Society and Political Power

Prior to 1526, Transylvania was governed by feudal estates in a system marked by legal and operational complexity. Three groups, the nobility, the Saxons, and the Székelys, had a roughly equal share of political power, which they exercised in greater or lesser harmony with the voivode, the representative of central authority.

In the decades of Transylvania's transition to independence, there occurred significant changes in the balance of political power. Due to its internal decomposition and fruitless rebellions, Székely society found itself gradually excluded from the political process, and its leaders became assimilated to the nobility. The more or less overt, pro-Habsburg bias of Saxon towns induced a degree of political passivity. The office of voivode was abolished.

No new social forces appeared to fill the gap left by these changes. The development of market towns that had been attached to Transylvania soon ground to a halt, and in the one exception, Debrecen, the peasant-citizens were largely excluded from political participation. The nobility, having stabilized its economic position, was left without political rivals. Thus when Transylvania became independent, it retained an archaic feudal system. The new state was founded on the somewhat deceptive notion of a feudal order of 'three nations'; in practice, political power lay in the hands of the nobility and their counterparts from the Partium.

{1-723.} As noted, the estates that generated the greatest economic and social power were located in the Partium, and thus the members of the ruling class who lived in the region east of the Tisza and the Szamos valley came to play a leading role in the construction of the new state. György Fráter's power was underpinned by the estates of the Várad bishopric. Towards the end of the 16th century, the Somlyó branch of the Báthori family became master of much of the Partium, and it contributed most of the leading statesmen of the era, including the ruling prince.

At its inception, the new state of Transylvania showed a number of typically medieval features. Its constituent elements, political, social, and feudal, enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. Thus in the protracted contest for power between György Fráter and Queen Isabella, several of these elements played an active role: the aristocracy, the pro-Habsburg Saxon Universitas, and the Székelys, the latter being potential supporters of the recurring challenges to John Sigismund.

The proliferation of Protestant sects reflected the multipolar character of Transylvanian society. The common pattern in other European countries was that either the Roman Catholic or one of the Protestant churches would eventually prevail to become the state-sanctioned religion, excluding all others. By contrast, in Transylvania, legislation enacted from the mid-1540s onwards tended to grant equal rights to the rival churches and sects. As late as 1545, the diet passed bills in defence of priests and monks and against religious reform, but only in the most general terms. By 1548, the Torda diet contented itself with prohibiting further active efforts at conversion by Catholics and Lutherans alike. This law was subsequently reaffirmed on more than one occasion, guaranteeing that Catholics and Lutherans, later joined by Calvinists and Unitarians, could coexist in comparative peace and equality, free from any threat of official reprisals.

{1-724.} Each denomination was backed by some important social element. Although the Roman Catholic Church lost its state subsidy (and with it, its old organizational structure) in 1556, the most powerful landowners in the region east of the Tisza, the Báthori family from Somlyó, remained in the fold, as did many of the Székelys in Transylvania proper. The Saxon 'nation' rallied to Lutheranism, and so did, for a time, much of the Hungarian nobility, including such leading figures as Orbán Batthyány and members of the Kendi, Perényi, Csáky, Drágffy, and Barcsai families. The Calvinist Church also got its initial backing from a powerful aristocrat, Péter Petrovics; over time, many peasant-citizens of the market towns of the region east of the Tisza converted to Calvinism, as did an even larger proportion of the Hungarian nobility. A later arrival, Unitarianism, drew its most stalwart adherents from the Hungarian urban middle classes in Transylvania.

The circumstances that led burghers and peasant-citizens to rally to Protestantism have already been noted. It is less obvious why the feudal ruling class, so comfortable with the established Church, should have felt drawn to a new faith that had close links to urban culture. At least in Transylvania, the motive was not likely to have been any expectation of material gain arising from the expropriation of Church property, for most of that — including Kolozsmonostor and the episcopal domains of Gyulafehérvár and Várad — reverted to the crown. Only in the Upper Tisza region did some landowners, such as the Perényi family, profit from the expropriation.

It is more likely that most of the nobility was driven by spiritual motives, by a certain crisis of conscience. (After all, even among high-ranking Catholic clergymen there were many who converted to Protestantism, including Mihály Csáky, vicar of the Transylvanian diocese until 1545, as well as three canons who became noted religious reformers, Kálmáncsehi, Sebestyén Károlyi Boldi, and Péter Kolozsvári.) The tragic collapse of the Hungarian {1-725.} feudal state induced doubts about traditional values. By focusing on the sins and errors of the past, the Reformation offered an explanation of that collapse, helping the new generation to distance itself from the values of its predecessors.

This not wholly predictable shift in attitudes was facilitated by the Renaissance, for, by the turn of the 16th century, humanistic ideology had already shaken some of the Hungarian nobility out of their traditional way of thinking. This cultural renewal, with its philological thrust and its cult of Antiquity, nourished a spirit of individualism. It first struck root among lawyers and jurists, people who had an essential function in the world of the nobility. Werbőczy, the author of the Tripartitum, was influenced by these ideas, and he had a great impact on the following generation. His intellectual approach was systematic, and he readily resorted to the imagery of antique mythology. Although this venerable legal scholar never abandoned Catholicism, his successors felt less bound by the old faith.

As time went on, power shifts in Transylvanian society progressively curtailed the influence of the feudal estates. Although, as noted, the process led to a reinvigoration of the old ruling class, the real winner was the central government. Considering the difficult beginnings, King John's modest means, and György Fráter's protracted struggles, this outcome begs explanation. Hungary, mortally wounded at Mohács, bequeathed a hard fate to the new state of Transylvania. Caught between two great powers, the country disposed of fewer resources than onetime Hungary, and it could survive only by making sacrifices and pursuing astute diplomacy.

On the eve of Mohács, the Hungarian Kingdom encompassed close to four million people. At the end of the 16th century, the Principality of Transylvania (including the Partium) counted slightly over one million inhabitants.


Table I
Transylvania's population in 1600

7 counties
Totals (approx)

Furthermore, Transylvania's princes drew less revenue from mining than Hungary's kings had earlier. Their only significant sources were the gold mines of the Erzgebirge (Érchegység) and the salt mines in the Máramaros, at Dés, Torda, Vizakna, and in the Székelyföld. Long-distance trade declined, not least because the main customs posts were now located near Pozsony, and thus Transylvania was deprived of its profitable market in the west.

If, in these circumstances, the central government nevertheless managed to consolidate its power, it was largely thanks to the crown properties assembled by György Fráter and preserved, indeed, expanded by his successors. The domains of Gyulafehérvár, Déva, Várad, Gyalu, Fogaras, Kővár, Görgény, Kolozsmonostor, Szamosújvár, Jenő, Lugos, and Karánsebes always belonged to the exchequer, and so did, in various periods, many others, notably those of Székelytámad, Székelybánja, Zalatna, Huszt, and Törcsvár.

Although these vast domains and the other, smaller ones did not bring great revenues to the state, they nevertheless outweighed those of any potential rival for power. They encompassed some seven hundred villages, which meant that 15–20 percent of the country was directly under the administration of the princely government. This proportion only increased when the greatest aristocratic family, that of Stephen Báthori, acceded to power. The crown properties went a long way to help Transylvania's rulers stabilize {1-727.} state finances. By rough estimation, the royal treasurer could count on the following revenues in the third quarter of the 16th century:

24,000 households in the Transylvanian counties
The Saxons' St. Martin's day tax
The Saxons' special taxes
Town taxes
The Székelys' dica
17,000 households in the Partium
Salt mines (Máramaros and Transylvania)
Customs duties
Gold exchange
Tithe rents

To these must be added an uncertain amount of cash profits generated by the crown estates as well as sundry administrative fees, notably for transfers of property.

By a very rough estimate, then, state revenues stood at an annual 300,000 forints — a considerable sum, even taking inflation into account. From the reign of Queen Isabella onwards, Transylvania's monarchs exercised discretionary authority to fill all official posts. The queen had reconstituted the royal chancellery, with Mihály Csáky at its head. The rulers appointed the judges on the royal court of appeal, or supreme court; the chancellor, two prothonotaries, a crown attorney known as the director causarum, and 8–10 jurymen. Other royal appointees included the commanders of the armed forces, the lord lieutenants of counties, Székely magistrates, and members of the privy council.

The monarch had unlimited authority to make foreign policy, thus to forge alliances, declare war, and negotiate peace treaties. The allocation of public expenditures was also his exclusive resort, and the treasurer was answerable only to him. (The largest budget {1-728.} items were defence, the salary of top government officials, and annual tribute to the Ottomans, which in 1575 was raised from 10,000 to 15,000 forints; the expenses of the royal court remained modest until Zsigmond Báthori became prince.) The monarch alone could grant land and titles of nobility.

As time went by, the feudal estates' supervisory and controlling function became more and more nominal. Diets were convened at least twice, and sometimes four or five times a year, but their composition underwent major changes. The practice of inviting the participation of each and every noble from the three 'nations' and the Partium lapsed after 1545. The seats, counties, and towns came to be represented by a constantly varying number of deputies. Far greater influence was wielded by a numerically smaller group consisting of leading government figures (councillors, high court judges, and other high-ranking officials) and of the 'regalists', nobles who were personally selected by the monarch. Since Transylvania had nothing comparable to Hungary's old aristocracy, there were few constraints on the ruler's choice. To be sure, the biggest landowners could not be excluded, but most of the regalists were picked for their loyalty to the sovereign.

The customary right of the feudal estates to convene diets also lapsed after 1556. The monarch alone could call the diet into session, and the agenda was dominated by his motions (propositió). The feudal estates generally limited themselves to petitions (postulatum) concerning matters of secondary importance, such as local and judicial problems. The record shows that, in contrast to the petitions, the ruler's motions were generally approved.

Only rarely was the diet strong and confident enough to defy the monarch's will; most cases date from the period of confrontation between Isabella and György Fráter. Only in 1571–72, at the beginning of the reign of Stephen Báthori, did the gentlemen of the diet dare to request from their chosen ruler that his treasurer give an accounting of state finances. More typical was their reaction to the {1-729.} murder in 1558 of Ferenc Bebek and the Kendi brothers. At first, the feudal estates indignantly denounced the act, but when Isabella resorted to the threat of force in the person of Menyhárt Balassa and his soldiers, the diet hastened to give its ex post facto approval to the 'traitors's execution'.

Needless to say that Stephen Báthori had neither the time nor the energy to make all decisions himself. Much of the work devolved upon the chancellors. The councillors also came to play a more important role. The powers of these appointed officials — notably Ferenc Forgách, Márton Berzeviczy, Imre Sulyok, Farkas Kovacsóczy, and, during Zsigmond Báthori's reign, István Jósika — were not defined in law; in practice, this absence of constraint only enhanced the power of their master.

The power structure did not change when Stephen Báthori was elected King of Poland. As noted, the Transylvanian chancellery in Cracow, headed by Márton Berzeviczy, exercised greater authority than the one in the principality under Farkas Kovacsóczy; it has also been noted how after the death of Kristóf Báthori, the Cracow chancellery became the sole locus of decision-making.

The creation of the new state came about under external pressure, but it owed to the ruling class's instinct for self-preservation. This ruling class was essentially Hungarian, and it preserved a consciousness of its national identity all through the stormy period of the country's disintegration. This feature was reinforced both by the assimilation of the Székely elite into the feudal social order, and by the decision of the Saxon patricians to keep their distance.

That Hungarians played the leading role was generally acknowledged in Transylvanian society, and this fact had to be accommodated by all those who aspired to social advancement. In the case of the Romanians, Transylvania's second largest ethnic group, their more ambitious leaders, as noted, could become full-fledged nobles only if they broke away from their community. A typical example is that of Miklós Oláh, the most famous Romanian {1-730.} in 16th-century Transylvania. Born in Nagyszeben of Wallachian boyar parents, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, and at the end of his life he was serving as Archbishop of Esztergom, Prince Primate of Hungary; for a time, he also acted as Governor of Habsburg Hungary. Oláh counted among the leading humanists of his times. He considered himself to be a Hungarus, a member of the Hungarian ruling class; his writings, which bear no trace of the author's Romanian origins, dealt with Hungary and with the glorious reigns of the Hun ruler Attila and of King Matthias Hunyadi. István Maylád, who was the first, in 1539–40, to attempt to sever Transylvania from the Hungarian crown, came from an ennobled family of boyars in Fogaras.

There are other noteworthy examples of people from a non-Hungarian ethnic background who rose to greatness. György Fráter, who pursued a quintessentially Hungarian policy as leader of Transylvania, was of Croat-Dalmatian origin. The leader of nobles in the region east of the Tisza and the Temesköz, Péter Petrovics, came from Slavonia.

With its strong central government, and attached to its Hungarian identity, the Principality of Transylvania gradually became the focal point of Hungarian politics. Hungary proper, consisting of the Habsburg counties, was dominated by disputes between the sovereign and the feudal estates and became ever more closely tied to the other parts of the Habsburgs' realm. At the same time, Transylvania, although nominally dependent on the Ottomans, retained a great deal of autonomy in dealing with important issues. An awareness of this situation's advantages led Stephen Báthori to seek a solution of the Hungarian problem from the starting point of Transylvania. His conception would serve as one of the pillars of Hungarian politics over the ensuing hundred years.