The House of Esterházy (also spelled Eszterházy) was a Hungarian noble family in Hungary since the Middle Ages. From the 17th century they belonged to the great landowner magnates of the Kingdom of Hungary, during the time it was part of the Habsburg Empire and later Austria-Hungary.
The family rose to prominence under Count Nikolaus Esterházy (1583–1645) and his son, Prince Paul Esterházy (1635–1713). In the 17th century, after Nikolaus' acquisitions, the family split into four basic family lines:
The success of the family arose from the steady accumulation of land, and loyalty both to the Roman Catholic Church and to the Habsburg Emperor. The latter factor was perhaps the most important. A consistent theme of Hungarian history was an ardent and sometimes violent wish to become free of Austrian rule, a wish that was finally fulfilled at the end of the First World War. The Esterházy princes were consistently loyal to the Habsburg monarchy, and on several occasions rendered vital services to it in times of crisis. These included the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683 and the outright occupation of Vienna by Napoleon in 1809.
The family acquired its property in three principal ways: redistribution of land taken from Protestants in the Counter-Reformation, redistribution of land conquered from the Turks, and felicitous marriages. Most of these lands were situated in present-day Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. The family ultimately became the largest landowners in the Hapsburg Empire, and their income sometimes exceeded that of the Emperor.
The family derived its name from the settlement Eszterháza, Kingdom of Hungary near Dunajská Streda (today Slovakia). The settlement does not exist anymore and is not to be confused with the later castle of the same name which they inhabited since the Middle Ages. Since 1421 they became the owners of a property in Galanta.
Another important seat of the Esterházys was in Eisenstadt, in the Schloss Esterházy, a palace built in the 14th century and rebuilt 1663-1672. Eisenstadt now lies in the Austrian state of Burgenland, but at the time of the Esterházy princes (and until 1920), it was within the legal borders of the Kingdom of Hungary.
The Esterházys maintained a number of other residences throughout the Kingdom of Hungary and Transylvania, and those Esterházy princes who preferred the stylish life of the capital spent most of their time in Vienna. In the 1770s, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, who disliked Vienna, had a magnificent new palace constructed in Fertőd (unification of Eszterháza and Süttör), Hungary. It was built on the site of a former hunting lodge. This is the most admired of the Esterházy homes, often called the "Hungarian Versailles."
The main line of the Esterházy family was generally bilingual, in Hungarian (as a result of their ethnicity) and German (as they were aristocrats of the Austrian Empire). Esterházys living in parts of the Kingdom of Hungary where other languages were spoken by the population also spoke those languages, especially Slavic languages in Slavic areas. Some family members went by both Hungarian and (rather distinct) German names. Thus, Pál Antal (Hungarian) was the same person as Paul Anton (German), and Miklós József was the same person as Nikolaus Josef. In discussions written in English, the Esterházy princes are occasionally given English versions of their names, as in "Nicholas".
The family name is also rendered variously: Eszterházy (Hungarian spelling), Esterházy (German), and Esterhazy (typographic convenience). The full family name since the 16th century was Eszterházy de Galántha (later also styled von/of Galanta).
The Esterházy family is perhaps best known for its association with the celebrated composer Joseph Haydn, who served as their Kapellmeister. Haydn was hired by Prince Paul Anton in 1761, and worked for most of his years of service (1762–1790) under his successor Nikolaus.
During the following reign, that of Prince Anton (1790–1794), the Esterházy family mostly did without the services of musicians, and Haydn, retained on a nominal appointment, spent most of this time in trips to England. Finally, during the reign of Nikolaus II, Haydn performed largely ceremonial duties, principally consisting of composing an annual mass for the name day of the Prince's wife (and Haydn's friend), Princess Maria Josepha Hermenegild (1768–1845). The aging Haydn continued to perform this annual service until his health failed in 1802.
The first prominent member of the family was Ferenc Zerházy (1563–1594), who was elevated to the title of baron of Galántha (an estate his family had held since 1421) and took the name Esterházy. Family history since this time is described according to three lines of descent, each originating in one of Ferenc's sons: the Fraknó (or Forchtenstein) line, the Csesznek line, and the Zólyom line.
The Fraknó (Forchtenstein) line became "the most prominent of the three". In the discussion that follows, Hungarian names are given in brackets.
Nikolaus was born in Galanta. Raised as a Protestant, he later converted to Catholicism. Created Count by the Emperor in 1626, he achieved great wealth in part by marrying (twice) into money. Nikolaus was in 1625 elected Palatine, that is, ruler of Royal Hungary under vassalship to the Emperor. Nikolaus laid out what became the long-term family strategy, allying himself with the Catholic religion and the Hapsburg emperor. He fought against the Protestant champions Gábor Bethlen and György Rákóczi and sought to free Hungary from Turkish domination.
Paul was the third son of Nicholas, born in Eisenstadt. Elected Palatine in 1681 and created Prince of the Holy Roman Empire (since in Hungary noble princely title did not exist till the 20th century) in 1687 by the Emperor. Paul was a poet, a harpsichordist, and a composer; a number of his cantatas survive. He also wrote a number of religious works.
Under Paul the palace in Eisenstadt was rebuilt.
Paul served as commander of troops in southern Hungary, during the struggle against the Turks, starting in 1667, and his troops were among the coalition that raised the siege of Vienna in 1683. He also played an important role in suppressing the autonomy of the existing Hungarian nobility.
Son of Paul, he was the first to benefit from a 1712 decree of Emperor Charles VI, which made the title of Prince hereditary among the Esterházys. Under him, the family seat at Eisenstadt evolved into a provincial musical center. He died 24 March, 1721.
Half-brother of Michael, he reigned for only 11 weeks, as he died on 7 June, 1721. As his son Paul Anton was only ten, authority was assigned to two regents: Count Georg Erdödy, and his widow Maria Octavia (ca. 1686-1762). The latter was responsible for introducing the German language to the court.
Son of Joseph. In his youth he studied in Leyden and also served as a soldier, rising to the rank of Field Marshall. He served as imperial ambassador to Naples from 1750–1752, and traveled extensively.
Paul Anton was a musical prince; he played the violin, the flute, and the lute, and compiled a large inventory of musical manuscripts. Paul Anton also played an important role as a patron of music. In 1728, his mother Maria Octavia, "probably at her son's instigation" engaged the composer Gregor Werner to be the family's Kapellmeister (music director), a post in which Werner served for several decades. Much later (1761), Paul Anton engaged Joseph Haydn to be his Vice-Kapellmeister in 1761, taking over most of the aging Werner's duties. At the same time, he upgraded the court orchestra, hiring several virtuosi who served under Haydn; the composer recognized their ability by writing many solo parts in his early symphonies.
Son of Joseph, in his youth a decorated soldier. He was the primary patron of Haydn and builder of Esterháza (see above).
Son of Nikolaus I, disbanded the Esterházy musical establishment for the duration of his reign.
A dramatic moment in Nikolaus's career occurred in 1809 when Napoleon made him an offer to become King of an independent Hungary. Nicholas helped save the Empire by rejecting Napoleon's invitation. Actually, he went further than this, and raised a regiment of volunteers to help defend the Empire, an action he had previously taken in 1797.
During his Grand Tour experience Nikolaus developed a taste for the visual arts, and as Prince Nikolaus accumulated a great collection of drawings and paintings. His profligacy as a collector caused financial difficulties for the next two generations of the family.
Haydn biographer Karl Geiringer describes Nicolaus II thus: "He was as complete an autocrat as his grandfather had been, but lacked the latter's charm, kindliness, and genuine understanding of music . . . contemporaries described the prince's nature as 'worthy of an Asiatic despot'".
Nikolaus II commissioned the six late masses of Haydn noted above, as well as the Mass in C of Ludwig van Beethoven. At the first performance of the Beethoven Mass, the Prince criticized the work, and Beethoven left his house in a rage.
The Prince could play the clarinet, or so it would appear from one of the portraits of him.
The splendour of Nikolaus II's reign was greatly diminished by a financial crisis that shook Austria in 1811.
Served Austria in series diplomatic posts, and in 1848 was briefly Foreign Minister.
The family encountered financial trouble during his reign, and (according to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica), "the last years of his life were spent in comparative poverty and isolation, as even the Esterházy-Forchtenstein estates were unequal to the burden of supporting his fabulous extravagance and had to be placed in the hands of curators."
The lifetime of this prince witnessed momentous, often catastrophic changes for the Esterházy family. At the end of the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was split up, and the family's land holdings thus came to be located in several different countries. The Second World War, however, was far more disastrous: the family was scattered during the war years, and at the end of the war the new Hungarian government carried out a comprehensive land reform, "confiscating the land of gentry with estates of more than 50 hectares" . Only the land in Austria remained in the family's possession. Further, in the years after 1945 Hungary came under the rule of an authoritarian Communist regime sponsored by the Soviet Union. Prince Paul endured a show trial and was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 15 years.
The heir to the line is Prince Paul-Anton Nikolaus Maximilian, born in Munich in 1986. The title of Prince has no legal standing in Hungary today, as noble titles were abolished in 1947.
Another was Joseph Eszterházy (nephew to Palatine Paul), the ban of Croatia between 1733 and 1741. Francis Eszterházy also held that title between 1783 and 1785, but he was opposed by Francis Széchenyi.
The renowned contemporary Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy is the grandson of count Móric Esterházy (1881–1960), prime minister of Hungary and one of the five biggest landowners of Hungary. After the regime change in 1989, Péter Esterházy refused to accept the return of any land or valuables nationalised by the communists.
Márton Esterházy is the younger brother of Péter. He was an excellent soccer player, playing for the Hungarian national team between 1980–1988 and took part in the world championship of 1986, in Mexico. He obtained 29 caps and scored 11 goals. At the club level, Márton played for Budapest Honvéd and also AEK Athens.
Count Paul Oscar Esterházy was an immigration agent, who, in 1886, settled south of the present town of Esterhazy, in Saskatchewan, Canada with 35 Hungarian families from the vicinity of Kaposvár. His claim to the Esterházy name was never recognized by the Esterházy family, although he claimed he had "incontrovertible proof of the legality of my claim and of birth right."