Báthory István, King of Poland and Prince of Transylvania (1533-1586)
The Báthory family
Báthory (or Báthori) István (Stefan) was born on 27 September 1533 in Szilágysomlyó. He came from the famous Gutkeled branch of the Báthory family of Somlya. They were the Roman Catholic line of the family. His father was Voivode Báthory István of Transylvania, and his mother was Telegdy Katalin. Báthory István was their youngest son. András, his brother later became the captain of Szatmár castle. His descendants were important figures in Transylvanian political life.
His father died a year later of István’s birth so the boy was brought up with the help of Archbishop Várday Pál of Esztergom. The Archbishop later introduced him to King Habsburg Ferdinand I. Then, the young man served in the king’s court as a page. He spoke German, Polish, and Latin very well. He learned in Italian universities and acquired his Renaissance education there. He also learned the highest political and martial skills there. (Please, note that in my articles I intentionally use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first.)
He was the uncle of Lady Báthory Erzsébet (1560-1614) who was innocently accused of terrible crimes by her enemies. According to the latest research of acknowledged historians like Nagy László, she was a victim of a conceptional lawsuit because of her wealth, religion, and political ties. As I am writing about her uncle, I take the opportunity here to make awareness of this misconception about her. You can read more about Báthory Erzsébet here:
How Báthory learned to hate the Habsburgs
After completing his education, he returned to Hungary between 1551 and 1555 where he took the side of King János Zsigmond (son of King Szapolyai János) and fought against the Habsburgs. It is thought that he left Ferdinand because the Habsburg king had not supported his claim for the inheritance of the Drágffy family.
He was the leader of the Transylvanian noblemen who greeted Queen Isabella, the mother of King János Zsigmond when she returned to Transylvania from Poland in 1556. We find him in Szatmár castle in 1558 where he was in command of the garrison. He succeeded in repelling the attack of Chief Captain Telekessy Imre of Upper Hungary. The next year, Queen Isabella sent him and Captain Némethy Ferenc of Tokaj castle to take Kisvárda castle but they had to lift the siege when the Habsburg king’s reinforcement arrived, led by Telekessy.
Then, Báthory István was appointed as the Chief Captain of Várad castle (Oradea) which had a strategic role in the region. It was the highest military rank in Transylvania. Here is more about Várad castle:
When Balassa Menyhárt, the Chief Captain of the Trans-Tisza Region belonging to János Zsigmond switched sides and joined the Habsburgs in 1561, Báthory stayed loyal to King János Zsigmond. Unfortunately, Balassa and Zay Ferenc defeated him and the troops of Némethy at Hadad in 1562. You can read more about this particular battle on my page in more detail, and find out how heroically Báthory was fighting in spite of his injuries:
Báthory became a member of the king’s inner circle so János Zsigmond sent him to Vienna to Ferdinand. He was able to make a cease-fire for two years between the rulers, and even the peace came within arm’s reach. However, János Zsigmond broke this treaty soon because he sent Báthory on 3 November 1564 to take Szatmár castle. At this time, Báthory was already the chief castellan of Várad castle. The next year, King Ferdinand’s army, led by General Lazarus von Schwendi made a counter-attack and took Szatmár and Tokaj castles. After this, King János Zsigmond had to start negotiations and sent Báthory and Nisowski Szaniszló to meet General Schwendi. They made the Treaty of Szatmár whereas King János Zsigmond abdicated his royal title but was allowed to keep his lands. Also, Ferdinand offered him the hand of his daughter, Princess Johanna.
Then, Báthory was again János Zsigmond’s envoy to the Court of Vienna in 1565. He was presenting the terms of peace sent by his king. As it turned out, King János Zsigmond changed his mind and declined his peace offer by asking for the help of the Ottomans. King Maximilian got very angry because of this and had Báthory arrested. He kept him in captivity in Vienna for two years. As a result of this, Báthory came to hate Maximilian to the extent that he refused to use the German language for the rest of his life. He could get home only in 1567 and he decided to stay at his domains. If you would like to learn more about the eagle nest of the Báthory family, read the history of Nyírbátor on my page:
King János Zsigmond was guilty of his imprisonment but instead of compensating Báthory, the king developed a strong dislike for him. Yet, we do not have to judge the king too harshly because he was forced to decline his previous peace offer to Maximilian because of a Turk attack. János Zsigmond did not have a male heir so he left a Last Will in which he appointed a few Hungarian lords to carry govern the country after his death. However, he omitted Báthory’s name from the list of these names. Quite unexpectedly, the king died soon after this on 14 March 1571. The lords who had been appointed in his Last Will had to face a rather difficult situation. As it was, Transylvania was stuck between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans and both superpowers wanted to seize the rule. Fortunately, Transylvania was equally far away from them.
It seemed very likely that the Ottomans would attack Transylvania if an alliance with the Habsburgs was to be made, and it was also quite possible that the Habsburgs would launch a campaign against Transylvania if a treaty with the Ottomans was settled. Things were made even more difficult by the Treaty of Speyer (1570) which was negotiated by Bekes Gáspár. In this document, Maximilian accepted János Zsigmond as Prince of Transylvania but János Zsigmond had to promise to cede Transylvania to the Holy Roman Empire after his death. According to this treaty, Bekes Gáspár, loyal to the Habsburgs, traveled to Transylvania on 10 April. He wanted to hand over the rule of Transylvania to Emperor Habsburg Maximilian.
However, Báthory managed to receive the so-called “ferman” (adhnáme), the written authorization of Sultan Selim II by the end of April. The Sultan appointed him “the Voivode” of Transylvania. The Sultan reasoned in this document, that “…as this land, Transylvania had already been under my protection for a long time and this country is similar to the other lands of mine, and I want to take it in my protection in all respect…and I want to keep it in the same manner as I had it before.” But there was more to the story: Báthory did not know who was appointed by the Sultan until the last moment. Here, you can read my dramatized historical short story about how he came to know it and how he became Prince of Transylvania:
Even Maximilian allowed the Estates of Transylvania to elect a “Voivode” but he demanded that the new ruler should swear fealty to him in secret. Finally, the Estates of Transylvania elected Báthory on 25 May 1571 as the ruler of Transylvania (giving him the „Voivode” title which had come from the traditional title used in the old Hungarian Kingdom) so as to oppose the other candidate, Bekes Gáspár. There were no significant Imperial troops behind Bekes Gáspár but the Crimean Tatars were waiting in readiness for the Sultan’s order to invade Transylvania. Bekes was trying to plot against him from Fogaras castle but Báthory hurriedly made the Estates of Transylvania remove Bekes from Transylvania.
Right after his election as a “voivode”, Báthory said the following to Hagymássy Kristóf, the Bishop of Veszprém: “We have immediately written a letter addressed to His Majesty (Maximilian) and to the Christians in large. We wrote that we were not the makers of this happening. You must have witnessed how these things came to happen; in this great peril of the moment when the Turks are so near, we cannot cast our Homeland into misery, blood, and destruction; only time will tell.”
The Battle of Kerelőszentpál, 8 July 1575
Bekes fled to Emperor Maximilian who offered him support. The Emperor was glad to see a usurper who might be able to balance the power of Voivode Báthory. Let us not forget, that there was a contest going on for the Polish throne and Maximilian was the strongest candidate in the game but the name of Báthory also occurred. To neutralize his opponent, the Emperor supported the movement of Bekes. As for Bekes Gáspár, he even paid a visit to the Sublime Porte to find supporters. However, he was openly not encouraged in the court of the Sultan but he was not flatly refused, either. They would have accepted him if he could gain the throne of Transylvania, though.
On the other hand, Bekes had serious supporters from inside Transylvania as well. He was also joined by powerful aristocrats and military leaders of Royal Hungary. Even Balassi Bálint, the warrior-poet appeared in his court and offered his sword. Regarding the Hungarian Székely border guards of Transylvania, they had grudges against Voivode Báthory because he immediately put down their movement when he was elected. Now, the seasoned Székely soldiers lined up behind Bekes.
In the meantime, Báthory’s attraction was quite distracted from Bekes because of the struggles for the Polish throne. He was too late to react to the appearance of Bekes. To his luck, the usurper made a few mistakes, too. Finally, Báthory could raise an army, he appointed Székely Mózes (later Prince of Transylvania) as a commander. The famous borderland warrior, Gyulaffy László was also among his soldiers. Gyulaffy had distinguished himself in Royal Hungary in the fights against the Ottomans and now he must have been surprised to see a smaller Ottoman unit that also supported Báthory’s army. Read more about Gyulaffy here:
As for Bekes Gáspár, he was able to escape. He fled to Szatmár, then to Ungvár castle. Later, Báthory gave him a pardon and Bekes happened to become one of his most faithful commanders during the Polish reign of Báthory. Eventually, they became close friends. It was Báthory who helped the children of Bekes to receive their education. Regarding Báthory’s way to the throne of Poland, the Battle of Kerelőszentpál had an important role because it increased his successful military renown. The Polish estates were able to take advantage of this victory against those who supported the Habsburgs because Bekes used to be the man of Maximilian.
Báthory, the Prince of the Transylvanian Principality
We know that Báthory made a secret treaty with the Habsburg ruler Maximilian aka Miksa, according to the Emperor’s request. He swore fealty to him in order to secure his small country which was located between two great empires. Miraculously, the secret remained a secret, and Maximilian never informed the Sultan about it (unlike Habsburg Ferdinand had done it before).
His goal was to liberate Hungary from the Ottomans and this was why he reached his hand for the Polish crown. However, some historians have recently doubted his intentions regarding the reunification of the Kingdom of Hungary. Yet, he always had to balance between the two great powers, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. Transylvania was too small to fight against them.
The Jagiellonian dynasty ceased to exist in Poland in 1572, and the Polish Noble Estates took over the kingdom’s control by establishing the “Republic of Noblemen” aka the Rzeczpospolita. Especially the Sejm, the Lower House of the Parliament, got stronger as they had the right to elect and control the king of Poland, they even had the right to find a wife for him. Finally, they elected Henrik Valois (later King Henry III of France) as King of Poland in 1573 but after a short time, he fled to France when his elder brother, King Charles IX of France died.
Báthory, King of Poland
The Polish Estates had to elect a new ruler but it took them one and a half years to decide. The lower-ranked noblemen wanted to elect Báthory István but the high lords wanted to elect Emperor Maximilian II of the Holy Roman Empire. Báthory had two diplomats in Poland who were paving his way to the throne, Giorgio Blandrata, and Berzeviczy Márton.
At last, they elected Báthory on 14 December 1575 in Warsaw as their king but only under the condition that he wed Anna, the sister of the last Jagiellonian ruler. She was told to be not very attractive and was 10 years older than Báthory. On the next day of the election, they issued the so-called “Pacta conventa” that included the terms and conditions. It was reinforced by 78 Polish and Lithuanian aristocrats’ seals. Blandrata and Berzeviczy also took part in creating this agreement. There was another document containing further 17 points that had been issued still in December, though.
Yet, Báthory has agreed to all conditions of the Estates. However, the supporters of Emperor Maximilian haven’t given up just yet, some of the higher-ranking priests and aristocrats elected Maximilian as King of Poland a few days after this. As for the Ottomans, the Sublime Port sided with Báthory and it was an important factor in Poland. Sultan Murad III thought that the Transylvanian Principality together with the Polish-Lithuanian Union was a smaller threat than the combined power of Transylvania, the Holy Roman Empire that included the Hungarian and the Bohemian kingdoms as well. The sultan even offered Ottoman military help to Báthory in case a war happened to break out between him and Maximilian. At the same time, Maximilian tried to bribe Báthory with huge domains if he resigned from the Polish throne.
A Polish delegation, led by 14 noblemen who their 200 men followed carried the “Pacta conventa” to Transylvania. Báthory summoned the Transylvanian lords to a Diet held in Medgyes on 28 January 1576. He received the delegation there, and ceremonially swore his oath to fulfill the terms and conditions of the Pacta conventa. At the same time, he appointed his elder brother, Kristóf as the Prince of Transylvania. As it was, King Báthory has always been keeping an eye on Transylvania and used to deal with its affairs. He also made his oath as a polish king in Medgyes, on 8 February. In his speech, he used to call himself “Prince of Transylvania”: it was the first time when this rank was publicly used in Transylvania. A remark: Báthory gave the 14 Polish delegates a gift, each receiving a horse with saddle and a silver cup. Each silver cup was worth 8,000 Thaller, roughly equal to 8,000 Hungarian Gold forints of the age. Báthory left Transylvania for Poland in the spring of 1576 and never returned there. As it turned out, Maximilian died in the very year when Báthory wed Anna and was crowned as a Polish king.
As a Polish king, he obtained his own income, and this way he could make himself independent from the Estates. He kept a mercenary army and achieved lots of military success, mostly against the Russians. Báthory is said to have brought the first „winged hussars” with him from Transylvania. He reorganized the Polish army and the previous cavalry’s role was gradually taken over by the Hussars whose lances became longer and their armor heavier.
Báthory fought against the Russian Czar Ivan IV (The Terrible), and his Transylvanian, Székely, Lithuanian and Polish army took back Pskov and Novgorod. “If Báthory had lived 20 more years, there would be no Russia today,” said Nikolay Karamzin.
The Czar was made to cede Livonia, too. As a result of this, he became the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Báthory brought Hungarian infantry from Transylvania when he was besieging Danzig: after a hard struggle, Danzig also accepted his rule and his military success increased his fame and power.
He was thought to carry out the liberation of Hungary by the unification of Poland and Transylvania, he had a concept of a kind of „Christian United Europe”. In fact, each European ruler cherished such plans, of course, they envisioned it under their command…
Several Hungarian aristocrats from Royal Hungary had been in contact with him in the 1580s, like Batthyány Boldizsár, Zrínyi György, and Nádasdy Ferenc. Thus, they took the risk of getting charged with treason against their Habsburg ruler.
Báthory was a Roman Catholic and as he had received a Renaissance education, he founded a university in Transylvania in Kolozsvár (Cluj, Klausenburg), by inviting Jesuits there. Also, he established the University of Vilnius in 1579.
When his brother Kristóf died in 1581, he declared Zsigmond, the son of Kristóf the Prince of Transylvania. He set up an advisory board that was to govern the principality until the young Zsigmond would reach maturity. Unfortunately, Báthory Zsigmond proved to be a very wrong choice, he was the one who was going to bring along destruction and war to Transylvania.
As for Queen Anna, Báthory tried to avoid her, they had no children. He tried to divorce her but neither the Vatican nor the Lithuanian-Polish Estates approved it. The Queen had a separate court but she loved her husband. Báthory died quite unexpectedly in Godnó, Poland on 13 December 1586.
He was a significant ruler of the Polish people who respect him even today.
We can see his tomb in the Wawel Cathedral of Krakow.
Here are some more items of weapons and armor, once worn by Báthory István (Stephan), Polish king, and Hungarian Prince of Transylvania.
In Poland, there are special sabers named after him, the “Batorowkas”, which were popular until the mid-1600s.
The description of his saber: Full length – 965 mm, blade length – 840 mm, width – 40mm, thickness – 8 mm, yalman – 215 mm. (Source: mainly from Szibler Gábor)
If you are interested in the deeds of Balassa Menyhárt, you can read his battle against the Ottomans in 1544 on my page:
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