“Alien” Foreigners: Hungarians in the 16th-century Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The age of vagabonds

A number of reasons stand behind the tradition of calling the European society of the early modern period “the moving one” or the migrating one.

Hungary of the 16th century was no exception. The country’s people moved to lands in its neighbourhood and further away due to political situation in the Kingdom of Hungary, where the Reformation was spreading and the cultural movement of the Renaissance was under way paving way to closer trade ties with other nations and enabling Hungary to export its military culture. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the country famous for its ethnic and cultural diversity, was one of the most attractive destinations for Hungarians who would come there as short-time visitors, but also to work and live. Groups of the so-called “local” foreigners, including Jews, Tatars, Karaims, Armenians and Roma, enjoyed fairly good conditions of living in the GDL where they had arrived a long time ago. The emergence of “foreign” aliens, especially those from Western Europe, was particularly important for the modernisation of the state. Some of them would come together with the ruler’s courtiers, others used to work for the aristocrats in their estates, while some would join the thin ranks of city residents.

The relationship between Lithuanian and Hungarian rulers and their policies was a positive factor encouraging the immigration of Hungarians. Representatives of the Jagiellonian dynasty, well known to Hungarians, ruled Poland and the GDL in the early 16th century. Sigismund I the Old and his daughter Isabella were connected to Hungary through marital ties; while Stephen Báthory, the prince of Transylvania, became the ruler of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1576. The ruling elite required professional artisans and elite warriors for their estates, while the demand for Hungarian wine and other export goods was also on the rise.

The nation of elite warriors

Hungarians, who began arriving in the GDL in the 16th century, constituted a stable minority ranked fifth or sixth in the list of foreign people after Poles, Germans, Italians and Czechs. Representatives of the nobility, such as estate owners or elite warriors, were the most numerous immigrants, followed by skilled artisans and foot soldiers. Some of them used to stay for just a while in Lithuania, but others would move to the country permanently choosing it as their second motherland. There were just a very few of the latter, though, because of the forbidding laws in the GDL. The Statutes of Lithuania barred foreigners from taking up secular and religious offices and from buying land. Some immigrants were smart enough to bypass the regulations by reconfirming their nobility in Lithuania. The Hungarian immigration was dominated by men, and that is a yet another feature of the phenomena. Lithuania, as well as Poland, saw only a handful of women arrive, most of them were the queen’s maidservants.

Hungarians did not show much interest in moving to Lithuanian cities or working for local aristocrats in the late 15th century and for some time later. Rulers used to hire some of them for their courts during that period. Most of them were elite warriors, hussars and ratzs. (The latter name refers to mounted warriors, the predecessors of hussars, who first emerged in the 14th century in Dalmatia and Serbia, then the territories of Hungary, and became popular in the 15th century.) They included rittmeister (commanders of troop formations) Ferenc Bot, Veres Balazs and Jost Dracula, the representative of the family notorious for its eccentricity. Alexander Jagiellon sent Jost Dracula to Hungary in 1500 as part of the mission that had to establish a knightly brotherhood for fight against Muscovites and pagans.

The 16th century was the time when Hungarians consolidated their image of elite warriors in Lithuania.

Sigismund I the Old’s environment featured a number of “Hungarian” symbols; Hungarian mercenaries fought against the Grand Duchy of Moscow alongside their Lithuanian counterparts. During the reign of Sigismund II August, as the ruler used to reside in Lithuania for longer periods, broader layers of the society became familiar with the Hungarian culture. The Palace of the Grand Dukes in Vilnius turned into the main source of information on the developments in and related to Hungary. The king would receive Hungarian missions, diplomats and political figures in Vilnius.

Sigismund II August would hire a number of Hungarians for his court, starting with hussars and down to courtly artisans and courtiers. For instance, Nicholas of Kesmark, a Hungarian, was in charge of interior design from 1544 to 1548 during the construction of the Palace of the Lower Castle in Vilnius following the respective act issued by the king.

Rooted in Lithuania

“The Hungarian Epoch” in the GDL lasted for just over ten years, from 1576 to 1586 following the crowning of the Transylvanian Prince Stephen Báthory the king of Poland who also became the Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1576. While looking after the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth he now was reigning over, Báthory never forgot his motherland and its people. The proof is the successful end to the Livonian War, the major political undertaking of the king. He wished to weaken Muscovy and to forge an anti-Turk coalition capable of liberating Transylvania. He used to keep certain things reminding him of Hungary always at hand. A small chest with “important Hungarian letters” was found in the apartment in Grodno where the king died in 1586. About 10,000 Hungarians arrived in Poland and Lithuania over the years of his reign. Most of the immigrants were military men who accounted for one-tenth of the Polish-Lithuanian army since 1578. They were mercenaries who played an important role in the successful end of the Livonian War. Gáspár Bekes, Jordan Spytek, Gabriel Bekes, Balthasar Báthory, Jerzy Zibrik and others all are well known Hungarian rittmeisters. Stephen Báthory was generous whenever he wanted to thank his fellow-countrymen for their military service by giving them money or fief lands. A number of Hungarians settled down in Vilnius, Grodno and Birštonas after receiving fief lands there. Some of them (Horvat, Uzali, Eperjezs, Marianuzs etc.) made the GDL their second motherland as they created families and stayed for the rest of their lives there. The Bekes family and their Hungarian relatives, the protégées of Stephen Báthory, owned the town of Birštonas for almost 40 years, from 1579 to 1616. Gabriel Bekes Skornatu, the younger brother of Gáspár Bekes, was the first member of the family to start running Birštonas in 1579. His wife Catherine Uzali took over after several years. She lived in the town of Prienai after her second marriage when she became a wife of another Hungarian, Gáspár Horvat. She used to visit Birštonas quite often, because she had to take part in court proceedings as the representative of these possessions. The Horvat family founded a church in Prienai and moved the parish centre into the town.

Do You Know?

The hill opposite to the Gediminas Hill in Vilnius bears the name of Gáspár Bekes, the famous Hungarian nobleman and warrior. He, an Arian, was buried there due to his radical religious beliefs. He is thought to have said the following words: “I have everything from myself; I do not want to recognise God, / I do not crave for his heavens and I am no longer afraid of hell.”

The years of Stephen Báthory’s reign is the “golden age” for Hungarians in the GDL. They have never lived through better times since those. Hungarians feature the occasional literature of the GDL which celebrates the heroism of Hungarian military commanders during the Livonian War. Hungarian fashion influenced the development of men’s costumes in the 16th century. Even today, the Lithuanian language includes several Hungarian words, the reminders of the Hungarian period. Almost all of them are part of the military vocabulary: antalikas (a small barrel for beer), arkavoti (to tear to pieces), bekešas (a coat decorated with fur), dalmonas (an outer pocket), haidukas (a foot soldier), husaras (a horseman of light cavalry), kantaras (a part of horse harness gear), kuntušas (a jacket for men), karvašas (a part of armour to protect the forearm), rokošas (the nobility’s armed fight against the rule of king), šatras(a pellet). The hill opposite to the Gediminas Hill in Vilnius bears the name of Gáspár Bekes, the famous Hungarian nobleman and warrior. He, an Arian, was buried there due to his radical religious beliefs. He is thought to have said the following words: “I have everything from myself; I do not want to recognise God, / I do not crave for his heavens and I am no longer afraid of hell.”

Literature: R. Ragauskienė, Vengrai Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaikštystėje Aleksandro Jogailaičio ir Stepono Batoro laikais (1492–1586 m.), Istorija, 2008, Nr. 72, p. 21–31.

Raimonda Ragauskienė