The Hungarian Pagan Revolt of 1046 and the Martyrdom of Bishop Gellért

The Hungarian Pagan Revolt of 1046 and the Martyrdom of Bishop Gellért

King Stephen I of Hungary died on August 15, 1038. Before his death, he designated Peter Orseolo, the son of his sister and the doge of Venice, her husband, as his successor. Peter became king of Hungary after Stephen’s death. He taxed and oppressed the people heavily. He despised the Hungarian advisers, took sides with the foreigners and defrauded the widowed queen Gisella. In 1041, the Hungarian nobles deposed Peter and crowned Aba Sámuel king. However, Samuel turned out to be a tyrant (his death was foretold by bishop Gellért). Peter fled to Germany, but in 1044 he returned and took over the throne again with the help of Emperor Henry III. Peter then subordinated Hungary to the emperor, ending its independence. The common people and the nobles of Hungary joined together to overthrow his reign. They sent messengers to Kiev in 1046, to call András (Andrew) and Levente back from Russian soil and install them into power.

the crypt
The crypt of King Andrew (1015–1060) in the church of the Tihany Abbey, Hungary, founded by him.

András (Andrew), Levente and Béla were the sons of Vazul, King Stephen’s cousin. They fled Hungary before Stephen’s death to avoid a possible attempt on their lives, and went to Bohemia, then to Poland, where Béla married the daughter of the Polish monarch. András and Levente continued their way to Russia and settled in the court of Yaroslav the Wise in Kiev. András married Princess Anastasia and they both became faithful Christians, while Levente remained pagan.

Many Hungarians planned to use the return of Andrew and Levente to abolish Christianity and revert to the pagan faith. The uprising turned into a pagan revolt. The pagans led by a noble called Vata started raging campaigns to destroy churches and kill Christians. As a result of the horrible slaughter, a multitude of Christians were martyred, among them the bishops Gellért (Gerard), Besztrik and Buldi.

The pagan Levente and the Christian András joined forces with the rebels for a short time, but when the pagans started a war against Christians and killed the bishops on the banks of the Danube River, András turned against them with the help of the Christians and the Russians in his escort. The revolt was suppressed, Peter killed and András crowned king (reigned 1046–1060).

Bishop Gellért (Gerard) was born to a noble family in Venice around 980, his original name being Giorgio di Sagredo. As a boy he became very sick. His parents took him to a Benedictine monastery and vowed that if he regained his health they would dedicate him to God and leave him in the monastery. He recovered and became a Benedictine. His father Gellért (Gerard) died during a pilgrimage. Giorgio changed his name to Gellért in his father’s memory. After his studies at Bologna, he was chosen abbot of the monastery, but he left for the Holy Land in AD 1015. On his journey he met Rasian, the abbot of Pannonhalma, who invited him to Hungary. Gellért accepted the invitation. King Stephen I of Hungary was so impressed by the preaching of the talented young Gellért, that he entrusted him with the tutoring of the 8 year-old Prince Imre. Gellért trained him for 7 years, and Imre became a noble-minded, exceptional Christian prince. Gellért spent the next 7 years in solitude in the Bakony Mountains, where he studied the Holy Scriptures and wrote his commentaries on the Bible. His book entitled Deliberatio is probably the first exegesis written in Hungary. After King Stephen I appointed him the bishop of Csanád and asked him to organize the diocese, Gellért went to preach the Gospel of Christ to the pagans in Transylvania (the western part of modern Romania). He preached, baptized the converted, and founded schools, churches, deaneries. Gellért was martyred on the shore of the Danube River, in the area of modern Budapest, in 1046.

This is what the Illustrated Chronicle of Mark Kalt (one of the most trustworthy documents on early Hungarian history, written between 1358–1370), writes about the pagan revolt of 1046 and the martyrdom of Gellért and his fellow bishops:


“Seeing the affliction of their nation, the Hungarian nobles gathered together at Csanád and held a council. In the name of the whole country, they sent messengers to András and Levente in Russia, asking them to come home to Hungary and defend the people from the angry Germans, assuring them that the whole country was waiting for them and would follow them whole-heartedly, as they would a royal family. The nobles swore that when András and Levente entered Hungary, all Hungarians would gather around them and accept them as their leaders.

saint gellert
The Saint Gellért cliff in Budapest, viewed from the shore of the Danube River. The pagans hurled down bishop Gellért from the top of this cliff.

82. Being afraid of a trap, András and Levente sent messengers to Hungary in secret. But when they later arrived to Újvár—a city built by King Aba—, a multitude of Hungarians gathered around them. The people being led by demonic impulses asked András and Levente to let them live according to pagan customs, kill the priests and bishops, destroy the churches, cast away the Christian faith and worship idols. András and Levente let the people follow their hearts and become lost as their ancestors were, otherwise they would not have fought on their side against King Peter.

A man called Vata from the Belus fortress was the first to dedicate himself to the devil. He shaved off his hair leaving three tails of hair on his head according to pagan customs. After some time, János (John), his son, followed in his father’s steps. He gathered around himself many magicians, fortune-tellers and shamans and became very influential among the rich. His priestess called Rasdi was later imprisoned by the Christian King Béla for such a long time that she ate her own legs and died. According to the old books on the deeds of the Hungarians, it was absolutely forbidden for Christians to take wives from the family of Vata and János, as these men turned away the Hungarian people from the Gospel of Christ during the time of grace, the same way as Dathan and Abiram stirred rebellion against God during Old Testament times.

At the cursed and damnable instigation of Vata, all the people dedicated themselves to the devil, eating horse-meat and doing many wicked things. They killed the Christians and the priests, destroyed many churches, revolted against King Peter and cruelly killed the Germans and Italians all over Hungary who held diverse offices. During the night, they sent three messengers to Peter’s camp to announce the commands of András and Levente, that bishops, priests and tax collectors should be killed, pagan customs are to be followed and even the memory of Peter and his Germans and Italians should vanish.

The following morning, King Peter heard all these things and found out that the two brothers had returned, and at their commands the Hungarians had killed his officers, but he concealed his dismay, trying to appear cheerful. He broke up his camp and crossed the Danube River at Zsitvatő, planning to go to Székesfehérvár. But the Hungarians realized his intentions, entered the city before him, occupied the bastions and the towers, shut the gates and did not let him enter the city.

83. In the meantime, András and Levente advanced with the multitude through central Hungary to the crossing point on the Danube River which is commonly called Pest. When bishops Gellért, Besztrik, Buldi and Beneta and governor Szolnok heard this, they left the city of Székesfehérvár and went to meet princes András and Levente and welcome them with respect.

When they arrived to the above mentioned crossing point, the wicked Vata and his accomplices, possessed by the demons to whom they had dedicated themselves, attacked the bishops and their companions and stoned them. Bishop Saint Gellért made the sign of the cross constantly to those who stoned him, which angered them even more. They overturned the cart of the bishop, put him on a trundle and hurled him down the cliffs of Kelenföld. Since he was still breathing, they thrust a spear through his chest and dashed his brain on a stone. This is how Christ’s glorious martyr left the ills of this world for eternal bliss. Many times, the Danube River overflew its banks and covered the stone on which Saint Gellért’s head was crushed; but couldn’t wash the blood off in seven years. Finally, the priests took the stone, carried it to Csanád and placed it on Gellért’s altar. A church was built in the memory of the blessed martyr Gellért where his head was crushed, at the foot of the cliff. Gellért was a Benedictine born in Venice. He came to Pannonia, lived as a hermit in Bél at first, then he became the bishop of the Church at Csanád.

84. Bishop Buldi was stoned to death and departed to the glorious afterlife. Besztrik and Beneta crossed the Danube in a boat to András and Levente. The pagans on the other side of the river inflicted a wound upon bishop Besztrik; he died on the third day. In the meantime Prince András arrived there and delivered bishop Beneta from the hands of the pagans. Saint Gellért’s prophecy came to pass, as all of them were martyred except Beneta. Governor Szolnok jumped in the Danube with his horse and as he was drifting, the boat of a man named Murtmur came and saved him from certain death. Murtmur had been baptized by Szolnok. When he tried to save Szolnok, the pagans threatened him with death if he would not kill the governor. Murtmur became terrified and killed the governor with a sword in his own boat. So many priests and other Christians were martyred for Christ that day, that only God and the angels know their number.”


east from the toptop of the saint
Looking to the east from the top of the Saint Gellért cliff, one can see the Danube and Pest, the east side of Budapest.View from the top of the Saint Gellért cliff towards the Danube and the northern part of Budapest. The domed building on the right is the Hungarian Parliament.


Stephen I, the First Christian Hungarian King