Saint Stephen, Confessor, King of Hungary

Author: Lives of Saints


Feast: September 2

Coming from the east under a chief called Arpad, a fierce, marauding people called Magyars invaded and conquered the central part of the Danube valley during the last years of the ninth century. King Stephen was of this race. The Magyars first learned of Christianity on sporadic raids into north Italy and France. In the middle of the ninth century the Thessalonian priests, SS. Cyril and Methodius, had planted the faith in Pannonia, to the south, and had translated the Bible into the native tongue. It was not for a hundred years, however, that the Magyars gave serious attention to the Church. This was in the time of Geza, the third duke after Arpad. He was shrewd enough to see the practical desirability of Christianity as a protection against the inroads of his Christian neighbors on either side. He had the choice of turning to the Eastern Church at Constantinople or to the Church of Rome. Although Rome was more distant, he chose the Western Church, in fear that if he accepted Christianity from the east his domain would be incorporated in the recently revived Eastern Empire, the boundaries of which extended to the Danube.

Geza's first wife was Sarolta, one of the few Magyar women who was truly Christian. Of this union was born, about the year 975, a son named Vaik, the future king and saint. His mother took great care of his early training, and he had excellent Italian and Czech tutors. Geza married as his second wife a Christian princess Adelaide, sister of the duke of Poland; at her behest, Adalbert. archbishop of Prague, came on a preaching mission to Hungary. Geza and his young son were baptized in 986, Vaik being given the name of the first martyr, Stephen; a number of the Hungarian nobles were baptized at the same time. For most of them it was a conversion of expediency, and their Christianity was, at the outset, merely nominal. The young prince, on the contrary, became a Christian in a true sense, and his mature life was spent spreading the faith and trying to live according to its disciplines and tenets.

At the age of twenty Stephen married Gisela, sister of the duke of Bavaria, the future Emperor Henry II. Since Hungary was then at peace with its neighbors, Stephen devoted himself to rooting out idolatry among his people. In the guise of a missionary, he often accompanied the Christian preachers; sometimes he had to check their tendency to impose the faith forcibly. There had recently been a migration of German Christian knights into the rich and fertile plains of Hungary. These newcomers took up land and they also labored to make converts of the peasantry. Many Magyars not unnaturally resented this infiltration, which they thought jeopardized their territorial rights and their ancient pagan customs. They rose in revolt under the leadership of Koppany, a man of great valor. Stephen met the insurgents himself, having prepared for battle by fasting, almsdeeds, and prayer, and invoking the aid of St. Martin of Tours, whom he had chosen as his patron. The historic meeting took place at Veszprem in 998, and though Stephen's forces were inferior in size to those of the rebels, with the help of the German knights he won a famous victory. Koppany was slain.

To give God the glory for his success, Stephen built near the site of the battle a monastery dedicated to St. Martin, called the Holy Hill, and bestowed on it extensive lands, as well as one third ,of the spoils of victory. Known since that time as the archabbey of Martinsberg, or Pannonhalma, it flourished down to modern times. It is the mother house of all Benedictine congregations in Hungary. Stephen now followed up his plans by inviting priests and monks to come from Germany, France, and Italy. They continued the work of taming the savage nation by teaching it the Gospel; they built churches and monasteries to serve as centers of religion, industry, and education. Some of them died as martyrs.

Hungary was still without ecclesiastical organization, and Stephen now founded the archbishopric of Gran, with five dioceses under it, and later the archbishopric of Kalocsa, with three dioceses. He then sent Abbot Astricius to Rome to obtain from Pope Sylvester II the confirmation of these foundations as well as of other things he had done for the honor of God and the exaltation of His Church. At the same time he begged the Pope to confer on him the title of king, that he might have more authority to accomplish his designs for promoting God's glory and the good of the people. It happened that Boleslaus, duke of Poland, at this same time had sent an embassy to Rome to get the title of king confirmed to him by papal ordinance. Pope Sylvester, persuaded to grant the request, had prepared a royal crown to send him with his blessing. But the special zeal, piety, and wisdom of Stephen of Hungary seemed to deserve priority. The Pope too may have been moved by political considerations, since the powerful German Emperor Otto II was at that moment in Rome. At any rate, he delivered this famous crown[1] to Stephen's ambassador, Astricius, and at the same time by a bull confirmed all the religious foundations Stephen had erected and the ordination of the Hungarian bishops. On his envoy's return, Stephen went out to meet him, and listened with reverence to the reading of the Pope's bull, bowing as often as the Pope's name was mentioned. It was this same Abbot Astricius who anointed and crowned him king with solemnity and pomp at Gran, in the year 1001.

To plant Christianity firmly in his kingdom and provide for its continued growth after his death, King Stephen filled Hungary with religious foundations. At Stuhlweissenburg he built a stately church in honor of the Mother of God, in which the kings of Hungary were afterwards crowned and buried. In Buda he founded the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul, and in Rome, Ravenna, and Constantinople hospices for pilgrims. He filled Martinsberg with Benedictines, who, as we have seen, were notable for practical works and founded four other monasteries of the order, as well as con. vents for nuns. At Veszprem there was a convent for nuns of the Byzantine rite. One effect of the conversion of Hungary was that the road used by pilgrims and crusaders going to the Holy Land was made safer, since the valley of the Danube formed a natural highway for at least a part of the long, difficult journey. To support churches and pastors and to relieve the poor, Stephen started the collection of tithes, and every tenth town was required to maintain a church and support a priest. Stephen himself built the churches and the bishops appointed the priests. He passed edicts for the severe punishment of blasphemy, murder, theft, and adultery. He commanded his subjects to marry, with the exception of monks, nuns, and clergy; he forbade marriages between Christians and pagans. Easy of access to persons of all ranks, Stephen was always ready to listen to the complaints of the poor, knowing that in helping them he honored Christ. Widows and orphans he took under his special protection.

This democratic King would often go about in disguise in order to find out the needs of humble persons whom his officials might overlook. Once, while dealing out alms thus, a rough band of beggars crowded around him, pulled at his beard and hair, knocked him down, and snatched away his purse. The King took this indignity in good humor, without making known who he was. When his nobles heard of the incident, they insisted that he should not again expose himself to such danger. Yet he renewed his vow never to refuse an alms to anyone who begged of him.

The code of laws which King Stephen put into effect was well suited to control a hot- tempered people, newly converted to Christianity; but it was not at all pleasing to those who still opposed the new religion, and the wars which Stephen now undertook were religious as well as political. Stephen undertook the political reorganization of Hungary. He abolished the old tribal divisions and partitioned the land into counties, under a system of governors and magistrates, similar to that of the Western Empire. He also developed a kind of feudalism, turning the independent nobles into vassals of the crown, thus welding them into a political unity. He retained direct control over the common people. In 1025 there was a revolt led by a noble called Ajton, who was moving to transfer his allegiance to the Eastern emperor. Stephen mobilized his forces at Kalocsa and gained an overwhelming victory. After he had repulsed an invasion of Bulgarians, some of the Bulgarians returned, hoping to settle peaceably in Hungary. They were set upon by vengeful Magyars. Stephen straightway had a number of the Magyars hanged along the frontier, as a warning that well-intentioned strangers must not be molested. When Stephen's saintly brother-in-law, Emperor Henry II, died, he was succeeded by his cousin, Conrad II. Fearing Stephen's growing power, Conrad marched against him. A parley was arranged, and Conrad retired. This settlement, according to Stephen's subjects, showed the peace-loving disposition of their king.

The death of Stephen's son Emeric left him without a direct heir, and the last years of the king's life were embittered by family disputes and dark intrigues over the succession. Of the four or five claimants, the successful one was Peter, son of Stephen's sister, a ruthless woman who stopped at nothing to gain her end. Two of Stephen's cousins were no better and even conspired to have him killed. A hired assassin entered his bedroom one night, but the King awakened and calmly called out, "If God be for me, who shall be against me?" The King pardoned the assassin and his cousins as well. It is not surprising that "a time of troubles" followed the death of this great statesman and king; it lasted until the reign of St. Ladislas, some forty years later.

Stephen died on the feast of the Assumption, 1038. His tomb at Stuhlweissenburg became the scene of miracles, and forty-five years after his death Pope Gregory VII, at the request of Ladislas, ordered his relics enshrined and placed in the rich chapel which bears his name in the church of Our Lady at Buda. King Stephen was canonized in 1083. In 1696 Pope Innocent XI appointed his festival for September 2, the day on which Emperor Leopold won Buda back from the Turks. In Hungary his feast is still kept on August 20, the day of the translation of his relics. This saint merits the highest veneration for his accomplishments in both secular and religious matters, and, most especially, for having been an exemplar of justice, mercy, charity, and peace in a cruel age.


1 The upper part of this crown, decorated with jewels and enameled figures of Christ and the Apostles, was later fitted on to the lower part of a crown given to King Geza I by the Eastern Emperor Michael VII, to form what is known as the Holy Crown of Hungary. It was recovered from the Nazis after World War II and placed in the custody of the United States Government.

Saint Stephen, Confessor, King of Hungary. Celebration of Feast Day is September 2. Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.