The Intimidation of the Opposition

The peasant rebels were thus kept from Transylvania's borders by Dávid Zólyomi. After the first two, crisis-ridden years of his reign, György Rákóczi I could, thanks to Zólyomi and István Bethlen, begin the task of consolidating his princely rule. By an ironic twist of fate, Zólyomi became one of the first victims of this enterprise, and there is little doubt he would have been joined by his brother-in-law, István Bethlen Jr, had the latter not died in late 1632. In the event, the prince proceeded to settle accounts in spring 1633 by having the diet institute two treason trials, one for Zólyomi, the other for Mózes Székely and his associates.

No one could claim that the charges were wholly unfounded. When, at the time of the peasant offensive, Rákóczi fell into a deep {2-114.} depression, Zólyomi took it upon himself to engage in negotiations aimed variously at confronting the Habsburgs and forging an alliance with the emperor; he noted with some arrogance that he had been visited, 'on the same day, by emissaries of the Swedish king, the [Holy] Roman emperor, and the Polish king's son'.[72]72. EOE 10, p. 135. Zólyomi took his initiative — by which he aimed to obtain the seven counties as well as a domain similar to Oppeln-Ratibor — without the support or knowledge of other political leaders. The other famous defendant, Mózes Székely, had been persuaded by friends of his late father to seek the Porte's support for his claim to the Transylvanian throne.

These cases gave Rákóczi an opportunity to intimidate his country's political elite. In contrast to Bethlen, he chose to deal with political opposition by inducing a steady climate of fear. Almost every year of his reign was marked by executions and seizures of property. Of those convicted, some had their death sentence commuted. A case in point was Zólyomi, who spent the last sixteen years of his life confined in a fortress.

The climate became particularly oppressive after 1635, when the suppression of the Sabbatarians provided an excuse for the pursuit of various opponents. The prince was averse to all new theological tendencies, and thus Sabbatarianism, which was not formally recognized as a religious denomination; but, apart from purely religious considerations, he was incensed at the political activities of these 'Judaics'. When, at the turn of the century, the Sabbatarians would venture beyond doctrinal issues, it was to promote change in the rigid social system. However, from the late 1620s onwards, their secular activity took the form of more concrete political programs.

The threat posed by the Sabbatarians to princely authority became more immediate with the release of Simon Péchi in 1624. The onetime chancellor and pretender to the throne was a charismatic and self-sacrificing man; he made Sabbatarian doctrines {2-115.} accessible even to the unlettered, and relevant to their daily life. Thanks to his leadership, the community of Sabbatarians grew more numerous and spread across the land, and the prince became ever more suspicious of their political activity. The involvement in that activity of Mózes Székely, a well-known Sabbatarian, only reinforced the common identification of Sabbatarianism with political opposition.

In his time, Gabriel Bethlen had paid little attention to the Sabbatarians, though he did not object to the passage of laws prohibiting them from practising their religion. He was more disposed to make use of the Sabbatarians: since their doctrine was not hostile to Islam either, they were well suited to diplomatic interaction with the Turks. Rákóczi was of a different mind. He was apprehensive about their links with the Turks, and engaged in a merciless persecution of the sect.

The first step, in 1635, was a bill that confirmed the threatening laws enacted during Bethlen's reign. Back then, no one had been prosecuted pursuant to the law, but Rákóczi's subjects had little doubt that action would follow words. Religious debates were organized to concoct a rationale for persecution; these were followed, in the summer of 1638, by the first trials of Sabbatarians. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people who had failed to rally to one of the established religions by Christmas 1635 were summoned to appear at Dés. They could still escape their fate by converting, but the overwhelming majority refused to recant, and were accordingly sentenced to death and to loss of property. The prince commuted the death sentences and sent them by the hundreds to languish in various fortresses. It was reported that their jailers had a hard time keeping up with the demand for shackles. Simon Péchi, who had been anticipating the blow ever since 1635, distributed his domains among his daughters. He was the last to be charged, along with his daughters, who thus lost their property. Although Péchi did not appear in court, he was sentenced and subsequently seized. He {2-116.} remained incarcerated at Szamosújvár until May 1639, when he obtained his release by converting to Calvinism. From then until his death a few years later, he rejoined the leading circles and steered clear of Sabbatarianism. As the chronicler of these terrible events concludes, 'only God, our creator, could perceive and know what lay in our hearts'.[73]73. Szilárdi, pp. 140-41.