Selected Passages from Hungarian-Ottoman Wars

Székesfehérvár

The statue of Captain Varkocs in Székesfehérvár (Photo: Szöllősi Gábor www.varlexikon.hu)

The city and castle of Székesfehérvár are located in the middle of Hungary. Székesfehérvár was initially just Fehérvár, it used to be the kingdom’s medieval capital, Alba Regia. It was one of the most important cities in Hungary. In the Székesfehérvár Basilica, one of the largest basilicas in medieval Europe, where the Diets were held and the Crown jewels kept, thirty-seven kings and thirty-nine queens were crowned and fifteen rulers were buried. The Ottomans and the Imperial mercenaries alike, unfortunately, destroyed and mixed the skeletons when robbing their tombs.

Remaining sections of the wall (Photo: Szöllősi Gábor www.varlexikon.hu)

The city got its name from “the white castle of the royal seat”. Similar names were Nándorfehérvár aka Belgrade in Serbia or Gyulafehérvár aka Alba Iulia in Transylvania. Both used to get their names from Hungarian ranks like “nándor-nádor=palatine” or “Gyula”=military leader. “Gyula” was the keeper of Transylvania at the time of the home-taking in the 9th century, later this rank became the Voivode of Transylvania.

Remaining sections of the wall (Photo: Szöllősi Gábor www.varlexikon.hu)

The town was founded in 972 by High Prince Géza, father of King István. Géza had a small fort built in the city, too. King István I granted proper town rights to the settlement, surrounded the town with a plank wall, had a provosty and a school built, and under his rule, the construction of the Basilica began (it was built between 1003 and 1038). The settlement had about 3,500 inhabitants at this time and it was the royal seat for hundreds of years. Forty-three kings were crowned in Székesfehérvár.

Székesfehérvár, 1543

King András II issued the Golden Bull here in 1222. The Bull included the rights of nobles and the duties of the king, and the Constitution of Hungary was based on it until 1848. It is often compared to England’s Magna Carta. 

Remaining sections of the wall (Photo: Szöllősi Gábor www.varlexikon.hu)

During the Mongolian Invasion of Hungary (1241–1242), the invaders could not get close to the castle because the Mongolian warriors could not get through the surrounding marshes which were flooded by melting snow. In the 13th–15th centuries, the town prospered, and several palaces were built. In the 14th century, Székesfehérvár was surrounded by city walls. The Cathedral burned down in 1327 but it was soon restored.

The Cathedral of Székesfehérvár on fire (Chronica Picta)

After the death of King Matthias (1490), the Holy Roman Empire’s army of 20,000 men, led by Emperor Maximilian invaded Hungary. They advanced in the heart of Hungary and managed to capture the city of Székesfehérvár, which they sacked, and plundered the tomb of King Matthias, too. However, the Landsknechts were still unsatisfied with the booty and refused to set out to take Buda. Maximilian returned to the Empire in late December and the Hungarian troops liberated Székesfehérvár in the next year, led by Kinizsi Pál.

The fall of Esztergom in 1543

The Ottoman army arrived there on 23 August and the siege began on 28 August. The Turk army was led by Sultan Suleiman who had about 35-40,000 men. The castle was commanded by Varkoch György who cut himself through the Tartar vanguard of the Ottoman army with his 50 heavily armored Hussars just to enter Székesfehérvár. He didn’t have enough men to guard the outer cities and he wanted to set them on fire but the burghers opposed him. There were also 2,000 German troops and 1,000 Bohemian Czech mercenaries in the castle who had come in June.
A Crimean Tartar
It was the leader of the left wing of the Ottoman army, Pasha Khoszev who assaulted the city on 29 August and soon took the defense lines between the Saint Ferenc and Virgin Mary’s churches. Immediately, the enemy began to plunder and ruin the churches. In the meantime, the Italian soldiers of Varkoch built a second line of defense and were able to stop the assault.
Mercenaries in Hungary, 1590 (by Somogyi Győző)
During the night of 31 August, a renegade fled to the Turks and told them that there were “5,000 soldiers in the castle but by now 2,000 of them have been killed or wounded. Now there are only 3,000 Ghiaurs inside and if you had fought harder, you could have taken the outer city already.”
Ottoman soldiers
Pasha Khoszev attacked again the walls and took the ramparts and the towers but “there were mines under the cursed army of Satan’s towers and when the Ghiaurs saw that the folk of the Islam went up into those towers, they exploded them at once. Thanks to the mercy of Allah, the fire worked towards the Ghiaurs as well, killing more Ghiaurs and the Believers of the True Faith were rejoicing.”
Ottoman warriors in 1526
Obviously, the enemy suffered great casualties, the Pasha had lost 7 higher officers during the last assault. Even the women were fighting against them on the ramparts, quite effectively. They used spears and threw stones and burning devices. The defenders had been also supported by 4 bigger cannons and 4 howitzers. However, the number of guards was very much reduced and the burghers were losing faith. The Ottoman artillery sent about 10,000 cannonballs into the castle.
Cannonballs in the Museum of Siklós
After this, the Turks quickly attacked the two outer cities called Ingovány (Swamp) and Sziget (Island) on 2 September, taking advantage of the dense fog. This time, the right-wing joined in the assault, led by Pasha Mohamed, and the outer cities were taken. The fort`s siege commenced…
A cannon from 1593

An unsuccessful event caused the death of defenders: most soldiers sallied out from the inner castle to push the Turks out from the recently occupied town, led by their commander Varkoch György. When they were outnumbered and wanted to get back into the castle, most dishonorably, the wealthy citizens locked the Budai Gate before them, thus causing his and his soldiers’ deaths. The trapped warriors faced the enemy but they were massacred. The citizens feared they might incur the wrath of the Ottomans by a lengthy siege.
A Hungarian Hussar, 16th century
The next day, the surviving defenders who were stuck in the inner castle were allowed to go away with dignity. They were accompanied by the Johannites who were taking their treasures with them. Coming into the city, the Ottomans broke up the tombs of the Hungarian kings and threw their bones out while pillaging around.
The site of the ruined cathedral
In the end, the coward burghers discovered after surrendering, however, that the Ottomans were not without a sense of chivalry, and those responsible for shutting the defenders out were put to death. The city got depopulated: southern Slavic inhabitants were settled in Székesfehérvár. You can read more about the life of Varkoch György on my page:
Remaining sections of the wall (Photo: Szöllősi Gábor www.varlexikon.hu)

 The city remained under Ottoman occupation for 145 years, until 1688, except for a short period in 1601 when it was re-occupied by Prince Mercoeur. However, Count Salm tried to take it back in 1566, just like Nádasdy and Schwarzenberg attempted it in 1598 but these were in vain.

The siege of Székesfehérvár in 1601

The siege of 1601 took place during the 15-Year War and at the final attack, 4,000 Turkish soldiers died at the breach in a hard fight along with 1,000 Christian attackers. The Ottomans were fighting in the city from house to house and their heroism was worth recording. The brave Sanjak Bey of the city took himself with his 120 soldiers into a tower and fought to the end. He and his family were captured and the Christian prince took care that they could not be harmed. Prince Mercour gave them his own tent.

Philippe Emmanuel, Duke of Mercœur

When the fight was almost over, Colonel Giovanni Marco Isolano who later became the town’s captain, said that “the Turks fled to the marshland around the castle who had to be rounded up there. The gunpowder was stored in the church which exploded after the end of the fight and the houses have burned out so much that only the walls of the unfortunate city were standing.”

Indeed, after the taking of the city, the winners visited the ancient cathedral to give thanks to God and the explosion happened right after they had left the building, killing “only” a dozen men. Gossip said that all the treasures were blown up which had been hidden there at the siege of 1543 by the Hungarians. It was recorded that the western mercenaries couldn’t find much booty in the torched town so they were so much angered that they attacked and plundered each other after the siege. The prince sent 1,500 Turkish captives to Győr city.

Photo: Szöllősi Gábor www.varlexikon.hu

However, the Ottomans took the city back the next year from Colonel Marco because the German mercenaries surrendered the fort. The Turks have destroyed the remains of the city, demolished the royal palace, and repeatedly pillaged the graves of kings in the cathedral. The stones of the huge Cathedral were used to repair the walls and for other constructions in the city. Now, the bones of Hungarian kings are hopelessly mixed up with the sadness of researchers.

Remaining sections of the wall (Photo: Szöllősi Gábor www.varlexikon.hu)

The Turks named the city Belgrade (“white city”, from Serbian “Beograd”) and built mosques. In the 16th–17th centuries, it looked like a Muslim city. Most of the original population fled. It was a Sanjak center in Budin Province as “İstolni Belgrad” during Ottoman rule. You can read more about the 15-Year-War on my page, I am sharing a long series about the events of this war:

https://www.hungarianottomanwars.com/chronologie/the-fifteen-year-war-series-1591-1606/

Remaining sections of the wall (Photo: Szöllősi Gábor www.varlexikon.hu)

Székesfehérvár was liberated in 1688 by the troops of Batthány Ádám, after a 12-day-long siege. The Ottoman defenders surrendered and were allowed to leave the castle unhurt. During the War of Independence of Prince Rákóczi Ferenc, the town sided with the Habsburgs. However, it was taken in 1705 by General Nádasdy Ferenc who was in charge of Rákóczi’s Trans-Danubian army. He started to build a new fort but it was pulled down at the end of the 18th century.

Today, not much can be seen from the old castle. The “ruin-park” at the previous place of the Basilica is the place where the mixed skeletons of the Hungarian kings are kept in a special chamber under the ground. Although the plundering soldiers of the past had done their best, the shame for the confused bones is mostly on the people who were responsible for them during the socialist period. If you visit the town, check out the Saint István Museum and Saint Anna Chapel by all means. Also, there is a modern castle in Székesfehérvár, it is the so-called Bory castle but it was built only in the 20th century.

The Bory castle (Photo: karel291)

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Here are a few more pictures of Székesfehérvár and the city’s remaining walls: