King János Zsigmond of Hungary, Prince of Transylvania (1540-1571)
King János Zsigmond of Hungary, Prince of Transylvania (1540-1571)
On July 7, 1540, King János II of Hungary was born, the son of King Szapolyai János, the first prince of Transylvania, who ruled over the eastern part of the country under the name of János Zsigmond. Our second king Szapolyai came to the throne as an infant, so for most of his reign he was ruled by Friar György and then by his mother Queen Isabella, his personal leadership including the signing of the Treaty of Speyer, which settled the status of Transylvania, and the establishment of special religious tolerance for the principality. You can read more about King Szapolyai János here:
Szapolyai János Zsigmond was born at a turbulent time, after the division of the country into two parts, only a few days before the death of his father, King Szapolyai János I (r. 1526-1540). Although the king had promised in the Treaty of Várad in 1538 to cede his part of the country to King Ferdinand I of Habsburg (r. 1527-1564), the ruler of the western territories, he chose his son as his heir on his sickbed. In September 1540, the pro-János lords, led by Friar György, elected the infant János II king, whom Suleiman, taking advantage of Hungary’s internal strife, soon took under his wing and proclaimed his son. Here is the story of how Queen Isabella was plotting at that time:
“Support” in this situation meant that Suleiman (r. 1520-1566) tried to increase the area of Ottoman conquest under the pretext of protecting the child king. Friar György therefore wanted to restore the unity of the country, and in the Treaty of Nyírbátor of 1549, he obtained the abdication of the throne by Isabella, also in the name of her child, in exchange for the duchies of Opeln and Ratibor. More about the life of Friar György, the White Monk:
The widowed queen and her son left Transylvania in 1551, and King Ferdinand’s five-year reign followed. During this time, however, the Habsburgs once again proved powerless to protect Hungary: as the Turkish occupation of the central part of the country expanded, Transylvania became a provincial subject, attracting Vienna’s interest mainly for its mineral resources and taxes.
King Ferdinand established his rule by relying on the local Transylvanian Saxons, but soon the mood in the country was one of general discontent. The only exception, apart from the Saxons, was the community of the Hungarian Székelys, whose privileges had been confirmed in 1555. Finally, in October 1556, the estates recalled Isabella and János Zsigmond, who were received in Kolozsvár by Báthory István. Learn more about the Székelys of Transylvania:
The heir to the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom was only 16 years old, so her mother, who had ambitions to become a monarch, ruled Transylvania: under her leadership, the taxed Székelys rebelled, and the Kendi brothers conspired with Bebek Ferenc to depose Isabella.
The situation was not easy, because King Ferdinand and, after 1564, King Maximilian I (r. 1564-1576) did not give up the reconquest of Transylvania, which they tried to achieve by force and by stirring up internal discontent. Zay Ferenc and Balassa Menyhárt, the captains of the Kingdom of Hungary, used military force to conquer the eastern part of the Highlands – including the city of Kassa (Kosice, Kaschau) – and to reduce the rule of King János II to roughly the limits established in 1570.
In 1562, another Székely uprising broke out, posing a serious threat to the young ruler with the Székelys’ 40,000-strong army; Szapolyai finally suppressed the rebellion and then, at the Diet of Segesvár, withdrew the privileges of the Székely nation, so that Székely land remained a hotbed of rebellion throughout his reign. In 1564, the King of Eastern Hungary had to face an external attack when the chief captain of the Kassa region, Zay Ferenc, invaded Transylvania and defeated the forces of King János II at Hadad, although he was unable to overthrow his rule.
After the failures of Gyula and Nagybánya in 1565, Maximilian, King Ferdinand’s successor, was already inclined to compromise – which was also justified by Suleiman’s last campaign in 1566 – and concluded the secret Treaty of Szatmár with his opponent, in which King János II abdicated the Hungarian throne. Of course, the negotiations were not without obstacles, as the case of Báthory István (later King of Poland) shows, who was imprisoned as an envoy in Vienna for two years and was only released in 1567.
The negotiations were concluded by Bekes Gáspár’s Treaty of Speyer, in which King János II again renounced the title of King of Hungary and took the title of Princeps, or Prince. Under the terms of the Treaty of Speyer in 1570, Prince János Zsigmond and his successors could retain Transylvania, but in the event of the family’s extinction, the Hungarian (apparently Habsburg) king would have the right to appoint a new leader.
From this point of view, there is a debate about the extent to which the ruler installed on December 1, 1570, can be considered a real Transylvanian prince, and whether we should consider Báthory István as the first in this line rather than the successor chosen independently by the estates. János Zsigmond’s princely reign did not last long: on March 14, 1571, he ratified the treaty signed by Bekes, then he died four days later, and after his death, the estates of Transylvania differed from those contained in the Treaty of Speyer.
The short reign of János Zsigmond was not significant from a political point of view, but rather from a religious one: his reign fell in the period when Transylvania – like other European countries – was successively affected by the various and increasingly radical currents of the Reformation, which triggered a series of civil wars in the Christian world. The ruler himself went through various trends, being born a Catholic and, after the Lutheran and Calvinist reformations, finding his true faith in the Unitarian religion, of which Transylvania became its European stronghold through the prince’s court physician, Giorgio Blandrata.
János Zsigmond proved to be an exceptionally tolerant ruler from the point of view of religion, which was demonstrated by the laws of the Torda Diet of 1568: the provisions made here practically ensured the free practice of religion for the subjects.
The Diet led by János Zsigmond established four established religions – Catholic, Unitarian, Reformed, and Lutheran – thus essentially defining the historical Hungarian churches and settling the debate over the use of churches.
It is no exaggeration to say that the articles of Torda were of universal importance in the history of the Church, as they were an example for the whole of Europe, and with their help it was possible to prevent the other extreme, the persecution of those who remained in the old faith. Thus, János Zsigmond was able to solve one of the two serious problems of his time – the contradictions arising from the Reformation and the Turkish threat – and his wisdom influenced the religious relations in Transylvania until the 20th century. More about the Diet of Torda: