Weddings, or: a story of two castles


Whether marriages take place in heaven or elsewhere, they remain popular. Certainly less popular than in the past, but popular nonetheless. Young people can share a bed and a house for a decade without being married, but when it comes to producing babies, they can get married very well and they can even go to church and celebrate their nuptials with a dress bridal shower and confetti. This goes back to the original purpose of marriage: procreation, to replenish the Earth.

According to the OECD, the majority of children today are born out of wedlock. Why? I do not know. Maybe it’s peer pressure. My Danish teacher in Copenhagen was a good example. “None of my friends are married,” he told me. “Why should I?” Later, when we got to know each other much better, he confessed: “Ingrid and I got married over a year ago. I know I can count on you. Please don’t tell anyone. I promised to keep it a secret and I did.

Another couple I knew well, two architects in the UK, got married after living together for 23 years. They told me: “We can live happily without a piece of paper, but die without this piece of paper, it’s apparently too complicated. So we got married. I’m sure our eminent social scientists would be able to find many other reasons for the growing absence of wedding bells, but for my part, I have exhausted my knowledge of marriage as a contemporary subject.

In my youth, however, I was an avid reader of Greek mythology which often involved love within and outside marriage, in which gods and mortals actively participated. My knowledge of weddings in my native Hungary is much more limited, but there is one that I have always found fascinating, one that doesn’t happen often, one that should be more widely known. The weather is early 17e century, the scene is northern Hungary. At the time, it was divided between the Catholic Habsburg Empire and the princes of Transylvania who professed the Protestant religion. To better appreciate the historical times, I must add here that all this happened while Europe was engaged in the 30 years war.

I could call this story The story of two castles, Murany and Fulek, quite close to each other. The first on the Protestant side was held by Maria Szechy, known as Venus of Murany because of her extraordinary beauty, the second by Ferenc Wesselenyi, who swore allegiance to the Habsburg king. Wesselenyi was single, Maria’s first marriage was when she was 17. Her husband died 5 years later. She remarried, remained married for 3 years and then divorced her second husband. It was unforgivable at the time – shocking, in fact. Her divorce earned her the scorn of those with a strict moral code. She further outraged high society by wearing masculine clothing, including armour, riding a horse like a man, and becoming skilled in the use of traditional weapons.

As a widow and a divorcee, she met her third husband, Ferenc Wesselenyi, on the battlefield – on both sides. Wesselenyi had his eye on both Murany Castle and its defender. He began the siege but soon realized the castle was impregnable. He stood on top of a steep mountain, easily defended by a determined woman.

So what did he do? We don’t know the details. We have to accept the story of Janos Arany, the greatest Hungarian poet. Poets may not stick strictly to the truth, but their versions are invariably more entertaining and scan better. This is an epic poem, a psychological drama called the Siege of Murany, running to over 400 verses. According to Arany, Wesselenyi began her charm offensive by offering lavish gifts, including two beautiful horses and exquisite armor. All he wanted in return was Maria’s conversion to the king’s cause and he also offered his love and admiration. Alas, it was rebuffed – resolutely. She saw Wesselenyi’s attempt as a male assault on her sex. She complained

Isn’t a woman a human being?

How dare a man lay down his laws,

Lead her on a leash like a little child

Deprive her of her free will.

Who gave you the right, proud men

To banish us when decisions are made

And condemn our innocent heads

See surrender as a virtue.

Maria was determined not to be outwitted by Wesselenyi. Soon she had formulated a counter-plan: to invite Wesselenyi into the castle for a meeting, but as soon as he crossed the moat she would arrest him and threaten him with execution unless he espoused the Protestant cause. . The plan worked. Wesselenyi was captured and in order to make the threat real he was led to the scaffolds. Wesselenyi refused to bend. Even under threat of death, he was unwilling to break his oath to the king. Such consistency was rare at the time.

(In contrast, France’s most revered king, Henry IV, had no difficulty changing his faith for political gain. He declared “Paris is worth a mass,” converted to Catholicism, and never never looked back.) Firmness in the Catholic cause was not the behavior Maria expected. His plans were in tatters.

Arany writes that she told the executioner to wait, put on her best dress which showed off her divine figure, let her raven black hair fall around her shoulders, went to the scaffold and kissed Wesselenyi. He was happy, he kept the faith and in addition acquired a castle for the King. She was happy too. Venus triumphed over Mars. Three days later, they got married.

Apparently, they then lived happily ever after, to be exact for thirty years, after which Wesselenyi died a natural death. Just as well. His initial enthusiasm for the King’s cause did not last. At the time of his death he was leading a conspiracy against the Habsburgs who hoped to gain independence for Hungary. The conspirators’ plans were discovered shortly after his death. Most of his accomplices were executed. Maria, although not a party to the plot, spent the rest of her life in exile. History does not document the details of her final years – was she a traitor to the feminist cause or was she to be considered the ultimate feminist heroine – fending for herself through her ingenuity?

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