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Saint István: The Apostolic King

This page shows two portraits of Saint István (Stephen), the best known king in Hungary's history. One shows a frail old man with a grey beard and long hair sitting on a throne. His face evokes the image of a venerable saint as visualized by the painter, probably a pious monk in a mediaeval monastery.

The other picture is a photograph of a face chiseled from granite by a celebrated Hungarian sculptor, who set István astride his horse as befitting the majestic leader of his country. Of the two, this is the more accurate, capturing an image of a farsighted king of iron resolve with true Magyar features. István was a tough and strong leader, whose soul was imbued with apostolic Christian zeal - and indeed, he has become known as the "Apostolic King" of Hungary.

Flawed "Covenant of Blood" Causes Bloodshed

István's rule started and ended with trouble caused by a still-unsettled rule of succession. The Magyar's long-held concept of senioratus, whereby the oldest able-bodied warrior of the Árpád line would succeed to leadership, clashed with Géza's seeming preference for the Christian primogeniture system, under which it would be his firstborn son, Vajk, who would inherit the leadership.

Trouble was brewing on all sides. The mere fact that Vajk's name had been changed in baptism to the Greek Stephanos (Estevan, István) created misgivings among the traditionalists. It smacked of unwelcome foreign influence. The dissidents included the most influential chieftains, who still followed the old pagan ways. Among Árpád's descendants, chieftain Koppány of Somogy County was the oldest able-bodied warrior and, as such, he considered himself the legal successor of Géza. When the Grand Prince died, Koppány did not waste time in claiming his leadership. He stormed into the royal palace during the funeral feast and demanded the inheritance he felt was his according to ancient custom: the throne, and the widow of the deceased warrior as his wife. He was rebuffed on both counts. The widow, Princess Sarolta, refused to become Koppány's wife, and István, who considered himself the rightful heir, also rejected his claim.

With the rejection of Koppány, the flaw in the Covenant began to exact a heavy penalty, one that would be paid in blood and lives for generations to


come. Although Koppány had been christened earlier, the pagans and chieftains who were dissatisfied with the new ways and the increasing foreign influence at Court, rushed to his support. They included the chieftains Ajtony of Marosvár in Southern Hungary and Gyula of Transylvania.

In reaction to István's actions, a coalition of Magyar dissidents, led by Koppány, resolved to dethrone the King. In this first crisis István showed his mettle and proved himself a worthy descendant of Árpád. His physical appearance alone commanded respect, his tall, striking figure typical of the Árpád line. Coupled with his imposing physical appearance was a scholarly mind well tutored in Greek, Latin, and German, in politics, theology, and the laws laid down by Charlemagne. Rigidly adhering to the tenets of his Christian faith, he went on to break the resistance to his policy of converting the nation to Christianity, using force when needed. This policy, he felt, would also ensure the survival of Hungary in the European community.

His arch enemy, Koppány, lost his head when he turned against the King - twice. First, figuratively, by taking up arms against the anointed sovereign, then in bloody reality when, in battling István's troops, his head was severed. Koppány's body was quartered and sent to the four corners of the land as a warning to would-be rebels.

Ajtony's turn came soon after, abetted by his own former chief of staff, Csanád, who defected to the King's side to become his general in the campaign against the rebels. The last holdout, Chieftain Gyula in Transylvania, was also defeated.

Koppány's uprising took place in the year 998 A.D. Soon thereafter came the year of the Millennium which was a strangely foreboding one for the God-fearing people of Europe. Due to a misinterpretation of the Bible, rumors spread far and wide that Doomsday, the Day of Reckoning, would occur on New Year's Eve.

While such rumors terrified the weak and superstitious, Prince István remained calm and made a far-reaching decision - probably the most important one in the history of his nation. He resolved to raise Hungary to the status of a Christian kingdom, thus placing his country on an equal footing with other European states. This required his own elevation from Prince and Chief of the ruling Magyar tribe to that of crowned king.

Having a shrewd understanding of the European situation, he realized that to ask the German-Roman Emperor for a crown would reduce Hungary to vassal status. Instead, he approached the undisputed spiritual leader of Western Europe, Pope Sylvester II. (The Pontiff was also a man of great learning in theology, mathematics, and natural science. It was he who was responsible for introducing the use of Arabic numerals to replace the clumsy Roman system, and for inventing the abacus.)

A man of foresight, Sylvester II gladly granted István's request for a crown before the Millennium ended. István's coronation took place on Christmas Day 1000 A.D. From that time on, he called himself "King by the Grace of God" to emphasize the fact that his royal power was independent of men - be they foreign rulers or his own chieftains or subjects.

Reforms to Last a Thousand Years

Having established peace, King István introduced far-reaching reforms. First of all, he made it possible for private individuals to own land. Lands formerly belonging to rebellious tribes were either divided among his loyal subjects or converted into Crown property. Following Western methods, he organized Hungary into forty-five counties, each headed by an ispán, who collected taxes in the King's name, sat in


judgment, and organized the armed forces at royal command. The central manager of all the estates was known as the nádor ispán, whose office gradually developed into the position of Palatine (nádor), the second most important position in the country. István welcomed Western immigrants whose skill would enrich the land and bring knowledge to his own people.

In parallel with political and economic organization, he introduced a wide-ranging system for the propagation of the new faith. He made the Christian faith mandatory for all and decreed that at least one church be erected for every ten villages. The system of tithing (the donation of one tenth of one's income) was introduced to maintain the parishes, along with obligatory attendance at Sunday mass.

This latter order turned out to be surprisingly popular, not so much for religious reasons but rather because it provided people with a chance to congregate from far and near. It was not long before Sunday markets sprang up for the business minded, along with fairs which provided fun and entertainment for young and old. Sunday in Hungarian is still called vasárnap. which translates as "market day." The location of the church had to be such that every family would be able to get there and back within one day. To "come and go" is járás in Hungarian, and this very word became the name of the smaller administrative unit which covers ten villages.

Clerics from foreign countries were of great assistance to King István in his work of reform. A number of foreign knights, chiefly German, Italian, and French, also flocked to Hungary to offer their services to the first Hungarian king. Some were fortune hunters, but others founded leading Hungarian families.

Mercy, Wisdom, and Heartbreak

King István showed mercy to defeated enemies, and provided a haven for refugees from other lands. Included among these were two exiled English princes, Edward and Edmund Ironside. Edward, the last descendant of Alfred the Great, returned to England with his family in 1057 as pretender to the throne. His wife Agatha was the daughter of István, and his daughter, who would become St. Margaret of Scotland, was the Hungarian king's granddaughter. Edward and Agatha were followed to England by a number of Hungarian nobles, who settled in Scotland. There are still some families among the Scottish nobility, like the Drummonds and Leslies, who trace their descent from the Hungarian nobles in Edward's entourage.

Saint István's deeds were always governed by Christian ethics aimed at leading his people toward God. He outlined his principles in his Admonitions to his son, Prince Imre:

If you wish honor of kingship, be peace-loving. Rule over all without anger, pride, or hatred, but with love, tenderness, humanity. Remember always that each one of us has the same standing: nothing exalts a man but humility, nothing humiliates more than haughtiness and hatred... Peace loving monarchs rule, the rest only tyrannize. Be patient toward all, influential and destitute alike.

Organized into ten separate chapters, the Admonitions make most interesting reading and many parts are still relevant today. Their tone is benign and firm, suggesting István's anxiety to prepare his son thoroughly for the throne.

Then, like lightning from the blue, tragedy struck. While hunting in 1031, the virtuous Prince Imre (Emeric) fell prey to a wild boar's attacks. (Wild boars would again play a fatal role in Hungary's history, as we shall see in a later chapter about Count Miklós; Zrínyi.) Some historians suggest that it was not a wild boar which caused Imre's early death, but assassination by members of the Thonuzoba family, at the instigation of Vazul, the next in line to the throne. (The word thonuzoba means wild boar in the Petcheneg [besenyö] language.)

A contemporary chronicler wrote of Imre's death: "The whole country mourned him, crying disconsolately." Two generations later, Imre was elevated to sainthood. He is still honored by Hungarian youth as a model of chastity and virtue. (It is a little known fact that the American continents bear St. Emeric's name. The Italian map-maker, Amerigo Vespucci, from whose name the word "America" was derived, had been named after St. Emeric in baptism.)

Prince Imre's tragic death was a double blow. It not only brought deep sorrow to his parents, but also released the bottled-up forces of rivalry for the throne. The flaw in the Covenant of Blood continued to take its toll and this time with ghoulish cruelty. The man thought to be the most eligible successor after Imre was Vazul (also called Vászoly), King István's oldest able-bodied cousin, who believed he had the King's approval. But so did Peter Orseoli, the King's half-Italian nephew. At the latter's instigation, or perhaps commissioned by the foreign knights at Court, a "lynching party" seized Vazul, first plucking out his eyes, then pouring boiling lead into his ears. Surprisingly, the victim survived.

Upon learning of Vazul's horrible fate, the failing and bedridden King István hurriedly sent Vazul's three sons, the Princes Endre, Levente, and Béla, to Poland, lest they become victims of the struggle for succession.

The broken-hearted king died in 1038. His last act was a prayer, in which he placed his country under the protection of the Virgin Mary, who has been honored as the "Patroness of Hungary" (Patrona Hungariae) to this day.


Vazul's fate was the darkest shadow on King István's reign, which otherwise radiated like a beacon through Hungarian history in the coming centuries. During the four decades of his rule, Saint István, "the first European among Hungarians," succeeded in transplanting the Western form of religion, legal practice, and administration onto Hungarian soil. Henceforth Hungary would become an organic member of the Latin-Germanic cultural community.

István Katona, an almost forgotten Hungarian historian, contrasted Saint István with Attila:

All that Attila conquered fell apart after his death in just a short time. What Saint István founded has remained in existence ever since. Attila had infinitely more people, power, and arms, and his victories in battle were grand. King István had fewer people, less strength, and never gathered laurels in big wars. Still, it was Saint István whose achievements have withstood the trials and ravages of ten centuries. The question is: What was the secret of his success? The answer is this:

Attila was the 'Scourge of God;' King István was the Apostle of Jesus. Attila tried to build his empire on the strength of his armies; István built his kingdom on the Rock of the Gospels.

King István and his son Imre were canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1083 as saints of the Roman Catholic Church. Hungary's most important national holiday, August 20th, is dedicated to Saint István's memory.


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