At the time of her father’s arrest Ilona Zrinyi was married to Ferenc Rakoczi I who was also in on the conspiracy. Once he learned of Petar’s arrest he surrendered and begged the Emperor for mercy. Though imprisoned, he was ransomed after a large payment by his mother. Ilona was the one member of her family that managed to keep her freedom. In 1676 Ferenc I died, only a few months after Ilona bore him his namesake, Ferenc II. Ilona’s rebellious, anti-Habsburg sentiment did not end with the death of her husband.
“I Will Resist” – The Siege At Munkacs
The fact that the Habsburgs had destroyed nearly her entire family- formerly one of the most powerful and noblest in Croatia – made her resistance even greater. In 1682 she married another rebel leader, Imre Thokoly. Thokoly led a band of fighters known as the Kuruc’s that successfully rebelled against the Habsburg’s for several years. They were allied with the Ottoman Turks, but this turned bad, after the siege of Vienna failed in 1683. In the years that followed Thokoly and his Kuruc army lost all of their hard won gains. Meanwhile, Ilona found herself trying to defend the estates she had inherited from Ferenc I. She was forced to make her final stand at Palanok Castle (Munkacs Vara in Hungarian) in 1685 when it was surrounded by Habsburg Forces. Her son Ferenc II, at the tender age of nine, was in the besieged fortress along with four thousand troops under his mother’s command. This looked to be the end, but it was only the start.
To a certain extent Ilona’s decision to hold out at Munkacs was made easier because of the Habsburg leader facing her, none other than General Antonio Caraffa. Caraffa was notorious for his heavy handed treatment of the Hungarian nobility. After the re-conquest of Upper Hungary by Habsburg Forces, Caraffa had been appointed military governor of the region. He proceeded to set up the Executive Court of Presov to try supporters of Ilona’s husband. Confessions were extracted through the use of torture. No less than seventeen nobles were tried and executed. Faced with the prospect of falling into the hands of Caraffa, Ilona and her men prepared to hold out at all costs. At the outset of the siege she sent a letter to Caraffa stating, “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.” Caraffa’s response was a month and a half long bombardment of the castle. He was a deeply unsympathetic and sadistic man.
The Strong Will Of A “Weak Woman” – Three Years Against Fate
Yet the self-described “weak woman” he faced, was anything but. For the next three years every Habsburg attempt to seize the fortress failed. Ilona Zrinyi turned out to be quite a military leader. No matter the sacrifice, she was able to keep the morale of the troops positive. In the winter of 1688 Munkacs castle finally fell to the Habsburgs. The terms offered to Ilona were generous, though she surely knew better. She had first-hand experience with Habsburg duplicity. She was allowed to keep all her estates as well as the Rakoczi ones she had inherited from her first husband, but the children were taken from her. The day after his twelfth birthday Ferenc II saw his mother for the last time. He would now be brought up under foster care. Ilona was placed in a convent.
Three years later she was released in a prisoner exchange for a Habsburg general her husband, Imre Thokoly had captured. She would go on to be reunited with Thokoly. They would live out their life as exiles in Ottoman Turkey. With her death the once vaunted Zrinyi family was almost extinguished, but the flame of freedom still burned in the heart of Ferenc. He had learned well the meaning of honor and duty from his mother. This was truly a case of like mother, like son. He would go on to fight the Habsburgs for many years, but also in vain and then spend the last part of his life exiled in Turkey. They both ended up on the wrong side of history or so it was thought at the time.
“an honorable name and good reputation” – All That Endures
The letter from Ilona to Ferenc replicated in the exhibits at Vaja Castle transmits to the reader the sense of honor, duty and deep rooted morality that Ilona Zrinyi gave to her son Ferenc Rakoczi through both words and deeds. Both Ilona and Ferenc lost their land and countless possessions, but they never lost their honor. They fought with pride and honor. At the time, their efforts were for a lost cause, but for good reason both are still honored today. Whether it is at an old, drafty castle in eastern Hungary or atop the heights of a splendid fortress in Transcarpathian Ukraine their legacy lives on. They speak to something universal in everyone, truth, justice and honor. As Ilona said, “an honorable name and good reputation in this world…will never cease, and they will stay forever.”