Stephen I of Hungary

From New World Encyclopedia
Stephen I of Hungary.

Saint Stephen I (Hungarian: I. (Szent) István, Slovak: (Svätý) Štefan I.) (967 – August 15, 1038) was Grand Prince of the Magyars (997-1000/1001) and the first King of Hungary (1000/1001-1038). Stephen was born under the pagan Turkic name "Vajk," but was baptized as "Stephen" in his childhood. Following the death of his father, Géza, Stephen became the Grand Prince of the Magyarsain, but he could only strengthen his rule when he defeated his relative, Koppány. Shortly afterwards, he claimed and received a crown from the pope and he became the first King of Hungary and the last Grand Prince. Stephen extended his rule in the Carpathian Basin with force by defeating several local chieftains. He maintained peace with the Holy Roman Empire during the first three decades of his reign, and later he could withdraw the attacks of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. Stephen established ten dioceses in his kingdom and he issued severe decrees against pagan customs and in favor of the Christian faith in order to strengthen Christianity among his subjects.

He organized several counties (vármegye) in Hungary and his decrees could ensure the internal peace in his kingdom. Based on his acts, he is generally considered as the founder of Hungary. Following the death of his son, Emeric, Stephen wanted to ensure the maintenance of the Christianity in his kingdom and, therefore, he named his sister's son, the Venetian Peter Urseolo as his heir instead of his cousin, Vazul whom he suspected following pagan customs and ordered him blinded. Stephen was canonized, together with his son and Bishop Gerard of Csanád, on August 20, 1083, and he become one of the most popular saints in Hungary. Six other members of his family, the Árpád dynasty would also be canonized and others were beatified. The country he founded played an important role in European history, often bridging the East and the West and the modern nation state of Hungary is the heir to his kingdom, which was ruled by his descendants until 1301.

Early years

Saint Stephen was born "Vajk" (He was referred as Waic by Thietmar of Merseburg. "Vajk" is probably a turkic name meaning "rich" or "hero," but it may have originated from the Hungarian word for butter ("vaj"), as well.) in the town of Esztergom. His father was Géza, Grand Prince of the Magyars; his mother was Sarolt, the daughter of Gyula of Transylvania. (Some Polish sources claim his mother was the Polish princess Adelajda from the dynasty of the Piasts, the second wife of Géza, after Sarolt's death, but this version is generally rejected by historians.) According to his legends, Vajk was baptized by Saint Adalbert of Prague.[1] He was given the baptismal name Stephen (István) in honor of the original early Christian Saint Stephen. (The name "Stephen" derives from the Greek στεφανος, "stephanos," meaning "crowned.")

When Stephen reached adolescence, Great Prince Géza convened an assembly where they decided that Stephen would follow his father as the monarch of the Magyars.[1] Nevertheless, this decision contradicted the Magyar tribal custom that gave preference to the eldest member of the ruling family to the deceased ruler's son.

Stephen married Giselle of Bavaria, the daughter of Henry II the Wrangler and Gisela of Burgundy in or after 995.[2] By this marriage, he became the brother-in-law of the future Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor. Giselle arrived to her husband's court accompanied by German knights.[3]

Ruling prince of the Magyars

In 997, his father died and a succession struggle ensued.[1] Stephen claimed to rule the Magyars as the deceased monarch's son, while his relative Koppány, a powerful pagan chieftain in Somogy, claimed the traditional right of seniority.[3] Eventually, the two met in battle near Veszprém and Stephen was victorious, primarily thanks to his German retinue lead by the brothers Pázmány and Hont (Some authors call them Poznan and Hunt claiming that Poznan was a Slovakian landholder in the Nitra region, but the sources seem to strengthen the idea that the brothers arrived to Hungary in the company of Giselle). The nearly contemporary deed of foundation of the Abbey of Pannonhalma clearly described the battle as a struggle between the Germans and the Magyars. Thus, Stephen strengthened his power in Transdanubia, but several parts of Hungary still did not accept his rule.

According to Hungarian tradition Pope Silvester II, with the consent of Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor, sent a magnificent jeweled gold crown to Stephen along with an apostolic cross and a letter of blessing officially recognizing Stephen as the Christian king of Hungary. The date of this coronation is variously given as Christmas Day, 1000, or January 1, 1001.

First king of Hungary

King Stephen's statue in his hometown, Esztergom.

After (or just before) his coronation Stephen I founded several dioceses, for example, the dioceses of Veszprém, Győr, Kalocsa, Vác, Bihar. He also established the Archdiocese of Esztergom, thus he set up an ecclesiastical organization independent of the German archbishops. He also began to organize a territory-based administration by founding several counties (comitatus, megye) in his kingdom.

Stephen discouraged pagan customs and strengthened Christianity with various laws. In his first decree, issued in the beginning of his rule, he ordered that each ten villages are obliged to build a church. He invited foreign priests to Hungary to evangelize his kingdom; Saint Astricus served as his adviser, and Stephen also had Saint Gerard Sagredo as the tutor for his son Imre.

Around 1003, he invaded and occupied Transylvania, a territory ruled by his maternal uncle, Gyula, a semi-independent chieftain; and after his victory, he organized the Diocese of Transylvania. In the next few years he also occupied the lands of the Black Magyars in the Southern part of Transdanubia, and organized there the Diocese of Pécs. Shortly afterwards, he probably made an agreement with Samuel Aba, the chieftain of the Kabar tribes settled in the Mátra region, who married Stephen's sister; in his brother-in-law's domains, Stephen founded the Diocese of Eger.

Finally, Stephen occupied the domains of Ajtony, a semi-pagan chieftain, who had been ruling over the territories of the later Banat, where he set up the Diocese of Csanád.

External politics

A statue of the king in Miskolc.

In his external politics Stephen I allied himself with his brother-in-law, the Emperor Henry II against Prince Boleslaw I of Poland, who had extended his rule over the territories between the Morava and Vág Rivers. He sent troops to the Emperor's army, and in the Peace of Bautzen, in 1018, the Polish prince had to hand over the occupied territories to Stephen.

Shortly afterwards, Stephen sent troops to help Boleslaw I in his campaign against the Kievan Rus'. In 1018, Stephen lead his armies against Bulgaria, in alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, and collected several relics during his campaign.

After the death of Henry II (July 3, 1024), Stephen broke with the German alliance, because the new Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II claimed the supremacy over the kingdom of Hungary, while Stephen demanded the duchy of Bavaria for his son Emeric who was the nearest relative of the deceased Emperor Henry II (who himself had been the last male descendant of the old dukes of Bavaria). In 1027, Stephen had Bishop Werner of Strasbourg, the envoy sent by Conrad II to the Byzantine Empire, arrested at the frontier. In 1030, the Emperor lead his armies against Hungary, but Stephen's troops enforced their retreat. Stephen and the Emperor Conrad II concluded peace in 1031, and the territories between the Leitha (Hungarian: Lajta) and Fischa Rivers were ceded to Hungary.

His last years

Stephen intended to retire to a life of holy contemplation and hand the kingdom over to his son Emeric, but Emeric was wounded in a hunting accident and died in 1031. In Stephen's words of mourning:

By God's secret decision death took him, 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.

Stephen mourned for a very long time over the loss of his son, which took a great toll on his health. He eventually recovered, but never regained his original vitality. Having no children left, he could not find anyone among his remaining relatives who was able to rule the country competently and willing to maintain the Christian faith of the nation. He did not want to entrust his kingdom to his cousin, Duke Vazul whom he suspected to be following pagan customs. The disregarded duke took part in conspiracy aimed at the murder of Stephen I, but the assassination attempt failed and Vazul had his eyes gouged out and molten lead poured in his ears.

King Stephen died on the Feast of the Assumption (August 15) in the year 1038, at Székesfehérvár, where he was then buried.

His legacy

The Hungarian Sacred Crown is closely devoted to King Stephen. According to Hartwick's legend Pope Silvester II sent a crown to Stephen, however, it is not true as the legend cannot be recognized as authentic source, and also, there has been no evidence found in Vatican City. The date of his coronation is unknown, it is variously given as Christmas Day, 1000, or January 1, 1001. During this coronation, he dedicated the crown to the Holy Virgin, thereby sealing a contract between God and the crown (which is therefore considered a "holy" crown). This contract is also the base for the Doctrine of the Holy Crown, and the base of Apostolic Kingdom of Hungary.

Stephen intended to retire to a life of holy contemplation and hand the kingdom over to his son Imre, but Imre was wounded in a hunting accident and died in 1031. In Stephen's words of mourning:

By God's secret decision death took him, 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.[4]

Stephen mourned for a very long time over the loss of his son, which took a great toll on his health. He eventually recovered, but never regained his original vitality. Having no children left, he could not find anyone among his remaining relatives who was able to rule the country competently and willing to maintain the Christian faith of the nation. Unable to choose an heir, King Stephen died on the Feast of the Assumption in 1038, at Székesfehérvár, where he was buried. His nobles and his subjects were said to have mourned for three straight years afterwards.

Following Stephen's death, his nephew Peter Urseolo (his appointed heir) and brother-in-law Samuel Aba contended for the crown. Nine years of instability followed until Stephen's cousin Andrew I was crowned King of Hungary, re-establishing the Árpád dynasty in 1047. Hungarian historiography saw Peter and Samuel as members of the Árpád dynasty, and both are counted among the Árpád kings.

The Holy Right, the king's right hand.

Shortly after Stephen's death, healing miracles were said to have occurred at his tomb. Stephen was canonized by Pope Gregory VII as Saint Stephen of Hungary in 1083, along with his son, Saint Imre and Bishop Gerhard (Hungarian: Szent Gellért). Thus, Saint Stephen became the first of the canonized Confessor Kings, a new prototype of saints.

Roman Catholics venerate him as the patron saint of Hungary, kings, the death of children, masons, stonecutters, and bricklayers. St Stephen's feast day was not included in the Tridentine Calendar, owing to the fact that it would have taken place on the same day as the Feast of the Assumption, August 15. It was added to the Roman Calendar in the year 1631, as a commemoration on the day of the feast of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux on August 20. In 1687, it was moved to September 2, where it would stay for 282 years until the revision of the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1969. August 16, which had been the feast of Saint Joachim, was moved and the date became free for other celebrations to be added. The feast of Saint Stephen of Hungary was moved to that date, the day immediately after his death.[5]

Traditional Roman Catholics continue to celebrate the feast day of St Stephen, King and Confessor on September 2, either as a Semi-Double, Simple or a III Class feast.

However, in Hungary the feast is observed on August 20, the day on which his sacred relics were translated to the city of Buda. This day is a public holiday in Hungary.

The king's right hand, known as "The Holy Right," is kept as a relic. His body was mummified after his death, but the tomb was opened and his hand was separated some years later. Except for this, only some bone fragments remained (which are kept in churches throughout Hungary). Catholics honor the first king of their country on annual processions, where the "Holy Right" is exhibited.

The canonization of Saint Stephen was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in 2000. Due to the large number of canonized and beatified member of the House of Árpád the dynasty became known as "Kindreds of the Holy Kings" from the thirteenth century.

The Holy Crown, popularly attributed to St. Stephen, was removed from the country in 1945 for safekeeping, and entrusted to the United States government. It was kept in a vault at Fort Knox until 1978, when it was returned to the nation by order of U.S. President Jimmy Carter. It has been enshrined in the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest since 2000.


A miniature of the king from the Chronicon Pictum, 1360.

My beloved son, delight of my heart, hope of your posterity, I pray, I command, that at every time and in everything, strengthened by your devotion to me, you may show favor not only to relations and kin, or to the most eminent, be they leaders or rich men or neighbors or fellow countrymen, but also to foreigners and to all who come to you. By fulfilling your duty in this way you will reach the highest state of happiness. Be merciful to all who are suffering violence, keeping always in your heart the example of the Lord who said, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." Be patient with everyone, not only with the powerful, but also with the weak.

Finally be strong lest prosperity lift you up too much or adversity cast you down. Be humble in this life, that God may raise you up in the next. Be truly moderate and do not punish or condemn anyone immoderately. Be gentle so that you may never oppose justice. Be honorable so that you may never voluntarily bring disgrace upon anyone. Be chaste so that you may avoid all the foulness of lust like the pangs of death.

All these virtues I have noted above make up the royal crown, and without them no one is fit to rule here on earth or attain to the heavenly kingdom.

—Excerpt from Saint Stephen's admonitions to his son Imre.

Saint Stephen on current 10,000 Hungarian Forint banknote.
Gyula Benczúr's painting of Saint Stephen's baptism on the banknote commemorating the 1000th year of Hungarian statehood (2000).

Artistic representation

King Stephen of Hungary has been a popular theme in art, especially from the nineteenth century on, with its development of nationalism. Paintings such as The Baptism of Vajk (1875) by Gyula Benczúr and many statues representing the king all over Hungary testify to Stephen's importance in Hungarian national thought.

The best known representations of St. Stephen in music are Ludwig van Beethoven's King Stephen Overture, and the 1983 rock opera, István, a király (Stephen, the King) by Levente Szörényi and János Bródy. Szörényi's Veled, Uram! (With You, Lord!--2000) was a sequel to István, a király.

See Also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Legenda maior Sancti Regis Stephani (The Major Legend of King Saint Stephen).
  2. Hermann of Reichenau, Chronicon de sex ætatibus mundi (Chronicle of the Six Ages of the World).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Chronicon Pictum.
  4., Day by Day with the Saints. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  5. Calendarium Romanum (Rome, IT: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Györffy, György. 1994. King Saint Stephen of Hungary. Boulder, CO: Social Science Monographs. ISBN 9780880333009.
  • Zsoldos, Attila. 2001. Saint Stephen and his Country: A Newborn Kingdom in Central Europe: Hungary. Budapest, HU: Lucidus. ISBN 9789638616395.
  • Zsoldos, Attila. 2004. The Legacy of Saint Stephen. Budapest, HU: Lucidus. ISBN 9789639465183.

External links

All links retrieved February 9, 2023.


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