Ferenc (Francis) II Rákóczi (March 27, 1676 - April 8, 1735) was the leader of the Hungarian uprising against the Habsburgs, in 1703-11, as the prince (fejedelem) of the Estates Confederated for Liberty of the Kingdom of Hungary. Rákóczi’s full title was: Franciscus II. Dei Gratia Sacri Romani Imperii & Transylvaniae princeps Rakoczi. Particum Regni Hungariae Dominus & Siculorum Comes, Regni Hungariae Pro Libertate Confoederatorum Statuum necnon Munkacsiensis & Makoviczensis Dux, Perpetuus Comes de Saros; Dominus in Patak, Tokaj, Regécz, Ecsed, Somlyó, Lednicze, Szerencs, Onod. His name is historically also spelled Rákóczy, in Hungarian: II. Rákóczi Ferenc, in Slovak: František II. Rákoci.
He was also Prince of Transylvania, an Imperial Prince, and a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The revolt was initially assisted by the French. When French support weakened, and the rebellion itself was in the process of collapsing following the defeat at Trenčín, a peace-treaty resulted in his exile, although he was twice offered the crown of Poland. Considered a national hero in Hungary, he is an iconic figure in the formation of Hungarian national consciousness in context of the nation’s quest for independence from imperial hegemony. One of the main reasons for the rebellion’s failure was lack of aristocratic support, since many members of the nobility thought they were better off siding with the still powerful although ailing Habsburg Empire. The day of the nation state had not fully arrived. Although increasingly unpopular as more and more people aspired to autonomy and even self—governance, especially when power resided outside what they thought of as their national homes, imperialism was still a political reality in global affairs. It took World War I to end empire within the European space, at least as this was traditionally understood, excluding the post-World War II Soviet empire in East Europe. A household name in Hungary, Rakoczi’s legacy is less well known elsewhere. This could be the result of a neglect of East European history in the West European academy, a criticism that also applies to other parts of the World that tend to construct their histories in a way that places Europe and later North America at the center of events.
He was one of the richest landlords in the Kingdom of Hungary and was the count (comes perpetuus) of the Comitatus Sarossiensis (in Hungarian Sáros) from 1694 on. He was the third of three children born to Francis I Rákóczi, elected ruling prince of Transylvania, and Ilona Zrínyi, who was the daughter of Péter Zrínyi, Ban of Croatia, and niece of the poet Miklós Zrínyi. His grandfather and great-grandfather, both called George, were Princes of Transylvania. He had a brother, George, who died as a baby before Francis was born, and a sister, Julianna, who was four years older than Francis. His father died when Francis II was four months old.
Upon Francis I's death, Ilona Zrínyi requested guardianship of her children; however, the advisors of Emperor Leopold I insisted that he retain guardianship of both Francis and his sister, especially as Francis I had willed this before death. Despite further difficulties, Ilona Zrínyi was able to raise her children, while the Emperor retained legal guardianship. The family lived in the castle of Munkács (today Mukacheve, in Ukraine), Sárospatak and Regéc until 1680, when Francis’s paternal grandmother, Sophia Báthory, died. Then, they moved permanently into the castle of Munkács. Rákóczi retained strong affection for this place throughout his life. Aside from his mother, Rákóczi's key educators were György Kőrössy, castellan to the family, and János Badinyi.
Ilona Zrínyi’s second husband, Imre Thököly took little interest in Rákóczi's education, as he was by then heavily involved in politics. However, the failure of the Turks to capture the Habsburg capital in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, frustrated Thököly's plans to become King of Upper Hungary. When the Turks began to grow suspicious of his intentions, Thököly proposed sending the young Rákóczi to Constantinople as a guarantee of his goodwill. But Rákóczi’s mother opposed this plan, not wishing to be separated from her son.
In 1686, Antonio Caraffa besieged their residence, the castle of Munkács. Ilona Zrínyi successfully led the defense of the castle for three years, but capitulated in 1689. The two Rákóczi children fell again under the guardianship of Leopold I, and moved to Vienna with their mother. They regained their possessions, but could not leave the city without the Emperor's permission.
At the age of 17, the Emperor emancipated Rákóczi from his mother, thereby allowing him to own property. His sister Julianna had interceded for him after marrying a powerful Austrian, General Aspremont. Rákóczi lived with the Aspremonts until his marriage in September 1694, to 15-year-old Princess Amelia, daughter of the Duke of Hessen-Theinfeld and a descendant of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. The couple moved to the Rákóczi castle at Sárospatak, where Rákóczi began to manage his properties.
The Treaty of Karlowitz on January 26, 1699, forced Thököly and Ilona Zrínyi into exile. Rákóczi remained in Vienna under the Emperor’s supervision. Relying on the prevalent anti-Habsburg sentiment, remnants of Thököly’s peasant army started a new uprising in the Hegyalja region of Northeastern present-day Hungary, which was part of the property of the Rákóczi family. They captured the castles of Tokaj, Sárospatak and Sátoraljaújhely, and asked Rákóczi to become their leader, but he was not eager to head what appeared to be a minor peasant rebellion and instead returned to Vienna.
Rákóczi then befriended Count Miklós Bercsényi, whose property at Ungvár (today Ужгород (Uzhhorod), in Ukraine), lay next to his own. Bercsényi was a highly educated man, the third richest man in the kingdom (after Rákóczi and Simon Forgách), and was related to most of the Hungarian aristocracy.
As the House of Habsburg was on the verge of dying out, France was looking for allies in its fight against Austrian hegemony. Consequently, they established contact with Rákóczi and promised support if he took up the cause of Hungarian independence. An Austrian spy seized this correspondence and brought it to the attention of the Emperor. As a direct result of this, Rákóczi was arrested on April 18, 1700, and imprisoned in the fortress of Wiener Neustadt (south of Vienna). It became obvious during the preliminary hearings that, just as in the case of his grandfather Péter Zrínyi, the only possible sentence for Francis was death. With the aid of his pregnant wife Amelia and the prison commander, Rákóczi managed to escape and flee to Poland. Here he met with Bercsényi again, and together they resumed contact with the French court.
Three years later, the War of the Spanish Succession caused a large part of the Austrian forces in the Kingdom of Hungary to temporarily leave the country. Taking advantage of the situation, Kuruc forces began a new uprising in Munkács, and Rákóczi was again asked to head it. This time, he decided to invest his energies in a war of national liberation, and accepted the request. On June 15, 1703, another group of about 3000 armed men headed by Tamás Esze joined him near the Polish city of Lawoczne. Bercsényi also arrived, with French funds and 600 Polish mercenaries.
Most of the Hungarian nobility did not support Rákóczi’s uprising, because they considered it to be no more than a jacquerie, a peasant rebellion. Rákóczi’s famous call to the nobility of Szabolcs county seemed to be in vain. He did manage to convince the Hajdús (emancipated peasant warriors) to join his forces, so his forces controlled most of Kingdom of Hungary to the east and north of the Danube by late September 1703. He continued by conquering Transdanubia soon after.
Since the Austrians had to fight Rákóczi on several fronts, they felt obliged to enter negotiations with him. However, the victory of Austrian and British forces against a combined French-Bavarian army in the Battle of Blenheim on August 13, 1704, provided an advantage not only in the War of the Spanish Succession, but also prevented the union of Rákóczi’s forces with their French-Bavarian allies.
This placed Rákóczi into a difficult military and financial situation. French support gradually diminished, and a larger army was needed to occupy the already-won land. Meanwhile, supplying the current army with arms and food was beyond his means. He tried to solve this problem by creating a new copper-based coinage, which was not easily accepted in Hungary as people were used to silver coins. Nevertheless, Rákóczi managed to maintain his military advantage for a while—but after 1706, his army was forced into retreat.
A meeting of the Hungarian Diet (consisting of 6 bishops, 36 aristocrats and about 1000 representatives of the lower nobility of 25 counties), held near Szécsény (Nógrád county) in September 1705, elected Rákóczi to be the "fejedelem"- (ruling) prince—of the Confederated Estates of the Kingdom of Hungary, to be assisted by a 24-member Senate. Rákóczi and the Senate were assigned joint responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs, including peace talks.
Encouraged by England and the Netherlands, peace talks started again on October 27, 1705, between the Hungarians and the Emperor. Both sides varied their strategy according to the military situation. One stumbling block was the sovereignty over Transylvania—neither side was prepared to give it up. Rákóczi’s proposed treaty with the French was stalled, so he became convinced that only a declaration of independence would make it acceptable for various powers to negotiate with him. In 1706, his wife (whom he had not seen in 5 years, along with their sons József and György) and his sister were both sent as peace ambassadors, but Rákóczi rejected their efforts on behalf of the Emperor.
In 1707, during the Great Northern War, he was one of the candidates to the throne of Rzeczpospolita, supported by Elżbieta Sieniawska.
On Rákóczi’s recommendation, and with Bercsényi’s support, another meeting of the Diet held at Ónod (Borsod county) declared the deposition of the House of Habsburg from the Hungarian throne on June 13, 1707. But neither this act, nor the copper currency issued to avoid monetary inflation, were successful. Louis XIV refused to enter into treaties with Prince Rákóczi, leaving the Hungarians without allies. There remained the possibility of an alliance with Imperial Russia, but this did not materialize either.
At the Battle of Trenčín (Hungarian Trencsén, German Trentschin, Latin Trentsinium, Comitatus Trentsiniensis, today in Slovakia), on August 3, 1708, Rákóczi’s horse stumbled, and he fell to the ground, which knocked him unconscious. The Kuruc forces thought him dead and fled. This defeat was fatal for the uprising. Numerous Kuruc leaders transferred their allegiance to the Emperor, hoping for clemency. Rákóczi’s forces became restricted to the area around Munkács and Szabolcs county. Not trusting the word of János Pálffy, who was the Emperor’s envoy charged with negotiations with the rebels, the Prince left the Kingdom of Hungary for Poland on February 21, 1711.
In Rákóczi’s absence, Sándor Károlyi was named Commander-in-Chief of the Hungarian forces, and quickly negotiated a peace agreement with János Pálffy. Under its provisions, 12,000 rebels laid down their arms, handed over their flags and took an oath of allegiance to the Emperor on May 1, 1711, in the fields outside Majtény, in Szatmár county.
The Peace of Szatmár did not treat Rákóczi particularly badly. He was assured clemency if he took an oath of allegiance to the Emperor, as well as freedom to move to Poland if he wanted to leave the Kingdom of Hungary. He did not accept these conditions, doubting the honesty of the Habsburg court, and he did not even recognize the legality of the Peace Treaty, as it had been signed after the death of the Emperor Joseph I on April 17, 1711, which terminated the plenipotential authority of János Pálffy.
Rákóczi was offered the Polish Crown twice, supported by Tsar Peter I of Russia. He turned the offers down, though, and remained in Poland until 1712, where he was the honored guest of the Polish aristocracy. For a while he lived in Danzig (now Gdańsk, in Poland) under the pseudonym of Count of Sáros.
He left Danzig on November 16, 1712, and went to England, where Queen Anne, pressured by the Habsburgs, refused to receive him. Rákóczi then crossed the Channel to France, landing in Dieppe on January 13, 1713. On April 27, he handed a memorandum to Louis XIV reminding him of his past services to France and asking him not to forget Hungary during the coming peace negotiations for the War of the Spanish Succession. But neither the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 nor the Treaty of Rastatt in 1714, made any mention of Hungary or Rákóczi. No provisions were even made to allow Rákóczi’s two sons, who were kept under surveillance in Vienna, to rejoin their father.
Prince Rákóczi, although not recognized officially by France, was much in favor in the French court. But after the death of Louis XIV on September 1, 1715, he decided to accept the invitation of the Ottoman Empire (still at war with the Habsburgs) to move there. He left France in September 1717, with an entourage of 40 people. and landed at Gallipoli on October 10, 1717. He was received with honors, but his desire to head up a separate Christian army to help in the fight against the Habsburgs was not under serious consideration.
The Ottoman Empire signed the Peace Treaty of Passarowitz with Austria on July 21, 1718. Among its provisions was the refusal of the Turks to extradite the exiled Hungarians. Two years later, the Austrian envoy requested that the exiles be turned over, but the Sultan refused as a matter of honor. Rákóczi and his entourage were settled in the town of Tekirdağ (Rodostó in Hungarian), relatively distant from the Ottoman capital, and a large Hungarian colony grew up around this town on the Sea of Marmara. Bercsényi, Count Simon Forgách, Count Antal Esterházy, Count Mihály Csáky, Miklós Sibrik, Zsigmond Zay, the two Pápays, and Colonel Ádám Jávorka were among many who settled there, sharing the sentiment of the writer Kelemen Mikes, who said, “I had no special reason to leave my country, except that I greatly loved the Prince.”
Rákóczi lived in the Turkish town of Rodosto for 22 years. He adopted a set routine: rising early, attending daily Mass, writing and reading in the mornings, and carpentry in the afternoons; visited occasionally by his son, György Rákóczi. Further military troubles in 1733, in Poland, awakened his hopes of a possible return to Hungary, but they were not fulfilled. He died on April 8, 1735.
Rákóczi’s testament, dated October 27, 1732, left something to all his family members as well as to his fellow exiles. He left separate letters to be sent to the Sultan and to France’s Ambassador to Constantinople, asking them not to forget about his fellow exiles. His internal organs were buried in the Greek church of Rodosto, while his heart was sent to France. After obtaining the permission of the Turkish authorities, Rákóczi’s body was taken by his faithful chamberlain Kelemen Mikes to Constantinople on July 6, 1735, for burial in Saint-Benoît (then Jesuit) French church in Galata, where he was buried, according to his last wishes, next to his mother Ilona Zrínyi.
His remains were moved on October 29, 1906, to the St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Kassa (now Košice in Slovakia), where he is buried with his mother Ilona Zrínyi and his son.
Rákóczi has become a Hungarian national hero whose memory still lives on. Most Hungarians associate his last name with him alone, not other members of the same family. There is a great deal of literature about him in Hungary, although he is less well known outside his native land. This could be the result of a neglect of East European history in the West European academy, a criticism that also applies to other parts of the World that tend to construct their histories in a way that places Europe and later North America at the center of events.
His equestrian statue with the famous motto "Cum Deo Pro Patria et Libertate" written on its red marble base was erected in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building on Lajos Kossuth Square in 1937. The memorial is the work of János Pásztor. In the 1950's the first two words ("Cum Deo," that is, With the Help of God) were deleted because of ideological reasons but they were rewritten in 1989.
When the great Millennium Monument on Heroes' Square was purged from the statues of the Habsburg kings of Hungary after 1945 the best sculptor of the period, Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strobl made a new statue of Rákóczi instead of King Lipót II. It was erected in 1953, together with a relief on the base depicting the meeting of Rákóczy and Tamás Esze.
Many Hungarian cities have commemorated Rákóczi by naming streets and squares after him. One of the most prominent roads in Budapest is Rákóczi út ("Rákóczi road"), forming the boundary between Districts VII and VIII. The street was named after him on 28 October 1906 when his remains were brought back to Hungary from Turkey and a long funeral march went along the street to the Eastern Railway Station. Rákóczi tér ("Rákóczi square"), in District VIII, was also named after him in 1874.
In Hungary, two villages bear the name of Rákóczi. Rákóczifalva in Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County was established in 1883 on the former estate of Rákóczi were the Prince had a hunting lodge. The neighbouring Rákócziújfalu became an independent village in 1950 (before that it was part of Rákóczifalva).
The village of Zavadka, today in Ukraine next to the Veretski Pass (Hungarian: Vereckei-hágó) where Rákóczi arrived at Hungary in the beginning of the uprising in 1703 and where he said goodbye to his followers, in 1711, going into exile was renamed Rákócziszállás in 1889. The neighbouring village of Podpolóc (today Pidpolozzya) where Rákóczi spent a night in 1703 was renamed that year Vezérszállás. After 1918, the two villages got back their former names.
The Mount Bovcar (today Vovcharskiy Vrh in present-day Ukraine and the neighbouring Bovcar Spring was named by the local Rusyn people after Rákóczi who drank from the spring on February 18, 1711. Bovcar means "the Tsar was here" in Rusyn language.
The library of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county in Miskolc (II. Rákóczi Ferenc Megyei Könyvtár) has also been named after him.
Rákóczi’s portrait can be found on Hungarian banknotes. Before it had been withdrawn from circulation, it was on the 50-forint note. Since then it has been transferred to the 500-forint note.
A well-known patriotic tune of the eighteen-nineteenth century (composer unknown), is also named after Rákóczi, as it was reputed to be his favourite, although actually it was composed only in the 1730s. Hector Berlioz orchestrated the piece, and it was also used by Franz Liszt as the basis of his Hungarian Rhapsody No.15. The Rákóczy March remains a popular piece of Hungarian state and military celebrations.
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