[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Stephen Sisa : The Spirit of Hungary


The Prince Who Never Had a Home
Ferenc Rákóczi II

A lion cub retains its natural traits even in captivity. It may be raised on milk, taught obedience and meekness, but still it remains a lion whose instincts are bound to surface sooner or later.

If there was ever a leader in Hungarian history to whom this analogy applies, it was Ferenc Rákóczi II, the son of Ilona Zrínyi. Ferenc's father had been condemned to death for his participation in the Wesselényi conspiracy, and only a huge ransom had saved his life. His grandfather, Péter Zrínyi, was among those executed and so was his uncle, Ferenc Frangepan. His grandmother went insane over the loss of her husband and her brother. Ilona Zrínyi was the symbol of Hungarian resistance to the Habsburgs and her second husband, Imre Thököly, was even more so.

With such family credentials, the Court of Vienna considered the Rákóczi children a potentially dangerous pair of "lion cubs." To eliminate 16 year-old Julianna as a threat, they placed her in a convent. As for her 12 year-old brother Ferkó (Ferenc's nickname), the children's guardian and trustee of the Rákóczi estates, Cardinal Kollonich, decided to have the boy re-educated into a meek loyalist at a Jesuit college in Neuhaus, Bohemia. When Ferkó embraced his mother in a touching farewell on March 30, 1688, neither of them knew that they would never see each other again.

Rákóczi "Germanized"

The young Rákóczi immediately became the center of attention at Neuhaus College. One of his Jesuit teachers wrote of Ferenc in his report: "There is no trace of mediocrity in him. His words, his way of walking, his deportment are all dignified and worthy of a prince without a sign of haughtiness, his noble behavior is combined with a human attitude, although he always reserves an air of authority."

The Rákóczi boy was subjected to German assimilation from the day he arrived. He was persuaded to doff his Magyar garments for German attire, and was deprived of the chance to speak Hungarian. At first Ferkó corresponded in Hungarian with his mother and sister, but their letters were soon reduced to a trickle, and later stopped altogether. At the age of 15 he became a student at the University of Prague under the supervision of a Jesuit priest. Five years after his departure from Vienna, he had almost totally forgotten his mother tongue.

When he was 17, an unexpected development changed Rákóczi's life: the Emperor emancipated him. This meant that he no longer needed a guardian and was free to dispose of his property. This surprising and benevolent gesture on the part of Leopold I was due to the intervention of Julianna, who had escaped convent life by marrying the influential Austrian General Aspremont, a man twice her age. Ferkó proved grateful: when he moved to the Aspremont palace to begin a new life in Viennese high society, he generously gave half of the Rákóczi estates to Julianna.

Ferenc's emancipation was soon followed by his marriage in September, 1694, to Princess Amelia, the 15 year-old daughter of the Duke of Hessen Theinfeld and a late descendant of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. The newlyweds moved to Hungary to live in the Rákóczi castle at Sárospatak, where Rákóczi began putting his long-neglected estates in order.

Ferenc was most anxious to avoid involvement in Hungarian political affairs lest Vienna become suspicious of his attitude. At the time, Ferenc could barely speak Hungarian and showed an ostentatious preference for the company of German dignitaries. His attitude was: "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil."

But on July 1, 1697, a peasant rebellion broke out unexpectedly on his estates at Tokaj. The rebels attacked Germans and nobles, but spared the Rákóczi properties. Ferenc realized that the mere fact that the rebellion had occurred on his estate would make the Court suspect him of being the instigator. To protect himself, the prince hurried to Vienna with his wife to assert his loyalty to the Emperor-King.

At this point, thinking about the future, he realized that he still had no real home. In Vienna he was mistrusted as a potential rebel, in Hungary he was


regarded as a Germanized Rákóczi. What he did not know at the time, however, was that he would never have any place he could call home during his entire life.

In an audience with Leopold I, Rákóczi, prodded by Amelia, requested an exchange of his estates in Hungary for something of similar value in Austria or Germany. The Emperor denied this request and benevolently suggested that young Rákóczi and his wife return to Hungary, which they soon did.

Leopold: the Pious Tyrant

Leopold I was not as ruthless as he is portrayed in some Hungarian history books. Rákóczi himself had a soft spot in his heart for him, and the feeling was mutual. But Leopold's image was tarnished by a long rule of almost half a century (1657-1705), during which many ills piled up, and therefore more blame was heaped on him than on monarchs with shorter reigns.

During Leopold's rule, thousands were imprisoned and many executed, but the Emperor-King himself was a "prisoner" - a prisoner of Habsburg power, ruling an empire that was too large for him. Therefore, to a great extent, Leopold had to rely on his ministers and generals, who abused their power badly. Still, the final responsibility for their abuses was his.

Leopold I was a sad, taciturn, overly religious man who in today's terms would be regarded a religious maniac. He believed that he had his crowns by the grace of God and that he was therefore responsible to no one but God. From this point of view, any resistance to his rule was resistance to God's order, even if this "order" took the form of royal absolutism. Often Leopold would sign a death sentence with tears in his eyes, and would withdraw afterwards to his chapel to pray for the condemned. In punishing those who participated in the Wesselényi conspiracy, he refused to sign more than four death sentences. Then, in a strange decree, he ordered 2000 Masses to be said for the salvation of the souls of the executed Hungarians.

Actually, Hungary was only a small part of his realm and its interests had to be subordinated to those of the Habsburg Empire. Leopold's lukewarm "appeasement" policy toward the Turks was a result of his preoccupation with major wars in the West; even so the shameful Treaty of Vasvár that he signed was an inexcusable betrayal of Hungarian interests.

Leopold's attitude changed completely after the Turks had been driven out of Vienna in 1683. Their defeat signaled the beginning of a rollback of Turkish power from Hungary in a protracted campaign that lasted 16 years. This campaign was the final demonstration of Christian solidarity in the framework of the Holy League, created by the great ascetic, Pope Innocent XI.

Expulsion of the Turks was the pope's lifetime goal, and under his direction Rome geared itself to raise funds for this purpose. Innocent XI himself followed such a frugal lifestyle that he wore the threadbare and ill-fitting garments of his predecessor. For the campaign against the Turks, he contributed 400,000 gold ducats from his own budget and 10 million golden florins from the general income of the Church.

The liberation army, 100,000 strong, included 32,350 Habsburg troops, sprinkled with Hungarian recruits. The rest were Polish, Saxon, Bavarian and Brandenburgian soldiers complemented by 15,000 kuruc troops who had defected from Thököly.

Devastated as she was by continuous wars, Hungary contributed the major share of the army's provisions. In 1685 alone, Hungary provided 96,000 of the 141,000 "portions" needed to supply the liberation forces. (One portion was the amount needed to provide a soldier and his horse with a one-month's supply of food.) In addition to the one million forints in regular tax, a yearly military tax of three to four million forints was squeezed out of the poverty-stricken population.

The liberation army succeeded in driving the Turks from Hungary in a series of battles under the


leadership of the military geniuses of the age: Prince Eugene of Savoy, Prince Louis of Baden and Prince Charles of Lotharingien. The Peace Treaty of Karlóca in 1699 marked practically the end of 150 years of Turkish rule. Vienna claimed all the credit for this truly great achievement, ignoring the tremendous sacrifices Hungary made for the cause of liberation. As if this were not enough, the imperial troops treated the Magyars not as fellow Christians released from bondage but as the vanquished foe.

The Palatine, Pál Eszterházy, wrote several memoranda to the Viennese government noting that the exorbitant taxes and the high cost of providing for the army had caused such starvation in Hungary that many men slew their families and then committed suicide. Thousands more were forced to flee the country or join the bujdosók (refugees in hiding) in the woods. Even Cardinal Kollonich, considered a foe of the Magyars, protested the excesses of the military and in his Einrichtungswerk suggested reducing the taxes by half and restoring the power of collection to local officials. Their efforts were to no avail.

As a result, the ranks of the bujdosók swelled and their sufferings and bitterness grew year by year. Most were peasants or ragtag remnants of Thököly's kuruc army waiting for something or someone.

They were not alone. Not only were the people deprived of their livelihood, but the Hungarian nation was stripped of its freedom as well. In the euphoria following Buda's recapture, the Viennese Count forced the Hungarian nobles to accept two amendments to the constitution at the Diet of 1687: the first amendment repealed the ancient rights of the nobles to take up arms against the king in case their freedoms were violated; the second abolished the Magyars' right to elect their own king, thus making the Habsburg rule hereditary.

Vienna wanted to go even further. A policy, (credited to Kollonich,) was launched "to make Hungarians first beggars, then Catholics, and finally Germans" so "their Hungarian blood, prone to revolutions and restlessness, would be allayed by German blood to make them faithful and attached towards their natural lord and hereditary king."

A Reluctant Insurgent Comes to the Fore

Such were the conditions in Hungary when Rákóczi returned. Ferenc could not maintain his passive attitude for long. Although he wanted to remain silent, he could not be indifferent to the sufferings around him. Like a magnet which attracts without any movement of its own, Rákóczi, by virtue of his very name, attracted adherents who came to him in silent expectation with the unspoken question: "How long can you stand idle, Prince Rákóczi?"

And one day the old Rákóczi instinct finally erupted.

The person most instrumental in Ferenc's transformation was his neighbor, Count Miklós Bercsényi. Eleven years Rákóczi's' senior he was a true grandseigneur and fervent patriot with an outstanding education and wide perspective. Rákóczi and Bercsényi spent many hours in intimate conversation during hunting trips. Both had estates in Austria and Poland, and their connections abroad provided them with deep insights into European politics. Bercsényi acquainted his friend with the plight of the Hungarian nation. Both agreed that Habsburg oppression was unbearable and that as soon as the international climate became favorable, they would act.

The moment came earlier than expected with the outbreak of the War for Succession between France and the Habsburg Empire in 1700 which tied down large Habsburg forces in the West. Louis XIV welcomed the opportunity to create trouble in Vienna's backyard by supporting Hungarian goals.

Although the time for action had arrived, the first step was stricken by misfortune. A letter from Rákóczi to Louis XIV inquiring in vague terms about the possibility of French assistance for a Hungarian independence movement fell into Austrian hands through the treachery of the French Captain Longueval.

Vienna's reaction was swift. Rákóczi was arrested at the bedside of his ailing wife Amelia, who was pregnant, and taken to Wienerneustadt. His captors put him in the cell where his grandfather had spent his last days. Rákóczi even found the line Péter Zrínyi had scratched on the wall in Latin before his execution: "A man who is just and clings faithfully to


his goal cannot be deterred by the face of the tyrant who persecutes him."

Several of Rákóczi's friends were also arrested, but Miklós Bercsényi succeeded in escaping to Poland. Although she was ill, Amelia rushed to Vienna to mobilize her connections in an attempt to save her husband.

For six weeks, Rákóczi was kept in prison. Almost everyone expected him to die as his grandfather had when a sensational development took place: Captain Lehman, commander of the Neustadt prison, was persuaded by his father confessor, a Jesuit priest named Wolf, that his religious duty lay in helping Rákóczi escape. And indeed, one rainy night, Rákóczi donned a dragoon's uniform provided by Lehman and escaped into the night. Availing himself of the fast transportation Amelia had arranged, Ferenc reached safety in Poland. During his flight, news reached him that Amelia had given birth to a son - one he would not see until 28 years later.

It Started with 300 Serfs

In Poland, Rákóczi immediately joined Miklós Bercsényi. News of his escape spread through Hungary like wildfire and subjected the Viennese authorities to international ridicule. The bujdosók began to stir and their leader, Tamás Esze, soon visited Rákóczi to persuade him to give the signal for a general uprising. Although he was unsuccessful, Esze did not return empty-handed. He had received flags from Rákóczi showing the Prince's coat-of-arms and the inscription Pro Libertate - a gesture which the bujdosók regarded as Rákóczi's pledge for action soon to come.

Rákóczi and Bercsényi were indeed busy lining up support from the French. Finally on May 6, 1703, Rákóczi issued a proclamation from the Polish town of Brezan calling on all Hungarians to take up arms against the Habsburgs. He returned to Hungary a month later with a small entourage, believing that a large number of rebel troops were standing ready awaiting his arrival. Before he crossed the border, however, Rákóczi heard to his great disappointment that his followers had arbitrarily started to fight the Germans and nobles and had been quickly dispersed by the loyalist troops of Sándor Károlyi. As a result, an ill-clad, undisciplined group of 300 serfs remained to greet him at the border.

The meeting was a mutual disappointment, for the bujdosók, many of them veterans of Thököly's army, had expected to see troops led by a glittering knight clad in a gold-embossed pelisse, with a leopard's skin thrown over his shoulder as had been Thököly's custom in leading his men. Instead, they saw a young man dressed in plain black, accompanied by only a small escort. (Actually, Rákóczi's simple black garments were a sign of mourning, for his mother Ilona Zrínyi had died just a short time before.)

Despite this humble entry into Hungary on June 16, the news of Rákóczi's arrival set Hungarian souls astir. His troops began to multiply, though at first it was mostly the poor peasants - many of them Ruthenians, the most downtrodden class - who rallied around his flag. As Rákóczi later described his arrival in the Munkács area: "They came in bands bringing bread, meat and other food. The men were accompanied by their wives and children, and when they saw me coming they kneeled down, making the sign of the cross..."

One day, Miklós Bercsényi arrived from Poland with six companies of Polish-Wallachian dragoons - and with money from the French ambassador. Before long, deserters from the Imperial army led by László Ocskay joined the rebels. Within a month Rákóczi's troops had swelled to 8000, all from the lower classes, while the nobles displayed a "wait and see" attitude. Indeed, it was strange to see Rákóczi, the richest aristocrat in the land, leading an army of peasants. To attract volunteers, the prince exempted from taxes those serfs and their immediate families who would take up arms for the freedom of their country. At the same time, he reassured the nobles that he would safeguard their ancestral rights.

This assurance broke the ice and members of the nobility also began to join Rákóczi's army, thus transforming the rebellion into a truly national uprising. As a result, within six months all of Upper Hungary and about half or the kingdom were under kuruc control.

Louis XIV, impressed by these achievements, sent Rákóczi 100,000 livres to support the war effort. While this was a huge sum, it did not approach the amount Rákóczi himself had sacrificed and was yet to sacrifice for the cause of liberty. One of the prince's best means of financing the war was the world-famous wine of Tokaj, which was grown on his estates and produced considerable income for his treasury.

A One-Eyed Daredevil

Several high-ranking nobles joined Rákóczi's forces as generals but none enjoyed the reputation of Count Sándor Károlyi, who just a few months before had defeated the rebels led by Tamás Esze at Dolha. In October, 1703, Károlyi was named chief commander of the kuruc army.

While Károlyi was acknowledged to be the best general in the kuruc forces, the most colorful military leader of the war without doubt was Colonel (and later General) Vak Bottyán (Bottyán the Blind). In the beginning, Vak Bottyán fought on the side of the government, but he soon defected to join Rákóczi. He


had given evidence of his daring early in his military career when, dressed as a shepherd, he sneaked into the Turkish-held fortress of Érsekújvár, crept to the top of the minaret and hurled down the muezzin as he was calling the Moslems to prayer.

Vak Bottyán's daring did not abate with age. When he was 60 years old and fighting on the labanc (pro-government) side at Zólyom, he made his horse leap in front of the troops and challenged "the bravest kuruc officer" to a duel. Brigadier László Ocskay, only half his age and known as the most daring kuruc leader, took up the challenge. In the shoot-out which followed, both were badly wounded and had to be carried from the field.

Soon after. Vak Bottyán defected to the kuruc side where his audacity and skill in strategy made him Rákóczi's most valued general. Strict discipline prevailed among his troops. Of peasant stock himself, Vak Bottyán was fond of the poor people, who called him Jótev János (John the Benefactor).

His courage became legendary and the memory of one incident that showed his mettle lives on. Shortly after he had defected to the kuruc Vak Bottyán was surprised and captured by a party of labanc soldiers who confined him to a well-guarded peasant house for the night. When they learned of his capture, peasants in the village dug a tunnel under the room where he was kept and urged the prisoner to crawl to freedom. But to his rescuers' astonishment, Vak Bottyán refused: "I am not a rabbit but a soldier. Give me a sword and leave the rest to me!" He slashed his way to freedom that same night.

Appeal to the World

The end of 1703 saw all of Hungary, except Transylvania, rallying under Rákóczi's banners. By that time, the kuruc army had grown to 70,000 men and dared to venture into Austria and Moravia and even to raid areas close to Vienna.


In January, 1704, Rákóczi felt that his position was strong enough to enable him to issue a solemn Manifesto, in Latin and French, to "the Christian rulers and peoples of the world" to explain the goals of his liberation movement. "Recrudescunt vulnera inflictae gentis Hungariae..." (The wounds of the famed Hungarian nation reopen...) began the appeal which, in 21 points, told the world the grievances of the Magyars in such a dramatic style that Emperor Leopold I himself was said to have suffered a fainting spell after he read it.

This document, also signed by Miklós Bercsényi, accomplished much in calling international attention to Rákóczi's movement. The motto that glittered on his red silk flags, Cum Deo pro patria et libertate (With God for country and liberty), provides a good indication of the character of the movement. Rákóczi's patriotism was rooted in religion, and he expected his subjects to be religious and to attend the services of their creeds. A devout Catholic, he would take his kneeling-carpet and accessories for Mass with him everywhere, for he attended Mass daily, even during campaigns. Morning and evening prayers were obligatory for his soldiers, and the religious holidays were celebrated with great pomp. Rákóczi would walk bare-headed in religious processions, and in the Resurrection ceremony on Holy Saturday he would march into the church amid the thunder of cannons and the rattle of rifle-fire, his escorts carrying torches.

The Court of Vienna looked with misgivings at Rákóczi's liberal attitude toward the "heretical" Protestants. His tolerance was later characterized by some historians as "jansenist deviation." He was virtually a precursor of ecumenism.

In 1704, Rákóczi's genius for organization came to the fore. Turning tens of thousands of inexperienced, undisciplined volunteers into an efficient army was an immense task. Rákóczi modelled his army on the French system, but dressed and commanded his soldiers in the Magyar way. Inspectors would review the troops at regular intervals. He established weapon and munition plants in the mining districts, uniform factories in the Munkács area, and set up food and supply depots in various parts of the country.

In 1706, at the height of the hostilities, Rákóczi had 116,000 troops divided into 31 infantry and 52 cavalry regiments, including artillery units. Magyars formed the bulk of the troops but thousands of Slovaks, Ruthenians and Wallachians also fought on their side. The regiments assigned to Rákóczi and the chief generals were regulars distinguished by their elegant uniforms, later imitated by all European armies. The army's créme de la cadre was the so-called nemes kompánia (company of nobles), which nurtured its future leaders. Nonetheless, the lack of experienced officers and warrant officers was a problem that remained unsolved to the end.

The greater part of the force consisted of the mezei hadak (yeomanry) who were ill-equipped, untrained irregulars. Under the command of strong-handed officers like the legendary Vak Bottyán, László Ocskay, Ádám Balogh and Tamás Esze however, they were able to carry out some of the most famous feats of the war. And although the kurucok were inferior to the long-standing imperial army in weaponry, training and discipline, their spirit, especially in cavalry attacks, compensated for their shortcomings.

During the first years of the war, the imperial forces were commanded by General Heister, a ruthless and cruel man who fought the kurucok with varying degrees of success. When defeated, the kurucok would regroup with astonishing speed and turn up in unexpected places. Sándor Károlyi's troops did the same when, on Leopold I's birthday, they raided the vicinity of Vienna. As a "birthday greeting" they set fire to several villages around the city, illuminating the evening horizon. Kuruc soldiers entered the imperial game preserves and captured the emperor's two favorite leopards. The whole country and the courts of Europe roared with laughter when the skins turned up as carpets at Rákóczi's feet.

The same month, - on June 8, 1704, - Rákóczi was elected Prince of Transylvania by the Magyar, Székely and Saxon estates. This was another slap in the King-Emperor's face because Vienna had regarded Transylvania as its own province since Thököly's expulsion, and maintained more troops there than in Hungary proper.

The Wheel of Fortune Turns - to a Standoff

Rákóczi's fortunes had been on the upswing while Leopold's troops were tied down in the Habsburg war against France. However, on August 13, 1704, Louis XIV and his allies suffered a devastating defeat at Hofstadt. It was a heavy, if not fatal, blow to Rákóczi too, who had been pinning his hopes on help from France.

Misfortune seldom comes alone. At the end of 1704, Rákóczi's army suffered the worst debacle to date at Nagyszombat. The kurucok fought with great heroism but lacked discipline and good leadership. They were more adept at hit-and-run warfare than at fighting regular battles. Rákóczi was not a military strategist and neither were his chief officers. Personal rivalry, suspicion and jealousy also plagued the upper echelons, and Rákóczi lacked the ruthlessness to deal with it.

The war reached a stand-off shortly after Leopold I died on May 5, 1705. On his deathbed he ordered court historians to write his biography, and to include his blunders and personal shortcomings so his son, Joseph I, could draw lessons from them. Joseph's new general, Herbeville, led a long march across Hungary with 80,000 troops to carry out a suc-


cessful occupation of Transylvania after defeating strong kuruc forces at Zsibó. On the other hand, Rákóczi's army gained control of Transdanubia.

As a result of the stand-off, a three-month armistice was signed on May 10, 1706, followed by intensive peace efforts. The Habsburgs' allies, the English and Dutch, urged Joseph I to come to an agreement with Rákóczi. Actually, the English ambassador to Vienna, Stepney, displayed strong sympathy for the Hungarian cause. The imperial court used not only diplomacy but also psychological weapons to bring the war to an end, since it was taxing the government's resources to the utmost.

The Emperor's "secret weapon" was none other than Amelia, who since 1701 had been prevented by the Court from joining her husband with her two sons, József and György, although as a princess she was allowed to mingle with high society in Vienna.

Now, with the boys held hostage in the capital,. Amelia was allowed to meet her husband and deliver Joseph's terms for peace.

The reunion was spectacular indeed. Amelia left Vienna in a glass coach heavily adorned with gold and drawn by six horses. Her large entourage included ten imperial generals in gala uniform who accompanied the coach all the way to the border, where Ocskay's elite cavalry regiment took over. Each member of the regiment sported a wolfskin on his shoulders except the leader, Ocskay, "Rákóczi's thunderbolt," who wore a leopard skin pelisse. It seemed as if the whole country were celebrating the reunion, for all along the route flags decorated the houses and church bells pealed. Even nature added to the pageantry with her brilliant May flowers.

While Amelia sat in a glass coach looking like the Queen of May, Rákóczi received her in Nyitra wearing the plain garb of a captain and much changed in appearance since his wife had last seen him. Though Amelia scarcely recognized this husband of hers with a moustache and hair like a lion's mane, they embraced and kissed each other immediately to the delight of the multitude that had gathered to witness their reunion.

During the ensuing weeks, Amelia used all her charm to try to persuade her husband to make peace with the Emperor, who was said to harbor sympathies for the Magyars in general and for Rákóczi in particular. The Czech Chancellor Wratislaw, who had accompanied Amelia to lend his diplomatic support, also used all the tricks of his trade. In return for peace, Joseph offered to donate the principalities of


Burgau and Lichtenberg to Rákóczi, with hereditary rights.

Rákóczi did not say no, but set two conditions: independence for Transylvania and iron-clad guarantees by foreign powers that the Habsburg Emperor would adhere to the treaty. These conditions were not acceptable to Joseph I. Amelia left Rákóczi without accomplishing her mission and apparently alienated from her husband.

Next the Emperor sent Rákóczi's sister, Julianna, on the same mission, repeating Joseph's offer "What the Emperor is willing to give is a gift to me while what he wants to take would be taken away from Hungary. It is the nation and not I who needs Transylvania!" Rákóczi retorted in refusing the Emperor's offer for the second time.

With the armistice over, the war continued. But it became increasingly clear that the kurucok, despite their individual acts of bravery, were unable to defeat the enemy decisively in ordinary battle. "The Magyar soldiers either pursue the enemy or run from him. They are in no mood to be tied to regulations," one of their generals remarked.

Bad Luck and Nothing Else

Adding to Rákóczi's difficulties was the reluctance of Louis XIV to enter into a formal alliance with him as long as the Magyars recognized Emperor Joseph I as their king. This French attitude prodded the Hungarians to "solve" the problem at the Diet of Ónod on June 14, 1707, by dethroning the Habsburgs and electing Rákóczi Prince of Hungary.

It turned out to be a fateful step which forced not only Rákóczi but also the Habsburgs to fight to the bitter end. Rákóczi soon discovered that he could not count on French support after all. Seeking a substitute ally, he first approached Charles XII, King of Sweden, then Peter the Great, with whom he succeeded in concluding a formal alliance. Due to the Czar's difficulties with the Turks, however, this effort proved to be futile.

Following the "dethroning" - which, of course, was not recognized by the Emperor-King - the ruthless Heister was re-appointed commander in chief. In August, 1708, he engaged Rákóczi's crack force of 14,000 men at Trencsén. During the battle, Rákóczi fell off his horse and his men, assuming that he was dead, fled in panic. Though Rákóczi had only fainted and soon revived, the incident was enough to help Heister win an overwhelming victory.

The decline of Rákóczi's star - a decline which began after the Diet of Ónod - was accelerated by the death of some of his best lieutenants and the defection of others, including Ocskay and Bezerédy. His army was hit even worse by a natural enemy, the Black Death, whose ravages claimed 410,000 victims in Hungary from 1708 to 1709.

In these times of misfortune Rákóczi may have been thinking of Miklós Zrínyi's motto, Sors bona, nihil aliud (Good luck and nothing else).

Rákóczi seemed to have nothing but hard luck in the final years of his struggle for freedom. In 1709 his best friend and most faithful General, Vak Bottyán, died, The Habsburgs on the other hand, victorious on their western front, were able to muster reinforcements who gradually pushed back the kuruc troops until the latter controlled only a few towns in Northern Hungary.

Surrender - without Rákóczi

At the end of February, 1711, Rákóczi travelled to Poland to meet Peter the Great, who still was a possible source of help. Before leaving he gave Sándor Károlyi permission to enter into peace negotiations with the Court, which was represented by János Pálffy, former commander-in-chief of the Habsburg forces and an ardent loyalist but a decent man. While Rákóczi was in Poland, Emperor Joseph I died suddenly. Nevertheless, negotiations between Károlyi and Pálffy led to an agreement.

The Treaty of Szatmár, reached in Rákóczi's absence and without his consent, was signed on May 1, 1711, by Károlyi and 151 Magyar dignitaries. It contained the following provisions:

* general amnesty for all (including Rákóczi, who


would retain his estates if he would take an oath of allegiance to the Emperor-King within three weeks),

* religious freedom,

* respect for the constitution,

* convocation of the Diet (National Assembly) to discuss matters further.

By the time the treaty was signed, the kuruc army was down to only 12,000 men commanded by Sándor Károlyi. As the terms of the treaty were read to them, they stood in dead silence on the plain of Nagymajtény. Then with tears flowing down their faces, regiment after regiment laid down their arms and thrust their flags, 149 altogether, into the ground while the wail of tárogatós (kuruc flutes) sounded the final sorrowful surrender.

The longest war of liberation in Hungarian history was over.

The long war cost the nation the lives of 85,000 men and many more wounded, and at the end all the blood seemed to have been shed for a lost cause. Or was it?

Though the short-term result was certainly defeat, the liberation movement had thrust into leadership the noblest and purest figure in Hungarian history, Rákóczi, a leader who sacrificed his entire life, his domestic happiness and his estates for the cause of Hungarian liberty. He was able to revive a nation ruined by 150 years of Turkish rule and downtrodden by Habsburg suppression. Against all odds, he restored the people's pride and hammered out a cohesive, hard-hitting entity from a heterogeneous population composed of Magyars and Slovaks, Ruthenians and Wallachians, Transdanubians and Transylvanians, Catholics and Protestants, serfs and nobles, poor and rich - and was able to hold a huge empire at bay for eight years.

This unique feat has been an inspiration for the Hungarian nation ever since - and a reminder to later rulers that suppressing the Magyars is, sooner or later, bound to exact a heavy price. In fact, losses on the Habsburg side were greater than those on the insurgents' during the Kuruc-Labanc War which, historians tell us, led the Habsburgs to the verge of bankruptcy. This was the main reason the Court had pushed so hard for peace.

While Rákóczi stands out in history as a symbol of self-sacrificing national spirit, the romantic world of the kurucok also left a colorful heritage. The kuruc era richly influenced literature, art, song, dance and music, becoming a peculiar facet of Hungarian culture. Part of this heritage calls to mind the melancholy mood of the bujdosó kurucok (the kurucok in hiding), who could so easily be brought into sad reverie by the sound of the tárogató.

But the spirit of the Rákóczi era is most effectively recalled by the immortal music of the Rákóczi March, the stirring strains of which both Liszt and Berlioz incorporated into their compositions. One has but to listen to this world-famous march with its fiery,


rumbling fortissimos evoking death-defying kuruc attacks to get an idea of the fighting spirit of the era.

Rákóczi in Exile

After the peace treaty of Szatmár Rákóczi rejected the Emperor's offer to return his immense estates in exchange for an oath of loyalty. This he would never do. Instead he chose the bitter bread of exile which, in the beginning years, was sweetened by the great honor accorded him wherever he went.

After releasing most of his entourage, he traveled with his closest friends, including Count Miklós Bercsényi, to France. In Paris he enjoyed the hospitality of Louis XIV, the Sun King,. in whose court he received marked attention from everyone. Saint Simon, a contemporary French writer, described Rákóczi thus:

"...Rákóczi is a very tall, good looking man with some Tartar features, his stature and manner evoking respect. He is not talkative in company, but intelligent, modest, dignified without any trait of vanity. He recounts his experiences in an interesting way but never talks directly about himself. Rákóczi is very honest, just frank, and extremely courageous, he neither hides nor conspicuously displays his deep religiosity. He gives much to the poor secretly. His house soon became very popular and was a place where strict morality, punctuality and thrift were evident..."

After the Sun King's death Rákóczi, bored with life in high society, left Paris to take up residence in a monastery of Camaldulian brothers at Gros-Bois where he spent most of his time in religious contemplation and studies - and gardening. He returned to Paris for a short time only when Tsar Peter the Great visited the French capital and expressed a desire to see his Hungarian friend whom he treated with great distinction.

The outbreak of the Austrian-Turkish war changed Rákóczi's life abruptly, for the Turkish Sultan secretly offered him an alliance if he would assist the Turks in fighting the Habsburgs. Driven by a resurgence of hope, Rákóczi left the serenity of the Gros-Bois monastery to join the Sultan in Constantinople. His high hopes, however turned into deep disappointment when he learned upon his arrival that the Turkish army had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Prince Eugen Savoy and Bán János Pálffy, and that peace negotiations were already in progress. After the peace treaty had been concluded, Rákóczi, on Austrian insistence, was exiled to Rodostó, (today's Tekirdeg), a coastal town on the Marmor Sea in Turkey

It was there that Rákóczi spent the rest of his life (22 more years) in an ever-shrinking circle of loyal friends who still considered and treated him as the Prince of Hungary. He died in 1735 at the age of sixty.

In his will Rákóczi asked that his heart be sent to the monastery of Camaldulian brothers in Gros-Bois while the rest of his remains be interred with those of his mother, Ilona Zrínyi, who had also died in Turkish exile decades before. It was in this way that mother and son finally became united again to dream of Hungarian glory and resurrection in their eternal sleep in a common coffin. One hundred fifty years later their coffin was brought home to Hungary amidst great pomp and deep national emotion. The remains of Ferenc Rákóczi and Ilona Zrínyi, together with that of Miklós Bercsényi, were laid to final rest in the great Cathedral of Kassa.

Since then Kassa, renamed for Kosice, has become a part of Slovakia. Thus, these heroes rest in "foreign soil" again. So does Imre Thököly, whose remains lie in a family crypt, near his birthplace.


 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] Stephen Sisa : The Spirit of Hungary