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King Stephen I

King Stephen I
(Saint and Founder of the Hungarian State)

Stephen the first Hungarian King and founder of the Hungarian state was born in Esztergom in around 975, the son of Prince Géza and Sarolta. He became a prince in 997 and was crowned King in 1001. His wife was the Bavarian princess Gizella. She bore Stephen five children (Imre, Ottó, Bernát, Ágota and Hedvig). Stephen ruled for 41 years and died on August 15th 1038. He was buried in Székesfehérvár. His pagan name was Vajk (a word of Turkish origin meaning "hero") and his Christian name Stephen ("István" in Hungarian) was taken from the name of the martyr and protector of the church of Passau.

An important role in Stephen's upbringing was played by the German priests who were, invited to come to Hungary by Prince Géza. Little is known with certainty about the future King's youth. In 995 accompanied by a magnificent retinue Stephen travelled to Bavaria and married Gizella, the daughter of Henry Prince of Bavaria.

On the death of his father in 997 Stephen was chosen by the chieftains and "the people" to be prince. He immediately faced a difficult challenge, that of imposing the system of inheritance according to the principle of primogeniture thus doing away with the previous pagan practices. During the period when raids were very common some of the chieftains, who were almost independent and jealous of their power, openly opposed the new Christian prince. The most famous rebel chieftain was Stephen's cousin.

Koppány, who, as a close relative of the House of Árpád and as ruler of the region known as Somogy, claimed the title of prince on the death of Géza.

Aided by those who remained attached to the old order Koppány tried to seize the throne. In a battle that took place near to Veszprém, however, Stephen's army led by German Knights defeated the rebels and Koppány's body was quartered and nailed to the gates at Esztergom, Veszprém, Gyôr and in Transylvania as a warning to others who might have been tempted to rebel. For the young ruler there was no alternative to continuing the work of Géza. His main aims were the following: to spread the Christian faith and organise the Church, to replace the old, pagan order with a feudal system and through the administration of justice to lay the foundations for the new legal system. This all had to be done at the same time as taking into account the complex foreign policy requirements of the embryonic state. In the year 1000 the prelate Astric was sent by Stephen to Pope Silvester II. to ask for a crown for the Hungarian prince. At the beginning of the year 1001 Stephen was crowned King at Esztergom receiving the crown originally intended for the Polish prince Boleslo. The coronation ceremony, however, marked only the beginning of the struggle to forge the Hungarian state.

King Stephen had to struggle for many years against rebellious chieftains and their followers, who were unwilling to give up their pagan beliefs. At the same time with the aid of his counsellors he built up a network of counties, imitating the system established by the Franks, and the institutions of the royal court, the centre of power, began to take shape. Every year there were special days when justice was administered and statutes were promulgated continuously, which helped to bolster the feudal system being established. In this regard of particular importance were the defence of private property, the rejection of the principles of the pagan customary law and the bolstering of christianity in the young state.

For his achievements in organising the Church, King Stephen and his son Imre were canonised in 1083. (Since then Hungarians celebrate the feast day of Saint Stephen on August 20th.) Stephen established the organisational structure of the Hungarian church by setting up ten bishoprics and led the way in the founding of monasteries. The aim of Stephen's foreign policy was to consolidate the feudal system that was replacing the pagan order. He tried to be on good terms with both Byzantium and the Holy Roman Emperor. In the second half of his reign King Stephen felt strong enough to pursue a limited expansionary policy in a western direction.

The last ten years of his reign were marked by personal tragedies and the political problems arising from them. In 1031 King Stephen's only son Imre died while hunting wild boar, which made the question of who would succeed Stephen uncertain. The following years were marked by the political intrigues and violence that accompanied the struggle to decide the succession.

King Stephen made his sister's son Peter Orseolo heir to the throne. King Stephen's cousin Vazul rebelled against this decision. In response Stephen had Vazul's eyes put out and exiled his sons. Before his death Stephen recommended to the Hungarian lords that Peter should be his successor.King Stephen died in 1038 in Székesfehérvár. According to the chronicles the country mourned him for three years. He had left a confused political situation when he quitted this life but could also point to unique achievements - he had established the Hungarian monarchy and ensured that Hungary belonged to Europe.



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