[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [Bibliography] [HMK Home] Macartney: Hungary - A Short History


Another influence was that of Christianity. It was the age when Rome and Byzantium were competing for the souls of the east European peoples. The Eastern church had secured the allegiance of the Bulgars, the Serbs, the Russians and, for a while, the Moravians. Rome had then wrested the Moravians from it and had gained the Slovenes, the Croats and, of course, all the Germans. Both churches were anxious to add the Hungarians to their bag. In the middle of the century the Eastern church gained the adhesion of two important Hungarian chieftains, but the advantage lay with its Western rival. Not only was its faith that of the Hungarians own Moravian and Slovene subjects, but it was also being vigorously propagated from Bavaria, with which Hungary had drifted into a not unfriendly relationship. The decisive step came about A.D. 970. Árpád's grandson, Taksony or Toxun, died and was succeeded by his son Géza, who, breaking with his father's policy, sent ambassadors to Otto's court and established friendly relations with him. The raids in the west ceased. A great missionary activity set in under the auspices of the Bavarians Wolfgang and Pilgrim of Passau, later reinforced by Adalbert of Prague. Géza moved his capital to Esztergom and surrounded himself with a bodyguard of Bavarian knights, on whom he bestowed large estates. Progress was delayed by conflicts in Germany, but when Henry II recovered the dukedom of Bavaria in 985, he renewed the old alliance with Hungary. His successor, Henry III, consented to the marriage of his sister, Gisella, to Géza's son Vajk, who had already been baptised under the name of Stephen (István). The marriage took place in 996. A year later, Géza died.

Under St Stephen (he was proclaimed Saint in 1083), the best-beloved, most famous and perhaps the most important figure in Hungarian history, and largely through his personal genius, the transition begun under Géza was completed.

Stephen's own position depended on the success of the new trend, for he was still a young man when his father died[2] and there were elder members of his family alive. One of these, a certain Koppány, claimed the succession under the principle of senioratus, and it was only the help of his father's and his wife's heavy cavalry from Bavaria that brought Stephen the victory, after a severe struggle. Then, in A.D. 1000, he applied to Rome for recognition as a king.

He was uniquely fortunate in the moment of his application. Other aspiring rulers before him had made the same request. Sometimes the Pope had rejected it (legend has it that the Duke of Poland applied almost simultaneously with Stephen, and was refused); sometimes he had granted it and the kingdom failed to maintain itself, owing to the Emperor's hostility. Some crowns the Emperor granted, and the absence of Papal endorsement allowed rivals to question their validity. But precisely in A.D. 1000 both the Pope and the Emperor of the day were remarkable figures, and an unique relationship existed between the young Otto III, who dreamed of 'renewing the Empire', and Sylvester II, who had been Otto's tutor, was still his friend and mentor, and was able to make him see the Empire rather as an oecumenical community of Christian nations than as a Germanic temporal dominion. So it came about that with Otto's agreement, Sylvester sent back Stephen's emissary bearing, if the legend is true[3], the gifts of a crown and an Apostolic cross, joint tokens of Stephen's royal dignity and status and of his authority to establish a national church. The coronation and unction took place on Christmas Day, A.D. 1000.

It is impossible to over-emphasise the importance of these ceremonies. By them both Stephen's own status and that of his people were transformed. The act of conversion changed the Hungarian people from an outlaw horde against whom a Christian Prince was not only free, but bound by duty, to take up arms, into a member of the Christian family of nations, and their prince into one of those rulers by the Grace of God whose legitimate rights his fellow-princes could not infringe without sin. The royal crown made its wearer a true sovereign, not indeed the Emperor's equal in status, but in no respect subject to his overlordship, while the Apostolic insignia made the Hungarian church free of any other authority save that of Rome alone - an enormous reinforcement of the country's real independence.

Coronation also transformed Stephen's position vis-à-vis his own people, for the political philosophy of the day conceded to a crowned king practically unlimited powers, subject only to the precept of Christian morality that he should exercise those powers with justice and mercy. Hungary was again fortunate in that Stephen had the capacity to attack his new task seriously, and was granted length of years (he died only in 1038) to consolidate it, at home and abroad. The maintenance of Hungary's international status gave him no serious trouble. He easily repelled a single attack, which seems to have been quite unjustified, launched on him in 1030 by the Emperor Conrad; apart from this, and from some minor brushes with Poland and Bulgaria, his reign was untroubled by international conflict. At home, he had one more struggle against a malcontent relative, this time his maternal uncle, who had established a quasi-independent principality in Transylvania, and another against a certain 'very powerful prince in south-eastern Hungary, named Ohtum or Ajtony, who was probably the last of the Kavars; at any rate, they are not heard of again, as a unit. With the defeat of these two men the royal authority became unchallenged through all Hungary.

By that authority, Stephen seems to have claimed and exercised all the recognised prerogatives of mediaeval kingship: the conduct of international relations, with the jus belli et pacis, the jus legis ferendae, the right to appoint any man of his choice to any office, the right to dispense justice. In the book of precepts which he had compiled for the guidance of his son, he advises him to take council with elders and to defer to their advice, and his laws mention a 'Senatus', but in a context which suggests that this was a purely advisory body. One document records, in rather obscure language, that a wider body, the 'tota communitas', was consulted on a question of nation-wide importance and its decision accepted, but there is no evidence of a general, institutionalised national assembly.

On the other hand, Stephen believed in law and held that the laws of every country and people should be appropriate to themselves. He did not, therefore, touch the traditional national structure more than was necessary to adapt it to the new situation. The body of freemen - i.e., the descendants in the male line of the old conquerors, in so far as they had not forfeited their status by rebellion or individual crime, together with any new elements admitted to the same status - retained their special position. They were not merely a privileged class of subjects: they were the sole positive element among them; if not the king's partner in the polity, then at least his counterpart. They, and only they, were entitled to participate in such consultations on policy as took place and to hold public office: they and they alone had direct access to the king's justice. Stephen imposed on them the obligation of paying tithes to the church, but they paid no other taxation; their obligation towards the polity was discharged by military service, which it was their duty and their prerogative to perform whenever required. Lands held by them jure primae occupationis were truly their own, and Stephen laid down that they should be free to, bequeath them to any member of their families, or to the church. Otherwise, the national tradition had it that a man's land, failing traceable heir, reverted to his clan (it must be remembered that the bulk of the Magyars were then still living in clan communities).

Stephen did not interfere with the institution of slavery, although he set his people an example, which some of them followed, by liberating his own slaves. Manumission did not, of course, confer admission to the national community, but to an intermediate condition of personal freedom, not accompanied by political status. The proportion of the population so situated was, already in his day, considerable, for, besides freed slaves, it included also 'guests' or voluntary immigrants, some of whom were able to contract for relatively favourable terms. Generally speaking, these men of this class, answering to the Saxon geneats geburs or villeins, paid dues to their lord - the king or another - for their lands.

The soil of Hungary now fell into three categories. There were the lands held by the clans, communally or individually, jure primae occupationis. In principle all the rest - and this amounted to a full half of the whole, for besides Stephen's own patrimony and land confiscated from rebels, it included the gyepü and what lay beyond it, as well as unoccupied areas within the belt of settlement - now became formally king's land. Some of this, however, Stephen bestowed in the form of donations, to the church or to private individuals, whose titles now ranked equally with those of the original freemen; and so far as is known, they owed no obligation in return for them except that of personal military service, although the big concessionaries, like their native counterparts, must have been required to bring followers to war. The land retained by the king for his own was divided for administrative purposes into units known by the Slavonic name of 'Megye' (county), each under a king's. official, the 'Ispán' (another Slavonic term), who administered the unfree population living on it and collected from them the taxation which formed the royal revenue, national and local. Each Ispán maintained at his 'vár' (fortress) or headquarters an armed force composed of freemen who took service under him, or of persons freed by the king. In Stephen's day there were forty-two such counties. It does not appear that the Ispáns of the day had any jurisdiction over the clan lands near their várs, and the scarcity of várs recorded in the Kun area suggests that Stephen did not introduce the system at all where large masses of freemen were living together. But it was at the várs that the king or his deputy, the 'Comes Palatii', administered justice between the local freemen when they went on circuit, and it is reasonable to suppose that smaller bodies of clansmen followed the local Ispán in battle.

Géza's Christianity had been assumed for purely political purposes, and had not even involved complete renunciation of the old beliefs. He is said to have declared himself 'rich enough to afford two Gods'. Stephen, on the other hand, had been brought up in the new faith, receiving instruction, amongst others, from St Adalbert of Prague, and although he was certainly not blind to the political connection between kingship and Christianity, he was a sincere believer. In his Admonitions to his son, he names the Faith first among the props of the royal power; the church second, and the priesthood third; and it was, in fact, far rather on the ecclesiastical than on the lay arm that he rested his authority. The conversion of the people, which he carried through (principally, perforce, through the agency of foreign missionaries) went hand in hand with the establishment of a complete ecclesiastical organisation. When he died, Hungary was divided into two archiepiscopal and eight episcopal sees; there was one parish church to every ten villages. The sees and some of the numerous monasteries founded during his reign were among the largest landowners in the country.

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [Bibliography] [HMK Home] Macartney: Hungary - A Short History