King Habsburg Ferdinand I of Hungary and Bohemia (1503-1564)
King Habsburg Ferdinand I of Hungary and Bohemia (1503-1564)
Habsburg Ferdinand was the King of Bohemia and Hungary, and his story cannot be separated from King II Lajos and King Szapolyai`s reign. He is a dividing person in Hungarian history: some people think he was one of the greatest Hungarian kings, while others claim he caused the greatest harm to the kingdom.
His rule in Hungary was the result of a succession of random events. Already during the reign of King Matthias (1463) and twice during the reign of the Jagellos (1491, 1506), the Habsburgs secured their future succession to Hungary by treaty. There was also a reciprocal marriage, guaranteed by the marriage treaty of 1506. As a result, in 1521 King II Lajos (Louis) of Hungary married Maria, the granddaughter of the German Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Maria was the sister of Ferdinand who married Anna, the sister of Lajos. Ferdinand thus became one of the pretenders to the Hungarian throne. Some historians say that he got close to this throne by the “unfortunate coincidence” caused by the Battle of Mohács and the death of King Lajos in 1526.
However, other people say that the death of King Lajos was not a mere coincidence. We are informed about the circumstances of his death only by his bodyguard, Czettritz who witnessed it. Ulrich Czettritz was the Queen’s man and died shortly after finding the dead body of the king. Did Habsburg Maria help her brother Ferdinand to seize the Hungarian throne? It was a prior Habsburg dynastic goal. Also, let us not forget that Charles, Ferdinand’s brother could become Holy Roman Emperor only with a loan from the Fugger banker family. Note, the Fuggers had a conflict with the Kingdom of Hungary because King Lajos II realized how much the Fuggers were cheating him. Lajos wanted to get the invaluable northern gold, silver, and copper mines back from the Fuggers. No wonder Charles needed the northern Hungarian mines very badly to pay his debt to the Fuggers. Here is more about these fabulous mining towns:
Habsburg Ferdinand was born in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, on 10 March 1503, the second child of Prince Philip the Fair of Burgundy, son of Nicholas I of Spain, and Joan of Arc, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. The couple already had a son, Charles, later Emperor Charles V, and King Charles I of Spain. Ferdinand spent his childhood in Spain and his mother tongue was Spanish. In 1518, he moved to the German Lowlands, when his brother became King of Spain, and a year later he inherited the title of Holy Roman Emperor. On 28 April 1521, Charles, who ruled the vast empire, decided at the Imperial assembly in Worms to cede the Austrian hereditary provinces (Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola) to his brother. In the following year, he received Tyrol, Lower Austria, and Württemberg (Treaty of Brussels). This division later became the basis for the creation of the Austrian and Spanish Habsburg branches.
As Ferdinand had come from Spain, it took him some time to learn German. When he married the Hungarian Princess Anna, he had to struggle with the Hungarian language as well. At the very beginning of his reign, Ferdinand faced serious difficulties, the Austrian orders were displeased and he took strong action against them, executing their leaders and the mayor of Vienna in 1522 in Bécsújhely near Vienna. The Reformation also grew in strength in his provinces, and in 1525 a peasant uprising broke out in Tyrol. The rebellion had not even been put down when Ferdinand, who was in Innsbruck, received news of the death of his brother-in-law, King II Lajos (Louis) of Hungary (1526, Mohács).
He immediately reached out for the Hungarian crown, but it was not until mid-October that he arrived at the Hungarian border at Hainburg, where he discussed arrangements with his sister, the widowed Mary. In the meantime, he was elected King of Bohemia (23 October), but on the Hungarian throne, he had to face another candidate, Szapolyai János, Voivode of Transylvania, who acted immediately and crowned himself King on 11 November. His claim to the throne was based on the 1505 Diet decrees, which stated that after the extinction of the House of Jagelló, the noble estates would elect only a national king. Thus, Szapolyai was crowned earlier than Ferdinand, supported by the vast majority of Hungarian noblemen. Let me note, that according to gossip, it was Szapolyai György, the brother of János who killed young King Lajos right after the Battle of Mohács…
Ferdinand was elected king in Pozsony (Presburg, Bratislava) on 17 December by a very small group of noblemen. They were Báthory István (without him Ferdinand’s men could have never entered Hungary as Báthory held Dévény castle at Pozsony with his men), Thurzó Elek, the co-chief minister and Treasurer whose family was intermarried with the Fuggers, Nádasdy Tamás, the royal secretary who was going to organize a strong Habsburg party later, and a few others. there was Batthyány Ferenc, Bán (Duke) of Croatia, and Bishop Szalaházy Tamás of Veszprém along with Bishop Brodarics István of Szerém. The few counties in the west, as well as the cities of Pozsony and Sopron, were not a very big camp for the pretender. We have to note, the Habsburgs had instigated the Serbians of southern Hungary against the Hungarians, and massacres and uprisings were destroying the country from 1526 on. Here is more about the bloody uprising of Cserni Jovan:
Right after his coronation, he began a serious propaganda campaign to discredit his opponent (he proclaimed that Szapolyai had made a pact with the Turks), raised an army, and also made inroads with the Sultan, who at that time received him with friendship. For the time being, however, Szapolyai held Buda and Székesfehérvár, as well as the Holy Crown, so if Ferdinand really wanted to be king, he had to get them. Szapolyai’s claim was strong, too: some historians say, that the Jagellion treaty was voted down by the Hungarian Estates who elected King Szapolyai, claiming that only a native Hungarian can be the king of Hungary.
In the summer of 1527, Ferdinand took Buda and most of the country almost without a stroke of the sword and was crowned king – also legally – on 3 November in Fehérvár. He immediately began to reform the administration, set up the Hungarian Chamber and appointed Báthory István as Palatine during his absence. His military success literally forced King Szapolyai to seek an alliance with Sultan Suleiman. You can read more about the creation of this alliance here:
The division of the country, sadly, favored the laughing third, the Turks, as the following years and decades proved. The Habsburgs’ victory in Hungary prompted the Sultan to launch another campaign, motivated by King Szapolyai’s alliance with him. Yet, we mustn’t forget that before the alliance, Szapolyai had been pleading for help against the Austrian usurper from all the Christian rulers, sending envoys to the Pope, to the French and Polish kings, and to Bavaria and many more places asking for help against the Turks, but in vain. Yes, King Szapolyai was humiliated by the Sultan himself when in 1529 Suleiman had gone against Vienna and King Szapolyai was made to kiss his hand, no other place than at the battlefield of Mohács. In return, the Sultan gave him back the Holy Crown and restored him to power.
In 1529, Suleiman came to Hungary under the pretext to restore the power of Szapolyai, then he captured Buda, and turned against Vienna. The three-week siege in October was unsuccessful, but Ferdinand had to realize that he had gained a dangerous opponent. His reign was largely dominated by the struggle against the Turks, in which he and the Hungarian noble estates (which is why Ferdinand was elected) counted on imperial help from Charles. In fact, the Hungarian estates supported Ferdinand because he and Charles had promised to save Hungary from the Ottomans.
Charles’s reign, however, was defined by the war against the French and the Protestant imperial noble estates. He preferred to fight the Turks rather in the Mediterranean and North Africa, where his Spanish and Italian possessions were more threatened. Only once did he come to the Hungarian theatre of war in person, then only as far as Vienna in 1532, but the Sultan refused to meet him after the heroic defense of Kőszeg castle. You can read more about Kőszeg here:
It was the sorrowful period that we call the Dual Kingship of Hungary when the country was divided into two parts. Ferdinand did his best to get rid of Szapolyai, even sending an assassin to kill him but Szapolyai was able to fight his attacker with his own hand. Ferdinand and Szapolyai’s struggle against each other only favored the Ottomans, and in February 1538 the parties made peace at Várad. Both parties retained their kingship and the territories they held, but in the event of Szapolyai’s death and even in case of a possible birth of a son, Ferdinand would inherit the whole country. To everybody’s surprise, King Szapolyai János had a male child in 1540, who became our last elected national king and the first Prince of Transylvania at the same time: János (John) Zsigmond II. In 1540, King Szapolyai died, but his supporters elected his infant son, János Zsigmond.
The little boy remained in the palace of Buda with his mother, Queen Isabella Jagiellon, the eldest daughter of the Polish king.
The young Queen, listening to the advice of his Jesuit priest called Brother György aka Martinuzzi, handed over the castle of Buda to the Turks in 1541. Before judging too harshly over the widow and blaming the departed king, it is very important to look into the matter, regarding the relationship between King Szapolyai and Sultan Suleiman. Szapolyai naturally wanted to keep the power for himself and for his son. We have to remark that King Ferdinand was also willing to pay even higher annual taxes to Suleiman in exchange for his safe rule over the East Hungarian lands.
Szapolyai (and his main advisor, Brother György) seemed to have been more worried about the Habsburgs than the Turks, besides, they simply had no choice left. Thus, they broke the peace. Ferdinand, losing patience, launched his army to besiege Buda, and the following year the Sultan marched again into Hungary and occupied Buda. Having scattered the Habsburg troops, Suleiman just walked into Buda and the Turks remained there for 150 years. The fall of Buda resulted in the division of the kingdom into three parts because this time, Suleiman occupied the middle of the country. Read more about the fall of Buda here:
Over the following years and decades, the Ottomans continued to expand their conquest, leaving Ferdinand with only Croatia, Slavonia, the western part of the Danube region, and Upper Hungary. He also managed to take possession of Transylvania between 1551-56 but found that he could not defend it against the armies of the Sultan. However, he never refused to give up possession of the whole country. He tried to stop the Turks and build up the fortress system, the new Borderland with the powerful help of the Hungarian estates. However, it was quite clear that he cannot liberate Hungary and could not defend Transylvania from the Ottomans, according to his promises.
He made serious efforts to buy peace from the Turks, though. He made treaties with the enemy in 1533 and in 1547, and paid taxes to the sultan that were higher than the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom sent to the Turks to keep them out of their land. In 1556, after the abdication of Charles V, he also succeeded to the Imperial throne of the German Holy Roman Empire (his coronation took place in 1558). However, like his brother, he failed to secure sufficient help to expel the Turks and get enough money for it from the Imperial assembly. With the spread of the Reformation, many of the Imperial princes followed the new ideas, and the Catholic Habsburgs’ request for military aid always made them fear that the army would be used against them.
However, Ferdinand did not totally oppose certain Reformation ideas (double communion, celibacy), and he asked the Tridentine Synod to accept them, but in the end, they were not included in the Synod’s decisions. Ferdinand played a major role in bringing about the religious peace of Augsburg in 1555 and did not hinder the spread of Reformation tendencies in his empire. In any case, the Turkish threat in Hungary and the war with the Szapolyai (and his son) meant that he could not afford to stir up a new source of conflict with his intolerant religious policy.
In Hungary, he was accused in the past – and often still is – of abandoning Hungary to its fate in the fight against the Turks and of disregarding the rights of the noble estates. It is true that the new offices (the Hungarian Chamber, the Hungarian Chancellery, and later the establishment of the Imperial War Council) served to limit the rights of the noble estates (not only the Hungarian but also the Austrian, Czech-Moravian, etc.). However, some historians say that the negligent management of funds under the Jagellonian kings hampered effective governance and it resulted in the dissipation of defense. Previously, the unrestricted land acquisition of Hungarian barons and noble estates and their disregard for royal authority opened the way to Turkish expansion.
Others say, that the financial disaster that took place right before 1526 was due to the Fugger bankers and the followers of Habsburg Maria, and it was the immediate reason for the troubles. On the other hand, the recent research on the Jagellonian age in Hungary (1490-1526) changed the previous negative overall picture of this period. Also, a significant number of Hungarian researchers still make the Habsburgs (and especially Habsburg Ferdinand) responsible for the tragic outcome of Hungarian history. By all means, the Hungarian noblemen trusted his promise because Ferdinand was the ruler of half of Europe (Spain, the German-Roman Empire, the Low Countries, Burgundy, Naples-Sicily), and it was safe to hope that he would help Hungary against the Turks.
Ferdinand set up modern offices in order to establish an effective defense and the necessary financial basis. It is also true that for decades (1530-54) he did not appoint a Palatine who was traditionally the second man after the Hungarian king, acting on his behalf in the absence of the king. Of course, Ferdinand did not say that he wanted to limit the Hungarians’ roles. His reason was that the Palatine, who was as well as the commander-in-chief of the royal armies, was in constant conflict with the commander-in-chief of the armies brought in from abroad. To understand his thoughts better, read the story of Perényi Péter, the second wealthiest man of the kingdom:
Instead of appointing a Palatine, Ferdinand appointed a governor, but in 1554 he could no longer delay in taking up the post of the Palatine. However grudgingly, he had to give in to the Hungarian estates because he could not have defended Vienna and Austria without their swords. His new Palatine became Nádasdy Tamás. During his eight-year regency (1554-62), however, Nádasdy Tamás was so successful in defending the rights of the noble estates that the Habsburg rulers, learning from the incident, did not appoint another Palatine until 1608. You can read more about Nádasdy Tamás here:
Ferdinand also realized that he could only protect his Austrian provinces by protecting the remaining parts of Hungary (the Kingdom of Hungary had done the same earlier when it used the Balkans as a buffer). Therefore, at great cost (and often at a great loss), but by the 1560s and 70s, a system of fortresses had been built in a semicircle in Hungary, which (since the revenues of Hungary were insufficient) was supplied by the Austrian hereditary provinces, the countries of the Czech crown and the financial aid of the Empire. Ferdinand, therefore, did everything in his power to defend the rest of Hungary, and of course, Austria. It was his general, Lazarus Schwendi who took part in the Imperial Diet in Regensburg in 1576 and he delivered a famous speech about the Turkish peril in Hungary. He said that “…if we lost Hungary, all the weight of our defense and struggle for freedom would fall on our German peasants.” Read more about him here:
Ferdinand did not interfere in the internal affairs or justice of the Hungarians, and he left the administration of justice untouched. The Diet functioned, and in Hungary, there was no bloody showdown like the one he made in Vienna. Ferdinand was also accused of excluding the Hungarian overlords from the decision-making of the kingdom. However, he often asked the Hungarians to live in Vienna, but they were less willing to do so because of the costliness of living there, the foreign milieu, language, customs, court etiquette, and the protection of their home estates. In the 1550s, only Nádasdy Tamás, Zrínyi Miklós, the Croatian-Slavonian Ban (Duke), and Gersei Pethő János, the Captain of Komárom castle, had houses in Vienna. Ferdinand could not have done without the local knowledge and military experience of the Hungarian lords in the anti-Ottoman wars.
Ferdinand’s wife, Jagelló Anna died in 1547, she had 15 children. Of these, four were the son, the future Emperor, and King, Maximilian, then Charles, who inherited Styria, Carinthia, and Carniola, known as Inner Austria, as well as Ferdinand, who inherited the Pre-Austria (Tirol, Voralberg), and John, who died in infancy. There were several speculations that one of his daughters would marry Szapolyai’s son in exchange for renouncing the royal title, but this never happened.
Ferdinand died in Vienna and was laid to rest in St Vitus Cathedral in Prague. The picture of the negatively judged monarch is becoming increasingly nuanced in historiography, with Pálffy Géza considering him one of the most outstanding rulers in Hungarian history. For certain historians, the sources and the research allow a much more positive image of Ferdinand to be developed.
In my opinion, two things played a major role in his character that I found interesting: on one hand, he could not handle well the East-European aristocrats of Hungary because of his upbringing in the Spanish court where he had gotten used to the idea of absolute power. Secondly, he helped his elder brother Charles all the time despite the fact that Charles was quite jealous of him.
As for his character, Ferdinand was not a warlike figure and didn`t like leading his troops in person, and he didn`t take delight in violence. He preferred sending assassins. I think, if the Habsburgs hadn’t interfered with Hungary’s affairs, the Turks would have had a lot more difficulties in occupying the country. Hungarian historians are very divided on this question.
Source: based on the research of Szibler Gábor, and partly from my own research…
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