Feast Day: August 16th | Patron of Hungary, Kings, Stonemasons/Bricklayers, Protector against the Death of Children
This week we begin 1500 years before Stephen’s crown was returned to Hungary from Fort Knox, with the calendar now standing at about 440 AD. If you were unfortunate enough to be on the shore of the Danube river (so, modern-day Hungary) at that time, you would find yourself on the run from Attila the Hun, who was sacking Roman outposts as he swept down the river pillaging the entire Balkan peninsula with his army of horse archers. Attila would, a decade later, be stopped from sacking Rome by a word from Pope St. Leo I, but during this campaign he and his brother Bleda burned and pillaged pretty much every settlement except for Constantinople itself. Thankfully, if you survived their onslaught, the barbarian brothers would be long in the historical rearview-mirror 500 years later when the only reminder of their presence was perhaps a shadow of “Bleda” carried down in the name of the city of “Buda”. In any case, ironically, all this means that if we were to stand along the Danube in 1945, or 445, or 945, we would have found ourselves each time surrounded by bloodthirsty pagan hordes, though different ones each time.
In 945, to finally get closer to the time of St. Stephen, if we again were standing there on the Danube, we would now be bumping elbows with “the Hungarians”, a conglomeration of Magyar tribes originally from Mongolia, actually descendants of the same people from which Attila and Bleda had come from. These tribes had recently gained control of the Carpathian Basin by defeating and displacing the prior residents here, members of the Kingdoms of Bulgaria, East Francia, and Moravia (who had been weakened by their own internecine conflicts). Many more details could be found if you were to delve into the Church records of that time, for that is where most of this history was recorded. The “Chronicle by George the Monk” contains the first known reference to the Hungarians. Their first raids are recorded in the “Annals of St. Bertin”. The succession of their kings, who we will now get to know, are given to us in an anonymous monk’s “Gesta Hungarorum”. Archbishop Theotmar, 300 miles west in Salzburg, wrote around 900 of the Moravians and Hungarians allying against the Germans. His diocese has been in existence for 400 years, so Christianity was well established there in Germany, at that time ruled Louis the German, the grandson of Charlemagne. Theotmar, though, would die in battle against the Hungarians in 907, before their conversion to the faith that he championed.
To get back to those seven different Magyar tribes. As they were taking over those lands within the Carpathian peninsula, they had chosen to unite under one of their chieftains, Álmos. Three other Khazar tribes, after an unsuccessful revolt against their Khagan [King] joined those seven, calling themselves together the “Ten Arrows” [“On-Ogur”, probably the origin of the name “Hungarian”], and choosing Álmos as their Grand Prince around 850 AD. They thus definitively left behind their loose obedience to the Khagan further east (and south), and started the Árpád Dynasty, which would last 450 years and would count 8 members of its line as Catholic saints or blesseds, though of course we’re not there just yet! Among the first six successors of Álmos, Christian names are nowhere to be found: Árpád, Zoltán, Fajsz, Taksony, Géza, and Vajk. Each, unfortunately, were in the main cruel pagan chieftains, with Géza, though he was baptized at some point and did allow missionaries into his kingdom, continuing to practice pagan rites and mercilessly murdering relatives who could act as rivals to his power.
But baptism did not leave Géza’s son unconverted. Named Vajk at his birth in Esztergom, 30 miles North of Budapest, the only son of Géza and Sarolt, would take the name Stephen (after that famous deacon-martyr of the early Church) upon his own baptism at the hand of St. Adalbert of Prague. Providentially, his pagan father would arrange Stephen’s marriage to Gisela, a Christian princess of Bavaria (daughter of Henry II, a member of the Ottonian dynasty, who had taken over the Germanic lands after the Carolingians had fallen from power. The Germans and Hungarians were now on better terms and this marriage was one of the acts that solidified that congenial relationship). With the help of Christian Knights from Germany, Stephen would solidify his reign over all the Hungarian tribes, and later, with the support of both Otto III (then Holy Roman Emperor) and the consecration of Pope Sylvester II, would became the first King of a united Hungary and was crowned either on December 25th, 1000 AD, or January 1st, 1001. (The records we have speak of his being crowned on the “first day of the second millennium” which could be interpreted by the dating of that time either way).
– Fr. Dominic Rankin was recalling last week a time he dressed up as St. Louis of France for Halloween, important to note was that his homemade crown also incorporated some sort of bucket to maintain its structural integrity. It also made it far too small, and rather uncomfortable. St. Stephen’s crown is actually far too large to fit a normal human head, so they insert a leather pad between the crown and the king to be crowned, making it fit properly, and far more comfortable than my bucket.