Báthory István, King of Poland and Prince of Transylvania (1533-1586)

Báthory István aka Stefan Batori (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.

Tombstone of Báthory István (1430–1493), in Nyírbátor (Photo: Szilas)

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 studied 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.)

Hungary and Poland

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 conceptual lawsuit because of her wealth, religion, and political ties. As I am writing about her uncle, I take the opportunity here to raise awareness of this misconception about her. You can read more about Báthory Erzsébet here:


Báthory Erzsébet (Elisabeth)

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:


Várad (Nagyvárad, Oradea)

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:


The tombstone of Balassa Menyhárt (died 1568) from the church of Széleskút

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:


The family tree of the Báthory Clan (Photo: Kocsis Kadosa)

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 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.

Hungary in 1550

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.

The romantic portrait of Bekes Gáspár (1861)

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:


Sultan Selim II

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) 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.

Emperor Maximilian II aka Miksa

 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.” 

Batorowka-style sabers wear the name of Báthory

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.

Detail of the Haller mason of Kerelőszentpál

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.

Balassi Bálint

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:


Gyulaffy László’s statue in Gyulafirátót
 The renowned “blue drabants”, the Transylvanian elite infantrymen also joined in, just like 1,000 German Saxon cavalrymen, led by the Consul of Szeben, Helvig Ágoston. Kornis Gáspár was also marching to meet Báthory’s army but he stumbled into Balassi’s unit on the border of Transylvania. Kornis scattered them but he got injured and could not find his way to Báthory. After this encounter, Balassi Bálint ran into the Hussars of Hagymássy Kristóf who took him to Báthory. He was lucky: had he fought in the upcoming battle of Kerelőszentpál, Báthory may have executed him, too. Here is more about Balassi Bálint:
A Saxon infantryman (Drawing: Somogyi Győző)
 Bekes launched his campaign at the end of June 1575. He marched through Dés and Szamosújvár and arrived in Torda on 28 June. At the same time, Báthory set out from Gyulafehérvár toward Torda and he wanted to prevent Báthory from receiving the Székely troops. Then, Bekes had a twice larger army. Báthory was helped by 2,000 Székely cavalrymen, led by Andrási Péter. The Voivode, (note, he became Prince just later) stayed with the small Turk cavalry unit, led by Gyerőfi János. There were the troops of his brother, the captain of Várad, Báthory Kristóf around him, too. The Wallachian Voivode also sent him 200 light cavalrymen.
A Székely cavalryman (Drawing: Somogyi Győző)
The battle finally took place at Kerelőszentpál, at the Maros River. Just before the fight, Székely Mózes swam across the Maros River at Radnót, holding his sword between his teeth. There, he challenged a warrior of the enemy to a duel and killed him. Then, he slaughtered another one. Many soldiers in the army of Bekes got frightened because of this bravery, and Báthory gave him a reward. The enemy did nothing to prevent Báthory’s army from crossing the Maros the next day. At that point, it was a crucial mistake because they could have beaten the smaller army of Báthory while it was vulnerable and occupied.
Székely Mózes
 Báthory had his men deployed and his cannons were pointing at the enemy. The artillery officer was Raffaello Cinna from Florence. When they began to shoot, the army of Bekes withdrew. Their intention may have been to lure Báthory’s troops from their position and lead them to a better terrain. However, Báthory kept his men in formation. There was nothing else until dark fell, so the fight was postponed to the following day.
The Battle of Kerelőszentpál
 The next day, the army of Bekes was situated on higher ground while the troops of Báthory stood on a swampy field. Yet, the enemy did not want to launch an attack so Báthory, leaving behind his heavy cannons and wagons, slowly set out toward them. The Voivode tried to surround the foe from the right side so Bekes had to leave the higher ground and take up positions in a less advantageous place. The army of Bekes withdrew into the small stately home (or fortified mason) of Szentpál, and many of his men were already looking for a way to escape toward the bank of the Maros River. Báthory sent the soldiers of Székely Mózes and the “blue drabants” against them.
The “blue drabants” (Drawing: Somogyi Győző)
At first, the enemy put up a strong resistance, and they almost repelled Székely’s troops. Seeing this,  Gyulaffy came to his aid with a strong Hussar unit and attacked the middle section of the enemy. After a fierce fight, he could force it back, and the enemy fled. Bekes and the rebelling Transylvanian nobles did not even try to fight and ran away from the battlefield, after witnessing the cavalry assault. According to the sources, Bekes used to run away in critical moments. Many runners died in the swamp or got trampled to death. The third part of the enemy’s army was more courageous, they assaulted the army of Báthory four times but then, they joined the runners. Many of them fell into the Maros River and drowned. The warriors of Kolozsvár slaughtered many of the runners, too.
The Battle of Kerelőszentpál
The battle was finished as early as 10 A.M. but the chase ended only at the end of the day. Báthory immediately hanged four captives on the battlefield, they were noblemen called Barthokovith János, Zádorlaki György, Barcsai Gáspár, Szakács Miklós, and Darolczi János. The Diet that soon assembled after the battle on 8 August, also sentenced many people to death. The old Judge Wesselényi Miklós was crying when he read the names of those who were to die. Of course, their property was taken away by the Treasury. They executed nine high-ranking noblemen on 8-9 August and thirty-four Székely soldiers in Kolozsvár. In Szamosfalva, thirty-four Székely soldiers were mutilated, they lost their noses and ears.
A Székely infantryman (Drawing: Somogyi Győző)
The story of the Pókai family must be mentioned: two brothers, János and Péter were sentenced to death but their mother was begging for their lives. Báthory gave pardon only to one of them and made the mother decide who should live. As the mother was unable to decide, the relatives and friends had to solve the cruel question: the elder brother, János had to perish. According to the chronicle of Bethlen Farkas, the following men accompanied him to the grave: Kabos Farkas, Bogáthi Gáspár, Barcsai Miklós, Csanádi János, Ősi Miklós, and Csányi Miklós. The corpses were unburied for three days, and then Báthory allowed them to be buried near the meat market of Kolozsvár. Fortunately, Báthory gave pardon to one of his captives who was the warrior poet Balassi Bálint because Balassi had not sworn an oath to Báthory before.

 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 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.

Krakow at the end of the 16th century

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.

Warsaw, Poland, 1575

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 a further 17 points that had been issued still in December, though.

Báthory István and Queen Anna

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.

Medgyes (Medias) Transylvania

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.

Báthory István

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.

Báthory at Pskov

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.

Báthory’s crown

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…

Báthory’s royal coat of arms

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.

The school in Kolozsvár

On 12 May 1581, the Prince of Transylvania and King of Poland, Báthory István/Stefan Báthory/Stephan Báthory, issued in Vilna (today Vilnius) the founding diploma of the Collegium Academicum Claudiopolitanum/Jesuit College of Kolozsvár/Klausenburg/Cluj, which had the rank of an academy. A copy of the founding diploma of the Jesuit College of Kolozsvár is on display in the high school that bears its name: Báthory István High School.

The founding document

In 1585 there were 230 pupils studying here, divided into six classes. The language of teaching and learning was Latin. Between 1774 and 1775 the college passed into the administration of another Catholic order, the Piarists, and the new college was briefly given the title of Universitas. In its structure we find departments of Philosophy, Law, Medicine, and Theology.

The school in Kolozsvár

After 1778, theology was transferred from Kolozsvár to Gyulafehérvár/Karlsburg/Alba Iulia. The Jesuit Order had at that time the best network of educational institutions, the most important of which were “collegium maius” (major colleges), similar and equivalent to universities. Báthory entrusted them with the establishment of a college in Kolozsvár.

in Kolozsvár

On 20 December 1579, the first grammar classes for the two lower classes were held at the former Benedictine monastery in Kolozsmonostor/Abtsdorf/Cluj-Mănăștur. In 1581, the college and the seminary for priests moved within the city walls as two separate institutions.

Well endowed (they received several villages, about 500 peasant families, and other income and property, as well as sums of money) by the founding diploma of 12 May 1581 (confirmed a year later by Pope Gregory XIII), the two institutions were also able to make development plans.

(Source: Tudor Duică)

Báthory established the University of Vilnius

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.

Prince Báthory Zsigmond

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.

the tomb of Báthory in the Wawel

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)

Grodno, Báthory’s headquarters on the Lithuanian-Polish border (1575)

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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