A Tale Of Two Kingdoms – Csokako Castle: What Warfare Wrought And Brought On Hungary

Is there anything more entrancing than a hilltop castle? Towering above its surroundings, a fortress perched high above a village has a timeless appeal. It is a magnet to the eyes, allowing the imagination to wander back in time to the Middle Ages when chivalry and honor were seemingly all that mattered. It is as though warriors are still perched on the heights above, behind formidable walls, ready to defend to the death their lonely outpost. For the enemy, these same walls would have looked impregnable. They offered an almost insurmountable obstacle, but that was nothing compared to the topography. Sloping, precipitate hillsides were as much a part of an elevated castle as were its stone walls. By the time a besieging army attempted to scale nature’s heights, they would have despaired at the near impossible task of confronting the thick, stone walls ahead and above them.

Csokako Castle - an artistic rendering as it looked during the late Middle Ages

Csokako Castle – an artistic rendering as it looked during the late Middle Ages (Credit: Ferenc Tamas)

A Strategic Position Shaped By Nature
This feeling is still possible today and not only via the imagination, but also through the experience of visiting Csokako Castle. Located in the Transdanubian region of western Hungary, high above an 1,100 person strong village bearing the same name, the medieval castle of Csokako has stood the test of time. Its location bears as much responsibility for its security as the stone walls. The castle was constructed several hundred meters above the surrounding landscape on a rocky plateau that is part of the Vertes Mountains. The hillsides were nearly vertical on three sides of the castle’s strategic location. The lone approach was from the western side, but a defensive ditch guarded that direction. Natural geological processes that unfolded over millennia created this piece of highly defensible terrain. It is little wonder that the Hungarian nobility of the Middle Ages chose such a strategic setting to safe guard their existence.

Because of the formidable terrain, Csokako castle was a mighty symbol. Constructed in the late 13th century, it became one of the main political centers for Feher County, second only to the royal coronation site at nearby Szekesfehervar. The castle was a critical part of a series of fortifications built to guard the road between the cities of Gyor and Komarom. Despite Csokako castle’s supposedly impregnable location it fell to the Ottoman Turks during the 16th century. This was just the beginning of a chaotic period in the castle’s history. It was the scene of numerous battles over the next 140 odd years as it changed hands multiple times. For instance, in a battle that took place in the autumn of 1601, Hungarian forces under the command of Archduke Matthias emerged victorious. Less than a year later they had lost the castle. It was not until 1687 that the fortress was cleared of all Turkish forces. At this point the region was devoid of population and the castle began an afterlife as a ruin. After resettlement of the area the Austrian Habsburg’s had little interest in rebuilding the castle. They did not want to give any possibly rebellious Hungarian subjects a fortification that one day might be captured and used against them.

Csokako Castle - A view from below

Csokako Castle – A view from below

Reconstructing A Kingdom
It would not be until the late 20th century that reconstruction of the castle began in earnest. Despite this, the remaining ruins continue to be instructive. To the historically minded visitor they recall the central role in Hungarian history of the Ottoman Turkish occupation. These ruins represent not only the bitter taste of defeat and occupation that came at the highest of costs, but also the military violence that took plagued the region for a century and a half. It was this violence which decimated the native Hungarian population. Csokako castle was part of Royal Hungary (Habsburg ruled Hungary during the 16th and 17th centuries, roughly equivalent to the northwestern portion of modern Hungary). The castle was much too close to the Habsburg-Ottoman border. Csokako was in an area that experienced every violent metamorphosis that can possibly be imagined. Endless raids, skirmishes and at times, full scale battles took place across the land for decades on end. Squeezed between these warring empires, many parts of what had once been the Kingdom of Hungary were left in smoldering ruins just like the castle. Eventually the land was recovered, but in the process Hungary lost much of its ethnic homogeneity.

In the 17th century the Habsburgs decided to repopulate the countryside to recultivate what had become a wasteland. Germans, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Romanians were allowed rights to settle across wide swathes of Hungary. The village of Csokako that exists today rose from the dust in the 1750’s, due to the efforts of a nobleman, Count Lamberg. Notice the Germanic surname. The old medieval Hungary had been wiped away. The new one that rose in its place was increasingly diverse. As the historian Paul Lendvai noted, “as a result of the catastrophes of the Middle Ages and the Turkish occupation, Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) amounted to only 35 – 39 percent of the population.” The Kingdom of Hungary became a heterogeneous society. This had major consequences in the late 19th and early 20th century in regard to the Magyarization policies of Hungarian governments and resulting backlash from the nationalities.

Csokako Castle - A view from above

Csokako Castle – A view from above

A Symbol Of Disenchantment
The remains of Csokako Castle are a window into the wider world of change wrought by war and occupation. These changes transformed Hungarian society. Today, the village of Csokako is almost entirely Hungarian. It eventually recovered a Hungarian ethnic identity, but the Kingdom of Hungary never regained the type of power and influence it had before the Turks arrived. The hilltop castle at Csokako still captures the imagination today, but the reality behind the consequences of its history is not nearly as enchanting.

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