Szepes county

Szepes (county)

Szepes (Slovak: Spiš; Latin: Scepusium, Polish: Spisz, German: Zips) is the Hungarian name of the historic administrative county of the Kingdom of Hungary officially called Scepusium before the late 19th century. It is now lying in north-eastern Slovakia, with a very small area in south-eastern Poland. For the current region see Spiš.


Szepes county shared borders with Poland and with the Hungarian counties of Liptó (Liptov), Gömör-Kishont (Gemer-Malohont), Abaúj-Torna (Abov-Turňa) and Sáros (Šariš). After the late 18th century dismemberment of Poland, the border was with the Austrian province of Galicia. Its area was 3,668 km² in 1910. The county became part of Czechoslovakia, apart from a very small area now in Poland, after the First World War, and is now part of Slovakia (and Poland).

Throughout its history, the territory has been characterized by a large percentage of forests - in the late 19th century, as much as 42,2% of Szepes was forest.


The original seat of government of Szepes county was Spiš Castle which was constructed in the 12th century. Unofficially from the 14th century, and officially from the 16th century, until 1918 the capital of the county was Levoča.


From the beginning of the 15th century, the county was subdivided into three processuses. The number was changed to 4 in 1798. In the 2nd half of the 19th century the number of processuses (districts) was increased.

In the early 20th century, the subdivisions of the county Szepes/Spiš were (town names first in Hungarian, then in Slovak, then in German):

Districts (járás)
District Capital
Gölnicbánya Gölnicbánya, Gelnica, Göllnitz
Igló Igló, Spišská Nová Ves, Zipser Neudorf
Késmárk Késmárk, Kežmarok, Käsmark
Lőcse Lőcse, Levoča, Leutschau
Ólubló Ólubló, Stará Ľubovňa, Lublau
Szepesófalu Szepesófalu, Spišská Stará Ves, Zipser Altendorf
Szepesszombat Szepesszombat, Spišská Sobota, Georgenburg
Szepesváralja Szepesváralja, Spišské Podhradie, Kirchdrauf
Urban districts (rendezett tanácsú város)
Gölnicbánya, Gelnica, Göllnitz
Igló, Spišská Nová Ves, Zipser Neudorf
Késmárk, Kežmarok, Käsmark
Leibic, Ľubica, Leubitz
Lőcse, Levoča, Leutschau
Poprád, Poprad, Deutschendorf
Szepesbéla, Spišská Belá, Zipser Bela
Szepesolaszi, Spišské Vlachy, Wallendorf
Szepesváralja, Spišské Podhradie, Kirchdrauf


This article only covers the history of Szepes when it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary (approx. 11th century - 1918). For a complete history of the region see Spiš.

Early history

The southern part of Szepes was conquered by the Kingdom of Hungary at the end of the 11th century, when the border of the Kingdom ended near Kežmarok. The royal county of Szepes (comitatus Scepusiensis) was created in the 2nd half of the 12th century. In the 1250s the border of the Kingdom of Hungary shifted to the north to Podolínec and in 1260 - in the northwest - to the Dunajec river. The northeastern region around Hniezdne and Stará Ľubovňa (the so-called "districtus Podoliensis") were incorporated only in the 1290s. The northern border of the county stabilized in the early 14th century. Around 1300, the royal county became a noble county.

The subsidiary of the Hungarian Chamber (the supreme Habsburg financial and economy institution in the Kingdom of Hungary) responsible for eastern Slovakia and adjacent territories (i.e. not only for Szepes) was called the Szepes Chamber (Zipser Kammer in German), and it existed from 1563 to 1848. Its seat was the town of Kassa, today Košice, sometimes Eperjes, (today's Prešov).

Counts of Szepes

The rulers of the county were from the following Hungarian noble families:

Sedes of the ten lance-bearers

Until 1802, there was a Seat or 'Parvus comitatus', known as 'Sedes superior' (upper county) or 'Sedes X lanceatorum' (county of the ten lance-bearers), which was situated to the east of Poprad in present-day southern Spiš, and whose origin is unknown. From the 12th century onwards its inhabitants were known as the "guardians of the northern border." The inhabitants and names of the settlements in the county were Slovak. In 1802, when its inhabitants decided to merge the sedes with Szepes county, it included the following settlements: Abrahámovce, Betlanovce, Filice (today part of Gánovce), Hadušovce (today part of Spišské Tomášovce), Hôrka (including Kišovce, Svätý Ondrej, Primovce), Hozelec, Jánovce (including Čenčice), Komárov, Levkovce (today part of Vlková), and Machalovce (today part of Jánovce). Originally more villages were included.

The 'lance-bearers' were squires. The "sedes" was a collection of non-contiguous areas, which did not constitute a continuous territory. It had an autonomous government, similar to that of normal Hungarian counties, but was partly subordinated to the head of Szepes county. Until the 15th century its capital was Špišský Štvrtok (which interestingly was not part of the sedes territories); following this there were various capitals, and after 1726 the capital was Betlanovce.

Arrival of the Germans

Many of the towns of Szepes developed from German colonization of existing Slovak settlements. The German settlers had been invited to the territory from the mid-12th century onwards. The major immigration came following the devastating Mongol invasion of 1242, which turned Szepes, like other parts of the Kingdom of Hungary, into a largely depopulated area (some 50% of the population were lost). Subsequently, King Béla IV of Hungary invited Germans to colonize the Szepes and other regions of present-day Slovakia, present-day Hungary and Transylvania. The settlers were mostly traders and miners. The settlements founded by them in the southern parts (Szepesség) were mainly mining settlements (later towns). Consequently, until World War II Spiš had a large German population (see Carpathian Germans). The last wave of Germans arrived in the 15th century.

In the early 13th century, the people of Szepes created their own religious organization called the "Brotherhood of the 24 royal parish priests", which received many privileges from the local provost. It was re-established after the Tatar invasion in 1248.

At the same time, the German settlements of the Hornád and Poprad basins created a special political territory with its own administration. They received collective privileges from King Stephen V in 1271, which were confirmed and extended by King Charles I in 1317, because the Szepesian Germans had helped him to defeat the oligarchs of the Kingdom of Hungary in the battle at Rozhanovce in 1312. The territory was granted self-government privileges similar to those of the royal free towns. In 1317, the special territory included 43 settlements, including Levoča and Kežmarok, which however withdrew before 1344. From 1370 the 41 settlements of the territory subscribed to a uniform special Szepes law system (called Zipser Willkür in German). Initially, the special territory was called "Communitas (or Provincia) Saxonum de Scepus". By the mid-14th century, the territory was reduced to 24 settlements and later the name was changed to Provincia XXIV oppidorum terrae Scepusiensis in Latin (Bund der 24 Zipser Städte in German [i.e. Province/Union of 24 Szepes towns]). The province was led by the Count (Graf) of Szepes elected by the town judges of the 24 towns.

There was yet another privileged territory in the Spiš. Until 1465, the privileged German mining towns in southern Szepes (e.g. Gelnica, Švedlár, Mníšek nad Hnilcom, Helcmanovce, Prakovce, Vondrišel (today called Nálepkovo), Jaklovce, Margecany, Smolník, Slovinky, and Krompachy) were also exempt from the power of the Count of Spiš.

The Pawning of Szepes towns and the Province of 16 Szepesi towns

The Province of 24 Szepes towns was dissolved in 1412, when, by the Treaty of Lubowla King Sigismund of Luxembourg, ruler of Hungary, pawned 13 of the towns of the former Province, as well the territory around the Stara Lubovna (i. e. the royal domain Libenow, plus Hniezdo and Podolínec) to Poland, in exchange for 60 times the amount of 37,000 of Czech groschen, that is, approximately 7 tonnes of pure silver. This was to enable the financing of his war against Venice. Similar short-time pledges (without interest payments) were not uncommon at that time (e.g. the pawning of the Nitra county, Pozsony county, the Brandenburg marches etc). The pledged towns were to be returned to the Kingdom of Hungary as soon as the loan was repaid; nobody expected the pledge would take 360 years to redeem (from 1412 to 1772).

The 13 main pawned settlements did not form a continuous territory. They included: Ľubica, Poprad, Matejovce (today in Poprad), Spišská Sobota (today in Poprad), Stráže pod Tatrami (today in Poprad), Veľká (today in Poprad), Ruskinovce (no longer in existence, located in the military training area Javorina near Kežmarok), Spišská Belá, Spišská Nová Ves, Spišské Podhradie, Spišské Vlachy, Tvarožná and Vrbov.

They kept their privileged status (now in respect of the Polish kings who did not change the privileges) and created the "Province/Union of 13 Szepesi towns" in 1412. The remaining 11 towns of the former 24 towns, which created the "Province/Union of 11 Szepesi towns" in 1412, were not able to maintain their privileges and as early as in 1465 they were fully incorporated into the Szepes county, i. e. they became subjects of the lords of the Spiš Castle. Most of them gradually turned into simple villages and largely lost their German character.

The pawned territories remained politically a part of the Kingdom of Hungary (and of its Esztergom diocese), while the economic benefit of the territories was subject during the pledge to Poland. Poland also held some administrative powers in the area and was entitled to appoint a governor/administrator (starosta) for the territories, with his seat in Stará Ľubovňa, to manage them economically (especially to collect tax revenues) and to position guards at important road crossings even outside the pawned territories. One of the first Polish governors of Szepes was the famous knight Zawisza Czarny. Due to their complex political and economic status (German towns with Slovak subjects in the Kingdom of Hungary pawned to Poland) the towns experienced an economic collapse.

Attempts of the Kingdom of Hungary to repay the debt (most notably in 1419, 1426 and 1439) failed and later the will (or ability) to pay declined. After alleged mistreatment of the towns had occurred - especially by Teodor Konstanty Lubomirski, Maria Josepha of Austria, queen consort of August III of Poland, and by Count Heinrich Brühl -, Maria Theresa of Austria decided to recover them by force: she took advantage of the Polish noble insurrections in the second half of the 18th century and occupied the towns in 1769 (with the apparent consent of the then Polish king Stanislaus II of Poland) without debt repayment. This act was confirmed by the First Partition of Poland in 1772. In 1773 when the pawn was cancelled. In 1778 the 13 towns regained their privileges of 1271, the privileges were extended to the other 3 previously pawned towns, and this newly formed entity was named "Province of 16 Szepes towns". The capital of the province was Spišská Nová Ves. However, the privileges were gradually reduced and some 100 years later only religious and cultural rights remained. Finally, the province was dissolved altogether and incorporated into Szepes county in 1876.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries

The Szepes county (today:Spiš region) prospered not only from being situated on trade routes, but also from its natural resources of wood, agriculture and, until relatively recent times, mining. In the fifteenth century and later, iron, copper and silver were all exploited in the south of the region. Its relative wealth during this period, and its mixture of nationalities and religions, resulted in it becoming a major cultural centre - many schools were founded, and the town of Levoča became a major centre for printing in the 17th century. The buildings and churches of the region's towns, and the skills of schools such as those of the carver Master Paul of Levoča testify to this affluence and culture. Until the end of the 17th century the area was often disrupted by wars, uprisings against the Habsburgs, and epidemics (a plague of 1710/1711 killed over 20,000). But from the eighteenth century onwards, relative stability enabled faster economic development. Many craft guilds were founded and by the end of the 18th century over 500 iron mines were operative in the south.

Such prosperity naturally meant that the churches paid great interest to the region. А Lutheran synod, the so-called Spiš synod, took place in Spiš in 1614. It discussed the Protestant organisation of the Szepes and Sáros counties. In the Catholic sphere, a separate Szepes Bishopric was created in 1776 with its seat at Spišská Kapitula.

The spirit of nationalism, growing in the nineteenth century, moved also in Spiš. In 1868, 21 Szepesi settlements sent their demands, the 'Szepes Petition', to the Diet of the Kingdom of Hungary, requesting special status for Slovaks within the Kingdom.

In 1871 the railway came to Szepes and this was to have profound consequences. On the one hand, it enabled economic and industrial expansion. On the other, it bypassed the old capital of the region, Levoča, and favoured the growth of centres on its route, such as Poprad and Spišská Nová Ves.

In the aftermath of World War I, Szepes county became part of newly formed Czechoslovakia, as recognized by the concerned states in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.


According to censuses carried out in the Kingdom of Hungary in 1869 (and later in 1900 and 1910) the population of Spiš county comprised the following nationalities: Slovaks 50.4%, (58.2%, 58%), Germans 35% (25%, 25%), Ruthenians (Rusyns) 13.8% (8.4%, 8%) and 0.7% (6%, 6%) Magyars (Hungarians). Hardly any Hungarians lived in the territory during the existence of the Kingdom of Hungary. The sudden increase in listed Hungarians after 1869 may be due to statistical interpretation (use of "most frequently used language" as criterion); it may also be attributable to Magyarisation (especially of Germans), and mass immigration between 1880-1910 when about 1,5 million people (of whom about 2/3 were non-Hungarian) left the Kingdom of Hungary to escape from poverty, especially many from bigger towns.. The figures thus do not make clear how Jews were categorised, but their numbers must have been substantial as many of the towns had synagogues (one survives in Spisske Podhradie) and Jewish cemeteries still survive in Kežmarok, Levoča and elsewhere.


Economic activity in the region was principally based on agriculture (and, in the mediaeval period, mining).

See also


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