Austrian Emperor Rudolf confidently took up a challenge to his lands from the Ottomans in 1593, embarking on what became the Long Turkish War that proved a fiasco for both sides. The thirteen-year struggle contributed to a chain of problems that kept the Ottoman empire out of the Thirty Years War and ensured a period of relative tranquillity for Hungary. With hindsight, this was of undoubted benefit for the Habsburgs, since it enabled them to concentrate on the problems of the Empire and their western and northern European enemies. However, this was not clear at the time and the Turkish menace remained a constant source of anxiety. Worse, the Turkish War left the Habsburgs financially and politically bankrupt, in turn contributing to the outbreak of renewed conflict in 1618.

The Scourge of God

These events and their consequences have not received the attention they deserve, leaving the Ottomans as a shadowy presence in most accounts of the Thirty Years War. Their empire was the superpower of the early modern world, stretching for 2.3 million square kilometres across three continents with at least 22 million inhabitants, well over three times the number in the Habsburg monarchy. Much of the original dynamism was lost after the death of Süleyman the Magnificent in 1566, but it would be wrong to categorize the Ottomans as in decline. They remained the terror of Europe, associated by Protestants and Catholics alike with the scourge of God sent to punish a sinful mankind and viewed with a mixture of awe and revulsion. Their empire continued to expand, particularly in the east where they seized Georgia and Azerbaijan from the Shiite Persian empire between 1576 and 1590. The Habsburgs were sufficiently alarmed by this that they accepted humiliating terms in November 1590 to obtain an eight-year extension to the truce agreed at the end of the previous Turkish war in 1568. Despite the expense, the emperor maintained a permanent embassy in Constantinople, whereas the sultan disdained to deal with the infidel and rarely sent ambassadors to Christian courts. The Austrian diplomats struggled to secure accurate intelligence at a court that was truly the successor to medieval Byzantium. They were kept waiting for weeks before being received by officials who gave evasive or contradictory answers. The presence of Dutch, English, French, Venetian and other Christian embassies was a further source of concern as these were all powers considered hostile to the emperor.

The difficulty in obtaining a clear picture prevented outsiders from perceiving the Ottomans’ mounting internal difficulties. The absence of accepted rules of succession bred bitter family feuds and forced each new sultan to command his deaf mutes to strangle his immediate brothers and sisters. The internal intrigues weakened the sultanate that lost direction at a time when their most dangerous foes to the east were entering a period of renewed vigour under the Safavid dynasty in Persia. The new conquests failed to bring sufficient rewards to satisfy the groups essential to the running of the Ottoman empire – notably the army, which had once been a pillar of strength and which now entered politics with disastrous results. Accustomed to rich bonuses from new sultans, the regular Janissary infantry began extorting rewards in return for continued loyalty, leading to the assassination of Osman II in 1622, setting a precedent that was repeated in 1648 and again later in the seventeenth century.

The internal problems of their empire made the Ottomans more unpredictable in their actions, adding to an already unstable situation in south-east Europe at the point where their empire met that of the Habsburgs to the west and the lands of the Poles to the north. The war that broke out in 1593 was essentially a struggle between two of these powers to extend influence over the intervening region while denying access to their rivals. Hungary to the west was already split into Habsburg and Ottoman spheres, with the emperor controlling the north and south-west, along with Croatia, while the sultan commanded the central area and south-east. Neither side had a clear position in the region further east that was split into four principalities, all nominally under Turkish suzerainty, but pursuing varying degrees of autonomy. The area along the northern shores of the Black Sea belonged to the Crimean Tartars, the descendants of Ghengis Khan who had paid tribute to the sultan since the later fifteenth century. They provided useful auxiliaries for his armies, but were largely left alone since they served as a buffer between Ottoman territory and that of the Russian tsar further to the north-east. The three Christian principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania lay to the north and west of the Tartars. They likewise paid tribute, but were more open to influence from Poland and Austria. The Poles sought access to the Black Sea by pushing into Podolia, between Moldavia and the Crimea. Polish influence grew pronounced in Moldavia during the 1590s and they also intrigued in Transylvanian and Wallachian politics.


Of the three, Transylvania is the most significant to our story, and an examination of its internal politics reveals much that was typical for Moldavia and Wallachia as well. Formed from the wreckage of old Hungary in the 1540s, Transylvania was a patchwork of four major and several minor communities. In addition to pockets of Turkish peasants and Eastern Slavs, there were Orthodox Romanians, Calvinist Magyars, Lutheran German immigrants, called Saxons, and finally the self-governing Szekler people, living in the forested east, who remained Catholic. The prince maintained power by brokering agreements between these groups, particularly the three ‘nations’ of Magyar nobles, Saxon towns and Szekler villages entitled to sit in the diet. The balance was enshrined in the Torda agreement from 1568 that extended equal rights to Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and the radical Unitarians (who rejected the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and refused to believe that Christ had been human in any way). Separate princely decrees extended toleration to Jews and the substantial Romanian population.

It was an arrangement that worked surprisingly well at a time when people elsewhere in Europe were murdering each other in God’s name. All parties recognized Transylvania’s vulnerability and wanted to deny predatory outsiders a chance to intervene. Over time, toleration became embedded in society and political culture, enhancing princely power since he could pose as the defender of all faiths and their liberties against Habsburg confessionalization and absolutism. However, it created confusion for external relations, particularly once the prince converted to Calvinism in 1604. While nine-tenths of his nobles now shared his faith, the peasantry were mainly Catholic or Orthodox, while the burghers were Lutheran. Christian powers looking to Transylvania only saw its leadership and mistook the principality as a Protestant champion ready to save them in their hour of need. While it might serve his purpose to present himself as such to outsiders, the prince remained conscious that his rule depended on preserving the balance between the ethnic and confessional groups.

There were also significant material obstacles that inhibited Transylvania from playing a major role in European affairs. Over half its territory was covered by forest and barely a fifth lay under cultivation. The population was concentrated in isolated pockets largely cut off from each other by trees and mountains. It was impossible to maintain a western-style regular army, and in any case, such an army would be ill-suited to operating in such conditions. Like its immediate neighbours, Transylvania relied on lightly armed cavalry able to cover 35km a day, supported by smaller numbers of irregular musketeers to hold outposts on the border. Such forces lacked staying power in a formal battle, which they generally avoided, preferring to break their opponent’s will to resist by rounding up livestock and civilians. These tactics were thwarted if the enemy took refuge in walled towns or fortresses, since the Transylvanians lacked artillery and the disciplined infantry needed for a siege. They were also unable to sustain operations for more than a few months, waiting until the grass grew in the spring for their horses before setting out, and returning home with their booty before the high summer scorched the ground.


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