The Reign of King Mátyás

Caption: King Mátyás and Queen Beatrix; Corvin János; signature of King Mátyás; King Mátyás portrait on the 1000 HUF

The Reign of King Mátyás

Erika Papp Faber 

King Mátyás, as a young man, was an agile athlete trained in military strategy. He absorbed the art of diplomacy from his father, Hunyadi János, who was not only an outstanding military commander but had also been named Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary until King László V came of age.  Mátyás was always at his father’s side, and from an early age helped draft important state documents.

As king, he could be strict and stern, but preferred to settle matters through generosity rather than force.  His Code of Law aimed at providing equal justice to rich and poor alike. His consideration for the rights of the poor endeared him to the common people.

He took into his own hands the administration of financial affairs, and brought about monetary reform.  He issued silver coins of the best quality, stabilizing the amount of money in circulation.  He made the mining of salt a state monopoly, for the salt mines were an important source of state income. 

A considerable proportion of that state income went to pay the cavalry and the infantry.  They were the mainstays of his wars against the Czechs, the Austrians and the Turks. It must be admitted that he was victorious in most of his battles against the Turkish intruders.  But to be able to maintain these troops,  Mátyás imposed extraordinary taxes 43 times in the 32 years of his rule!   Although the people liked him for his kindness and concern for the poor, this burden also turned many against him.  When he abolished some tax exemptions in Transylvania, a revolt flared up in 1467.  Retribution varied: some were executed, some lost their positions, others had their property confiscated.

Mátyás dealt differently with a conspiracy aimed at replacing him with Prince Kázmér of Poland.  Pretending he knew nothing about it, he called a national assembly to which he invited all the nobility.  The laws proposed and passed at that assembly remedied many of the grievances, and the conspiracy petered out.  His position was strengthened by the inclusion of more of the barons in public administration.

In short, Mátyás was successful in all his undertakings – except in passing on his legacy!

The first of his arranged marriages had been with the daughter of Gróf (Count) Cillei Ulrik, whose daughter Erzsébet was promised to him in marriage when he was 13 and she was 11.  It was a matter of expediencey, to make sure that her father would remain a supporter of Mátyás, instead of throwing his lot with other members of the nobility who considered Mátyás an upstart and opposed his rule.  But Erzsébet died within a year of the arrangement.

The next bride-to-be was the daughter of Podiebrad, King of Bohemia.  Podiebrad was holding Mátyás captive in Prague, when news came of the young man’s election as King of Hungary.  Podiebrad agreed to release Mátyás for a ransom of 40,000 gold pieces (provided by his mother, Szilágyi Erzsébet), and with the stipulation that he would marry his  daughter Katalin.  Mátyás kept the bargain and married her, but the baby she bore died soon after birth, and so did she (1464), leaving him no heir.

Like many another ruler, Mátyás also had an eye for a pretty lass.  After his first two attempts at marriage failed, he met and was enchanted by the Austrian commoner Barbara Edelpeck from Stein an der Donau.  But he could not marry her because she was not of royal blood.  With her father’s consent, Mátyás took her to be his mistress, and she lived for six years in a secluded wing of Buda’s royal palace.  She eventually gave birth to a boy (1473), who was named János after his grandfather.  He became known as Corvin János, using the Latin name of the raven in the family crest.

One could have hoped that Mátyás would be lucky by his third attempt at marriage and at starting a dynasty.  He proposed to Princess Beatrice of Naples, who by all accounts was his great love, and they were married in 1476.  A very cultured young woman, she came to Mátyás’ court, bringing with her the trappings of Western culture.  In time it became obvious that Beatrice could not give him children, and Mátyás officially adopted Corvin János in 1479.  He made him Prince of Lipta and Count of Hunyad, and lavished further honors and wealth upon him, until he was the wealthiest landowner in the country.  He did his best to have János accepted among the nobility, even making them take an oath to support him, and officially named him his successor.

But all this was to no avail. János was an inexperienced and irresolute youth, and upon the death of King Mátyás in 1490, was swindled out of his right of succession and robbed of his wealth.  He eventually married another Beatrice, this one from the Croatian Frangepan family, and had three children.  He was created perpetual Bán of Croatia and Slavonia and defended Bosnia against the Turks.  He died in 1504, and his son Christopher died one year later.

Thus the work of Mátyás király went down the drain, for due to much intrigue and chicanery, the Hungarian crown went to Ladislaus Jagiello, son of the King of Poland and successor to King Podiebrad of Bohemia.  For lack of a strong heir, foreigners took over the Hungarian throne. The legacy of the great Renaissance King was dissipated and soon destroyed.  The remnants of his palace at Visegrád (reconstructed in our days) and a small fraction of the 2,500 volumes of his library, known as Corvinas – treasured in libraries around the world – are all that remain to remind us of his past glory.