Princes of Transylvania (Part II)

The seventeenth century was a century of great conflict in Transylvania, but also so its longest periods of stable autonomy and the emergence of its most famous national heros. Prince Gábor Bethlen’s 15-year reign, 1613 to 1629, and the 18 years of the reign of György I Rákóczy, 1630-1648, are seen as islands of respite in a mostly turbulent history.

Gábor Bethlen

There are two Bethlen noble houses in Hungarian/Transylvanian history. Both (probably) derive their name from the town of Bethlen (today Beclean) in northern Transylvania. Sources differ as to whether they were branches of the same family or not (they bear different coats of arms which is usually a strong indicator they are distinct). The family known as Bethlen de Bethlen was probably descended from the Apafi (see below), and while they were consistently one of the most prominent noble families in the region—all the way up to becoming Chancellor of Transylvania in the 1670s—they were not princely, so are not ‘on topic’ here. They outlived the princely Bethlen dynasty, continued to dominate local administration in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy of the 19th century, and even remained prominent in the 20th century: Count István Bethlen de Bethlen was Prime Minister of Hungary, 1921-31.

The other branch had their ancestral seat at Iktár, in a region of the old Kingdom of Hungary known as the Banat, which, following the conquest by the Ottomans in the 1520s, became a province directly ruled by the Sultan, the Eyalet of Temeşvar (the Temesvári vilajet, in Hungarian). The family moved their seat therefore in 1576 to Marosillye, to a fortified castle a short distance across the frontier in Transylvania. This castle was demolished in 1670 (leaving just a bastion), and the castle there today was one rebuilt by new owners in the 18th century, the Bornemisza family.

Farkas Bethlen de Iktár was given lands in Transylvania by Stephen Báthory, and named Captain-General of the Principality, but left his two sons as orphans in 1591. The elder, Gábor, was raised under the aegis of István Bocskai, then supported the rule of Mózes Székely as one of his leading commanders. When the latter was defeated, Bethlen fled to the Ottoman Empire and became leader of the Transylvanian refugees. He returned to join Bocskai’s Uprising and was rewarded with lands in Hunyad County and the job of Lieutenant there (1605). He fell out with Gábor Báthory so went into exile once again into Ottoman lands. When Báthory was then replaced by the annoyed Sultan in 1613, Bethlen was the logical choice. He was soon endorsed by the Transylvanian Diet, then by the Emperor Matthias in Vienna in 1615.

Prince Gábor Bethlen (or Bethlen Gábor—remember it is traditional in Hungarian to reverse the names) was seen as an ‘enlightened’ ruler, and developed the area’s mines and industry. He built a new grand palace in Gyulafehérvár, founded a Protestant college here and sponsored Protestant students to go abroad and study in England and the Netherlands. Disliking increasing Habsburg persecution of Protestants in Royal Hungary, he invaded in August 1619, captured the chief cities of Kassa and Pozsony (the royal capital), and advanced into Austria but by November was pushed back out by Habsburg forces. After a temporary peace, in August 1620, he was elected King of Hungary by an anti-Habsburg assembly, though this was never recognised by all parties, and by December 1621, he renounced the election and signed another peace accord—in exchange he was given more counties on the eastern margins of Royal Hungary to govern, and the Emperor agreed to tolerate religious freedom in Bethlen’s domains. He was also given one of those small Silesian duchies that were always being handed out to solidify alliances (Opole), but did not hold on to it very long.

the 17th-century prince’s palace in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Julia), now very much overshadowed by the much larger fortifications built by the Habsburgs in the 18th century

As the Thirty Years War, which broke out in 1618, started to heat up for the new Habsburg Emperor (Ferdinand II), Bethlen pressed for more advantages, including a Habsburg bride for himself (always a good thing for raising the status of your dynasty). When he was turned down, he negotiated instead for a Calvinist Hohenzollern bride from Brandenburg, Princess Catherine. She was the daughter of the Elector of Brandenburg, but also, crucially, the sister-in-law of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the Protestant military champion. The couple married in 1626, but had no children before Gábor died in November 1629.

Catherine of Brandenburg

Catherine of Brandenburg was named Princess of Transylvania in her own right in November 1629, and even minted her own coins, but she was replaced by her husband’s younger brother István in September 1630. She converted to Catholicism in 1639 to marry the Duke of Saxe-Lauenburg and died in 1649.

Catherine’s coins

Prince István Bethlen resigned only a few months later in favour of György Rákóczi, the son of Prince Zsigmond. Rákóczi had been the leader of the Protestant faction of nobles in Hungary in the reign of Gábor Bethlen, but also enjoyed the favour of the Habsburg regime in Vienna. He married a wealthy heiress, Zsuzsanna Lórántffy, and settled in her estate of Sárospatak.

Prince István Bethlen

The magnificent castle of Sárospatak, in the far northeast corner of Hungary (bordering on Slovakia) is today one of the crown jewels of the Hungarian National Museum network of museums. It is considered amongst the best-preserved Renaissance architecture in Hungary. The central fortified tower, the ‘red tower’, was built by King Andrew II in the 13th century, and is thought to be the birthplace of one of Hungary’s national saints, Saint Elizabeth. The Perényi family added a Renaissance palace in the 1530s and 40s, a period when this area became known as a place for Protestant education and thinking—the first Protestant college in Hungary was founded here in 1530, and the famous Czech theologian Comenius (Komenský) was given safe have to write and teach here in the 1650s, by which time it was one of the main Rákóczy strongholds. After the tumults of the end of the century, much damaaged, the castle was handed over by the Habsburgs to various Austrian families, and today, restored, it serves as the Rákóczi Museum—it even features on the back of the 500 forint note.

Sárospatak Castle

György Rákóczi led troops in Gábor Bethlen’s war against the Habsburgs in the early 1620s, then (eventually) succeeded him as Prince of Transylvania from November 1630. The reign of György I is mostly uneventful, though he survived an attempt by the Ottomans to replace him in 1636 and unrest from neighbouring Wallachian and Molavian princes later in the decade; but a mostly peaceful reign gave him time to continue to develop Bethlen’s princely court at Gyulafehérvár, and elevate his residences at Sárospatak and Munkács as truly princely residences in the 1630s and 40s, receiving ambassadors with lavish attention to augment his reputation in the diplomatic world.

a sketch of Prince György Rákóczi by Rembrandt

The monumental fortress of Munkács was for centuries one of the most famous in Hungary, yet ironically isn’t in Hungary at all today. Called Mukachevo in Ukrainian, it is one of the major tourist attractions of the Zakarpattia (Trans-Carpathia) region of the far southwest of Ukraine. It was also called Plankenburg in German or Palanok in Ruthenian (early Ukrainian). Perched high on a volcanic hill, it was built as early as the founding of the Hungarian kingdom by Saint Stephen in the 11th century to guard the Vereche Pass, over which the Magyar tribes had come from the steppes north of the Black Sea. Indeed, it proved a useful guardian against further tribes who crossed the same pass: the Pechenegs, the Mongols, the Tatars. By the mid-13th century it was the largest, best defended fortress in the Kingdom of Hungary. Munkács was held by various noble families in the 14th and 15th centuries, then directly by the Crown in the 16th, until Maximilian II gave it in 1573 to Gábor Mágócsi, whose sons were raised (and fleeced, it looks like) by their stepfather, Zsigmond Rákóczi. It again passed through different aristocratic hands until it was returned by Prince Gábor Bethlen to the Rákóczi in 1629.

Munkács Castle–todays’ Mukachevo in Ukraine

Munkács remained the seat of the Rákóczi princes for much of the rest of the 17th century, and was famously defended by the widow of Prince Ferenc I, Ilona Zrínyi, in sieges lasting for several years in 1685 to 1687. Until she finally surrendered it in January 1688, Munkács was the only castle the Habsburgs were unable to take by force. It was retaken by Ferenc II Rákóczi in 1703, then retaken again by Imperial forces in 1711. But across the 18th century, it lost its strategic value (especially once Galicia became part of the Habsburg domains following the partition of Poland), and it became a state prison. Many significant prisoners were held here until it was decommissioned by Emperor Franz Josef in 1896 in commemoration of the Millennium of the founding of the Hungarian Kingdom. In the 20th century it was used as a barracks for the Czech, Hungarian, then Soviet armies, then restored and re-opened as a museum (as Mukachevo) by the Ukrainian government in the 1990s.

As the Thirty Years War was already starting to wind down, Prince György I Rákóczi decided to intervene, and attacked the forces of Emperor Ferdinand III in 1644. But the Sultan was not in a mood to wage war, and ordered his vassal to withdraw in 1645. The resulting peace treaty confirmed the earlier treaties (rule over some of the eastern counties of north-eastern Hungary and religious freedom for Protestants), and the Prince died soon after in 1648.

His son, Prince György II, had been elected as successor already in 1642, and in 1643 married Zsófia Báthory (from above), the last of her family. Her mother had forced her to convert from Catholicism in a bid to keep relevant in Transylvanian magnate politics, and she was a most unwilling bride. In 1657, the Prince joined Sweden in its war against Poland-Lithuania, with the aid of the rulers of Wallachia and Moldavia, and Cossack troops disgruntled with Polish rule in the eastern steppes of what is now Ukraine. György decided to claim the Polish throne itself, perhaps drawing on the reputation of his wife’s Báthory name. Like his father, he did not consult with his overlord, the Sultan Mehmed IV, and was thus not supported when things went wrong. After initial successes in Poland, his forces were were thrown into disarray in the late summer, and as he fled back to Transylvania, his abandoned army was almost entirely captured by the Crimean Tatars, allies of Poland. György II was deposed formally by the Sultan in November, but defiantly reinstated by the Transylvanian Diet in January 1658. He was driven out then returned again in March 1659. The Turks invaded the principality in Spring 1660, and Rákóczi died from wounds he received in the fierce battle at Szászfenes (today’s Florești) in May.

Prince György II Rákóczi

György’s son, Ferenc (Francis), had been pre-elected like his father in 1652 (aged only 7), but was passed over for the throne following the debacle of 1657. His mother, Zsófia Báthory, hastily converted herself back to Catholicism, and her young son too, earning Habsburg favour, and even obtained from the Imperial court the title of count for the Rákóczi family (in 1664). As noted above, Hungarian nobles rarely sported any title at all, so this was a relatively rare privilege. We will return to Ferenc below.

A 19th-century historical illustration of two of Transylvania’s heroic women: Ilona Zrínyi and Zsófia Báthory

In the confusion of 1657-58, a number of very short-lived princely reigns followed in quick succession: Rhédey, Barcsay, Kemény. The first was Ferenc Rhédey, who ruled from November 1657 to January 1658. The Rhédey were ancient nobles, a cadet branch of the powerful Clan Aba (one of the first families of Hungary, see below), who adopted the name Rhédey in the late 13th century, taken from their properties of Kisréde and Nagyréde in Heves County, northeast of Buda. With the Turkish occupation of central Hungary in the 1540s, they moved east into Transylvania and were given lands in Maros County, and gradually built up lands there, and the title of baron, 1606. They acquired the castle of Erdőszentgyörgy there in 1627 (today’s Sângeorgiu de Pădure); as Rhédey Castle it was rebuilt in the 18th century, then renovated in a classical style in the early 19th century, and was the birthplace of Countess Claudine Rhédey who became the grandmother of Princess Mary of Teck, queen-consort of King George V of Great Britain. It is this connection that has brought Prince Charles to Transylvania in support of renovating its built heritage and conserving its wildlife. Rhédey Castle served as the local primary school in the 20th century, and is now a museum. There is also a Rhédey Palace in the city of Cluj (formerly Kolozsvár), originally built by the Székely family in the 17th century, inherited in the 18th century by the Rhédeys, and rebuilt in the 1770s to house one of the very first Hungarian theatre companies.

Rhédey Castle

Ferenc Rhédey, Prince of Transylvania, was closely connected to Prince Gábor Bethlen, his mother having remarried the Prince’s brother István Bethlen, and Ferenc himself marrying his step-sister Druzsiána Bethlen. Like his father, he served as lieutenant of Máramaros County, and became a trusted counsellor to Prince György II Rákóczi. He had the wisdom not to try to hold on to power in January 1658, when the latter reclaimed his throne, and was rewarded with the title of count in 1659. His branch of the family went extinct with his death in 1667, but his cousins were re-created counts again in 1744. The family was extinct by the end of the 19th century.

Prince Ferenc Rhédey

In September 1658, the Sultan appointed another of Prince György’s chief commanders and advisors, Ákos Barcsay. Despite his stronger position as Rákóczy’s chief of council and one of the governors of Transylvania appointed while the Prince was away in Poland in 1657, he had initially been passed over for Rhédey as he was of lower rank. But only just. The Barcsay family traced their lineage back to the early 14th century, and were originally based in Transylvania too (unlike the Bethlens or the Rákóczis), at Nagybarca (Bârcea Mare) in Hunyad County. Like most magnates they became Calvinist in the Reformation.

Prince Ákos Barcsay

Ákos Barcsay had been a diplomat and counsellor of Prince György I, Lieutenant of Hunyad County from 1648, then, as noted, chief of council for Prince György II. His brother was one of the leaders of the Transylvanian army. In October 1658, the Diet agreed to the Sultan’s choice, and the new Prince Barcsay agreed to pay 40,000 thalers a year in tribute, and to capture the deposed Prince György. But in March 1659, at a time he was away from the capital, consulting with regional Turkish administrators, Rákóczi returned and resumed his government of the Principality. Barcsay was installed by the Turks once again by force in May 1660 (and from this point they occupied directly those counties of the Hungarian kingdom known as the ‘Partium’). One of his main generals was killed in battle by another of Rákóczi’s former commanders, János Kemény, in November 1660, and Prince Ákos himself was defeated in December and abdicated. He was murdered by Kemény’s men in July 1661. The Barcsay family continued for a while, named barons from 1742, but this branch soon died out.

Meanwhile, János Kemény was now Prince of Transylvania, this time as a vassal of the Habsburgs, not the Ottomans. His family were also ancient nobles, Transylvanian, from the 13th century, based around estates at Magyargyerőmonostori (Mănăstireni), near Kolozsvár. In the 1640s, János acquired a castle further north at Aranyosmeggyes (Medieşu Aurit) in the far northwest of the Principality in Szatmár County, through his marriage to an heiress of the noble Lónyai family. The 13th-century castle had been held for centuries by the Báthorys, then rebuilt in the Renaissance style in the 1620s, before it passed to Anna Lónyay. It was mostly destroyed in the rebellions of the later 17th century, rebuilt in the 19th century, then blown up in World War II and left as a ruin.

Aranyosmeggyes Castle

Like Rhédey and Barcsay, Kemény had been a chief advisor to Prince György II, and went with him to Poland as one of his commanders in 1657. He was held captive by the Tatars in Bağçasaray, the capital of the Crimean Khanate, until his wife paid a huge ransom in August 1659. He wrote a memoir of his experiences, which is considered one of the best of that genre of the 17th century. So he had been completely out of the way during the confusion of 1658-59. He realised that György II would never regain the support of the Sultan, that Barcsay was unlikely to hold on to his throne, and that Transylvania would not recover any semblance of freedom without help from Vienna. So with authorisation from the Emperor, he organised a Diet to proclaim himself Prince of Transylvania in January 1661, and went further to declare the end of dependence on the Ottomans in April. But the Sultan felt differently, and sent an army back to Transylvania and defeated the ‘false prince’ in June. János Kemény tried again in September, but was killed in battle in January 1662. He left descendants who became barons in 1698, and counts in 1804.

Prince János Kemény

Reasserting Ottoman authority, Küçük Ali Pasha chose another of Rákóczi’s former commanders, Mihály (Michael) Apafi, to be Prince of Transylvania in September 1661. Apparently he had asked three other nobles who had refused. Apafi accepted, was approved by the Diet, and immediately made a secret peace deal with the Habsburgs, who therefore abandoned Kemény. By 1664, in a new peace treaty between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, Emperor Leopold recognised Mihály Apafi as prince, and he settled in for a nice thirty-year rule.

Prince Mihály I Apafi

At this point—for fun—we can delve a bit more into the very ancient history of the Magyar peoples, and look (finally) at the Aba Clan, progenitors of the Apafi. The ‘Gens Aba’ are considered to be amongst the founding fathers of the nation. According to the 13th-century Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum, they descended from Attila the Hun and a daughter of Emperor Honorius, though Honorius (d. 423) had no children, and there aren’t nearly enough generations to their supposed son Csaba in the 9th century. More historically the founder may have been a tribal leader of Khazars, a Turkic tribe that joined the Magyar federation in the 9th century on the Pontic Steppes before they emigrated into the Danube Basin. They were given lands by Prince Árpád, the founder of the royal dynasty, in about 900, in the forests of the Matra Mountains, now Heves County (northeast of Buda), centred on Gyöngyös. They built a castle called Pata, or Gyöngyöspata. Prince Shaba (or Csaba) married in about 1009 a daughter of the Magyar chieftain, Géza, and had a son called Sámuel. The family converted to Christianity, perhaps from paganism, but maybe from Judaism (Samuel’s name is a clue)—there were in fact Khazar leaders who had adopted Judaism in the 8th century. It is an intriguing idea. In any case, the newly Christianised Aba family built the Abbey of Abasár on their lands, around which formed the new Eger diocese. The name Aba could refer to the word for ‘father’, to represent their patriarchal piety.

Sámuel Aba became ‘count palatine’ (head of the court) for his first cousin, King Stephen I. When that king, founder of the Hungarian monarchy, died childless in 1038, he was first succeeded by his nephew Peter the Venetian, then by Sámuel in 1041. It is likely he who built Abaújvár (‘Aba’s New Castle’, a fortified hilltop, today just an archaeological site), which came to form the core of a new county in the northeast of the Kingdom, Abaúj. Peter the Venetian returned however, reclaimed the throne in 1044, and executed his cousin.

a rather helpless looking King Sámuel Aba (from a much later chronicle)

Famous Aba descendants include Miklós Aba, Ban of Dalmatia and Croatia, 1272-73, and Makján Aba, Palatine of Hungary, 1286-87. But the most famous was Amadé Aba, also Palatine, on and off several times between 1288 and 1310. After the death of the last king from the Árpád dynasty (András III) in 1301, Amadé led his own more or less independent foreign policy, supporting candidates for the royal throne from dynasties of Bohemia, Poland, Naples (Anjou) and Austria. He ultimately supported the election of Charles of Anjou in 1308, and was appointed Lieutenant of Szepes County—he became virtual ruler of a large domain in this area, centred on Gönc and Boldogkő castles (in Abaúj County), and the town of Kassa (today’s Košice)—stretching towards the Carpathians into what’s now Ukraine (Munkács—see above).

Boldogkő Castle

Prince Amadé Aba granted lands to his followers, and noble titles, and ran his own judicial court. But in 1310, he was stripped of his titles by the king he had helped create, and in 1311 was murdered by the citizens of Kassa. His sons tried to continue his powerful dominion but were defeated by King Charles’s army at Rozgony (Rozhanovce, near Košice) in June 1312. After the Battle of Rozgony, the Aba supremacy was crushed. Abaujvár and the core lands around Gyöngyös passed into other noble families. But nearly twenty noble houses trace descent back to the Clan Aba, including the Rhédey and the Bethlen de Bethlen (not the Bethlen de Iktár). And of course the Apafi (or Abafy or Apaffy).

The Apafi surname appeared in the early 14th century, and they made their base at Apa-Nagyfalva (Nușeni in Romanian) in north-central Transylvania (Beszterce-Naszód County). This castle was destroyed several times in the 17th century, then passed to the Bánffy family by the end of the century. As far as I can tell, there are no remains.

While the noble family name remained Apafi de Apanagyfalva, their dynastic headquarters, from the 15th century, was Ebesfalva, in Szeben County (Sibiu), central Transylvania. It was also known just as Apafi Castle. (falva by the way means ‘someone’s village’). In the 1550s, the castle was rebuilt by Gergely Apafi, whose son and grandson rose to the rank of lieutenant of neighbouring Küküllő County. The latter’s son was Mihály Apafi, who became Prince of Transylvania. After the extinction of the family in 1713, the town was bought by Armenian settlers in 1720s, and renamed Erzsébetváros (or Elisabethstadt). The castle later served as a courthouse, a district court, a prison and a town hall; it is now a museum of Armenian culture (renamed Dumbrăveni in Romanian in the 20th century).

Ebesfalva or Apafi Castle

Another residence was the villa at Almakerék (Mălâncrav, southwest of Sighisoara), built in late 16th century, which passed to the Bethlen family in the 18th century—this is one of those renovated with the aid of Prince Charles in 2000. The Lutheran church in this town was also the dynastic burial place for the Apafi family.


Mihály Apafi served with Prince György Rákóczy in the disastrous campaign in Poland in 1657, and like János Kemény, was held by the Tatars in Crimea until his wife paid his ransom in 1661. As we’ve seen above, he was appointed Prince of Transylvania by the Turks in September 1661, approved by the Transylvanian Diet, then recognised by the Habsburg emperor in 1664 (Treaty of Vasvár). This treaty, while good for Apafi, annoyed a lot of the Hungarian nobles who sensed the Ottoman Empire was finally on the defensive and potentially challengable. Seeing the Habsburg Emperor do nothing, they rebelled against him in 1666-67. They invited young Ferenc Rákóczy, the son of Prince György, to be their leader. The rebellion was disorganised and quickly put down, with most of its leaders brutally executed. But Ferenc’s mother, Zsófia Báthory, intervened and paid a huge fee (300,000 forints). She was a tremendous force; but so too was her daughter-in-law, Ilona Zrínyi, the immensely rich daughter of the Ban of Croatia, Count Peter Zrínyi (or Zrinski in Croatian) who had initially spearheaded the rebellion, and would be executed in 1671. Prince Ferenc I tried then to stay neutral in the coming years, and died, aged only 31, in 1676.

Prince Ferenc I Rákóczy

Apafi had stayed mostly out of all of this. As prince he resided mostly at Fogaras Castle (Făgăraș, the capital of the old Fogaras County, now in Brașov County), a traditional seat of Transylvanian princes, built in the 1310s, rebuilt in the 1520s, and transformed by Prince Mihály Apafi into a princely residence (as Gyulafehérvár had been mostly destroyed by the Turks in 1658). In the 20th century it was used as a prison, and is today a museum—one of the great castle-museums of Romania.

Fogaras Castle

Prince Mihály remained loyal to the Sultan during the Ottoman invasion of western Hungary and the siege of Vienna in 1683, and indeed led some Transylvanian troops in support (but carefully avoided actually engaging in battle), but after the spectacular (and rather surprising) defeat of the Ottomans, Apafi saw his autonomy threatened by Habsburg armies advancing across the Hungarian plain. Buda was liberated from the Turks in 1686, and troops of Duke Charles of Lorraine entered Transylvania. Apafi made a deal in 1687 recognising Habsburg suzerainty, and to pay a very large sum of money; in return, the Emperor recognised his son’s right to the succession, which was approved soon after by the Sultan as well.

Prince Mihály I Apafi

Mihály I died in 1690, and was indeed succeeded by his son, Mihály II. He had been ‘associated’ with his father’s reign as prince since 1681. By the mid-1680s, however, the Turks had shifted their interests towards the leader of a new anti-Habsburg rebellion, Imre Thököly (more on him next). Emperor Leopold recognised Mihály II Apafi as Prince of Transylvania in 1691, though under a regency council (he was only 15). His councillors continued to negotiate for a semi-independent state, now under the protection of the Protestant Great Powers: England, the United Dutch Provinces and Brandenburg-Prussia. But in 1692, the young Prince was lured to Vienna and pressed to concede control of the principality. By 1696 it was under the rule of a military governor and he formally abdicated. Apafi was created a Reichsfürst, given a generous pension and lived out his days in Vienna where he died in 1713.

Prince Mihály II Apafi

By this point, the attentions of Hungarian and Transylvanian nationalists had firmly shifted to Imre Thököly and his step-son, who happened to be Ferenc II Rákóczy.

The Thököly family are quite different from all the other families surveyed thus far, in that they were not very ancient, and were (at first) not very noble. They were also not from Transylvania, and the individual we need to focus on here, Imre, was only nominally prince of Transylvania for one year. His history mostly belongs to the history of Hungary and to the Ottoman-Habsburg wars more generally, so I’ll focus on his dynastic history here. From a family of horse and cattle merchants from Upper Hungary, Sebestyén Thököly began to accumulate great wealth in the mid-16th century, so much that he was able loan some to the Habsburg monarchs to fund their wars. They reciprocated generously with ennoblement in 1572, then the title of baron in 1598. In between, he acquired an estate at Késmárk (today Kežmarok), in Szepes County, in 1583. This was a Lutheran town, and Thököly a member of the new faith. Most residents were in fact German (and the name of the town was German for ‘cheese market’), and would remain the majority until about 1910.

Késmárk Castle

The newly minted Baron Sebestyén Thököly de Késmárk left his fortune to his son, István, who then married a great heiress, Katalin Thurzó, and acquired through this union notably the major fortress of Árva, perched dramatically above a river bend in the mountainous frontier between Hungary and Poland. This castle (now Orava) was built in the mid-16th century on the site of a much older wooden fortification, and was added to by various magnate families, notably the Thurzós. Today it is frequently used as a set for filming, including the 2020 retelling of the Dracula story for BBC and Netflix (so Count Dracula does get into this story!).

Árva Castle

Baron István’s son, also called István, became Lieutenant of Árva County, and as a steadfastly loyal supporter of the Habsburg monarchy, was elevated further to the rank of Count in 1654. He married a grand-daughter of Prince István Bethlen, with estates in Transylvania, and close relations with the Rhédey family. But the nervous Habsburg administration grew suspicious about Count István’s loyalties during an anti-Habsburg aristocratic plot in 1670, and when he and his family retreated to Árva Castle, they laid siege, during which he died. His young son Imre was smuggled out to safety to his mother’s estates in Transylvania.

Prince Imre Thököly

Count Imre (usually translated as ‘Emeric’ in English) thus became the charismatic leader of Hungarian resistance to Habsburg rule for the next three decades, one of the most formidable. As an exile at the court of Prince Mihály I Apafi, he came into contact with a number of disgruntled Protestant nobles and clergy, who as soldiers took on the name kuruc, which some have thought to have come from cruciatus (‘crusader’) but is more likely from the Turkish word kurudsch, ‘rebel’. In 1677, Apafi made some secret deals with the king of France, Louis XIV, who agreed to subsidise a kuruc rebellion, especially if led by young Imre Thököly. He raised troops in Transylvania and initiated a grand revolt in 1678, and initially did extremely well, taking over much of the Kingdom of Hungary and proclaiming himself ‘Prince of Upper Hungary’ in 1681. Playing on his kinship relations with the Bethlen and Rhédey clans, he also married the widow of Prince Ferenc I Rákóczy for good measure— llona Zríniyi would certainly play her part as the ‘Kuruc Queen’. Sultan Mehmed IV went further and recognised Thököly as ‘king’ of Upper Hungary, a title confirmed by some local diets.

llona Zríniyi

A triumphant Prince Imre aided the Ottomans in the siege of Vienna, but when that went badly for them, bore the brunt of the blame. In frustration, he tried to make a deal with Emperor Leopold, offering to end his rebellion in return for acknowledgement of the rights of Protestants in Hungary and of his title as Prince of Upper Hungary. Leopold refused. War re-commenced, and Thököly suffered a major defeat at Eperjes (now Prešov), 11 August 1685. When he sought the help of his Turkish protectors, they sent him in chains to Adrianople, and most of his kuruc followers abandoned him. A year later, however, he was released and sent with a small army to Transylvania to attempt to reclaim his principality. He had little success, nor in the attempt that followed in 1688, but in September 1690, he did defeat a combined Austrian and Apafi army, and was elected Prince of Transylvania by the Diet. But he was ousted soon after in 1691.

For the rest of the decade, Prince Imre Thököly served as an able cavalry commander in Ottoman armies, notably at the Battle of Zenta in 1697. But when a peace treaty was finally made (Karlowitz) in January 1699, his name was explicitly excluded from the amnesty that was offered to most Hungarian rebels. After one last attempt to reclaim his lands, he and his wife retired to the community of Hungarian exiles in Galata (the foreigner settlement across the Golden Horn from Constantinople). He received the title ‘Count of Widin’ (Vidin, Bulgaria) from the Sultan (Mustafa II), and spent the last years of his life in exile. After he died in 1705, in the city of İzmit (ancient Nicomedia), he was buried there, but in 1906 his ashes were returned to Hungarian (for the moment) soil in Késmárk.

Thököly’s statue on Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere) in Budapest

The leadership role of anti-Habsburg rebellion in Hungary was now taken up by Thököly’s step-son, Prince Ferenc II Rákóczy. After the death of his father, Ferenc I, the boy had been raised, with his sister Julianna, at the family estates of Munkács and Sárospatak, though under the strict formal guardianship of Emperor Leopold. The powerful Countess Ilona kept her children safe during the three-year siege of Munkács in 1686-88, but after her surrender, all were taken to Vienna to be educated at court and integrated into the Austrian aristocracy. In 1694, young ‘Franz’ married Princess Amalia of Hesse-Rheinfels-Wanfried, and they settled down at Sárospatak Castle from where he could act as a loyal supporter of the Habsburg regime as Lieutenant of Sáros County.

Prince Ferenc II Rákóczy

But in April 1700, letters were intercepted by Habsburg authorities that implicated Rákóczy in a developing international plot by which France was attempting to gather allies for its impending war against Austria over the rights to the Spanish Succession. He was arrested, but escaped to Poland and by June 1703 accepted an offer to lead another kuruc uprising, a war of liberation. He convinced and army of peasant soldiers and Hajduks, but this time the bulk of the Hungarian nobility did not rally to the cause. Nevertheless, Rákóczy initially made great gains and occupied much of the Kingdom. In 1704, he assumed the title Prince of Transylvania, the last native son to bear this title.

But by 1705, France was doing badly in the war and was no longer able to send financial support. Still, in September, a diet of ‘Confederated Estates’ from all over Hungary elected Rákóczy as ‘Ruling Prince’. Peace talks with Vienna stumbled over the issue of the sovereignty of Transylvania, and in June 1707, the Habsburgs were formally declared ‘deposed’ by another diet. At the battle of Trencsén (Trenčin), 3 August 1708, the Prince suffered a defeat, and most of his allies abandoned him. He held out in Munkács, waiting for French aid that never came, until he fled once more to Poland in February 1711. The Emperor’s forces made peace with Rákóczy’s remaining troops in May (the Peace of Szatmár), and assured the Prince clemency if he would swear an oath of loyalty. He refused. His lands were confiscated, especially Munkács and others in Trans-Carpathia. He stayed in Poland—supported even as a candidate for the crown there by Tsar Peter I and others—then in 1712 went west on a tour and to press his case at the international peace negotiations then in full swing at Utrecht. He visited England and France and was viewed as a great hero by the fashionable set, but was completely ignored by the diplomats at Utrecht. His welcome in France ran out following the death of his erstwhile ally Louis XIV, so in 1717 he travelled to the Ottoman Empire, with a large entourage, where he settled in the large community of exiled Hungarian nobles at Rodostó on the Sea of Marmara (the ancient Rhaedestus, which was renamed Tekirdağ later in the 18th century).

Rákóczy’s statue in front of the parliament building in Budapest

The last Prince of Transylvania lived here in comfort for many years and died in 1735. His heart was sent to France and his body to the Jesuit church in Galata, in Constantinople, alongside his mother Ilona. In 1906, their bodies were moved to the Cathedral in Kassa in a great Hungarian nationalist pageant—though of course, this city (Kosiče) is no longer in Hungary either.

Meanwhile, the Prince of Transylvania had become the Habsburg Emperor himself. From 1711 (and legally from 1699), Transylvania was incorporated more fully into the Habsburg monarchy and ruled directly by governors. None of these were from the great Transylvanian magnate families, with the exception of Count György Bánffy, who had a long run in quite challenging times: 1787 to 1822. After 1765, the status of Transylvania was raised to a ‘Grand Principality’ for Emperor Joseph II, as an autonomous realm of the Hungarian Crown. The rising numbers of Romanians in the population were ignored, and even though they were the majority, their numbers could always be balanced by the combined numbers of Hungarian and German subjects (according to some statistics, but not others—and this became controversial). In 1804, Transylvania was declared an Austrian Crownland, severing its link with Hungary, but in the 1848 revolution, it was incorporated into Hungary directly. Once this revolution failed, the situation was reversed, until the great compromise of 1867 joined Transylvania firmly to the Crown of Hungary and the separate Grand Principality was dissolved for good.

The Austrian Empire in the early 19th century, with Transylvania in yellow at right

As the Habsburg Monarchy collapsed at the end of the First World War, Transylvania was proclaimed to be united with Romania, December 1918 (the Union of Alba Julia). This was sealed by the Treaty of Trianon, June 1920, but was not accepted by Hungary, who argued that 1.6 million Hungarians were now trapped on the wrong side of the border. By 2011, they still have a significant presence in some parts of Transylvania, cited at about 18% of the total population (with the ancient Saxon / German population now measuring only about 0.5%).

After 1711, there were also two ‘pretenders’ to the throne of Transylvania, the two sons of Prince Ferenc II Rákóczy: József and György. Both boys were kept in Vienna after the exile of their father, as ‘guests’ of the Emperor, who gave them an education and new ‘incognito’ titles: the Marchese di San Marco and the Marchese della Santa Elisabetta. I doubt people were fooled. In 1734, their father in far-off Turkey, probably sensing his end, decided to grant them better titles: the Duke of Munkács for the elder and the Duke of Makovica for the younger. József soon left Vienna and travelled through Italy, France and Spain, then visited Rodostó, and was recognised as Prince of Transylvania by the Sultan in 1737 as he prepared to launch a new war against the Habsburgs. This Prince Rákóczy was sent to the Balkans but didn’t get very far and died in 1738. György, on the other hand, had already settled in Paris much earlier (from about 1726) and lived there for many years, a fashionable curiosity in society, but little else. He did travel to the Ottoman Empire in 1742 on the invitation of the Sultan, but declined his offer to take up once more the Rákóczy family claims to Transylvania, and returned to France. He died at St Denis in 1756.

a life of József Rákóczy published shortly after his death

The house at Rodostó (Tekirdağ) in which Prince Ferenc II Rákóczy lived for many years was rebuilt after the property was donated to the Hungarian state in 1982. It now stands proudly as the Rákóczy Museum, a place of pilgrimage nearly four centuries after the Prince’s death. The memory of the Principality of Transylvania lives on.

The Rákóczy Museum in Rodostó (Tekirdağ)

(images Wikimedia Commons)

–A very big thanks to Dr Gábor Kármán of the Institute of History, Budapest, for helping me spot errors in this complicated story!

Families covered in this post:

  • Hunyadi
  • Zápolya
  • Báthory
  • Gutkeled
  • Székely
  • Bocskai
  • Rákóczi
  • Bethlen
  • Rhédey
  • Barcsay
  • Kemény
  • Apafi
  • Aba
  • Thököly

Castles visited:

in Romania (Transylvania):

  • Hunyad (Hunedoara / Corvin Castle)
  • Gyulafehérvár (Alba Julia)
  • Somlyó (Şimleu, Báthory Castle)
  • Erdőszentgyörgy (Sângeorgiu / Rhédey Castle)
  • Aranyosmeggyes (Medieşu Aurit)
  • Ebesfalva (Ibașfalău, now Dumbrăveni / Apafi Castle)
  • Almakerek (Mălâncrav)
  • Fogaras (Făgăras)

in Slovakia (‘Upper Hungary’):

  • Trencsén (Trenčin)
  • Makovica (Zboró, Zborov)
  • Késmárk (Kežmarok)
  • Árva (Orava)

in Hungary

  • Nyírbátor
  • Nagyecsed (Ecsed)
  • Szerencs
  • Nagykereki (Bocskai Castle)
  • Sárospatak
  • Boldogkő

in Ukraine (Trans-Carpathia):

  • Munkács (Mukachevo or Palanok)

List of Princes of Transylvania and reigns:

1570-71: János Zsigmond Zápolya

1576-86: István Báthory

1586-98: Zsigmond Báthory

1599: András Báthory

1601-02: Zsigmond Báthory

1603: Mózes Székely

1605-06: István Bocskai

1607-08: Zsigmond Rákóczi

1608-13: Gábor Báthory

1613-29: Gábor Bethlen

1629: Catherine of Brandenburg

1630: István Bethlen

1630-48: György I Rákóczi

1648-57: György II Rákóczi

heir only: Ferenc I Rákóczi

1657: Ferenc Rhédey

1658: György II Rákóczi

1658-59: Ákos Barcsay

1659-60: György II Rákóczi

1660: Ákos Barcsay

1661: János Kemény

1661-90: Mihály I Apafi

1690-96: Mihály II Apafi

1690: Imre Thököly

1704-11: Ferenc II Rákóczi

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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