Stephen I (ca. 973-1038) was king of Hungary, who went from pagan tribal leader to Christian leader of a powerful nation in the space of one generation and left a remarkable imprint on the history of Europe and the world.
The Hungarian kingdom was established by descendants of Arpad, a Magyar nomad from the steppes of Asia whose horsemen had terrorized central Europe in the first half of the 10th century. After a decisive defeat by the Germans at Lechfeld, just south of Augsburg, Bavaria, in 955, the Magyars, under Arpad's great grandson Taksony, settled down in what is now Hungary.
Taksony's son, the duke Géza, established a semblance of order and initiated moves to Christianize the Magyar/ Hungarians by appealing to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I for Christian missionaries. His move has been termed the "Quedlinburg Mission." Fortunately, for the Hungarians, Otto did not take the request seriously. Although a number of German Benedictine missionaries came to the Hungarian lands and began the process of Christianization, their methods were so crude that they caused many problems and delayed progress.
When Géza died in 997, his son Stephen took a more direct action some three years later by appealing to Pope Sylvester II, asking that he be baptized and crowned Christian king of Hungary. This move reduced the possibility that the Holy Roman Emperor might assume the role of feudal lord over Hungary, making the Hungarian ruler his vassal.
Acting quickly, Sylvester II sent a bishop and a group of clergy; he also sent a crown which was slightly damaged en route. When the coronation took place on Christmas Day in the year 1000, that same crown with its bent cross was set on Stephen's head; the defect remains to this day, symbolizing the origin and function of the crown and its wearer.
Stephen was faced with great problems from all sides as he began the task of organizing, defending, Christianizing, and bringing his nation into the European fold. One of these problems was the revolt of a cousin who ruled in Transylvania. Koppàny claimed not only the throne, but the hand of Stephen's widowed mother. Immediately moving against him, Stephen finally defeated Koppàny, executing him in 1003. Then another Magyar—known only by the title Gyula—claimed the rule in Transylvania and usurped it. He too was disposed of by the new king, who was actively supported by German knights in the service of his wife/ queen, Gisela, a Bavarian princess.
Stephen established the seat of his kingdom at Esztergom, site of an old Roman settlement called Strigonium, allegedly where the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations. He lost no time in setting up a number of bishoprics and instituting a vigorous program of Christianization of his people. Some have reported that this was accomplished through forceful means—in much the same manner as the Frankish king Clovis Christianized his pagan tribesmen in the sixth century, and the Emperor Constantine his Roman subjects in the fourth century.
Stephen I ruled for four decades. Considering that his father Géza, who began the first attempts to Christianize the Magyars, had been anything but successful, Stephen achieved nearly miraculous results, leaving a clear majority of his subjects following the new religion at his death in 1038. In addition to establishing dioceses for the propagation of the faith, Stephen established schools and churches and encouraged his nobility to endow monasteries. He also invited Jewish and Muslim traders into the kingdom to build up the economy, ordering a strict toleration of their religious practices in order to profit from their trading activities.
He sponsored the drafting and enactment of law codes for his new nation, in what appears—retroactively—to be a close adaptation of what other European monarchs of the period were accomplishing. One element that makes Stephen's legal pronouncements different from the others is that he sought, with some degree of success, to prevent Hungary from becoming a theocratic protectorate. The laws were Christianized versions of Magyar customs and traditions; they reflected the need of his people as much as the requirement for order.
He allied himself with the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, in his battle with the Bulgarian ruler John Vladislav in 1018, the results of which action saw the establishment of pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem through Constantinople. In later years, Stephen's treatment of Bulgarian prisoners was humane and considerate and led to a satisfying relaxation of tensions between the two kingdoms. This was especially fruitful when the German emperor Conrad II launched attacks against the western parts of Hungary in 1030. Since he didn't have to worry about his eastern and southern flanks, Stephen was able to concentrate his forces and defeat the Germans in the west, forcing their withdrawal.
Stephen's personal life included a series of tragedies. His only son Imre (Emeric), who enjoyed a reputation for virtue and valor, died in what has been reported as a hunting accident (killed by a "wild boar"). But Stephen Sisa, in his book The Spirit of Hungary, alleges that the death was a successful assassination attempt by the Thonuzoba family, who were resisting conversion to Christianity. Sisa points out that the term, thonuzoba, means "wild boar" in the language of the Petcheneg (a pre-Christian steppe-dwelling people, some of whom settled in Transylvania). Because he had led an exemplary life and was well-loved by the Hungarian peoples who had accepted Christianity, Imre was canonized in the late 11th century, at about the same time as his father.
The successful implantation of a substantial group of non-Slavs in Eastern Europe in the midst of what was becoming a Slavic empire is one of the minor mysteries of European history. To the north, the Poles held sway, but the Hungarians successfully intermarried with Polish aristocracy, and it is a verified fact that Stephen sent to Poland two young men who might become eligible for his throne when their lives appeared to be in danger. They subsequently returned after Stephen's death and each of them later ruled for brief periods. To the east, Bulgars could have posed threats to the peace of the kingdom, yet Stephen, through careful diplomacy, managed to keep the Bulgarian rulers either pacified or immobilized. To the northeast the Bohemians (Czechs) represented a highly developed culture that acted as a buffer for their Slavic brothers to the east, while they did not pose any kind of a threat to the Magyar kingdom. Other minor groupings of Slavs— including Slovenes, Slovaks, Croats, Ruthenians, White Russians, Ukrainians, Serbians, Vlachs (Rumanians)— formed a demographic ring around the Carpathian Basin. Yet the Magyars/Hungarians survived and prospered. Their history and their historians assert that the chief architect of this was Stephen—Saint Stephen—whose vision and energy made the beginnings possible.
Kosztolnyik, Z. J. Five Eleventh Century Hungarian Kings: Their Policies and Their Relations with Rome. East European Monographs, distributed by Columbia University Press, 1981.
Sisa, Stephen. The Spirit of Hungary: A Panorama of Hungarian History and Culture. Ontario, Canada, 1983 (2nd edition published in U.S., 1990).
Sugar, Peter A., ed. A History of Hungary. Indiana University Press, 1990.
Dragomir, Sylvius. The Ethnical Minorities in Transylvania. Sonor Printing, 1927.
Ignotus, Paul. Hungary: Nations of the Modern World. Praeger, 1972.
Konnyu, Leslie. A Condensed Geography of Hungary. American-Hungarian Review, 1971.