Siege of Sziget, 1556

October 20, 2016


Szigetvár Fortress

Szigetvár Fortress

In the voluminous annals of warfare there are few events marked by circumstances of a more romantic kind than those which occurred at the siege of Sziget, in 1556. The Hungarian fortress of Sziget, or Szigetvar, which means the town of islands, was about two leagues from Funfkirchen, and derived its name from its situation; it being surrounded by the waters of the river Almas, which at that spot forms various islets. The place consisted of three divisions, the castle, and the old and new towns, which were connected by bridges. In point of strength, it was but ill calculated to resist the powerful army which was led against it, by Sultan Soliman the magnificent. The old and new towns appear to have been scantily fortified, and the castle, or citadel, had only five bastions, formed of earth and fascines, encircled by a triple moat. A round tower, used as a powder magazine, the steeples, and the guard-houses, were the only brick buildings which it contained. But the fortress had a governor whose tried courage made up, in some measure, for its defects. Count Nicholas Zrini, who held the command of it, was one of the most intrepid and enterprising of the Hungarian nobles; he had recently defeated one of the Sultan’s generals, and it was to wipe out the stain of that defeat that Soliman now undertook the siege of Sziget, his views having been turned to another quarter at the commencement of the campaign.

Miklós Zrínyi (Nikola Šubić Zrinski) 1620–1664.

Miklós Zrínyi (Nikola Šubić Zrinski) 1620–1664.

When the Ottoman army, of ninety thousand men, with three hundred pieces of cannon, approached the town, Zrini ordered a cross to be raised on high in the centre of the fortress. With a less noble feeling, he beheaded a Turkish aga, who had fallen into his hands. Valour, in those days, was too often debased by an admixture of ferocity. Soliman having joined his troops, his tent was pitched, with extraordinary magnificence, on the neighbouring hill of Semilikow. Either in a spirit of chivalry or of mockery, Zrini hung the ramparts with red drapery, covered the outside of the tower with tin plates, which glittered like silver, and welcomed the Ottoman monarch with a tremendous discharge of his heavy artillery.

The immense number of the Ottomans enabled them to carry on their attacks on three sides at once. Zrini soon found that it was impossible to defend the new town, and consequently committed it to the flames. The besiegers established their batteries on the ruins, kept up a heavy fire, and, by means of bags of earth, contrived to form a solid road through the marshes, which divided the citadel from the old town. Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the garrison and its commander, the Turks, in the course of fifteen days, made themselves masters of all the outworks. The citadel, however, still continued to set them at defiance. So persuaded was Soliman that it could not be reduced without an enormous loss of men, that he sought to obtain its surrender by the most tempting propositions. He offered to the governor the exclusive possession of the whole of Croatia. This offer was firmly rejected. The Sultan then tried other means. The standard-bearer and the trumpeter of Count Zrini’s eldest son had been taken prisoners by the Turks. In the hope of alarming the governor, with respect to the safety of his son, Soliman directed that the two captives should be led under the ramparts, where the one should unfurl his banner, and the other sound the notes of victory. This stratagem was ineffectual; nor did any better success attend the plan of shooting into the place arrows, to which letters were tied, inciting the garrison to revolt, and offering magnificent rewards.

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

A first assault on the citadel was repulsed, with great slaughter of the assailants, who left behind them two standards. Three days afterwards, on the anniversary of the battle of Mohacz, and of the surrender of Ofen and Belgrade, the Ottomans, animated by the remembrance of their past triumphs, returned to the charge. Long and bloody was the contest, but they were ultimately beaten back. They paused four days, and then, for the third time, rushed to the breach. But, on this occasion, they were easily repulsed. A mine was at this moment being excavated under the great bastion, and they resolved to wait till it had opened for them a more accessible passage.

Soliman was not destined to witness the fall of Sziget; an event for which he so ardently longed, that, only a few hours before he ceased to exist, he impatiently wrote to the Grand Vizier, “This chimney, then, does not yet cease to burn, and the great drum of conquest does not yet make itself heard!” His ear was deaf to all earthly sounds three days before the great drum was heard; he died on the night of the 5th of September. The secret of his decease was carefully kept by the Grand Vizier, who continued to issue orders in the name of the dead sovereign. Had he not done so, it is probable that the discouragement of the Ottoman troops would have saved Sziget.

Miklós Zrínyi

By the 8th of September the fortress was become no longer tenable. The mines had opened into it a broad highway; a conflagration was raging in its interior; and of the internal works the tower, containing the powder magazine, was the only one which was not ruined. There was no alternative but to surrender or to die. Zrini chose the latter. In preparing to meet his fate, he displayed as much calmness as though he had been attiring himself for a banquet. After having taken his silk cloak from his chamberlain, he drew his golden chain round his neck, and put on a black hat, embroidered with gold, and surmounted by a heron’s plume, which was fastened by a valuable diamond. Throwing aside all coins that bore the Turkish impress, he dropped into his pocket a hundred Hungarian ducats; “that,” said he, “whoever finds my body may not complain that he has got nothing by me.” He then called for the keys of the fortress, and, depositing them in the same pocket with the ducats, said to those around him, ” As long as this arm can move, no one shall wrest from me these keys or this gold; after my death, whoever likes may have them. But I have sworn that no human being in the Turkish camp shall ever point at me with his finger.” From four sabres, inlaid with gold, which had been given to him as rewards during his military career, he then selected the oldest. “It was with this weapon,” said he, “that I won my first honours and my first glory, and it is with this that I will appear before the throne of the Eternal, to hear my doom!”

Zrinyi's Charge from the Fortress of Szigetvár

Zrinyi’s Charge from the Fortress of Szigetvár

In the court-yard below there were waiting for him six hundred of his men, soldiers worthy of such a chief, who had declared their fixed resolve to stand by him to the last. Preceded by his standard-bearer, and followed by a page who carried his shield, Zrini, without helmet or breastplate, descended to this band of heroes. He addressed them in a short martial speech, at the close of which he thrice called on the Saviour’s name. All was ready for the sally, and, as the fire was spreading in all directions, there was no time to be lost. At the great gate of the fortress, a mortar, heavily charged with grapeshot, had been placed. The besiegers, in multitudes, were now rushing forward over the bridge to commence the assault. At this instant Zrini gave the signal, the match was applied to the mortar, and six hundred of the Ottomans fell dead or wounded in the twinkling of an eye. Dashing through the smoke at the head of his brave soldiers, with his standard-bearer Lawrence Juranitsch by his side, Zrini penetrated into the throng of Turks, dealing death around him. But his course was short—wounded by two balls in the chest, and an arrow in the head, he sank to the ground, and three loud shouts of ” Allah!” testified the joy of the Ottomans on seeing the fall of their valorous foe. His body was immediately carried away by them, and the head was severed from it on the carriage of a cannon. The head was eventually restored to his family, who buried it in St. Helen’s Convent, near the remains of his wife.

Nikola Šubić Zrinski's Charge from the Fortress of Szigetvár

Nikola Šubić Zrinski’s Charge from the Fortress of Szigetvár

While carnage and conflagration were raging uncontrolled in the citadel, the chamberlain, the treasurer, and the cup-bearer of Zrini, who had fallen into the hands of the victors, and suffered many indignities, were led into the presence of the Vizier. “What treasures did Zrini possess, and where are they?” demanded the Grand Vizier. He was answered by the cup-bearer, whose spirit was of kin to that of his master. “Zrini,” replied the courageous Hungarian, “possessed a hundred thousand Hungary ducats, a thousand golden cups of all sizes, a hundred thousand crowns, and a rich service of plate; he destroyed nearly everything; he can scarcely have left fifty thousand ducats’ worth of valuables, which are deposited in a chest. But his stock of gunpowder was all the larger for this. It is going to explode at the very moment that you are listening to me; and the fire, to which you are indebted for having mastered the fortress, will also bring about the destruction of your army.” The story of the cup-bearer being confirmed by the other prisoners, the Vizier was struck with consternation. He immediately despatched some of his officers to endeavour to avert the danger. They were too late; they had barely had time to warn some of the Turkish commanders, and to give the signal of retreat, when the magazine blew up with a deafening explosion, the tower was hurled into the air, and more than three thousand of the Ottomans were torn to pieces, or buried beneath the ruins.


R. A. Davenport, Narratives of Peril and Suffering, (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1840) Vol. 2, pp. 265-270

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 547


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