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9th - 13th century
     Stephen I
     The Arpad dynasty

14th - 18th century
19th century
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Magyars: 9th - 10th century

The lower Danube, before the river enters the Black Sea, has been Europe's doorway to tribal groups arriving from the north and east. Here the Visigoths and Ostrogoths and Slavs have first presented themselves to the Roman empire, requesting or demanding admission. And here there arrives, in889, another group.

They differ from their predecessors in that they are not Indo-Europeans. They speak a Finno-Ugric language. They call themselves Magyars, but their federation of tribes is known as On-Ogur, meaning 'Ten Arrows'. The pronunciation of On-Ogur by their new Slav neighbours leads, eventually, to the name by which the Magyars are later known - Hungarians.


The Magyars have been living for several centuries near the mouth of the Don, as vassals of the Khazars. From 889 they spend a few years in the Balkans in the service of the Byzantine emperor, but soon they move on to the northwest, through the Carpathian mountains.

Since 890 their leader has been Arpad, elected prince by the chieftains of the seven Magyar tribes. His people number no more than 25,000, but together they subdue (within the space of a few years) the scattered population of the region now known as Hungary. So Arpad becomes the founder of a nation which somehow - in all the upheavals of central Europe - retains its identity and its language down through the centuries.


The arrival of the Hungarians brings a violent end to Moravia, also known as Great Moravia, the first stable kingdom established in eastern Europe. The Moravians are crushed at some time around 900. The Hungarians further demonstrate their power with a decisive victory over a German army near Bratislava in 907.

Thereafter, for several decades, the Hungarians are a profoundly disruptive force in the region, constantly raiding west into Germany and south into Italy. They are eventually subdued when the emperor Otto I defeats them on the Lechfeld, near Augsburg, in 955.


After their defeat on the Lechfeld the pagan Hungarians adopt a more conciliatory approach to their western neighbours in Germany. In 973 the supreme chieftain Géza, great-grandson of Arpad, sends an embassy to the German emperor Otto II. And two years later Géza and his family are baptized in the Roman Catholic church.

Hungary settles down as the eastern bulwark of feudal Europe. In the next generation it has a king rather than a chieftain. Even better, its first king is a saint. Géza's son, Stephen I, succeeds him in 997. He becomes the central symbol of Hungarian nationalism.


Stephen I: 997-1038

In his long reign Stephen transforms Hungary from a cattle-breeding, tribal and largely pagan community to an agricultural, feudal and Christian state. He divides his realm into 46 counties and 10 dioceses (both numbers increase when his borders are extended) and he establishes several great Benedictine monasteries to civilize the region.

In doing so he acquires great prestige as a Christian ruler. The story of Sylvester II sending a special crown for his coronation is a later legend. But the Crown of St Stephen becomes a powerful symbol of nationhood. And Stephen's canonization in 1083, less than half a century after his death, testifies to his stature among his contemporaries.


The Arpad dynasty: 997-1301

For the best part of three centuries the descendants of Arpad maintain Hungary as a powerful Magyar kingdom. There are periods of violent unrest and dynastic struggle, as in any medieval realm. But for most of the time the boundary is secure in the west against pressure from the German empire.

To the east and the south Hungary's borders fluctuate, resulting in friction from time to time with the Byzantine empire and with Venice - the other major powers seeking control of the Balkans.


An important extension to Hungarian territory is the acquisition of Croatia. Kalman, the king of Hungary, invades Croatia in 1097 after being encouraged to do so by the pope. In 1102 he is accepted as the Croatian king. He pledges that the two kingdoms will remain separate, linked only by the crown of St Stephen. It is a union which lasts, in varying forms, until 1918.

Hungarian kings, caught up like their contemporaries elsewhere in the turmoil of feudalism, are frequently held to account by their barons. The nobles of Hungary demand from Andrew II the Golden Bull of 1222 (just seven years after Magna Carta) which stands as a charter of liberties. Every subsequent king of Hungary has to swear his acceptance of the Bull.


The mid-13th century brings devastation to Hungary. The Mongols suddenly descend upon the region in 1241. In the following generation Otakar II, king of Bohemia, constitutes a serious threat on the northern border.

At the same time the country is plagued by a wild and uncontrollable tribe, the Kumans (a branch of the Kipchak Turks), who migrate westwards into the region to escape the onslaught of the even fiercer Mongols. In these circumstances the Arpad dynasty dwindles to an end. Andrew III, the last king, dies young and childless in 1301.


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