Prince Kemény János of Transylvania (1607-1662)

Prince Kemény János
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 divisive figures of Hungarian history, now let us take a look at his life and family. Please note that I am using the Oriental name order for Hungarians, where the surname comes first…
The map of the “Hungaries”: to the right, the Transylvanian Principality (by Somogyi Győző)
His father was Kemény Boldizsár, his mother was Tornyi Zsófia. He was born in Magyarbükkös. His first teacher 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. At his court, he learned how to govern a state. He also gained good connections and we can find him beside the prince when Bethlen led a campaign to the Kingdom of Hungary in 1623. Kemény had a way with words, he was the one who held a speech the next year when Károlyi Zsuzsanna, Bethlen’s wife, died.
Catherine and Prince Bethlen
The prince sent him to Brandenburg in 1625 to make a formal proposal to Princess Catherine on behalf of Bethlen. You can read more about Catherine of Brandenburg here:


Kemény took part in every campaign of Bethlen Gábor, but he also acted as the prince’s diplomat. His missions took him to the courts of the Hungarian nobility and 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 power struggle, he supported István, the younger brother of Bethlen, instead of Princess Catherine, to gain the throne of Transylvania.

Fogaras castle
In 1630 Kemény János became the chief captain of the key fortress of Fogaras, as well as the Vice Comes of Fehér County. Two years later he married 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 the Kingdom of Hungary in 1644. His military successes paved the way for further advancement. Prince Rákóczi György II (reigned 1648-1660) appointed him as his first chancellor and commander of the court army. He was also the general of the field army. His influence in the court was so strong that he could not be bypassed in any political decision. When the child of Rákóczi Ferenc I was elected prince, Kemény was mentioned as a possible governor of Transylvania.
Prince Rákóczi György II (by Somogyi Győző)
He defeated the army of Voivode Lupu of Moldova in 1653. When Rákóczi György II started his unfortunate Polish war in 1657, Kemény was the chief general of the Transylvanian army. The aim was to get the Polish crown for Rákóczi. Kemény also objected to the prince’s ill-conceived Polish venture and reluctantly took command of the campaign, which ended in disaster. On July 31, 1657, he and most of his army were captured by the Crimean Tatars, as 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 thalers. During his captivity in Bakhchisaray, he wrote his autobiography (in Hungarian), one of the most excellent masterpieces of Transylvanian memoir literature of the 17th century. He openly blamed Prince Rákóczi in his writings, because he was hurt that the prince did not help to ransom him. He also hated Prince Rákóczi György I, the “old” prince, although the late ruler had been good to him. His writing contributed to the negative reputation of Prince Rákóczi György I. However, he did not write anything bad about Prince Bethlen Gábor.

The Polish War of Prince Rákóczi György II
When he returned to Transylvania, he found a country torn by the ambitions of Rákóczi György II, who was unwilling to abdicate, a number of would-be princes, and a Turkish Porte vengeful for the unauthorized military campaign. Kemény still supported Rákóczi, but he also began to take steps to get the throne. His plot was reported to Prince Rákóczi and Kemény had to flee from Transylvania, then he went to Lady Lónyay Anna, his bride in Aranyosmeggyes, and married her in October.
The estoch of Prince Kemény
Rákóczi was defeated by the Pasha of Buda in May 1660 and died a few days later. Kemény remained outside Transylvania until December, recruiting soldiers. Soon he openly declared his claim to the throne. This time, the Sublime Porte openly disregarded the right of the Transylvanian estates to elect the prince. Kemény saw this and imagined invasions of Transylvania by the Turks and their Crimean Tatar allies. He said it would be the end of Transylvania’s autonomy, which he believed could only be prevented with the help of the Habsburgs.
Prince Barcsay Ákos
The Transylvanian estates met in Szászrégen in December. Barcsay Ákos, the prince appointed by the Ottomans, resigned his office and handed it over to Kemény, who was elected prince on January 1, 1661. At the same time, the Diet declared the separation of Transylvania from the Ottoman Empire, relying on the Habsburg help promised 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 “preventive” measure. The Crimean Tatars again burned down the capital, Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia), and Kemény had to flee to the Kingdom of Hungary. There he joined the army of General Montecuccoli on August 30th. Kemény returned to Transylvania at the beginning of September with the support of the Emperor, and he marched to Kolozsvár (Cluj). Meanwhile, the Turks installed Apafi Mihály as prince at the Diet of Kereszténysziget on September 14, 1661.

Prince Apafi Mihály

Kemény had a way with words, here are some thoughts from his letter written to his wife Lónyai Anna in Szászrégen on January 2, 1661:

“…one should serve one’s homeland not only in a high and honorable position, but also in a position as low as that of a herdsman of pigs, and not only by carrying the burdens but also by letting one’s life be consumed…”.

“Indeed, we are in a dreadful situation, because the mighty power of the pagans (meaning: Ottomans, my remark) has vented its wrath against us, and we have been abandoned by all (Christian) nations, and have become contemptible to some of them, or wondrous to others, but the hands of the merciful God have not been slackened;”
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;”
General Montecuccoli
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 that they would soon leave the country. So Montecuccoli decided to go home and give up Kemény’s war against Apafi. With the help of the Emperor gone, Kemény was doomed.
Pasha Kucsuk Mehmed

Then Pasha Ali turned against Kemény, who had to flee from Transylvania again. However, he recruited a new army and invaded Transylvania in January 1662. Apafi told him to give up his plans and ask for his pardon. Kemény was also offered the right to keep his lands. But he said no. He forced Apafi to go to the castle of Segesvár, but the unit of the Pasha of Temesvár, Kücsük Mehmed with his 2000 warriors arrived.

Kemény was afraid to fight them, but according to Cserey, he could have easily defeated both Mehmed and Apafi. Instead of this, Kemény marched his (bigger) army to Nagyszőlős (Seleușul Mare), which is 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 believed that Kemény died when he threw himself in front of the fleeing hussars to stop them. He must have been trampled to death by the horses.

The Memorial of the Battle of Nagyszőlős
Kemény’s saber and some of his belongings were found in a Jannissary’s sack. Even Apafi sent a search party to find his body, but it was in vain. Some say that his remains were buried in the Orthodox cemetery of Szásznádas. His Renaissance family castle in Aranyosmeggyes is now in ruins due to neglect, you can see pictures of it along with its description on my page:
Aranyosmeggyes today…
According to Varga Ottó, a Hungarian historian: “His reign cost Transylvania an incalculable amount of property, and at least 100,000 people died because of him. He was a decent man, but he made one big mistake: he relied on German help”. On the other hand, I would rather say that he is a divisive figure in Hungarian history, and his extermination of the members of the Barcsay family is hard to explain.
Kemény János

(Sources: Szibler Gábor, Szerecz Miklós)

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