Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica, Schemnitz), the important German-Saxon mining town of the old Kingdom of Hungary, is located in the Upper Lands/Horná zem/Felvidék, in Slovakia. Legend has it that its name comes from two lizards that helped a shepherd named Sebenitz to find the fabulous gold and silver mines in the area. The town is famous for its rich architectural heritage and has an inner castle called “Óvár” as well as fortifications of the medieval town. “Bánya” means “mine” in Hungarian.

Csontváry (1902): Selmecbánya (painting)

Selmecbánya was the first place in the Kingdom of Hungary where silver was mined in the largest quantities already in the time of King Saint István in the first decades of the 11th century. Selmecbánya’s silver mining was first mentioned in writing in 1075. This mining town is now part of the World Heritage. There were important gold mines, but the mining of silver and copper was more important. Apart from Hungarian miners, there were also miners from Flanders and Bavaria. Let’s note that it was the first place in Europe where gunpowder was used for mining, in 1627.

Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

According to the law of St. István, whoever killed intentionally, must redeem his sin with 110 “penza”. Of these, 50 shall belong to the royal treasury, 50 to the relatives of the killed person, and 10 to the judges. The “penza” was not real money, but the combined value of 30 silver denarii. It was the same as the value unit of the conquering Hungarians, the one young bullock. One cattle = one “penza” = 30 silver denarii.Coins were minted only in Esztergom until the 13th century, their material came from Selmecbánya. The miners’ dwelling place was called Argentifodina in 1228. You may read more about the famous towns of the Mining District of Hungary here:

King Béla IV made Selmec(bánya) a free royal town in 1238 and he invited Saxon and Bayern miners into the city before and after the Mongolian invasion of 1241-42. Before 1241, the king made a contract with a German mining enterpriser who helped to build machines that were able to drain the water from the mines. Initially, the miners’ settlement stood at the hill of Glanzenberg but it was totally destroyed by the Mongols. The new German settlers were called the “Walbürgers”, they established the town of Selmecbánya a bit further. The first known document issued by the city council of the town is from 1275.

Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

The fortified parish church of the Virgin Mary was built on the hill in the middle of the city as early as the 13th century, later it was called the “Óvár” (Old Castle). It has never really had a military significance, we don’t know of any siege of Old Castle. Thanks to this, its towers and bastions have survived the stormy centuries, nowadays {2004} are beautifully restored, with an open gate waiting for visitors curious about the historical past. However, it is not clearly seen what sort of fortifications the town had before the Ottoman peril. We know that there were no walls mentioned when the army of Bishop Rozgonyi Simon was fighting the Bohemian Hussites there in 1442.

Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

After the end of the Árpád dynasty in 1301, King Károly Róbert was able to take hold of the important mining city only in 1321. Two years later, the king reorganized the Hungarian financial system based on his Italian experience. In addition to the silver denarius, which had become increasingly worthless (each year the people were obliged to re-exchange the coins into “new coins” that had less silver in them), heavier silver mites {3 grams} and, from 1325 onwards, gold Forints {3.5 grams} were made in the mint workshops.

In the Middle Ages, the citizens of Selmec discovered several silver ore deposits in the surrounding mountains, establishing a city for each of them {e.g. Bakabánya, Besztercebánya, Hodrusbánya}. We have to mention one more fortification that overlooks Selmecbánya, its ruins are called the Glanzenberg.

Glanzenberg, the old castle above Selmecbánya (Photo: Imre Lánczi)

The Bohemian Hussites were called into Hungary by Queen Erzsébet who wanted to usurp the power with their help. However, the Hussites took hold of the whole Eastern part of the Upper Lands of Hungary and they took Selmecbánya as well. In 1442, the Czech Hussite captain of Selmecbánya and his men attacked the city of Bishop Rozgonyi Simon of Eger who was the man of the counter-King Ulászló I. The Czechs robbed the city, but they did not dare to besiege the well-fortified castle.

Selmecbánya in 1726 by Marsigli

The Hussites, who were on their way home with their booty, were beaten by Bishop Rozgonyi and Baron Czudar Jakab’s army. They also managed to capture the Czech leader Talafuz himself in the forest of Szölöske. He was imprisoned in the castle of Eger. The vengeful bishop marched on with his army, heading straight for Selmecbánya, which he occupied with a sudden attack. His soldiers wreaked havoc and robbed and burned the houses. The Saxon citizens cursed them more than the Hussites who had occupied them until then.

The view of Selmecbánya from Glanzenberg (Photo: Imre Lánczi)

Additionally, a terrible earthquake destroyed the city in 1443 but due to the most important silver and gold mines of the Hungarian Kingdom, it was very soon rebuilt. To recover from the destruction of the Hussites (1440-1462), King Matthias Hunyadi tried to help the much-suffered Selmecbánya with tax exemptions to regain its economic balance.

The Óvár (Photo: Laci Ruman)

The Óvár was fortified in the 16th century (1546 – 59) and during the next decades, the burghers built walls that blocked the valleys around the town. They completed the gates of Hegybánya, Szentantal, Bélabánya, and Bakabánya by 1554, as well as another gate towards the North-West. Behind the Szentantal Gate, the second line of the wall was built, with towers. Between 1564 and 1571, the Újvár (New Castle) was built to protect the southern side of the mining settlement, thus the protection system of Selmecbánya was fully established. Now, we can see the Óvár and the Újvár, but among the gates, only the Hegybányai Gate has survived until our days. 

Photo: Laci Ruman

According to a 1522 inventory, 43 mines, 5 smelters, and 5 crushers employed a total of 919 workers in and around the mining town. These figures show a significant increase compared to the past. Let us not forget, that sadly, most of the profit arrived in the Fugger bankers from the Mining District. They significantly contributed to the weakening of the kingdom just before the Turkish peril of 1526. Before the Battle of Mohács, we know that there was a miners’ uprising in Selmecbánya that was put down by the royal army.

Photo: Laci Ruman

In 1541, the serf villages of nearby Elijah and Zsibritó were looted by Turkish raiders. In 1546, due to the growing scale of the Turkish threat, the Selmec City Council decided to transform the newly completed parish church into an internal fortification.

Photo: Laci Ruman

On  14 May 1564, the castle captains of the surrounding countryside of Royal Hungary gathered in the town of Selmecbánya. As a result of their discussion, they set up an alert system to monitor and alert Turkish raids. They decided to use fire at night and smoke during the day. Firing one shot was the signal of warning or precaution, two shots meant that the Turks were close while three shots indicated the enemy’s raid taking place inside the district. 

Photo: Laci Ruman

In 1566-67, Turkish riders plundered the villages around the towns of Korpona and Selmecbánya, while in 1571, the serf village of Szitnyatő in the immediate vicinity was ravaged by the enemy. In the same year, Bey Veli of Nógrád castle sent a letter to the town to make them accept his rule. He wrote, “We already know very well the road leading to you, so you had better pay the tax because we are going against you, we will burn the city and destroy you”. No wonder, that the burghers were busily fortifying their town, and the Újvár (New Castle) was completed in 1571.

Photo: Laci Ruman

After the castles of Somoskő, Kékkő, and Divény were occupied by Turkish troops in 1575, the danger of occupation became very close. The horsemen of the conquerors attacked and set fire to the serf villages of Illés and Tópatak near the mining town. The danger of a direct attack only disappeared in 1593, when the royal armies recaptured many castles in Nógrád County. Yet, the enemy’s riders were still trying to collect taxes and plunder the area, so nobody could be safe from them. 

Photo: Laci Ruman

There was a scandal caused by the alchemists of Strasbourg in 1585 and another infamous thing was when the Turks secretly kidnapped the wife of Dóczy Lőrinc, the most beautiful woman of the age. (Note, I use the Eastern name order for Hungarians so family names come first.)

Selmecbánya opened its gates before the Hajdú soldiers of Prince Bocskai in 1605 and before the troops of Prince Bethlen in 1619. 
The relationship between the town and Prince Bethlen Gábor of Transylvania was remarkably good. The city also kept very good relations with the Palatine of Royal Hungary, Thurzó György. It was due to the friendship between the chief notary public of the city, Abraham Unverzagt, and the Palatine’s confidential man called Muller, who was the aristocrat’s secretary.

Photo: Laci Ruman

Thanks to this amity, Palatine Thurzó helped to protect the country roads around the city against the robbers. At the same time, Prince Bethlen confirmed the city’s privileges in his letters of 1621. The city received a confirmation from King Ferdinand II the same year – the Emperor praised the city as a loyal mining town and gave them the religious freedom to practice their Evangelic faith. The letter was signed also by Pálffy István, Pálffy Miklós, and Koháry Péter, faithful Hungarian aristocrats of Ferdinand II.

Photo: Dobos Róbert

The privileges were also confirmed and in addition to this, the King and Emperor granted the mining towns’ citizens the right to be called “Reichsmitglied”, a rank of the Empire. The contest for the mining towns’ loyalty was obvious. After Ferdinand’s letter, Bethlen was quick to issue a document for the town to save them from any Transylvanian military unit that would eventually wander near, and a bit later he gave a letter of safe conduct to the envoys of Selmecbánya. The troops of Prince Rákóczi György I also marched into the town in 1644. The city could balance itself well between these powers but in 1648 it suffered from anti-Protestantism. 

Photo: Dobos Róbert

In a decree dated February 10, 1662, Emperor Leopold Habsburg increased the working hours of the miners and at the same time introduced the three shifts. Due to the new mining order, a series of dissatisfaction movements began in the mining settlements of Upper Hungary. 

In 1678, the castles of Zólyom, Zólyomlipcse, Saskő, Kékkő, and then the city of Besztercebánya, came under the control of the Kuruc troops of Prince Thököly Imre. In these cities, the rebels looted 180,000 gold and a significant sum of silver. According to contemporary data, while Körmöcbánya (Kremnica), famous for its mint, could not be occupied by them, Selmecbánya came under their control. In fact, Selmecbánya was “punished” by the rebels in 1679 when 4,000 rebel soldiers plundered the town. Then, the Imperial troops took over the control but the rebels returned in 1682. 

Photo: Civertan

Emperor Leopold issued his decree about the destruction of the castles of Hungary in 1701 but Selmecbánya was not on the list. The last military function of the town was in 1703 when the riders of General Ocskai occupied it, during the War of Independence of Prince Rákóczi Ferenc. There was a German doctor called Jakab Ambrus Lang from the town who became the chief doctor of Prince Rákóczi. The German miners went on strike in 1707 and 11 of them died when their uprising was put down.

Photo: Pellinger Attila

The Kuruc troops were forced to leave Selmecbánya in 1708. General Heister marched in and took it firmly in his hands. There was a major battle near Selmecbánya in August 1709 when the soldiers of General Bottyán János fought a bloody fight with the Imperial troops who were defeated, and their commander, General Tollet was captured. However, the town remained in the Emperor’s hands.

Photo: Sludge G

Selmecbánya was no longer included in the pages of military chronicles. The fortifications have lost their importance, most of them have been demolished after wartime. However, the remains were nicely restored to show them to the visitors curious about the historical past.

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Here are a few more pictures of Selmecbánya: