The First Hungarian King

Stephen I (Hungarian: I. Szent István; Latin: Sanctus Stephanus; Slovak: Štefan I. or Štefan Veľký – He was born as Vajk,which derrived from a Turkic word baj meaning “hero”, “prince”, “master” or “rich”) was the last Grand Prince of the Hungarians between 997 and 1000 or 1001, and the first King of Hungary from 1000 or 1001 until his death in 1038.

He was the only son of Grand Prince Géza and his wife, Sarolt who was descended from the prominent family of the gyulas. Although both of his parents were baptized, Stephen was the first member of his family to become a devout Christian.

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Stephen succeeded his father in 997. He was forced to fight for the throne against his relative, Koppány, who was supported by masses of pagan warriors and Koppány announced his claim to the throne and rebelled against Stephen (He also decided to marry Géza’s widow, Sarolt, in accordance with the pagan custom of levirate marriage). Stephen defeated his opponent mainly due to the assistance of Vecelin, Hont and Pázmány and other knights of foreign origin, but native lords also joined him.

When sending one part of Koppány’s quartered corps to Gyulafehérvár which was the seat of his maternal uncle, Gyula the Younger Stephen demonstrated his claim to reign all the territories dominated by Hungarian lords. He also decided to confirm his international position by adopting the royal title. 

Thietmar of Merseburg writes that Stephen received the crown “with the favour and urging” of Emperor Otto III (r. 996–1002), which implies that Stephen accepted the emperor’s suzerainty before his coronation. On the other hand, Stephen’s all legends emphasize that he received his crown from Pope Sylvester II (r. 999–1003). Kristó and other historians point out that Pope Sylvester and Emperor Otto were close allies which implies that both reports are valid: Stephen “received the crown and consencration” from the pope, but not without the emperor’s consent. 

The exact date of Stephen’s coronation is unknown. According to later Hungarian tradition, he was crowned in the first day of the second millenium, which may refer either to December 25, 1000 or to January 1, 1001. Details of Stephen’s coronation preserved in his Greater Legend suggest that the ceremony, which took place in Esztergom, followed the rite of the coronation of the German kings. Accordingly, Stephen was anointed with consencrated oil during the ceremony. Besides his crown, Stephen regarded a spear with a flag as an important symbol of his sovereignty.

King Stephen was a contradictory figure in both Hungarian, and church history. “Stephanus Rex” or King Stephen ruled and christened the pagan Hungarians with iron fist, those who were used to living their lives in freedom and choosing their own leaders, loving the way they robbed and pillaged in the West. However the age of adventures came to an end and the country had to make itself acceptable in the eyes of the strong western countries, otherwise the Hungarians would be doomed.

“If someone has such a hardened heart – God forbid it to any Christian – that he does not want to confess his faults according to the counsel of a priest, he shall lie without any divine service and alms like an infidel. If his relatives and neighbors fail to summon the priest, and therefore he should die unconfessed, prayers and alms should be offered, but his relatives shall wash away their negligence by fasting in accordance with the judgement of the priests. Those who die a sudden death shall be buried with all ecclesiastical honor; for divine judgment is hidden from us and unknown. – Laws of King Stephen I – “

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Stephen was right to think that if his country became the bastion of the West in the face of the East, they would be accepted and would receive a lot of support from them.

Let’s just say that not everyone agreed with his views. The followers of the ancient Hungarian religion and their priest, the “taltos” and even the peasant who were forced to give up their nomadic lives and the land, all loathed the foreign missionaries (Stephen convinced some pilgrims and merchants to settle in Hungary. For instance, Gerard, a member of the Sagredo or the Morosini family, who arrived in Hungary from the Republic of Venice between 1020 and 1026 initially planned to continue his journey to the Holy Land, but decided to stay in the country after his meeting with the king. Stephen also established a number of Benedictine monasteries – including the abbeys at Pécsvárad, Zalavár and Bakonybél – in this period.). 

The new king first turned against his own maternal uncle, Gyula the Younger whose realm “was most wide and rich”, according to the Illuminated Chronicle. Stephen invaded Transylvania and seized Gyula and his family around 1002 or in 1003. The contemporary Annals of Hildesheim adds that Stephen converted Gyula’s “country to the Christian faith by force” after its conquest. Accordingly, historians date the establishment of the Diocese of Translyvania to this period. If the identification, proposed by Kristó, Györffy and other Hungarian historians, of Gyula with one Prokui – who was Stephen’s uncle according to Thietmar of Merseburg – is valid, Gyula later escaped from captivity and fled to Boleslav the Brave, Duke of Poland (r. 992–1025).

The Illuminated Chronicle narrates that Stephen “led his army against Kean, Duke of the Bulgarians and Slavs whose lands are by their natural position most strongly fortified” following the occupation of Gyula’s country. According to a number of historians, including Zoltán Lenkey and Gábor Thoroczkay, Kean was the head of a small state located in the southern parts of Transylvania and Stephen occupied his country around 1003. Other historians, including Györffy say that the chronicle’s report preserved the memory of Stephen’s campaign against Bulgaria in the late 1010s.

Stephen’s conflict with Ajtony, a chieftain in the region of the river Maros – which is narrated in the Long Life of Saint Gerard – is also dated by many historians to the very end of the 1020s, although Györffy and other scholars write that it happened at least a decade earlier. Ajtony who “had taken his power from the Greeks” even dared to levy tax on the salt transported to the monarch on the river. Stephen sent a large army led by Csanád against Ajtony who was killed in a battle. His lands were transformed into a county and the king set up a new bishopric at Csanád (Cenad, Romania), the former seat of Ajtony which was renamed after the commander of the royal army.

With his successful wars against the semi-independent Hungarian chieftains, Stephen abolished tribal divisions and set up a territory-based administrative system. He established a number of “counties” (vármegye or comitatus). The “counties”, each headed a by royal official known as “count” or ispán, were administrative units organized around fortresses. Most royal fortresses were earthworks in this period, but the royal castles at Esztergom, Székesfehérvár and Veszprém were built of stone. Royal fortresses became the nuclei of Church organization. The settlements developing around them, where markets were held on each Sunday, were important centers of local economic.

This man of small stature yet strong willpower often risked his own life in the process. There were a number of attempts on his life and much of the country rebelled against him, attacking the king with armed forces, but he defeated all resistance.

About his active foreign policy, Stephen convinced some pilgrims and merchants to settle in Hungary. For instance, Gerard, a member of the Sagredo or the Morosini family, who arrived in Hungary from the Republic of Venice between 1020 and 1026 initially planned to continue his journey to the Holy Land, but decided to stay in the country after his meeting with the king. Stephen also established a number of Benedictine monasteries – including the abbeys at Pécsvárad, Zalavár and Bakonybél – in this period.

Conrad II invaded Hungary in June 1030 and plundered the lands west of the river Rába. However, as the Annals of Niederalteich reports it, the emperor, suffering from consequences of the scorched earth tactics applied by the Hungarian army,[140] “returned from Hungary without an army and without achieving anything, because the army was threatened by starvation and was captured by the Hungarians at Vienna”. The peace was restored after Conrad II had ceded the lands between the rivers Lajta and Fischa to Hungary in the summer of 1031.

Stephen’s biographer, Hartvic narrates that Stephen whose children died one by one in infancy “restrained the grief over their death by the solace on account of the love of his surviving son”, Emeric (who was wounded in a hunting accident and died in 1031. After the death of his son, the elderly king could never “fully regain his former health).

In his work entitled “Counsels”, he gave the following advice to Emeric who was destined to become the king:

“My dearest son, if you desire to honor the royal crown, I advise, I counsel, I urge you above all things to maintain the Catholic and Apostolic faith with such diligence and care that you may be an example for all those placed under you by God, and that all the clergy may rightly call you a man of true Christian profession. Failing to do this, you may be sure that you will not be called a Christian or a son of the Church. Indeed, in the royal palace, after the faith itself, the Church holds second place, first constituted and spread through the whole world by His members, the apostles and holy fathers, And though she always produced fresh offspring, nevertheless in certain places she is regarded as ancient. However, dearest son, even now in our kingdom the Church is proclaimed as young and newly planted; and for that reason she needs more prudent and trustworthy guardians less a benefit which the divine mercy bestowed on us undeservedly should be destroyed and annihilated through your idleness, indolence or neglect.

My beloved son, delight of my heart, hope of your posterity, I pray, I command, that at very time and in everything, strengthened by your devotion to me, you may show favor not only to relations and kin, or to the most eminent, be they leaders or rich men or neighbors or fellow-countrymen, but also to foreigners and to all who come to you. By fulfilling your duty in this way you will reach the highest state of happiness. Be merciful to all who are suffering violence, keeping always in your heart the example of the Lord who said: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. Be patient with everyone, not only with the powerful, but also with the weak.

Finally be strong lest prosperity lift you up too much or adversity cast you down. Be humble in this life that God may raise you up in the next. Be truly moderate and do not punish or condemn anyone immoderately. Be gentle so that you may never oppose justice. Be honorable so that you never voluntarily bring disgrace upon anyone. Be chaste so that you may avoid all the foulness that so resembles the pangs of death.

All these virtues I have noted above make up the royal crown and without them no one is fit to rule here on earth or attain to the heavenly Kingdom… ”

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Stephen died on 15 August, 1038 and was buried in the basilica of Székesfehérvár. A long period of instability followed his reign. The period which was characterized by civil wars, pagan uprisings and invasions by the Holy Roman Emperors lasted up until 1077 when Ladislaus, the grandson of the blinded Vazul ascended the throne.


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