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In 1437 the Sultan Murad was preparing for a grand attack on Hungary itself, and at this most inauspicious juncture Sigismund died, having crowned his disservices to Hungary by leaving no son, but only a girl, Elizabeth, the issue of his second marriage, with the daughter of the Count of Cilli, who was married to Albrecht, head of the Albertinian line of the Habsburgs and ruler of Austria Above and Below the Enns. Sigismund had designated Albrecht to succeed him in both Hungary and Bohemia, and the Hungarians duly elected him, while stipulating that he should. defend the country with all his forces (also, that he should not accept the Imperial crown). All might have turned out well, for Albrecht, who was both conscientious and able, was prepared to fulfil his promise and in fact set about organising an army for a campaign against the Turks; but dysentery carried him off before he had reigned two full years and another dynastic crisis broke out. Elizabeth was big with child, and claimed at least the regency, but a majority of the Hungarians were unwilling to wait for the birth of a child who might not even be a boy, and in any case to endure a long regency under a woman. They elected the young king of Poland as Wladislav V. Immediately after, Elizabeth was delivered of a boy, whom she succeeded in getting crowned, calling in to support her the Czech war-lord, Giskra, who occupied north-western Hungary. The position of the young Ulászló (as the Hungarians called him) was thus threatened from the rear at the moment when he most needed security.

In this most critical hour Hungary was saved principally by the genius of a single man, János (John) Hunyadi, one of the most interesting and attractive figures in the national history. He had risen from small beginnings; son of a lesser noble of Vlach origin (it is true that his ascent to position and wealth had been so meteoric as to give rise to rumours that he was Sigismund's own natural son), he had begun life as a professional condottiere, but had shown such extraordinary talent in that capacity that Sigismund had given him high command, and Albrecht even higher, appointing him Ban of Szörény. Ulászló, whose cause he had supported, promoted him to Captain-General of Belgrade and Voivode of Transylvania. He was now the most important man in Hungary, after the young king himself, and also in a fair way to becoming the richest, for he was as great a money-maker as he was soldier; by not long after this, his private estates were estimated to have covered nearly six million acres. In Transylvania, in 1442, Hunyadi brilliantly defeated a Turkish army, then in 1443 persuaded Ulászló to undertake a campaign in the Balkans, this being the first time for many years that the Turks had the offensive taken against them on that front. This was so signally successful that the Sultan agreed to a peace which liberated all Serbia from his rule. Unhappily, the Papal Legate, who had been organising a crusade which was frustrated by Hunyadi's action in concluding the peace, persuaded Ulászló that a word given to an infidel need not be kept. The next year he and Hunyadi accordingly led a new army into the Balkans, where the enraged Sultan, meeting them outside Varna on 10 November, defeated them disastrously. The young king himself perished, with the flower of his army, while Hunyadi barely escaped with his life.

He managed, however, to get back to Hungary, where he performed a service hardly less valuable than his feats in the field, in mediating a solution of the dynastic question. For Elizabeth had meanwhile died, leaving her little boy, Ladislas (known as Ladislas Postumus), with the Holy Crown, in the charge of his uncle, the Emperor Frederick, and the easy-going Frederick was content to leave Hunyadi in charge of Hungary as 'governor' or 'regent' until the child should have grown up.

During the next years Hunyadi was by no means always successful; Giskra defeated him in 1447 and had to be left master of north-western Hungary, and in the same year he suffered another heavy defeat at the hands of the Turks in Serbia. He did, however, succeed in holding them back as no European had done before him. His crowning achievement came in 1456, when he so heavily routed a Turkish army which was besieging Belgrade that it was seventy years before the danger recurred in so acute a form.

The relief of Belgrade, for which the Pope ordered all the church-bells of catholic Europe to ring daily at noon[14], that the faithful might pray in unison for it, was also Hunyadi's last victory, for he died a few weeks later of a fever contracted in the camp. And at first it seemed as though he was to be ill repaid. In 1452 the Austrian and Bohemian Estates had forced Frederick to release Ladislas from tutelage, and the next year he was solemnly reinstated as King of Hungary. The boy-king allowed Hunyadi to remain de facto regent, but himself fell under the influence of his maternal uncle, the Count of Cilli, who distrusted the Hunyadi family, a feeling reciprocated by Hunyadi's brother-in-law, Mihály (Michael) Szilágyi. On Hunyadi's death, Ladislas nominated his uncle as the new Captain-General of Hungary, passing over Hunyadi's elder son, another Ladislas. Soon after, the king and his uncle visited Belgrade, then in Szilágyi's hands, and Szilágyi's partisans murdered Cilli. The king then treacherously seized Ladislas Hunyadi and put him to death; his younger brother Mátyás (Matthew) Hunyadi, then a boy of sixteen, he took to Prague, where he threw him into prison; only to die himself, still unmarried, a year later.

For the first time in Hungarian history there was now no candidate for the throne able to put forward a claim based even tenuously on heredity. There were, of course, pretendents enough, including the evergreen Emperor' Frederick, but this time the nation was tired of foreign kings. The name of Hunyadi was magical among the small nobles, and it was easy for Szilágyi to organise them to favour of the surviving bearer of the name. On 24 January 1458, while the great men were still debating, a huge multitude of common nobles, assembled on the ice of the frozen Danube, proclaimed Mátyás king. Emissaries having with some difficulty extracted him from the keeping of George Podiebrad, in Prague (for the Czechs, too, had decided in favour of a national king), he was brought to Buda and enthroned amid scenes of national rejoicing.

Mátyás Corvinus, as he is commonly known from his crest, a raven, is, with the somewhat qualified exception of John Zápolyai, the only completely 'national' king to have worn the Holy Crown after the extinction of the old dynasty, and it is natural that Hungarian historians should have seen his reign, in retrospect, through something of a golden haze. The remarkable glamour of his personality is undeniable. He was, as his panegyrists never tire of repeating, a true Renaissance prince. He was exceedingly talented in every respect: a brilliant natural soldier, a first-class administrator, an outstanding linguist, speaking with equal fluency half a dozen languages, a learned astrologer, an enlightened. patron of the arts and himself a refined connoisseur of their delights. His library of 'Corvina' was famous throughout Europe. Besides the illuminated manuscripts of which this mainly consisted (many of which he had specially wrought for him by Italian craftsmen), his collections, on which he spent vast sums, included pictures, statues, jewels, goldsmiths' work and other objets d'art. Under his patronage, architecture and the arts flourished in Hungary. Scholars of European repute lived and worked at his court and in the circle of the Archbishop-primate, János Vitéz. Some of them produced elaborate and scholarly works, still valuable in parts, on Hungarian history. The first book printed in Buda antedated Caxton. Sumptuous buildings sprang up in the capital and in other centres. Most of these were destroyed in the subsequent Turkish invasion, which also dispersed the remnants of his collections, but those which have survived, notably the magnificent Coronation church of Buda, show that Mátyás' Hungary could challenge comparison with most European states of the day. His reign saw the foundation of Hungary's second university - unfortunately, another short-lived creation.

The word 'Renaissance' is to be taken exactly, for especially after Mátyás had married, as his second wife, Beatrix of Aragon, daughter of the King of Naples, the influences of the early Italian Renaissance dominated his court. They brought with them the absurdities of the day. The cult of Attila and his Huns, at that time held to be the Magyars' ancestors, flourished. The historian Bonfinius traced the Hunyadi's own ancestry back to a Roman consul, himself the descendant of Zeus and the nymph Taygeta. But the classical trappings were used to enhance the national glory. When Mátyás' father-in-law sent him a Spanish horse-master he replied: 'For centuries we have been famed for our skill in horsemanship, so that the Magyar has no need to have his horses dance with crossed legs, Spanish fashion.'

Seen unromantically, his reign, of course, appears as the usual mixture of good and bad. His first years were necessarily spent in consolidating his position, for he had many opponents, both abroad and at home. Even Podiebrad had demanded a heavy ransom for releasing him, and although the Emperor Frederick did not press his claim by arms, he, too, demanded a big price for suspending them, and for restoring the Holy Crown. The Czechs were still installed in north-western Hungary, the Turks still dangerous in the Balkans. Many of the magnates were very hostile to the young upstart, as they regarded him, and he soon became involved in a dispute with his own uncle and sponsor, Szilágyi, who had hoped to rule for him till he grew older.

Mátyás overcame all these difficulties with energy and skill. Podiebrad was paid off, Frederick bought off, through the mediation of the Pope; the Czechs were mopped up, an accommodation having been reached with Giskra. Szilágyi was sent on an expedition into the Balkans, which ended in his death, and the other magnates brought to heel. Two successful expeditions were carried out against the Turks, a chain of fortresses built along the southern frontier, and Hungarian suzerainty re-established, if in somewhat shadowy form - it was worth little unless enforced by garrisons, which could not be spared - over Bosnia, Serbia and Wallachia, and later, also over Moldavia.

It is by his acts after he had really become master of his country that Mátyás is to be judged. His electors had bound him stringently to observe constitutional forms, and this he always did, hearing the views of the Council and admitting the principle that the Diet should meet annually. He actually enlarged the autonomous powers of the counties. Nevertheless, the whole bent of his mind was towards the fashionable `princely' absolutism of his age, and his respect for constitutional institutions was largely formal. In practice, he disregarded the Council; his real instruments were his secretaries, a body of men picked by himself, generally young and often of quite obscure of origin. When the Diet proved recalcitrant, he bent it to his will, ruthlessly enough. His rule was in fact a near-absolutism, and the touchstone of it is, whether or no it was enlightened and beneficial.

In some respects, it was certainly both these things. He simplified the administration and made it more efficient, and carried through a grandiose reform of the entire judicial system, abolishing many anachronisms and abuses and introducing a simplified and accelerated procedure which was of particular benefit to the small man. He encouraged the towns, especially the smaller market towns, and while not alleviating the legal position of the serfs, in fact greatly improved their condition by the even-handed justice which he enforced, so that when he was dead they mourned: 'King Mátyás is dead, justice is departed.'

The central controversy of his day turned round his defence policy and the financial burdens which he imposed on the nation in support of it. He trebled the size of the militia portalis, following this up by the most famous of all his 'innovations', the creation of a standing army, some 30,000 strong, which ranked as part of the king's banderium. This force, which was drawn largely from the defeated Hussites, and was known, after its commander, 'Black' John Haugwitz, as the 'Black Army', was his most powerful weapon against all enemies, abroad or at home.

Since the upkeep of this force, supervening on the cost of his sumptuous court and his collections, involved an expenditure far beyond what could be met out of ordinary revenue, Mátyás reorganised the tax system in ways which cut at the root of the national tradition. He screwed up the profits from the regalia, introduced a tributum fisci regalis from which none of his subjects was exempt, and frequently in the latter half of his reign, regularly - imposed a special porta tax of a florin per porta. Although he conceded the right of the Diet to vote this, yet in 1470, when that body objected, he dissolved it and had the tax collected by his servants. By these means he raised the royal revenue to the unprecedented figure of 6-800,000 forints; although in some years his expenditure far exceeded even this sum.

In the first years, the nation was prepared to accept extraordinary financial burdens to redeem the Holy Crown, rid north Hungary of the Czechs, and above all, to secure its defences against the Turks. But after his good beginning in the last-named field, Mátyás allowed his attention to be distracted to the west. He had then some excuse: the Austrians and Czechs were proving worse neighbours than the Turks, who remained passive for some ten years after their defeats. But Mátyás let himself be drawn into an ever-widening circle of campaigns in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown and Austria, in pursuit for himself of the Bohemian Crown, the dignity of Roman King and the succession to the Imperial Crown itself, after Frederick should die. In fact, he succeeded in 1469 in making himself master of Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia, with the title of King of Bohemia (although this was also borne simultaneously by Podiebrad) and, in 1478, in forcing Frederick to cede him Lower Austria and Styria. To his subjects, he justified these campaigns, and the taxes which he levied to finance them, by the argument that Hungary alone was no match for the Turks; that the sovereign princes of Austria and Bohemia would not help him and could not be trusted not to stab him in the back; and that he could therefore only organise the great crusade if he had at his disposal the resources of the Bohemian and Imperial Crowns. There was perhaps something in this argument, for the only source which sent Mátyás any help against the Turks was the Holy See, which sent some rather jejune subsidies. But the Hungarians, although probably not oppressed by conscience-pricks over the blatant aggressiveness of Mátyás' wars, saw no profit in them, had no ambition to become the nucleus of a multi-national empire, and believed that Mátyás was simply gratifying personal ambition at the expense of the security of Hungary's southern frontier - which, in fact, the Turks raided again in 1474 and 1476, doing much damage. There was much grumbling, and in 1470 a party which included some of Mátyás' oldest supporters conspired to set Casimir of Poland on the throne, and next year Casimir actually crossed the Carpathians at the head of an army.

He found few supporters and the enterprise collapsed easily enough; but it cannot be said that in his lifetime Mátyás was ever beloved as Stephen I or Louis the Great had been.

Mátyás might nevertheless have established a new, native dynasty; but neither of his two wives bore him an heir. His only issue, a boy called John, was his illegitimate son by a bourgeoise of Breslau. One of Mátyás' main preoccupations as he grew older was to ensure this boy's succession, and he eventually reached agreement in principle with Maximilian of Austria whereby John was to marry Maximilian's daughter; Hungary was to hand back Austria and Styria to Maximilian; and Maximilian was to renounce his father's old claims on Hungary and recognise John as its sovereign. But on 6 May 1490, when actually on his way to the meeting which should have made the agreement definitive, Mátyás died suddenly, and the whole house of cards collapsed. The smaller nobles would have liked another ruler of the Hunyadi stock, but John's illegitimacy was a real objection, and he himself was of too peaceable and unambitious nature to press his claim hard. Maximilian was another candidate, but the magnates were afraid of him; what they wanted was, as one of them put it cynically, 'a king whose plaits they could hold in their fists'. Such a man was to hand in Wladislas Jagiello (Ulászló II in Hungarian history), whom the Bohemians had chosen as their king in 1471 precisely for his negative qualities, a choice which he had thereafter justified so amply as to earn from his subjects the name of 'King Dobre' (King O.K.) from his habit of assenting without cavil to any proposal laid before him.

In the event Maximilian contented himself with the restoration of the Austrian provinces and with an agreement that if Ulászló died without heirs, Maximilian himself, or his heirs, should succeed. Thereafter he exercised an increasingly close, although friendly, protectorate over Hungary, which was not altered when Ulászló, after many curious adventures, eventually married and, in 1506, became father of a boy. Another agreement was concluded in 1515 under which this boy, Louis, married Maximilian's granddaughter, Mary, while his sister, Anne, was betrothed to Maximilian's younger grandson, Ferdinand, who was to succeed to Louis's thrones if Louis died without issue.

During these years Maximilian built up for himself a considerable party in Hungary, especially in the west of the country, but he also had many opponents. The national party, strong among the smaller nobles, refused to recognise the validity of the dynastic compacts, and a Diet in 1505 actually passed a resolution never again to receive a foreign king. This party's candidate, should Ulászló's line die out, was one John Zápolyai, whose uncle and father had risen from small beginnings to hold successively the office of Palatine under Mátyás, while John himself was Voivode of Transylvania and the biggest landowner in Hungary.

Meanwhile, under King Dobre's rule, conditions in Hungary plunged downhill with Gadarene rapidity. His electors had forced him to repeal all Mátyás' 'innovations', including his extraordinary taxation. This involved the dissolution of the Black Army, the chief instrument of Mátyás' personal power; for defence, the nation now reverted to the banderial system. The king had also to promise to convoke the Diet regularly, giving advance notice of the subjects which he proposed to lay before it, and to agree that no decree issued by him was legal without the Council's confirmation. He fell entirely into the hands of the clique round him, who plundered the royal revenues so ruthlessly that only a fraction of them reached the treasury. The annual revenue fell to under 200,000 florins. The king himself was reduced to selling off Mátyás' collections. Sometimes he had literally to beg for food and drink for his court. At one carnival the king's own estates could produce only eight turkeys.

The power of the magnates, which at the same period became almost total in Bohemia, was to some extent limited in Hungary by the resistance of the lesser nobles, who succeeded in asserting a right to a share in the membership of the Council, as also to attendance at the Diet. In 1514, too, they achieved a remarkable paper reaffirmation of their position in the shape of a codification of the Customary Law of Hungary, drawn up by the jurist Werb czy. This work, known as the 'Tripartitum', which, although never formally promulgated, was ever after universally treated as authoritative, laid down in explicit terms the complete legal equality of all nobles, as enjoying 'one and the same liberty'. In practice, this helped them little politically: even in the Diet the magnates could always get their way by prolonging the debates until the small men could stay away from their farms no longer.

It did, however, help to reaffirm the cardinal distinction between the free and the unfree population, and the most unhappy feature of the period was the swift deterioration of the position of the latter class. The phenomenon was not a specifically Hungarian one; it was occurring simultaneously in Germany, Bohemia and Poland, and even set in rather later in Hungary than in the neighbouring countries. But here, too, the peasants found their burdens progressively increased and their liberty, especially that of escaping from a tyrannous landlord, progressively restricted. The Diet of 1492, while confirming their right to change their masters, reduced their inducement to do so by making it illegal for any lord, including the king and the Free Districts (the prohibition was extended to the boroughs in 1498) to exact less than the minimum legalised dues and services. This Law was a serious blow to the market towns and the Districts, which under Mátyás had achieved a half-free condition, compounding their obligations for a relatively small annual sum. In 1504 peasants were forbidden hunting or fowling.

Then, in 1514, there came an extraordinary and terrible episode. The Cardinal Primate, Tamás Bakócz, aspired to the Papacy. He was not elected, but as consolation and diversion, entrusted with the organisation of a crusade. None of the big men volunteered, but a huge army of peasants and masterless men did so. Bakócz put them under the command of a Szekel professional soldier named Dózsa. Left without proper leadership or supplies, the wretched crusaders grew restive and presently Dózsa turned them not against the Turks but against the lords. The movement expanded into an almost nation-wide jacquerie. There was savage fighting in which fearful atrocities were committed on both sides. Then the revolt was put down. Dózsa was put to death by indescribable tortures. A Diet intoxicated by a spirit of almost inconceivable vindictiveness ordered the most savage reprisals against all leaders and all perpetrators of any atrocities, and their kinsfolk, and condemned the entire class of peasants, with certain exceptions, to 'real and perpetual servitude'. They became irrevocably bound to the soil, in which they were explicitly declared to have no ownership whatever - they were wage-earners pure and simple. Their corvée was raised to fifty-two days in the year, and their other dues and payments increased. This savage law, too, was enshrined in the Tripartitum

Louis succeeded his father in 1516, but, a boy of nine, naturally could bring no remedy. Meanwhile the defences of the country went from bad to worse. The frontier garrisons were left without pay, the fortresses fell into ill-repair. The king disbanded his own banderium for lack of funds, and several of the magnates followed his example. Then, in 1520, the Turkish threat grew acute again. Suleiman the Magnificent succeeded to the Sultanate and at once sent Louis a demand for tribute; when this was rejected, he marched on Belgrade and took it. The country awoke to the danger and agreed to a general tax for establishing a permanent mercenary army, but this was to replace, not supplement, the existing system. The lords were relieved of the obligation of maintaining banderia and the lesser nobles from obeying the levée. The proceeds of the tax were embezzled and the army never raised.

Hungary was given a brief respite by the Sultan's decision to reduce Rhodes before turning north again, but in 1525 attack was again imminent. Messengers scoured Europe appealing for help, but hardly any came; the Empire was occupied with France, Poland with the Tatars, Bohemia was indifferent. When, in 1526, the Sultan commenced his advance in earnest, it was at first almost unopposed. The levée was, after all, proclaimed and the banderia re-activated, but when, in July, Louis set out from Buda he had at first only 3,300 men with which to meet the Sultan's 70-80,000 regulars and half as many irregulars. By the time the two armies made contact at Mohács, Louis' army had swollen to 25,000, but the detachments from Transylvania and Croatia had not yet arrived. Disregarding advice to wait for these, the Hungarians attacked on 29 August. The army was almost utterly destroyed and the king himself perished by some fatal mishap in the rout.

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