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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 1310.

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 later canonized.

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 ingenuous maidens.

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 to lose.

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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