Do you know which Hungarian had the most portraits and pictures before the invention of cameras? It was Saint Stephen of Hungary.
Saint Stephen has been a widely recognised figure for centuries. He was the first Christian head of state in the Carpathian Basin. He is the ruler who solidified Hungary’s statehood and achieved a level of political success that even seems staggering now, a thousand years later. But what was the secret of his success?
First, the Hungarian tribes that he united were completely enclosed by Slavic peoples already settled in the Carpathian Basin. The Holy Roman Empire was to the West and the influence of the Byzantine Empire to the East. History has shown that the only countries that became successful in the region between the two spheres of influence were the ones which:
- Adopted Christianity
- Established a strong centralized power
- Possessed sufficient resources and army to guarantee their independence
- And had enough distance between their lands and the centres of the main Christian Empires.
The best examples of those nations that managed to retain their sovereign independence were Hungary and Poland. All of these characteristics were exemplified by Hungarians and Poles who chose to remain independent from both great Empires while at the same time also making clear that they wanted to join the community of the western Christian states.
However, not every nation was as fortunate as Hungary and Poland. Two examples of this trend spring to mind. The first Christian Hungarian king received his spouse from the then royal family of the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, the neighbouring Czechs, being militarily weaker and being closer to the centre of the Empire, were simply annexed. The first Christian Grand Prince of Kiev received a princess porphyrogenita from Byzantium, however the same was never offered to Bulgarians who were usually weaker and within close proximity to the Empire, so they were brought under Byzantine rule as well.
Of course, pure luck was not the reason for success. The Holy Roman Empire and Byzantium only recognized strong and powerful enough states as countries that would stay independent. Emperor Otto was careful about who he would give a copy of the Holy Lance to, and Rome did not simply give away crowns to every zealous Christian either. Stephen gained the recognition of the Western Christian world by creating and defending a powerful and flourishing country which had proven its might against the enemies of his burgeoning nation.
It is for this reason that, hundreds of years later, Miklós Zrínyi said: “Saint Stephens’s crown is nothing without his sword.”
On the 20th of August we celebrate the most successful Hungarian statesman to-date, without whose crown and sword we would not be who we are today.
Click here to watch Áron discuss Saint Stephen.