History of the Székely people



At the end of the 13th century, in a chronicle called Gesta Hungarorum, the notary of Hungarian King Béla explained his beliefs about the conquest of Hungary about 280 years earlier. According to this chronicle, the Hungarians and Székelys had common roots. The invading Hungarians, led by Árpád, according to legend a descendant of Attila the Hun, met the Székelys, who also used to be the people of Attila, in Southern Hungary. The Székelys then joined the Hungarians in fighting together against the enemies of Árpád. The chronicle was written centuries after the described events and was very inaccurate, but as the only available source, fundamentally influenced public thinking in Hungary for centuries. It was considered to be an obvious scientific fact until the end of 19th century that Székelys were of Hunnish origin and had been living in the Carpathian Basin since the 4th century. During the Millennium Celebrations in Hungary in 1896, commemorating the arrival of Magyars into present-day Hungary 1000 years before, there were Székelys saying that their arrival should have been celebrated a couple of centuries earlier.

Conflicting theories today

Today there are conflicting theories about the origins of Székelys. Some of the possible explanations are:
* Székelys were one of the Kabar or other tribes joining the Magyars before their arrival in the Carpathian Basin.
* Székelys were Magyars ordered to defend the borders after the conquest of the country.
* Székelys were a group of Magyars who arrived centuries earlier, already in the time of the Avar Khaganate.
* Székelys are descendants of the Avar people, whose Khaganate was liquidated by Charlemagne in the early 9th century, who were relocated to Transylvania in the 12th century.Due to the lack of reliable sources from early medieval times, none of these can be scientifically proved or rejected. Even the version in Gesta Hungarorum cannot be completely ruled out because it remains unknown if the author based it on a legend popular with Székelys in the 14th century, or simply made up the story.

zékelys in the Hungarian Kingdom (10-16th centuries)

ettlement in Székely Land

In the 10-11th centuries, most Székelys lived in the Bihar area and in border regions of Hungary. Later, possibly by the order of the Hungarian kings, they gradually settled in the area today known as Székely Land. Information about their original settlement areas can be deduced from place names and from some original documents. Certain Transylvanian territories given to the Teutonic Knights and Saxons in the 12th century, were earlier inhabited by Székely tribes. Székelys lived in present-day Transylvanian regions like Saschiz, Gârbova, Sebeş, or Mediaş. The reason behind the relocation from Southern Transylvania could have been that the Byzantine Empire became stronger in this period and the Teutonic Knights were considered to be better in resisting the Empire. At the same time, Székely light cavalry was better in fighting against nomadic peoples, like Kumans, or Tatars in the East. The last group of Székelys were relocated from the Saschiz area and were awarded the Aranyosszék region by Stephen V of Hungary in around 1270. (Saschiz was called "Kézd" in contemporary Hungarian. Another group of "Kézd Székelys" already moved to Southern Székely Land earlier and settled in the area known as "Kézdi Seat".)

Territorial and administrative organisation

Székelys, similarly to Transylvanian Saxons were organised in Seats ( _hu. szék, _la. Sedes). Seats in medieval Hungary were autonomous territorial units. After the final settlement in Székely Land in the 12-13th centuries, seven Seats took shape, possibly following the tribal structure of the Székelys:
* Udvarhely Seat
* Csík Seat
* Aranyos Seat
* Maros Seat
* Orbai Seat
* Sepsi Seat
* Kézdi SeatThe latter three seats were united in the early 17th century, and have been called Háromszék (Three Seats) since then.
Székely Land was not part of the Hungarian county system, and was, as a single territorial unit, led by the "Count of the Székelys" ( _la. Siculorum Comes), a representative of the king. The Count of the Székelys was chosen by the king usually from Hungarian aristocrats, but never from the Székelys. John Hunyadi was the first Voivode of Transylvania to assume this position. Since then, the Transylvanian voivods (later princes) had the rank of Count of the Székelys along with their other titles. Issues concerning the whole Székely Land were discussed by the Assembly of Seats, where all free Székelys had the right to participate. The assembly usually took place in Udvarhely Seat. Udvarhely Seat was also called the Principal Seat ( _la. Capitalis Sedes), however, the other Seats always jealously maintained that all seats were equal.
On the Diets of Hungary and of Transylvania, they were represented as one of the nations, or estates. (Estates in those times were called nations.) Székelys joined the Union of Three Nations, an alliance of Transylvanian estates formed in 1438.
With their autonomous territorial, judiciary, administrative and military structures, the medieval Székely society was following the pre-feudal democratic tribal patterns. Judges and all of their leaders were elected directly (except for their Count, who was appointed by the King of Hungary). Common land was redistributed on a regular basis. If a Székely died without inheritors, his land became part of the common lands and any free Székely was entitled to take it over. (The same time, in the feudal county system, the king, or the landlord would have been the heir in this case.) No more land was allowed to be taken out from the common lands than the amount a family could cultivate. If a plot remained uncultivated for a longer period, it was also subject to occupation by other Székelys. The heritage rules restricted poverty, also prevented the settlement of non-Székely people in Székely Land for centuries.

ervices provided to the King of Hungary

The Székely light cavalry perfectly fitted in the medieval Hungarian military forces, supplementing the army of armoured knights. They were especially effective against nomadic invaders from the East, using similar fighting methods and strategies. One of their first recorded military victories is from 1285, when Székelys of the Aranyos Seat attacked and partly destroyed the Tatar army returning back to Moldova packed with loot. But Székelys were not only defending Transylvania, they took part in campaigns abroad, too. In 1499, when armed clashes with the Ottoman Empire and its vassal states became regular, a diploma issued by King Vladislaus II (II. Ulászló) reaffirms the conditions under which the Székelys provided military services:
"When the King personally leads his army towards the East, against Moldova, each one of the Székely cavalrymen and infantrymen are required to be under arms, go before the Royal Army and wait for the battle abroad for 15 days on their own expense. Also, on the way back, they shall go behind the Royal Army. When His Majesty sends his personal deputy to the East, half of the Székelys should accompany him as described."
In a similar way, half of the Székelys supported the king during his campaigns against Wallachia and 1/5 of them if the army was only led by a deputy. Common Székelys did not participate personally in wars with Western and Northern countries, however, they were obliged to hire mercenaries and send them in battle under the leadership of Székely captains. Resulting from the military services they provided to the king, Székelys had equal rights to the Hungarian nobles. They were exempted from paying taxes and, when visiting the feudal noble counties, even the poorest of them were treated as free people. As the diploma of King Vladislaus II explains: "Therefore the Székelys, as nobles by rights granted by glorious Hungarian Kings of the past, are exempt from any tax or other duties, and are free." There was, however, a kind of tax the Székelys paid: following an old tradition, every landed household gave an ox as a present to the king when he was crowned, when he got married and when a child was born in the royal family.

Changes in the Székely social structure

Although most of their privileges and pre-feudal customs remained untouched, there were some gradual changes in the Székely society over the centuries after their final settlement. Three classes evolved, based on the status they had in the army, which was also in close correlation to the wealth they possessed. Originally senior commanders ( _la. primores) were the richest class of the society, the elite and later the aristocracy of the Szeklers. Horsemen ("lófők" in Hungarian, literally "Horse Heads") were the second, still wealthy and influential class and finally those, who were not able to finance a horse for themselves served in the infantry and were called the common Székelys. The best Székely commanders sometimes received feudal estates from the king in the neighborhood of Székely Land. Wealthy members of the society gained territories by deforestation outside of the common lands; these were later not subject to redistribution by the community. They were also able to obtain and cultivate larger pieces from the common lands. Soon, primores attempted to follow the example of neighbouring feudal noble counties and tried to obtain serfs for their lands. The poorest common people were sometimes unable to purchase weapons and couldn’t participate in military campaigns without the financial support of their leaders. This group, along with non-Székely immigrants, soon became subject of the efforts of primores who were looking for servants. Kings, especially Matthias Corvinus took measures to stop this process because they were afraid that otherwise the number of free common people in the infantry decreases. They could not save, however, those commons from becoming serfs, who were not able to participate in the military forces. This group lost their rights and were not part of the Székely Nation any more. In 1499, King Vladislaus II (II. Ulászló) exempts those poor Székelys from military service who live on other people's land as servants, or whose movable property is worth less than 3 Forints. They lost their noble rights by the same regulation. After the 15th century the Székely assembly became monopolised by the first two class. In 1511 and in 1519, common Székelys revolt against the oppression by their own "Primores". Székely freedom was also decreased when royal judges were appointed in the Seats, who gradually took over the duties of elected Székely judges, but the members of the jury were still elected locally. In spite of these unfavourable processes, most commons retained their freedom and rights.

zékelys in the Principality of Transylvania (16-17th century)

After the Ottoman occupation of Central Hungary in 1526, the Eastern parts, including Transylvania were ruled by the Zápolya Family, pretenders of the Hungarian Throne. In the second half of the century, the independent Principality of Transylvania came into existence. During this period, Székelys almost lost their freedom.
Due to the frequent armed clashes, Székelys were often called to fight by John Zápolya, later by his son, John Sigismund. The same time, financial burdens of the wars also forced the rulers to put an end to the traditional system of exempting Székely Land, a significant area of their country, from taxes. According to the acts passed in 1554, while keeping the Primores and Horsemen tax-free, Infantrymen were requested to pay. Consequently, common people were burdened both by taxes and compulsory military service. This unfavourable situation led to an armed revolt in 1562, which was destroyed by John Sigismund. After the revolt, he abandoned traditional Székely offices like the elected judges, or the positions of elected Seat Captains. A governing captain was appointed by him instead, with an office in Udvarhely, the principal seat. Two fortresses were built to control the Székelys, one in Udvarhely, and another one in Háromszék. Insensitive to traditional rights, he granted whole Székely villages as feudal estates to his supporters.
Later, princes of Transylvania followed this attitude, but also made use of the Székely military traditions. Stefan Batory, Voivod of Transylvania and King of Poland deployed Transylvanian, mostly Székely mercenaries in the Livonian War against Ivan IV of Russia.

Sigismund Báthory, Prince of Transylvania, who needed their support in the Wallachian Campaign in 1595, promised that their old rights would be restored. As a result, 23,000 Székelys joined the Transylvanian army led by Stephen Bocskay, providing essential support to Michael the Brave in fighting the Ottoman army. The next year, Sigismund Báthory withdrew his promises and brutally suppressed the revolting Székelys. In 1599, when Michael the Brave attacked Transylvania, Székelys joined Michael during the Battle of Şelimbăr. With their support, Michael the Brave scored a victory over the troops of Andreas Báthory. The escaping prince was later captured and killed in Székely Land. As a reward for their support, Michael restored their old freedom. Székelys also destroyed the royal fortresses that were built on their land by John Sigismund. Princes of Transylvania learnt from these events and the returning Sigismund Báthory, then Stephen Bocskay, later Gabriel Bethlen reinforced their freedom, also restored traditional offices like elected Seat Captains and elected judges. Even serfs were exempted from paying taxes in Székely Land.
During the 17th century Székelys continued to be one of the most important components of the Transylvanian army. They could be mobilised quickly, and were under arms in a couple of weeks, at the disposal of the Prince. While the rights of the three classes in arms remained untouched, the social processes of the earlier centuries continued and the number of serfs within their society continuously increased. To maintain the number of infantrymen in the army and prevent them from choosing a more peaceful life as serfs, Transylvanian princes later re-introduced the taxation of Székely Serfs.

Habsburg rule, Grand Principality of Transylvania (18-19th century)

First decades

After their military successes in Hungary against the Ottoman Empire in the 1680s, Habsburgs extended their influence to Transylvania, too. Habsburg troops took control of the Principality and Leopold I issued his "Diploma Leopoldinum", the new constitution of Transylvania in 1691. The Diploma did not radically change the Székely privileges. In spite of this, taxation was soon introduced and villages had to accommodate troops of the Emperor. The Székelys paid the taxes and provided services, as they declared, on a "temporary basis" and "on their own will".
During the Rákóczi Uprising between 1703 and 1711, Székelys supported Francis II Rákóczi, the last elected Prince of Transylvania. When the Habsburgs took control of Transylvania after the uprising, Székelys were disarmed and their military services were no longer wanted. The offices of Seat Captains were wound up but the traditional demoratic Székely institutions, like their judiciary system, remained unharmed for decades to come.

etting up the Székely Border Guard

In 1762, Empress Maria Theresa decided to set up border guard troops on the borders of Transylvania, based on the Military Frontier system already in place on the Ottoman border area. Mostly Romanians were recruited in the Southern Carpathians (Fogaras area) and Székelys in the Eastern Carpathians. The drafting was organised partly on voluntary, partly on compulsory basis, and resulted in conflicts in many places, especially in Székely Land. The Székelys requested that instead of the imperial officers, they have their own leaders according to the traditions, and that they are not ordered to go in action abroad. As the negotiations failed with the army, Székelys openly protested and some of the Seats contacted each other to start co-ordinated actions. As the drafting was only partly successful, the chief officer responsible for the recruitment gave up his plans and ordered that the so far distributed weapons are returned by the Székelys. They, however, gave back only part of the equipment and kept the rifles as a compensation for the weapons confiscated after the Rákóczi Uprising.
The next, already violent attempt by the imperial officers to recruit Székely border guards culminated in a tragic event, the Mádéfalva Massacre, commemorated until today. In December 1763, the men sought refuge from drafting in the mountains, at Mádéfalva ( _ro. Siculeni), some of them equipped with weapons. On 7th January, 1764, an army unit of 1300 soldiers, with two cannons, attacked the peaceful crowd and massacred hundreds of them. The drafting in Székely Land was quickly and easily completed after these events. Border guard troops were set up in every Seat except for Udvarhely and Maros Seat.
After the Mádéfalva Massacre, many Székelys crossed the Carpathians and escaped to Moldova. Those who stayed in the Moldavian Voivodate, became one of the subgroups of Csángó people. Others moved to the Bukovina Region and founded their final settlements with the help of General András Hadik. This group retained their traditions and are regarded to as the Székelys of Bukovina.
The Military Frontier Organisation put an end to the autonomy of the Székely Nation in some respects. The self governance of the settlements was seriously hurt by the border guard commanders. They interfered with the election of judges, the local agriculture and schooling, also with the every-day life of the Székely guards. Property transactions or weddings could be done only with the permission of the officers. In local communities, however, many of the traditions were kept, the Székely pride and their strong desire for freedom remained. They organised their own life, set rules for the building of roads and bridges, also for the election of their leaders and jury members. (Most of these issues were decided by landlords in the noble counties.) The ancient system of redistributing common lands was still a practice by the end of the 18th century, but ceased to exist in a couple of decades. By the 1820s, only a couple settlements practiced the yearly land redistribution. The last examples include the capital of Aranyos Seat, Felvinc (today: Unirea).

The 1848 Revolution

During the turbulent period of the Revolution and War of Independence in Hungary in 1848-49, Székelys supported the liberal parties pressing for full freedom of serfs and equal taxation for everybody. The Assembly of Udvarhely Seat (later followed by other Seats, too) decided already on 3 April 1848 that they would give up their remaining tax reliefs. Serfs in Háromszék were ordered by Székely border guards not to provide the traditional feudal services to their landlords. The decisions of the Seats were reinforced by the last Transylvanian Diet in June 1848.
Székelys also supported the decision of the Transylvanian Diet about the unification of Transylvania with Hungary. When the Habsburg Army, under the leadership of General Puchner, tried to take control of Transylvania, Székelys were the only serious resistance to his efforts. However, not equipped with artillery, they were quickly defeated. Maros Seat was occupied, Udvarhely Seat surrendered, Csík Seat declared neutrality. In this situation, the resistance was re-organised in Háromszék. On the assembly of the Háromszék in November, Áron Gábor, a former artillery officer, convinced the delegates that instead of surrendering, they should try to manufacture canons locally. In a couple of weeks, the first canons were ready and were successfully deployed. During the following period, dozens of canons were manufactured and used by the Székely Army. Half of the Transylvanian troops of General Puchner were engaged in fights with the resisting Háromszék. [According to Puchner's report to the Minister of Defence in Vienna] This prevented him from attacking the Várad Fortress (today: Oradea) in a decisive moment and from opening a second front in the Hungarian military theatre.
By the end of 1848 - beginning of 1849, Székelys joined the army set up by General Józef Bem and took part in his successful campaigns driving out Habsburg troops from Transylvania. The successful campaign was finally crushed when the imperial Russian army intervened in Transylvania following a request from the Habsburg Empire.

Union with Hungary

In 1867, an agreement (Compromise) was made between Austria and Hungary about the creation of the Dual Monarchy. According to the Compromise, Transylvania was united with the Kingdom of Hungary. A decade later, a new county system was introduced in the Kingdom, which put an end to the long tradition of Székely Seats.

Post-Trianon history

Since Székely Land became a part of Romania in 1920, Székelys share the fate of other ethnic Hungarians of Transylvania.

"Further information: Hungarian minority in Romania, Hungarian Autonomous Province"



* Hermann, Gusztáv Mihály: [http://adatbank.transindex.ro/cedula.php?kod=60 Székely történeti kistükör] , 2004
* Szász, Zoltán: [http://adatbank.transindex.ro/inchtm.php?akod=981 Székelyek, szászok, románok a középkorban] (Magyarok a Kárpát-medencében, Pallas, 1989. 47-49)
* Orbán, Balázs: A Székelyföld leírása, Pest, 1868 – Budapest, 1873
* Magyarország történeti kronológiája, MTA Történettudományi Intézet (Historical Chronology of Hungary, Hungarian Academy of Sciences), 1981
* Erdély története, MTA Történettudományi Intézet (History of Transylvania, Hungarian Academy of Sciences), 1986
* Balogh Judit: [http://mek.oszk.hu/03100/03187/03187.htm#b12 A székely nemesség kialakulásának folyamata a 17. század első felében]

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