Zólyom (Zvolen, Altsohl) castle is famous for the Hungarian warrior-poet, Balassa Bálint who was born there in 1554. The castle is located in the Upper lands/Horná zem/Felföld, it is in Slovakia. We can talk about several fortifications, though: besides the fortified palace in the city, there is a lower castle and remains of the town wall. In addition to these, on the top of the hill, there is a large ruined fort, the “Öregvár” or “Pusztavár”.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, Pusztavár was one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. Pusztavár (or “Öregvár”= “old castle”) was constructed a bit farther to the southwest from the present castle’s location. According to a local legend, the famous Hungarian king, Saint László closed his eyes here, in 1095 AD. Zólyom castle became the center of the medieval Zólyom County that was named after the castle. Zólyom was mentioned first as “Zolium” in 1135. The place remained to be the center of the county until the Modern Age, then Besztercebánya (Banská Bystrica) became the new one. However, the “Öregvár” on the hilltop was already quite ruined in 1600.
The town, originally built under the castle, lay on an important trade route (Via Magna) leading from Buda to Kraków. The town of Zólyom was granted town privileges by King Béla IV in the 1230s – as one of the first towns in the Kingdom of Hungary. The privileges were confirmed on 28 December 1243, after the original document was destroyed in the Mongolian Invasion.
Later, King Lajos built a new castle in the 1370s, which became a popular hunting resort of the Hungarian kings. King Lajos liked to stay in Zólyom as it was close to the Polish border. He even summoned the Polish noble Estates to a Diet to Zólyom in 1382. Not much later, Lajos, King of Hungary and Poland died in Nagyszombat (Trnava), 117 km from Zólyom.
Zólyom was a very nicely decorated hunting castle, no wonder that the future queen regnant Mary of Hungary and Emperor Zsigmond (Sigismund) celebrated their wedding there in 1385. The army of the Bohemian mercenary leader, Giskra took it in 1440. The army of General Hunyadi János burned the town in 1449 but it was only his son, King Matthias Corvinus who could retake it in 1462. However, Hunyadi János didn’t give up the siege so easily, and he had another castle built opposite to the other one in 1451, we can still see its remains on the Strázsa hill. After taking it, King Matthias used to like staying in the castle. He had even reconstructed it in Renaissance style.
Zólyom castle has never been occupied by the Ottoman Turks. During the anti-Habsburg wars of the Transylvanian rulers, it was in Prince Bocskai’s and Prince Bethlen’s possession in 1605 and in 1620. We know that the Sacred Crown of Hungary was kept here in readiness for a year so as to crown Prince Bethlen Gábor of Transylvania as king of Hungary. He was elected as king of Hungary in Besztercebánya on 25 august 1620 but he decided not to wear the Sacred Crown. Later, Zólyom was taken by the troops of Prince Rákóczi György in 1644.
The castle had changed owners quite frequently during the anti-Habsburg wars of Hungary. For example, the rebel “kuruc” soldiers of General Bercsényi Miklós defeated the Imperial army on 15 November 1703, led by Forgách Simon at Zólyom. Later, the castle was given to the Esterházy family, then the Treasury bought it from them in 1802.
Zólyom was taken back from the Czechoslovakian army on 7 June 1919 by the Red Army but the Communist leaders of Hungary withdrew their troops from the city, in the vain hope of getting international recognition. Now, you can visit several exhibitions in the nicely renovated castle.
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Here are more pictures about the different fortifications of Zólyom: