On March 17, 1713, Slovak highwayman and “Robin Hood” robber Juraj Jánošík was executed at the age of 25, soon to become a key figure and national hero in Central European folklore.
Born in 1688 in the north-western village of Terchová, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary and located in modern-day Slovakia, young Jánošík joined the Kuruc insurgents and the rebellion led by Hungarian nobleman Francis II Rákóczi against the Habsburg monarchy – an eight-year-long war of independence eventually crushed by Imperial forces in 1708 at the battle of Trenčín.
Slovakia’s Robin Hood in action
Possibly enrolled by force in the Austrian army, he worked as a prison guard and helped orchestrate the escape of inmate Tomáš Uhorčík, the leader of a bank of robbers which 23-year-old Jánošík joined and soon led himself.
Mostly active in the north-western parts of modern-day Slovakia, as well as in Silesia and Moravia, Jánošík and his band of about 20 robbers became known for their peculiar, civic-minded way of operating: targeting mostly rich merchants and never killing their victims, they were said to divide the spoils between themselves and share part of the riches with poor peasants and villages.
Due to a lack of reliable historical records, Juraj Jánošík’s built-up reputation as a heroic freedom fighter and “Slovak Robin Hood” – with fairytale books and folk stories portraying him with near superhuman strength and extraordinary physical abilities – remains subject to controversy among historians, sometimes unable to determine where the man ends, and the legend begins.
Briefly arrested and released in late 1712, he was again captured in early 1713 in Klenovec.
Imprisoned and tortured in the small Vranovo castle, his trial was held in March 1713 in Liptovský Svätý Mikuláš. Historical records do not show any confession despite the brutal torture he was subjected to.
The outlaw and the national hero
Sentenced to death, he was executed on March 17, 1713, either by hanging or after being left dangling for several days on the gallows with a hook pierced through his body.
Jánošík’s legend continued to grow after his death, first orally – with the first printed mention of his actions dating from 1809 – and later closely associated with the Slovak National Revival of the 19th century.
With songs praising his achievements and tales singing his exploits, Jánošík soon became one of Slovakia’s most beloved national heroes, seen as a fearless defender of the poor and symbol of the resistance of the underclass against feudal lords.
He became the character and protagonist of numerous novels, TV shows and movies released throughout the 20th century in Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland – including the 2009 film Jánošík: A True story, directed by Agnieszka Holland and Katarzyna Adamik.
“He’s a national hero, but he isn’t a ‘classical’ hero. Afterall, he’s an outlaw, a criminal”, Holland explained. “Slovakia is probably the only country where the national hero is an outlaw.”
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.