Matija Gubec: Croatia’s beloved historic rebel, tortured & murdered on Zagreb square

Hi guys. You think you’d have more time while in a lockdown, but apparently not :D I am back after a while. Hope you’re doing well and hope today’s’ story about a less known side of Croatia will make the best of your coffee time.

Today, you’ll meet Matija Gubec, Croatian Spartacus who led the Peasant revolution in the 16th century.

I know it was a long time ago and who cares, right. Feudalism is gone (well… :D). But Matija’s life, and especially death, made him a living legend. Partisan army battalions in WW2 fought under his name, kids learn about him early in school, bands sing songs about him and his village still has a very special memory of him that I’ll reveal to you at the end. So, to get to know him better, let’s travel back in time:

Croatia, 16th century: a feudalist country fighting the Ottoman Empire

It was the year 1573, in the northern green hills of Croatia, in a village called Stubica. At the time, there were two kinds of people: those who owned the land (nobility and the Church) and those who worked on it (peasants, serfs).

Peasants who worked on the land also had to give a certain amount of money or goods to their landlords. They worked in unbearable conditions, living in extreme poverty: no money for medication, barely able to feed their families – it got worse day by day, especially because the country was under the attack.

Ottoman army had already conquered most of Croatia, and now they were heading towards the north. In response, the nobility was forcing peasants to pay higher taxes (so they could finance the army), build fortifications, and join the army. One of them was Franjo Tahy, who ruled this area and was notorious for his cruel treatment of serfs.

Few villages had already signed letters to Sultan telling him they are willing to surrender if he promises not to steal from them. Empowered, barehanded, and hopeless, others thought of a different idea.

Winter of 1573: The peasant uprising & King Matija

Under the shadow of an old linden tree, in the spring of 1572, the idea of a peasant rebellion was born. Months were passing by and Matija was working on military operations and establishing a peasant-government. People saw him as a capable and inspiring leader and they were joining him in his plans.

After long preparations, the Peasant rebellion broke out on 28th January 1573 in huge parts of Croatia and neighboring Slovenia. More than 12 000 peasants participated in the fighting, led by their ”peasant king”, Matija Gubec.

The nobility was panicking, raising their armies. The peasant army was fierce, fighting to the death, but they couldn’t stand the chance against a more powerful enemy.

After almost two weeks of fighting, on the 9th of February 1573, the peasant rebellion was finally broken down. More than 3000 peasants died, and many others were caught and killed. The baronial army captured Matija and his closest comrades.

A week later, Matija was brought on the St. Mark square in Zagreb. He was forced to watch his comrades being killed in front of him. But the worst was yet to come.

The barons forced him to wear a red-hot iron crown, mocking him as ”the peasant king”. Then, he was dragged along the city streets, tortured and finally – quartered. It was a tragic end no one predicted.

What happened to the baron Tahy?

He fell ill after some time but continued torturing his serfs. He made himself a tombstone which was placed in a local church after he died. Over time, the moisture started to condensate on the tombstone and the locals said it’s the bloody sweat that he is going through now that he is in hell.

Well, I don’t know where he went, but the tombstone went to the Museum of Peasants revolt.

Fun fact is that Tahy was married to a sister of a famous Croatian nobleman Zrinski. Zrinski is a brave Croatian warrior in a romantic nationalist (hi)storytelling, but let’s not forget the dynamic between the wealthy and the poor throughout history. Better yet, I’ll let the father of Croatian modern novel, Miroslav Krleža, explain it briefly:

”There is no such (Croatian) national pride that would make peace between (Croatian) peasant and the (Croatian) nobleman.”

The justice is slow but sure

We know people had their cruel ways back in the day, but why was Matija condemned to such suffering and morbid end? Well, the way he was treated only emphasized the threat he presented in the eyes of the nobility. After all, they were ”Gods on Earth”, and to insult them or go against them, was considered the biggest crime.

For a long time after, historical books glorified the aristocracy and noblemen as heroes. But the real hero – a small man in an unfair battle – was betrayed by them. The historical role of the unknowns, common folks, and forgotten battles, was recognized only centuries after.

The partisan battalions in WW2 fought for the liberation under his name. His name is the most common street name in Croatia. First Croatian rock-opera was named Gubec-beg. Most famous Croatian writers and artists immortalized him in their stories, books, movies, and sculptures.

One of them is a sculpture in his own village where he is proudly standing with his hands in the air, overlooking the region from the hill. It’s 6.5 meters tall. That’s how long was the peasants’ accusation against baron Tahy. There is a huge wall behind him that represents the everyday life and beliefs of common people those days, but also the final battle in the Peasant war.

And remember the memory I mentioned at the beginning? Remember the linden tree where Matija gathered his comrades to plan the revolution? Well, it’s still there. The 400-year-old and 9 meters tall tree still blossoms every summer.

You can visit them all at once because they are near each other: the monument, the museum, and the old linden tree. Under the tree, you can sit for a coffee in a picturesque local bar. Look around carefully and you’ll see the sign written in Croatian: Buna traje.

The rebellion lives on.

If you decide to explore the area on your own, here’s what you can do:

  • Uber taxi from the Zagreb city center will cost you around 40 euros in one direction (the ride takes about an hour)
  • Tram from the central railway station can take you towards Varaždin. In Zabok you’ll transfer to Gornja Stubica. When you get there, you’ll have to walk for a while, but hey, the nature is nice.
  • Or you can ask a tour guide to show you around and make a customized tour according to your interests. Coincidentally, I happen to be one :)

If there something you’d like to add/know more about, feel free to comment below or contact me.

8 thoughts on “Matija Gubec: Croatia’s beloved historic rebel, tortured & murdered on Zagreb square

Add yours

    1. Wow, great Balkan tour! Hope you enjoyed – well, seems like you did if you’re planing to return 😊 I’ve worked with many Australians and can only say it’s always great fun having you! 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

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