Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

Who are the Székelys?

A Székely girl in Hungarian attire, on horseback

Today, roughly every one out of fifteen Hungarians is a Székely. Székely people (sometimes referred to as Szeklers in English) in the 16-17th century and today were struggling with the same problem: to regain their rights. Hopefully, their situation can be settled according to 21st-century values. Let me remark right at the beginning, that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first; it is naturally applied to the Székelys. 

The Székely Land in Europe

Székely people are ancient Hungarians, living in Transylvania in Székelyföld (Szeklerland), situated in Romania. They even had autonomy during socialism between 1950-1968. There live about one million Székely people on land that is bigger than Kosovo. It means that almost every ninth or tenth Hungarian in the world is a Székely. Just like my wife whose family was deported from their homeland in the 1930s – they were given an hour to pack their belongings. Almost every Hungarian family has similar stories, unfortunately. Let us not forget that a significant population descending from the Székelys of Bukovina lives in Tolna and Baranya counties in Hungary, and in certain districts of Vojvodina, Serbia.

The Székely question is a touchy one and ignoring it just makes things worse. Fortunately, there are more than a few Romanian friends of mine who think the Székelys are not a threat but rather an asset in Romania. Indeed, just like the German Saxons, the Székelys are contributing a lot to their present country’s heritage, and similarly to the entire Hungarian nation. Hopefully, their problems can be solved in the European Union, unlike in the 16th or 17th centuries.

Székelys in Székelykeresztúr, 2016

Székely people consider themselves “the most ancient Hungarians”, the remnants of Attila, the Hun, who had left them behind in Transylvania, according to their legends. These legends recount that a contingent of Huns remained in Transylvania, later allying with the main Hungarian army that conquered the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century. The thirteenth-century chronicler Simon of Kéza (Kézai Simon) also claimed that the Székely people descended from Huns who lived in mountainous lands prior to the Hungarian conquest. Indeed, in the early Hungarian chronicles, it is written that the “home taker” Chief Arpád found the Székely people there when he arrived with his “Magyar” (=Hungarian) tribes in Transylvania. The Székelys greeted him with great joy, as a kinsman would.

The flag of the Székelys from the 16th century

Later, the Székelys served as border guards, mainly in Transylvania but many of them were settled all over the borders of the Hungarian Kingdom. Without the Székely soldiers, it would have been difficult to block the attacks of eastern nomadic tribes: the Cumans, the Peschneghs (Besenyő), and the Oguz, not to mention the Mongolians. Their warfare was quite similar to the ancient Hungarian horse archers so they were rather effective against the eastern assaulters. Moreover, they could give a small army to the king against the Ottomans until the end of the 18th century.

As for the Transylvanian Principality in the 16th-17th century, the Székely nation was counted in the traditional alliance of the “three nations”: the Hungarian noblemen, the German Saxons, and the Székely guardsmen who were considered a distinct ethnic group “natio Siculica“. However huge centralized power the Prince of Transylvania possessed, he had to rely on their support. At the beginning of the Ottoman wars, the Székely territories came under the leadership of the Count of the Székelys (Latin: Comes Siculorum), initially a royal appointee from the non-Székely Hungarian nobility who was de facto a margrave; from the 15th century onward, the voivodes of Transylvania held the office themselves, under the rule of the Hungarian kings. These three groups ruled Transylvania from 1438 onward, usually in harmony though sometimes in conflict with one another. 

COA of the Transylvanian Principality, with the Székelys’ symbols and the 7 Saxon towns in it.

In the 17th century, they still used their old runic alphabet. You are supposed to read it from right to left:

Read: “székely-magyar-rovás”

Here is a Székely soldier’s dance:


The Székely Land in Romania

And here are more Székely dances, enjoy them:

You can find very good and archeologically correct drawings in the book of Somogyi Győző below: he is not only a talented artist but also a reenactor who uses sources so as to depict the soldiers very precisely.

 The Székelys, these tough mountain people were tending their lands and lived in strict communities but in times of war, they were mostly soldiers and they traditionally guarded the mountains and their passes. In the 16th century, many of them decided to become a peasant and pay taxes instead of the hard life of a soldier.

A traditional Székely gate

Prince Báthory Zsigmond could muster 24,000 soldiers in his camp in 1595. At this time, most of them had bows and arrows as well as spears but 9,200 of them were supplied with rifles. They were concerned about their ancient privileges – to be free soldiers and not peasants – and in the 15th-16th centuries were often divided by religion. They tended to support those powers who promised them the protection of their rights so they had been manipulated with great success. Székelys are famous for their military deeds, for example, you can read about the battle of Szárhegy when a handful of Székely warriors successfully defended the border against 3,000 Crimean Tatars and Moldavians:

In the age of Prince Rákóczi György I, they supported the Prince: their general, Zólyomi Dávid and his Székelys helped the Prince to defeat the attack of Palatine Esterházy in 1631. The Prince used them to guard the borders in 1634 when the Turk Grand Vizier was marching in Wallachia. 
The Transylvanian prince visited them in person during the summer of 1635 to muster their forces. Then he tried to compensate for their harm and gave them justice and more privileges. He sent them against the Turks in 1636: the Székelys bravely fought against them at Nagyszalonta, led by Kornis Zsigmond. Here you can see a few nice examples of Székely pottery:

Székely pottery (from a stove)

Yet, this is just a fragment of their history. When reading my page, one will encounter the deeds of Székely warriors almost every second time when it comes to telling a story. Not to mention the fortified churches of Székely Land that helped them to survive the numerous raids of Ottomans and Crimean Tatars. You can find many of these fortifications if you check out my menu and visit “Castles in the Hungaries”, choosing Transylvania.

Hungarian Székely soldiers in the 16th-17th century (by Somogyi Győző)

It is fascinating, that these Székely people, the easternmost Hungarians, one million of them are still living in Romania, like the Scots on the other fringes of Europe. The comparison with the Celts gave me the idea to write my historical novel whose hero is a Székely-Scottish soldier in the 17th century. In fact, the descendants of Scottish mercenaries of the Transylvanian princes had mingled with the local Székelys, according to my sources. This is my historical fiction novel, “The Ring of Kékkő Castle”:

Many more things could be told about the Székelys, their history is unique among the Hungarians, though it cannot be separated from the nation’s history.

The main military actions of the Székely people in the 16th and 17th centuries:

According to the summary of Konnát Árpád, a Székely historian, the following events can be highlighted in this period:

1506: King Ulászló II wanted the Székely people to pay the so-called “ox tax” as everybody else did in case of the birth of a royal heir. The székelys rebelled and made camp at Marosszék. Captain Tomori Pál of Fogaras castle set out against them with his 500 cavalrymen but for the first time, he suffered a humiliating defeat. Then, Tomori retreated and collected a more serious army from the royal castles, and scattered the Székely rebels. Read more about Tomori Pál here:

Tomori Pál (drawing: Somogyi Győző)

1510-1511: the common Székelys rebelled against the “primors”, their higher class in Csíkszék- and Gyergyószék. They plundered the properties of the wealthy primors and killed those who were not running away. 

1514: Székely troops were used to put down the peasant uprising of Dózsa György. They were led by Szapolyai János. The peasants of the rebelling monk, Brother Mészáros Lőrinc were defeated near Kolozsvár by the allied Székely-Saxon army, commanded by Lieutenant Barlabási Lénárd. Soon, Andrási Márton led the Székely cavalrymen in the Battle of Temesvár where they scattered the army of Dózsa György.

The Peasant War of Dózsa in 1514 had weakened the kingdom before the Ottoman attack

1519: The Székely “pixidarius” infantrymen rebelled and killed their leaders. They moved toward the Erdővidék region to join the other Székely troops of the Háromszék area. However, their uprising came to an end at Homoródszentpál because the army of Szapolyai János defeated them. 

1527-1528: All of the Székely people took part in the Hungarian civil war, they were supporting the national party against the Habsburgs. We can find the Székely soldiers in the lost battles of Tokaj and Szina as well as in the victorious battle of Sárospatak. 

1529: Voivode Péter of Moldova took advantage of the contest for the throne in Hungary and attacked the Székely Land, destroying and plundering it for a month. 

1531: Székely mercenaries took Saxon towns for King Szapolyai János. Read more about the German Saxons of Transylvania here:

1542: Voivode Péter of Moldova attacked the Székely Land again and pillaged it for a month, then the Székely troops, joined by other soldiers of the Transylvania beat him out of the country.  

1543: In spite of the fact that it was banned by their ruler, the Székely soldiers of Háromszék led a private raid against Wallachia and returned home with a huge booty.  

1548: Voivode Radu of Wallachia was made to resign and he hired a couple of thousands of Székely mercenaries to regain his throne. However, he was severely beaten by Voivode Mircse in the battle of Peris. Almost all the Székely mercenaries died in the fight. As an act of revenge, the Székelys of Háromszék attacked the Muntenia region and loot the area. 

1550: A Moldavian (Romanian) army attacked the Székely Land, and while they were busily pillaging the countryside, the army of a soldier called Kemény János delivered a staggering defeat on them. At the same time, Kendefi János defeated the intruding Wallachian (Romanian) army at Szeben. 

A Wallachian rider

1551: The Székely soldiers took Lippa castle back from the Ottoman Turks.

1562: It was the first great Székely uprising under the command of Nagy György, Szepesi Ambrus, and Bán András. At first, they beat Captain Majláth Gábor of Fogaras castle in an open battle, and they burn the masons of all the wealthy Hungarian and Székely noblemen. The arriving royal army defeated the smaller Székely army at Kisgörgény, and the larger Székely army surrendered. Before going home, they gave out their leaders to King János Zsigmond (the son of King Szapolyai János) who had them impaled at once.

1575: The Székely units took part in the Battle of Kerelószentpál, supporting the usurper Bekes Gábor. Báthory István (later Polish king) won the fight, and he executed 34 Székelys on the spot who had instigated the uprising. Then, he ordered to cut off of many of the captured Székelys’ body parts.

1577: Báthory István helped Voivode Péter to retake his throne, with the help of a Székely army. 

1579-1581: Several Székely units took part in the northern campaign of King Báthory István of Poland when he beat the Russians over the region of Dwina. There were not only Székely soldiers but Székely carpenters who built cabins for the Hungarian-Székely-Polish-Lithuanian troops for the winter season. 

Báthory István aka Stefan Batori (1533-1586)

1594: Székely auxiliary troops fought in Moldova and in Wallachia. Under the command of Kornis Gáspár and Daczó Ferenc, they captured the pro-Ottoman Voivode Áron in Moldova and took him to Transylvania. At the same time, the Székelys helped the fight of Voivode Michael in Wallachia against the Turks.

1595: In the Battle of Gyurgyevó, the devastating volley of the Székely infantrymen was the first step toward the victory of the Christians against the Ottomans. 

The map of the “Hungaries”: to the right, the Transylvanian Principality (by Somogyi Győző)

1596: It was the time of the so-called “bloody carnival” which was the largest Székely uprising. While Prince Báthory Zsigmond was away (he resigned several times from the throne), he appointed Bocskai István, his loyal general to guard the country. Báthory, when heard of the Székely rebellion, ordered his officers to restrain themselves from atrocities. Yet, they disregarded his instruction.  Toldy István and Bogáthy Boldizsár herded up all the main rebels in Marosszék and they bestially executed them, hanging or impaling them. Apafi Miklós defeated the Székely common infantrymen from Gyergyó, led by Gál János at Újfalu and killed all of the captives. Hearing this, the rebels of the Csík district laid down their arms but they could not avoid punishment so easily. In Háromszék, the Székelys were also scattered after smaller fights by the soldiers of Ravazdi György. The troops of the Transylvanian prince are allowed to plunder the entire Székely Land as if they were in a hostile land in a foreign country. 

Prince Báthory Zsigmond of Transylvania is not loved by the Székelys

1599: In the Battle of Sellenberk, the Székelys were fighting against each other. The Székelys from Marosszék and Aranyosszék districts sided with the Transylvanians while the rest of the Székelys were in the army of Voivode Michael the Brave. After the battle, Prince Báthory András of Transylvania was slain by a common Székely soldier called Ördög Balázs from Csíkszentdomokos. The castles called Székelytámadt (“Székelys attacked”) and Várhegyi castle were demolished because they had been built by King János Zsigmond to control the Székelys. Also, the Székelys of Háromszék region captured Ravazdi György, and took revenge on him because of the “bloody carnival”, killing him in a most hideous way.  

1600: Under the command of Székely Mózes, the Székely troops took Moldova but they developed an argument over the booty with their Wallachian (Romanian) allies in Tatros. In the end, the enraged Székelys slaughtered most of their Wallachian allies. Later, in the Battle of Miriszló, most of the Székelys fought on the side of Voivode Michael the Brave, and they were the ones who made a last stand at the end. Here is more about this battle:

The Battle of Miriszló by Bánlaky

Note: only the major military events were listed but the situation in Transylvania was tense enough even in times of peace. Not to mention the bloody feuds between the families and everyday raids on the Borderland, and the fights between non-Székely soldiers and stray mercenaries. 

1602-1604: It was the age of General Basta’s “terrible rule”. The Italian-Albanian General Giorgio Basta and his western mercenaries, accompanied by the Hungarian Hajdú soldiers were devastating the western part of the Székely Land. They burned up the city of Marosvásárhely twice, and defeated Székely soldiers of Nyárád at Nyárádtő, they were the guards of Bethlen’s castle and they were all slaughtered.

A Transylvanian Hussar (by Somogyi Győző)
1603: The Battle of Brassó was also called “the Mohács of Transylvania”, referring to the disastrous defeat of 1526. Voivode Serbán Radu of Wallachia defeated Prince Székely Mózes of Transylvania. In this particular battle, the Székelys coming from Aranyosszék, and Marosszék regions as well as the common and wealthy Székelys from Háromszék and Csíkszék districts were fighting in the Transylvanian army while many common Székelys from Háromszék and Csík were in the army of the Wallachian voivode. The Transylvanian prince was killed by a Székely infantryman from Csíkszentmihály, his name was Katona Mihály. Read more about this fight here:
1605: The Bocskai Uprising.  Gyulaffi László (he was not the famous Borderland warrior with the same name) csak névrokona a híres végbeli vitéznek) was the commander of the Székely army which was forcing several German Saxon towns to be loyal to the Transylvanian prince instead of the Habsburg king. At the same time, they beat the Wallachian troops out of Transylvania.
1608: The entire Székely nation took the side of Prince Báthory Gábor and they successfully fought against the Transylvanian Saxons and the Wallachians, just like against the troops of Forgách Zsigmond of Kassa (Kosice, Kaschau).
1617: During the Ottoman-Polish war, there were Transylvanian troops in the Ottoman army, including Székelys but they did not take part in any fights against the Polish; instead, they tried to help the negotiations between the Polish and the Turks.
1619: During the first campaign of Prince Bethlen Gábor against the Habsburgs, the Székely troops get as far as Bohemia but they were late from the Battle of White Mountain. However, they “smartly” took advantage of the confusion and plundered the region on the way home. 
The flag of Bethlen’s army
1623: There were Székely soldiers in great numbers in the second western campaign of Prince Bethlen Gábor, too.  
1626: The third campaign of Bethlen Gábor. We could find Székelys in these struggles, just like in Bethlen’s western and eastern diplomatic missions when he favored sending Székely noblemen who were famous for their shrewd thinking.
1637: Prince Rákóczi I György sent Székely soldiers to defend Voivode Máté of Wallachia against Voivode Lupul of Moldavia.
A Transylvanian infantryman in a blue uniform (by Somogyi Győző)
1644: Prince Rákóczi Zsigmond, the son of the previous ruler took the Székelys along to his victorious western campaign to Royal Hungary. The taking of Szatmár, Kassa, Fülek, Szerencs, and Jenő castles was done mainly by Székely infantrymen. The Székelys’ officers were Toldalagi Ferenc, Kemény János, Jármi Ferenc, Mikes Mihály, Szentpáli István.
1645: The second wave of Székely reinforcement came to the western front, to aid the besiegers of Brno. Swedish General Torsternson asked for Székely auxiliary forces from Prince Rákóczi. 
1653: Prince Rákóczi II György sent Kemény János to fight against Voivode Lupul of Moldova, his small army was made up of some Székely units. At first, the Moldavians (Romanians) defeated them with the help of Cossack troops but the Székelys beat them in the second Battle of Jászvásár (Iasi). Chief Captain Petki István of Csík district and the soldiers of Mikes Mihály took Szucsava (Suceava) in a fierce fight against the allied Polish-Cossack-Moldavian forces. 
Székely “red” infantrymen, 17th century (by Somogyi Győző)
1655: Prince Rákóczi led the Transylvanian army in person to Wallachia and defeated Voivode Hericza at Ploesti because he had rebelled against Rákóczi’s candidate for the Wallachian throne. Rákóczi took him home as a captive. The Székely units’ role in this campaign was to “soften up” the enemy, their commander was Mikes Kelemen, Chief Captain of Háromszék. 
1657: The disastrous Polish campaign of Prince Rákóczi: like almost the entire Transylvanian army, the Székelys were captured by the Crimean Tatars. Only the lucky and the wealthy ones could ransom themselves. You can read more about this horrible war here:
Prince Rákóczi György II
1658: The Moldavian (Romanian), Cossack (Ukrainian), and Crimean Tatar hordes were burning and pillaging the whole Székely Land, inflicting terrible damage. The Székely women, children, and old men who were left at home at Gyergyószárhegy defeated an army of 3,000 intruders.   
1659: Prince Rákóczi took Transylvania back with Székely help from Prince Barcsay Ákos who had been appointed by the Turks. 
1660: There were several Székely units in the unlucky battle of Szászfenes. They were able to repel the enemy’s attack several times but they had to withdraw because the foe surrounded them. Prince Rákóczi got mortally wounded in the fight. Then, Barcsay Ákos set out against the Székely Land with Transylvanian troops. The Székely Chief Captain Mikes Mihály took himself into Ecsed castle and resisted. Another renowned Székely warrior, Szárhegyi “nemes” (noble) Lázár István was captured but he escaped and instigated the whole Székely Land. Some wealthy Székelys who were loyal to Prince Barcsay got hanged. However, the Székelys accepted the new prince after a long fight and made a contract with him.
Prince Barcsay Ákos
1661: It was the year when the Székely Land was devastated for the second time, this time mainly the Ottoman Turks did the job. It was because the Székelys supported Prince Kemény János and not Prince Apafi Mihály who was backed by the Turks. The Székelys were desperately defending the mountain passes of the Csíkszék district but the Turkish light cavalry got through the forest and surrounded them. 
1663: Some Székely units had to join the Ottoman army which was besieging Érsekújvár (Nové Zámky) but they did not take part in the fight in earnest against the Imperial and Hungarian troops. 
1690: The German commanders put the Székely troops in the reserve in the Battle of Zernyest, and they fled without putting up a fight. The enemy consisted of the troops of Prince Thököly Imre’s  Hungarian-Crimean Tatar-Wallachian (Romanian) soldiers. 
1694: The Crimean Tatars sent a raiding party into Felcsík district and herded about 7,000 Székelys into slavery. 
Note: these were still the major military events but the situation was not quite peaceful in Transylvania, except for the reign of Prince Bethlen Gábor and Prince Rákóczi I György. There were continuous clashes on the Borderland between the Székely border guards and the smugglers and the bandits, especially during the first part of the 17th century.
The Monument of the (Gyergyó)Szárhegy Battle in 1658

Read more about the Battle of Gyergyószárhegy here:

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Look at these pictures about the Székely people and their culture: