Báthory István, who later became the king of Poland, had occupied the Transylvanian throne since 1571. He assumed the title of “Prince” in 1576, having previously held the title of “Voivode.” Lord Bekes Gáspár orchestrated a rebellion against him, intent on seizing the throne for himself.
Bekes was once a member of the inner circle of the late King János Zsigmond, son of King Szapolyai. This led Bekes to believe that his claim to the throne was superior to that of Báthory’s. Bekes started organizing from the Castle of Fogaras, but with the assistance of the Estates, Báthory expelled him from Transylvania.
Lord Bekes fled to Emperor Maximilian, who offered him support. The usurper has also sought supporters at the Sublime Port. While he was not openly supported in the Sultan’s court, he was not rejected either. The court informed him that he would be accepted if he could gain the throne alone.
Bekes secured significant backing from Transylvania. Military leaders from the Kingdom of Hungary and lords joined him. The warrior-poet Bálint Balassi rallied under his flag, as did the Székely free guardsmen of Transylvania. The Székelys, who had seen their revolt quelled by Báthory prior to his ascension, were discontented.
Báthory did not sit idle during this time. He obtained confirmation of his “Voivode” rank from the Sultan and formed an army led by Székely Mózes and the famous frontier warrior Gyulaffy László. In addition, a smaller Ottoman unit joined his army, and the famed “blue drabants” (Hungarian infantrymen and bodyguards of Transylvanian princes) also fought under his banner. The Transylvanian Saxons sent 1,000 cavalrymen, led by Ágoston Helvig, the Consul of Szeben (Sibiu).
There was a military clash prior to the battle between Lord Kornis Gáspár and his men, who were in a rush to join the army of Báthory, and the unit of Balassi Bálint, who scattered them.
Kornis sustained an injury but managed to reach the Voivode. Subsequently, Balassi and his soldiers encountered the soldiers of Hagymássy Kristóf, who captured him and took him to Báthory. Bekes commenced his assault in late June 1575 and arrived in Torda via Dés and Szamosújvár on 28th June.
Voivode Báthory rushed from Gyulafehérvár, which is now known as Alba Iulia and was the old capital of Transylvania, to Torda. He aimed to stop his opponent from joining the Székely troops, who were capable of dispatching up to 20,000 soldiers to war.
Even if the Székelys didn’t join, Bekes’ army was twice the size of Báthory’s. Eventually, only 2,000 Székely cavalrymen joined Bekes, led by Andrási Péter. Báthory had a small Turkish unit, more of a symbolic representation, and his brother Báthory Kristóf’s soldiers, the captain of Várad. The Wallachian Voivode also provided him with 200 cavalrymen.
The fight occurred in Kerelőszentpál (Keresztelőszentpál) village, by the Maros River, on either July 9th or 19th.
Before the battle day, Báthory’s general Székely Mózes took a sword between his teeth and swam across the Maros River at Radnót. He challenged a warrior from Bekes to a duel, killed him, and then killed another one as well. The event frightened many Bekes soldiers, but Mózes was rewarded for his action by Báthory.
The rebels’ soldiers didn’t take action when Báthory’s troops crossed the Maros the next day. This was a serious error as they could have vanquished the Voivode’s lesser army there. After crossing the river, Báthory arranged his troops in battle order. Raffaello Cinna of Florence commanded his cannons. The Bekes army retreated when the Italian cannons started firing. They may have tried to lead Báthory’s army into a trap by tempting them into an unsuitable battlefield. However, Báthory instructed his men to stay together.
As the sun set, the conflict was postponed until the following day.
In the morning, the Bekes army stood on higher ground while Báthory’s soldiers took a lower position on slightly marshy land. Since the enemy had no intention of attacking, Báthory positioned his wagons and heavy cannons and moved forward gradually. He steered his troops to the right, bypassing Bekes’ army.
Due to this, Bekes was forced to abandon the elevated land it held, resulting in the loss of its advantage. Bekes then retreated its army to the heavily fortified Szentpál palace and sought an escape route along the Maros River.
Báthory dispatched Mózes Székely and several cavalry units, in addition to the blue drabants, to pursue them.
At first, the Bekes army stood strong and fought off the attacks from the units of Székely Mózes. Later, Lord Gyulaffy brought in a powerful hussar unit and attacked the middle of the enemy, forcing them to retreat after a fierce battle.
Once Báthory launched an assault, Bekes and the rebellious nobles didn’t resist and fled from the battlefield. Unfortunately, many of them perished in the marsh or were trampled.
The third part of Bekes’ army showed bravery by attacking the Voivode’s army four times, but in the end, they had to flee. Unfortunately, many soldiers fell from the causeway into the Maros River and drowned. Báthory took control of the battlefield and immediately ordered the hanging of five noblemen: Barthokovith János, Zádorlaki György, Barcsai Gáspár, Szakács Miklós, and Darolczi János. The battle ended at 10 a.m., but the pursuit of fleeing soldiers continued throughout the day. The soldiers from Kolozsvár (Cluj, Klausenburg) managed to kill many of the escaping army members.
The Transylvanian Diet met on 8 August and many more people were sentenced to death. Even the old chief magistrate, Wesselényi Miklós, sobbed as he read the sentences of beheadings and confiscation of property. Nine prominent lords were executed on the 8th and 9th of August, while 39 Székely soldiers had their ears and noses severed in the village of Szamosfalva.
The story of the Pókai family emerged. Two brothers, János and Péter, faced the death sentence. However, Báthory spared one of their lives after hearing their mother’s pleas. The Voivode instructed the mother to choose which brother should perish. When the mother couldn’t decide, her relatives proposed that the older brother, János, should be put to death.
As per the Chronicle of Farkas Bethlen, Báthory authorized the burial of the lifeless bodies of Kabos Farkas, Bogáthi Gáspár, Barcsai Miklós, Csanádi János, Ősi Miklós and Csányi Miklós. The carcasses stayed unburied for three days before their interment by the meat market in Kolozsvár city.
Lord Balassi did not pledge loyalty to Voivode Báthory, thus he was not a traitor and avoided harm. Bekes escaped by fleeing to Szatmár Castle first and then to Ungvár Castle. Báthory was already chosen as the King of Poland. Eventually, the Voivode pardoned him and Bekes became Báthory’s faithful commander. The Battle of Kerelőszentpál greatly aided his accession to the royal title. The Voivode was able to consolidate his position in Transylvania and became a celebrated military leader.
Let me make a side-mark here: When he quelled the rebellion of the Cossacks in Moldavia, he executed their leaders by immersing them in boiling oil. Even the Turkish envoy was nauseated while observing the execution. Although it is commonly said that cruelty was a norm in those times and many monarchs and princes committed heinous crimes, to me, it undermines the heroism of such figures.
Source: Szibler Gábor
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