Bust of King Ladislaus, courtesy of Alchetron.com

Unifying Force in Central Europe: The 940th Anniversary of László I King, Knight and Saint

What kind of a life would someone lead that would be worth remembering 940 years later?  It would need to be revolutionary, inspiring and exemplary. It would need to be the kind of life that would inspire legends.  Elected to the throne of Hungary in 1077 by both nobles and clergy, Árpád-ház descendent László I was such a man. Renowned for his fairness, and diplomacy, László promoted regional cooperation and resolved civil unrest.  He established a strong central government, enforced strict laws, expanded the country’s boundaries and transformed Hungary into a European power through his allegiance to Christianity. With this impressive legacy, it’s little wonder that 940 years later, he remains one of the most beloved kings of Hungary and that to this day, László is the most common Hungarian male surname.

 

Facial Reconstruction of King and Saint László, courtesy of the MTT Museum Blog

 

Life Lessons at an Early Age 

 Born in exile on June 27, 1040 in Krakow, Poland (son of King Béla I of Hungary and Queen Richeza of Poland), László (Ladislaus in Latin) lived during times of political and religious infighting, and disputed claims to Hungary’s throne. He was raised as a Christian in the royal Polish Court of Duke Casimir I, and grew to be a pious and chivalrous young man. He most certainly would have heard about the “good old days” when István Király ruled Hungary. Both the religious and political concerns of his day must have weighed heavily on young László, and helped shape his early thinking and later development.

 

A Warrior and a Decisive Leader

Standing six feet tall, unusually tall for his time, the young László struck an imposing figure.  He was in fact, a strong and impressive warrior.  Already early on, stories about his valiant deeds as a knight had started to circulate, many of these would later become favorite legends.

Highlights of his legacy include a daring overthrow in 1073 where László and his brother Géza confronted their cousin Salomon who had usurped the Hungarian throne, battled him and succeeded in driving him from Hungary.

Painting of King Ladislaus, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art

Unlike the preceding political warring factions that vied for power even amongst family members, László stood by his older brother Géza and advised him during the latter’s short, three-year rule. Then at the age of 37, László succeeded his brother as King of Hungary. He defended the country from the Kuns, an invading rival pagan nation, who were ultimately integrated into Hungary.  Depictions of these battles survive in several ancient church paintings.

Following the 1091 death of Croatian King Zvonimir László claimed title to the neighboring kingdom on hereditary grounds as he was the departed’s brother-in-law. This move signaled Hungary’s arrival as a powerful new dynasty in Europe. Though László I was not the one to ultimately consolidate power, the union between Hungary and Croatia would be defining for both nations and last until 1920 following the end of World War I.

 

The Knight-King

Basilica in Oradea, Romania

László maintained a close relationship with Pope Gregory VII. He was a man ahead of his time, not only establishing churches, bishoprics and supporting missionaries, but allowing religious freedom for Jews and Muslims who lived under his domain. He was well respected because he ruled everyone equally – albeit with the strict hand common to the times.

In 1092, he presented a series of laws on religious and civil matters at the Synod of Szabolcs. It was at his request that Hungary’s first Christian king István (Stephen), his son Imre (Emeric), and the martyred bishop Gellért were recognized by the Holy See as saints. This was a significant step in helping Hungary and its people embrace Christianity and align itself with Rome.

László’s many accomplishments were recognized outside of Hungary.  He was chosen by the kings of France, Spain and England to command the First Crusade but alas fell ill on a military expedition to help the Prince of Moravia. He died in Nitra, Bohemia on July 29, 1095 at the age of fifty-five. Buried in the city and the cathedral he founded in Nagyvárad – today’s Oradea, Romania, he was already canonized in 1192 by Pope Celestine III.

 

The Face of László

King and Saint Laszlo’s Skull and Protective 15th Century Reliquary courtesy of sg.hu

In 1192, Saint László’s tomb was opened and his skull was put into a reliquary or herma. In 2011, a group of scientists opened the herma which was held in the Basilica of Győr, and based on the skull were able to reconstruct the face of this legendary king. Looking at this remarkable reconstruction, the veil of time is lifted and you see the face of a wise and benevolent man.

There is an entire  museum dedicated to Saint László in Győr where visitors can see the reconstruction and learn more about his extraordinary life.

 

 

 

Continuing László’s Unifying Legacy

Throughout 2017 commemorative events in Hungary, Croatia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia will honor of the 825th anniversary of László’s canonization and the 940th anniversary of his reign as king, as well as his role in uniting the peoples of Central Europe.

 

You can learn more through the many educational programs, a traveling exhibition, history contests for students and a scientific conference being held throughout the year in Budapest, Győr, Nagyvárad, (Romanian: Oradea), the Slovak towns of  Nitra (Hungarian: Nyitra) and Debrad (Hungarian: Debrőd); as well as Zagreb, Croatia and Krakow, Poland.

 

by Alden Mohacsi