Magyar-British Relations in the time of the Protestant Princes of Transylvania, 1613-1711   2 comments


At the beginning of the seventeenth century Hungarian theology students had begun to arrive in England for brief sojourns, crossing over from Holland. At the same time, in 1618/19, Martin Csombor de Szepesi travelled all over Western Europe. What he wrote about life in London shows that he possessed a sense of keen observation and sound judgement. Such sojourns had become fashionable, and these visits later became a general rule. In 1632 Gabriel Haller, a Hungarian magnate, spent a few weeks in London. Paul Medgyesi and John Tolnai Dali were the founders of the Puritan movement in Hungary; they had become acquainted with the movement in England. On 9 February 1638, Tolnai, together with nine other Hungarians, signed a formal agreement in London for the propagation of Puritan ideals. Tolnai had spent several years in England, and returned home deeply imbued with the puritan spirit. He did much to make these Calvinist ideas popular in Hungary, With stubborn perseverance and exceptional fortitude, he propagated the new doctrines in both Transylvania and Hungary, despite being opposed everywhere by both the ecclesiastical and civil authorities. George I Rákoczi, the Prince of Transylvania, had sent the daring reformer there and Tolnai was appointed to the famous school there, while the generous gift of the Princess enabled theologians of the Reformed Church to visit England. It was in Sárospatak that Puritanism first took root, and for some time its college remained at the centre of Anglo-Hungarian relations. However, Tolnai could not remain there long. His teachings were regarded as dangerous, and he was persecuted in the terms of the resolutions issued by several synods. He fled back to Transylvania, where he found patrons in the persons of Medgyesi, Bisterfeld and András, who had been invited there by the Prince, György I Rákóczi.  The Szatmárnémeti Synod, convened in 1646 by István Katona de Gelej, the powerful Bishop of Transylvania, put Tolnai’s reforms under a ban, and unfrocked the reformer himself, thus depriving him of his office; The Prince was well aware of the role of the puritan movement in England and Scotland in bringing about the British Civil War. In any case, those in power in Transylvania were still somewhat afraid of the new teachings. It was easy for the conservatives to persuade György Rákóczi II, who succeeded his father as the new Prince of Transylvania, of the danger of Puritan doctrines. especially after the execution of Charles I, which had horrified him.

However, the puritans found an ardent supporter in Zszuzsanna Lorántffy, George I Rákóczi’s widow, who sponsored their cause at Sárospatak. Medgyesi, her captain-in-ordinary, fought by word and in writing for the Presbyterian and puritan causes. He translated several English theological works into Hungarian, and was powerful enough to defend the movement when others were out to crush it. He won over the Dowager Princess’s younger son, Sigismund, to the cause. Tolnai was able to return to resume teaching at Sárospatak College and Zsuzsanna’s endowments continued to enable Calvinist theologians to travel to England to study.


Her younger son, Sigismund, married Charles I’s niece, Henriette Marie (right), the twenty-five year-old daughter of Elizabeth Stuart and Frederick, Elector Palatine, the ‘winter’ King and Queen of Bohemia. They were married in Sárospatak in 1651, but both died five months later and were buried in Gyulafehérvár. However, by their brief marriage, the ruling house of Transylvania became related, however briefly, to the royal family of England, and the marriage symbolised the broader Protestant alliance, just as the  marriage of Henriette’s mother to Frederick, Prince Elector of the Rhineland-Palatinate had done in 1614. At the time of the Protectorate Oliver Cromwell watched the politics of György Rákóczi II with some interest and attention. When Rákóczi’s envoy was in London, Cromwell declared that no prince’s envoy was more welcome. The great alliance of Protestant states was not accomplished, but a sense of community of interests was perceptible in the domains of politics, religion and culture. The new spirit of Calvinism also made headway in the trans-Tisza region, where in 1654, a work by Amesius on English puritanism, Angliai Puritanismus, was translated into Hungarian by Telkibányia. In 1662 George Csipkés de Komárom, a minister in Debrecen, translated the work into English. Then Debrecen began to adopt these teachings and Debrecen theologians followed the example of those from Sárospatak in visiting the English universities. Hungarian students from Sárospatak, Debrecen and Transylvania travelled to London, and sojourned at Oxford and Cambridge. They were given scholarships to do so, and George Csipkés of Komárom even wrote an English Grammar for his students at Debrecen in 1664. The English Church repeatedly assisted the sister church of Hungary. Puritanism brought the two churches into close contact. John Milton, Cromwell’s Latin Secretary, poet and pamphleteer, wrote in his Aeropagitica:

Nor is it for nothing that Serious-minded and frugal Transylvania sends out, yearly from as far as the mountainous borders of Russia, and beyond the Hercynian wilderness, not her youths, but her staid men, to learn our language and our theological arts.

Hungarian theologians felt quite at home in English universities, at the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, and later in Scotland. In 1667 Francis Otrokocsi Fóris, with seven companions, travelled to England to organise the raising of funds there, with the permission of King Charles II. We know the names of 135 Protestant students who studied in England; some of these names have also been recorded in contemporary English documents. John Adami, who wrote a poem in Latin about London, later translated into English, was one of them; another was John Hunyadi, who settled in London as a Professor of Gresham College; Paul Jászberényi founded a school in London in which the King of England showed interest; much later, a Hungarian orientalist, John Uri, was known to have worked for fifteen years at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.    This intercourse was due largely to the policy of toleration established by Gábor Bethlen. Nicholas Bethlen visited London in 1663, in the company of his younger brother and tutor.

003005 The Recapture of Buda from the Turks in 1686, painting by the Flemish artist Frans Geffels (right)

  009 (3)

009 (2)Many traces of the Protestant connections are to be found in the theological literature of the Reformed Church, which was enriched by works translated from English into Hungarian; visibletraces are the numerous theological and philosophical books which Hungarian students bought from their savings and presented later to the libraries of the Reformed Colleges. In the Debrecen College Library alone there are up to fifteen works which were brought there from England. There is also a description of the first journey to England written by a Hungarian, dating from 1620. What Martin Csombor de Szepsi told about his experiences in England makes interesting reading even today. John Adami’s Latin poem about London in 1675, translated into English, is also interesting, as it was written just a few years after the Great Fire of 1666. Prince Mihály Apafi also sought the friendship of King Charles II. In 1664, he asked him to help Transylvania since the country was unable to bear the exceedingly heavy taxes imposed by the Turks. He also asked for protection against territorial mutilation. However, Charles II showed far less interest in the fate of Transylvanian Protestantism than Cromwell did, and the situation was not improved when Charles died without a legitimate heir and his brother, the Catholic James II ascended to the throne. Professor Kolosvári, the Transylvanian envoy to the English Court, was unable to gain much interest or support. With the change of political conditions in England the Protestant connection therefore became less intense, but it was maintained, and revived after the Glorious Revolution which brought William (III) of Orange and Mary II to the throne, thus securing the Protestant Succession. Prince Michael Apafi II, reported that William stood exceedingly high in the esteem of the Transylvanians, and according to a Hungarian Protestant delegation, there was hardly a dwelling in Transylvania, the wall of which would not be adorned by a portrait of His Majesty, the King of England. Prince Imre Thököly, who had led a successful rebellion against the Emperor Leopold I, in alliance with the Turks, also tried to gain support from William III through the English envoy in Transylvania. However, the envoy regarded Thököly with some suspicion, as he also kept up a dialogue with the French, England’s enemies. His name was so well known in England that the Whig party was nicknamed Tekelites by its opponents. The expression also appears in a poem by Dryden. He was also the subject of a three-act melodrama written in the nineteenth century.Whereas Thököly’s cause was all but lost in 1690, following the invasion of Transylvania by the Tartars in 1690. By contrast, the powerful movement led by Ferenc Rákóczi II attracted the interest of the English government from its beginning. An anecdote from Michael Cserei reveals how ready the English government was to support the Transylvanian Protestants:

In the same year (1702) there came back from Constantinople the English orator Vilhelmus Baron Paget, who after seven years of untiring labour between the German and Turkish Emperors had at Karlowitz made peace; who on his journey through the Turkish provinces and through Transylvania, through Hungary and in Vienna and throughout the whole Empire until he reached England, was everywhere received with great pomp and with salutes of cannon. On reaching Transylvania, clever man as he was, he studied the Papist persecution of Protestants and having put all his experiences in writing presented the matter to the Emperor in Vienna, saying openly: ‘Unless Your Majesty redress these matters or if You continue to allow the Papists to persecute the Protestants of Transylvania, I can assure You that England will never fight again on Your Majesty’s side against the French’. The Emperor promised to do everything in his power…

When he arrived at Fejérvár, the orator sent his younger brother to the Governer to arrange a meeting. The Governer begged him to stay to dinner, at which he was introduced to other guests, including Nicholas Bethlen, Stephen Apor, and the ‘cameralis commissio’, Count Sceau. The latter toasted the Queen of England (Queen Anne) and then Stephen Apor, who then began to toast his patron, Cardinal Kollonich. However, Count Sceau stopped him, suggesting that it was not appropriate to drink to the health of the Queen of England and the Roman Cardinal in the same breath and in front of an English nobleman. Stephen Apor was alarmed and, calling for another glass, drank both glasses to the health of Queen Anne. Lord Paget then went on to meet several Protestant theologians who had been to England.

At that time George Stepney was the English Ambassador in Vienna. In 1703 he reported that Rákóczi’s insurrection was of much greater importance than any of the previous insurrections. Together with the Dutch envoy he used every effort for years to bring about peace between Vienna and the Hungarian insurgents. Stepney went to Selmecbánya to further these objectives. On his return to Vienna he defended at court Rákóczi’s conduct there. The English government went than its ambassador, raising the question of a reconciliation to be brought about by Vienna yielding Transylvania to Hungary. It was due to the inflexibility of the court of Vienna that the efforts at conciliation were of no avail. Stepney saw the cause of Hungarian freedom and Protestantism endangered, blaming the court of Vienna for the failure. He commented indignantly that at the court the principle of the philosopher Hobbes held sway, that the only foundation of Right is Might. Stepney left Vienna in 1706, at the request of the Duke of Marlborough. The Duke was of the considered opinion that a proposed resolution, subsequently passed at the Diet of Ónód (1707), dethroning the Hapsburgs, was not calculated to promote reconciliation. The English government took up the question several times, and the Hungarian delegation was cordially received in London. The letter addressed by Rákóczi to Queen Anne made an impression, and recommendations were repeatedly sent to Vienna urging that concessions be made to the Hungarian insurgents. However, Vienna reacted otherwise, and Rákóczi fled through England to France. He landed at Hull and stayed there for a while. However, when he was told that Lord Oxford had promised the Imperial ambassador in London that the English government would pay no further attention to Rákóczi’s cause, the last Prince of Transylvania left England in 1711 for eventual exile in Turkey, where he died. This turn of events was the last phase of Transylvania’s official contacts with the English court, to which so many Hungarian hopes were attached. London had bowed before the demands of Vienna.

Posted March 12, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

2 responses to “Magyar-British Relations in the time of the Protestant Princes of Transylvania, 1613-1711

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  1. Interested to read of John Hunyadi, “who settled in London as a Professor of Gresham College,” but we (at Gresham College) don’t have record of him as one of the seven Professors. Do you have any more details? Thanks.

    • Hello James Franklin. Good to hear from you. The reference to ‘Hunyadi János’, a ‘teacher’ at Gresham College, is from what appears to be a printed document dated 1873, held in archives in Pest (now Budapest), which lists (perhaps with some details) a number of Hungarian academics studying and/or teaching in London. It is Hungarian, and is quoted in an essay by Sándor Fest, published in 1917 in Hungarian, and summarised by him in an essay in English in 1936, with the title ‘Political and Spiritual Links Between England and Hungary’. These essays appear in a (relatively) new volume of his work, well known and respected here, on ‘Anglo-Hungarian Historical and Literary Contacts’, Universitas Könvkiadó (University Press) Budapest, 2000. Although he refers to Hunyádi as ’eminent’, it is not clear whether he was in any way related to the Regent John Hunyadi (1446-1453), who won a famous victory over the Ottomon Turks in relieving the siege of Belgrade in 1476. The ‘Professor’, ‘professor’ (in the general French sense of Lycée ‘professeur’, ‘(senior) teacher’ or ‘tutor’ in Hungarian, is said to have ‘settled’ in London and taught at Gresham College (this information is repeated in three essays in English published in the same volume, with differing punctuations, especially with capitals, which are only used in Hungarian for beginning of sentences and proper nouns). He was born in 1576 and died in ‘about’ 1650. The article referred to uses ‘Professor of’, the second ‘taught in’ and the third ‘professor at’, but there is no reference to him as one of seven Professors. Hope this helps!

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