The castle of Kékkő (Modrý Kameň), was the famous castle of the poet and warrior Balassi Bálint. Kékkő, in Hungarian it means “bluestone”, is located in the Upper lands/Horná Zem/Felvidék, now it is in Slovakia, near Besztercebánya (Banská Bistrica), guarding the road towards the Mining Towns’ district.
The Comes of Zólyom County controlled a huge forest in the northern part of the Kingdom of Hungary. The Comes of Zólyom County was called the Forró Péter, Son of Mikó from the Zólyomi Clan. They were the ancestors of the Balassa family and it was Lord Forró who had Kékkő castle built in the 1270s.
Lord Forró’s daughter was married to Lampert, Son of Kázmér from the Hontpázmány Clan who took Kékkő castle in his possession when Lord forró died in 1285. He has even occupied the castle of Gyarmat, a nearby fort where a stone tower stood in the middle of it. He should not have done so because he just angered the family of his wife whose soldiers besieged Gyarmat and Kékkő in 1290 with the help of the powerful Lord Demeter, Comes of Pozsony and Zólyom counties. It was how the castle was first mentioned as Keykkw in that year. The new owner, Byter was so grateful to Lord Demeter that gave him one-third of his ownership over Kékkő castle. Comes Demeter could gain Gyarmat castle as well, in exchange for his unselfish military aid. We must remark that Comes Demeter was a cousin of Lord Byter.
Later, the castle was taken by Lord Csák Máté and his soldiers had been guarding it until the death of this mighty oligarch in 1321.
Then, the Zólyomi family (the ancestors of the Balassa family) owned it for a long time. The Czech Hussite mercenaries were occupying large areas of Upper Hungary’s Eastern and middle parts between 1440-1462 but they could not take Kékkő castle. The Balassa family could beat them back each time. On the whole, the Balassa family has always been renowned for his violent and fierce members. For example, Lord Balassa Balázs acted like a robber knight when he ambushed the Monastery of Ság in 1444 and had all the valuables carried away from there to Kékkő castle.
After the Battle of Mohács in 1526, the fatal Dual Kingship tore the country in two. Unluckily, Kékkő was located roughly on the border of Habsburg Ferdinand’s and Szapolyai János’ lands. No wonder, that the members of the Balassa family were wavering between the two kings. They tried to side always with the stronger one, gaining new lands for their loyalty. It was not utterly uncommon nor outrageous in that age.
When Buda fell in 1541, many Hungarian lords decided to swear fealty to the Habsburgs who seemed to have lots of western resources to defend them against the Ottoman onslaught. The Balassa family became one of them.
They were in need of help, indeed: the Ottomans burned the villages between Gyarmat, Szécsény and Kékkő castles in 1547. The Akindjies took countless captives from the peasants, thus weakening the Balassa family. Still, the Balassa family members decided to rage wars against each other which made the anti-Ottoman defense more difficult.
We can find only 50 Hussars in Kékkő castle in 1554. Dark days were coming, although the castle was rebuilt due to the Ottoman threat in the 1560s. On the last day of the Diet of Pozsony in 1569, Emperor Habsburg Maximilian had Balassa János and his brother-in-law, Dobó István of Ruszka arrested. They were accused of treason: allegedly they had been secretly plotting with the followers of the Transylvanian ruler, János Zsigmond. Lord Balassa János managed to break out from his custody (which was a part of the Royal Palace in the castle of Pozsony) during the next year’s spring. He ran to Zólyom, then fled to his property in Dunajec that was in Poland.
The Emperor confiscated Zólyom and Liptóújvár castles from him but the castles of Kékkő and Divény could remain in the hand of the Balassa family. The political situation could change only after the death of János Zsigmond in 1571. Balassa and Dobó received royal pardon: Lord Balassa knelt before the Emperor on 11 august 1572 in Vienna and soon he regained all his properties. When the Habsburg heir was crowned, Lord Balassa’s son, Bálint was following him as his Cup Bearer.
The peril arrived at Kékkő castle in the spring of 1575 when Bey Mustafa launched his campaign against the Mining Towns’ District.
Bey Ali was leading a great unit against Kékkő but its garrison fled before the Ottomans in 1576. Its captain, Temesi Imre, was fleeing to Dévény (Divin) but could not escape his death, the Turks killed him. Dévény castle was besieged and taken after a particularly bloody fight. The Hungarian defenders didn’t give their life so easily this time. As it turned out, these two Balassa castles became the northernmost conquests of the Ottoman Empire.
Although the enemy could never reach the wealthy Mining Towns, they could send many raids from these northern castles to devastate the area. Turks and Tatars were often burning and sacking the lands of Selmecbánya and Zólyom.
According to the Ottoman records, a new gate tower was built by them in Kékkő castle. There were attempts to take Kékkő back, though. The Hungarian Borderland warriors of Korpona castle attacked and burned the agricultural town of Kékkő castle in October 1588 but they could not take the fort because it was built on the top of a high hill. Not much later, the Ottomans wanted to take revenge and the Bey of Nógrád castle led 2,000 Ottoman warriors to the camp at Gyarmat castle. Unfortunately, we do not know more about this small campaign. You can read more about the fights at Korpona castle in my book “33 Castles, Battles, Legends”.
When the 15-Year-War broke out, Kékkő was taken back in November 1593 by the victorious armies of General Teuffenbach and General Pálffy Miklós. It was Balassa János’ son, Bálint who led the charge against the castle of Divény. Yes, he was the famous warrior and poet, the greatest figure of Hungarian poetry in the 16th century. Unfortunately, he could not be happy for the regained two forts for a long time because he lost his life during the siege of Esztergom in 1594.
As Kékkő had been exploded by the Ottomans when it was taken, it was rebuilt by Balassa Zsigmond between 1603-1612. Using the labor of peasants which was paid by the Estates of Hungary, he had Italian-style bastions built. He could pretty soon test their strength because General Teuffenbach besieged Kékkő in January 1616. Lord Balassa was accused of treason because he had been negotiating with the Ottomans. The royal army soon captured the fort and took the lord into captivity.
However, the castle remained in the possession of the family. We know that the warriors of Kékkő often took part in counter-attacks in the next decades against the Ottoman raiding parties which were sacking the Hungarian villages of Nógrád County. These were the so-called preventive actions, the mobile “small war” that had been going on for centuries along the 1,000-mile-long Borderland. As the contemporary saying went, “a castle can be defended only in the field”.
During the 17th century, Kékkő had been destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly. Once, it was Prince Rákóczy’s man called Kókay who set it on fire. Then, the widow of Balassa Gábor partly renovated the place. King Leopold gave the place a privilege and allowed it to keep markets in 1658. Not much later, the fort suffered lots of damages in 1659 by the Ottomans.
The Ottoman threat got even closer in 1664 when the strategically important fort of Érsekújvár fell. The Christian army gave up the castles of Nyitra, Nógrád, and Szécsény, without putting up much fight. The castles of Nógrád county commenced. The inhabitants of Balassagyarmat fled to Kékkő and the Ottoman light cavalry was burning and plundering the area – but they didn’t dare to attack the castle.
The oldest upper castle consisted of a perimeter of defensive walls of an oval shape and dimensions of approximately 46 x 32 meters, located on the top of a rocky hill. Residential and utility buildings were located along it. The gate was placed in a wall break on the south-east side, where the oldest residential building was also located, with at least one chamber that was heated by a fireplace. The lower, outer defensive wall was additional protection from the north and east. To the east of the castle’s core was the outer bailey, transformed in the 16th century. It consisted of a vast courtyard surrounded by a wall of a rectangular shape and reinforced by two bastions. The entrance to its area was preceded by a wide ditch.
In 1683, the castle was conquered by the rebel armies of Prince Thököly Imre and was seriously damaged. The damage was not repaired by the owners and the upper, gothic part of the castle has been in ruins since then. When the Ottomans were defeated at Vienna in that year, Szécsény was seized by the Polish troops, the allies of the Habsburg king but we don’t know whether they occupied Kékkő or not. Presumably, they had to take it, too. According to a sad report in 1696, there were only 8 peasant houses in the area of the once-rich agricultural town of Kékkő.
In 1750 Balassa Gábor built a baroque palace in the lower part of the castle and in 1759 a chapel dedicated to Saint Anne. The stones of the old castle were reused in the construction. After the extinction of the Balassa family in 1899, the property was taken over by the Károlyi family. It was Count Károlyi Tibor who had the palace renovated. The place was taken by the Czechoslovakian state in 1945.
Now, archeological excavations have revealed the older part of the castle and a nice museum can be visited in the palace. Hopefully, the descriptions for the tourists are already available in the Hungarian language, too, unlike not so long time ago.
The castle of Kékkő has a legend about a famous “blue stone” and the story is connected to a beautiful wife of Lord Balassa. It can be read in my book “33 Castles, Battles, Legends” while it inspired me to write a historical fiction novel that takes place in the 17th century and its heroes are after another mysterious ring.
The story of “The Ring of Kékkő Castle” begins in 1634 when a warrior called Bálint Felföldi starts a quest to find the lost Ring of King Matthias Corvinus in the wildlands of the Hungarian Borderlands where the remnants of the once-great Hungarian kingdom mix with the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires.
At the center of this tale of adventure and intrigue is Bálint, the son of a Hungarian mother of the Székely frontier guards of the Carpathian Mountains and Scottish soldier-of-fortune who came to Hungary to serve the Prince of Transylvania.
On his quest, he has adventures and overcoming obstacles, hardships, and foes that seek to undermine his efforts.
The novel wishes to pay tribute to the Hussar and Hajdú warriors of the Hungarian Valiant Order of the Borderland who had been gloriously blocking the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into Europe for centuries.
Both books are available not just in ebooks but in a paperback edition, too.