Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages

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This article deals with the history of the Kingdom of Hungary from the 10th century to c. 1526.

Note that, although strictly speaking a "kingdom" arose only in 1000/1001 and a Hungarian state or principality only in the late 10th century, this text also describes its early development after the year 896 when the Magyars arrived in the Carpathian Basin.


[edit] Meaning

The term "Kingdom of Hungary" is often used to denote the multiethnic configuration of territories in order to draw a clear distinction with the modern Hungarian state, which is significantly smaller and more ethnically homogeneous. Prior to and in the 19th century, the term Hungarian in English and other languages often referred to any inhabitant of this state, regardless of his or her ethnicity.

The Latin terms "natio Hungarica" and "Hungarus" referred to all noblemen of the kingdom. A Hungarus-consciousness (loyalty and patriotism above ethnic origins) existed among any inhabitant of this state, however according to István Werbőczy's Tripartitum Natio Hungarica or Hungarus were only the privileged noblemen, subjects of the Holy Crown regardless of ethnicity.

[edit] Overview

In the four centuries after their migration into the Carpathian Basin, the Magyars gradually developed from a loose confederation of pagan marauders into a recognized kingdom. This kingdom, which became known as Kingdom of Hungary, was led by the Árpád Dynasty and was firmly allied to the Christian West. Eventually the Árpád line died out, however, and the Kingdom of Hungary again descended into anarchy, with the most powerful nobels vying for control.

After the Árpad Dynasty ended, Hungary's nobles chose a series of foreign kings who reestablished strong royal authority. Hungary and the adjacent countries prospered for several centuries as Central Europe, and experienced an era of peace interrupted only by succession struggles. But over time, the onslaughts of the Ottoman Empire and the strife of the Reformation weakened Hungary, and the country was eventually partitioned by the Ottomans and the Habsburgs.

[edit] The 955 battle

The bonds linking the seven Magyar tribes grew frail soon after the migration into the Carpathian Basin. At that time, Europe was weak and disunited, and for more than half a century Magyar bands raided Bavaria, Great Moravia, Italy, the Byzantine Empire, and lands as far away as the Pyrenees. Sometimes fighting as mercenaries and sometimes lured by spoils alone, the Magyar bands looted towns and took captives for labor, ransom, or sale on the slave market. The Byzantine emperor and European princes paid the Magyars annual tribute. In 955, however, German and Czech armies under the Holy Roman Empire's King Otto I destroyed a Magyar force near Augsburg. The defeat effectively ended Magyar raids on the West, and in 970 the Byzantines halted Magyar incursions toward the East.

[edit] Arpad Dynasty (970s - 1301)

[edit] Geza and the beginnings of the Christianization of the Magyars

In the 970s - as a pressing result of the changed domestic and foreign affairs - chief prince Géza adopted Christianity, the faith of the victors, and started spreading it in the country. At the same time he started to organize the central power, too. He hardly ever made war against foreign countries during his 25-year-long principality. His peace policy was reinforced by dynastic marriages - which were quite natural at that time - between his children and members of foreign ruling families, to confess the rule of the Magyars in the Pannonian Basin by other european countries.

Géza's efforts to establish a stable state power and guarantee the throne for his son were not really successful, because he had to share some of the country with the other members of the principal family. Prince Koppány also lay his claim for the throne. In the Hungarian succession the theory of seniority - the right of the oldest living brother - prevailed. Koppány also laid claim on the principal's widow, Sharolt. Géza's will, that his first-born son should inherit the throne, contradicted the ancestral right.

Image:Big Coa of Kingdom of Hungary.jpg
The coat of arms of the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen at the end of the 19th century

In connection with the adoption of Christianity, the question of vital importance was whether Hungary should join the western or the Eastern Orthodox Church. Formerly (around 948) the Hungarian noblemen joined the Byzantine Church. In the autumn of 972 the archbishop of Mainz ,Bruno of Querfurt was sent as bishop of the Hungarians by Pope Silvester II to spread western Christianity among the Hungarians. He christened chief prince Géza and his family also. Géza got the name István when he was christened, his wife, Sharolt, was baptised by a Greek bishop in her early childhood. The decision on the choice was made by current foreign affairs. The last phase of the Hungarian raids was directed against the southeast, and this alienated Byzantine relations. It could have been a warning for the Hungarian principality that the Byzantine emperor abolished the political and religious independence of Bulgaria.

The Hungarian chief prince needed the political, moral and occasional military help of the German empire because of the Byzantine threat. Adopting western Christianity was then both a cultural and a political event for the Hungarians. During Géza's reign the plundering campaigns came to an end also. His efforts, to establish a country, which is independent of all outer powers was almost reached, when he died.

[edit] Stephen I

When Geza died the issue of succession to the throne created tension at the court: by ancestral right Koppány should have claimed the throne, but Geza chose his first-born son to be his successor. The fight in the chief prince's family started after Géza's death, in 997. Koppány took up arms, and many people in Transdanubia joined him. The rebels represented the old faith and order, the ancient human rights, tribal independence and the pagan belief. His opposer, Vajk Stephen, at that time the prince of Nitra, supported by the Germans and Slovaks, demanded Christianity and modernity. Stephen won the throne struggle and became chieftain/prince.

Stephen consolidated his rule by ousting other rival clan chiefs and confiscating their lands. Stephen then asked Pope Sylvester II to recognize him as king of Hungary. The pope agreed, and legend says Stephen was crowned on Christmas Day in the year 1000. The crowning legitimized Hungary as a Western kingdom independent of the Holy Roman and Byzantine empires. It also gave Stephen virtually absolute power, which he used to strengthen the Roman Catholic Church and Hungary. Stephen ordered the people to pay tithes and required every tenth village to construct a church and support a priest. Stephen donated land to support bishoprics and monasteries, required all persons except the clergy to marry, and barred marriages between Christians and pagans. Foreign monks worked as teachers and introduced Western agricultural methods. A Hungarian alphabet was derived from the Roman alphabet for the Hungarian language.

Stephen administered his kingdom through a system of counties, each governed by an ispan, or magistrate, appointed by the king. In Stephen's time, Magyar society had two classes: the freemen nobles and the unfree. The nobles were descended in the male line from the Magyars who had either migrated into the Carpathian Basin or had received their title of nobility from the king. Only nobles could hold office or present grievances to the king. They paid tithes and owed the crown military service but were exempt from taxes. The unfree--who had no political voice--were slaves, freed slaves, immigrants, or nobles stripped of their privileges. Most were serfs who paid taxes to the king and a part of each harvest to their lord for use of his land. The king had direct control of the unfree, thus checking the nobles' power.

Clan lands, crown lands, and former crown lands made up the realm. Clan lands belonged to nobles, who could will the lands to family members or the church; if a noble died without an heir, his land reverted to his clan. Crown lands consisted of Stephen's patrimony, lands seized from disloyal nobles, conquered lands, and unoccupied parts of the kingdom. Former crown lands were properties granted by the king to the church or to individuals.

[edit] Stephen's successors, the Mongol invasion, reconstruction

Stephen died in 1038 and was canonized in 1083. Despite pagan revolts and a series of succession struggles after his death, Hungary grew stronger and expanded. Transylvania was conquered and colonized with Magyars, Székelys (a tribe related to the Magyars), and Saxons in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In 1090, Ladislaus I (1077-95) occupied Slavonia, and in 1103 Coloman I (1095-1116) assumed the title of king of Croatia. Croatia was never assimilated into Hungary; rather, it became an associate kingdom administered by a ban, or civil governor.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries were relatively peaceful, and Hungary slowly developed a feudal economy. Crop production gradually supplemented stock breeding, but until the twelfth century planting methods remained crude because tillers farmed each plot until it was exhausted, then moved on to fresh land. Gold, silver, and salt mining boosted the king's revenues. Despite the minting of coins, cattle remained the principal medium of exchange. Towns began developing when an improvement in agricultural methods and the clearing of additional land produced enough surplus to support a class of full-time craftsmen. By the reign of Béla III (1173-96), Hungary was one of the leading powers in southeastern Europe, and in the thirteenth century Hungary's nobles were trading gold, silver, copper, and iron with western Europe for luxury goods.

Until the end of the twelfth century, the king's power remained paramount in Hungary. He was the largest landowner, and income from the crown lands nearly equaled the revenues generated from mines, customs, tolls, and the mint. In the thirteenth century, however, the social structure changed, and the crown's absolute power began to wane. As the crown lands became a less important source of royal revenues, the king found it expedient to make land grants to nobles to ensure their loyalty. King Andrew II (1205-35), a profligate spender on foreign military adventures and domestic luxury, made huge land grants to nobles who fought for him. These nobles, many of whom were foreign knights, soon made up a class of magnates whose wealth and power far outstripped that of the more numerous, and predominantly Magyar, lesser nobles. When Andrew tried to meet burgeoning expenses by raising the serfs' taxes, thereby indirectly slashing the lesser nobles' incomes, the lesser nobles rebelled. In 1222 they forced Andrew to sign the Golden Bull, which limited the king's power, declared the lesser nobles (all free men not included among the great Barons or magnates) legally equal to the magnates and gave them the right to resist the king's illegal acts. The lesser nobles also began to present Andrew with grievances, a practice that evolved into the institution of the parliament, or Diet.

Andrew II's son Béla IV (1235-79) tried with little success to reestablish royal preeminence by reacquiring lost crown lands. His efforts, however, created a deep rift between the crown and the magnates just as the Mongols were sweeping westward across Russia toward Europe. Aware of the danger, Bela ordered the magnates and lesser nobles to mobilize. Few responded, and the Tatars (Mongols) routed Bela's army at the Battle of Mohi on April 11, 1241. Bela fled first to Austria, where Duke Frederick II of Babenberg held him for ransom, then to Dalmatia. The Tatars (Mongols) reduced Hungary's towns and villages to ashes and slaughtered almost half the population before news arrived in 1242 that the Great Ögedei Khan had died in Karakorum. The Tatars (Mongols) withdrew, sparing Bela and what remained of his kingdom. Another theory says, that Ögodei's death wasn't the only reason for the withdrawal of the Tatar (Mongol) Army. It is also possible that the leadership of the army realized that the campaign wasn't so successful as thought, due to the well-fortified castles and towns, and this would lead to a demoralisation soon. Therefore they decided to abort the campaign.

Bela realized that reconstruction would require the magnates' support, so he abandoned his attempts to recover former crown lands. Instead, he granted crown lands to his supporters, reorganized the army by replacing light archers with heavy cavalry, and granted the magnates concessions to redevelop their lands and construct stone-and-mortar castles that would withstand enemy sieges. Bela repopulated the country with a wave of immigrants, transforming royal castles into towns and populating them with Germans, Italians, and Jews. Mining began anew, farming methods improved, and crafts and commerce developed in the towns. After Bela's reconstruction program, the magnates, with their new fortifications, emerged as Hungary's most powerful political force. However, by the end of the thirteenth century, they were fighting each other and carving out petty principalities.

King Bela IV died in 1270, and the Árpad line expired in 1301 when Andrew III, who strove with some success to limit the magnates' power, unexpectedly died without a male heir. Anarchy characterized Hungary as factions of magnates vied for control.

[edit] Golden Era

Hungary's first two foreign kings, Charles Robert and Louis I of the House of Anjou, ruled during one of the most glorious periods in the country's history. Central Europe was at peace, and Hungary and its neighbors prospered. Charles Robert (1308-42) won the protracted succession struggle after Andrew III's death. An Árpad descendant in the female line, Charles Robert was crowned as a child and raised in Hungary. He reestablished the crown's authority by ousting disloyal magnates and distributing their estates to his supporters. Charles Robert then ordered the magnates to recruit and equip small private armies called banderia. Charles Robert ruled by decree and convened the Diet only to announce his decisions. Dynastic marriages linked his family with the ruling families of Naples and Poland and heightened Hungary's standing abroad. Under Charles Robert, the crown regained control of Hungary's mines, and in the next two centuries the mines produced more than a third of Europe's gold and a quarter of its silver. Charles Robert also introduced tax reforms and a stable currency. Charles Robert's son and successor Louis I (1342-82) maintained the strong central authority Charles Robert had amassed. In 1351 Louis issued a decree that reconfirmed the Golden Bull, erased all legal distinctions between the lesser nobles and the magnates, standardized the serfs' obligations, and barred the serfs from leaving the lesser nobles' farms to seek better opportunities on the magnates' estates. The decree also established the entail system (see Glossary). Hungary's economy continued to flourish during Louis's reign. Gold and other precious metals poured from the country's mines and enriched the royal treasury, foreign trade increased, new towns and villages arose, and craftsmen formed guilds. The prosperity fueled a surge in cultural activity, and Louis promoted the illumination of manuscripts and in 1367 founded Hungary's first university. Abroad, however, Louis fought several costly wars and wasted time, funds, and lives in failed attempts to gain for his nephew the throne of Naples. While Louis was engaged in these activates, the Ottomans made their initial inroads into the Balkans. Louis became king of Poland in 1370 and ruled the two countries for twelve years.

Sigismund (1387-37), Louis's son-in-law, won a bitter struggle for the throne after Louis died in 1382. Under Sigismund, Hungary's fortunes began to decline. Many Hungarian nobles despised Sigismund for his cruelty during the succession struggle, his long absences, and his costly foreign wars. In 1401 disgruntled nobles temporarily imprisoned the king. In 1403 another group crowned an anti-king, who failed to solidify his power but succeeded in selling Dalmatia to Venice. Sigismund failed to reclaim the territory. Sigismund became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1410 and king of Bohemia in 1419, thus requiring him to spend long periods abroad and enabling Hungary's magnates to acquire unprecedented power. In response, Sigismund created the office of palatine (see Glossary) to rule the country in his stead. Like earlier Hungarian kings, Sigismund elevated his supporters to magnate status and sold off crown lands to meet burgeoning expenses. Although Hungary's economy continued to flourish, Sigismund's expenses outstripped his income. He bolstered royal revenues by increasing the serfs' taxes and requiring cash payment. Social turmoil erupted late in Sigismund's reign as a result of the heavier taxes and renewed magnate pressure on the lesser nobles. Hungary's first peasant revolt erupted when a Transylvanian bishop ordered peasants to pay tithes in coin rather than in kind. The revolt was quickly checked, but it prompted Transylvania's Szekel, Magyar, and German nobles to form the Union of Three Nations, which was an effort to defend their privileges against any power except that of the king. Additional turmoil erupted when the Ottomans expanded their empire into the Balkans. They crossed the Bosporus Straits in 1352, subdued Bulgaria in 1388, and defeated the Serbs at Kosovo Polje in 1389. Sigismund led a crusade against them in 1396, but the Ottomans routed his forces at Nicopolis, and he barely escaped with his life. Tamerlane's invasion of Anatolia in 1402-03 slowed the Ottomans' progress for several decades, but in 1437 Sultan Murad prepared to invade Hungary. Sigismund died the same year, and Hungary's next two kings, Albrecht V of Austria (1437-39) and Wladyslaw III of Poland (1439-44), who was known in Hungary as Ulaszlo I, both died during campaigns against the Ottomans.

After Ulaszlo, Hungary's nobles chose an infant king, Laszlo V, and a regent, Janos Hunyadi, to rule the country until Laszlo V came of age. The son of a lesser nobleman of the Vlach tribe, Hunyadi rose to become a general, Transylvania's military governor, one of Hungary's largest landowners, and a war hero. He used his personal wealth and the support of the lesser nobles to win the regency and overcome the opposition of the magnates. Hunyadi then established a mercenary army funded by the first tax ever imposed on Hungary's nobles. He defeated the Ottoman forces in Transylvania in 1442 and broke their hold on Serbia in 1443, only to be routed at Varna (where Laszlo V himself perished) a year later. In 1456, when the Turkish army besieged Belgrade, Hunyadi defeated it in his greatest and final victory. Hunyadi died of the plague soon after. Some magnates resented Hunyadi for his popularity as well as for the taxes he imposed, and they feared that his sons might seize the throne from Laszlo. They coaxed the sons to return to Laszlo's court, where Hunyadi's elder son was beheaded. His younger son, Matyas, was imprisoned in Bohemia. However, lesser nobles loyal to Matyas soon expelled Laszlo. After Laszlo's death abroad, they paid ransom for Matyas, met him on the frozen Danube River, and proclaimed him king. Known as Matyas Corvinus (1458-90), he was, with one possible exception (Janos Zapolyai), the last Hungarian king to rule the country.

Although Matyas regularly convened the Diet and expanded the lesser nobles' powers in the counties, he exercised absolute rule over Hungary by means of a secular bureaucracy. Matyas enlisted 30,000 foreign mercenaries in his standing army and built a network of fortresses along Hungary's southern frontier, but he did not pursue his father's aggressive anti-Turkish policy. Instead, Matyas launched unpopular attacks on Bohemia, Poland, and Austria, pursuing an ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor and arguing that he was trying to forge a unified Western alliance strong enough to expel the Ottomans from Europe. He eliminated tax exemptions and raised the serfs' obligations to the crown to fund his court and the military. The magnates complained that these measures reduced their incomes, but despite the stiffer obligations, the serfs considered Matyas a just ruler because he protected them from excessive demands and other abuses by the magnates. He also reformed Hungary's legal system and promoted the growth of Hungary's towns. Matyas was a true renaissance man and made his court a center of humanist culture; under his rule, Hungary's first books were printed and its second university was established. Matyas' library, the Corvina, was famous throughout Europe. In his quest for the imperial throne, Matyas eventually moved to Vienna, where he died in 1490.

[edit] Jagellonian Dynasty (1490 - 1526)

Matyas's reforms did not survive the turbulent decades that followed his reign. An oligarchy of quarrelsome magnates gained control of Hungary. They crowned a docile king, Vladislav Jagiello (the Jagiellonian king of Bohemia, who was known in Hungary as Ulaszlo II, 1490-1516), only on condition that he abolish the taxes that had supported Matyas's mercenary army. As a result, the king's army dispersed just as the Turks were threatening Hungary. The magnates also dismantled Matyas's administration and antagonized the lesser nobles. In 1492 the Diet limited the serfs' freedom of movement and expanded their obligations. Rural discontent boiled over in 1514 when well-armed peasants (if they are in rebellion they are not really acting as serfs) under Gyorgy Dozsa rose up and attacked estates across Hungary. United by a common threat, the magnates and lesser nobles eventually crushed the rebels. Dozsa and other rebel leaders were executed in a most brutal manner.

Shocked by the peasant revolt, the Diet of 1514 passed laws that condemned the serfs to eternal bondage and increased their work obligations. Corporal punishment became widespread, and one noble even branded his serfs like livestock. The legal scholar Stephen Werboczy included the new laws in his Tripartitum of 1514, which made up Hungary's legal corpus until the revolution of 1848. The Tripartitum gave Hungary's king and nobles, or magnates, equal shares of power: the nobles recognized the king as superior, but in turn the nobles had the power to elect the king. The Tripartitum also freed the nobles from taxation, obligated them to serve in the military only in a defensive war, and made them immune from arbitrary arrest. The new laws weakened Hungary by deepening the rift between the nobles and the peasantry just as the Turks prepared to invade the country.

When Ulaszlo II died in 1516, his ten-year-old son Louis II (1516-26) became king, but a royal council appointed by the Diet ruled the country. Hungary was in a state of near anarchy under the magnates' rule. The king's finances were a shambles; he borrowed to meet his household expenses despite the fact that they totaled about one-third of the national income. The country's defenses sagged as border guards went unpaid, fortresses fell into disrepair, and initiatives to increase taxes to reinforce defenses were stifled. In 1521 Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent recognized Hungary's weakness and seized Belgrade in preparation for an attack on Hungary. In August 1526, he marched more than 100,000 troops into Hungary's heartland, and at Mohacs they cut down all but several hundred of the 25,000 ill-equipped soldiers whom Louis II had been able to muster for the country's defense. Louis himself died, thrown from a horse into a bog.

After Louis's death, rival factions of Hungarian nobles simultaneously elected two kings, Janos Zapolyai (1526-40) and Ferdinand (1526-64). Each claimed sovereignty over the entire country but lacked sufficient forces to eliminate his rival. Zapolyai, a Hungarian and the military governor of Transylvania, was recognized by the sultan and was supported mostly by lesser nobles opposed to new foreign kings. Ferdinand, the first Habsburg to occupy the Hungarian throne, drew support from magnates in western Hungary who hoped he could convince his brother, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to expel the Turks. In 1538 George Martinuzzi, Zapolyai's adviser, arranged a treaty between the rivals that would have made Ferdinand sole monarch upon the death of the then-childless Zapolyai. The deal collapsed when Zapolyai married and fathered a son. Violence erupted, and the Turks seized the opportunity, conquering the city of Buda and then partitioning the country in 1541.

[edit] References

Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages

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