, who had been appointed by Bocskai captain-general for Transylvania, laid siege with 4,000 men to the well-fortified town of Szatmár, and invested it on 21 January. That success opened a gate to historic Transylvania.

At a national assembly in February at Keresztúr, the Székelys rallied with unexpected enthusiasm to Bocskai's side. That latter did not tarry: on February 16, he issued a formal statement confirming their 'ancien freedoms'. Five days later, Hungarians and Székelys jointly acclaimed their new prince. However, the Saxons, backed by a few nobles and imperial garrisons, prepared to resist. They were led by an elderly notable, Albert Huet, and, on the military side, by György Rácz, an outstanding lieutenant who had risen from the ranks. The Saxons' cause seemed hopeless after the Székelys' change of camp, but they were encouraged by the fact that Gyulaffy had come to Gyulafehérvár with a small force of a thousand cavalry and was trying to win support for Bocskai by relying on local resources. On 18 May 1605, Rácz launched a surprise attack on Székely and Hungarian troops as they gathered at Ebesfalva and managed to rout them.

Bocskai now sprang into action. Skirting Várad, which was still in imperial hands, he headed with a thousand mounted soldiers to Medgyes. At the same time, he directed Gábor Bethlen and his small force of 'exiles' to move into the Maros valley and called the Székelys and Transylvanian nobles to arms. And, at Bocskai's invitation, Moldavian and Turkish troops penetrated the Barcaság.

György Rácz fought another battle, on June 14, but his luck had run out. Realizing the hopelessness of their cause, the Saxons submitted to Bocskai, who made a ceremonial entry to Medgyes on {1-763.} August 27. The troops that remained loyal to the emperor fled to Segesvár, where, on September 9, they took up an offer of safe passage and surrendered. With that, the 'Fifteen Years' War' in Transylvania came to an end.

On 14 September, at Medgyes, a diet representing the three 'nations' unanimously acclaimed Bocskai Prince of Transylvania. The much-tormented province was finally at peace, and, amidst the rejoicing, people managed to forget their internal quarrels. The new ruler inspired widespread enthusiasm. To govern Transylvania, he chose an elderly and widely-respected aristocrat from the Partium, Zsigmond Rákóczi. Soon after the conclusion of the diet, Bocskai hastened back to Hungary to pursue his most important goal: peace in his homeland.

Negotiations with the Habsburg court made slow progress. Some of Bocskai's followers would not hear of any compromise; the nobles in the Tisza region and the Partium were particularly adamant that Bocskai must not give Hungary back to the emperor. They could count on the support of the large number of hajdú soldiers, who were only interested in war and pillage. The lack of discipline of his troops worried the prince, for it reflected badly on him. He had already resorted to forceful methods, including the execution of several hajdú officers, but only a peaceful solution could eliminate the problem. On 12 December, 1605, Bocskai granted the hajdú infantrymen 'collective nobility' (on the Székely model) and settled them on the land; a similar decree, issued on 2 September 1606, took care of the hajdú mounted troops. They were granted sites for seven villages in an uninhabited district near Debrecen.

The Habsburgs made repeated, but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to have Bocskai assassinated. Their financial straits and the ongoing hajdú raids into Austria demanded a quick resolution of the Hungarian problem. Without consulting the emperor, Archduke Matthias agreed to Bocskai's terms, and a peace treaty was signed in Vienna on 23 June 1606. The treaty restored the {1-764.} Principality of Transylvania, and the borders of the Partium were shifted westward to encompass the counties of Szatmár, Szabolcs, Ugocsa, and Bereg, as well as Tokaj castle. With respect to royal Hungary, the Habsburgs agreed to reinstate freedom of worship and to appoint only Hungarians to high state office.

There remained the problem of war with the Ottomans. Exhausted by a succession of revolts and yet another Persian campaign, the Sublime Porte was disposed to compromise. Thanks to Bocskai's mediation, the Habsburg court also reconciled itself to the status quo. It was agreed that the line of demarcation should coincide with the military front lines; the Ottomans thus gained some territory around Kanizsa and Eger, as did the Christian side in Nógrád county and along the Maros River. The peace treaty was signed on 15 November 1606, at Zsitvatorok.