The Carpathian Basin under Hungarian Monarchs


Carpathian Basin - present-day territory of:  Hungary Proper, Slovakia, Southern Poland, Western Carpathia (Galicia Minor) and Transylvania   


(Christian Hungary under the Arpad / Aba kings: 1000-1301) 

The task of Christianization, unification and consolidation was left to Geza’s heir, ISTVAN I. (SAINT STEPHEN / 997-1038), who inherited his father’s political wisdom and his mother's (Sarolta, daughter of Gyula) deep Christianity. During his reign Hungary became a strong, independent Christian Kingdom, maintaining friendly relations with the German Empire without becoming its vassal.

Stephen turned to Pope Sylvester II, asking for his recognition as an independent Christian king and implying that he did not wish to become the vassal of the emperor. The Pope sent him a crown and bestowed upon him the title of "King by the Grace of God", thus acknowledging his independence from the German empire. He also sent Stephen an apostolic cross, the symbol of authority over the state as a religious unit, and granted him the permission to establish a national church (hence the title of "Apostolic King"). The crown (the upper part of the present Holy Crown) was placed on Stephen’s head on Christmas Day, 1,000 AD Since that day the Holy Crown remained the symbol of supreme authority in Hungary.

Stephen now proceeded to consolidate his authority in the nation against protests by some malcontent chieftains. Among these were his uncle, Choppy (Kupa) and Ajtony, the Gyula of the Transylvanian Hungarian tribe. At times he resorted to measures which seem harsh by today’s standards but were usual in his time; the result was the decline of the tribal system and the creation of a strong, united, prosperous nation.

He established a Catholic hierarchy by founding two archdioceses, eight dioceses, abbeys, monasteries and parishes. Among the heads of the dioceses, the archbishop of Esztergom has remained the head of the Catholic Church in Hungary ever since. The state organization was based on the establishment of the "counties" ("comitatus": "megye" in Hungarian), which consisted, at first, of the domains of the crown (the properties of the king, enlarged by the properties confiscated from the rebel chiefs). They also included the uninhabited frontier areas, mostly wooded land. Each county was administered by a "count" ("comes"), appointed by the king. The number of these counties rose to 45 in Stephen’s time and to 73 by the twelfth century, covering eventually the entire area of the country, not only the crown estates.

Stephen invited knights, priests, scholars and artisans from the western nations and provided them with privileges and estates for their services. Most of these "guests" stayed in the country and founded historic Hungarian families. The king’s power was unlimited, similar to that of other medieval kings, but he listened to the advice of the leaders of the church and people. He maintained friendly politic and family ties with many European rulers. One of his daughters Agatha married Edmund the Ironside’s son, Edward, and became the mother of Queen Saint Margaret, wife of Malcolm III of Scotland.

There were few foreign wars during Stephen’s reign. He dealt swiftly with an unprovoked German attack in 1030. Unfortunately, his only son to reach adulthood, (Saint) Imre (Emery) died in a hunting accident and Stephen’s death (August 1038) was followed by a period of internal strife.

While Stephen’s successors King Peter, King Aba Samuel, King Endre I, and King Bela I. Solomon and Geza I) were busy quarreling about the succession, the ambitious German emperor, Henry III, seized his opportunity to make Hungary the empire’s vassal. After many attempts, he eventually succeeded in making young King Peter swear loyalty to him in 1044. This cowardly act had, however, hastened Peter’s downfall and his successor, Endre I defeated the Germans and reasserted Hungary’s sovereignty, which remained unchallenged until the XVIth century.

King Ladislas (Laszlo) "The Saint" (1077-1095), son of the able but short-lived Bela I, a heroic and popular figure, represented the finest virtues of the medieval knight during his many battles against the eastern pagan invaders (Cumanians, Pechenegs, etc), whom he subsequently Christianized and resettled in the frontier areas. To counter this eastern danger, he encouraged the total Hungarian settlement of the unpopulated, wooded portion of the eastern region of the country (Transylvania) by founding two bishoprics there and granting privileges to the frontier settlers, the Szekelys. He re-established internal order and by his clever family politics incorporated Slavonia and Croatia as autonomous provinces. At a Hungarian Church Council in 1083 he decreed the canonization of Saint Stephen and Saint Imre. The Pope immediately approved of this decision. His nephew and successor, Coloman (KALMAN), called THE WISE ("BOOKLOVER") (1095-1116), extended the power of the Hungarian state to the ports of the Adriatic. Kalman was an enlightened man who modernized the country’s laws. He forbade, among other things, the persecution of the "strigae" (a type of witch) who, he stated "did not exist" ("quae non sunt"). He died after a long illness, during which he became easy prey to the intrigues of his court and his family. The blinding of his brother Almos, and of his nephew, Bela (for alleged conspiracy), was obviously not approved by this lenient and pious king. His wife’s disgraceful behavior may have given Kalman second thoughts about the "witches that did not exist".

After his death there was another period of internal struggle for the crown. The "Blood Treaty" – the basis of the Hungarian Constitution – had only stipulated that the sovereign should be a descendant of Arpad, but did not specify whether he should be the deceased king’s brother or son. The renewed ambitions of the last great Byzantian emperor, Manuel (a grandson of Saint Ladislas by his daughter, Piroska or Saint Irene), added external problems to the internal ones.

The Byzantian pressure suggested closer contacts with the West, especially with France. Geza II (1141–1162); an ally of Louis VII of France, invited French monks (Cistercians) to settle in Hungary and encouraged Hungarians to attend French universities. During his reign many German, French, Italian and Flemish tradesmen, merchants and artisans settled in Hungary.

Under the reign of Bela III (1172-1192) Hungary became the leading power in Central Europe, extending its frontiers beyond the Carpathians and well into the Balkan Peninsula and the Adriatic coast. He maintained close family, cultural and political ties with France and ruled wisely over a nation which presented the best characteristics of a universal European culture, having assimilated the best of Italian, French, German and Byzantine contributions.

During the first two centuries of the Arpad kings, the central power of the king, firmly established under Saint Stephen, had gradually been reduced, with the diminution of the royal estates as a result of land grants to deserving subjects.

Thus, by 1222, the nobles, supported by the heir to the throne, Prince Bela, were strong enough to force king Endre II (1205–1235) to issue a charter of rights, called the  "GOLDEN BULL", which guaranteed personal freedom and other basic rights to all free members of the nation. This narrowed the gap between the rich barons and the poorer nobles and free men. The nobles– i.e. the nation – were also granted the right to resist illegal royal acts. This charter brought forth a rapid improvement of the position of the lower classes. Endre’s other memorable achievement was his Crusade, for which he received the title of "King of Jerusalem". During one of his absences the Queen Gertrude was killed under obscure circumstances, possibly during a rising of the Hungarian nobles against the Queen’s hated German couriers.

When Endre II died, Hungary had a population of over three million. This nation was a composite of  different races that arrived at different times.

King Saint Stephen and his successors welcomed foreigners:

They invited certain groups of western settlers and allowed the gradual immigration of others (eastern pagans, Slavs, Vlachs). Though originally all non-Magyars were serfs, their descendants could gain nobility or high offices in church, military or royal service and many did. Many non-Magyars, who lived in larger settlements, kept their national identity in matters of culture, language and religion but did not form separate political units.

Thus the Hungarian nation of the XIIIth century, blissfully ignorant of the legal and political complexities of national "minority" problems, lived in multi-lingual communities, the members of which considered themselves Hungarians, whether they spoke Magyar or Slav or German or – as most educated people did – Latin. They all owed loyalty to one king and all had equal prospects of prosperity and advancement in their chosen country.

Bela IV (1235-1270) began his reign by attempting to restore a healthy balance of the rights of the various classes of the nation: he reasserted the power of the king and the right of the poorer freemen against the abuses of the rich barons. His honest efforts, however, alienated the barons – at a time when the nation faced the greatest danger in its European existence: the Mongol invasion.

The Mongols (erroneously called "Tartars" or "Tatars"), a Central Asian people related to the Turks, were members of a small, but crafty and violent tribe. Their chieftain, Chingis (Jingis) Khan (1162-1227), conquered the neighboring (Tartar) tribes and extended his empire over most of Central and Northern Asia. His successor Ogotai (Ogdai) Khan sent his nephew, Batu Khan, into Europe to fulfil the great Khan’s dream of conquering the world. Batu crushed the Russian princes and by 1240 his huge army was ready to attack Poland and Hungary, the two great bulwarks of Christian Europe.

The studious and enlightened Bela IV knew more than most European princes about the Mongols and their intentions. He sent four monks to search for the Hungarians who had remained in the upper Volga-Kama area centuries before (see Chapter 1). Brother Julian did actually reach this "Magna Hungaria" and found that the population there had preserved their Hungarian language in spite of several hundred years of separation from their western brothers. Bela sent Julian back with missionaries – but it was too late. The Mongols had destroyed the Volga-Hungarian nation. The southern Cumanians were luckier: their king and some 40,000 families were able to escape the Mongols and, joined by other refugees, managed to reach Hungary. Here they were given refuge by the king.

Having gathered sufficient information about the Mongols, Bela began to prepare the country for the onslaught. He sent envoys to the Pope and the western kings, urging them to organize a crusade against these enemies of civilized mankind, but received only offers of prayers and good wishes in reply. The king’s warnings were similarly ignored by most of Hungary’s magnates: the sulking lords refused to mobilize their private banderia. So the king only had his royal army and the banderia of his office-bearers and prelates.

The Mongols regrouped their army outside the Carpathians. The bulk, under the leadership of Batu himself, was to attack Hungary from the east, the left wing, under Bedjak khan, to attack the Hungarians from the south (Transylvania) and the right wing (Orda khan) was to destroy the Germans and Poles (which they eventually did at Liegnitz), then to turn against Hungary, the main enemy. In March 1241, Batu destroyed Palatin (Chief Minister) Denes’ troops defending the passes and crossed the Carpathians. On seeing the wounded Palatin –practically the only survivor of the battle – the lords began to mobilize their banderia. Duke Frederick of Austria, who had come with a small escort to ‘assist" Bela, captured a Mongol soldier during a skirmish. The soldier turned out to be a Cumanian (obviously one of the many auxiliaries the Mongols forced to march with them). Frederick, however, argued that the Cumanians were on the Mongol side and managed to incense the Hungarian nobles so much that they killed the Cumanian king. The Cumanians, furious at this treachery, rose against the Hungarians, then collected their families and left the country. Thus the Hungarians lost a potential ally, one familiar with the Mongol fighting methods.

Bela and his lords turned against the Mongols, who had reached the Danube north of Buda and had taken and completely destroyed the Episcopal city of Vac, massacring the entire population. When attacked by the main Hungarian army of about 50,000, the raiders retreated swiftly – their usual strategy –enticing the Hungarian army toward Batu’s main army.

Batu chose the area between two small rivers (Sajo’ and Hernad) near the village of Mohi, maneuvering the Hungarians on to the swampy plain while the Mongol troops occupied the surrounding forested hills. The Hungarians, who had not fought a major battle in centuries, failed to realize the trap and set up a hastily reinforced camp in the plain. Batu’s seasoned troops moved according to the master plan and managed to surround the Hungarian camp unnoticed during the night. When the day of the battle dawned – April 12, 1241 – the Mongols attacked and Bela’s heavily armored knights were completely overwhelmed by the strange, oriental tactics of the enemy. The Mongols’ fast-riding units moved in complete silence directed by mysterious signals only and supported by rockets and other puzzling devices, such as horsemen disguised as terrifying giants. They were aided by batteries of precision-shooting archers and they all fought like machines, with death-ignoring bravery. The Hungarians’ medieval fighting methods and heavy armor were an added hindrance in the swampy terrain.

On that day, the arrogant lords, selfish prelates, quarrelling nobles and disgruntled knights of a divided nation found unity, loyalty and Christian humility during the magnificent hours of Mohi. They died bravely for a nation they had served so poorly during their lives. As they died, one after the other, the battle raged on. It was no easy victory for the Mongol. In fact, at one stage, Batu wanted to retreat and only the timely arrival of an encircling column kept him from giving the order.

One of the first Hungarians to die was the nominal commander, archbishop Ugrin of Kalocsa. The archbishop of Esztergom, Matthias, head of the Church followed him soon, and so did the other bishops and magnates. The Templar knights died to the last man without retreating an inch. Denes Tomaj, the Palatin ("Nador": Chief Minister) put on the king’s regalia and rode against the Mongols at the head of the bodyguard into certain death: the Mongols wanted the king at any price. Bela dressed in a simple soldier’s armor, managed to slip through, accompanied by a few young nobles of his guard. All but two of the nation’s high office-bearers died that day.

* * *

The Mongols, realizing their mistake, set out in hot pursuit of the king and his wounded brother, Kalman, king of Croatia. One after the other the nobles, escorting the king, gave up their horses, when the king’s fell and stayed behind to delay the pursuers at the sacrifice of their own lives. Bela eventually reached the safety of the Danube.

In the meantime, the southern Mongol army overran Transylvania and the Great Hungarian Plain, annihilating the population to the last infant when they met resistance. An eyewitness, Canon Rogerius, who lived through the devastation hiding in the marshes, gave a harrowing account of the nightmarish atrocities of the Mongols in his "Carmen Miserabile".

Batu’s victory was not complete: he wanted the Hungarian king, knowing that for the Hungarians the person of their sovereign was the symbol of the nation’s independence. On arriving at the Danube, the king accepted the "hospitality" of his "ally", Frederick of Austria, who immediately imprisoned him and demanded, as his ransom, three counties of Hungary. After Bela’s release, Frederick quickly plundered these three counties before the Mongols could "claim" them. Frederick’s intervention was, incidentally, the only western "participation7’ in Hungary’s life-and-death struggle. The Pope, the Emperor and the western kings were busy fighting each other. In fact the Emperor actually suggested that Bela "forget" the Mongols and join him in fighting the Pope.

Bela defended the Danube line against the Mongols skillfully until February 1242. Then, during the coldest winter the country had had for a century, the Danube froze and the mounted Mongols crossed it at several points. Unable to resist further, Bela fled to the Dalmatian coast. There, after a furious chase, he took refuge in an island fortress, which the Mongols could not capture. Batu overran Transdanubia, but several fortresses managed to resist and survive.

Then blind fate – or Providence – came to the rescue of the lonely nation. Suddenly, in the spring of 1242, the Mongols turned around and began to leave the country. They moved as swiftly they came, burning, looting and killing on their way; they drove with them herds of slaves, most of whom they killed when they left Hungary. Duke Frederick soon followed them in Transdanubia, completing the destruction of the western counties of Hungary.

Several reasons have been suggested for the Mongols’ unexpected withdrawal. They may have found that they could not feed their army and horses, having wantonly destroyed their hinterland. They may have wanted to regroup and refresh their elite Mongol troops, which had been decimated during their Hungarian campaign. We know that the great Khan, Ogatai had died in 1241 and that Batu was one of his likely successors. This explains why he hastened back to Karakorum, their Asian capital, but it does not explain why he had to evacuate the country he had just conquered at such horrendous loss. In fact, most of the Mongols remained in southern Russia for many decades. They even made several attempts to return to Hungary during the following years.

Bela returned to find a devastated Hungary, populated by the pathetic survivors of the once great nation: they had taken refuge in swamps, inaccessible mountains or the few fortified towns the Mongols could not take, or in the loyal southern provinces of Hungary, such as Dalmatia, where the king had also found safe refuge.

Bela is rightly called the second founder of Hungary. The task of reconstruction was incredibly difficult. Knowing that the Mongols intended to return, he had fortresses and fortified towns built, encouraging the magnates to do the same and to equip their banderia. He granted municipal self-government to the larger towns with fortifications. Later he repeatedly rejected the Mongols’ offers of an alliance against the West, knowing quite well that in the case of a renewed attack Hungary would be left to fight alone again.

His youngest daughter, Margaret (born during the Mongol siege) spent her life in a convent in voluntary sacrifice for the liberation of Hungary. She is known in the Catholic Church as Saint Margaret of the Arpads.

Bela welcomed foreign settlers as migrants to the devastated areas, among them the Cumanians, Jazighs and Pechenegs; refugees from Mongol devastated regions in the east.

* * *

After Bela’s death in 1270 three weak kings allowed the magnates to recover their privileged status. Among these kings, Ladislas IV (1272-1290), called the Cumanian" (his mother was a Cumanian princess), achieved a feat of great international significance but of doubtful benefit to Hungary. He defeated the Czech king, Ottokar, in 1278 in alliance with Rudolf Habsburg, thus helping to establish Habsburg hegemony in Central Europe.

By the death of Endre Ill (1301), the last of the Arpad kings, the barons were in the process of consolidating their feudal rule over their own lands. This development, though normal in medieval Europe, had harmful effects in Hungary which, being situated at the frontiers of the Christian world, did not enjoy the peaceful safety of sheltered Germany, France or England and needed therefore a strong central government.

The dynasty of Arpad / Aba ruled Hungary for 400 years. The five princes and 24 kings of the dynasty gave to the nation a new land, a new religion and a new civilization and to the Church some twenty saints. During their reign Hungary remained a national state with its own independent policy and with a civilization which was truly European and ‘Christian but still characteristically Hungarian.


Commandery of Slovakia