SAINT STEPHEN King of Hungary (977-1038)
St Stephen first King (AD 1000)
The later St Stephen - who had had the pagan name Vajk until he was baptised in his teens - had been in his early twenties when he succeeded his father Duke Géza (970-997). Promptly, forcefully and with ruthless efficiency he asserted his supremacy over the nation and several obstreperous elder relatives, who disputed his right to the succession (supreme leadership had hitherto been elective by seniority within the ruling family, not by primogeniture). He then asked for and received a royal crown from Pope Sylvester II - by his choice of patron demonstrating his determination to keep Hungary independent of both the Western and the Byzantine Empires - and with it he was crowned the first King of Hungary in the year 1000.
Next he set about converting all his people to Western (Latin) Christianity, founding and endowing two Archbishoprics - Metropolitan Sees directly under the jurisdiction of Rome - and eight Bishoprics, as well as a number of Benedictine monasteries (which introduced the vine alongside the Gospel). Parish churches were built in towns and larger villages and, to encourage the populace to attend these, St Stephen decreed that markets be held in places with a church, on Sundays (still vasárnap, market-day, in Hungarian). Within two decades the country was sufficiently Christian for the designation of an official pilgrim route to the Holy Land through it. Of earlier pagan beliefs all traces were soon to vanish, so that we now know nothing about what these had been.
In recognition of his success, in his lifetime the Pope granted him the title Apostolic King - not that different from the Byzantine Emperors' proud Equal of the Apostles (and five centuries older than Defender of the Faith) - and the right to use the Apostolic double cross. All Kings of Hungary styled themselves Apostolic until 1918, and the double cross is in Hungary's arms to this day.
When his tomb was opened in 1083, on the occasion of his canonisation, his right hand was found to be uncorrupted - it is venerated as a relic to this day. (All in all the House of Árpád gave the Church five saints: Kings Stephen and László, Prince Imre, and the Princesses Elizabeth, daughter of Andrew II, and Margaret, daughter of Béla IV).
St Stephen was equally energetic in dealing with secular matters, dividing Hungary into Counties - governed by royal officials, not feudal counts - that disregarded clan boundaries, and organizing defensive fortifications around the country's borders, also entrusted to royal officials. On the other hand, he carefully avoided creating territorially based feudal fiefs, then fashionable in most of Europe. Land was merely held freehold under the Crown, not by feudal vassalage. Moreover, large estates were not single blocks of territory, but numerous small packets of land scattered all over the country. No office, title or dignity - other than the Crown - was hereditary.
The acceptance and integration of persons of non-Hungarian stock - whether already in situ or new immigrants - was encouraged: a nation of one race is feeble, he wrote for his son's guidance. By his death the decrees issued during his reign - many informed by Carolingian precedents, but all tailored to fit the specific task in hand - that regulated every aspect of the administration, revenues and defence of the realm, as well as the rights (notably: as regards property and inheritance) and obligations of his subjects, filled two volumes. Many were still cited in lawsuits in the 19th century. And the earliest Hungarian coins, silver denarii, date from his reign.
The Western Emperor was his brother-in-law, with the Byzantine he had concluded a treaty of friendship, thus he could get on with transforming Hungary unhindered by foreign wars.
There can be little doubt that but for St Stephen's successful efforts to transform the country into a Christian monarchy, endowed with administrative structures and a legal code that stood the test of time, there might be no nation and state called Hungary in Europe to this day.
The fourth Duke of the Huns of Hungary, by the name of Geysa, was converted to
the Faith and baptized with his wife and several ministers. With the Christian
missionaries, he labored to convince his pagan subjects of the divinity of this
religion. His wife saw in a vision the protomartyr Saint Stephen, who told her
they would have a son who would perfect the work already begun. This son, born
in the year 977, was given the name of Stephen.
The little prince was baptized by Saint Adalbert, bishop of Prague, who preached to the Hungarians for a time, and was educated under the care of that bishop and a pious count of Italy.
When he was fifteen years old, his father gave him the commandment of his armies, seeing his virtue and Christian ardor. Already Stephen was beginning to root out idolatry and transform the pagan customs still existing among the people. At twenty years of age, he succeeded his good father, who died in 997. He suppressed a rebellion of his pagan subjects, and founded monasteries and churches all over the land. He sent to Pope Sylvester, begging him to appoint bishops to the eleven sees he had endowed, and to bestow on him, for the greater success of his work, the title of king. The Pope granted his requests, and sent him a cross to be borne before him, saying that he regarded him as the true apostle of his people.
Saint Stephen’s devotion was fervent. He placed his realms under the protection of our Blessed Lady, and kept the feast of Her Assumption with great affection. He established good laws, and saw to their execution. Throughout his life, we are told, he had Christ on his lips, Christ in his heart, and Christ in all he did. His only wars were wars of defense, and in them he was always successful. He married the sister of the Emperor Saint Henry, who was a worthy companion for him. God sent him many grievous trials amid his successes; one by one his children died.
He often went out in disguise to exercise his charities; and one day a troop of beggars, not satisfied with the alms they received, threw him down, tore out handfuls of his hair and beard, and took his purse. He prayed to the Lord and thanked Him for an insult he would not have suffered from enemies, but accepted gladly from the poor who, he said to Him, “are called Your own, and for whom I can have only indulgence and tenderness.” He bore all reversals with perfect submission to the Will of God.
When Saint Stephen was about to die, he summoned the bishops and nobles, and told them to choose his successor. He urged them to nurture and cherish the Catholic Church, which was still a tender plant in Hungary, to follow justice, humility, and charity, to be obedient to the laws, and to show at all times a reverent submission to the Holy See. Then, raising his eyes towards heaven, he said: “O Queen of Heaven, August Restorer of a prostrate world, to Thy care I commend the Holy Church, my people, and my realm, and my own departing soul.” It was on his favorite feast day, the Assumption, that he died in peace, in the year 1038.