Rebellion of Religion in Hungary in the 17th Century

The Decade of Sorrows of

The Protestant Churches in Hungary

In the 17th Century

Translated by Henry Fischer

  The question behind the bloodbath unleashed by the Hapsburgs (especially Leopold I) against the Lutherans and Reformed, was whether it was in response to a political rebellion rather than the religious issue in terms of the ongoing Counter Reformation in Hungary.

In the last thirty years of the 17th century, at the time that England freed itself its Absolute Monarch through the Puritan Revolution and became a model for other European nations, in two other nations, Absolutism joined forces with the Counter Reformation in France and Hungary in an all out attack and assault on Protestantism.  The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France in 1685, which led to the imprisonment and sending to the galleys of the Hugenot pastors, the mass flight of Protestant refugees across the Rhine and into Holland, the torture and massacre of those who refused to recant ordered by Louis XIV, had all been preceded by the same methods by Leopold I in Hungary from 1671-1681, who also happened to be his political arch-enemy.

The “Decade of Sorrows”, resulted in a much smaller number of Protestants in Hungary, but a Protestantism steadfastly faithful, which had survived and lived through this time of testing in the face of the dual thrust of the Emperor and the Roman Church.  In the second half of the 17th century, Hungary was divided into three parts.  The central region had been in the hands of the Turks since 1541, with Buda as its capital.  The eastern region, Transylvania was a duchy ruled by a Hungarian Count who was a “protectorate” of the Turks.  The remaining western region was under the lordship of the Austrian line of the Hapsburgs, who also “ruled” the Holy Roman Empire and who hoped to drive out the Turks and reclaim the territories as a united Hungary under their control.

By the end of the 16th century the vast majority of the population in all three regions had gone over to the Reformation, in the western region they were primarily Lutheran and the eastern region was mainly Reformed.  Roman Catholicism in the Hapsburg lands had become a minority.  The bishops placed their hopes in the Hapsburgs to support the Counter Reformation and infiltrated the Royal Chambers and Offices of the administration in Vienna.  They first targeted the Hungarian magnates (upper nobility) in the first half of the 17th century and promised them a role in the liberation of Hungary from the Turks and part of the spoils if they “returned” to the Roman Church.

But the lesser nobles and gentry and the populations of the towns clung to their Protestant faith and waited to be delivered from the Hapsburgs and the Turks under the leadership of the Count of Transylvania and establish a national state of their own as they had known it in the Middle Ages.

The Hapsburgs were not content with the conversation of the Hungarian aristocracy, they wanted to establish absolute rule over the Magyars…eliminating the rights of the Landtag, freedom from taxes, and control the nation economically and militarily.  This led to alliances between Roman Catholic magnates, Protestant lesser nobles and even some Roman Catholic bishops who were jealous to preserve their former rights.  Catholic magnates, who held the highest clerical and civil offices, secretly pledged themselves to work for the downfall of the Hapsburgs and won the support of the majority of the nobles and sought assistance both from France and the Turks.  The three secular magnates, all of whom were Roman Catholics, Zrinyi, Frangepan and Nadasdy (Slovak) were put on trial in 1671.  The participants in the conspiracy from the lower nobility fled to Transylvania and their lands and estates were confiscated.  The Viennese Court suspended all forms of “home rule” for Hungary and placed the military in power, whose first measure was raising taxes twenty fold, half of which was to be paid by the nobles who had always been tax free throughout their history.  Besides the taxes, which could be looked upon as atonement, the damages inflicted by the occupation forces of the Hapsburgs on the oppressed civilian population drove the peasantry to utter despair and they lived in constant fear…the first phase of the Counter Reformation.

The Hungarian clerics, in an attempt to whitewash their own complicity in the plot against the Hapsburgs and also to protect their magnate converts, launched a campaign against the Protestant lesser nobles and their “preachers” who they branded as the real culprits and conspirators.  By so doing, the Hungarian Hierarchy also hoped for the military intervention and support of the Hapsburgs to enforce the Counter Reformation.

In 1671, Bishop Gyorgy Barsony declared in his pamphlet:  Veritas Toti Mundo Declarata”, that the guarantees for the right of freedom of religion for the Protestants was only an excuse and pretext that was null and void, because they were never recognized by the catholic clergy and appealed to His Imperial Royal Majesty to re-instate the autocracy of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary.  Without even waiting for an Imperial decree, the Roman clergy enlisted the occupation army to take over Protestant schools and churches and drive out Protestant preachers, teachers and students and force the conversion of the local populations.  The tax collectors and church confiscations were met with resistance on the part of the beleaguered people, and Bishop Barsony himself, as well as some priests and monks were victims of their own oppression.  An open war of religion broke out.  The Imperial Army responded with massacres too numerous to mention, because the people had taken things into their own hands.  In the midst of all of the unrest breaking out everywhere, the rebels who had fled to Transylvania organized themselves and began their attack against the Hapsburgs in the summer of 1672.  Trusting in the support of the local population they succeeded in occupying Hungary to its western frontier.  Their advance was closely tied to the reaction of the populace against the Roman Catholic clergy.  Even when the Hapsburgs drove the rebels back into Transylvania they had to give up the idea of a quick “liberation” of Hungary.

The state civil servants complained against the Roman Catholic clergy and claimed the religious persecution of the people had led to their refusal to pay taxes.  The prelates on the other hand reversed the argument, claiming the tax issue had led to the people’s opposition to conversion.  The state officials suggested that the Protestants be given permission to build churches, but the prelates were of the opinion that taxes should be raised, especially those of the nobles.  The Papal Legate informed the Court in Vienna that the chair of St. Peter was opposed to any protests for religious tolerance.  Leopold I agreed to the principle of the rightness of religious persecution and gave the clerics a free hand to crush and uproot Protestantism and rescinded some of the taxes that he had imposed in the hope that later he would be ale to collect them when the nation was converted to the true faith.

The Primate, Szelepcsenyi also made use of the fact that the dismissed and exiled Protestant preachers had participated in the uprising, that the populace had used force to regain their churches, drove away Roman Catholic priests and killed many of them.  (No case however, has ever been proven of the last charge except the Catholic Encyclopedia keeps on repeating it…note from Henry).  When he had the opportunity he lodged a general complaint against all Protestant preachers on the basis of political rebellion and high treason.  As a test case, he forced the appearance of three Lutheran bishops and thirty-one pastors before a “special” Court, presided over by Roman Catholic prelates and laymen at Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg) on September 24, 1673.  The condemned could chose between death or exile in a foreign land.  All chose exile.  As a result of this, the Primate summoned all Protestant preachers and teachers in the Hapsburg domains in Hungary, as well as in the Turkish controlled zone to his court on March 5, 1674.  Most of the preachers in the eastern region fled to Transylvania and the Turkish held area.  Only three hundred and thirty-six men were put on trial in Pozsony.  Only fifty-two of them were Reformed, all the others were Lutherans.  They were accused of defaming the Roman Catholic Church, raising invectives against the Emperor, opposition to state authority and were active participants in the rebellion.

That the preachers had preached against “Papism” is obviously true and they had led their congregations in opposing the take over of their churches and schools.  Whether all or some of them participated in the rebellion is a moot point, while the other who did not participate were sympathetic to its aims.  The illegal nature of the trial was not on the basis of false charges, but those in charge of the court acted as the judges.  The accused were judged guilty before they came before the court.

The judgments were handed down on April 5th for the pastors and April 7th for the schoolmasters.  All were condemned to death, and unless they converted or agreed to sign a document “voluntarily” and be prepared to leave the county.  The Emperor graciously modified the sentence, “that they be punished and tortured for a specified time, so that they might come to themselves and learn to know the true God, and to those who could not come to the light be driven out of the land.”  The punishments that followed consisted of slave labor, hunger, beatings, the rack, and whippings, which were always followed by interrogations by Jesuits who gave them the opportunity to convert.  As a result   two hundred and thirty-six of them signed the declaration and went into exile.  Most went to the Protestant areas of Germany.  Of the remaining one hundred, seven managed to escape, while forty-six Lutherans and forty-seven Reformed preachers refused to comply.  They were taken to various prisons where the tortures continued.  They remained obstinate and were classified as criminals and like prisoners of war, and the officials prepared to sell them as galley slaves.

They were dragged off to Naples.  Some managed to escape along the way.  Only thirty would remain alive to be chained in the galleys in Naples.

The persecution of the Protestant preachers and teachers in Hungary aroused the foreign Protestants.  Protests were raised in the British House of Commons, and the General Estates of the Netherlands.  Talk of intervention in Hungary was heard all over Protestant Europe.  The ambassadors of Sweden, the German principalities, and especially the Dutch ambassador Bruyninx lodged protests in Vienna.  An international movement began to raise funds to “buy” the galley slaves led by Pastor Zaffius, a Protestant pastor in Venice and a merchant in Naples.

On February 8, 1676 Leopold I gave permission for the galley slaves to be bought free if they promised never to return to Hungary.

On February 11, 1676 the surviving twenty-six pastors were freed.  Seven imprisoned in Buccari were also freed.  The persecution had created an international scandal but Hapsburg absolutism was still not in effect.

As Imre Thokoly’s insurrection army marched into Hungary, with the support of France and the Turks, the churches were returned to the Lutherans and Reformed and pastors began to secretly return from exile.  By 1675 the local authorities had to report to Vienna that in more and more districts the Protestants were re-emerging as congregations and that the people defended the pastors and supported them.  So ended the “Decade of Sorrows” in 1677, even though conflicts between Catholics and Protestants would continue.  The legal end to the struggle took place in 1681 at the Landtag in Sopron where religious freedom was guaranteed, even though they were later to be put aside.  The tidal wave of the Counter Reformation was only slightly weakened.  After 1683 it would be expressed in new ways for another century, until Joseph II’s Edict of Toleration in 1781.  The Lutherans would experience greater damage than the Reformed that were under protection in the east by the rulers of Transylvania in the years ahead.  But the goal of the eradicating the Lutherans could not be reached.  This was because of the witness of the “martyr-preachers” and the strengthening of the faith of the congregations.

(Henry’s note…Hungary at that time included Slovakia and western Hungary, which was predominately ethnic German in terms of its population.)