For those who are enthralled with Hungarian history and believe that there is nothing better than visiting the actual places where historical events occurred, there can be no better place to visit than Castle Hill in Esztergom where both the castle and basilica stand today. It was here that arguably the single most important event in Hungarian history, as well as one of the most important events in European history, took place. This hill was the setting for the coronation of Stephen I, Hungary’s first king and the one who transformed it into a Christian Kingdom. The coronation was much more than the crowning of a monarch. It also reoriented Hungary towards central and western Europe, an event that has had tremendous historical implications.
The coronation decisively pulled the Hungarians into the orbit of Rome. This has meant that ever since the coronation, Hungary has been a bastion of western Christianity rather than under the influence of Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox religious tradition. There is no overstating the importance of the coronation. Its magnitude drew me to Esztergom. I had to see and feel this place for myself. Without a visit, I believed that a trip to Hungary would not be complete. Failing to visit Esztergom would be akin to skipping the most important chapter of a Hungarian history book. It would render my travels to historic sites throughout the country incomplete. If I wanted to understand what Hungary has meant to the western world and its place as a bridge between East and West I had no other choice, but to scale that towering hill in Esztergom.
From Pagans To Christians – Prince Geza’s Vision
The guidebook description of Hungarian history I read before arriving in Esztergom made it a point to mention that Stephen I had been crowned as a Christian king of Hungary on Christmas Day in the year 1000. This date was remarkably easy for me to remember since it coincided with the most popular holiday in the western world. Later, I would discover that other scholars believe the coronation occurred on January 1st. Whatever the case, my guidebook description failed to mention any of the historical events which led to Esztergom becoming the coronation site. This process had been set in motion forty years earlier. That was when in 960 Prince Geza, ruler of the Hungarians, set up a palatial residence in Esztergom. This, in effect, made Esztergom the capital of Hungary. It was also where his son Vajk (later baptized as Stephen I) would be born. The boy was placed under the tutelage of Adalbert of Prague who immersed him in the ways of Catholicism. It was also during this time that Geza sent out a call for Christian missionaries from Bavaria to come proselytize among the Hungarians.
If not for Geza’s decisions to reside in Esztergom and slowly turn toward Christianity, Stephen may never have realized his destiny. Geza himself never quite did. He would adhere to both Christian and pagan beliefs until the end of his life. Three years before the turn of the first millennium, Geza died. Before his death he had arranged for the most powerful Hungarian leaders to declare their loyalty to Stephen. This ensured that his son would be heir to the throne. After his ascension to power, Stephen set about eliminating his most powerful pagan rival, Koppany. To say that Stephen was ruthless, would be an understatement. When Koppany was killed, Stephen had his body quartered and the four limbs were hung on gates at each of the entrances to Hungary’s most important cities. Stephen believed in the power of fear as much as he did in the power of faith to reconcile the Hungarian populace to Christian beliefs. The severed limbs mounted in highly public places were a warning to all. The message was clear, convert or else.
Superimposition -– The Most Important Historical Place In Hungary
Stephen’s coronation was a matter of politics as well as religious faith. Though he had been baptized at a very young age and was undoubtedly a true believer, at the same time he sought international recognition for himself and Hungary. Becoming a Christian king would confer the highest degree of legitimacy upon him. Before the coronation could take place, Stephen needed approval from the most powerful foreign ruler in the region, Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. In addition, he would need Pope Sylvester II to give his approval. Stephen’s earlier marriage to Gisella of Bavaria proved helpful in this matter. Her brother Henry (who would later become Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 -1024) helped facilitate the Emperor’s approval. Pope Sylvester II sent an emissary with a crown and the coronation was performed on Castle Hill.
Legend states that it took place in the St. Adalbert Church in Esztergom. Soon thereafter, Stephen set about establishing bishoprics around the country with Esztergom as the most powerful. The institution of Catholicism was now superimposed on Hungary. It has remained the majority religion ever since that time. Finding the exact place where the coronation took place proved difficult for me. The Basilica which cover part of the hilltop today is a nineteenth century creation. It is overlaid on the spot where St. Adalbert’s Basilica once stood. This version of St. Adalbert’s was under construction when the coronation took place. The coronation site was at yet another St. Adalbert’s Church which was reputedly located in the original castle. An impressive coronation statue stands today on the eastern side of the castle walls. Whether this is the actual coronation site is anyone’s guess.
The actual spot of the coronation did not really matter that much to me for two reasons. Trying to mark the specific spot where something happened a thousand years before is next to impossible since the original structures that existed at that time are missing. Archaeology is useful in such cases, but hardly foolproof. Furthermore, does it really matter where the coronation happened? The more important fact is that it did. The coronation changed Hungary’s geo-strategic situation forever. Aligning it with the western world which continues to influence it right up through today. No other historical event in Hungarian history can compare. That was the reason I made my way to the top of Castle Hill in Esztergom. I will never know if I stood in the actual footsteps of history in Esztergom, but I was close enough.