The fortress city of Siget lay in ruins. Fires raged across the castle skylines, the screams of dead and dying men echoing throughout the plazas and squares of a walled metropolis that had once been home to tens of thousands of people. From the innermost walls of the keep, the last bastion of resistance against the unstoppable onslaught, a hardened group of determined men (and one badass woman) tightened their grips on their saber hilts and musket stocks, clenching their teeth in anticipation for a fight they knew most of them had no hope of surviving. On the far side of the gate, sounds of chaos reigned, as hardened enemy soldiers rampaged through the town, burning, smashing, and killing any survivors they came across.
Before the six hundred hungry, exhausted, but determined defenders rode a tall, imposing man with a thick graying beard and a really cool-looking uniform. Already a beloved, heroic figure among his people, this lifelong soldier had fought countless battles in his 58 years of life, many of them against overwhelming odds. He drew his sword, held it high, and declared his intention to fight to the last:
“Let us go out from this burning place into the open and stand up to our enemies. Who dies, he will be with God. Who dies not, his name will be honored. I will go first, and what I do, you do as well. And God as my witness – I will never leave you, my brothers and knights!”
With a battle cry and the crack of musket and cannon fire, the Croatian and Hungarian forces threw open the gates to the citadel at Siget and rushed blades-first into a wall of battle-hardened Turkish infantry. The fight these warriors were about to put up is still the stuff of legend among the Croatian and Hungarian people to this day.
Count Nikola IV Zrinski was born in Zrin, Croatia, in 1508, into a world where basically all of Eastern Europe was doing anything it could to try and stop the onslaught of the all-powerful Turkish Ottoman Empire from smashing the ass of Christendom into charcoal with a booted heel. Nikola and his kid brother Ivan were born to a pretty insanely-well-off noble family, but being that this was a war-torn border country they pretty much immediately had to get into the business of stomping around on horseback swinging a cavalry saber at a bunch of dudes who wanted to burn his house down and take all his land. As a young cavalry officer Zrinski was commended for bravery at the Siege of Vienna in 1529, when he and a small band of Croat horsemen were part of a vastly-outnumbered European force that miraculously defended the Austrian capital from an onslaught of Turkish forces that nearly overwhelmed the city and changed the course of Western civilization forever.
The Siege of Vienna
The Super Zrinski Bros returned back to Croatia, spent the next decade or two going back and forth between attacking Turkish forts and telling various Austro-Hungarian princes to fuck off (the Hapsburg dynasty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled over Croatia during this time period, which was fine with Zrinski… as long as the Emperor wasn’t trying to get all up in Zrinski’s business with lame shit like “Imperial decrees” and “collecting taxes”). In 1540 one of the Zrinskis (possibly both) pissed off the Sultan a little too hard and ended up having a couple farms and mines burned to the ground in retaliation, but they got vengeance in 1542 when they helped the Hungarians during the Siege of Pest – a battle that kind of sounds like a weird name for an insect extermination company but was actually a pretty intense battle in Hungarian history (the current Hungarian capital, Budapest, used to be two cities – Buda and Pest. I’m not making this up, I swear). The short, oversimplified version is that the Hungarians tried to retake Pest from an army of Turks and Transylvanians (!), took the town, were forced out by a counter attack, and would have been completely shitstormed into McGiblets if Nikola Effin Zrinski hadn’t showed up with 400 rampaging Croat horsemen to help cover the Hungarian retreat.
To thank him for his assistance, Zrinski was appointed the Ban (governor) of Croatia in 1542, meaning his job was to basically run shit in the Emperor’s name. I don’t have a ton of details about what went down over the next decade or two, except that we do know for sure that he once challenged the governor of Bosnia to a duel – Zrinski showed up for the fight, but the guy he challenged did not. Still, I always manage to find a soft spot in my heart for any high-ranking nobleman/politician who has the balls to challenge his counterpart to one-on-one combat
At this point, let me just say that it hasn’t been particularly easy to research this dude, and it’s not just because the correct spelling of his name involves a bunch of diacritical markings that I haven’t memorized the keystrokes for, or that there's like nothing written about him in the English language – it’s because he’s one of three different dudes named Nikola Zrinski who are important in Croatian history. The second Nikola Zrinksi was also a Croatian Ban – and that guy is the same person as famous Hungarian poet Miklos Zrinyi, the man who wrote the first epic poem ever comprised in the Hungarian language. That epic poem was about – you guessed it – the friggin’ Siege of Siget in 1566, meaning that the primary source for information about Nikola Zrinski was a poem written by Nikola Zrinski, except that Nikola Zrinski is a different guy than the Nikola Zrinski you’re reading about. Oh, and Miklos Zrinyi is just the Hungarian spelling of Nikolas Zrinski, so when you see Miklos Zrinyi it’s not explicitly clear which one of these dudes they’re referring to. Oh, right, and there’s yet another important guy named Nikola Zrinski who was also a Croatian Ban, only this guy led a conspiracy to overthrow the Hungarian King because he thought the King was being too soft in his dealings with the Turks... that conspiracy, known as The Nikola Zrinski Plot (also a cool band name btw), never materialized because this Nikola Zrinsky randomly got killed by a wild animal while he was out hunting one day and was never heard from again.
Nowadays there’s a Nikola Zrinski Square in downtown Zagreb, Croatia. It’s in honor of all three dudes, because I guess it just makes more sense that way.
So now that I’ve managed to completely clarify all of that for you, it’s time for me to cover 500 years of Turkish-European relations in about a sentence and a half. Basically, the Ottoman Turkish Empire had been whomping ass up and down the Mediterranean dating back to the good old days of Selim the Grim and Alp Arslan, and in the 1560s shit was firmly under the control of the mighty Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent – a guy so over-the-top awesome that there should be a UN Resolution condemning this website for not posting an article about him yet. In his 46 years as the most powerful man in the world, Suleiman’s tireless efforts on land (and those of the corsair Barbarossa by sea), meant that nearly four decades holding all of Eastern Europe’s collective nutsacks in a bench vice. However, by January 1566 Suleiman was 72 years old, Austria was fucking with him too much, he’d just been defeated by the Knights of Malta under Jean de Valette, and the Magnificent Sultant was looking for one last epic campaign to crush his enemies once and for all.
So, when war broke out once again between Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman declared that he would command his thirteenth and final military campaign personally.
There’s some debate about it, but it seems that Suleiman’s plan with this invasion was to finish what he’d started in Vienna back in 1529. What we do know for sure is that in early August of 1566, a humongous sea of Turkish infantry, cavalry, and artillery appeared on the horizon outside the walled city of Siget (known as Szigetvar in Hungarian, because why not I guess). Inside, just 3,000 Croat and Hungarian defenders watched the approach of a Turkish force that may have exceeded 100,000 men in strength.
When Suleiman approached the walls of the city, he saw them draped with humongous sheets of red cloth – a practice usually only used when greeting visiting dignitaries and Kings or celebrating a festival. As Suleiman gazed at this strange display, a single shot rung out – a cannonball signifying the defenders’ intentions to try and face an enemy force that outnumbered them by more than 30 to 1.
The Zrinski Guard Regiment, wearing
uniforms like the defenders would have worn
For the next month, the Turkish cannons, rifles, and arrows hammered the stone walls of Siget, ripping apart chunks for mortar and rock with each concussive blast. The defenders fired muskets from the walls, poured oil on attackers, and fought back in a battle that seems like a bizarre mix of Medieval and modern military tactics. Day after day the Turks blasted cannon fire into the town, launching full-scale assaults at night under the cover of darkness in a desperate attempt overcome the castle moat, storm the walls, and overwhelm the defenders with their superior numbers. Eleven times the Turks assaulted. Eleven times they were hurled back from the walls in increasingly desperate fights.
Turkish fire had crippled the outer walls, so Zrinski ordered his exhausted, dwindling forces to retreat back within the inner walls of the keep. There were two baileys there that would be easily defensible, and there were rumors that a nasty wave of disease was sweeping through the Turkish camp and killing many of the enemy. If only he could hold out a little longer, maybe the defenders would have a chance.
The twelfth Turkish assault was by far the most desperate yet. Rushing through the outer walls, the Turks hammered the inner walls, setting fire to the city and hurling fire bombs into the inner keep. Zrinski ran from post to post, yelling for his men to fight on, and any time the enemy managed to break through and breach the walls they were met by a determined phalanx of Croat and Hungarian warriors fighting hard to throw back the attack. Through blood, smoke, gunfire, and flame, the battle raged for hours.
When the smoke cleared, the citadel walls had held, but at a terrible cost. Of the 3,000 defenders of Siget, only 600 remained.
By September 8, 1566, all hope for the city of Siget seemed lost. Tens of thousands of Turkish warriors, including the elite Janissaries, were all camped in the city, just waiting to press their final assault and overrun the defenses. The city was out of food, almost out of bullets, and nearly every man still alive was wounded in some capacity. There was no aid coming from Christian allies in Austria or Hungary. A couple of the Croat officers’ wives, not wanting to fall into the hands of the Turks but bound by their faith not to commit suicide, asked to be beheaded rather than survive the siege. One of them dressed as a man and decided to fight heroically alongside the survivors.
It was at this point that Nikola Zrinski decided he would not sit back and wait for the Turks to come to him.
He knew he would not survive, but he was going to go out in a fucking badass blaze of glory.
With a crash, Nikola Zrinski and the 600 survivors of the Siege of Siget threw open the doors of the keep and let loose a close-range blast from the only working cannon they had left in the city – it was out of cannonballs, so they’d just loaded it with handfuls of jagged iron that Swordfished into the astonished defenders like a shotgun shell loaded with nails and screws. The blast ripped through the front line of the enemy, and with an epic scream Nikola Zrinski and his men crashed headlong into a sea of enemy warriors. Fighting, slashing, and shooting in all directions, they fought heroically, lashing out Alamo-style, every warrior just looking to do as much damage as possible before they perished.
"To battle, to battle!
Unsheathe your sword, Ban,
Let the enemy know how we die!"
In the epic poem (and in the national opera of Croatia), Nikola Zrinski and his officers corps smash through the Turkish lines, break out of the city, charge into the Turkish headquarters camp, and Nikola Zrinski kills Suleiman the Magnificent in a duel before being shot to death himself. This is a suitable epic and badass way to end the story, and you can bet your nutsack that this is how they’d end the Hollywood biopic, but in reality it didn’t go down this way. In fact, Suleiman the Magnificent was already dead on September 8, 1566 – he’d died of old age three days before, but the Grand Vizier had kept his death a secret so that his men wouldn’t lose morale or abandon the fight. In reality, the initial attack was devastating, but it did not take the battle-hardened Turks long to regroup. Zrinski took two musketballs to the chest and an arrow across his head. He would beheaded as he lay dying, and his head was placed outside the city walls on a spike. The officer’s wife killed a few of the enemy as well before eventually being shot to death herself. Of the 600 men in that final attack, only seven would survive – men who were spared by Turkish officers who had been impressed with the bravery and fighting spirit of their enemies.
When the smoke cleared and the fighting finally stopped, the Turks had taken command of the city, although at devastating cost – a large number of their force had been killed either by battle or plague, and now, to make things worse, their Sultan lay dead.
Oh, right, and as they entered the citadel to claim final victory, the Croats had one final surprise waiting for them – a wounded man had stayed behind with a torch, and as the Turks flooded the courtyard he ignited the castle’s powder magazine.
After Siget, the Ottoman army would head back into Siget to regroup. Zrinski and his brave defenders became heroes overnight, and Cardinal Richelieu even declared that they had “saved Christendom” with their defense of the city. Known to his people as the “Slavic Leonidas”, Nikola Subic Zrinski remains a national hero not only in Croatia, but also in Hungary. His former palace still stands today, and the opera of his life is the most famous opera in Croatia.
The Hungarian-Turkish Friendship Memorial,
depicting Zrinski and Suleiman together
Goldstein, Ivo. Croatia: A History. Montreal: McGill-Queens’s University Press, 1999.
Petro, Peter. A History of Slovak Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.
Shelton, Edward. The Book of Battles. London: Houlston and Wright, 1867.
Tracy, James D. Balkan Wars. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.