Kemény was a Hungarian aristocrat, writer, and prince of Transylvania who held various political and military positions in the Principality of Transylvania, during the reign of princes Bethlen Gábor and Rákóczi György I. Kemény is one of the dividing figures of Hungarian history, now let us take a look at his life and family. Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first…
His father was Kemény Boldizsár, his mother was Tornyi Zsófia. He was born in Magyarbükkös. His first tutor was Albisi Márton, and later he went to school in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia), the capital of Transylvania. Then, he became the page of Prince Bethlen Gábor. In his court, he learned how to govern a state. Also, he obtained good connections, and we can find him beside the prince when Bethlen led a campaign to Royal Hungary in 1623. Kemény had a way with words, he was the one who delivered a speech next year when Károlyi Zsuzsanna, Bethlen’s wife died.
The prince sent him to Brandenburg in 1625, his task was to make a ceremonial proposal to Princess Catherina on behalf of Bethlen. You can read more about Catherina of Brandenburg here:
Kemény took part in each campaign of Bethlen Gábor but he also acted as the prince’s diplomat. His missions took him to the courts of Hungarian aristocrats and to Poland but he also traveled to the Sultan. when Bethlen died in 1629, he delivered the news to Emperor Ferdinand II, king of Hungary and ruler of the HRE. During the contest for power, instead of Princess Catherina, he supported István, the younger brother of Bethlen to gain the throne of Transylvania.
Kemény János became the Chief Captain of the key fort of Fogaras in 1630, as well as Vice-Comes of Fehér County. two years later he wed Kállay Zsuzsanna. Their son, Simon was born in 1633. During the reign of Prince Rákóczi György I (1630-1648), he was the Chief Chamberlain of the principality. He took part in Rákóczi’s campaign in Moldova, and in the war against Royal Hungary in 1644. His military success paved the way to rise higher. Prince Rákóczi György II (reigned 1648-1660) appointed him as his first chancellor and the commander of the court’s army. Besides, he was the general of the field army. His influence in the court was so strong that he could not be evaded in any political decisions. When the child Rákóczi Ferenc I was elected as a prince, Kemény was assigned as a possible governor of Transylvania.
He defeated the army of Voivode Lupu of Moldova in 1653. When Rákóczi György II launched his unfortunate Polish war in 1657, Kemény was the chief general of the Transylvanian army. The aim was to obtain the Polish crown for Rákóczi. Kemény also objected to the prince’s ill-conceived Polish undertaking, and unwillingly took the leadership of the campaign that ended in disaster. Finally, just like the bulk of his army, he was taken into the Crimean Tatars’ captivity on 31 July 1657 because his army was deserted by the Swedish allies. The Crimean Tatars were the allies of the Ottoman Turks, they were called by the Polish nobles against Rákóczi. You can read about Rákóczi’s unfortunate Polish war here:
Kemény was held captive by the Tatars until August 1659, when he was released for a huge ransom of 116,000 Thallers. During his captivity in Bakhchisaray, he wrote his Autobiography (in Hungarian), one of the most excellent masterpieces of the Transylvanian memoirist literature of the 17th century. He openly blamed Prince Rákóczi in his writing because he was hurt that the prince did not help to ransom him. He came to hate Prince Rákóczi György I, the “old” prince, too, however, the late ruler used to be good to him. His writing contributed to the negative reputation of Prince Rákóczi György I. Yet, at least he wrote nothing bad of Prince Bethlen Gábor.
When he returned to Transylvania, he found a country torn by the ambitions of Rákóczi György II, unwilling to resign, a number of would-be princes, and a Turkish Porte vengeful for the unauthorized military campaign. Seemingly Kemény was still supporting Rákóczi but he began to take steps to get the throne, too. His plotting was reported to prince rákóczi and Kemény had to flee from Transylvania. then, he went to Lady Lónyay Anna, his bride to Aranyosmeggyes, and wed her in October.
Rákóczi was defeated in May 1660 by the Pasha of Buda and died a few days later. Kemény stayed outside of Transylvania till December and recruited soldiers. Soon, he openly declared his claim to the throne. This time, the Sublime Porte openly disregarded the Transylvanian Estates’ right to elect the prince. Kemény saw this, and he was envisioning invasions of Transylvania by the Turks and their Crimean Tatar allies. He told it would be the end of Transylvania’s autonomy, which he thought could be prevented only with reliance on Habsburg’s help.
The Transylvanian estates came together in Szászrégen in December. Barcsay Ákos, the prince appointed by the Ottomans resigned from his office and gave it to Kemény who was elected as a prince on 1 January 1661. At the same time, the Diet declared the separation of Transylvania from the Ottoman Empire, trusting in the promised Habsburg help made by Emperor Leopold I. You can read about these events in my other article where I described the Battle of Nagyszőlős where Kemény died in 1662:
The Turks attacked in June, and the overwhelming Turkish and Crimean Tatar armies defeated Kemény’s army. Kemény had Barcsay executed as a “prevention”. The Crimean Tatars burned the capital, Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia) again and Kemény had to flee towards Royal Hungary. There he joined the army of General Montecuccoli on 30 August. Kemény, initially supported by the Imperials returned to Transylvania in early September, and they marched to Kolozsvár (Cluj, Klausenburg). In the meantime, the Turks installed Apafi Mihály as a prince on the Diet of Kereszténysziget on 14 September 1661.
Kemény had a way with words, here are some thoughts from his letter, written to his wife, Anna Lónyai on 2 January 1661 in Szászrégen:
„…one should serve his homeland not only in his high and honorable position but also in a position which is as lowly as a herdsman of cattle, and not just by carrying the burdens but also by letting his life be consumed…”
„Yes, we are in a dreadful situation because the mighty power of the pagans (mean: Ottomans, my remark) has vented their wrath against us, and we have been abandoned by all (Christian) nations, becoming contemptible to some of them or marvels to others but the hands of the Merciful God have not been curtailed;”
In the Hungarian language it sounds like this:
„…embernek hazájáért nem méltóságos állapotban, de barompásztori alacsonyságban is kellene szolgálni, nemcsak terehviseléssel, hanem élet elfogyatásával is…”
„Félelmes állapotunk van igen, mert megdühödött ellenünk az pogányságnak hatalmas ereje, elhagyattattunk minden nemzetektől, némelyeknek csúfjai, másoknak csudáivá löttünk, de nem rövidöltek meg az irgalmas Istennek kezei;”
In Kolozsvár, Montecuccoli received the news of the election of Apafi Mihály. He also learned that the Turks were satisfied with putting him on the throne and they would leave the country before soon. Thus, Montecuccoli also decided to leave for home, abandoning Kemény’s war against Apafi. As the Imperial aid was gone, Kemény was doomed.
Then, Pasha Ali turned against Kemény who had to flee from Transylvania again. Yet, he recruited a new army and broke into Transylvania in January 1662. Apafi told him to give up his plans, and receive his pardon. Kemény was offered the right to keep his domains, too. But he said no. He forced Apafi to get into Segesvár castle but the unit of the Pasha of Temesvár, Kücsük Mehmed arrived with his 2,000 warriors. Kemény was afraid to fight them but according to Cserey, he could have defeated both Mehmed and Apafi easily. Instead of this, Kemény marched his (bigger) army to Nagyszőlős (Seleușul Mare, Grossalisch) that is located in the land of the German Saxons. He thought that the tired and smaller Turkish army would not follow him. He was wrong, the Turks suddenly attacked him and the battle was lost almost without a fight. It is thought that Kemény died when he threw himself before the fleeing Hussars, trying to stop them. He must have been trampled to death by the horses.
Kemény’s saber and a few of his items were found in a Jannissary’s sack. Even Apafi sent a search party to find his body but it was in vain. Some say, his remains were buried in the Orthodox cemetery of Szásznádas. His Renaissance family castle is now in half-ruin, due to neglect, in Aranyosmeggyes, you can see pictures of it along with its description on my page:
According to Varga Ottó, a Hungarian historian: “His princeship cost Transylvania an immeasurable amount of property, and at least 100,000 people died because of him. Yet, he was a decent man but he had a big mistake: he trusted in the German help.” On the other hand, I would rather say that he is a dividing person of Hungarian history, and his extermination of the Barcsay family members is hard to explain.
(Sources: Szibler Gábor, Szerecz Miklós)
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