Szepesi vár aka Szepesvár castle (Spissky Hrad, Zipser Burg) is located on the Upper lands/Horná zem/Felvidék, in Slovakia. It is situated on the top of a 200-meter-high cliff, overlooking the Szepes Basin. It is one of the largest castles in Europe with its 4-acre-big area. As it was the eagle-nest of the Szapolyai family, its history is closely connected to the last Hungarian native king, Szapolyai János. (Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first.)
The cliff was inhabited as early as the 5th millennium B.C. and yes, the Celts built the first huge fort there between the 1st and the 2nd century B.C. The buildings constructed by the Celts were connected by paved stone roads. When this ancient castle was destroyed, the next one was built on the neighboring hilltop called Drevenyik. However, after the castle at Drevenyik vanished by the waves of history, the core of present-day Szepes castle was built in the initial place where we can see it now.
The Magyar (Hungarian) tribes arrived in the 9th century A.D. They settled in this region but it remained a sparsely populated area. The first Hungarian settlers gave the name “Szép” (“beautiful”) to this land. It was King Géza II who invited German guests here in the 1150s. The new settlers began to use the name “Szép”, and it was how the area is called “Zipszer” — Spis — Zips (Hungarian: Szepes). You can read more about this region called “Szepesség”, the northern gem of the Hungarian Kingdom here:
Szepes castle became the political, administrative, economic, and cultural center of Szepes (Zips, Spis) County of the Kingdom of Hungary. The German settlers turned the Szepesség region into a wealthy and blooming land below the Carpathian Mountains. They were not only working in the fields but built cities, and the German artisans were renowned all around Hungary. The German burghers were also very good merchants and improved the trade between Hungary, Poland, and Bohemia. We have to remark the mines started by the German Saxons: they produced enormous amounts of silver and gold, not to mention other kinds of ores. Here is more about the money of the Hungarian Kingdom:
As a rule, the Hungarian kings owned most of the castles during the Árpád Dynasty, until 1300. It is not surprising, that the king was the first builder of Szepes castle: the oldest part of the medieval castle was built in the second part of the 12th century on the site of an earlier structure. They erected a 22-diameter-big round stone tower in the middle of the summit, with a cistern cut into the cliff. This early castle was surrounded by a stone wall, too. The place became the headquarter of the Comes of Szepes County.
Szepes castle has been rebuilt and remodeled over the last 1,000 years but it is basically a castle with an irregular floor plan and an inner tower. It remained an old-fashioned fortification even after the development of cannons because it was far away from the Hungarian-Ottoman Military Frontier. The castle can be divided into three parts that were towering on higher ground above each other: the lower castle, the middle castle, and finally, the citadel. Here is a video of what it may have looked like in the 17th century:
The first fort was destroyed by an earthquake before the Mongolian Invasion of 1241-42 so it had to be rebuilt. Perhaps it was the reason why the guards could defend it so successfully against the invading Mongols. Only a dozen stone castles were able to resist them in Hungary. After the Mongolian peril was gone, we can see the castle intact with its Romanesque-style stone fortifications, including a two-story Romanesque palace. Soon, a three-nave Romanesque-Gothic basilica was constructed at the end of the 13th century. It is assumed that Italian masons from Lombardy came here to build the walls.
King Béla IV was called the Second Founder of Hungary: he saw how successful the stone forts resisted the Mongols so he had scores of castles built in the Carpathian Basin. We can find the first written mention of Szepes castle in his document issued on 19 September 1249. In this, he gifted land to the Bishop of Szepes where the priest was allowed to build a palace and a stone castle at his own expense. It was how the castle was enlarged at that time. This way, the castle area has been doubled.
Indeed, the Bishop had the outer castle yard built, along with a gate protected by a tower. He was the one who built the outer castle’s stone wall. However, the Bishop moved his residence to the Chapter of Szepes before the end of the 13th century.
There was an important battle in 1275 at Szepes castle when its Comes called Roland rebelled against the king. After it was put down, the castle became the property of Kun Erzsébet, the mother of King (Kun) László IV. As Szepes castle controlled an important region, it was the target of many fights in the 14th century as well. The fort was held by the followers of King (Cseh) Vencel who reigned between 1301 and 1305. Then, the men of the new king, the Anjou Károly Róbert took it away from them in 1304. Yet, the Bohemians returned in 1307 for a short time. King Károly Róbert needed some time to break down the rebelling oligarchs of the kingdom. One of them was the mighty Lord Csák Máté who attacked Szepes castle in 1312 but the kings’ soldiers repelled his assault.
The castle was further reinforced in the second part of the 14th century, during the reign of King Lajos I. A new castle yard was built, it is now the “middle yard”, a 150-meter-long and 60-meter-wide place. The castle was completely rebuilt in the 15th century; the castle walls were heightened and a third settlement was constructed.
As Szepes castle was such an important castle in the kingdom, the Hungarian monarchs frequently gave it to their most trusted noblemen and barons. It meant that the barons received huge income from the estates belonging to Szepes castle. they enjoyed this money only for that period while they were filling in high offices at the court.
King Zsigmond of Luxembourg needed cash to defend Hungary against the Ottomans so he pledged the Szepesség region to Poland in 1412. It included 16 settlements, and Szepesváralja, the town below Szepes castle was one of them. The king intentionally kept Szepes castle in his hand, then he gave it to lord Rozgonyi István in exchange for his military deeds in 1439. After the king’s death, Rozgonyi lost the castle to the army of the Bohemian Hussite leader, Jan Giskra.
It was the Hungarian Queen Erzsébet who called the Hussite mercenaries into Hungary to support her son’s claim to the throne. The Hussites seized huge areas of the Hungarian Upper Lands where they were plundering the villages and towns. The men of Giskra built a round tower in the middle of the castle after 1445. Additionally, it was surrounded by a wooden palisade and a dry moat. The war wagons of the Hussites were placed around the walls to give more protection to their leader. Later, the lower castle was also built: its function was to give a better room to the fearsome war wagons of the Hussites.
Jan Giskra sold Szepes castle in 1454 to a man called Thurzó György who was a burgher of Lőcse city. Allegedly, Thurzó gave 2,130 pieces of gold in exchange for it but the castle returned to Giskra’s possession within a few years. We do not know the details of the business. Finally, it was the Treasurer of King Matthias Corvinus who took Szepes castle back in 1462. His name was Szapolyai Imre.
In 1464, the king awarded him Szepes castle, and the Szapolyai family owned it until 1528. It was their headquarters, they controlled their 70 castles from there. No wonder they were called the Counts of Szepes. They made more improvements to the castle: they built up the western line of palaces after 1465. Also, a chapel was built in the late Gothic style around 1470, it was dedicated to Saint Erzsébet (Elisabeth). The Szapolyai Clan turned the upper castle into a comfortable family residence, typical of Renaissance residences of the 16th century. Palatine Szapolyai István must have felt like a king: his son was given a royal education. He was Szapolyai János, the last native Hungarian king who was born in the castle in 1487. According to a legend, when King Matthias Corvinus saw the newborn baby, he foretold that he would be the next king of Hungary.
Szapolyai István was at the deathbed of King Matthias Corvinus, just like Queen Beatrix, and gossip said they were involved in poisoning the king in 1490. According to a contemporary story, right after the king’s death Szapolyai István picked up his 3-year-old son, János, and told him: “Were you older, I would make you a king!”
When he grew up, Szapolyai János became the Voivode of Transylvania and the leader of anti-Habsburg noblemen of the kingdom. When King Lajos II died in the Battle of Mohács in 1526, Szapolyai was accused of not hurrying to his aid fast enough with the Transylvanian army. However, historians proved that he could not have arrived in time, and he even left behind his troops and made haste toward Mohács just to be there. Well, he was late but his younger brother, György fought in the battle and died there.
Szerémi György (1490-1548) used to be the court chaplain of King Lajos II, later he served King Szapolyai János. When Szapolyai János died in 1540, Szerémi wrote his chronicle because, after the death of his lord, he could tell the truth freely. According to his work, the Epistola de perdicione Regni Hungarorum, King Lajos II didn’t die in the swamp at all: it was Szapolyai György who killed him with a Czech dagger.
The young king was being escaped by his generals, Tomori and Szapolyai from the battlefield, and they took a rest in Dunaszekcső, in the local priest’s house. The king took off his armor and was cleaning himself in a barrel. Tomori Pál left the room and went out to check his men. Then, Szapolyai György was alone with the king who had only a shirt on. Szerémi says: “György cried up: “You, bestial, dancing king, you have lost Hungary, and you have also denied our right that we claimed for the property of Prince Lőrinc, indeed, you will die now.” then, he attacked him with his Czech dagger, and stabbed him more than three times. The king fell to the floor…” When Tomori returned, he slaughtered Szapolyai György. Finally, Tomori was also killed by Szapolyai’s men. However, modern historians say the whole thing was just a fantasy of the chronicler.
We know the next: Szapolyai János didn’t go with his army to Buda so Sultan Suleiman was able to take it without a fight. When Suleiman left the country, Szapolyai was crowned king of Hungary, accepted by almost everybody. Yet, pretty soon Habsburg Ferdinand appeared and usurped his throne, and the Dual Kingship tore the kingdom into two.
The Habsburg army took Szepes castle from the men of Szapolyai János in 1528 with a two-week siege. Ferdinand gifted it to the Thurzó family (the relatives of the Fugger family) in 1531. Lord Thurzó Elek improved the castle in the Renaissance style, mainly the interior of the buildings was rebuilt. King Szapolyai is a dividing figure in our history, many historians dislike him because he got allied with Sultan Suleiman but others think that it was the only way to save Hungary from the imminent overrun by the Ottomans. Also, it was he and his son who paved the way for the foundation of the Principality of Transylvania.
King Szapolyai János died in 1540, leaving behind a male heir, János Zsigmond. The soldiers of late Szapolyai János attempted to take Szepes castle back with a night assault in 1543 but they were repelled. As Szepes castle was far from the Borderland, it has never been updated to answer the artillery challenges of the 16th century. It remained an administrative and economical center of its feudal lord.
The region saw more military action during the campaigns of the Transylvanian princes in the 17th century. The Hajdú soldiers of Prince Bocskai István tried to take Szepes in 1604 but they were not successful. When the Thurzó family was discontinued, the Csáky family took the castle over by force in 1636. They were the hereditary Chief Comes of Szepes County at that time. Prince Rákóczi György I of Transylvania besieged the castle in 1644 but however outdated the fortifications were, they could not take it.
The Csáky family built a remarkable line of stone pillars in front of the entrance in 1660, and a wooden palisade was used to stand between them. They connected the palaces with covered corridors, too. At that time, there were altogether 135 halls and rooms in the castle. The members of the Csáky family had lived in the castle until the end of the 17th century, trying to turn the fort into a more comfortable place but they failed in doing so. Gradually, the family members left the castle and built their more comfortable stately homes in the neighboring villages.
During the reign of Prince Thököly Imre (1682-1685), the Hungarian Kuruc rebels revolted against the Habsburg oppression and took Kassa (Kaschau, Kosice) and Eperjes (Presov). They occupied Szepes castle, too. However, the Imperial army took back control before soon over Upper Hungary. To prevent similar revolts, the Military Council in Vienna in 1702 decided to demolish many Hungarian castles, including Szepes castle. Fortunately, the War of Independence broke out in 1703, led by Prince Rákóczi Ferenc II, and Szepes castle escaped the destruction.
The garrison of Szepes castle didn’t want to cede the fort to the Kuruc troops, though. But there was a tailor called Trencsényi Mátyás among them who was siding with the Hungarian Kuruc rebels, and he mortally injured the captain of Szepes castle. Then, the garrison surrendered the fort, in exchange for safe conduct that was granted to them.
Szepes castle was not a strategically important place during the War of Independence but it was the place where Prince Rákóczi had one of his men, General Forgách Simon imprisoned because of treason. The rebels captured Count Maximilian Strahmberg, a high-ranking Imperial officer who was also imprisoned in Szepes. however, he was allowed to walk freely inside the fort, because he gave his word. Yet, he broke his promise and escaped from Szepes, using the outer hole of a latrine he descended on a rope one night. What an escape it might have been.
As for the Csáky family, the last family member left Szepes castle in 1707. Szepes castle was in the hands of the Kuruc rebels until June 1710 when Görgey János, Vice-Comes of Szepes County surrendered the fort to the besieging Imperial troops. Somehow, the castle could avoid destruction and it was not exploded like many Hungarian castles after 1711. Only a small garrison remained in it.
Unfortunately, some of the soldiers were very drunk in 1780 and they tried to produce gin in one of the halls. They caused a huge fire and the entire castle burned down. After the disaster, the owner didn’t want to rebuild the ruins and the castle has been abandoned. The Csáky family owned the ruined castle until 1948.
The archeological excavations and renovations began in the 1980s, and there is still much work to be done. This beautiful castle is now protected by UNESCO. The following movies were filmed in Szepes castle:
Dragonheart (1996); Kull, the Conqueror (1997); The Lion In Winter (2003); The Last Legion (2006)
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Here are more pictures of Szepes castle: