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This change brought with it a modification of the political organisation. The county system now covered the whole country, except for the royal free boroughs and the specially exempted areas, such as those donated to the Transylvanian Saxons; and whatever the position may have been before, the nobles of each county now had to recognise the authority of the local Ispán. Towards the end of Andrew II's reign the nobles of one county initiated the practice, which was later generalised and institutionalised, of electing four of their own members in practice, naturally, respected and influential men - as 'assessors' to represent their interests against encroachments by tyrannous Ispa'ns or lawless magnates. By 1267 this identification of the administration with the local nobility had gone so far that Béla IV ordered that two or three nobles from each county should attend the Court which he promised to hold annually for the airing of grievances.

Among the other classes of the population, slavery was on its way out. Still fairly common at the beginning of the thirteenth century, it had almost disappeared by the end of it, except for a few non-Christian slaves. The rest of the unfree population, although still politically non-existent, were now no longer chattels and enjoyed a measure of security in law. Some were farm-hands or craftsmen, employed on the big estates, lay or ecclesiastical; others in practice tenant farmers, paying a rent in labour or kind for their holdings. Their obligations were at any rate not onerous enough to deter a steady flow of immigrants from entering the country, and their right of free migration was, at this period, not questioned. Some communities, such as the Transylvanian Saxons, were personally free and paid only a nominal rent for their land.

Both the extension of the frontiers, and the immigration, had, of course, brought large new numbers of non-Magyars into Hungary. Croatia was purely Slavonic, with an Italian element in the sea-board towns. The political consolidation of the north-west added a fairly substantial Slovak population, later reinforced by immigration from Moravia. Russians filtered over the north-eastern Carpathians; Vlachs were found in, or entered, Transylvania. There was a big organised immigration of Germans: besides the Transylvanian Saxons, already mentioned, another large body of 'Saxons' was brought in to develop the mines of the Szepes east of the Tatra. The towns throughout Hungary were, as throughout most of eastern Europe, mainly German. Considerable numbers of Petchenegs and kindred peoples entered Hungary from the east as refugees. Other, smaller, groups included Jews, Walloon vintners, and 'Ishmaelites' (Bulgars from the Kama), men skilled in the minting of money.

But this did not alter the essentially Magyar national character of the state. The Kuns were no longer distinguishable from Magyars. The recruits to the noble class, at least in the interior of the country, usually became completely Magyarised within a generation or so.[9] But neither was the picture of a 'ruling race' dominating 'subject peoples' any more generally true. The peasants of the Slovak mountains, the Saxons behind their barrier of jealously-guarded privileges, the German burghers of the towns, and the Vlachs and Jews, with their alien religions and outlandish modes of life, kept their distinct national identities, but the Szekels and all the eastern immigrants, with the smaller diasporae, melted in the Magyar flood, which was also now swollen by great numbers of de'classe' Magyars. Documents show that except in the peripheral areas and the towns, the majority of the unfree populations now bore Magyar names.

When in 1235 death ended Andrew II's long and ill-fated reign, his son, Béla IV, did what he could to re-establish the royal authority. Several truculent aristocrats were thrown into prison, and commissioners sent out to check the donations, a number of which were rescinded. But before Béla could complete his reforms, they legitimacy of recent were interrupted by the heaviest calamity which Hungary had experienced since the foundation of the state: the terrible Mongol invasion.

The Mongols, or Tatars, had been threatening eastern Europe for half a generation. As early as 1223 they had inflicted a terrible defeat on the combined Cuman and Russian armies on the Kalka. This battle had not, however, decisively broken the power of the Cumans, who continued to hold up the Tatar expansion for a long decade, but in 1239 they were crushingly defeated again, near the mouth of the Volga. In December 1240 Kiev was laid in ashes, and now the way to Poland and Hungary lay open.

Béla - almost the only man in his country who took the danger at its full value - had organised a system of defences on the passes and had tried to collect an army inside Hungary. But when the Tatars moved again, in the spring of 1241, they easily overran the frontier posts, and on 11 April outmanoeuvered the Hungarian army which met them at Mohi, on the Sajó, and almost destroyed it. Béla himself barely escaped with his life to the Austrian frontier, where Frederick of Austria could find nothing better to do than to blackmail him for an indemnity, extort three counties from him as security for the payment of it, and even invade them himself. The Tatars ravaged central Hungary at their leisure all summer and autumn, then, the Danube having frozen hard, crossed it on Christmas Day and spread destruction in the Dunántúl, while Béla, pursued by their light cavalry, fled ingloriously enough to an island off the Dalmatian coast. Hungary was saved from complete destruction only by the death of the Great Khan Ogotai in far-away Karakorum. Batu Khan, commander of the Tatar armies in the west, led them back to take part in the contest for the succession, and in March 1242 the Tatars quitted Hungary as suddenly as they had entered it just a year before.

But they left total devastation behind them. Even of Hungary's walled places, not all had escaped. Székesfehérvár had been saved by the marshes round it, and the citadel of Esztergom had held out. But the town had fallen, as had Buda and many another. When they took a town the Tatars commonly reduced it to ashes and slaughtered all its inhabitants. In the countryside they had spared the peasants until the harvest was reaped, promising them that they would not be molested; but the harvest in, had butchered them. Finally, while leaving the country, they had beaten it for slaves: years after, the missionaries Plan Carpini and Rubruquis found Magyar slaves still in bondage in Tartary.

Those who survived had done so because they had escaped in time into forests or marshes. That year, with the plague and starvation which followed it, cost Hungary -something like half its total population, the losses ranging from 60 per cent in the Alföld (100 per cent in certain parts of it) to 20 per cent in the Dunántúl. Only the northwest and the Szekel areas of Transylvania had come off fairly lightly.

To the sheer physical destruction of man and his works were added, of course, political and social disintegration and the threat of further assaults from greedy neighbours, headed by Frederick of Austria.

King Béla, whom his country not unjustly dubbed its second founder, set himself with courage, intelligence and tact to repair something of this damage. Drawing from experience the lesson that only walled places ensured safety, he organised a complete new defensive system, based on chains of fortresses. He reorganised the army, replacing the old light archers by a small force of heavy cavalry. He repopulated the country by calling in great new numbers of colonists from all available quarters, paying especial attention to the foundation of new towns, which were equipped with generous charters. In a few years Hungary was well on the way to internal recovery and its international position seemed more potent than ever. In the west, the counties seized by Frederick were recovered and, for a short time, Béla even took Styria away from the Austrian. In the south and east, Hungary was surrounded by a ring of 'Bánáts' or client states embracing Bosnia and north Serbia. Severin, Cumania (in the later Wallachia) and Galicia.

Some of this work was of permanent advantage to Hungary; in particular, the multiplication of the towns lastingly benefited its economic structure. But many of Béla's improvisations, although unavoidable, had dangerous consequences. To get the fortresses built quickly he had been obliged, willy-nilly, to give great territorial magnates, new or old, practically a free hand on their domains. Half a dozen of these families - the K szegis on the Austrian frontier, the Csáks on the Moravian, the Abas and Borsas in the north, the Káns in Transylvania, the Subiches in Croatia, made meteoric rises to near-sovereign state; a state of things which was particularly dangerous because with the extinction in Austria, of the Babenberg line in 1246, a scramble for its inheritance had begun, opening up golden prospects for a powerful local magnate to rise higher still, if he did not take his loyalty to his own monarch too seriously.

A danger of a different sort threatened from the Cumans. After the Battle of the Volga the Great Khan of the Cumans, a certain Kötöny or Kuthen, had sought asylum in Hungary with the broken survivors of his nation, still a large host. Béla had received them, seeing in them a force which could defend him against the Tatars and also help him against disloyal subjects of his own. But his hospitality had had disastrous consequences. It had given the Tatar Khan his pretext to attack Hungary, for 'harbouring his rebellious slaves'; meanwhile the Hungarians, for good reasons and for ill, had violently resented the presence of the wild newcomers, and just as the Tatars were crossing the mountain passes, had murdered Kuthen. Thereupon the enraged Cumans had left Hungary for the Balkans, murdering and pillaging as they went, so that Béla had not even had their help at the crucial moment.

Afterwards he called them back, with the smaller people of the Jazyges, and settled them on empty lands on the two banks of the Tisza, and to ensure their loyalty, married his elder son, Stephen, to a Cuman princess. The Cumans proved in fact a valuable fighting force, but they were detested by the Hungarians, whose villages they pillaged and whose women they raped. They were, moreover, mostly still pagans, for missionary work in which heroic friars had engaged among them for a generation previously had so far borne little fruit.

When Béla died, in 1270, the weak points in his work soon made themselves felt. Stephen, who incidentally had done much to embitter his father's last years and to undermine his work, died after a reign of only two years; no loss in himself, but his heir, Ladislas, was only ten years old. The 'Cumanian woman', his mother, who assumed the regency, was hated by the Hungarians, and although some of the magnates tried loyally enough to keep the state together, others, especially a few great west Hungarian and Croat families, made themselves into 'kinglets', who fought each other, and the king, for control of the state or for their own independence, allying themselves without scrupie with foreign rulers. In the confusion, many of Béla IV's foreign acquisitions were lost again. When Ladislas came to man the estate, things were no better. He had grown up into a wild, undisciplined youth, far more of a Cuman than a Magyar. He favoured his mother's people so much that there seemed a danger that Hungary might revert to paganism; in the course of repeated exchanges, one Pope laid the country under interdict and another authorised the bishops to preach a crusade against the king. It took all the efforts of the Christian barons to mediate a settlement under which the Cumans, in return for the retention of their liberties and of certain national customs, undertook to accept Christianity, to exchange their tents for fixed abodes and 'to abstain from killing Christians and from shedding their blood'. Meanwhile, Ladislas himself neglected his wife and took pleasure only among Cuman women. At last, in 1290, he was murdered 'by those same Cumans whom he had loved'.

From the loyal Hungarians' point of view the most serious aspect of Ladislas' refusal to have commerce with his wife had been the danger that this might involve the extinction of the dynasty; for Ladislas' only brother had predeceased him, dying unmarried, as had his only paternal uncle. One Árpád of the blood was still alive, for Andrew II's third wife, Beatrice d'Este, had been delivered of a boy soon after her husband's death (on which she had returned to her father's people), and this boy had in due course married into a family of rich Venetian bankers and

although himself dying young, had left a son, another Andrew. A party in Hungary had been supporting the claim of this boy to be regarded as heir presumptive to Ladislas, and meanwhile, 'Duke of Slavonia'. Since a few months before Ladislas' death Andrew had, however, been a prisoner at the court of Albrecht of Habsburg, now installed in Vienna. Meanwhile his rivals had been impugning his father's parentage, and when Ladislas died, claims to the succession were put forward by, or on behalf of, three descendants of the house of Árpád in the female line: the Angevin Charles Martell of Naples, son of Ladislas' sister Maria (the candidature supported by the Pope), the Bavarian Otto of Wittelsbach, son of Stephen V's sister Elizabeth, and the Bohemian Wenceslas II, grandson of Béla IV's sister Anne. In addition, the German King Rudolph of Habsburg recalled that Béla IV, in his extremity, had done him homage and invested his son Albrecht with Hungary.

The question was resolved by the prompt action of the Archbishop of Esztergom, Ladomer, who got Andrew smuggled out of Vienna, disguised as a friar, and brought to Hungary, where he was crowned amid the jubilation of by far the greater part of the country. It was a coup which might have proved a great blessing to the country, for true Árpád or not, Andrew showed himself to be one of the best of the Hungarian kings. He defended his position against the foreign claimants. Leaning on the smaller nobles, he succeeded in making headway against the unruly magnates, incidentally sanctioning a number of valuable constitutional institutions (for the idea of constitutional rule was not strange to his Venice-trained mind). On coronation he swore to respect the country's liberties; he repeated and extended Andrew II's pledge to make no appointments to higher office without the consent of the Royal Council, and even agreed to the institution of a permanent salaried Council, its membership to include representatives of their 'prelates, barons and nobles', whose consent was required for any major decision. 'All the barons and nobles of the realm'[10] were to meet annually to enquire into the state of the kingdom and the conduct of the high officials. Unhappily, he died on 14 January 1301, leaving only an infant daughter, and thus 'the last golden twig of the generation, blood and lineage of St Stephen, the first Hungarian king', was broken.

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