6: The Fleur-de-lis and the Raven
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In the spring of 1300, the head of the Neapolitan I branch of the fleur-de-lis
House of Anjou, Charles (the Lame) II, the King of Naples and Sicily, and the "Cuman
woman", Elizabeth, prepared his first grandson, Charles Robert, to go to Hungary. He
obtained a bank loan in Florence for the first but not the last time. His family worries
were not negligible: we know of thirteen of his children who reached adulthood, with a
host of grandchildren; he had many whose future he had to see to.
On January 14, 1301, Andrew III of the House of Árpád died. In early spring, the
crown rested on Charles Robert's head through the good offices of the Archbishop of
Esztergom. However, it was not the authentic crown, for that one was not in the possession
of the Anjou faction. The Archbishop of Kalocsa bedecked the Bohemian heir to the throne,
Wenceslas, with that crown in August in Székesfehérvár. The latter, if we are correct,
was twelve at the time. Charles Robert was older -by a whole year.
The next decade was continually filled with bitter strife for the throne, with the Holy
Crown, meanwhile, turning up here and there (on the brow of Otto III, the Prince of
Bavaria, for example). Charles Robert was crowned a second time in 1309, but still not
with the Holy Crown; the final, truly legally binding coronation did not take place until
A panorama of Europe in the first decade of the fourteenth century... In France, it was
the period of Philip IV of the House of Capet; the king crushed and dispatched to die at
the stake the Knights Templar with whom, as with bankers, he had gone into heavy debt; he
struggled with the papacy until his follower, the former Archbishop of Bordeaux, Clement
V, transferred the seat of the papacy to Avignon ("the Babylonian captivity").
In England, Edward I wanted to acquire Flanders and Edward II, Scotland, in vain; the
despotism of retainers replaced early parliamentarianism. On German soil, the ever more
fictional "Holy Roman Empire", the institution of the prince-elector created a
new form of power division and concentration; meanwhile, the Habsburgs, forced out from
Switzerland but ambitious, were now only casting an eye toward the German-Austrian
provinces. On the Iberian Peninsula, the Moors, having been driven out, tried in vain time
and again to strike back. In Scandinavia, hardly anything that could affect Europe was
happening. In Northern Italy, the city-states, despite the struggles going on within each
and against each other, embraced an enormous economic power among themselves in both
capital and control over commercial activity, and their economic position weakened only
after the discovery of America. On Bohemian soil, despite constant political confusion,
strong economic development took place in mining and textile industries. Poland was
dismembered at that time, too, and it remained at the mercy of the Teutonic Knights for a
long time. In Rumania, the Tatar invasion not only brought about years of destruction, it
also put Moldavia under the rule of the Golden Horde for nearly a century. On Russian
soil, the rebuke of the Teutonic Knights was successful but futile; after the destruction
of Kiev, smaller principalities could exist only under Tatar supremacy, among which first
the principality of Vladimir and then of Muscovy became powerful; in the western parts,
large territories were in the hands of the Poles and Lithuanians. Byzantium was in its
death throes; the Ottoman Turks had finally bitten off Asia Minor. In all of Europe
-though toward the east to a diminishing degree- the development of cities and the
increasing power of their middle class were apparent.
Did the fact that with the House of Anjou, a western dynasty extended its rule over the
Carpathian Basin for nearly a century, represent a new stage in the Hungarians'
incorporation into Europe? Or are we, by some chance, to interpret this differently? For,
after all, did not the two Anjou kings, Charles Robert and Louis the Great, extend
Hungarian influence instead, almost to every point of the compass? What occurred can be
viewed either way. It is certain, however, that both of them depended on the sheltered
Carpathian Basin and its human and economic resources. Alongside this fact, their line of
descent was secondary.
Charles Robert, even after his third and final coronation, had to gird his loins
against petty monarchs for a long time. Some oligarchies had as much economic and military
power individually as he did. Fortunately for him, his adversaries' were not able to form
lasting coalitions. And they also slaughtered one another.
Charles Robert's greatest political achievement was the Central European "summit
meeting" held in 1335 at Visegrád in the sumptuous Gothic palace which he developed
on the bank of the Danube and which was protected by a powerful citadel and riverside
fortifications. In addition to the Polish and Bohemian kings, the heads of several
important principalities and a delegation from the Teutonic Knights attended the session.
Among their far-reaching agreements, the one on economics was the most important. In it,
they mapped out new roads and extended mutual advantages to one another. These were to the
detriment of Vienna, whose title to staple rights harmed them all.
But how could the Anjou king who headed for the Hungarian throne from Naples with a
loan from Florentine bankers have such prestige in economic matters with his neighbors to
the north? Well, at the beginning of the fourteenth century, mining and metallurgy
continued to thrive in Hungary, especially the production of precious metals. As a result
of the organization of customs stations, precious metal exchanges, and mints, the king
became ever less dependent on the less reliable income provided by his landed estates.
Charles Robert, at the town of Körmöcbánya (Kremnica), which he founded, began to mint
that fleur-de-lis gold florin which thereafter retained such a stable value that it was
recognized by its name, Körmöc gold, throughout Europe for five centuries as one of the
strongest currencies. It was a veritable standard of measurement. Thus three hundred years
after Saint Stephen a Hungarian monarch again succeeded -one can say for the second and
last time- in issuing money that was well received in the international money market.
Charles Robert's son, Louis (the Great) I, during the four decades of his reign
(1342-1382), turned the accumulated economic capital to the uses of power. In the south,
he more or less maintained control over Croatia and Dalmatia, and he renewed his efforts
to keep Naples in the family's possession. In the southeast and east, he exercised feudal
control along the Lower Danube. In the north, he inherited the Polish throne. The west was
the only area where he could not extend the borders of his empire (which the lands under
his authority could be called by now). In sighs of nostalgia we can occasionally hear even
today: this was that beautiful period "when three seas washed the borders of
Hungary" (the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Adriatic). But irrespective of how
illusory it was to call Hungarian this realm where the Polish throne involved only the
person of Louis the Great and thus only a personal union linked Poland to Hungary, and,
further, how shaky were the rest of the conquests with respect to feudal bonds (not to
mention that at the time, the Polish kingdom did not extend to the Baltic Sea or even have
access to it, since the Teutonic Knights ruled its shores)-in the light of this it is more
proper to judge Louis the Great not on the amount of territory he ruled but on the actual
accomplishments of his reign.
Undoubtedly, the economic power he inherited from his father was more than enough to
carry on his military campaigns. The management of affairs improved in his court, and the
results achieved in the Italian city-states, so advanced at this time, filtered through to
it. Also, Hungarian culture, which was then still strongly ecclesiastical in character but
whose laicization pointed toward the Renaissance, derived significant benefits from the
king's extensive international connections. Historians, miniaturists, architects,
sculptors, and goldsmiths worked on his commissions. If only because he was preparing for
the marriages of his three daughters, he had to make himself known in the courts of
Europe. But when he died without a male heir, the fragility and high cost of his
achievements quickly surfaced. It was mainly the tragic defense of the throne of Naples
-deserving again only a Shakespeare's pen- that extracted a great price. On one of his
journeys to Naples, Louis the Great carried gold coins equal to Hungary's six, and
Europe's two years of gold production, with countless silver pieces piled atop them. From
the Hungarian viewpoint, almost all this treasure went up in smoke.
His daughter, the eleven-year-old Maria (1382-1395), succeeded to the Hungarian throne.
Two years later, the ten-year-old Hedwig followed her father to the Polish throne. Later
on, the two sisters shared their rule with their husbands. In 1387, at age sixteen, Maria
took as joint ruler Sigismund of Luxemburg, the Margrave of Brandenburg. However, this
event did not impede the decline. A rival king and his murder, oligarchical conspiracies,
the imprisonment of the queen and her mother, the throttling of the latter, Maria's escape
-the chaos lasted for years. When the young, twenty-four-year-old queen broke her neck in
a fall from her horse, Sigismund had been the real ruler of the land for years and
remained so for the next forty-two years. However, during a reign that spanned exactly
half a century, he staved off only the severest fate, not deterioration. All the less so
because -together with his brother, Wenceslas, who ascended the Bohemian throne-church
concerns occupied his attention excessively: the Hussite wars and the anti-popes.
In the meantime, Sigismund fought two battles against the Ottoman sultan, the ravager
of Byzantium rising high on its ruins, who was approaching the soft underbelly of Europe,
the Balkans, as a dynamic conqueror. He lost both battles. This was sinister omen.
Sigismund's successors to the throne deserved, at least for a while, very little
attention. In the southern borderlands, however, in the ever-increasing battles with the
Turks, a general emerged who stamped his own individuality on the age more effectively
than its crowned kings. With respect to his origin, János Hunyadi is held to be Rumanian
-though his father's name was Vajk, an ancient Hungarian name -and he was also regarded as
Sigismund's natural son. This is of little concern to us. His deeds qualify him. From a
warrior of low rank he was to become the most eminent general of fifteenth-century Europe.
At the end of his life, he owned two million hectares of landed estates. He spent his
income almost exclusively on battles with the Turks. We shall not mention at this time all
the battles he won and lost; let us merely recall why the bells ring.
In 1456, three years after he captured Constantinople, Sultan Mohammed II encamped and
set off to besiege Nándorfehérvár (today's Belgrade). Hunyadi's relief army was a
mixture of three elements. To the side of his mercenaries and the insurgent nobles,
utilizing the lasting or rather the newly reviving aura of the Crusades, he also dared
call to arms the common people, who had more than once rebelled against their lords. In
the recruitment of Crusaders and then through all the battle engagements, Hunyadi's right
arm was an impassioned Franciscan friar of strict morals, Giovanni Capistrano, who was
The Christian army gained a decisive victory. The wounded sultan was rescued half-dead
from the battle by his guards. This triumph at Nándorfehérvár turned back for nearly a
century the Ottoman expansion threatening Europe. This was an enormous advantage. It
awaited exploitation. But often, only bells ring.
In Christian churches throughout the world (except in America), the pealing of the
bells at noon still reminds people of the victory János Hunyadi achieved on July 22,
1456. According to one version, Pope Calixtus issued the decree. Actually, he issued this
decree earlier and for another purpose. The pope had already given instructions on June 29
to ring the bells as a plea to the powers above to decide in our favor the impending
battle, which he considered vital to Christianity. Still, the previous version is not
totally false. For, as the pealing of the bells at noon turned from an occasional into a
lasting event, a role was played in that transition by the universal joy that reigned
after the battle, the celebration of victory.
However, barely a couple of weeks after the battle, the bells rang again for János
Hunyadi: the death knell. The plague that broke out in the encampment carried him off too.
That fall Giovanni Capistrano also died. The loss of the two forgers of the victory again
plunged the country into anarchy. Two influential families vied for power around the weak
king, and in one of the "episodes" of this war of changing fortunes, the king
had János Hunyadi's eldest son, László, beheaded in 1457. It was a dreadful scene.
During the public execution arranged with the assistance of the court, the executioner
struck the youth's neck three times, but he remained alive. According to the custom of the
age, he therefore had the right to an amnesty. Ladislas V, however, who was seventeen but
already a debauched, neurotic lout, gave the signal: László Hunyadi was thrown down, and
at the fourth blow his head fell to the ground. Fleeing, the king went off to Vienna and
then to Prague. He dragged with him the younger son, Mátyás (Matthias) Hunyadi, as
hostage. Do we see the hand of fate in the fact that the plague also disposed of Ladislas
V in the fall of the very same year?
His successor was the hostage himself who quickly regained his freedom. In a romantic
manner, the lesser nobility encamped in Pest chose Matthias Hunyadi Corvinus (1458-1490)
as king below the castle on the ice in the middle of the frozen Danube, though hard
bargaining preceded it at a session in the castle with the bands of nobles who held the
country in their hands and were competing with each other.
The country had a national king once again, if this notion could have such a meaning at
that time. Although the Hunyadi family acted as a guardian over the fifteen-year-old king
for a couple of years, the young Matthias quickly proved deserving of the family's
heraldic bird, the raven, which common belief considered to be a powerful and wise bird.
Today, we most frequently mention Matthias's Renaissance court: its brilliance, richness,
and soaring spirit. Italian tastes again transformed the Buda Castle and the palace at
Visegrád, indeed, the entire country, so extensively that we can speak not only about
imitation but about influences at work in both directions during the time. For instance,
Janus Pannonius, raised in Italy and later Bishop of Pécs, was well known for his lyric
poetry in Latin at all European centers of humanism. We know a great deal, relatively
speaking, about this period, if for no other reason than that a good many leading
humanists frequently turned up at Matthias's court, and some of them even settled there.
His library, the Bibliotheca Corviniana, apparently developed into the best
collection in Europe, but was, in any case, the first among the newly founded libraries.
Modern managerial practices controlled and imposed taxes on the Hungarian economy. The
core of the army -since Matthias had to pledge to order the nobility to take up arms only
as a last resort- was the mercenary military force, the Black Army.
At first, Matthias wanted to continue his father's war in the Balkans against the
Turks. But with his face to the east, he did not feel his back was secure. He competed for
the thrones of both Bohemia and Austria: he wished to found a strong and powerful Danubian
kingdom, in other words, an empire. However, his forces sometimes succeeded, sometimes
failed in battle. And his marriages were unsuccessful. After the Bohemian Catherine of
Podebrad, Beatrice of Naples was also childless. The latter -the suspicion is strong- was,
perhaps, her husband's murderer. Either a sudden stomach ailment or a poisoned fig killed
Matthias, while he was attempting to guarantee succession to the throne for his natural
son, John Corvin, born of a Viennese commoner, and wanted to make him a prince and obtain
estates and to muster supporters for him.
Matthias prepared against the Turks for decades in vain; he conducted most of his
military campaigns not in the Balkans but in the north and west. "The proud bastion
of Vienna groaned under the onslaught of Matthias's ferocious army", a poet still
sang centuries later. However, Matthias lost what he wanted to achieve by this means. The
power to be aligned against the danger from the east, against the rising Ottoman crescent,
diminished instead of increasing.
Posterity mourned him and elevated him into a folk hero in its legends. Matthias was
the Just One, who, walking the land in disguise, condemned fraudulent judges, shamed the
greedy rich, and succored the poor; he made love to full-blooded shepherdesses and
Among the succession of pretenders to the throne who thronged eagerly, made lavish
promises, and mustered armies to support their claims, Hungarian oligarches, who had
gained new power even before the death of Matthias, sent John Corvin packing and
considered the Bohemian king, Wladislas II (1490-1516), of the House of Jagiello, to be
more under their control. Wladislas even secretly married the widow, Beatrice, while the
throne was not yet secure (at a later date, he considered this union void because, he
said, he was forced into the marriage). This much more about him: he docilely disbanded
the main support of the throne, the Black Army. With centralized power gone, the
precariousness of the law, the oppression of the serfs, and feudal anarchy weighed heavily
on the country.
Again we come upon an age marked not by a king's name but first by a highly ambitious
priest's, later by a popular hero's, and finally by a fanatical jurist's. Tamás Bakócz,
the offspring of serf -he was Bishop of Györ and Eger, and then Archbishop of Esztergom
-was a true Renaissance figure. He was first Matthias's secretary, but later Wladislas's
all-powerful deputy. Bakócz proceeded to Rome with wagons fully loaded with gold; he
waited very patiently for the death of Julianus II, the great patron of the arts and
Michelangelo's backer. At the conclave he was narrowly defeated by Giovanni De' Medici,
who mounted the papal throne as Leo X. To compensate him for the failure and to get rid of
him at the Vatican, the new pope granted Bakócz the right to announce a Crusade.
In Hungary, recruitment commenced, the army grew, predominantly with peasants. Swords
were scarce, straightened scythes and flails abundant. Bakócz aimed at the papacy. The
king hoped to gain a small military success, the nobles to clear the air. The people were
driven by bitterness and not by faith or by zeal against the Turks. And it was not only
the poorest and most defenseless serfs who were bitter. It was precisely the more united,
the more well-to-do serfs living in the boroughs of the Alföld, those who were already
engaged in exports in addition to the production of goods that the nobles -almost as if
they were competitor- attempted to force back. Thus they had more than just their chains
Surprisingly, the leader of the Christian armies was not some secular or church
potentate, but a member of the lesser nobility in Transylvania, a Székely lieutenant,
György Dózsa. The most zealous recruiters and administrators of his armies were the
monks who belonged to a branch of the Franciscan order that followed the strictest
regulations, the Observants. Most of them were of peasant origin. In their view, the laws
of God did not support unequal distribution of property. Later, the highest church
authorities launched an investigation against them, and they reprimanded and punished
them. Still later, the first Hungarian Protestant ministers came from their ranks.
1514. The armies mobilized under the Sign of the Cross took arms not against the
heathens but against their noble lords. All four corners of the country burst into flames.
A bloodbath began. The manor houses of the nobility were ablaze, the magnates withdrew
into their castles, where they were besieged and prepared to counterattack. John
Szapolyai, the voivode of Transylvania -he was already a most powerful noble at the time
of Matthias, and a major figure among the lesser nobility- was the military leader who
suppressed the peasant revolt. He had Dózsa arrested -who had only gradually become the
intentional leader of the popular insurrection. He had him seated on a red-hot throne as
"King of the Peasants", had a burning-hot iron crown placed on his head, and
forced his lieutenants to eat of his flesh.
This was only the first act of vengeance. István Werböczi, the jurist, composed his Tripartitum
(Hármaskönyv). This treatise marked out for centuries the frame work of the
relations between the serfs and the nobility. It is appropriate for us to note that, as a
result of the high nobility's counter-interests, the Tripartitum, which favored
mainly the interests of the lesser nobility, never formally achieved the force of law.
Still, on the basis of custom, it became a determinative source of law, although life is
always more powerful than law. The severity of Werböczi's work dictated by the nobles'
vengeance could not be effective on a broad scale. It sought to bind the serfs to the soil
in vain. Speaking relatively, it could not prevent their free migration.
Today, the name of Tamás Bakócz is mainly remembered by historians and by art
historians through the Bakócz Chapel in Esztergom. Dózsa and Werböczi, having become
symbols of antagonism, remain fixed to this day in the consciousness of the nation.
Only nowadays can we truly measure how rich the Gothic art of the Angevin period in
Hungary was. This knowledge is due, in part, to destruction. During the course of rapid
changes in taste in the fifteenth century and enthusiastic reconstruction, a whole series
of Gothic masterpieces wound up below the surface of the earth, under the ruins -no doubt
through acts of barbarism. In the magnificent Renaissance royal palace at Visegrád,
archaeologists dug up from the Angevin period ornamental carvings, broken into small
fragments, belonging to the foundations of the fountain structure dating from the age of
Matthias Corvinus; in the Castle of Buda, their spades unearthed a veritable cemetery of
statues from the Angevin period.
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