And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 11. mai 2014

Hungary's Royal Trinity - a brief introduction to the cults of the Hungarian king-saints

By the mid fourteenth century, the three holy kings of Hungary ad come to forma a harmonious iconographic scheme
- Klaniczay, Gabor, Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses – Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe, translated by Éva Pálmai

Taken from Veszprémy 2006

The above frontispiece from the Missal of Esztergom, printed in Lyon in 1501, is a summary of Hungarian sainthood. Here we see the Virgin Mary as Patrona Hungariae together with the kingdom's three royal saints, Stephen, Ladislas and Emeric respectively, each carrying his main attribute while supported by a shield depicting the Hungarian emblem which also can be found in the modern flag. In this blogpost, I intend to take this frontispiece as a point of departure for a brief introduction to the cults of the three king-saints of Hungary.
Miniature of St. Stephen from Chronicon Pictum. 14th century
Courtesy of Wikimedia


The medieval kingdom of Hungary was founded by King Stephen, or Istvan (c.975-1038). He became duke on the death of his father Geza in 997, and his accession as followed by a series of insurrections against his authority, which he successfully repelled. Having vanquished his rivals of power, Stephen asked for Pope Silvester II to acknowledge him as king of Hungary and to send him a royal crown. This was done, and Stephen was crowned in 1000/1001. By this time, Stephen had already established a number of monasteries, as part of his implementation of Christianity in the kingdom. During Stephen's reign, the dichotomy between pagans and Christians was upheld by law, since intermarriage between these groups were forbidden, and pagan customs were forbidden. The royal acts of Stephen fit the pattern of a founding Christian father, which was an important aspect of the cult of royal saints as it came to be formulated in the course of the 12th century. Stephen was a church-builder, an alms-giver, a just king and a soldier of the faith.

Following Stephen's death in 1038, the kingdom of Hungary descended into chaos as rival factions within the dynasty vied each other for power, and this unrest continued throughout the 11th century. It was not, however, a struggle between pagans and Christians, but rather between various members of the royal family. In 1074, King Solomon was ousted from his position after he was defeated in battle against his cousin Geza and then incarcerated. Geza's brother Ladislas (or Lázló) succeeded his brother to the throne in 1077.

King Ladislas' position was not very secure. His cousin had been the legitimate king of Hungary, and was furthermore married to the daughter of Emperor Heinrich III of Germany. To strengthen his position, Ladislas orchestrated the canonisations of five saints throughout the year 1083 – by which time he was still not crowned, a fact that made his position presumably more precarious – and these canonisations must be seen, as pointed out by Gabor Klaniczay, as political means to strengthen Ladislas' position. This perspective is strengthened by the fact that the imprisoned Solomon was set free following the canonisations, whereupon he fled the country.

Three of the five saints of 1083 were bishops and missionaries, the fathers of the Hungarian church who all had important positions in the conversion narrative of Hungary. These ecclesiastical saints were Andrew (Zoerard) and Benedict, both hermits, and Bishop Gerard. According to Klaniczay, only the latter can be said to have served political purposes, since, unlike the two others, he was a symbol of the struggle against the pagans. The remaining two saints were both royal saints, and their canonisations had strong political dimensions. These saints were King Stephen and his son Emeric (Imre), who had died before his father and had therefore never become king.  

Stephen and Gisela founding a church
From Chronicon Pictum. 14th century
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Cult of Stephen

King Stephen was of course the most important of the Hungarian saints. He was the founder of the kingdom and he was the apostolic king who implemented the Christian religion, thus concluding the work of the ecclesiastical saints mentioned above. There is, however, no evidence of a spontaneous cult following Stephen's death, nor is it likely that the canonisations were carried out after an exhortation from the pope, as it has been claimed in the Legenda maior of St. Gerard, written most likely in the 14th century.

The liturgical cult of Stephen came into being shortly after the canonisation and relied in the first stage on mass and office material from the Commune Sanctorum. A 13th-century liturgical fragment shows that the common material was to some extent replaced by rhymed antiphons during Lauds. These antiphons were most likely composed in the late 12th century, and it is likely that there were rhymed antiphons composed for the other hours as well, at least Matins, the central point of the office cycle. In the liturgical material, Stephen's role as the apostolic king is emphasised through his namesake Stephen Protomartyr, who allegedly comes to his mother in a dream and exhorts her to give his name to his unborn son, a sequence clearly modelled on the episodes from the Gospels concerned with the births of John the Baptist and Christ.

The liturgical material proper to Stephen was to a great extent based on the Legend of St. Stephen written by Bishop Hartvic/Hartvik during the reign of King Coloman (1095-1116), and in this legend we encounter the claims of an early cult centered around the place of Stephen's burial, Székesfehérvár, where numerous sick and afflicted sought and found a cure for their sundry pains. As mentioned, such a cult can not be ascertained, and it is more likely that Hartvic projected the topoi of saints and their miracles onto history because since Stephen was a saint, it was logical to expect such thaumaturgical preludes to a canonisation.

Stephen's apostolic place in the Christian history of Hungary ensured him an elevated position in the country's religious observance. Interestingly, following a period of unrest in the 13th-century, Stephen was also recast as not only a founder of the Christian kingdom, but as a liberator of his people from the oppression of the pagans. This recasting of Stephen strengthened the existing characteristics and emphasised his role as a champion of Christ against the heathen descendants of Attila. The liturgical texts construed him as a new Samson who fought the lion of paganry, and whose faithfulness (credulitas) was superior to the cruelty (crudelitas) of the Hunnic tyranny.

Scenes from the Life of Emeric
From the Angevine Legendary, 1330s
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Cult of Emeric

Emeric was set out to be his father's successor, but died in 1031 by which time he was in his late twenties. According to later legends, he was well-educated and the alleged addressee of Libellus de institutione morum, a prince's mirror ascribed to King Stephen. Of the five saints canonised in 1083, Emeric was perhaps the one who was most important to King Ladislas personally. The reason for this was that Emeric was said to embody all the virtues expected of a Christian prince – mercy, largesse, humility, justice, etc. - and according to the chroniclers, no other Hungarian king could display such a wealth of virtues except Ladislas himself. Emeric became, in a way, Ladislas saintly forebear. Another reason why Emeric was of great importance to Ladislas personally, was the fact that that he was the son of Stephen and Gisela. Gisela was a German noblewoman who belonged to the house of King Ladislas' father-in-law, Rudolf, who was at that time a rival of the German Emperor Heinrich III. By proclaiming Emeric's sanctity, the family of Ladislas' wife was given a saintly member, and this would strengthen both Ladislas' own position, and the position of his father-in-law. This need was all the more pronounced by the fact that Solomon, the king Ladislas had deposed, was the son-in-law of Emperor Heinrich.

The cult of Emeric was also important to the church. Through Emeric it transmitted the ideal of the virtuous prince, who was chaste even in marriage and who was educated in religion. As Gabor Klaniczay points out, the Hungarian church used Emeric to emphasise the didactic and moralistic aspect of sacral rulership. Because Emeric had died before he became king, it was easy for later chroniclers and hagiographers to emphasise his chastity and proclaim him, as the earliest 12th-century legend did, a scorner of the corruptible flesh and – similar to the beatus vir of Psalm 1 – a man meditating on the word of God.

Scenes from the Life of Emeric
From the Angevine Legendary, 1330s
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Miniature of Ladislas, from Chronicon Pictum (14th century)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Cult of Ladislas

Ladislas was canonised under the auspices of King Bela III in 1192, and must be seen in light of two important aspects of the political scene of 12th-century Hungary. The first aspect is King Bela's Byzantine background. He had been educated at the court of Emperor Manuel Comnenons, and it is likely that it was here Bela became exposed to devotion of Ladislas, especially since the Hungarian king had been the father of Emperor Manuel's mother. The sanctity of Ladislas thus provided an important link to the Byzantine royal family, as well as the Hungarian throne.

Another important aspect might be seen in the circumstances in which both Bela and Ladislas ascended to the throne. Like Ladislas, Bela had to fight for his position, and since Ladislas's brother had ousted his cousin Solomon in 1174 and thus given way to Ladislas himself, he was a natural model for King Bela who had been brought up in Byzantium and was something of an outsider. King Ladislas himself, introduced the idea that the right to rule should be founded upon a king's likeness to previous kings – an idea known as ius idoneitatis or the right of likeness – instead of the right of blood known as ius legitimum which looked at family ties, bloodline and proximity. It is not stated expressly to what extent this concern informed Bela in his devotion of Ladislas, but it is an interesting connection between the two kings.

While Stephen was an apostolic king and Emeric was a virtuous prince, Ladislas was cast as a chivalric king, a knight-king, which was a figure of increased popularity in the 12th century, following the dissemination of the legend of St. Alexis and the crusader movement. This popularity also found its expression in reformulations of saints like Olaf of Norway and St. George. The extent to which Ladislas was formulated as a knight, can be seen in the early-13th-century legend's claim that he participated in the first crusade. Since Ladislas died in 1095, the very year in which the crusades first were preached, we know this to be a fiction, but it is an important piece of evidence to the importance of the chivalric aspect in the cult of Ladislas.  

Ladislas fighting a Cuman warrior, similar to St. George killing the dragon
Fresco from the Matyas Church in Budapest, date uncertain
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Concluding Remarks: The Later Middle Ages

Towards the end of the 13th century, these three king-saints had become an integral part of the history of Hungary, and from the end of the century they were often depicted as a saintly collective, appearing together as a joint force of sanctity interceding for the sake of Hungary. The first such depiction can be found in a diptych from the late 13th century commissioned by King Andrew III. Here the three holy kings, together with Elizabeth of Hungary (d.1031) who had been the queen of the German Emperor, appear as a collective of saints. This collective was further cultivated in the iconography of Hungarian Christianity throughout the 14th century, as witnessed by joint altar dedications – such as in the Chapel of the Virgin in 1355 – and a set of bronze statues erected in the 1360s by the cathedral o Nagyvárad.

That these three saints were grouped together into a unit appears to be a current of religious iconography common in 14th-century Europe. Similar triads could be found in Scandinavia and France, and in England we encounter frequent pairings of the saints Edmund and Edward the Confessor from the same period.


Dobszay, László, "From 'crudelitas' to 'credulitas': Comments on Saint Stephen's Historia Rhythmica", printed in Hankeln, Roman (ed.), Political Plainchant? Music, Text and Historical Context of Medieval Saints' Offices, The Institute of Mediaeval Music, 2009

Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Klaniczay, Gabor, Holy Rulers and Blessed Princesses – Dynastic Cults in Medieval Central Europe, translated by Éva Pálmai, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Veszprémy, László, "Royal Saints in Hungarian Chronicles, Legends and Liturgy", printed in Mortensen, Lars Boje (ed.), The Making of Christian Myths in the Periphery of Latin Christendom (c.1000-1300), Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006

4 kommentarer:

  1. Thank you very much for this. I found it most interesting. I'm Hungarian myself and have naturally heard a great deal about our "Holy" Árpád Dynasty, which is said to have given more saints to the Catholic Church than any other.
    Interestingly, in 2000, the Patriarch of Constantinople recognised St Stephen as a saint of the Orthodox Church.
    I have an idea, which I'd like to suggest to you. I have often wondered whether the Hungarian's steppe heritage didn't inform their desire to have so many saints in the ruling dynasty. Among the steppe peoples, rulers were supposed to be "holy" and chosen by God. This is shown in the lives of Atilla as well as Genghis Khan and many others, such as Duke Álmos who was prophesied in a dream and so on.
    I think the Christian version of the "chosen by heaven" concept is that of a saint. Maybe not quite "the son of heaven" but still very special in the eyes of God and also the people.
    What do you think of htat speculation?

    1. Thank you for your reply, and I'm glad you found this interesting.

      As for the connections between Central Asian steppe mythology and the medieval cult of saints, it has long been suggested that the cult of saints replaced the pagan polytheism in newly-converted areas, such as Hungary or Norway. This view has increasingly fallen out of favour, or at least been the subject of a more detailed exposition. I don't doubt that the polytheistic worldview of pagan mythologies made it easier for them to adopt the cult of saints - in the same way that the salmon imagery of pagan Ireland coincided with the fish imagery of early Christianity - but I don't think that the cult of saints seamlessly replaced the pagan mythology or that royal saints of the Árpád dynasty were championed by the Hungarian kings as a revamped version of the steppe mythology. I think that these saints were championed for the purposes of 1) gaining favour with the church, 2) ensuring that the dynasty had patrons in Heaven who could commend them unto God and 3) embellishing their own standing among its people.

      So in short, I don't think that the Árpád desire for saints was informed by pagan currents. Rather, I think that this was a Christian enterprise meant to strengthen the dynasty in the eyes of God, the church and the populace. This can be suggested by the fact that of the five saints canonised in 1083, three of these were clerics, not kings. Furthemore, the desire to have many saints in the family was not unique to the Árpáds, it can also be found among the Capetians of France and the Plantagenets of England. That this desire sometimes went unrequited, however, is another matter.

      I hope this answers your question. I'm not an expert on Hungarian history, however, so feel free to counter these arguments.

  2. All kingdoms tried to have as many saints as possible, which is understandable not as a new form of sacred authority, but as strenghtening t=of the king's position against tche Church. In post-karolingian catholicism the libertas ecclesiae (11th c.) expelled the king from any power within the church, and kings wanted to regain some of the power (nominating bishops etc).

    1. Thank you for your reply. You're pointing out one of the important strands of the Investiture Conflict, but of course the image is much more complex. The canonisation of a member of the royal dynasty was not only a benefit for that dynasty, but also to the church which through that canonisation tried to appropriate the saint and to present itself to that saint as worthy of his or her benefices. This is part of the reason why we see an upsurge of royal saints in the 12th century. One example of this is how the monks of Westminster Abbey commended themselves to Edward the Confessor - their secondary patron saint - in the liturgy.