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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 15:75–85.


On the Foreign Policy of Saint Stephen


It is well known that both around the turn of the first millennium and today, in the time of the turn of the second millennium, we can talk about political transformations in Hungary. The historic comparison of the two political transformations and the analysis of the similarities and differences come naturally. Without striving to perfection, we can emphasize, first of all, that both of the transformations resulted in completely new social conditions than the ones prior to them. Consequently, radical and essential changes took place a thousand years ago and are taking place in our times in the life of the whole Hungarian society. I shall allude only to two among the main differences of these two significant turning points because they are important in terms of the discussion of the topic. The first essential difference is that while the political transformation of the era of the first turn of the millennium lasted for a longer period, for a hundred and fifty years (from the second half of the 10th century until the end of the 11th century), today’s transformation will have taken place in one or two decades. This means that it is suitable for the discussion of the foreign policy of those times to encompass a considerable part of the epoch. The second main difference discloses that while the survival of the Hungarians was at stake at the earlier transformation, the principal question of the current changes is whether the modernization of Hungarian society will succeed or not; today, our survival is not at stake.

Therefore, the vital question of the political transformation around 1000 was whether the Hungarians would survive or perish and disappear from the map of Europe for ever, similarly as it earlier had happened in the Carpathian Basin with great peoples like the Huns or the Avars.

It is attributable to two relevant factors – an internal and an external one – that not else but the physical existence of the Hungarian people living in the Carpathian Basin became a key issue of the events and processes of the epoch after the second half of the 10th century.

The development of the so-called tribal states – created on the territories of the individual tribes – was in the focus of the internal events. This was a peculiar process in the course of which the various Magyar tribes started out – and some among them arrived quite far – on the path to independence. If the process had not been stopped, if the tribal separatism had triumphed, then the confederation of Magyar tribes – comprising of eight tribes – would have disintegrated into pieces following the establishment of the sovereign tribal states and thus, the Hungarian Nagyfejedelemség (~Grand Duchy) would have been destroyed. It is evident that subsequently the surrounding countries and powers would have devoured the tribal mini-states with the utmost ease.

Irrespective of the internally started and destructive disintegrating process, there was great danger ahead of the Hungarians on the international scene as well. Namely, it came to the agenda in Europe after the middle of the 10th century that the Hungarian Nagyfejedelemség should be destroyed and annihilated by external powers. I wish to examine neither the character of the Hungarian invasions, their assessment, nor their European parallels (Hun, Avar, Norman, Arab, etc.). Nevertheless, it is a fact that for about three-quarters of a century after the Hungarian Conquest, the confederation of Magyar tribes was continuously in war with Europe due to these raiding campaigns. This was a period when the Hungarians – as Regino, the contemporary source called them: ‘a people more cruel and dreadful than any brute’ – were unceasingly and wildly ravaging, destroying and plundering almost all of the regions of European civilization. Because of this, Europe got fed up with the Hungarians. This was clearly and plainly expressed during the months immediately prior to the battle of Augsburg (955) when the Moor ruler of Spain, Abd al-Rahman III, outlined his opinion very sharply before the envoys of the German king, Otto the Great: ‘The people of the Hungarians have to be wiped out!’ Because of the historic facts, it cannot be excluded that the caliph of Cordoba, whose country was invaded by the Hungarian horsemen in 942, also offered some kind of an alliance and his cooperation to the German sovereign for the destruction of the Hungarians. However, it did not come to this, all the less, because Otto himself defeated the Hungarians on the German field of Lech in August, 955. As a consequence, the confederation of Magyar tribes suspended every invasion toward the West once and for all for fear of an annihilating German attack that could have otherwise befallen the Hungarians. The notes of the contemporary German bishop, Liudprand, illustrate the panic terror very well that seized the peoples and the leaders of the confederation after the catastrophe of the field of Lech: ‘the people of the Hungarians, terrified by the power of the most holy and invincible King Otto [I] ... do not dare uttering a sound.’

The 955 success of King Otto was greatly appreciated in Western Europe that had suffered so much from the Hungarians. Many compared it to the victory of Charles Martell in Poitiers that the Carolingian leader had won over the Arabs of Hispania in 732 putting an end to the Western expansion of the Islam. Pope John XII declared in his privilege he issued in occasion of the enthroning of the emperor in 962 that King Otto won the dignity of the emperor because he defeated the pagan peoples. It is evident from the historic situation that we have to think of the victory of Otto that he won over the pagan Hungarians called Avars in the diploma. Thus, if it were true that there would not have been Charlemagne without Mohammed, it would also be true that there would not have been Otto the Great without Árpád.

The Hungarian Fejedelemség was lucky because Otto I did not turn against the Magyars after 955, for he believed his greatest tasks were to put the rebellious Slav tribes down, acquire Italy and obtain the imperial crown.

However, in one and a half decades the Hungarians ended up in a similarly dangerous situation. The military-political Hungarian–Russian–Bulgarian– Pecheneg alliance, held together by Svjatoslav, fejedelem of Kiev, fell to pieces after the victory of Byzantium at Arkadiopolis in 970. At the same time, Bulgaria collapsed under the attacks of the reorganized and strengthened Byzantine army in the immediate vicinity of the Southern borders of the Hungarian Nagyfejedelemség. While the whole territory of the country fell into the possession of the basileus (the Byzantine emperor) legally, Byzantium occupied Eastern-Bulgaria also militarily in 971. In the course of this operation, the Byzantine troops reached the Hungarian border by the Lower Danube. Thereafter it was feared with good reason in the Hungarian land that soon a large-scale offensive could hit the Carpathian Basin. A Greek source proves that the Hungarian leaders were explicitly afraid of Byzantium in those times – more exactly in 971.

At this point, Géza, father of the first Hungarian king, Stephen, ascended the throne of the nagyfejedelem. By recognizing the dangers arising from the internal and external circumstances, he announced a new course for his foreign policy with two firm and cardinal elements: deliberate peace policy and a thoroughly considered alliance policy.

This meant that Géza was aiming at peace with his neighbors of every possible direction in order to avoid external assaults. The greater legend of King Stephen refers to this when it narrates: ‘Géza... although having sank into the pagan lifestyle, started to negotiate peace with every surrounding country as he was listening to the coming of the light of spiritual mercy.’ The purpose of the alliance building policy of the nagyfejedelem was to be able to acquire help, if necessary, against both his external and internal enemies.

Several evidences can be listed for the peace policy of Géza: he stopped the invasions in the Balkan once and for all, he built dynastic relationships with the Polish, Russian and Bulgarian reigning families, and he consistently refrained himself throughout his reign (971–997) from intervening actively in the internal discord of the neighboring countries and their wars fought with each other. He avoided especially meddling into the German internal fights. The most spectacular manifestation of his alliance politics was when (during 972–973) Géza came to an arrangement, made peace, and concluded and alliance with the German Empire, the former bitter enemy. The organized and official spreading of Western Christianity among the Hungarians started in 972 under the aegis of the church of the empire. Its supervision was the task of the Hungarian missionary episcopate that fell under the archiepiscopacy of Mainz. In the beginning, missionary bishop Bruno of Sankt Gallen was leading it. Properly speaking, the year 972 marked the date when the Hungarians officially started out on the path of joining the Christian Western Europe.

The arrangement of Hungarian-German political relations took place in 973 in Quedlinburg. Géza and Otto I concluded peace and became friends. The established Hungarian–German political alliance indicated: the German Empire was siding with Hungary in the Hungarian-Byzantine discord. The German emperor could not accept that the basileus would acquire great territories in the direct vicinity of the German Empire had he annexed the Hungarian Nagyfejedelemség. This would have meant a drastic loss of the balance of power at the damage of the German Empire. From that time on, until the end of the 12th century, we can observe the rivalry of the German and the Byzantine empires for the acquisition of Hungary that has always been in a most peculiar geopolitical situation. The Hungarian-German alliance had a sobering influence within the circles of the Byzantine emperor (the envoys of the basileus were present in Quedlinburg), and the Greek invasion against the Hungarian Nagyfejedelemség failed to come about. Incidentally, also the renewed Arab attacks (971) against Byzantium were responsible for this.

Having seen all this, there is no doubt that the Hungarian Nagyfejedelemség fell into the ecclesiastic and political sphere of interests of the German Empire. Consequently, a definite German influence prevailed in ecclesiastic and political fields in the Hungarian territories, which, however, did not affect the independence and sovereignty of Hungary in the first times. Yet, the German influence grew significantly stronger as the time passed and the Hungarian-German relationship became rather strong especially by the end of the reign of Géza. The character of the relationship started to endanger even the independence and sovereignty of the Hungarian Nagyfejedelemség.

1/ On the basis of the Hungarian chronicle tradition it can be observed that a great number of political and military advisers (first Swabian and then Bavarian) arrived from German territories during the reign of Géza, who brought military forces of considerable strength with them. According to the evidence of the ‘Képes Krónika’ and the smaller Stephen legend, these had an essential role in helping Géza, the ‘fejedelem of bloody hands’, overcome his internal opponents by force of arms and subjugate the tribal states in the Western part of the Carpathian Basin by violent means. 2/ The German missionary episcopate that was naturally under the direction of the German imperial church, was operating unchanged around the end of the reign of Géza. 3/ The 996 marriage of Stephen, Hungarian heir to the crown, and Gisela, Bavarian princess – according to later data it happened in the German Scheyern –, was still another strong link that connected the Hungarian Nagyfejedelemség to the German empire. 4/ A copy of the imperial spear, the symbol of the German empire, sent by Emperor Otto III to the court of the Hungarian fejedelem, arrived to Hungary in those times. According to the contemporary chronicler, Ademarus, Otto III ‘gave him the permission [i.e. to Géza and through him, to his heir, Stephen] with this act to enjoy the most freedom in the possession of his country.’ There is no doubt that this meant firstly the acknowledgement of the hierarchic authority of the German emperor and secondly the recognition of a symbolic and formal subordination to Germany on the part of the Hungarians. It is evident from the message of the French Ademarus: the Western world regarded the acceptance of the spear clearly as the sign of the acknowledgement of the German feudal tenure.

After his enthronement (fejedelem: 997–1000; king: 1000–1038), St. Stephen had no choice but to continue the foreign policy course of Géza since most of his time and energy were absorbed in his enormous internal tasks – the conversion of the people, the organization of the church and the state, and the defeat of his domestic enemies. (The first Hungarian king was canonized in 1083.) Also his foreign relations were founded fundamentally and first of all upon the conscious peace policy and the consistent alliance policy. One of his legends indicates this: Stephen ‘solidified the truly concluded peace [i.e. truly concluded by Géza] with the peoples of the foreign countries’. This is manifest in the facts that – while maintaining good relationships with Bohemia – he normalized the relation both with Poland and Russia after a smaller conflict with each of them. At the same time, dynastic links sprang up between Venice and Hungary when the doge married one of the younger sisters of Stephen in 1009.

In my opinion, however, the foreign policy of St. Stephen had a new and very marked feature. Namely, that he consistently and gradually tried to change and changed indeed the dangerous character of the Hungarian-German relations that had evolved around the end of the times of Géza. This did not mean that Stephen wanted to break with the empire. This was not his goal. On the one hand, he could not endeavor this with a German (Bavarian) wife on his side and on the other he continued to need the German help against his enemies. This proved to be true right at the beginning of his reign, when he managed to destroy the rebellion (997) led by Koppány, who aimed at the power of the fejedelem, only with the help of the German army of significant size that had arrived from the territory of the empire. As the king himself indicated in the diploma of Pannonhalma in 1002, he had classified the fight with Koppány outright as an extremely great encounter between the Hungarians [= Koppány] and the Germans [= Stephen].

Nevertheless, St. Stephen attempted to modify, more exactly, to loosen the Hungarian–German connection system that had become rather tight, in order to avoid total German subordination and preserve his country’s sovereignty. The Hungarian sovereign wanted to strengthen the partner-ally character of the Hungarian-German relations and carried out several far-reaching measures in order to accomplish this.

First of all, we have to mention the coronation. I agree with those, who believe that Fejedelem Stephen – by taking advantage of the harmonic relations between the German emperor and the Roman pope with a superb tactic sense – asked the royal crown from Silvester II in the autumn of 1000. Naturally, the coronation that took place at the turn of 1000–1001 increased the international prestige of the king and his monarchy, and the crown that he received from the pope – as symbol of power – greatly overshadowed the German spear. Even though St. Stephen placed the spear among his insignia – as proved by one of his silver coins and the crowning mantle –, it lost a great deal from its importance thanks to the influence of the crown. It is necessary to underline the fact that St. Stephen became king by means of the papal crown and not the imperial spear! It is in connection to this that the crown is mentioned as the principal insignia of the sovereign in the book that the king have had written to his son entitled ‘Intelmek‘ (Admontions, Libellus de institutione morum) and in which there is no reference to the spear at all. However, the fact that the papal crown could be sent only with the agreement and cooperation of the emperor reveals how complicated the historical situations were in those times. It has to be admitted: the German Empire, too, played an active role in the birth of the Hungarian Kingdom. The declaration of Thietmar, contemporary German bishop, underlines the importance of the emperor’s role somewhat one-sidedly: ‘Vajk [Stephen], brother-in-law of Henry, prince of the Bavarians, after having had ecclesiates established in his country, received a crown and benediction thanks to the favor and encouragement of the Emperor [i.e. Otto III]’. By means of the coronation that signalled the birth of the Hungarian Kingdom, Hungary officially entered the community of the Christian peoples of Europe.

The wider era of the turn of the millennium was an age when a series of new Christian states were founded in Europe by going through essentially a similar process. This was the time when the formation of the Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Croatian Kingdoms as well as the Bohemian, Polish and Russian Fejedelemség took place. This points out that the integration of Hungary was an organic part of the contemporary development processes and it cannot be considered a unique incident. A modern European-type Hungarian state evolved that replaced a nomadic political structure that had been based on the principle of – real or fictive – kindred (which was expressed in the blood treaty, too).

Another manifestation of the underlined importance of St. Stephen’s modification of the Hungarian foreign policy was that the king transferred the Hungarian church with a sovereign decision of his under Rome, under the authority of the pope. As a consequence of these measures the influence of the German imperial church, which was in the service of imperial politics, completely dissolved in Hungary. Thus, when the Hungarian king chose Rome, he chose not really between Rome and Constantinople, but rather among Rome, Constantinople and Mainz (i.e. the German imperial church). It is beyond all questions that Rome, Constantinople and the German imperial church competed with each other over the ecclesiastic influence on Hungarian land in that period similarly to what had earlier been perceived in case of Bulgaria and Moravia in the 9th century. Moreover, it cannot be taken as accidental but rather as the result of a deliberate decision that the king did not make Veszprém, the seat of the queen, the arch see. For Stephen, his own seat, Esztergom, seemed more suited to become the head of the independent Hungarian church. The establishment of the Christian Hungarian state had a very important outcome for the Western Church: the borders of Christianity of the Latin rite were transferred several hundred kilometers to the East, from the Leitha River to the line of the Eastern Carpathians.

A further important new aspect of St. Stephen’s foreign relations as opposed to those of Géza was that while the German emperor would be the chief foreign policy ally of Fejedelem Géza, St. Stephen developed, besides the German Empire, excellent relations also with the Roman Pontificate and Byzantium. Thus, the king achieved something that none of his predecessors had been able to since the Conquest: Hungary was in an allied relation to all three of the European great powers, i.e. Germany, Byzantium and the Pontificate. In essence, he replaced the one-sided German amity of Géza with a more open and multilateral system of relations.

The sending of the crown, as we could perceive, was in itself the clear manifestation of the harmonic Hungarian-papal relations. However, we must not forget to mention the successful Hungarian trip of Papal Legate Azo in 1009 either, when new dioceses of Latin rite were founded in the Hungarian territory. At the same time, although St. Stephen supported the missionary activity of the Eastern (orthodox) Church, he consistently hindered the efforts of the patriarch of Constantinople to organize a Greek see or a Greek diocese in Hungary in favor of Rome. Thus, the patriarch’s repeated attempts to extend his ecclesiastic authority over Hungarian territory were all destined to failure.

The evidence of the military-political alliance with Byzantium concluded in 1002 was, on the one hand the Greek marriage of Crown-prince Emerich and, on the other hand, the personal participation of St. Stephen in the offensive war of Basileus Basileios II against Bulgaria. Incidentally, it was probably in connection to the Byzantine marriage of hereditary Prince Emerich that the king founded the basilissa monastery of Veszprémvölgy (a convent for orthodox nuns).

The favorable and friendly Hungarian-Byzantine relations made it possible that the Hungarian path of pilgrimage to Jerusalem was opened in 1018. Let’s add a remark here. It is a separate question that the adoption of orthodox Christianity and thus, the peaceful adherence to the Byzantine sphere of interest would have meant by no means a dead-end in different historic circumstances, but only another direction of development, another historic path for the Hungarians to take. The example of the Serbs, the Bulgarians, the Romanians and the Russians proves this clearly. Therefore, the modern belief, according to which certain and fast decay would have awaited the Hungarians on the turn of the first millennium had they adopted orthodox Christianity is completely false.

This flexible foreign policy of St. Stephen that he skilfully adjusted to the circumstances and accepted even the necessary compromises, turned out to be effective. St. Stephen managed to prevent – eliminating formal dependence, too – the Hungarian-German relationship from becoming an effective and real case of feudal subjugation.

The Hungarian king considered himself a sovereign independent from the German emperors. This is well manifested in the fact that the name and date of reign of the German emperor cannot be found in the diplomas written by the scribes that arrived from the German court, albeit these must have been included there compulsorily in case of a vassal relationship. Stephen proudly declared both in his diplomas and the preamble of his first code that his royal power was of divine origin. He announced in the prologue also that he took his laws to be equal in value with the laws of the emperors. He wanted to convey – similarly to the French kings of the age – that he considered himself a sovereign in possession of the same power in his own country than what the emperor had in his own monarchy.

St. Stephen managed to develop a partner-like, allied relationship of equals with the German Empire and preserve it for long decades. One of his legends refers to this by calling the German emperor, Henry II, the friend (amicus) of Stephen. The peaceful and friendly relations are expressed also by the fact that both Otto III and Henry II accepted to be the symbolic godfathers of the sons of Stephen at the beginning of the new millennium, which is shown by the names of the two princes. (Otto and Henry Emerich). The king successfully mediated in the conflict of Henry II and his brother, Bruno, in 1004. Also Asztrik, Hungarian archbishop took an active role in the cultivation of the harmonic relations. On behalf of his king he visited the German territory several times at significant occasions.

It is important to underline that the foreign policy of Stephen created favorable international circumstances for his fights with his internal enemies (first of all, the tribal leaders) as his domestic opponents (Gyula, Keán, the black Hungarians and Ajtony) could not obtain foreign help for themselves.

The political unity of the country was de facto established with the 1028 defeat of the last Hungarian tribal state that was aspiring to gain its independence under the lead of Ajtony. By this means, the several-decade-long country unifying efforts of Fejedelem Géza and St. Stephen triumphed over the powers of tribal separatism. The monarchy of St. Stephen, which served as the public and political framework of the life of the Hungarians until 1526, was stabilized.

However, the German Empire disapproved after some time of the independence and complete sovereignty of the Hungarian Kingdom, and Emperor Conrad II started a powerful attack in 1030 in order to conquer Hungary with the arms and throw it into his feudal subjugation. The Hungarian king, who had won all of his – internal and external – wars, was victorious this time, too. The repulsion of the German assault signalled that the Hungarian Kingdom was willing to belong to the Western world only as a sovereign country and not as a vassal. Hungary preserved its independence and sovereignty. This can be looked upon as an especially valuable achievement and result if we just think about the fact that Poland and Bohemia were again constrained to accept the German authority when their endeavors to become independent failed in 1032 and 1033, respectively. The neighboring Bulgaria also lost its independence for almost two centuries only a few years before (1018) when, cut up into provinces, it became a part of the Byzantine Empire. Also Serbia and Croatia were linked to Byzantium by tight links in those times.

As a conclusion, we can affirm that the foreign policy of St. Stephen served the interests of the Hungarians effectively in that extremely difficult era. The foreign policy aspirations and measures of St. Stephen ensured favorable international circumstances for the solution of the large-scale domestic tasks and thus, for the complete destruction of tribal separatism that threatened with the disintegration of the country. At the same time, St. Stephen succeeded in loosening the Hungarian-German relations that had earlier become rather tight and almost of a feudal character. Thus, he managed to conduct a sovereign foreign policy that not only helped him realize the establishment of the independent Christian kingdom and its joining to Europe, but also protected the young state both from the feudal and the armed subjugation. St. Stephen – following in part the course of his father, Géza – had a decisive merit in ensuring that the Hungarian people did not fall to the fate of the Huns and the Avars. Thanks to him, the country did not disappear from the map but preserved its sovereignty, and today it is still there in the center Europe.



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