The Hunyadi Family

The Transylvanian 'nations' may have deceived and crushed the poorly-armed peasant rebels, but they lacked the strength to hold back the Ottoman onslaught. In 1438, an army of Ottomans, Romanians, and Serbs advanced through the Iron Gates into Hunyad county. This was no mere raid, but a diversionary manoeuvre by Sultan Murad II, whose objectives were Temesvár and Buda, and whose main force had been held up at the frontier by the Hungarian army. The invaders were accompanied by Wallachia's voivode, Vlad Dracul, a Knight of the Dragon and onetime vassal of King Sigismund. He persuaded Szászsebes to surrender, whereupon most of the townsfolk were driven off into slavery. Szeben survived an eight-day siege, but Gyulafehérvár and Küküllővár were invested and looted by the Ottomans. The latter rampaged for close to two months, then withdrew by way of the Barcaság, carrying off vast booty and thousands of captives. This invasion, and in particular the heroic resistance of the people of Szeben, was noted in contemporary Byzantine, Polish, and Austrian chronicles, and Transylvania would draw even more attention in the years to come.

{1-510.} As the Ottomans renewed their attacks along the southern frontier, it became clear that the goal was not simply consolidate their grip on the Balkans and intimidate the Hungarians, but to conquer Hungary. The Pole Wladislas I, who occupied the throne after the unexpected death of King Albert, made defence against the Ottomans his top priority. In 1441, right at the beginning of his reign, he proceeded to reorganize the country's defences and to consolidate the administration of the southern borderlands. His choice fell on the ban of Macsó, Miklós Újlaki, and the latter's old comrade-in-arms, the ban of Severin, János Hunyadi. They were given, in addition to their existing posts, the titles of counts of Temes and Székelys and voivodes of Transylvania. Újlaki was put in charge of defending the border zone's western half, and Hunyadi of the eastern half.

Transylvania had finally acquired effective leadership. After a long interval the fate of Transylvania had at last come into good hands. Hunyadi was a native Transylvanian and cared deeply for his homeland — unlike most of his predecessors, who resided in other parts of Hungary and who were too concerned with their estates and issues of national politics to pay much attention to Transylvania. Of humble birth, Hunyadi rose rapidly to become one of the outstanding figures in 15th-century Europe. Hunyadi's father, Vajk, probably issued from a family of boyars that had immigrated from Wallachia, had been a valiant but — according to contemporary sources — rather aggressive knight at the court, and his military services were rewarded in 1409 with a fine estate at Hunyad. János, who was rumoured at the time to be the illegitimate son of King Sigismund, spent the early years of his career as a noble retainer and soldier, serving successively György Csáky, the Székely count, Stephen Lazarević, the Serbian despot, and the ban of Macsó, whose brother, Miklós Újlaki, would also become ban and, later, Hunyadi's fellow voivode. Hunyadi, already known far and wide for prowess against the Ottomans, accompanied King {1-511.} Sigismund in 1431 to Italy, where he spent two years as captain of the mercenaries of Filippo Visconti, Prince of Milan. After his return to Hungary, he remained close to the king until the latter's death. The new king, Albert, put Hunyadi in charge of Severin Province, which was under constant attack from the Ottomans. Hunyadi earned much prestige, his voice carried weight in the selection of the next king, Wladislas I. He became the latter's trusted adviser and most highly-regarded soldier, and was put in charge of military operations against the Ottomans. The king recognized Hunyadi's merits by granting him estates in Eastern Hungary. In fact, Hunyadi became the greatest landowner in Hungarian history; in the end, his lands encompassed over two million acres, a quarter of which were located in Transylvania. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Hunyadi did not use his great revenues or the military and political weight of his thousands of retainers simply for his personal aggrandizement; for many years, he bore a large share of the cost of fighting the Ottomans.

Hunyadi's first defensive action took place in 1442, when a Turkish army led by Bey Mezid invaded Transylvania. The enemy prevailed in a battle near Szentimre, and Bishop György Lépes was killed in action, but a relief force led by Miklós Újlaki defeated the Ottomans — and killed Mezid — as they prepared to lay siege to Szeben. Hunyadi pursued the retreating Ottomans and even managed to drive them out of Wallachia. In 1443, he launched an offensive, and a series of military successes took him beyond the Balkan Mountains before bad weather compelled him to withdraw. Hunyadi's next campaign, ended in defeat at the battle of Várna, where one of the casualties was King Wladislas. These offensives nevertheless served to keep the enemy well away from Hungary's borders.

Hunyadi became the hero of Western Christendom and the idol of Hungary's nobility. The successor to the throne, Ladislas V (1440–1457), was a minor, and Hunyadi was appointed Governor {1-512.} of Hungary. He was determined to use his new authority and power to eliminate the Turkish threat once and for all. To secure a base for his next campaign, he appointed his retainers to the posts of voivode in Wallachia and Moldavia and tried to rally the Balkan peoples into an anti-Ottoman alliance. However, Hunyadi's third Balkan campaign, in 1448, ended in defeat at the battle of Kosovopolje, in Serbia. This setback marked the end not only of Hungary's leading role in the Balkans, but also of the Serbs' fight for independence. Hunyadi's wider ambitions were thus frustrated, yet he continued to defend Hungary with notable success. When, in 1456, the conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Mohammed II, laid siege to Nándorfehérvár (today's Belgrade), Hunyadi won a great victory over the Ottomans; in celebration, and to inspire Christians, the Pope ordered that church bells be rung at noon, a practice that endured into modern times. For decades, the Ottomans held back from attacking Hungary. Hunyadi was at the peak of his glory, but that same year he fell victim to the plague that swept through his military camp, and he was buried at Gyulafehérvár. Jealous of his power, rivals tried to relieve Hunyadi's sons of his estates and political legacy. László, his elder son, killed their principal adversary, Ulrich of Cilli, and paid for it by dying under the executioner's axe. However, the family's retainers and the lesser nobility took up arms in defence of Hunyadi's legacy, and in 1458 his younger son, Matthias was elected king.

Transylvania greeted the new monarch with some diffidence. When the three 'nations' met to confer in 1459, they renewed their union in a manner expressly directed against the king. The hostility was inspired not by the adolescent Matthias, but by his maternal uncle, Mihály Szilágyi, who governed in his stead and was noted for a violently aggressive manner. Szilágyi persuaded the king to grant him the family's most valuable estate, at Beszterce, and the barony that went with it. The late Hunyadi had obtained the property — carved out of a Saxon district — when he resigned the regency {1-513.} in 1453, and he had protected the rights and privileges of its inhabitants, but the new owner chose to treat the latter as common villeins. When, in 1458, the people revolted against his castellans' abuses, Szilágyi took Beszterce by force and wrought bloody revenge on his opponents. The Saxon nation felt at one with the people of Beszterce and was outraged by this action, which also alarmed the nobility and the Székelys. Fearing the spread of unrest, Matthias took over the reins of power from his uncle. In 1465, he restored Beszterce's free status, and he continued to bestow favours upon the Saxons, hoping no doubt that the latter would reciprocate in kind.

The hostility did not abate. The heavy expense of Matthias's military campaigns as well as the unaccustomed severity that he displayed towards the nobility led to the rise of opposition movements. In 1467, Transylvanian nobles, led by Benedek Farnasi Veres, took up arms against the king. They won the support of the voivode, János Szentgyörgyi, by hinting that they would like him to be the ruling prince of an independent Transylvania. Prominent Saxons and Székelys joined the rebellion. Matthias surprised the unprepared rebels with a quick and forceful intervention. The voivode was the first to beg the king for mercy, and some of the plotters sought refuge abroad. The punitive measures taken by Matthias were comparable to those following the fall of the voivode László, when Charles Robert seized the property of nobles. Rebels who bore such old and distinguished names as Farnasi Veres, Suki, Iklódi, Kecseti, Drági, Bogáti, Losonci Dezsőfi, Somkeréki Erdélyi, Dobokai, Illyei, and Folti became hunted outlaws. The king bestowed their properties on his relatives and faithful followers, notably the new voivode, János Dengelegi Pongrác, Miklós Csupor, and János Nádasdi Ungor. No doubt they would have generated a new Transylvanian aristocracy, but fate decreed otherwise, for all three family names became extinct within a few decades. After the first flush of anger, Matthias pardoned some of the rebels {1-514.} and restored their property, while the rest of these families' newly-acquired estates was divided up among descendants on the female line. The nobility was not alone in suffering the king's wrath. Saxon and Székely rebels were also punished; the mayor of Szeben was beheaded. Matthias personally led a punitive campaign against the voivode of Moldavia, Ştefan, who had been one of the instigators of the revolt. After being wounded in battle, the king withdrew his troops, but the voivode decided that discretion was the better part of valour and took an oath of allegiance; he was rewarded with fiefs at Csicsó and Küküllővár.

During Matthias's reign, which lasted from 1458 to 1490, there was only one major Turkish attack on Transylvania. It was launched in 1479 by Bey Ali, an aggressive member of the same Mihaloglu clan that had been waging war along the Lower Danube for decades. While some Ottomans effected a diversionary thrust into the Barcaság, Ali and the bulk of his army thrust ahead through the valleys of the Lator and Sebes rivers and into the Szászsebes district. He took many prisoners, and his forward troops sacked Gyulafehérvár, but the main Turkish force was intercepted by the voivode Stephen Báthori at Kenyérmező, in Hunyad county. There followed, on 13 October, the bloodiest battle fought thus far in Transylvania against the Ottomans. Thanks to the timely arrival of the count of Temes, Pál Kinizsi, who was already renowned for his military feats, the Hungarians inflicted a stinging defeat on the Ottoman foe. For some ten years, the latter would forego making direct attacks on Transylvania. Defence against the Ottomans had become better organized. Between 1387 and 1438, Saxon towns had acquired an outer ring of fortifications, and many villages in Southern Transylvania turned their churches into redoubts, giving rise to a Gothic style of fortified church found only in Transylvania.

Under the reign of Matthias, Transylvania might have flourished much as under Anjou rule, had it not been for the unrest of commoners, who felt oppressed by the nobility and by Saxon and {1-515.} Székely notables. In the aftermath of the 1467 rebellion, Matthias was more discerning in his choice of voivodes. There was a marked increase after 1470 in the number of charters issued by the voivodes, one indication that the latter were taking their official responsibilities more seriously, and no longer regarded the office as merely titular and an opportunity for self-enrichment. However, during the period 1490–1526, when the Jagiellonians Wladislas II and Louis II occupied the throne, the country was beset by battles fomented by fractious oligarchs. The lesser nobility engaged in a bitter struggle in the diet with the aristocracy, and peasants revolted under the leadership of György Székely (Dózsa). Amidst these signs of social and political decay, the Ottomans renewed their attacks. In 1493, Transylvania was shaken by two more Turkish incursions as well as by social unrest among the Saxons and Székelys.