Portrayal of Stephen I, King of Hungary on the coronation pall.jpgMany years ago, my family and I attended St Stephen’s Church, one of many Catholic churches in the United States built by Hungarian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(Photo credits: Wikipedia)

These Hungarian churches were named for the first of Hungary’s Christian kings. Stephen I took his name from the first martyr, Stephen, whose story is recorded in Acts 6 and 7. I wrote about the first St Stephen several years ago, whose feast day is December 26.

To clarify: there are many other Catholic — as well as Episcopal and Lutheran — churches which bear the name St Stephen. Those are named for the aforementioned first martyr. However, when Hungarians founded parishes of the same name, most of those were honouring their first Christian king, still revered today.

Stephen I featured in an article in The Guardian published on June 8, 2016. The context is a Project Fear vehicle positing that if Brexit wins in the upcoming EU Referendum, Eastern Europe’s socially conservative views will become more predominant in shaping the Continent’s political policies. However, the author also provided this historical note:

According to the traditional narratives, the commitment of Hungary to Europe has seemed secure throughout most of its history. The coronation of the first Hungarian king, St Stephen, by the pope of Rome is usually portrayed as the symbol of a tribal people leaving behind their eastern pagan legacy. The bloody battles against the Tatar and then the Ottoman Turk invaders are often presented as the defence of Christian Europe by Hungary.

To this day, Stephen is arguably the most popular name for Hungarian males, including those born outside of Hungary. I have known several.

Devotion to St Stephen among Hungarians continued even during Communist rule, albeit underground.

Because Stephen I lived during the Middle Ages, definitive records about certain details of his life are thin on the ground. Yet, enough facts exist to be able to put together a portrait of a devout Christian who was canonised within a century after his death.

Before Stephen was crowned, the country had been ruled by a succession of Grand Princes of the Hungarians. Stephen was the last of those as well as the first king.

He was born between 967 and 975 AD. Most historians settle on 975. He was given a pagan name at birth: Vajk.

At some point, Stephen’s parents — Grand Prince Géza and his wife, Sarolt, — converted to Christianity and were baptised. They, in turn, had their only son Stephen baptised and renamed.

From Grand Prince to King

Stephen succeeded his father as Grand Prince of the Hungarians in 997. For the next three years, he fought wars for the throne against his powerful pagan relative Koppány, who wanted to marry the widowed Sarolt. (Some accounts say that Koppány had converted to Christianity by then, but his troops were overwhelmingly pagan.)

After Stephen won decisively in the year 1000 with Koppány dying on the battlefield, Pope Sylvester II sent him a crown for his coronation, which took place either on December 25, 1000 or January 1, 1001.

This crown (pictured at right) is known as the Holy Crown of Hungary and was used at more than 50 coronations until 1916.

Stephen’s ceremony was conducted according to German coronation traditions. Notably, he was anointed with consecrated oil. This would legitimise his status among Christian rulers of other European countries and territories.

Five years earlier, he had married Gisela of Bavaria, daughter of Henry the Wrangler, Duke of Bavaria, in 995. Tradition has it that Bishop Adalbert of Prague (St Adalbert, Bishop and Martyr) performed the ceremony in Bavaria at Scheyern Castle.

This arranged alliance between the Duke of Bavaria’s and Stephen’s families would prove advantageous in the decades of wars to come. To that end, several of the Duke’s knights were given land in Hungary and settled there.

From a religious perspective, as the Duke of Bavaria was related to Emperor Otto III of the Holy Roman Empire, Gisela would be a Christian wife and mother. Stephen would also use this Christian leverage to convert Hungary from paganism.

Conquest and conversion

Conversion became his primary priority soon after coronation.

Interestingly, although he owed his future power to the Holy Roman Empire, Stephen wanted Hungary’s churches to be independent of — yet friendly with — it. Soon after his coronation, he established an archbishop’s position in Esztergom, which ensured this independence. The first archbishop was appointed either in 1001 or 1002, the year when Pannonhalma Archabbey was founded.

Stephen invited foreign clergy to settle and evangelise in Hungary. Several who knew Bishop Adalbert, by then deceased, took him up on his invitation.

Stephen devised a new set of Christian laws which forced his subjects to give up pagan rituals. His First Book of Laws was deeply intertwined with the faith and stipulated certain observances, e.g. feast days, and confession prior to death (emphases mine):

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[78]

Stephen’s contention for the faith and his reign’s legitimacy displeased many, including some family members.

The young king knew his uncle Gyula The Younger and his family opposed him, so he invaded their homeland of Transylvania to seize the man and his family in 1002 or 1003. He soon converted the people of that region to Christianity by force and established the Diocese of Transylvania at the same time. Gyula later escaped and fled to safety with Boleslav the Brave in the neighbouring Duchy of Poland.

After invading Transylvania, Stephen and his men occupied the lands ruled by Kean, Duke of the Bulgarians and Slavs in 1003. He also invaded Bulgaria in the 1010s.

Some Hungarians were resistant to Stephen’s occupations and forceful conversions. The Hungarian tribes had long before been assigned a colour motif and region. Those in the west were given the colour white, those in the east blue, those in the south red and those in the north black. Hence, the Black Hungarians. To clarify: the colours were those used in their symbols, emblems and standards (flags), nothing to do with skin colour.

The Black Hungarians had resisted conversion. Stephen conquered their land in 1009, and to make his intention clear, brought in a papal legate, Cardinal Azo, to seal the deal. The Bishopric of Pécs was established on August 23, 1009 by royal charter, which also delineated its boundaries.

Stephen also created the Diocese of Eger in the same region. (The Diocese’s Wikipedia page says it was founded in 1000. Stephen I’s page says it was founded in 1009.) The people living in and around Eger are thought to have been Kabars, a Khazar tribe. Stephen made them and their chieftain convert to Christianity, hence the creation of the diocese.

The chieftain’s family, the Abas, were influential in supporting Stephen’s Christian monarchy. Other Hungarian tribal clans also helped. With their support, Stephen was able to establish a network of Hungarian counties, each with a royal fortress which served as a county seat for matters economic and religious. The county seats quickly developed into market towns and economic centres.

A warm relationship between Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire helped Stephen increase his territory. In 1018, the aforementioned Boleslav the Brave ceded his lands in the Morava Valley to the king.

Relations with Otto Orseolo, the Doge of Venice, were also cordial. As Orseolo was related to the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, Hungary maintained friendly relations with that region, too. In fact, Stephen allied with Basil II in an invasion of the Balkan Peninsula to conquer the ‘barbarians’ in 1018.

Christianity in Hungary

During the invasion of the Balkans, Stephen had been collecting saints’ relics, for which he had a plan.

After his return to Hungary in 1018, he opened a new pilgrimage route near the old capital of Esztergom. This new route linked Hungary with Western Europe and the Holy Land.

To provide pilgrims with a centre of worship, Stephen founded a grand, triple-naved basilica dedicated to the Holy Virgin in Székesfehérvár. He donated his relics from the Balkans to the basilica. He also set up a cathedral chapter there and declared the city his new capital.

We do not normally think of the Middle Ages as a time of great international travel and communication. Yet, trade and pilgrimage routes had long been established across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

Therefore, it was not long before word reached the famous French abbot Odile of Cluny, who wrote a letter to Stephen which said, in part:

“those who have returned from the shrine of our Lord” testify to the king’s passion “towards the honour of our divine religion”.[122]

Stephen met pilgrims personally, which helped to increase his fame. He invited some of them to settle in Hungary. Among them was Gerard, a Benedictine monk from the Republic of Venice. It seems he helped Stephen establish several Benedictine monasteries in Hungary between 1020 and 1026.

In order to encourage Christians to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Stephen founded four pilgrim hostels. They were located in Constantinople, Ravenna, Rome and Jerusalem.

A historian of the period, Rodulfus Glaber, wrote of this new and attractive route for pilgrims (emphases mine):

[Almost] all those from Italy and Gaul who wished to go to the Sepulchre of the Lord at Jerusalem abandoned the usual route, which was by sea, making their way through the country of King Stephen. He made the road safe for everyone, welcomed as brothers all he saw and gave them enormous gifts. This action led many people, nobles and commoners, to go to Jerusalem.

Stephen became so well known and loved across Europe that even his coinage was forged. People wanted to own something associated with him. He began issuing silver dinars in 1020, inscribed with STEPHANUS REX (‘King Stephen’) and REGIA CIVITAS (‘royal city’). Forgeries of those coins have been found as far away as Sweden.

Family life

Gisela bore Stephen several sons. He outlived all of them.

Emeric — Henry — lived the longest. Stephen hoped Emeric would succeed him. To that end, Stephen wrote a book of Christian behaviour and morality for him called Admonitions. One brief passage reads:

Be obedient to me, my son. You are a child, descendant of rich parents, living among soft pillows, who has been caressed and brought up in all kinds of comforts; you have had a part neither in the troubles of the campaigns nor in the various attacks of the pagans in which almost my whole life has been worn away.

Another says:

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 lest a benefit which the divine mercy bestowed on us undeservedly should be destroyed and annihilated through your idleness, indolence or neglect.

SaintEmeric.jpgEmeric (pictured at left) was named after Henry II, Gisela’s brother. Henry II was Holy Roman Emperor between 1014 and 1024, the year of his death. Like Stephen, Henry II fought several of the same people in the same lands, albeit on a larger scale. He and his wife, the Empress Cunigunde, were very devout. Their marriage produced no children and some historians posit they were celibate for religious reasons. Henry was canonised in 1147 and Cunigunde in 1200.

Emeric was born around 1007. In addition to religious and moral instruction from Stephen, Emeric also received much tutoring between the ages of 15 and 23 from the aforementioned Venetian monk Gerard.

In 1022, Emeric married. The identity of his wife is still disputed. However, like his uncle Henry II and aunt Cunigunde, Emeric and his wife had a chaste marriage.

By all accounts, Emeric was a saintly young man. It was to Hungarians’ sorrow that, on September 2, 1031, he was killed by a boar whilst hunting.

Stephen and Gisela had Emeric buried in the basilica at Székesfehérvár. After his death, Stephen fell into ill health, from which he never recovered. His territorial and conversion battles over, Stephen devoted his life to Christian practice. He kept various vigils and washed the feet of paupers in his capital.

Politically, Stephen was threatened without a direct successor. Historians dispute whether more than one plot was designed to depose him. His cousin Vasul, a suspected pagan, was thought to have launched an unsuccessful coup against him.

Stephen died on August 15, 1038. Like Emeric, he was buried in the basilica at Székesfehérvár.

His nephew, Peter Orseolo the Venetian, succeeded him. The next four decades were marked by civil wars, a partial return to paganism and foreign invasion.

As a result, Gisela left Hungary in 1045 and returned to her native Bavaria. She became a nun and was Abbess of the Niedernburg Abbey in Passau by 1060.


Szekesfehervar Puspokkut3.jpgPeace and order only returned once Vasul’s grandson Ladislaus I ascended to the throne in 1077.

During the intervening years, Emeric’s grave was the site of many wondrous healings and conversions.

On November 5, 1083, Ladislaus I presided over a grand ceremony at the basilica at which Pope Gregory VII officiated. Emeric’s bones were unearthed for the occasion. Gregory VII canonised Emeric, Stephen and the monk — later Bishop — Gerard of Csanád.

The statue in Székesfehérvár (pictured at right) shows Gerard of Csanád teaching Emeric.

Those travelling to or sightseeing in Hungary will have much fascinating history to discover.