Caption: Stefansdom in Vienna; glazed colored tiles associated with Mátyás király; crossbow of Mátyás király in Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
”Mátyás the Just” and Some of His Military Exploits
Not belonging to the high aristocracy himself, Mátyás király embraced the lower nobility, and was famous for meting out justice to the oppressed little guy. His code of law, published in 1486, modernized the justice system. It was the first Hungarian law published in print, a process but recently invented! Its novelty consisted in that it emanated directly from the king (who had consulted with his prelates and nobles), and not, as previously, as something requested by the estates and then approved by the king. It changed or expanded earlier laws, and codified some existing customs.
It had peasant-friendly provisions, such as protecting them from the arbitrary decisions of tithe-collectors, or extending to them toll-free passage when taking home their brides, a privilege previously granted only to nobles.
Mátyás’ code regulated the behavior of the army on campaigns, restricted litigation in courts spiritual and court procedure. It abolished general judicial assemblies, which laid a financial burden on the county nobility who had to host the Count Palatine and attend these itinerant courts. It regulated the role of protonotaries and strengthened the power of the counties and their magistrates.
It provided even-handed justice, making Mátyás the most popular Hungarian king, beloved by the common people, as related in endless legends.
Hunyadi János, father of Mátyás király, had achieved major victories over the Turkish intruders. The most resounding of these occurred at Nándorfehérvár (today’s Belgrade), in 1456, where a rag-tag band of ill-equipped students and poor peasants beat back and defeated a much larger – seven times larger! – well-equipped and trained Turkish force. Their success was such that the Turks withdrew under cover of darkness, leaving behind tens of thousands of their fallen comrades, and did not come back in such overwhelming force again until 70 years later.
One of the victims of the plague that broke out after the battle of Nándorfehérvár was Hunyadi János. After an unsettled period of political intrigue during which his older son was killed, Mátyás, his younger son, was chosen to be king by popular acclaim. In addition to his opponents within the country, Mátyás had to contend with enemies from outside.
Mátyás had had the best military training coupled with shrewd political instincts. One of the foreign enemies he had to deal with was the Czech warlord Giskra. Once Giskra was defeated, Mátyás offered him a high position in his own court and a sizeable sum of money if he would disband his army and allow them to join his troops as mercenaries. Thus a large group of seasoned soldiers, whose further training the king supervised, formed the core of the famed and feared, well-disciplined Black Army (so-called after the color of their uniform). With them, Mátyás achieved a number of victories over the Turks, including capture of the fortress of Jajca in the Balkans.
Another decisive victory for Mátyás occurred at Kenyérmező in Transylvania in 1479, where several leading Turkish officers and a sizeable portion of the Moslem forces were killed. Many prisoners held by the Turks were also freed. Kinizsi Pál, one of Mátyás’ officers – a fierce warrior renowned for his extraordinary strength* – then crossed into Serbia, inflicting further losses on the Turks, and bringing back thousands of Serbian settlers to repopulate the southern part of the country devastated in these battles.
Further battles were fought by Hungarian troops in Italy, at Otranto, a city they freed from the Turkish siege in 1481, and at Vienna where Kinizsi was again victorious over the Turks.
But then Mátyás relaxed his vigilance against the Moslem threat, leaving off further fortification of the southern border. Instead, he concentrated on trying to acquire the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. For this purpose, he wasted much of the kingdom’s wealth and manpower on warring against the Holy Roman Emperor, the Austrian Habsburg Frederick III. He conquered Vienna in 1485, and made it his seat of government. (The glazed tile roof of the Stefansdom is a reminder of Mátyás’ victory.)
However, he could not long enjoy his rule in Vienna. From the symptoms described by Bonfini, the court historian, it is clear that Mátyás was poisoned, as he was preparing a major assault against the Turks. He died on April 6, 1490, and was buried at Székesfehérvár.
Frederick III had named his son Maximilian his heir, and Mátyás never achieved his burning ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor. He imposed heavy taxes on all to pay for this constant warfare, something that made him unpopular at home. Still, when after his death inept rulers came to the throne, many would have been willing to pay heavier taxes if only King Mátyás was back on the throne. For they said, ”King Mátyás has died, justice is gone” – Meghalt Mátyás király, oda az igazság.
*The story is told of King Mátyás’ first meeting with Kinizsi Pál, purportedly the son of a miller. Stopping during a hunt, the king saw the young man and asked him to get him a drink of water. Whereupon Kinizsi presented the cup of water on a millstone, as if it were a tray. The king immediately took him into his service and Kinizsi later became Captain General of the southern part of Hungary. He was said to have fought with a sword in each hand, and after the battle of Kenyérmező supposedly danced a victory dance with a dead Turk under each arm and a third held in his teeth by his belt.