Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)

For me, statues in Hungary are about cultivating memory and encouraging motivation. Helping the viewer to recall past events while motivating them to learn more. On the north side of Castle Hill, within a stone’s throw of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, I found myself drawn to a charismatic statue. Written on the stone pedestal upon which the statue stood was the name Kapisztran. The name had obviously been Magyarized, the –sz being a dead giveaway. The statue portrayed Saint John of Capistrano (Giovanni de Capestrano in Italian) with both of his arms raised in the air. In one hand he held a flag. His head was turned as though he were looking back at invisible forces imploring them forward into combat. Beneath one of his feet lay a broken and defeated foe, trampled by the victorious saint. Another man, below Capistrano, blows a horn calling on the faithful warriors.

This was a highly emotional personification, an expression of zeal and fervor. There was nothing abstract or subliminal about the message portrayed. I knew hardly anything about Saint John, but the statue communicated that he was a man on a mission, possessed by a fiery faith. Prior to stumbling upon this statue, all I had known was the name. The statue stimulated curiosity in me. The best works of art often have this effect upon their observers. Viewing this portrayal in Bronze made me want to learn more about the man. My first question was what did this Italian priest have to do with Hungary? The answer was more than I could have ever imagined.

Statue of János Kapisztran (Saint John Capistrano) in Castle District

Statue of János Kapisztran (Saint John Capistrano) in Castle District (Credit: Scolaire)

Preaching To The Choir – Combating Heresy In Hungary
The present state of Christianity in Hungary is one of stagnation and slow decline. Much of this can be attributed to four decades of atheistic communist rule. In addition, Hungarians by nature are an extremely critical, some might say cynical people. I cannot help but believe there is more than a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to the Hungarian attitude toward religion. It was not always this way in Hungary. Hungarians were a much more religious people prior to the 20th century. Religion and national identity were inextricably connected. Faith could flare when under threat, especially from external forces. Such was the case in the mid-15th century. In 1453 the bastion of eastern Christendom, Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks and was now under the banner of Islam. The Turks immediately began to make a push through the Balkans, toward Hungary with the eventual aim of invading the heart of Europe.

At the same time, a priest who would become known to history as Saint John of Capistrano, had been preaching throughout Central and Eastern Europe. John’s sermons were a vehement defense of Vatican orthodoxy. He fomented against heretics. More than a few times, his preaching led to violence, most famously against Jews. His oratorical skills were such that Pope Callixtus III chose him to preach a crusade against the Ottoman Turks in 1456. This would be done in the hopes of stopping Ottoman infiltration into Europe. John’s efforts to garner support were unsuccessful in Germany. The Vatican sent him onward to Hungary, where he found a much more fertile environment for his views. His words fell on attentive ears as peasants and smaller landlords were persuaded to gather into an armed force that would try to repel the Turks.

Depiction of St. John of Capistrano - Preaching to the faithful

Depiction of St. John of Capistrano – Preaching to the faithful

Peasants To The Rescue  –  An Element of Surprise
Much of John’s success in recruitment was helped by the fact that the Turks were now approaching the Kingdom of Hungary’s border. His force was something of a mixed bag, part rabble. Many of them were ill-armed with scythes or other primitive weaponry, but they were highly motivated. They benefited from John’s firebrand leadership as he proved himself a man of action as well as words. This force joined those led by John Hunyadi, the regent of Hungary. Hunyadi and Capistrano kept separate commands. They advanced to Nandorfehervar (Belgrade, Serbia), which at the time was under siege by Turkish forces, led by Sultan Mehmed II. When the two armies met in mid-July 1456, the Turks outnumbered the Hungarians by a ratio of three to one. The Hungarian force managed to fend off the Turks due to some astute command decisions made by Hunyadi. These included lobbing tarred wood into a moat the Turks had bridged with branches. This tactic trapped many of the Sultan’s elite Janissaries before the walls of the fortress. They were then massacred.

The tide of battle turned on July 22nd when the unruly force under Capistrano’s command baited the Turks into a pitched battle. When this largely peasant force’s efforts began to meet with success, defenders under Hunyadi’s command who had been ordered stay in the fortress, climbed over the ramparts and joined in the attack. At that point, Capistrano decided to lead his men in an all out attack. Hunyadi then led his men in doing the same. This surprised the Turks who were soon overrun. No less a figure than Mehmed was wounded in the fighting. Both sides retired to their camps after a day of ferocious fighting. Overnight the Turks abandoned their camp, retreating from Belgrade. It would be another 65 years before they would take the fortress. The battle was won, but the aftermath for both Hunyadi and Capistrano turned tragic Hunyadi caught plague in the immediate aftermath of the battle, less than three weeks after the greatest victory of his military career, he was dead. Capistrano lived a little bit longer, but not by much. He too would succumb to the plague that autumn. Unsanitary conditions, which caused the plague, proved lethal to Hungarian martial and spiritual leadership.

Siege of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) - Turkish miniature

Siege of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) – Turkish miniature

Historical Echo – The Ringing Of Bells
Capistrano’s actions at the Siege of Nandorfehervar (Siege of Belgrade) have become the stuff of legend, one that still resounds today. This is the result of an order given by Pope Calixtus III. Prior to the battle, Calixtus III issued a papal bull ordering bells to be rung at churches all over Europe to remind Christians to pray for the defenders at Nandorfehrevar. This order did not make it out in time and was not announced until after the battle’s conclusion. Thus, the bells were rung, but in celebration. The tradition is still upheld today. I have heard them on innumerable occasions while touring the Castle District, a musical reminder of Capistrano’s efforts. One that echoes through the corridors of time, all the way to the present. A man on a mission immortalized in statuary and sound, a daily presence whose fire and fervor demands to never be forgotten.

Click here for: Prisoner To The Past – Mihaly Tanscis Radical Of The 1848 Revolution (For The Love of Hungary – Part 9)

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.

Siege Mentality: The Hungarian Will To Resist & A Turkish Eclipse At Eger

One of the defining aspects of Hungarian history are the catastrophic military defeats the nation has suffered on a recurrent basis. In 1241, the Mongol Invasion decimated the country. Less than three centuries later, the Ottoman Turks inflicted a devastating defeat at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. They repeated the feat again in Buda a mere fifteen years later. In 1711 Rakoczi’s War of Independence against the Habsburgs ended in a resounding defeat. In somewhat the same manner, the 1848 Revolution brought yet another loss to the Habsburgs (with a major assist from the Russians). Then there was World War I. A conflict that involved more than just lost battles, it also saw the nation’s finest men disappear on far flung battlefields. The Kingdom of Hungary disintegrated in the aftermath, losing 72% of its territory in the peace settlement that followed.  Less than twenty-five years later, caught between the Nazis and Soviets, the Hungarian people were among the worst hit by the violent vortex of the Second World War’s final months. In a sort of dark coda, a decisive blow was delivered by the Soviet Union that brought the 1956 Revolution to its knees.

Cannon on top of the walls at Eger Castle

Cannon on top of the walls at Eger Castle

Stopping Point: The Walls Of Eger Castle
This succession of military calamities might make a person wonder how Hungary has managed to survive up to the present day. Or they might marvel at the nation’s resilience to rise again and again from the ashes, while sustaining a cultural life that has been the envy of Eastern Europe. It certainly says something about the Hungarian people’s character that they have not just survived, but also managed to thrive despite this history. The subtitle of journalist Paul Lendvai’s popular history of Hungary perhaps says it best, “One Thousand Years of Victory In Defeat.” And no place in Hungary is more reflective of that phrase “Victory in Defeat” than the city of Eger, site of a famous siege in 1552.

By the middle of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks controlled a large part of Hungary and were closing in on Eger. Their goal was two-fold, subdue Eger and move on towards Kassa (present day Kosice, Slovakia) where vast wealth could be found in its gold and silver mines. At the same time, this success would also open a new supply route westward for another attempted siege of Vienna. The Ottomans arrived at Eger with approximately 40,000 men, a load of artillery and surprisingly, a massive herd of 2,000 camels. By contrast, the Hungarian force was a motley assemblage of 2,200 soldiers, peasants and a few dozen women. The defenders withdrew behind the towering walls of Eger castle. They placed their hopes on heavy artillery and the seeming impregnability of the fortress walls.

Siege of Eger Castle - Painting by Béla Vizkelety

Siege of Eger Castle – painting by Béla Vizkelety

Fighting For Kingdom & Birthright: The Siege Of Eger
The vast numerical advantage of the Turks was considerable, but mitigated by the fact that the Hungarians had a fantastic leader in Istvan Dobo as well as an expert tactician, Gergely Bornemissza. Dobo, a land owning noble from northern Hungary, was literally fighting for his family’s birthright. He oversaw the fighting force throughout the battle. His leadership was probably worth several thousand troops. Dobo was able to keep the defender’s morale at a peak level, in contrast to the Ottomans who were riven by infighting. Dobo’s best lieutenant was the infantry commander Bornemissza who had a knack for creating makeshift yet deadly weapons. The most famous turned out to be a water mill wheel filled with gunpowder that would both explode and spread fire. He also developed grenades and powder keg bombs packed with such incendiaries, as oil and sulfur.

Repeatedly the Ottomans found fire raining down on them from the towering castle walls they were unable to scale. Some of this fire came at the hands of female defenders who took to pouring oil on to the enemy, which would then ignite. For thirty-nine bitter and hard fought days, the resourceful Hungarians used every stratagem available to keep the attackers at bay. Finally the Turks withdrew. They had suffered an unexpected defeat. Beaten soundly by a force they had outnumbered nearly twenty to one.

The Women of Eger - Painting by Bertalan Szekely

The Women of Eger – painting by Bertalan Szekely

Defining Traits – The Hungarian Will: Resisting Conquest
The Siege of Eger was a legendary victory that echoed down through the centuries. It became a milestone, often repeated in Hungarian historical lore. Case in point, the most famous literary work on the siege of Eger was written over three hundred years later. In 1899, Geza Gardonyi penned the fictional novel Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Gardonyi literally walled himself off in his room to maintain focus (and perhaps recreate the same siege mentality of the defenders) while writing the book. It portrays the heroism and courage of the defenders in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Today it is required reading for all Hungarian school students.  Both Eger Castle and Gardonyi’s nearby home can be visited on a trip to the city. Visitors can look down from the castle walls and imagine the Hungarians valiantly fighting off the mighty Ottomans. The Siege of Eger showed the Turks that the Hungarians would not surrender to absolute conquest. This trait, holding out against all odds, gaining small, but important victories among cataclysmic defeats has defined Hungarians in both medieval and modern history.

The Eger minaret

The Eger minaret – all that remains of the Ottoman Turkish presence


An Enduring Mystery – The Knights Templar Castle in Serednie, Ukraine

Mention the Knights Templar and it brings to mind crusaders spearheading the forces of Christendom in their drive to take back the holy land in the Middle East. These were men whose martial prowess instilled fear in the hearts of unbelievers. Their fighting qualities brought them great power which they then parlayed into wealth. The Knights were both on the battlefield and in business. They created what some consider the first multi-national corporation in history. Well-known for the fortresses they constructed across the Middle East and Western Europe, the Knights also developed economic enterprises including farms, vineyards and a primitive form of banking. Their influence was pervasive during the early medieval period. Fortresses and monasteries built by the knights dotted much of Western Europe. These could even be found in central Europe, including Transdanubia and Bohemia. One place you would not expect to find a Knights Templar fortress would be in the remoter reaches of Eastern Europe. That is what makes the castle ruins at Serednie, Ukraine so surprising and fascinating. In the heart of Transcarpathia, equidistant between the region’s two biggest cities of Uzhohord and Mukacheve are the remnants of what was once the furthest Eastern European outpost of the Knights Templar.

The Serednie Castle ruins - oldest medieval castle in Transcarpathia

The Serednie Castle ruins – oldest medieval castle in Transcarpathia (Credit: VargaA)

More Questions Than Answers – The Knights Templar in Transcarpathia
The Knights Templar were one of the most powerful organizations in European history for almost two hundred years, from the 12th century up to their abrupt decline at the beginning of the 14th century. The fortresses they built, such as Serednie castle were representative of that power. Protection of themselves and their business interests was paramount. Even in their current state of dilapidation the rough stone walls at Serednie display their once formidable characteristics. They were two and half meters thick and stood twelve meters high. The main tower was three stories tall. Outside the walls, a system of three ditches covered the approaches. The castle was substantial because it had to be. Serednie was hundreds of kilometers away from the next closest Knights Templar fortress.

The majority of the Knights Templar personnel would have been involved in banking and farming. Very few fighting Knights would have been at the castle. On average only a tenth of all personnel at a Templars complex were Knights. Their interests, especially at an outpost such as Serdenie, had less to do with warfare and more to do with creating wealth. Not exactly the stereotypical image of medieval warriors on the march. Serdenie’s history under the Knights Templar raises many questions, as the most intriguing history so often does. Why did the Knights place a fortress so far afield? Were they hoping to eventually expand their presence in the area? What was their relationship to the locals? Were they seen as mercenaries, savvy financial manipulators or a charitable enterprise?

Knights Templar Cross - an enduring symbol

Knights Templar Cross – an enduring symbol

Suspicions, Confessions & Legends
The Knights were a mysterious organization with secret rituals that aroused suspicion. This ended up bringing the organization to a tragic end after only two centuries. King Phillip IV of France owed them many debts. The easiest way of having those debts cancelled was to persecute the Knights. Trumped up charges were brought against them. Confessions were extracted through torture. Leaders of the Knights Templar were burned at the stake. In 1312 a papal bull by Pope Clement abolished the order. The castle at Serednie was turned over to the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit, a monastic order indigenous to Hungary. The short history of the Knights Templar in Eastern Europe had come to an abrupt end.

The castle they constructed would go on to have a much longer life, at one point owned by the powerful Drugeth Family. Local legend states that the Drugeths had a tunnel dug that connected Serednie with their castle at Uzhhorod. No evidence of this has ever been discovered. Another famous owner of the castle was Istvan Dobo, a noble who enjoys cult-like status in Hungarian history for leading the successful resistance to the Ottoman Turks at the siege of Eger in 1552. The final active days for Serednie Castle occurred in the early 18th century when it was damaged beyond repair during Rakoczi’s War of Independence, pitting Hungarian rebels against the Austrian Habsburgs. As the castle crumbled the locals found a new use for many of the stones, to shore up their own homes.

Serednie Castle was the lone Knights Templar structure in the far eastern reaches of Europe (Credit VargaA)

Serednie Castle was the lone Knights Templar structure in the far eastern reaches of Europe (Credit VargaA)

The Reality of Ruins
The presence of absence informs the history of Serednie Castle. The Knights Templar obviously built Serdenie Castle to last. Little did they know that the ruins would survive them by over seven centuries? The castle – the oldest medieval one in Transcarpathia – was created by an organization of people who have completely vanished. While that lends Serednie Castle to much speculation, it does not begin to fill in the gaps of its early history. The unknown far outweighs the known. A fertile imagination is needed to recreate the physical reality that is now represented by mere ruins. The Ukrainians and Hungarians of today have little knowledge, let alone interest in the Knights Templar. The castle as a Knights Templar outpost is an outlier, detached from any historical continuum in Transcarpathian history. There are no other remnants of the Knights to be found in the surrounding area. The physical legacy they left behind has long since been reduced to crumbling stone works, a historical curiosity. The fact that they have lasted this long is something of a miracle. The fact that the castle was built at all may be an even greater one. As for why, we will probably never know.