Némethi Ferenc (1510-1565) and the wine of Tokaj
A member of the Valiant Order
Our hero was a member of the Valiant Order of the Hungarian Borderland. He certainly had lived the adventurous life of a Renaissance nobleman during the Dual Kingship. By examining his life, we can take a look into how Hungarian noblemen were balancing between the Habsburg-led Royal Western Hungary and the Szapolyai-clan led Royal Eastern Hungary which eventually has become the Principality of Transylvania, in the throat of the expanding Ottoman Empire. We can see how they tried to serve their homeland and collect riches for themselves, fighting their own countrymen in the meantime who were inspired by the same motivations. It just makes this age all the more interesting to me. In telling this tale, I rely on the excellent writing of the Hungarian historian, Szibler Gábor. (Please, note that I am using the Eastern name order for Hungarians.) Read more about the Valiant Order here:
Némethi Ferenc has come from the Némethi family of Zemplén County, his father was called Miklós but we don’t know his mother’s name. He had several brothers, István, Imre, and János. His sister Sára became the mother of Rákóczi Zsigmond, Prince of Transylvania. The story of his life is taking place around the strategically key fort of Tokaj which region began to gain fame for its wine in that time, on the very fringe of the Borderland where the frontier of Transylvania, Royal Hungary, and the Ottoman Occupied Lands met. Let us not forget, the most famous Hungarian wine had come from the Szerémség (Srijem,Срем, Sirmium) but its wine production became to decline due to the Ottoman conquest of South-Hungary.
His not too simple life
Némethi Ferenc was born in the 1510s but he was certainly alive in 1518. His name was mentioned next time only in 1548, in the documents of a court case. It was the year when his name appeared as the owner of Zétény Castle and its belongings. Later he became the captain of Tokaj Castle and he got hold of other castles as well, many times not quite legally. These castles were Szerencs, Kövesd, Szentjobb, and Pocsaj.
His wife was Balassa Zsófia, the daughter of Balassa Imre. She was also the niece of the infamous knight, Lord Balassa Menyhárt, and the niece of Balassa János (Balassa János was the father of the famous renaissance warrior-poet, Balassa Bálint).
Later, Némethi went to serve Lord Serédy Benedek. It was the Serédy family who owned Tokaj Castle at this time but Serédy Benedek died at the beginning of 1555. Lord Serédy left behind a widow, Dobó Zsófia who was pregnant with his son. In his Last Will, Serédy Benedek appointed as care-taker of his wife the Vice Voivode of Transylvania, Dobó Domokos (the younger brother of Dobó István, the hero of Eger Castle) who was also the uncle of the widow. See?
Yet, Serédy György thought himself a better candidate as a care-taker and he besieged the Castle of Tokaj. The widow appointed Némethi Ferenc as the Captain of Tokaj and verily, Némethi arrived there between February and September of 1555. He was organizing a successful defense against the army of Serédy and Perényi Péter. You can read more about Lord Perényi here:
The Lord of Tokaj
Soon, Némethi began to regard himself as the rightful owner of Tokaj Castle. As the powerful Dobó family was on the Habsburg ruler’s side, this fact was threatening his ownership so at the first given chance (around the spring of 1557) he took the side of Queen Isabella and her son, King János II Zsigmond who have just returned to Transylvania.
It was Lord Bebek György who tried to dissuade him from turning his cloak but Némethi gave the next proud answer to him:
„Indeed, Your Lordship had better reconsider not to break away from the Hungarian nation but stay with the nation instead. Your Lordship must have seen by now how the foreign nations were devastating both Hungary and Transylvania when the power had been given in their hands; I am afraid if Your Lordship broke away from the Hungarians and would side with the foreign nation, then, it would bring Your Lordship into peril.”
There was an incident when the Habsburg king tried to take back Tokaj Castle from him, though:
Telekessy Imre, the commander of the Habsburg armies of Upper Hungary and Dersffy István, Chief Captain of Kassa (Kosice, Kaschau) made a surprise attack on Tokaj Castle in October 1557, taking advantage of the wine-harvest. At night, they broke through the palisade and began to plunder the town. The guards of the castle woke up and charged out through the gate, led by Némethi. In the fight, Némethi was severely injured on his forehead by the saber of one of Dersffy’s Hussar, Fekete Bertalan, so the defenders had to retreat behind the formidable walls of the castle.
Némethi, as Tokaj’s captain, had got the castle fortified extensively. There was a Benedictine monastery nearby and it was Némethi who had it turned into a fortification because he wanted to create a defense-zone around Tokaj. He had his small and ancient family castle of Zétény reinforced, too. He had the stately home of Miske rebuilt and began to build ramparts at Rakamaz as well. Lord Mágóchy Gáspár wrote it in 1562 that “he had Tokaj reinforced so much as it had never been before”.
Némethi joined the troops of Báthori István (later Polish king and the prince of Transylvania) and they attacked Kisvárda Castle in February 1558 but their reconnaissance was so poorly done that Lord Dersffy ambushed them and chased them away.
Taking advantage of his fiasco, Pethő János and Lord Bebek set out against him during the summer. They took Zétény Castle but when they were besieging Szerencs Castle, Némethi ambushed them in the dawn of 26 July and scattered their army, injuring both commanders of the Habsburg king.
We find Némethi in Báthori’s army in 1562 again, he was the leader of King (and Prince of Transylvania) János II Zsigmond’s troops. Yet, in the coming battle at Hadad, the Transylvanian army was defeated by the army of Zay Ferenc and Balassa Menyhárt on 4 March. Let me remark: here you can see how relatives were fighting against each other as Balassa Menyhárt was the uncle of Némethi’s wife. Read more about Lord Balassa here:
The defeat was caused again because of the recklessness of Némethi who could hardly wait to prove himself as a commander of a bigger army. He didn’t wait for the arrival of the Prince’s other troops, instead, he attacked, and thus he got defeated. Others say it differently, claiming that he was the one who was surprised by the charge of the Habsburg army while waiting for the troops of Lord Báthori. However, this incident became quite harmful to his reputation as a military leader.
Némethi’s other valiant and less valiant deeds, and his heroic death
The chroniclers of the Habsburg king didn’t write too good things about him, either, because he was often raiding the domains of those noblemen who were loyal to the Habsburgs. He had the Vice-Comes of Szabolcs County kidnapped in 1564, along with the other officials, judges, and noblemen of the county while he had others injured and beaten up.
During the fall of that year, it was Prince János Zsigmond who launched an attack against Royal Hungary but he could not get even as far as Kassa city. As an act of revenge, King Maximilian sent an army, led by General Lazarus von Schwendi against the Transylvanians. They set out from Kassa on 31 January 1565 against Tokaj Castle. The Habsburg army made camp on 4 February near to Bodrogkeresztúr when General Schwendi’s vanguard was attacked by Némethi. Némethi was successful for a while but later he had to withdraw into Tokaj Castle because he got outnumbered. The attackers took the weakly reinforced town on the next day. The cannons breached the wall on 8 February and Schwendi’s soldiers launched an overall attack across the frozen Bodrog River on 9 February. They didn’t notice that the defenders had broken up the ice during the night and only a thin layer froze back on the surface. Plenty of German mercenaries lost their lives in the freezing water. Nevertheless, the defenders were forced to withdraw into the inner castle on the following day because they were outnumbered.
The attackers were getting ready to launch the last attack on 11 February when the defenders pleaded for a cease-fire. The reason for their request was the lethal injury of their captain which he had suffered during the last attack. According to a report: “Their Lord died of a sudden when a cannonball destroyed the wall and the stones hit his head when he was walking around in the castle to place guards and to give orders to his artillerymen…a stone hit his forehead and smashed his head.” Others said he had been hit by a bullet: „While…he was walking unaware of the peril…a small bullet of a rifle pierced his forehead, he suddenly fell, painting the wall around him with his blood and with the pieces of his brain.”
You can read more about General Schwendi here:
The defenders surrendered Tokaj only under the condition that they would be allowed to bury their captain “with the befitting military pomp”. Yet, it is assumed that he was buried quite hastily in a quickly fabricated coffin without any military celebrations, “placing his body in the Chapel of Saint Jób”.
It was how Tokaj Castle was ceded to the Habsburgs, Némethi had to die before the enemy could ever enter the gates. However, Némethi had successfully kept the men of the Habsburg king out from this important fort for many years. He was a seasoned soldier, had raided a lot, and had the skill to take forts by siege. He also knew how to defend castles and how to build them. Unfortunately, he was too self-conceited when he was leading bigger units. Even though, he could hold the isolated Tokaj Castle for the Transylvanians.
Némethi and the wine of Tokaj, along with some religion
Some people think that the world-famous wine of Tokaj became wide-spread because Némethi reduced the taxes for the special harvest that this grape requires. He was also supporting the spread of the Reformed faith in Northeast-Hungary. He sponsored the Reverend Juhász Méliusz Péter who, in exchange for it, offered him his works in 1562. It was Lord Némethi who summoned a conference for the Calvinist Reformed ministers in Tarcal in the same year and did so two years later as well. But Némethi was more than a mere sponsor: he had translated into the Hungarian language four Psalms which were published in the book of Szegedi Gergely in 1569. Besides, he was endorsing the Chronicle written by Benczédi Székely István, the Reformed minister of Göncz, and the famous codex of laws written by Werbőczy, the “Tripartium” which became the basis of the entire Hungarian law regarding the rights of the noblemen in the Early Modern period.
Némethi wrote religious poems, too, which was quite outstanding in his age. His example was followed only a generation later by the nephew of his wife, Balassi Bálint, the greatest Hungarian warrior-poet of the Renaissance.
Némethi Ferenc died early and his death cut an educated and pious life into two. He left no children behind.
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