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3: The Foreign Kings

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THE extinction of the old national dynasty with Andrew III's death altered its conditions of existence for the Hungarian state. Under its own interpretation of the position, the right of electing its new king had now reverted to the nation, whose freedom of choice was in theory unlimited; there was no theoretical bar to its setting one of its own members over it. But a firmly-implanted European usage had by this time come to limit the enjoyment of royal dignity to those who could show some hereditary title to it, most of these persons belonging to a small clique - into which the Árpáds themselves had levered themselves - of interrelated families of, as it were, professional royalties. It would have required a strong man, with a united nation behind him, to defy a well-supported claim from a member of one of these families, and the Hungarians, too, admitted the compulsive virtue of the blood-tie. They themselves confined their search to persons in whose veins the blood of the Árpáds ran, at least through some maternal forbear, who could continue the line - the line, not an individual, for the choice once made, the principle of legitimacy came into operation again. It was the singular misfortune of the country that for over two centuries after 1301, only one king died leaving behind him legitimate male issue. This meant that except in the one case in question, and in the two others where peculiar circumstances resulted, after all, in the election of a national king, their chosen ruler always came from some foreign, and foreign-based, dynasty. In fact, until the sixteenth century, when the Crown became permanently vested in the Habsburg dynasty, it was worn (transitory and disputed cases apart) by two Angevins, one Luxemburger, one Habsburg and three Jagiellos; with, intervening, two national kings, one of whom ruled only in part of the country.

To have a foreign king was by no means always an unmixed disadvantage for Hungary. Fresh ideas and institutions were sometimes brought in which fructified and enriched the political, social, cultural and economic life of the country, and without which it might well have failed to keep pace with the general advance of the contemporary Europe towards a higher level of civilisation. It is true that the Hungarians did not always relish these innovations, and often bound the monarch of their choice by strict capitulations to respect their own hardly-won and cherished national institutions. Their ability to do this - an outcome, strictly speaking, of the electoral nature of the Crown, not of the fact that the candidate was usually a foreigner - was a main reason why, for good or ill (and the advantages did not lie all on one side), Hungary throughout her history was able to preserve her native features in a larger degree than most other European countries. But the central issue was nearly always that of power, in relation to the international situation. A monarch disposing of resources of his own could be hoped to use them for the country's benefit, and especially for its defence; it was this calculation which more than once determined the national choice. On the other hand, a too powerful monarch, the centre of whose power and interests alike lay outside Hungary, might too easily use those resources, not to develop the country's national life, but to crush it, and to squander its own resources in the pursuit of his private, extra-Hungarian, objectives. The balance of advantage and disadvantage, in this respect, swayed uneasily throughout the centuries with the fluctuations of the international power-position and the personality of the ruler. Under many of its foreign rulers, and almost continuously after the Crown became stabilised in the house of Habsburg, the central problem of the country's whole political life was whether the benefits brought by foreign rule outweighed its disadvantages; and on this question opinion in the country was eternally divided, up to the last day of Habsburg rule.

These considerations were not yet apparent in the first years after Andrew's death. What happened then was simply that the dynastic rivalry of ten years before broke out again in modernised form, the Angevin candidate, whom the Pope supported, being now Charles Martell's son, the boy, Charles Robert; the Czech, another boy, Wenceslas III, for whom his father stood sponsor. This time Albrecht of Habsburg did not claim the throne for himself, contenting himself with supporting Charles Robert. Charles Robert, Wenceslas and Otto of Bavaria all had their partisans inside Hungary, and at first Charles Robert's party was the weakest of all. Both Wenceslas and Otto were in turn crowned, and Charles Robert's supporters could only give him a symbolic coronation, with a substitute crown(1). But in a few years his rivals gave up the struggle in disgust. On 20 August 1310 he was crowned again, this time in due form, and thereafter his rule was not seriously opposed from abroad. He still, indeed, had many opponents among the 'kinglets', but he was able to win most of them over by diplomacy, and in 1312 won a crushing victory at Rozgony over the chief of the remaining malcontents, the Amadés and the Csáks. This victory re-established the royal authority on a firm footing; the only internal trouble which he had to face thereafter was in reality only half internal, fomented by Venice.

Charles Robert was undoubtedly favoured by the international situation, which, with Germany distraught by the conflict between Empire and Papacy, the Tatars grown passive in the east and the power of Byzantium in full decay, was more favourable than ever before or since to the independent development of the states of east-central Europe. It is no accident that Poland, Bohemia, Hungary and Serbia should all look back on the fourteenth century as the age of their greatest glory. As these conditions favoured Hungary's neighbours, as well as herself, Charles Robert's attempts at expansion were only moderately successful. He made Bosnia his friend and client, but Venice snatched South Dalmatia from him, Serbia, the Bánát of Macsó, and the newly-founded 'Voivody' of Wallachia disputed Szörény with him and in 1330 inflicted a heavy defeat on his arms. Against this, he drove the Austrian and Czech marauders out of his land, and, on the whole, preserved friendly relations with Poland, Bohemia and Austria.

The latter part of his reign was in the main peaceful and marked by a steadily increasing prosperity, the lion's share of which accrued to the king himself.

One of the chief props of his power was the wealth which he derived from the gold mines of Transylvania and north Hungary, the production of which he stimulated by a number of sensible devices. Eventually it reached the remarkable figure of 3,000 lb. of gold annually - one third of the total production of the world as then known, and five times as much as that of any other European state. Some 30-40 per cent of this accrued to the Crown as revenue and enabled Charles Robert, first of all Hungarian kings, to introduce a systematic fiscal policy. He renounced the lucrum camerae, or profit on the coinage, on which many of his predecessors had largely depended, introduced a stable currency based on gold, and reformed the system of direct taxation, basing it on a house-tax levied on every porta or peasant household.(2) He still had enough to maintain a sumptuous and refined court, the cultural influences at which were, incidentally, French rather than German.

Not the least of the benefits conferred by Charles Robert on Hungary was to leave behind him, in the person of his son Louis (Lajos) an heir whose succession (jure legitimo) was not questioned either inside or outside Hungary. Conventional historians reckon the reign of Louis (the only one of its kings on whom the nation has conferred the name of 'Great') as marking the apogee of Hungarian history. Louis was, of course, fortunate in that the favourable European constellation continued to prevail, and, at home, he could build on the foundations laid firmly by his father; but in addition, he was a man of remarkable qualities of both head and heart. Charles Robert had been more respected than loved, especially after one curious incident in which he took an extraordinarily barbarous revenge on the family of a man who had tried to assassinate him; Louis was generally loved. 'I call God to witness', the Venetian envoy wrote of him, 'that I never saw a monarch more majestic or more powerful, nor one who desires peace and calm so much as he.' 'There was no other', wrote another contemporary, 'so kind and noble, so virtuous and magnanimous, so friendly and straightforward.' He was indeed a true paladin, distinguished not least for his extraordinary physical courage in battle.

It was chiefly his international triumphs that earned him the name of 'Great'. Keeping the peace with his western neighbours, he resumed Béla III's policy of expansion in the south and east. Venice was forced to re-cede Dalmatia. The Bánáts in the northern Balkans were restored. The Ban of Bosnia and the Voivodes of Wallachia and Moldavia (where a second Vlach principality had come into being when the Tatars were driven out of it) acknowledged him as their suzerain, as did, for shorter periods and more formally, the rulers of Serbia, northern Bulgaria and, for a few years, Venice itself. Galicia and Lodomeria were recovered in 1354. Over this ring of dependencies, Hungary presided as Archiregnum. The climax of Louis' glory came in 1370, when, by virtue of a dynastic compact concluded in 1354 with Casimir of Poland, he ascended the Polish throne.

At home, the gold flowed in an undiminished stream into Louis' coffers, enabling him to keep a court even more splendid than his father's. And the whole country, spared for two generations from serious invasion or civil war, blossomed with a material prosperity which it had never before known. By the end of Louis' reign its total population had risen to some three millions, and it contained 49 royal boroughs, over 500 market towns and more than 26,000 villages. The economy was still predominantly agricultural, but as these figures show, the towns, which the Angevins favoured especially, granting many of them extensive charters of self-government, prospered. Craftsmen began to practise their trades and to organise themselves in guilds. International commerce, favoured by the continued stability and high repute of the currency, began to make headway.

The arts, too, flourished. A university, one of the earliest in Europe, was founded in Pécs in 1367 (it is true that it proved short-lived). The first comprehensive national chronicle, one copy of which is one of the most magnificent illuminated codices in Europe, dates from about the same period.

This prosperity, and not less the order which the two Angevins were able to enforce, allowed the nation to accept, without serious resentment, the fact that their reigns constituted what to modern eyes would appear a period of political reaction. Even the memory of Andrew III's constitutional innovations (which had, indeed, never been put into practice) vanished, it seems, even from memory, under their rules. They made appointments according to their pleasure, legislated as they pleased, and when (occasionally) they convoked a Diet, it was simply to inform it of decisions taken. Their absolutism was, however, not the old patrimonial absolutism of St Stephen and his successors, which was foreign to their eyes, but a much more hierarchical structure which embodied many features of west European feudalism. Even after Charles Robert had broken the power of the kinglets, he did not attempt to destroy the magnates as a class, but bestowed a large part of the confiscated estates on a new set of great families. Louis continued this policy, and by the end of his reign about fifty of these families owned between them one-third of the soil of Hungary. The status and importance of the magnates was enhanced by the new military system introduced by the Angevins. Military service was still the obligation of all noblemen, who, when their services were required, were mustered under the 'banners' of the king, the queen, or one of the great officials (the Voivode of Transylvania, etc.), smaller contingents following the Ispáns of their counties. But the lords were now required to bring contingents of heavily-armed cavalry from among their own followers; if a force numbered fifty men, it served under its lord's banner, and was known as his banderium. Many small nobles took service in these private banderia. It was at this time, and largely through this innovation, that the class of familiares - small nobles who took service, military or other, under a magnate, becoming his henchmen and retainers, while he in practice, although not in theory, was their feudal superior, became numerous.

This growth of the magnates' power was, indeed, partially compensated by another development, in the opposite direction. It was not everywhere that a magnate's authority quite eclipsed that of the county in which he had his estates, and under the Angevins' system of delegating power, rather than exercising it directly through their own officials (they were no bureaucrats) the control of the administration and justice in each county passed during their reigns increasingly into the hands of the universitates of the local nobles, who exercised it through their own elected representatives. These 'noble counties', which now began to replace the old 'royal counties', first the special preserve and stronghold of the richer common nobles. They were, of course, still subject to the ultimate control of the king's representative, the Ispán, and the most common effect of the development, at least during its early stages, was to strengthen the king's authority by providing him, in the lesser nobles, with a counter-weight against the magnates, such as the rulers of economically more developed countries found in the burgesses of their towns. This consideration led several of the kings to allow the counties to develop a very extensive autonomy, which at a later stage, when the magnate class had allied itself with the Crown, became the defence of the smaller men and, the crown being worn by foreign rulers, the defence also of the national cause, which they came to represent against both the other forces.

In 1351 Louis also confirmed the Golden Bull, adding an explicit declaration that all nobles enjoyed 'one and the same liberty', a provision which, it appears, besides reaffirming the rights of the noble class as a whole, including the familiares, also enlarged its ranks by bringing full noble privileges to a further class of border-line cases. Other provisions of the law stabilised land tenure by universalising the system of aviticitas under which all land was entailed in the male line of the owner's family, collaterals succeeding in default of direct heirs; if the line died out completely, the estate reverted to the Crown. The daughters of a deceased noble were entitled to a quarter of the assessed value of his property, but this had to be paid them in cash.

At the same time, Louis standardised the obligations of the peasant to his lord at one-ninth of his produce -neither more nor less. As he also had to pay the tithe to the church and the porta to the state, the peasant's obligations were thus not inconsiderable, but do not appear to have been crushing in this age of prosperity; his right of free migration was specifically re-affirmed.

Some Hungarian historians do not count the two Angevin as foreign kings at all, and it is true that both of them, especially Louis, who was born and bred in Hungary, regarded themselves completely as Hungarians. Charles Robert had no other throne, and did not try to acquire another for himself. Louis treated all his acquisitions, except perhaps that of Poland, as appendices to Hungary, and even Poland he ruled through Hungarians. But it is easily arguable that his Balkan enterprises brought Hungary, on balance, more loss than profit, even if the large expense of them be left out of account, for few of the vassals proved loyal when a crisis came. Rather they regarded Hungary as an oppressor and hastened to make common cause with her enemies.(3) She certainly got nothing at all, except a little reflected glory, out of Louis' acquisition of Poland. In south Italy Louis and his mother, carrying out plans laid by Charles Robert, embarked on purely dynastic enterprises which brought positive and real damage to Hungary. The object was to secure the throne of Naples for Charles' younger son, Andrew, who, under a compact between Charles and Robert of Sicily, had married Robert's granddaughter, Joanna, on the understanding that he should succeed to the throne on Robert's death (her father, Charles, having predeceased Robert). But Andrew's accession was unpopular in Naples. To get him recognised at all cost enormous sums of money in bribes, and, after a short and insecure reign, he was murdered. Louis undertook two campaigns in Italy to avenge his brother and secure the throne for the latter's little son. Both were unsuccessful, and cost Hungary money which, spent in the country, would have transformed the face of it.

Matters took a sharp turn for the worse when Louis died in 1382. He had left no son, but two daughters, of whom he had destined the elder, Maria, then a girl of eleven, and betrothed to Sigismund, younger son of the Emperor Charles IV and himself Marquis of Brandenburg, to succeed him on both his thrones. The Poles refused to continue the union with Hungary, and although they ended by accepting Maria's younger sister, Hedwig or Jadwiga, as queen, they married her to Jagiello of Lithuania, under whom Poland's ways diverged from Hungary's. The Hungarians themselves were divided on the question of the female succession, and a party of them crowned the girls' cousin, Charles of Durazzo, only to see him assassinated a month later. Another party had already crowned Maria, but her rule was only nominal: Sigismund, after marrying his bride, got himself crowned as her consort in 1387 and, after her death in 1395, ruled alone until his own death in 1437.

Sigismund was at first extremely unpopular, not only for the cruelty with which, in breach of his pledged word, he put Charles' leading supporters to the sword, but also as an intruder and a foreigner. 'By God', one of his victims flung in his teeth, 'I am no servant of thine, thou Czech swine.' In 1401 a group of nobles actually held him in prison for several weeks, and two years later malcontents called in another anti-king, who, however, failed to establish himself, although he retained possession of Dalmatia, which he then sold to Venice. Later, passions cooled somewhat, but when Sigismund was elected German king in 1410, and still more when he succeeded his brother in Bohemia in 1420, the nation complained with acerbity that he neglected its affairs.

His reign had its redeeming features. The momentum imported by the Angevins was still carrying the country forward, economically and culturally, and Sigismund himself, although extravagant and - at least in his youth -silly, was an intelligent enough man, with a European outlook. He introduced a number of useful administrative and military reforms, the latter including the institution of a militia portalis, or second-line army of peasant soldiers, and not the Angevins themselves did more than he to promote the prosperity of the towns and to raise their status. He encouraged manufacture, and was the true father of Hungary's international trade, which he advanced by abolishing internal duties, regulating tariffs on foreign goods and standardising weights and measures throughout the country. Records show that Hungary in his day was importing cloth, linen, velvet, silks and spices and southern delicacies; her chief exports were linen goods, cloth, metal and iron goods, livestock, skins and honey. The memory of this well-being survives in the many fine buildings, dating from his reign, still to be seen in Hungary's towns. An unintentional benefit conferred by him on his country was that his repeated and prolonged absences from Hungary, and his extravagances, both enabled and compelled his subjects to recover some of the constitutional ground which they had lost to his predecessors. He found himself obliged to consult Diets, if not regularly, at least frequently, and to defer to the principle, then generally recognised in central Europe, that their consent was necessary when a subsidy, or new taxation, was required. It was during his reign that the office of the Palatine, who was head of the administration during the king's absence, developed (this was, indeed, formally legalised only under his successor) from that of the king's representative to that of intermediary between the king and the nation, whose function and duty it was to 'represent law and justice for the inhabitants of the country vis-ŕ-vis the king's majesty, and for the king's majesty vis-ŕ-vis them'.

Under the same influences there now began to emerge the famous and peculiar mystic doctrine, formulated in classical form in the sixteenth century by the jurist Werbôczy, of the Holy Crown: to wit, that the true political being of Hungary resided in the mystical entity (of which the physical crown was the incorporate symbol) of the Holy Crown, of which the king was the head and the nation, or corporate aggregate of nobles, the body; each member being incomplete without the other, and complementary to it, in that the king was the fount of nobility and the nobles, in virtue of their right to elect their king, the fount of kingship.

But the debit side of Sigismund's all too long reign was also very heavy. He never succeeded in recovering Dalmatia, and in his efforts to do so, he pledged the valuable counties of Szepes, a main source of the king's wealth, to Poland. The nation was perfectly justified in its complaints over his long absences, and by reason of them, and for other causes, partly personal, he was never truly master in the country. The new big families whom the Angevins had promoted had on the whole remained loyal to their benefactors, but they had yet acquired an unhealthy predominance in the country, and an excess of power in their own preserves, and towards Sigismund, as we have seen, they showed no such loyalty. He did not willingly promote their power, but in fact he increased it by the lavish sale, to meet his extravagant expenditure, of crown lands, which by the end of his reign were reduced to 5 per cent of the area of Hungary. Unable to cope with his most powerful subjects as a class, he could do no more than play off some of them against the rest. This he did by organising a group of them in a chivalric league, known as 'the Order of the Dragon', of which he was himself President. Offices and favours were shared out among the members of this group, but even they were not always reliable; cases occurred when the Order itself defied the king.

The smaller men suffered, especially the peasants, whose condition deteriorated substantially, less owing to any aggravation of their legal burdens (peasants serving in the militia portalis were exempt from the porta tax) than from increases in the tax itself, illegal exactions, and perhaps most of all, under the increasingly rapid transition to a money economy, with which they could not easily cope. The consequent unrest was fanned by the spread from Bohemia of Hussite doctrines, which took hold especially in north Hungary, and was embittered by the cruelty with which the heretics were persecuted. The first serious specifically peasant revolt which Hungary had ever known broke out in the very last months of Sigismund's reign, as the result of the action of a bishop in Transylvania in claiming the tithe in money. It spread over much of Transylvania, and gained considerable temporary successes before it was put down. A consequence of this revolt was the birth of an institution destined later to become important, the 'Union of the Three Nations', under which the Hungarian nobles of the Transylvanian counties, the Saxons and the Szekels formed a league for the mutual defence of their interests against all parties, save only the king.

This grievous event occurred at a moment when Hungary was most sorely in need of all her strength and all her unity, for her old unthreatened state was over. In 1352 the Osmanli Turks had crossed the Straits and established themselves in Gallipoli. In 1362 they took Adrianople. In 1388 they made Sisman's Bulgaria tributary; in 1389 they annihilated the power of Serbia on the field of Kossovo.

Sigismund, to do him justice, had early recognised the reality of the Turkish danger (to which Louis had been curiously blind) and in 1395 had led an expedition into the Balkans which had met with some success. He had followed this up the next year with a larger expedition in which crusading contingents from many European countries had taken part; but this time the Christian armies had been disastrously defeated at Nicopolis in north Bulgaria (22 September 1396), the Hungarian contingent, which had formed the bulk of the army, being annihilated, and Sigismund himself barely escaping with his life. Hungary, and all central Europe, lay open to the invaders, and were only respited, not by their own efforts, but by the intervention of Timur's Mongols, who were now threatening the Turks' rear and in 1402 actually took the Sultan Bayazid himself prisoner, after a pitched battle outside Ankara. For some time after this the Turks' operations on their European front were on a reduced scale, but they recommenced in 1415. The Voivode of Wallachia submitted, Bosnia repudiated Hungary's suzerainty, and her only remaining Balkan client was a fragmentary Serbia under the 'Despot', George Brankovic. South Hungary itself and Transylvania suffered repeated raids.

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 UlászIó 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 Posthumous), 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(4), 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 Wladislas 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, Mahal (Michael) Szilágyi. On Hunyadi's death, Wladislas nominated his uncle as the new Captain-General of Hungary, passing over Hunyadi's elder son, another Wladislas. 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 Wladislas 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 Werbôczy. 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.

1. By this time the tradition had grown up that coronation was invalid unless performed with the Holy Crown.

2. Strictly, the porta was the gate through which a peasant's wagon passed into his yard. It was thus not an exact measure, since two or three peasants might share one yard.

3. The resentment was particularly strong where religious considerations reinforced purely political ones, as among the Bogumils of Bosnia.

4. A mere coincidence (Ed.).


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