King Matthias Corvinus (1458–1490)

Hungarian armies became the main shield of Christian Europe against the Turks, a task for which their combination of plate-armoured nobles with light horse archers made them eminently suitable. The period from 1441 AD is that of the great Janos Hunyadi, his son Matthias Corvinus and the famous “Black Army” of mercenaries. Matthias’s successor Laszlo VI (Vladislav II of Bohemia) was unable to finance this, and it was largely replaced by paid feudal troops who may or may not deserve regular status. A late 15th century writer describes the Hungarian “scorpion” formation in which war wagons supported by cavalry moved against the enemy wings while the infantry in square formation held the centre in front of the camp, which was fortified with ordinary wagons.

The death of Ladislaus V left the thrones of Bohemia and Hungary vacant. There were two legitimate heirs: Casimir IV, king of Poland, and William, duke of Saxony, both of whom were brothers-in-law of the late ruler. But the duke laid no claim to the inheritance, while the king of Poland was prevented from entering the lists by his war with the Teutonic Order. Ladislaus’s closest relative in the male line was the emperor, Frederick III, who immediately took possession of Austria, but had no acceptable title to any of the deceased king’s other domains, even though he still retained the Holy Crown.


Finding a new king was the responsibility of the diet. Practically the only candidate was Matthias Hunyadi, who was at that time staying in Prague. Designating anyone else would have caused an immediate relapse into a state of civil war. Matthias was supported not only by the legate of Pope Calixtus III, Cardinal Carvajal, who was then sojourning in Hungary, but also by Archbishop Szécsi himself. Even Palatine Garai promised to accept young Matthias as king, though on the condition that he would marry Garai’s daughter.

At the diet that assembled at Pest in January 1458, at which the nobility were required to appear in person, the influence of the ‘Hunyadi party’ was bound to prevail. Szilágyi presented himself at the head of his 15,000 followers, which could not fail to impress the barons in council in the castle of Buda. By promising them that the future king would not take revenge for the execution of his brother, Szilágyi managed to come to terms with them; and on the following day, 24 January, he stirred an enthusiastic crowd on the frozen Danube into acclaiming Matthias as king. At the same time he had himself appointed governor for five years and immediately issued a couple of laws to prove his willingness to guarantee the liberties of the nobility.

George Poděbrad, governor of Bohemia, had reason to be content with what had happened in Hungary, for it indirectly paved the way for his own election as king. Having betrothed his daughter to Matthias, George released the young king without further hesitation. Matthias was obliged to pay a ransom of 60,000 gold florins, but George immediately remitted it as part of his daughter’s dowry. On 14 February Matthias entered Buda, where he was solemnly enthroned in the church of Our Lady. No coronation was possible, since the Holy Crown was still in the possession of Frederick III in Austria.

If the testimony of a later horoscope is to be trusted, Matthias was 15 years old at this time. No one, least of all Szilágyi, seems to have rated him as an active player in the field of politics, at least for the time being. In view of this it must have caused real surprise when the young king took the initiative within weeks. As early as the end of June he removed Garai from the office of palatine and appointed his father’s old friend, Michael Ország, as his successor. At the same time he suppressed the regency, seeking to appease his uncle by granting him the county of Bistriţa; but this apparently failed and Szilágyi was arrested on 8 October. He was kept in custody for almost a year. Henceforth, until the very day of his death, Matthias kept a firm grip on the reins of government. He always acted with the same resolution, swiftness and determination, both at home and in the field of foreign policy. As a result, within a couple of years he was able to make his kingdom, which had been drifting from one crisis to another since the death of Sigismund, the leading power of central Europe.

His most urgent task was to regain the Holy Crown and legitimise his rule. Immediately after acceding to the throne he initiated negotiations with Frederick III, but because of the harsh conditions set by the emperor his efforts bore no fruit. The situation was complicated by the fact that at the beginning of 1459 Garai, along with other magnates from the western parts of the kingdom who were disappointed in Matthias, sought to designate Frederick as king of Hungary. On 17 February they made an oath of fidelity to him in the castle of Güssing. However, relying on the support of most of the barons, Matthias was able swiftly to defeat the rebels in April. Garai had died in the meantime and Matthias made peace with his widow. Driven by the desire to mount a crusade against the Ottomans, Pope Pius II employed all possible means to bring about a reconciliation between Matthias and Frederick; but a settlement was only reached in April 1462, upon which was based the peace treaty, ratified by Matthias’s envoys on 19 July 1463 at the emperor’s residence, Wiener Neustadt. Matthias finally recovered the Holy Crown, but it cost him 80,000 florins, as well as several important concessions. Frederick, who adopted Matthias as his son and expected the young king to address him as his father, retained his Hungarian royal title, which he had been using since 1459. Of the Hungarian domains that Frederick controlled, only Sopron was returned. Moreover, if Matthias failed to father a legitimate male heir, Frederick or his successors would inherit the Hungarian throne. If all these stipulations fell short of bringing about a definitive settlement to the conflict between the two rulers, they nevertheless normalised their relationship for some years.

The peace with Frederick also facilitated the internal consolidation of the kingdom. From the outset, this process was hindered by the rule of Jiškra and his Czech mercenaries in upper Hungary. Jiškra was reluctant to acknowledge Matthias as his lord and initially worked for the election of Casimir IV. After this failed, he went over to Frederick III. Matthias launched military operations against him as early as April 1458, but the multitude of Jiškra’s strongholds made the king’s task difficult. Having secured the support of Košice and the other royal towns, Matthias cleared several counties of mercenaries by the end of 1461. Spis and Zvolen had yet to be recovered, but further fighting was rendered unnecessary by the treaty signed with Frederick, which entailed the disarmament of Jiškra. Once isolated, the condottiere submitted to Matthias at Vác in May 1462 and handed over his castles, in return for which he was given 25,000 florins with the castles of Lipova and Şoimoş on the River Mureş. Henceforth Jiškra put his military skills at the disposal of his new lord and died an esteemed Hungarian baron shortly before 1471. Yet Jiškra’s submission by no means brought about the immediate pacification of the whole of northern Hungary. Although most of his soldiers were engaged by the king, plundering mercenary bands continued to cause trouble for some years. The last of these was annihilated by Matthias himself at Kostol’any on the River Váh in 1467, when the king had 150 men hanged, including their commander, Jan Švehla.

Another region in need of consolidation was Slavonia, where the disappearance of the counts of Cilli at the end of 1456 had left a power vacuum. The man of the hour there was Jan Vitovec, condottiere of the late Count Ulrich. He had been appointed to the office of ban by Ladislaus V, and with Frederick’s consent had taken control of most of the Slavonian estates of the counts of Cilli. Matthias acquiesced in this fait accompli and in 1463 not only confirmed Vitovec in the office of ban, but also made him perpetual count of Zagorje. He thereby obtained a faithful supporter, who assisted him in acquiring the rest of the Cilli inheritance, which meant that Matthias’s position in Slavonia could be said to be firm from the end of 1465.

In the meantime the Ottoman threat had apparently intensified. Although Mehmed II did not engage in an offensive war against Hungary, he systematically suppressed the Hungarian king’s vassals in the Balkans. The first to fall victim was Serbia, which had become considerably smaller since the Ottoman attacks in 1454–55 and had lost its internal coherence after Branković’s death in 1456. Profiting from this situation and from the crisis in Hungary, the sultan took the castle of Golubac in the summer of 1458, and then Smederevo, the princely residence, on 29 June 1459. Serbia ceased to exist as a political entity for several centuries; the members of the Branković family, together with many of their subjects, fled to Hungary, where the former were given large estates by Matthias, while the latter were used by him to strengthen his army and frontier defence. In 1462 Ottoman troops invaded Wallachia and drove out Vlad Ţepeş, a protégé of the Hungarians. The prince, who was widely known for his cruelty (and was later to be the model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula), first sought refuge in Transylvania, then lived in the castle of Visegrád as Matthias’s prisoner. Wallachia was henceforth one of the sultan’s faithful vassal states. In the summer of 1463 it was the turn of Bosnia, where Mehmed, in the course of a lightning campaign, captured and beheaded King Stephen Tomašević, and transformed his kingdom into an Ottoman province. The last country to pass under Ottoman rule was Hercegovina, the principality of the late Sandalj Hranić, which was occupied in 1466.

The Ottoman advance thus destroyed the system of buffer states that had been created by Sigismund. From the 1460s onwards Ottoman and Hungarian garrisons faced one another along the entire southern frontier, from Omiš on the Adriatic coast to Turnu Severin on the lower Danube. Matthias was unable to check these unfavourable developments. In the early years of his reign, the internal situation of the kingdom made it impossible for him to mobilise substantial forces, while the failures of his father had taught him to avoid a direct confrontation with the sultan’s army. The whole of his Ottoman policy was based upon this perception. This is why he had not intervened before the fall of Bosnia, and only did so after the Ottoman troops had left. In the autumn of 1463 he tried to recover Bosnia, but it took him nearly three months to take Jajce, the former royal residence. Together with a handful of smaller local fortresses, the castle of Jajce was to remain one of the bastions of the Hungarian defensive line until 1527. In the summer of 1464 Mehmed II tried to retake it, subjecting it to 43 days of bombardment, but he withdrew when Matthias appeared at the head of his army. It was then that the king occupied Srebrenik and a number of other castles; but he besieged Zvornik without success, and suffered serious losses during his withdrawal.

The first and most critical phase of Matthias’s rule ended with his coronation, which took place on 29 March 1464. At the diet, which was held at the same time at Székesfehérvár, he solemnly confirmed King Louis I’s law of 1351, which contained the Golden Bull, and Sigismund’s ‘major’ decree of 1435. He had a great seal made and obliged those who had received letters of grant from himself or Ladislaus V to present them within a year for confirmation with the new seal. The latter, along with the secret seal, was entrusted to Stephen Várdai, archbishop of Kalocsa, and John Vitéz. Both bore the title of ‘arch- and secret chancellor’, but the chancellery was effectively directed by Várdai. An important reform was also carried out in the field of judicial administration. Instead of the courts of the royal presence, which had been transformed several times, one central court of justice was established, whose competence extended throughout the kingdom and whose judge, from the 1470s onwards, was referred to as the ‘lieutenant of the royal personal presence’ (personalis praesentiae regiae locumtenens), or simply ‘the Personal’.

Although the coronation ceremony symbolically closed the period of stabilisation, it by no means brought all opposition to an end. A new system of taxation, which was put into effect three years later, led to considerable unrest, above all in Transylvania, where the method of assessment seemed especially injurious. On 18 August 1467 at Cluj-Mănăştur the ‘three nations’ entered into a formal alliance against the king, and elected as their leaders the three barons then holding the office of voivode: John Szentgyörgyi, his brother, Sigismund, and Berthold Ellerbach. Matthias marched swiftly to Transylvania, and the revolt was put down without a fight within a couple of weeks. On 3 October he sat in judgement on the rebels at the assembly of Turda. The voivodes, whose active involvement in the conspiracy could not be proved beyond doubt, were spared, but the noble leaders of the revolt were punished with exemplary harshness. Executions continued for weeks, and the king rewarded his followers lavishly with the estates confiscated from the rebels. Having mopped up the revolt, Matthias marched into Moldavia with a view to forcing Prince Stephen ‘the Great’ to obedience. He was defeated near Baia on 15 December 1467 and compelled to withdraw, but the completeness of Matthias’s triumph in Transylvania is shown unequivocally by the fact that his standing was not in the least shaken by his failure in Moldavia.


As soon as the southern frontier had been consolidated and Transylvania pacified, the king’s ambitions turned decisively towards the west and the north-west. Admittedly, at the level of words Matthias always remained an enthusiastic champion of the war against the Ottomans, and referred to himself as the only defender of Christendom, but it was simply a matter of political propaganda, intended to secure the financial support of Venice and the Holy See and to arouse the sympathy of European princes. In fact, he contented himself with thwarting and, when possible, avenging Ottoman incursions. Further modification of the southern defensive line was not among his plans: he rightly considered it to be beyond his power. In his letters he was at pains to point out that he could do nothing against the sultan without help. But, as the maintenance of his rule depended upon political achievements, and his army had to be employed as well, he looked elsewhere for aggrandisement. As his biographer, Bonfini, put it later: ‘In order to rule in peace at home, he made war abroad.’ The first target to present itself was Bohemia.

Matthias had been contemplating a war against Bohemia for some years, perhaps since the death of his first wife, which had severed the ties with King George. The young queen, Catherine Poděbrad, whom he had married in 1461, died in childbirth shortly before the coronation. Relations between Matthias and his father-in-law had been full of tension during Catherine’s lifetime, for George continually allied himself with Emperor Frederick III against his son-in-law, despite the fact that Matthias would have been his natural ally. The attitude of King George is explained by the fact that, as leader of the utraquists, he badly needed the emperor’s benevolence, as security against his own catholic subjects and neighbours, as well as against the Pope. Although the use of the secular chalice had been sanctioned by the compactata of Prague, and accepted by the council of Basle, there were signs that the Holy See wished to revise its former point of view. Another source of tension between Matthias and Poděbrad was the presence in upper Hungary of Czech mercenaries, who, while acting independently of the king of Bohemia, could in fact count on his sympathy.

The pretext for an armed intervention in Bohemia was furnished by Pope Paul II, who decided finally to settle the Hussite problem. At the end of 1466 the papal consistory declared Poděbrad a heretic, deprived him of his throne, and proclaimed a crusade against him. The Catholic magnates of Bohemia and Moravia, encouraged by the Pope’s attitude and displeased by their ruler’s centralising tendencies, unfurled the banner of revolt and looked for another king. Their first candidate, Casimir IV of Poland, was easily bought off by George, who designated Casimir’s son, Wladislas, as his own heir in Bohemia. After the margrave of Brandenburg had also declined their invitation, they turned to the king of Hungary, whom the Pope had recommended right from the beginning. For Matthias, who as early as 1465 had informed the Pope that for the sake of Christianity he was willing to fight ‘both against the Czechs and against the Ottomans’,2 the offer came at exactly the right moment. Being urged by the Pope and the Bohemian magnates, Matthias’s offensive attitude was given further impetus by Frederick III. When, in early 1468, Victorin Poděbrad, son of King George and governor of Moravia, attacked Austria, the emperor turned to his ‘son’ for help. Matthias was naturally more than ready to intervene. On 31 March 1468 he declared war on Victorin, and the long and tiring struggle for the Bohemian crown began.

The first phase of the war ended with rapid success for Matthias, who for three years led his troops in person. Having cleaned up Austria, he invaded Moravia, which he conquered in the course of 1468 together with the greater part of Silesia. In June he marched into Brno, and after a prolonged siege even managed to starve the castle of Špilberg, situated upon a hill above the city, into surrender. In February 1469 Poděbrad almost succeeded in changing the course of events by forcing his opponent into a militarily unfavourable situation from which he could not avoid starting negotiations. While these were proceeding, however, Matthias’s partisans prepared the way for his election as king of Bohemia. This effectively took place on 3 May 1469 at Olomouc. The war flared up immediately, but this time it was Matthias who achieved the upper hand. In June he captured Prince Victorin, and during the following spring he finally stabilised his rule over Moravia.

The greater part of the domains belonging to the Bohemian crown was from now on to be ruled by Matthias, but the struggle was far from over. Not surprisingly, his achievements filled all of his neighbours with anxiety and a triple alliance, consisting of the rulers of Austria, Bohemia and Poland, gradually formed. The relationship between Matthias and Frederick had been deteriorating since 1469, when Ottoman troops invaded the Austrian provinces for the first time. The emperor accused Matthias of letting the Turkish marauders through his kingdom and of clandestinely aiding the rebellious Estates of Styria, while the Hungarian king demanded the financial support for the Bohemian war that Frederick had promised him. In February 1470 the two rulers met in Vienna with the aim of settling their differences, but by the end of the negotiations their disagreements had become sharper than ever.

In March 1471 Poděbrad died, and, in accordance with his last will, Wladislas, the 15 year old son of Casimir IV, was elected as his successor, which meant that Poland had become directly interested in the struggle for the Bohemian crown. The principal focus of the war soon shifted to Hungary, where another conspiracy was organised with the aim of overthrowing Matthias. This time the movement was led by Archbishop Vitéz, who was supported by his nephew, the famous humanist, Janus Pannonius, bishop of Pécs, and by some other barons. The conspirators contacted Casimir IV, and offered the Hungarian crown to one of his sons, also called Casimir. The Polish prince organised a military intervention immediately, but by the time he marched into Hungary in October, Matthias had already regained control of the situation. At the diet that had assembled in September not only was he assured of the support of the Estates, but also of that of the great majority of prelates and barons. Prince Casimir had to leave the kingdom in December; Janus fled and Vitéz submitted to the king. Matthias’s authority was as solid as ever.

The failure of the Polish attack was followed by a series of truces and peace talks, during which Matthias could count on the consistent and wholehearted support of the Holy See. The negotiations began to bear fruit in 1474. The peace treaty with Poland, signed in February, was ratified by the Hungarian Estates two months later. However, in the meantime Wladislas, who had been staying with Frederick at Nuremberg, had persuaded the emperor to form an anti-Hungarian alliance, which once again offered the prospect of breaking Hungarian hegemony. Casimir immediately joined the coalition, and in October he marched into Silesia at the head of an enormous army, uniting his forces with those of Wladislas. Having previously devastated the whole region, Matthias waited for the attack behind the walls of Wrocław. The allied forces laid siege to the city in October, but were soon desperately short of supplies. Within three weeks they were compelled, despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, to seek a truce. The ensuing treaty, signed on 8 December 1474 and due to expire on 25 May 1477, was the last act of the war for the kingdom of Bohemia. The division of the lands belonging to the Bohemian crown, which was made by the envoys of Matthias and Wladislas at Brno in March 1478, was accepted by the king of Hungary, with minor modifications, on 20 September. It was ratified by the two rulers on 21 July 1479 during the course of splendid festivities at Olomouc. According to the terms of the treaty, Wladislas was to retain the kingdom of Bohemia proper, while the greater part of the territory once ruled by the king of Bohemia, that is, Moravia, Silesia and Lausitz, remained in Matthias’s possession. Wladislas was entitled to redeem these domains for 400,000 florins after Matthias’s death. Both rulers could use the title of king of Bohemia, but whereas Matthias was obliged to address his opponent as such, it was not to be the case the other way round. The peace treaty between Hungary and Poland had been signed somewhat earlier, on 2 April 1479, and thereafter until Matthias’s death the three countries coexisted peacefully.

The relationship between Austria and Hungary, on the other hand, had been gradually deteriorating, especially after one of Matthias’s most trusted advisers, John Beckensloer, archbishop of Esztergom, fled to Austria and joined the emperor’s service. As long as the prospect of an alliance with the kings of Bohemia and Poland existed, Frederick took sides with them, and in June 1477 it was Wladislas whom he declared to be the lawful ruler of Bohemia and Elector of the Empire. Matthias immediately attacked Austria, laid siege to Vienna, and in December 1477 forced the emperor to accept his terms. Frederick acknowledged him as king of Bohemia, and engaged himself to pay an indemnity of 100,000 florins. The peace did not, however, last for long. Frederick worked hard to secure the see of Salzburg for Beckensloer. Determined to thwart the emperor’s plan, Matthias occupied the Styrian castles belonging to the archbishopric in 1480. When, despite the king of Hungary’s efforts, Beckensloer did become archbishop of Salzburg, the outbreak of war became only a question of time. In January 1482 Matthias laid siege to Hainburg, the most important Austrian border castle, then formally declared war on Frederick in April.

Although Matthias was careful to emphasise that he wished to fight Frederick as archduke of Austria and not as emperor, the war in fact became one between Hungary and the Empire. But despite the support that Frederick received from imperial troops, the war was marked from the very beginning by Matthias’s military superiority. No pitched battle was fought, but the most important of Frederick’s strongholds fell successively, most of them after several months’ siege. Hainburg was taken in September 1482, Kőszeg in December, Bruck and Korneuburg two years later. On 29 January 1485 the king of Hungary surrounded the city of Vienna, which was compelled to open its gates on 1 June. Wiener Neustadt, the emperor’s residence, fell on 17 August 1487. The peace treaty, signed at Sankt Pölten on 16 December, left Lower Austria and Styria in Matthias’s possession with the exception of a few castles.

Frederick seems to have acquiesced in his defeat, and at the time of Matthias’s death, the Hungarian king’s empire spread from Bautzen to Belgrade and from Enns to Braşov. But not even these spectacular military achievements could conceal the fact that by far the most important aspect of Hungarian foreign policy, namely the defence against the Ottomans, had been permanently relegated to the background.

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