Hungarian king and saint László I (c. 1040-1095) led his country out of a period of civil turmoil by establishing a strong central government that enforced arigorous code of law. László also improved the country's international position by actively supporting the spread of Christianity, a move which protected the country from isolation in Christian Europe.
László I, an early king of Hungary, was responsible for bringing peace and stability to his country in the eleventh century, laying the groundwork for Hungary's transformation to a great European power. Assuming the throne in 1077, László attempted to restore order in the country, which had experienced political turmoil and economic chaos in previous decades, by instituting a strict code of law, consolidating royal power, and defending Hungary from invaders. He also expanded the country's holdings by claiming the throne of Croatia in 1091. One of his most notable accomplishments was providing political and financial support for the spread of Christianity in Hungary. László was a legendary figure who was beloved by his subjects for his military prowess, diplomatic skill, religious devotion, and chivalric ideals. In 1192, almost a century after László's death, his influential role in the Roman Catholic Church was recognized with the canonization of this esteemed king and religious patron.
László, also known as Ladislas or Ladislaus, was born into one of the noble families caught up in the fight for power in Hungary in the eleventh century. His grandfather, Vászoly, had been found guilty of plotting to overthrow the Christian King Stephen I and replace him as a pagan leader. When it was discovered that Vászoly had been tortured to death for his rebellious scheme, his three sons, Andrew, Béla, and Levente escaped the country and went into exile. Béla had found refuge at the court of the Polish prince Mieszko II and married the prince's daughter, Richeza. László, born in Kraków, Poland, around 1040, was the second son of the couple. Along with his father, elder brother, Géza, and younger brother, Lambert, László would eventually join in the ongoing struggle for succession in Hungary.
László spent his early years in the court of Polish king Casimir, where he was raised as a Christian. In the meantime, the rule of Hungary was passed on to the appointed successor of Stephen I, his nephew Peter. Peter was an unpopular leader, and a movement to remove him from power began to gain strength. The king's foes called upon Béla and his brothers to return to Hungary and assume power. The men led their supporters in a successful campaign against Peter in 1046, and the eldest brother, Andrew, was crowned king. But this was not the end of political confusion in Hungary. Although established rules of succession placed Béla next in line to the throne, Andrew appointed his only son, Salomon, as his heir. Béla rebelled against the move, leading forces against Andrew in a conflict that claimed the king's life. The victorious challenger was placed on the throne as Béla I, but was assassinated in 1063. It was widely believed that backers of Salomon were responsible for the murder, and civil war again seemed imminent in the beleaguered country as Salomon and the sons of Béla advanced claims to power.
But the clergy and nobles of Hungary intervened to prevent another outbreak of fighting. They mediated a settlement with the two parties that gave Salomon the throne and Béla's sons generous titles and lands in return for their loyalty to the crown. Géza was named the duce of the county of Nitra and László was named the duce of Bihor county. The arrangement held for several years, during which time László began to develop a reputation as a valiant warrior. This image was no doubt aided by his powerful physical stature—his six-foot frame was remarkable for that time period. One of his famed military feats was his participation, along with the forces of Salomon and Géza, in a confrontation with a band of Cuman raiders that resulted in the complete destruction of the enemy. A story about the battle claimed that after an innocent young woman was abducted by one of the Cuman fighters, the heroic László chased down the offender, slew him, and rescued the girl. His legendary chivalry and strength, as well as his demonstrated leadership abilities and support of the Christian church, made him a favorite among the Hungarian people as well as the priests and nobles of the country.
The peace among political factions in Hungary dissolved in 1074, when a new outbreak of violence among the nobles resulted in the removal of Salomon and the coronation of Géza. The new king died only three years later, and his brother László advanced to the throne in an apparently peaceful transfer of power in 1077. László I was faced with ruling a country that was reeling from the numerous political battles of the previous 40 years and the civil anarchy and economic turmoil that had resulted. Stabilizing Hungary was a daunting challenge, but the king had some factors working in his favor. At that time, the threat of invasion from Turkish forces was reduced because of internal conflict in Byzantium. Similarly, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who wished to take advantage of Hungary's weakened state, was unable to do so at that time due to political struggles with the pope. Given the freedom to focus on internal matters, László instituted a series of extremely strict civil laws designed to minimize theft and other activities undermining the security of private property. One example of László's rigorous attack on civil disorder was a law that stated that the theft of a hen would be punished by cutting off the robber's hand. In bringing his subjects under control, László not only restored economic stability, but also consolidated and strengthened the power of the state.
Another mission of László's reign was to reinstate the primacy of the Christian religion that had first been promoted in Hungary by Stephen I. Many Hungarians had reverted to paganism during the years of civil strife, but László reversed this trend by officially sanctioning the growth of the Church and providing large amounts of money to its operations. He took an active role in the development of the Church, founding a new bishopric and appointing clerics to important Church posts, a practice not officially sanctioned by the pope. But László's generous support of the Church and a warm relationship with the pope allowed him to take some liberties with his political control of the Church. One such instance was his decision to canonize one of his most loyal bishops, Gerard, and the earlier king Stephen in 1083. The move highlighted László's determination to firmly establish the Church in Hungary, a strategy that would help the country gain political allies in Christian Europe.
While building up his country's strength, László was also forced to defend it against invaders in various battles. In both 1085 and 1091 he led armies against the Cumans and successfully repelled them. The king also proved to be a clever strategist while on the offensive. When Henry IV was involved with other conflicts in 1079, László sensed an opportunity to gain from the emperor's weakness, leading a campaign that reclaimed the region of Moson near the German border for Hungary. By 1091, Hungary had recovered enough to begin looking for other opportunities to expand. With the death of the Croatian king, Zvonimir, in that year, László claimed title to the neighboring kingdom as the dead king's brother-in-law. The annexation of Croatia, which among other benefits provided access to ports on the Adriatic Sea, signaled Hungary's arrival as a powerful new dynasty in Europe.
En route to a military mission to assist the prince of Moravia, László was stricken with an illness and died on July 29, 1095. In his nearly 20-year reign of Hungary, he had restored the political and economic integrity of the country, allowing the nation to not only survive, but launch a successful strategy of expansion. His fabled exploits in battle as well as his firm guidance of his subjects through civil and religious reforms secured him an honored place in Hungarian history. His coronation in 1092 demonstrated the importance of László's role not only as a political leader, but as a champion of the growth of the Christian religion in Europe.
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