The Saxon legacy in Transylvania is impressive. The numerous fortified churches, magnificent town squares and quaint houses with gabled roofs scattered in towns throughout the region are a testament to their faith, determination and industriousness. Though there are very few people of Saxon descent left in Transylvania today, their legacy is secure. Nostalgic impulses by those of Saxon descent have led to the creation of associations dedicated to preserving the architecture and culture of their ancestors.
One Man, One Policy
Over eight hundred and fifty years have passed since the first Saxons settled in the area, but go to Brasov or Sibiu (known to the Saxons as Kronstadt and Hermannstadt) to witness the resurgence of Saxon heritage. It is likely that in the coming years, if anything the Saxon nostalgia in Transylvania will be the focus of even greater efforts. It is certainly given a prominent place in marketing by Romania’s growing tourist industry.
This focus on the Saxons historical accomplishments is delightful and definitely worth seeking out as a travel experience, yet it obscures the fact that if not for the decisive policy of one man none of this would have been possible. This man happened to be neither Saxon nor Romanian, but instead Hungarian. The eight and a half centuries of Saxon achievement began with a king that very few Saxons today would be able to identify. This was Hungarian King Geza II who reigned from 1141 – 1161. He was the leader who took the foresighted decision to allow Saxon settlement in Transylvania. His life and legacy should be the starting point for efforts to understand the very beginning of Saxon settlement in the Carpathians.
A Miracle of a Man – The Roots of Geza II
Geza II was something of a miracle. Even by the standards of the violent and precarious early Middle Ages he needed more than his fair share of fortune to survive childhood, let alone gain the throne. His father is known to history as Bela the Blind. Both Bela and his father were blinded by his uncle, King Coloman in the early 12th century. They were then sent to live out their lives in a monastery. Bela’s father continued to prove a threat, to the extent that he was eventually forced into permanent exile. As for Bela, his luck rapidly changed after Coloman died and his son Stephen II ascended to the throne. Stephen II had a big problem in that he was unable produce a royal heir. Luckily for Stephen his father had not managed to execute Bela. It is said that Stephen was filled with joy when he discovered that Bela was still alive and well at a monastery. A possible royal successor who had been blinded in most cases have had little chance to gain the throne, not to mention produce an heir. The chronicles state that Bela was also slated for castration, but the military officer charged with the duty lost his nerve and could not commit such an act.
The upshot of all this is that Bela ended up in line to succeed Stephen. He also made a smart marriage to a Serbian Princess, Helena of Rascia. In 1130 they produced their first son, a boy who would eventually become known to history as Geza II. Geza, born to a blind father who was supposed to have been castrated, would one day come to rule the Kingdom of Hungary. If all these turns of fortune were not enough, the family was allowed to live on a large estate bequeathed to them by Stephen II. Instead of seeing Bela and his family as a threat or believing that Bela was unfit for the throne because he had been mutilated, Stephen instead placed him in position to lead the Hungarian Kingdom. And that is just what occurred in 1131 when Stephen died. Bela the Blind ascended to the throne and reigned for a decade.
The Virtues of Loyalty & Privilege
In 1141 the blind king died. Suddenly, improbably, Geza II was the newly crowned king at the tender age of eleven. For the next five years his mother, with the assistance of her brother, led the Kingdom until young Geza came of age. When he eventually took charge, Geza quickly proved himself as a ruler, securing his throne by outwitting usurpers, many of which were close relatives. He also was adept at involving himself in foreign affairs and succeeding. The main trend of Geza’s reign is that he was almost constantly at war. The kingdom was externally vulnerable on multiple fronts. This called for Geza to place strategic thinking over tactical discipline. At one time or another he was at war on his western flank with the Holy Roman Empire, in the south with Byzantium and in the northeast with the Polish crown. In addition, he had to deal with German forces that crossed Hungary on their way to the Second Crusade. He was able to fend off each of these threats. An understanding of external threats may have led him toward a strategy of securing one of his frontiers by bringing in the Saxons. He adeptly made the far sighted decision to allow Saxon settlement in Transylvania as guardians of the Kingdom’s southeastern flank. (Note: Saxons has a different meaning in the context of Transylvania. The first settlers were not from Saxony, but Luxembourg and the Moselle Valley. Their name came from the fact that the Hungarian chancellery referred to these groups as Saxons.)
The Saxons were given privileges which allowed unheard of independence for the time, including freedom of religion and self-rule. The lone requirement was that they provide military service to the king if he went to war. They were only required to do this for the crown, not the nobility. It was a good deal for them and the Hungarian Kingdom. This can be seen by the fact that in the 13th century Hungarian Kings offered much the same terms to successive waves of Saxon settlers. The Saxons were loyal to the throne, but were otherwise left to conduct their internal affairs as they pleased. More of these settlers poured into Transylvania. It was not long before they were referring to the area as “Siebenburgen” meaning the land of seven fortresses, a reference to the main Saxon cities in Transylvania.
More Than A King – A Visionary
Geza II died in 1161. Today he is remembered as one of the best Hungarian kings of the time. His improbable rise was only matched by his uncanny success in managing foreign policy. He dealt with multiple threats to the Hungarian Kingdom’s frontiers with great vision and foresight. By bringing in the Saxons as guardians of the Kingdom’s southeastern frontier he set into motion a policy that paid dividends for centuries to come. It led directly to the rise of the Saxons in Transylvania. From this beneficial start they went on to construct an economic, political and cultural civilization that rivals any in the history of European minorities. Thousands of their ancestors still travel to Transylvania each year to witness firsthand what the Saxons created and cultivated for centuries on end. Few if any of these visitors know who started it all. Geza II deserves to be remembered as more than just a king, he deserves to be remembered as a visionary.