John Sigismund Zápolya


János Zsigmond Szapolyai (Buda, Kingdom of Hungary, 7 July 1540 – Gyulafehérvár, Principality of Transylvania, 14 March 1571), Hungarian king of the House of Szapolyai from 1540 to 1551 and from 1556 to 1570 under the name János II, and the first prince of Transylvania from 1570 until his death. He was the only son of King John I of Hungary and Queen Isabella of Jagello. His father ruled parts of the early modern Kingdom of Hungary with the support of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I, while King Ferdinand I ruled the remaining territories. The civil war between the two kings was brought to an end by the peace treaty of 1538, under which, after the death of King János, the Habsburgs would have taken over the part of the country previously ruled by him. Shortly after his birth, his father died, and in accordance with his will (ignoring the Treaty of Wroclaw), he became the heir of King John I, but was never crowned King of Hungary.

After the Sultan captured Buda in 1541, he gave the eastern part of the country, today”s Partium and Transylvania, to John Sigismund. The child king”s regent was his mother, Queen Isabella. The government was initially administered by George Frater. Their seat was first established in Lippa and then in Gyulafehervár. As a result of the governor”s negotiations, in 1551 Isabella and John Sigismund were finally forced to resign and hand over power to the emperor, and in compensation they received the Duchies of Opole and Raciborz in Silesia. They fled to Poland to join the Queen”s family, but her mother continued to negotiate the restoration of John Sigismund”s power.

Since King Ferdinand was unable to defend the eastern part of the country against the Ottoman Empire, he abdicated the territories in 1556, and the Transylvanian Diet recalled the then still underage János Zsigmond, who continued to rule in his mother”s stead until her death in 1559. During their reign, an elaborate Renaissance court was established in the palace of Gyulafehervár. At the end of 1561, Menyhért Balassa rebelled against him, ceding many Upper Hungarian territories to the Emperor. Mikhail II”s war against the Turks was brought to an end by the Peace of Drinapoly in 1568, which also strengthened the position of John Sigismund in the east.

John Sigismund was raised as a Catholic, and when the Reformation began to spread in the 1560s in the part of the country he led, he converted first to Evangelicalism in 1562 and then to Calvinism in 1564. He was greatly influenced by the teachings of his court physician Giorgio Biandrata and Bishop Francis David, and after learning them he became the first Unitarian monarch in history. At the Diet of Torda in 1568, universal religious freedom was adopted, the first in European history. In 1570, the Treaty of Speyer was concluded, from which time his title became Prince of Transylvania and the annexed parts of Hungary (Latin: Princeps Transsilvaniae et Partium Regni Hungariae eidem annexarum) and the Principality of Transylvania was established, of which he became the first ruler. He died childless in 1571, and is buried in the Archbishop”s Cathedral of Gyulafehervár.

The Child King

The son of King János Szapolyai of Hungary and the daughter of King Sigismund I of Poland, Isabella of Jagello. In September 1540, the same year of his birth, the Diet of Cracow elected him King of Hungary under the name János II. His status was more uncertain than that of Ferdinand Habsburg. Ferdinand Habsburg, who had acquired the title and power of King of Hungary at the Diet of Bratislava in 1526, refused to recognise his rights as ruler because, according to the 1538 Treaty of Vratislav, which had been concluded with his father, János I (Szapolyai), and which ended their power rivalry, the territories he ruled would have passed to Ferdinand I after the death of King János, even if Szapolyai had had a son in the meantime. Ferdinand”s claim to the Hungarian kingship was the election of the Diet of Bratislava, which was legally convened by the reigning reigning Prince-Nadar, but only 13 Hungarian lords attended on 17 December 1526. The lower and middle classes stayed away from the event. János Szapolyai had been elected King of Hungary more than a month earlier at a duly but illegitimately convened Diet.

Ferdinand Habsburg continually tried to assert his rights in Hungary, as laid down in the Habsburg-Jagello succession treaty and sanctioned by the Diet. The legal basis for this was the double marriage contract that resulted in the marriage in 1521 between Archduke Ferdinand and Anna Jagelló, daughter of the late Hungarian King Ulászló II, and between Ulászló”s son King Louis II and Ferdinand”s sister Mary of Habsburg.  After the extinction of the Czech-Hungarian branch of the Jagellos with Louis II, who had fallen at the Battle of Mohács, Ferdinand I Habsburg made his claim to the Hungarian throne on the basis of this agreement. With promises made to win over a large part of the Hungarian lords, János Szapolyai was forced to flee temporarily to Poland, and only with Turkish support was he able to regain power. In 1529, Buda was effectively won back by Turkish troops marching on Vienna. Ferdinand Habsburg would have been obliged to pay the Ottoman Empire an annual tax of one million gold pieces if he had been allowed to rule the country alone with Turkish approval.

After the death of János Szapolyai in July 1540, the Habsburg troops attacked the Turkish armies stationed in Hungary and the Hungarian armies on the Turkish side almost every year. After the election of King John II, Ferdinand Habsburg again sent an army to capture Buda. From this time onwards, the saying “between two heathens for one country” spread.

The power of King John II of Hungary extended to the eastern part of the country. The western part of the country was held by the Habsburgs, but their kingdom often extended only as far as the Váh river valley. Loyal to Szapolyai, the Hungarian rulers succeeded in getting Sultan Suleiman to declare his intention to give the Hungarian throne to King John”s son, and his willingness to defend him against the Habsburgs, as early as the end of 1540.

The Turkish troops that had relieved Buda, besieged by Ferdinand”s armies, took it by surprise – in fact, they entered the castle, opened by the defenders in front of the ready-made facts, without a fight – on 29 August 1541, the 15th anniversary of the Battle of Mohács. The Turkish sultan made a false promise to keep Buda Castle only until King John II came of age, after which he would return the capital to the Hungarian king. Until then, he would give the Queen and the child king the “safer” Transylvania. The Turks allowed the treasury, documents and royal insignia of the Hungarian state to be freely taken away by the widowed Queen Isabella and her son, King John II of Hungary, and the entire royal court in carts. The Hungarian royal court moved first to Lippa, one of the ancient Szapolyai estates, which was unsuitable for a royal residence, and then to Gyulafehérvár, the former bishop”s palace, which was converted into a royal (later princely) residence. King John II was replaced by George Frater Martinuzzi until 1551, and after his assassination by Isabella, until his death in 1559.

The reign of George Frater and Queen Isabella

George Frater, who had sworn allegiance to János Szapolyai in order to defend his son”s and his widow”s claim to power against the Habsburgs, and who had been appointed guardian of the child János Zsigmond and given the title of governor and treasurer, gradually opposed the widowed queen after the establishment of the Transylvanian state. Narrowing her scope for manoeuvre, Isabella entered into political negotiations with Ferdinand I, from whom she hoped to unify Hungary under Christian rule. Although the queen was vehemently opposed to any initiatives that went against the interests of John Sigismund, and on several occasions she denounced him to the Porte, she became increasingly isolated in the absence of a Turkish presence. Finally, in 1551, George Frater”s soldiers, reinforced by imperial mercenaries marching into Transylvania, surrounded the court of Gyulafehervár and took Izabella prisoner with John Sigismund, and in July of the same year, the so-called “Porte of the Turkish Court” was opened. She was forced to sign the Declaration of Saxebes, in which she renounced the crown and the Silesian duchies of Opole and Ratibor in return for the Transylvanian princedoms of Transylvania itself, which had been unwittingly granted to her in the Treaty of Nyírbátor, concluded earlier between George Frater and Ferdinand. They spent most of their exile in Poland under the protection of the Queen”s brother, King Sigismund Augustus II of Poland.

Fearing Ottoman retaliation, George Frater continued to try to convince the Sultan of his loyalty, but his swing policy aroused strong doubts and even fear at the Viennese court. As the friend”s activities were considered too dangerous, on the emperor”s personal orders, General Castaldo”s men, led by mercenary captain Sforza Pallavicini, killed him with several knife wounds in his castle in Alvinci in December 1551.

Soon it became clear that Ferdinand Habsburg did not have enough strength to defend the whole of Hungary, and Turkish troops occupied important cities in the country. Important settlements such as Becse, Becskerek, Csanád, Lippa, Veszprém, Drégely, Szolnok, Temesvár, Karansebes and Lugos fell into Turkish hands.

The Szeklers, dissatisfied with Ferdinand, were absent from the Diet convened in Bratislava on 1 March 1554, with the exception of two delegates, but they only appeared to present their grievances. On 26 April 1554, Ferdinand issued a charter confirming the liberties of the Szeklers, which had already been recognised by several Hungarian kings, because he was aware that without them, or against them, he could not keep Transylvania and Partium. The Szekler National Assembly held in 1555 was very important in the life of the Szekler nation, at which the legal customs of the time were codified and codified into a unified law in Székelyudvarhely. The Székely Constitution, written in Hungarian, has survived in its original form and is an extremely important linguistic monument.

Ferdinand, however, favoured the Szeklers in vain, because the Transylvanian orders, dissatisfied with his rule, succumbed to the increasing pressure and even threats of the Turks and in January 1556 initiated the convocation of the Diet to re-recognise the rule of Queen Isabella and King John II of Hungary. The disgruntled nobility of Transylvania and Hungary therefore held a Diet in Sassese on 8 March 1556 and decided to recall Queen Isabella and King John II of Hungary to the throne of the Kingdom of Hungary. John II”s claim to the throne was recognised not only by the Ottoman Empire but also by the major powers of Europe at the time, Poland and France. Unable to secure sovereignty over the eastern parts of the country and the unity of the kingdom, Ferdinand renounced Transylvania in a letter to the Sultan in June of that year and handed it over to Isabella and the now 16-year-old John Sigismund.

Finally, at the urging of the Transylvanian and Hungarian orders, the queen and the young king marched to Kolozsvár on 22 October 1556, where István Báthory made a speech in Latin with a large arch. For the time being, the country was ruled by Queen Isabella Jagelló, who was entrusted by the orders with the government until John II came of age. His adviser was Mihály Csáky, who had returned with him from Poland and who was invaluable in organising the newly established Transylvanian chancellery.

From the spring of 1557, the reoccupation of the castles still in Habsburg hands (Szamosújvár, Várad) began, and at the same time the lords of Upper Hungary also sided with Zsigmond, significantly increasing the territories under his jurisdiction.

However, the queen, who during her three-year reign had developed a splendid Renaissance court, was faced in 1558 with a rebellion organised by a narrow circle of Transylvanian lords to force the transfer of her governmental power to her son. Isabella fought off the rebels, having them killed by Menuhert Balassa, who was on her side at the time but often changed sides. The queen died shortly afterwards, on 15 September 1559 in Cluj Napoca, aged 40.

His reign from 1559

After the death of Queen Isabella, the Habsburgs tried to retake Transylvania. King John II of Hungary, who was slowly coming of age, took control of the country with his mother”s confidants at his side. In the two years following his accession, however, the emperor lost considerable territory in Upper Hungary due to the defection of Menyhért Balassa and other lords.

The majority of the Transylvanian orders, however, were united in their support for the king, and on 15 January 1562 they decided in Gyulafehérvár to wage war against Balassa and his companions, who had sided with the Habsburgs. However, János István II. led by Báthory was defeated by the leader of the partisans, Ferenc Zay, the chief captain of the Kassa army, near Hadad in the Central Szolnok county.

That year the king also had to face the revolt of the Szeklers. The immediate reason for the rebellion was that the Szekler nobles (lófők) were trying to force the free Szeklers, who had enjoyed tax exemption for centuries, to pay financial services that had not existed before. Tensions were further increased by a Parliamentary decision in 1557 that any measure adopted by one of the two Transylvanian nations was binding on the other. The latter was clearly intended to impose taxation on the Szeklers. Menyhert Balassa also sided with the agitators, even inciting a riot against the king and trying to persuade them to switch to the side of Ferdinand I.

The Szekler uprising was led by György Nagy, Ambrus Gyepesi and András Bán. The rebellion was severely suppressed and retaliated by the king. The June Diet of Segesvár ordered the execution of the leaders of the rebels and the mutilation of many others. The decisions of Segesvár subsequently reorganised the social structure of the Székely community, and while maintaining the exemption of the nobility from taxation, the Székelys were henceforth obliged to pay taxes and were placed at the free disposal of the ruler as individuals, thus essentially reduced to the status of slaves.

After the death of Ferdinand in 1564, Miksa II became Habsburg monarch. But even this did not fundamentally change the situation: in the eastern part of Upper Hungary, clashes for the possession of the border areas continued. In the course of this, István Báthory recaptured Szatmar, which had been held by the defector Balassa, and then Nagybánya. The victory also encouraged János Zsigmond himself, who personally went to battle at the head of an army of over 10,000 men: he regained Hadad, Ecsed and Szinyért, which he had lost two years earlier, and pushed the borders of the territories he ruled as far as Kass as far as Kass.

In 1565, Lazarus von Schwendi, the chief captain of Kassa, after the failures of the previous year, successfully counterattacked the castles under the king”s control, Tokaj, Szerencs, Szatmár and Nagybánya.

The parties sought to end the stalemate with a peace treaty in Satu Mare. According to this agreement, John Sigismund would have abdicated the throne, retaining the territories he ruled at the time, and would have been able to claim the hand of Emperor Mikhail”s sister Joanna. However, János withdrew at the last moment because he had learned through his envoy in Stamboul, Gáspár Bekes, that he could count on military support from the Sultan in his struggle against the Habsburgs. The enraged Miksa had Báthory, who had taken the text of the peace treaty to Vienna, imprisoned, from which he was released after only two and a half years, and he also revealed the fact of the agreement on Satu Mare to the Porte.

As a result of the failed peace treaty, the northeastern castle war continued for two more years, until 1567, between Nicholas and John, who also appeared disloyal in the eyes of Sultan Suleiman, and was therefore forced to personally make amends with the Turkish ruler. He had originally intended to travel to ”Stambul” himself, but Suleiman, who was about to embark on his last campaign in Hungary in 1566, received the homage of his vassal at Zimony, near Nándorfehérvár, and at the same time declared his intention to ”defend” Transylvania.

Soon afterwards, the Sultan recognised the right of the Transylvanian people to elect princes in a so-called Athnamé, an act of appointment, reserving for himself only the prerogative of confirming the elected prince in office. The Transylvanian Assembly of the Orders enacted this into law in 1567.

The King”s health had meanwhile taken a turn for the worse. In his will, he instructed the orders to preserve the unity of Transylvania and the connected parts and to elect a prince after his death. However, his condition temporarily improved, allowing him to resume peace negotiations with the Habsburgs. The parties, unable to change their military positions unambiguously, were again inclined to compromise, but this was overruled by the Treaty of Drinapoly, concluded in the meantime in 1568 between Miksa and Sultan Suleiman II, his successor, for a period of eight years over the heads of the Hungarians. The agreement stipulated that Transylvania was a country under the protection of the Sultan, suspended hostilities and banned the building of new castles. A defter (list) was ordered to be drawn up to establish the exact location of the border. The peace reaffirmed the right of the Transylvanian orders to freely choose their princes.

However, the decisions did not resolve the differences, and John, seemingly resigned to what was happening, sought contact with the Highland lords, who showed themselves willing to support him against the Emperor in the hope of unifying the two parts of the country. As Miksa spectacularly neglected the Hungarian lords in the leadership of the country, many of them from Transdanubia also defected and moved to Transylvania. For example, Ferenc Forgách, bishop and historian of várad, was a Hungarian citizen of this period.

Towards the end of his life, John, still unmarried, made another attempt to get married. However, the king”s plan, which was obviously aimed at the Habsburgs for power-political reasons and was engaged in soft negotiations with them, was revealed at the Gate. His intention to do so was strongly opposed by the Turks, who forbade him to marry a Habsburg princess.

The educated king

John Sigismund was a highly educated man, he could read and speak eight languages, besides Hungarian, Polish, Italian, German, Romanian, Latin, and some Greek and Turkish. He was a very handsome man, of medium build, with fair hair, fine skin, elongated cheeks and thin lips, partly inherited from his father and partly from his mother. He was a passionate lover of books, supported Bálint Bakfark”s stay in Transylvania, and being a lover of music himself, played the lute, organ and flute well. He loved dancing, music and singing. Despite his slender build, he was a keen hunter, spear-thrower and good shot.

In addition to his education, he was famous for his patience and justice. He was able to listen for hours to the debates of priests of different denominations. This, perhaps in part, but also the religious reform movements of his time, in particular the rise of Protestantism and the increasing political role of Protestantism, may be interpreted in the context of his successive denominational changes. In 1562, he left the Catholic religion, first converting to Lutheranism (Evangelicalism), then to Calvinism (Reformed), and finally, in 1569, to the Unitarian Church, which was elevated to the status of an established Christian denomination at the Diet of Torda in 1568, alongside the Lutheran (1557) and Calvinist (1564) movements, which had already been given equal rights. This formal recognition of religious freedom was unique in the age.

In the Treaty of Speyer, concluded on 16 August 1570 as a result of negotiations for the final settlement of the state relationship between Transylvania and royal Hungary and between the two rulers, John II renounced his title of King of Hungary and agreed to address himself in future only as “Prince John Sigismund”.

Transylvania broke away from the motherland and became a quasi-independent political entity with loose (informal) guardianship ties to the Ottoman Empire, but one whose unity with Hungary and political subordination to it was not abolished, and the practical possibility of their later unification was not excluded. Its boundaries were precisely fixed; four counties of the kingdom, Máramaros, Bihar, Kraszna and Central Szolnok, forming the Partes, were annexed to the Principality of Transylvania, to which a few other fragments of counties, centred on Lugos and Karansebes, were added between the conquest and Transylvania.

However, the ratification of the agreement signed by John Sigismund in early December 1570 was delayed due to the deteriorating health of the future prince and domestic political reasons, and it was only ratified at the imperial assembly in Regensburg on 10 March 1571, four days before his death. Therefore, John Sigismund officially held the title of Prince of Transylvania for only four days, from 10 to 14 March.

John Sigismund died on 14 March 1571, four days after the ratification of the Treaty of Speyer. The prince, who died without a successor, bequeathed the family fortune to his uncle, King Sigismund Augustus of Poland. His death was kept secret for several days, and his funeral took place only on 23 May 1571 in Gyulafehérvár.

He was laid to rest according to the rites of the Unitarian Church in the cathedral founded by King Stephen I of Hungary in 1009, next to the sarcophagi of Governor János Hunyadi and his mother, Isabella Jagelló.

On the breast of King John II of Hungary was placed a silver plaque inlaid with gold with the following inscription:

“Serene Prince John the Second, Prince of Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, etc., son of the late His Majesty King John, daughter of King Sigismund of Poland and Queen Isabella of Queen Bona, by the grace of God, of Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, etc., day of the XIV., before three o”clock in the morning, in the leptic diseases of his sisters, merciless death took him, in whom the royal seed of the Hungarian race, alas, was utterly broken, and the crown of our head indeed fell, and the power drifted to the nations without. In the year MDLXXI of the birth of Christ.”

It was not long afterwards, in 1599, when, encouraged and financed by the Habsburgs, the soldiers of the Viceroy of Transylvania, Mihály, conquered Gyulafehérvár and Transylvania. The grave robbers ransacked and robbed the sarcophagus of King John II, and the funerary plate in the coffin was also lost, but the text of the plate has survived.

János Zsigmond Szapolyai was raised as a Catholic, first in Buda Castle, then in Gyulafehérvár after the Turks conquered the capital of the country. After his birth, the Reformation began to spread in Hungary. Under the influence of his court physician, George Blandrata, he converted first to Lutheranism and then to the Reformed faith. In his maturity he was greatly influenced by Ferenc Dávid, under whose influence he eventually died a Unitarian. Even as a ruler, he had great tolerance for those of other faiths, and often echoed the words of Francis David:

His historic act of abolishing the official state religion and proclaiming religious freedom. On 1 June 1557, the Transylvanian Diet, in addition to emancipating the Lutheran denomination, declared that everyone could live in whatever faith they wished, but also that followers of the new denominations should not harass followers of the old church, the Roman Catholic Church. The Diet of Torda, meeting in 1568, declared religious freedom and allowed for the common use of churches. The decision of the Diet of Torda, held from 6 to 13 January 1568, was a milestone in the history of mankind, as it was the first time in Europe that the law of freedom of conscience and religion was proclaimed. It was the first time that the Reformation in Transylvania was fulfilled. However, during the reign of his successor, István Báthory, further religious renewal was forbidden by law, and the free exercise of religion by Catholics was restored by allowing them to hold priests and even the Jesuits to settle in Kolozsmonostor. Under these circumstances, the system of the “four established religions”, now known as the historic churches, was consolidated.

After the Turks conquered Buda in 1541, the state of Hungary, traditionally “divided into three parts”, was established. In fact, Hungary was not divided. A certain part of its territory came under Turkish rule, but the rest was a single Kingdom of Hungary, ruled by two kings who administered the territories they actually held, but never questioned the unity of the country. The references to the “Kingdom of Hungary of the West” and the “Kingdom of Hungary of the East” do not reflect historical reality, but the more accurate formulation is “one country, two kings”.

The Principality of Transylvania was created in 1571 from the eastern territories held by Szapolyai. John Sigismund II then renounced the title of rex electus and agreed to use only the title of princeps in the future. The title of princeps was open to two interpretations. On the one hand, it is the same as the title used for the Transylvanian voivodes since the 12th century, so the Habsburgs wanted the Treaty of Speyer to make the governor of Transylvania, the voivode, legally an official of the Kingdom of Hungary, with the Hungarian king as his lord. In the Principality of Transylvania, however, the title of prince was interpreted as prince and applied as a sovereign dignity.

In 1566, János Zsigmond obtained from Sultan Suleiman I a so-called letter of alliance (athnáme), which included the right of free choice of prince for Transylvania. However, the legitimacy of the Sultan was not in line with Hungarian interests. On the Transylvanian side, the athnáme was invalidated by the Treaty of Speyer. On the basis of this treaty, Partium was formed from the annexed counties bordering historical Transylvania to the west.

The historical significance of John II lies in the fact that he set the foreign policy course for Transylvania that his successors could follow: Transylvania could only live in peace if it had the friendship of both the Germans and the Turks. It was during his reign that the princely powers were established, and the specific institutions of the principality were born. During his reign, Hungarian became the language of the legislature, and members of the orders in the Transylvanian Diets often spoke Hungarian, and some laws were even drafted in Hungarian during his reign.

It was also thanks to him that the Transylvanian orders, which were already mostly Protestant at the time of his death, elected István Báthory, a Roman Catholic, as Prince of Transylvania in 1571.


  1. II. János magyar király
  2. John Sigismund Zápolya