Image of St. László in Nagyvárad. (photo: EPF)
He was the second son of King Béla I, born in exile in Poland. His original name was Vladislav and he was brought up as a Pole. As the pages of history turned, he returned to Hungary and eventually took over the reins from his brother, King Géza. (Although Géza had sons, they were still minors, hence the accession of László to the throne.)
After much haggling with his cousin Salamon, the former King of Hungary, Salamon finally acknowledged the legitimacy of László in 1081. And yet he continued undermining his rule by conspiring with the German King Henry IV. László had enough; he had Salamon arrested and imprisoned, charged with conspiracy. Yet when St. István and St. Imre were canonized, László felt compelled to set Salamon free. Very cleverly, László made an alliance with King Henry IV’s opponents which forced Salamon to give up his plan to take the crown. Salamon died in a battle in the Byzantine Empire and László was able to consolidate his power.
László is mentioned in several Hungarian legends as a saintly ruler. In the Greater Chronicle of St. László, he is said to have rescued a Christian maiden from being abducted by a Cumanian or Pecheneg warrior in the battle of Kerlés (now Kirales, Rumania).
(The Hungarian Illuminated Chronicle claims that the maiden did not really want to be rescued and had “strong carnal love” for her abductor, pleading with László not to kill him.) But after wrestling with the abductor and “unmanning him” in the process – whatever that meant – László killed the Pecheneg and released the girl. This event is commemorated wherever the life of St. László is depicted, including the walls of Matthias Coronation Church in Budapest.
Another legend, from the time when László was still just an advisor to King Géza, tells of the miraculous appearance of a white stag with many candles burning between its antlers. The stag ran into the woods and halted meaningfully in a clearing. Soldiers tried to shoot it with arrows, but the animal leapt into the Danube (near the town of Vác), never to be seen again. László became convinced that this was a sign sent by God to have a church built to honor the Virgin Mary. Indeed, the king agreed to have a monastery built at that spot.
Having been proclaimed king, László had two books of laws written, containing draconian measures to defend private property. Offenders would be hanged, or if the offender should have taken refuge in a church, he would be blinded. “A freeman who steals a goose or a hen shall lose one eye and shall restore what he has stolen.” (Some years later, once these laws had the desired effect, they were eased.)
A year or two after ascending the throne (in 1078 or 1079), László married Adelhaid, daughter of Rudolf of Rheinfelden, elected by German princes in opposition to Henry IV.
the Holy Dexter (Szent Jobb)
László requested that the Pope canonize King Stephen (István) and his son Imre. The ceremony would be a political act to reaffirm his and the country’s commitment to Christianity. It took place in 1083, under curious circumstances. László wanted to have the body of István király moved from Székesfehérvár to a Benedictine monastery. Chronicles attest to the fact that for three days, no matter how they tried, they were unable to open the tomb to access István’s body. In the end, a message was given to the King to release Salamon from prison as the price for lifting the stone covering István’s tomb. When Salamon was released from prison, it took no effort whatsoever to lift the heavy marble covering. (taken from the prelate Hartvik’s Life of King Stephen of Hungary, written after King László’s death)
To everyone’s consternation, King Stephen's right hand and wrist were found intact and became known as the Szent jobb, of Holy Dexter.
In Bihar County, an abbey was dedicated to the veneration of the relic (not surprisingly called Szentjobb). The relic was kept for centuries in the monastery, except during the Mongol invasion of 1241-42; at that time, it was transferred to Ragusa (today’s Dubrovnik, Croatia). Around 1420, the Holy Dexter was taken to Székesfehérvár. Following the occupation of the central territories of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Ottoman Turks in the middle of the 16th century, the relic was guarded in many places, including Bosnia, Ragusa and Vienna. It was returned to Hungary in 1771, when Queen Maria Theresa donated it to the cloister of the Sisters of Loretoin Buda. The relic was kept in St. Zsigmond Chapel in Buda Castle between 1900 and 1944; then in a cave in Buda. The relic was kept in the a cave near Salzburg, Austria (1944 and 1945); by the Sisters of Loreto in Buda between 1945 and 1950; and in St. István Basilica in Budapest since 1950.
Between 1950 and 1987, its public veneration was forbidden by the Communist authorities.
László became involved in international affairs as well. He generously offered the assistance of 20,000 knights in the conflict between the Germans’ choice of Rudolf I of Swabia against King Henry IV. (This is understandable, considering that László’s wife Adelhaid was the daughter of Duke Rudolf!) Mercifully, intervention did not become necessary. But László took action at the request of his sister, Helen, widow of Croatia’s King Demetrius, to remedy the conflict between factions of Croatian noblemen upon the death of their king. László announced his intention of occupying ”Sclavonia” in 1091, and appointed his nephew Álmos to administer the country. In another venture, he prevented the incursion of Ruthenians into what is now Carpathian Ukraine.
Today’s advocates of the separation of Church and State would be shocked to learn that László dabbled in Vatican politics as well. First, he recognized Victor III as the legitimate Pope against Clement III who had been elected on Henry IV’s initiative. Later, Pope Urban II wrote that the Hungarians ”left the shepherds of their salvation”, meaning that the Hungarian king joined the anti-pope forces. László opposed the Gregorian reform of the independence of the Church and maintained that Church leaders should be obedient to the king.
The king and his wife had two daughters, but no sons. Therefore, succession to the throne was legitimately up to one of Géza’s two sons: Kálmán or Álmos. The latter had already been named by László to be king of Croatia, so Kálmán was expected to take over, despite the king’s preference for Álmos. László was preparing a campaign against Bohemia to advance the cause of his sister’s sons, Svatopluk and Otto. In the midst of these military preparations, László was informed that Kálmán had entered Hungary, accompanied by Polish troops. Upon hearing the news, the elderly King László died suddenly. He was buried in the abbey of Somogyvár.
Hungarians venerate László as a God-fearing monarch who is to be held in high esteeem. Upon his death, the nation mourned him officially for three years and prayed for him to be declared a saint. Several miracles performed by László during his lifetime supported this desire. When pestilence had broken out in the country, László prayed for a remedy; he shot an arrow into the air at random, which hit an herb that turned out to be the antidote for the illness. Another time, during military action against Pecheneg raiders, the enemy scattered gold coins to distract the pursuers. László prayed for victory, and the coins turned to pebbles, losing their attraction for the king’s troops which defeated the enemy and freed their captives.
When I was a high school student in Hungary, I also heard about another legend connected with László. It was said that during a military campaign, his troops were very thirsty, but because of a drought they could not find a drop of water anywhere. László then prayed for a spring to satisfy the thirst of his troops. With his sword, he struck a big rock which split, and lo and behold, fresh water poured out of the cut he had made.
László was canonized on June 27th, 1192 and is venerated as a saint. Many programs are being organized this year in commemoration of St. László’s life.
Hungarian-born Jules S. Vallay, retired telecom executive, was the organist and choir-master of St. Stephen of Hungary Church in New York City for 30 years. Between 1990 and 1992, he represented NYNEX in Budapest, counseling the newly liberated Hungarian government on modern telecommunications systems. Mr. Vallay is currently retired in Virginia and is the author of historical essays (see his website ”onlysaytheword.com”). He is the cousin of our Editorial Board Member Olga Vallay Szokolay.