History of Hungary


After the Árpad Dynasty ended, Hungary's nobles chose a series of foreign kings who reestablished strong royal authority. Hungary and the adjacent countries prospered for several centuries as Central Europe experienced an era of peace interrupted only by succession struggles. But over time, the onslaughts of the Turks and the strife of the Reformation weakened Hungary, and the country was eventually partitioned by the Turks and the Habsburgs.

Golden Era

Hungary's first two foreign kings, Charles Robert and Louis I of the House of Anjou, ruled during one of the most glorious periods in the country's history. Central Europe was at peace, and Hungary and its neighbors prospered. Charles Robert (1308-42) won the protracted succession struggle after Andrew III's death. An Árpad descendant in the female line, Charles Robert was crowned as a child and raised in Hungary. He reestablished the crown's authority by ousting disloyal magnates and distributing their estates to his supporters. Charles Robert then ordered the magnates to recruit and equip small private armies called banderia. Charles Robert ruled by decree and convened the Diet only to announce his decisions. Dynastic marriages linked his family with the ruling families of Naples and Poland and heightened Hungary's standing abroad. Under Charles Robert, the crown regained control of Hungary's mines, and in the next two centuries the mines produced more than a third of Europe's gold and a quarter of its silver. Charles Robert also introduced tax reforms and a stable currency. Charles Robert's son and successor Louis I (1342-82) maintained the strong central authority Charles Robert had amassed. In 1351 Louis issued a decree that reconfirmed the Golden Bull, erased all legal distinctions between the lesser nobles and the magnates, standardized the serfs' obligations, and barred the serfs from leaving the lesser nobles' farms to seek better opportunities on the magnates' estates. The decree also established the entail system. Hungary's economy continued to flourish during Louis's reign. Gold and other precious metals poured from the country's mines and enriched the royal treasury, foreign trade increased, new towns and villages arose, and craftsmen formed guilds. The prosperity fueled a surge in cultural activity, and Louis promoted the illumination of manuscripts and in 1367 founded Hungary's first university. Abroad, however, Louis fought several costly wars and wasted time, funds, and lives in failed attempts to gain for his nephew the throne of Naples. While Louis was engaged in these activates, the Turks made their initial inroads into the Balkans. Louis became king of Poland in 1370 and ruled the two countries for twelve years.

Sigismund (1387-37), Louis's son-in-law, won a bitter struggle for the throne after Louis died in 1382. Under Sigismund, Hungary's fortunes began to decline. Many Hungarian nobles despised Sigismund for his cruelty during the succession struggle, his long absences, and his costly foreign wars. In 1401 disgruntled nobles temporarily imprisoned the king. In 1403 another group crowned an anti-king, who failed to solidify his power but succeeded in selling Dalmatia to Venice. Sigismund failed to reclaim the territory. Sigismund became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1410 and king of Bohemia in 1419, thus requiring him to spend long periods abroad and enabling Hungary's magnates to acquire unprecedented power. In response, Sigismund created the office of palatine to rule the country in his stead. Like earlier Hungarian kings, Sigismund elevated his supporters to magnate status and sold off crown lands to meet burgeoning expenses. Although Hungary's economy continued to flourish, Sigismund's expenses outstripped his income. He bolstered royal revenues by increasing the serfs' taxes and requiring cash payment. Social turmoil erupted late in Sigismund's reign as a result of the heavier taxes and renewed magnate pressure on the lesser nobles. Hungary's first peasant revolt erupted when a Transylvanian bishop ordered peasants to pay tithes in coin rather than in kind. The revolt was quickly checked, but it prompted Transylvania's Szekel, Magyar, and German nobles to form the Union of Three Nations, which was an effort to defend their privileges against any power except that of the king.

Additional turmoil erupted when the Ottoman Turks expanded their empire into the Balkans. They crossed the Bosporus Straits in 1352, subdued Bulgaria in 1388, and defeated the Serbs at Kosovo Polje in 1389. Sigismund led a crusade against them in 1396, but the Ottomans routed his forces at Nicopolis, and he barely escaped with his life. Tamerlane's invasion of Anatolia in 1402-03 slowed the Turks' progress for several decades, but in 1437 Sultan Murad prepared to invade Hungary. Sigismund died the same year, and Hungary's next two kings, Albrecht V of Austria (1437-39) and Wladyslaw III of Poland (1439-44), who was known in Hungary as Ulaszlo I, both died during campaigns against the Turks.

After Ulaszlo, Hungary's nobles chose an infant king, Laszlo V, and a regent, Janos Hunyadi, to rule the country until Laszlo V came of age. The son of a lesser nobleman of the Vlach tribe, Hunyadi rose to become a general, Transylvania's military governor, one of Hungary's largest landowners, and a war hero. He used his personal wealth and the support of the lesser nobles to win the regency and overcome the opposition of the magnates. Hunyadi then established a mercenary army funded by the first tax ever imposed on Hungary's nobles. He defeated the Ottoman forces in Transylvania in 1442 and broke their hold on Serbia in 1443, only to be routed at Varna (where Laszlo V himself perished) a year later. In 1456, when the Turkish army besieged Belgrade, Hunyadi defeated it in his greatest and final victory. Hunyadi died of the plague soon after.

Some magnates resented Hunyadi for his popularity as well as for the taxes he imposed, and they feared that his sons might seize the throne from Laszlo. They coaxed the sons to return to Laszlo's court, where Hunyadi's elder son was beheaded. His younger son, Matyas, was imprisoned in Bohemia. However, lesser nobles loyal to Matyas soon expelled Laszlo. After Laszlo's death abroad, they paid ransom for Matyas, met him on the frozen Danube River, and proclaimed him king. Known as Matyas Corvinus (1458-90), he was, with one possible exception (Janos Zapolyai), the last Hungarian king to rule the country.

Although Matyas regularly convened the Diet and expanded the lesser nobles' powers in the counties, he exercised absolute rule over Hungary by means of a secular bureaucracy. Matyas enlisted 30,000 foreign mercenaries in his standing army and built a network of fortresses along Hungary's southern frontier, but he did not pursue his father's aggressive anti-Turkish policy. Instead, Matyas launched unpopular attacks on Bohemia, Poland, and Austria, pursuing an ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor and arguing that he was trying to forge a unified Western alliance strong enough to expel the Turks from Europe. He eliminated tax exemptions and raised the serfs' obligations to the crown to fund his court and the military. The magnates complained that these measures reduced their incomes, but despite the stiffer obligations, the serfs considered Matyas a just ruler because he protected them from excessive demands and other abuses by the magnates. He also reformed Hungary's legal system and promoted the growth of Hungary's towns. Matyas was a true renaissance man and made his court a center of humanist culture; under his rule, Hungary's first books were printed and its second university was established. Matyas' library, the Corvina, was famous throughout Europe. In his quest for the imperial throne, Matyas eventually moved to Vienna, where he died in 1490.

Reign of Ulaszlo II and Louis II

Matyas's reforms did not survive the turbulent decades that followed his reign. An oligarchy of quarrelsome magnates gained control of Hungary. They crowned a docile king, Vladislav Jagiello (the Jagiellonian king of Bohemia, who was known in Hungary as Ulaszlo II, 1490-1516), only on condition that he abolish the taxes that had supported Matyas's mercenary army. As a result, the king's army dispersed just as the Turks were threatening Hungary. The magnates also dismantled Matyas's administration and antagonized the lesser nobles. In 1492 the Diet limited the serfs' freedom of movement and expanded their obligations. Rural discontent boiled over in 1514 when well-armed peasants (if they are in rebellion they are not really acting as serfs) under Gyorgy Dozsa rose up and attacked estates across Hungary. United by a common threat, the magnates and lesser nobles eventually crushed the rebels. Dozsa and other rebel leaders were executed in a most brutal manner.

Shocked by the peasant revolt, the Diet of 1514 passed laws that condemned the serfs to eternal bondage and increased their work obligations. Corporal punishment became widespread, and one noble even branded his serfs like livestock. The legal scholar Stephen Werboczy included the new laws in his Tripartitum of 1514, which made up Hungary's legal corpus until the revolution of 1848. The Tripartitum gave Hungary's king and nobles, or magnates, equal shares of power: the nobles recognized the king as superior, but in turn the nobles had the power to elect the king. The Tripartitum also freed the nobles from taxation, obligated them to serve in the military only in a defensive war, and made them immune from arbitrary arrest. The new laws weakened Hungary by deepening the rift between the nobles and the peasantry just as the Turks prepared to invade the country.

When Ulaszlo II died in 1516, his ten-year-old son Louis II (1516-26) became king, but a royal council appointed by the Diet ruled the country. Hungary was in a state of near anarchy under the magnates' rule. The king's finances were a shambles; he borrowed to meet his household expenses despite the fact that they totaled about one-third of the national income. The country's defenses sagged as border guards went unpaid, fortresses fell into disrepair, and initiatives to increase taxes to reinforce defenses were stifled. In 1521 Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent recognized Hungary's weakness and seized Belgrade in preparation for an attack on Hungary. In August 1526, he marched more than 100,000 troops into Hungary's heartland, and at Mohacs they cut down all but several hundred of the 25,000 ill-equipped soldiers whom Louis II had been able to muster for the country's defense. Louis himself died, thrown from a horse into a bog.

After Louis's death, rival factions of Hungarian nobles simultaneously elected two kings, Janos Zapolyai (1526-40) and Ferdinand (1526-64). Each claimed sovereignty over the entire country but lacked sufficient forces to eliminate his rival. Zapolyai, a Hungarian and the military governor of Transylvania, was recognized by the sultan and was supported mostly by lesser nobles opposed to new foreign kings. Ferdinand, the first Habsburg to occupy the Hungarian throne, drew support from magnates in western Hungary who hoped he could convince his brother, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to expel the Turks. In 1538 George Martinuzzi, Zapolyai's adviser, arranged a treaty between the rivals that would have made Ferdinand sole monarch upon the death of the then-childless Zapolyai. The deal collapsed when Zapolyai married and fathered a son. Violence erupted, and the Turks seized the opportunity, conquering the city of Buda and then partitioning the country in 1541.

Hungary History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress