HISTORY

HUNGARY HAS BEEN INHABITED to some extent since the Neolithic period, but it was not until 895 CE, when a nomadic Magyar people from the east populated the Carpathian basin, that the country gave rise to the powerful and influential kingdom that has survived to this day. Under their leader, Árpád, the loosely cohesive Principality of Hungary grew in strength. Through interaction with the Holy Roman Empire, violent and otherwise, Western culture pervaded that of the Hungarians, and Christianity spread. At the turn of the millennium, Hungary officially accepted the Catholic faith and, with the coronation of the Árpád king Stephen (István) I, became a kingdom of Europe as recognized by the Pope.

Corona, a German settlement at the edges of Szekely Land

The kingdom, stretching from modern-day Slovakia to eastern Romania, was divided into a number of counties within the feudal system, each under the governance of a noble. The burgeoning nation attracted German and Romanian settlers, and trade and construction flourished. In the 12th century, an ethnic group closely related to the Magyars, the Székelys, settled the southeastern region of the kingdom. The Székelys – a Hungarian expression meaning “frontier guards” – played a pivotal role in the defense of Hungary, especially with their cavalry, and, in return for military services, enjoyed a partial autonomy from the monarchy. The Székely government consisted of regional seats, led by the Count of the Székelys, who typically was a Hungarian nobleman and lived just outside Székely Lands. Despite the continuing increase of population and commerce, the Kingdom of Hungary still remained a largely uncultivated land with vast regions of untamed forest, mountains, and marshland.

Temple Preceptory in Vrana, Dalmatia

Many scholars agree that with the Second Crusade (1145-49) came the arrival of the Knights Templar in Hungary. First residing in the Benedictine monastery in Vrana, Croatia, the Templars expanded from the Dalmatian Coast into central Hungary, establishing preceptories – small communities of knights of the order – as well as attached Temple estates. Primarily funded by the Hungarian monarchy, the Templars attended to monastic duties, maintained the safety of the roads, and participated in subsequent crusades. Following a brief conflict between the Hungarian king and his nobility, the Golden Bull of 1222, one of the first contracts limiting the powers of the monarchy, was instituted. Under this system, nobles possessed certain liberties and privileges that promoted a thriving merchant class. The rising prosperity of the nation was curtailed by the swift devastation of the Mongols in 1241. Under the reign of King Béla IV, the Mongol hordes invaded Hungary and sacked and pillaged the countryside. At the Battle of Mohi, the Hungarian army, augmented slightly by Templar knights, was destroyed, allowing the Mongols unrestricted access to the country. During the year of their occupation, fields were burned, towns were razed, and the population halved.

Fortress built during the reign of King Béla IV

But, after the Mongols withdrew to Asia in 1242, Hungary was rebuilt and this time stronger. King Béla IV encouraged and facilitated the construction of numerous fortresses across the countryside to defend against a potential second invasion. Around this time, the Cumans, a nomadic Turkish people of the Eurasian Steppe who sought asylum from the Mongols, settled central Hungary by leave of King Béla. Referred to as the “Qun” people, simply meaning “nomad” in Old Hungarian, many chose to repopulate abandoned villages and towns and proved a valuable asset to the monarchy as formidable warriors. Along with the Cumans came the Jász people of Iranian origin, who settled central Hungary as well. Two decades after the Mongol invasion, a new period of violence broke out when Béla’s dissatisfied son, Stephen (István) V, rebelled against his father. After several skirmishes, they came to a compromise, and Stephen V reigned briefly after his father’s death in 1270. In 1277 his son, King Ladislaus (László) IV, took the throne. Allying himself with the king of Germany, Rudolf I, he fought against Ottokar II of Bohemia over a land dispute, achieving victory in the Battle on the Marchfeld, in which his cavalry played a preeminent role.

Ladislaus’s fortune was short-lived, however. His lenient rule weakened his power and threatened the Pope’s Catholic predominance in the region. When the papal legate was sent to Hungary to consolidate the monarchy’s authority, he was surprised to find thousands of pagan Cumans. The son of a Cuman mother, Ladislaus initially refused to convert the tribesmen, but finally, after he was captured by the legate’s partisans and excommunicated by the Pope, he agreed. At the end of the 13th century, dissatisfaction with the monarchy as well as the Pope created a rising tension in Hungary – a tension that steadily grew among the church, the king, the nobles, and the chieftains…

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