On December 25, 1000 (or possibly on January 1, 1001), the last Grand Prince of the Hungarians, Stephen I, asserted his claim to reign all lands dominated by Hungarian lords and strengthened his international status by adopting the title of King of Hungary, thereby transforming Hungary into a European feudal monarchy.
Since the freshly unified Magyars, led by Árpád, settled in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the ninth century, the newly formed Principality of Hungary, the earliest documented Hungarian state, was governed by the so-called Grand Princes of the Hungarians, who ruled as overlords over all seven Magyar tribes and their semi-independent warlords.
After leading several successful incursions into Western Europe and defeating three major Frankish imperial armies between 907 and 910, the Hungarians succeeded in extending their western border as far as the River Enns. But their defeat at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor at Battle of Lechfeld in 955 marked a radical shift in the evolution of the Hungarian principality and the Hungarian Princes completely ceased all westward campaigns.
Initially, the Hungarians had retained their semi-nomadic lifestyle, but due to changed economic circumstances and insufficient pasturage to support a nomadic society, this began to change. The Hungarians turned to agriculture as their tribal leaders established fortified centers and large-scale organized resettlements for the Hungarian population. During that time, Christianity also flourished as Catholic missionaries arrived from Germany.
The consolidation of the Hungarian state formally began during the reign of Géza. Intending to build a state according to the Western political and social model, and to integrate Hungary into Christian Europe, the Grand Prince received baptism according to the Latin rite, invited foreign warriors to develop a new army based on heavy cavalry, and even arranged the marriage of his son, Stephen, with Giselle of Bavaria, a princess from the family of the Holy Roman Emperor.
But when Géza died in 997, Koppány, the eldest member of the House of Árpád, laid claim to the throne, supported by pagan Hungarians, against Géza’s devout Christian son. While Stephen’s ascension to the throne was indeed in line with the Christian law of primogeniture, which prescribed that a father was succeeded by his son, it contradicted the traditional idea of seniority, according to which Géza should have been succeeded by the most senior member of the Árpád dynasty.
Koppány revolted against Géza’s son and heir, and invaded the northern regions of Transdanubia, plundering the Grand Prince’s lands. But Stephen’s army, led by Vecelin, a German knight who had come to Hungary in the reign of Géza, routed the rebel forces near Veszprém, where Vecelin killed Koppány. His corpse was cut in four pieces to be displayed on the walls of four major strongholds of Győr, Veszprém, Esztergom and Gyulafehérvá.
After Stephen emerged the victor from the decisive battle in 998, the Grand Prince applied for a royal crown to Pope Sylvester II, who granted his request with the consent of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. While the exact date of Stephen’s coronation is unknown, according to later Hungarian tradition, he was crowned as the first King of Hungary on the first day of the second millennium, which is believed to either refer to December 25, 1000, or January 1, 1001.
Although Stephen’s power did not rely on his coronation, the ceremony granted him the internationally accepted legitimacy of a Christian monarch who ruled his realm “by the Grace of God”. The first King of Hungary then consolidated his rule through a series of wars against semi-independent warlords, asserting his claim to reign all lands dominated by Hungarian lords, and unifying the Carpathian Basin into the newly formed Kingdom of Hungary.
Stephen encouraged the spread of Christianity. He established an archbishopric with its see in Esztergom shortly after his coronation, but also six bishoprics and three Benedictine monasteries, leading the Church in Hungary to develop independently from the archbishops of the Holy Roman Empire. During his reign, Hungary enjoyed a lasting period of peace, and became a preferred route for pilgrims and merchants traveling between Western Europe, the Holy Land and Constantinople.
After protecting the independence of his kingdom by forcing the invading troops of the new Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II, to withdraw from Hungary, Stephen died in 1038, having survived all of his sons. He was buried in his new basilica, built in Székesfehérvár. But his his cult only emerged after decades of anarchy and civil war which followed his death, when King Ladislaus finally put an end to the turmoil.
Stephen was canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1083. Stephen’s cult quickly spread beyond the borders of Hungary. Upon the liberation of Buda from the Ottoman Turks in 1686, Pope Innocent XI expanded King Saint Stephen’s cult to the entire Roman Catholic Church. In Hungary, his feast day, celebrated on August 20, is also a public holiday commemorating the foundation of the state, known as State Foundation Day.
Having established a Christian state that ensured that the Hungarians survived in the Carpathian Basin, in contrast to the Huns, Avars and other peoples who had previously controlled the same territory, Stephen I has always been considered one of the most important statesmen in the history of Hungary.
Beethoven composed his King Stephen Overture for the inauguration of the Hungarian theatre in Pest in 1812.
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