Zrinski (by Miklós Barabás, Hungarian, 1842)
Nikola Šubić Zrinski, who lived from 1508 to 1566, belonged to a noble Croatian family that had been prominent in Croatian and Hungarian affairs for two centuries. The family name was Šubić, but after the King of Hungary gave them the castle and estate of Zrin (southwest of Zagreb, near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina), they added Zrinski (roughly, ‘of Zrin’).

During the centuries when Hungary was the dominant power in the region, families like Šubić Zrinski were part of a multiethnic, multilingual aristocracy that scarcely thought of itself as belonging to one national group more than another. During Nikola’s lifetime, when warfare between Turks and Europeans was at its most intense, his victories were celebrated equally by Croats and Hungarians, and both nations claimed him as their own; he is remembered in Hungarian history as Miklós Zrínyi.

The Hungarians were thoroughly defeated by the Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, while Nicolo Šubić Zrinski was still in his teens. What was left of Hungary allied itself with the Habsburgs, and the struggle continued for almost two more centuries. Young Zrinski fought the Turks at the siege of Vienna in 1529; later, in 1542, he’s said to have saved the imperial army from defeat near Budapest by a timely intervention at the head of 400 Croats. The Hungarian king, in gratitude, appointed him Ban of Croatia. Later that same year, he routed an Ottoman force in the Battle of Somlyo. In 1556, he defeated the Turks in a series of battles, and again in 1564 at Szeged, a Hungarian city then under Turkish control.

The army that had crushed the Hungarians in 1526 served the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. He was still Sultan 40 years later when he undertook to lead his last campaign against Vienna in person. The Sultan was then 72, and had to be carried about in a litter because of his gout, but he took the field with a huge army, said to be the largest he had ever commanded — some accounts number it at 300,000, although 100,000 is considered a more reasonable estimate.

Zrinski rallying his men for the last charge (by Oton Iveković, Croatian, 1890)
Zrinski, commanding a force of 2,300 Croats and Hungarians, blocked the Ottomans’ path at a small fortress in Szigetvár, a Hungarian city not far north of the Croatian border. They succeeded in holding up the advance for about a month; by the time the fortress fell, 20,000 on the Turkish side had lost their lives, and of the defending force, only seven escaped. Both commanders were dead: Zrinski in the final battle, and Suleiman of natural causes, in his tent. The Sultan died a few days before the last battle, but the information was kept from his troops lest it discourage them.

The Turks bombarded Szigetvar’s last remaining stronghold with artillery and “Greek fire” (an incendiary weapon invented by the Byzantines), which set it ablaze. Zrinski threw open the gates and led a final, hopeless charge in which he and all of the 600 men who followed him were killed.

The Ottoman army turned back to Istanbul, not so much because of Zrinski’s heroic resistance as because of the Sultan’s death. The Grand Vizier (who had been de facto commander of the army) needed to go home to manage the succession. Of course it’s possible that the unexpected difficulty of taking the fortress could have added to the stress that campaigning must have inflicted on Suleiman’s aging and ailing frame. In that sense, Zrinski might deserve some credit for saving Vienna — for that year, at least, though the Turks would come again — but there’s no way to know for sure.

Zrinski at full charge (Johann Peter Krafft, Austrian, 1825)
Legends about the Siege of Szigetvar abound: some boast that Zrinski killed the Sultan with his own hand; others insist that he left a slow fuse burning in the powder magazine and that many Turks were killed when it blew up after the battle. Accounts are given of the heroic and inspiring speech Zrinski made to his men before the last charge, and the details regarding the magnificent hat and rich silk robe he wore on that occasion have been lovingly preserved.

The siege and battle are described in an epic poem written by Zrinski’s great grandson four decades later — in Hungarian. The legend has also inspired a Croatian opera, named after the hero; it was written by the Croatian composer Ivan Zajc in 1876, and is still performed in that country. And, as the illustrations show, it proved a great inspiration in the 19th century to painters of a romantic and patriotic disposition.