Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars between 1372-1699

The Battle of Zernyest: Thököly’s victory, 1690

Thököly Imre, the husband of Zrínyi Ilona
Before the work of Szibler Gábor in which he described the Battle of Zernyest, let me tell you a few words about the circumstances. Prince Thököly Imre has always been a dividing figure in Hungarian history. He is called sometimes an adventurer, a hero, a great military leader, or a footnote in history. Some people think he was a traitor of Hungarians while others say he was a hero who fought against the Habsburgs. Let us take a superficial look into the situation…
Military moves in 1686-87-88 in Transylvania
Following the death of Zrínyi Miklós in 1664, the Wesselényi Conspiracy was strictly put down by the Habsburgs. The Habsburg Emperor jumped on the possibility to take away the wealth of the richer Hungarian noblemen, regardless of their involvement in the plot. It was just oil on the fire: the Hungarians were getting more and more rebellious against Vienna and in 1678 broke out the Thököly-uprising in Upper Hungary. Thököly was one of those high-ranking Hungarians who were deprived and alienated by the Habsburgs.

Indeed, King Leopold I (1657-1705 ) had intended to crush the remnants of the Hungarian feudal constitution and privileges as well as Protestantism with one blow. He dismissed two-third of the Hungarian Frontier-castle warriors in 1671 and stopped governing Hungary by calling together the Diet. Moreover, he ceased to give the highest feudal offices to Hungarian nobles as it had been the custom, finishing the tolerance of religions according to the Treaty of Vienna, 1606. No wonder that Thököly became more and more popular.
Emperor Habsburg Leopold I
This high-born general, who later became Prince of Transylvania and of Hungary, put up a fierce fight against the Austrians and he was not shy to ask for the Turks’ aid. Thököly thought the Habsburgs were a bigger threat than the Ottomans; he speculated to get bigger freedom from the weakened Ottoman Empire than Transylvania had enjoyed. Since the Turks saw that Thököly had been quite successful to tear great territories out of Habsburg’s hands, decided to attack Vienna. Without Thököly, they would not have even thought of it.
The Siege of Vienna, 1683 by Frans Geffels
He was helping the Ottomans to get a safe passage to Vienna in 1683 by opening a path at Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg). Previously, during that summer the majority of the western Trans-Danubian counties of Royal Hungary had sworn fealty to him.
Thököly didn’t directly take part in the siege of Vienna but without his involvement, the Turks couldn’t have reached Vienna at all. Also, without the Hussars of the Polish King Sobieski, the Turks would have taken the Austrian capital.
King John Sobieski III of Poland
In exchange for his service, Thököly would have been given higher privileges by the Sultan than any previous princes of the Transylvanian Principality had ever gained. Some historians say Thököly would have got rid of the Turks shortly afterward but others say the Ottomans would have swallowed the entire Hungary and Transylvania at the same time. We will never know the answer for sure.
Sobieski meets Leopold

I know it is just a wishful thought but I can’t escape it: what if King Sobieski had not come that year and Vienna would have temporarily fallen to the Ottomans? What if Vienna would have been liberated next year by the allied forces of Sobieski and Thököly? Then, Hungary could have been liberated without the Habsburgs and perhaps our Polish friends would not have experienced so much trouble because of them in the centuries to come…

Thököly defeated the Imperial and Transylvanian armies at Zernyest on 21 August 1690

Bánlaky’s map about the campaigns in 1689-90
Prince Apafi Mihály of Transylvania died on 15 April 1690 and his son was just a child yet. It was why the Sublime Porte sent an athnámé to Thököly Imre and appointed him as the ruler of Transylvania on 8 June 1690. The Sultan sent Crimean Tatar, Turk, and Wallachian troops to aid the „kuruc” (rebel, anti-Habsburg) Hungarians and appointed Pasha Ahmed of Silistra as a Serdar of the army.
Prince Apafi Mihály I of Transylvania (ruled 1661-1690)
Wallachian Voivode Constantin Brancoveanu was not very eager to join the campaign and in secret, he was sending information about the military moves in his letters written to Vice-General Donat Johann Heissler who was leading the Imperial Habsburg troops in Transylvania.
*My note: To find out how much the Transylvanian Principality was a sovereign state, please read my article here:

Heissler had 7,000 soldiers who were mostly guarding the passes of the Carpathian Mountains while the Transylvanian field army was led by Court Captain Gyulaffi László, appointed by the Military Council of Vienna. When the news about Thököly’s coming reached Transylvania, everybody was called to arms, nobles and commoners alike. Heissler had the passes blocked, especially the Vulkán and Vöröstorony passes were heavily guarded as he anticipated Thököly’s attack from there.
Vice-General Donat Heissler
The Transylvanian troops got under the leadership of the aged Chief-General, Teleki Mihály. He wanted to symbolize the sovereignty of Transylvania by leading the army in person. On the other hand, it was a message to his enemies who tried to accuse him of cowardice.
Teleki Mihály
Thököly was informed that Heissler took a position in the Bodza Pass so instead, he tried to cross via the Törcsvár Pass. His way was blocked between Törcsvár (Bran) Castle and the border by a trench and a fortification but he attacked and took it with 200-300 kuruc troops in the early hours of 15 August. The guards (100 men) were either slaughtered or captured.
Törcsvár aka Bran castle that WAS NOT the nest of the Dracula (Photo: Civertan)
Hearing the attack, Heissler moved his forces to the Törcsvár Pass. In secret, Voivode Brancoveanu betrayed the number of Thököly’s army and was asking Heissler not to hold a battle. Yet, Heissler didn’t take his advice as he trusted in the lay of the land at the pass. Moreover, he didn’t take Teleki’s advice who told him to deploy cannons at the pass.
The Battle of Zernyest, 21 August 1690
Thököly didn’t risk a frontal attack but decided to get around the pass with his Turk, Crimean Tatar, and Kuruc (rebel Hungarian) forces through a 1,300-meter-high mountain path. In the meantime, the Imperial troops were made busy by the Wallachian and Turk forces. Although Heissler was asking about the possible mountain paths but his Transylvanian allies reassured him that no armed men could get through those steep paths.
Thököly Imre, the “Kuruc king”
There was a small German unit guarding the road between Tohány and Zernyest, they were scattered quickly by the Crimean Tatar vanguard. Then, the Tatars burned the village of Tohány. Heissler came to know about this maneuver only in the afternoon of 21 August. He sounded the alarm at once and hurried towards Zernyest with his entire army. When he got there, Thököly had deployed his whole army in front of him. While a Wallachian lord called Balaceanu succeeded in chasing the Crimean Tatars away from the village with his Wallachian and Hungarian soldiers, Heissler could also deploy his own army.
a Wallachian rider (by Somogyi Győző)
Heissler had hardly 2,000 Germans and the Imperial army, including the Transylvanian troops. His army was numbering less than 6,000 men. He deployed them in two lines, the Hungarian Székely border guards were in the first line. He positioned 8 cannons in front of them.
The so-called Red Székelys (by Somogyi Győző)
Thököly had 15,000 men: the Crimean Tatars were in the front, the Kuruc soldiers stood in the second line and the third line consisted of Janissary troops. The Székely soldiers wanted to rush headlong at Thököly’s army but Teleki and Heissler managed to hold them back. Thököly wanted to get around the Imperial army but Heissler noticed his move and sent Colonel Johann Baptist Doria with 6 companies and 13 battalions of Székely soldiers.
German “White” and “Green” Riflemen in 1671 and 1680 (by Somogyi Győző)
They could beat the Crimean Tatar and the Hungarian Kuruc units back but they could not return to their original location. Then, the Turk-Tatar army rushed at the Imperials whose rifles could not stop them. Now, the Székely soldiers who had been so eager at the beginning of the battle fled without any resistance. The fleeing soldiers had been chased for hours and even Teleki was cut down (he was wearing black clothes, still mourning the death of Prince Apafi). His scribe could hardly identify his body. Thököly had the corpse dressed up in his own clothes and sent it back to his widow. Those two Jesuit monks also died who had been encouraging the Imperial troops with crosses in their hands.
A Crimean Tatar archer (by Somogyi Győző)
Heissler could have fled but instead, he bravely set out to free his officer, Doria who was surrounded by the enemy. Finally, he was captured along with Doria. They were the chief officers who were sent to Vienna as an exchange for Thököly’s wife, Ilona who was imprisoned in Vienna. It was how Thököly could get his wife back (remember: it was Ilona Zrínyi, Thököly’s wife who had been heroically defending Munkács Castle for years against the Imperial army).
Zrínyi Ilona aka Jelena Zrinska (1643-1703), mother of Prince Rákóczi Ferenc 
Voivode Brancoveanu sent the severed head of Lord Balaceanu to the Sultan in Constantinapolis. The attackers have suffered great losses, too. Even Pasha Ahmed died in the battle. Yet, Thököly won and marched in Transylvania. The Diet of Kereszténysziget (Grossau, Cristian) voted him as the Prince of Transylvania on 22 September. You can read more about Kereszténysziget here:
Kereszténysziget (Photo: Roamata)
In the meantime, the young son of Apafi Mihály called also Mihály, fled to Kolozsvár (Cluj, Klausenburg), helped by his Chief Marshal Naláczy István. They asked for help from Emperor Leopold whose general, Prince Louis of Baden managed to force Thököly out of Transylvania before soon. Until, the Habsburgs had lost the forsts of Vidin, Belgrade and Nis…
Source: Szibler Gábor
Thököly Imre (1657-1705)
My note:  In my opinion, eventually, Thököly would have rebelled against the Turks, too, thus bringing about the liberation of Hungary, without the help of the Habsburgs. Unluckily, after the Siege of Vienna, he lost lots of his reputation and many of his warriors sided with the Habsburgs, trusting that the Habsburgs would be good masters after having liberated Hungary. Also, it didn’t help to increase Thököly’s fame that he was the one who quite bloodily put down the Bulgarians’ uprising against the Ottoman Empire. When he finally got reunited with his wife, Zrínyi Ilona, it was told that the lady was hardly able to recognize her husband: Thököly was an aged, bent man, though he was younger than his wife. They both died in Turkey but Zrínyi Ilona’s son, Rákóczi Ferenc returned in 1703 to settle the business with the Habsburgs…Have I told you that he hated Thököly, his step-father?
Rákóczi meets Esze Tamás in 1703 (by Veszprémi Endre)

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