Transylvania and aristocracy – if these two words bring anything to mind beyond the long-gone centuries of the Principality of Transylvania, then it is perhaps The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy, three volumes relating the history of the region, titled individually in English: They Were Counted; They Were Found Wanting; They Were Divided. It is symbolic, perhaps, that the trilogy, originally published by the Transylvanian Guild of Fine Arts (Erdélyi Szépmíves Céh) between 1934 and 1940, was reprinted in 2006 by Helikon Publishers as part of a series embracing the collected works of Bánffy. The trilogy also conquered the international community, with one reviewer of the English edition describing Bánffy as the Hungarian Tolstoy.

What makes the first and the new editions symbolic, however, is that just a few years after the first publication of the third part of the novel, the hunt was on against the aristocracy in the countries of the Carpathian Basin; the trilogy’s re- publication after the turn of the millennium, meanwhile, more or less coincided with the time when the erstwhile aristocratic families of Transylvania began to return to their homeland. Just two days after sitting his state exam on 27 June 2007, for example, Farkas Bánffy, a young member of the baronial branch of the Bánffy family, moved to the village near Nagyenyed (Aiud)1 named Fugad (Ciuguzel), where the recently restituted family manor stands. As he said in an interview to Mandiner, “I decided to go down to Fugad, settle the restitution process, and manage the family estate. Previously my father used to deal with the estate, but from Hungary this could not be done effectively. I defended my dissertation on 27 June 2007, and I moved on 29 June.”2 Apart from the Bánffy family, other noble houses who have returned to Transylvania – or who never went away, but have now “reawakened” – include the Kálnoky, Apor, Mikes, Haller, Dálnok, Bethlen, Teleki, Kemény, Csávossy and Barcsay families.

Before examining why the former aristocrats returned, how they were received, and what they are doing in Transylvania, it is worth dedicating a few words to the origins of the Hungarian – more specifically, the Transylvanian – aristocracy, and to what exactly we mean by the term “aristocracy”.


At the time of King Saint Stephen, the Hungarian aristocracy3 comprised tribal leaders who converted to Christianity to preserve their power, as well as foreign knights who settled in Hungary, most of whom arrived with the Bavarian Princess Gizella. King Stephen called this layer of society “the greatest in terms of birth and honour”. By the beginning of the twelfth century a new kind of aristocracy had emerged, made up mainly of dignitaries. In the early thirteenth century, the name by which they had hitherto been referred to, nobilis, began to be used for those with smaller amounts of wealth, while aristocrats were thenceforth assigned the title of baron. The main privilege of the nobility was their right to have their legal matters heard in the royal court. However, it was not only the noblemen who were freemen, for there were also non-noble, common freemen. From the thirteenth century onwards, there also existed a class of so-called “royal servientes”, who were also answerable only to the king, and who also later became part of the nobility.

Besides through holding high office, one could ascend to the nobility via royal prerogative or by acquiring a noble estate. There were also instances when the ruler ennobled entire groups of people, such as in 1324, when King Charles Robert exempted the Transylvanian nobles from paying taxes to the voivode.

During the reign of Sigismund of Luxemburg, some fundamental changes were implemented. The king had assumed the throne thanks to the support of a league of noblemen, whom he was compelled to serve for quite some time. He bestowed numerous estates upon them “irrevocably and in perpetuity”, until in 1403 he began to undermine their influence, put down a rebellion, and impose taxes on the estates. It was around this time that the upper nobility sealed its position as an influential political force, whose power could only be curtailed by a king with the skills of Sigismund or, later, Matthias Corvinus.

Beginning in these times, the destiny of the nation was substantially shaped by the influence of around forty or fifty magnate families. Aristocratic titles were not yet used by the Hungarian high nobility, however. The first hereditary baronial titles were granted by King Vladislaus II, but even then the beneficiaries declined to use their new titles. The “true barons of the country” were still the dignitaries, numbering around twenty in total: the palatine, the judge royal, the master of the treasury, the governors of the border regions (the bans and the Transylvanian voivode), certain court dignitaries, such as the master of the doorkeepers and the master of the cupbearers, and several county lieutenants. These officers were allowed to keep their rank even after being replaced by the king. The “true barons of the country” were, in practice, one and the same as the major landowners, so it was not difficult for them to have their rights extended.

In the Act of Law of 1498, article 22 enshrined in law the names of the “natural or nominal barons”, that is, the magnates, which consolidated the position of about forty families in total. Naturally, the aim was not simply to record their names, but to formalise which families would be obliged to supply troops in the event of war. In the Middle Ages, beginning with the reign of Sigismund, the number of magnate families remained constant at around forty, fluctuating little, for just as many families died out as were elevated among them.

Nobility and wealth, but not official rank (palatine, etc.), would be passed down the male line. Only landowners with 1000–1200 serfs counted as magnates, and merely being appointed to high office was insufficient grounds. However, although the high nobility proved numerically constant, and the practice of inheritance gradually took shape over the first few centuries of the Kingdom of Hungary, the openness and mobility of the aristocratic class remained unchanged, for the king frequently appointed homines novi, that is “new men”. According to one study, the process of flux and renovation among the Hungarian high nobility was almost continuous between 1458 and 1646. In 1458, there were 59 families within this circle, but by 1646 that number had hardly risen at all, to 64. This numerical stability was due to families dying out; minimal fluctuations arose because extinctions and new appointments were rarely in precise alignment. Had it not been for so many families failing to produce a male heir, the total number of magnates would have increased incessantly.

No matter how wealthy these families were regarded, the combined work of their serfs barely covered the upkeep of their estates and the maintenance of their lifestyle, with little surplus, if any, for representation and luxury.

From the time of Ferdinand I, kings began to elevate certain families to ranks of higher status, but only if the family was already a member of the aristocracy. This led to the development of the hereditary peerage, as distinct from the “common nobles”, i.e. the gentry. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became impossible for anyone without a connection of some sort to one of the established families to ascend to the highest layer of the nobility. At the end of the seventeenth century, there were around fifty families in the country’s high nobility, before this number was tripled by Maria Theresa to 155, although this amounted to no more than a thousand people. By this time, titles were also permanently established: apart from Transylvania, there were two princely families (Esterházy, Batthyány), 84 comital and 69 baronial.

After the period of Ottoman occupation, however, the aristocracy lost its role as defender of the nation, driver of the economy and organiser of society, and became increasingly distant from the gentry. This was the period that laid the groundwork for the nineteenth-century aristocracy, who later developed a particular sense of responsibility for the country.

At the time of Joseph II, the population of the country numbered nine million, of whom around 350,000 were members of the nobility and gentry, that is, around 4 per cent of the total population, average by European standards (in Poland the ratio was 8–12 per cent, in Spain 5 per cent, and in France a mere 1.5 per cent). After the reign of Maria Theresa, a good 800 or so families could consider themselves affluent, alongside a few thousand middle-ranking landholders. More than 90 per cent of the gentry, numbering approximately 70,000 families, were smallholders or landless.

After the Ottoman period, the nobility and the aristocracy gradually lost their moral raison d’être, which since ancestral times had been to defend the homeland, through war if necessary – after all, the main reason why the nobility came into being in the Middle Ages was because the king and the nation needed a class of military-minded men who possessed the requisite material resources and had an acknowledged reputation.

Clearly illustrating this change, after the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the high nobility no longer resided in castles, but gradually converted them into fortified chateaus, and eventually more palatial residences, which were devoid of all defensive function. At the same time, the castles of Krasznahorka and Árvaváralja (Krásna Hôrka and Oravský Podzámok, Slovakia) and those of Gyalu and Bonchida (Gilău and Bonțida, Romania), for example, were inhabited uninterruptedly until the Second World War.

After Maria Theresa, there was also a “freeze” among the upper nobility, and their duties, rare exceptions aside, were now confined to managing their estates and shaping the politics of the nation. Members of the gentry carved out a place for themselves in county-level politics. The Transylvanian saga written by Miklós Bánffy, however, exposes the ways in which the high nobility in Transylvania failed, in the author’s opinion, to live up to this ethos.

The disappearance of the aristocracy from the life of the nation did not take place in a natural way, for after Act IV of 1947 abolished noble ranks and titles, the aristocrats either fell victim to Communist persecution or else fled into exile abroad. It was only after 1990 that they began to return home, both to Hungary and to Transylvania.


According to the history of Transylvania edited by Béla Köpeczi, “the basic stratum of Transylvania’s noble society” was “represented by the descendants of the clans who occupied the region around the River Szamos”, among whom certain families survived through to the Modern Age.4 Twenty-one of the ancestral clans had connections to Transylvania.

From the time of the Principality of Transylvania onward, the local nobility lived far more modestly than their counterparts in royal Hungary. Their estates were smaller, they enjoyed fewer privileges, and they were far more dependent on their supreme ruler, the prince. Hardly any of the estates in Transylvania could be classified as large, and most of the holdings would have counted as medium- sized estates in the kingdom. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, however, the residences of the Transylvanian magnates grew ever more palatial, and the Renaissance exerted a decisive influence on the high nobility of the “Fairy Garden”, as the principality was fondly called.5

At the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the leading class in the principality consisted of landowners in seven counties, the Partium and the Székely (Szekler) Land (Terra Sicolorum). The territory was shared among 350–400 families, but the estates were fragmented into very small parts; 15 per cent of them had no more than somewhere between one and three villages, six families (including the Gálfi, Kendi and Apafi families) had relatively large dominions, but only two families possessed truly large estates: the Losonc branch of the Bánffy family, with their seat in Bánffyhunyad (Huedin), and the Csáky family, whose castle was in Almás (Almaşu). The Somlya branch of the Báthori family was also significant, but this was because of their estates in the county of Szatmár, in the kingdom. Landowners in the Partium included the Iktár branch of the Bethlen family, as well as the Zólyomi and Wesselényi families. The wealthiest families in the Székely Land (who were, however, among the poorest members of the Hungarian aristocracy) included the Lázár, Mikes and Apor families. Even the grants of Prince Gábor (Gabriel) Báthori could not change their position, and when György (George) Rákóczi I arrived as Prince of Transylvania, he alone owned as much land in Hungary as the combined possessions of seventy Transylvanian families together. According to the Köpeczi trilogy, the only truly aristocratic family in the Middle Ages was the Losonc branch of the Bánffy family, followed by ten more families of high standing: Gyerőffy, Apafi, Mikola, Kendi, Bethlen (Bethlen branch), Pekry, Kamuthy, Kornis, Haller and Rhédey. Transylvania had no hereditary peerage, however. The high nobility was not “frozen”, as in the Kingdom of Hungary, but nor did it decline, as in the West. However, the prince was the supreme lord, and feudal powers did not exist.6

In the seventeenth century the Habsburg rulers elevated their supporters to the high nobility, and granted them estates and titles. Among those who benefited in this way were the Bethlen (Bethlen branch), Bánffy (Losonc branch), Kemény (Magyargyerőmonostor branch), Haller (Hallerkő branch) and Kornis (Göncruszka branch) families.7

In the nineteenth century there were 50–60 families in the upper nobility in Transylvania. The liberation of the serfs in 1848 caused difficulties for aristocratic families in general, no less in Transylvania.8 Time, however, had little effect on the situation described above, until the nobility was abolished. At the end of the nineteenth century, the only landowner who could compete with the magnates in Transdanubia, for instance, was Count György Bánffy, whose estates measured some 26,000 holds. At the same time, sixty aristocrats had estates above 2,500 holds, with half of the large estates controlled by just forty people. The estates underwent modernisation following the Compromise of 1867, with many being developed into model farms. Few aristocrats, however, pursued a career in economics, apart from dealing with their own estates, and the majority spent their time in politics, state service and social life. Dezső Bánffy became Prime Minister of Hungary, and there were many Transylvanians in the upper chamber of Parliament until the property census of 1885, after which their numbers dwindled. The Transylvanian aristocracy was less open than most of the Hungarian upper nobility when it came to marriage, adhering far more strictly to three criteria: spouses were expected to be of the same nationality, the same social rank, and the same religious denomination.9

Life centred around the chateau or castle, or at least, it did until they had to be abandoned beginning in the mid-1940s. Many families were evicted overnight by the Romanian Communist authorities. The residents of the Renaissance chateau in Keresd (Criş) were given just one day to vacate the premises, and most of the complex was taken over by the local cooperative. In 1970, however, one of Ceauşescu’s film directors shot a scene for his grandiose picture about the Romanian hero Michael the Brave here at the chateau, quite barbarically setting fire to its roof. The Bánffy Chateau in Fugad hosted a school, Bonchida was destroyed by German bombs, and the majority of chateaus were used as educational establishments, hospitals, psychiatric hospitals or orphanages. Worst of all was when the properties were left empty, for they not only fell into disrepair but were taken to pieces through the actions of people and time. Nowadays, the chateaus of Transylvania (and the whole of Romania) are being surveyed by a society founded by a group of art history students in Bucharest, named Monumente Uitate [which they translate as: (Un)Forgotten Monuments]. Among their collaborators is Kálmán Teleki, lord of the chateau in Gernyeszeg (Gorneşti). The society maintains a register that includes 500 chateaus in the areas that were formerly part of Hungary: Transylvania, the Banat, the Partium and the Máramaros (Maramureş) region.


One of the founders of Monumente Uitate, Cristina Chira, had this to say about the erstwhile aristocracy: “I think a lot of people, especially from the younger generations, look upon the old aristocratic families as examples of breeding and good taste, which are values often missing from today’s society. A great deal of cultural heritage is due to the aristocracy and the middle nobility, they developed and maintained it, and in many cases they themselves were its creators.”10

The situation was not always so. True, the aristocrats who crept back home to visit during the Communist period were greeted warmly by local villagers, but Romanians in general were not so fond of those who returned after the regime change or after the turn of the millennium, and there were instances when the returning noblemen found themselves in conflict with the local (even ethnic Hungarian) leaders because the reclaimed chateau now housed some public institution. Farkas Kálnoky and his son, Tibor, returned to Sepsikőröspatak (Valea Crişului) in 1987. While they were at mass, the villager who had given them directions spread the word: the counts are back! Their reception was affectionate, apart from a Securitate car that later tailed them, as we can read in Samu Csinta’s first volume about the Transylvanian aristocracy.11

Tamás Barcsay, heir to the princely chateau in Gyalu, spoke about a similar reception in an interview given to Mandiner: “I first went there in 1968. With some of my fellow students from Oxford University I visited the Soviet Union, and on the way back I took them to Gyalu. The regime was still relatively liberal in those days. Plenty of things were still there, and neither the garden nor the chateau was in bad condition. The director welcomed us and showed us around. They assigned me a peasant in a fur hat, and I asked him, ‘Were these oppressive, feudal lords really so terrible?’ And then he spoke about my father in absolutely positive terms. I almost cried. The whole arsenal of Stalinist propaganda was saying that the noblemen oppressed the peasants, but even dedicated Marxist historians stopped writing in this way as the regime approached its end.”12

Among Romanians, however, the picture is mixed. Barcsay’s opinion on this is remarkably upbeat: “Not long ago, a Romanian teacher in Bonchida gave her students the task of asking the older villagers what life had been like when the Bánffy counts were landlords. The village had always had a majority of ethnic Romanians, and the students gathered together some surprisingly positive responses. The new generation now realised that what they had been told in the past was not necessarily the truth.”13

Farkas Bánffy, by contrast, faced some resistance: “There were those four little local potentates, who can be found in every Romanian village: the mayor, the priest, the cop and the forester. They were not pleased to see me, because I was upsetting their well-oiled system. Once, I had my car rocked by the mayor and the priest together. […] Sometimes I’m even vilified in church by the Orthodox priest, so my neighbours tell me. So we are not the best of friends, but we no longer antagonise each other really. We slowly managed to gain a foothold, and we are on good terms with the neighbours.”14

The heirs of the Kemény family, who reclaimed the chateau in Marosvécs (Brâncoveneşti), where literary meetings of the Transylvanian Guild of Fine Arts were once held, came up against objections from the local Hungarians. They were not warmly received either by the director of the neuropsychological institute housed in the chateau, or by the mayor, and even the villagers were worried that the returning lords might want to take back the erstwhile servants’ homes.15


The reason why so many aristocratic descendants are deciding to return is the Romanian law of restitution, which – at least in theory – calls for former residences and part of the estates to be handed back to their rightful owners. After all, the Romanian state lacks the resources to conserve so many dilapidated, decaying, ruined chateaus, castles and manors. At the same time, as Tamás Barcsay has pointed out, the Romanians at least gave something back, unlike the Hungarian state, which threw dust in people’s eyes with its system of compensatory reparations. Naturally, the situation leads to often lengthy battles with the Romanian justice system, not so much because of the building as because of the surrounding estates that support its upkeep. Even when the court order is finalised, the lands are only given back, if at all, after everything of value has been removed. As Farkas Bánffy said in the same interview from before, “Low value, tiny, long ransacked territories have been returned, but when it comes to the valuable lands, somehow they cannot find the wherewithal to hand them back. There is already a ruling declaring that the lands are ours, but they refuse to cede them, just because.”

Under the terms of the law of restitution of 1999, any claims over property must be backed up with cadastral records or similar documentary evidence, or even the testimony of living witnesses. Within the territory of the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy, cadastral records were kept inside the Carpathian Basin, but not beyond the Carpathian Mountains.


What does the future hold for so many chateaus?16 Some can be turned into museums or hotels, but not all of them, for demand would never reach such heights even if Transylvania eventually occupied its deserved place in international tourism, which is still a long way off (perhaps it is better this way, for so much value and charm would be lost were tourism in the area to become over- professionalised). Farkas Bánffy, if he ever has the funds to restore it, will probably turn his chateau in Fugad into a family summer home. In Zabola (Zăbala), the Mikes family descendant, Gregory Roy-Chowdhury (aka Gergely Mikes), has turned his ancestral residence into a castle hotel, while the Kálnoky family have likewise created a luxury guesthouse in Miklósvár (Micloşoara). Another possibility is to repurpose them as conference centres, although in the case of smaller manor houses, continued use as a family home may be the best option. In many instances, however, the heirs have no idea what to do with the chateau. No function has yet been found for the Teleki Chateau in Gernyeszeg, a pendant of that of Gödöllő, although first – or perhaps in parallel with its use – the building needs to be renovated.

The resettling aristocrats have set up the Castellum Foundation, and each year they hold a ball in one or other of the family seats. The first was held in Apafi Manor in Almakerék (Mălâncrav), followed by Bánffy Castle in Bonchida, Lázár Castle in Szárhegy (Lăzarea) and the chateau in Gyalu, while the fifth event was hosted in Bánffy Manor in Fugad, under the “management” of Farkas Bánffy. The ninth ball was held in 2017. The idea for the annual get-together sprang from the desire to show friends from abroad, in the words of Zsolna Ugron, “the Transylvania that we love”, and guests arrived from as far afield as Japan and Argentina.17


The noble offspring are almost automatically becoming important members of local public life. They undoubtedly fulfil the traditional duties summed up by the term noblesse oblige. Thus, those who have been greatly blessed, whether in terms of wealth, or simply in terms of history, good standing and prestige, are obligated to act for the benefit of the wider community. In Zabola, Gregory Roy-Chowdhury organises dancing camps in the village; his cousin, Farkas Bánffy, is likewise an important figure in the social life of Magyarlapád (Lopadea Nouă), an ethnic-Hungarian village near Fugad, as the organiser of dancing camps along the Kis-Küküllő (Târnava Mică) river, having also helped set up a students’ hall of residence in the village in autumn 2016.

As can be read in the news from time to time, Transylvania even has an English royal resident, at least in summertime: aided by Tibor Kálnoky, Prince Charles found, and ultimately bought, an estate in Zalánpatak (Valea Zălanului). The situation is not without its tensions, and József Kasléder, the mayor of the village of Málnás (Malnaş) in the centre of the municipality, once burst out that the locals saw little benefit from having the Prince of Wales around: “The residents of Zalánpatak are expected not to install double glazing, not to build big, modern houses, not even to tarmac the road, all in the name of preserving the quaint old village appearance. You cannot stop improvements to the village just because the prince and his foreign guests turn up once or twice a year to admire how poor we are.”18

Slowly but surely, with its fair share of difficulties, life for the returning aristocrats in Transylvania is carrying on where it left off after decades of Communist rule. With great determination, they have moved back, often to places where they never actually lived before, knowing them only from hearsay or from childhood stories. Nevertheless, they set about overcoming all the obstacles not just for their own benefit, but for that of their patria. They and their names may seem a little odd, their work, and even their mere existence, may appear somewhat romantic, but they are there, to the enrichment of Transylvania. Nobody else would do what they are doing. As Kata Vay, wife of Count Pál Teleki, exhorted her son Count Ádám Teleki, as he headed to war in 1744: “If you can act for the good of your nation, that is what you must do.”

Translation by Steven Kane


1 Place names in parentheses after the original Hungarian names are the present-day, local names, located in Romania unless otherwise stated.

2 Farkas Bánffy, “Románia a korlátlan lehetőségek és a lehetetlen korlátok országa” [Romania is a land of unrestricted possibilities and impossible restrictions]. Mandiner, 18 June 2012, http:// (interview by Gergely Szilvay).

3 An outstandingly informative summary of the subject, which I have also relied on as a source, is the special issue (2/2012) of the history magazine titled Rubicon. The title of the special issue is “A magyar nemesség” [The Hungarian nobility].

4 Erdély története a kezdetektől 1606-ig [The history of Transylvania from the beginnings until 1606] (ed. Béla Köpeczi). Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986, 325.

5 Ibid., 507.

6 Erdély története 1606-tól 1830-ig [The history of Transylvania from 1606 until 1830] (ed. Béla Köpeczi). Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986, 733–736.

7 Zoltán Bicsok and Zsolt Orbán, “‘Isten segedelmével udvaromat megépítettem…’ Történelmi családok kastélyai Erdélyben.” [“With God’s help I built my courtyard…” The chateaus of historic families in Transylvania]. Csíkszereda [Miercurea Ciuc, RO], Gutenberg Kiadó, 2012, 22.

8 Erdély története…, 1459–1462.

9 Ibid., 1582–1591.

10 “Monumente Uitate: erdélyi kastélyokat mentenek a román diákok” [Monumente Uitate: Transylvanian chateaus rescued by Romanian students]. Mandiner, 14 June 2014, http://mandiner. hu/cikk/20140603_monumente_uitate_erdelyi_kastelyokat_mentenek_a_roman_diakok (report by Gergely Szilvay).

11 Samu Csinta, Erdély újranemesítői. Arisztokraták honfoglalása [Restitutors of the nobility in Transylvania. The “Conquest” of the Aristocrats]. Heti Válasz Kiadó, 2015.

12 Tamás Barcsay, “A románok legalább visszaadtak valamit, Magyarország nem” [The Romanians at least gave back something, but Hungary did not]. Mandiner, 9 March 2014, cikk/20140308_barcsay_tamas_interju_erdely_gyalu (interview by Gergely Szilvay).

13 Ibid.

14 Farkas Bánffy, Románia a korlátlan lehetőségek

15 Samu Csinta, Erdély újranemesítői…, 53–54.

16 The periodical Korunk devoted one of its issues to the future of the chateaus: Korunk, June 2013. “Erdélyi kastélyok új szerepkörben” [Transylvanian chateaus in new roles].

17 Gergely Szilvay, “Erdélyi Pocahontas – útirajz Ugron Zsolnával” [Transylvanian Pocahontas – Travelogue with Zsolna Ugron]. Mandiner, 1 March 2014, erdelyi_pocahontas_utirajz_ugron_zsolnaval.

18 “Többet várnak Károly hercegtől” [More is expected from Prince Charles]. Krónika, 22 August 2015,

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