Zrinyi, Ilona (1643–1703)

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Zrinyi, Ilona (1643–1703)

Hungarian national hero of Croatian ancestry whose involvement in anti-Habsburg activities made her an equal to the most renowned members of her illustrious noble family. Name variations: Helena Zrinyi; Ilona Rákóczi or Rakoczi; Ilona Thököly or Thokoly or Thoekoely. Born in 1643; died in exile in Nicomedia (Izmit), Turkey, on February 18, 1703; daughter of Péter or Petar Zrinyi or Zrinski (1621–1671) and Ana Katarina Zrinska (1625–1673); married Prince Ferenc Rákóczi I of Transylvania (1645–1676); married Imre Thököly (1657–1705), in 1681; children: son, Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II (1676–1735).

Countess Ilona Zrinyi was born in 1643 into one of the most renowned noble families of Croatian and Hungarian history. The family, whose roots have been traced back to Dalmatia in the 11th century, was originally named Subic. In 1347, one of its ancestors took possession of Zrin (Zerin) Castle in Slavonia, so that henceforth the family's name would be Zrinyi (or Zrinski). The clan entered into Hungarian history and legend with the life of Count Miklós (Nikola) Zrinyi (1508–1566), who was both a Hungarian magnate and ban (ruler) of Croatia. A fierce foe of the Ottoman Turks who dominated the Balkans and threatened the heart of Europe, Miklós Zrinyi was a warrior at the first siege of Vienna in 1529, and was for many years successful in wars against the Turks, finally losing his life in battle in September 1566, when he attempted to lead a breakthrough of the siege of his fortress at Szigetvár. The Turkish leader at the same siege, none other than Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, died during the conflict.

Another one of Ilona's illustrious ancestors was her uncle, also named Miklós Zrinyi (1620–1664), who not only was a territorial ruler as ban of Croatia but excelled as a military strategist and poet as well. His principal work, the 15-canto Szigeti veszedelem (The Peril of Sziget), was written during the winter of 1645–46 amidst constant skirmishes with the Turks, and is one of the last classical epics in European literature. Miklós Zrinyi is universally acclaimed as the greatest Hungarian poet of the 17th century. The epic's protagonist is Zrinyi's great-grandfather, whose heroism at Szigetvár had already by that time become part of the Hungarian national mythology. Eventually, Ilona Zrinyi would prove herself to be the equal of her ancestors by taking charge of military affairs during another noted siege in Hungarian history.

Ilona's father Count Petar Zrinyi was the brother of Miklós Zrinyi, and after Miklós' death in a hunting accident in 1664 succeeded him as ban of Croatia. On her mother's side, Ilona claimed descent from another ancient Croatian-Hungarian family, the Frankopans (Frangepáns). Her mother Ana Katarina Zrinska was a famed translator. In 1666, disgusted with what he saw as the weak-willed attitude of the Habsburg rulers in Vienna regarding the Turkish military threat, Petar Zrinyi joined a conspiracy led by Count Ferenc Wesselényi (1605–1667), whose ambitious—and highly dangerous—goal was to end Habsburg rule in Hungary. Wesselényi was a noted soldier who had served the Habsburgs in many of their fortresses in the Austro-Hungarian-Turkish frontier regions. In one of his military campaigns, he was able to conquer the important fortress of Murány with the help of his future wife, Mária Széchy (1610–1679), a remarkable woman known in Hungarian lore as "the Venus of Murány."

At the heart of the ill-fated Wesselényi conspiracy was the idea of enlisting the support of France's "Sun King" Louis XIV in a full-scale Hungarian uprising against the Habsburg crown. When Wesselényi died in 1667 before the plot could be carried out, Petar Zrinyi became its leader. The imperial government in Vienna, however, discovered its details, and Petar and several other key members of the conspiracy were arrested in 1670; the poorly prepared uprising was easily suppressed by the Habsburgs. Petar and several other leaders of the plot were found guilty of treason against the crown, stripped of their titles and property, and beheaded at Wiener Neustadt on April 30, 1671.

In 1667, Ilona Zrinyi had married Ferenc Rákóczi I, prince of Transylvania, one of the wealthiest nobles of Central Europe, from a family whose origins date back at least to the early 13th century. Elected prince of Transylvania as a child in 1652, Ferenc never actually ruled that province, but his political ambitions and hatred of the Habsburgs motivated him to become a leading participant in the Wesselényi conspiracy. Unlike Ilona's father, who lost his life as a result of the plot's failure, her husband was the only member of the conspiracy's inner circle to escape capital punishment. His life was spared because of the sterling reputation his mother, Zsófia Báthory (1629–1680), had achieved as a leader of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Hungary, as well as her willingness to give the Habsburg Imperial Treasury the great sum of 300,000 forints. As if these blows were not enough for a young woman who had lost her father, in 1676 her husband died. That same year, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Ferenc Rákóczi II.

True to the fierce hatred of the Habsburgs by both the Zrinyi and Rákóczi families, Ilona Zrinyi found herself at the center of the continuing resistance to the territorial and dynastic ambitions of Vienna. At the very least, she wished to avenge the stigma of her father's dishonor and execution. As an immensely wealthy widow, she was able to play a significant role in the complex dynamics of anti-Habsburg politics in the provinces of Hungary, Croatia and Transylvania. In 1681, she was drawn directly into the ongoing guerrilla war against the Habsburgs when she married Count Imre Thököly. Thököly's anti-Habsburg credentials were as impressive as those of his bride, for he was the son of Count István Thököly, who had been allied with Ilona's father as a key member of the Wesselényi conspiracy. After the collapse of this plot, young Imre had fled to Transylvania, where he soon became a leader of the displaced and disaffected elements known in Hungarian history as the kuruc. Irregular bands of dismissed soldiers and other discarded people living uncertain lives in the ill-defined region between Habsburg territory and regions ruled by the Ottoman Turks, the kuruc were a motley crew. Their activities, ostensibly noble and patriotic, sometimes were indistinguishable from simple banditry and pillage. For an ambitious young noble like Imre Thököly, however, the kuruc bands under his command were superb warriors who could make possible the victories over the Habsburgs he and other Hungarian nobles yearned for. Starting in 1672, Thököly's kuruc forces were engaged in systematic raids against the Habsburgs, and in 1678 reflecting his political and military abilities, he became the acknowledged leader of a large-scale uprising against the Austrian emperor.

Ilona Zrinyi's marriage to Imre Thököly in 1681 was a significant event in the continuing kuruc uprising against the imperial government in Vienna. With this alliance of powerful noble families, Ilona placed at the disposal of the anti-Habsburg struggle the immense wealth she had inherited from her first husband. The income she controlled from vast Rákóczi estates now flowed into her new husband's war chests. She fully backed Thököly's plans and aspirations, including his Machiavellian alliance with the only reliable anti-Habsburg state in the region, that of the Ottoman Turks. In 1682, Sultan Mehmet IV named Thököly king of Hungary, but the count declined to use that title, calling himself instead "Prince of Upper Hungary." The Ottoman defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683 turned the tide of the struggle against the kuruc forces, and many of Thököly's disheartened supporters now switched over to the Habsburgs when it became clear that Hungary could not then be liberated from the grip of Vienna. By now abandoned even by the sultan for other Hungarian rebels, Thököly fought on and even after his defeat in battle and capture by a local Ottoman pasha, Ilona continued the struggle.

Starting in November 1685, she and her young son Ferenc were at the head of the struggle to defend the fortress of Munkács (modern-day Mukacevo, Ukraine). For more than two years, until it was finally forced to surrender to the Habsburg besiegers led by General Caraffa on January 17, 1688, Ilona, her son and her band of 4,000 soldiers defied the emperor's forces. Although eventually defeated, the defenders of Munkács would enter into Hungarian history for their bravery and steadfastness. Taken as a prisoner to a convent in Vienna, in 1691 Ilonya would be ransomed by her husband in exchange for two captured Habsburg imperial field commanders. At the time of her capture, Countess Zrinyi's son Ferenc was taken from her and reared by Austrian Jesuits in Bohemia. Pressured by the priests to join the clergy, he refused. He later returned to Hungary, where starting in 1703 he led a new anti-Habsburg war of liberation, but eventually Vienna's armies crushed the uprising. Ferenc Rákóczi II's exiled stepfather Imre Thököly hoped to join the rebellion, but he was too old and ill to travel home and died in 1705. His dreams of Magyar freedom crushed, Ferenc went into exile in Poland and France, eventually settling in Turkey, where he died in 1735.

After her husband secured her release from prison in 1691, it was clear to both Ilona and Imre that further open military defiance of the Habsburgs was impossible. They continued, however, with attempts to restore their political power in Transylvania, but the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) finally ended even these faint hopes of resistance. Both Ilona and Imre were forced into exile in Turkey, accompanied by about 1,500 of their loyal followers. Ilona Zrinyi died in Nicomedia (Izmit), Turkey, on February 18, 1703. Her death marked the extinction of the Zrinyi family. In 1906, her remains, as well as those of her husband and son, were returned to Hungary, where they were ceremoniously interred at the Cathedral of Kassa (modern-day Kosice, Slovakia). One of the greatest heroes in Hungarian history, Ilona Zrinyi has been honored in countless ways, and was depicted in the Romantic paintings of Viktor Madarász

(1830–1917) as well as on postage stamps issued in 1944, 1952 and 1976. On April 30, 1996, Croatia issued a series of five commemorative postage stamps depicting members of both the Zrinski and Frankopan families, two of which depicted Ilona Zrinyi's mother and father.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia