Stephen of Hungary (c 970-1038) was a sincere Christian, concerned to improve the lot of the poor within his kingdom. He also understood, however, that the Church could serve as a means of political control.
The Magyars who poured into Hungary during the late ninth century were certainly not a merciful or peace-loving people. Yet around 980 their chief, Geza, submitted to baptism. Subsequently taxed by a bishop with continuing his pagan practices, he replied that he was quite rich enough to sacrifice to all his gods.
Geza was dominated by his wife, a hard drinker who rode like a knight and was said to have killed a man with her bare hands. Yet their son Waik, who took the name of Stephen when he was baptised with his father, became an altogether more serious Christian.
In 995 Stephen married Gisela, sister of Henry, Duke of Bavaria, who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1002.
In 997 Stephen succeeded his father as chief of the Magyars. Almost immediately he applied to Rome for the establishment of a proper episcopacy in Hungary, and for the recognition of himself as King. Both requests were granted. It is not surprising, therefore, to read that Stephen treated the representatives of the Church with the greatest respect.
The new monarch applied himself with some ruthlessness to stamping out paganism in his kingdom. Church attendance was strictly enforced, along with Sabbath observance and Lenten fasting. Stephen aimed to establish churches throughout the Hungarian countryside, where every 10th settlement was required to build and endow a church: the king himself would provide vestments and furnishings, to be financed through tithes.
Furthermore, he seems to have encouraged the Magyar elite to marry into the Christian aristocracy of southern Germany.
Stephen was a strong king, generally successful in battle, and dangerous when provoked. In the service of the poor, however, he showed model humility.
On one occasion he was knocked down by the press of beggars, and some miscreant made off with his purse. The king, however, gracefully renewed his resolution never to refuse alms where they were required.
The greatest trial of his life was the death of his much-loved son Emeric in a hunting accident in 1031. Stephen never recovered from this blow, which also caused problems with the succession.
After Duke Vazul, Stephen’s pagan cousin, failed in a plot to assassinate the king, his eyes were gouged out, and molten lead poured into his ears.
Clearly King Stephen did not always turn the other cheek. Yet he achieved much for Christianity. As the historian Rodolphus Glaber wrote a generation later: “The Hungarians, who once preyed cruelly on their neighbours, now freely give of their own for the sake of Christ.”