The Bocskai family has never belonged to the wealthiest aristocratic circles. It was Bocskai István’s grandfather, Bocskai Simon who got hold of the family’s first village, Kismarja. Luckily, István’s father, György made a good marriage when he wed 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. Additionally, Sulyok György (the younger brother of Balázs) used to be the bishop of Pécs in the 1530s.
When the Ottoman Empire was gaining ground in Hungary, the family members had to move from Bács, Bodrog, and Somogy counties to Upper Hungary and to Transylvania. The wife of Sulyok Balázs was Pethő Erzsébet of Gerse, they had three daughters: Krisztina, Sára, and Anna. Bocskai György wed Sulyok Krisztina in 1544-45. Krisztina’s sister, Sára gave her hand in 1550 to Dobó István, the famous Captain of Eger castle. The third sister, Anna, was married to Balassa János in 1553.
Bocskai György found himself in the middle of a network of high-born noblemen who were important figures in political life. King Habsburg Ferdinand appointed Dobó István as the Voivode of Transylvania in 1553. There, Dobó relied on the support of his son-in-law, Bocskai György. In exchange for it, Dobó helped him to get new domains in Bihar County from King Ferdinand.
Not much later, the Transylvanians rebelled against the rule of Ferdinand and called Queen Isabella back from Poland. The new ruler of Transylvania became the late King Szapolyai János’ son, János Zsigmond. Thus, the remaining army of Dobó and Bocskai retired to the castle of Szamosújvár in the spring of 1556. During the siege, Sulyok Krisztina became pregnant. When the garrison of Szamosújvár surrendered the castle the next autumn, they were all captured by the Transylvanians. Dobó was able to free his wife who could escape from the prison. Thus, Bocskai György received the news about the birth of his son, István still in the prison.
Bocskai István was born on 1 January 1557 in Kolozsvár (Klausenburg, Cluj), next door to the house where King Matthias Corvinus had been born. According to a contemporary historian called Szamosközy István, Bocskai had 14 brothers and sisters. Erzsébet, his eldest sister later got married to Báthory Kristóf who was 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 Bocskai István was serving his nephew so loyally as a soldier. It is another question whether the rule of Báthory Zsigmond was useful or not, though.
We know that two of Bocskai’s brothers became priests while three other brothers got married. In the beginning, Bocskai György and Sulyok Krisztina used to be of the Roman Catholic faith but they were already supporting the Reformed Church in the 1560s. they followed 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.
We should add, that Bocskai’s first cousin was Balassi Bálint, the famous poet and warrior, and Lady Dobó Krisztina, Dobó Ferenc.
Bocskai István was supported by his relatives and it was how he could get to Vienna. In 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.
The Transylvanian Diet elected Bocskai as prince of Transylvania at Marosszereda (Nyárádszereda / Miercurea Nirajului), on 21 February 1605. As it was, Bocskai had launched his uprising against the Habsburgs in 1604 but he was not able to venture any campaigns against them while his back in Transylvania was not safe. Nobody knew whether Transylvania would support the Habsburgs or him so Bocskai had to do something.
After General Basta moved out of Transylvania, the power was not in steady hands. Bocskai began to find supporters among the Hungarian noblemen, but he also tried to gain the favor of the Saxons and the Székelys as well. There were some noblemen who had supported the Habsburgs or Székely Mózes before, now they sided with Bocskai. There were Haller Gábor, Bornemissza Boldizsár, and Bogáthy Menyhért 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 noblemen against the Székelys in February 1596. That was the so-called “bloody carnival” when the freedom movement of the Székelys was mercilessly put down. Luckily, the Székelys blamed the noblemen for it, not Bocskai, the military commander. On the other hand, the Székelys have suffered so much more since that time because of the German mercenaries of Basta, that it made them forget all previous grudges.
Bocskai accepted the demands of the Székelys at the Diet of Marosszereda (Nyárádszereda). Their demands included the following points: 1. Their old liberties will be restored; 2. They should receive amnesty for previous crimes; 3. Nobody will appoint foreign officers or captains to lead them; 4. Bocskai will never place foreign mercenaries among them; 5. When the Székelys are summoned to war, they must fight the enemy within 15 days, if not, they are free to go home.
The German Saxons of Transylvania did not join Bocskai just yet but the support of the Székelys and the Hungarian nobility was enough to be elected. However, officially he was inaugurated to power only in September when he received the approval of the sultan.
20 April 1605: Bocskai elected as Prince of Hungary
Bocskai succeeded in occupying Hungary up to the Mining Towns District during the winter of 1604-1605. He was already the Prince of Transylvania but there were several questions to settle in the recently occupied regions of Royal Hungary. Bocskai’s title had to be decided, the religious affairs and the relations with the Habsburgs were also there, let alone the problem of the Hajdú soldiers.
The Diet was summoned on 17 April 1605 in Szerencs castle which was on the land of Rákóczi Zsigmond. There, the Noble Estates of Hungary elected Bocskai as their prince on 20 April. After this, he was not just a mere rebel but the leader of the country. In his speech, Bocskai was lengthily listing those violations that the Hungarians had to suffer from the Habsburgs. It was interesting that he referred to the traditions of the Transylvanian Principality, and that he delivered his speech in the Hungarian language.
Besides the noblemen, the wealthy burghers also took part in the Diet. Bocskai invited the burghers of Kassa (Kosice, Kaschau) but he also received people from Debrecen. During the Diet, the noblemen spoke up against the forced conversion of the Catholic Church and brought up the question of the Protestants’ persecution. They were against the politics of the Habsburgs and the stray mercenaries who devastated the land. Finally, they voted two-two Gold Forints of tax per household for financing Bocskai’s wars that went on in Lower Hungary and in the Trans-Danubian Region.
(Source: Szibler Gábor)
Was the uprising of Prince Bocskai István good for the Ottoman Empire?
According to Hungarian historian Szakály Ferenc, it was, by all means, profitable to the Sultan.
Let us not forget that it was István Bocskai who had defeated the Turks at Gyurgyevó and he had been persuading Prince Báthory Zsigmond of Transylvania to join the 15-Year-War against the Turks. (Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first.)
We also know that the Habsburg monarchs have done everything to alienate the Hungarian lords: the made-up cases against the prosperous (mainly Protestant) Hungarian aristocrats earned lots of money for Vienna as the long war had already emptied the Treasury of the king.
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 caught and their conspiracy was reported to the king. Bocskai had tasted the Habsburgs’ prisons before so he had no choice but to rebel, getting allied with the Turks at the same time.
According to Szakály Ferenc, the following benefits were gained by the Turks from this war against the Habsburgs:
1. During the Long War (1591-1606), many Hungarian and South-Slavic peasants had to run away from their destroyed homes. They became „hajdú” soldiers who either traded with cattle or were raiding the „Turk” lands (basically their former homeland).
Their number had increased so much that they literally stopped all traffic between the Ottoman garrisons on the Occupied Lands of Hungary.
They were just slightly better than villains, they were looting everybody and we have sources that say that the local Hungarians fled to the feared Tatars who camped nearby just to get shelter from the Hajdú marauders.
Bocskai employed these Hajdús against the Habsburgs and even settled and privileged them with collective nobility. As a result of this, the Ottoman garrisons were freed from the huge pressure they had suffered before. You can read more about the Hajdú soldiers here:
2. As the Hajdú troops had to be dealt with, the Habsburgs had to send several units against them.
As a result of this, the Ottoman field armies could operate easier than ever before and Grand Vizier Lalla Mohamed was able to retake Esztergom Castle in 1605.
3. When the new enemy, Bocskai occurred, the Habsburgs had a good reason to finish the 15-Year-War – the Long War, in which the ultimate goal would have been to liberate Hungary.
We know that a Persian envoy arrived in Prague in 1604 and the Persian-Habsburg alliance was about to be made. Now, this alliance has not been signed.
4. Bocskai helped to bring about the Peace of Zsitvatorok in 1606 which ended the Long War so the Turks could withdraw their armies from Hungary in order to put down the uprising in Anatolia. Eger and Esztergom castles remained in the Turks’ hands.
Also, according to Truce, Emperor Rudolf had to pay 200,000 Hungarian Gold Forints to the Sultan. Consequently, Pasha Murad could march the best troops to Asia.
It all would not have happened so easily without Bethlen Gábor and Bocskai István.
What have the Hungarians gained from the whole business?
The constitutional rights of the Hungarian noblemen were restored, the harassment of Protestant lords was finished and the Principality of Transylvania gained more lands from Royal Hungary.
Many Hajdús were settled in Hajdú-towns. Transylvania became stronger and more independent both from the Turks and the Habsburgs. However, Hungary has not been liberated from the Turks yet.
The „Hungaries” have 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 fewer taxes to the Turks than the Habsburgs had paid before but had more central power in his country than any Habsburg kings at home);
-and the Ottoman Occupied Lands of Hungary where 95% of the Ottoman soldiers were ethnically South-Slavic soldiers; where the local feudalism was eroding Ottoman feudalism so they have never become similar to other previously conquered Sanjaks in the Balkan.)
Let us not forget, that in spite of the truce, the „small war” was raging on in the Borderland of the “Hungaries” as if nothing had happened before.
Bocskai has concluded two peace treaties in 1606. One of them was an agreement between the Hungarian Estates and the Habsburgs, it was signed on 23 June 1606 while the other one was the famous Truce of Zsitvatorok on 11 November that ended the 15-Year-War.
Bocskai could have enjoyed the benefits of peace but death interceded. We know that he was already complaining during the spring of 1606 that his legs were “lead-heavy”, and his limbs were swelling with water. This sickness was called “stomach-water illness” at that time and it was the result of consuming spicy food and too much wine. At that age, wine substituted drinking water. His liver and kidneys were damaged and the prince passed away in December. Gossip of his “poisoning” has immediately begun to circulate.
It was Bocskai’s chancellor, Káthay Mihály who was accused of this crime. As it was, Bocskai had assigned Homonnai Drugeth Bálint as his successor. Homonnai was supported by the Hungarian lords of the Upper Lands of Hungary, they were led by Illésházy István. Káthay was a member of the other party who wanted to see Bethlen Gábor on the throne of Transylvania.
Homonnai wanted to bring Transylvania closer to Royal Hungary, suggesting a higher level of cooperation between them. On the other hand, Báthori symbolized the independent Principality of Transylvania against the Habsburgs. The party of Homonnai was more numerous and they wanted 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 part of 1607. However, the laughing third candidate made himself Prince of Transylvania: he was Rákóczi Zsigmond who was at a good place in a good time as he was Bocskai’s governor in Transylvania.
The funeral procession of Bocskai set out on 3 February 1607 from Kassa (Kaschau, Kosice) and they buried him in the cathedral of Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia), next to the tomb of King and Prince János Zsigmond. Bocskai left behind a political testimony that had been written on 17 December 1606. Later, this famous Last Will was very important for the Hungarian estates and for the Transylvanian princes of the future alike.
According to his Last Will:
“As long as the Hungarian Crown is in the hand of stronger nations like the Germans, the Hungarian kingdom will be under their rule. So, by all means, it is always necessary and useful to maintain a Hungarian prince in Transylvania who will also be protecting the interests of the Hungarian estates living in Hungary. In case God granted the Hungarian Crown to a Hungarian man who would be crowned in Hungary, we would call the attention of the Transylvanians to the fact that they should not oppose such a king and should not separate themselves from him. On the contrary, they should altogether aid him as much as they can, and place themselves under the old Crown according to the ancient habits.”
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.”
Bocskai’s life and deeds had a major impact 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 Treaty of Vienna of Bocskai. Also, the Peace of Vienna was the case that triggered the palace revolution of the House of Habsburg in Vienna in 1608. As a result of this, Emperor Rudolf was removed and Matthias was placed on the throne who had a more reasonable attitude toward the Hungarian Estates. It was how 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)
If you like my writings, please feel free to support me with a coffee here:
This article contains Amazon ads. By purchasing through these links, you can help my work at no added cost to you. Below, you can find my books in various editions (color/black-and-white, paperback, hardcover, ebook, ) Thank you very much.
My work can also be followed and supported on Patreon: