8. Early Midle Ages (12th-11th c)

In the 12th century, and especially under Andrew's father Béla III (1172-96) - educated, until he was past twenty, in Constantinople at the Court of Manuel lI Comnenos, a kinsman through his mother Irene, an Árpád princess by birth - the Crown had been powerful and wealthy, and Hungary well governed.

On coming to the throne Béla III had thoroughly reorganised the country's government, in line with Byzantine administrative practice. In particular, he expanded the Royal Chancellery, upgraded the post of Chancellor, and made written documents compulsory in all dealings with the Crown, as well as in all contracts and legal proceedings between private individuals. His revenues - listed in a document now in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, probably compiled when he married Margaret, a daughter of Louis VII of France - would appear to have equalled or even exceeded the revenues of the contemporary Kings of France or England. Hungary was rich, in part, because it accounted for a significant proportion of the gold, silver, and copper mined in Europe throughout most of the Middle Ages.

Earlier in the century relations with Byzantium had often been strained, largely due to repeated wars over Dalmatia. There were also frequent tensions with Hungary's powerful western neighbours, the Hohenstaufen Emperors (in particular Frederic I Barbarossa), Hungary repeatedly siding with the Papacy in its struggle - then at its peak - with the Empire. Every so often a younger brother of the King, and on one occasion the uncles of a boy-King, sought the backing of one or the other of these neighbours in attempts to obtain the throne, but none managed to displace the rightful incumbent.

Crusading armies, taking the comfortable land route down the Danube to the Levant, kept passing through Hungary. Several of those who so crossed the country on their way to the Holy Land describe it as a prosperous and well governed realm - perhaps because its kings politely declined invitations to participate in Crusades, limiting themselves to entertaining passing crusading leaders in royal style.

The first to do so had been Coloman (1095-1116) - known as the Bookish since, of unimposing physique, he had originally been intended for the Church and was, doubtless, literate - who entertained Godfrey of Bouillon and his entourage on their way to the First Crusade and the capture of Jerusalem, while firmly curbing the initial excesses of the crusading rabble. He is mainly memorable for the extensive legislation of his reign - including a decree that forbade the persecution of witches quia strigiis non sunt - and also because, having married the Norman Brusilla of Sicily, he took possession of the Dalmatian coastline of the Adriatic for Hungary (wisely permitting the trading cities of the littoral to retain their self-governing status).

He had succeeded his uncle László I (1077-95), a monarch who sought to embody the ideal of preux chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. Canonised a century later, he is known in Hungarian history as St László. He fended off repeated incursions of the Cumans from the east, and joined the Crowns of Croatia and Slavonia (whose ruler, his sister Helen's husband Zvonomir, had died without issue) to that of Hungary, founding the Bishopric of Zagreb in 1094.

But his main achievement was to restore peace and order to a country that had been rent by civil wars over the succession during the four decades preceding his reign. In the course of those four decades Hungary had had no less than six Kings - brothers, cousins, uncles and nephews fighting one another for the throne - and had suffered a final and bloody anti-Christian uprising, supported by one of the claimants. During the same period, taking advantage of internal strife, the Western Empire tried, but failed, to establish its suzerainty over Hungary. This chaotic period had resulted from the untimely death, in a hunting accident in 1031, of Prince Imre, only son and heir.

Had he lived it might, perhaps, have been avoided. Prince Imre had been carefully groomed for the throne, tutored by a learned Venetian monk, the later martyred St Gellért (Gerard). And some time between 1010-1020 a volume of detailed instructions - commonly, if slightly incorrectly, known as Admonitiones - was compiled for his future guidance, which bears every mark of the personal participation in its preparation of his father, King St Stephen (997-1038).

Continue with 9. St Stephen first King (AD 1000) or go back to the Contents or to the Hungary page.