BETHLEN, GABRIEL (Gábor) (1580–1629), prince of Transylvania, the most famous representative of the Iktári branch of a very ancient Hungarian family, was born at Illyé, and educated at Szarhegy, at the castle of his uncle András Lázár. Thence he was sent to the court of Prince Zsigmond Báthory, whom he accompanied on his famous Wallachian campaign in 1600. Subsequently he assisted Stephen Bocskay to mount the throne of Transylvania (1605), and remained his chief counsellor. Bethlen also supported Bocskay’s successor Gabriel Báthory (1608–1613), but the prince became jealous of Bethlen’s superior abilities, and he was obliged to take refuge with the Turks. In 1613 he led a large army against his persecutor, on whose murder by two of his officers that year Bethlen was placed on the throne by the Porte, in opposition to the wishes of the emperor, who preferred a prince who would incline more towards Vienna than towards Constantinople. On the 13th of October 1613, the diet of Klausenburg confirmed the choice of the sultan. In 1615 Gábor was also officially recognized by the emperor Matthias. Bethlen no sooner felt firmly seated on his throne than he seized the opportunity presented to him by the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War to take up arms in defence of the liberties and the constitution of the extra-Transylvanian Hungarian provinces, with the view of more effectually assuring his own position. While Ferdinand was occupied with the Bohemian rebels, Bethlen led his armies into Hungary (1619), and soon won over the whole of the northern counties, even securing Pressburg and the Holy Crown. Nevertheless he was not averse to a peace, nor to a preliminary suspension of hostilities, and negotiations were opened at Pressburg, Kassa and Beszterczebánya successively, but came to nothing because Bethlen insisted on including the Bohemians in the peace, whereupon (20th of August 1620) the estates of North Hungary elected him king. Bethlen accepted the title but refused to be crowned, and war was resumed, till the defeat of the Czechs at the battle of the White Hill gave a new turn to affairs. In Bohemia, Ferdinand II. took a fearful revenge upon the vanquished; and Bethlen, regarding a continuation of the war as unprofitable, concluded the peace of Nikolsburg (31st of December 1621), renouncing the royal title on condition that Ferdinand confirmed the peace of Vienna (which had granted full liberty of worship to the Protestants) and engaged to summon a general diet within six months. For himself Bethlen secured the title of prince of the Empire, the seven counties of the Upper Theiss, and the fortresses of Tokaj, Munkács and Ecsed. Subsequently Bethlen twice (1623 and 1626) took up arms against Ferdinand as the ally of the anti-Habsburg Protestant powers. The first war was concluded by the peace of Vienna, the second by the peace of Pressburg, both confirmatory of the peace of Nikolsburg. After the second of these insurrections, Bethlen attempted a rapprochement with the court of Vienna on the basis of an alliance against the Turks and his own marriage with one of the Austrian archduchesses; but Ferdinand had no confidence in him and rejected his overtures. Bethlen was obliged to renounce his anti-Turkish projects, which he had hitherto cherished as the great aim and object of his life, and continue in the old beaten paths. Accordingly, on his return from Vienna he wedded Catherine, the daughter of the elector of Brandenburg, and still more closely allied himself with the Protestant powers, especially with Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, who, he hoped, would assist him to obtain the Polish crown. He died before he could accomplish any of his great designs (15th of November 1629), having previously secured the election of his wife Catherine as princess. His first wife, Susannah Károlyi, died in 1622.
Gabriel Bethlen was certainly one of the most striking and original personages of his century. A zealous Calvinist, whose boast it was that he had read the Bible twenty-five times, he was nevertheless no persecutor, and even helped the Jesuit Kaldy to translate and print his version of the Scriptures. He was in communication all his life with the leading contemporary statesmen, so that his correspondence is one of the most interesting and important of historical documents. He also composed hymns.
The best editions of his correspondence are those by Sándor Szilágyi, both published at Buda (1866 and 1879). The best life of him is that by the Bohemian historian Anton Gindely, Acta et documenta historiam Gabrielis Bethleni illustrantia (Budapest, 1890). This work has been largely utilized by Ignáe-Acsády in his excellent Gabriel Bethlen and his Court (Hung., Budapest, 1890). (R. N. B.)