Prince Bocskai István

Prince Bocskai István

The family of Bocskai István

The Bocskai family never belonged to the richest aristocratic circles. It was Bocskai István’s grandfather, Bocskai Simon, who acquired the family’s first village, Kismarja. Luckily, István’s father, György, made a good marriage when he married Lady Sulyok Krisztina. His father-in-law was Sulyok Balázs, the chief chamberlain of the king. The Sulyok family was related to the Török family, so the famous Török Bálint became their relative as well. In addition, Sulyok György (the younger brother of Balázs) was the bishop of Pécs in the 1530s.
When the Ottoman Empire gained ground in Hungary, the family members had to move from Bács, Bodrog, and Somogy counties to Upper Hungary and Transylvania. Sulyok Balázs was married to Pethő Erzsébet of Gerse, they had three daughters: Krisztina, Sára, and Anna. Bocskai György married Sulyok Krisztina in 1544-45. Krisztina’s sister Sára married Dobó István, the famous captain of Eger Castle in 1550. The third sister, Anna, married Balassa János in 1553.
Bocskai’s coin
Bocskai György found himself in the middle of a network of high-born nobles who were important figures in political life. King Ferdinand of Habsburg appointed Dobó István as voivode of Transylvania in 1553. There, Dobó relied on the support of his son-in-law, Bocskai György. In return, Dobó helped him to get new lands in the county of Bihar from King Ferdinand.
Not much later, the Transylvanians rebelled against the rule of Ferdinand and called back Queen Isabella from Poland. The new ruler of Transylvania became the son of the late King Szapolyai János, János Zsigmond. The remaining army of Dobó and Bocskai retreated to the castle of Szamosújvár in the spring of 1556. Sulyok Krisztina became pregnant during the siege. When the garrison of Szamosújvár surrendered the following fall, they were all captured by the Transylvanians. Dobó was able to free his wife, who managed to escape from the prison. So, Bocskai György received the news of the birth of his son, István, still in prison.
The gold Forint minted by Bocskai István
Bocskai István was born on January 1, 1557, in Kolozsvár (Klausenburg, Cluj), next to the house where King Matthias Corvinus was born. According to a contemporary historian named Szamosközy István, Bocskai had 14 brothers and sisters. Erzsébet, his eldest sister, later married Báthory Kristóf, the elder brother of Prince Báthory István of Transylvania. The son of Kristóf and Erzsébet became the prince of Transylvania, he was Báthory Zsigmond. No wonder that Bocskai István served his nephew so loyally as a soldier. Whether the reign of Báthory Zsigmond was useful or not is another question.
Bocskai István, the general of Prince Báthory Zsigmond
We know that two of Bocskai’s brothers became priests, while three others married. Bocskai György and “Sulyok Krisztina” were Roman Catholics at the beginning, but they supported the Reformed Church in the 1560s, following the teachings of Melius Juhász Péter. Bocskai István was a child during the conversion of his parents, and later he never gave up his Reformed faith, not even during his time in Vienna or during the reign of the Catholic Báthory clan.
Bocskai’s statue in Budapest
We should add that Bocskai’s first cousin was Balassi Bálint, the famous poet and warrior, and Lady Dobó Krisztina, Dobó Ferenc.
Thanks to the support of his relatives, he was allowed to go to Vienna. At the court, he spent his young years with the Habsburg emperor’s sons and the sons of many Hungarian aristocrats like Nádasdy and Homonnai Drugeth. He was also helped to build his career in Transylvania.
You can read more about Bocskai’s uprising here:
Bocskai István (By Somogyi Győző)

Bocskai, Prince of Transylvania

The Transylvanian Diet elected Bocskai prince of Transylvania in Marosszereda (Nyárádszereda / Miercurea Nirajului) on February 21, 1605. As it was, Bocskai had started his rebellion against the Habsburgs in 1604, but he could not dare any campaigns against them as long as his back in Transylvania was not safe. No one knew whether Transylvania would support the Habsburgs or him, so Bocskai had to do something.

1570, the borders of the Principality of Transylvania

After General Basta left Transylvania, power was not in stable hands. Bocskai began to find supporters among the Hungarian nobility, but he also tried to win the favor of the Saxons and the Székelys. Some nobles had previously supported the Habsburgs or the Székely Mózes, but now they sided with Bocskai. Haller Gábor, Bornemissza Boldizsár, and Bogáthy Menyhért were among the lords who joined him. Thanks to the help of Petki János, the Hungarian Székely border guards also joined his camp. You can read more about the Székelys here:

It was not very obvious that the Székelys joined Bocskai’s troops because it was Bocskai who had led the army of Hungarian nobles against the Székelys in February 1596. This was the so-called “Bloody Carnival” when the Székelys’ freedom movement was mercilessly crushed. Fortunately, the Székelys blamed the nobility and not Bocskai, the military commander. On the other hand, the Székelys have suffered so much more at the hands of the German mercenaries of Basta since that time that they have forgotten all previous grudges.

Common Székely infantrymen (by Somogyi Győző)

Bocskai accepted the demands of the Székelys at the Marosszereda (Nyárádszereda) Diet. Their demands included the following points 1. Their old liberties would be restored; 2. they would receive amnesty for past crimes; 3. no one would appoint foreign officers or captains to lead them; 4. Bocskai would never place foreign mercenaries among them; 5. if the Székelys were called to war, they would have to fight the enemy within 15 days, otherwise they would be free to go home.

The unveiling of the Bocskai statue in Nyárádszereda, 1906

The German Saxons of Transylvania had not yet joined Bocskai, but the support of the Székelys and the Hungarian nobility was enough to get him elected. However, he was not officially inaugurated until September, when he received the approval of the Sultan.

20 April 1605: Bocskai was elected as Prince of Hungary

During the winter of 1604-1605, Bocskai succeeded in occupying the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary as far as the Mining Towns District. He was already the Prince of Transylvania, but there were several issues to be settled in the newly occupied regions of the Hungarian Kingdom. Bocskai’s title had to be decided, religious affairs and relations with the Habsburgs had to be settled, not to mention the problem of the Hajdú soldiers.

The Diet of Szerencs on a postcard

The Diet was convened on April 17, 1605, in Szerencs Castle, which was on the land of Rákóczi Zsigmond. There, on April 20, the Hungarian nobility elected Bocskai as their prince. After that he was not only a rebel, but the leader of the country. In his speech, Bocskai listed at length the abuses that the Hungarians had suffered at the hands of the Habsburgs. It was interesting that he referred to the traditions of the Transylvanian Principality and that he delivered his speech in Hungarian.

Szerencs (Drawing: Nagy Gábor)

In addition to the nobility, the wealthy burghers also participated in the Diet. Bocskai invited the citizens of Kassa (Kosice, Kaschau), but he also received people from Debrecen. During the Diet, the nobles spoke out against the forced conversion of the Catholic Church and raised the question of the persecution of the Protestants. They were against the policies of the Habsburgs and the wandering mercenaries who ravaged the country. Finally, they voted for a tax of two gold forints per household to finance Bocskai’s wars in Lower Hungary and the Trans-Danubian region.
(Source: Szibler Gábor)

Bocskai’s staue in Nyárádszereda, Trnsylvania

Was the uprising of Prince Bocskai István good for the Ottoman Empire?

According to the Hungarian historian Szakály Ferenc, it was very profitable for the Sultan.
Let us not forget that it was István Bocskai who had defeated the Turks at Gyurgyevó and who had persuaded Prince Báthory Zsigmond of Transylvania to join the 15 Years’ War against the Turks. (Please note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians, where the surname comes first).

Bocskai’s statue in Switzerland

We also know that the Habsburg monarchs did everything they could to alienate the Hungarian lords: the fabricated cases against the wealthy (mostly Protestant) Hungarian aristocrats earned Vienna a lot of money, since the long war had already emptied the king’s treasury.

Bethlen Gábor (who later became the Prince of Transylvania with the help of 20,000 Turkish sabers between 1613 and 1629) tried to persuade Bocskai to rebel against the Habsburgs. Their letters were intercepted and their conspiracy reported to the king. Bocskai had tasted Habsburg prisons before, so he had no choice but to rebel, allying himself with the Turks at the same time.

Bocskai István

According to Szakály Ferenc, the Turks gained the following advantages from this war against the Habsburgs:

1. During the Long War (1591-1606), many Hungarian and South Slavic peasants had to flee from their destroyed homes. They became “hajdú” soldiers, either trading with cattle or raiding the “Turk” lands (basically their former homeland).
Their numbers had increased so much that they stopped all traffic between the Ottoman garrisons in the occupied lands of Hungary.
They were only slightly better than bandits, they plundered everyone, and we have sources that say that the local Hungarians fled to the dreaded Crimean Tatars, who were camped nearby, just to get protection from the Hajdú marauders.

Bocskai amid his “little angels”, the Hajdú soldiers

Bocskai used these Hajdús against the Habsburgs and even settled and privileged them with collective nobility. As a result, the Ottoman garrisons were relieved from the enormous pressure they had suffered before. You can read more about the Hajdú soldiers here:

2. Since the Hajdú troops had to be dealt with, the Habsburgs had to send several units against them.
As a result, the Ottoman field armies were able to operate more easily than ever before, and Grand Vizier Lalla Mohamed was able to retake Esztergom Castle in 1605.

3. When the new enemy, Bocskai, appeared, the Habsburgs had a good reason to end the 15 Years’ War – the Long War, in which the ultimate goal would have been the liberation of Hungary.

We know that in 1604 a Persian envoy arrived in Prague and the Persian-Habsburg alliance was about to be signed. Well, this alliance was not signed.

4. Bocskai helped to bring about the Peace of Zsitvatorok in 1606, which ended the Long War and allowed the Turks to withdraw their armies from Hungary to suppress the rebellion in Anatolia. The castles of Eger and Esztergom remained in Turkish hands.
Also, according to the truce, Emperor Rudolph had to pay 200,000 Hungarian gold forints to the Sultan. As a result, Pasha Murad was able to send his best troops to Asia.

This would not have been possible without Bethlen Gábor and Bocskai István.

The crown that the sultan sent to Bocskai István

What have the Hungarians gained from the whole business?

The constitutional rights of the Hungarian nobility were restored, the harassment of the Protestant lords was stopped and the Principality of Transylvania gained more lands from the Kingdom of Hungary.

Many Hajdús were settled in Hajdú towns. Transylvania became stronger and more independent from both the Turks and the Habsburgs. However, Hungary was not yet liberated from the Turks.

The “Hungaries” (Royal Hungary, Ottoman Occupied Lands, and the Transylvanian Principality) in 1606

The “Hungaries” remained in three parts:
-The Kingdom of Hungary (ruled by a Habsburg monarch who had to respect the Hungarian constitution and laws);
-the Principality of Transylvania (ruled by an elected prince who paid less in taxes to the Turks than the Habsburgs had previously paid, but had more centralized power in his country than any of the Habsburg kings at home);
-and the Ottoman-occupied lands of Hungary, where 95% of the Ottoman soldiers were ethnically South Slav soldiers; where local feudalism undermined Ottoman feudalism so that they never became like other previously conquered Sanjaks in the Balkans).

Let us not forget that, despite the armistice, the “small war” raged on in the Borderland of the “Hungaries” as if nothing had happened before.

Bocskai gave this flag to his Hajdú soldiers in 1604

(Source: Szakály Ferenc: Bocskai kíséretében, 1988 Budapest)

The legacy of Bocskai

29 December 1606 Bocskai dies in Kassa
Bocskai signed two peace treaties in 1606. One of them was an agreement between the Hungarian Estates and the Habsburgs, signed on June 23, 1606, while the other was the famous armistice of Zsitvatorok on November 11, which ended the 15 Years’ War.
Bocskai could have enjoyed the benefits of peace, but death intervened. We know that in the spring of 1606, he complained that his legs were “heavy as lead” and his limbs were swollen with water. This disease was then called “stomach-water disease” and was the result of eating spicy food and drinking too much wine. At that age, wine replaced drinking water. His liver and kidneys were damaged and the prince died in December. Gossip about his “poisoning” began immediately.
Bocskai’s grave in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia)
It was Bocskai’s chancellor, Káthay Mihály, who was accused of this crime. As it turned out, Bocskai had appointed Homonnai Drugeth Bálint as his successor. Homonnai was supported by the Hungarian lords of the Upper Country, led by Illésházy István. Káthay was a member of the other party that wanted to see Bethlen Gábor on the throne of Transylvania.
The signature of homonnai-Drugeth Bálint
Homonnai wanted to bring Transylvania closer to the Kingdom of Hungary, suggesting a higher level of cooperation between them. On the other hand, Báthori symbolized the independent principality of Transylvania against the Habsburgs. The Homonnai party was more numerous and they tried to discredit the other party by spreading gossip about Bocskai’s poisoning. Finally, Káthay was slaughtered by some Hajdú soldiers on the main square of Kassa in the first half of 1607. However, the “laughing third candidate” made himself prince of Transylvania: he was Rákóczi Zsigmond, who was in a good place at a good time, as he was Bocskai’s governor in Transylvania.
Prince Rákóczi Zsigmond (1544-1608) (Picture: Somogyi Győző)
Bocskai’s funeral procession left Kassa on February 3, 1607, and he was buried in the cathedral of Gyulafehérvár, next to the tomb of King and Prince János Zsigmond. Bocskai left a political testimony written on December 17, 1606. Later, this famous testament was very important for the Hungarian estates as well as for the future Transylvanian princes.
The grave of the Bocskai family at Kismarja (Photo:
According to his Last Will:
“As long as the Hungarian Crown is in the hands of stronger nations like the Germans, the Hungarian Kingdom will be under their rule. Therefore, it is always necessary and useful to keep a Hungarian prince in Transylvania, who will also protect the interests of the Hungarian estates living in Hungary. If God should grant the Hungarian Crown to a Hungarian who would be crowned in Hungary, we would draw the attention of the Transylvanians to the fact that they should not oppose such a king and should not separate from him. On the contrary, they should help him as much as they can and place themselves under the old Crown according to the old customs”.
The Sacred Crown of the Hungarians
In Hungarian it sounds like this:
“Valameddig pedig a magyar korona ott fenn, nálunknál erősebb nemzetségnél, a németnél lészen, és a magyar királyság is a németeken forog, mindenkor szükséges és hasznos egy magyar fejedelmet Erdélyben fenntartani, mert nékik (ti. a Magyar Királyság rendjeinek) is oltalmokra és javokra lészen. Ha pedig Isten azt adná, hogy a magyar korona Magyarországban magyar kézhez kelne egy koronás király alá, úgy az erdélyieket is intjük: nemhogy attól elszakadnának, vagy abban ellent tartanának, de sőt segéljék tehetségek szerént és egyenlő értelemből, azon korona alá a régi mód szerént adják magokat.”
A Memorial Plaque of Bocskai in Kassa (Kosice, Kaschau) (Photo:
Bocskai’s life and deeds had a great influence on the history of the next century. We can see that the succeeding Transylvanian princes launched their campaigns against the Habsburgs all the time, claiming that they had broken the Vienna Treaty of Bocskai. It was also the Peace of Vienna that triggered the palace revolution of the House of Habsburg in Vienna in 1608. As a result, Emperor Rudolf was deposed and Matthias, who had a more reasonable attitude towards the Hungarian Estates, was placed on the throne. Thus, King Habsburg Matthias allowed the election of a Hungarian Palatine. It was the second highest rank in Hungary after the king and this office had not been filled for 40 years.
(Source: Szibler Gábor)
Prince Bocskai István

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Bocskai’s solver coin from 1605; Available:


The coin minted by Bocskai in 1606