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The "Kuruc King" and his "Queen"
Imre Thököly and Ilona Zrínyi

There is a church in Vienna where visitors can see a tombstone embedded in a church wall decorated with a relief depicting a broad-sword between two skulls. Above the relief is this in Latin inscription:

This tomb is the resting place of Péter Zrínyi, Bán of Croatia and Ferenc Frangepán, the last scion of his family. In a case of the blind leading the blind they both fell into a pit.

May all mortals learn from their lesson that fidelity to God and kings must be kept. Too high an ambition leads to the grave.

Zrínyi and Frangepán were given this final resting place following their execution for their roles in the so-called Wesselényi Conspiracy which shook Hungary in the years after the shameful Treaty of Vasvár. The leaders involved in this conspiracy included the Palatine Ferenc Wesselényi; György Lippay, Archbishop of Esztergom; Péter Zrínyi, Ferenc Nádasdy, Chief Justice; Ferenc Frangepán, Zrínyi's brother-in-law; Ferenc Rákóczi I, Prince-elect of Transylvania; and a chief landlord, István Thököly - all aiming to break away from Vienna to create an independent Hungary with French or Turkish help.

The Zrínyis, the Frangepáns and the Rákóczis were related through a triangle of family connections reaching from Croatia and Southern Hungary to Upper Hungary, which was the Rákóczis' domain. This triangle had come about by the marriage of Péter Zrínyi's daughter, Ilona, to Ferenc Rákóczi I with the aim of strengthening the conspiracy through the involvement of the powerful Rákóczi family. Frangepán and Zrínyi were related by Zrínyi's marriage to Frangepán's sister, Catherine.

Hungarians are not good conspirators, however, and the Imperial government succeeded in stifling the movement in time. The three most prominent persons executed in retribution were Zrínyi, Frangepán and Nádasdy, while Ferenc Rákóczi I was pardoned in exchange for the astronomical ransom of 400,000 talérs. Wesselényi and Lippay had died before the conspiracy was discovered.

The liquidation or the Wesselényi conspiracy was followed by a country-wide crackdown resulting in the arrest of about 2000 nobles whose lands and properties were subsequently confiscated. The country was delivered to the mercy of foreign troops from whom there was no security of person or property. Since many of the conspirators happened to be Protestants, their "disloyalty" was used as a pretext for stepping up the religious persecution of the "heretics." Protestant schools and churches were closed or given over to the Catholics, while hundreds of Protestant ministers were sent to slave galleys. To escape from the relentless persecution, thousands fled into the woods, but mainly into Transylvania and the Partium (a territory attached to Transylvania) where they found sanctuary from Habsburg suppression.

Among the earliest refugees was a thirteen year-old boy, Imre Thököly, who had lived in the spectacular fortress of Árva with his father, István. When Árva was placed under siege by Imperial troops, his father succeeded in smuggling Imre out. Soon thereafter István Thököly died, the enemy leaving his body unburied in a cellar of Árva Castle for nine months.

Another boy, living close to Árva, also became fatherless, for the marriage of Ilona Zrínyi and Ferenc Rákóczi I had produced a daughter, Julianna, and a son, Ferenc, who was only three months old when his father died in 1676. Thus Ilona Zrínyi, still beautiful and young, became a widow at the age of thirty-three.

The "Kuruc King"

It was in January, 1680, that Imre Thököly first appeared on the national scene as elected leader of bujdosók (armed groups of political refugees conducting guerilla warfare against the Imperial troops). Before the appearance of Thököly the bujdosók had


not been able to show any success in their warfare. It was only when Imre became their leader that their cause assumed national, if not international, importance. Although only twenty years old at the time, he was already a dashing soldier whose appearance commanded respect. A finely built, witty and high-spirited young man, Thököly gave a good account of himself not only as the daring leader of his troops, but on the dance floor, in merriments and in the taverns as well. He loved pomp, and his official arrival usually was preceded by the blaring of trumpets, the snapping of briskly waving flags and the clattering of thoroughbreds' hooves. In addition, Imre was an eloquent orator and an extremely skillful diplomat. "A wonderful master of pretense," one observer said, while Strassoldo, a Habsburg diplomat, warned: "You have in him a double-dealing enemy, be careful not to be deceived by him."

Thököly's personality had some serious flaws, however. Although a brave fighter, he was not a good general or organizer; neither had he the qualities of a true statesman. Relentlessness mixed with recklessness characterized his entire career.

With Thököly expanding military operations, his bands of guerillas changed from bujdosók to rebels called kurucok, a derivative of the word "cross." Their counterparts on the Habsburg side (including many Hungarians) were derogatorily called labancok (pronounced: labantsok). The origin of this word may have been the German phrase "Lauf Hans!" (Run, Hans!), a form of name-calling by the kurucok (pronounced: kurutsok).

Thököly gained the confidence of the Turkish Sublime Porte with skillful diplomacy: he also established fruitful contacts with Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, who as an enemy of the Habsburgs, was glad that someone was stirring up trouble for the Emperor in his own backyard.

With his support mushrooming it was not long before Thököly was able to occupy all of Upper Hungary, and soon thereafter his kurucok began incursions into Austria. He defeated two Imperial generals, Leslie and Laborde, took over the gold mines of Upper Hungary and recaptured his ancestral estates of Liptó and Árva. Later, Thököly also ingenuously occupied Kassa, a fortified city dominated by a citadel. In a surprise attack, a detachment of Thököly's troops cut a path through the city to the citadel and overwhelmed its garrison. This done, they turned the citadel's guns on the city, which by now was swarming with Imperial troops. Caught between two fires, the labancok had no choice but to give up.

However, Thököly's greatest triumph was not the capture of a fortress, but the capture of the heart of Ilona Zrínyi, who fell in love with him at first sight. The love affair that developed between Imre and Ilona, a still beautiful widow with black hair, sparkling eyes and heiress to the huge Rákóczi estate, became the most famous in Hungarian history, with the nation's interest heightened by the fact that Ilona was thirteen years older than Imre.

The year of 1682 was a successful one for Thököly: he married Ilona Zrínyi, he occupied Kassa, and followed this victory with the occupation of Fülek, another important stronghold. After his triumph at Fülek, Pasha Ibrahim of Buda presented Imre with a series of gifts from the Sultan: a sword, a baton, a robe, a flag and, finally, a crown along with an athname (paper of appointment) in which Thököly was named King of Hungary. The twenty-five year old Thököly, however, was prudent enough not to accept the title; he was quite satisfied with the title Prince of Hungary.

Still, his name subsequently went into Hungarian history as kuruckirály (King of the kurucok). At this point, the European courts began to take notice. His very name became an issue in England, where the Whigs displayed so much sympathy toward Thököly's policies that the members of that Party were called "Teckelists" by the Tories and in the English literature of that time.

From Zenith to Nadir within a Year

In 1681 the government in Vienna had tried to placate Thököly by re-establishing the constitution and promising at the Diet of Sopron to redress all political and religious grievances. This satisfied the majority of the nation, but not Thököly, who continued to fight. He even strengthened his ties with the Turks, not realizing that Turkish power was in the decline. This was the most grievous mistake of his entire career.

In 1683 Kara Musztafa, the new and ambitious Turkish Grandvizier, marched his troops against Vienna. Thököly was obliged to join the Turkish army in the siege -which he did reluctantly, avoiding as much combat as he could. On this occasion Thököly took with him his six year-old stepson, Ferenc Rákóczi to accustom the boy to military life and its hardships in his early years. He had done so repeatedly in the past, giving rise to a suspicion (never proven) that he would not mourn if the boy did fall victim to these hardships.

But it was primarily Ilona who followed her husband on his campaigns, leaving her children behind in the care of János Badinyi who was directing the boy's education. Nevertheless it was Ilona who inculcated her son with the spirit and the proud tradition of his ancestors, the Zrínyis, the Frangepáns and the Rákóczis.

Whenever Ilona was unable to follow Imre, she


would send him letters bemoaning his absence and imploring him not to leave her behind for long. In one of her letters she wrote:

May God spare me from the fate of living even in the safest of castles without my most beloved husband. I do not want it: it is for me a question of life or death. No misery can make me falter in my attachment to you. Would that you could stand fast by me!

I am ready to go to you. even by foot, wherever you may happen to he. What a great thing true love has been, so my sweetest darling, we should rejoice together when fate smiles upon us; and should misfortune becloud our sky, we should find consolation in sharing it with each other. Then we shall carry our cross together...

But fate willed that for the next seven years Ilona and Imre had to carry their crosses separately, for in 1683 Kara Musztafa's army was routed from Vienna by the combined Christian forces of the so-called Holy League. The Sultan, furious over the defeat. had the Grandvizier strangled before the eyes of his Janissaries. In the meantime Turkish pashas tried to make Thököly a scapegoat, their ire fanned by secret agents from Vienna who insinuated that Thököly had made a secret deal with the Imperial Court to sabotage the siege of Vienna.

Thököly, eager to prove his loyalty to the Sultan. tried a desperate move which was to involve the little Rákóczi boy. He felt that by sending his stepson as a hostage to Constantinople, the Sultan would be assured that he, Thököly would not dare be disloyal to the Sublime Porte and thus endanger the life of the last Rákóczi.

But Thököly's strange idea was to remain just that. Ilona Zrínyi, who had whispered a faint "yes" during their embrace in the night, changed her mind with the first rays of sunrise. She would not let her only son be torn away from her!

A few weeks later, Thököly,. while a dinner guest of the Pasha Ahmat at Nagyvárad,. was taken prisoner, put in fetters, bound hand and foot and sent in a ramshackle peasant's cart to Chief Pasha Ibrahim in Belgrade.

For the Turks this was a fatal blunder, because Thököly's kuruc troops, enraged by the Turkish betrayal, went over to the labancok in droves, relinquishing their strongholds to Imperial forces.

Ilona Zrínyi Comes to the Fore

This development could not have occurred at a better time for the Habsburg King-Emperor, Leopold I, who - since the victory of Christian troops at Vienna - had been involved in a protracted campaign to drive Turkish forces out of Hungary. In his endeavor he was greatly helped by the Holy League of Christian rulers who, at the prodding of the Pope, finally rallied to dispel the shadow of the Crescent from over the Cross. The most important milestone of this enterprise was the liberation of Buda from the Turks by the Imperial army, whose cosmopolitan ranks included several thousand Hungarians who distinguished themselves in this siege which lasted for two months in 1686.

The fall of Buda undermined the morale of the Turks and fortress after fortress fell into the hands of the Christian troops.

This advance had been facilitated by the defection of kuruc forces after their leader's capture by the Turks. But Thököly's betrayal was also condemned by the Sultan, who quickly had Ibrahim strangled and Thököly subsequently rehabilitated. In a gesture of conciliation he sent him a brand new gold-embroidered mantle, a hermelin caftan, an exquisite sword, a carbine and heavy purses filled with gold.

But by then it was too late for the Turks and too late for Thököly as well. The day of his rehabilitation saw all the kuruc fortresses in Imperial hands - except for one: the Castle of Munkács, the headquarters of Ilona Zrínyi.

It was at this point that Ilona vowed not to abandon Munkács to the enemy, the blood of the Zrínyis and Frangepáns beginning to stir in her. This decision marked the beginning of a saga which belongs to the golden pages of Hungarian history.

In preparing for the siege, Ilona applied the teachings of her famous uncle, Count Miklós Zrínyi, whose "military Field Guide" had become her bible. For the defense of Munkács she had at her disposal four thousand troops and a great number of specialists. The fortress was surrounded by three sets of walls and a moat filled with the waters of the Latorca river.

Although Munkács soon became encircled by the enemy, Ilona managed to maintain regular correspondence with her husband in Transylvania through secret couriers. But one of the first letters she sent out was addressed to General Caprara, commander of the beleaguering forces. In it she wrote:

I do not want hostility with anyone but if you try to harm us, I will resist, and if the arms of the Emperor are turned against a woman and her orphan children, I believe that it would not enhance the glory of either the Emperor or his general. I ask you therefore: desist from beleaguering Munkács. Should you ignore my request I serve you notice herewith that, although I am only a weak woman, neither the loss of neighboring fortresses nor the terror of siege could force me to forget my obligations toward my children.

Ignoring the letter, Caprara ordered the first bombardment of Munkács, which lasted without interruption for seven weeks.


The ups and downs of the siege and the heroic resistance or Munkács as directed by Ilona Zrínyi became legendary throughout Europe. This siege against a "weak woman" that had been expected to last only a few days stretched into weeks, the weeks into months and the months into three unbelievable years. Ilona's defense of her fortress, a symbol of liberty on a lonely rock stormed by wave after wave of enemy troops, won the admiration of kings and emperors. Poland's King Sobiesky called Ilona "the greatest woman in Europe," while France's Louis XIV, the Sun King, was rapturous in his letters about Ilona Zrínyi.

Peace offers by Caraffa. the new commanding general, were answered by new red flags of defiance on the walls and by the burning down of villages in a large perimeter around Munkács to deny the Imperial troops supplies from the field in the bone chilling winter.

Finally, resistance was broken by the treason of Ilona's chancellor, Absalon, and András Radics, the commander of her troops, who had deliberately squandered supplies to a point where resistance became all but impossible.

Munkács surrendered under honorable conditions: Ilona would keep all her estates and those belonging to the Rákóczi orphans, but Thököly's properties were confiscated. The most difficult part of the conditions obliged Ilona to take up residence in Vienna and to entrust the Emperor with the chief guardianship of her children.

Ilona Zrínyi, escorted by an honor guard, arrived in Vienna with her children on March 27, 1688, on the twelfth birthday of the young Rákóczi. The day after their arrival both children were separated from their mother. Three days later her son was taken from Vienna to Bohemia, and she never saw him again. Julianna was put into a cloister run by Ursuline sisters with the apparent intention of making her a nun. Her mother lived in the same convent for the next three years because the Emperor would not give her permission to join her husband, whom the Court still considered an enemy.

Thököly Rides Again

The situation was suddenly changed in 1691 when. after the death of Mihály Apafi, the Prince of Transylvania, the Sultan, prodded by the French ambassador, named Thököly Apafi's successor. Emperor Leopold I sent troops to prevent the takeover of the throne by the Habsburgs' sworn enemy. The Imperial army, however,. was defeated in a memorable battle at Zernyest where Thököly and his 15,000 cavalry men crossed the ridges of the Carpathians at a spot believed insurmountable and surprised General Heisler's army from the rear. The battle ended when the general himself was captured.

In Heisler, Thököly had a valuable prisoner whom he was eager to exchange for Ilona. The victorious Thököly was proclaimed Prince of Transylvania on September 22, 1691. All the comrades who had returned with him shaved off their beards for this occasion, thinking this was the end of their exile. Only Thököly kept his long beard, perhaps in anticipation of what was to follow. A month later his sway over Transylvania ended abruptly, as overpowering Imperial forces led by Prince Louis of Baden forced him to leave the principality with his troops.

Thököly took Heisler with him, but two more years went by before he could realize his goal. The Sultan wanted to exchange Heisler for prominent Turkish prisoners, but "love conquers all," and finally on Christmas of 1693 a deal was signed in Vienna: Heisler for Ilona. The holiday found her in feverish packing and happy anticipation of a reunion with Imre.

A Reunion After Seven Years

Ilona had left Vienna in wintertime, but when she arrived at her husband's station at Palanka on the Lower Danube spring flowers were in full bloom on the meadows. A splendid unit of horsemen followed by an honor guard was coming to greet her under silk Thököly flags fluttering in the wind, but when Ilona stepped out of her coach she could not recognize her husband. Gone was the dashing young hero of yesteryear. The vicissitudes of seven years campaigning had made Thököly's years count double. The once smooth-chinned cavalier now wore a graying beard which made him look even older, and when he dismounted to greet his lady he could not hide a decided limp.

Their relationship suddenly changed. Until now, it had been Ilona who needed Imre more than he did her; now, it was he who needed her.

Farther and Farther Away from Hungary

At Palanka Thököly still commanded a retinue of 2,000 adherents while enjoying a yearly allowance of 10,000 talérs from the Sun King of France. This assured Imre and Ilona a stylish living. However, only two years later the Sultan, pressured by Vienna, ordered them to move to Constantinople with their entourage reduced to a minimum. Meanwhile in Hungary the name Thököly, the kuruckirály, was becoming a living legend around whom the people might yet rally.

But it was not to be. In 1701, after years of modest living. during which Ilona was compelled to sell her


jewelry piece by piece, Viennese influence prompted the Sultan to send them even further away from Hungary. A little village called Bythinia in Nikodemia in Asia Minor became the new - and final - place of their exile. Although the Sultan generously gave them the most beautiful house in the village, they preferred to move into a smaller house in the countryside which was surrounded by flowery meadows and a small garden where they could enjoy the sweet fragrance of exquisite roses, myrtle, leander and pomegranates year around.

Illness clouded the peace of their later years. The eternal hope of one day returning home still flickered in their hearts. Occasionally visitors from Hungary brought the latest news. One report especially brought a gleam of happiness to Ilona's eyes - the news that in Hungary a new man was becoming the talk of the nation, a man none other than her own beloved son, Ferenc Rákóczi II.

When Ilona died on February 18, 1703, at the age of sixty, she closed her eyes forever with the knowledge that the seed she had planted had triumphantly sprouted. Her gravestone in Nikodemia was carved with the following words: "Here rests the pride and glory of her sex and her country after a life of heroic suffering."

Imre Thököly followed her two years later when he was only forty-eight. On his grave the epitaph read: "Bene sperando et male habendo transit vita" (Our life passes in hoping for good and experiencing ill).


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