Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

The Battle of Szikszó (08. October 1588)

The battle of Szikszó 1588

Sir István Drugeth of Homonna, Chief Comes of Zemplén County, was a red-faced somewhat overweight man in his thirties who usually made jokes about everything in life rolling his round eyes merrily, but now he was green with envy.

It was his rival, Mihály Serényi, the Captain of Kassa, who was saddening his life again. Was not he richer and mightier, did not he come from a more ancient noble family than Serényi? Why did Emperor Rudolf need to pamper this upstart Serényi by giving him command over the most important captaincy of Upper Hungary? Had not he, István Drugeth deserved it more?

These kinds of thoughts chased each other in his mind while he was donning his Hussar armor. This armor, which was masterfully wrought together from steel straps and allowed him to wield his saber from his saddle in all directions. The young György Pethő was silently helping him with the buckles and clasps. Pethő, his Lieutenant, had just delivered the news about the Turkish peril of Szikszó city and he thought it better to keep his mouth shut.

“Why did you have to run with the message to Captain Serényi, why did not you hurry here instead at once? Did His Majesty Emperor Rudolf give you the order to notify Serényi before me, your liege-lord?”

“Sir, as I have told you there were no orders from the king. The peasant rider from Szikszó who brought the warning caught me on my way to Kassa. As time was pressing, I thought it proper to call Captain Serényi to arms and urge him to ride out.”

“You, little whelp, thought it proper? What if his Hussars reach Szikszó before me? Serényi has already been over-glorified for his valor and speed. Pethő, Pethő, I will perhaps never forgive you if he gets there even a step before me. What are you waiting for? Are the men ready? Have you sent envoys to Captain Zsigmond Rákóczi in Eger? What about the two castellans of Szendrő Castle, János Rotthaler and Albert Raibicz? Be off with you, and pray for finding me in a better mood when you bring them after me to Szikszó. After me, you heard?”

György Pethő ran with haste. He knew that his lord would calm down as quickly as he became angry and paid little heed to his threats. He was more concerned about the poor folks of Szikszó city. The peasant riders had told him this morning that the Turks had had enough and set out from Székesfehérvár to collect the debt from the city. Szikszó was paying taxes equally to both Emperor Rudolf and the Ottoman Sultan, but the Turks were demanding 1,000 gold Forints now. Emphasizing their claim, the Pasha of Buda sent Bey Kara Ali from Székesfehérvár and Bey Mustapha from Széchény with six thousand Sipahi horsemen and six thousand Janissary infantry to remind their taxpayers of their duty. It was not a joke. Pethő gave thanks to the Almighty that the Turk army paused to take Putnok Castle and they were delayed for a little while. However, having been unsuccessful and humiliated by the Christian warriors of the small fort of Putnok, they pushed on toward Szikszó, covering the land in blood and smoke wherever they passed through.

The young knight did his best and rode from castle to castle. By noon, the signal trees of the Borderland were set on fire one by one. The flames spread the warning: “The Turks are here! To arms, to arms!”

The poor folks herded their animals into the hills and they hid in caves and led their women and children to marshlands and into the shelter of the “green castle”, the forest.

It was late afternoon when the Hungarian noblemen from Eger, Kassa, Szendrő, and Homonna finally met in the village of Vadász, not far from Szikszó city and it was Captain Rákóczy who took over the leadership. Zsigmond Rákóczi smiled when he saw Chief Comes Drugeth, this round-headed funny man waiting for him already, sitting behind a hastily erected table. The Comes offered him wine and they drank to the health of the newly arrived Captain Serényi.

Prince Rákóczi Zsigmond (1544?-1608)

Rákóczi was famous for his quick decisions and as soon as the last units of Captain Heling arrived, he and his men mounted at once and he held a council of war on horseback, instructing his officers from the saddle:

“My dear friends; Sir Serényi, Sir Drugeth, and Captain Rothaler. Let your Hussars ride straight into the city of Szikszó and attack immediately the side of Kara Ali. According to the reports, he has been besieging the fortified church of the city for three hours by now and would not expect our arrival this soon. He is occupied and annoyed by the stubborn Hajdú Burghers of Szikszó who had the wits to send away their women and children before the Turks got there. They have a huge Reformed church with thick walls, surrounded by a stone wall and a deep moat. Knowing that we are on our way, they will not be likely to surrender their lives and valuables. We have good Hussars with us, two-thousand seasoned warriors of the Valiant Order. The five hundred German musket men of Captain Heling have already marched out to take up positions near Szikszó. What are we waiting for? Let us surprise the pagans while we can. May Jesus and the Virgin Mary help us. Amen.”

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It was five o’clock in the afternoon when the iron-clad Hussars of Zsigmond Rákóczi threw themselves at the Turks who had thronged around the Reformed church. The fifteen-foot-long lances easily picked their targets and Kara, or Black, Ali paid a bitter price before withdrawing his troops to arrange them in proper battle order. He was a true Ottoman from Africa and he utterly despised the local soldiers under his command, except for the faithful and loyal Janissaries, the fosterlings of the Sultan. To gain some time, he ordered all of the buildings of the town to be set on fire. He was satisfied seeing the flames engulf the roof of the Reformed church which had originally been a strongly built Cathedral of the Ghiaurs before the Protestant times.

He had not given this order earlier because he did not want the treasures of the infidels consumed by the inferno. Now he just shrugged and summoned Bey Mustapha to lead the Sipahis to the right wing, and told Bey Bajazid to place his Janissaries on the left, not leaving his four bronze cannons behind. He could carry these moves out easily since the Hussars had dismounted and tried to help the Hajdú Burghers put out the flames and salvage their property from the church, with seemingly pitiful success.

To his annoyance, it took him quite a long time to deploy his army even in this simple formation on the field below Szikszó city because the soil was muddy. Of course, it was slippery because it was a floodplain bordered by the rapid waters of the Hernád River and the Bársonyos Stream. He had no other choice as there was no other open place that would have been large enough to deploy his men. Not as if he cared much about the outcome of the clash, all of them knew that the Christians had never defeated them on the open field, in a larger battle, since the time of the wicked János Hunyadi.

Kara Ali did not want to expose his baggage and tents to any accidental damage so he had his camp surrounded by wagons behind his army. He ordered two-thousand infantrymen to guard the booty and especially the Christian prisoners they had collected so far because he wanted to get a good price for them in the slave market of Buda.

While the Ottoman commander was still struggling with the deployment of his soldiers, the Hungarian horsemen, mainly heavy cavalry, and a negligible German unit of no more than half-thousand soldiers appeared in front of them.

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Captain Zsigmond Rákóczi stood with his black-dressed riders on the left and he had placed the Hussars of Serényi and Rotthaler under the flag of István Drugeth of Homonna who was proudly making his horse dance in front of the middle. The right-wing was given to Captain Heling’s musket men who were aided by some Hajdú footmen from Szikszó. Their manly task was to hold the Janissaries who outnumbered them by four-to-one. Not as if the Hussars were not facing thrice as many Sipahis as their number.

The enemy was visibly not yet fully prepared for the battle. Rákóczi knew that his only advantage was his quickness so he drew his sword and ordered the charge. Two-thousand horses gathered speed and the forest of lances was leveled.

The shocking impact of the Hussar lances swept away the first line of the Sipahis and the “Jesus, Mary” and “Jesus, Jesus” battle cries dominated over the shouts of “Allahu Akbar”. Drugeth of Homonnai raced with Captain Serényi to find the leader of the enemy. The Turks could be defeated easier if their commander was slain and Sir Drugeth wanted this triumph for himself. His prayers must have been answered because a black face appeared before him with great white bulging eyes. Drugeth recognized Kara Ali at once and his heavy saber rose and fell in a deadly pattern that usually worked against his opponents.

One does not fence in a battle just parry the blows instinctively trusting in his Patron Saint. Drugeth tried to fence but the African was a famous duelist in his home and a slight move of his scimitar was enough to deflect the Hungarian’s blow. His body was twisting like a snake, and his scimitar knocked the saber out of the Hussar’s fist, sending it to fall in the mud. Before the killing cut could reach Drugeth, a rider pushed his horse between them. It was young Pethő who followed his lord like a shadow. His left hand grabbed Kara Ali’s right wrist and his horse stopped abruptly, and it was the terrible strength of the animal that jerked the Turk’s sword arm backward. Ali turned in the saddle and exposed his torso and head to Pethő for a half second. It was enough for the lad to cut Ali’s forehead. The delicately woven chain-mail pieces hanging down from his helmet were not enough to stop the brutal blow. To the greatest horror of his bodyguards, the Bey lifelessly fell from his high Turkish saddle.

Drugeth was taken away from the scene by his horse but he glanced back and saw that three Sipahis were hacking at Pethő with revengeful cries. The Chief Comes unhooked his battle ax from his saddle and began to wield this long-shafted weapon whose steel beak was perfectly apt to pierce helmets, shields, and armor alike.

The loss of Kara Ali happened in the first few minutes of the fight and it was regarded as a bad omen that weakened the hearts of the Muslims. It was Mustapha, the Bey of Szécsény Castle who took over control and encouraged his warriors to fight back in good order. There was a Hussar Lieutenant called Péter Széchy whose family had been driven out of Szécsény Castle so he did not spare himself and broke through the bodyguards of Mustapha. He was in frenzy and literally cut the Bey to pieces, not caring that he was pulled down under the shoes of the horses by the Sipahis while doing so. In a short time, the Ottomans saw two of their most respected Beys die.

The grim-looking black Hussars of Zsigmond Rákóczi were relentlessly pressing the wavering elite Ottoman cavalry, their battle axes knocking on their armor like a bloody hailstorm. It was a small miracle that the Sipahis did not scatter towards the four directions of the Earth, but were disciplined enough to retreat behind the massive lines of the Janissaries to restore their order.

In the meantime, the Germans of Captain Heling and the Hajdú soldiers of Szikszó on the right wing worked hard to keep the war machine of the Janissaries at bay. However fanatic the orphans of the Sultan had been, the combination of cold German discipline and savage Hajdú swords were still holding up the overpowering enemy. Not paying a small price for it, though. The German’s feet were slipping in mud painted red by their fallen comrades.

When the Sipahis withdrew themselves it was Pasha Bajezid, the Pasha of the Janissaries, who took command firmly into his hands. He gave the order to roll out the four enormous cannons which had been hiding behind the front lines of his infantry thus far. The bronze battle snakes with their long barrels were aimed at the black-clad Hussars who were turning towards their horses at this moment.

“Quickly, load them with double-charge and feed them with two bags of musket balls per barrel.” he gave the order to the Agha of the Topcus.

“Noble Bey, I am afraid the barrels will burst if I use double the amount of gunpowder,” protested the Agha with a pale face.

“Allah ordered us not to fear anything. Obey or die.” Bajezid reprimanded him and while the Topcus hurried to do his bidding he added:

“These cannons were cast from the first quality bronze which we had got from the idolizer infidel’s king and saint statues from Nagyvárad. The bells of the pagan churches and their own kings have been used as materials for the honor of the Bright-Faced Padishah. Are you ready, you lazy loungers?”

Bajezid mounted his Arab steed and drew his sword: “Fire!”

Szikszó

A fiery hell was loosened upon the onrushing Hussars from no more than thirty paces. Lines were swept away and terrible screaming and neighing covered the field where the cannon’s white smoke was slowly engulfing everything.

Two volleys of the Janissaries joined the cacophony. First, the kneeling line, then those standing behind them shot as it was their habit. The cannons were turned towards the Germans and the hot barrels punished them with devastating fire too. Many Hussar units lost their leaders, and it was the end of some good officers like Lénárd Kerczi or Lukács Tarnóczy. Captain Rabitz from Szendrő Castle bitterly saw how his brother, Frigyes fell and his Lieutenant, Lukács Tarnóczy was taken away with a severe wound in the stomach. It was an age when the officers did not shy away from leading their men from the front line and now the Hungarians were heavily tolled.

Captain Heling gave the order to retreat half a mile, as slowly as they could, leaving behind his wounded. They stopped when they reached the fences of the village called Vadász and took up position behind some makeshift cover they pulled from the roofs. Fortunately, instead of the Germans, the attention of the Janissaries was focused on the middle of the Hungarian army where Sir Drugeth was desperately trying to pull together his horsemen with not much success.

Drugeth saw the sea of the white high-hats of the Janissaries swallowing them. This tough infantry was never afraid to attack any cavalry. Now, their halberds and sabers worked very effectively, they were attacking each Hussar in their usual units of four. The horsemen had no chance to fight them, their lines were broken through and the elite infantry was slaughtering them one by one. Triumphant “Allahu Akbar” cries froze the blood of the Christians. Captain Rákóczi sounded the half-retreat. When he saw the regrouped Sipahis join the attack, he was inwardly hesitating and cherishing the thought to rescue his army towards Szerencs Castle and flee.

Sir Drugeth was losing his strength, so far he had been able to cut down all of his attackers, but he was getting out of breath. The Janissaries wanted him dead because they realized he was a kind of leader. Two more bodyguards paid with their lives to gain him some rest, János Nimtsch and Kristóf Prachich. Drugeth was gritting his teeth and killed a big-mustached Jannissar with his battle ax. The curved beak got stuck into something and he had to lean down to free it. It was then that hands grabbed him and pulled him out of the saddle. A broad-faced Janissary knelt on his chest, pushing him into the mud while his two mates were tying his hands with skillful fingers. Yearning for ransom was burning in their eyes.

New shouts filled the air, this time coming from the left wing.

“Hujj, hujj, hajrá. At it, at it.”

It was none other than the men of Captain Serényi who materialized from the fog and ran into the side of the Sipahis, pushing them abruptly aside.

Drugeth saw the confusion in the eyes of his captors. They exchanged glances and did not know whether to kill him, or spare him for ransom, but seeing the new enemy the Janissary who was kneeling on him, raised his yatagan. Drugeth strained his muscles and rolled away. Screams were heard and the noise of falling sabers. Hooves were splashing around his head and horses were neighing. He was covered by bloody mud and desperately tried to spit it from his mouth when suddenly he was brought to his feet and he felt the ropes sliced off his wrists.

Captain Serényi was towering over him, looking down from the height of his saddle as if he was a worm having crept out of the soil. Drugeth blinked and cleaned his face, thus smearing it with unwanted materials. When he looked up again, Serényi was gone. One of his dismounted Hussars, the one who had cut his ropes, was respectfully cleaning the filthy coat of the nobleman. Drugeth jerked his coat away and shrieked at him:

“Your horse! Your saber!” and after taking hold of these items, he madly threw himself into the melee without saying thank you. It was woe to the poor Turks he encountered in the following minutes.

He joined the black riders of Rákóczi who took advantage of the confusion of the Janissaries and sallied against the cannons which could spit the third volley into their eyes but could not stop them anymore. The Topcus were slain in a second and some dismounted Hussars busied themselves with turning the cannons against their previous masters.

The men of Captain Heling rejoined the battle with the remaining three hundred men and their volley decimated the Janissaries. Pasha Bajezid on his horse offered a decent target and soon he was hit by a German bullet. Not much later, Captain Heling was also hit. He sank to his knees and silently gave his spirit back to His Creator.

The battle had been decided but the fight was still going on. The Turks turned and ran towards the shelter of their fortified camp with the Hungarian horsemen on their heels.

There were one-thousand rested Janissaries who were guarding the wagons and they covered the retreat with their volleys. The Hungarians began to besiege the camp but the enemy was fighting with teeth and claws for their sheer life, putting the captured Christian prisoners to the sword. The screams of the children and the women were terrible to hear.

The Sun set and the struggle reached deep into the evening. The fighters were lit by the inferno of Szikszó City which was burning to the ground in the meantime. It was eleven o’clock when the Turks gave up and fled. The Hussars chased them in the dark up to the waters of the Sajó River and took no captives, killing more than two thousand of the enemy.

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The next day Sir Drugeth was already clean and together with Rákóczi’s officers, he gave thanks to God for the victory. After receiving a nice compliment from the Captain of Eger, he was reconciled with Captain Serényi.

They silently stood and watched as the Hajdú soldiers were collecting the dead in a pile and covered them with a hedge woven from thorny branches.

They counted 1,744 Turks but there were 410 Hungarians lying next to them, not to mention the 220 German musketmen who had finished their lives so far away from home.

“My Lord, I have received the report of the gains recently,” said István Drugeth to Rákóczi. “There are 400 Turks who were lucky enough to become our prisoners of war. Besides the four long bronze cannons, we captured 30 flags, 482 horses, and 600 wagons with their baggage. One-third of it will be sent to the king, the other third is the widow’s share and the rest will be divided among the soldiers as the habit of the Valiant Order goes. I hope, Emperor Rudolf will take delight in the booty we had taken from the Truce-breaking pagans.”

They smiled and exchanged a nod. Sadly, none of these lords gave even a fleeting thought to the question of who would help the once flourishing agricultural town, Szikszó, recover from the ashes it had been trampled into.

One more bone pile was built on the banks of the Hernád River to remind everyone that the real burial of the fallen warriors is in the stomach of the birds.

Written by Gábor Szántai, edited by Suzanna King 

It can be read in the book “33 Castles, Battles, Legends”, available on Amazon in several editions and prices (ebook, hardcover, paperback):

https://www.amazon.com/dp/198020490X

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You can read about the history of Szikszó here:

https://www.hungarianottomanwars.com/kingdom-of-hungary/szikszo/

Szikszó (Photo: Civertan)