Stephen I, the First Christian Hungarian King
Foundation of the Hungarian Kingdom and Organization of the Hungarian Christian Church
King Stephen I (also known as King Saint Stephen) is one of the most important personalities of Hungarian history. He was the first Christian Hungarian king, the founder of the Hungarian Kingdom and the organizer of the Hungarian Christian Church.
Stephen was born around 970 to Duke Géza and Sarolt, the Christian daughter of the Transylvanian leader Gyula. He received the pagan name Vajk at birth, but he was given the name of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, at his baptism in 972.
Stephen married the deeply religious Gisella, the daughter of Prince Henry of Bavaria, in AD 996. From Bavaria came many missionaries, nobles and knights who settled in Hungary and helped Stephen in converting the country to Christianity.
After the death of Duke Géza in AD 997, Stephen was elected Prince of Hungary. At the very beginning of his reign, a pagan revolt led by his relative Koppány broke out. Koppány planned to kill Stephen, succeed him on the throne and marry the widowed Sarolt. According to chronicles, the young Stephen girded himself with a sword for the first time. He gathered his army, asked for God’s help, then defeated the enemy near Veszprém. Vencellin, the German captain of the army, killed Koppány in the battle. Not only the Hungarian throne was at stake in the battle between Stephen and Koppány, but the nation’s religious future as well: paganism or Christianity. With God’s help, Stephen triumphed in the battle and Christianity won. The Hungarians defended Europe against the pagan invasions in the centuries to follow. Thus, the formerly pagan Hungarian nation became the bulwark of the Christian Europe.
Stephen was crowned king in Esztergom at the turn of the millennium, around Christmas in AD 1000, with a crown sent by Pope Sylvester II, meaning that the pope recognized him as a sovereign Christian king. Thereby, the independent Kingdom of Hungary had been born.
|A miniature from the Illustrated Chronicle: King Stephen arrests Gyula, Prince of Transylvania, in 1002.|
Stephen subdued the Hungarian tribes of the Carpathian Basin either in battles or by peaceful means, and repressed the insurgencies. From the alliance of the Hungarian tribes, he founded the Christian Hungarian Kingdom encompassing the whole Carpathian Basin. The country was divided into ten dioceses and about fifty royal counties. The 10 dioceses were those of Esztergom, Veszprém, Kalocsa, Eger, Győr, Pécs, Vác, Csanád, Bihar and Transylvania.
Among other things, Stephen continued and finished the construction of the Benedictine Monastery of Pannonhalma, founded the convent for Greek nuns at Veszprémvölgy, the monasteries of Bakonybél and Pécsvárad. He built the Church of St. Peter and Paul at Óbuda, a cathedral in Esztergom and another one in Székesfehérvár. Stephen decreed that every ten villages should build a church and provide the priest with servants and land. Inside the abbeys and monasteries schools were established, which became centers of culture. The friars taught Christian European culture in these schools, and their students became not only missionaries, but also the chief men of the king and the counties.
The pilgrims who were on their way to the Holy Land through the Carpathian Basin were received by Stephen in the royal court. He provided them with money and organized their secure jurney across the country. For the Hungarian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land and Rome, he built guesthouses in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Ravenna and Rome.
Stephen eliminated pagan customs with just laws, and he strengthened Christianity. He gave generously to the churches, visited them frequently, and supervised their renovation in person. According to the Illustrated Chronicle of Mark Kalt (one of the most trustworthy documents on early Hungarian history, written between 1358–1370), Stephen carried a purse full of silver dinars on his belt and whenever he saw a poor man, he took care of him personally.
The monk from Venice, Gerard (Gellért), who later became the bishop of Csanád, preached the Gospel to the Hungarians for the first time in the Monastery at Pécsvárad. Afterwards, he was introduced to King Stephen, who asked him to stay in Hungary and preach the Gospel to the people there. Subsequently, Gerard converted and baptized many Hungarians.
Stephen wrote the Admonitiones (Admonitions) in Latin for his beloved and talented Christian son Imre. This writing was the most noteworthy piece of literature in Hungary at that time. After his power was consolidated, Stephen planned to abdicate in the favor of Imre and dedicate the rest of his life to God. The Illustrated Chronicle reports about this in chapter 69:
“After God’s glory and mercy was made manifest in King Saint Stephen, by driving off kings before him and subduing the principalities and powers of the neighboring nations, King Saint Stephen decided and was determined to leave all the pomp of this world, to lay down the crown of the fleeting earthly kingship and to dedicate himself to God only. He planned to cast off worldly problems, to spend his life in quiet peacefulness and contemplation, and to give the crown to his son, Prince Imre, who was blessed and full of holy virtues and was raised this way.”
But Imre died unexpectedly in 1031: “By God’s secret decision, he died, so that wickedness would not change his soul and false imaginations would not deceive his mind—as the Book of Wisdom teaches about early death.” (Chapter 63) Mourning took its toll on Stephen and he became very ill:
“The great and bitter anguish made King Saint Stephen very sick; after many days his health recovered somewhat, but his old health never returned. He suffered from pains in the foot and was tormented by sadness, mainly because he couldn’t find anyone among his brethren who would keep the Hungarians in their Christian faith after his death. For Hungarians were attracted more to pagan rituals than to the faith in Christ. (Chapter 69)”
King Stephen died on August 15, 1038 at Székesfehérvár (a city in central Hungary) and he was buried there. His people mourned for three years:
“The songs played on lutes turned sorrowful all over Hungary immediately. The people of the country, nobles and common people, rich and poor, all wept together over the death of the blessed king. With many tears and cries did they mourn the merciful father of the orphans. For grief and sadness did they dress in mourning. Young men and virgins did not dance for three years. The musical instruments which played sweet melodies became silent. Everyone, every faithful heart mourned him with great, inconsolable lamentation. (Chapter 70)”
The feast day of King Stephen is celebrated in Hungary on August 20. This is the greatest national holiday of the Hungarians.