My great-great grandmother was Maria Bekiesz, the last descendant in Poland, whose lineage traces back to Kasper Bekiesz. As a young girl, when I asked my grandmother about our family history, she wrote a letter to me, about Kasper Bekiesz, and said that it is good that I’m asking and that I want to remember him – and so, I have decided to share his story with you here:
Kasper de Korniath Bekiesz was a Hungarian nobleman born in 1520. He lived in Transylvania, in a castle called Fogaras/Fogarasz. After the death of the King of Hungary, Jan II Zygmunt Zápolya / John Sigismund Zápolya, in 1571, he fought Stefan Bathory for the throne of Transylvania.
Portrait of Kasper Bekiesz (1520-1579/80) . Wearing a headdress with great panache! And in addition to such a stylish hat, I believe he is also here seen wearing the coat – a “Bekiesza” – that bears his name. (Anonymous plate reproduction before 1861. Wikimedia Commons)
My grandmother writes (to my then 8-year-old self) that Kasper Bekiesz was “cheerful, brave and courageous – and that he could fight. He also liked to dress well”… but more on this later!
In his testament, John Sigismund Zápolya, left the Voivode of Transylvania to Bekiesz, but the will was not honored and Stefan Bathory was elected as voivode.
Supported by Maximillian II, Holy Roman Emperor, Bekiesz gathered an army and rebelled against Bathory – but was defeated. He started another rebellion in 1575 – but was again defeated.
In 1575 Stefan Bathory was elected, and later, in 1576, crowned King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, becoming the ruler of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth.
With the death of Maximillian II in 1576, Bekiesz decided to reconcile with Bathory – becoming his close friend and advisor.
He joined the Livonian campaign of Stefan Bathory in the Livonian War against Ivan ‘The Terrible’ of Russia.
Stefan Bathory at Pskov / Batory pod Pskowem. Painting by Jan Matejko, 1872. (Royal Castle in Warsaw / Wikimedia Commons)
The Bekiesz family crest is a black eagle claw, with a half-moon crescent and a star – additions granted by Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire!
Stefan Bathory assigned Bekiesz castles and Lanckorona, but in 1579… or 1580 (accounts differ) – Bekiesz caught a cold, fell ill and died.
Although in our own family legend, his death has a somewhat more romantic end – involving a knight tournament and the pursuit of a lady’s heart!
He left his two sons, Władysław and Gabriel, in the care of nobleman and magnate Jan Zamoyski.
Not allowed a church burial, Kasper Bekiesz, was buried on a hill – Bekes Hill in Vilnius (na górze pod Wilnem, zwanej odtąd Bekieszową). But in 1838 Bekes Hill was washed away by the Vilnia River (rzeka Wilejka).
…Whilst I have not found the following in any source other than Wikipedia, as it makes for a curious twist, I include it here: Apparently, with the hill’s erosion, in the remains from Kasper Bekiesz burial only a skull was found - wearing a headdress made of golden velvet!
And this, stylishly, leads me to another part of Kasper Bekiesz legacy: The “Bekiesza” coat – as it is still known to this day!
My grandmother wrote describing this fur-lined coat, that Bekiesz had made for travelling and hunting, and I remember as a child wondering what this coat would actually look like – and if it got very dirty when hunting…
A red version of the Bekiesza coat can be seen worn in this painting by Brodero Matthisen, 1659: Portrait of Stefan Czarniecki, Field Hetman of The Crown. Stefan Czarniecki 1599-1665, was a Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth general and Nobleman. (Royal Castle in Warsaw /Wikimedia Commons)
The “Bekiesza“ coat would become a part of the Polish cavalry uniform in the 19th Century and was worn in the November Uprising of 1830-1831, against the Russian Empire. Following the defeat, escaping Polish soldiers brought the coat to Prussia – and a later version can be seen in the painting below: Im ersten Semester, by Georg Muhlberg, 1900. (Wikimedia Commons)
Ending on a different note, I will mention, being quite fond of many Russian writers, that in Nikolai Gogol’s short story ‘How Ivan Ivanovich quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich’ – the opening line is: Славная бекеша у Ивана Ивановича! отличнейшая! А какие смушки !
In Polish translation: Ładny Bekiesz Iwan Iwanowicz! Doskonały! A co jagnię!
…and in English: Nice Bekiesz Ivan Ivanovich! Excellent! And what lambskin!
Unfortunately, like so many other things, in my own Penguin copy of the story – this has been entirely lost in translation, reading only: You should see Ivan Ivanovich’s marvelous short fur jacket! It’s fantastic! And the quality of the sheepskins!…