Stephen, the first king of Hungary

Statue of St Stephen at the Fisherman's Bastion


Hungarian history is long and diverse and stretches back through the ages, and at the heart of this remarkable narrative stands the figure of Stephen I, the nation’s first king. Stephen I was a forward-thinking leader who transformed Hungary from a collection of tribes into a formidable kingdom, laying the groundwork for a cultural and economic legacy that endures to this very day.

Stephen I held the title of Grand Prince of the Hungarians from 997 to 1000 and subsequently ascended to become Hungary’s inaugural king, ruling from either 1000 or 1001 until his passing in 1038, according to various sources. Despite the uncertainties surrounding certain aspects of his life, such as his exact year of birth (written records give three dates: 967, 969, and 975) and baptism, it is known that he was originally named Vajk and was the only son of Grand Prince Géza and Sarolt. While both of his parents were eventually baptized, it was Stephen who first wholeheartedly embraced the faith within his family.

Portrait of Stephen I of Hungary, artist unknown

Portrait of Stephen I of Hungary, artist unknown

After his father’s death, Stephen was appointed as the prince of the Magyars, one of the tribes comprising Hungary. He encountered opposition from his pagan relatives, who aimed to undermine his authority. Nevertheless, Stephen remained resolute in his mission to unite Hungary under his rule. He triumphed over his rivals and subsequently approached Pope Silvester the Second, seeking recognition as a king. The Pope granted his request, and thus Stephen became the first King of Hungary.

According to various sources, it is believed that Stephen’s coronation, which marked the birth of the Christian kingdom, occurred either on Christmas Day in the year 1000 or on January 1, 1001. As part of the process of canonizing the king, his tomb was opened on the eighth Sunday after the Assumption of Mary, specifically on August 20, 1083. This significant day was subsequently recognized by the Hungarian Church as the feast day of Stephen. Since 1771, it has been celebrated as a national holiday, after Queen Maria Theresia transformed it from a purely religious observance into an officially recognized national occasion.

St Stephen on the 10,000 forint bill

St Stephen on the 10,000 forint bill

Stephen’s reign was characterized by his endeavors to establish a robust and stable government in Hungary. He devised a governmental framework that encompassed a centralized bureaucracy, a permanent military force, and a network of fortifications to safeguard Hungary’s borders. Additionally, he instituted a legal system and introduced a currency, fostering economic growth and stability.

One of Stephen’s most notable achievements was establishing the Christian church in Hungary. He extended an invitation to missionaries with the aim of converting the pagan population and went on to establish the archbishopric of Esztergom, which eventually became the focal point of the Catholic Church in Hungary. By triumphing over Conrad II, the Holy Roman Emperor, Stephen safeguarded the autonomy of the Hungarian Church and kingdom. Any disregard for Christian customs during his reign was met with severe consequences. For example, one article of the law stipulated that all ten villages had to build a church and support its priests. Attendance at Sunday mass and the celebration of feasts were made compulsory. Confession before death was also made mandatory, except in the case of sudden death. If the dying person had not confessed, the relatives had to fast in the manner and time determined by the priest.

Inside St Stephen's Basilica, the most important church in Hungary

Inside St Stephen’s Basilica

King Stephen I of Hungary passed away on August 15, 1038, and in 1083 was canonized as a saint alongside his son Emeric, whom he outlived. Unfortunately, all of his children had predeceased him, which resulted in a period of turmoil following his death. Nonetheless, his reign served as the bedrock for Hungary’s cultural and economic progress, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to inspire the people of Hungary today. Without his influence, the course of Hungarian history would have been drastically different, since the nation might not have survived as a group of nomadic pagans in medieval Europe. The commemoration of his feast day on August 20 holds immense significance as the most important public holiday, known as State Foundation Day.