Saint Stephen and Imre
Photo: Wiki Commons

Hungary’s good ties to the West and the roots of the feudal system alongside with the Catholic church were very young at the beginning of the 11th century and St. Stephen wanted his son to continue the work of his life: creating a modern, Western-like country. He saw the many perils; he tried to guide Emeric.

The national holiday of August 20 marks the birth of Christian Hungary, but the process was, in fact, much longer than even Hungarians think. The alliance of the Hungarian (and non-Hungarian) tribes that conquered the Carpathian Basin in 896 lead many looting campaigns to the West and the South-East which were ended by two big defeats in 955 and 970. By then, the once existing alliance of the different tribes vanished, and several semi-independent “states” were born under the leadership of a local “strong man”.

One of these was the territory of the Árpáds, the official ruling dynasty of the Hungarian tribes (today’s Esztergom, Győr, Budapest), where the new generation represented by Grand Prince Géza (972-997) wanted changes. Géza called Christian missionaries from the West to the country, founded a diocese in Veszprém and managed to win the hand of the Holy Roman Emperor’s sister, Gisela for his son, Stephen.

His son, Stephen, continued his work by defeating the leaders of the different Hungarian tribes,

founding many dioceses and an archdiocese and finishing the implantation of the feudal system in Hungary.

Many accepted Stephen’s authority, but there were many both in the country and even in the royal family who would break up with the West. Therefore, it was crucial to have an heir who can continue the Géza’s and Stephens’s life work. This is why the king (or probably one of his clerics) wrote

a King’s Mirror for his son, Emeric, about good governance.

Though we do not have the original script, thanks to copied we know rather well what the king wrote to his son. He collected his thoughts in 10 points stressing that “my boy, at present, you have the fun and I do the work; but your labours are on the way.

First and foremost, Stephen urged his son “to

maintain the Catholic and Apostolic faith

with such diligence and care that you may be an example for all those placed under you by God.” Later he says that “even now in our kingdom the Church is proclaimed as young and newly planted, and for that reason, she needs more prudent and trustworthy guardians.”

The importance of keeping the faith is emphasised even later: “for it is a hard thing for you to maintain a kingdom of this geographical position, except you show yourself an imitator of the usage of kings who have reigned before.” This means that Hungary will perish in a constant Christian vs pagan fight with the West, so Catholicism and feudalism are keys to the country’s survival.

Stephen encouraged Emeric to accept as many foreigners as possible because “they bring with them diverse languages and usages, and diverse learning and arms, all of which not only adorn the royal palace and render magnificent the court, but also abash the arrogance of aliens.

For a kingdom of one tongue, or of one custom, is weak and fragile.”

On the nobility, Stephen said that “they are the champions of the kingdom, the defenders of the weak, the conquerors of enemies, the enlargers of monarchies […] you should reduce none to servitude, nor call any slave; they should serve you as soldiers.”


Be patient with everyone, not only with the powerful, but also with the weak.

[…] 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 honourable so that you never voluntarily bring disgrace upon anyone. Be chaste so that you may avoid all the foulness that so resembles the pangs of death” – concluded Stephen.

Unfortunately, Emeric was wounded in a hunting accident and died in 1031, so Stephen nominated his sister’s son, the Venetian Peter Orseolo, as his heir. The king’s cousin, Vazul, who was suspected of an inclination towards paganism, attempted a coup, but he failed, was blinded and his three sons, Levente, Andrew and Béla expelled from the country. Interestingly, after Stephen’s death, a long period of instability followed which ended only after Ladislaus, grandson of Vazul ascended the throne.

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