Vác is located to the North of Budapest on the eastern bank of the Danube river. It is a Roman Catholic episcopal seat, an attractive tourist destination. It is one of the oldest Hungarian towns as the foundations of the Diocese of Vác was laid by King St. Stephen (1000-1038).
Vác is rich in built heritage, thanks to the bishops of the town, who always supported the development. Besides the Bishop’s Castle, the Triumphal Arch, the Baroque bridge with the stone statues of saints, and the triangle-shaped main square are all unique buildings in the country. Due to its central location and significant role in the life of the country, Vác has often been affected by warfare, which caused considerable damage to the city.
The surrounding area has been continuously inhabited for several thousands of years, thanks to its favorable natural conditions. The Bend of the Danube was the best crossing place where all invading tribes could get to the western bank quite easily. When the Magyar tribes arrived, the area of Vác must have belonged to the land of one of the seven Hungarian Chiefs who came with Chief Árpád to Hungary in 896 AD. The settlement was established shortly after the Hungarian Conquest, it became one of the earliest pontifical centers.
The first Hungarian king, Saint Stephen established ten Bishoprics in the kingdom, one of them was the Vác episcopate. Its role as a main ecclesiastical center has had a considerable influence on the life of the city throughout its history. According to a legend, the Hungarian princes Géza and László fought a battle to decide the succession of the throne in 1074. There lived a hermit called Wach at that time, and Géza named the town after him. A different theory attributes the name to one of the Hungarian clans ‘Vath’. Yet another possible explanation is the Slavic word ‘vác’, meaning a major settlement or center.
The first written record of Vác comes from 1074. The medieval core of the city, the Castle of Vác, was a fortification built on a small hill near the river bank. This is where King Géza built a cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary where he was buried in 1077. King Imre summoned a Synod there in 1193 and we know that an ecclesial school was mentioned in 1225.
According to the Chronicle of Rogerius, Vác, a poorly fortified small earthen palisade castle, was besieged during the Mongolian invasion of 1241. It was one day before the king’s major defeat at Muhi, on „Black Sunday”, 17 March 1241. The inhabitants took shelter in the church and in the fortified palaces. After a short flight, the invaders took the buildings and slaughtered everybody in the cathedral. After the invasion, King Béla IV called new settlers to Vác from South Germany who built the Saint Michael church. The king had stone walls erected around the town and the church buildings.
King Károly Róbert and King Louis I also improved the castle and the town, just like King Zsigmond, and King Matthias Corvinus. Thanks to the great Latinist, Bishop Báthori Miklós, Renaissance sculptors, painters, and architects arrived at Vác in the 14th and 15th centuries. (Please, note that I use the Eastern name order for Hungarians where family names come first.) They built four chapels and 13 altars in the cathedral. The nearby Episcopal Palace was also decorated with wonderful splendor. Vác was an important city in Hungary, it was preceded only by the Royal Cities. The small town became a cultural center and was flourishing before the arrival of the Ottomans.
In the 16th century, both the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire considered Vác castle a very important place as it was excellent for controlling traffic on the Danube. Although the castle was designed according to the plans of Italian engineers and had modern cannon stands, it still did not count as a larger Borderland fortress.
After the battle of Mohács in 1526, the Turks attacked the castle but Bishop Borodarics István beat them back. The castle was taken for King Ferdinand by General Lénard Fels in 1540 but Török Bálint got it back the next year. Yet, General Vilmos Roggendorf regained it during that year.
The Ottomans succeeded in taking it in 1542 and 1543 for a short time but they could finally seize it only in 1544 when Pasha Muhammed and his commander, Hasszán led them. During their rule, many Muslim and Serbian families settled there. The Turks turned the cathedral into a mosque and built a minaret next to it but in the castle, they completed only the necessary repairs. Vác was not only a strategic fort but it was the place where the Ottomans collected together the taxes coming from the Hungarian Great Plains and the Trans-Danubian Region. Huge herds of grey cattle were being taxed there (30,000 per year) and lots of money was sent annually to the Treasury of the Sultan.
During the 15-Year War, the Hungarians, led by Pálffy Miklós took Esztergom and Visegrád back in 1595. Having heard that, Pasha Muhammed, son of Szinán set Vác on fire and fled with his men to Buda. Pálffy immediately marched into the abandoned castle and had the fire put out. He appointed Orosz Ádám as its castellan and left behind a garrison. Hardly he had left Vác, the Turks returned, besieged the castle, and took it soon. Here, you can read about the adventures of some Hungarian Hajdú soldiers at Vác that happened in 1594:
The Wheel of Fortune was turning quickly, the Hungarian warriors of Nógrád castle, led by Bary Mihály ambushed the castle of Vác in 1596. They slaughtered most of the Ottoman guards, burned many buildings, and left with rich booty.
During the summer of the same year, the Imperial army was on the way to take Hatvan castle, led by Adolf Schwarzenberg and Pálffy Miklós. Seeing them, the Turk garrison of Vác set the castle on fire and fled. Pálffy reinforced the castle and appointed Dobozy Gergely as its captain or Komáromi István. Anyway, Pasha Muhammed returned before the end of this year and took the fort but Pálffy beat him off a couple of months later.
The Christians could repel the Ottoman siege in 1598 but Grand Vizier Ibrahim managed to take it in 1599. It was Herman Russwurm who took it back with his Imperial troops in 1603. He appointed Verebély István as a captain but he ceded Vác castle to Rédey Ferenc and Németh Gergely, the generals of Prince Bocskai István of Transylvania in 1604.
Vác was occupied by the army of Prince Bethlen Gábor in 1619 but Pasha Karakas took it after a 3-day-long siege in 1620. The Turks could own it between 1544-1595 and 1626-1686, all together for 111 years. Prince Albert Wallenstein took it back from them in 1626. He had the fort demolished without delay. However, the castle went back to the Turks soon who exploded its cathedral because they needed its stones for strengthening the fort’s walls. It is a small miracle that we can see a few remains.
Emperor Leopold wanted to take Buda and sent his troops to Hungary. It was his general, Prince Charles of Lotharingia who took Vác in 1684 again when he defeated the combined army of Pasha Mustafa of Aleppo and Pasha Kara Mustafa of Buda, north of Vác.
The Prince had 35,000 men and the Turks had 18,000 soldiers in the decisive Battle of Vác. The captain of Vác became Bottyán János who later joined in Prince Ferenc Rákóczi’s War of Independence between 1703-1711. (He was called later “blind Bottyán” because of the loss of one of his eyes.) Unfortunately, the Imperials failed to take Buda and on the way back home they left behind a garrison in Vác, a mix of foreign mercenaries and Hungarians that rarely worked out well.
Alas, Pasha Mustafa proved to be a worthy enemy because he besieged Vác the next year and took it after a short siege. During the following year, the Turks looted the castle, destroyed and burned it, then left it in fear of a new Imperial attack. However, the Christians didn’t show up so the Ottomans returned.
Vác was liberated from Turkish occupation only in 1686 for good, but by that time it had lost its population. The significance of the castle ceased to exist and the stones of its fort were used for construction in the city. The town buildings were in ruins, and the land was uncultivated. Rebuilding started immediately. By the 1770s, a Baroque city built on medieval remains was taking shape.
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