The Székelys' Struggle for Independence and György Székely's Peasant Rising

Although the peasant rising in Northern Transylvania, led by Antal Nagy Budai, came almost a century before the nationwide rising associated with the name of György Székely (otherwise known as Dózsa), this should not be construed to mean that Transylvania was socially more developed. On the contrary, Transylvania failed to keep pace when, in the late Middle Ages, a market economy emerged in other parts of Hungary; there, despite the efforts of landowners, peasants began to produce for the market and secure legal guarantees for this activity through the establishment of market towns. The various forms of free peasantry associated with military service went into a decline: the Jazyges, the Cumanians, and the Saxons in the Szepesség became villeins, or, in the case of their leaders, joined the nobility or the middle class. In Transylvania, development in this direction was inconsistent and {1-516.} piecemeal. The process of urbanization was truly dynamic only in Saxon areas, where it was spurred mainly by trade with the Romanian voivodeships, and only part of this commerce involved locally-produced goods. Among the towns in the noble counties, only Kolozsvár attained the status of royal free borough; the others remained modest, rural market towns (mezőváros), as did the urban centres of the Székely seats. Monocultures adapted to the export trade, such as stock-rearing and viticulture around the market towns of the Great Plain and the Tokaj region, failed to develop around Transylvania's market towns, whose economic function was simply to serve as their district's weekly marketplace.

Only the Saxon peasantry managed to develop fruitful contact with the towns, which took up its surplus produce and manpower, without putting itself in a state of feudal dependence. Kolozsvár did exert a powerful pull on villages and market towns in the Kalotaszeg and Mezőség regions; many villeins migrated to find freedom within its walls. As noted, the result was a progressive Magyarization of Kolozsvár until, in 1458, the relations between the town's Saxons and Hungarians were codified on the model of Buda: each group elected the town magistrate in alternate years. Villagers migrated to the rural market towns as well, but the consequences were more ethnic than economic. Romanians settled to take the place of departing Hungarian villeins, and pastureland was expanded at the expense of ploughland. Due to the slow pace of urbanization in the Transylvanian counties, the villeins felt the impact of a money economy more in the growing demands of their landlords than in the opportunities of an open market. Thus it was economic backwardness that inspired a deepening discontent. Memories of the unsuccessful revolt inhibited open resistance among the villeins, and the centre of social unrest now shifted from the noble counties to the Székelyföld.

The advent of a market economy and the coincident spread of mercenary armies led to a crisis in the traditional world of the Székely free peasantry. The weakness of urbanization prevented the {1-517.} Székelys from becoming, like the Saxons, independent producers for the market, and from thus avoiding feudal dependence. The shift to a state of continuous war, waged by professional soldiers, meant that Székelys could no longer count on military service. The growing inequalities of wealth deprived more and more Székelys of the ability to enjoy their traditional liberties. The Székelys were a prolific people, and, as time went on, common lands were divided into smaller and smaller plots, leaving the majority of the peasantry in possession of an uneconomically tiny piece of land. In any case, the land was not very fertile, and many Székelys could only survive by going to work for wealthier landowners. The Székely élite, with estates in the counties as well as the Székelyföld, would have preferred that their labourers in the latter become as dependent as those in the former, i.e., to make the contractual links compulsory rather than voluntary, and to bring the Székely peasants under the landlord's legal and economic authority. By the mid-1400s, such infringements on liberty were giving rise to violent attacks on the landlords. Since Székelys who became dependent villeins were no longer eligible for military service, the Crown took steps in the interest of national defence. When he was serving as Hungary's governor and as Transylvania's voivode, János Hunyadi twice intervened on behalf of oppressed commoners, first in 1446, when he was Regent of Hungary, and again in 1453, as Transylvania's voivode. Matthias Hunyadi followed suit, and it was at his request that, in 1466, the voivode (who since 1461 also held the post of Székely count) convened Transylvanian nobles and Székely elders to help codify the Székelys' traditional freedoms. The resultant decrees made clear that Székely commoners could enter service only of their own free will, and not under compulsion from the nobles. At the same time, the Székely commoners reached for influence in administrative and judicial affairs by adopting the rule that two-thirds of the associate judges in seat courts be chosen from among them.

{1-518.} However, this confirmation of the Székelys' freedoms did nothing to provide poorer commoners with the resources necessary for military service. By now, many of them could not afford to serve even in the light cavalry. In 1437, the king issued new regulations that had the effect of formalizing the stratification of Székely society. Székelys who could furnish at least three mounted retainers or mercenaries constituted the leading class (primores), and those who personally served in the cavalry became the lófő class (primipili), while the majority of commoners (pixidarii) could serve in the infantry without losing their personal freedom.

That last clause was clearly a concession on the part of the king, for a poorly-equipped peasant-infantryman was of limited value in battle. Still, such soldiers could be of some use against the Ottomans, who often threw into battle vast numbers of inferior troops. Moreover, King Matthias deliberately favoured the lower strata of freemen (including not only the Székelys but also the lesser nobility and the urban citizenry) in the hope that they would serve as a counterweight to the dangerously great power of the aristocracy. These measures saved many Székelys from feudal dependency, but those who could not afford to serve even as foot soldiers were now formally relegated to a state of servitude. With the elevation of some commoners to the rank of lófő, public officials and associate judges came to be selected exclusively from the two upper strata, while the rest were effectively excluded from public life.

Intent on consolidating the power of the monarchy, Matthias was determined to exact services even from those poor Székelys who no longer performed military duties. István Báthori, who became voivode in 1479 (and thus also held the office of Székely count, the two posts having been linked in 1461) decreed that these Székelys were obligated to participate in public works, beginning with the raising of a royal fortress at Udvarhely. Seeing a threat to both their autonomy and their supply of manpower, the primores {1-519.} sought legal redress in 1492 from Wladislas II. They reminded the king of their sacrifices in defence of Hungary: 'Our bones are piled high, and streams run red with our blood in Moldavia, Wallachia, Serbia, Turkey, Croatia and Bulgaria'.[23]23. Székely oklevéltár, ed. by K. Szabó, L. Szádeczky, and S. Barabás (Kolozsvár, 1872-Budapest, 1934), Vol. I, p. 273. The success of their quest owed more to the presence at court of Báthori's influential rivals, who soon engineered the recall of the heavy-handed voivode.

The Székely crisis deepened when primores and lófős began to harass the soldier-freemen. This turn was caused indirectly by development in the rest of Hungary proper, where the feudal system had evolved quite differently from that in Transylvania. Some years before the union of that province's three 'nations', Hungary's lesser nobility had fought for, and won representation in the diet, thereby coming to form a second feudal estate alongside the upper nobility; at the same time, they sought to reduce the role of the third feudal estate, the royal free boroughs. In Transylvania, on the other hand, both high and low nobles remained within one 'nation', leaving the Székely soldier-freemen to play the role of the lesser nobility. King Matthias had tried to free Hungary's lesser nobles from the oppressive power of the aristocracy, and to give them a measure of autonomy in the administrative institutions of the counties. However, after the death of this distinguished monarch, the aristocracy regained its dominant role. Some aristocrats tried to exploit the discontent of the lesser nobility for partisan purposes. The immensely wealthy Szapolyai family was particularly skilled in pursuing this tactic and securing the lesser nobles' backing without offering much in return. As diets followed each other in quick succession during the early 1500s, the lesser nobles, who would appear at the sessions fully armed, and in large numbers, obtained the right to a voice in national politics.

This movement had repercussions in Transylvania, for it encouraged the restless Székely soldier-freemen to confront the nobility. Forgoing royal assent, and they convened national assemblies — at which the royal court was not represented — in 1505 at {1-520.} Udvarhely, and the following year at Agyagfalva. There was as much sabre-rattling and clamour at these meetings as at the concurrent Hungarian diets in Rákos. Radical resolutions were passed condemning nobles and reaffirming the principle of equality for all Székelys, or, rather, for all Székely soldier-freemen. Never had the Székelys displayed such a strong sense of identity. The tradition — widely-acknowledged and traceable back to the thirteenth century — that the Székelys originated from Huns who, after the break-up of Attila's empire, withdrew to Transylvania, acquired new political importance. The belief that they descended from the legendary Huns filled ordinary Székelys with pride and the conviction that they, more than any other group, embodied the 'Scythian' (Szittya) military virtues of the Hunnish-Hungarian kindred peoples; they further believed that this distinction justified their traditional privileges. At the time, Hungary's nobility had also become enamoured of its 'Scythian ancestors'. The national chronicle was constantly rewritten, and one version, which in 1488 was the first work to be printed in Hungary, reached a wide readership with its assertion that the Hungarians and Huns were one people. The romantic evocation of the Huns — one of the most characteristic aspects of the Hungarian nobility's cultural outlook in the late Middle Ages — focused interest on the Székelys, whose 'Scythian' precedence was readily acknowledged.

The Székelys' self-esteem was fed by their sense of injustice as well as by the diets that were convened to deal with the issue. The situation was already explosive when in 1506, a son was born to the king, and the latter decreed that the Székelys should pay the ox-tax that was traditional on such occasions. The Székely military class considered itself part of the nobility and therefore felt that the tax was unfair, for Hungary's nobles had been long exempt from taxation. Moreover, the ox-tax was a heavy burden for ordinary Székelys, whose material circumstances were steadily deteriorating. Thus wounded pride combined with economic distress to drive {1-521.} the Székelys to revolt. Delegated to restore order, the captain of Fogaras, Pál Tomori, was defeated in the first clash and, wounded, fled back to his castle. (Twenty years later, the same Tomori, then Archbishop of Kalocsa, would lead the Hungarian army into defeat at the hands of the Ottomans near Mohács.) Additional royal troops had to be dispatched before the Székelys' rebellion was quelled. Saxons from Szeben had participated in the repression, and, in reprisal, the Székelys launched an attack on them the following year. On that occasion, the Székelys were led by a man from Makfalva, György Dózsa, who by some accounts bore the name György Székely when he served earlier in a frontier post, and who earned lasting fame as the leader of Hungary's great peasant rebellion in 1514.

The Székelys' desperate attempts to preserve their liberties were doomed. In 1510, the king bowed to public pressure and appointed John Szapolyai as voivode of Transylvania. Szapolyai was the nobility's preferred candidate for the throne and the most determined opponent of the royal court's pro-Habsburg faction. On the national scene, this powerful aristocrat presented himself as the spokesman of the lesser nobility, but in Transylvania he followed the example of his predecessors and acted like a despot. The Székelys soon discovered that political reality fell far short of the slogans. In 1519, after the Székelys had been driven to revolt by the arbitrary actions of their deputy count, Szapolyai personally led the reprisals. To teach them a lesson, he seized the rebels' property and transferred it to the king's domain, thus ignoring the law, which provided that even in the event of treason, Székely lands could be transferred only to other family members, and not to the king. Szapolyai's actions mark a turning point for the Székelys: the Court henceforth would deliberately aim to restrict their rights, a policy that was destined to keep the military-minded Székely commoners in ferment for centuries.

{1-522.} The common Székelys fought for their rights as nobles, and not against oppression by the nobility, which was the issue that drove the peasantry to revolt. Thus György Székely (Dózsa) — who came from the frontier zone on the Lower Danube to lead a movement that began as a crusade and ended up, in 1514, as a revolt against feudalism — is an exception; as far as is known, he and his younger brother were the only Székely soldiers to espouse the peasant's cause. The peasant rising, which originated in the Great Plain, did not touch the Székelyföld, but it did involve villeins in the Transylvanian counties. The Beszterce district, the scene of similar unrest seventy-five years earlier, once again erupted. Manor houses were put to the torch, and then two salt-mining towns, Dés and Torda, joined the uprising. The arrival of troops from the Great Plain only served to fuel the flames of rebellion in the mining district, in Abrudbánya, Zalatna, and Torockó. In the event, Szapolyai proved to be an effective defender of the feudal order, for his men succeeded in crushing all the nests of rebellion. Apprised of Dózsa's plan to thrust into Transylvania with the main peasant army, the voivode led his troops southward. On the way, on 18 June, he convened an assembly of the three 'nations' at Déva, and when he learned that Dózsa had changed course towards Temesvár, he hastened in the same direction.

One of Dózsa's lieutenants, the priest Lőrinc, had occupied Nagyvárad, and launched a diversionary attack on Kolozsvár in order to draw away the army of Transylvania's nobles. The municipal councillors did not want to repeat their earlier mistake, when on the advice of János, son of Jakab, they had sided with insurgents, but they were equally reluctant to put up any resistance. The chief judge, János Kalmár, devised a compromise, in terms of which only the peasant army's officers were allowed into the town. The peasant forces set up camp in the fields nearby, where they repelled an attack led by the deputy voivode, Lénárt Barlabássy. In the meantime, municipal guards, acting on the orders of the chief judge, slew {1-523.} the peasant captains. Father Lőrinc, who had stayed out of town, found himself between two hostile forces and decided to withdraw from Transylvania. But the peasant uprising in other parts of Hungary was nearing its tragic end. The revolt, like the disastrous defeat in 1526 at Mohács, influenced only indirectly the course of Transylvania's history.