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The importance of Matthias Corvinus

Updated: Jul 4, 2020

Matthias Corvinus was arguably the most important Monarch of the 15th century Europe. It was for his extraordinary merits that the Kingdom of Hungary reached the zenith its cultural and territorial expansion, keeping other regional powers at bay, most notably the then rising Ottoman Empire. At the end of his long reign, the political map of Eastern Europe looked as in the image below with Vienna his Capital City

He came from a relatively humble origin, as on his direct father lineage, his Grandfather immigrated into the Medieval Hungarian Kingdom of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor from Wallachia at the beginning of the 1400. There is some evidence that his family was related to a branch of the Wallachian House of Basarab dynasty, but it was for the merits of Voicu, the father of John Hunyadi, that the family was granted the domain and Corvin Castle

A picture of Matthias’ father in his late 40 is below. A very typical Romanian face already getting bold. He was 43 years old when his son Matthias was born. He had a lifetime to grow through the ranks of the Hungarian nobility and out compete the old local aristocracy in administration and at war

During the troubled years preceding the King’s election, during the Kingship of Ladislaus the Posthumous, his family, that of the great Voievode of Transylvania and governor of Hungary John Hunyadi who died a few years back of plague after destroying the Ottomans in the Siege of Belgrade (1456), was under pressure to give up control over most of the Hungarian Castles where troupes loyal to the Hunyadi house had been stationed. With the help of some enemy magnates, the two sons of the Voievode, Ladislaus Hunyadi and the future King were captured at Buda. The elder was beheaded, and Matthias was sent into exile and imprisoned at Prague

It was as if by miracle that Matthias exchanged the chains on his hands in a dungeon in Prague for the Crown of Hungary, but that actually happened in 29 April 1464, for his family stirred up a rebellion on that Kingdom making use of the prestige earned by the King’s father

Matthias was the very first case of a commoner having no family ties with any preexisting Royal Dynasties to rise to that level in the entire Hungarian History up to that time. That is a very good indicator of the sever troubles of the feudal system in Central Europe under the Ottoman pressure. It was a time when strong and wise leaders were needed to sustain the competition with that Asian power. The King did raise to that challenge so that, if remembered to this days, it is for his own merits and the very good upbringing by his father

The extraordinary life and cultural achievements of the King were inspired in his youth by his reading ancient text under the supervisions of philosopher Gregory of Sanokone of his father’s companions, and the inspiration for bravery from a courageous family

In the first years of his reign, Matthias had to reform the defence system of Hungary through the creation of the Black Army of Hungary. He inherited the concept from his father John Hunyadi, who served as a Condottiero fighting for the Italian city states in his youth where he acquired mastery in the military domain and a taste for Renaissance Italy. The image to the right depicts John Hunyadi in the condottiere (contractor mercenary captain) outfit

The professional army had to be paid too, thus Matthias ordered on March 1467, the reformation of the tax system voiding the tax exemption that the nobility and magnates benefited from up that point, thus exponentially increasing the revenues of the Kingdom. The very strong professional army and well financed state apparatus proved to be a major deterrent for the Ottomans such that very limited combat has been seen between the two powers for a generation

The tax reforms have not been received well. Especially in Transylvania where under the Unio Trium Nationum(the constitution of the congregational system) the noblemen, the Saxons and the Székelys rebelled. The rebellion was short lived though as it was put down in short order. With peace reestablished in his kingdom, Matthias went on campaigns after campaigns of conquests in hopes of creating a larger Empire under his aegis being fully aware of the perils of the little State entities squeezed in between the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire. The map below (from File:The wars of Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1458-1490).png - Wikipedia) depict his major campaigns

However, in the second part of the Reign of Matthias Corvinus, the King settled to a more peaceful stands. He was severely wounded at the battle of Battle of Baia that only aggravated in time rendering him immobile by the end of his life

He surrounded himself with courtiers mostly from Italy. People like Marsilio Ficino, Archbishop John Vitéz and Bishop Janus Pannonius, Antonio Bonfini, Pietro Ranzano, Bartolomeo Fonzio, and Francesco Bandini spent many years in Matthias's court and produced a lot of work at the sponsorship of the King. His third wife (the longest marriage) Beatrice of Naples brought him acceptance into the Royal families of his time too

The major achievement of the King was the assembling of a amassing collection of manuscripts. The great Hungarian scholar Csapodi estimated the collection to some 2,500 volumes based on the 200 still surviving. The King was an avid reader who would take great pleasure in all knowledge pertaining to technological innovations, stories of the past, and to a lesser extend religious texts. He managed to grow the collection to be larger than that of the Pope in his time. There was no other in Europe to even closely match the fabled Library of the Raven King (more on this subject The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library: Marcus Tanner: 9780300158281: Books)

Under his supervision, Hungary received a lot of architectural innovations mostly following the trends of the Italian Renaissance. It must have felt shocking for the very conservative local aristocracy (mostly marginalized) to look at the fast paste of change and the influx of novelties from the west from aside

He did not have a legitimate son. Towards the end of this reign (see picture above), the King attempted to persuade the magnates and nobility to accept his natural son John Corvinus as the next King. That did not materialize though. Instead, the nobility chose to back the bid from a Polish contender see Peter Clings's answer to How was Władysław II Jagiellończyk elected King of Hungary?. That stupid choice had disastrous consequences for the Kingdom Peter Clings's answer to How did the Polish-Ottoman Alliance contribute to the demise of the Hungarian Kingdom in the 16th century?

Although Matthias was the most important sponsor of the Florentine Renaissance managing to move parts of the manuscript manufacturing business to Buda, nothing survived from his time except for bits of memories, and stories told later. Everything from his past and before him has been erased in the Hungarian Great Plains. His fabled library had long gone and the search for it still sparks some people’s imagination, and no Medieval Basilica or Palace remained from his time. His entire physical memory only survives in his native Transylvania

The conclusion is that not even a greater than life family can offset the weaknesses of a antiquated feudal system. The Hungarian nobility could not keep up with the changes proposed for the challenges of those times. In the end, the costs were great and the country never truly recovered from them

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