01. 12. 2019. 14:53

Ferenc Rákóczi II Confessio Peccatoris

Anyone may say or write what he wishes about the causes of the Hungarian war and its outcomes. - An extract from the autobiography Confessio peccatoris of Ferenc Rákóczi II, due this year from Corvina.

An English translation by Bernard Adams of the autobiography and memoires of Ferenc Rákóczi II will be published early this year by Corvina with support from The Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Below is an extract from the autobiography, Confessio peccatoris; we enter the scene as the failure of the 1703-11 war is imminent.





Anyone may say or write what he wishes about the causes of the Hungarian war and its outcomes. They may accuse me of gullibility or incompetence, and the others of greed. You alone know, oh eternal wisdom, why you wished our affairs to come to such an end. Nor shall I conceal the fact that  through my inexperience I made very many mistakes in battles and that others did so too, but on examining everything with human judgement: it was lack of money and general ignorance of generalship that put a stop to our affairs, well and daringly begun and vigorously carried on even when copper coinage was in circulation. The infantry in the garrisons had, however, by then been reduced in number by an epidemic of plague, and their replacement inevitably lowered the number of troops in the front line. The enemy pressed forward slowly, taking the rivers and mountain roads, and in order to secure the territory occupied fortified the fords, established little forts and raised ramparts, but because of lack of infantry these could neither be prevented nor captured. Therefore as soon as defensive tactics were called for the only hope lay in the protection of the castles, which, thanks to the minting of copper coinage were quite well fortified and supplied. But I lacked officers suitably trained in their defence, and some fell into Austrian hands because of the lack of training of the defenders and those bearing the title of commanders, and some because of their cowardice. Only Újvár was resolutely defended, and there the defenders fought until the rampart was destroyed and a breach made, and they, being inferior in numbers, lacked the strength to halt the onslaught and were forced to make terms and surrender. The Austrians took back the other, less important fortresses by threats and promises, and so as the end of the war approached only the town of Kassa and my castle of Munkács with the neighbouring Ungvár remained loyal to me. The Austrians pressed forward, dividing their forces into several parts, and my army was their equal in numbers but not in strength. They drove us back farther day by day, and although a number of counties to our rear sufficed for the provision of cavalry the host of fleeing magnates, nobility and married soldiery who, after the enemy occupied their counties, had abandoned their estates and remained loyal to the federation, inflicted an intolerable burden on the hapless people. Winter set in,[1] and such deep snow covered the ground that even the cavalry could scarcely pass over the buried roads. The host of fugitives wandered from village to village in peasant carts seeking both sustenance and peace in the depths of the hills and marshy places. Soldiers intent on saving and feeding their families deserted the colours, and the plaints both of the nation and of fugitives were incessant in my ears. The soldiers, half naked, were driven from their posts by the severity of the frosts, and had every right to complain, some having lost their weapons, others their horses and all of them their pay, and were unable, rather than unwilling or disloyal, to stand their ground.

In my so miserable condition the only hope left to me of outside help was that expected from the Tsar of Moscow. He had withdrawn his army into Poland after his victory over the king of Sweden at Poltava,[2] and was himself awaited in neighbouring Russia. Sometime earlier this Tsar had sought through me an alliance with the king of France, and had promised that if I brought that about he and all his army would stand by me. The king of France had accepted this condition and when my ambassador returned from Paris I sent him to the Tsar to assure him in the name of the king of France of our willingness to treat and to send a formal embassy to him to expedite the matter. I had no small hope that with his assistance the fortunes of Hungary could be restored. I therefore sent Count Bercsényi, Generalissimo of the federation and my deputy, to attend to this, while I remained at Munkács to continue the war. The enemy, however, easily recaptured Szolnok and Eger, and crossed the Tisza so as to be able to encircle me by uniting part of their army with the Austrians stationed in Transylvania. I therefore took counsel with General Count Károlyi, marshal of the forces in the field, and gave him permission to write to Count János Pálffy, colonel of the imperial army, to adumbrate the prospect of peace and endeavour to arrange an armistice.

You know, Lord, why I went to Poland at this time on the fabricated pretext of arranging public business, and I do not desire to conceal from you my perfidy, although I do not display it before men. I deserved the scourge with which you punished me, and did not come to my senses because of it. It seemed that in my perplexity, in my situation of being hemmed in on every side, I would subject myself to your will and with a quiet mind endure the injustice of the world, but it was far from you because sin dwelt in me, I constantly provoked your anger and did not deserve your mercy. After that I had talks in Drohobicz, a Polish town, with Prince Dolgoruki, the Tsar's envoy plenipotentiary, and returned to Szkole, from where I had come.

Károlyi too came there in great haste – next day, if I remember correctly – having in the meantime consulted with Pálffy. He told me that Pálffy had full authority from Emperor Joseph and was inclined toward peace, but requested that in the interests of saving time and moving the treaty forward he should meet with me personally. For that purpose he agreed to our extending the armistice for two weeks if I would consent to that. The proposal was not free from difficulty: I was dealing with a Hungarian,[3] indeed, but one very much committed to friendship with the Austrians. I had to believe and trust myself to a word the validity of which the Austrians could annul: they had a way of circumventing their promises to Hungarians by all manner of excuses and deviousness. Against that, on the other hand, I was led by necessity and the glory of self-love, urged by which I thought it a disgrace to abandon my homeland in its extreme distress. It was easy to foresee that little profit and much greater harm could arise from the meeting, but I did not wish to be accused of being reluctant, in the country's pressing need, to expose myself to danger, even if more imaginary than real, for if I declined the proposal it could be said that I had let slip a good opportunity for peace.

More decisive than any argument was that I should do myself justice, and so without delay, in the stormy night, beneath a sky pouring down huge snowflakes, I set off and travelled day and night, forcing the pace, to Munkács. I spent only a few days there, and after reaching mutual agreement on the meeting and the numbers taking part, I set out for the village of Vaja, to the east of the Tisza, where Pálffy had already arrived. I do not remember, nor would there be much to be gained from an account of that splendidly confused form of words with which he enticed me to accept the emperor's lavish promises and assured me of the rights and liberties of Hungary and its full rehabilitation if I would write to the emperor and sue for peace. He urged me to send an embassy to Vienna, for the undertaking of which Károlyi had offered himself if the Austrians would give hostages. I resolved to write, so as not to miss an opportunity. After spending the evening hours in talk and refreshment, I went next day to Károlyi's mansion of Olcsva, where the officers of my army were gathered. I recounted to them in some detail the substance of my talk with Pálffy, the generosity of the promises, the slender prospects of the Austrians keeping them, and in conclusion asked for their opinion. I renewed my vow of loyalty and promised that, setting aside my own interests, I would do anything that would be to the advantage of Hungary. The meeting ended with repeated promises of loyalty and confidence and a declaration of preparedness to serve. I shed many a tender, loving tear for the fatherland, and they for me; many an assurance was heard from both sides, on the truth of which both they and I repeatedly insisted.

Shortage of time and lack of money were weighing heavily on the soldiers, and affairs were coming to a climax. I therefore returned to my castle of Munkács, and after sending word to the senators of the Hungarian federation and my Transylvanian councillors that we should assemble in the near-by town of Salánk I wrote to the Emperor Joseph in accordance with the guarantees received from Pálffy. I cannot omit, Lord, to tell you once more of the inward mood of my spirit, which was tormenting me. I tossed in a storm of misery and unease, for the calming of which I turned sluggishly and half-heartedly to you, but I trusted more in human means and my own intellect, and therefore found no rest. My oath to the Estates precluded my abdicating as prince of Transylvania, and honour – but chiefly the vain desire for glory – made me prepared to keep it. I foresaw the wretchedness of the perpetual exile which would ensue should our terms not be accepted, because I could hold out no reliable hope that my position would be confirmed in the general European peace. The king of France had, of course, repeated in his letter his assurance that he would not make a treaty that did not include me, though I was aware that his military power was not such as could hold the Austrians in check.

As I have said, my hope lay in help from the Tsar, but that too had been rendered doubtful by the war that the Turks had begun against him a few months previously. The enemy had promised to restore the lawful rights and liberties of Hungary together with my hereditary properties, or in exchange for them I could choose to accept a free duchy in the empire which would pass to my posterity by right of inheritance. This offer ensured to a certain extent my personal security, but not my honour. I would have had to leave my native land and renounce my nation,[4] which had given so many signs of affection, devotion and trust. I would have to trust the upholding of its laws to the royal word, so often broken. Was that to be the basis of peace? It was like a thin layer of ice, and if it melted I would have nothing to expect but the eternal reproaches and curses of the nation and the people if I considered my personal safety and consented to the wretchedness that common sense foresaw for them. For this reason, fired by magnanimity and the instinctive desire for human glory, I decided to defend my castle until the arrival of Russian aid, and to run the utmost danger so as to encounter a death befitting the heroes remembered in song and by historians: sometimes I resolved that I would join the cavalry so as perpetually to change my position, roaming the open country beyond the Tisza and harrying the enemy cavalry, depriving them of their winter inactivity and wearing them down. Sometimes the heavy snow impeded this latter plan, while the former was countermanded by a destruction more likely than the uncertain Russian assistance. I could see in both the cause of death and the danger that I sought, and the result of both would be not glory but despair. If, therefore, I did not do my utmost to remain alive for the future of Hungary and the good of the Principality it seemed a matter of indifference whether an end was put to the affairs and hopes of the nation by my death or my captivity. It was evident that if I remained in exile all my life I would retain the love of the people and would live on in their hearts. This and similar arguments were advanced by my counsellors and adherents, and as these possibilities greatly nourished the self-love that strove to save me I easily gave my consent to them. I had not yet taken a final decision, and was preparing for the resolute defence of the castle with an eye to all the rules of defensive strategy. It could have been said that the castle was impossible of capture, because we had artificially improved on its highly advantageous position, but you, oh infinite goodness, after a little while revealed to me the truth of the psalm: Unless the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain.[5]



[1] The winter of 1710-11.

[2] In Ukraine. The decisive battle of the Great Northern War had taken place there on 27 June 1709.

[3] See Rákóczi's Egy igaz magyarnak hazája dolgai felől való elmélkedése of 1710, intended to influence Pálffy.

[4] 'Nation' translates the Latin gens, Hungarian nemzet, and here means the Estates, who constituted the Hungarian nation in the political sense. The ignoble and unfree elements of society had no political voice.

[5] Psalm 127:2







What is one to make of this very complex man? Reactionary feudal chieftain, rebel against Habsburg modernity? Freedom-fighter seeking the independence of his people, and their natural leader? Religious thinker? Political dreamer? Ferenc Rákóczi was all of these at times. Born in 1676, he never knew his mysteriously deceased father, hated his largely absent stepfather, and was brought up by his remarkable mother – only to be taken from her on his twelfth birthday, never to see her again. There followed a Jesuit education, the recovery of his sequestrated estates, and the life of a young aristocrat in Vienna. Sympathy with his peasants in Hungary, however, led to a rift with Emperor Leopold and, in 1701, to ill-omened imprisonment – from which he made a daring escape and fled (with a price of 10,000 forints on his head) to Warsaw, remaining in Poland for about two years. In 1703 a series of requests persuaded him to return to Hungary – since 1699 free of the Turkish yoke – to take the lead in a war against Austria. He brought to this charismatic leadership, great personal wealth, and a certain military talent. He was elected Prince of Transylvania – the fifth in his family to hold the title – but as time went by initial success was never conclusive and support and resources waned, until in 1711 defeat was imminent and Ferenc fled back to Poland to seek help from Peter the Great of Russia. Disappointed of this, in 1713 he went to France at the invitation of Louis XIV – pausing briefly at Hull en route – and lived as a pensioner at Versailles. After some time there he experienced a religious epiphany on a visit to a Carmelite monastery and later went to live as a recluse near a Camaldulian house at Grosbois (now Yerres in south-eastern Paris). Nevertheless, he retained contact with his Hungarian sympathisers, and in 1717 through their agency was invited to Turkey by Sultan Ahmed IV. He hoped that Rákóczi’s presence would bring Hungary to the Ottoman side against Austria, while Rákóczi hoped to regain his Principality of Transylvania. The Turks had been defeated by the time that Rákóczi and his small court arrived. Unable to return to either France or Hungary, he found himself politically isolated and penniless – his vast estates had been confiscated – and he spent his remaining eighteen years in Turkey, dependent on Turkish largesse.

Available soon from Corvina Press, in Bernard Adam's translation.