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II. Rákóczi Ferenc – part I

Taken from Hungarian Heroes and Legends by Joseph Domjan

II. Rákóczi Ferenc – part I

Erika Papp Faber 

Following the death of King Mátyás, a king of the House of Jagiello, Wladislas II, came to the Hungarian throne.  His successor, Louis II also of the House of Jagiello, was a weak king, and he drowned, fleeing the battlefield of Mohács in 1526.  In that disaster, an overwhelming Turkish force killed the leading men of Hungary, and the country was left without leadership.  The lower nobility elected Zápolya (aka Szapolyai) János, one of their number, to be king.  He obtained Turkish support for his cause.  But due to a stipulation in a previous Habsburg alliance, the Austrian Ferdinand was also crowned king, by the upper nobility, a year after Zápolya.  The two rulers fought each other until the death of Zápolya in 1540.

Thus in the 16th century, Hungary became divided into three sections:  the Turks ruled over the central part of the country (for over a century and a half); the Austrians over the northern and western region (for almost 400 years, until the Treaty of Trianon dethroned the Habsburgs in 1920); while Transylvania still remained – for the most part – in Hungarian hands for another century. 

Although they claimed to help defend Hungary against the Turks, the Habsburg kings often retreated from the Turkish forces, and even gave huge monetary gifts to the sultan after they had defeated the Turks in battle.  The country was devastated by this double exploitation and the constant warfare, and was consequently demoralized. 

A long poem, “Jajszó, melyben édes hazánk romlását siratja egy poéta”
(Lament for the ruin of our dear homeland) starts out this way:

Zokogó sírással sírhatsz, magyar nemzet,
Mert szemed bekötve idegeny (sic!) nép vezet.

(Hungarian nation, you can cry with sobbing,
Because a foreign people leads you, blindfolded.)

The same poem also mentions Jesuits coming with “German” troops, to ask for the church keys and take away the churches – an obvious reference to the Counter-Reformation.  Because the Hungarian people had enthusiastically embraced the Reformation, in some cases perhaps out of zealous patriotism, since the oppressive Habsburg rulers were Catholic. The poem continues with a clear reference to the Turkish occupation:

Te napod fényében minap hold öltözött,
Minden javaiddal torkáig töltözött.

(The moon has clothed itself in your sun’s light,
Filled itself to the gills with your goods.)

And pointing to the Habsburg emblem of the eagle:

Az napnyugoti (sic!) sas körme közé kapta,
Te gyönge testedet erősen marcangolja.

(The western eagle caught it between its claws,
And is fiercely mauling your tender body.) 

Consequently, many patriots became bujdosók – fugitives and outlaws, hiding in the forests and marshy areas, carrying on guerrilla warfare against the foreigners – the Austrians and the Turks.  

In the mid-seventeenth century, Thököly Imre, who as a boy had been smuggled out of his father’s fortress of Árva (located in the northern part of Upper Hungary), when the Austrians began to besiege it, became the leader of the bujdosók.  He began to organize these loose bands of guerrillas into a fighting force, changing their name to kurucok, a new type of crusader.  The supporters of the Austrians were derogatorily called labancok.

A number of songs have come down to us as “kuruc dalok”, although few of them can actually be dated to those times.  Among the ones that have been studied in depth is “Csinom Palkó, Csinom Jankó” which has been shown to be a recruiting song, probably originating in the Kárpátalja (Subcarpathia) section, in the times of Thököly.  Its 39 stanzas are a call to join the kuruc troops who are depicted (in an early example of false advertising!) as wearing elegant attire, with “pearly silver footwear”, crimson boots, golden sabers, and fast-running horses, while the labanc troops are made fun of, depicted as cowardly, ragged, hungry and overrun by lice. 

Az vitéz kurucnak
Van szabott dolmánya,
Sarkantyús csizmája,
Futó paripája...
Vitéz karja, lábaiban
Karmazsin csizmája,
Gyönggyel fűzött az bocskora,
Ezüstös kapcája......
Ne bánkódjék senki köztünk,
Menjünk az Alföldre,
Megrontatik kezünk által
Az labanc ereje!...
Darulábú, szarkaorrú
Nyomorult nemzetség
Fut előttünk, retteg tőlünk,
Nyomorult nemzetség!...

Lapos guta megütötte
bornyúbőr iszákját,
Kebelében legelteti
Sok ezer marháját.

Mely marhának tetű neve,
Tartsa ő magának!
Nyúzza rendre, jó lesz bőre
Bornyúbőr iszáknak...

Thököly garnered much popular support, and was able to beat back the Austrians from Upper Hungary for a while.  He conquered the cities of Kassa and Fülek, after which the Turkish pasha of Buda presented him with gifts from the sultan and appointment as king of Hungary.  Thököly was smart enough not to accept the title, but subsequently became popularly known as “kuruckirály” – “king of the kurucok”.

Thököly married Zrinyi Ilona, widow of I. Rákóczi Ferenc, who was an earlier freedom fighter involved in the anti-Habsburg Wesselényi conspiracy, but who was spared execution through the donation, by his mother, of 300,000 forints and numerous castles to the imperial Habsburg treasury.  He died shortly after their son, II. Rákóczi Ferenc, was born.  

But Thököly fell out of favor with the sultan when the Turks were beaten back from the walls of Vienna in 1683 by the international Christian force of the Holy League, and he was imprisoned for 7 years.  This enraged his kuruc followers, who defected by droves to the labanc side.

The 3 year-long defense of Munkács fortress by his wife Ilona earned her the respect even of the Austrian besiegers, so that at the end, she was granted free withdrawal, could keep her estates, but had to surrender her children to the tutelage of the Austrian emperor.  Thököly and Ilona were ordered into exile by the sultan, and Thököly died in Turkey in 1705.

(to be continued)

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