When the Jesuit chronicler Kocmánek rejoiced that ‘the Turk, the most formidable enemy of all Christendom’ did not attack us during the turmoil, it was not entirely true. In fact, the Diwan held intense debates about the attitude to the rebellion of Bohemia, and finally the Turks did exploit the situation to make conquests in Hungary.
The Ambivalent Relations to the Middle East
The leaders of the rebellion included several individuals who had personal experience of the Middle East. The military commander Heinrich Matthias Thurn made a journey through the Middle East and Egypt when he was young (in 1586); Kryštof Harant z Polžic also made his own journey through the Holy Land and Egypt (in 1598-99), which he described in the famous travel book ‘Putování’ [The Journey], published in 1608. It has been recently reedited in a commented edition with the original title. The best-known expert on Islam was, however, Václav Budovec z Budova of the Unity of the Brethren, who participated in the diplomatic mission of Joachim of Sinzendorf in 1577-1582, and who later wrote a very explicit polemic against the Quran. In it, he rejected Islam as a religion of hypocrites who actually did not care about religion. Based on his conversations with apostates in Constantinople, he feared that Islam might appeal to superficial Christians who were actually indifferent to religion. His book `Antialcoran’ [Anti-Quran] was published in 1614 and reedited by Noemi Rejchrtová.
The interest of the rebel leaders in the Islamic culture had deeper roots in the efforts of non-Catholics to find allies among Eastern Orthodox Christians, which instigated the travels of exploration in those areas. The Ottoman (or as people said ‘Turkish’) conquests made people curious about the religion that motivated these attacks. For this reason, there appeared a number of translated publications on Turkish and Islamic history. (The best bibliographical survey is provided in Tomáš Rataj´s handbook České země ve stínu půlměsíce [The Bohemian Lands in the Shadow of the Crescent], 2002). The Utraquist priest Bartoloměj Dworský from Kouřim also undertook a profound polemic against this religion, which he expressed in his short book ‘Proti alchoranu’ [Against the Quran], which he published in 1542. This one has not been reedited yet.
The Habsburgs, who had the responsibility to halt the Muslim invasion, sought mainly diplomatic relations that aimed at holding the Turks in check. Knowing about the formidable threat posed to the Ottoman Empire by Persia, Emperor Rudolph II began to weave plans for a large alliance with Russia and Persia. The first diplomatic missions that were supposed to implement this plan were led by Nicolas Warkotsch (Mikuláš Varkoč) in 1589, 1593 and 1594. However, all of them only ended in Russia, where they allegedly met with a Persian envoy. All of Warkotsch’s three missions have been recently discussed by Vladimir Panov (OH 2019/2, in Czech), the final report from his first mission has been published by J. Polišenský (in Spanish and with a Czech translation) and digitalized in this year. The Persians sent their own mission to Prague and other courts in 1600, which was led by the famous English adventurer Anthony Sherley. The first real Habsburg mission to Persia via Russia was dispatched in 1602, but most of its participants died on the journey. The only surviving participant, Georg Tectander, reached Persia in 1604 and later published an account of his journey under the title Iter persicum (1608). His book is available online and has been recently edited by Pavel Boček in a mysterious Czech translation, which is truly hard to find.
After the failure of these lofty designs, the Emperor had to deal with the Ottoman diplomats to negotiate a truce. In 1609, Ottoman diplomats visited Prague. Even though the truce was negotiated as early as in 1606, and confirmed in 1615, the negotiations were still not accomplished when the Bohemian rebellion exploded. The Ottoman and Imperial diplomats were still arguing about several villages near Esztergom / Gran in Hungary. It was not until May 1618 that the negotiations were settled, and in October 1618 the Imperial ambassador Ludwig von Molardt was dispatched to Constantinople.
Seeking the Turkish Alliance
The Habsburg ambassador had to face the permanent representative of Transylvania, Mihály Tholdagi, and special envoys Ferenc Mikó and Tamás Borsos, who sought to convince the Ottoman Sultan Osman II that the rebellion was a wonderful opportunity for a successful intervention. They were soon joined by Bohemian envoys. Based on reports from András Dóczy, the rebels were seeking contacts with Gabor Bethlen as early as January 1619. In November 1619, the rebels were already dispatching a mission that was supposed to make a direct contact with the Sublime Porte. After his election to the Bohemian throne, King Frederick of the Palatinate sent a certain Heinrich Bitter to Sultan Osman II. The mission occurred between April and May 1620.
The reactions of the Ottoman rulers were ambiguous. Even though the Prince of Transylvania, Gabor Bethlen, persisted in his efforts to trigger a Turkish intervention, the Ottoman Empire did not wish to break the truce. The reason for their reluctance might have been the crushing defeat the Ottoman army had suffered in Persia, where the invading troops were totally destroyed on September 10, 1618 in the battle of Sufiyan. Besides, there was a fierce struggle for ascendancy in the center of the empire, where the Sultan Mustafa I was toppled in February 1618, and the new ruler Osman II, who reigned only till 1622, had a very unstable position.
In 1620, it seemed that the Sublime Porte looked on the Bohemian rebellion favorably because the rebels promised to pay the tribute after the Ottoman victory. The envoy Heinrich Bitter returned to Prague with a Turkish envoy, Mehmed Aga, who visited the court of Frederick of the Palatinate in July 1620. It is a great historical irony that Mehmed Aga´s guide through the beauties of Prague was Václav Budovec z Budova, the uncompromising critic of Islam.
Did the Ottoman Empire intervene?
Even though the Turkish protégé Bethlen attacked the Habsburgs, and waged a protracted war in Upper Hungary, the Ottoman Empire was reluctant to intervene directly. Finally they did, even though it was not the large-scale offensive that the rebels expected.
It was in November of 1620, when the Habsburg armies and Bethlen´s insurgents were engaged in fights about Pressburg / Bratislava. At this juncture, the Pasha of Buda launched an independent military action on his own. He took advantage of the situation and on November 4, 1620 captured the fortress of Vác/Waitzen, which the Turks had lost to the Emperor in the last war. Vác had, in fact, already been captured by the Turks in 1544, but the Habsburg army liberated it in 1596, and after another Turkish conquest recaptured it again in 1604. This settlement was even stipulated in the Truce of Zsitvatorok of 1606. The Turkish attack was even more surprising, if we consider that the fortress was held by the soldiers of Gábor Bethlen, who was allied with the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish surprise attack alienated the population of Upper Hungary from the rebels, since it showed Gábor Bethlen´s dependence on the Ottoman Empire.
Ivo Cerman, OH blog, 28. 11. 2020