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Saint Stephen I
Apostolic King of Hungary
King of Hungary
Reign 1001–1038
Coronation 25 Dec. 1000 / 1 Jan. 1001
Predecessor Himself as Grand Prince
Successor Peter I
Grand Prince of the Hungarians
Reign c. 997 – 1000
Predecessor Géza
Successor Himself as King of Hungary
Born ? 967 - 975
Principality of Hungary
Died 15 August 1038 (aged 62-71)
Esztergom or Székesfehérvár,
Kingdom of Hungary
Burial Székesfehérvár, Hungary
Spouse Giselle of Bavaria
Issue Saint Emeric
House House of Árpád
Father Géza of Hungary
Mother Sarolt of Transylvania
Signature Saint Stephen I's signature

Saint Stephen I (Hungarian: I. (Szent) István; Latin: Sanctus Stephanus; Esztergom, Principality of Hungary, 967 or 969 or 975 – 15 August 1038, Esztergom or Székesfehérvár, Kingdom of Hungary), born as Vajk, was Grand Prince of the Hungarians (997–1000) and the first King of Hungary (1000–1038). He greatly expanded Hungarian control over the Carpathian Basin during his lifetime, broadly established Christianity in the region, and is generally regarded as the founder of the Kingdom of Hungary. Pope Gregory VII canonized Stephen together with his son, Saint Emeric of Hungary, and Gerardo Sagredo, on 20 August 1083. Stephen became one of the most popular saints in Hungary, and 20 August, which was also his feast day until 1687, is celebrated as a public holiday in Hungary commemorating the foundation of the state.


Early years

Aftnn King Stephen, who we reckon was responsible for Christianity in eastern Europe
Saint Stephen I in Budapest

He was born as Vajk in the town of Esztergom. His father was Grand Prince Géza of Hungary; his mother was Sarolt, daughter of Gyula of Transylvania a Hungarian nobleman who had been baptized in Greece. Though Sarolt was baptized into the Orthodox Christian faith at her father's court in Transylvania by the Greek bishop Hierotheos, she did not persist in the religion. According to his legends, Vajk was baptized a Christian by Saint Adalbert of Prague. He was given the baptismal name Stephen (István) in honour of the original early Christian Saint Stephen. The baptised name was possibly chosen on purpose, as it means not only "crown" as mentioned, but also "norm, standard" in Hebrew. So the mission of St. Stephen was to grant a norm to Hungary through the Holy Crown (also called the Doctrine of the Holy Crown). However, another reason could be thought of: that Stephen, as fiancé of a woman from the diocese of Passau, simply wanted to do honour to the then-major saint of Passau, Saint Stephen, after whom the Passau Cathedral is named up to today.

When Stephen reached adolescence, Great Prince Géza convened an assembly where they decided that Stephen would follow his father as the monarch of the Hungarians. This decision, however, contradicted the Magyar tribal custom that gave the right of succession to the eldest close relative of the deceased ruler.

Stephen married Giselle of Bavaria, the daughter of Henry II the Wrangler in or after 995. By this marriage, he became the brother-in-law of the future Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor. Giselle arrived at her husband's court accompanied by German knights.

Ruling prince of the Hungarians

In 997, his father died and a succession struggle ensued. Stephen claimed to rule the Magyars by the principle of Christian divine right, while his uncle Koppány, a powerful pagan chieftain in Somogy, claimed the traditional right of agnatic seniority. Eventually, the two met in battle near Veszprém and Stephen, victorious, assumed the role of Grand Prince of the Hungarians. Stephen's victory came about primarily thanks to his German retinue led by the brothers Pázmány and Hont. The nearly contemporary deed of foundation of the Abbey of Pannonhalma clearly described the battle as a struggle between the Germans and the Magyars. Thus, Stephen strengthened his power in Transdanubia, but several parts of Hungary still did not accept his rule.

Veszprem Istvanesgizella
Statue of King Stephen I of Hungary and Queen Giselle in Veszprém (Hungary)

According to Hungarian tradition, Pope Silvester II, with the consent of Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor, sent a magnificent jeweled gold crown to Stephen along with an apostolic cross and a letter of blessing officially recognizing Stephen as the Christian king of Hungary. Later this tradition was interpreted as the papal recognition of the independence of Hungary from the Holy Roman Empire. The date of Stephen's coronation is variously given as Christmas Day, 1000 or 1 January 1001.

Stephen I is closely tied to the Crown of St. Stephen and the Doctrine of the Holy Crown which marks a unique tradition of the Kingdom of Hungary. According to Hartwick's legend, during his coronation Stephen dedicated the crown to the Holy Virgin, thereby sealing a contract between God and the crown (which is therefore considered a "holy" crown). This contract is also the basis for the Doctrine of the Holy Crown and the basis for the Apostolic Kingdom of Hungary. The actual crown which survives today was probably never worn by the king himself as it has been dated as originating in the 12th century. The origin of the crown, however, is hotly disputed.

First King of Hungary

St. Stephen, Esztergom
King Stephen's statue in his hometown, Esztergom

According to the much argued Chronicon Pictum, the first king of the Hungarians is Attila the Hun. However, the codex repeats itself as Stephen I is also cited as the first king of the Hungarians. Also argued by historians is the exact meaning of the phrase in the Remonstrances to Emerick from St Stephen: "Regale ornamentum scito esse maximum: sequi antecessores reges et honestos imitari parentos", which translates to: "The greatest deed for the kingdom is to follow the old kings and to imitate parents". This might mean that Stephen is referring to the "old kings" which could only be Attila and Nimrod. It might also mean that the constitution of the kingdom itself was not employed by St Stephen, but by his ancestors.

What is confirmed is that, after (or just before) his coronation, Stephen I founded several dioceses, namely, the dioceses of Veszprém, Győr, Kalocsa, Vác, and Bihar. He also established the Archdiocese of Esztergom. Thus he set up an ecclesiastical organisation independent of the German archbishops. He also began to organize a territory-based administration by founding several counties (comitatus, megye) in his kingdom.

Stephen discouraged pagan customs and strengthened Christianity by means of various laws. In his first decree, issued at the beginning of his rule, he ordered that each ten villages would be obliged to build a church. He invited foreign priests to Hungary to evangelize his kingdom. Saint Astricus served as his adviser and Saint Gerard Sagredo as the tutor for his son Emeric (also rendered as Imre).

Around 1003, Stephen invaded and occupied Transylvania, a territory ruled by his maternal uncle, Gyula, a semi-independent chieftain. After this victory, Stephen organized the Diocese of Transylvania. In the next few years he also occupied the lands of the Black Magyars in the southern part of Transdanubia, and there organized the Diocese of Pécs. Shortly afterwards, it is believed that he made an agreement with Samuel Aba, the chieftain of the Kabar tribes settled in the Mátra region, who married Stephen's sister. In his brother-in-law's domains, Stephen founded the Diocese of Eger.

Finally, Stephen occupied the domains of Ajtony, a semi-pagan chieftain who had been ruling over the territories of the later Banat. Here Stephen set up the Diocese of Csanád. he married at the age of 20

External politics

IstvanKiraly sculpture miskolc
A statue of the king in Miskolc

In his external politics Stephen I allied himself with his brother-in-law, the Emperor Henry II against Prince Boleslaw I of Poland, who had extended his rule over the territories between the Morava and Váh Rivers. Stephen sent troops to the emperor's army, and in the Peace of Bautzen, in 1018, the Polish prince had to hand over the occupied territories to Stephen.

Shortly afterwards, Stephen sent troops to help Boleslaw I in his campaign against Kievan Rus'. In 1018, Stephen led his armies against Bulgaria, in alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, and collected several relics during his campaign.

After the death of Henry II ( 3 July 1024), Stephen broke with the German alliance, because the new Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II claimed supremacy over the Kingdom of Hungary, while Stephen demanded the Duchy of Bavaria for his son Emeric who was the nearest relative of the deceased Emperor Henry II (who himself had been the last male descendant of the old dukes of Bavaria). In 1027, Stephen had Bishop Werner of Strasbourg, the envoy sent by Conrad II to the Byzantine Empire, arrested at the frontier. In 1030, the emperor led his armies against Hungary, but Stephen's troops forced them to retreat. Stephen and Emperor Conrad II concluded peace negotiations in 1031, and the territories between the Leitha (Hungarian: (Lajta)) and Fischa Rivers were ceded to Hungary.

His last years

Stephen intended to retire to a life of holy contemplation and hand the kingdom over to his son Emeric, but Emeric was wounded in a hunting accident and died in 1031. In Stephen's words of mourning:

By God's secret decision death took him, so that wickedness would not change his soul and false imaginations would not deceive his mind – as the Book of Wisdom teaches about early death.

Stephen mourned for a very long time over the loss of his son, which took a great toll on his health. He eventually recovered, but never regained his original vitality. Having no children left, he could not find anyone among his remaining relatives who was able to rule the country competently and be willing to maintain the Christian faith of the nation. He did not want to entrust his kingdom to his cousin, Duke Vazul, whom he suspected to be following pagan customs. The disregarded duke took part in a conspiracy aimed at the murder of Stephen I, but the assassination attempt failed and Vazul had his eyes gouged out and molten lead poured in his ears. Without a living heir, on his deathbed, King St. Istvan raised with his right hand the Holy Crown of Hungary, and prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking her to take the Hungarian people as her subjects and become their queen. King Stephen died on the feast day which commemorates the bodily assumption into heaven of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August, in the year 1038, at Esztergom-Szentkirály or Székesfehérvár, where he was buried. His nobles and his subjects were said to have mourned for three straight years afterwards.

His legacy

A miniature of the king from the Chronicon Pictum, 1360.

Following Stephen's death, his nephew Peter Urseolo (his appointed heir) and his brother-in-law Samuel Aba contended for the crown. Nine years of instability followed until Stephen's cousin Andrew I was crowned King of Hungary in 1047 to re-establish the Árpád dynasty. Hungarian historiography saw Peter and Samuel as members of the Árpád dynasty, and both are counted among the Árpád kings.

Shortly after Stephen's death, healing miracles were said to have occurred at his tomb. Stephen was canonized by Pope Gregory VII as Saint Stephen of Hungary in 1083, along with his son, Saint Emeric and Bishop Gerhard (Hungarian: Szent Gellért). Thus Saint Stephen became the first canonized confessor king, a new category of saint. He is venerated as the patron saint of Hungary, kings, children who are dying, masons, stonecutters, and bricklayers.

St Stephen is not mentioned in the Tridentine Calendar. His feast day was added to the General Roman Calendar only in 1631, and only as a commemoration on 20 August, the feast of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. In 1687, it was moved to 2 September and remained there until the 1969 revision of the Roman Catholic calendar of saints. Then the feast of Saint Joachim on 16 August was moved and the date became available for another celebration, so the feast of Saint Stephen of Hungary was moved to that date, the day immediately after his death. Some traditionalist Catholics continue to observe pre-1970 versions of the General Roman Calendar.

In the local calendar of the Church in Hungary, the feast is observed on 20 August, the day on which his sacred relics were translated to the city of Buda. It is a public holiday in Hungary. During the period of Communist rule in Hungary, St. Stephen's Day was referred to as the anniversary of the Stalinist constitution of 1949 and "The celebration of the new bread — the end of the harvest".

San Estevan del Rey Mission Church is a church that was founded in 1629 in Acoma, New Mexico and named for the king. The Pueblo of Acoma continues to celebrate on 2 September his feast day with traditional Native American dances.

The king's right hand, known as the Holy Right, is kept as a relic. Hungarians interpreted the incorruptibility of his right arm and hand - with which he had held the Holy Crown aloft from his deathbed when asking Virgin Mary to be the Queen of the Hungarians - as a sign that the Blessed Virgin Mary had accepted the king's offer to her of the Hungarian people, and she remains officially their queen. The incorrupt arm was divided among European royalty, but the Holy Right of King Saint Stephen was placed in a town built solely for the purpose of keeping it, the town in Transylvania called "Szent Jobb", or Holy Right. Later, the Holy Right was transferred to where it is today, the Basilica of King Saint Stephen in Budapest. Apart from the Holy Right, only some bone fragments remain, which are kept in churches throughout Hungary. Hungarian Catholics honor the first king of their country with annual processions, at which the Holy Right is exhibited.

The canonization of Saint Stephen was recognized by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in the year 2000.

The Holy Crown, popularly attributed to St. Stephen, was removed from the country in 1945 for safekeeping, and entrusted to the United States government. It was kept in a vault at Fort Knox until 1978, when it was returned to the nation by order of President Jimmy Carter. It has been enshrined in the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest since 2000.

Artistic representation

Saint Stephen (Sigismund III of Poland depicted as rex sacerdos)
Saint Stephen of Hungary (in fact Sigismund III of Poland depicted as rex sacerdos in coronation robe)

King Stephen of Hungary has been a popular theme in art, especially from the 19th century on, with the development of nationalism. Paintings such as The Baptism of Vajk (1875) by Gyula Benczúr and many statues representing the king all over Hungary testify to Stephen's importance in Hungarian national thought.

The last complete opera by the Hungarian composer Ferenc Erkel is István király (King Stephen) (1885). The best known representations of St. Stephen in music are Ludwig van Beethoven's King Stephen Overture, and the 1983 rock opera István, a király (Stephen, the King) by Levente Szörényi and János Bródy. Szörényi's Veled, Uram! (With You, my Lord!) (2000) was a sequel to István király.

The crown is represented in the painting of Edward Burne-Jones, started in 1881, The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon.

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