Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

Prince Bethlen Gábor of Transylvania

The statue of Bethlen Gábor in Kolozsvár (Cluj), the work of Péterfy László (Photo: Wikizoli)

Bethlen Gábor (Gabriel) (1580 – 1629) was a Protestant uncrowned King of Hungary (1620–21) and a Prince of Transylvania (1613–29) and a Duke of Opole (1622–25) who led an insurrection against the House of Habsburg in Royal Hungary. He was the one who turned Transylvania into the famous „Fairy Garden” as it was called at that time.

We know that Bethlen’s grandfather used to lead 600 lancers in the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and later he sided with King Szapolyai János against Habsburg Ferdinand. Bethlen Gábor was born in Transylvania in 1580 in Marosillye. You can read more about the history of Marosillye here:

Marosillye (Photo: Oguszt)

Later, Bethlen served in the court of  Báthori Zsigmond (Sigismund), a Transylvanian prince, and accompanied him on his campaign to Wallachia. As we have said in a previous article, in 1605, Bethlen supported Prince Bocskai István and his successor Báthori Gábor (1608–1613). Bethlen later fell out with Báthori because he wanted to side with the Habsburgs. The Transylvanian Estates were not satisfied with the reign of Prince Báthory Gábor, and even the Catholics were against him, just like the German Saxons and his own advisors. Bethlen fled to the Ottoman Empire where he obtained excellent connections. Soon, he returned with Ottoman soldiers and had himself elected as Prince of Transylvania on 23 October 1613 in Kolozsvár (Cluj, Klausenburg).

Kolozsvár in 1617

The Estates were a bit intimidated by the 80,000 Ottoman, Moldavian (Romanian), and Crimean Tatar troops who escorted Bethlen to Transylvania. Pasha Szkender was their commander, and he summoned the Diet to Kolozsvár to supervise the election of Bethlen. As the previous prince, Báthory Gábor had been murdered a few days before the election by the Hajdú soldiers, Bethlen had no opposers. Due to this, the western people tended to regard Bethlen as the pet of the Sultan but it was far from the reality. It was just a political trick to gain power, and after this, he was governing the internal affairs of Transylvania as he wanted to. Moreover, he took part in the 30-Year-War against the Habsburgs, too.

Bethlen’s wars 1619-1626

As the last 25 years had been rather bloody and unsafe in Transylvania, the peace that Bethlen brought about soon became the so-called “Golden age” of Transylvania. Bethlen’s rule was one of patriarchal enlightened absolutism where he was not afraid to use force to achieve his goals. He developed mines and industry and took over many branches of Transylvania’s foreign trade. His agents bought goods at fixed prices and sold them abroad at profit. 

The COA of Bethlen

Bethlen maintained an efficient standing army of mercenaries. While keeping relations with the Sublime Porte, the Ottomans, he sought to gain lands to the north and west. During the Thirty Years’ War, he attacked the Habsburgs of Royal Hungary (1619–1626). Bethlen opposed the tyranny of the Habsburgs and the persecution of Protestants in Royal Hungary, also he was against the violation of Bocskai’s Peace of Vienna,  1606.

Bethlen’s gold Forint, minted in Körmöcbánya

You can read an excellent study about Bethlen’s army here:

In August 1619, Bethlen invaded Royal Hungary for the first time. In September, he took Kassa (Kaschau, Kosice,) where his Protestant supporters declared him the leader of Hungary and protector of Protestants. This incredibly fast success gained him control over Upper Hungary. It was the month when three Jesuits were mercilessly executed in Kassa, under his authority but without his knowledge. Later these victims – one of them was a good friend of Pázmány Péter- became known as the Martyrs of Kassa and were canonized by the Catholic Church.

Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg), 17th century

In October 1619, Bethlen took Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg), where the Palatine of Hungary ceded him the Holy Crown of Hungary. It gave him a serious possibility. He could take the Royal Hungarian territories quite easily because the local landlords and the warriors of the Frontier sided with him at once. Skeptics may say that the nobility swore fealty to him because nobody liked armies marching through their lands.  After all, at that time it was only Bethlen who could guarantee the territorial status quo and the nobility’s unperturbed continuity of their feudal rights. Also, Bethlen’s quick success somewhat resembled the glorious age of King Matthias Corvinus.

On the other hand, the petty nobility loved him better because Bethlen had the money to give honest pay to both the warriors of the Frontier and the Hajdus, the free soldiers. He was encouraging them to join him and they flocked under his flag: a foot soldier got 3 Florins and a rider received 4 per month. It was very little but at least it was paid regularly.

In November, his army took the suburbs of Vienna.  Unfortunately, Bethlen did not take Vienna and soon the forces of Druget György, Captain of Upper Hungary, and Polish mercenaries forced Bethlen to leave Austria and Upper Hungary.

Kassa in 1617

Bethlen negotiated for peace at Pozsony and in Kassa in 1620 and finally, he received ownership over 13 counties in the east of Royal Hungary. Actually, everything had been ready and given in 1619 to get himself crowned, but Bethlen refused the Holy Crown in the summer of 1620 as Bocskai did in 1605. Let us go into details about it.

The Hungarians’ Holy Crown (Photo: Ráfael Csaba)

25 August 1620 Bethlen is elected as King of Hungary

The Transylvanian prince was expecting a major Ottoman reinforcement so he had to settle the relations between Hungary and the Habsburgs. Bethlen summoned the Estates to a Diet to Besztercebánya (Banská Bystrica) on 20 June 1620. First of all, they decided on continuing the war against the Habsburgs. The Ottoman envoys arrived on 22 June, bringing the permit of the Sultan who allowed the Estates to elect a king. After this, Thurzó Imre initiated the dethronement of the Habsburgs: it was the first such declaration in Hungarian history. At the same time, they elected Bethlen Gábor as King of Hungary, by crying “God save King Gábor”.

Besztercebánya in the 16th-17th century

Bethlen certainly refused the act of coronation not out of prudency but because he didn’t want to go too far with Emperor Habsburg Ferdinand II (who claimed himself also King of Hungary). If Bethlen had taken the title and the Holy Crown, it would have made any further talks impossible for good. Also, the Hungarian noblemen, in spite of their support did not want really to contribute to the expenses of the war, and the anticipated financial aid from Bohemia never arrived, either. 


Among the most important reasons of why Bethlen never accepted the crown was the opinion of the Sublime Porte. The Ottomans declared that “If God permits, let Bethlen Gábor be the crowned king of Hungary but we will never allow Transylvania to join his realm. It is because Transylvania was founded by Sultan Suleiman, and it is the property of the great Emperor. Consequently, we would not be able to trust Bethlen’s future Hungarian kingdom as much as we trust Transylvania, and we cannot cede it, our property, to anybody else.” Namely, the Sultan did not approve of the unification of Hungary and Transylvania. They said that Bethlen could be a king of Hungary but in this case, Transylvania should be annexed to the Ottoman Empire. On top of that, the Ottomans would have accepted Bethlen’s kingdom only if he swore fealty to the Sultan as his liege lord.

The flag of Bethlen’s army

   As we could see, in his 1620 campaign, Bethlen could successfully call the Hungarians under his flag: he entered Royal Hungary with only altogether 3,000 Transylvanian soldiers and when he arrived at the Trans-Danubian region, all the warriors of the Frontier castles, from Tata, Pápa, Veszprém, Várpalota, Sümeg (and we mentioned just the biggest ones of the 14 strongholds that changed sides) gladly joined forces with him after a very short time. They reasoned this way: „We have made this turning over neither because in hope of booty nor for aspiring after someone’s property: but it was out of true love of our homeland and our agreement in defending the freedoms of our country and to safeguard and restore justice, and above all, it was out of the desire of the right to freely live to our faith and religion that had driven us in our actions.”

Bethlen Gábor

Bethlen has appreciated them for they were the best warriors, experienced and hardened of wars with the Turks for many a generation. The Austrian general Buquoi and Eszterházy Miklós (Nicholas) tried to force them back to the Emperor’s service in 1621, but in vain: the warriors followed Bethlen’s call and in January they gathered near Szombathely (Savaria) to oppose general Collato’s army. It was interesting, that these warriors fought not only against Bethlen’s enemies but also against Bethlen’s Turkish „friendly” auxiliary forces which were, unfortunately, pillaging the Hungarian countryside. As for Bethlen’s courage, a story of him says that when he was instructing a siege he was standing among his officers and the cannon-balls were striking very close to him. He was urged to go back a bit. Bethlen replied calmly: „Where have you heard or read my Lords, that a Prince had ever been hit by a cannonball?” and stayed where he stood.

Prince Bethlen on his horse

Regarding his coronation, Bethlen realized the risk and he reflected on it like this: “If I had myself crowned, there would not have been a crazier and more miserable ruler than me. The Turks would have wanted me to give them the frontier castles of the country at once unless I wanted them to attack me, just like the Germans.”


The Battle of White Mountain 1620

As it turned out, Emperor Ferdinand II improved his military position against the Bohemians who were supported only by Bethlen at this time. Eventually, after defeating the Bohemians at the Battle of White Mountains (Fehérhegy) on 8 November 1620, King Ferdinand II regained Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg) in 1621 and the central mining towns of Hungary. Now it was Bethlen who asked for peace and in December 1621, the Peace of Nikolsburg was made. Bethlen renounced his royal title on the condition that Hungarian Protestants were given religious freedoms and in return, he was given the title of Imperial Prince of Hungary and Transylvania, seven counties around the Upper Tisza River, and the important fortresses of Tokaj, Munkács (Munkacsevo), and Ecsed (Nagyecsed), and a Duchy in Silesia. The Peace of Nikolsburg was a result of Bethlen’s realization that he alone didn’t possess sufficient power to reunite Hungary against the Habsburgs and in trying so without getting rid of the Ottoman yoke this step would lead to great peril. Also, Bethlen ceded the Holy Crown of Hungary to the Habsburgs.

Another flag of Bethlen’s army

In 1623 – 1624 and 1626, Bethlen, allied with the anti-Habsburg Protestants, made campaigns against Ferdinand in Upper Hungary. The first campaign ended with the Peace of Vienna in 1624, and the second with the Peace of Pozsony (Pressburg) in 1626. After the second campaign, Bethlen offered the court of Vienna an alliance against the Ottomans and offered his marriage to Renata Cecilia, the Archduchess of Austria, but Ferdinand rejected it. Instead, on his return from Vienna, Bethlen wed the young and beautiful Catherine of Brandenburg, the daughter of John Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg. His brother-in-law was Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden so they became in-laws. Catherine’s sister was the wife of Christian IV of Denmark, who had just attacked  Ferdinand. You can read more about her here:

Bethlen’s wedding gift to Catherine

The Court of Bethlen

In his capital, Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia), Bethlen built a grand new palace. Bethlen was a patron of the arts and the Calvinist church, giving hereditary nobility to Protestant priests. Although he was a Calvinist, he helped Káldy György, a Jesuit, translate and print the Bible. He also composed hymns. He also encouraged learning by founding a college, encouraging the enrolment of Hungarian academics and teachers, and sending Transylvanian students to the Protestant universities of England and the Low Countries, as well as to the Protestant principalities of Germany. He also ensured the right of serfs’ children to be educated.

Bethlen’s gold Forint, minted in 1625

Bethlen employed Johannes Thesselius from Erfurt as kapellmeister (composer) in 1625. The prince loved music and apart from the eight previously hired German musicians he had six harpists and violinists and invited more from Silesia – but he had Italian and Polish musicians as well as eleven Turkish players. There were additionally 12 trumpeters and when Catherin of Brandenburg, his second wife arrived, she brought along the organ player Michael Hermann who later became the City Judge in Brassó (Brasov, Kronstadt). Bethlen also invited organ builder masters from Germany in 1629. The last group of ten musicians arrived in January 1628, led by the dance master called Diego del Estrada.

The Bethlen college in Nagyenyed in 1858

Here we have to mention a nasty witch case appearing in Bethlen’s court: Lady Báthory Anna was repeatedly charged with terrible crimes but obviously, it was just an excuse for Bethlen to get her huge domains. When she finally handed over her lands and treasures to Bethlen and his wife, she was mercifully pardoned, she was cast out from Transylvania. This case might be a dark spot on the iconic statue of Bethlen Gábor but who says he was never a dividing person among the Hungarians?

Many more details could be mentioned about Bethlen Gábor but perhaps this much was sufficient to pique interest.

Bethlen on a Hungarian banknote (2017)

Prince Gábor Bethlen and the Jewish community of Transylvania

The reign of Prince Bethlen (1613-1629) was a milestone not only because he invited more Jews into the Principality from abroad but he also declared their privileges in 1623. Some historians believe that his Patent had something to do with the gold mining rights of Nagybánya city (Baia Mare, Frauenbach) which were in Jewish possession and were returned to the prince just before 1623. The famous Patent may have been issued as part of a secret agreement in exchange for these rights.

Anyway, his Patent was exceptional in Christian Europe. The Jewish people were given the right to practice their faith, trade, and settle without restrictions anywhere in Transylvania, without having to wear distinctive marks, and could enjoy legal independence.

Most importantly, Bethlen confronted contemporary thinking and declared that the Jewish community could not be made collectively responsible for faults committed by its individual members.

The saber of Bethlen Gábor

 Bethlen’s Patent is worth reading:

Hereby, We (Bethlen) declare to grant the below-mentioned privileges to all members of the Jewish nation:

  1. They (the Jews) will be given assigned places to live and trade, protected by the commissioners of the locals and of Ours.
  2. They are permitted to trade freely and import various goods from Constantinople. They are allowed to move from city to city and to leave Our country as they wish.
  3. A learned nobleman should be appointed as a go-between and attorney, not only to defend their rights but also to advance their interests in case there would be some conflicts arise. This commissioner should carefully pay attention that they should act neither in secret nor in public against Our Person, against the State nor against Our Power.
  4. In order to live their life without more burdens, they should pay as much tax as before, whichever countries they may have come from. They should enjoy the same inviolability as the Anabaptists but they must not cheat any inhabitants of the country and they should not violate the public law.
  5. They are free to practice their religion according to their ritual habits without bothering others.
  6. If any Jews wanted to take refuge in Our country fleeing from Spain or from other Christian countries and would like to take part in the practice of free religion, We promise to permit it so and grant them the same privileges.
  7. In order to evade any harm coming to them, they are allowed to wear Christian clothes without having to wear any humiliating marks.
  8. They have the right to take money out of the country but only by keeping the country’s interests in their mind.
  9. If the fate of Our country turned somehow to the worse (from which God may save us) and they would be forced to flee the country, they should have the right to sell their properties within a year or transport them to a safer place.
  10. If any of them committed a crime, the individual criminal should be persecuted according to the law but the community should not be interrogated nor harassed.”
Bethlen among his scholars

The death of Bethlen

Bethlen Gábor died on 15 November 1629 before completing his work with the Swedish alliance and before reaching his hand for the Polish throne. He left behind a stable and independent country, a true „Fairy Garden” – it remained Prince Rakoczi György’s task to make it even stronger. When General Wallenstein came to know his adversary’s death he cursed and loudly exclaimed that „it was due time that he has croaked finally”.

The COA of Bethlen in Nagyenyed

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The statue of Prince Bethlen Gábor in Enyed