7. First Parliaments, last Árpáds (13th c)

Barons powerful enough to decide the fate of the Crown, and defy it, had only emerged in Hungary in the second half of the 13th century. By the time the last of the Árpád dynasty Andrew III (1290-1301) - born and brought up in Venice, his mother's home - came to the throne the country was carved up between a dozen or so. Although never possessed of hereditary titles nor of fiefdoms in the feudal sense, each of these had come to control large tracts of Hungary as he saw fit. And they had taken to sharing out the main offices and dignities of state amongst themselves.

Owing to his early death Andrew III failed to break their power by dividing them against one another. However, during his brief reign the constitutional forms adhered to thereafter acquired their final shape. Moulded by churchmen trained in iuris utriusque at Bologna, foremost among them Archbishop Ladomér of Esztergom, these forms - developed in parallel with and in response to the growth of excessive baronial power - from now on gave the Diet a formal voice in the making of laws and policy, alongside the Crown.

Amongst the novel principles that now became established three, in particular, radically changed the way the country was to be governed. First, the validity of each King's accession was tied to the Diet's approval of his coronation. Second, on being crowned the King had to swear a Coronation Oath, to preserve the liberties of his subjects and the territorial integrity of the realm, before his subjects swore an oath of loyalty to him. Third, and most significant, legislation - hitherto issued as Royal Decrees expressing the sovereign will of the monarch - was henceforth passed by the Diet, in the form of numbered articles, to which the monarch merely assented, to bring them into force, as they stood.

During the reign of Andrew III the Diet used its new powers to pass laws that, inter alia, obliged the Crown to obtain the Diet's approval to appointments to the senior offices of the realm, and that required of these same senior office-holders that they give an annual account of their stewardship to the Diet. While it would be naive to pretend that such laws were thereafter always observed to the letter, the principles of parliamentary government had been established.

These innovations were the culmination of a process that had started as recently as 1267, when elected representatives of the lesser nobility (nobiles, as the freemen start being referred to from about this time) of all Counties met, at their own initiative, at Esztergom. At that time the conclusions of their debates - reduced to ten articles, largely concerned with grievances but including the request that the Crown convene such a meeting every year - were merely submitted as a humble petition to the King, Béla IV (1235-70), who deigned to incorporate them in a Royal Decree.

Ten years on, in 1277, representatives of the Counties were already invited, in the name of the Crown, to join the bishops and barons in their deliberations. Jointly they declared that László IV (1272-90) had attained his majority, and approved the draft of a treaty of alliance with the Emperor Rudolph of Habsburg (which was to have lasting, if unintended, long-term consequences for Hungary: had it not been for Hungarian military support in 1278, the Habsburgs might never have settled into neighbouring Austria). This joint meeting of bishops, barons and elected representatives of the Counties - congregatio generalis - was then repeated most years, to grow into the Diet, first referred to as parlamentum publicum in 1289.

The growth of baronial power had been at its most rampant at much the same time, during the reign of the penultimate King of the Árpád dynasty, László IV surnamed the Cuman. Much reviled, he may be more deserving of pity. Kidnapped when still heir; crowned a few months later, on his father's death, aged but ten; pushed about by competing baronial factions, his efforts to assert himself, still only a teenager, undone by the interference of an opinionated Papal Legate. All of which might explain why, by the time he was twenty, he chose a dissolute life of drunken womanising amongst the semi-barbaric Cumans, blithely defying excommunication - to be murdered in his sleep when only twenty-eight.

His father Stephen V (1270-72) - who had died of grief after the boy's kidnapping, by a trusted dignitary allegedly in cahoots with his Queen (a Cuman by birth) - had himself been a less than perfect son, who had forced his own father Béla IV to hand him half the country to rule as Junior King in 1261. This of course enabled the barons to accumulate ever more power and wealth, by selling their allegiance alternately to the old and young King.

It had been a bitter conclusion to the reign of Béla IV, who had had to rebuild a country devastated by the invasion of the Mongols in 1241-42. During this one quarter to one third of the population is estimated to have perished, towns and villages were left in ruins (some to vanish for ever), fields remained untilled for several years. Most of Hungary's properly fortified castles and towns - including the new town of Buda (today's Castle Hill, Vár, in Budapest), which became the new capital - were first constructed or surrounded by solid stone walls in the decades following the invasion, against the return of the Mongols.

However, to supplement the Crown's efforts, Béla IV had found it necessary to relax his earlier policy of clamping down on the barons, whom he granted extensive estates on condition that they too built castles and raised troops of horse in heavy armour. Intended to strengthen the country, these measures laid the foundations of excessive baronial power (thus, for instance, by the 1290s barons owned 136 fortified castles to the Crown's 30). And to provide additional troops he settled the Cumans in Hungary, marrying their chieftain's daughter Elizabeth to his son Stephen.

When still heir Béla IV had also been in opposition to his father, Andrew II (1205-35), but with better reason than his son. Andrew II was a singularly weak and incompetent King, who mismanaged and impoverished the country, indulging in pointless campaigns in Galicia east of the Carpathians, depreciating the coinage, and making excessive grants to favoured courtier-barons. On several occasions - at the request of his son - his closest councillors were excommunicated and the Court placed under interdict.

This was after he had already been forced to issue a charter of rights, the Golden Bull, in 1222. Directed against the barons as much as the Crown, its provisions extending to all freemen, it became the pivot of the subsequent advance of the freemen's successors, who came to be called the nobility. Enacted as a statute by the Diet during the reign of Louis I, many of its articles remained in force until 1848.

The immediate trigger for the Golden Bull had been unrest verging on armed rebellion caused by the first ever exceptional tax in the country's history, imposed by Andrew II to pay for debts he had incurred by going on a Crusade (the Fifth) in 1217. He had done so but four years after he had meekly pardoned the slayers of Queen Gertrude, and her German relatives and hangers-on, some of the leading dignitaries of the realm (apparently including the Palatine Bánk), who wished to rid the country of her malign influence.

Continue with the 8. Early Middle Ages (12th-11th c) or go back to the Contents or to the Hungary page.