The Origins of the Klebercz of Reca and Senec

Klebercz de Rethe, Klebersz von Rethe, rethei Klebercz, Kleberc z Rece

The Klebercz of Reca and Senec are a noble family of Hungary. Throughout their existence to the present day, the family dwelt in Bratislava County; in the town of Senec (Szencz, Wartberg) as well as around it; namely in the curial village of Reca (Rete, Rethe, Reden), a community of predominantly noble families. The family also lived in Nitra County. For hundreds of years the family lived in relative obscurity, not particularly involved in the politics of the realm. They married the daughters of other local noble families of Bratislava, and had a traditional kinship with other, mostly Catholic families living in Reca.
Little has been written of the Klebercz. The two main encyclopaedic sources in which they are mentioned are, naturally, the Hungarian Siebmacher; the other is a recent publication on the nobility of Bratislava County, put together by a group of historians and genealogists (“Pongracz”). Both relate the same basic facts regarding the founder of the family. Peter Klebercz received a patent of arms from Emperor Ferdinand II, King of Hungary. The patent was published in Vienna in 1633. Pongracz adds further information of local interest, such as Peter’s occupation as estate manager for Ladislas Esterhazy in Senec (the famous Ladislaus, head of the House of Esterhazy, who fell in the Battle of Vezekeny in 1652), and some marriages of the 17th century.
A short detour is doubtless justified, particularly for the benefit of the educated English reader, on the meaning of a ‘curial village’ and, indeed, on the meaning of Hungarian nobility itself. The very state of Hungary, its system of inheritance, laws and county administration is based on the unique noble class, one that is expressed so eloquently in a curial village. It was a class not based purely on land ownership, as in the other European lands, where feudalism formed a honeycomb of tenures and vassals. The Hungarian nobility sprung from the lusty Magyar warriors that enforced the newborn kingdom of St. Stephen. Tribal in nature, the military elite strove to live close to each other. They were called the jobagiones castri, the castle warriors, or the servientes regi, the servants of the Holy King. They moved to the countryside without of the castle, and times of peace encouraged the forming of exclusive communities of these nobles. From such beginnings the curial village sprung. The etymological origin is of course from the Latin curia, as the village was a collection of noble courts. The Hungarian noble was free from paying tax, but this was balanced by his duty to take up arms whenever necessary. Up till modernity this peculiar social stratum retained its martial character – fostered no doubt by the ceaseless warring with the Ottoman Turks in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

The status of these nobles is equivocal and in any case very interesting. The Hungarian nobility, as a legal class, had unprecedented legal privileges and powers. Ever since the Bulla Aurea of Andrew II of 1222 (the Golden Bull), which only confirmed the privileges conferred by the Holy King, the nobles’ dominant position in Hungarian history can only in all fairness be called detrimental to progress. Until the mid-19th century, the Kingdom of St. Stephen existed in a kind of tribal elitist vacuum. It is because of this peculiar turn of events that the nobility of Hungary meant so much more than that of any other country. Prior to the Germanic Hapsburgs, Hungarians did not have various titles of nobility; they were all nemes. It is only with the fall of Hungary at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 that titles begun to be conferred on the magnates, impure grafts of ‘Baron’ and ‘Count’. Nevertheless, up till the reforms of Emperor Joseph II, all nobles could attend the Royal Diet, all could vote in the county elections, and all suffered no impunity from men of lower rank. As such it is safe to say that the Hungarian title of nemes is certainly legally more important than the German Edler or Ritter as well as Baron, and socially on a par with the English baronet.

The family also used another form of name, Kelepcsics. On the basis of the ending –csics, Pongracz suggests that the family’s origins are in the south of Hungary, more specifically Croatia. This is a logical assumption, as indeed many southern families fled from the Turks and settled in Bratislava County. On the other hand, it is not proof of southern origins; some indigenous families also carried the ending of –ics, which translates to ‘son of’; others had a second family name, and used the Croatian-sounding name in certain situations.

Lacking further sources, the southern origins of the Klebercz can only ever be an assumption on the balance of probabilities. However, I submit that there is compelling evidence for a different version of the origins of the family, one rooted firmly in Bratislava County; a kinship with the Elefanthy of Elefanth.

The Elefanthy were a very old kindred on County Nitra. Their unusual name derives from their original holding, the village of Lefantovce (villa Elephant). It is possible that they were indigenous nobility, one with ties to Greater Moravia. There is no firm proof of this however, and so can only ever be an assumption. We are aware, however, of the family legend of the Elefanthy. According to the 18th century Slovak historian Matthias Bel, the founder of the kindred was a member of King Coloman’s retinue to Sicily whose task was to ask the Sicilian princess for her hand in marriage to the King of Hungary. The legend continues that this ancestor was given an elephant as a present; he took it back to Hungary where he gifted it to King Coloman. In return for this exotic favour, Coloman gave this individual wide lands in County Nitra. By this time he was already called Elephant or Oliphaunt, and so the village that he founded was named after him. This is only a legend, and the kindred can be firmly traced by individual names only from the 13th century. However, the village of Lefantovce was mentioned in the Deed of Zobor of 1113; moreover, the delegation to Sicily is a historical fact. It occurred in the late 11th century (1097 according to chronicles), and was apparently a disaster, as Roger of Sicily was insulted by the low rank of the delegation. Elephant, certainly of lower rank than a prince or bishop, was perhaps the trusted advisor whose lack of titles may have insulted the Norman Duke.

Although they were an aristocratic kindred of Nitra, the Elefanthy have spread to Bratislava County by as early as the 13th century. Moreover, they have by then split into five distinct and separate branches. The kindred represented the middle nobility of the kingdom, so maintains Fugedi. He asserts that the kindred were never wealthy or powerful enough to build a castle. Yet this has been proven wrong decades ago, when the ruins of a 13th century castle was discovered beneath the structure of the Renaissance manor house in Horné Lefantovce. This would also explain why Michael of Elefanth was able to found a Pauline monastery in 1369; the kindred, or at least its core, was closer to the old magnate families of importance than to local lower nobility.
There are three main submissions to be said on respect of a link between the Klebercz and the Elefanthy: these are name, place, and most importantly the coat-of-arms. By themselves the arguments are less convincing, perhaps with the exception of the coat-of-arms; but together they form a forceful and convincing whole.

 The most significant factor is the coat-of-arms of the two families. The Elefanthys’ shield contained a simple blazon of an elephant; Siebmacher redraws the medieval seal, in which the elephant floats in a Gothic shield. The original blazon of the Klebercz is known from a 17th century copy of the grant of arms, and was to be found in the Prikkel de Rethe family archive. The Klebercz shield contains the same elephant, in same pose and demeanour, but the blazon is enriched with a sun and a star in the corners of the shield. The small deviation from the original simplicity of the Elefanthy, as concerns the addition of the heavenly bodies, is the effect of a widespread phenomenon in Hungary of embellishing family coat-of-arms. Most often these embellishments took the shape of heavenly bodies or a grassy patch added to the shield to provide support for the main heraldic charge. This can be seen in a wealth of examples; I will mention two on top of the Klebercz. The Revay shield, which originally contained a wolf issuing from a coronet, was later adorned with a moon and a star in the corners, as well as the grassy patch on the bottom of the shield. The arms of the Konde of Poka-Telek, pertinent as they were related to the Klebercz, became modified in the same way. The Klebercz elephant itself began its life floating in the shield, just like the Elefanthy beast. But by the time it made its way to the Hungarian Siebmacher, it was placed on the standard grassy patch.

The Klebercz coat of arms

The Elefanthy coat of arms from 17th century

Another ancient Nitra kindred, the Hont-Poznan, has witnessed an even more drastic elaboration of its family arms. The original symbols were a star and a moon on a blue shield – the archetypal Hungarian charges, condensed to an image of power and prestige. But Lukacka argues that some time prior to 1232 these two
symbols drifted apart to identify two different branches of the kindred. One branch took up the star, the other the sickle moon. In a further degeneration of the arms, around 1386 the sickle moons were pushed aside around a new main blazon, a demi-figure of a queen. It was almost certainly a crest that moved into the shield.

A further point should be noted: that the coat of arms of the Elefanthy in later centuries (16th and 17th), did in fact include a grassy patch in the shield. Furthermore, we must note the similarity of the crests, as well. The crest of the Elefanthy as a crossbow is still only a theory, since seals are in such bad conditions, so much so that previously the crest was interpreted as a palm branch. The shape of the Elefanthy 'crossbow' and the Klebercz stork is obvious, and proves the relation (as well as a clearly unintentional interpretative error, from one side or the other). 

It is possible to conclude, therefore, that the original blazon of the Klebercz was just an elephant with no other charges, and so was identical to the blazon of the Elefanthy. Nevertheless, even a significant deviation would not have made great difference in the argument; for the elephant is a unique charge in Hungarian heraldry. A genealogist helpfully drew my attention to other Hungarian families with elephants in their shields: the Beckh, Tisza, Pfisterer, Szabo and Meszaros families. All these can be confidently dismissed from our discussion. The Beckh-Widmanstetter were an Austrian family, whose origins as well as arms come from the Steiermark and Swabia respectively. The rest of the families received their arms far too late to be of interest. The elephants carry a tower on their backs, which is a standard manner of depiction in the Western world and are not related to the older Hungarian renderings. Moreover, the elephant appears as a minor charge in shields with numerous quarterings and other charges; in a word, they are modern arms far removed from the simplicity and age of the Klebercz and the Elefanthy. The Szabo received their arms in 1790; the Meszaros of Szoboszlo in 1794; the Pfisterer in 1797; and the Counts Tisza in as late as 1883.

Our working conclusion is that the elephant is an exceedingly rare charge in old Hungarian heraldry. Indeed, it is certain that the only indigenous families in the counties of Nitra and Bratislava with that charge were the Klebercz and the Elefanthy; the were no other.

In Hungarian genealogy, it is a widely accepted practice (indeed, sometimes the only connection) to use coats-of-arms to link different families; a similar coat-of-arms is often proof of the same origins. In this way the elephant, being utterly unique in old Hungarian heraldry, is even stronger evidential material than the unshakeable assumptions of genealogists who consider the bear of the Divek kindred (Rudnay, Ujfalussy) and the wolf teeth of the Guth-Keled kindred (Amade, Bathory) as firm proof of family origins. But the Klebercz show other affinities with their probable ancestors. Both families lived in Nitra and Bratislava counties. The Nitra side is less thoroughly researched, though it fits into the scheme, and we shall focus on the Bratislava line. Since the early middle ages, the Elefanthy owned extensive lands in villages around Senec, for instance in Majcichov, Cifer and Kostolná pri Dunaji (Majtheny, Cziffer, Egyhazassur), providing an almost incredible correlation with the holdings of the Klebercz. In particular, Kostolná is approximately five kilometres away from Reca. It would be natural for a side-branch of the Elefanthy, not particularly wealthy due to inheritance laws, to settle either in the town of Senec with its business opportunity or in the village of Reca with its unnaturally high proportion of noble houses.

Map showing the locations of Cifer and Majcichov (the Elefanthy holdings) with Reca and Senec (the Klebercz holdings)

The final point concerns the actual names of the families. It has already been mentioned that the Klebercz used an alias of Kelepcsics. Marek argues convincingly and definitively that the ending –ics is no indication of Croatian origin. The prevalence of this ending from the high Middle Ages all around Slovakia makes it “unthinkable to adduce it to the presence of southern Slavs” (Marek p. 375). It is thus clear that the ending was a widely-used patronymic surname. Nevertheless, I would lean towards the view that the name Kelepcics was in fact influenced by Croat elements – but naturally this does not point to the ethnic origin of the bearer. It was simply another surname that an individual went by. A host of old noble families with the ending –ics could be recounted, which have no connection with Croatia whatsoever. It should suffice to mention the most pertinent example, the Urbanovics family, closely related to the Klebercz through the Pomichal of Reca family.

Instead of the ending of this name I would take out its middle, elep, with its origin in de Elephanth. By itself, this interpretation must seem a little strained. But in the context of the entire argument, it fits easily into explaining the orthology of the family name. It is probable that the alias reveals a part of the original form of the name which has become completely deformed in the main name of Klebercz. The family used other slight variations on the surname, including Klepercz and Kleberey. These two clearly demonstrate the evolution, or more precisely the degeneration of the original de Elephanth.

Through which branch or line are the Klebercz related to the Elefanthy? It is impossible to know for certain at this point, though a few options are open for discussion. If the etymology of the family name is correct, it is possible that the Klebercz are an original line of the Elefanthy from the middle ages, a minor branch that, as so many Elefanthy branches, became impoverished but survived and kept its identity and traditions. It should be noted that the Hungarian historical tradition was an oral one, and even if solid facts were lacking in a family, the deeds of their ancestors were regularly recounted over the hearth. The branch is most likely that of Andrew the Red, as that was the only Elefanthy branch with estates in Bratislava County. Michael, the scion of the Bratislava branch, died in the 1370’s. He impoverished the kindred single-handedly through his will, which gave two thirds of the entire estate to the Pauline monastery and to the King of Hungary. Despite the family’s extensive and ruinous legal battles, only a small part of the estates were returned by Sigismund of Luxembourg.

The loss of estates, in medieval Hungary, meant the loss of nobility. As Pal Engel writes, so eloquently capturing the insecurity of those stressful times (Sugar, p. 43):

Up to the 16th century, the position of the Hungarian noble rested on his ownership of land. If for any reason the noble lost his land, he also lost his nobility. Because they were non-owners (impossesionati), they were automatically also non-nobles (ignobiles).

In any event, Article 4 of the Golden Bull of 1222 stipulates that, of there are no “close relatives” of a deceased, the whole estate goes to the King. It is what happened frequently with the Elefanthy. Fugedi notes a curious fact on the kindred, and that is that only the eldest sons of the branches are mentioned in any depth (Fugedi, p. 97): the younger sons, though were are cognisant of their existence, disappear into the mists of history as soon as they are mentioned. This must be because the role of the younger sons was not important in propagating the estate: even though all sons inherited equally in law, in practice it was the eldest who retained and managed the entire estate. It is only with great difficulty that one imagines that no younger son had children; they clearly did marry and propagate new lines. But as they were stripped of their land and possessions, they ceased to appear in lawsuits and documents of donation, and insensibly sunk into a meaner existence. As suggested above, however, the strong oral tradition of the Hungarian nobility meant that not all was lost, least of all the knowledge of one’s illustrious kindred.

Another option remains possible, one that is perhaps more attractive due to a number of historical examples. This is that a male member of the Klebercz family was wedded to an Elefanthy girl. He subsequently adopted their coat-of-arms either as a display of prestige or possibly to carry on the Elefanthy kindred which was rapidly becoming extinct (in the 16th and 17th centuries). A prominent example of this is when Paul Palffy wedded Klara Bakocz in the first half of the 16th century, and simply took on the Bakocz arms. This example is well-documented as both lines became prominent magnate families in the modern era. In the middle ages, though against the laws of Werbozcy, it was the norm to ennoble children born of a common father and a noble mother (Dvorakova, p. 253). This was done swiftly and effectively by stipulating that the woman’s dowry will come in lands, not money or possessions. This would have the effect of making the children individuals with estates, and thus ipso facto nobles. The practice was so widespread, with families fearing for the degeneration of their lines, that Emperor Sigismund set this in law in the 1435 Greater Decree. Thus the children born of a common father and a noble mother became nobiles.

The practice of heraldic assumption was widespread and occurred even as late as the 18th century: the coat of arms of Matthias Bel himself, born a commoner but whose mother was from the noble Czeszneki family, had his mother’s heraldic white eagle incorporated into the arms granted to him by Empress Maria Theresa. An example very close to home is provided by the Elefanthy themselves: Andreas Elefanthy pressed a seal in 1461 which displayed the Divek shield of a bear in front of a tree. The Divek were another ancient kindred with whom the Elefanthy were closely related through a marriage strategy with the lords of Bosany. It is likely that Andreas wished to visualise his kinship with the Divek kindred for reasons of prestige. Failing a direct male line from the middle ages, this interpretation is most likely for the use of the Klebercz elephant. Nevertheless, the continuity of the name of the Elefanthy in the name of Klebercz, though twisted to an almost incomprehensible degree, suggests that indeed the line has sprung from the male side.


Essay on the Matyusfold, discusses the curial villages of the region, including Reca. English.

The Reca entry in Wikipedia - English, with a brief and interesting historical overview of the village.

The Reca entry in Wikipedia - Hungarian. Contains references to a number of noble families owning the village in the 16th century. Some inconsistencies - the Dokas emerged only in the late 17th century.éte

The Klebercz family website, dealing with interesting aspects of family history. Includes a coat of arms from the 19th century. Hungarian.

Essay on history of the Matyusfold, with an article of the "noble mentality" of inhabitants of Reca. Slovak.

An essay on the nobility of the Matyusfold. Includes a discussion of the Elefanthy holdings in the vicinity of Reca, and an incomplete list of the local noble families. Hungarian.


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