The Zrínyi (Zrinski) family and the Habsburgs

the family’s coat of arms

The Croatian-Hungarian Zrínyi (Zrinski) family’s members belonged to the wealthiest aristocrats of the Habsburg-ruled Royal Hungary and Croatia. Originally they were Croatians but later intermarried with the Hungarians so both Croatians and Hungarians might pay honor to them equally. In the beginning, they were the greatest supporters of the Habsburgs against King Szapolyai, thinking that the Austrians can defend them better against the Turks because their lands were literally in the mouth of the enemy.

On the other hand, without their soldiers and castles, the Ottoman Empire may have devoured Austria during the 16th-17th centuries. They had always been true and faithful to their Habsburg kings until the death of Zrínyi Miklós aka Nikola Zrinski in 1664. When they were finally disillusioned, they had to pay a high price for it.

the Habsburgs’ coat of arms (King Ferdinand I)

Regardless of their deeds, the Habsburgs viewed them with suspicion and denied the minimal support for their military actions. They were not trusting in the Hungarians, either. Knowing the pre-history of Austrian-Hungarian or German-Hungarian relations from the Battle of Pressburg in 907 AD up to the taking of Vienna by King Matthias in 1485, I can understand the Habsburgs’ viewpoint. But the Ottoman threat changed everything, the Habsburgs had to rely on the Hungarians and Croatians, and vice-versa.

the coat of arms of King Szapolyai of Hungary

It should be remarked, though, that the Hungarians` relations had been improving with the German princes of the Germanies since the 16th century because the Germans didn’t always like the dynastic interests of the Habsburgs. It gained importance during the campaign of Zrínyi Miklós in 1664 who wanted to rely on their help in driving the Turks out, rather than on the Habsburgs’. It seems to have sealed his fate. The Habsburgs sabotaged his efforts in fear of a French-German influence and the glorious victory of Zrínyi’s Winter Campaign has remained resultless. But there are a few things to be explained. 

It would be partial to accuse the Habsburgs of hating the Hungarians, many of them genuinely liked them and even learned the hard Hungarian language. The problem was always about money. Beginning from the early 17th century, the Habsburg king’s treasury was empty and the lands and the huge wealth of the Hungarian magnates were more needed than ever. The king needed the lands of the immensely rich Hungarian and Croatian lords and it also served as the reason for centralizing the power. It didn’t help, either, that many of the Hungarians were Protestants.

the Zrínyis were so powerful that they had the right to mint coins

The huge amount of confiscation of lands soon led to the uprising of Prince Bocskai István in 1604 which was settled in 1606 by the Treaty of Vienna, in favor of the victorious Hungarians. The existence of the quite independent Transylvania was making the situation even harder for the Habsburg king: whenever he tried to restrict the traditional rights of his Hungarian noblemen, they blackmailed him to join the Principality of Transylvania. Willy-nilly, the Hungarian constitution and ancient laws had to be accepted.

Here is more about Bocskai: 

Transylvania was not a mere vassal of the Turks. Sometimes the Habsburgs paid higher taxes to the sultan than the Transylvanians: and there have never been Ottoman troops garrisoned among the Carpathians embracing Transylvania. Look at the strong state of Prince Bethlen Gábor’s “Fairy Garden” as it was called, and how the Transylvanians crossed the Habsburgs’ interests in the 30-Year-War. For the time being, the Court had to restrain itself from imprisoning their Hungarian nobles for “treason”.

When Transylvania began to decline in the second part of the 17th century, the Habsburgs utterly convinced themselves that the Hungarian nobles should be deprived of their wealth so they would not have money to rebel. They disregarded the harsh reality, that these very nobles and landlords were the last supporters of the impoverished warriors of the Borderland castles who were defending 1,500 kilometers of a war zone against the Turks. You can read about this Borderland here:

Zrínyi’s silver

There are countless letters that bear witness that the kings left these Borderland guards unpaid on average between 2 and 9 years of payment. Hungarian and Croatian warriors got two Forints a month while a foreign mercenary received between 5-15 Forints plus food. On top of that, regarding the lay of the land in Hungary, these mercenaries were mostly useless in the mobile warfare of the Frontier. No wonder, that the Habsburg king had to turn a blind eye to Count Zrínyi when it was reported that they sold their cattle to Italy, with the help of the Ottomans. Zrínyi claimed they could pay their soldiers only this way.

Croatian and Hungarian Hussars and mounted Hajdú soldiers

The Hussars and the Hajdú soldiers were the only effective troops who could maintain the only effective hit-and-run warfare against the Ottomans who were also very good at it. It did not help the reputation of the western soldiers either, that in most cases these mercenaries kept surrendering the Hungarian castles when they faced a superior enemy, like in 1552 at Temesvár castle. Yet, it is also a generalization because there were just as many westerners who proved themselves worthy against the enemy. One of them was Captain John Smith (prior to his American travels):

It is also too sad that the king’s foreign field generals and officers developed a very negative attitude against the local soldiers and captains, hindering them as much as they could. Taking away their booty or disregarding their deeds in the battle, were common things to them. Not mentioning the damage these mercenaries have done in the villages and towns. Think of the hostility between General Montecuccoli and Count Zrínyi Miklós, for example; or think of General Wallenstein who killed Count Zrínyi’s father, György by giving him poison. We must add, that Hungarian and Croatian Hajdú soldiers had a very bad reputation for looting the countryside, too.

the gold of King Habsburg Ferdinand II

 No wonder, that time to time the alienated Hungarian and Croatian nobles got embittered and felt caught “between two pagans” – the Turks and the Austrians – and sometimes they decided the Ottomans were the less evil ones. Hungarians, just like Wallachians, Croatians, and Serbs, always had to balance delicately between these two powers, as can be seen in the cases of Prince Bocskai, Prince Bethlen, and finally Prince Thököly. Unlike Bocskai, the Zrínyies were Catholics and more loyal to the Emperor, than many magnates – despite all the negative and hostile attitude of the Court. 

Zrínyi Miklós / Nikola Zrinski (1508-1566)

Let us take a glimpse at some members of this family. Count Zríny Miklós (Nikola Subic Zrinski) used to be a captain of the Borderland who in cooperation with the other famous captains, was successfully blocking the Muslim expansion in the 16th century. Miklós Zrínyi was defending Vienna in 1529 against the Turks then he became “Bán” ( or Duke) of Croatia when he saved the Austrian army at Buda in 1542 with his 400 Croatian hussars. The same year he defeated the enemy at the lake Balaton at Somló, where the Turks had lost 3,000 men. His efforts were rewarded by King Ferdinand I, and Zrínyi never failed him. He heroically kept the lower part of the borderland and defeated another bigger Turkish army at Krupa castle in 1556. The same summer he had another major victory over the Ottomans at Babocsa.

Captain Zrínyi / Zrinski, the defender of Szigetvár

The king, seeing his success, stopped supporting him, and Zrínyi resigned from his “Ban” function in 1557. That year he became the captain of Szigetvár Castle. He defeated Bey Arslan in 1562 who was destroying the Slavonian lands. Seeing how the Austrian generals derived their help from him, he resigned from his captaincy in 1566. Yet, he hasn’t ceased his wars against the Ottomans: that very year he rushed to reinforce the besieged castle of Segesd where he scattered the enemy in a four-hour-long fight.

Read my review that I wrote about my Croatian friend’s book about the Siege of Szigetvár:

Indeed, Zrínyi’s final and most heroic deed was the defense of Szigetvár castle, where he resisted the army of Sultan Suleiman the Great with his 2,500 people. He had been fighting against the 100,000-strong Ottoman armies for a full month, waiting for the reinforcement of King Maximilian II who was idly waiting with his 80,000-strong armies at Győr, not very far from him. When Zrínyi’s men were forced into the burning inner castle, he led his remaining 300 warriors to a final charge and died in doing so. Later, Cardinal Richelieu said that this was a fight that saved Christian civilization.

Zrínyi’s helmet

Zrínyi György aka Juraj V. Zrinski (1599-1626)

We must talk about Zrínyi György (1599-1626), too. He was the grandson of the defender of Szigetvár; his wife was a Hungarian woman, Lady Széchy. He was valiantly fighting for the Habsburg Emperor in 1626 but General Wallenstein had him poisoned in his camp. He left behind two orphans: Zrínyi Miklós (Nikola Zrinski) and Zrínyi Péter (Petar Zrinski).

Zrínyi György

Zrínyi Miklós (Nikola Zrinski), the Poet and Warrior (1620-1664)

Miklós / Nikola became an internationally famous general, the owner of the Golden Fleece, and he was also a poet. His deeds were as great as his great-grandfather’s. He was not only fighting against the Ottomans but also helped King Ferdinand III in the 30-Year-War. He had great success in 1651-52 in Croatia and in Hungary against the enemy. Again, he was triumphant in the wars of 1663-64. His army ventured 240 km into the enemy’s territory in the winter of 1664 and he burnt the bridge of Eszék. He was counting on the help of the French king and the Alliance of the Rhine in order to liberate Hungary.

Zrínyi Miklós, the Poet

Though, his greatest adversary was General Montecuccoli who undermined all his efforts because he was jealous of Zrínyi’s Golden Fleece. Emperor Leopold was not very supportive, either. The Habsburg dynastic reasons demanded peace with the Ottomans, and an alliance of the Hungarians-French and Germans was not to their liking. When Leopold signed the Treaty of Vasvár, after the victory of Szentgotthárd (Saintgotthard) in 1664, Zrínyi has got utterly disappointed because the treaty was very unfavorable. He withdrew himself to his castle and soon was killed in a hunting accident by a boar. Contemporary sources suggest it was rather an assassination. You can read my short dramatized writing about him here:

the death of Zrínyi Miklós in 1664

Zrínyi Ádám aka Adam Zrinski (1662-1691)

Zrínyi Ádám

His son, Zrínyi Ádám, was also loyal to the Emperor and lost his life in the battle of Szalánkemén in 1691 against the Ottomans. Despite his heroic death, all his properties were confiscated from his widow. It was the Habsburgs’ reward for his valor.

the Battle of Szalánkemén

Zrínyi Péter aka Petar Zrinski (1621-1671)

Zrínyi Péter

Zrínyi Miklós’ younger brother, Péter / Petar, was the one who wrote more in the Croatian language while his elder brother created his works mostly in Hungarian. After his brother’s suspicious death, Petar joined the plotting of disappointed Hungarian nobles, led by Lord Wesselényi. The conspiration was revealed and he was beheaded in 1671 despite the Emperor’s promise who had offered him safe conduct. His immense lands have been taken, too. His wife was taken to Wurzburg but she arrived there half-mad and sick. Her escort wrote a letter to the Emperor to beg her for at least a cook and a maidservant but even these were denied.

the execution of Zrínyi Péter

Zrínyi János aka Ivan Antun Zrinski (1651-1703)

Zrínyi Péter had a son, too: János Antal aka Ivan Antun. He became the soldier of the Emperor but was imprisoned for unreal accusations. The king even deprived him of his family name and he was called Antal Gnade. He was rotting in prison for twenty years and got mad there, died in 1703. Imagine, he could have joined the rebelling Hungarians before these happened to him but he decided to remain loyal.

Zrínyi János

Lady Zrínyi Ilona aka Jelena Zrinska (1643 or 1652-1703)

It was the period when almost all the entire wealthy Hungarians of Upper Hungary were sued and ruined financially, too. Zrínyi Péter had four children: two of his daughters were forced into a nunnery and wasted their lives near to starvation while Ilona / Jelena, the third one was luckier. She later became the wife of Prince Thököly Imre of Transylvania and North Hungary, and she was also the mother of Ferenc Rákóczi, the great Prince who later led a war of independence against the Emperor between 1703-1711. She was valiantly defending Munkács Castle between 1685-1688 against the Habsburg troops.

the statue of Zrínyi Ilona and her son, Rákóczi Ferenc

This story with the Zrínyi family is just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless miserable stories that tell us about the damage done to Hungarian and Croatian lives. Some Hungarian experts say the Ottoman Empire crippled Hungary and Croatia less than the Habsburg dynasty.

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