The History of Hungary: Part Two

King Louis the Great


The period after 1301 in Hungarian history was characterized by a succession of foreign monarchs ruling over the country, often entangled in dynastic conflicts and power struggles. These foreign rulers brought both opportunities and challenges to Hungary. While some contributed to the kingdom’s prestige through alliances and military campaigns, others faced resistance from the Hungarian nobility and struggled to assert their authority.

With the end of the Arpad dynasty, the nation was given the right to select its successor. However, the concept of lineage through blood ties was still widely accepted, and all contenders for the throne based their claims on being descendants of an Árpád through a female lineage. Notably, all three claimants were not natives; one and another’s father were already occupying foreign thrones. From that point until its eventual end, the monarchy of Hungary was, in fact, invariably—with two exceptions, one of which is disputed—controlled by a non-native, often one who concurrently held at least one foreign throne.

The Angevin kings


King Charles I on Hungarian 200-forint banknote (1998–2009)

King Charles I on Hungarian 200-forint banknote (1998–2009)

The problem of foreign kingship did not initially present itself, considering Charles Robert of Anjou (of the Angevin house of Naples), held no foreign throne and was raised as a genuine Hungarian. When a group of Hungarian nobles crowned him in 1301, he was still a child. His claim to the throne was contested, leading to the crown first being given to Wenceslas of Bohemia, and then to Otto of Bavaria. It was only in 1308 that Charles was officially acknowledged as king, a position he held until 1342.

Charles showed remarkable capability, securing peace by subduing the most rebellious regional lords or oligarchs, and gaining the support of the rest. Given the international situation at the time – Germany was in turmoil due to a power struggle between the empire and the papacy, the Mongolian Tatars were becoming passive, and the power of Byzantium was rapidly declining – the circumstances were favorable for Hungary.

Louis I (1342–82), the son of Charles and the only Hungarian king to receive the title “Great” from his nation, continued to build on the foundations laid by his father. He maintained peace with the West and established a circle of dependencies around the kingdom, positioning Hungary as the archiregnum or chief kingdom. These dependencies were located in the Balkans, along the lower Danube, and in Galicia. In 1370, through a prior family agreement, Louis also ascended to the Polish throne.

Map of Hungary in the middle of the 14th century

Map of Hungary in the middle of the 14th century

The prosperity enjoyed by the Angevin kings, a dynastic name derived from Anjou, was largely attributable to the significant revenue derived from the gold mines in Transylvania and northern Hungary. Approximately 35 to 40 percent of this wealth was allocated to the king, providing resources to uphold a magnificent court.

For two generations, the country was fortunate to avoid any major invasions or civil wars. During this time, the nation experienced unprecedented material growth. The population increased to three million. Although the economy remained predominantly rural, crafts thrived, trade saw an expansion, and the arts prospered. The first universities were established during the 14th century in Pécs and Óbuda, though they were short-lived.

Sigismund of Luxembourg

The advantages of Louis’s reign could have been significantly amplified had he not expended substantial resources and human lives in his attempt to secure the Naples throne for his nephew. His international acquisitions were more beneficial to his prestige than to the genuine interests of the nation, an impressive structure that largely crumbled upon his passing. He left behind only two daughters as his successors. Louis had identified the elder, Maria, to inherit both of his thrones. However, the Poles rejected the continuation of the union. The Hungarians crowned Maria, and her husband, Sigismund of Luxembourg, became her co-ruler in 1387. After Maria’s demise eight years later, Sigismund ruled alone until he died in 1437.

Battle of Nicopolis in 1396

Battle of Nicopolis in 1396

During Sigismund’s rule, the situation significantly deteriorated despite his contributions to the arts, commerce, and urban development. Sigismund faced much hostility from the populace due to his initial brutal treatment of his rival’s supporters. Furthermore, his later years were marked by the neglect of Hungarian affairs as he primarily focused on imperial and Bohemian matters, having been elected German king in 1410/11, Holy Roman emperor in 1433, and titular king of Bohemia in 1419. This disregard for domestic issues fueled resentment among Hungarians.

The country was also plagued by widespread discontent among the peasantry, who were burdened with heavy taxes imposed by the crown and their landlords. This unrest was further exacerbated by the influx of radical Hussite religious beliefs from Bohemia. Serious uprisings broke out in northern Hungary and Transylvania.

Additionally, the threat from the Ottoman Turks was escalating. While Serbia stood firm, Hungary was relatively safe from Ottoman incursions. However, after the defeat of Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the imminent threat to Hungary became critical. Sigismund spearheaded a crusade, which was unfortunately vanquished at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. While Timur’s (Tamerlane’s) Mongol attack on the Turkish rear provided a brief respite for Europe, the Ottoman advance resumed in 1415.