How Hungary became Christian – Istvan, the Budapest Basilica and the Christianistation of Hungary

Back in 2016, at the height of the European Refugee Crisis, Hungary and its current ruling government described itself as the last defenders of Christianity in Europe, a very different tone to many ruling parties in the European Union. Putting aside ones views on his opinions, what is a fact is that most people are not surprised about the Christian heritage of Hungary.

Reading about the language used during the height of the migrant crisis fascinated me, the fact that in what I thought was secular Europe, there were still countries so strongly tethered to their religious heritage, that it could be used to mobilise political support.

I knew that I had to find out about the story of Christianity in Hungary… how did it become Christian? How did the religion from a preacher in Jerusalem become the religion of the Magyar peoples? So Christian that the national anthem was once a Christian hymn to the Virgin Mary.

For more than a century the Grand Princes of Hungary and their pagan people’s were a threat to the Christian nations to the West, with raids on Christian cities a common affair, then it all stopped. The pagan Hungarians had become Christians and raiders became part of Christendom.

Was it because of religion? Or was it because of politics?

Neither, it was because of the politics of religion.

You see, the Magyar people were originally a nomadic people made up of tribes and even though they settled the plains of Hungary from the 9th century, continued to govern themselves as a loose collection of tribes led by a Grand Prince. This state of affairs was generally tame with a mostly uncontested line of leadership for two centuries. The position of the Grand Prince is one that is still debated by scholars today – was he a holy leader or the most important military general of the people? Regardless, his position was one of importance.

The throne of Grand Prince began with Almos and was followed by Arpad, this list goes on until Geza.

Geza was a cruel prince who consolidated his rule of the area through cruelty. Despite being the Grand Prince of the Hungarians, he was cruel to Hungarians and friendly with Christians, going on in fact to become a baptised Christian. Geza’s was not well liked, but he still wanted his son to take over the power of Hungary, so just before he died he convened a council and forced the lords of the realm to support his son’s succession after his death.

A begrudging oath is only as good as the ability of the threat to maintain the oath and as soon as Geza died an uprising began. His son Stephen had assumed the crown but the majority of the lords supported his cousin Koppany instead. Stephen was supported by foreign Christian princes from the surrounding countries. The stage was set for a civil war of power, romanticised as a evangelical war between a Christian Stephen and a pagan Koppany.

Stephen won the war, and on 25th December 1000 was crowned the first King of Hungary by Pope Sylvester II, with the approval of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Stephen is today known as Saint Stephen, the patron saint of Hungary and the creator of the Christian nation – whether out of true personal piety of political expediency, the nation he consolidated was to become a strong Christian one.

Despite becoming king, Stephen’s grip on power was not yet secure, for even though his enemy was defeated in battle the discontent was not yet quelled.  After his coronation, he consolidated his power by forming powerful marriage alliances with the Bavarians, he then set up the first bishophoric in the country in Esztergom (today the Archbishophoric of Esztergom-Budapest) to ensure that his priests and prelates were independent of the German church. A people under the same religion will more willingly accept his religious authority over them, he therefore brought in priests to evangelise to his pagan peoples.

Much of Stephen’s reign was dedicated to the Christianisation of the country, by force if required. All the princes who remained pagan and refused to submit to his rule saw a ‘Holy War’ waged on their lands to bring them in line. Relics were requisitioned from the Balkans and placed in a cathedral in Székesfehérvár where his new capital was to be built. A pilgrimage route through the old capital of Esztergom was set up and Stephen personally met with the pilgrims. The Christian king, further built four pilgrim hostels in Constantinople, Jerusalem, Ravenna and Rome. Hungary became a popular destination with merchants and pilgrims – monks and religious institutions (the heart of knowledge during the Middle Ages) were established throughout his kingdom. A legacy that lives on till this day.

(This Youtube video is an example of how Stephen is memorialised in the church today)

Many spires and churches dot the skyline of Budapest today and the heart of Christianity in Budapest has become a religious site and tourist attraction in equal measure. This beating heart of Budapest named aptly after the founder of the Christian era of the nation – St Stephen.

Unlike St Gallen or Roskilde which have history of being settled by priests and princes or Oxford which has seen many fascinating stories integral to the story of Christianity, there was nothing special about the site – it in the 18th century a theatre which hosted animal fights was located. A residential district was built and the site was bought over and converted into a small church. From those humble beginnings, sprang the cathedral.

A grand and majestic one, I might add.

The cathedral of a Christian city is usually the tallest building in all of the city and this is the case with the cathedral, although in Budapest it is on equal levels with the Hungarian Parliament to show that god and democracy are important tenets in the country (the Soviets during the Communist era put a red star on the top of the parliament to show the church who was boss), the Soviets did not succeed, since they have fallen but the church and the cathedral still remain strong in this county.

Built in a neo-classical style, the cathedral get’s its name because of a holy relic from St Stephen, the right hand of St Stephen held in a reliquary. It was, however, not even meant to be called St Stephen. The cathedral was constructed over a 54 year period beginning in 1851 when the then Austrian Empire under the Habsburg had decided to call it St Leopold after the patron saint of Austria. This changed in 1867 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was established in its place and Budapest (and Hungary) was made an equal partner in the empire.

Yet, through a series of concidences, the cathedral can be said to be aptly named in this day and age, so tied in is Stephen with the story of the nation. So strong, in fact, that Christianity has become synonymous with the country, an identity capable of galvanising political support across the nation.



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