25 November 1556 The Diet of Transylvania made Isabella Governor

Queen Isabella, widow of King Szapolyai János

It was the day when the Transylvanian Diet made Isabella governor of Transylvania until her son, János Zsigmond, came of age. We know that Queen Isabella was the widow of King Szapolyai János of Hungary and that it was Sultan Suleiman who forced her to leave Buda Castle in 1541. Suleiman learned that Isabella wanted to give Buda Castle to the Habsburgs, so he could no longer trust her. You can read my short dramatized account of the circumstances of this event:


Suleiman received Isabella and her son at Buda in 1541

After that, she went to East Hungary and then she made her court in Transylvania. Her late father’s counselor, Father Martinuzzi György, the “White Monk”, was the tutor of her son, the baby János Zsigmond (later elected King of Hungary and Prince of Transylvania). He, a nobleman, statesman, Pauline monk, later Bishop of Várad, Archbishop of Esztergom, and finally Cardinal, had many debates with Queen Isabella. Both Isabella and Martinuzzi are very exciting and colorful examples of Hungarian history, no wonder they are very controversial figures. You can read more about Martinuzzi’s life here:


Brother György Martinuzzi, the White Monk

The White Monk was busy balancing power between the Austrians and the Ottomans. Finally, in 1549, King Ferdinand of Habsburg and Martinuzzi signed a treaty in Nyírbátor, the eagle’s nest of the Báthory clan. It was almost the same as the previous treaty of Gyalu. According to it, in exchange for Ferdinand’s military help, Queen Isabella and King János Zsigmond would renounce their titles and the Habsburgs would receive Transylvania. It should be noted that Queen Isabella was unaware of any of this, as she was enjoying herself at Déva Castle. When she heard the news, she became very angry. Of course, Isabella did not agree with the treaty and betrayed the secret contract to the Sublime Porte.

West Hungary and East Hungary in the Age of the Dual Kingship

In the summer of 1550, civil war broke out in Transylvania. So far, the monk had brilliantly balanced between the two powers, the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, but this eventually led to his downfall. Meanwhile, the Turks watched in alarm as Eastern Hungary grew stronger. The next war with the Ottomans broke out in 1550 when they came in force to expand their occupied territories. The Sultan sent his Chaus (officer) to Transylvania in the spring of 1550, demanding that the noble estates leave Martinuzzi and obey only Queen Isabella and her son. The queen’s supporters began to conspire with Petrovics Péter, the Hungarian Székelys began their rebellion and Queen Isabella gathered soldiers and took refuge in the castle of Gyulafehérvár.


The White Monk had to act quickly, first executing the leaders of the Székely rebels and then crushing the uprising. At that time, Petrovics Péter left the Temesköz region with his army and entered Transylvania. He conquered Csanád, Déva, Vízakna and Alvinc. Pasha Kászim of Buda also came with his troops to Lippa Castle, he was there on 22 October. Martinuzzi had to fight several enemies at the same time. The Ottomans made Ilie II Rareș, Voivode of Moldavia, and the Wallachian Voivode attack Transylvania to punish him.

The Wallachians (Romanians) attacked the Székely Land on 2 November, and the Moldavians were at the Vöröstorony Pass of the Carpathians, but the White Monk led an army against them and defeated the attackers. Then his troops also defeated the army of Comes Petrovics Péter of Temes, who was supporting Queen Isabella. Martinuzzi had a strong army and besieged Gyulafehérvár, but the town defended itself bravely for six weeks. At the end of October, the queen surrendered and “pardoned” the White Monk and became his friend again. You can read more about this here:


Sultan Suleiman
Sultan Suleiman, of course, could not allow the influence of this area to be lost so easily. The troops of Pasha Szokollu Mehmed besieged the castles of Becse, Becskerek, Csanád, and Lippa. After a short time, they took them, but they could not take the castle of Temesvár. Martinuzzi’s men were joined by the 9,000-strong army of the Italian mercenary commander Count Giovanni Battista Castaldo. The army of the Habsburg emperor was made up of German-Bohemian-Spanish-Italian-Hungarian troops, who joined forces with the Hungarian nobility and the units of Báthory and Nádasdy. Together they managed to force the Turks to retreat.
King Habsburg Ferdinand I of Hungary

When their troops retreated from there, the army of the White Monk, joined by the soldiers of Nádasdy, Castaldo, and Pallavichi Sforza, rushed to Lippa and besieged it. They soon forced the Bey Ulema to surrender, but the Prior promised safe conduct to the Turkish garrison of Lippa Castle. In fact, the events of this siege led to the fall of Martinuzzi. King Ferdinand betrayed him and ordered his assassination.

When Castaldo saw the Turks marching away undisturbed on 28 November, he was very surprised and began to accuse the Prior of treason. He wrote to King Ferdinand and Emperor Charles V, accusing Martinuzzi of treason. Brother György was in fact negotiating with several Ottoman pashas of southern Hungary to buy some time. As a result, Castaldo was able to persuade Ferdinand, who gave the order for the monk (by then a cardinal) to be murdered. However, the mercenary leaders needed Ferdinand’s approval first.

Sforza Pallavicini

Castaldo hired the monk’s secretary, Marco Aurelio Ferrari, to carry out the crime. The White Monk was killed in his palace in Alvinc on the night of 16 to 17 December 1551. Martinuzzi had his bodyguards removed, believing it to be a sign of peace, and waited for Ferdinand’s men without suspecting anything. The assassins of General Sforza-Pallavicini came to help Marco Aurelio Ferrari. They, Lorenzo Campeggi, Giovanni Munino, Mercada, Scramuccia, and two Spanish soldiers killed the 69-year-old priest with two musket shots and 75 stabs. After dishonoring his body, it was left unburied for 70 days. The mercenaries cut off his hairy ear and sent it to Ferdinand as evidence. When Queen Isabella heard of the murder, she first rejoiced, then allegedly mourned. Transylvania fell temporarily into Habsburg hands.

After these turbulent events, the Transylvanians welcomed Isabella and János Zsigmond on their return from Poland with great pomp and festivity, as the local nobility had had enough of five years of Habsburg rule (1551-1556). Obviously, King Ferdinand was unable to defend Transylvania, and the Sultan’s Sublime Port did not want to lose it either.
As a result, a war broke out between the supporters of János Zsigmond (Szapolyai’s son) and Habsburg Ferdinand at the beginning of 1556.
King János Zsigmond, son of King Szapolyai of Hungary 1540-1571
The Transylvanian Diet in the town of Torda immediately declared the separation from the Habsburgs and proclaimed János Zsigmond their king on 8 March in Szászsebes. However, he was never crowned with the Hungarian crown, which made all the difference. In June, Ferdinand rushed to inform the Sultan that he had returned Transylvania to the supporters of the Szapolyai clan.
The Gold Forint of János Zsigmond and Isabella (1559)
As a result, the Transylvanians welcomed the queen and her son, who had come from Poland via the Verecke Pass. In Kolozsvár (Cluj, Klausenburg) there were great celebrations and on 25 November the Diet swore allegiance to János Zsigmond, but because of his young age, they made his mother governor. The Queen’s troops retook the fortresses from the Habsburgs one by one. The last big fortresses, Várad (Oradea) and Szamosújvár also fell, Szamosújvár was defended by the former Voivode of Transylvania. This voivode was Dobó István, the hero of Eger Castle, who fought on the side of the Habsburgs.
The tombstone of Captain Dobó István (photo: Thaler Tamás)
Isabella ruled Transylvania until she died in 1559. With the White Monk no longer alive, the queen didn’t have to worry as much about saving money as the stingy monk had. She was in charge of all financial matters and was able to indulge in her Renaissance extravagance as much as she liked. She spoke several languages but preferred the company of Italians and Poles at her court. She ordered splendid Renaissance furniture and clothes from Italy and invited artists and musicians to her court in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia). She loved jewels. She wanted to arrange a marriage between her son and a French princess, but this would have meant transferring her power to her son, who was already growing up. For the same reason, the young János Zsigmond could not marry the daughter of Habsburg Ferdinand.
The signatures of Isabella and her son, 1558
At the same time, the foundations of religious tolerance in Transylvania were laid during Isabella’s reign. The Diet of Torda, in 1557, declared that “everyone may live according to the faith of his choice, provided that he does not interfere with the worship of others”. It was the first step towards freedom of religion. The Lutheran faith was legalized and this thinking was improved during the diets of the 1560s.
The fortified church of Torda (Source: Csetri Elek, https://muvelodes.net)
A group of Transylvanian lords plotted against Isabella in 1558. They planned to force the queen to resign and hand over power to her son. The queen lured the conspirators to Kolozsvár (Cluj), namely Kendy Antal and Bebek Ferenc, and had them killed at night. Later she invented a case of treason to justify the murder. One could see a very basic characteristic of the queen in this action. Although she was described as a very lovely and beautiful woman, she had significant masculine characteristics. She could often go mad with such hysteria and rage that it was frightening. Some say she must have inherited this from her mother, who was of Italian descent and was Queen Bona Sforza of Poland. Isabella died on 15 September 1559.
The tombstone of Queen Isabella in Gyulafehérvár

It would be exciting to read a historical novel about her life.

Source: partly from Szibler Gábor

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The coins minted by Isabella