Transylvania under King Stephen Báthori

When, in 1571, Stephen Somlyói Báthori occupied the throne left vacant by John Sigismund, he did not content himself with safeguarding his predecessors' political legacy. He also took bold initiatives to hold back the forces intent on destroying Hungary. The new prince's father, also named István, had served as King John's voivode in Transylvania between 1530 and 1534. Thanks to the elder István, the family had emerged from the shadow of the senior, the Ecsedi Báthori branch (from which sprang the Palatine István and the Transylvanian voivode András), which gave its loyalty to the Habsburgs. During his tenure as voivode, the elder István augmented the family fortune, adding the vast estates of Szatmár and Szinyér to their castle at Somlyó (the source of the nobiliary surname). Through marriage, his children acquired part of the property of the Várday and Drágffy families (which died out at mid-century) as well as some fragments of the domains of the Ecsedi Báthori branch. By the mid-1560, they had become the wealthiest family east of the Tisza.

It was the voivode's youngest child, Stephen junior, who would play the greatest role in this turbulent period of Transylvania's history. He was born in 1533, and by the early 1540s he was already serving as a page, first to the Archbishop of Esztergom, Pál Várday, then at the royal court in Vienna. The year {1-647.} 1549 found him in Italy, where he visited Padua, a favourite destination of Hungarian students, and became imbued with humanistic culture. These early experiences may also help to explain why Stephen Báthori would never feel attracted to the Reformation.

The political changes of the mid-1550 drew Stephen back to his homeland. With the return of Isabella, the Báthori estates were once again on Szapolyai territory, and Stephen was chosen to greet the queen on behalf of the feudal estates. In 1559, he received from Isabella his first major assignment, the captaincy of Várad castle, the Partium's governing centre. Báthori also played a significant role in John Sigismund's diplomatic undertakings and battles to take over fortresses. His name is associated with one of the Transylvanians' greatest military successes: in 1564, he led a surprise attack to seize Szatmár and Németi, properties that his family had obtained from King John, only to lose them on the occasion of Menyhárt Balassa's defection in 1561. (On the other hand, in 1562, he lost the battle of Hadad.) In 1565, while on a diplomatic mission for John Sigismund, Báthori was charged — in circumstances that remain unclear — with violating international law, and he languished for two-and-a-half years in Emperor Maximilian's jail in Prague.

Upon his return, Báthori vied with Gáspár Bekes for Maximilian's favour. The latter finally decided to back Bekes, who was largely responsible for the Speyer agreement; yet the chief beneficiary of that treaty turned out to be Báthori.

Stephen Báthori's wealth, popularity, and energy all helped to propel him onto the princely throne. Disagreement within the feudal estates flared up once again during the period of transition, when Bekes renewed his plotting, but the determined Báthori succeeded in drawing the most important figures to his side. In 1573, the conspirator-pretender had to flee the besieged Fogaras like a solitary wolf and headed straight for Prague. At the battle of Kerelőszentpál, in 1575, the tide turned in favour of Báthori when {1-648.} he was joined by Kristóf Hagymássy, formerly one of the executors of John Sigismund's testament (who were known as the 'testament lords'). This victory was not only a decisive moment in Transylvania's history; in enhancing Báthori's fame, it contributed to the decision of Poland's nobility to choose him as their king — in preference to Emperor Maximilian, who was backed by the magnates.

Báthori's accession to the Polish throne had a further, historic consequence: it brought respite in the conflict that had raged for fifty years between the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom, now the Principality of Transylvania, and the Habsburgs.

Stephen Báthori was the most enlightened and far-seeing Hungarian statesman of the later 1500s. In his capacity as a landowning aristocrat in the Partium, he acquired direct experience of the misery and humiliating constraints brought about by Ottoman domination, and he learned the lesson well. In 1567, he remarked to one of Maximilian's confidants that 'the Ottomans will not allow just anyone [to become ruler of Transylvania]; His Majesty will be well-advised to find an influential person who, at the opportune moment, will be able to help reannex Transylvania to Hungary.'[11]11. Endre Veress, Báthory István erdélyi fejedelem és lengyel király le-velezése, I-II (The Correspondence of István Báthori, Prince of Transylvania and Prince of Poland) (Kolozsvár, 1944), letter no. 69.

Báthori was not a man to entertain illusions. He would observe that 'the Turkish emperor's army does not pick strawberries to put them in someone else's basket.' His experience of the latest Turkish campaign (1552–1566) taught him that even if a definitive victory was beyond the reach of the Ottomans, they remained the mightiest protagonist on Hungary's battleground.

To be sure, this was not a novel observation. Prince Stephen adopted the policy of King John I and György Fráter, although he may have applied it more consistently, and to greater effect. The element of continuity was noted not only by Turkish potentates who dealt with Báthori, but also by the prince himself; when he refused to extradite Bálint Balassi, he evoked the example of the two Szapolyai kings.

{1-649.} Two factors had determined the policies of the late John Szapolyai. Officially, he construed Ferdinand I's intervention as a foreign attempt at conquest, but in reality he acted as the lawful, anointed king defending his crown against an armed rival. Later, his opposition was aimed at a neighbour who had been shown to be impotent, who had promised assistance but only managed to infuriate the Ottomans. György Fráter had pursued what he believed to be the logical solution to this quandary, and met a tragic end.

Stephen Báthori was justified in noting that since 1532, every Hungarian attempt to break out of the dilemma had rested on Habsburg support, and had failed. This realization led him, in his capacity as Transylvania's voivode, to adopt the strategy detailed earlier: to ostensibly accommodate the Porte while covertly pursuing other orientations. His reward was the same accusation that had been levelled by uncomprehending observers against György Fráter: 'They depict me, at their convenience, as a German or as an Ottoman.'[12]12. Ibid., no. 157.

The acquisition of the Polish crown endowed Báthori with far more power than that enjoyed by his predecessors. The second half of the 16th century was the Golden Age of Polish feudalism. The ruling strata drew unprecedented wealth from the production and export of grain. Only the inherited weakness of the political system prevented Poland from becoming the leading power in Eastern Europe. Báthori represented the Transylvanian political model, one in which the central authority could transcend feudal interests and govern with greater effectiveness.

The new king might have adopted another country, but he continued to regard himself as Hungarian. His underlings were understandingly offended when on one occasion, in 1577, he let slip a remark that God had created him to serve not the Poles, but the Hungarians. It was a different question whether, and how, he intended to use his new-found power on behalf of his homeland.

Europe was briefly shaken out of its long indifference to the Turkish problem when, on 7 October 1571, Don Juan of Austria {1-650.} won a great naval victory at Lepanto. The success raised new hopes, especially in Italy, which felt directly threatened by the Ottomans. However, within three years, the latter had rebuilt their strength and restored the balance of power in the region. Spain's support grew weaker, and Venice lost her colonies one after the other until, in 1573, she was compelled to make peace with the Sublime Porte. Meanwhile, in France, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew (24 August 1572) set off the wars of religion.

Only the Papal court continued to cling to the idea of victory over the Ottomans. Pope Gregory XIII had backed the Habsburgs over Báthori in the contest for the Polish crown, hoping to strengthen the former against the Ottomans. When the voivode, thanks to Maximilian's procrastination and his own nimbleness, was elected king, the Holy See found itself in a rather awkward spot, though relief soon came in the form of Maximilian's sudden death on 12 October 1576. (King Stephen, for his part, proceeded to introduce the Gregorian calendar in Poland.)

The first regular contact was established in 1577, when Laureo, the papal nuncio, invited Poland to join in the formation of an anti-Ottoman league. Báthori's response was unambiguous: he offered, on behalf of Transylvania, 40,000 soldiers if the league materialized, but made no commitment whatsoever on behalf of Poland. In 1579, the new nuncio, G.A. Caligari, returned to the attack, once again dangling the prospect of a league. The King temporized until the outbreak of the Spanish-Portuguese War compelled the Pope to withdraw his proposal.

In 1581, it was Báthori himself who issued a call for all Christians in eastern Europe to march on the Ottomans, but this was only a straw in the wind, inspired by rumours of Emperor Rudolph's illness. King Stephen broached the subject once again, in August 1582, with the nuncio, Father Bolognetti. This time, circumstances played into his hand, for the Ottomans had renewed their offensive and were threatening Venice's most important {1-651.} island-colony, Crete, and both Philip II and the Pope were thinking about forming a defensive alliance. When Bolognetti reported on the positive answer of the Holy See, Báthori unveiled his precondition: he was prepared to join the league only after the Papal See, Venice, and Spain had come to an agreement.

That, however, was momentarily out of the question, for the 'most Catholic king' and the merchant republic were not prepared to cooperate. The Pope nevertheless persevered with the scheme. In 1584, the King of Poland insisted that Emperor Rudolph should first pledge himself to the cause, then came forward with an entirely new idea: abandoning his demand for the West's direct support, he proposed that the Holy See help him to conquer the Grand Duchy of Moscow. With this in hand, he would rally against the Ottomans all of Eastern Europe, as well as the peoples of the Caucasus. (The plan, which had been maturing in his mind for a year, was communicated on 24 April 1584, in Lublin, to the papal representative, the Jesuit Antonio Possevino.) After almost six months, Rome declined. In the meantime, the death of the Valois Crown Prince prompted the Protestant King of Navarre, the future Henry IV, to lay claim to the throne of France; and Spain was girding to punish England (three years before the defeat of the Invincible Armada). Understandably, the Holy See considered that there was little hope of raising substantial help for the defence of eastern Europe. Báthori was in no mood to give in. He dispatched his nephew, Cardinal András Báthori, to the Holy See, and turned for assistance to Possevino, who in the meantime had fallen from favour. In the summer of 1586, the two negotiators obtained an agreement in principle (as well as a token commitment of 25,000 ducats) from the new Pope, Sixtus V. Shortly after receiving the good news, King Stephen fell ill. His visionary plan unrealized, he died at Grodno on 12 December 1586.

The seriousness of these plans is open to question. For a hundred years, Europe's major powers had talked of anti-Ottoman {1-652.} leagues and great military campaigns, but most of this served only propaganda purposes. An examination of the Polish King's policies towards the Ottomans offers more grounds for scepticism. When he was voivode, his conduct of relations with the Porte was marked by extreme caution, and the same could be observed in Polish-Turkish relations. When Polish Cossacks raided the sultan's domain, the king recalled them and had the more disobedient put to death. And when the Ottomans expelled the Moldavian voivode Ivan Podkova (in 1578) and the Moldavian pretender Jankula Saso (in 1582), the King of Poland had them beheaded.

The Christians' perfunctory planning exercises hardly required such extreme caution. In fact, the motive can be found not on the European level but in Poland itself. For one thing, Báthori owed his election as king partly to the endorsement of the Sublime Porte. Moreover, he — much like other monarchs of that era — was free to pursue his own foreign policy but had to bow to the feudal estates in other matters, such as public finances and declarations of war. Finally, Báthori had pledged to respect a set of conditions, the famous Pacta conventa, drawn up well in advance of the royal election; and one of these was to preserve peace with the Ottomans.

Long experience had taught the Poles not to test their strength against that mighty adversary. In any case, the Baltic region, or Russian and Prussian affairs were of more immediate interest to Poland. Their aversion was so strong that, for years, King Stephen did not dare to raise the question of a Turkish war. The secrecy and procrastination over the Papal proposals of 1577 and 1579 were not due to some personal quirk of the monarch.

Báthori had been accustomed to wholly different conditions in Transylvania, and he once allowed himself to complain about the constraints on his authority; he cited the catastrophe in Hungary as an example of what happens when a country is led by both a council and a senate, particularly when the two quarrel. The solution eluded him. Like Hungary's onetime King Matthias, Báthori {1-653.} enjoyed little popularity in his own time. The enthusiasm over his election soon dissipated, and when he tried to exercise tighter control, the feudal estates turned against him. Jan Zamoyski, whom he drew from the middle nobility to serve, first as his personal secretary, than as his chancellor, came to be almost universally despised. The Zborowski brothers, who had played a leading part in his election, led a revolt against him, and when, in his customary manner, Báthori punished their disloyalty with execution in 1584, there were countrywide protests.

Báthori was ultimately able to still internal dissent, but foreign policy problems left him little breathing space. Having been elected against the Emperor's wishes, his relations with the Habsburgs and the Catholic German princes remained tense for a long time. Danzig (Gdańsk), the prosperous commercial center at the mouth of the Vistula, refused to bow to his rule, and the war to secure the town's submission (1576–77) ended in a rather ambiguous peace settlement. The Protestant German princes who sided with Danzig never became friendly neighbours.

After the Danzig affair came Báthori's biggest test: the Grand Duchy of Moscow, which for some fifty years had been pushing the Polish-Lithuanian border westward. Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) had exploited the chaos following Sigismund Augustus's death to extend his conquests. In three major campaigns, between 1579 and 1581, Báthori managed to inflict heavy defeats on Ivan, but a definitive victory eluded him. Poland's feudal estates won the Pope's forceful endorsement for their demand for peace, and, on 15 January 1582, Báthori was compelled to accept the treaty mediated by the papal nuncio, Possevino. It was after this event that Báthori got the idea of linking the expulsion of the Ottomans with his proposed acquisition of the Russian throne. Initially, the Polish nobility was violently opposed to his war plans, but, by 1586, the mood was changing, particularly among the Lithuanians. Death prevented the king from realizing his plans.

{1-654.} There is no doubt that in his heart of hearts, Stephen Báthori wished to drive the Ottomans out of eastern Europe. However, he was too astute politically to commit his energies to an enterprise that was militarily hazardous and would bring him little advantage in the domestic and foreign policy arenas. He tried to bring about more favourable conditions, then ran out of time.

With regard to Transylvania, Báthori's acquisition of the Polish crown brought significant change only in the nexus with the Habsburgs, who moved beyond simple acknowledgment of the principality's existence. The burden of a conflictful relationship with the Habsburgs followed Báthori from Transylvania to Cracow and Wilno. Both Maximilian and Rudolph made reconciliation conditional on full implementation of the Speyer accord, i.e. on full acknowledgment of their sovereignty over Transylvania. Báthori, on the other hand, wished to retrieve the family property at Szatmár and Németi, which he had lost in 1564–65, and he would not consider making concessions that went beyond his original, secret pledge of allegiance. The Pope, aided by Possevino, attempted to mediate, but in vain. Only in 1585 was some progress made regarding Transylvania, when the Báthori family received Nagybánya as compensation. In 1584, Báthori refused to renew the Polish-Habsburg peace treaty that had been drawn up after Maximilian's death, on the grounds that negotiations over Transylvania were still pending.

The Habsburgs' failure to break his rule in Transylvania and Poland inspired Báthori to speculate about the prospects of the Hungarians: 'If God would have mercy on us and recalled your present emperor and king [i.e. Rudolph], who I believe is ailing, then you could elect your sovereign freely and without any trouble [...] as long as we could obtain from the Turkish Emperor that instead of harassing this wretched remnant of our lands, he offer it his protection'.[13]13. Ibid., no. 538.

Plainly, Báthori regarded himself as a possible successor to Rudolph as the king of Hungary. He would evoke this prospect on {1-655.} several subsequent occasions, during talks with the nuncio Caligari, at a time when the emperor was gravely ill, and also in letters to his Hungarian followers.

This reorientation brought Transylvanian policy back to the objectives pursued by King John I in 1528–32. If Báthori's plan, devised independently of the Habsburgs, to expel the Ottomans is taken seriously, then it went beyond the earlier version; if, on the other hand, he aimed to avoid any provocation of the Porte while challenging the Habsburgs in Hungary, then the plan was more modest than that of King John. In any event, the most significant feature of Báthori's plan was that it envisaged reunifying Hungary under the shadow of the Porte. This strategic conception would have long life, being subsequently adopted by Gábor Bethlen as well as Imre Thököly. Evidently, Stephen Báthori, voivode and king, continued to pursue a policy that encompassed all of Hungary, and not just Transylvania.

The pattern of governance in the principality is consistent with all this. Native Transylvanians were still largely excluded from government. The extinction of the Drágffy and Várday families, the territorial losses resulting from the contest for fortresses, and the reconciliation between the two branches of the Báthori clan left no aristocrats in Transylvania — apart from the princely family. The positive aspect of this situation was that after the initial turbulence, Báthori would not be confronted with powerful rivals. On the other hand, the disappearance of aristocratic magnates left a vacuum in the structure of power, and this had to be filled.

Predictably, it was Báthori's relatives who came to the fore. The office of voivode was assumed by his older brother, Kristóf, then handed down to his son Zsigmond. (Zsigmond would also bear the official title of palatinus Transilvaniae, but this was in fact a Polish honorific, and did not denote 'palatine' [in Hungarian, nádor].) Since Zsigmond was still a minor when he inherited the office of voivode, Stephen Báthori ordered the establishment of a governing council; its members included Zsigmond's uncle, István {1-656.} Bocskai, and two more distant relatives, Dénes Csáky and László Sombori. Concurrently, old Transylvanian families that earlier had been overshadowed by the oligarchy of aristocrats came to play a more prominent role, chief among them the Kendi family (Sándor Kendi soon joined the governing council), as well as the Bánffy and Apafi families.

However, the key functions of government remained in the hands of men of a different ilk, for Transylvania enjoyed little autonomy during Báthori's kingship. Foreign relations were conducted exclusively by King Stephen, from Cracow or Wilno. In home affairs, the voivode Kristóf ruled with some autonomy, but the three-member governing council served merely to implement the directives of a 'Transylvanian chancellery' in Cracow.

That chancellery was headed by Márton Berzeviczy, who came from Upper Hungary, and his deputy, first Farkas Kovacsóczy, then Pál Gyulay. Back in Gyulafehérvár, the post of chancellor was held until 1575 by Ferenc Forgách, a Hungarian aristocrat (and ex-bishop) who came from Habsburg Hungary. Imre Sulyok, a Báthori relative, succeeded him for a short term. When Kristóf Báthori became voivode, the chancellorship was given to Farkas Kovacsóczy, who originated from Slavonia. Thus Transylvania's government was largely in the hands of 'outsiders', men who had no roots in Transylvanian society, and whose authority was derived wholly from their service of the prince. They were united less by their origins than by a certain common culture. Most of the personnel in the chancelleries — including Forgách, Berzeviczy, and Kovacsóczy — had, like Báthori himself, studied at Padua. (So did Báthori's foremost Polish supporter, Jan Zamoyski.) Padua was under the authority of Venice, and that prosperous merchant-republic had long ago learned how to coexist with the Ottomans. At the University of Padua, Báthori's future officials had not only assimilated European culture but also learned the utility of friendly relations with the Ottomans. They were thus prepared to follow the prince's lead with sincere enthusiasm.