Saturday, February 23, 2013

570 Years Ago, A Hungarian Son Was Born This Day

Coat of arms of King Mátyás (center left) and Queen Beatrice (center right).

Today marks the 570th anniversary of the birth of one the most revered kings of Hungary, King Mátyás (Hunyadi) Corvin. Born this day in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca) on 23 February in 1443, second son to one of the greatest of Hungary's military heroes, János Hunyadi, and his wife Erzsébet Szilágyi, little did either of them know their pink, wrinkly infant boy would one day become the first native born Hungarian without royal ancestry to take the throne in centuries. The honor, if he hadn't died by the axeman of King Ladislas V Posthumous, would have went to his older brother and only sibling, László Hunyadi. On Easter of 1490, after biting into a rotten fig, spurring a fury of foul words from his lips, a sharp, searing pain struck Mátyás's brain and sensations worse than the taste of a spoiled fruit overwhelmed him, and two days later on the 6th of April, the Hungarian Renaissance king succumbed to a stroke.

Hunyadi (Hunedoara) Castle, where Mátyás spent most of his childhood.

On 24 January, 1458, a 15 year old Mátyás, standing upon the frozen Danube with his mother and uncle, Mihály Szilágyi, at his side, was unanimously elected King of Hungary by a diet of about 40,000 nobleman, and on 14 February made his state entry into Buda. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, however, held possession of the Hungarian crown and crowned himself King of Hungary on 27 February, 1459. It would be six years, 80,000 ducats, and a treaty (stating if Mátyás should die without an heir, the title of king would transfer over to the emperor) later before he were able to have his formal coronation in Székesfehérvár on 29 March, 1464. From the moment of his election, Mátyás's reign had entailed battle after battle, treaties and treason, fighting enemies from all sides of his kingdom; to the south the Ottoman Turks, the west Emperor Frederick and the Holy Roman Empire, to the north the Poles, and to the east the Moldavians.

Czech King Podjebrad Introduces Matthias the Hungarian Delegates, by Viktor Madarász (1873).

Not only did he fight the turmoil outside his kingdom's borders, he fought the skirmishes within his own borders as well. To take firm control over his kingdom and centralize his government, Mátyás needed to break the power of the oligarchy who preferred (and for far too long) to govern themselves. He successfully did so by forming a large army of mercenaries (known after his reign as Fekete Sereg, or the Black Army), heeding the past when many of his father's so-called loyal followers would not raise their arms to join in the Battle of Nándorfehérvár. Mercenaries were loyal to whomever paid them, and at times Mátyás found out the hard way when his payments to his soldiers did not come as promised and entire regiments packed up and left the field, even in the midst of battle. Nonetheless, as long as they were paid, they would fight anywhere and anyone, which worked to Mátyás's advantage—no one in his army questioned his motives. The Black Army had become so large, so fierce, that even the Turks with their much larger army respected and feared them. The army was expensive to keep running, and thus the king raised taxes, mainly on the poor though the wealthy were not exempt from taxes like they had been in the past (though certainly the bulk of taxes were collected from the poor and merchants in exchange for protection).

Arquebusiers in The Black Army.

His army was not his only costly expense. Mátyás had expensive tastes—only the finest in everything would do for him. Throughout his kingship, his palaces in Buda and Visegrád saw constant renovations using only the finest of materials, and he was benefactor to churches, universities, and the arts. He encouraged artists and scholars into his kingdom, many coming from Italy and the west, and had his palaces designed by architects in the Italian Renaissance fashion. His marriage to his Neapolitan wife, Beatrice of Naples (Aragon), further brought more of Italy to his kingdom, and with it more lavish expenses. Despite his mother's urging to live a modest life since his countrymen preferred a frugal ruler, his spendthrift ways only excelled during his marriage to his wife.

King Mátyás enjoying his animal menagerie.

On 15 December, 1476, King Mátyás married Beatrice of Naples, daughter to King Ferdinand I of Naples and Isabella of Taranto. Before his marriage to the princess, Mátyás was betrothed to an Erzsébet Cillei, but the young girl died in 1455 before either were of age for the marriage to take place. His first wife, Katařina Poděbrady, died in 1464 during childbirth, resulting in a stillborn son. Since the death of Katařina and his son, Mátyás continued his search for a new wife, the treaty with the emperor hanging heavy in his mind. For ten years his search came up fruitless, until 1474 when King Ferdinand agreed to a marriage proposal by Mátyás with his sixteen-year-old daughter, Beatrice. Two years later, and after much preparation for the arrival of his new bride, a lavish winter wedding took place. However, as the years rolled by, the halls of the palace did not fill with the sounds of crying babies, so the king looked to his illegitimate son, János Corvin, as his heir, a child born by his mistress Barbara Edelpöck, daughter of a Silesian burgher, in 1473. It would be a battle of which he would not win; even with the support of his most loyal followers, the diet nor his wife would acknowledge the boy as heir to the throne, but it did not stop the king from bestowing land and titles upon him.

Beatrice of Aragon, second wife of King Mátyás.

After King Mátyás successfully captured Vienna in 1485, his dream of becoming Holy Roman Emperor extinguished with the onset of health problems, in particular gout which would leave him near crippled by the end of his life. A few more sweep up campaigns, Mátyás threw in the towel to further expand his kingdom and concentrated on János's succession instead. No longer entrenched in war, King Mátyás enjoyed somewhat quieter times and worked on creating one of his greatest achievements—his library, the Bibliotheca Corviniana. Second in size only to the library in the Vatican, his library held some of the best works of the 15th century to be created, including many secular, philosophic, and scientific works. Though the moveable type press had been in use in Hungary for some time, King Mátyás preferred each of his books to be written and illuminated by hand, and many of these books were crafted in Italy. At his death, it is said this bibliophile had collected somewhere of around 2,000 to 2,500 works. Of those books, 216 volumes survive today.

János Corvin, King Mátyás's illegitimate son.

After his death, it was said, 'Mátyás (Matthias) is dead, justice has fled.' Buried in Székesfehérvár in the same church as that of Hungary's first king, István I, the kingdom fell under weak and influential rulers. Though he taxed his citizens to the hilt, it is said they would have given more if only Mátyás could return. The oligarchy went back to their old ways, caring more about internal squabbles than to the increasing threat to their south. For years the Turks had kept quiet, tending to their own internal strife, but slowly they inched their way north again. With the disbandment of the Black Army and crumbling fortresses due to lack of funds to keep up with repairs, in 1521 the Turks captured Nándorfehérvár where in 1453 they fell to a humiliating loss against János Hunyadi and Giovanni da Capistrano. Several more fortresses were captured, leaving Hungary's southern border crippled and under Ottoman control. The final blow to the weakened state came in 1526 in Mohács when the Turks, under the lead of Sultan Suleiman, easily defeated the Hungarians and killed their king, Louis II, when he attempted to flee. The loss marked the beginning of a long occupation by the Turks and wars between them and the Holy Roman Empire to the west, making Hungary, a once powerful, free state, now a battleground.

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, with a magnificent turban.


Yes, this post has grown pretty long, there's just so much history to cram into a single blog post, and I have hardly scratched the surface. But stick with me for a little longer. Now I'd like to talk about the king in how he relates to my novel series, Draculești.

Vlad, the main character in my story, returns to his father, Vlad Dracula, years after his father leaves him to die as a child. Dracula has visions of his son fighting alongside him on his campaigns, but when he sees the young man is not fit to see the bloodshed battle entails, he sends him to the king of Hungary in Buda to further his training, though unbeknownst to Vlad there are ulterior motives at play between his father and István Báthory. King Mátyás becomes enamored with Vlad and soon a bond is made between them, so deep that the king makes Vlad one of his confidants. The king does abide Dracula's wishes for Vlad to be trained as a soldier, for every man ought to know how to fight in battle, but he also lavishes him with an apartment in his palace, clothes and other gifts, and furthers his education teaching him language, writing, and astrology, amongst other subjects. Vlad is for a time uncomfortable with life at the palace and being given so much for having done nothing of merit, but the king insists that he enjoy what has been given to him, and that some day he will repay him.

Their relationship becomes somewhat strained soon after the king's marriage to Beatrice. From the moment Vlad lays eyes on her he cannot trust her, and his distrust in her is fueled after a conversation with the king's mother, Erzsébet Szilágy, when she tells him that she too cannot trust the young Italian woman, though her reasons differ from his, and asks of him to keep watch over her son. Weeks later, István Báthory arrives in Buda with a proposal for Vlad to wed his niece, and is taken away to the border of Hungary proper and Transylvania to a castle given to him as a part of his wife Marianna's dowry, thus unable to spy on Beatrice like Erzsébet had wanted of him. Now that Vlad has a new life in eastern Hungary, he and the king continue to correspond with one another and keep their friendship alive, which proves helpful when Vlad returns to Buda seeking asylum from his now ex in-laws when their relations are strained after the death of his wife and the kidnapping of his own son.

This ends the first book, and in book two their friendship continues until false treason is claimed on Vlad against the king and the queen and becomes strained to its limit. Since the king is not a background character and takes quite an active role in my story, my hope is that I can portray him at least somewhat as accurately as I can with all of those emotions and flaws that make us human. I do not hold him high on a pedestal. He was definitely not without faults, he had a temper and held grudges, but he was also very forgiving, even with his enemies. If I offend some with my portrayal of King Mátyás, so be it. It is never my intent. He is a character in my story like any other, a story of fiction, fantasy, and history, and one of whom I have much respect.

Matthias Rex statue in Cluj-Napoca Romania.