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16: The Rule of the Hunyadi

<< 15: The House of Anjou || 17: The Sixteenth Century >>

ALL this time the pressure of the Turks upon the southern provinces of Hungary had been continuous, but fortunately all their efforts had so far been frustrated by the valour and generalship of the bán of Szörény, John Hunyadi, the fame of whose victories, notably in 1442 and 1443, encouraged the Holy See to place Hungary for the third time at the head of a general crusade against the infidel. The experienced diplomatist Cardinal Cesarini was accordingly sent to Hungary to reconcile Wladislaus with the emperor, The king, who had just returned from the famous "long campaign" of 1443, willingly accepted the leadership of the Christian League. At the diet of Buda, early in 1444, supplies were voted for the enterprise, and Wladislaus was on the point of quitting his camp at Szeged for the seat of war, when envoys from Sultan Murad arrived with the offer of a ten years' truce on such favourable conditions (they included the relinquishment of Servia, Walachia and Moldavia, and the payment of an indemnity) that Hunyadi persuaded the king to conclude (in July) a peace which gave him more than could reasonably be anticipated from the most successful campaign. Unfortunately, two days later, Cardinal Cesarini absolved the king from the oath whereby he had sworn to observe the peace of Szeged, and was thus mainly responsible for the catastrophe of Varna, when four months later (Nov. 10) the young monarch and the flower of the Magyar chivalry were overwhelmed by fourfold odds on Turkish soil.

The next fourteen years form one of the most interesting and pregnant periods of Hungarian history. It marks the dawn of a public spirit as represented by the gentry, who, alarmed at the national peril and justly suspicious of the ruling magnates unhesitatingly placed their destinies in the hands of Hunyadi, the one honest man who by sheer merit had risen within the last ten years from the humble position of a country squire to a leading position in the state. This feeling of confidence found due expression at the diet of 1446, which deliberately passing over the palatine László Garai elected Hunyadi governor of Hungary, and passed a whole series of popular measures intended to be remedial, e.g., the decree ordering the demolition of the new castles, most of them little better than robber-strongholds; the decree compelling the great officers of state to suspend their functions during the session of the diet; the decree declaring illegal the new fashion of forming confederations on the Polish model, all of which measures were obviously directed against the tyranny and the lawlessness of the oligarchy. Unfortunately this salutary legislation remained a dead letter. It was as much as the governor could do to save the state from destruction, let alone reform it. At this very time northern Hungary, including the wealthy mining towns, was in the possession of the Hussite mercenary Jan Giszkra, who held them nominally for the infant king Ladislaus V., still detained at Vienna by his kinsman the emperor. The western provinces were held by Frederick himself. Invaluable time was wasted in negotiating with these intruders before the governor could safely devote himself to the task of expelling the Turk from the southern provinces. He had to be content with armistices, reconciliations and matrimonial contracts, because the great dignitaries of the state, men like the palatine László Garai, Count Ulrich of Cilli, and the voivode of Transylvania, Mihály Újlaky, thwarted in every way the novus homo whom they hated and envied. From them, the official guardians of Hungary's safety, he received no help, either during his governorship (1446-1453), or when, in 1454, on the eve of his departure for his last and most glorious campaign, the diet commanded a leveé en messe of the whole population in his support. At the critical hour it was at his own expense that Hunyadi fortified Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade), now the sole obstacle between Hungary and destruction, with the sole assistance of the Franciscan friar Giovanni da Capistrano, equipped the fleet and the army which relieved the beleaguered fortress and overthrew Mahommed II. But the nation at least was grateful, and after his death (Aug. 11, 1456) it freely transferred its allegiance to his family as represented by his two sons, László, now in his 23rd, and Matthias, now in his 16th year. The judicial murder of László Hunyadi by the enemies of his house (March 16, 1457) was therefore a stupid blunder as well as the foulest of crimes, and on the death of his chief assassin, Ladislaus V., six months later (Nov. 23, 1457), the diet which assembled on the banks of the Rákos, in defiance of the magnates and all foreign competitors, unanimously and enthusiastically elected Matthias Hunyadi king of Hungary (Jan. 24, 1458).

In less than three years the young king had justified their confidence, and delivered his country from its worst embarrassments. This prodigy was accomplished in the face of every conceivable obstacle. His first diet grudgingly granted him supplies and soldiers for the Turkish war, on condition that under no circumstances whatever should they henceforth be called upon to contribute towards the national defence, and he was practically deprived of the control of the banderia or mounted militia. It was with a small force of mercenaries, raised at his own expense, that the young king won his first Turkish victories, and expelled the Czechs from his northern and the Habsburgs from his western provinces. But his limited resources, and, above all, the proved incapacity of the militia in the field, compelled him instantly to take in hand the vital question of army reform. In the second year of his reign he undertook personally the gigantic task of providing Hungary with an army adequate to her various needs on the model of the best military science of the day. The landless younger sons of the gentry and the Servian and Vlach immigrants provided him with excellent and practically inexhaustible military material. The old feudal levies he put aside. Brave enough personally, as soldiers they were distinctly inferior both to the Janissaries and the Hussites, with both of whom Matthias had constantly to contend. It was a trained regular army in his pay and consequently at his disposal that he wanted. The nucleus of the new army he found in the Czech mercenaries, seasoned veterans who readily transferred their services to the best payer. This force, formed in 1459, was generally known as the Fekete Sereg, or "Black Brigade," from the colour of its armour. From 1465 the pick of the Magyars and Croatians were enlisted in the same way every year, till towards the end of his reign, Matthias could count upon 20,000 horse and 8000 foot, besides 6000 black brigaders. The cavalry consisted of the famous Hussars, or light horse, of which he may be said to have been the creator, and the heavily armed mounted musketeers on the Czech-German model. The infantry, in like manner, was divided into light and heavy. This army was provided with a regular commissariat, cannon¹ and ballistic machines and, being constantly on active service, was always in a high state of efficiency. The land forces were supported by a river fleet consisting (in 1479) of 360 vessels, mostly sloops and corvettes, manned by 2600 sailors, generally Croats, and carrying 10,000 soldiers. Eight large military stations were also built at the chief strategic points on the Danube, Save and Theiss. These armaments, which cost Matthias 1,000,000 florins per annum, equivalent to £200,000, did not include the auxiliary troops of the hospodars of Walachia and Moldavia, or the feudal levies of the barons and prelates.

The army of Matthias was not only a military machine of first-rate efficiency, but an indispensable civilizing medium. It enabled the king to curb the lawlessness of the Magyar nobility, and explains why none of the numerous rebellions against him ever succeeded. Again and again, during his absence on the public service, the barons and prelates would assemble to compass his ruin or dispose of his crown, when, suddenly, "like a tempest," from the depths of Silesia or of Bosnia, he would himself appear among them, confounding and scattering them, often without resistance, always without bloodshed. He also frequently employed his soldiers in collecting the taxes from the estates of those magnates who refused to contribute to the public burdens, in protecting the towns from the depredations of the robber barons, or in convoying the caravans of the merchants. In fact, they were a police force as well as an army.

Despite the enormous expense of maintaining the army, Matthias after the first ten years of his reign, was never in want of money. This miracle was achieved by tact and management. No Hungarian king had so little trouble with the turbulent diet as Matthias. By this time the gentry, as well as the barons and prelates, took part in the legislature. But attendance at the diet was regarded by the bulk of the poorer deputies as an intolerable burden, and they frequently agreed to grant the taxes for two or three years in advance, so as to be saved the expense of attending every year. Moreover, to promote their own convenience, they readily allowed the king to assess as well as to collect the taxes, which consequently tended to become regular and permanent, while Matthias' reform of the

¹ Some of these were of gigantic size, e.g., the Varga Mozsár, or great mortar, which sixty horses could scarce move from its place, and a ballistic machine invented by Matthias which could hurl stones of 3 cwt.

treasury, which was now administered by specialists with separate functions, was economically of great benefit to the state. Yet Matthias never dispensed with the diet. During the thirty-two years of his reign he held at least fifteen diets,¹ at which no fewer than 450 statutes were passed. He re-codified the Hungarian common law; strictly defined the jurisdiction of the whole official hierarchy from the palatine to the humblest village judge; cheapened and accelerated legal procedure, and in an age when might was right did his utmost to protect the weak from the strong. There is not a single branch of the law which he did not simplify and amend, and the iron firmness with which he caused justice to be administered, irrespective of persons, if it exposed him to the charge of tyranny from the nobles, also won for him from the common people the epithet of "the Just." To Matthias is also due the credit of creating an efficient official class. Merit was with him the sole qualification for advancement. One of his best generals, Pál Kinizsy, was a miller's son, and his capable chancellor, Péter Várady, whom he made archbishop of Kalocsa, came of a family of small squires. For education so scholarly a monarch as Matthias naturally did what he could. He founded the university of Pressburg (Academia Istropolitana, 1467), revived the declining university of Pécs, and, at the time of his death, was meditating the establishment of a third university at Buda.

Unfortunately the civilizing efforts of Matthias made but little impression on society at large. The bulk of the Magyar nobility was still semi-barbaric. Immensely wealthy (it is estimated that most of the land, at this time, was in the hands of 25 great families the Zápolyas alone holding an eighth of it), it was a point of honour with them to appear in public in costly raiment ablaze with silver, gold and precious stones, followed at every step by armies of retainers scarcely less gorgeous. At the same time their ignorance was profound. Many of the highest dignitaries of state did not know their alphabet. Signatures to documents of the period are rare: seals served instead of signatures, because most of the nobles were unable to sign their names. Learning, indeed, was often ridiculed as pedantry in a gentleman of good family.

The clergy, the chief official class, were naturally less ignorant than the gentry. Some of the prelates - notably János Csezmeczey, better known as Janus Pannonius (1433-1472) - had a European reputation for learning. The primate Cardinal, János Vitéz (1408- 1472), at the beginning, and the primate, Cardinal Tamás Bakócz, at the end of the reign were men of eminent ability and the highest culture. But the moral tone of the Magyar church at this period was very low. The bishops prided themselves on being great statesmen, great scholars, great financiers, great diplomatists - anything, in fact, but good Christians. Most of them, except when actually celebrating mass, were indistinguishable alike in costume and conduct from the temporal magnates. Of twelve of them it is said that foreigners took them at first for independent temporal princes, so vast were their estates, so splendid their courts, so numerous their armed retainers. Under such guides as these the lower clergy erred deplorably, and drunkenness, gross immorality, brawling and manslaughter were common occurrences in the lives of the parish priests. The regular clergy were if possible worse than the secular, with the exception of the Paulicians, the sole religious order which steadily resisted the general corruption, and whose abbot, the saintly Gregory, was the personal friend of Matthias.

What little culture there was outside the court, the capital and the palaces of a few prelates, was to be found in the towns, most of them of German origin. Matthias laboured strenuously to develop and protect the towns, multiplied municipal charters and materially improved the means of communication, especially in Transylvania. His Silesian and Austrian acquisitions were also very beneficial to trade, throwing open as they did the western markets to Hungarian produce. Wine and meat were the chief exports. The wines of Hungary were already renowned throughout Europe, and cattle-breeding was conducted on a great scale. Of agricultural produce there was barely sufficient for home consumption, but the mining industries had reached a very high level of excellence and iron, tin and copper were very largely exported from the northern counties to Danzig and other Baltic ports. So highly developed indeed were the Magyar methods of smelting, that Louis XI. of France took the Hungarian mining system as the model for his metallurgical reforms, and Hungarian master-miners were also in great demand at the court of Ivan the Terrible. Moreover, the keen artistic instincts of Matthias led him to embellish his cities as well as fortify them. Debreczen was practically rebuilt by him, and dates its prosperity from his reign, Breslau, his favourite town, he endowed with many fine public buildings. Buda he endeavoured to make the worthy capital of a great realm, and the palace which he built there was pronounced by the papal legates to be superior to any in Italy.

Politically Matthias raised Hungary to the rank of the greatest power in central Europe, her influence extending into Asia and Africa. Poland was restrained by his alliances with the Teutonic Knights and the tsardom of Muscovy, and his envoys appeared in Persia and in Egypt to combat the diplomacy of the Porte. He never, indeed, jeopardized the position of the Moslems in Europe as his father had done, and thus the peace of Szeged (1444), which regained the line of the Danube and drove the Turk behind the Balkans, must always be reckoned as the high-water mark of Hungary's Turkish triumphs. But Matthias at

¹ We know actually of fifteen, but there may have been many more.

least taught the sultan to respect the territorial integrity of Hungary, and throughout his reign the Eastern Question, though often vexatious, was never acute. Only after his death did the Ottoman empire become a menace to Christendom. Besides, his hands were tied by the unappeasable enmity of the emperor and the emperor's allies, and he could never count upon any material help from the West against the East. The age of the crusades had gone. Throughout his reign the Czechs and the Germans were every whit as dangerous to Hungary as the Turks, and the political necessity which finally compelled Matthias to partition Austria and Bohemia, in order to secure Hungary, committed him to a policy of extreme circumspection. He has sometimes been blamed for not crushing his incurably disloyal and rebellious nobles, instead of cajoling them, after the example of his contemporary, Louis XI., who laid the foundations of the greatness of France on the rule of the vassals. But Louis XI. had a relatively civilized and politically developed middle class behind him, whereas Matthias had not. It was as much as Matthias could do to keep the civic life of Hungary from expiring altogether, and nine-tenths of his burgesses were foreigners with no political interest in the country of their adoption. Never was any dominion so purely personal, and therefore so artificial as his. His astounding energy and resource curbed all his enemies during his lifetime, but they were content to wait patiently for his death, well aware that the collapse of his empire would immediately follow.

All that human foresight could devise for the consolidation and perpetuation of the newly established Hungarian empire had been done by Matthias in the last years of his reign. He had designated as his successor his natural son, the highly gifted János (John) Corvinus, a youth of seventeen. He had raised him to princely rank, endowed him with property which made him the greatest territorial magnate in the kingdom, placed in his hands the sacred crown and half-a-dozen of the strongest fortresses, and won over to his cause the majority of the royal council. How János was cajoled out of an almost impregnable position, and gradually reduced to insignificance, is told elsewhere. The nobles and prelates, who detested the severe and strenuous Matthian system, desired, as they expressed it, "a king whose beard they could hold in their fists," and they found a monarch after their own heart in Wladislaus Jagiello, since 1471 king of Bohemia, who as Wladislaus II. was elected unanimously king of Hungary on the 15th of July 1490. Wladislaus was the personification of helpless inertia. His Bohemian subjects had long since dubbed him "King All Right" because he said yes to everything. As king of Hungary he was, from first to last, the puppet of the Magyar oligarchs, who proceeded to abolish all the royal prerogatives and safeguards which had galled them under Matthias. By the compact of Farkashida (1490) Wladislaus not only confirmed all the Matthian privileges, but also repealed all the Matthian novelties, including the system of taxation which had enabled his predecessor to keep on foot an adequate national army. . The virtual suppression of Wladislaus was completed at the diet of 1492, when "King All Right" consented to live on the receipts of the treasury, which were barely sufficient to maintain his court, and engaged never to impose any new taxes on his Magyar subjects. The dissolution of the standing army, including the Black Brigade, was the immediate result of these decrees. Thus, at the very time when the modernization of the means of national defence had become the first principle, in every other part of Europe, of the strongly centralized monarchies which were rising on the ruins of feudalism, the Hungarian magnates deliberately plunged their country back into the chaos of medievalism. The same diet which destroyed the national armaments and depleted the exchequer confirmed the disgraceful peace of Pressburg, concluded between Wladislaus and the emperor Maximilian on the 7th of November 1491, whereby Hungary retroceded all the Austrian conquests of Matthias, together with a long strip of Magyar territory, and paid a war indemnity equivalent to £200,000.

The thirty-six years which elapsed between the accession of Wladislaus II. and the battle of Mohács is the most melancholy and discreditable period of Hungarian history. Like Poland two centuries later, Hungary had ceased to be a civilized autonomous state because her prelates and her magnates, uncontrolled by any higher authority and too ignorant or corrupt to look beyond their own immediate interests, abandoned themselves to the exclusive enjoyment of their inordinate privileges, while openly repudiating their primal obligation of defending the state against extraneous enemies. During these miserable years everything like patriotism or public spirit seems to have died out of the hearts of the Hungarian aristocracy. The great officers of state acted habitually on the principle that might is right. Stephen Báthory, voivode of Transylvania and count of the Szeklers (Székelys) for instance, ruled Transylvania like a Turkish pasha, and threatened to behead all who dared to complain of his exactions; "Stinking carrion," he said, was better than living Szeklers. Thousands of Transylvanian gentlemen emigrated to Turkey to get out of his reach. Other great nobles were at perpetual feud with the towns whose wealth they coveted. Thus the Zápolyas, in 1500 and again in 1507, burnt a large part of Breznóbánya and Beszterczebánya, two of the chief industrial towns of north Hungary. Kronstadt, now the sole flourishing trade centre in the kingdom, defended itself with hired mercenaries against the robber barons. Everywhere the civic communities were declining, even Buda and Pressburg were half in ruins. In their misery the cities frequently appealed for protection to the emperor and other foreign potentates, as no redress was attainable at home. Compared even with the contemporary Polish diet the Hungarian national assembly was a tumultuous mob. The diet of 1497 passed most of its time in constructing, and then battering to pieces with axes and hammers, a huge wooden image representing the ministers of the crown, who were corrupt enough, but immovable, since they regularly appeared at the diet with thousands of retainers armed to the teeth, and openly derided the reforming endeavours of the lower gentry, who perceived that something was seriously wrong, yet were powerless to remedy it. All that the gentry could do was to depress the lower orders, and this they did at every opportunity. Thus, many of the towns, notably Visegrád, were deprived of the charters granted to them by Matthias, and a whole series of anti-civic ordinances were passed. Noblemen dwelling within the walls of the towns were especially exempted from all civic burdens, while every burgess who bought an extra-mural estate was made to pay double for the privilege.¹ Every nobleman had the right to engage in trade toll-free, to the great detriment of their competitors the burgesses. The peasant class suffered most of all. In 1496 Várady, archbishop of Kalocsa, one of the few good prelates, declared that their lot was worse than that of brute beasts. The whole burden of taxation rested on their shoulders, and so ground down were they by ingeniously multiplied exactions that thousands of them were reduced to literal beggary.

Yet, despite this inward rottenness, Hungary, for nearly twenty years after the death of Matthias, enjoyed an undeserved prestige abroad, due entirely to the reputation which that great monarch had won for her. Circumstances, indeed, were especially favourable. The emperor Maximilian was so absorbed by German affairs that he could do her little harm, and under Bayezid II. and Selim I. the Turkish menace gave little anxiety to the court of Buda, Bayezid being no warrior, while Selim's energies were claimed exclusively by the East, so that he was glad to renew the triennial truce with Hungary as often as it expired. Hungary, therefore, for almost the first time in her history, was free to choose a foreign policy of her own, and had she been guided by a patriot, she might now have easily regained Dalmatia, and acquired besides a considerable sea-board. Unfortunately Tamás Bakócz, her leading diplomatist from 1499 to 1521, was as much an egotist as the other magnates, and he sacrificed the political interests of Hungary entirely to personal considerations. Primate of Hungary since 1497, he coveted the popedom - and the red hat as the first step thereto above all things - and looked mainly to Venetian influence for both. He therefore supported Venice against her enemies, refused to enter the League of Cambray in 1508, and concluded a ten years' alliance with the Signoria, which obliged Hungary to defend Venetian territory without any equivalent gain. Less reprehensible, though equally self-seeking, were his dealings with the emperor, which aimed at a family alliance between the Jagiellos and the Habsburgs on the basis of a double marriage between the son and daughter of Wladislaus, Louis and Anne, and an Austrian archduke and archduchess; this was concluded by the family congress at Vienna, July 22, 1515 to which Sigismund I. Of Poland, the brother of Wladislaus, acceded. The Hungarian diet frantically opposed every Austrian alliance as endangering the national independence, but to any unprejudiced observer a union with the house of Habsburg, even with the contingent probability of a Habsburg king, was infinitely preferable to the condition into which Hungary, under native aristocratic misrule, was swiftly drifting. The diet itself had become as much a nullity as the king, and its decrees were systematically disregarded. Still more pitiable was the condition of the court. The penury of Wladislaus II. was by this time so extreme, that he owed his very meals to the charity of his servants. The diet, indeed, voted him aids and subsidies, but the great nobles either forbade their collection within their estates, or confiscated the amount collected. Under the circumstances, we cannot wonder if the frontier fortresses fell to pieces, and the border troops, unpaid for years, took to brigandage.

¹ It should be remembered that at this time one-third of the land belonged to the church and the remainder was in the hands of less than a dozen great families who had also appropriated the royal domains.

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