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 harms 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.

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