The hill of Tokaj (Photo: JezW)

Everybody knows the famous wine of Tokaj: now, here is the story of its castle. This Hungarian castle guarded the most important and world-famous wine region of the country. It was also a junction of trade routes coming from the eastern part of Royal Hungary and Transylvania. The other, similarly significant crossing place over the Tisza river was only at Szolnok which was in Turkish hands in the 16-17th centuries.

The area of Tokaj (Photo: Szemes Elek)

The first fort of Tokaj was built by Chief Árpád in the 9th century on the right bank of the Bodrog river but it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1241. King László IV permitted the noblemen of the Nyírség area to build a castle in 1283. When the stone castle was built, the king laid a siege on it when fighting the Aba Amádé family in 1290. The castle was utterly ruined and instead of rebuilding, the new one was built on the left side of the Bodrog river in the 14th century. It was mentioned in a document in 1410 and its value was 12,000 gold Forints at that time.

Reconstruction plan of the castle of Tokaj, 2021

It looked like this:

The fort was given around 1422 to the Serbian Despot Stefan Lazarevics and later it was inherited by his heir, György Brankovics. The next owner was János Hunyadi in 1451 and later his son, King Matthias Corvinus got it. The noblemen of the area assembled in Tokaj in 1458 to aid the freshly elected king against the Hussites.

The taking of Tokaj in 1565 (etching by Ortelius)

Tokaj was given to Szapolyai Imre in 1469. It became an important center of the family and it was the place where János Szapolyai was nominated king of Hungary in 1526, after the battle of Mohács. The troops of the usurper King Habsburg Ferdinand defeated his army at Tokaj, ruining the walls of the castle. Ferdinand gave the castle to Báthory István in 1527 but Szapolyai could take it back the next year. (Please, note that I use the Oriental name order for Hungarians where family names come first.)

Tokaj (by Hoefnagel)

The castle had exchanged hands several times until 1530. Finally, it went to Ferdinand who gave it to Serédi Gáspár who had to beat Szapolyai back many times again. Yet, King Szapolyai took it back in 1537 for a short time. I think it is very weird what happened next: the two kings agreed in 1538 and decided to own the castle together. They split the garrison and paid an equal number of guards. In reality, the Serédy family regarded the castle as theirs and they were in charge instead of the kings. They got the captaincy of the castle officially, too, between 1541 and 1555.

Tokaj Castle – colored etching – around 1664

The Turkish peril was imminent so it was time when a new bastion was built. When Serényi Benedek died, his widow, Lady Dobó Zsófia didn’t hand the castle over to Serényi György. Instead, the widow and her captain, Németi Ferenc, beat back the Serédi’s assault. Némethi managed to become the foster father of the young Serédi István and soon sided with King Szapolyai. Némethi went on with the reinforcement of the castle and built further bastions. The king sent him 1,000 Hussars and 600 infantrymen, too.

Tokaj in a German Geometry book

In the picture below, you can see a medium oblique view showing the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II commanded by the Captain-General of the Imperial army in Hungary, Lazarus von Schwendi, besieging the Némethi-held fortification of Tokaj which was taken on 11 February 1565. The Habsburg army, equipped with thirty-three pieces of artillery, undertook the siege apparently in the depths of winter since the two rivers were frozen over, allowing troops and artillery to cross (although at one point the ice had broken, and men and cannon had fallen through). After two attacks and four days’ siege, the fortress, in which was found money and munitions of war, was taken.

The siege of Tokaj in 1565

Némethi died during the siege. Here is my article about the life of Némethi:

The damages were rebuilt soon by Captain Jakab Raminger and Tokaj had become one of the most important fortifications of the Habsburgs in Hungary. The castle was modernized by Italian military engineers including Francesco del Pozzo, Ottavio Baldigara, and his brother Giulio Baldigara as well as Cristodoro della Stella. Their work proceeded very slowly because of the financial hardships and the river had flooded their boat bridge in 1591.

The statue of Némethi Ferenc in Tokaj (Photo: Elekes Andor)

The Hajdú soldiers of Prince Bocskai István took Tokaj back from the Habsburgs in 1605 with a one-year-long siege. The defenders had to surrender it because they had run out of food. After Bocskai’s death, the castle returned to the Habsburgs in 1607 who gave it to Palatine Thurzó György for 71,590 gold Forints. The Diet of 1609 ordered the free labor of the peasants of 8 counties for the repairing of the castle.

Some remains of the wall (Photo: Imre Lánczi)

Thurzó’s son inherited the fort in 1616 but he happened to be loyal to Prince Bethlen Gábor. The prince had to take the castle by force in 1619. The Holy Crown of Hungary was held in Tokaj at that time. Finally, in 1622 Bethlen agreed with the Emperor who let him have Tokaj in exchange for 300,000 gold Forints. The Prince made further reconstructions there and he even held his wedding there in 1628. The castle was the dwelling place of his widow, Katalin of Brandenburg, who gave Tokaj back to the Habsburgs.


The castle on Tokaj hill was the witness to how the Habsburg army was defeated in 1630 by the Transylvanians and their Hajdú soldiers. The fort was in very poor condition although the Diet of Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg) had issued several orders for its renovation. It was said to be “not good enough for a pigsty if it wasn’t surrounded by water one could easily ride straight into the middle of it through its gentle slopes”.

Excavations in Tokaj castle (Photo: Imre Lánczi)

Its captain was Abaffy Miklós who sided with Prince Bethlen, aiding him with soldiers. Yet, it was again in Habsburg’s hands in 1630 as we can see in a drawing made by Johann Ledentu, a military engineer, who was visiting the place at that time. The city of Tokaj was an agricultural settlement and according to a list from 1640 there lived 73 peasant families in it, including their judge and there were additional 22 stately homes with 16 noble families in them. Only six people served as ferrymen at the important military and trade crossing of the Tisza River. The castle fell into Prince Rákóczi I György’s hand in 1644, after a short siege and he was allowed to keep it according to the Peace of Linz.

Tokaj in 1684 (by Gabriel Bodenehr)

After the death of Prince Rákóczi II György, the fort went to the Emperor. General De Souches was camping under the castle for a year in 1660 before attacking Transylvania. The Austrians employed famous engineers to build the fort: Jakob Holst, Battmayer, Ssicha, and Strasoldo. Then, Starhemberg Rüdiger, the men of Prince Rákóczi I Ferenc captured the captain of Tokaj in 1670.
The prince’s army of 12,000 men besieged the fort. They were led by Szuhai Mátyás and Szepesi Pál but they couldn’t take it. The rebels couldn’t take the castle in 1678, either.


Yet, Prince Thököly Imre took it in 1682 and kept it for three years. The rebels attacked the castle in 1697 with 500 Hussars of Captain Tokaji Ferenc and they were successful. General Vaudemont paid a high price when he fought the fort back during the same year. It was Prince Rákóczi II Ferenc who finally took it by siege in 1703 and who had it destroyed in 1705 because he realized he couldn’t have kept it.


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Tokaj today (Photo: Robert Antaloczi)