On October 18, 1552, after 39 days of bloody, brutal, and heroic fighting on the walls of Eger, captain István Dobó and his lieutenant Gergely Bornemissza repelled the invading Ottoman forces, commanded by Kara Ahmed Pasha.
Seen by many Hungarians as the decisive downward turning point in their country’s history, Suleiman the Magnificent’s victory at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and the subsequent Turkish conquest of Buda in 1541 spelled the end of Hungary as a unified independent kingdom and led to the partition of the country between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire.
The Eastern Hungarian Kingdom
Hungary’s western and northern fringes remained under Habsburg rule as Royal Hungary, while the central wedge, including the former royal capital of Buda, was integrated into the Ottoman Empire. But the kingdom’s eastern half, which eventually grew into the semi-autonomous Eastern Hungarian Kingdom, was ruled by John Zápolya, the former Voivode of Transylvania, who swore fealty to the Sultan.
Following John Zápolya’s death, his infant son John II Sigismund was crowned King of Hungary, with his widow Isabella Jagiellon of Poland acting as regent, and bishop George Martinuzzi helping with the administration of the realm. But the relationship between the two grew tense, especially after the Diet confirmed Isabella’s superior position in 1543.
Hoping to unite Royal Hungary and the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom under one crown, George Martinuzzi soon began conspiring with Emperor Ferdinand, who also claimed the Hungarian throne and its eastern territories. And in June 1551, a Habsburg army of 7,000 mercenaries led by Gianbatista Castaldo invaded Transylvania and besieged the royal residence at Gyulafehérvár.
Under duress, Isabella abdicated in favor of Ferdinand on her son’s behalf in return for the two Silesian duchies and 140,000 florins and fled to Poland. But Ferdinand’s rule remained fragile and George Martinuzzi tried to gain time by resuming the payment of tribute to the Sultan. But, suspecting him of wanting to secure Hungary for himself, Ferdinand had him killed.
Furious, Suleiman felt betrayed. He could not tolerate his arch enemy getting his hands on his vassal province of Transylvania and soon set out to put a stop, once and for all, to any attempts to unite the Hungarian kingdom. And in late spring 1552, the Ottoman Sultan launched a major offensive against the Habsburg Emperor.
The Siege of Eger
The Buda garrison troops under Hadim Ali Pasha first took the castles of Veszprém, Buják, Drégely and Szécsény, before the Sultan sent Kara Ahmed Pasha, the Second Vizier, with an army some 60,000 strong to take back Transylvania. Temesvár and Lippa fell, and the two Ottoman armies united for the siege of Szolnok before marching North, reaching Eger in early September.
Commanded by captain István Dobó, the fortress of Eger was an important stronghold, key to the defense of Habsburg territory. The gateway to Upper Hungary, it protected the city of Kassa (present-day Košice), where vast wealth could be found in its gold and silver mines, and guarded a strategic route westward towards Vienna and the rest of Europe.
The Ottomans arrived at Eger with approximately 40,000 men and a load of artillery. By contrast, the Hungarian force was a motley assemblage of 2,200 soldiers, peasants and a few dozen women, who withdrew behind the towering walls of the fortress. The Ottomans had expected an easy victory, but the bravery of the castle’s defenders, as well as István Dobó’s inspired leadership, resulted in their repelling repeated Ottoman assaults.
Also crucial to the defense of Eger was the infantry commander Gergely Bornemissza who had a knack for creating makeshift yet deadly weapons. During the siege, the young officer devised primitive but lethal grenades and powderkeg-sized bombs to use against the attackers as well as a water-mill wheel packed with gunpowder which he rolled into the Ottoman ranks.
When everything failed, Kara Ahmed Pasha ordered a final all-out charge on the walls of the fortress which lasted two days. This time, István Dobó called everyone into battle, including the women of Eger, who threw stones and poured hot water, molten bitumen and lead down the siege ladders. And after 39 days of bloody, brutal, and intense fighting the Ottoman forces withdrew.
In recognition of this accomplishment, Emperor Ferdinand granted István Dobó the towns of Déva and Szamosújvár and made him Voivode of Transylvania while Gergely Bornemissza was given command of the fortress of Eger, which remained defiant of Ottoman attacks until 1596 when it capitulated to Ottoman forces. But despite the failure to take Eger, the 1552 Turkish campaign was extremely successful, for they had taken Veszprém, Temesvár, Szolnok, and Lippa, as well as many more Hungarian strongholds.
Nonetheless, the historic defense of Eger against all odds immediately became the symbol of resistance and patriotic heroism, and the tradition lives on today, made immortal through Géza Gárdonyi’s 19th century novel Egri Csillagok (Eclipse of the Crescent Moon). Telling the tale of Gergely Bornemissza and István Dobó, the novel was adapted in 1923 into the silent film Stars of Eger, which in turn was remade in 1968 by Zoltán Várkonyi into a feature-length film.
Incidentally, the name of Hungary’s famous Egri Bikavér wine, which means Bull’s Blood of Eger, stems from the rumour that circulated among the Ottoman soldiers besieging Eger, who believed bull’s blood was mixed into the red wine to explain the strength and firm resistance of the town and its inhabitants.
The fate of Transylvania
Ferdinand’s control over the Eastern Kingdom eventually only lasted five years and ended in 1556, when the nobles of Transylvania recalled John II Sigismund and elected him King of Hungary. But in 1570, John II formally renounced his claim to the throne of Hungary, adopting the title of Prince of Transylvania with control over the territory of the former Eastern Hungarian Kingdom.
John II Sigismund died a year later, triggering a succession struggle between the Ottoman-supported István Báthory and Habsburg-supported Gáspár Bekes. Báthory’s triumph in this conflict permitted the Ottomans to gain suzerainty over the Principality of Transylvania, which lasted until the Ottoman Empire formally ceded Transylvania to the Habsburg Monarchy at the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699.
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