9. St Stephen first King (AD 1000)

The later St Stephen - who had had the pagan name Vajk until he was baptised in his teens - had been in his early twenties when he succeeded his father Duke Géza (970-997). Promptly, forcefully and with ruthless efficiency he asserted his supremacy over the nation and several obstreperous elder relatives, who disputed his right to the succession (supreme leadership had hitherto been elective by seniority within the ruling family, not by primogeniture). He then asked for and received a royal crown from Pope Sylvester II - by his choice of patron demonstrating his determination to keep Hungary independent of both the Western and the Byzantine Empires - and with it he was crowned the first King of Hungary in the year 1000.

Next he set about converting all his people to Western (Latin) Christianity, founding and endowing two Archbishoprics - Metropolitan Sees directly under the jurisdiction of Rome - and eight Bishoprics, as well as a number of Benedictine monasteries (which introduced the vine alongside the Gospel). Parish churches were built in towns and larger villages and, to encourage the populace to attend these, St Stephen decreed that markets be held in places with a church, on Sundays (still vasárnap, market-day, in Hungarian). Within two decades the country was sufficiently Christian for the designation of an official pilgrim route to the Holy Land through it. Of earlier pagan beliefs all traces were soon to vanish, so that we now know nothing about what these had been.

In recognition of his success, in his lifetime the Pope granted him the title Apostolic King - not that different from the Byzantine Emperors' proud Equal of the Apostles (and five centuries older than Defender of the Faith) - and the right to use the Apostolic double cross. All Kings of Hungary styled themselves Apostolic until 1918, and the double cross is in Hungary's arms to this day.

When his tomb was opened in 1083, on the occasion of his canonisation, his right hand was found to be uncorrupted - it is venerated as a relic to this day. (All in all the House of Árpád gave the Church five saints: Kings Stephen and László, Prince Imre, and the Princesses Elizabeth, daughter of Andrew II, and Margaret, daughter of Béla IV).

St Stephen was equally energetic in dealing with secular matters, dividing Hungary into Counties - governed by royal officials, not feudal counts - that disregarded clan boundaries, and organizing defensive fortifications around the country's borders, also entrusted to royal officials. On the other hand, he carefully avoided creating territorially based feudal fiefs, then fashionable in most of Europe. Land was merely held freehold under the Crown, not by feudal vassalage. Moreover, large estates were not single blocks of territory, but numerous small packets of land scattered all over the country. No office, title or dignity - other than the Crown - was hereditary.

The acceptance and integration of persons of non-Hungarian stock - whether already in situ or new immigrants - was encouraged: a nation of one race is feeble, he wrote for his son's guidance. By his death the decrees issued during his reign - many informed by Carolingian precedents, but all tailored to fit the specific task in hand - that regulated every aspect of the administration, revenues and defence of the realm, as well as the rights (notably: as regards property and inheritance) and obligations of his subjects, filled two volumes. Many were still cited in lawsuits in the 19th century. And the earliest Hungarian coins, silver denarii, date from his reign.

The Western Emperor was his brother-in-law, with the Byzantine he had concluded a treaty of friendship, thus he could get on with transforming Hungary unhindered by foreign wars.

There can be little doubt that but for St Stephen's successful efforts to transform the country into a Christian monarchy, endowed with administrative structures and a legal code that stood the test of time, there might be no nation and state called Hungary in Europe to this day.

Continue with 10. Settling in (10th c) and before or go back to the Contents or to the Hungary page.