Top: Painting of II Rákóczi Ferenc, by Mányoki Ádám; Rákóczi coat of arms, with motto: If God is for us, who is against us? Bottom: Rákóczi's motto: With God for Homeland and Liberty (at Gyimesbükk)
After the Battle of Mohács in 1526, the Turks slowly took over a large portion of the territory that had been the Kingdom of Hungary. This officially lasted from 1541 until 1699. At the same time, the northwestern area was controlled by the Habsburgs. As the Ottomans pulled out, the Habsburg took over the rest of the Hungarian territories. For some this turned out to be worse than Turkish rule.
As many areas transitioned to Habsburg control, aristocrats who wanted to regain their property had to provide written proof of ownership and pay 10% of the value of their land to the Habsburg monarchy in order to get their property back. So many aristocrats were unhappy, while the peasants experienced continued hardships and many even longed for a return of the Ottomans. This led to some peasant uprisings against the Habsburgs. These were not too successful, so eventually in 1703 a group of peasant leaders asked II Rákóczi Ferenc to lead the rebellion against Habsburg rule, which became known as Rákóczi’s War of Independence. This Hungarian army and some previous rebels were also referred to as “Kuruc” (a term applied to the crusaders led by Dózsa György in 1514, who started the first peasant revolt, but is more probably derived from the Turkish word for rebel or insurgent). The Austrian fighters were called “Labanc” (from the Hungarian word for long hair aka “lobonc” because of the wigs they wore).
His father, Prince I Rákóczi Ferenc, also helped lead a plot against the Habsburgs in the 1660’s, known as the Wesselényi Conspiracy. This was headed by Zrinyi Péter, Bán of Croatia and father-in-law of I Rákóczi Ferenc; Count Wesselényi Ferenc, Palatine of Royal Hungary; Count III Nádasdy Ferenc, CVhief Judge and General of Hungary; and Frangepán Ferenc Kristóf, a Croatian nobleman. This ended with a trial and the execution of Zrinyi, Nádasdy and Frangepán in 1671. Wesselényi had died before the conspiracy was uncovered and Rákóczi was spared because of the intervention of his mother and the payment of a substantial ransom, although he died at the young age of 31, five years later.
II Rákóczi Ferenc’s stepfather, Thököly Imre, also went against the Habsburgs by joining the Ottomans in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. This followed from the Ottoman recognition of Thököly as king of Northern Hungary in 1681, but the defeat of the Ottomans ruined his plans. After the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699, the Ottomans left and handed over their conquered Hungarian territory to the Habsburgs. As result of this, Thököly Imre had to go into exile. Also, his earlier alliance with the Ottomans changed Western Europe’s, and especially Austria’s, previous positive attitude to a negative one towards Hungary. This may be the most significant contributing factor to the treatment of Hungary by the Habsburgs after they took full control.
While working on his ambitions of power, Thököly Imre had little time to deal with raising his stepson. Therefore, II Rákóczi Ferenc, came under the guardianship of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Austrian Leopold I, which was a request made in his father’s will. His youth was split between staying with his mother and at the royal court in Vienna, since his father died when he was only 3 months old.
France, under Louis XIV, had been sympathetic to Hungary’s position vis-à-vis the Habsburgs to diminish Habsburg power in Europe and had previously given aid to Thököly. In the late 1690’s, France contacted Rákóczi, offering him support if he took up the fight against Austria. The correspondence between them was intercepted by an Austrian spy who had gained Rákóczi’s trust. After reviewing numerous letters over the period of a year or two, Rákóczi was arrested on April 18th, 1700 and imprisoned at Wiener Neustadt. He would have been sentenced to death, as was his grandfather, but he managed to escape. He then went to Poland, where he met with Count Bercsényi Miklós, whose estate was next to his, and they once again began corresponding with France.
After earlier declining to lead a peasant uprising against the Habsburgs, he changed his mind, and became the leader of the rebellion in 1703. The opportunity to have a chance with their relatively small and under-armed forces, compared to the Austrians, came because the Austrians reallocated most of their occupying troops to Western Europe and the War of the Spanish Succession. This was a result of the death of Spain’s Habsburg King Charles II on November 1st, 1700, who left no direct heirs.
In 1704, II Rákóczi Ferenc, was named Prince of Transylvania. He did gain a large portion of territory in Hungary in the beginning, but ultimately failed in his efforts to seize control from the Habsburgs. Many Hungarian nobles did not support Rákóczi because they thought of this as a peasant rebellion. At the same time France became more occupied with Spain and America. They did, however, send troops to help Hungary, but the combined French and Bavarian forces were defeated by the combined Austrians and English forces at the Battle of Blenheim on August 13th, 1704. (Of course, the English helped the Austrians because they were also at war with France in what was known as Queen Anne’s War or the Third Indian War in America.)
There were many battles between the Austrians and the Hungarians and some attempts at peace negotiations over the years of this conflict. In September of 1705, Rákóczi was elected Prince of the Kingdom of Hungary and, along with a 24-member Senate, was responsible for foreign affairs. Peace talks began on October 27th, 1705 with the Austrian Emperor, but the fighting also continued. The main issue that caused the failure of this effort at reconciliation was the fate of Transylvania. The Austrians wanted control over Transylvania, while the Hungarians wanted it to remain independent or at least semi-autonomous. After another meeting of Hungarian leaders, a declaration was made, removing the House of Habsburg from the Hungarian throne on June 13th, 1707.
As Professor Lukács János has said, Hungary’s greatest failure was the inability to populate the country with enough Hungarians. In this case, Rákóczi did not have enough outside support, nor enough of his own troops to occupy all the territory that he had gained. He also had trouble raising the funds to support his troops. Another severe blow came at the Battle of Trencsén on August 3rd, 1708, where Rákóczi fell from his horse and was knocked unconscious. This caused his forces to lose the battle, because fearing that he was dead, they all fled. As a result, a significant group of military leaders switched their allegiance to the Emperor in hopes of leniency. With diminished support and loss of territory the uprising was now doomed to defeat.
In 1711, the Emperor sent Pálffy János to negotiate a settlement, but Rákóczi did not trust him and went to Poland on February 21st, 1711. The uprising officially ended on April 29th, 1711 with the Treaty of Szatmár. This was signed on May 1st, 1711 by Count Pálffy János, on behalf of the Emperor, and Count Károlyi Sándor, on behalf of the Hungarians. Rákóczi showed up during the talks in opposition to the agreement but did not prevail and returned to Poland.
II Rákóczi Ferenc was offered the Polish crown twice but turned it down. He left Poland at the end of 1712 for a short stay in England and then moved to France for a few years. After the death of Louis XIV on September 1st, 1715, he decided to accept the invitation of Ahmed III to move to the Ottoman Empire, which was still at war with Austria. His entourage of some 40 people arrived in Gallipoli on October 10, 1717. His group settled in the town of Tekirdağ (called Rodostó in Hungarian) on the coast of the Sea of Marmara and built a nice Hungarian community. This is where he lived out his life with his close friends and supporters, among them Counts Forgách Simon, Esterházy Antal, Csáky Mihály and Bercsényi Miklós. He died there on April 8th, 1735 at the age of 59. Included in the Peace Treaty of Passarowitz with Austria in 1718 was the Turkish refusal to extradite any of the Hungarian exiles back to Austria.
Prince Rákóczi is considered a Hungarian national hero. One of numerous statues throughout Hungary can be found in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building. He is on horseback with the inscription of his famous motto “Cum Deo Pro Patria et Libertate” (With God for Fatherland and Liberty). A couple of villages in Hungary as well as in the Ukraine are named after him, along with streets, squares or buildings all over Hungary. His portrait appears on the 500-forint banknote and his image has appeared on several stamps.
Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.