Prelude: The Disintegration of Medieval Hungary

On 29 August 1526, at Mohács, Sultan Suleiman's army inflicted a decisive defeat on the Hungarian forces. Hungary's youthful king, Louis II (Jagiello), fell in battle, as did many of his soldiers. The Ottomans proceeded to invest and ransack the royal capital of Buda and occupied the Szerémség, then withdrew from Hungary. The last three months of the year were marked by a vacuum of power: political authority was in a state of collapse, yet the victors chose not to impose their rule.

Two candidates stepped into the breech. One was John Szapolyai, Transylvania's voivode, and Hungary's most prominent aristocrat; the other, the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Habsburg, who was the late king's brother-in-law and the brother of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Their contest for power would determine the course of Hungary's history, and that of Transylvania as well, for the region's fate was intimately tied in these crucial decades to that of the mother country.

The majority of Hungary's ruling elite backed Szapolyai, who for fifteen years had been playing a leading role in Hungarian political life. Part of the aristocracy acknowledged his leadership, and he enjoyed the enthusiastic support — not always reciprocated — of the lesser nobility. Most of his opponents succumbed at Mohács: the Hungarian branch of the Jagiello dynasty became defunct, and its pro-Habsburg following was decimated.

{1-594.} A small minority of aristocrats sided with Ferdinand. The German dynasty's main argument — one that many historians would judge to be decisive — was that it could assist Hungary against the Ottomans, although, in 1526, the promise rang empty. Hungary had been fighting the Ottomans for over a century, during which time the German Empire and the Habsburg dynasty had offered much encouragement but no tangible help. The likelihood of assistance was further reduced by the conflict of Ferdinand's older brother, Emperor Charles V and the French King Francis I that once again flared into open war in the summer of 1526. This circumstance led the voivode to discount the threat lurking behind the Habsburgs' candidacy: that Hungary would have to contend not only with the Ottomans, but also with an attack from the west.

Thus Szapolyai took no notice of his rival's protests, nor of those voiced by the few Hungarians who rallied to Ferdinand. On 10 November 1526, Szapolyai had himself proclaimed king by the diet at Székesfehérvár, and he was duly crowned the next day.

Profiting from nine months of relative calm, King John I strove to restore state authority. He drew on his vast private wealth, the unconditional support of the lesser nobility, and the assistance of some aristocrats to impose his policies in domestic affairs. However, in the crucial sphere of foreign relations, success eluded him. He sought an entente with the Habsburgs, proposing to form an alliance against the Ottomans, but Archduke Ferdinand, who had himself elected king by a rump diet in December 1526, rejected all attempts at reconciliation. Hungary's envoys fanned out across Europe in quest of support. Only in France did they find a positive response, but even that was ineffective since Francis I was intent not on reconciling Hungary and the Habsburgs, but on drawing Hungary into a war against Charles V and his family.

Europe's political balance underwent a major shift in the summer of 1527, when, in a somewhat unplanned operation, mercenary forces of the emperor occupied Rome and drove the Pope, one of {1-595.} France's principal allies, to capitulate. This development freed Ferdinand — who also acquired the Czech throne in late 1526 — from the burden of assisting his brother. By then, Ferdinand had developed a Hungarian policy that was fully in keeping with the interests of his realms. He judged that if Hungary, unable to resist the Ottomans, took action independently of Austria and Bohemia, it might well enter into an alliance with the preponderant Ottoman empire against its western neighbours. It was therefore in the interest of the Austrian hereditary provinces and of the Czech crown lands that the Habsburgs gain control of Hungary, by force if necessary.

In July 1527, an army of German mercenaries invaded Hungary. The moment was well chosen, for the forces of King John I were tied up in the southern counties, where Slavonic peasants, incited by Ferdinand, had rebelled; the revolt was led by the 'Black Man', Jován Cserni. In one sweep, the invaders captured Buda. Szapolyai hurriedly redeployed his army, but on 27 September, near Tokaj, it suffered a bloody defeat.

King John fled across the Tisza and sought refuge in his home province of Transylvania. The support that he had hoped to find there did not materialize. Indeed, by early winter, what he had believed would be a secure stronghold turned against him. Georg Reicherstorffer, Ferdinand's clever and resourceful emissary, incited the people of Brassó, and then those of other Saxon towns to rise against the beleaguered monarch. Another agent, Gáspár Vingárti Horvát, manipulated the nobility in the same direction; under his encouragement, the voivode Péter Perényi, who was guardian of the crown, delivered that symbol of royal authority to Ferdinand, who managed to have himself crowned King of Hungary at Székesfehérvár on 3 November 1527.

Szapolyai's remaining followers in Transylvania put up a stubborn resistance; István Tomori held out until July 1528 in the fortress at Fogaras. To avoid being trapped in his mountainous {1-596.} province, King John prepared to cross the Királyhágó (Kings' Pass) and spend the winter in the Tisza region, but, before he did so, he took a decision that was to prove fateful for Hungary as well as for Transylvania.

The preceding year's setbacks convinced King John that, at the time of his coronation, he had miscalculated his rival's chances and intentions. His major mistake was to have believed that the German Empire's European war would keep Ferdinand from attacking Hungary. Had he been equally mistaken in believing that the Habsburgs could not protect Hungary from the Ottomans? The sight of the triumphant Germans led many Hungarians to opine — sincerely or out of calculation — that such help could be effective, but John I disagreed. From the end of 1526 onwards, the Ottomans had made repeated offers of 'friendship', but once Ferdinand had seized power, they renewed their attacks on Hungary's southern frontier. All this reinforced Szapolyai's conviction that the Ottomans would not peacefully assent to the installation of Habsburg power in Hungary. Experience told him that of the two, the Ottomans were the stronger power.

Thus King John dispatched an envoy from Kolozsvár, bearing an offer of alliance, to the sultan in Istanbul. The decision had been difficult, for Hungarian policy was traditionally hostile to the Ottomans, and it went against the Hungarians' Christian conscience. The decisive factor was probably the rebellion in Transylvania; in this increasingly hopeless situation, Szapolyai finally made his fateful choice. The envoy, the Polish nobleman Hieronym Łaski, soon accomplished his mission. On 29 February 1528, the sultan assented to an alliance with John I and gave written assurance of his support:

'To His Majesty, John, by the grace of God King of Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, and Moravia: I, Sultan Suleiman shah, invincible lord of the Ottomans, swear upon the almightiness, holiness, and glory of God on high [...] upon the strength of Heaven and the {1-597.} colour of the Earth, upon the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, upon the Earth and the holy and mighty Mohammed [...] upon my father, and my mother's milk, upon my bread and my sabre, my life and my soul, I swear to thee, my illustrious kinsman, that I shall never ignore your call for help, not even if I am dispossessed of my empire and realms [...] And even if I were abandoned by all, it would be my duty to find thee and say: here I am, ready to respond to all your wishes. Should I or my descendants fail to keep this promise, let the anger of Almighty God and his truth be called down on my head, and let me perish by it ... let the Earth not bear my steps but open up and swallow my body and soul forever'.[1]1. László Szalay, Adalékok a magyar nemzet történetéhez a XVI. században (Data on the History of the Hungarian Nation in the 16th Century) (Pest, 1857), p. 124.

By that time, Szapolyai had rallied his troops east of the Tisza for a counterattack directed at Kassa. On 8 March, in a battle near Szina (Abaúj county), he once again suffered defeat. Along with a small retinue, he found shelter in Poland, at Tarnów Castle.

However, John's assumption, that the Ottomans would intervene in Hungary, proved correct. In the autumn of 1528, Suleiman I had declared that he would drive the Habsburgs out of Hungary. Meanwhile, the Hungarian aristocrats and lesser nobles who had readily rallied to King Ferdinand grew disillusioned. The new government showed signs of bankruptcy and impotence; it failed to muster strength not only against the Ottomans, but even against John's scattered followers.

When Szapolyai learned of the sultan's preparations for war, he made another attempt to reconquer his homeland. The risk was well calculated, for by the end of 1528, after a series of minor battles, his forces controlled most of the Great Plain. The following year, Suleiman launched an offensive that took the Ottomans' horsetail standard as far as the gates of Vienna. There, his military successes came to an end, and when he drew his army out of Hungary, the forces of King Ferdinand I recaptured most of Transdanubia. Untouched by war, Upper Hungary remained under the control of Ferdinand's followers, but King John held on to the {1-598.} southern and eastern counties of Transdanubia to the Great Plain, and he soon prevailed in Transylvania as well.

The period that followed was marked by chaos and war. The Ottomans launched periodic attacks, including, in 1532, another unsuccessful attempt to take Vienna; the Habsburgs mounted minor counter-offensives, including a fruitless siege of Buda in late 1530. The opposing forces were well matched, and the front line that materialized in 1529 remained essentially stable. Three years after the battle of Mohács, and despite the desperate attempts of Hungarian politicians in both camps to reunite the country, Hungary remained divided into two parts.

The Ottomans benefited the most from this situation, for much of Hungary, formerly their most powerful enemy in Europe, had fallen into their sphere of influence. However, their success was qualified, for the Habsburgs had secured a foothold in western Hungary, there to build a seemingly impregnable line of defence. King Ferdinand's success was equally qualified: although Austria and Bohemia were secured by the strong defensive positions he had established in Hungary, the original goal, to impose his rule over all Hungary, remained a dream. Nor could King John claim victory. To be sure, he had made a comeback, but he had been compelled to ally himself with Hungary's traditional enemy, the Ottomans.

The biggest losers in the wars that followed the battle of Mohács were the principal defenders of the medieval Hungarian state, the ruling aristocracy; their country stood divided and ruled by foreign powers. Both kings' followers lamented this catastrophe and blamed the other side. King John had erred in assuming that the Habsburgs would not intervene; his opponents, for their part, had overestimated the scope and impact of the intervention. The two parties accepted the creation of separate state administrations in the divided country only as a temporary expedient; they retained the hope that the division could be ended by the 'conversion' or elimination of their opponents.

{1-599.} Royal authority suffered a precipitous decline, particularly in the east. In 1528, Szapolyai lost much of his family estate, and he failed to regain any of it. Only Buda, Solymos, and Lippa remained crown lands. The lesser nobility's support proved to be of little value in the war. State revenues plummeted, for the royal treasury no longer disposed of the taxes paid by the counties, including the mines, under Ferdinand's control, nor of the related customs duties.

John I made some efforts to resolve these problems. He tried to win over the inhabitants of large market towns on the Great Plain, people who had enriched themselves in the cattle and wine trade and were — despite their nominal villein status — regarded as cívises (peasant-citizens). Lippa was raised to the status of a free royal borough in 1528. In 1529, peasant-citizens were settled in Buda to take the place of expelled German burghers. The villeins' right to free movement, abrogated in 1514, was restored in 1530. In 1537, Hungarian peasant-burghers were settled in Kassa.

However, the royalist sympathies of the peasant-citizens and their material support was not sufficient to compensate for the attrition in the king's power. The rule of aristocratic landowners, which had caused many problems in the period before Mohács, was blatantly reimposed in King John's part of the country — by Bálint Török in Veszprém and Somogy counties, by Péter Perényi in Baranya and Zemplén counties, by Imre Czibak (until his death in 1534) in Bihar county, by István Werbőczy in Tolna and Nógrád counties, by the voivode Maylád (1534–40) in Fogaras, by Péter Petrovics in Temes county, and by the Kosztkas, Podmaniczkys, Bebeks and Ráskays in other parts of the country. They ruled in the king's name, but pursued their individual interests. There was no question of restricting their activities, for the more powerful a landlord, the more likely he was to defect to the other side in the event of some 'insult'. One of Ferdinand's Hungarian advisers reported bitterly: 'As long as the country remains divided, Your Majesty will not be able to exercise your royal prestige and power. Anyone who {1-600.} feels that his interests are at risk, or who is worried about incurring legal proceedings and punishment, will join the enemy. The countless malefactors will seek to escape punishment by changing sides. There will be a proliferation of illegal activity on both sides, giving rise to further disorder and wars'.[2]2. László Bárdossy, Magyar politika a mohácsi vész után (Hungarian policy after the Disaster of Mohács) (Budapest, 1944), p. 120.

Neither side could offer a remedy for the country's ills, and it is scarcely surprising that in such a political climate, personal unreliability and duplicity should be common. The spreading sense of hopelessness was well reflected in the ideological poverty of the two sides. The Habsburg camp professed the medieval belief in Christian unity, while Szapolyai's followers manifested the anti-German aspect of the nobility's patriotism. Both sides remained ineffectual. When, in 1529, King John hastened to Mohács to greet the sultan, his followers refused to accompany him, although at other times they would loudly proclaim their friendship for the Ottomans.

Another riddle is why King John failed to seize upon the Reformation, which at this time was emerging as an anti-Habsburg force in the German Empire. This cannot be fully accounted for by the personal convictions and enduring attachment to the Catholic faith and his closest associates (Imre Czibak, István Werbőczy, István Brodarics, Ferenc Frangepán, and, later, György Fráter). The spread of the Reformation in Hungary was not helped by the fact that it was mediated by the Germans, initially by the wife of Louis II, Mary Habsburg. Nor did it help that King John formed enduring links with Rome, which at times was overtly hostile to the Habsburgs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would have been difficult for Hungary to break way from its traditional religious community at a time when its accommodation with the Ottomans inspired charges that it was betraying Christianity.