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(Hungary’s history from 1456 to 1540)

Matthias'’ flamboyant" Empire

After Hunyadi’s death in 1456, the king, Ladislas V, succumbed to the intrigues of his courtiers and perfidiously arrested and executed the great general’s elder son, Laszlo. This understandably angered the nation so much that the king had to flee to Prague, the capital of his other kingdom, Bohemia. He took with him Hunyadi’s second son, Matthias, as a hostage. A few months later king Ladislas died – ironically of the same plague that had killed John Hunyadi.

The nation, tired of the misrule of foreign kings and foreign courtiers, decided to elect the son of the country’s greatest soldier as sovereign.

MATTHIAS I (or MATYAS Hunyadi) (1458-1490) was only eighteen when he returned to Buda to become the country’s greatest king. The brilliant and energetic young man began his reign by breaking up the cliques of some magnates opposing his election. He did this by using a judicious mixture of charm, strength and cunning: he simply moved his enemies to higher offices – away from the court, the seat of power. Thus he made his family’s archenemy, Ujlaki, the king of Bosnia, Hungary’s southernmost province. He had more trouble with his friends, especially with his domineering uncle, Mihaly Szilagyi, who had been appointed regent during Matthias’ minority. Matthias, made it abundantly clear that he was mature enough to rule alone and disposed of his impetuous uncle by making him Captain-General of the Turk-harassed southern frontier.

Then he dealt with the marauding Hussite Czech raiders in the north, recruiting the useful elements among the defeated raiders into his future mercenary army. From these adventurers he eventually formed the greatest mercenary troop of his era, called the "Black Army".

He stabilised the nation’s finances by imposing upon the entire nation a fair and equitable system of taxation, based on each person’s income, and complemented the royal revenue with the yield from the mines and crown-estates. In addition to these regular revenues, he also imposed special levies when the need arose. He was thus able to finance the "Black Army" and conduct his many campaigns without undue loss of Hungarian blood. The treasury, not the poor, bore the burden of his immense social and cultural expenditure, which raised the nation’s economic and cultural standard above that of the rest of contemporary Europe.

Matthias understood the importance of urban development. By strengthening the status of the towns he added a powerful ‘third estate", the town burgesses to the other two estates (clergy and nobility). Promotion into this new "middle class" was made free to any serf who had the will and talent to improve his status. Had peaceful times followed Matthias’ reign, Hungary would have built the most equitable and progressive social system in Europe. His legal reforms protected the lower classes, allowing them the right to appeal against the sentences of the baronial courts to the royal courts ("Tabula", "Curia"), which were headed by professional jurists (often of lower-class birth) or by himself.

Matthias’ foreign policy disappointed those who expected him to continue his father’s crusades against the Turks. He realised that the Magyar nation was not strong enough to chase the Turks out of Europe without bleeding to death in the process. He was also realistic enough not to count on the "help" of the West. So he prepared a long-range plan, aiming ultimately at possession of the crown of the Holy Roman Empire so that he could use the empire’s military might to deal with the Turkish menace. As Hungary had never been a member state of the Empire, he tried to gain the crown of Bohemia, which was one of the member states with the right to vote in the election of the Emperor. Thus he fought a long war against the king of Bohemia and his allies and also against Emperor Frederick, allying himself first with the one, then with the other. Eventually he managed to obtain the Bohemian crown – without the right to vote – and then he also conquered Austria from the Emperor – without decisively defeating him.

He also led short, mainly defensive campaigns against the Turks and managed to build up a defensive belt in the south with the inclusion of such vassal states as Bosnia, Serbia. Wallachia and others governed by his troublesome friends or placated enemies. He refused, however, to commit his beloved Magyars or expensive mercenaries to adventurous campaigns deep in Turkish territory.

Matthias, a son of the Renaissance, was a true and intelligent patron of art and literature. He bad the castle of Buda rebuilt in French "flamboyant" style and gathered his humanist friends to court. His third wife, Beatrice, brought from Italy many artists and scientists who helped Buda to become one of the great centers of humanism. Matthias’ library of illuminated codices, the "Corvina", was one of the largest in Europe. As part of his cultural program, he founded a university in Pozsony (the third Hungarian university). Book printing began in Buda in 1473.

Matthias’ apparent passivity in regard to the Turkish question, his obscure western policy and the increasing financial burdens resulting from his policies led to unrest among the magnates. Though Matthias managed to deal with these dissensions in his autocratic way, he soon found himself friendless among the barons.

Increasing loneliness cursed his family life, too. His first wife died while they were both still children. His second wife, Catherine, the daughter of the Bohemian king, died in childbirth together with the newborn child, a son. His third wife, Beatrice d’Este, Princess of Naples-Aragonia, bore him no children. Between his marriages he met Barbara Krebs, the daughter of the mayor of Breslau, who bore him a son. Matthias took his illegitimate son to his court, giving him a fine education and the, title of a duke (John Corvinus). Not having any legitimate children, it was his wish to make the intelligent, courageous boy his heir and successor – an arrangement not unusual in those times.

By 1490 Hungary was a powerful state with a population of 4 million (the same as England) and Matthias, now fifty, was the most influential ruler of Central Europe. His far-reaching plans seemed to be approaching their realization: he was king of Bohemia, Austria was a Hungarian province, the Turks had been chastised and he had powerful friends supporting his imperial ambitions . . . Then, one day, while visiting Hungarian-occupied Vienna, he fell ill and died under somewhat suspicious circumstances.

The dowager queen and the barons disavowed their previous promises and rejected John Corvinus, who would have made a better king than any of Matthias’ successors – just as his mother would have made a better queen than any of Matthias’ wives.

National self-destruction

The magnates wanted a weak king and the queen wanted a husband. Wiadislas Jagello obliged in. both respects and so he was elected king under the name Wladislas II (1490–1516). He married Beatrice in a sham ceremony, which was later annulled, disbanded the "Black Army" and promptly lost Austria. Otherwise he obligingly left the government of Hungary to the barons. The magnates, possessed by a madness of self-destruction, swept away the fine state structure of social justice and equal taxation, stripped the country of practically all revenues and defense ability. Instead they concentrated on endless and barren parliamentary debates with the representatives of the lower nobility over decisions which were rarely formulated and never respected. They then attempted to impose further tax burdens on the lower classes and the burgesses who refused to pay.

Then, in the face of the increasing Turkish menace, the Primate-archbishop, Cardinal Bakocz, received, in 1514, the Pope’s authority to raise a crusader army. The poor nobles, over-taxed citizens of the towns and the serfs flocked to the army, which was placed under the command of an able officer, the Szekely nobleman, Gyorgy Dozsa. The barons became suspicious, besides they did not want to lose their serfs at the time of the harvest. They tried to restrict the recruiting and to penalize those who had already signed up. Soon clashes began and the crusaders (who called themselves "kuruc", a distortion of the Latin "crux": "cross") turned against the barons and prelates. Soon a full-scale civil war broke out in the south between the barons of this region and the "kuruc". The Primate hastily withdrew the crusaders’ commission but Dozsa still considered himself the king’s commander and continued fighting the magnates who obstructed the army’s movements with their own private troops. Battles of increasing vehemence were followed by retaliations of increasing cruelty on both sides. A few weeks later, the inexperienced kuruc army was crushed by the regular army of the governor of Transylvania, John Zapolya. The victor – who was destined to become one of the most fateful figures of Hungarian history –punished the captured leaders with the savage cruelty usual in the rest of Europe in those times, but which the humane Hungarians have found monstrous.

Subsequently the revengeful Diet – for once unified –inflicted various restrictions upon the serfs, whom they held responsible for the uprising (which, however, had been led by noblemen, burgesses and lower clergy). The worst of these measures was the abolition of the serfs’ right to change their domicile. They were not condemned to "eternal servitude", as some prejudiced historians have mistranslated the words "perpetua rusticitas" (:"eternal farmwork"). The true meaning is that of their exclusion from other occupations, especially higher ecclesiastical careers. This was a censure of Cardinal Bakacs who was the son of a serf (as were many high dignitaries in Hungary). We also have to remember that at that time no European serf had a free choice of landlords; and they were all restricted to "farmwork", having much less chance than their Hungarian counterparts to gain higher offices. All these vengeful articles of law did was to deprive the Hungarian serfs of certain privileges they and they alone, had enjoyed before the uprising.

The jurist Werboczi codified these and preceding laws in a remarkable legal work called "Tripartitum", a three- volume compendium of the Hungarian constitution. The work defines the "free nation" (i.e. the nobility), as one body, the ‘‘members of the Holy Crown", the symbolic source of all law and power. The nobles elect the King and invest him with sovereign powers through the coronation. Legislation is exercised in the Parliament (Diet) by the King and the nobles.

The less theoretical – and more unfortunate – part of the Tripartitum summed up the privileges of the nobility. Apart from repeating the legal safeguards already codified in the Golden Bull of 1222, the compendium emphasises that the noble does not pay taxes and has no obligation to render military service, except in a defensive war. The right to resist "unconstitutional" royal acts was also reaffirmed.

The flexible interpretation of "defensive military service" and the exemption from taxes were soon to bring catastrophic results to the nation, which was by then facing the greatest trial of its existence: the onslaught of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. The Tripartitum and the nobles’ vengeful attitudes, were stripping the nation of its ability to levy taxes, to raise an army and, especially, to rely on the patriotism of the oppressed peasant in war and peace.


LOUIS II (1516–1526) was only ten when he succeeded his father. During the years of his minority, his relatives and courtiers ruled the country in his name.

In 1521 Nandorfehvar (then a Hungarian frontier town, today Belgrade), the scene of Hunyadi’s great victory fell to the Turks. Even this key defeat failed to arouse the nation, which was in the grip of constant power struggles. The treasury was empty (the nobles did not have to pay taxes, the others could not). The barons refused to believe in the seriousness of the Turkish danger and refused to mobilize their own troops. Pal Tomory, a former professional soldier and Franciscan monk, now archbishop of Kalocsa had been appointed Captain-General of the southern frontier. He had only his own finances and the help of the papal nuncio, Burgio, Hungary’s true friend.

The destructive power-struggle was in no way an isolated phenomenon in Hungary. All over Europe class and religious wars, peasant wars and ferocious retributions of apocalyptic magnitude heralded the downfall of the gothic order of the Middle Ages. These senseless wars surpassed Hungary’s mercifully short peasant war of 1514 both in cruelty and in duration. Any European country would have collapsed if the Turks had been able to turn their armies against them. It was Hungary’s geographical tragedy to be situated in the path of the Ottoman aggression.

Convinced by Tomory of the magnitude of the danger, the intelligent young king began to send desperate messages to the Christian rulers of the West, asking for help against the Moslems. "His Most Catholic Majesty", Charles V, who ruled the largest empire the world had yet seen, the Holy Roman Empire, promised to pray for him, but he was too busy fighting France’s Francis I ("His Most Christian Majesty"). Francis’ had already made a secret pact with the Turks, urging them to attack Charles’s empire through Hungary. Henry VIII ("The Defender of the Faith") replied that he was having "domestic trouble" the understatement of the century. The important ‘Christian" sea–power, Venice, had long been in open alliance with the Turks.

Hungary stood alone, divided, paralyzed, condemned. In the spring of 1526, Suleiman the Magnificent set out from Istanbul with an army of 300,000 to conquer the world. The Ottoman army crossed into Transdanubia practically unopposed. King Louis left Buda at the head of his guard – a pathetic 4,000. Some prelates and barons, on learning this, mobilized their own troops and joined the king. John Zapolya, the richest baron of the country, had 40,000 troops but showed no haste to join the royal army.

The Hungarians, totaling about 26000 with late reinforcements and armed with 50 old cannon, decided to wait for the Turks on the plain of Mohacs near the Danube, in Transdanubia. Having decided that it would be "unchivalrous" to attack the Turks while they were struggling to cross the marshy terrain, they watched with detached interest the deployment of the huge army and 300 heavy cannon on the advantageous hilly part of the plain. They also decided not to wait for Zapolya’s army but to attack the Turks immediately. Whatever other faults the Hungarians have, timidity has never been one of them.

It was the 29th of August 1526, the Feast of Saint John the Martyr. When the Hungarians decided to attack, the young bishop Perenyi remarked: "Let us rename this day the "Feast of 20,000 Magyar Martyrs."

Tomory’s impetuous cavalry (the "hajdus") attacked and broke through the first Turkish lines. In that moment, the young King, (he was 20), exuberant with the strength of his newly found confidence, took command of his guard and led them against the Turks, who remembered the lesson of Varna, where Louis’ predecessor lost the battle for the Hungarians by his suicidal charge. The Turks concentrated on Louis’ bodyguard, which was wiped out, and the wounded King escaped with great difficulty. The attacking Hungarian cavalry was then cleverly lured into the murderous fire of the Turkish cannons and the musket fire of the elite Janissaries. Tomory and the other leaders died fighting. In little more than two hours the battle was over. About 16,000 Hungarians died and two thousand taken prisoner were killed after the battle. The rest escaped under the cover of a sudden rainstorm. Two archbishops, five bishops (including the young prophet, Perenyi), and most of the high dignitaries were among the dead.

The wounded, king was on the run, escorted by two of his bodyguards. As he crossed a flooded creek, he fell off his horse and his heavy armor dragged him down. He drowned and his body was only found days later. The last Jagello king of Hungary has joined the "twenty thousand Magyar Martyrs."

Two kings

The loss of life at Mohacs was not irreparable. Hungary still had larger, undefeated armies. However, the fact that the King and most of the nation’s leaders were lost had such a paralysing effect that Hungary never recovered from the effects of this disaster.

Many of the rich magnates and nobles, who had so criminally mismanaged the country’s affairs, had atoned for their mistakes in full. They did not know how to live for their nation – but they certainly knew how to die for it magnificently. Unfortunately, while many, brave young men died, some of the evil old men managed to survive to continue their destructive intrigues, such as the Palatin, Bathori and the enigmatic Zapolya. The lesser nobility of the counties had sulkingly stayed away from the battle –as did the peasants. They were all to pay later: the burden of the coming 160 years was to be borne by the poor nobleman and the peasant.

The battle of Mohacs was a strictly aristocratic parade, the last, splendid, foolhardy charge of medieval knights led by a brave, young King. There was hardly an aristocratic family left without at least one fallen hero at Mohacs. Some great families were completely wiped out at Mohacs and in the years following it.

Suleiman could not believe that this small, suicidal army was all that powerful Hungary could muster against him, so he waited at Mohacs for a few days before moving cautiously against Buda. The young queen had already fled with her German courtiers to her brother, Ferdinand of Austria (without even waiting to find out whether the king was dead or alive). Buda was undefended; only the French and Venetian ambassadors waited for the Sultan to congratulate him on his great victory. The Turks ransacked Buda and returned to the south with 200,000 slaves – the first of the millions who were to pay for the sins of their ancestors. Zapolya and his army – almost twice the size of the King’s – stood at Szeged, practically watching the Turks move home with their booty.

Zapolya had always wanted to be King. Now with Louis II dead, he had no difficulty in convincing the few remaining magnates that he was the right choice for a King. He was crowned by one of the surviving bishops as JOHN I (1526-1540). He was the last of the Hungarian-born Kings –and probably the least. That foolhardy Polish boy at Mohacs was much more of a Hungarian than the cruel, cunning, cowardly John could ever hope to be.

Queen Mary’s brother, Ferdinand of Habsburg, promptly claimed the Hungarian throne by virtue of his double relationship to the deceased King. His sister, Mary, was Louis’ queen and Louis’ sister, Anne had married Ferdinand. Thus Anne was the only "Hungarian-born" queen in the nation’s history. The fact that she had lived in Vienna since her childhood, that she could not speak a word of Hungarian and that she hated Hungarians made the irony even deeper: the daughter of a "Hungarian" king (Wiadislas II), she was the pretext for the Habsburgs to gain their 400 years’ rule over Hungary.

Ferdinand managed to gain the support of a large segment of the aristocracy (many of whom had promptly deserted the cowardly John) and soon he, too, was crowned as FERDINAND I (1526-1564).

Thus the country had two kings – a divided and confused leadership. The barons continued their self-destructive policy of squabbles and quarrels while the Turks stood in the south, probably wondering what could have happened to Matthias’ great nation. This tragic division, more fatally than Mohacs, ended five centuries of Hungarian independence. The entire Carpathian basin became a power-vacuum, the open freeway of external aggressions.

Thus Mohacs, the "tomb of our national greatness" (as the Hungarian poet put it), also marked the end of a peaceful, independent Central Europe.

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