Rákóczi’s War of Independence


Rákóczi”s War of Independence (1703-1711) was the first major struggle for freedom against Habsburg absolutism in Hungary, which was liberated from Ottoman rule.

At the beginning of 1704, Ferenc Rákóczi II informed the foreign powers in a manifesto dated 7 June 1703 that the people of Hungary had taken up arms for state self-determination. The manifesto was entitled Universis orbis Christiani principibus et respublicis. The struggle led by Ferenc Rákóczi II for the protection of the privileges of the nobility and for the internal independence of the country (the maximum programme was to secede from the Habsburg monarchy, i.e. for the full independence of the country), and ultimately failed due to the unequal balance of power, the unfavourable political situation in Europe and the internal social contradictions in the country. The Peace of Satu Mare granted political and religious amnesty to the Kuruks, so that despite its failure, the War of Independence prevented Hungary”s full incorporation into the Habsburg Empire and the country”s constitution of order was preserved, albeit ostensibly.

Rákóczi was forced to emigrate, but he became an unquestionable national hero who remained a role model for Hungarians. The influence of the War of Independence was also felt in folk music, and gave rise to a number of Kuruc songs. The birthday of the leading prince of the Rákóczi War of Independence, 27 March, has been a national day of remembrance since 2015 (Rákóczi Memorial Day).

During the reign of King Lipót I of Hungary and the German-Roman Emperor, the liberation of Hungary from Turkish rule was completed with the Treaty of Karlóca in 1699. However, the Hungarians played little part in the new state structure. Realising this, the Hungarian orders renounced the right to choose their own king in 1687 and accepted the succession to the throne of the Habsburg dynasty. In 1701, Mihály Apafi II, who wanted to become independent, was captured and stripped of his title of Prince of Transylvania. In 1690 Transylvania became part of the Kingdom of Hungary again, but it was administratively separate from the rest of the country and governed by a governor appointed by the Habsburg king.

The international situation was also favourable: the death of King Charles II of Spain and with it the extinction of the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs was approaching, which was likely to lead to a Franco-Austrian conflict. The French tried to tie up the Austrian Habsburgs in their hinterland and contacted Rákóczy. He was initially uncertain, but in the autumn of 1700 he was encouraged by Margrave Ferriol(wd), Louis XIV”s envoy in Vienna, to take the Hungarian side against the Habsburgs, promising financial and armed support. Count Miklós Rákóczi and Count Bercsényi saw the time as ripe to launch an uprising.

On November 1, 1700, the very day Charles II died, Rákóczi wrote a letter to Louis XIV and his foreign minister: “…the welfare and interests of France are, so to speak, identical with those of Hungary; the orders are dissatisfied with the unlawful proceedings of the Viennese court; now, more than ever, an end can be achieved if France and Hungary do not withdraw their aid…”

He entrusted the letters to Longueval, an Imperial lieutenant born in Liège, whom he had known for nearly three years, and who was on his way home from Upper Hungary to the Low Countries, from where he could easily travel to Paris. But Longueval, who knew Rákóczi”s secrets, made them known to Bécce. The government, wanting to know more, allowed Longueval to continue his journey. In Paris, the spy received a letter from the foreign minister, in which he promised to send money and military aid to Rákóczi. A further exchange of letters followed on 11 February 1701, of which the Viennese government was informed.

Longueval was arrested in Linz. On 18 April, Rákóczi received a letter from his aunt in Vienna: Longueval had been arrested and letters from Hungarian gentlemen were found in his possession. Rákóczi could easily have escaped from the castle in the big city on the Polish border, but he waited for the imperial soldiers with his sick wife, who arrested him that night under General Solari and took him first to Eperjes and then to Wiener-Neustadt by order of the Emperor. There he was imprisoned in the same prison from which his maternal grandfather, Péter Zrínyi, had been taken to the scaffold 30 years before.

He was interrogated for the first time after six weeks of detention. The government, ignoring Rákóczi”s protests, created the extraordinary tribunal from Austrian gentlemen – just as they had done with Zrínyi and Frangepán. Then the Jesuits, probably through French intervention, hired the dragoon captain Gottfried Lehmann, who, together with his flag-bearing brother, escaped the lord high lord disguised in the uniform of a dragoon private. Rákóczi left behind a letter to the Emperor, in which he declared that he was ready to stand trial under the laws of Hungary.

He fled from his prison straight to the castle in Brezany, Poland, where Bercsényi, who had fled in time, was waiting for him. Even here, Rákóczi”s life was in danger because of the 10,000 forints bounty on his head.

The War of the Spanish Succession caused imperial troops to leave Hungary for the Rhine and northern Italy. There were no more than 30 000 soldiers left in the Hungarian crown.

A popular movement began in Rákóczi”s munkácsi manor, asking for his support. On 6 May 1703, he issued the Brezna Proclamation calling the “noble and the ignoble” to war. On 1703, the nobleman Tamás Esze of Tarpa and the prince in hiding, Rákóczi, met in person at the castle of Brezna in Poland and issued the Brezna Proclamation calling for an uprising, entitled “To all the princes and republics of the Christian world…”. It was here that Tamás Esze received copies of the red-coloured Kuruc war banner and the Brezna proclamation calling the people of the country to arms, in which he calls to war all “nobles and nobodies”, i.e. the Hungarian nation. His famous flag bore the inscription ”Cum Deo pro patria et libertate” (”With God for the fatherland and freedom”).

However, the peasant rebellion still met with resistance from the nobility. The Tiszahát uprising began on 21 May, and by the end of the month the rebels had occupied the Tiszahát plain and were awaiting the arrival of Rakoczi. Rákóczi did not come, however, because he was waiting for the French aid money and the mercenaries who could be hired on it. Thus the War of Independence lost the advantage of its initial momentum and about two months. On 7 June, the peasants of Satu Mare, under the command of Sándor Károlyi, the chief bailiff of Dolha, crushed the peasant armies. Rákóczi feared that further delays would thwart his plans. His soldiers therefore joined the Hungarian and Ruthenian peasant troops under the command of Tamás Esze at the village of Klimiec near Lavocsne on the border of the country on 15 June 1703. This amounted to 200 infantrymen armed with clubs, scythes, spears, poor-performance peasant rifles or swords, and 50 horsemen. The army led by Rákóczi crossed the Polish-Hungarian border on 16 June 1703 and arrived in Hungary via the Vereckei Pass. The total army at that time was about 3000 men. After the surprise capture of Munkács failed, Rákóczi retreated back to the Polish border.

At the beginning of July, László Ocskay and Balázs Borbély, who had escaped from the imperial service, joined the army here with a small but well-equipped cavalry, and then Bercsényi arrived with a Polish and Romanian mercenary force of about 600. Rákóczi”s military plan was that after the rapid liberation of the Upper Tisza region, the Kuruc army would march through northern Hungary under Vienna and unite here with the Franco-Bavarian army advancing from the west.

The main problem at first was that the nobility did not want to join Rákóczy, and some of them even took up armed struggle against the Kuruks. The Kuruc army that set out to conquer Tiszántúl was met by noble troops at Tiszabecs. The battle that broke out at the crossing on 14 July ended in a Kuruc victory and, as it was the first victorious battle of the War of Independence, it had a significant moral impact. However, despite the prince”s proclamations to the nobility of Sabolac from Vásárosnamény, they took a reserved position. Rákóczzi”s task was to rid the uprising of its popular character. He soon succeeded in doing so, and in his Gyulaj patent of 24 July 1703 he forbade attacks against the nobles. In possession of the castle of Kálló, taken on 29 July, Rákóczi was able to force the accession of the Hajdúks. Seeing the successes, the nobility of the county began to rally behind Rákóczi. Meanwhile, the peasants were also flocking under his banner, so the increase in the army”s numbers also caused serious social problems. The sowing pact, published on 28 August, exempted serfs and their families fighting in the Kuruc army from all public taxes and landlord services, but the pact, amended on 27 September following the discontent of the nobles, applied only to serfs fighting and not to their families. Thus the sowing pacts allowed serfs and nobles to fight together, but did not satisfy either party. The negative impact of this unresolved problem continued throughout the War of Independence, but Rákóczi”s policy proved to be effective, as the Kuruc army, placed under the leadership of the nobility, achieved considerable success.

On 26 September 1703, he could already write to Louis XIV that he had the country in his power all the way to the Danube. By 1705, he had also taken control of most of the Danube region, so that the imperialists were forced to retreat across the Drava, to the border region and southern Transylvania, and to the larger castles.

The clashes

Rákóczi then published his proclamation Recrudescunt vulnera inclytae gentis Hungarae (The wounds of the noble Hungarian nation are being torn open) to justify his attack before the country and the world. The imperial court was forced to enter into negotiations with him as a belligerent party. Unfortunately for him, on 13 August 1704, at the Battle of höchstädt, the Habsburg troops defeated the combined armies of the French and the Bavarians, exhausted by the Austro-British-Dutch-Portuguese-Savoy coalition. Bavaria fell into the hands of the Allies, and the Bavarian prince who had been set to take the throne was forced to flee instead of going through Bohemia to the aid of Rákóczi. Rákóczi found himself in a difficult situation. He could not levy taxes, as they went against the promises he had made to his soldiers; he could not expect the people to serve and pay. To resolve the situation, he minted large amounts of copper money, although this had been unknown in Hungary since the time of Béla IV. The money, which was called “congo” after the silver blade, or “libertas” after the inscription “Pro libertate”, was difficult to keep in circulation. French military aid came irregularly and in diminishing quantities, and lack of money meant that Rákóczi could only maintain a relatively small army. The commoners outnumbered the freedom fighters ten to one.

Despite all this, the fight continued with varying degrees of success. On 13 June 1704, Simon Forgách lost a battle to Heister at Koronco. In the winter of 1704, he took Érsekújvár, but the value of the military victory was diminished by the defeat at Nagyszombat, where Rákóczi personally led the army against Heister. Thus the prince”s most organised infantry was lost. This weapon, together with artillery, was relatively under-represented in the Hungarian army, which consisted predominantly of light cavalry, and was well suited to rapid raids and brilliant warfare, but could not be used effectively for either city raids or open engagements.

For this reason, the prince and his men avoided large, orderly battles and began to organise modern, well-equipped regular regiments, but this had little effect due to lack of funds. Rákóczi created the generalship and brigadier-general”s corps mainly from respected lords and noblemen. Many of them proved to be excellent officers, but few of them had the necessary talent for command.

On 6 July 1704 Rákóczi was elected prince of the Transylvanian orders, and the imperial commander-in-chief Rabutin fled south to the Saxon territories, which had always been separated from the troubles.

On 5 May 1705, Lipót died, and was succeeded by Joseph I. On 3 July 1705, the prince addressed his soldiers at Gyömrő, the effect of which was reflected in the further military successes of the War of Independence (the only complete work of his that survives in manuscript).The balance of military power at the end of the year is well illustrated by the fact that while Rákóczi lost Transylvania with the Battle of Zsibo, the armies of Vak Bottyán conquered the Danube region. (The figure of 100,000 in the literature is due to a misunderstanding of the number of military rations: since only privates received a ration and officers received more and more in proportion to their rank, there is a considerable discrepancy between the number of rations and the actual number of personnel!)

Nationalities and foreign mercenaries

Among the nationalities of Hungary, the Ruthenian serfs of Rákóczi”s vast estate of munkácsi and szentmiklós were the first to join the fight for freedom. Some of them served in the Prince”s court palace regiment. The German bourgeoisie of the Highland towns, together with the majority of Slovaks and Romanians, also joined Rákócsi. The Cypriots of Spiš served in the infantry regiments of Orbán Czelder and the Slovaks of the Highlands mostly Imre Révay, Gáspár Révay, Gáspár Thuróczy and Gáspár Szádeczky. Ádám Bácsmegyey, the head of the bomb-making factory in Kassa, was also a native Slovakian. The best known leader of the Transylvanian Romanians, Gligor Pintye, was killed at Nagybánya at the very beginning of the uprising, but there are also several other Romanian troop commanders, such as János Csurulya (Ion Ciurulea), István Szudricsán (originally Sunkár) and Markuly Hátszegi (Hatzogan), who escaped from Oradea to join the Kuruks. The accession of these three nationalities or ethnic groups was of course also linked to the fact that the areas they inhabited formed the base area of the War of Independence.

The Slovenes (Vendees) of Vas and Zala counties also joined the fight for freedom. Because of the raids and destruction of the marching imperial and Serbian forces, the nobility of the Tótság, especially the nobility of the Bocskoros, who had won their rights when the Turks were expelled, began to organise at the beginning of 1704. Led by Miklós Szapáry, they were already ready to revolt and on 2 February 1704 they asked Sándor Károlyi for authorisation to take action against the Laban. Károlyi allowed this, and later, with the help of the local inhabitants, he defeated the forces of the Styrian castle-mayor near Szentgotthárd, and later on, Vak Bottyán won a significant victory in the same place. Also in 1704, the Slovene peasantry began to organise, but they attacked not only the Austrians but also the raiding Kuruks, but later they took up arms mainly against the abuses of the Serbian and Austrian troops. On 4 March 1704, thanks in part to the help of Szapáry and the people of the Tótság, the Kurds took Felsőlendva without bloodshed, and then fought a minor battle at Rakichán. In September 1705, the Labanci inflicted considerable damage on the manor of Alsólendva, which also encouraged resistance by Slovenes and Hungarians there.

On the other hand, the Croats, who enjoyed internal autonomy, the Serbs (Races), privileged by the emperor, and the Transylvanian Saxons – although several attempts were made to win them over – were always opposed to the Kuruks. In the background of these seemingly irreconcilable differences was the fact that Rákóczi could not promise the Croats and Serbs more than they already had, and their political victory was not likely to be successful.The Serb-Hungarian (or more precisely, the Races in imperial service and the Kuruc army) conflicts, reminiscent of the fights in the Turkish Highlands (and ultimately rooted there), led to a series of clashes. The bloody battles continued throughout the eight years of the War of Independence, causing immense suffering to the civilian population of the Great Plain, both Hungarian and Serbian peasantry. Among the mutual revenge campaigns, the Kuruc and Rhaetian attacks on Pécs (1 February and 26 March 1704), the two campaigns of the Kuruks in Bačka (1704, 1707) and the brutal slaughter of the Rhaetian troops in Kecskemét (1707. There were, of course, exceptions among the South Slavic nationalities. János Arelt, a judge from Banská Štiavnica, was elected a Saxon member of the Transylvanian princely council and remained on Rákóczi”s side throughout his life.

The Danes were also involved in the Habsburg Empire, although not actively, in the fighting against the Kuruks. Denmark lent regiments to Vienna, which fought mostly on fronts in Germany, Italy, Spain and France, but a regiment was also sent to Hungary, and almost every year Danes were stationed on Hungarian territory and used against Rákóczi and his allies. In addition to them, whole regiments from the forces of the German-Roman Empire were also sent to Hungarian territory, with men from almost every principality, electorate, kingdom, duchy, bishopric or city-state. In addition, the imperial army also took in various adventurers, renegades, including Spanish, French, Italian, Germanic and English nobles, and even a former Turkish prince and a Romanian boyar are known to historians. Prussian and Baden auxiliary troops, in numbers similar to the Danes, were also involved in the fighting against the Kurds, and even Swiss mercenaries were employed by the imperial command.

In addition to the native nationalities, foreign mercenaries (Poles, Romanians from the Great Plain and Moldavia, and to a lesser extent Turks, Lithuanian Lipeks and Crimean Tatars) also fought in the Kuruc army. After the Battle of Poltava, Swedish mercenaries also joined Rákóczy for a short time. Some of the German officers who had defected from the imperial army later became traitors, for example the Scharudi battalion turned against the Kuruks at the Battle of Grossstadt, but others sealed their loyalty to Rákóczi with their deaths, for example Colonel Johann Eckstein was executed by General Heister after the capture of Veszprém (1709).

The role of the French military advisers sent by Louis XIV was far more important than their small numbers. They served Rákóczi”s cause very well, especially in the regular units, artillery and technical troops. We may mention by name the knight Fierville le Hérissy, the brigadier-general engineers Louis Lemaire and François Damoiseau, and the artillery colonel Rivière, who was married in Hungary.


On 20 September 1705, Rákóczi called a national assembly in Szécsény, where the orders formed a confederation and Rákóczi was elected the leading prince of Hungary. A 25-member Senate was elected to assist the prince, and István Sennyey was elected chancellor-general. It was decreed that anyone who had taken up arms in the War of Independence would be obliged to serve in the army until the end of the war, which caused serious tension in the volunteer army. They settled the disputes between the different denominations, deciding on the affiliation of the churches, and entrusted Rákóczi and the Senate with the task of negotiating peace.

On 11 November 1705, Rákóczi was defeated near Zsibó, so he had to withdraw from Transylvania (the courtly orders of 1705

The Ionian Parliament

In order to solve the situation, Rákóczi called a national assembly on 1 May 1707, in a field near Ónod. The parliament had three main points on its agenda: overcoming economic difficulties, strengthening the army and the state organisation, and – as a programme that had been kept secret for the time being – dethroning the Habsburgs. On 6 June, the Diet, which opened on 31 May in the presence of Rákóczi, began a debate that turned into a bloody insult. The ambassadors of Turóc County – the spokesmen of the peace party, organised from among the county nobility – accused the prince of pursuing selfish interests in the copper money debate. Rákóczi, exasperated, threatened to resign (“I am more ready to be deprived of my life in one corner of the country than to be called a tyrant instead of the expected thanks.”) In their indignation, Károlyi and Bercsényi mowed down the Turots” envoys, and the princely troops, fearing for Rákóczi”s life, pointed their cannons at the Diet. After the bloody interlude, the Diet passed important resolutions. They voted in favour of public service – a term first used by Rákóczi in our mother tongue – which had few precedents in Europe at the time. Apart from the property tax levied in 1542, this was the only time in Hungary when the Diet passed a law on the tax liability of nobles. The Parliament also enacted the Uniform Military Regulations for the Electoral Army (Regulamentum Universale). On 13 May 1707, Rákóczi personally presented the bill on the dethronement of the Habsburgs to the Assembly. There were primarily foreign policy reasons for the dethronement, since Louis XIV had so far avoided the treaty of alliance with Rákóczi on the pretext that he could not ally himself with a rebel subject of a sovereign monarch. The dethronement removed the main obstacle in principle to the Franco-Hungarian alliance, but it did not harm the chances of peace with the Habsburgs, because it had already become clear in 1706 that no peace could be concluded with the Habsburgs on acceptable terms. Bercsényi”s supportive speech ended with the famous exclamation “The lord of Eb is the fakó! This ended the possibility of a reconciliation, but the alliance with the French that had been hoped for did not come about either. Despite the proclamation of independence, Louis XIV was reluctant to enter into a formal alliance with the prince, and encouraged the disappointed Rákóczi to make peace. The worsening military situation was not helped by the fact that the assembly had introduced a public service, and the peasants” enthusiasm was not helped by the formal promise of freedom for the soldiers of the Hajdú.

At the same time as the dethronement, the Diet of Ognod declared the interregnum (“we declare our country to be without a king”) and entrusted Rákóczi with the nomination of the king. Rákóczi wanted a king who could bring with him sufficient help to defend the Hungarian throne, and his first candidate was the Bavarian Electoral Prince Emmanuel Miksa. Miksa was well known in Hungary, so his election would have been easy, but the elector, who had recently lost his country, evaded the invitation. The other serious candidate was the heir to the Prussian throne, Frederick William of Prussia, but Prussia was a member of the anti-Bourbon League of The Hague, so Frederick could not openly accept the Hungarian crown. Rákóczi tried to win the support of the Prussians with a campaign in Silesia, but his plan was thwarted by the resistance of the Kuruc generals.

Turning point: the Battle of Trenčín and its consequences

On August 3, 1708, Generals Sigbert Heister and János Pálffy clashed with the Kuruc army near Trenčín. The outnumbered Kuruc army suffered a catastrophic defeat due to serious tactical errors. Rákóczi tried to intervene personally, but his horse stumbled while jumping over a ditch and threw the prince off his horse; only his bodyguards could save him. The army was demoralised and the imperial troops easily routed the prince”s forces. In particular, the infantry (such as the Palatine regiment, one of the best trained and best equipped) suffered heavy losses.

The Kuruk leaders began to defect to the imperialists, the most famous examples being László Ocskay and Imré Bezerédj, who were later captured and executed by the Kuruk troops. Rákóczi had been in steady decline since 1707, and the death of János Bottyán at the end of September 1709 deprived him of another talented commander. On 22 January 1710, he fought a draw with the imperialists between Romhány and Érsekvadkert with 3,500 foreign mercenaries. On top of this, the plague was spreading, especially in the ill-fed and ill-clothed Kuruc camp. The country was exhausted and the Prince and his men were forced to retreat.

The end

Since he could no longer rely on the French, the prince tried to make an alliance with the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, which was advocated by Bercsényi in particular. He was unsuccessful here – the Tsar only wanted to relieve himself from the south in the Northern War against Sweden – and was forced to negotiate another peace. The emperor entrusted the conduct of these to General János Pálffy, and Rákóczi gave Sándor Károlyi the command of his troops, with orders to hold out as long as possible.

The Prince”s troops had already been driven out of Transylvania in 1707. At Romhány, with his army of Kuruc, Swedish, Polish and French troops, he tried to force a victory against the Austrians, but his tactical errors prevented him from winning this battle. By the end of 1710, only Kassa, Ungvár, Munkács, Huszt, Kővár and the environs of Szatmárnémeti remained under his control in Hungary. The country was on its borders, with nowhere to retreat to. He therefore left Hungary for good on 21 February 1711. He lived in Poland and then in England. However, he could not stay here because of the intercession of the court of Vienna, so on 13 January 1713 he went to France, where he could be under the protection of Louis XIV. After the king”s death (1715), however, he accepted the invitation of the Turkish Porte and moved to Rhodes in the Ottoman Empire in 1717. There he died on 8 April 1735.

When Rákóczi left, he gave the command of his troops to Sándor Károlyi, and Károlyi swore an oath of allegiance to Emperor Joseph on 14 March 1711, without Rákóczi”s knowledge. At the meeting convened in Hustra a few days later, Rákóczi again declared that he would only negotiate after the achievements of the War of Independence had been recognised. Without the prince”s consent, Károlyi called a meeting of the Order in Szatmár and accepted Pálffy”s peace offer. In response, Rákóczi deprived Károlyi of the post of commander-in-chief and issued an impassioned proclamation on 18 April, but Pálffy and Károlyi did everything in their power to conclude peace. According to the decision of the assembly in Satu Mare, the Kuruc guards of the city of Kassa surrendered on 26 April, and on 30 April the 12,000 rebels still in arms surrendered their flags to the imperialists on the field of Majtény near Satu Mare, and each was allowed to return to his home after taking the oath of allegiance. The next day, on 1 May 1711, the text of the peace treaty, which had been finalised on 29 April, was authenticated in Nagykároly. Of the fortresses still resisting, the guards of Kővár, Huszt and Ungvár also surrendered in mid-May and the defenders of Mukachevo in the second half of June, and accepted the Peace of Satu Mare.

The peace pledged to restore the constitution, guarantee religious freedom, convene a new parliament as soon as possible, grant amnesty to those who had participated in the war of independence, and abolish institutions and dignitaries that offended Hungarians. The right of resistance and the free election of kings were not restored, nor was a separate Hungarian army created. Nor were the grievances of the serfs settled, but the Peace of Satu Mare meant that Hungary retained its relative independence by maintaining the dualism of the Order with the King. From another point of view, however, the Peace of Satu Mare restored the very orderly privileges that Rákóczi”s state had sought to abolish, thus thwarting the aspiration to a modern social structure. Posterity and contemporaries alike were divided over whether Károlyi”s act was treason or the only good thing he had done.

The peace of Satu Mare was relatively favourable for Rákóczi, considering the circumstances. He was granted a pardon if he took the oath of allegiance within three weeks. If he did not want to stay in the country, he could leave for Poland after taking the oath of allegiance. But he refused to accept this. In the absence of international assurances, he did not trust the promises to be fulfilled, nor did he consider the treaty, which Pálffy had concluded after the death of Emperor Joseph I on 17 April, when the power he had gained from him had ceased, to be valid. Thus, while he sought refuge in France and then in the Ottoman Empire, his estates were divided up among the nobility.

This is how he later summed up the reasons for the fall of the War of Independence:

In 1717, the Prince entrusted Field Marshal Antal Esterházy with leading a military expedition of the Kuruks in hiding, who tried to foment rebellion in Transylvania and Maramures with a few hundred Kuruks. However, due to the devastation caused by the Tartars who came to the aid of the rebels, the enterprise was a complete failure.

Documents, studies, collections


  1. Rákóczi-szabadságharc
  2. Rákóczi”s War of Independence
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