The Hungarian Peasant Revolt and the Grisly Fate of its Leader, Gyorgy Dozsa

Viktor Madarasz's imaginary portrait of Gyorgy Dozsa, from 1913.

Viktor Madarasz’s imaginary portrait of Gyorgy Dozsa, from 1913.

Rebellions and revolutions are a long standing feature of history. Throughout most of history, governments have been despotic, with power in the hands of the wealthy few. This left the vast majority of people lower on the economic and political ladder, often with barely enough resources to survive. Unlike today, they could not write their local representative and complain. The only other option was revolt, be it by violence or through less conventional means.

Rebels and freedom fighters throughout history have attempted to throw off the shackles of oppressive social systems. From Spartacus to the Founding Fathers, the thirst for freedom has driven men to do daring deeds. However, victory is never assured, and most attempts to win freedom at the point of the sword failed miserably, with horrifying consequences for rebel leaders and their followers alike. Few, though, met as grisly a fate as Gyorgy Dozsa, who led the Hungarian peasant revolt of 1514.

 

Peasant fury runs out of control

The revolt grew out of a complex web of factors, as revolts tend to do. At the risk of oversimplifying, there were three main causal factors, two that increased the misery of the peasant’s lot and a third that allowed them a chance to vent their anger. The first was a series of wars against the Ottoman Turks, which led to a great deal of destruction among the peasantry, who suffered alike under the raids of the Turks and the depredations of their own armies. Second was that their king, King Vladislas II, was weak. His nobles ran the show, and could basically do as they pleased to the peasants who worked their land.

The third factor leading to the revolt came when Pope Leo X commanded Cardinal Tamas Bakocz to assemble a crusading force in east-central Europe to fight against the Ottoman threat. He arrived in spring of 1514, with a papal bull in hand and promising salvation for any who fought and damnation for anyone who obstructed the holy work. Nobles were not happy, not wanting their serfs to join the crusade before the spring planting was complete. This did little to endear the nobility to the peasants. A rumor began to circulate, oddly enough encouraged by Franciscan friars, that the nobility had been excommunicated.

Something like 15,000 peasants, soldiers, and students joined the crusading force. Bakocz placed Gyorgy Dozsa, a minor noble and hero of the Turkish wars, in charge of the mob. However, the rumors combined with the actions of the nobility in trying to curtail the crusade had led to an explosion of peasant anger. Reports began to filter in from the countryside of serfs rising up and killing their masters. Bakocz tried to disband his crusading army, but the peasantry ignored the cardinal.

The rebellion spread across Hungary, although Dozsa himself, now the nominal leader of the insurgency, operated largely in the eastern and central part of the country. His force, swelling with new recruits, managed to take several towns and cities. Nobles were killed, their mansions were burnt, and in one case a bishop who organized a force to try and put down the rebels was impaled.

While the peasants raged across the countryside, the nobles gathered their forces. While the peasants had fury born of decades of oppression on their side, the nobles could call up decades of fighting experience, not to mention reserves of wealth and better equipment. Their more organized forces began to push back against the mobs.

The end of the revolt came at the castle of Temesvar. Dozsa’s army had the castle surrounded, but the stubborn defenders thwarted their efforts to take the fort. This gave the noble forces, led by a Translyvanian noble (and future king of Hungary) Janos Szapolyai to strike hard at the rebels and break their ability to fight.

 

Dozsa’s horrible fate

Contemporary engraving of Dozsa's execution.

Contemporary engraving of Dozsa’s execution.

Dozsa was captured. What happened to him next is among the most gruesome fates in all of history. Reports of his torture vary somewhat, but they agree on key points. On the day of his execution, Dozsa was stripped naked and forced to sit on a red hot iron throne. A heated iron scepter was forced into his hand, symbolizing his pretense at kingship. A red hot iron crown was placed on his head.

Then, fourteen of his followers were brought before him. They had been starved for more than a week before this point. Some accounts said that they were commanded to eat his flesh, or be drawn and quartered. They then set on him like rabid dogs, tearing the flesh from Dozsa’s bones with their teeth. Other accounts claim that they were offered freedom if they would eat Dozsa’s flesh, which was torn from his body with red hot pliers. Those who refused were cut to pieces right in front of their former leader. Whatever might have been the case, the rebel leader soon died of his horrific injuries.

The stoic resolve he showed in the face of his torture impressed his captors, but did little to help his former followers. The nobility cracked down on the peasant class in the wake of the revolt, proclaiming the Diet of 1514, which condemned all Hungarian peasants to “real and perpetual servitude.” They were bound permanently to the soil, were forced to work more days for the lords, heavily taxed, and forced to pay for damage done during the rebellion.

Despite his crushing failure and ignoble death, Dozsa has become a national hero in Hungary. His name and likeness have been invoked by subsequent rulers, most notably the Hungarian Communists after World War II. They renamed the main avenue of Budapest after him. Small comfort for a man who met such a grisly fate.

 

Sources:

Godkin, Edwin Lawrence. “The History of Hungary and the Magyars.” Oxford University. 1853. Digitized April 28, 2006. pgs 136-137. http://books.google.com/books?id=u5w1SqNE3cgC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=dozsa&f=false

 

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Dozsa Rebellion.” Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/170596/Dozsa-Rebellion

 

Roman, Eric. “Austria-Hungary and the Successor States: A Reference Guide from the Rennaissance to the Present.” Infobase Publishing. January 1, 2009. pg 465. http://books.google.com/books?id=EvCfTIsTOskC&pg=PA465&dq=gy%C3%B6rgy+d%C3%B3zsa&hl=en&sa=X&ei=TD45VO-WDc6ZyAT0qYH4BQ&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=gy%C3%B6rgy%20d%C3%B3zsa&f=false