During the Reconquest Wars of Hungary, the Habsburgs were gradually taking over the lands and the major forts of the Ottomans. At the same time, they were occupying the lands of Prince Thököly Imre in Upper Hungary. The gate of Érsekújvár (Nové Zámky) castle was opened before the Imperials in August 1685, the Ottomans had to surrender one of their northernmost forts. The Pasha of Várad (Oradea) wanted to buy a ceasefire from the Habsburgs and he had Thököly, his Hungarian ally arrested on 15 October. It was a grave mistake because the huge lands of Thököly remained without their leader. They were occupied by the Habsburgs without a fight, and multitudes of Thököly’s soldiers joined the Imperials.
The garrison of Eperjes (Presov) castle surrendered before General Antonio Caprara in mid-September. Then, Ónod, Tokaj, Szerencs, Boldogkő castles followed suit, soon joined by Kassa (Kosice, Kaschau), Patak, and Regéc. Most of these places used to belong to the Rákóczi family, namely they were the domains of the boy Rákóczi Ferenc. His mother was Zrínyi Ilona (aka Jelena Zrinska), the wife of Thököly Imre. She was managing these lands on behalf of her son. When she received the news of Érsekújvár’s fall, she wanted to find shelter with her two children (Ferenc and Julianna) in Regéc castle but finally, she decided to get behind the inaccessible walls of Munkács castle. (Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first.)
The army of General Caprara arrived in November and besieged Munkács castle. The General sent a demand to Zrínyi Ilona on 21 November to surrender the fort. Lady Ilona refused to do so because everybody knew that the Treasury always took away the castles that were owned by the Rákóczi family. In her letter, she expressed her hope that the king would not make war against women and children. This defiant and brave reply became famous all over Europe.
The castle was very well supplied with food and gunpowder, and there were 3,000 soldiers in it. The officers were experienced and learned warriors, like Absolon Dániel or Radics András. Many local noblemen escaped with their wives and children to Munkács, too. Caprara handed over the leadership of the siege to General Antonio Caraffa who had a cruel reputation. At first, Caraffa did not expect a long siege. He tightly surrounded the castle and hoped that the cold and the hunger would make the defenders surrender. However, the warriors in Munkács were encouraged by Thököly who was able to send a letter to them in December. In this, he wrote that he was free again and would come to relieve the castle with all his power.
During this time, the Ottomans were losing ground and in the first part of September 1686, Buda was taken by the Christian army. Next year, the Grand Vizier suffered a staggering defeat at Nagyharsány, near Mohács. Thököly and his Ottoman allies were getting farther from the besieged Munkács castle. They could send no help at all. You can read more about the Battle of Nagyharsány here:
At last, Caraffa started the systematic siege in the first part of 1686. He had a channel dug to dry the moat where the Latorca River was flowing. Also, they built trenches to cut the defenders off from the water. Yet, the warriors of the castle were hindering this work with their regular sallies. For example, there was a successful sally on 4 February when 200 defenders ambushed the Imperials, killing 115 German soldiers, and capturing many of them.
Caprara arrived in Caraffa’s camp on 9 March and sent a demand to surrender again. Zrínyi Ilona refused it, she was repeating that she was defending the rightful property of her children. She declared she was not afraid of the siege. Then, the Imperials’ cannons began to shoot the walls, and they were answered by the cannons of Munkács. Lady Ilona even had the red flag pulled on the castle’s wall on 15 March. She did not show any signs of fear, and she was walking on the ramparts with her son and daughter. Once a cannonball killed one of her servants next to her. Later, the Imperials began to shoot the living quarters of Lady Ilona and her children so they had to move to other, more defendable rooms. She was renowned in the entire Europe, they called her “the bravest woman of Europe”.
On top of this, she was pregnant with the child of Prince Thököly. She gave birth to the child during the siege but the baby died. During the siege, she did not neglect to educate her son, Ferenc. she was teaching him how to become a ruler. The Imperials had to pause the siege in April. The army moved away, they just left behind some cavalry units to monitor the castle. The defenders were making great merriment and celebrated their victory. As for the Imperials, it was a very inconvenient failure. A woman won against the mighty Habsburg Empire! King Louis XIV of France sent jewels to Lady Ilona to express his appreciation.
We can see that Thököly and Lady Ilona had very good diplomatic connections, in fact, a whole network. They were making agreements with the French and Polish rulers, and the aim was to create an independent Hungary. But the fall of Buda to the Habsburgs has decided everything. Hungary seemed to have become part of the Habsburg Empire. Lady Ilona was just watching how the unpaid western mercenaries were devastating the countryside while their officers and generals gained huge domains for themselves from the country.
For the time being, the defenders could freely get out of the castle to collect food, to harvest. They also received the news about the unlawful executions that Caraffa was imposing against the Hungarians. When autumn came, the Imperials occupied Transylvania as well. The soldiers of Caraffa returned to Munkács in November 1686 and besieged it. This time they made their camp outside the range of the castle’s cannons. They forced the defenders to stay inside the fort for a year. Food and gunpowder were decreasing, they melt even the keys and the candle holders to make bullets. In the meantime, the Imperial troops devastated the surrounding countryside and the villages. In the city of Eperjes, Caraffa had 24 people beheaded. he accused them of supporting Thököly and Zrínyi Ilona.
Lady Ilona sent 1,600 soldiers to Thököly in the summer of 1687 but it did not solve the food shortage. She was sending letters more often to her husband and to the Polish king but she did not get any help. Finally, the situation became so grave at the end of 1687 that Lady Ilona had to engage in negotiations with the besiegers. In exchange for surrendering the castle, she posed several conditions. We can find the following terms among them: the defenders will never be punished, and Princess Ilona and her children were allowed to travel to Vienna together. they were supposed to live there, without any restrictions. the children will receive all their properties and domains but they have to live under the tutorage of Emperor Leopold until they grow up.
The documents about the surrender were signed on 14 January 1688. Lady Ilona read its text up aloud before the defenders. The soldiers of Lady Ilona marched down to the outer palisade while the Imperials moved into the castle. The next day, the Imperial officers of the Chamber of Vienna began to make an inventory of the items found in the castle. The unit of the defenders was dispersed, and the soldiers went home or take up service elsewhere. As for the officers, Radics went to his wife’s domains but Absolon became the secretary of General Caraffa. Later, legends were born about the reason for the fall of Munkács castle, I described one of them in my book “33 Castles, Battles, Legends”.
Lady Ilona and her children left the castle around 10 February to set out to Vienna. However, the imperials did not keep the agreement and they separated Lady Ilona from her children in Vienna. She was forced to go to a cloister. Fortunately, Thököly could free her from there because he had captured General Heisler in the battle of Zernyest in 1690. Lady Ilona was liberated in exchange for the General. The young Rákóczi Ferenc was sent to a Jesuit college to learn but later he fell into the footprints of his mother, father, and stepfather. He turned against the Habsburg Empire and launched his famous War of Independence in 1703.
All in all, Zrínyi Ilona heroically defended the fort of Munkács from November 1685 to January 1688 with her Hungarian, Slovakian, Rusyn, and German soldiers. Allegedly, she lost only 24 men altogether during the siege but the Austrian’s casualties were many times higher than this. Both Hungarians and Croatians cherish her name and commemorate her heroic deed.
Source: partly from Szibler Gábor
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