Béla IV of Hungary

From New World Encyclopedia
Béla IV c.1270

Béla IV (1206 - May 3, 1270) was King of Hungary and Croatia (1214-1270) and Duke of Styria (1254-1258). Béla was present, at the age of seven, when a group of conspirators killed his mother, and he could never forgive his father's generosity towards the conspirators' accomplices. Shortly after, he was crowned junior king (rex iunior) and governed several provinces of the Kingdom of Hungary during his father's reign. He endeavored to restore the royal power that had declined since the death of his grandfather, King Béla, which resulted in permanent conflicts between Béla and his father. When he ascended the throne, he determined to revive his grandfather's internal policy which made him unpopular among his barons. However, he soon had to face the threat of the Mongol invasion of Europe. To strengthen his military force, he granted asylum to the Cumans who were fleeing the Mongols conquests in Kievan Rus'.

After the Tatar invasion he became one of the most famous Hungarian kings, even though the Mongol armies defeated his troops in a decisive battle. He escaped to the farthest fortress of his kingdom as the Mongols pillaged the country. When the Mongol troops unexpectedly withdrew, Béla returned and commenced reconstruction of his devastated kingdom; he patronized towns, constructed new fortresses and encouraged immigration. His success is reflected by his Hungarian popular epithet, "the Second Founder of our Country." During the second period of his reign, he expanded his rule over neighboring countries. Instead of attempting to restore quasi-absolute royal power, he now delegated authority to the provinces. Conflict with his eldest son, Stephen V characterized his last years. Béla IV was prepared, unlike many other rulers, to learn from experience and modified his policies accordingly, showing willingness to change direction. Often caught in the middle of civilizational conflict, the Hungarian people have had to follow Béla's example and reconstruct their nation several times. Béla IV policy of inviting migrants to assist the task of nation-building informed a tendency for Hungarians to regard themselves as part of the wider human family, rather than to construct an "us" verses "others" mentality.

Early life

Béla was the eldest son of King Andrew II of Hungary and his first wife, Gertrude of Merania. Upon Pope Innocent III's request, the ecclesiastic and temporal dignitaries of the Kingdom of Hungary took an oath before his birth that they would accept him as his father's successor.

The infant Béla was probably present when a group of conspirators murdered his mother on September 28, 1213. Following the murder, his father ordered only the execution of the conspirators' leader and forgave the other members of the group, which resulted in Béla's emerging antipathy against his father.

In the beginning of 1214, Béla was engaged to a daughter of Tzar Boril of Bulgaria. Shortly afterward, he was crowned junior king. When his father left for a Crusade in August 1217, his maternal uncle, Archbishop Berthold of Kalocsa took Béla to the fortress of Steyr in Styria and he returned to Hungary one year later, following his father's return from the Holy Land.

Rex iunior

In 1220, Béla married Maria Laskarina, a daughter of the Emperor Theodore I Laskaris of Nicaea and his father entrusted him with the government of Slavonia. However, King Andrew II, who had arranged Béla's marriage during his return from the Crusade, persuaded Béla to separate from his wife in 1222. Pope Honorius III, however, denied to declare their marriage null and void; therefore Béla took back his wife and escaped to Austria fearing of his father's anger. Finally, King Andrew II made an agreement with his son with the mediation of the Pope and Béla took over again the government of Slavonia, Dalmatia and Croatia.

As governor, Béla commenced, with the authorization of the Pope, to take back the royal domains that King Andrew II had granted to his partisans during the first half of his reign. He laid siege to Klis, the fortress of a turbulent Croatian baron who had to surrender.

In 1226, his father entrusted him with the government of Transylvania, where he assisted the missionary work of the Blackfriars among the Cuman tribes who settled down in the territories west of the Dniester River. As a result of their missionary work, two chieftains of the Cumans, Bartz and Membrok were baptized and they acknowledged Béla's overlordship around 1228. In the meantime, Béla began to organize the Banat of Szörény, a march of the kingdom.

In 1228, he commenced to re-appropriate royal properties that his father had "granted the kingdom's grandees, and to re-establish the system of counties" that his father had dismantled.[1] However, his military failure in Halych, when assisting his younger brother, Andrew, weakened his influence and King Andrew II put an end to the revision of his former donations. During the early 1230s, Béla took part in the military expeditions of his father against Halych and Austria.

His relation with his father even worsened, when King Andrew II married, on May 14, 1234, Beatrice D'Este, who was thirty years his younger.

The first years of his reign

When his father died on September 21, 1235, Béla ascended the throne without any opposition and Archbishop Robert of Esztergom crowned him on October 14 in Székesfehérvár. Shortly after, he accused his young stepmother and his father's main adviser, Denis, Apud's son of adultery and ordered their arrest.

Béla's main purpose was to restore the royal power that had weakened during his father's rule; for example, he ordered the burning of his advisers' seats, because he wanted to force them to stand in the presence of the king. As he also wanted to strengthen the position of the towns, he confirmed the charter of Székesfehérvár and granted new privileges to several key towns in the kingdom (Pest, Nagyszombat, Selmecbánya, Korpona, Zólyom, Bars, and Esztergom). He sent Friar Julian to find the Magyar tribes who had remained in their eastern homeland. Friar Julian, after meeting with the eastern Magyars returned to Hungary in 1239 and informed Béla of the planned Mongol invasion of Europe. Béla wanted to take precautions against the Mongols; therefore, he granted asylum, in Hungary, to the Cumans who had been defeated by the Mongols. However, the nomadic culture of the Cumans caused tensions between them and the Hungarians which became more and more acute.

Béla tried to reinforce the eastern borders of his kingdom, but the Mongol troops, led by Batu Khan, managed to break through the frontier defenses on March 12 1241. On hearing of the Mongols' successful attack, the citizens of Pest, who had been accusing the Cumans of cooperating with the Mongols, murdered Köten, the Khan of the Cumans; the enraged Cumans then began to plunder the countryside and left the country.

The Mongol invasion of Hungary (tatárjárás)

Béla IV flees from Mohi, detail from Chronicon Pictum

After the Cumans' departure, Béla could lead only a small army against the Mongols who defeated him in the Battle of Mohi on April 11, 1241. After his disastrous defeat, Béla fled to Pozsony and then to Hainburg where Duke Frederick II of Austria seized his treasury and enforced him to cede three western counties of his kingdom to Austria.

Béla fled from Hainburg to Zagreb and he sent his envoys to the Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX to seek their assistance against the Mongols. He even offered to accept the overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperor in case he sent troops to Hungary, but none of the Western powers provided him any assistance.

In the meantime, the Mongols were plundering the territories of the kingdom west of the Danube River. Moreover, in January, they could cross the frozen Danube and Béla had to flee from the Mongol troops, the khan sent to capture him, to Trogir (then called Trau).

Finally, in March 1241, the Mongol troops retired unexpectedly from Hungary, but they left a country totally pillaged behind them.

The "Second Founder of our Country"

Following the Mongol invasion of Hungary, Béla reversed his former internal policy. Based on the experiences of the occupation, he began to grant estates to his partisans simultaneously obliging them to build up fortresses, because only fortresses could resist the conquerors. He also encouraged the towns to protect themselves by erecting walls. He called back the Cumans to Hungary and granted them the deserted territories between the Rivers Danube and Tisza. He also encouraged Jews to settle in Hungary and granted them legal rights.[2] "The enactment of King Béla of the basic charter for Hungarian Jewry seems to have been part of his program of reconstruction with the intention of luring additional Jews in order to provide economic vitalization" writes one historian.[3]

Because of his successful internal policy, he is greatly respected in Hungary where he is commonly known as "the second founder" of the kingdom.

External expansions

In 1242, he was read to lead his troops against Duke Frederick II of Austria. During his campaign, he managed to reoccupy Sopron and Kőszeg and he compelled the duke to renounce the three counties he had occupied during the Mongol invasion.

On June 30, 1244, Béla made a peace with the Republic of Venice and he surrendered his supremacy over Zadar (then called Zara) but he retained a third of the Dalmatian city's revenues of customs. In 1245, Béla provided military assistance to his son-in-law, Prince Rostislav against Prince Danylo of Halych, but the latter forced back the pretender's attacks.

Upon his request, Pope Gregory IX absolved Béla of his oath he had taken to the Holy Roman Emperor during the Mongol invasion on August 21, 1245. Shortly after this, Duke Frederick II of Austria, who did not give up his claims to the western counties of the Kingdom of Hungary, launched an attack against Hungary. He defeated the Hungarian troops in a battle by the Leitha River, but died in the battle. With his death, the male line of the House of Babenberg became extinct, and a struggle commenced for the rule over Austria and Styria.

Béla granted the Banat of Szörény to the Knights Hospitaller in 1249, when a rumor was spreading that the Mongols were preparing a new campaign against Europe. In the same year, he assisted again his son-in-law against Halych, but Prince Danylo defeated his troops by the San River. Finally, Béla decided to make an agreement with the Prince of Halych and they had a meeting in Zólyom in 1250 where Béla promised that he would not assist his son-in-law against Prince Danylo.

Béla decided to intervene in the struggle for the inheritance of the House of Babenberg and arranged a marriage between Gertrude of Austria, the niece of the deceased Duke Frederick II of Austria, and Roman Danylovich, a son of Prince Danylo of Halych. In 1252, he led his armies against Austria and occupied the Vienna Basin. However, King Ottokar II of Bohemia, whose wife was Margaret, the sister of Duke Frederick II, also declared his claim to the two duchies. Béla made a campaign against Moravia but he could not occupy Olomouc; therefore, he started negotiating with the King of Bohemia with the mediation of the Papal legates. Finally, Béla had a meeting with King Ottokar II in Pozsony and they concluded a peace. Based on the provision of the peace Wiener Neustadt and the Duchy of Styria came under Béla's rule.

Administrative reforms

In contrast to his earlier policy of centralization, after his return Béla gave more privileged to cities, strengthening civic authority. He also delegated "significant discretionary" authority to provincial barons and to the bishops. As well as re-fortifying the towns, he built new ones. With the cooperation of the elite, he successfully "put the country back on its feet."[1]

Struggles with his son

Béla had had his eldest son, Stephen crowned junior king already in 1246, but he did not want to share the royal power with his son. However, Stephen recruited an army against his father and persuaded Béla to cede him the government of Transylvania in 1258.

In the same year, the Styrians, who would have preferred the rule of the King of Bohemia, rose against Béla's reign, but his troops suppressed their rebellion. After his victory, Béla appointed his son to Duke of Styria. Nevertheless, the Styrians rebelled against the rule of the King of Hungary again with the support of King Otakar II. Béla and his son commenced a military campaign against King Otakar II's lands, but their troops were defeated on July 12, 1260, in the Battle of Kressenbrunn. Following the battle, Béla renounced his claim to the Duchy of Styria on behalf of the King of Bohemia in the Peace of Pressburg.

Soon after the peace, Stephen took over again the government of Transylvania. Béla and his son lead jointly their armies against Bulgaria in 1261. Nevertheless, Béla favored his younger son, Duke Béla and his daughter, Anna, the mother-in-law of the King of Bohemia; therefore his relationship with his elder son was getting tense. The two kings (father and son) began to harass the other's partisans, and their clash seemed inevitable. Finally, the Archbishops Fülöp of Esztergom and Smaragd of Kalocsa commenced to mediate between them and the two kings signed an agreement in the summer of 1262 in Pozsony. Based on the agreement, Stephen V took over the government of the parts of the Kingdom East of the Danube.

However, their reconciliation was only temporary, because their partisans were continuously inciting them against each other. In 1264, the junior king attached his mother's and sister's estates in his domains. Béla sent troops against his son, whose wife and son were soon captured, while Stephen had to retreat to the Castle of Feketehalom. However, the young king managed to repel the siege of his father's troops and to commence a counter-attack. Stephen V won a strategic victory over Béla's troops in the Battle of Isaszeg in March 1265, and in the subsequent peace Béla was obliged to cede the government of the Eastern parts of his kingdom again to his son. On March 23, 1266, they confirmed personally the peace in the Convent of the Blessed Virgin on the Nyulak szigete ("Rabbits' Island").

In 1267, the bishops prelates and nobles of the Kingdom of Hungary held a joint assembly in Esztergom, and their decisions were confirmed by both Béla and his son.

His last years

Béla lost his favorite son in the summer of 1269. His favorite daughter, Anna, began to exercise more and more influence over him. In his last will, Béla entrusted his daughter and his followers to her son-in-law, King Otakar II of Bohemia, because he did not trust his son.

Marriage and children

  • 1218, Maria Laskarina, a daughter of the Emperor Theodore I Lascaris of Nicaea and Anna Angelina
  • Saint Kinga (March 5, 1224 – July 24, 1292), wife of Prince Bolesław V the Chaste of Poland
  • Anna (1226/1227 – after July 3, 1271), wife of Prince Rostislav of Slavonia
  • Elisabeth (1236 – October 24, 1271), wife of Henry XIII, Duke of Bavaria
  • Constance (? – ?), wife of King Leo I of Halych
  • King Stephen V of Hungary, (before October 18, 1239 – August 6, 1272)
  • Saint Margaret (January 27, 1242 – January 18, 1271)
  • Blessed Jolenta (? – June 16/17, after 1303), wife of Duke Boleslaus of Greater Poland
  • Duke Béla of Slavonia (c. 1245 – 1269)

His legacy

Because of the more and more chaotic internal situation after his death, many regard him as the last ruler who brought peace to the realm. The epigram on his tomb refers to this idea:

Aspice rem caram

tres cingunt Virginis aram Rex, Dux, Regina, quibus adsint Gaudia Trina Dum licuit, tua dum viguit rex Bela, potestas, Fraus latuit, pax firma fuit,

regnavit honestas.[4]

Béla IV of Hungary learned from experience and modified his policies accordingly, showing willingness to change direction. Béla IV did much to build the nation's infrastructure, enabling it to survive intact in a volatile geo-political location. By welcoming migrants from both East and West, Béla helped to create links and relations between different peoples that served Hungary well in future crises. Instead of constructing an "us" against "others" polarity, the Hungarians have embraced other peoples and have also migrated into surrounding countries. This has informed a tradition of identifying themselves and others as members of the same, not of different, [[race|races], that is, of affirming common membership of the human family. His reconstruction of Hungary after the Mongol invasion would inspire future generations to rebuild their nation after the Ottoman conquest, after defeat as part of Austria-Hungary in World War I and following the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, which led to membership of the European Union in 2004.

Preceded by:
Andrew II
King of Hungary
Succeeded by:
Stephen V
Preceded by:
Andrew I
King of Croatia
Succeeded by:
Stephen VI
Preceded by:
Duke of Styria
Succeeded by:
Stephen I'


  1. 1.0 1.1 Molnár (2001), 35.
  2. Rebecca Weiner, The Virtual Jewish History Tour: Hungary, Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  3. Chazan (2006), 201.
  4. Mailáth, Horvát, and Draudt (1828), 37.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chazan, Robert. 2006. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500. Cambridge medieval textbooks. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521846660.
  • Hartog, Leo de. 1999. Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble. ISBN 9780760711927.
  • Jackson, Peter. 2005. The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410. The medieval world. New York, NY: Pearson Longman. ISBN 9780582368965.
  • Kosztolnyik, Z.J. 1996. Hungary in the Thirteenth Century. East European monographs, no. 439. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs. ISBN 9780880333368.
  • Mailáth, Johann, István Horvát, and Draudt. 1828. Geschichte der Magyaren. Wien, AT: F. Tendler.
  • Molnár, Miklós. 2001. A Concise History of Hungary. Cambridge concise histories. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521661423.


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