Up the hill, down the hill
When all that glitters is gold
The glitter of gold and silver attracted people to these places from time immemorial. Although in the most ancient times, iron was the treasure, in medieval times, it became the precious metals that drove people to build a town among these rugged hills. The Hungarian king, Belo IV, needed a mining centre in order to have metals to mint his gold and silver coins, so he granted royal town privileges to Banská Štiavnica around the years 1237 – 1238. Because of this favour, the town was under the direct administration of the monarch rather than the nobility or royal regional administration.
They forgot to tell the Tartars that Štiavnica was a free town. Their invasion in 1241 – 1242 interrupted the promising development of mining here. But when the country recovered from the raids, the miners’ hammers and chisels resounded again underground, and by the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, Banská Štiavnica was already one of the most important economic centres of the Hungarian Empire.
No good reward for loyalty
Between 1424 and 1548, mining towns were dowry properties of the Hungarian rulers’ wives. However, it was not always beneficial if towns gave their full loyalty to their owners. For example, when King Albert’s widow fell into disagreement with the King Vladislav I, Štiavnica was on Elisabeth’s side. For this reason, Šimon Rozgoň, the Bishop of Jáger, together with Ladislav Čech from Levice, invaded Štiavnica in 1442. Around that same time, a great fire almost consumed Štiavnica and, a year later, an earthquake struck the town. But, again, the town pulled itself together, and by 1487 was already able to contribute about 2,200 kg of silver to the royal court.
Good Lord, spare us!
When, in the 16th c., the Ottoman Empire began its campaign to crush the Kingdom of Hungary, many rich men of Štiavnica fled to Germany, and the town was spending great sums to protect itself. In the 17th and at the beginning of the 18 c., the town let itself be drained by both anti-Habsburg rebels and royal troops – depending on which of them had just captured the town. The suffering of the inhabitants peaked in the course of the plague epidemic in 1710. Finally, fortune turned to favour, and the survivors of the plague, about half the population, were able to savour a well-deserved flourishing of the town. After the Peace of Szatmár was concluded (1711), mining and, therefore, the town, began to recover, and Štiavnica soon became the third largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary (1780s).
Return to the future
Beginning in the first half of the 19th c., mining began to decline in Štiavnica. The many attempts to save it finally came to an end in 1993. In the same year, Banská Štiavnica and the technical monuments of its surroundings were included on the UNESCO List of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Thus, the town officially became one of the most precious sites on the planet. Banská Štiavnica’s famous history attracts an ever-growing number of admirers, and the town is once again rising from the ashes. Its past has become its future.
The silver of the Turzo family
Not everything that looks like a contribution to mining at first sight truly is one. To prove this, we can look at an example from the end of the 15th c., provided by the Turzo family. At first, they offered mining towns technical solutions to drain the water from mines; and then, they were the reason for one of the largest miners’ uprisings in the Empire.
The Turzos were always smart at making use of a gap in the market, as well as in the royal purse. When it transpired that King Vladislav II became as poor as a church mouse, the “good-hearted” Turzos lent 200 thousand golden coins to His Majesty, receiving as collateral to guarantee repayment a claim on the rule of the mint chamber of Kremnica, affecting 12 counties, on the mint itself, and on the mining chambers of Kremnica, Banská Bystrica, and Banská Štiavnica. Ján Turzo even became the Main Chamber Earl. When mining lacked investment capital, the Turzos secured it with the help of the Fuggers, who were financiers. When Štiavnica needed lead, the Turzos made themselves its exclusive importers, for inflated prices. Furthermore, the Turzos contributed to the technical development of mining, metallurgy, and minting; earned piles of money on copper export; determined the state’s currency policy; forced the mining towns to sign a pledge of allegiance; and controlled the final process of gold purification (cementing), which was a production secret of the mint in Kremnica. And that was not all! In order to pay the king the lowest sums for rentals in Kremnica, the Turzos resorted to accounting frauds. Štiavnica finally became truly fed up with the Turzos, although they never actually showed up in the town, controlling it through their manager, who was called the “factor” in those times. The owners of the Štiavnica and Kremnica mines united and wrote a letter of complaint to Queen Mary, asking her to stop the troublesome Turzos. And she did: she terminated their lease of and their role in the Chamber Court in Kremnica, and lifted the mining towns’ duty of allegiance to the Turzos. The work was completed by the miners, who were outraged at how the Turzos handled the miners’ emergency reserves in the brethren treasury, and by the fact that they started minting almost worthless coins, with which one could not even buy the simple necessities of life. In 1525, the outrage resulted in one of the largest miners’ uprisings, which finally put an end to the Turzos’ misdeeds.
Miracles overnight, the impossible achieved in three months
After every hard period in its history, Banská Štiavnica was able to flourish again. Sometimes slower, other times faster. After the anti-Habsburg uprisings and the plague epidemic, the decimated town was revived by reforms, whose results began to be seen in the second half of the 18th c. And when, in 1751, the Emperor Francis I decided to visit the central Slovakian mining towns, Štiavnica was able to turn itself almost instantly into a radiant metropolis.
It is quite unbelievable how much work can people do in just a few months under the “threat” of an imperial visit. From the beginning of March 1751, when the Emperor’s business trip was negotiated by the Main Chamber Earl Office, until 3 June, when the visit began, the hard-working people of Štiavnica managed to do impossible: they finished the building of the Calvary, erected triumphal arches, affixed new facades to houses on several streets, repaired roofs on houses, cleaned chimneys, paved roads, repaired bridges, and installed street lamps. The Kammerhof (the Chamber Court building) was turned into a baroque palace, and people also renovated the Hellenbach’s house (Berggericht), where an apartment was arranged for the Emperor. The beds for His Majesty were transported here all the way from Vienna. Also, to spare Francis I from having to creep up the ladder, people managed to carve the so called, “imperial stairs” in the Glanzenberg mining tunnel, thus connecting it with the Upper Holy Trinity tunnel. In addition, the space at the crossroads of several tunnels, located 40 metres below the surface, was enlarged. Meanwhile, a troop of 100 miners received arms and military training. And, since they needed to be dressed in official uniforms, tailors from Štiavnica and its wider surroundings worked day and night. To make enough boots, the blacksmiths had to help the shoe makers. An official outfit for the Emperor Himself had to be made as well. He was to wear it when going belowground. The master tailor Juraj Himlreich took care of it. Also, the planned transport of the imperial suite from Vienna to the central Slovakian mining towns contributed to significant improvements to the roads; many of them were not good enough for nobility to travel along them, so thousands of golden coins were allocated to road repairs. The mints in Vienna and Kremnica were busy preparing for the imperial visit as well. Francis I could not deny being a fan of numismatics, and allocated the huge sum of 8,000 golden coins to the creation of memorial medals as gifts to be given to some significant recipients. In addition, the funds were used to mint currency coins which were to be thrown about among the miners, metallurgists, and other employees of the mining chambers. The interest in medals and coins was so great that the mints needed to make additional pieces even after the Emperor’s return to Vienna. Well, if it is said that imperial visits contributed to the development of Slovak mining towns, it can be proven true in many ways.