History of Hungary


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

Christianization of the Magyars

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

Fearing a war of extermination, Chieftain Geza (972-97), Árpad's great-grandson, assured Otto II that the Magyars had ceased their raids and asked him to send missionaries. Otto complied, and in 975 Geza and a few of his kinsmen were baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Geza consented to baptism more out of political necessity than conviction. He continued to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods and reportedly bragged that he "was rich enough for two gods." From this time, however, missionaries began the gradual process of converting and simultaneously westernizing the Magyar tribes. Geza used German knights and his position as chief of the Magyars' largest clan to restore strong central authority over the other clans. Hungary's ties with the West were strengthened in 996 when Geza's son, Stephen, who was baptized as a child and educated by Saint Adalbert of Prague, married Gisela, a Bavarian princess and sister of Emperor Henry II.

Stephen I

Stephen (997-1038) became chieftain when Geza died, and he consolidated his rule by ousting rival clan chiefs and confiscating their lands. Stephen then asked Pope Sylvester II to recognize him as king of Hungary. The pope agreed, and legend says Stephen was crowned on Christmas Day in the year 1000. The crowning legitimized Hungary as a Western kingdom independent of the Holy Roman and Byzantine empires. It also gave Stephen virtually absolute power, which he used to strengthen the Roman Catholic Church and Hungary. Stephen ordered the people to pay tithes and required every tenth village to construct a church and support a priest. Stephen donated land to support bishoprics and monasteries, required all persons except the clergy to marry, and barred marriages between Christians and pagans. Foreign monks worked as teachers and introduced Western agricultural methods. A Latin alphabet was devised for the Magyar (Hungarian) language.

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

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

Politics and Society under Stephen's Successors

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

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

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

Andrew II's son Bela IV (1235-79) tried with little success to reestablish royal preeminence by reacquiring lost crown lands. His efforts, however, created a deep rift between the crown and the magnates just as the Mongols were sweeping westward across Russia toward Europe. Aware of the danger, Bela ordered the magnates and lesser nobles to mobilize. Few responded, and the Mongols routed Bela's army at Mohi on April 11, 1241. Bela fled first to Austria, where Duke Frederick of Babenberg held him for ransom, then to Dalmatia. The Mongols reduced Hungary's towns and villages to ashes and slaughtered half the population before news arrived in 1242 that the Great Khan Ogotai had died in Karakorum. The Mongols withdrew, sparing Bela and what remained of his kingdom.


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

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

Hungary History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress