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14: Magyar Conquest of Hungary

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WHEN Árpád, the semi-mythical founder of the Magyar monarchy, at the end of A.D. 895 led his savage hordes through the Vereczke pass into the regions of the Upper Theiss, the land, now called Hungary, was, for the most part, in the possession of Slavs, or semi-Slavs. From the Riesengebirge to the Vistula, and from the Moldau to the Drave, extended the shadowy empire of Moravia, founded by Moimir and Svatopluk (c. 850-890), which collapsed so completely at the first impact of the Magyars that, ten years after their arrival, not a trace of it remained. The Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats and Avars in the southern provinces were subdued with equal ease. Details are wanting, but the traditional decisive battle was fought at Alpár on the Theiss, whereupon the victors pressed on to Orsova, and the conquest was completed by Árpád about the year 906. This forcible intrusion of a non-Aryan race altered the whole history of Europe; but its peculiar significance lay in the fact that it permanently divided the northern from the southern and the eastern from the western Slavs. The inevitable consequence of this rupture was the Teutonizing of the western branch of the great Slav family, which, no longer able to stand alone, and cut off from both Rome and Constantinople, was forced, in self-defence, to take Christianity, and civilization along with it, from Germany.

During the following seventy years we know next to nothing of the internal history of the Magyars. Árpád died in 907, and his immediate successors, Zsolt (907-947) and Taksony (947-972), are little more than chronological landmarks. This was the period of those devastating raids which made the savage Magyar horsemen the scourge and the terror of Europe. We have an interesting description of their tactics from the pen of the emperor Leo VI., whose account of them is confirmed by the contemporary Russian annals. Trained riders, archers and javelin-throwers from infancy, they advanced to the attack in numerous companies following hard upon each other, avoiding close quarters, but wearing out their antagonists by the persistency of their onslaughts. Scarce a corner of Europe was safe from them. First (908-910) they ravaged Thüringia, Swabia and Bavaria, and defeated the Germans on the Lechfeld, whereupon the German king Henry l. bought them off for nine years, employing the respite in reorganizing his army and training cavalry, which henceforth became the principal military arm of the Empire. In 933 the war was resumed, and Henry, at the head of what was really the first national German army, defeated the Magyars at Gotha and at Reid (933). The only effect of these reverses was to divert them elsewhere. Already, in 926, they had crossed the Rhine and ravaged Lotharingia, In 934 and 942 they raided the Eastern Empire, and were bought off under the very walls of Constantinople. In 943 Taksony led them into Italy, when they penetrated as far as Otranto. In 955 they ravaged Burgundy. The same year the emperor Otto I. proclaimed them the enemies of God and humanity, refused to receive their ambassadors, and finally, at the famous battle of the Lechfeld, overwhelmed them on the very scene of their first victory, near Augsburg, which they were besieging (August 10, 955). Only seven of the Magyars escaped, and these were sold as slaves on their return home.

The catastrophe of the Lechfeld convinced the leading Magyars of the necessity of accommodating themselves as far as possible to the Empire, especially in the matter of religion. Christianity had already begun to percolate Hungary. A large proportion of the captives of the Magyars had been settled all over the country to teach their conquerors the arts of peace, and close contact with this civilizing element was of itself an enlightenment. The moral superiority of Christianity to paganism was speedily obvious. The only question was which form of Christianity were the Magyars to adopt, the Eastern or the Western ? Constantinople was the first in the field. The splendour of the imperial city profoundly impressed all the northern barbarians, and the Magyars, during the 10th century, saw a great deal of the Greeks, One Transylvanian raider, Gyula, brought back with him from Constantinople a Greek monk, Hierothus (c. 950), who was consecrated "first bishop of Turkia." Simultaneously a brisk border trade was springing up between the Greeks and the Magyars, and the Greek chapmen brought with them their religion as well as their wares. Everything at first tended to favour the propaganda of the Greek Church. But ultimately political prevailed over religious considerations. Alarmed at the sudden revival of the Eastern Empire, which under the Macedonian dynasty extended once more to the Danube, and thus became the immediate neighbour of Hungary, Duke Géza, who succeeded Taksony in 972, shrewdly resolved to accept Christianity from the more distant and therefore less dangerous emperor of the West. Accordingly, an embassy was sent to Otto II. at Quedlinburg in 973, and in 975 Géza and his whole family were baptized. During his reign, however, Hungarian Christianity did not extend much beyond the limits of his court. The nation at large was resolutely pagan, and Géza, for his own sake, was obliged to act warily. Moreover, by accepting Christianity from Germany he ran the risk of imperilling the independence of Hungary. Hence his cautious, dilatory tactics: the encouragement of Italian propagandists, who were few, the discouragement of German propagandist, who were many. Géza, in short, regarded the whole matter from a statesman's point of view, and was content to leave the solution to time and his successor.

That successor, Stephen I., was one of the great constructive statesmen of history. His long and strenuous reign (997-1038) resulted in the firm establishment of the Hungarian church and the Hungarian state. The great work may be said to have begun in 1001, when Pope Silvester II. recognized Magyar nationality by endowing the young Magyar prince with a kingly crown. Less fortunate than his great exemplar, Charlemagne, Stephen had to depend entirely upon foreigners - men like the Saxon Asztrikš (c. 976-1010), the first Hungarian primate; the Lombard St Gellért (c. 977-1046); the Bosomanns, a German family, better known under the Magyarized form of their name Pázmány, and many others who came to Hungary in the suite of his enlightened consort Gisela of Bavaria. By these men Hungary was divided into dioceses, with a metropolitan see at Esztergom (Gran), a city originally founded by Géza, but richly embellished by Stephen, whose Italian architects built for him there the first Hungarian cathedral dedicated to St Adalbert. Towns, most of them also the sees of bishops, now sprang up everywhere, including Székesfehérvár (Stuhlweissenburg), Veszprém, Pécs (Fünfkirchen) and Győr (Raab). Esztergom, Stephen's favourite residence, was the capital, and continued to be so for the next two centuries. But the Benedictines, whose settlement in Hungary dates from the establishment of their monastery at Pannonhalma (c. 1001), were the chief pioneers. Every monastery erected in the Magyar wildernesses was not only a centre of religion, but a focus of civilization. The monks cleared the forests, cultivated the recovered land, and built villages for the colonists who flocked to them, teaching the people western methods of agriculture and western arts and handicraft. But conversion, after all, was the chief aim of these devoted missionaries, and when some Venetian priests had invented a Latin alphabet for the Magyar language a great step had been taken towards its accomplishment.

The monks were soon followed by foreign husbandmen, artificers and handicraftsmen, who were encouraged to come to Hungary by reports of the abundance of good land there and the promise of privileges. This immigration was also stimulated by the terrible condition of western Europe between 987 and 1060, when it was visited by an endless succession of bad harvests and epidemics.˛ Hungary, now better known to Europe, came to be regarded as a Promised Land, and, by the end of Stephen's reign, Catholics of all nationalities, Greeks, Pagans, Jews and Mahommedans were living securely together within her borders. For, inexorable as Stephen ever was towards fanatical pagans, renegades and rebels, he was too good a statesman to inquire too closely into the private religious opinions of useful and quiet citizens.

In endeavouring, with the aid of the church, to establish his kingship on the Western model Stephen had the immense advantage of building on unencumbered ground, the greater part of the soil of the country being at his absolute disposal. His authority too, was absolute, being tempered by the shadowy right of the Magyar nation to meet in general assembly; and this authority he was careful not to compromise by any slavish imitation of that feudal polity by which in the West the royal power was becoming obscured. Although he broke off the Magyar tribal system, encouraged the private ownership of land, and even made grants of land on condition of military service - in order to secure an armed force independent of the national levy - he based his new principle of government, not on feudalism, but on the organization of the Frankish empire, which he adapted to suit the peculiar

š Ger. Ottrik, in religion Anastasius.

˛ At its worst, c. 1030-1033, cannibalism was common.


exigencies of his realm. Of the institutions thus borrowed and adapted the most notable was the famous county system which still plays so conspicuous a part in Hungarian national life. Central and western Hungary (the south and north-east still being desolate) were divided into forty-six counties (vármegyék, Lat. comitatus). At the head of each county was placed a count, or lord-lieutenantš (Főispán, Lat. comes), who nominated his subordinate officials: the castellan (várnagy), chief captain (hadnagy) and "hundredor" (százados Lat. centurio). The lord-lieutenant was nominated by the king, whom he was bound to follow to battle at the first summons. Two-thirds of the revenue of the county went into the royal treasury, the remaining third the lord-lieutenant retained for administrative purposes. In the county system were included all the inhabitants of the country save two classes: the still numerous pagan clans, and those nobles who were attached to the king's person, from whom he selected his chief officers of state and the members of his council, of which we now hear for the first time.

It is significant for the whole future of Hungary that no effort was or could be made by Stephen to weld the heterogeneous races under his crown into a united nation. The body politic consisted, after as before, of the king and the whole mass of Magyar freemen or nobles, descendants of Árpád's warriors, theoretically all equal in spite of growing inequalities of wealth and power, who constituted the populus; privileges were granted by the king to foreign immigrants in the cities, and the rights of nobility were granted to non-Magyars for special services; but, in general, the non-Magyars were ruled by the royal governors as subject races, forming-in contradistinction to the "nobles" - the mass of the peasants, the misera contribuens plebs upon whom until 1848 nearly the whole burden of taxation fell. The right, not often exercised, of the Magyar nobles to meet in general assembly and the elective character of the crown Stephen also did not venture to touch. On the other hand, his example in manumitting most of his slaves, together with the precepts of the church, practically put an end to slavery in the course of the 13th century, the slaves becoming for the most part serfs, who differed from the free peasants only in the fact that they were attached to the soil (adscripti glebae).

At this time all the conditions of life in Hungary were simple and primitive. The court itself was perambulatory. In summer the king dispensed justice in the open air, under a large tree. Only in the short winter months did he dwell in the house built for him at Esztergom by his Italian architects. The most valuable part of his property still consisted of flocks and herds, or the products of the labours of his serfs, a large proportion of whom were bee-keepers, hunters and fishers employed in and around the interminable virgin-forests of the rough-hewn young monarchy.

A troubled forty years (1038-1077) divides the age of St Stephen from the age of St Ladislaus. Of the six kings who reigned in Hungary during that period three died violent deaths, and the other three were fighting incessantly against foreign and domestic foes. In 1046, and again in 1061, two dangerous pagan risings shook the very foundations of the infant church and state; the western provinces were in constant danger from the attacks of the acquisitive emperors, and from the south and southeast two separate hordes of fierce barbarians (the Petchenegs in 1067-1068, and the Kumanians in 1071-1072) burst over the land. It was the general opinion abroad that the Magyars would either relapse into heathendom or become the vassals of the Holy Roman Empire, and this opinion was reflected in the increasingly hostile attitude of the popes towards the Árpád kings. The political independence of Hungary was ultimately secured by the outbreak of the quarrel about investiture (1076), when Géza I. (1074-1077) shrewdly applied to Pope Gregory VII. for assistance, and submitted to accept his kingdom from him as a fief of the Holy See. The immediate result of the papal alliance was to enable Hungary, under both Ladislaus and his capable successor Coloman [Kálmán] (1095-1116), to hold her own against all her enemies, and extend her dominion abroad by conquering Croatia and a portion of the Dalmatian coast. As an incipient great power, she was beginning to feel the need of a seaboard.

In the internal administration both Ladislaus I. and Coloman approved themselves worthy followers of St Stephen. Ladislaus planted large Petcheneg colonies in Transylvania and the trans-Dravian provinces, and established military cordons along the constantly threatened south-eastern boundary, the germs of the future banates˛ (bánságok) which were to play such an important part in the national defence in the following century. Law and order were enforced with the utmost rigour. In that rough age crimes of violence predominated, and the king's justiciars regularly perambulated the land in search of offenders, and decimated every village which refused to surrender fugitive criminals. On the other hand, both the Jews and the "Ishmaelites" (Mahommedans) enjoyed complete civil and religious liberty in Hungary, where, indeed, they were too valuable to be persecuted, The Ishmaelites, the financial experts of the day, were the official mint-masters,

š The English title of lord-lieutenant is generally used as the best translation of Főispán or comes (in this connexion). The title of count (gróf) was assumed later (15th century) by those nobles who had succeeded, in spite of the Golden Bull, in making their authority over whole counties independent and hereditary.

˛ The bán is equivalent to the margrave, or count of the marches.


treasurers and bankers. The clergy, the only other educated class, supplied the king with his lawyers, secretaries and ambassadors. The Magyar clergy was still a married clergy and their connubial privileges were solemnly confirmed by the synod of Szabolcs, presided over by the king, in 1092. So firmly rooted in the land was this practice, that Coloman, much as he needed the assistance of the Holy See in his foreign policy, was only with the utmost difficulty induced, in 1106, to bring the Hungarian church into line with the rest of the Catholic world by enforcing clerical celibacy. Coloman was especially remarkable as an administrative reformer, and Hungary, during his reign, is said to have been the best-governed state in Europe. He regulated and simplified the whole system of taxation, encouraged agriculture by differential duties in favour of the farmers, and promoted trade by a systematic improvement of the ways of communication. The Magna via Colomanni Regis was in use for centuries after his death. Another important reform was the law permitting the free disposal of landed estate, which gave the holders an increased interest in their property, and an inducement to improve it. During the reign of Coloman, moreover, the number of freemen was increased by the frequent manumission of serfs. The lot of the slaves was also somewhat ameliorated by the law forbidding their exportation.

Throughout the greater part of the 12th century the chief impediment in the way of the external development of the Hungarian monarchy was the Eastern Empire, which under the first three princes of the Comnenian dynasty, dominated south-eastern Europe. During the earlier part of that period the Magyars competed on fairly equal terms with their imperial rivals for the possession of Dalmatia, Rascia (the original home of the Servians, situated between Bosnia, Dalmatia and Albania) and Ráma or northern Bosnia (acquired by Hungary in 1135): but on the accession of Manuel Comnenus in 1143 the struggle became acute. As the grandson of St Ladislaus, Manuel had Hungarian blood in his veins; his court was the ready and constant refuge of the numerous Magyar malcontents, and he aimed not so much at the conquest as at the suzerainty of Hungary, by placing one of his Magyar kinsmen on the throne of St Stephen. He successfully supported the claims of no fewer than three pretenders to the Magyar throne, and finally made Béla III. (1173-1196) king of Hungary, on condition that he left him, Manuel, a free hand in Dalmatia. The intervention of the Greek emperors had important consequences for Hungary. Politically it increased the power of the nobility at the expense of the crown, every competing pretender naturally endeavouring to win adherents by distributing largess in the shape of crownlands. Ecclesiastically it weakened the influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary, the Greek Orthodox Church, which permitted a married clergy and did not impose the detested tithe (the principal cause of nearly every pagan revolt) attracting thousands of adherents even among the higher clergy. At one time, indeed, a Magyar archbishop and four or five bishops openly joined the Orthodox communion and willingly crowned Manuel's nominees despite the anathemas of their Catholic brethren.

The Eastern Empire ceased to be formidable on the death of Manuel (1080), and Hungary was free once more to pursue a policy of aggrandizement. In Dalmatia the Venetians were too strong for her; but she helped materially to break up the Byzantine rule in the Balkan peninsula by assisting Stephen Nemanya to establish an independent Servian kingdom, originally under nominal Hungarian suzerainty. Béla endeavoured to strengthen his own monarchy by introducing the hereditary principle, crowning his infant son Emerich as his successor during his own lifetime, a practice followed by most of the later Árpáds; he also held a brilliant court on the Byzantine model, and replenished the treasury by his wise economies.

Unfortunately the fruits of his diligence and foresight were dissipated by the follies of his two immediate successors, Emerich (1196-1204) and Andrew II., who weakened the royal power in attempting to win support by lavish grants of the crown domains on the already over-influential magnates, a policy from which dates the supremacy of the semisavage Magyar oligarchs, that insolent and self-seeking class which would obey no superior and trampled ruthlessly on every inferior. The most conspicuous event of Andrew's reign was the promulgation in 1222 of the so-called Golden Bull, which has aptly been called the Magna Carta of Hungary, and is in some of its provisions strikingly reminiscent of that signed seven years previously by the English king John.

The Golden Bull has been described as consecrating the humiliation of the crown by the great barons, whose usurpations it legalized; the more usually accepted view, however is that it was directed not so much to weakening as to strengthening the crown by uniting its interests with those of the mass of the Magyar nobility, equally threatened by the encroachments of the great barons. The preamble, indeed, speaks of the curtailment of the liberties of the nobles by the power of certain of the kings, and at the end the right of armed resistance to any attempt to infringe the charter is conceded to "the bishops and the higher and lower nobles" of the realm; but, for the rest, its contents clearly show that it was intended to strengthen the monarchy by ensuring"that the momentary folly or weakness of the king should not endanger the institution itself." This is especially clear from clause xvi., which decrees that the title and estates of the lords-lieutenant of counties should not be hereditary, thus attacking feudalism at its very roots, while clause xiv. provides for the degradation of any lord-lieutenant who should abuse his office. On the other hand, the principle of the exemption of all the nobles from taxation is confirmed as well as their right to refuse military service abroad, the defence of the realm being their sole obligation. All nobles were also to have the right to appear at the court which was to be held once a year at Székesfehérvár, by the king, or in his absence by the palatine, for the purpose of hearing causes. A clause also guarantees all nobles against arbitrary arrest and punishment at the instance of any powerful person.

This famous charter, which was amplified, under the influence of the clergy, in 1231 when its articles were placed under the guardianship of the archbishop of Esztergom (who was authorized to punish their violation by the king with excommunication), is generally regarded as the foundation of Hungarian constitutional liberty, though like Magna Carta it purported only to confirm immemorial rights; and as such it was expressly ratified as a whole in the coronation oaths of all the Habsburg kings from Ferdinand to Leopold I. Its actual effect in the period succeeding its issue was, however, practically nugatory, if indeed it did not actually give a new handle to the subversive claims of the powerful barons.

Béla IV. (1235-1270), the last man of genius whom the Árpáds produced, did something to curb the aristocratic misrule which was to be one of the determining causes of the collapse of his dynasty. But he is best known as the regenerator of the realm after the cataclysm of 1241-1242. On his return from exile, after the subsidence of the Tatár deluge, he found his kingdom in ashes; and his two great remedies, wholesale immigration and castle-building only sowed the seeds of fresh disasters. Thus the Kumanian colonists, mostly pagans whom he settled in vast numbers on the waste lands, threatened to overwhelm the Christian population; while the numerous strongholds, which he encouraged his nobles to build as a protection against future Tatár invasions, subsequently became so many centres of disloyalty. To bind the Kumanian still more closely to his dynasty, Béla married his son Stephen V. (1270-1272) to a Kumanian girl, and during the reign of her son Ladislaus IV. (1272-1290) the court was certainly more pagan than Christian. Valiant and enterprising as both these princes were (Stephen successfully resisted the aggressions of the brilliant "golden King," Ottakar II. of Bohemia, and Ladislaus materially contributed to his utter overthrow at Durnkrüt in 1278), neither of them was strong enough to make head against the disintegrating influences all around them. Stephen contrived to hold his own by adroitly contracting an alliance with the powerful Neapolitan Angevins who had the ear of the pope but Ladislaus was so completely caught in the toils of the Kumanians, that the Holy See the suzerain of Hungary, was forced to intervene to prevent the relapse of the kingdom into barbarism, and the unfortunate Ladislaus perished in the crusade that was preached against him. An attempt of a patriotic party to keep the last Árpád, Andrew III. (1290-1301), on the throne was only temporarily successful, and after a horrible eight years' civil war (1301-1308) the crown of St Stephen finally passed into the capable hands of Charles Robert of Naples.

During the four hundred years of the Árpád dominion the nomadic Magyar race had established itself permanently m central Europe, adopted western Christianity and founded a national monarchy on the western model. Hastily and violently converted, driven like a wedge between the Eastern and the Western Empires, the young kingdom was exposed from the first to extraordinary perils. But, under the guidance of a series of eminent rulers, it successfully asserted itself alike against pagan reaction from within, and aggressive pressure from without, and, as it grew in strength and skill, expanded territorially at the expense of all its neighbours. These triumphs were achieved while the monarchy was absolute and thus able to concentrate in its hands all the resources of the state, but towards the end of the period a political revolution began. The weakness and prodigality of the later Árpáds the depopulation of the realm during the Tatár invasion, the infiltration of western feudalism and, finally the endless civil discords of the 13th century, brought to the front a powerful and predacious class of barons who ultimately overshadowed the throne. The ancient county system was gradually absorbed by this new governing element. The ancient royal tenants became the feudatories of the great nobles, and fell naturally into two classes the nobiles bene possessionati, and the nobiles unius sessionis, in other words the richer and the poorer gentry. We cannot trace the gradations of this political revolution, but we know that it met with determined opposition from the crown, which resulted in the utter destruction of the Árpáds, who, while retaining to the last their splendid physical qualities, now exhibited unmistakable signs of moral deterioration, partly due perhaps to their too frequent marriages with semi-Oriental Greeks and semi-savage Kumanians. On the other hand the great nobles were the only class who won for themselves a recognized political position. The tendency towards a representative system of government had begun but the almost uninterrupted anarchy which marked the last thirty years of the Árpád rule was no favourable time for constitutional development. The kings were fighting for their lives, the great nobles were indistinguishable from brigands and the whole nation seemed to be relapsing into savagery.


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