The Long Turkish War – Austria and Hungary

Raids along the Habsburg-Ottoman borders in Croatia led to a renewal of the war in Hungary in 1593. In Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s “Long Turkish War” (1593-1606), the Ottomans briefly lost Transylvania, Walachia, and Moldavia before anti-Habsburg revolts restored the territories to Ottoman control. The bitter stalemate of the war signaled an important shift in the strategic balance of power of the Ottoman Empire vis-a-vis its European enemies. A succession of weak sultans, financial difficulties brought about by an inflationary crisis, and social turmoil combined at the turn of the seventeenth century to erode Ottoman military capacity. Subsequent wars added little territory to the empire and were fought primarily to recover or round out earlier conquests.

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.

Strategy and Logistics

These logistical problems were found elsewhere in the Danube valley and across the Hungarian plains (puszta) where temperatures soared in the summer and plummeted below freezing in winter, and hampered all combatants. The surrounding mountains were blocked by snow from the autumn until the spring thaws that swelled the rivers and flooded a third of the plains for much of the year, providing a rich breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes. Hungary lay at the north-west periphery of the Ottomans’ world empire, 1,100km from their European base at Adrianople (Edirne). A field army of 40,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry required 300 tonnes of bread and fodder a day. Crop yields in eastern Europe were half those of Flanders and other western agricultural regions that could support ten times more non-producers. Even Poland, rapidly becoming the bread basket of western European cities, exported only about 10 per cent of its net crop in the later sixteenth century. It was often impossible to requisition supplies locally in the Danube area, especially as the population tended to be concentrated in isolated pockets, as in Transylvania. The Turks were forced to follow the line of the river during hostilities, reducing their advance to 15km a day. If they set out in April, they could not reach Vienna before July. Not surprisingly, Ottoman armies relied on Belgrade once war broke out, since this was already two-thirds of the way to the front and was the first major city on the Danube west of the Iron Gates (Orsova) pass between the Transylvanian Alps and the northern reaches of the Balkan mountains of modern Bulgaria. These strategic and logistical factors imposed a certain routine on the Turks’ campaigns. Operations began slowly with the collection of troops from across the empire at Adrianople or Belgrade. The main army reached the front in July, leaving only a few months to achieve success before the autumn rains set in during September, while the sultan traditionally suspended campaigns on 30 November with the onset of winter.

Major operations were the exception and most fighting involved cross-border raiding that remained endemic due to political, ideological and social factors. The region lay at the extremity of both the Ottoman empire and the kingdom of Poland, and while physically closer to the heart of Habsburg power, it was still politically distant. All the major powers were forced to rely on local landowners and their private armies who commanded the resources, loyalty and respect of the scattered population. Though wealthy, the magnates in Hungary and Transylvania were adopting expensive new lifestyles, with decorated country houses, foreign university education and grand European tours for sons and heirs. They could not afford large permanent forces to defend the frontier and also needed to satisfy poorer clients who relied on banditry to supplement their incomes from livestock, horse breeding or farming. Those at the centre tolerated the situation as the only way to retain the loyalty of the unruly border lords, and as a convenient means to put pressure on their international opponents. As the secular representatives of opposing world religions, neither the emperor nor the sultan could accept permanent peace without implying recognition of an alternative civilization. The lack of clear frontiers allowed a policy of gradual expansion by encroachment, whereby whichever side was currently stronger exploited weakness in the other to assert the right to collect tribute from border villages. Frontiers shifted back and forth like sand with the tide, while major fortified towns remained immovable rocks that required open war to crack.

Such fortresses began to be built during the 1530s as both the Ottomans and Habsburgs entrenched their hold over Hungary. The Turks had the advantage of shorter interior lines of defence, with a compact position along the middle Danube and in Bosnia to the south-west. They relied on around 65 relatively large castles held by 18,000 regular soldiers, with 22,000 militia recruited from their predominantly Christian subjects to patrol the gaps. The Habsburgs were forced to defend an 850km-long arc to the west and north, partly detached from Austria and Bohemia by chains of mountains. Lateral movement was restricted, since all the rivers drained eastwards into the Ottoman-held Hungarian plain. Each Austrian and Bohemian province had its own militia, but mobilization depended on the Estates who wanted them mainly for local defence. The Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1529 proved a shock and prompted the construction there of new bastioned fortifications in the Italian manner between 1531 and 1567. Plans to modernize these had to be shelved in 1596 due to the peasant unrest and a lack of funds, leaving the capital weakly defended when the Bohemians and Transylvanians attacked in 1619. The civic militia was converted into a regular garrison in 1582, but they numbered only five hundred men.

The Military Frontier

To keep the Turks at bay, the Habsburgs revived and expanded existing Hungarian defence measures to create what became known as the ‘military frontier’. This militarized zone around 50km deep ran the entire length of the frontier and rested on 12 major and around 130 minor fortified posts held by over 22,000 men by the 1570s. Its development and upkeep was heavily subsidized by the Reichstag, which voted eight grants with a nominal value of around 12 million fl. between 1530 and 1582, plus well over another million towards fortress construction. At least four-fifths of this amount was actually paid, despite the confessional tension in the Empire, since the Ottomans were considered a common menace to all Christians. Indeed, the largest two grants had been made in 1576 and 1582 at a time when many historians think confessional tension was growing worse. However, disagreements did ensure there was no immediate renewal when the last grant expired in 1587, increasing the dynasty’s dependency on taxes voted by its Estates to maintain particular sectors. Only about half the border troops could be spared from their garrisons, limiting the scope for offensive operations. A major army of 55,000 men was reckoned to cost at least 7.4 million fl. for a single campaign, a figure way in excess of the monarchy’s entire revenue.

Financial considerations forced the Habsburgs to place large sections of the frontier in local hands. The southern or maritime border, based around Senj on the Adriatic, was held by a people known as the Uskoks, after the Serbian for ‘refugee’. This mountainous region could not support the growing number of refugees who were supposed to be paid by the government to defend the frontier with Ottoman Bosnia. Chronic indebtedness forced the Habsburgs to tolerate Uskok raiding and piracy instead. The next sector to the north was the Croatian border around the castle of Karlstadt that had been built in 1579 with funds granted by the Inner Austrian Estates in return for the Pacification of Bruck, and which protected the upper reaches of the Save river, blocking an invasion of Carniola. The Slovenian border around Warasdin on the upper Drava was also subsidized by Inner Austria since it protected Styria. Around half of all the minor posts were concentrated in these two sectors and were manned by colonists settled on crown land in return for militia duty. They received little help from central coffers and were expected to supplement their meagre existence from farming by raiding villages across the frontier.

The Hungarian border was split into three sections, with that in the south stretching from the Drava to the southern end of Lake Balaton and containing the important fortress of Kanizsa. The middle section ran north from Lake Balaton to the Danube, before curving east around the Ottoman salient at Gran where the river makes a right-angled turn from due east to flow south past Buda and Pest. This was the most heavily contested sector, because the Danube valley gave the best access for both sides. The Ottomans were concerned to protect Buda as the seat of their Hungarian government and as a forward base for an attack against Vienna. To forestall this, the Habsburgs built Komorn at the east end of Schütt Island, a large area that stretched west to Pressburg which was formed by two branches of the river and often flooded. Another fortress was constructed at Raab, approximately 40km south west of Komorn, to guard the only practicable route south of Schütt Island into Lower Austria. The lesser fortress of Neuhäusel covered Komorn’s northern flank by blocking the Neutra river. The final Hungarian section stretched eastwards from there to the Tisza river and Transylvania. Its main fortress was Erlau, which blocked the road north over the Matra mountains into Upper Hungary and so safeguarded communications between Austria and Transylvania. Central funds covered only the principal garrisons, leaving the intervening sections in the hands of Hungarian magnates who maintained private armies of haiduk infantry. The haiduks were originally nomadic oxen drovers who had been forced by the partition of Hungary to accept a semi-settled existence as border guards, living in their own villages under elected headmen and relying on banditry between wars to supplement their irregular pay.

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