Magyar-British relations from the Downfall of Transylvania to the Viennese Enlightenment, 1711-1800   Leave a comment

001After the Peace of Szatmár of 1711, the Hungarian connections with Britain gradually loosened. Transylvania, which had been foremost in fostering the traditional links of both politics and intellectual life, ceased to exist as an independent principality. The number of Protestant theologians visiting England declined steadily, owing to the decrees issued by Maria Theresa (1740-80), which made their journeys more difficult. Most of them made for Germany. It proved impossible, however, to put a complete stop to these visits of these spirited youths to English universities: Robert Townson, for instance, met four or five men from Debrecen alone who had studied in England (Travels in Hungary, 1793). At the same time he heard of the custom for the Calvinistic theologians to go to Holland or Switzerland to complete their studies. The few who went to England from Debrecen included Nicholas Sinai, Samuel Szilágyi and Isaiah Budai; those from Sárospatak included József Rozgonyi, the friend of the poet Csokonai, of whom Kazinczy, the eminent literary figure wrote that he imbibed the air and true liberty of England. 

These common religious interests created a very strong bond between the Protestant Churches of England and Hungary. Reformed theologians were the initiators of an uninterrupted connection which became a tradition during the seventeenth century. At first the connection remained isolated in character, confined to church matters, but the later political contacts, particularly with Transylvania, deepened and strengthened it. In the eighteenth century, these contacts came under the influence of a broader English intellectual life, of English science and literature. However, the eighteenth century as a whole did not prove favourable to Anglo-Hungarian relations. Hungary, exhausted by century-long wars, had first to redevelop a depopulated country, and the time for spiritual reconstruction had not yet arrived. Every now and then some distinguished English traveller arrived in Hungary, bearing poignant testimony to the continuing devastations which the country had endured for centuries. In 1717, Lady Mary Montague wrote in one of her letters that the country between Győr and Buda had the most fertile soil in the world. However, for the most part it was, at that time;

desert and uncultivated, laid waste by the long war occasioned between the Turk and Emperor and the most cruel civil war, occasioned by the Emperor Leopold (I, 1657-1705)… Indeed nothing can be more melancholy than travelling through Hungary, reflecting on the former flourishing state of that Kingdom, and seeing such a noble spot of earth almost uninhabited.

002Her friend, Alexander Pope, urged her in a letter not to expose herself to the danger of passing through Hungary when following her husband to Constantinople. Lady Mary was, apparently, greatly amused by her friend’s anxiety. The condition of the country improved much when Richard Pococke, afterwards Bishop of Meath, travelled through it in 1736. He described devastation everywhere, uninhabited regions, uncultivated land, and large forests. Public safety was, however, much better, and the memories of wars had begun to fade. Pococke and his cousin, Jeremiah Miles, travelled in Transdanubia and were interested mainly in Roman antiquities. In the reign of Maria Theresa, Hungary sank to the level of an Austrian province in English public opinion. The policy of centralisation then followed by the Viennese Court isolated Hungary more than ever. Those parts of the country recovered from the Turks were annexed to the Hapsburg monarchy and Transylvania soon suffered  the same fate. The Hapsburgs took control of the whole Carpathian Basin, whether or not they had any right to the territories they conquered. The emperor-kings claimed their legitimacy not only from their ancestors, but from God, and the Counter-reformation sanctified them in this. Although religious pluralism could not be abolished, its effects could be diluted by the resettlement of Catholic Saxons, Schwabians, Romanians and Croatians, among many other migrating ethnic and religious groups from Slavic countries further east. Many of these groups did not assimilate, but lived in compact ethnic blocs, preserving their linguistic and cultural independence. In some parts of the countryside, these blocs cut off the Hungarian populations from the national heartland, presaging the dismemberment of the country by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.

Given these social and political tendencies, the reawakening of interest in Hungary in British intellectual life in the last decade and a half of the eighteenth century was quite remarkable. This may have been partly due to the natural interest shown by the Hanoverian monarchs in central-eastern Europe. A considerable sum of money was offered by the British King for the rebuilding of the Protestant church in Sepsiszentgyörgy, which had been destroyed by fire. Also, when the College of Nagyenyed was experiencing financial difficulties, a deputation was sent to England to ask for help from their fellow-believers there. From the money collected and deposited in a London bank, the College was still receiving funds in the following century of as much as one thousand pounds annually. John Paget wrote of the lasting gratitude expressed to him by the Protestants of Transylvania in 1839:

It is wonderful what a feeling of friendship, what a sentiment of brotherhood with England this gift, though now completely forgotten among us, still maintains among the Transylvanian Protestants. 



However, the renewed interest shown by Hungarians in Britain was both sacred and secular in motivation, quickly ripening into an exuberant anglomania. After the Peace of Paris of 1763, Great Britain’s influence on the continent increased markedly. This was partly due to the success of British Foreign policy of forging an alliance with Austria against France, which had a striking effect on Vienna’s political, economic and  intellectual circles. After the conclusion of the peace of Versailles in 1783 the object of the English ambassadors at Vienna and particularly of Lord Harris became more and more evident. Events in France greatly accelerated the loosening of Austro-French friendship ties, and in Vienna the gradual growth of English influence in the 1770s and 1780s, which gained further force as a result of the French Revolution and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This again mutated into an increased interest in the juridical and constitutional instutions in Britain, as well as in English language and literature. The Hungarian aristocracy, accustomed by this time to spending much of its time in Vienna, became acquainted with the new trend in British civilisation. It was mainly the Transdanubian aristocracy which took up this cause. The Protestant Teleki family, as well as the theologians, revived the traditional visit to England. It was largely through the generosity of this family that the visits to England from Transylvania, Debrecen and Sárospatak continued regularly until Maria Theresa took measures to prevent them. Thus, largely-Catholic Transdanubia and partly-Protestant Transylvania were dawn together in their common interest in, and enthusiasm for, British culture and institutions. It was no longer just the religious life of the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges which attracted the Hungarian traveller, but her constitution, economic and intellectual life, science and literature.

The Viennese Hungarian nobles became interested in Britain!s rapid industrialisation and flourishing commerce. Frederick Taube was the first to refer to these new economic conditions in print, and his widow organised an ‘English literary club’ in Vienna for promoting knowledge of English language and literature. Almost simultaneously a ‘Vienna Club’ was formed in London,  This club saw an important ‘turning point’ in these inter-cultural relations, at least from our modern-day perspective, with its reception of Count Ferenc Széchényi on his visit to England in 1787. He believed that the influence of British culture on the continent was widespread and on the increase, extending to everything, including fashion. His enthusiasm for what he saw was inherited by his son István, the greatest Hungarian.

003Hungarian aristocrats who lived in Vienna gained encouragement to redirect these cultural currents to their homelands. The ground there had already been prepared by the new spirit o learning spread bz Protestant intellectuals who had lived in Britain. Joseph II (1780-1790) set about establishing religious freedom and an equitable civil code, introducing educational and economic reform and proclaiming German as the sole language of administration throughout the Empire. The emerging Hungarian bourgeoisie may not have liked this last imposition from an Emperor who made relentless efforts to impose his vision of ‘the common good’ upon the Magyars, but they were freer under his rule to obtain direct knowledge of the ‘happy island’ and its capital, London, ‘the wonder of the world’ as the poet Csokonai called it. This collective memory of the sojourns in ‘Albion’ of  Hungarian travellers is preserved in a number of interesting descriptions, diaries and letters. It was the new economic and political conditions in the British Isles which stood foremost in the interest of these sojourners. Its scientific and literary developments were, at this stage, of secondary significance.

When Count Ferenc (Francis) Széchényi started on his memorable voyage in 1787, a significant number of Hungarians were already well-known in London. Charles Reviczky, who had been Austrian Ambassador there since 1786, was an orientalist of high esteemamong English scholars. Baron Nicholas Vay was also well-known in the scientific worl of London; he was elected a member of the Royal Society at the session attended by Ferenc Széchényi. He was  particularly interested in agricultural questions, but his attracted also to British bridge-construction. It was he who first conceived of connecting Pest with Buda by means of a permanent bridge. A few months before the visit of Ferenc Széchényi, a Hungarian political economist, Gergély Berzeviczy, visited England. In his letters to his mother he wrote of his experiences with the greatest enthusiasm. He was received at Court with distinguished honours. He stayed in England for four months, during which time the happy and prosperous condition of the English people made an indelible impression on his noble and philanthropic heart. On returning to Hungary, he was determined to develop Hungarian commerce and to improve the condition of the peasantry. Berzeviczy was the first Hungarian economist to advocate a ‘Smithian’ policy, following the ideas of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist, whose ideas were well read in Vienna, German translations of his work being widely available.

006Berzeviczy’s diary of his travels bears witness to his interests in agriculture and industry. Like Nicholas Vay, he brought several machines home to Hungary, intending to apply his British discoveries at home. These were also the issues which interested Széchényi. In Edinburgh he called on Adam Smith and was happy to have been able to talk for at least a few minutes with that great man. In London he was introduced to Sir John Banks, President of the Royal Society. He also purchased many books, visited the grave of David Hume, called on the historian William Robertson and, while in Sheffield, attended a performance of Shakespeare’s Othello. His voyage to Britain made a deep and lating on him. With the wide knowledge he obtained, he was the most competent promoter of the British cult in Hungary at the close of the eighteenth century

In the same year that Ferenc Széchényi made his study of British economic conditions, Count László Teleki took a trip from Göttingen to London with his younger brother István. He frequently visited the learned societies of London and had a very high opinion of English scientific life. In his book A magyar nyelv előmozditásáról buzgó esdeklési (An Earnest Entreaty for the Advancement of the Hungarian Language), he wrote:

That nation, virtually forming a world of its own, is in the sciences ahead of all nations, or at least not behind any.


One of Teleki’s younger brothers, Joseph, went to see the land of freedom at the turn of the century, thirteen years later, calling in at the society of scholars which met at Banks’ apartments and also paying two visits to Parliament. where he listened to Pitt’s keenly sonorous speech.  To the Hungarian noble who heard Pitt speak in Parliament, or tried to learn from Banks, Lansdowne and Smith the secret of Britain’s economic greatness, a new and wider horizon had opened by the end of the eighteenth century. An instinctive contrasting of these conditions with those at home made everyone who had visited Britain, as well as those who had heard or read of their visits, yearn for progress and reform in Hungary. That fight for freedom from political and economic enslavement is the subject of my next chapter in this narrative.


Posted March 12, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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