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The Last of the Bebeks / Az utolsó Bebek
The Last of the Bebeks / Az utolsó Bebek

Pelsőcsi Bebek György was one of the most famous and notorious characters who lived in the 16th century. He had a standing army, was the owner of vast estates in Hungary, in the Counties of Borsod, Torna, Gömör, and Abaúj that were amassed over hundreds of years by the Bebek family, including  more than 30 castles and fortresses, among them Szádvár, Tornavár, Krasznahorka and Szendrő castles.

His wife, Patócsy Zsófia, was the daughter of Patócsy György,  who was the captain of the border fortress (végvár) of Gyula and Lord Lieutenant (főispán) of  Békés County, and who played an important part in defending the Hungarian border from the Turks.

Bebek György was fearless, brave and valiant, as sung by the minstrels and lutanists of his time.  He enjoyed great dinners and banquets, and was one of the most famous drinkers of his time.  A close friend, Tordai György noted that, as his guest, after four days and nights of eating and drinking tons of wine, the following morning Bebek said goodbye and rode home.

He loved hunting, kept a horde of hunting dogs, trained falcons for hunting.  He kept a wildlife/game park that was renowned far and wide.  Since he had no sons, his wife and four daughters accompanied him on his hunts and outdid the men in riding horseback and brandishing their weapons.

Bebek György had power and influence and had the political situations not been so entangled, he would have been given a dignified position, as had his ancestors for several centuries.

The country was divided into three: to the north, Ferdinand the Habsburg king ruled; in Transylvania, it was János Zsigmond; and the middle of the country was under Turkish rule.  Bebek would play one side against the other in order to save his estates that were located in the king’s territory.  He would undertake skirmishes, occupy castles, take prisoners for ransom.  As a result of treachery in Fülek, he was caught by the Turks and taken to Constantinople.  The distinguished prisoner represented great value because he could be traded for a very high ransom. Bebek György’s imprisonment was quite bearable.  Although under strict guard, he was favorably treated.  He was allowed  to write letters, receive ambassadors and friends.  He took advantage of the opportunity to organize and procure his ransom, although that was not easy to do.  The Sultan made him an offer:  become a Muslim and everything will be returned to you.  Bebek declined  the offer.

While he was held hostage, his wife ran the affairs of the estates and did everything in her power to free her husband.  With her two daughters, she traveled to Vienna to plead with the king, but they were arrested.  In a handwritten letter, Bebek György begs the king for their release, and his request was granted.

Two forces were working hard to free him: one was János Zsigmond, the other, Ferdinand, who instructed his ambassador to Turkey to do everything in his power to have Bebek released, because this would secure Bebek’s alliance  to whoever was able to secure his freedom.  After many years of negotiations, it was János Zsigmond who won his release and promised to put him under guard until the ransom was paid.

In March of 1565, Bebek György, in festive dress, appeared before the Divan, kissed the Sultan’s hand, and he was free.  He paid a high price for his freedom – the promise to release most of his Turkish prisoners and the payment of 30,000 pieces of gold.

Bebek rode a beautiful steed, a gift from the Sultan, to reach János Zsigmond who put him under guard until the ransom was paid, while the Turks also kept an eye on him, and Ferdinand could hardly wait to set his soldiers on him. 

Bebek wanted to return to his estates as soon as possible and the Prince asked that two Bebek daughters take his place.  Zsófia organized the girls’ trip to Transylvania, not an easy task in those dangerous times.  She entrusted the valiant captain, Saffarits Péter, with the leadership of the escort team consisting of 30 brave soldiers.  They departed Szendrő castle with minimal supplies and fast-paced horses.  The girls were raised as boys by their father, nothing scared them, and they carried sabers.  Lazar Schwendi, the Hungarian-hating German captain was informed  by his spies and sent a mounted team to capture the Bebek girls at all costs.  The Hungarian escorts and the two brave Amazons put up a fierce fight with death-defying bravery.  They managed to escape with the remaining 14 valiant men to Gyulafehérvár, capital of Transylvania, their father leaving them in the care of the Prince; then he left with his brave men to return home.  When Schwendi announced to his superiors that he had been unable to capture the girls, he offered to burn Bebek’s estates and destroy his castles, but this barbaric plan was opposed by Archbishop Charles of Austria.

While Bebek was in Transylvania, Lazar Schwendi occupied Szendrő castle, while Patócsy Zsófia, Bebek’s wife, was at nearby Szádvár to await the return of her husband.  But fate intervened. Schwendi, under orders from the King, surrounded the castle with a huge army.  He never dreamed that a castle under the command of a fragile woman would offer tremendous resistance.  Szádvár stands on a high cliff surrounded by valleys, with its only entrance on one side; the rest is steep, almost impossible to climb.  Schwendi ordered Patóczy Zsófia to give up the castle.  Instead, the brave woman organized its defense.  The attackers tried in vain the traditional form of siege, but did not succeed.  Then they tried another way of attack, cannon fire from the mountain across from Szádvár.  The unexpected response was cannon fire from Szádvár.   The defenders  put up a fierce fight, in the hope that Bebek would soon arrive with his army, but he was delayed.  In spite of the lack of water – the supply had been cut off – the defenders fought back for several days, until part of the northern wall collapsed due to heavy bombardment, making it possible for the attackers to invade. 

Zsófia negotiated and bargained for a peaceful departure with Schwendi, who must have been impressed by the courage of this woman.  He allowed her free exit, and the defenders were allowed to take all movables, treasures, horses, personal belongings,  leaving only military equipment.

Bebek was near Szádvár with his army and when he learned  that the fortress had fallen, he hurried after his wife.  They settled in Transylvania with their daughters, but Bebek was restless; he retook several of his castles from the Germans.  He died in 1567, the last male descendant of the Bebek line. This is symbolized by the reversed  ancient coat of arms above the entrance to the family crypt.

As  for the Bebek daughters, Zsuzsanna married a Báthory István, Sr. (not the prince of Transylvania); the other daughter, beautiful Judit,  inspired Balassa Balint, the famous poet, to write a poem around 1579.

The Austrian ruler confiscated all of Bebek’s fortune.  His wife tried unsuccessfully to regain it, asserting that she and her daughters were not the cause of anything, and that even her dowry had been taken away with the rest.

Source:  “Szádvárért Baráti Kör”, Fecske Csaba: “Az utolsó Bebek”. – A historical 3-volume book by Pétery Károly, published in 1877, also tells the story.

Éva Wajda is a member of Magyar News Online Editorial Board.


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