History of Kőszeg

About Kőszeg

The town of Kőszeg has always played a large role in the history of Hungary and Austria. Over the centuries, the town belonged to the two countries in turns. It was an Austrian territory 4 times altogether, and a Hungarian province for 5 periods. Therefore, Kőszeg has a long past of being a melting pot of Hungarian, Austrian and German culture (even from the Medieval times). In some of the surrounding villages, Croatian memories are also alive. Croatians appeared in the vicinity during the Turkish invasion. 

Middle Ages, Kőszeg

The area, which belongs to Burgenland’s vicinity today, has been an important area for the military even since the 12-13th centuries, due to the continuous German attacks. In the surrounding hills, stone castles were built. One of them stands on Óház-tető. This one is called Óvár, (Alte-Haus, ‘Old Castle’), or Upper Castle, which was established by the earls of Kőszeg. The exact date of its erection is unknown, but written sources inform us that it had already been standing in 1248, as King Béla IV of Hungary took it back from the Austrian prince. This document mentions the place as „castrum Kuszug” (1248).
In the second part of the 13th century, the family Németújvári relocated its residence from the hilltop to the valley (the area of current Kőszeg), and a new castle was built. This was the Downer Castle (today’s castle of Kőszeg), which served ceremonial aims as well.
This was the date of the establishment of Kőszeg.
The first citizens were settlers, who got several privileges and allowances. The new, strong town started to evolve spectacularly. In 1289, the Németújvári family had a personal conflict with Albert I of Austria and Styria. As punishment, Albert occupied the town, just for it to be taken back by András III and finally given back to the Kőszeg family in 1327. The conflict remained, so Charles I of Hungary took most of the castles of the family and compensated them with territories inside the country, far from the western borders. Charles I declared Kőszeg as a Royal Free City. In the Anjou times, Kőszeg was one of the most important wine traders, together with Bratislava (Pozsony) and Sopron. Its wines were exported to Southern Germany. Moreover, a trade of handworks has also been developed here.

In 1445 Frederic III Holy Roman Emperor occupied Kőszeg, and in 1446 he gave a coat-of-arms to the town, which is still in use today. From this moment on, Kőszeg was under Habsburg power until 1847, not as a part of the Hungarian Kingdom, but of Lower-Austria. King Matthias retook it (according to the legend, he visited the invaded town himself), but it was a Hungarian province only for a short period. After the death of Matthias, it was ruled by Austria again.

At this time Kőszeg played a large role in stopping the Ottoman army, which marched to attack Vienna (only a few know that Kőszeg was an Austrian town during this period). The task of the castle and the town was to hold back the army of Suleiman II for a couple of days, in order to allow the troops of the Empire to assemble in Vienna. The defining moment of the period was the Turkish siege in August 1532. Nikola Jurišić (Miklós Jurisics), the Croatian captain had a small number of defenders (Hungarian, German and Croatian troops), but they managed to quell the Ottoman dominance. (In order to commemorate this event, the bells of Kőszeg are rung not only at noon, but also at 11 am. According to the legend, Ottoman troops left the town at this hour.)

In the following year, Jurišic was given the title of Baron, and was granted the castle of Kőszeg as a freehold (Kőszeg had already been an Austrian town for 200 years). From 1538 five more Lower-Austrian areas were given to him. After the siege, Kőszeg was granted a tax-free title and was given several allowances. The castle was rebuilt and gained its present form.

In the next two centuries, the town started blossoming. This was the golden age of Kőszeg, as it was one of the main connecting points of trade roads between Vienna and the Adriatic Sea. (The Renaissance buildings of the town are form this period, for example the Sgrafitto House, which is one of the most significant buildings in Kőszeg.)

New Age

In 1648, after almost 200 years, Kőszeg was given back to the Hungarian Kingdom. Ferdinand III gave it an eternal title of Royal Free City. Kőszeg managed to hold this title until 1871. (Since then on 6th November every year, they commemorate this anniversary by holding Királyi Nap (King’s Day).)
On 9th May 1713 German (Swabian) settlers arrived at Kőszeg and they established Kőszegfalva (Swabendorf) next to the city.
In the Revolution of 1848-49, the city was rather loyal to the Habsburgs, despite losing the title of Royal Free City.
In 1893 the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy held a great military drill at Kőszeg, in which over 160.000 soldiers took part. The event was visited by Franz Joseph I of Austria and King William II of Hungary, the German Kaiser, the prime ministers from all over Europe, ministers, attachés, ambassadors, deputies, the king of Saarland, Habsburg and Bavarian archdukes, and even the Queen of England and her son. From the Hungarian side, royalties, prelates, and county and town gentlemen welcomed the King. Franz Joseph and William II were accommodated at the Grammar School of Military during their four-day stay. As part of the event, a ball was held with over 200 guests invited. The town was given decorative lighting, and a huge bonfire helped to uplift the atmosphere.

In the 19th century, a decline started in the life of the town.

With the peace-treaty after World War I, the town lost its leading position in the area, since two-thirds of its vicinity was annexed to Austria. The local markets were lost, which had a negative effect on the town’s economy too. However, it managed to keep its cultural role in the area and became a so-called „Scholar city”. It had a secular grammar school, an Evangelical lyceum for girls, a military high school, a central high school, and a training-school. The town tried to widen its profile towards tourism and military; however, it was possible only until World War II.

In World War II there were no heavy battles in the town and its vicinity, despite the German idea of making Kőszeg a fortress for their empire. In the local hills, a line of fortifications was built to stop the Russian and German troops. During the war, the Jewish minority was deported from the town. During the war, even the Hungarian crown was taken here for a few weeks, before moving it to Austria. Moreover, one of the ministries of Hungary was moved here. Interestingly, Kőszeg was not bombed; consequently, no harm was made to its buildings during World War II. According to the local legend, a former student of Kőszeg was employed by the American Air Force and he managed to prevent the bombing of the town with a trick. The Russian troops, marching on the land, caused more significant damage. After the invasion, Russian soldiers were ordered to pillage. Most of the families were victims of this cruel process. (During the pillaging, the soldiers were allowed to take anyone’s properties, rape girls and women, and language difficulties were often solved by murdering the locals.)

After the war, German speakers of the town were mostly deported to Stuttgart, Germany. Only those who spoke Hungarian could stay if they declared themselves Hungarian or were willing to change their name to a Hungarian one.

The preservation of the magical, old structure of the town is due to the fact that Kőszeg was isolated after the war.

The borders were strictly closed and permission was needed to visit the town, even for Hungarian citizens. Inside the walls, no major investments could be made as a result of being close to the blocked borders. Those institutions, which served a larger audience, were also moved from the town. The locals could not go freely to the local forests and strict controls were carried out everywhere. The main reason behind this was the existence of the Iron Curtain and the strong steps to prevent immigration, as Kőszeg belonged to the secure area of the border. During the Cold War, many tried to escape to Austria through the Kőszeg hills, but, because of the crooked line of the border, most of them were arrested.

Kőszeg Today

In 1989, the borders of the country were opened again to Austria and to the territories which belonged to Kőszeg. However, the old order could not be restored anymore. After the change in the political system in the 1990’s, commercial tourism started to boom on both sides of the border. This cooled down after a couple of years and influenced only the service tourism trade. In 2004, Hungary joined the Schengen Area, and the border was opened completely. There is free access between Hungary and Austria, even in the hills.

The old buildings and squares were renewed, and the focus was put on harmony and romance. The romantic and beautiful town is an important tourist destination again. Hundreds of international tourists discover its beauties, where there is a large palette of historic memories and sites. It is hard to find any tourist who wouldn't be seduced by Kőszeg.