Downfall and Renewal

Hungary's governance was marked by a precarious and delicate balance of power, one vulnerable to the first major disturbance. The discord that appeared to have been suppressed by the military campaigns of 1543–44 flared up again at the end of the decade as a consequence of political developments outside Hungary. There appeared, at the apex of power, an advocate of a break with the Szapolyai policy. This time, the challenge came not from Isabella, but from the friar himself, who seemingly decided to acknowledge Habsburg rule.

This stunning reversal had its roots in early 1546, when the Sublime Porte, freed of the demands of a Danubian war, adopted a firmer stance regarding the Szapolyai kingdom. In order to secure communications between Titel and Szeged, the Ottomans demanded that the fortresses of Becse and Becskerek be handed over to them. Predictably, their request caused an uproar in Gyulafehérvár. György Fráter lost no time in asking the sultan to reconsider the demand; meanwhile, on the home front, he devoted his energies to countering the attempts of Isabella to exploit the crisis.

The feudal estates in Transylvania and the region east of the Tisza also tried to draw advantage from the Becse affair. In autumn {1-620.} 1546, at the diet in Kolozsvár, a resolution was passed demanding that the regent give a public accounting of the state's finances. György Fráter convened a 'counter-diet' at Szászsebes, then, after protracted wrangling, reached an accommodation with Isabella; his major concession was a promise to let the queen participate in the affairs of state.

The year 1547 brought three significant changes in European politics. The Habsburgs' arch-enemy, Francis I, died the last day of March. On April 24, Charles V's army won a decisive victory near Mühlberg over forces of the rebellious Protestant princes (the Schmalkalden League). Finally, on June 19, a peace treaty was concluded between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Sultan of the Ottomans.

A good twenty years had passed since King John first decided to ally himself with the Ottomans. This policy had obviously produced some positive results. Left largely to its own devices, Eastern Hungary was preserved from Turkish attack, and this without having to submit to the sultan's suzerainty. Moreover, the country's peace was not seriously disturbed by the expansionary efforts of the Habsburgs.

However, these results owed much to Ferdinand I, whose resistance, however passive, constrained the Ottomans' freedom of action. In the event that this confrontation should dissipate, Transylvania would face the prospect and necessity of submitting to the Ottomans. The loss of Buda and the Becse affair indicated that the Ottomans were still bent on conquest, and that they had their eyes on the Szapolyais' part of Hungary. The threat was more than hypothetical: in 1547, Suleiman reiterated his request for the castles in the Temesköz and refused to extend the peace treaty with the Habsburgs to cover the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom. To be sure, he wrote to Isabella assuring her of his continuing good will, but the message was full of qualifications.

{1-621.} It is not surprising, then, that Isabella's advisers, headed by György Fráter, addressed a desperate appeal to Charles V — much like the feudal estates of Habsburg Hungary had done earlier — not to endorse the treaty, warning him that the peace would precipitate Hungary's utter destruction: 'For no peace is possible with an enemy that is bent not only on conquering us, but also on killing us; an enemy that is no longer satisfied with our tribute but is raising demands for more and more of our fortresses and is searching for opportunities to wear us down... At a time when the need is urgent and his military preparedness high, the emperor should not allow to let the opportunity pass, but attempt to liberate Hungary... Besides, [Transylvania] is ringed by virtually impassable mountains, and it can be defended by relatively small forces stationed in the passes. However, once lost, Transylvania would be very difficult to reconquer... Since our honour and loyalty bind us to the queen and her innocent son, we beg that you take steps to assure their welfare in accordance with the treaties'.[4]4. EOE I., p. 307; excerpts, translated into Hungarian, are found in Bárdossy, Magyar politika, p. 307.

Agreements may be signed simply to deceive or to gain time, as occurred in 1538 and 1541. To request continuation of the war, and to make a scarcely-veiled offer to comply with the Gyalu Treaty, incurred graver responsibilities. However, there was no other means available to persuade the Habsburgs to persist in the war against the Ottomans. To those living in the Carpathian Basin, it seemed that the German Empire, freed of its most dangerous internal and external enemies, was in an unprecedentedly favourable situation. The Ottomans, for their part, took advantage of the European peace to launch a new Persian offensive in early 1548.

The Hungarian overture fell on deaf ears in Vienna as well as at the German court. Charles V had little confidence that the empire's internal problems had been resolved by his victory at Mühlberg, and he thus clung to the peace agreement reached with the Sublime Porte. In Hungary, the war of nerves dragged on. For {1-622.} the most part, the feudal estates blamed the friar, and his supposed blind hunger for power, for the enduring division of the country. Queen Isabella, for her part, asserted her independence in the spring 1548 by initiating talks with Ferdinand I about the possibility of her departure.

György Fráter decided that the time had come to break Hungarian policy out of its vicious circle. He proposed to nudge the Habsburgs out of their sterile inaction and drive Isabella into making a choice that would definitively settle the fate of the House of Szapolyai. He took advantage of the queen's spring initiative to start his own negotiations with Vienna, offering once again to implement the Gyalu Treaty.

Ferdinand was faced with a difficult choice. Although he realized that Charles V had cause to remain passive, he was unwilling to surrender what was perhaps his most ardently pursued goal: sovereignty over all of Hungary. His aim may have been similar to that of the regent in Transylvania, to force his emperor brother to become involved in the struggle for Hungary. He may even have entertained the illusion that if he won the support of all Hungarians, he would become strong enough to deal with the Ottomans. Alternatively, he may have only wanted to eliminate the Szapolyai state, which only promoted dissension among Hungarians and hostility toward him, and cared little about the consequences for Transylvania and the Tisza region if the Ottomans considered the Hungarian initiative to be a casus belli.

György Fráter intended the proposed accord to preserve his state from the Ottomans. In the event, it took more than a year for Ferdinand to make up his mind and agree to commit troops to the defence of his future province. The new agreement, ratified in September 1549 at Nyírbátor, also provided compensation — the Silesian principalities of Oppeln and Ratibor — for Isabella and 'King John's son'. The negotiators agreed that the treaty should be kept secret and that the friar would continue to govern Transylvania, now in the name of King Ferdinand I.

{1-623.} Isabella was not privy to the negotiations leading up to the Nyírbátor agreement. During those fateful days, she sojourned at Déva castle, planning a marriage that would presumably facilitate her departure from Hungary. When she learned of the agreement — concluded without her knowledge, and against her interests — the queen abandoned all pretence: she rejected the terms and set about rallying her supporters. Her earlier threats to leave the country had been purely tactical, with the aim of weakening the friar's authority. Committed to preserving the dynasty's power, Isabella went so far as to denounce György Fráter to the sultan as a 'traitor'.

The Porte had already got wind of the agreement from Vienna, and it now dispatched an agent to Gyulafehérvár, with instructions to seize or execute the regent. Supporters of the Szapolyai cause now felt free to challenge the friar, and took up arms. Péter Petrovics led troops from Temes province into the Maros valley, and the Székelys turned rebellious. Meanwhile, some feudal lords, led by Ferenc Kendi and Farkas Bethlen, adopted a wait-and-see attitude. By September 1550, the friar was in dire straits, but thanks to his extraordinary energy, he once again rose to the challenge. He launched a counter-attack, laying siege to the fortress at Gyulafehérvár, where Isabella was sheltered. After six weeks, the queen gave up the struggle and dispatched envoys to tell the friar that she would receive him back in her 'good graces'. Her willingness to compromise was opportune, and probably not purely coincidental, for the Szapolyai realm had come under attack from three directions simultaneously: by Kasim, the Pasha of Buda, at Lippa, by Moldavian forces at Bereck, and by Wallachia's voivode at the Vöröstorony Pass. On October 29, the friar convened an armed diet at Torda and, exploiting the general alarm, managed to rally his supporters. In early November, the military balance shifted in his favour. Péter Petrovics' fortresses in the Temesköz were overrun by the captain of Várad, Tamás Varkocs; the Moldavian voivode Ilie was driven back beyond the Carpathians by forces under the friar's {1-624.} command; the Wallachians were routed by János Kendi; and the lord lieutenant of Hunyad county, János Török, repulsed the forces of Kasim Pasha.

The danger was thus overcome, and the queen gave in. On November 30, at Gyulafehérvár, a tearful Isabella made peace with György Fráter and endorsed the Nyírbátor agreement. By then, the friar had no doubt that the queen's presence constituted a double burden for him. A personal threat, for whenever he departed from the late King John's political line, the power-hungry woman would emerge as the natural leader of Szapolyai loyalists; and a threat to the country, for — at least in the friar's opinion — her policy shifts were always inopportune and ill-inspired. Now, in 1550, it had become clear that even though Isabella was no match for him, she would not shrink from inciting her followers to defy the regent.

The friar was therefore determined to put into effect the Nyírbátor agreement. However, he was not aware that while he was forcefully quelling the opposition of the queen and their subjects in order to pave the way for cooperation with the Habsburgs, in Vienna, the Hungarian question once again lost its urgency. In 1550, at an imperial council in Augsburg, Ferdinand had his first major quarrel with Charles V. He could no longer count on his brother's aid in pursuit of his ambitions in Transylvania — an ominous turn, considering that the Ottomans had just terminated their Persian campaign. The Habsburg king momentarily lost his self-assurance and proposed to György Fráter that they postpone implementation of the agreement. However, the friar was past the point of no return. Isabella, for her part, made sure that he would be compelled to make his choice. The tears she had shed at Gyulafehérvár soon dried, and she once again protested to the sultan at the friar's 'treason', requesting that her son be named 'King of Transylvania'. The initiative was backed by her most faithful ally, Péter Petrovics, by other supporters, notably the aristocrats Ferenc Patócsy, from Békés county, and Menyhárt Balassa from Upper Hungary. {1-625.} Petrovics even offered Becse and Becskerek to the Ottomans in return for overthrowing the regent. In May 1551, rebellion broke out once again in Transylvania, and once again György Fráter laid siege to Gyulafehérvár.

The Hungarian aristocrats who engaged in humiliating talks with the sultan did so for reasons that are obvious. If György Fráter and the majority of Transylvania's elite realized their goal of adhering to the Habsburgs' realm, the first to suffer the Ottomans' predictable riposte would be the border regions: the Temesköz, which was Petrovics's domain, and the southern part of the region east of the Tisza, which encompassed the Patócsy family's estates. It is scarcely surprising that they were the ones least reassured by the Habsburgs' promise of assistance.

Ferdinand I did not wish to appear weak when, after twenty-five years, the opportune moment finally arrived. In the summer of 1551, he launched a Transylvanian campaign. The army, led by an Italian mercenary officer, Giovanni Battista Castaldo, Lord Chief Justice [országbíró] Tamás Nádasdy, and István Losonci, consisted of no more than six to seven thousand men — 'too little for an army, too much for a diplomatic mission,' remarked a bitter observer.[5]5. Ascanio Centorio Degli Hortensi, Commentarii della guerra di Transilvania (Vinegia, 1564/Budapest, 1940), p. 68. In the event, Castaldo's mercenaries did not need to fight a battle. When, at the beginning of June, Menyhárt Balassa and Péter Petrovics sped to rescue the besieged Isabella, they were defeated by György Fráter, and on June 7, Gyulafehérvár surrendered. On 19 June, at Szászsebes castle, a despairing Isabella signed on behalf of the child-king John II the letter of abdication thrust upon her by the friar. Castaldo marched into Gyulafehérvár, and András Báthori soon took over the governance of Temes province. On 26 July, the diet at Kolozsvár acknowledged the queen's abdication and the restoration of King Ferdinand's rule. On August 8, Isabella left Transylvania, travelling first to Kassa, then to Silesia. Péter Petrovics was granted Munkács castle in exchange for Temesvár.

It was a promising start, but storm clouds were already gathering in the southeast. Ferdinand's ambassador in Istanbul, {1-626.} Malvezzi, reported on 18 July 1551 that the sultan had reacted to the military movements in Transylvania by instructing Mehmed Sokollu, the bey of Rumelia, to launch an offensive, and that he, the ambassador, was being held captive. Pasha Mehmed had reached Szalánkemén with his troops when, on August 3, he learned that the sultan's treasury had received from György Fráter the tribute of 10,000 forints, which had been paid annually ever since 1543. Mehmed sent off a letter requesting that the friar clarify his intentions, and, while awaiting an answer, proceeded to occupy Becse, Becskerek, Csanád, and Lippa; thanks to the heroism of Temesvár's new captain, István Losonci, the bey failed capture that stronghold. These successes, together with an abundance of gifts, mollified the Turkish leader to the point that he lent credence to György Fráter's apology: the real traitor had been Petrovics, for it was his fortresses which were now guarded by Ferdinand's troops! The military operation was terminated, according to Turkish custom, on Kasim's Day, at the end of October, but the bey's departure gave only temporary respite to György Fráter.

To be sure, the hopes of Transylvania's regent had been fulfilled in two important respects: first, he had got the Habsburgs to violate their peace treaty with the Ottomans, and, second, he had got rid of Queen Isabella. On the other hand, the Ottomans had sprung into action and occupied a large chunk of Transylvania's southeastern defence line. This understandably unsettled the feudal estates. Moreover, although reinforcements had arrived, led by the general Sforza Pallavicini, the assistance provided by the Habsburgs remained comparatively small. This weakness was scarcely compensated by the fact that Ferdinand had obtained a cardinal's hat for the friar.

In November 1551, György Fráter set himself an exceedingly difficult task: to respond to the Turkish assault without seriously provoking the Sublime Porte. Assembling all available troops, including Castaldo's mercenaries and the auxiliary units of the {1-627.} Hungarian feudal estates, he set off for Lippa. Mehmed claimed earlier that he had not intended to occupy the town, but that the predominantly Serbian townsfolk had invited him in. The Turkish garrison soon surrendered, and the regent, overriding the protests of his lieutenants, allowed them to leave freely.

Ferdinand I had always suspected that Transylvania's uncrowned ruler might be drawing his armies into a trap. There was little ambiguity in the order he gave to Castaldo at the start of the campaign: 'Should you become convinced that [the friar's] actions will clearly bring harm to us, we allow and order you to deal with him in accordance with the interests of our country and its loyal subjects. It is your duty to apply our will in this matter.'[6]6. O. Utiesenovic, Lebensgeschichte des Cardinals Georg Utiesenovic, gennant Martinusius (Vienna, 1881), p. 273. The mercenary officers feared for their lives in Transylvania; their fear was accentuated by the hatred that Nádasdy (the Lord Chief Justice was the brother-in-law of István Maylád!) and his companions bore for the friar and by their constant exposure to the Ottomans. Moreover, the officers suspected that the freeing of Lippa's defenders and the assignment of mercenary soldiers to winter quarters in Transylvanian villages were but the prelude to some sinister plot against them. While awaiting the Ottomans' reaction, György Fráter tried to dispel these unfounded fears, and he even dismissed his bodyguards. That gesture, however, sealed the friar's fate, for the commander of the Habsburg troops, Castaldo, promptly exploited what he saw as a favourable opportunity.

Sforza Pallavicini received the order to put Castaldo's plan into action. Marc Antonio Ferrari, who earlier had served as secretary to the regent's council, and was, since mid-1551, Castaldo's personal secretary, provided the necessary intelligence. It was also Ferrari who mounted the ambush at Alvinc, where, on the night of 15–16 December 1551, György Fráter, regent of Transylvania and Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, was brutally murdered.

There is ample evidence that Ferdinand knew and approved of the plot. The decision of the friar-regent to invite the Habsburgs {1-628.} into his country was clearly ill-conceived, and if he had any intention to rectify the mistake, it was aborted by his assassination at Alvinc. As for Ferdinand, the act only betrayed his impotence: unable to give Transylvania adequate assistance, he got rid of the man who might have been able to draw the appropriate conclusions from that impotence. Thus the fate of Eastern Hungary remained unresolved in 1551.

While Castaldo reannexed Transylvania and the Tisza region to Habsburg Hungary, the sultan, feeling betrayed and incensed at the territorial gains made by his enemies, sent his armies against Hungary's frontier defences in 1552. Ferdinand and his realm proved to be totally unprepared for this foreseeable assault. Several of Hungary's peripheral fortresses fell in the course of the campaign, including Veszprém, Drégely, Szolnok, Lippa, Temesvár, Karánsebes and Lugos. Only Eger castle, whose defense was led by István Dobó, withstood the besieging Ottomans.

The Ottomans's biggest gains were along the southeastern defences of the former Szapolyai realm: the entire Temesköz, Arad county, and the lower reaches of the Maros River. The mercenary forces showed cowardice; Captain Aldana's Spanish garrison at Lippa simply took to its heels. István Losonci's death when Temesvár fell only confirmed the futility of self-sacrificing resistance.

Meanwhile, Transylvania's three 'nations' had given repeated evidence of their indifference toward the state that had just collapsed. The Saxons had obtained the right to pay their taxes independently of the Transylvanian diet and excluded themselves from the voivode's sphere of authority. The Székelys sought to recover their tax-free status. All three 'nations' insisted on raising their own, separate defences against external threat. In order to forestall a potentially hostile coalition, Ferdinand I forbade the feudal estates to convene their diets. The aristocrats from the region east of the Tisza and the Tisza region thereupon began to attend diets {1-629.} convened in Western Hungary; in their view, the king had changed, but their country endured.

The Hungarians' spirits, already low after the Turkish successes in 1552, fell even more when the Sublime Porte began to intervene overtly in their domestic affairs. Firmans from the sultan, along with letters from Romanian rulers and Turkish beys in border provinces, enjoined the Transylvanians to invite Isabella and her son to return. Already, in 1552, the cowed Transylvanian diet had decided to continue payment of the 10,000-forint tribute. Castaldo and the voivode appointed by Ferdinand, András Báthori of Ecsed, protested, but in vain: Péter Haller, the onetime leader of the Saxon opposition, volunteered to take charge of the negotiations. At the talks, which began in the autumn of 1552, Haller went so far as to promise that if the sultan handed back the Temesköz, the Transylvanians would get rid of the German troops and elect a new voivode.

For the time being, that proposal had no consequences, and most people continued to draw some reassurance from Ferdinand's promises. Only the aristocrats in the most vulnerable region, the southern part of the region east of the Tisza, rebelled against the defenceless state: in the summer of 1553, they convened at an impromptu diet in Kereki and invited Queen Isabella to return; they also addressed a plea for help to the pasha in Buda. Accompanied by a small force of cavalry, Péter Petrovics hurried to join the Kereki rebels, who included Kelemen Ártándy, Ferenc Patócsy, and Gábor Bethlen. They found a few supporters in Transylvania as well, notably Antal Kendi and Kristóf Hagymássy, and the Székelys showed some interest in rallying to the cause.

By this time, Castaldo's government was on the brink of collapse. In 1552, his mercenary soldiers, deprived of battle and paid irregularly, aggravated their ill repute by looting towns and putting them to the torch. Instead of trying to restore public confidence, the bewildered general engineered the assassination of Ştefan Rareş, {1-630.} Moldavia' voivode. In early 1553, the king recalled Castaldo and withdrew the mercenaries from Transylvania, concluding that they did more to impede than to help the restoration of order. Involved in yet another Persian campaign, the Ottomans were unwilling to back the rebellion headed by Petrovics and Patócsy; it was suppressed by the new voivodes, Ferenc Kendi and the hero of Eger, István Dobó.

However, the sultan did not give up his goal of regaining control over Transylvania. The 1552 campaign had shown that the balance of power in the contested Danubian region was unchanged: although the Ottomans were unquestionably superior in tactics, they remained unable to break through the Habsburgs' defences in Hungary. The latest Persian campaign soon came to an end, and, in the summer of 1554, the Ottomans launched another offensive in Hungary, occupying Salgó and Fülek. In the meantime, a new envoy arrived from Istanbul to demand that Transylvania's three nations recall the Szapolyai royals. To press the point, Suleiman handed back Lugos and Karánsebes to Péter Petrovics; Ferdinand, meanwhile, still could not deliver adequate assistance. Acknowledging its impotence, Vienna paid Transylvania's tribute to the Porte and initiated new talks aiming at a peace treaty.

The sultan was willing to consider the proposal on condition that the Habsburgs give up Transylvania. His reply, delivered to Vienna's envoys, Antal Verancsics and the knight Busbecq, gave Ferdinand until November 1555 to make up his mind. Meanwhile, a firman issued on 7 October 1555 threatened the Transylvanians with an invasion if they did not call back the son of King John.

The Romanian principalities prepared for war, as did the Turkish garrisons in the Great Plain. At the instigation of Péter Petrovics, rebellion erupted once again in the region east of the Tisza. The Transylvanian diet, convened on 23 December 1555 at Marosvásárhely, sent un unambiguous message to the king: 'We were pleased to have a Christian ruler and links to the Holy Roman {1-631.} Emperor, but it was not God's will that this should endure, for we fear the enemy: it is near, has great numbers and might, and now that it is free of its Asian problems, it threatens us with all the power at its disposal. The enemy has warned us that our country will be put to fire and sword, and that we, our women, our children, our families will be exterminated. Those who witnessed the fall of Lippa and Temesvár know that this threat is genuine. We therefore ask that you either provide assistance sufficient to let us prevail against Suleiman, or release us from our oath.'[7]7. EOE I, p. 475.

In fact, they did not really expect to get an answer. The Hungarian captain general, Menyhárt Balassa, convened another diet at the end of January 1556, in Torda. It was no secret that the meeting was scheduled to declare secession. The voivodes Kendi and Dobó tried to restrain a few influential men by bribing them with gifts, but in vain. The participants, mainly Székelys and Hungarians, called for the return of Isabella and her son and invited Péter Petrovics to lead his forces into Transylvania. The next diet, convened by Péter Petrovics on March 12 at Szászsebes, adopted the definitive resolution: 'On this day we have by our common will elected the son of our late King John as our Prince and King, and we will loyally serve his majesty and master now and in times to come.'[8]8. EOE I, p. 481.

Envoys were dispatched to bring back the dowager queen and her son. They headed for Cracow, Poland's royal seat, since Vienna had not even bothered to detain Isabella in Oppeln. The promise of the Silesian principalities had come with such miserly conditions that the queen preferred to seek shelter with her younger brother, Sigismund August, King of Poland.

On June 14, while the Transylvanian lords were enjoying a predictably warm welcome at the Cracow court, Ferdinand I wrote to the sultan announcing that he would give back Transylvania to John Sigismund. As usual, he backed down too late. As early as May, the forces of Buda's pasha, Khadim Ali, had laid siege to {1-632.} Szigetvár. Isabella and John Sigismund set off and made a ceremonial entry in Kolozsvár on October 22. Péter Petrovics and Menyhárt Balassa, assisted by Romanian auxiliary troops, proceeded to occupy one after another of the royal fortresses. Gyulafehérvár and Gyalu were the first to surrender, and Pál Bornemissza, whom Ferdinand had appointed Bishop of Transylvania back in 1551, was put to flight. The Romanians turned homeward, but Déva, Fogaras, Bethlen, Huszt, and the Saxon towns soon followed suit in raising the Szapolyai banner. Significant resistance was largely limited to the region east of the Tisza; Várad's isolated garrison held out until April 1557, while Gyula castle fell only in 1566, and then, to the Ottomans. In Transylvania, István Dobó once again lived up to his reputation as Hungary's most valiant captain with his defence of Szamosújvár, but he too had to acknowledge the futility of resistance and surrender in November 1556. In the northeast, Gömör and Torna counties were taken into the Szapolyai camp by Ferenc Bebek, Abaúj and Zemplén by Gábor Perényi, and Sáros by György Tárczay. Thus the Szapolyais' realm was recreated, and with some hope of being self-sustaining, for internal forces as well as external factors militated in favour of its survival.