September 2


The people whom we call Magyars came into the country of Hungary during the last years of the ninth century, settling in the land around the Danube from several districts to the east of it, under the general leadership of a chief called Arpad. They were a fierce and marauding people and met Christianity in the course of their raids into Italy, France and westward generally. St Methodius and others had already planted the faith in Pannonia, but it was not until the second half of the tenth century that the Magyars themselves began to pay any serious consideration to the Church. Geza, the third duke (voivode) after Arpad, saw the political necessity of Christianity to his country, and (encouraged by St Adalbert of Prague) he was baptized and a number of his nobles followed his example. But it was largely a conversion of expediency, and had the usual result of such conversions: the Christianity of the converts was largely nominal. An exception to this was Geza's son, Vaik, who had been baptized at the same time as his father and been given the name of Stephen (Istvan); he was then only about ten and so had not acquired pagan ways and fixed habits of mind. In the year 995, when he was twenty, he married Gisela, sister of Henry, Duke of Bavaria, better known as the Emperor St Henry II, and two years later he succeeded his father as governor of the Magyars.

Stephen was soon engaged in wars with rival tribal leaders and others; and when he had consolidated his position he sent St Astrik, whom he designed to be the first archbishop, to Rome to obtain Pope Silvester II's approval for a proper ecclesiastical organization for his country; and at the same time to ask his Holiness to confer upon him the title of king, which his nobles had long pressed him to assume and which he now asked that he might with more majesty and authority accomplish his designs for promoting the glory of God and the good of his people. Silvester was disposed to grant his request, and prepared a royal crown to send him with his blessing, acting no doubt in concert with political representations from the Emperor Otto III who was then in Rome. At the same time the pope confirmed the religious foundations which the prince had made and the elections of bishops. St Stephen went to meet his ambassador upon his return and listened, standing with great respect, to the pope's bulls whilst they were read; to express his own sense of religion and to inspire his subjects with awe for whatever belonged to divine worship, he always treated the pastors of the Church with great honour and respect. The same prelate who had brought the crown from Rome crowned him king with great solemnity in the year 1001.[1]

Firmly to root Christianity in his kingdom and to provide for its steady progress after his own time, King Stephen established episcopal sees only gradually, as Magyar clergy became available; Veszprem is the first of which there is reliable record, but within some years Esztergom was founded and became the primatial see. At Szekesfehervar he built a church in honour of the Mother of God, in which the kings of Hungary were afterwards both crowned and buried. This city St Stephen made his usual residence, whence it was called Alba Regalis to distinguish it from Alba Julia in Transylvania. He also completed the foundation of the great monastery of St Martin, begun by his father. This monastery, known as Martinsberg or Pannonhalma, still exists, and is the mother house of the Hungarian Benedictine congregation. For the support of the churches and their pastors and the relief of the poor throughout his dominions he commanded tithes to be paid. Every tenth town had to build a church and support a priest; the king himself furnished the churches. He abolished, not without violence, barbarous and superstitious customs derived from the former religion and by severe punishments repressed blasphemy, murder, theft, adultery and other public crimes. He commanded all persons to marry except religious and churchmen, and forbade all marriages of Christians with idolators. He was of easy access to people of all ranks, and listened to everyone's complaints, but was most willing to hear the poor, knowing them to be more easily oppressed and considering that in them we honour Christ who, being no longer among men on earth in His mortal state, has recommended to us the poor in His place and right. It is said that one day, while the king was distributing alms in disguise, a troop of beggars crowding round him knocked him down, hustled him, pulled at his beard and hair, and took away his purse, seizing for themselves what he intended for the relief of many others. Stephen took this indignity humbly and with good humour, happy to suffer in the service of his Saviour, and his nobles, when they heard of this, were amused and chaffed him about it; but they were also disturbed, and insisted that he should no more expose his person; but he renewed his resolution never to refuse an alms to any poor person that asked him. The example of his virtue was a most powerful sermon to those who came under his influence, and in no one was it better exemplified than in his son, Bd Emeric, to whom St Stephen's code of laws was inscribed. These laws he caused to be promulgated throughout his dominions, and they were well suited to a fierce and rough people newly converted to Christianity. But they were not calculated to allay the discontent and alarm of those who were still opposed to the new religion, and some of the wars which St Stephen had to undertake had a religious as well as a political significance. When he had overcome an irruption of the Bulgarians he undertook the political organization of his people. He abolished tribal divisions and divided the land into "counties", with a system of governors and magistrates. Thus, and by means of a limited application of feudal ideas, making the nobles vassals of the crown, he welded the Magyars into a unity; and by retaining direct control over the common people he prevented undue accumulation of power into the hands of the lords. St Stephen was indeed the founder and architect of the independent realm of Hungary. But, as Father Paul Grosjean, Bollandist, has remarked, to look at him otherwise than against his historical background gives as false an impression as to think of him as a sort of Edward the Confessor or Louis IX. And that background was a very fierce and uncivilized one.

As the years passed, Stephen wanted to entrust a greater part in the government to his only son, but in 1031 Emeric was killed while hunting. "God loved him, and therefore He has taken him away early", cried St Stephen in his grief. The death of Emeric left him without an heir and the last years of his life were embittered by family disputes about the succession, with which he had to cope while suffering continually from painful illness. There were four or five claimants, of whom one, Peter, was the son of his sister Gisela, an ambitious and cruel woman, who since the death of her husband had lived at the Hungarian court. She had made up her mind that her son should have the throne, and shamelessly took advantage of Stephen's ill-health to forward her ends. He eventually died, aged sixty-three, on the feast of the Assumption 1038, and was buried beside Bd Emeric at Szekesfehervar. His tomb was the scene of miracles, and forty-five years after his death, by order of Pope St Gregory VII at the request of King St Ladislaus, his relics were enshrined in a chapel within the great church of our Lady at Buda. Innocent XI appointed his festival for September 2 in 1686, the Emperor Leopold having on that day recovered Buda from the hands of the Turks.

There are two early lives of St Stephen, both dating apparently from the eleventh century, and known as the Vita major and the Vita minor. These texts have been edited in Pertz, MGH., Scriptores, vol. xi. A certain Bishop Hartwig early in the twelfth century compiled from these materials a biography which is printed in the Acta Sanctorum, September, vol. ii. Other facts concerning the saint may be gleaned from the Chronica Ungarorum edited in Endlicher's Monumenta, vol. i. Although the supposed bull of Silvester II is certainly spurious, and although very serious doubts have been raised as to the genuineness of the crown alleged to have been sent by the pope, still there does seem to be evidence of special powers conferred by papal authority which were equivalent to those of a legate a latere. The belief, however, that St Stephen was invested with the title of "Apostolic King" is altogether without foundation. See e.g. the article of L. Kropf in the English Historical Review, 1898, pp. 290-295. A very readable, but rather uncritical, life by E. Horn (1899) has appeared in the series "Les Saints". For more reliable and detailed information we have to go to such Hungarian authorities as J. Paulers, Mgr Fraknoi and Dr Karácsonyi. In a later volume of the Acta Sanctorum, November, vol. ii, pp. 477-487, the Bollandists, when dealing with the life of Bd Emeric, have discussed many points which have a bearing on the history of the king, his father. Among the publications marking the ninth centenary of the death of St Stephen were F. Banfi, Re Stefano il Santo (1938), and B. Hóman Szent István (1938); the last has been translated into German (1941). See also Archivum Europae centro-orientalis, vol. iv (1938); and C. A. Macartney, The Medieval Hungarian Historians (1953).

[1] The alleged bull of Pope Silvester granting the title of Apostolic King and Apostolic Legate to St Stephen, with the right to have a primatial cross borne before him, is a forgery, probably of the seventeenth century. The upper part of the crown sent by the pope, fitted on to the lower part of a crown given to King Geza I by the Emperor Michael VII, is preserved at Budapest.

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(Butler's Lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1995)