Rákóczi's War for Independence

Rákóczi's War for Independence (17031711) was the first significant freedom fight in Hungary against absolutist Habsburg rule. It was fought by a group of noblemen, wealthy and high-ranking progressives who wanted to put an end to the inequality of power relations, led by Francis II Rákóczi "(II. Rákóczi Ferenc" in Hungarian). Its main aims were to protect the rights of the different social orders , and to ensure the economical and social development of the country.Due to the adverse balance of forces, the political situation in Europe and internal conflicts the freedom fight was eventually suppressed, but it succeeded in keeping Hungary from becoming an integral part of the Habsburg Empire, and its constitution was kept, even though it was only a formality.

The events leading to the war

Hungary's Ottoman occupation, which started with the Battle of Mohács in 1526, came to end with the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. The treaty ceded the Kingdom of Hungary to the Habsburg Empire, then ruled by Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. Hungary lost its suzerainty and was forced to accept the Habsburg emperors as rulers, and this after already losing Transylvania to Habsburg rule in 1690, when the "Diploma Leopoldinum" made it a Habsburg territory independent from Hungary. The nobility was against Habsburg rule because of these, and because the lands formerly taken away from them by the Ottomans were returned only those who could prove their right to own the property and could pay 10% of its worth to the Habsburgs. If they failed to do so, the property went to creditors of the Empire. The peasant class turned against the Empire because of the hardships the long wars brought upon them. In 1697 an anti-Habsburg uprising in Tokaj was suppressed. However, relations between the court and the nobility were deteriorating, and the new Habsburg rulers treated the peasants so poorly that eventually some people wished for a return to Turkish rule. [Lendvai, Paul: "The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Princeton University Press, 2004]

The Thököly uprising

International relations provided Hungary with an opportunity to liberate themselves from the Habsburgs. With the help of Louis XIV of France anti-Habsburg rebels, led by a young nobleman, Imre Thököly rose against the Empire in 1678. Thököly occupied most of Northern Hungary and territories of modern-day Slovakia. In 1681 the Ottomans joined to help him, and Thököly was recognised as King of Upper Hungary by Sultan Mehmed IV. However, when the Ottomans lost the battle of Vienna in 1683, Thököly lost Ottoman support and was eventually defeated in 1685. His alliance with the Ottomans changed the positive perception Western Europe had about Hungary, and instead of being thought of as the bastion of Christianity, the country was now being thought of as an enemy, [ [http://www.enc.hu/1enciklopedia/fogalmi/torttud_magy/thokoly-felkeles.htm Magyar Virtuális Enciklopédia] ] Partly as a consequence, Hungary was occupied and organised as "newly acquired territory" instead of "territory liberated from the Ottomans".

A rebel leader emerges

Francis II Rákóczi (Hungarian: "II. Rákóczi Ferenc)" was the son of an old noble family and one of the richest landlords in the Kingdom of Hungary. He was the count "(comes perpetuus)" of the "Comitatus Sarossiensis" (in Hungarian "Sáros") from 1694 on. He was born to Francis I Rákóczi, elected ruling prince of Transylvania, and Ilona Zrínyi, in 1676. His father died when Rákóczi was a mere baby, and his mother married Imre Thököly in 1682. After Thököly was defeated, Zrínyi held the castle of Munkács (today Mukacheve in Ukraine) for three years but was eventually forced to surrender. After the Treaty of Karlowitz, when his stepfather and mother were sent into exile, Rákóczi had stay in Vienna under Habsburg supervision.

Remnants of Thököly’s peasant army started a new uprising in the Hegyalja region of Northeastern present-day Hungary, which was part of the property of the Rákóczi family. They captured the castles of Tokaj, Sárospatak and Sátoraljaújhely, and asked Rákóczi to become their leader, but he was not eager to head what appeared to be a minor peasant rebellion. He quickly returned to Vienna, where he tried his best to clear his name. Rákóczi then befriended Count Miklós Bercsényi, whose property at Ungvár (today Ужгород (Uzhhorod), in Ukraine), lay next to his own. Bercsényi was a highly educated man, the third richest man in the kingdom (after Rákóczi and Simon Forgách), and was related to most of the Hungarian aristocracy.

The fight for independence

As the House of Habsburg was on the verge of dying out, France was looking for allies in its fight against Austrian hegemony. Consequently, they established contact with Rákóczi and promised support if he took up the cause of Hungarian independence. An Austrian spy seized this correspondence and brought it to the attention of the Emperor. As a direct result of this, Rákóczi was arrested on April 18, 1700, and imprisoned in the fortress of Wiener Neustadt (south of Vienna). It became obvious during the preliminary hearings that, just as in the case of his grandfather Péter Zrínyi, the only possible sentence for Francis was death. With the aid of his pregnant wife Amelia and the prison commander, Rákóczi managed to escape and flee to Poland. Here he met with Bercsényi again, and together they resumed contact with the French court.

Three years later, the War of the Spanish Succession caused a large part of the Austrian forces in the Kingdom of Hungary to temporarily leave the country. Taking advantage of the situation, Kuruc forces began a new uprising in Munkács, and Rákóczi was asked to head it. He decided to invest his energies in a war of national liberation, and accepted the request. On June 15, 1703, another group of about 3000 armed men headed by Tamás Esze joined him near the Polish city of Lawoczne. Bercsényi also arrived, with French funds and 600 Polish mercenaries.

Most of the Hungarian nobility did not support Rákóczi’s uprising, because they considered it to be no more than a jacquerie, a peasant rebellion. Rákóczi’s famous call to the nobility of Szabolcs county seemed to be in vain. He did manage to convince the Hajdús (emancipated peasant warriors) to join his forces, so his forces controlled most of Kingdom of Hungary to the east and north of the Danube by late September 1703. He continued by conquering Transdanubia soon after.

Since the Austrians had to fight Rákóczi on several fronts, they felt obliged to enter negotiations with him. However, the victory of Austrian and British forces against a combined French-Bavarian army in the Battle of Blenheim on August 13, 1704, provided an advantage not only in the War of the Spanish Succession, but also prevented the union of Rákóczi’s forces with their French-Bavarian allies.

This placed Rákóczi into a difficult military and financial situation. French support gradually diminished, and a larger army was needed to occupy the already-won land. Meanwhile, supplying the current army with arms and food was beyond his means. He tried to solve this problem by creating a new copper-based coinage, which was not easily accepted in Hungary as people were used to silver coins. Nevertheless, Rákóczi managed to maintain his military advantage for a while – but after 1706, his army was forced into retreat.

A meeting of the Hungarian Diet (consisting of 6 bishops, 36 aristocrats and about 1000 representatives of the lower nobility of 25 counties), held near Szécsény (Nógrád county) in September 1705, elected Rákóczi to be the "fejedelem"- (ruling) prince - of the Confederated Estates of the Kingdom of Hungary, to be assisted by a 24-member Senate. Rákóczi and the Senate were assigned joint responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs, including peace talks. Encouraged by England and the Netherlands, peace talks started again on October 27, 1705 between the Hungarians and the Emperor. Both sides varied their strategy according to the military situation. One stumbling block was the sovereignty over Transylvania – neither side was prepared to give it up. Rákóczi’s proposed treaty with the French was stalled, so he became convinced that only a declaration of independence would make it acceptable for various powers to negotiate with him. In 1706, his wife (whom he had not seen in 5 years, along with their sons József and György) and his sister were both sent as peace ambassadors, but Rákóczi rejected their efforts on behalf of the Emperor.

On Rákóczi’s recommendation, and with Bercsényi’s support, another meeting of the Diet held at Ónod (Borsod county) declared the deposition of the House of Habsburg from the Hungarian throne on June 13, 1707. But neither this act, nor the copper currency issued to avoid monetary inflation, were successful. Louis XIV refused to enter into treaties with Prince Rákóczi, leaving the Hungarians without allies. There remained the possibility of an alliance with Imperial Russia, but this did not materialize either.

At the Battle of Trenčín (Hungarian "Trencsén", German "Trentschin", Latin "Trentsinium", Comitatus Trentsiniensis, today in Slovakia), on August 3, 1708 Rákóczi’s horse stumbled, and he fell to the ground, which knocked him unconscious. The Kuruc forces thought him dead and fled. This defeat was fatal for the uprising. Numerous Kuruc leaders transferred their allegiance to the Emperor, hoping for clemency. Rákóczi’s forces became restricted to the area around Munkács and Szabolcs county. Not trusting the word of János Pálffy, who was the Emperor’s envoy charged with negotiations with the rebels, the Prince left the Kingdom of Hungary for Poland on February 21, 1711.


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