The population of Hungary, numbering some 700,000 in the fourteenth century, was a fluctuating mixture of Magyars, Pannonians, Slovaks, Bulgars, Khazars, Patzinaks, Cumans, Slavonians, Croats, Russians, Armenians, Wallachians, Bosnians, and Serbs: in summary, a minority of Magyars ruling a majority of Slavs. In the nascent cities a mercantile middle class and an industrial proletariat began to form in the fourteenth century; and as these were mostly immigrants from Germany, Flanders, and Italy, new racial tensions were added to the ethnic maze.
When Andrew III died, ending the Árpád dynasty (907–1301), a war of succession further divided the nation, and peace returned only when the higher nobility, having made the monarchy elective, conferred the crown of St. Stephen upon Charles Robert of Anjou (1308). Charles brought with him French ideas of feudalism and chivalry, Italian ideas of business and industry. He promoted the development of Hungary’s gold mines, encouraged enterprise, stabilized the currency, cleansed the judiciary, and gave the nation a competent administration. Under Charles and his son Louis, Hungary became a Western state, eager to win the help of the West against the proliferating East.
Louis I, wrote Voltaire, “reigned happily in Hungary forty years” (1342-82), and (not so happily) “in Poland twelve years. His people gave him the surname of the Great, which he well deserved; and yet this prince is hardly known in [Western] Europe, because he did not reign over men capable of transmitting his fame and virtues to other nations. How few know that in the fourteenth century there was a Louis the Great in the Carpathian Mountains!”14 His character mingled urbane culture and chivalrous sentiments with military ardor and capacity. He indulged occasionally in wars—to avenge his murdered brother in Naples, to recover from Venice the Dalmatian ports that had long seemed to Hungary its due outlets to the sea, and to check the aggressive expansion of Serbia and Turkey by bringing Croatia, Bosnia, and northern Bulgaria under Hungarian control. By example and precept he spread the chivalric ideal among the nobility, and raised the level of manners and morals in his people. During his reign and that of his father, Hungarian Gothic achieved its finest embodiments, and Nicholas Kolozsvari and his sons carved such notable statuary as the St. George now in Prague. In 1367 Louis founded the University of Pécs; but this, along with much of Hungary’s medieval glory, disappeared in the long and exhausting struggle with the Turks.
Louis’s son-in-law, Sigismund I, enjoyed a reign whose length (1387-1437) should have made possible long-term and farsighted policies. But his tasks were greater than his powers. He led a huge army against Bajazet at Nicopolis, and barely escaped from that disaster with his life. He realized that the Turkish advance was now the paramount problem of Europe; he devoted great care and failing funds to fortifying the southern frontier, and built at the junction of the Danube and the Save the great fortress of Belgrade. But his election to the Imperial office compelled him to neglect Hungary during long absences in Germany; and his acquisition of the Bohemian crown widened his responsibilities without enlarging his capacities.
Two years after his death the spreading Turks invaded Hungary. In this crisis the nation produced its most famous hero. Hunyadi János received his surname from the castle of Hunyadi in Transylvania, a stronghold granted to his father for services in war. János—i.e., John—was trained for war almost daily in his youth. He distinguished himself in a victory over the Turks at Semendria, and the new king, Ladislas V, made him commander-in-chief of the armies resisting the Turks. The repulse of the Ottomans became the absorbing devotion of his career. When they entered Transylvania he led against them newly disciplined troops inspired by his patriotism and his generalship. It was in that battle that Simon Kemény, beloved in Hungarian literature, gave his life for his leader. Knowing that the Turks had been instructed to seek out and kill Hunyadi, Simon begged and received permission to exchange costumes with him. He died under concentrated assaults, while Hunyadi directed the army to victory (1442). Murad II dispatched 80,000 new troops to the front; Hunyadi lured them, by feigned retreat, into a narrow pass where only a fraction of them could fight at one time; and again Hunyadi’s strategy triumphed. Harassed by revolts in Asia, Murad sued for terms, and agreed to pay a substantial indemnity. At Szeged, King Ladislas and his allies signed with Murad’s representatives a truce pledging both sides to peace. Ladislas swore on the Bible, the Turkish ambassadors on the Koran (1442).
But Cardinal Giuliano Cesarini, papal legate at Buda, presently judged the time propitious for an offensive. Murad had moved his army to Asia; an Italian fleet, controlling the Dardanelles, could prevent its return. The Cardinal, who had distinguished himself for probity and ability, argued that a pledge to an infidel could not bind a Christian.15 Hunyadi advised peace, and the Serbian contingent refused to violate the truce. The envoys of the Western nations agreed with Cesarini, and offered to contribute money and men to a sacred crusade. Ladislas yielded, and in person led an attack upon Turkish positions The promised reinforcements from the West did not come; the Ottoman army, 60,000 strong, eluded the Italian admiral, and crossed back to Europe. At Varna near the Black Sea—his standard-bearer holding the dishonored treaty aloft on a lance—Murad inflicted an overwhelming defeat upon Ladislas’ 20,000 men (1444). Hunyadi counseled retreat, the King ordered advance. Hunyadi begged him to stay in the rear; Ladislas plunged into the van of the fight, and was killed. Cesarini did not quite regain his honor by losing his life.
Four years later Hunyadi tried to redeem the disaster. Forcing his way through a hostile Serbia, he met the Turks at Kosovo in a furious engagement that raged for three days. The Hungarians were routed, and Hunyadi joined them in flight. He hid for days in a marsh; starving, he emerged, and was recognized by the Serbians, who handed him over to the Turks. He was released on promising never to lead an army across Serbian soil again.
In 1456 the Turks laid siege to Belgrade. Mohammed II aimed against the citadel the heavy artillery that had shattered the walls of Constantinople; Europe had never known so violent a bombardment. Hunyadi led the defense with a skill and courage never forgotten in Hungarian poetry.16 At last, preferring the anesthesia of battle to the agonies of starvation, the besieged rushed from the fortress, fought their way to the Turkish cannon, and so decisively vanquished the enemy that for sixty years thereafter Hungary was spared any Moslem attack. A few days after this historic defense Hunyadi died of a fever in the camp. Hungary honors him as its greatest man.