The Siege of Drégely Castle (1552)
György Szondy put down his quill after signing his name on the last letter he was going to send to Archduke Maximilian for reinforcement.
“At least he should send some powder and bullets if nothing else.” he thought to himself as he looked out of the window. There was not much to see, the blackened walls of the old tower of Drégely Castle were pointing accusingly towards the summer sky. The castle had been struck three months ago by a lightning bolt that had exploded the gunpowder that was stored there. Four people died and it was a wonder that the tower did not collapse. The carpenters tried to repair the cracks and gaps with makeshift scaffolding, but Szondy was sure that even a milder storm would finish it, let alone a cannonball of the enemy. Even Bishop Thurzó visited last month to assess the damage and sent a few masons to salvage whatever was possible.
“It is fortunate that His Majesty, Archduke Maximilian had not paid me his debt so I had no money to buy more ammunition. Had the tower been fully packed with good black power, the whole decrepit castle would have gone up in smoke,” he added in himself. Indeed, the Archduke owed him 322 Gold Forints on behalf of the king.
Drégely used to be well paid from the priests’ pocket but since Bishop Pál Várday died a few years ago, the Habsburgs had been in charge of this stronghold and the stream of their regular pay began to flow through the desert of the Treasury which swallowed it thirstily. Stronghold? The delicately carved thin walls with their elegant gothic pillar heads had been serving the needs of the hunting bishops in the forests of the Börzsöny mountain, it was rather a reinforced palace from a peaceful age when cannons were regarded as a laughing stock. The captain shook his head.
“Sebestyén! Give this letter to a messenger and have it sent to Pozsony right away. And fetch some wine,” he said to his young page, a lad who was learning in his court with his friend, Libardy. They were both typical mischievous 16-year-olds, with long dark hair and with a mustache-like shadow under their noses. The lads were good at singing and could play the lute, but Szondi was not content with their horsemanship just yet. As for their knowledge of the sword, Szondy himself was teaching them the Art of the Longsword, according to the school of the great Italian master, Fiore dei Liberi. He recalled his days as a page in the court of his siege-lord and benefactor, Ferenc Révay, the Vice-Palatine of the Kingdom. In those days, he was not called Szondy but was known as Szuhó. Szond was just his home, a small agricultural border town in the south. Lord Révay found him there and decided he was talented. Why even burgher boys could rise in rank if they rode a horse decently enough and had a way with the saber. In his court, there was a great demand for youngsters to defend the southern borders of the kingdom. The young Szuhó was given a knightly education and was taught by the same Italian fencing masters as his lord’s sons. Szondi sighed and threw himself into the bishops’ armchair. Yes, that was a different time and age, hundreds of miles away. Hungary had just one king instead of two and the Turks were just getting ready to invade the country in the not-far-away Serbia, occasionally sinking their teeth into the flesh of the Borderland.
Sebestyén entered with the big copper jar and poured the cool red liquid into a goblet for him.
“My son, I was just four years older than you when I rode out beside my Liege-lord Révay to the field of Mohács. That was my first big battle if we do not count the small raids and counter-raids on the borderland before that. Alas, I saw young King Louis with my very eyes.”
The page listened attentively to him and thought “Sweet God, now the old lion is going to tell me the entire battle story all over again, how he saved his lord’s life and how they escaped miraculously and arrived in the north in Szklabinya Castle where he was rewarded.”
He looked at the captain. The almost fifty-year-old warrior was smoothing his enormous mustache in order to swallow the wine decently. Szondi was a broad-shouldered, bull-like man with seasoned wrinkles on his face and indeed, he dreamily told the lad the whole story.
“. . . and Lord Révay made me a knight and this is how I became a nobleman and I am no longer called Szuhó. King Ferdinand gave me my hometown, Szond, near to the Serbian border. One day, I might be able to take it into my possession when we chase the Turks out from there.”
“Yes, my Lord,” said the page. Both of them knew it would not happen soon. Since Mohács in 1526, the Ottomans came even farther to the north and took Buda in 1541. Now, eleven years later, they were here in the northern hills, trying to cut the remaining country into two. Just Drégely and some other pitifully weak palisades and makeshift forts were blocking their way.
“But enough of this. Go and take your friend Libardy to the cellar and issue wine to the soldiers. Here are the keys. Tonight they can have a double portion.”
No wonder the captain was so talkative to the lad. He had nobody to talk to since his co-captain, Gergely Bekefalvy left the castle before the Turks began their march here. He was complaining because of his pay and said he had three unraised children to take care of at home. Who could he share his worries with? Szondy admittedly would have fled, too, but he could not endure the shame before his liege-lord and the king. He was torn by despair. To whom could he tell that he had only sixty footmen and sixteen hussars, one artilleryman and three castle guards under his pay, altogether eighty souls. That the king allowed him to hire only forty more men and the wealthy Selmecbánya city sent him merely 26 soldiers.
It is said that each burgher in that town had a share in a silver or copper mine and they stored fabulous fortunes in their cellars, closed in strong barrels. Was he not defending them? The narrow-sighted, tight-fisted bastards. The road which went through Drégely was heading to Selmecbánya, via the stone bridge at the Ipoly River, guarded by another small castle called Ság. The fat-minded burghers knew that Drégely was blocking the road that would lead to their treasure vaults, but they were just rolling their eyes and gave no real help. Last month Szondy sent one of his two cannons to Körmöcbánya, the gold-minting town of the crown, to have the old battle-snake repaired. He was expecting it back this week, but only a letter arrived stating that the town needed the king’s approval before carrying out the repairs. The Turks were a mere half days march away and Szondy knew the cannon would not come home in time.
A few years ago, Szondy had recommended to the Military Council to have Drégely and Ság castles pulled down and instead of the two old castles, have a new fort erected on the nearby marshland, studded by earthen bastions in Italian fashion. The Council liked the concept but claimed they had no money. There was a knock on the door and Sebestyén ushered a dust-covered soldier in the room. It was János Zoltay, his youngest officer. His blond hair was wet and his clothes were soaked through because of the heat.
“At ease, my son. Drink this before you tell your news.” Szondy poured some wine with his own hands and while he was quenching his thirst, the captain dismissed his page with a glimpse.
“Sir, I have come all the way from Ság Castle. The castle is on fire and it has been abandoned.”
“The Turks . . . ?”
“No Sir, not them. Sir Captain Jakusits believed he could not withstand Pasha Ali’s twelve thousand strong armies. So he took his three hundred men and joined the forces of General Erasmus Teuffel at Léva Castle. The general’s army is camping a couple of miles further to the north.”
“Are they coming to our rescue? How many troops does he have?”
“General Ördög or Devil, as we call him, has ten-thousand good German, Italian and Spanish mercenaries under his command, but he has no authorization from the king to attack the Turks, Sir. Although, he has sent a messenger to Vienna to ask for permission.” Zoltay wiped his mustache and put the cup back on the table. He added with a half-smile:
“He promised to light great bonfires on the hilltops to frighten the enemy and to give us hope.”
Szondy pursed his mouth so his delicate, unique Hungarian curse could not leave his lips but the full attention of all the saints of the Heavens and all the demons of Hell were suddenly focused on General Teuffel. Nobody knew at this time, that the curse would eventually hit the coward German a month later when after having been shamefully defeated by Hámid Ali at the Battle of Palást, he would be taken to Istanbul where he would finish his life gruesomely, impaled in front of the Sultan’s very eyes.
The next morning, Szondy and his 146 men were watching how Pasha Hádim Ali of Buda was arranging his troops in three camps, deploying them to block the road to Selmecbánya and Teuffel’s army. The Pasha was convinced that the Germans had left this toy castle in his way just as a bait. He had an earthen rampart built and lined up his cannons there.
Ali the Gelded, was not a bloodthirsty man. Soon, the Pasha sent an envoy to the captain of the Ghiaurs to surrender the castle. To his greatest surprise, the envoy returned at once. The moment the messenger left the gate, three Hussars rode out and set the hay piles in front of the walls on fire. A few light riders, the Akinjis rode there to salvage some of the fodder but they were shot at from the towers.
The envoy bowed before the old Pasha and waited to be addressed.
“Tell me the answer of the infidels’ leader as it was told.”
“Great Pasha, may Allah adorn your way to victory with Ghiaur heads. The captain of this small place is called György Szondy and he looks as if he has lost his senses. For he refused your merciful offer and said he had got up this morning too late to surrender the castle. He firmly decided to die with honor rather than throw himself into the yoke of slavery. He would not like to be dragged around like a slave, with a chain on his neck to be sold.”
Ali was slightly amused by the reply. He turned to the Agha of the Topcu soldiers, the officer of his artillery.
“Bismillah, let it be as Allah wants it. Show me, how your men can handle the new French cannons.”
The Topcus bent over their long bronze bombardiers and aimed them at the tower at the main gate of the castle. Three wall-breaching cannons and six howitzers broke both the peaceful summer afternoon and the stones of the tower to shreds.
Cranes flew up from the roof of the inner castle that lay on the hilltop. The birds circled in the air before flying away to the east. The Turks thought it a good sign because the tame cranes of the borderland castles were always regarded with superstition. After the third volley, the whole construction suddenly collapsed in a huge cloud of dust, burying some of the Ghiaurs under the rubble. The Pasha has been expecting it and signaled the Agha of the Janissaries to proceed. The Agha cast a contemptuous look at the small castle and flourished the green flag of the Prophet. Three-thousand throats bellowed “Allah Akhbar!” and the tall white-hatted disciplined Janissaries rose and began their menacing march towards the pile of broken stones that only moments before used to be the tower. The musical band was playing victorious tunes and the grim soldiers were singing loudly. Inside the castle, nothing stirred.
Szondy saw the red feathers of Zoltay’s helmet flicker then, his officer was buried under the flying stones and shreds of timbers of the falling gate tower. He made the sign of the cross. Motioned with his hand to his men in the lower castle’s yard. The big old arquebuses crackled and spat nails and small bullets as the white hats and faces showed up on the top of the stone pile. The long lances were immediately leveled, thrust at the Jannisaries climbing above the rubble. The singing had gradually ceased and the cries to “Jesus” and “Maria” subdued it when a green flag with Arabic letters was torn off and trampled into the blood-soaked dust under the defenders’ legs.
After the Janissaries withdrew, the utterly surprised Pasha sent the dismounted Akinjies with ladders to scale the walls from all sides. Captain Szondy drew the razor-sharp longsword he had been cherishing since 1526 and the death of King Louis. His men received the enemy with sabers and battle hammers along the walls. It was almost dark when the second assault was beaten back. Szondy had a dozen or so old arquebuses from the time of King Matthias. They were added to the few muskets and shot volley after volley at the running Muslims. Amid a tremendous roar, the captain’s only cannon was sending an occasional carved marble ball from the height of the inner castle’s tower.
The rising moon shed light on a much less conceited Turkish camp where Pasha Hádim Ali was given a report of many hundreds of casualties that he should not have afforded.
After this unlucky day had gone, Pasha Ali decided not to take any chances. He expected Teuffel’s attack every hour and did not want to waste more men nor break the Muslim warriors’ morale. He acknowledged the defiant valiancy of this petty captain, however insane and suicidal it was. He smelled heroism here. All the same, Ali shrugged and issued his order to the Agha of the Topcus.
“Shell the place to shreds.”
The Topcus took delight in systematically turning the whole fort into burning embers, beginning with the palisade walls of the lower castle, then, breaking the fragile gothic towers and the buildings of the inner castle into fragments. After two days of terrible bombardment, there came no shots anymore from the pitiful remains. The defenders either all died or ran out of gunpowder.
The fourth day of the siege has come. Bonfires were burning on the tops of the neighboring hills which betrayed to friend and foe that no reinforcement would dare to relieve the defenders.
Szondy knew they were doomed. The cannons were silent and there was really not much to shoot at except broken stones and fallen roofs. The captain had emptied the lower castle right after the first two assaults and hid his remaining warriors in the cellars of the inner castle, among the women folks and the children. He had only three dozen people left and no gunpowder to fight with. His men were desperate, they had all sworn to fight to their last breath and would not forsake the king’s house.
A lonely figure in a black robe was approaching the castle from the enemy’s camp. The man stumbled through the loose stones of the outer wall and climbed up the hillside to the place that used to be the gate of the inner castle. Szondy could make him out now, it was Father Márton, the priest of Oroszi village. They all knew him well.
The priest was a good man. He said he was sent by Pasha Ali and begged the captain to surrender and save their lives, telling him that the Pasha seemed to be a reasonable man who valued their bravery and steadiness. But now, everything was in vain. There would be no help arriving, why should they waste more blood? Father Márton pleaded with tears in his eyes.
“The Pasha will wait only until midday for me to go back with your answer, Sir.”
“Well, then we have a couple of hours to get ready, don’t we.”
“For leaving the castle?” asked Father Márton.
“No, Father, to prepare our souls. Would you give us the last rites? Please, shrive and absolve us, Father, as it is befitting.”
Upon saying this, Szondy summoned his two pages Sebestyén and Libardy. They were there at once, in ragged and bloodstained clothes. The boys had taken their manly shares from the first fight and their Lord knighted them during the following night.
“Sebestyén, my son, go and open the secret tunnel for the womenfolk. Now they must depart and leave their husbands and sons. They have to reach safety while the Turks are waiting for our reply. Libardy, have the men bring out all the valuables we had hidden in the cellars. Build a pile and throw wood on it. Be dismissed.”
While Father Márton was completing his priestly work among the soldiers, Szondy fetched the keys of the dungeon and opened its door. Down in there, he had a dozen Ottoman prisoners of war. Marauders and rapers, they were caught while burning peasants’ homes. Scum of the Earth, riff-raff irregular villains from the Balkans. But there were two Turkish captives who were of nobler kin, captured during a duel. He sought them out.
„Achmed, Ibrahim, get on your feet and follow me,” he ordered in Turkish. When they went up to the yard, Szondy saw that his pages had done his bidding and were standing to attention. The captain felt pity for them, they were so young and talented. His plan was taking shape, though.
“Yes, they deserve a longer life,” he thought and told them his new orders:
“Get yourselves washed and choose the best clothes from the valuable items piled up high in the middle of the yard. Then, make Ibrahim and Achmed do the same.”
When they were ready, Szondy opened his strongbox which had been brought to the courtyard along with the silver and gold items from the chapel and from the treasury chamber of the palace. He measured two sizeable bags of gold to each page and to each young Turkish prisoner.
“Now, Father Márton, listen to my word. We and our men are unable to go out of here, but I am sending my two good pages to Pasha Ali and these two Turkish noble lads as a ransom for their lives. Tell him to give my lads a valiant education and when grown, let them have their freedom to choose their fate. As for me, a decent burial of my remains would be much appreciated. Now, I ask for your blessing, Father, and then be off with you. Noon is almost here.”
Pasha Ali, the Gelded, was smoothing his white beard but his face was dark. He was an honest man and silently nodded in agreement and accepted Szondy’s last will. The pages were ordered to join his retinue and they were made to stand in a good place to overlook the final assault against the castle. The Agha of the Janissaries was agitated and wanted to take revenge, he was nervously playing with the grip of his yataghan.
The assault was launched and the roaring crowd was rushing up to the inner castle to finish the defenders off. There was no music this time. This final fight lasted for two full hours and Pasha Ali considered its outcome a miracle. He had to see his best troops slaughtered and beaten again, turning tail, howling and fleeing down the slopes, bloodied and humiliated by a handful of raging daredevils. Shaking his head, Ali sent his officers with whips to turn the runners back. When they were beaten into submission and thronged up in the yard of the lower castle, Szondy and his few men sallied out. The Hungarians fell on them like scavengers, led by a figure in shining armor. The bulky man was wielding a longsword that easily outdid any Turkish sabers or Persian scimitars. The throng yielded before the long blade. It was the last stand, the time of the bloody harvest.
“Shoot him.” ordered the Agha of the Janissaries and it was obeyed.
The first bullet hit the captain’s knee and brought him down. Two Akinjis threw themselves on him but he fought back on one knee and sliced them with an elegant sweeping move of his longsword. More Muslims were cut down, the man seemed invincible. The Janissaries loaded their guns again. Several musket muzzles rose and the French-made gun’s ammunition pierced his breastplate easily from this close distance. The angry Janissaries pushed into the inner castle but came back soon, even angrier. Their Agha rushed to Szondy’s body and separated his head with his yataghan, spat in his eyes then thrust the severed head on a long spear.
It was planted into the remains of the first tower for everyone to see. Pasha Ali learned not much later that the Janissaries had rushed angrily back like this because they found no booty in the castle. No gold, no silver. No women to rape nor children to sell. All they saw were the corpses of splendid Hungarian stallions slaughtered by their previous owners, thrown next to a huge bonfire that had consumed all the precious things they wanted to have. Twelve Muslim prisoners were hanging from a makeshift gallow-tree and everything was sticky with decay.
Ali let the spear stay there until he had Szondy’s body carried to a proper place selected for his burial. The Pasha was a wise man and knew, that his Janissaries needed a lesson, so he had his army aligned next to the Ghiaur captain’s tomb. Ali felt a growing dislike towards the Agha of the Janissaries so he ordered that he and no one else should fetch Szondy’s head and fit it next to his body.
The Janissaries had to watch silently how the infidel priest called Márton finished the last rituals of the captain who had humiliated them so much. Hádim Ali, the Gelded, Pasha of Buda Castle delivered the funeral speech in Szondy’s honor.
“May Allah bless him who had fallen in an honorable fight and give him eternal peace in exchange for his virtue. Let this spear be struck in his tomb so the wind can blow the horse-tail on it to show the resting place of a true warrior. And you, you Janissaries, the elite troops of the Bright Faced Padishah, you bear in mind that respect for the enemy may bring you sweet victory, while pride is a sin before Allah. Why do you think this captain was wearing no helmet when sallying out? He showed he was ready to die and not be taken alive. Ponder on it, before you meet the army of Erasmus Teuffel, the German Djinn. Learn this lesson that this valiant man called Szondy has taught you. You paid the price for this knowledge dearly. Inshallah.”