CHAPTER IV
THE
PROGRESS OF UNITARIANISM IN TRANSYLVANIA TO THE DEATH OF JOHN SIGISMUND, 1569–1571

AFTER THE GREAT VÁRAD DEBATE Mélius, though he seems to have given up his efforts to promote his cause in Transylvania, only redoubled them in his own territory in eastern Hungary. The heresy must have been evident in many places, for in the course of 1568 he was very active against the Unitarians, holding debates against them in various towns. 1 In closing the Várad debate the King promised the other side that if they wished to debate with Dávid in any public place in his dominions they might freely do so without hindrance; and that even if they wished to bring Beza or Simler from Switzerland he would pit Dávid against them; 2 but no advantage was taken of the permission. At the end of the authorized report of the debate, there was printed the confession of Dávid and his brethren about the one God the Father, and his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as apparently the accepted conclusion of the debate; while in opposition to this, sixty Calvinist ministers from Hungary unanimously adopted and subscribed a Sententia Catholica seu Consensus of their own. 3 Mélius was still urgent for further debate in his own territory, and invited David and his brethren to assist at a disputation at Csenger or Miskolcz, offering them a safe conduct from the German ruler, promising them a safe return, and venturing to stake his life and fortune on the result; 4 but the King had already forbidden them to go to a foreign country to debate, and they had to reply in writing to the propositions submitted for discussion. 5

The debates at Gyulafehérvár and Várad not only made a great impression at home but excited intense interest abroad. While the struggle was in process the Hungarian students of theology at Wittenberg, doubtless with the assistance of their professors, drew up in 1568 a strong trinitarian confession in sixteen articles which all subscribed, binding themselves by a solemn oath to be constant to it so long as they should live; and future students must do the same or else be regarded as blasphemers doomed to suffer the terrible judgment of God. Three years later this action was reaffirmed by unanimous vote, together with detailed rules for the conduct of life. 6 Famous German theologians also took up the fight from afar against Dávid and Biandrata: Professor Girolamo Zanchi of Heidelberg and Professor Georg Major of Wittenberg wrote weighty books, the latter writing with much malice and descending to personal invective. 7 They strove not only to confirm their own students but also to stir up Princes and people throughout western Europe against a heresy which if it continued its rapid spread might infect all Protestantism. Unitarianism was rapidly spreading at this period both in Transylvania and in the southern counties of Hungary. Stephen Basilius, who had taken a minor part in the debate at Várad, had already made some 3,000 converts there, so the local pastors Czegledi and Károli complained. 8 The Unitarians had a church and a famous school here until near the end of the sixteenth century. 9 Encouraged by his success here, Basilius now, assisted by two helpers sent from Transylvania, entered on extensive missionary work in the counties of Lower Hungary, where the tolerant Turkish government made his work the easier, preaching and holding public debates with the Calvinists. Thus Unitarian views soon became wide-spread both there and west of the Danube. Unitarian preachers penetrated to the old university city of Pécs (Fünfkirchen) and won many influential converts, making this a strong centre of missionary operations. Helpers were sent from Transylvania, and the press that had been used at Gyulafehévár in the Unitarian interest under King John was brought here after his death and continued to serve the same cause. The Calvinist church at Pécs was given the Unitarians in 1570, and they held it for well over a century. The rapid growth of the movement in Transylvania at this period is witnessed by the fact that after but eight years from Várad a general synod at Torda was attended by 322 ministers, with no account taken of those detained for various reasons; and in 1595 the number of churches in Transylvania and the neighboring counties had grown to more than 525, besides those in Lower Hungary. 10

    The golden age for Dávid’s religion seemed now to be at hand. It had been victorious in discussions of the widest reach. It had been accepted by the King and his court, and by so large a proportion of the Hungarian and Szekler population that Calvinism seemed hardly to have a competent spokesman left in Transylvania proper. But Dávid, while incomparable in convincing and inspiring his followers, had as yet done little to organize them for an effective part in the religious life of the nation. It is difficult from the scanty and imperfect records accessible to form a distinct picture of a movement that was still only in its formative or, as one might say, prenatal stage. Dávid found himself indeed after the Várad debate the acknowledged leader of a large and rapidly growing number of congregations that had already five years since withdrawn their allegiance to the Augsburg Confession, and had thus been cut off from fellowship with the Saxon Lutherans; but though the congregations in the eastern counties of Hungary had now adopted the Helvetic Confession as their doctrinal standard at Debreczen in 1567, and had elected Mélius as their Superintendent, doctrines were still in the plastic stage among David’s churches in Transylvania. For while Biandrata and David had indeed offered their own theses or propositions for discussion at several synods in recent years, yet these had not been regularly adopted by the churches themselves as the doctrinal basis of their union; and in any case, instead of being a rounded confession these covered only two or three articles of doctrine. Indeed, the so-called synods themselves had not been true synods, where matters of church administration were determined, but instead were hardly more than public debates. Nor does David himself in this controversial period seem to have been still acting as a rule in the capacity of Superintendent, but to have chosen rather to act simply as chief minister of the Kolozsvár church, and to have subscribed himself as a ‘servant of the Church of Jesus Christ,’ 11 or as a brother minister. In short, we still have to do not with a body of churches formally organized, but only with a loose aggregation, having as yet no authorized officials to administer it, no adopted standard to rally about or appeal to, nor even an accepted name to call itself by. 12

    So long as King John lived and showed them his favor, Dávid’s churches might expect to prosper; but his hold on life seemed precarious, and never so much so as in the two years following the Várad disputation. However much the religious liberty of individuals might be guaranteed by existing decrees, if he were suddenly to die, with the churches so poorly organized as they were, and lacking any legal protection for their common cause, their future as a body would be dubious. Dávid and the leaders of his churches therefore persuaded the King to bring their cause before the Diet and secure them the protection of a definite status, enjoying equal rights with the other religious bodies. 13 This he willingly did at the Diet of Maros-Vásárhely, January 6–14, 1571, where the churches adhering to David were granted formal recognition as one of the ‘received religions,’ enjoying equally with Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists the constitutional right of freedom in public worship and of access to public honors and offices. This right was confirmed and repeatedly reaffirmed at subsequent Diets, and the law about the four received religions was later embodied in the second article of the Approved Constitutions of the land, 14 which each ruler upon taking office was required henceforth to take solemn oath that he would defend and maintain; whereas the other existing religions were merely ‘tolerated,’ and any rights they were allowed to exercize might at any time be withdrawn without protection from the law. 15 In 1744 legal recognition was given also to the Greek Catholic Church.

King John’s action in securing legal recognition for the Unitarian churches at this Diet was his last public act, and it was none too soon; for it barely saved those churches from the extinction that was later to overcome their brethren in Poland. On the next day, after the members of the Diet had departed, he went, accompanied by Dávid, Biandrata and a few close friends, to seek relaxation in a hunting expedition in the neighboring forests of the Szeklerland. He first drove in a carriage to his castle at Vécs, but on the way, as they were turning into a side road, the spirited horses accidentally ran off the side of the road so violently that he was shaken up and seriously hurt. When he had recovered he went on to Görgény, but there he soon fell seriously ill and had to keep his bed for nearly two months of intense suffering. When at length able to be moved he was placed upon pillows and bolsters and taken slowly back to his capital. Here serious complications set in from which he was unable to rally. Foreseeing the end he made his will, and died on March 14, 1571, in his thirty-first year, 16 the only Unitarian King in history. 17

After the customary period of forty days’ mourning for a sovereign, the formal obsequies were performed, with an eloquent eulogy pronounced by Johannes Sommer, Rector of the school at Kolozsvár; after which the body was entombed in the vestibule of the cathedral at Gyulafehérvár, beside that of his mother the Queen Isabella. 18

Judgments and opinions on the character and services of John Sigismund have varied widely, and have often been influenced by religious prepossessions. Bishop Forgács of Várad, who eventually deserted his King and went over to his enemy the Emperor Maximilian, considering John as a conspicuously wicked and abandoned heretic, regarded him as a sink of all iniquities, and could find nothing good to say of either his mother or him.19 Istvánfi, writing in the next century, followed the same line, and concluded his account with the judgment that ‘he doubtless went to hell.”20  On the other hand, the Lutheran jurist and historian Miles, despite a wide difference of religion, gives a sympathetic account, and calls John ‘a noble hero, who was a true ornament of his age and a mirror of all virtues, who was so endowed by nature and so manly and heroic in his spirit, that had his slight body, his limited strength and his feeble constitution been equal to his active spirit and his dauntless courage, he might have surpassed all the monarchs and heroes of his time.’ 21 While Giovanandrea Gromo, who was at his court for two years as commander of the King’s Italian bodyguard, in an account dedicated to his ruling prince, the Duke Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence, represents him as kind and generous in his nature, an accomplished linguist, expert in music, temperate in his habits, excelling in manly sports, brave in danger, an exemplar of high-minded virtue.22 He generously promoted education, founding secular schools and colleges in place of the old monastic schools, and invited able foreign scholars to conduct them. He was also a generous patron of music and the arts, and enjoyed the recreation of conversation with learned men.

Yet even the most sympathetic judgment can hardly pronounce John Sigismund a great ruler. His span of life was too short, the limitations of his health were too serious, his sphere of influence was too narrow, and the external situations that he had to face were too hostile, for him to reach a great stature. The plastic years of his youth were passed in exile, and provided but poor training for his future responsibilities as king, while his anxious and over-watchful mother doubtless kept him too long dependent upon her. His bodily health was never strong, and throughout his mature life he was a chronic sufferer from intestinal troubles. Worst of all, he early became subject to attacks of epilepsy, which increased in frequency and violence as the anxieties of state and his personal troubles weighed upon him, so that his life was several times despaired of.23

As King of Transylvania he had a very troubled reign. Ambitious magnates in his own dominions, encouraged by foreign powers, raised a rebellion which had to be sternly put down. His enemies plotted against his person, and his life was attempted no less than nine times.24 The Emperors Ferdinand and Maximilian never relaxed their claim to sovereignty over his country, pressed it from time to time as circumstances favored, and stirred up his neighbors to weaken or distract him by invasion. He was thus kept in intermittent war during most of his reign, alternately victorious and forced to appeal to the Sultan for assistance. His campaigns and negotiations were carried on with firmness and skill, and often with success, for he had fortunately chosen wise and able counselors; and when in 1566 Maximilian had succeeded in poisoning the Sultan’s mind against him, he boldly determined to go to the Turkish camp in person, and thus he restored himself to confidence. But when at length it became clear that Transylvania had no prospect of winning its long struggle against the forces of the Empire, he sought peace. He had been publicly betrothed to the Emperor’s youngest daughter Johanna when his mother resigned her power in 1551, though when she was restored in 1566 this was broken off because he was then unwilling to renounce his title as King.25 Both he and his leading subjects, however, were very desirous that he marry, that he might leave an heir to the throne. To that end several futile essays were made. King Henry II of France, seeking broader alliances, offered his daughter in 1558, and two years later the Sultan urged his marriage with Margaret of Valois, sister of Charles IX, though nothing came of either plan;26 but now that his health was less and less certain, and he had grown weary of the fruitless contest, and the future welfare of his people was at stake, he was persuaded once more to seek peace and friendship with the Emperor.

The delicate negotiations were placed in the hands of the King’s most trusted counselor, Gáspár Békés, who had already rendered him distinguished service as his envoy to the Sultan. With a brilliant escort, bearing splendid gifts, and accompanied by an influential sponsor from the King of Poland, Békés sought the Emperor first at Prague and then at Speyer.27 A treaty was drawn up in the summer of 1570  providing that old enmities should be buried; that John was to give up the title of King on which he had so long insisted, and was instead to have the quasi-royal title of Most Serene Prince; that he was to have the hereditary right to all of Transylvania, and during his life-time was also to rule over the neighboring counties of Hungary; and finally that he was to have in marriage one of the nieces of the Emperor.28 The Emperor signed the treaty and Békés triumphantly returned to Transylvania with it to be signed by John, who was elated that his troubles promised now to be at an end. On the day after Christmas, now that the King’s health had somewhat improved, Békés set out again for Prague, where the treaty was duly confirmed by the Imperial Diet.29 But meanwhile the King again fell seriously ill, and he was further depressed by the report that the daughter of the Duke of Bavaria had refused to marry him on account of his ‘Arianism,’ and that another niece, daughter of the Duke of Jülich, was not desirable, being ill-favored, and ignorant of any language but German.30 Before ever Békés was able to return to his side, John took a serious turn for the worse and died at the middle of March, as has already been related. This unexpected event created a serious situation for all concerned, as will presently appear.31

Whatever may be judged of John Sigismund as a civil ruler, embarrassed as he constantly was by a nation of disunited elements within, and by powerful enemies ceaselessly plotting to overthrow him from without, yet in one respect he stands preeminent over the other rulers of his time; for he was throughout his reign a resolute champion of freedom of conscience and of liberty in the choice and exercise of religion. Predisposed by the experiences of his youth, and doubtless influenced by his teachers and advisers, but also observing the ruinous consequences of conflicts over matters of religion, he was at the beginning of his reign ready to carry on and extend the principle first decreed in his mother’s regency, that every one may hold the faith of his choice without offence given or wrong suffered or done by any. This principle, as we have seen, was repeatedly confirmed and enlarged by successive Diets in the course of his reign until the very eve of his death, when as contrasted with all the other nations of the time, the four main religions of Transylvania were by law bound together to maintain complete religious freedom for themselves and entire toleration for one another, while the minor religions also practically enjoyed equal toleration if not equal privileges. Thus at a time when in other countries the privileged religions were exercising pressure more or less severe to overthrow or exterminate their rivals, no religious persecution was permitted in Transylvania under the rule of John Sigismund. Nay more, at a period when his own religion through open debate had won a sweeping popular victory, and when it was espoused by the great majority of the members of his government, no advantage was taken of the opportunity to secure especial privileges for it, but equal rights and privileges were secured for all four of the received religions. In the year when King John issued his final charter, guaranteeing full religious liberty to even the most bitterly opposed of all the reformed sects, Protestant theologians were still praising Calvin for having burned Servetus alive, the Inquisition was shedding Protestant blood in the Netherlands, the massacre of Protestants in France on St. Bartholomew’s eve was still a year and a half in the future, and more than forty years were still to pass before persons ceased to be burned at the stake in England for holding wrong religious opinions; while even in Poland it was not until more than two years later that Catholics and Protestants agreed in the common interest not to shed each other’s blood.

This enlightened and resolute stand on the part of the King was not maintained without the bitterest opposition. Not only was he abused and maligned by the orthodox confessions at home and abroad, but he was tempted by alluring inducements from Catholic sources to secure great political advantages by changing his faith. Even Biandrata seems to have favored his compliance.32 Nevertheless, being firmly convinced by the persuasive preaching of Dávid, the King remained true to his convictions and acted consistently with them though even after his death malicious slanders of his name continued, so that his successor  Stephen Báthory found it necessary to issue a sharp edict against such evil men.33 Thus under his leadership in his short reign the Reformation was consistently carried out without bloodshed; and although the principle of religious liberty for all was often infringed in later generations, the four received religions have never renounced it, and it has been their proud tradition for nearly four hundred years.

King John’s death while Békés was absent on his mission had serious consequences. Békés had long been his most intimate counselor, had successfully conducted his most important negotiations with both Emperor and Sultan, had taken sympathetic interest in his religious reforms, and he was named in the King’s will (of which he was made an executor) as his choice for his successor on the throne. He himself confidently looked forward to being the next ruler of Transylvania, and hence was extremely reluctant to undertake this latest mission when the King’s life seemed so uncertain, and finally did so only upon the insistence of the King and his leading men.34 Had he been present to take charge of affairs when the King died he would no doubt have been elected in his place; but in his absence various factors worked against him. He had spent his youth in the household of Petrovics, who at his death recommended him to Isabella and the young Prince as an adviser in war and in peace.35 Through his abilities, character and important services he won the complete favor of the King, was rapidly advanced to the highest offices, and was given princely estates in Fogaras County on the southern border of the country; and he had wide popularity among the middle nobility. But the fact that he was not of pure Hun­garian origin, being the son of a Wallack mother and a Hungarian father of only the middle nobility, made some disaffected toward him; while there were also many influential men that envied him for his sudden rise to higher station than their own, hated him for his religion, and disliked him for his haughtiness and arrogance.36 Thus much feeling against him was stirred up in the months of his long absence. He had secured ratification of the treaty with Maximilian, and was still arranging details in Vienna when word came of the King’s death. He at once set out for Transylvania, bearing letters from the Emperor in his favor addressed to various leading nobles; but an illness made his progress slow. Meantime danger from neighboring enemies made it necessary to set up a temporary government, and his chief rival, Christopher Báthory, was made interim ruler until the Diet should hold an election. He had preceded Békés as High Chamberlain, and but for his impaired health might himself have been elected to the vacant throne, but as it was he used his influence in favor of his younger brother Stephen; and as fear was entertained that Békés might allow the Emperor to encroach upon their liberties, and as the Sultan threw his weight against him, the majority cast their votes for Báthory. As the new treaty was now in force, the new ruler bore not the title of King, but that of Vaivode formerly used. The election was duly confirmed by both Emperor and Sultan.37

Although the date for the election had been deferred,38 yet Békés did not arrive with his letters from the Emperor until just too late. As he entered the city he heard the sound of the vivats in the church acclaim­ing the new ruler. Angry and bitterly disappointed of his dearest hopes, he turned into an inn, and after taking counsel of his companions left that night for his castle at Fogaras, whence he wrote the Emperor that Stephen had not been duly elected, and that he himself had as many votes, and asked that he therefore be made joint Vaivode.39 In the mean­time the new Vaivode, having taken oath to abide by the Constitution of the kingdom and to preserve for the people their religious freedom and all their ancient liberties, had the royal obsequies performed for the late King. Békés, on the other hand, shut himself up in his castle, collected a following among the malcontents, and began to stir up trouble for the new ruler. For the next four years he carried on as a free baron, acknowledging no allegiance to the present ruler of Transylvania, and ignoring summons to attend meetings of the Diet.40 He won a large following among the Szeklers, who nourished a grievance over having been deprived of some of their liberties under the previous ruler, and stirred up among them a short-lived insurrection.

After enduring two years of this public disorder, Báthory suddenly besieged Békés in his castle, who taken by surprise contrived to make a clever escape, and taking his most valuable treasures made his way to  the Emperor at Prague, to whom he had already appealed. Báthory now convened a Diet at Megyes, to which he reported the whole situation. Though many took the part of Békés, yet he was adjudged guilty of treason and hence proscribed, and his property was confiscated. Békés now, secretly encouraged by the Emperor,41 gathered from various quarters a large force and took the open field against Báthory; but his rebellion was unsuccessful, and he was decisively defeated at the middle of 1575. Békés himself escaped, but of his followers among the Szekler nobility nine of the chief ones were beheaded in the market­place at Kolozsvár, many were hanged or mutilated, many more were long imprisoned, yet others fled the country, and all lost their estates.42

To finish with Békés. For some time he had led the life of a hunted fugitive, and being forced to leave Hungary he fled to Poland, where he was for a time imprisoned. But at length, in the year after Stephen Báthory had become King of that country, occurred the most surprising event of all his eventful career. Through the intercession of the King’s successor and brother Christopher,43 Békés, seeing no other hope of recovering his fortune, now sought the King’s friendship, was pardoned by him and received into full favor, was given a Polish castle to compensate for his loss of that at Fogaras, was loaded with riches and honors, was made commander of the King’s body-guard, was his tent-mate and closest companion in the campaign against Muscovy, and as an able general served him faithfully during the remaining two years of his life.44

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