Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

1657: the unlucky Polish war of Prince Rákóczi György II

The beginning

Many people think today that the unfortunate military action of the prince was only the result of his selfish conquering politics which lacked all kinds of responsibility and led to the fall of Transylvania. Yet, there were very few who would have dissuaded the prince when the war was declared.  Lórántffy Zsuzsanna, the mother of the prince was one of these few people. Many others welcomed the campaign and the avenging Ottoman campaign was not obvious. It was because the power of the Sultan had been weakening for decades and the Sublime Porte only had warned his vassals on such occasions like this but never sent an army to take revenge for the disobedience. (Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first.)

Lórántffy Zsuzsanna (cc1600-1660)

Neither Prince Rákóczi nor any of his contemporary politicians could notice the serious reforms that had been launched by Pasha Köprülü Mehmed and they failed to realize that the Sublime Porte has been revitalized and it is not the dying empire how it had looked like. Besides, everybody remembered clearly Báthory István (Stephan) who had risen to become a Polish king and the union of the two countries would have offered a serious opportunity to liberate the entire Kingdom of Hungary from the Turks. Let us not forget, he was a Roman Catholic, though. Yet, I have a question: how could the Protestant Rákóczi György II ever visualize himself as king of the Catholic Polish people? But surely he would not have guessed that the Polish noblemen would get allied with the Muslim Crimean Tatars against him…

Poland and Hungary, 1552

Prince Rákóczi György II inherited the interest in the Polish throne from his father, Prince Rákóczi György I who was also a Protestant. At this time, Poland seemed to have been weakened because it was threatened not only by the Turks but also by the Russians and the Swedes, along with Brandenburg-Prussia. Also, the free Cossacks of Hetman Bogdan Hmelnickij were rioting on its borderland, they revolted against the Polish king in 1648. The Crimean Tatars got allied with their eternal enemies, the Cossacks, and together they were defeating the Polish armies one by one. King Vladislav IV died in 1648 and it was his younger brother, King János Kázmér (Casimir) who succeeded him. King Kázmér had to make a truce with Hetman Hmelnickij (Bohdan Mychajlowytsch Chmelnyzky).

Hetman Bohdan Mychajlowytsch Chmelnyzky

The Hetman was looking for allies so he signed a treaty with Prince Rákóczi György II in 1651. The prince was intending to turn Transylvania into a regional power in the area of the Black Sea. The Cossacks were supported by the Russian Czar Alekszej who wanted to get new lands along the Dnieper and the Volga rivers. Ukraine joined Russia in 1654 but Poland had to prevent this so war has broken out between the two countries. Hmelnickij went on with his political plottings and made an alliance with the Voivode of Moldavia, Gheorghe Stefan, and with the Voivode of Wallachia, Constantin I Serban. Both of them were nominally the vassals of Rákóczi and the Turks. It had been Prince Rákóczi who had helped Stefan to seize his throne. All in all, there was a Cossack-Russian coalition and a Transylvanian-Moldovan-Wallachian-Cossack coalition which were both against Poland.

It was not lucky for the Polish, either, that the northern Swedish Kingdom was extending its power and the young and energetic King Gustav X Charles became their king who wanted to take lands from Poland. He launched his armies in June 1655. The northern war has broken out which is called the „Deluge” by the Polish because the armies of many nations have flooded their country. We can read this great story in the world-famous novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz. (My remark: I grew up reading them several times 🙂 Also, do not miss the films made about it.)

The Russians seized Ukraine and Lithuania, the Swedes occupied Prussia, and a considerable part of Poland and Warsaw have fallen as well. The rest of Poland seemed to be unable to stop the flood in 1657. King János Kázmér asked the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III for help in vain, the Emperor remained idle. The Swedes were stopped by the Polish, though by hard fights, in 1656, and it was why King Gustav Charles turned to Prince Rákóczi for help. Rákóczi asked for the permit of the Sublime Porte but he didn`t receive it; yet, his campaign was not banned, either.

Prince Rákóczi György II

Rákóczi’s campaign

It was on 18 January 1657 that Prince Rákóczi György II launched his campaign to Poland. More exactly, he launched his armies from Visk in the first part of 1657 towards the Polish border. Due to the hard winter, it was very difficult to get through the Carpathian Mountains via the Pass of Verecke. It was the middle of February when he joined the army of the Cossacks next to Przemysl. They numbered 50,000 men altogether. Yet, the outcome of the campaign was foreshadowed by the attitude of the bigger cities like Lviv, Szambor, and Przemysl that were not willing to open their gates before Rákóczi.

Rákóczi’s moves in Poland

Crown-Hetman Lubomirski quit his military actions when got heard of the approach of Rákóczi (he was besieging Krakow which the Swedish General Würtz defended). Although Lubomirski had promised Rákóczi before that he would make him elected king of Poland provided he came with his army into the country, now he denied this statement. In answer to this, Rákóczi had the property of Lubomirski looted in łańcú by the troops led by Kemény János. The Hungarian army gained a very negative reputation because of the looting of churches and monasteries and because of torturing priests and monks, digging up even the tombs in search of gold. Further raids, looting, and destruction commenced. The Polish troops did not give a battle but they were from time to time ambushing the Hungarian-Cossack-Moldavian army.

Jerzy Sebastian Lubomirski

Rákóczi was marching towards Krakow, the coronation town, with great determination. He entered the city at the end of March but he stayed only for two days because his priority became to meet the army of the Swedish king. He left behind some 2,000 Transylvanian troops to support Würtz and marched out from the city on 31 March.

The meeting of Prince Rákóczi and the Swedish king (by Dahlberg)

Then, he met King Gustav Charles on 12 April at Sandomierz but both of them felt a huge disappointment. The Swedish ruler criticized the quality of the Hungarian-Wallachian-Cossack army and Rákóczi was embittered by the small size of the Swedish army which numbered 10-12,000 men.

Charles X Gustav of Sweden

In the meantime, the national feeling rose in Poland. Slowly, the Polish King and Lubomirski, Potocki, and the Lithuanians began to join forces in the Sandomierz-Lublin area. Gustav Charles tried to get around the Polish-Lithuanian army from all sides but they slipped away from the trap. On the other side, the military moves provoked fights between the Cossacks and the Transylvanians due to quarrels over the booty.  Rákóczi could do very little against the worsening discipline. The problem became the biggest at the taking of Breszt when the Cossacks claimed the city as theirs. It was the point when King Gustav Charles left Rákóczi behind because Denmark declared war on his back and his power in Prussia had been also weakened.

The Transylvanian army in Poland at Warsaw, crossing the Vistula river

Rákóczi decided to follow the Swedes but at this point, the Cossacks denied his order and revolted. The army of the Prince, shrunk in size and morale, moved to Warsaw which opened its doors only after a few days-long resistance. The coalition army entered the city on 22 June and they plundered the town, rivaling who can loot more. By this time, the coalition against the Swedish-Cossack-Transylvanian alliance has been taking shape already and the Polish were able to get allied with the Crimean Caganate.


Besides, the Polish could achieve at the Sublime Porte that Prince Rákóczi was ordered to return to Transylvania. (Rákóczi did not obey.) On top of this, the new German-Roman Emperor, Leopold I sent an army to the aid of King János Kázmér (John II Casimir). In addition to this, Denmark was instigated to attack Sweden. By now, Hmelnickij had broken up his alliance with Russia which made peace with the Polish in the meantime, in exchange for getting hold of Lithuania and Ukraine. General Lubomirski broke into North-Eastern Hungary with a smaller unit and devastated the area around Munkács, similar to what the Hungarians had done with his domains. They burned 300 settlements and killed women and children in Beregszász who were coming home from Holy Mass. They are resting in peace in front of the church of Beregszász, in unmarked graves. The Catholic church of Beregszész was also destroyed, and many castles and churches perished, like Borsova castle and the church of Kismuzsaly. 

King John II Casimir (Kázmér) of Poland

The Sublime Porte has sent a stricter order to Rákóczi, demanding his return, threatening him with a Turkish-Tatar punishing campaign provided he would disobey. Rákóczi tried to bribe the Turkish leaders but it was in vain because Pasha Köprülü was an incorruptible man. Rákóczi was getting into a more and more desperate situation. He offered peace to King János Kázmér but he was not willing to negotiate with him. Then, he turned to Hmelnickij, asking him for help. Rákóczi marched out of Warsaw in June and went to Sandomierze. In the meantime, the Hungarian garrison of Krakow was slain by the Imperial troops. It was the point when the last Polish allies of Rákóczi left him alone so he had to drag his army through the River Vistula, supported only by his Cossack allies. When he crossed the river on 3 July, he had his baggage set on fire, and his cannons sunk into the water to reach Transylvania faster.

Köprülü Mehmed Paşa

The Polish army was harassing his marching troops with constant attacks. Czarniecki slaughtered 3,000 men of the Transylvanians at Magierów and Kulików. When they decided to rescue the army to the lands of the Cossacks, some 3-4,000 Transylvanians revolted and left the army. Finally, Rákóczy made a humiliating truce with the Polish on 22 July in which he promised to leave the country. In return, he resigned from his claim to the Polish throne and agreed to pay a huge ransom, and offered his military help to Poland. Hearing of this, the Cossacks left his army.

The gold Forint of Rákóczi from 1651

Yet, this truce has not stopped the Crimean Khan who had sworn that he would punish Rákóczi. When the Hungarians were moving from Mendzsibozs towards Transylvania, their army was surrounded by the enemy at the settlement of Terebovlja. Rákóczi was rescued in time, though, he was carried back home by his men. He left behind his General, Kemény János who had to surrender after three days of a hard fight (31 July). Going back on their words, the Crimean Tatars dragged the captives to the Crimean Peninsula and many soldiers could return only several years after, for immense ransom. Lots of them never made it home. Read more about the battles of Prince Rákóczi in 1658 here:

Transylvania was defenselessly targeted by the punishing campaign of several Turkish and Tatar armies for a prolonged time and soon, Prince Rákóczi was also slain: but it is another story. Let us go into the details of some of the events we have just outlined. 

The siege of the Transylvanians’ camp 

We know that the Transylvanian army was captured but we did not tell how it happened. In fact, they didn’t give their freedom away so easily, according to the chronicler Evliya Celebi`s work. These parts of his work have never been translated into the Hungarian language. So now, we will rely on the story of a Turk eye-witness and chronicler Evliya Celebi (1611-1684/87) with the help of  Ivanics Mária’s interpretation. We can read how Celebi saw the disaster of the Transylvanian army, abandoned by their prince, surrounded by Tatars on the Ukrainian field near Terebovlja.
Statue of Evliya Celebi close to the Castle of Eger, Hungary
Celebi wrote (with the usual Eastern exaggeration):
„This chapter tells you about the siege of King Rákóczi`s camp. On the 15th day of Zilhicce month in the year 1067 (on 28 July 1657), when the sun rose, the Nureddin Sultan, along with the Tatars of Yal, the Polish auxiliary troops, and the Cossacks of Kardas, cried a sky-beating „Allah, Allah” broke out from the plain`s forest (…) the Ghazies released their horses at them like a lightning and surrounded with all these soldiers the camp of King Rákóczi. Then, having settled down a bit farther from there, we planted sentries everywhere and went to sleep in the evening. There were no attacks from the Ghiaours and we haven`t attacked them, either so we all had a peaceful rest.”
“The description of the cursed Hungarian Ghiaour’s, Rákóczi`s camp:
The infidels in the camp had such a busy persistent cunningness and evil action that they had not slept until morning. When the sun rose, we looked at the camp from a higher place. The infidels had dug two more ditches in addition to the trench of their camp and they led the local river in it. They had dug some hundred-thousand small holes and placed fire wheels among them (çarh-i felekler) and barriers (şaranpav), built fences, and took there some hundred-thousand wagons, laying their wheels on the ground. They planted bushes and some hundred thousand sharpened stakes into the ground, they built five hanging bridges and they piled up high earth trenches at eleven places. They placed 40-50 big cannons (“balyemez”) on each bastion, and the howitzers and bombarding cannons stood in readiness all around. They threw out grenades from the trenches that were vomiting gunpowder and fire. In a word, we had been besieging this camp for two full days but we could not even catch a „tongue” and could not achieve any success.”
A Crimean Tatar
After this, Celebi tells us the trick of the Tatar Khan: the Khan allowed those criminals of the Tatars who had been sentenced to death to make an attempt in exchange for their life. Three hundred of them volunteered (these had some knowledge of the Hungarian language as well) and they sneaked into the Hungarian camp, pretending that they were beggars who had fled from the Polish. Their mission was to bring out a „tongue”. According to Evliya, this action made a quite big stir in the Hungarian camp at night:
„We saw our men coming out in the morning. Only seven of them perished. The rest of them returned with a huge bounty, bringing 78 crestfallen Ghiaours, their legs tied. They took them before the Nureddin Sultan. Some of them were drunk, some just lay unconscious. Many of them were questioned by interpreters (tilmaş). When they got the information out of them, namely that there were 200,000 Ghiaours and 87,000 infantrymen with rifles in the camp, and that they have already run out of food. After the interrogation, the captives were all beheaded.” Let’s note: in fact, the entire Transylvanian military force was not more than 26,000 men but it was a huge number, nevertheless.
A mounted “green” rifleman of Prince Rákóczi II 1648-1660 (by Somogyi Győző)
After this, the „army of the Muslims that was like the sea” and their auxiliary forces, the Cossacks and the Polish troops got closer to the Hungarian camp but they could take only the bison of the Transylvanians (they were grazing outside the camp) which were used for pulling the cannons. Evliya wrote that the Tatars „ate them up raw” but he fried the meat. They were assaulting the camp and hoped that the Hungarians would be starved soon out. „They (the Tatars) were swarming around the camp like wasps but could not attack the camp from any directions”. Evliya described the low morals of the Hungarians, mentioning the hunger and the epidemics:
„Fear gripped the soul of the Ghiaours and they sank into the whirl of sorrow. They were covered by a threatening bad smell and mosquitoes. They hoped to get help from the Székely people of Transylvania (Erdel Seykeli) but they waited for them in vain because there was a Tatar, a Cossack, or Polish hiding in each tree`s shadow. They didn`t allow a bird to fly across the camp, let alone reinforcement and food.”
Székely “red” infantrymen, 17th century (by Somogyi Győző)
Having eaten up all their animals, there was such a great hunger after a week that they had to eat their dead, according to the Turk chronicler. There must have been very bad conditions for sure. It has just become worse when Khan Mehmed Giráj arrived with his 87,000 (!) Crimean Tatars: they „were as fast as the wind, hunters of the enemy”.
Then, the Hungarians sent a delegation to the Khan, saying that it had been Grand Vizier Boynugeri (“beveled-necked”) Mehemed who ordered them to attack Poland to take Hotin Castle and cede it to the Sultan. We know that it was not the true goal and the Khan knew it as well. He said: „Pasha the Bevelled-necked Mehmed had been made to resign and became a „mazul” and now the straight-necked but beveled-teethed Pasha (Köprülü) Mehemed is in charge. And he has sent me and Pasha Melek Achmed along with the Ottoman army and the Tatar army against you to prevent you from taking the throne of Poland, to make you return to your country. It is certain that we are not going to give either mercy or time and soon we will have a fight.”
All agreement was impossible because the warriors of the Crimean Khan told them that they would not return home without a bounty. The situation was getting difficult.
a Crimean Tatar
There were Cossacks and Polish on the Ottomans’ side but their armies pitched their camps far from each other, the Cossacks built defenses against their „allied” Polish army as well. As we could read, Rákóczi was urging his troops to keep up with the good fight but he fled from the camp with a few of his men when there was a gap they could find. He left for Transylvania, to fetch reinforcement. Then, the Transylvanians held a council, saying: „all trouble and misery happened because of Rákóczi. And now he has fled. For who will we fight now, suffer starvation and die?” They decided to give an expensive gift in exchange for their lives. Yet, when they were about to visit the Khan and make the offer, all the besiegers attacked the camp:

Celebi wrote: „There were hundred-thousand Tatars who put two or three arrows on the string of their bows and when they pulled the bow-puller ring and released the strings, the two-hundred-thousand arrows fell on the camp like a cursed shower of rain. When the thousands of arrows hit the defenseless horses, they bolted and treaded on the men, biting them. Arrows pierced the heads of the Ghiaours as if they had been planted with tulips. Wailing and roaring broke up from the camp. The infidel Polish were firing their “balyemez” cannons at the camp from seven sides and the Cossacks were spreading the camp with their rifle bullets. The havoc was full. On the 23rd day of Zilhicce 1067 (2 October 1657), the Ghiaour Hungarians shot a volley of their cannons and muskets, then broke out from the camp. The fight was raging for three hours. The black dust became a thick fog, the fighters could not see each other. From the outside, we heard our soldiers crying „Allah, Allah” and from the camp „Jesus, Jesus” (Yažuž!), the sounds of the bells and trumpets rose to the sky while a few thousands of souls were emptying the goblet of life and death.”
a Cossack, 17th century (by Somogyi Győző)
When the Tatars wanted to drag some of the higher officers of the Hungarians, then „even the dead came back to live” of the Hungarians and the fight was going on with renewed force as they sallied to free their lords. In the meantime, the Polish and the Cossacks could get inside the weakened camp and immediately began looting. The Tatars didn`t want to miss it but at first, they had to fight with the remaining Hungarians. Evliya Celebi wrote about it like this:
„The Tatars were commanded at once to begin their traditional tactics. As the Hungarians were out on the battlefield already, the Tatars started their `dogfight` (chasing each other). They had been fighting such a persistent fight for an hour which was befitting to Rüsztem, it was a mad battle and there has not been such a fight and slaughter since the time of the dynasty of Khan Dsingis, Khan Hülegü, Khan Timur, Khan Tohtamis, Khan Suyunci, and Khan Mengli Giray. (…) During this fight, uncountable numbers of unlucky, hellish Hungarian Ghiaours were put on the edge of the sword.”
Whoever could escape from the Tatars, was captured at once.

In the captivity of the Tatars

„Since the age of Adam, there has never been such a fight of faith,
The sword of Mohammed has been drawn against the dirty Hungarian”
„…man, have you got rich on the manful Hungarian fight?”
We have read about the disaster of the Transylvanian army, and heard the Turk chronicler, Evliya Celebi about the captives and the bounty. Evliya is exaggerating the numbers but the amount must have been significant in earnest:
„The Polish and the Cossack soldiers got plenty of rich bounty during this campaign. The living bounty was given to the Tatars. They got 27,000 horses and 47,000 captives. There were 87,000 dead Ghiaours lying face down on the ground, the Khan had their back marked with a sword and counted them. The captives were tied together by their legs and were broken and sadly jumping over the heaps of their dead. (…) Only the Creator can tell the number of the rich bounty which has been herded to the lands of the Tatars and the White Cossacks. As there were 40,000 Tatars of Budzsák fighting in this victorious campaign on the side of the majestic Tatar Khan, they were enriched with an unmeasurable amount of bounty, too. Moreover, they found 8,000 wagons in the camp, full of beautiful virgins with lovesick eyes, smiling faces, and unopened rosebuds. Each of them was worth a Haradzs in Rumelia but they were sold for an arrow or a pipeful of tobacco.”
Prince Rákóczi György II had fled by that time (drawing by Somogyi Győző)
Here we must remark the case as a mystery because it was forbidden to bring along women as far as the Transylvanian army was concerned; these girls may have been collected there if the whole thing is true at all.
Evliya Celebi spoke about his own share, too: „Thank God, me, the poor sinner man, was given seven captives, three of them were splendid girls, the other captives were Ghiaour Hungarian soldiers, I got ten rifles, seventeen silver trays, a silver cross, two pairs of silver stirrups, made in Hungarian fashion, a silver goblet and similar other things. Thank God, we could return home safely. Up to this day, the Crimean Tatars call this campaign `the manly Hungarian campaign`. Moreover, it has become a proverb because this is what they say to those who got suddenly rich: `Man, have you got rich on the manly Hungarian fight?`. They have gained so much bounty on this campaign that the thatched roofs of Bahcsiszeráj`s houses (Bakhchysarai) were replaced with red tiles. May the Eternal God keep the country of the Crimean Peninsula up for a long time because that place is the source of warriors of the faith who walk on the path of Allah!”
Kemény János, later Prince of Transylvania
Evliya Celebi adds that the „cursed Rákóczi” had escaped but he makes up a dialogue with Kemény János, the captured leader of the Transylvanian army as it follows: „…Kemény János is wearing a leg-strap, he got captured with a sad heart and he was injured. (Note: in fact, he was not wounded). Being an educated man, he learned in all wise knowledge, and he was extremely clever in special and wonderful arts. Yet, when he was half-dead due to his serious wound, wearing a manacle on his neck and a thick handcuff on his arms, he kept saying the next:
`When I recover from my wounds and get my freedom back, I will be the king of Transylvania after king Rákóczi. I will pour ash on the fireplace of the Ottomans but cannot have a long life because your Mehemed would kill me before long.` Me, the poor thing said to him: `How can you know about this secret destiny?` The Vizier answered: `I know it from the hidden knowledge of astronomy.` Me, the poor answered: `But how come that you had not known about your captivity and you let so many infidels perish?` Kemény János: `By all means, it must have been the order of the fate that these unlucky things have happened to me and my King Rákóczi. Finally, we could help our king to escape to defend our faith but Fate decided that we had to become prisoners. It is not a shame, whatever the stars show us, it always happens so.` Telling so, he tried to comfort himself. (…)”
The silver Thaler of Rákóczi, 1656
“It is true, that Kemény János was freed on 80,000 pieces of gold paid to the Khan and returned to Transylvania…” then, Evliya told us that everything happened as Kemény had foreseen it from the stars: after the defeat that Rákóczi suffered in Transylvania and died, Kemény became the Prince of the land. Finally, Kemény was fighting against the Ottomans hard but he was also defeated by Kücsük Mehemed in the battle of Nagyszőllős where he died, too. This campaign had a great impact on Evliya Celebi, he even made a color drawing about the trenches of the Hungarian camp. He concluded the fight in his poem:
Evliya Celebi’s statue in Turkey
„Thanks to God, this faith fight happened in thousand-sixty-seven (when)
The Lord made the victory possible in Crete (in Turk “Grid”; note: when the Turk fleet chased the Venetians away from the Island of Tenedos in October 1567)
Since the age of Adam, there has never been such a fight of faith,
The sword of Mohammed has been drawn against the dirty Hungarian
The glory of Khan Genghis’ dynasty has been invoked by His Majesty the Khan
A similar sword to this could have been drawn by Bu Müslim against the Yezid (it is the synonym for evil)
Arabic horse, sharp sword, quiver, all this at Your Majesty
The arrow was flying, released from the bow of fear.”
Crimean saber, 17th century
It is worth noting that according to Evliya Celebi, the corpses of the fallen Tatars were salted and sent back to the Crimean Penisula to bury them honorably. According to Ivanics Maria, only the chief commanders were treated like this. Our Hungarian historian, Szerecz Miklós recalls that there had been similar habits mentioned by Rubruk or by Plano Carpini in the 13th century.
Let’s finish the story with a quotation from Evliya Celebi:
„…the fortune-star of the unlucky and wrecked Giaours (kafirs, unbelievers) has been darkened and the army of the true believers have scattered the bones of the evil ones, the bones of the rebelled monsters, turning them into the booty of the sword, making their wives and children captives…”
You can read more about the Crimean Tatars in my article here:


The map of the “Hungaries”: to the right, the Transylvanian Principality (by Somogyi Győző)

It must be added that the suffering has just begun in Transylvania: the people at home had to collect a huge ransom and the Turk-Tatar punishing campaigns were also on the way…

Source: Szibler Gábor, Szerecz Miklós, Nagy Sándor, Konnát Árpád

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The Polish War of Prince Rákóczi György II