The Principality of Transylvania was a semi-independent vassal state of the Ottoman Empire established on the territory of the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom in 1570 and abolished with its incorporation into the Habsburg-ruled Kingdom of Hungary in 1690 (formally in 1699). Elected princes from powerful Hungarian noble families ruled the multi-national principality for all but a few short periods during the state’s 120-year existence.
In Hungarian nationalist history, the Principality of Transylvania represents the continuity of autonomous Hungarian statehood at a time when the Habsburgs ruled over the truncated Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottomans held control over the territory that had previously constituted the central portion of the kingdom.
Foundation of the Principality
The Principality of Transylvania was founded via the Treaty of Speyer concluded in 1570 between the Habsburg-ruled Kingdom of Hungary and the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom that had been established as an Ottoman vassal state in 1529. According to the treaty, King János Zsigmond Szapolyai of the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom renounced his claim to the throne of the Kingdom of Hungary and assumed the title of Prince of Transylvania. In this capacity János Zsigmond exercised control over the historical region of Transylvania as well as five adjacent counties [vármegye] known collectively as the Partium.
Prince János Zsigmond died one year after the Treaty of Speyer, triggering a succession struggle in the Principality of Transylvania between the Ottoman-supported István Báthory and Habsburg-supported Gáspár Bekes. Báthory’s triumph in this conflict permitted the Ottomans to retain authority over the Principality of Transylvania, which entailed the payment of an annual tribute to the Sublime Porte and the prerogative to invest elected princes. Under this arrangement, the rulers of the Principality of Transylvania exercised independent authority over the state’s internal affairs, though were subordinate to the Ottoman Empire in terms of external and military affairs.
The Habsburg sovereigns of the Kingdom of Hungary occasionally managed to gain dominion over the Principality of Transylvania, exercising direct control over the state for much of the four-year period from 1597 to 1601.
State Structure and Political Authority
Political authority in the principality had been based on the office of voivode [vajda]—the appointed governor of the King of Hungary in Transylvania since the early 1100s—and the legislative assemblies composed of the region’s nobility, which had convened primarily in the city of Torda since the 1200s.
The office of Prince of Transylvania emerged permanently from that of voivode in the person of István Báthory, who came to power in the principality in 1571 as voivoide before adopting the title of prince after becoming the king of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1576. The capital of the Princes of Transylvania was located in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia in Romanian and Weissenburg in German).
The Transylvanian Diet elected the Princes of Transylvania subject to approval of the Ottoman Sultan.
The Torda Diet of 1438 adopted the Union Trium Nationum [Union of Three Nations] establishing the structure of power within the representative assembly of the Principality of Transylvania. This union granted the right of political representation in the Torda Diet to three social-national groups inhabiting Transylvania: the Hungarian nobility; the Székelys (a Hungarian-speaking ethnic group); and the Transylvania Saxons (Germans who had settled along the foothills of the Southern Carpathians beginning in the mid-1100s). The agreement did not extend political representation to the Romanians of Transylvania, who composed at least the plurality of the region’s population, though constituted only a minor portion of the Transylvanian nobility.
Freedom of Religion
The Transylvanian Diet issued the Edict of Torda in 1568—three years before the establishment of the Principality of Transylvania, while the region was still formally part of the Eastern Hungarian Kingdom—proclaiming the freedom of religious exercise for Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists (belonging to the Reformed Church) and Unitarians. Similarly to the Union Trium Nationum, the Edict of Torda did not grant such freedom to the Eastern Orthodox Church to which nearly all Romanians belonged. The Edict of Torda remained in effect throughout the existence of the Principality of Transylvania, making it one of the few states in Europe during the era of post-Reformation Protestant–Catholic wars to grant official recognition to multiple religions.
Hungarian Princes Maneuver between Habsburg and Ottoman
Princes from four Hungarian noble families ruled over the Principality of Transylvania for all but a few short intervals during the state’s 120-year existence: the Báthorys (Somlyó branch), the Rákóczis, the Bethlens and the Apafis. The Hungarian princes from these noble families became adept at manipulating the strategic interests of the Habsburgs and the Ottomans in order to enhance their own power and independence.
Catholic Prince Zsigmond Báthory allied the Principality of Transylvania with the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg-controlled Kingdom of Hungary against the Ottoman Empire during the Long War (or Fifteen Years’ War) from 1591 to 1606 in order to diminish the authority of the Sultan over the state.
Reformed princes Gábor Bethlen and György Rákóczi I allied the Principality of Transylvania with the Ottoman-supported coalition of Protestant states against the coalition of Catholic states, including the Habsburg Kingdom of Hungary, in the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648 in order to diminish the authority of the Habsburg emperor-king over the state.
The Brief Union of the Principalities of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia
Prince of Wallachia Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul) briefly united the three Romanian-inhabited principalities of the Ottoman Empire—Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia—under his authority within the context of the Long War in the year 1600. Romanian nationalist historiography regards this short-lived consolidation of the three principalities under the rule of Michael the Brave to be the genesis of the Romanian nation-state.
Michael the Brave became the Prince of Wallachia in 1593. In 1599, he defeated the forces of Prince of Transylvania András Báthory at the Battle of Sellenberk with the support of the Habsburgs. The Transylvanian Diet subsequently recognized Michael the Brave as Prince of Transylvania following his army’s occupation of the capital city of Gyulafehérvár. Michael gained control over the Principality of Moldavia from rival Ieremia Movilă in May 1600, though lost control over both Moldavia and Transylvania later that year.
End of the Principality of Transylvania
Christian forces from the Holy Roman Empire, including the Habsburg Monarchy, drove the Ottoman Turks from the territory that had formerly constituted the central portion of the Kingdom of Hungary in the 1680s, occupying the cities of Esztergom in 1683, Buda and Pécs in 1686 and Székesfehérvár in 1688. This enabled the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary Leopold I to abolish Ottoman dominion over the Principality of Transylvania, which he incorporated into the Habsburg Monarchy as a distinct region separate from the Kingdom of Hungary via the Diploma Leopoldinum (Leopold’s Diploma) in 1690. The Diploma Leopoldinum preserved the autonomous Transylvanian Diet as well as the Union of Three Nations and religious freedom according to the Edict of Torda, though appointed an imperial governor to rule Transylvania in place of the teenaged Prince Mihály Apafi II. The latter arrangement, though termed temporary, signaled the de facto end to the office of Prince of Transylvania.
The Ottoman Empire formally ceded Transylvania to the Habsburg Monarchy via the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699.