Anonymous – City Park, Budapest: Biography of an Unknown

One of my earliest memories of school is from the first grade, when I was told a famous story about George Washington. This story involved a youthful Washington who loved to spend time outdoors on his family’s land. One day his father found a cherry tree in their orchard that had been chopped down. Washington’s father knew his son never went anywhere without his trusty hatchet. He suspected that young George may have cut down the valuable tree in an act of thoughtless mischief. When his father asked him if he had been responsible for chopping down the tree, Washington replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.”

The point of the story was to always be honest and admit the truth. There were other valuable lessons to be gleaned from the tale, such as taking personal responsibility and the value of being accountable for one’s actions. I would later learn that the story is almost certainly mythical, but it focuses on a greater truth. The tale illustrates values that Americans should all hold dear. Whether it is Washington and the cherry tree or Rome’s creation as a byproduct of Romulus and Remus, mythical lore is central to how great nations, empires and peoples see themselves. This is just as true for Hungary and Hungarians as it is for my own country. Their early history and conquest of the Carpathian Basin is the stuff legends are made of, quite literally.

Anonymous - The Great Unknown

Anonymous – The Great Unknown

The Stuff Of Legend – Words & Deeds Of Hungarians
The importance of myth and legend in Hungarian history can be found at one of Budapest’s most visited attractions. In the City Park (Varosliget), a statue of a strange man sits alone on a concrete pedestal. His head is hung low and covered with a hood. In his right hand is a sharp instrument, not a blade, but a writing utensil. He seems to be either deep in thought or brooding, but no one really knows for sure. Who is this statue supposed to represent? There are no easy answers when it comes to the man known as Anonymous. His identity is vaguely known, unlike his writing which is the stuff of legend, both figuratively and literally. Anonymous casts a long shadow over the history of Hungary. As he should, since an even longer shadow hangs over exactly who he was.

Scholars believe that sometime in the mid to late 13th century a scribe for the King of Hungary wrote the chronicle that provides a narrative on the background, conquest and aftermath of the Hungarian arrival in the Carpathian Basin. The veracity of this chronicle known as the Gesta Hungarorum (The Deeds of the Hungarians) has been questioned. It relies on everything from heroic folk songs, myths and ballads to written sources both ancient and medieval to tell the early story of the Hungarians. Some claims by the author are totally outlandish, such as when he states that Hungarians fought the Romans. There is way more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, the chronicle has provided the Hungarians with many of their founding myths. It also serves as proof of that old cliché to never let a good story get in the way of the truth.

As it is written – excerpt from a facsimile of the Gesta Hungarorum

Teller Of Many Tales & Very Few Truths – “P who is called magister”
The Gesta was written three and a half centuries after many of the events it describes. This makes its historical account of events highly unlikely. Nevertheless, it provides a homegrown basis for the early history of the Magyars. Almost all other accounts come from foreign sources. Truth be told, the Gesta also relies quite heavily on works by foreigners as well as a plethora of dubious sources. The Gesta was written by a Hungarian, which explains much of its popularity. That is the main reason it has informed the Hungarian people’s beliefs concerning their early origins. It is considered a trusted, but extremely flawed source.  So who was the anonymous author of this famous flawed work? A hint is given in the opening sentence.

The author is explicitly vague, calling himself, “P who is called magister, and sometime notary of the most glorious Bela, King of Hungary of fond memory.” The problem with identifying the author from this self-reference is that there were four different Kings of Hungary named Bela. A majority of scholars have concluded that it was written under the reign of King Bela III (1172 – 1196). The reason Anonymous wrote the work is less obscure. One of the more interesting statements made by Anonymous was that he had decided to write the history of Hungary’s kings and noblemen because no such work existed. Many of the tales he told did not exist, until he either made them up or repeated ones he had heard that were not grounded in historical fact. Anonymous was a man who loved good stories, no matter the truth. He did provide just enough factual material that some of what he said was taken seriously. It is this interweaving of truth and tale which created a work that has stood the test of time.

Miklos Ligeti - sculptor of the Anonymous statue

Miklos Ligeti – sculptor of the Anonymous statue

The Power Of Myth – A Universal Truth
It took five centuries before a translation of the Gesta appeared in Hungarian (the original was written in Latin). Its popularity soared along with Hungarian nationalism in the 19th century. At the time of the Millenary Celebrations of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 1896, the Gesta was promoted as a reputable source. As part of those celebrations, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef donated funds for the sculpting of ten statues to be placed in public areas around Budapest. This was the impetus for the statue of Anonymous found in the City Park. Miklos Legeti, a native of Pest was commissioned to sculpt it. Legeti, was a rather obscure artist, best known for the realistic quality of his work. He completed the statue in 1903. It is now hailed as a masterpiece. Strangely enough, Legeti is all but unknown today with the exception of his statue of an unknown man. Ironically both of these men have not been forgotten, proving that the power of myth is timeless, as are their works.

 

The Aftertaste – Sumeg Castle: A Not So Sweet Side of History (Three Castles In One Day: Part Three)

The castle at Sumeg was my final destination on what would turn out to be a three castle visit in just seven hours. I had wanted to visit Sumeg ever since I saw a fascinating photo on the fortepan.hu website from 1963. The site contains over seventy thousand photos taken in Hungary during the 20th century. Many of these are family photos, which give a unique look at daily life in the country during tumultuous times.

A sense of satisfaction in Sumeg circa 1963

A sense of satisfaction in Sumeg circa 1963 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

In Search Of A Mysterious Sense Of Satisfaction – Two Photos, One Castle
The photo from Sumeg captured my imagination. In it a lady stands outside the open passenger door of a Trabant automobile. She is looking towards the camera, with the ruins of Sumeg Castle standing high on a hill in the background. The lady’s eyes are hidden by sunglasses, but there is a look of complete satisfaction on her face. Her perfectly pleated skirt and stylish top give a sense of style. She looks to be out for a joyride while on holiday.  The lady and the Trabant have a symbiotic relationship in the photo, markers of their time. Something else from an earlier age, two white horses pulling a wagon cart, can be seen coming down the road opposite the Trabant. This is a snapshot of the new (Trabant, fashionably well-dressed woman) juxtaposed with the old (hilltop castle ruins, horse drawn wagon cart), an expression of 1960’s Hungary frozen in time, caught forever by an anonymous photographer. In some Hungarian family’s collection of old photographs this picture was kept until it was given a new life in digital format, half a century later.

This photo has stayed with me since the first time I saw it four years ago. I will forever associate it with Sumeg. The photo lured me to the town, both to see its castle and experience a semblance of the satisfaction represented by the look on that lady’s face. There was another photo that drew me to Sumeg. This one, taken much more recently, shows the castle illuminated at night. At first I thought the castle was glowing, as if on fire. It helped me imagine how the castle could have looked while under siege at night, set alight by artillery rounds exploding around and within its walls. There was a mysterious quality to the picture, a foreboding that lent itself to a darker side of the imagination. It pulled me into the photo and towards the castle, making me want to see the flaming world of those walls.

The path to Sumeg Castle

The path to Sumeg Castle

Presenting History – One Chimney Cake At A Time
With such pictures in mind, I could hardly wait to visit Sumeg. It was a day of perfect fall weather, warm, with a few fluffy clouds floating in the sky. Arriving in town, I did not find a castle in flames or a stylishly attired woman standing beside an old East German automobile. What I did find was a castle that was not to be missed. It was situated on Sumeg’s single notable hill, one that towered above everything else in the area. It could be spotted from a great distance. The conical shaped, limestone hill looked to have been created by nature as a home for Sumeg castle. In truth the castle was built in the 13th century following the Mongol destruction of a large majority of Hungary. Hilltop castles would act as secure fortresses where the population would be safe in the event of another invasion.  Sumeg Castle is one of the best examples of the many such castles that once dotted Hungarian hilltops. Its position turned out to be formidable enough that the Ottoman Turks never came close to conquering it. Only after the Austrians occupied western Hungary in the wake of Ferenc Rakoczi’s failed War of Independence at the start of the 18th century was the castle partially destroyed by fire. The ruins were vast enough that much of it could be rebuilt. Over the past couple of decades a reconstruction effort has brought the castle back to life.

For me, visiting Sumeg Castle was more fantasy than history, imagination rather than reality. That is largely true of most castles I have visited. I can hardly recall more than a few sparse details about what really occurred at these castles. Hardly anyone goes to a castle in search of a history lesson. Even a history zealot like me spends the entire time taking in the fabulous views and snapping photos. Whatever human history happened within the walls of Sumeg is largely lost on me. The idea behind most castle visits is to recreate some of the magic of medieval times. No matter that the people who once lived behind these castle walls had less to do with knights or gleaming suits of armor and more to do with survival in a chaotic world where warfare was the rule rather than the exception. Few visitors myself included, really care to hear the sordid details of what life was really like five hundred years ago, the disease, the suffering, the backbreaking hardships of manual labor and a low life expectancy where people were lucky to live beyond the age of thirty. Instead they are happy to eat a delicious chimney cake baked by a young lady in period clothing within one of the castle’s chambers. History today is meant to leave a good taste in your mouth. The true taste of history is bittersweet.

Sumeg Castle - illuminated

Sumeg Castle – illuminated (Credit: Attila Csaba Kontar)

Fantasy As History, Fantasy As Reality
From the walls of Sumeg Castle I had a panoramic view of the countryside. There were no hordes of Mongols, armies of marauding Turks or Austrian infantrymen sweeping the plain below, but I did spot a Tesco superstore. The modern, developed world of capitalism always awaits, a world that was unlike anything having to do with a castle. I asked myself what was more a fantasy, the castles I had visited or the way life is lived today. Sumeg Castle seemed more real, more tangible, more permanent than any superstore, but the history on offer behind its magnificent walls – an audio-visual presentation, paved walkways and souvenirs for sale – was not of the past. It was based on the present and that made it seem just as fantastical as the world I would soon travel back to.

Origins Obscure – Pal Kinizsi’s Castle: From Nowhere To Nagyvasony (Three Castles In One Day: Part Two)

The drive from Szigliegt Castle to Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony took less than an hour. It was a short, but memorable trip down a narrow road passing through the beautiful scenery of Balaton Uplands National Park. A landscape of rolling hills and leafy green forests interspersed with grassy fields was broken only by villages quietly tucked away. I have no idea what the people of Hegymagas, Monsostorapati, Kapolcs and Vigantpetend do for a living. There is no industry and little agriculture, enjoying nature looks to be the most productive activity. The tiny villages were tidy and well kept, they looked relatively prosperous. This was a beautiful place to live, the essence of gentility and relaxation if you could somehow make a living. The same might be said of Nagyvazsony, except for the fact that it is more than just a spot on the map. It is home to the added attraction of Kinizsi castle, which brings in some visitors. The castle makes this village of 1,800 seem more important and lively, but it was really neither. This was a place visited by few foreigners and outside of history buffs, likely few Hungarians as well. As I discovered, the castle is impressive and worth visiting, but it has to be found.

Kinizsi Castle

Kinizsi Castle – Veszprem County, Hungary

The Castle Below – Lost Assumptions
It was easier to find my way to Nagyvazsony than it was to find the castle in this little village. How could that be? Unfortunately I made an assumption about the castle’s location, based upon many other castles I have visited. Castles usually occupy hilltops because they are the most easily defensible positions. Nagyvazsony was fairly hilly, so after turning off the main highway I found a car park at the base of a large hill. There was a person walking up the hill to what I thought was a large structure. I was soon following them. After a short climb I found myself looking at the backs of several houses. The path I had followed led to backyards and barking dogs rather than a medieval castle. I was confused and annoyed. Walking back down the hill I followed a street for several hundred meters, when suddenly a 30 meter high castle keep and six storey tower came into view. It was not on a hill, but in a lower lying part of the village. This made it seem much less impressive than it actually was.

Rather than towering above the village, Kinizsi Castle was surrounded by much of it. This resulted in some lucky villagers getting a look straight out their windows at the medieval castle. A signboard at the entrance provided the reason for the castle’s location. It was situated at a point where two trade routes met. The intersection of these roads was a critical, strategic point. The castle provided a secure fortress. It is in astoundingly good condition for a medieval Hungarian castle. That is because it escaped destruction in warfare by the Ottoman Turks and obliteration in peace by the Habsburgs. The owners of the castle in the early modern era were the Zichy family who were staunch supporters of the Habsburgs. When the Habsburgs were decreeing that fortresses and castles in Hungary must be torn down so they would not be used against them during a possible rebellion in the future, Kinizsi Castle was spared.

Inside the walls of Kinizsi Castle - Nagyvazsony, Hungary

Inside the walls of Kinizsi Castle – Nagyvazsony, Hungary

Legend & Reality – Pal Kinizsi’s Strengths
Though the Zichys and Habsburgs allowed for its preservation, the castle’s fame comes from the individual for which it is named, Pal Kiniszi, a famous general who led troops for King Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490). Kinizsi’s sarcophagus is located in a reconstructed chapel in the castle’s main tower. His life falls somewhere between the vagaries of legend and history.  His origins are obscure, but it is believed that he was ethnically Serbian. As legend has it Kinizsi was a miller, a person who operated stone mills to grind grain. This was said to be the genesis of his legendary strength. Supposedly he came to the attention of King Matthias, who while on a hunting expedition in the country north of Lake Balaton stopped in the village where Kinizsi worked. When the King asked for a drink, Kinizsi delivered it to him on a large millstone. The King was astounded by his incredible strength. Soon Kinizsi was commanding the King’s vaunted Black Army of mercenaries. His generalship was superb, never more so than at the Battle of Brentfield in Transylvania where his army inflicted a resounding defeat on the Turks, killing thousands and making the area safe from the Turkish threat for decades.

One of the most famous stories regarding Kinizsi’s legendary strength comes from his exploits against the Turks. It was said that after victory he would dance while holding the body of a dead Turkish soldiers in each of his hands. This could be dismissed as a bit of dark Hungarian humor, yet it is also instructive as to Kinizsi’s fearsome reputation. Such stories have been passed down through the ages. His legend is the one thing that lives on. Such stories and ironically, Kinizsi’s sarcophagus, lends an impressive bit of life to otherwise austere interiors of Kinizsi Castle. This is a place dedicated more to the memory of one man than that of medieval castle architecture. A great man once called this place home, with a fair amount of imagination he still does.

The view from Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony

The view from Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony

Further Down The Road – Parting With the Past
After climbing to the top of the castle for a stunning view of the surrounding area, it occurred to me that without this castle, Nagyvazsony would be just as anonymous as the other villages in the area. The village managed to lodge itself in the memory due to history, but history had moved on from here centuries ago while Nagyvazsony and Kinizsi Castle were left behind. The place had outlived its prominence. All it had left was a formidable castle and beautiful natural surroundings. This was more than most Hungarian villages had, but it served to remind me that this was just a place to stop for a few hours at most, a place that would forever be on the way to somewhere else. I left Nagyvazsony behind because it was part of the past. The future was somewhere further down the road.

Towering Above Balaton – Szigliget Castle (Three Castles In One Day – Part One)

The make believe castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom is the only one I ever really imagined visiting in my life. Real castles, like the one shown in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail film, were beyond any travel dreams I could conjure. Now at the age of forty five I still have not been to the Magic Kingdom and have no plans to ever visit the castle there. Perhaps this is because I have been fortunate enough to spend so much time at historic castles in Europe. I have visited close to one hundred castles in Scotland, Slovakia and Slovenia, Austria, Hungary and Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, everything from hilltop fortresses to barely recognizable ruins, the ornate and decadent, from fully furnished interiors to empty, cavernous rooms. I can scarcely recall many of these castles, most of their names now escape me. I have only the vaguest recollection of that otherworldly architecture sculpted out of stone and shaped by historic forces that have long since vanished along with their owners from a long, lost world. My most vivid memory of visiting castles does not concern a single spectacular structure, but instead of one day spent in southwestern Hungary when I was fortunate enough to see three castles in six hours. Hopping across the hills and plunging into the valleys north of Lake Balaton allowed me to visit Szigliget, Kinizsi and Sumeg castles in succession.

The view over the ruins of Szigliget Castle looking inland

The view over the ruins of Szigliget Castle looking inland

Climbing To A Castle – The Way To Szigliget
There is no substitute for an automobile when it comes to maximum travel mobility in the Hungarian countryside. Public transport would have taken me to the three castles I longed to visit, but not in a single day. A car, a map and a plan were all that I really needed. Jumping on the M7 in Nagykanizsa was just the start. Within half an hour I was on the S71, skirting the beautiful city of Keszthely on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. From there, it was a short drive on the heavily trafficked road through holiday towns, vacation bungalows and vineyards, until the prominence of the 239 meter Varhegy (Castle Hill) on which the remnants of Szigliget Castle suddenly came into view. From several kilometers away the ruins stand out, protruding from the hilltop. Turning off the main highway towards the castle, the secondary road to the castle was exceedingly steep. It climbed a couple hundred meters in less than a kilometer. A small parking lot signaled the furthest extent that cars were allowed to go.

The final ascent would have to be made over a cobbled way, by foot, up what looked to be at least a 20% grade. This climb communicated to me the sheer brute physicality, strength and toil that it would have taken to carry rock and stone to such heights. Such arduous, backbreaking labor would have been the death of many an unlucky peasant. I consider myself to be in good physical condition, but by the time I reached the lower part of the ruins I was almost out of breath. And the climb was far from over. Szigliget Castle, or at least what was left of it, sprawled over the hillside, crawling upward until the walls stand high above the surrounding land. Distracted by the ruins, it is easy to forget that the hill the castle stand upon was the central reason for its location. Nature had conspired to create a hill that was just as formidable as the fortress which had been placed atop it. The hill was here long before any castle and while the stone walls of Szigliget were slowly degrading, Varhegy would certainly outlast any man made structure. For that matter, there is an excellent chance the hill will outlast humanity.

Szigliget Castle

Szigliget Castle – view towards upper ruins with Lake Balaton in the background (Credit: Kontiki)

Remnants & Ruins – Piecing Together The Past
As for the castle its period of human activity lasted four and a half centuries, from the mid-13th until the end of the 17th century. The most interesting era was during the Turkish wars when the castle was under constant threat. If anyone ever wonders what stopped the Ottoman Turks from taking Vienna and surging across central Europe, they should look no further than castles and fortresses along the military frontier in Hungary. Szigliget castle was the scene of multiple sieges and innumerable pitched battles that raged on and off for decades. Hungary suffered gravely during the Turkish occupation, but the Ottomans met fierce resistance in northern and western Hungary, areas that they were only able to subdue momentarily. One of the main crucibles in which this conflict was fought included castles such as Szigliget, highly contested areas in which Turkish military forces were faced with unyielding opposition. Szigliget castle never fell to the Turks. There is no telling how many bones are buried beneath the slopes of Varhegy.

The human cost of near constant warfare for decades on end can only be imagined. This led to a slow but progressive erosion of Ottoman power which contributed to its final collapse at the end of the 17th century. Szigliget did not long survive the end of the Turkish military threat. Its hilltop situation made it a natural target for nasty weather events. Violent thunderstorms often sweep across the waters of Lake Balaton, gaining momentum and ferocity before they strike land or in Szigliget’s case, the nearest thing to the sky. A lightning strike started a major conflagration in the late 17th century which badly damaged much of the existing structure making it uninhabitable. Then in an ironic twist, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, whose domains had been partly saved from Turkish conquest by the martial fortitude of Szigliget and other Hungarian castles, ordered that such fortresses be destroyed, lest they become hubs of Hungarian rebellion against Austrian rule.

Magnificent ruins with a magnificent view - Szigliget CastleMagnificent ruins with a magnificent view - Szigliget Castle

Magnificent ruins with a magnificent view – Szigliget Castle

Stunning, Shimmering Reflections – A View From Varhegy
The ruins of Szigliget today are still quite impressive, giving a rough idea of just how formidable a castle once stood within sight of the mesmerizing bluish green waters of Lake Balaton. It is this view that leaves the greatest impression. The shimmering silver reflection on the water as shafts of sunlight strike the surface of the Balaton. The view from the remnants of Szigliget Castle is stunning and well worth the climb. Seeing this made me ready for another castle, just an hour away.

Losing The Blood Countess – Elizabeth Bathory, Me & Cachtice Castle: A Deadly Date Deferred

A couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to detour from western Hungary and take a side trip to visit Cachtice Castle (Čachtický hrad – Slovak, Csejte vára – Magyar) in northwestern Slovakia. This was a chance I did not take. It was the second time in five years I have passed up the opportunity to visit Cachtice, the infamous castle where “the Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory may or may not have committed some of her worst atrocities. Bathory’s ranking as the most prolific female serial killer in history has been increasingly disputed as modern historians closely study the accusations brought against her. What is not in dispute, Bathory’s enduring infamy.

In Hungary, where due to nationalist sentiments the Countess’ reputation is usually given a more vigorous defense, legend still manages to outweigh reality. Case in point, at the restored Bathory castle in Nyirbator, Hungary the exhibits include a mock-up of the countess bathing in a tub of a young female victim’s blood, as she was said to have done in order to preserve her beautiful complexion.  If the place in which Bathory was born promotes her in this way than it is easy to imagine her dreadful reputation in other areas of Hungary or across the border in Slovakia.

Cachtice Castle as it looks today

Cachtice Castle as it looks today (Credit: LMih)

A Horrific Appeal, A Deadly Allure
The horrific appeal of the Elizabeth Bathory story has boosted tourism in off the beaten path places such as Nyirbator and Sarvar, Hungary, home to a fine castle where the Countess lived for many years with her husband Ferenc Nadasdy. One would think that Cachtice would be the sinister set piece at the bloody heart of Bathory fanaticism. Her crimes there were the stuff of legend. She reputedly carried out appalling acts of torture with every device imaginable on young, innocent women. While the ruined castle gets its fair share of visitors, more often than not Cachtice gets overlooked. It is on the way to nowhere in particular unless one is traveling along the western border region of Slovakia. The reason I once again decided to skip a journey to Cachtice is because it does not hold the same allure for me that it once did.

I traveled to Sarvar Castle a few years back hoping to experience some of the trepidation and fear that had drawn me to the stories of Bathory’s bloody exploits. The castle is in excellent condition, but there was nothing eerie or evocative of the Blood Countess. I did not find much mention of what may or may not have occurred there in the late 16th century. My most enduring memory of that visit was of a mother and father with their children playing together on the grassy grounds. From what I have discovered through research, Cachtice looks to be a much different and wilder experience. I still plan on traveling there in the coming years, not so much to revisit the scene of Elizabeth Bathory’s purported crimes, but instead to contemplate her last years spent in solitary confinement and the final surreal night of her life.

Reconstruction of Cachtice Castle

Reconstruction of Cachtice Castle

Convicted In The Court Of Royal Opinion
My imagined image of Castle Cachtice is of a Gothic house of horrors. A ferociously intimidating mountaintop stronghold with iron grey gates, towering bastions set amidst a supernatural scene, where earth shattering thunderstorms and massive bolts of deadly lightning strike its bastions on a nightly basis. Of course, my overactive imaginings have been unduly influenced by Dracula movies and Edgar Allen Poe stories. Historically, Cachtice did not look anything like that and the castle’s present state is one of a crumbling ruin. The peacefulness which permeates the site today is not altogether different from the final years that Elizabeth Bathory spent at Cachtice from 1611 to 1614 after she was convicted in the court of royal opinion.

The countess never stood trial. She was not given the opportunity to defend herself in a court of law to rebut the accusations against her. The powers that be at the time, including the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias and the Hungarian Palatine (equivalent to prime minster) Gyorgy Thurzo made sure it was that way. The Emperor owed a large debt to Lady Bathory. Many historians now believe that the Countess was setup. She was a wealthy, powerful single woman, one of the largest landowners in Hungary and a potential threat to the emperor’s rule. The Countess also had powerful Protestant relatives in eastern Hungary, who with her help could possibly have made an attempt to overthrow the Catholic Habsburgs. She had to be subdued. A tribunal in December 1611 sentenced Elizabeth Bathory to perpetual life imprisonment. Stonemasons arrived at Cachtice and walled the Countess up in a room. This is where she would live out the rest of her life.

Elizabeth Bathory

Elizabeth Bathory

Passing Into Infamy
The Countess’ final years were spent in solitary confinement. A few family members came to visit. She also spent time writing correspondence. Her only other outlet to the world was a small opening where a guard would pass food to her each day. It must have been a lonely, depressing existence. Just a few years earlier she held the power of life and death over her servants. Now her only servant was a guard watching over her imprisonment. She had once been the most powerful woman in Hungary. Now she inhabited a small, drafty space in a forlorn castle along the borderlands. Few people in Hungarian history have fallen so far from the heights of power in so short a time. Was the Countess haunted by her crimes, seething with anger over the accusations that had brought her down or deeply depressed at what her life had become? Her enemies, including Thurzo’s own wife, came to the castle and stole away with much of Bathory’s jewelry. No one would have dared to do such a thing when she ruled over Cachtice. Now she was helpless to stop such petty plunder. Her land, her riches, her freedom had all been taken away, but madness was still there to accompany her all the way to the grave.

On the final night of her life, Sunday August 21, 1634, the Countess called for her guard and complained about having poor circulation, specifically in her hands. The guard told her that she was fine. He instructed her to lie down. With a pillow under her legs, rather than her head, she began to sing aloud in a beautiful, melodic voice. Where once there had been screaming, there was now only a sweet melody. These were the last words anyone heard from Elizabeth Bathory, with that she passed into history and infamy.

 

“Worse Was Lost at Mohacs” – Hungary’s Historical Psychosis

Mohács is a word fraught with meaning for Hungarians. The word, or more appropriately the name, has come to symbolize more than just a 16th century battle. Mohács has become a byword for the succession of tragedies which have recurred in Hungarian history. Over the past several centuries whenever Hungarians suffered at the hands of historical fate, they have been consoled with the statement, “Több is veszett Mohácsnál.” Roughly translated this means, “worse was lost at Mohács.” Thus the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1956, the losses in World Wars I and II, the curses of fascism and communism all pale in comparison with what happened to Hungary in a few tragic hours at the Battle of Mohács . What resulted was no less than both the end of medieval Hungary and also its end as a major European power. To Hungarians nothing could be worse than the loss at Mohács. For a people who have suffered more than their fair share of catastrophes, the Battle of Mohács ranks as the seminal disaster in Hungarian history. It is hard to overstate just how devastating the battle was to the future course of Hungary.

Battle of Mohács

A 16th century Ottoman artistic rendering of the Battle of Mohács

Disunited – The Long Road To Defeat
In the decades leading up to Mohács, Hungarian society was riven by infighting. Following the death of King Matthias Corvinus (Hunyadi Mátyás) in 1490, the landed nobility asserted their authority. They made sure that the weakest king they could find was placed on the throne. This turned out to be Vladislaus II (Ulászló II), who would soon acquire the nickname “Ok Ulászló” because he agreed with any and all of the nobility’s demands. Vladislaus II handed over most of the royal estates to the nobility in order to satisfy them. Without the income from these lands, the crown became severely indebted and expenditures on border defense against Ottoman incursions in southern Hungary fell to a trickle. Meanwhile, the nobility spent decades mistreating the peasantry.  Their actions included passing discriminatory laws and increasing taxes on those who worked the land. This led to a full scale peasant revolt in 1514.

The rebellion was put down with an extraordinary amount of violence, followed by the imposition of onerous laws which enshrined the largest landholder’s privileges at the expense of not only the peasantry, but the lesser nobility as well. This was soon followed by the accession of a youthful, inexperienced and weak king, Louis II (Lajos II) to the throne. These events made Hungary ripe for conquest by the Ottoman Turks who had been constantly testing the porous border defenses of Southern Hungary. The situation would come to a head in the late afternoon of August 29, 1526 as the Imperial Ottoman army met Hungarian forces on an uneven plain near the Danube River and the town of Mohács in southern Hungary.

Battle of Mohács - painting by Bertalan Székely

Battle of Mohács – painting by Bertalan Székely

Drawn & Quartered – An Army & A Kingdom Fall Apart
The Hungarian forces arrayed that day on the fields near Mohács had wasted months just getting organized. Only when the enemy threat was clear and present did the stubborn, selfish nobility heed Louis II’s call to arms. Their behavior contributed as much to the Hungarian defeat as did the formidable Ottoman war machine. The Ottoman army at Mohács was at least twice the size of the Hungarian one, with a decided advantage in firepower and fighting prowess. In simplified terms, the battle went as follows. The Hungarians charged the center of the Ottoman line. At first, they made some minor gains, but the Ottomans unleashed a devastating counterattack on the Hungarian flanks utilizing a lethal combination of accurate artillery fire and crack troops. The Hungarian forces quickly crumbled before the onslaught. What followed was encirclement and near total destruction. The Ottomans took few prisoners. Sources state that the Ottomans killed thousands of captives by having them drawn and quartered. Louis II, the 20 year old Hungarian king, was said to have drowned in a stream while trying to escape the field of battle. Few of the defeated were able to escape the battlefield alive or for that matter with their limbs intact.

It was not just 28,000 Hungarian soldiers and assorted mercenary troops that were wiped out on that rainy, late summer’s day. The loss opened a massive gap in central Europe’s defenses. The Ottoman Turks were now free to head north and west, forge deeper into Europe, where in coming years they would besiege Vienna. As for the legacy of Mohács, this set in motion Ottoman occupation of the Hungarian heartland for most of the 16th and 17th centuries. Another swath of Hungary that bordered Ottoman occupied territory became a no man’s land, acting as a permanent war zone with resulting depopulation, deforestation and starvation in those areas. The loss at Mohács led to even greater losses for Hungary, losses from which the Kingdom would never recover. Mohács effectively ended Hungary’s status as a European power forever. It would take nearly three centuries before Hungary would regain complete independence from foreign rule.

Wooden carvings atop a mass grave from the Battle of Mohács

Wooden carvings atop a mass grave from the Battle of Mohács

All Was Lost –Memorializing Mohács
Today the Historical Memorial Park of Mohács is as close as Hungarians and foreign tourists can get to the watershed battle. The Park has a visitor center that is built in the shape of the Hungarian crown. Unfortunately, the visitor center provides limited information and interpretation on the battle. The park contains the site of a mass grave with approximately 400 bodies of those killed in the battle. There are symbolic carvings posted around this burial site. The site is a somber, morose place. It is believed that some of the battle may have taken place near here, but no one can be quite sure. The plain where the battle was fought continues to elude discovery. It is strange that such an important place in Hungarian (and Central European) history was never marked. Then again would it really matter if the specific site was known? In effect, locating the battle site would please a few historical purists and battlefield buffs. For the majority of Hungarians, knowing the actual place would be just another reminder of their ill-fated history. Besides, they get enough painful reminders each time someone says “Több is veszett Mohácsnál.”  

 

 

Kőszeg: Jewel Box Of Hungary – The History We See, The History We Believe

Kőszeg is what be termed “dramatically cute.” This historic town in extreme western Hungary, a handful of kilometers from the Austrian border, offers a feast for the eyes. It transports visitors back to an age where burghers once walked the streets, terra cotta roofs towered above the townscape and brightly painted buildings flashed a full spectrum of colors. Today, the old merchants are gone, but numerous buildings remain, creating an ensemble of aesthetic architectural beauty. The effect of Kőszeg’s architecture is both physical and psychological. Physical in the sense that its structural aesthetics are so well defined, it seems impossible that it could have ever existed in any other state than its current one. The town’s urban environment imposes itself upon the imagination. Psychological because the town’s architectural atmospherics are enough to make visitors believe that they are walking backward in time to the 17th and 18th centuries. Renaissance and Baroque architecture predominates throughout the pristine Belváros (Inner City).  One of the more amazing things about Kőszeg is how it is of the past, but does not seem stuck within it. This is a vibrant town where history informs the present as much as it does the past. Because of this, it is all the more shocking to discover that the present has been much easier on Kőszeg than the past.

Church of the Sacred Heart - Kőszeg, Hungary

From Neo-Gothic to Baroque – Kőszeg’s Church of the Sacred Heart with a plague column in the foreground

Perception Informs History – The Fantasy Of Kőszeg
Present day Kőszeg contains a highly subjective portrayal of history, showcasing both what people want to see and what they want to believe as it pertains to the past. The look and feel of the place today reveals more about human vanity, than it actually does about the town itself. It is a grand historical illusion and there is nothing really wrong with that. This is in no way meant to disparage Kőszeg. Each place should be allowed to nurse a historical fantasy, especially in Hungary where the past has been a lot less than pleasant. The interesting thing is that Kőszeg did not really exist in its current “historical” form until the end of the 19th century, though much of its architecture gives the idea that it is has been there for many centuries. Instead the past on display at Kossel has been pieced together. It does not constitute a whole from any certain era, instead remnants and fragments have formed into a collective.

One representation of this historical reality is front and center at the Church of the Sacred Heart, an eye catching piece of neo-Gothicism that is quite out of proportion with the square it soars over. An otherworldly fantasy, it works because of its sheer dissimilarity with the immediate surroundings. It was built in 1894 close to the heart of the inner town. Baroque is considered the quintessential architectural style in Kőszeg, but the church calls into question this stereotypical view. Sure it is only one structure, but it surmounts all its immediate surroundings. The long shadow of Sacred Heart casts itself upon the old town. Could an 18th century burgher have imagined such a fanciful creation here, it seems highly unlikely.

Kőszeg's Városháza (Town Hall)

Kőszeg’s Városháza (Town Hall)

Flames & Remains – The Reality of Kőszeg
When it comes to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Kőszeg has it in spades. There are hybrid examples such as the Városháza (Town Hall) and Sgraffito House which combine elements of multiple styles. Ornate columns display Holy Trinity and Holy Virgin statues from the Baroque era. A stone’s throw away is the late Renaissance St. Imre’s Church and late Gothic Church of St. James. It is as though the constructions of centuries past have been placed in close proximity to one another in order to engage the visitor in historical comparisons, contrasts and conversations. For all those historical structures still standing in Kőszeg, much more has been lost. The town famously held off a Turkish siege in 1532 against incredible odds, but most of it was left in ruins. Prior to the 20th century Kőszeg was reconstructed time and again. That makes the town which is on display today all the more remarkable. It was one of the few places in Hungary lucky enough to escape the ravages of World War II and the long period of communist rule that followed. The majority of medieval and early modern Kőszeg is gone. It went up in flames at the hands of invaders or surprisingly its own citizens. Kőszeg had a terrible problem with fire. Smoking was banned in the town after fires repeatedly gutted it during the 17th and 18th centuries. A law was instituted that anyone caught smoking was to be given 50 lashes.

Today much of the Belváros is built atop the rubble and ashes of wooden houses that succumbed to numerous conflagrations. The beautiful historic houses found throughout the inner city were lucky to have lasted at all. Many of their architectural ancestors lie beneath the cobblestone streets. Life and fate were not kind to Kőszeg in the early modern age, but that’s at odds with the impression of refinement on display today. The question comes to mind: Were these houses built to last or are they just the last lucky vestiges of their line? Here was the reality of history in Hungary for centuries: capricious, schizophrenic and unpredictable. If the citizens of 18th century Kőszeg were to visit the town today, they would probably be surprised to find so much of the architecture they inhabited still intact. In their own lifetimes, they had suffered through and then rebuilt after a succession of calamities. War, plague and fire remade Kőszeg. In turn, Kőszegians recreated the town. At some point in the 20th century the constructions and reconstructions stopped. Except for restorations, history became frozen. This is the history of Kőszeg that tens of thousands of visitors gawk at each year. It is the past and at the same time, nothing like it.

Buildings in Kőszeg 's Belváros (Inner City)

Colorful buildings line the cobblestone streets in Kőszeg’s Belváros (Inner City)

Window Shopping History
The paradoxical nature of what remains of Kőszeg’s historic architecture will not stop visitors from seeing every street as a museum, every building as a monument and every square as a gallery. Never mind that it only came to look this way in the 20th century. The “historical” Kőszeg that stands today only exists in the present. In truth, the only constant was change and uncertainty, upheaval and reclamation. Present-day Kőszeg gives only glimpses into the reality of that past. What’s really on display is a shop window of history, it looks great from the outside, but the true cost never really gets advertised.

The Purest Speculation – The Death of King Matthias & A Lust for Someone’s Else Life

Királyrét, in the Borszony Hills of northern Hungary, is home to the “royal meadow.” This was a former hunting ground of the last truly great Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490). The historical record states that he would come here with his wife Queen Beatrice of Naples to venture out on hunts into the surrounding forest. We do not know if King Matthias was keeping an eye on his back, while keeping an eye out for animals on these hunts.  Perhaps he should have been. Whether it is just legend or the truth many believe that Beatrice helped lead Matthias to his doom by having him poisoned in 1490. If such a thing did happen, it would be deeply ironic, since the two had made so much history together. Beatrice helped bring the Renaissance to Matthias who in turn brought it to Hungary. A little known and intriguing historical footnote, the royal couple made Hungary the first European country outside of Italy to welcome the Renaissance. Matthias and Beatrice were the ultimate power couple of high culture, enlightened patrons of the arts. They were also power hungry, their ambition knew no bounds, which certainly included marital ones.

 Forest at Királyrét - former royal hunting ground of King Matthias

Forest at Királyrét  – former royal hunting ground of King Matthias

Királyrét- The Hunter Hunted?
Like many legends the cause of Matthias death does have some basis in fact. Beatrice was certainly smitten with power. On occasion, she accompanied Matthias on his many military campaigns and was known to insert herself into policymaking. This may have been because she was trying to compensate for failing in one of a queen’s most important duties, providing her husband with an heir to the throne. She never bore him any children. In 1479, only the third year of their marriage, the relationship became strained as a result of Matthias naming his illegitimate son as heir to the throne.  An even greater insult ensued when Matthias invited the boy’s mother (his mistress!) to the royal court as well. If Beatrice needed a reason to plot against her husband, she now certainly had one. If she needed a place to attempt an assassination there was probably nowhere better than on a hunt. It could be the perfect setting for an “accident” to take place.

Matthias, like many a king, was fond of hunting. Here was a sport where he could exercise both his martial skill and considerable ego. The fact that he would be focused on the hunt and less on a possible assassination attempt would have been noted by would be conspirators. The problem was that Matthias was a formidable warrior who would have been a tough mark for any assassin. Whether there was ever even a whisper of a plot to murder him on the hunt is pure speculation. That makes it no less a tantalizing prospect, especially when juxtaposed against the beautiful region where such a plot may have been hatched. The peaceful serenity of Királyrét is much the same today, as it was then. It seems the least likely place for lurid court politics to intrude. It is hard to fathom malevolence in this landscape. The verdant forests, the wide and lush meadows, the clean and crisp air, breathtaking and calming, could a conspiracy really take place here. Sadly the answer is yes, whether it did or not is quite another matter. One thing is most certainly true: there is no escape from the lust for power.

Matthias & Beatrice as power wielding couple

Matthias & Beatrice as power wielding couple – (Credit: Epitoma rerum Hungaricarum by Petrus Ransanus)

A Passion For Power – Beatrice After Matthias
Beatrice certainly had a motive, to gain sole ownership of the lands and wealth that she felt should be under her rule. Anyone else in this situation would have probably felt the same. The wealth Matthias had acquired was definitely enough to give even the most humble individual cause for avarice. His financial resources were vast. It is believed that his annual income was almost a million gold florins, close to the same level as the King of France. The lands under his control outside of Hungary proper included Moravia, Silesia and all of Lower Austria. He died in Vienna, a city he had conquered only a few years before. Beatrice’s actions after Matthias death fuelled speculation as to her desires. She contrived to marry the next king, Vladislaus II. The marriage took place, but it was claimed that Vladislaus had failed to divorce his first wife.  Furthermore, Vladislaus later stated he had been forced to marry Beatrice. The upshot of all this, was that the pope declared the marriage illegal and Beatrice was sent back to Naples. She would never see Hungary again.

Queen Beatrice and King Matthias

Queen Beatrice and King Matthias – a passion for power

Perhaps this was why the legend arose that she had Matthias poisoned when he died in 1490. Medical experts have considered this claim dubious since Matthias showed no symptoms of poisoning. Instead, he most likely suffered a stroke. Some historians still will not rule out the possibility of a conspiracy. The myth of poisoning has survived for over five hundred years, even without historical evidence to support such a legend. Then again, conspiracy theorists have never let the hard facts of history get in the way of a good story. Speculation as to the cause of Matthias’ death will probably never end. Even deep in the Borszony Hills, at the royal meadow of Királyrét, a place serene and beautiful, there can be no escape from the lust and envy that accompanies power.

Speaking In Tongues: Sátoraljaújhely & The (Un)Pronounceable Hungarian Language

By the time a traveler makes it to Sátoraljaújhely in northeastern Hungary they have probably had their fill of wine. Anyone visiting the area almost certainly travels through the nearby Tokaj wine region. Even though they might be nursing a bit of a headache, most will gladly spare some time to visit the Bortemplom, otherwise known as the Wine Church located in Sátoraljaújhely. Built in the early 20th century there is nothing quite like it. The cellars can hold up to 12,000 hectoliters of wine. As unique as the cellars are, the church atop them is just as fascinating. It is the only church in Hungary that is not affiliated with a specific denomination. The Bortemplom is one a handful of attractions in the town. Foreign visitors might need at least a liter of one of the Bortemplom’s recent vintages to cope with the impossibility of pronouncing the town in which they have arrived.

Satoraljaujhely - with a name like this...

Satoraljaujhely – with a name like this… (Credit: Krzysztof Dudzik)

The Finno Ugrics: Keep Quiet & Speak Out
In the Bradt Guide to Hungary, Sátoraljaújhely is described as, “a one-street town bereft of decent restaurants, dead as a doornail by mid-evening, and blighted by surrounding residential blocks.” Notwithstanding the Bortemplom, this less than warm introduction would be enough to put most tourists off. Sátoraljaújhely also has a more noticeable problem, namely its name. It is one of many places in Hungary with a name that is only memorable because of its strange look and sound. This is a negative connotation because to non-native speakers it looks literally impossible to pronounce. That’s what happens when a Finno-Ugric language such as Hungarian (Magyar to Hungarians) is converted into Latin script. Of course it could be worse, early Hungarian was written in a runic script. It would take quite a leap of the imagination to envision what Sátoraljaújhely might look like if written in an archaic format. The correct pronunciation is literally a mouthful of syllables, shah-toor-all-ya-oy-hay. It takes a while to get it right. Time and patience is required, but that is nothing new for anyone who tries to learn Hungarian.

The ancient Hungarian alphabet - as if Hungarian was not difficult enough

The ancient Hungarian alphabet – as if it was not already difficult enough

The difficulty of the Hungarian language is legendary. There is nothing like it, at least in Europe. In the European family of languages it is an outlier. Hungarian is not part of the Latin, Germanic or Slavic speaking worlds, though it is surrounded by millions who speak languages from these groupings. The roots of Hungarian are as little understood as the actual language itself, though it is known to be Asiatic in origin. Hungarian is part of the Finno-Ugric language family. These speakers originated in a vast region on the steppes and around the Ural Mountains in what is today central Russia. Hungarian has been proven as a distant relative of both Finnish and Estonian. The operative word is “distant” because Finns and Estonians split off from Hungarians well before early medieval times.

Current distribution of Finno-Ugric languages

Current distribution of Finno-Ugric languages (Credit: Fobos92)

Each of these peoples eventually migrated westward over many centuries. Though they have long been distant geographically from one another, linguistic experts have found approximately two hundred words with common roots among all Finno-Ugric languages spoken today. The most common of these include fifty-five about fishing and fifteen concerning reindeer. The latter animals have probably not been seen in the Carpathian Basin since the last Ice Age  -about 9,000 years before Hungarians arrived there – so not too much should be made of these distant links. According to an article entitled “The Finno-Ugrics” that appeared in The Economist magazine in 2005, “An Estonian philogist, Mall Hellam, came up with just one mutually comprehensible sentence: ‘the living fish swims in water.’  Certainly this is a start, but not much of one for those who speak Finno-Ugric tongues to unite around. Possibly the most astonishing fact is that Hungarian still has any common root words with other Finno-Ugric languages and vice versa. East-Central Europe is geographically, historically and culturally remote in both time and space from the farther reaches of northern Europe. Nonetheless, Hungarians must be heartened by the fact that they can lay claim to linguistic kin.

Denunciations and Pronunciations – Making Hungarian Official
Somehow Hungarian has managed to survive up to the present day despite being considered one of the five toughest languages in the world to learn. Then again if you happen to be Hungarian it is the easiest and for many the only language they will ever need to learn. Though nearly all Hungarians lament the fact that their mother tongue is spoken by “only” fifteen million (three times more than those who speak Finnish and fifteen times more than those who speak Estonian), the fact that Hungarians have survived numerous attempts by foreigners to convert them to their own languages is really saying something. Hungarian is considered as difficult to learn as Mandarin. This may have contributed to efforts by their neighbors to convert Hungarians to an easier and more commonly spoken language.  The Austrian Habsburgs, for instance, thought it would be easier to get Hungarians to speak German rather than learn Hungarian themselves. This ended up stimulating resistance, the upshot of which turned into linguistic nationalism. Patriotic Hungarian nobles felt threatened, especially in the period from the mid-18th to the late 19th centuries.

It only seems fitting that the ever difficult to pronounce Satoraljaujhely was the adopted home for Ferenc Kazinczy, a man who helped codify and promote Hungarian as a literary language. Kazinczy along with many Hungarians was outraged when Habsburg Emperor Joseph II (1780 – 1790) decided to make German the official language of public and official actions in 1784. A few years later, Kazinczy was convicted as part of a dubious conspiracy to overthrow Habsburg rule in Hungary. He was narrowly avoided executed and instead spent seven years in prison. After being freed, Kazinczy moved to Szephalom (Beautiful Hill) an estate on the edge of Satoraljaujhely. It was here where he accomplished some of his greatest work on the Hungarian language. This included the translations of classics as well as native poets and writers. He worked on standardized spelling and vocabulary that met literary standards. Unfortunately Kazinczy died of cholera at his estate in 1831, thirteen years before Hungarian became the official language of his beloved homeland in 1844. No single individual ever did more to help create a dynamic Hungarian language.

Ferenc Kazinczy

Ferenc Kazinczy – He could certainly pronounce Sátoraljaújhely

To Speak Clearly With Complexity
An unintended consequence of the efforts of Kazinczy and his fellow Hungarian language patriots has ensured that visitors to northeastern Hungary will tie their tongues into knots trying to pronounce Sátoraljaújhely, along with hundreds of other Hungarian place names and words that defy pronunciation. A good glass of Tokaj or a liter from the Bortemplom might help loosen a few tongues, but more than likely visitors to Sátoraljaújhely will have long since said goodbye to this sleepy town before they come close to speaking its name correctly.

Another Kind Of Memory – The Legacy of Tihany: History Stranger Than Truth

Perched on a hillside along the northern shore of central Europe’s largest lake, Balaton, is the picture perfect village of Tihany. The village stands on a peninsula that is home to an entire district that contains both literally and physically some of the deepest historic roots in Hungary.  This history is matched only by Tihany’s beautiful natural setting. In one direction, the greenish blue waters of Balaton expand outward until they blend into the horizon where water and sky meld into one. In the opposite direction, the volcanic Pecsely Basin is laced with vineyards and shimmering with greenery. Surrounded by this natural beauty, with a history that few places can match, it is easy to see why Tihany was designated Hungary’s first National park in 1952. This designation was a well-deserved recognition of Tihany’s beauty and importance, but the area in and around the village achieved its significance long before anyone knew or cared about national parks. Tihany predates modernity by almost a millennium. Its history is among the most ancient to be found concerning Hungary.

The Abbey Church in Tihany

The Abbey Church – occupies the most prominent setting in the village of Tihany

The Challenge of Paganism – Stephen I & Andrew I: Christianizing Hungary
Tihany is not subtle in its initial presentation to the visitor. The town’s most prominent architectural feature is also its tallest, the Baroque style Abbey Church. Its twin spired towers topped with gold crosses soar skyward. The church edifice stands upon one of the highest points of the peninsula. Its red roofed, blinding white facade commands an imposing position. The first time viewer immediately surmises that the church’s builders wanted to ensure that it was the focal point of the village. While the church itself only dates back to the 18th century, it is home to the remains of one of Hungary’s earliest monarchs, the 11th century ruler Andrew I (Andras I). He is the only Hungarian King still buried in the same place where he was first laid to rest. Considering the chaotic nature of Hungarian history the fact that the remains of Andrew I have remained in situ for over nine hundred years is a miracle in itself.

To understand the history of Andrew I’s reign is to understand the paradoxes of power politics that defined the early years of Christianity in the Hungarian Kingdom.  This story begins with the Arpad Dynasty and the successors of Hungary’s first King, Stephen I (Istvan I), who was crowned the first Christian King of Hungary in the year 1000. Stephen staked his reign and the future of the Hungarian Kingdom on western style Christianity. He had little tolerance for other beliefs or customs, which were based on pagan rituals. Paganism in 10th century was in effect, opposition to Stephen’s rule. Nonetheless, there were those who still disagreed with him.  One of those was Andrew I’s father Vazul, a Hungarian nobleman and cousin of Stephen. Vazul along with many Hungarians still paid homage to pagan customs. In 1037 he was caught plotting the murder of the Christian King.  Stephen for all his Christianizing ways was also a man of his time. He punished betrayal in the harshest manner possible. Stephen had Vazul’s eyes gouged out, hot molten lead poured in his ears and his three sons exiled. Andrew, the middle son, fled eastward into Kievan Rus.

The blinding of Vazul, father of King Andrew I

The blinding of Vazul, father of Andrew I

Luck, Strategy & Circumstance – Andrew I Takes The Throne
At this point, the question becomes how did a man of Andrew I’s lineage end up becoming the King of Hungary?  He was one of the least likely prospects to rule Hungary. The fact that he would build upon Stephen’s legacy of Christianization is nearly as improbable.  Several years after the death of Stephen, Hungarian clergymen arranged for Andrew to reenter the Kingdom. Stephen’s successor Peter was overthrown by a revolt of the pagans. The clergy were increasingly under attack. Andrew had credibility both with Christians and pagans. He successfully employed a strategy of playing both ends against the middle. Even though he was pro-Christian, Andrew was able to forge an agreement with the pagans. This led to his coronation in 1046. Paradoxically, once in power he continued the Christianizing ways of Stephen, the supreme ruler who had blinded Andrew’s father for among other things paganism.

Coronation of King Andrew I of Hungary

Coronation of King Andrew I of Hungary – from the Illuminated Chronicle

All this makes little sense unless one considers that history – not truth – is stranger than fiction and much more improbable. Almost anything is possible when it comes to human affairs. Innumerable examples from Hungarian history bear this out, including the reign of Andrew I. He came to the throne by luck, strategy and circumstance.  One of Andrew I’s most notable decrees was ordering an Abbey’s construction on the rocky promontory where the village of Tihany is located today. The first version of the Benedictine Abbey, was built here in 1055. The charter for construction of the abbey is just as important historically as the Abbey itself. It is the first historical document containing words written in Hungarian (the text is mostly in Latin). The Abbey was somehow able to survive the excesses of war and conquest in the ensuing centuries. It was even converted to a fortified stronghold during the Ottoman invasion. Amazingly it was never taken by the Turks. A new structure was built during the Baroque period. It was finished in 1754 and that is the church which stands on the site today.

Grave of King Andrew I

Grave of King Andrew I (1046 – 1060) at Tihany Abbey – still in its original placement (Credit: Andres Rus)

The Persistence of the Past– Tihany & Early Hungarian History
Tihany has gone from a place of meditation for monks to a modern tourist mecca for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The village’s spectacular setting is a magnetic draw. There is solace and solitude to be found in the remarkable beauty of the peninsula. Visitors to Tihany spend much of their time gazing over the waters of Lake Balaton and the bucolic wonder of the Pecsely Basin. It is these spectacular views which make the place so memorable, but another kind of memory is just as important here. This is the historical memory of early medieval Hungary and its effects on Tihany. The effects of which persist to this very day, most prominently at the Abbey Church.