The man of outstanding talents originally was not a candidate for the royal title. In the volatile environment of the Kingdom of Hungary, even members of the royal family who were not directly contenders to the throne had to be prepared for any eventuality. To better understand the conditions in the Carpathian Basin immediately before the accession of Béla III, here is a short quote from the great traveller Abu Hamid al-Gharnati, who called the Hungarians Bashkirs and wrote many interesting things about them:

"Brave people, there are countless numbers of them. Their country, called Hungary consists of 78 towns, each with a large number of fortresses with their associated farms, villages, mountains, forests, gardens... Hungary is one of the countries where life is the easiest and the best. Twenty sheep are sold for one (gold) dinar...A beautiful slave woman is ten dinars...I bought for half a dinar two jars of honeycomb with beeswax...The king of Bashkir often ravages the Byzantine territories...When (the king) heard that I forbade the Muslims to drink wine and allowed them to take concubines for themselves...he said to me: "It is not reasonable, because wine strengthens the body, but many women weaken the body and the eyes.”...I asked permission from the ruler of Bashkir to go to the land of the Muslims, or to Szadzszín...The king said, "Leave your eldest son Hamid here, and I will send with you an envoy who will gather for us Muslims and Turks who, though poor and weak, are excellent at archery.”...When I returned to the land of the Slavs, their king received us with great respect, for he held the letter of the King of Bashkir in high esteem, fearing it" (Iványi 1985, 56-66).

Ill-fated predecessors and chaotic conditions

Al-Gharnati lived in our country between 1150 and 1153. The ruler at that time was Géza II of Hungary (1141-1162), father of Béla III. In terms of lineage, Béla III was a direct descendant of Álmos, the younger brother of King Kálmán the Learned (1095-1116). In Hungary at the time, the principle of primogeniture was not yet fully established in the succession to royal power, because it was questionable on the basis of idoneity (in medieval Christian terms, it meant fitness). The highly educated and talented, but allegedly physically disabled Kálmán, who was originally destined for a career in the church, was only elected king because King (Saint) László had no son. This in turn created the opportunity for his younger brother to claim the throne. Blinding him was part of King Kálmán's plan to make his brother from Álmos' line, who had repeatedly rebelled against him, unfit to rule. The victim of this was the later Béla II, still minor at the time, who was blinded along with his father, Álmos. However, later he became king, mainly due to his strong-handed wife. Béla II (the Blind), with his Serbian wife, began to expand into the Balkans. We can see the effect of this in the Hungarian-Byzantine wars in the Balkans, as also reported by al-Gharnati during the reign of Béla II (the Blind)'s son, Géza II while the country was under external attack from the west and north. During this period, the relationship with the papacy could be described as fluctuating, as ecclesiastical support was needed, but this was at the expense of a confrontation with the western neighbour. It was not different under Stephen III, the eldest son of Géza II, who had to balance international politics while facing anti-kings in the country. At the same time, domestic economic life had to be put in order. One proof of this attempt at consolidation is the privilege first granted by the emperor to Székesfehérvár, which is the first evidence of self-government in Hungary.

Rollercoaster and the workings of a great power from the inside

The future king, Béla III, was not considered a candidate for the throne when he was young as he had an elder brother, but as a member of the royal family, his person was important. In 1163, he got as a guest/hostage to the court of the Byzantine Emperor Manuel (1143-1180), who was the grandson of the former Hungarian King (Saint) László through his mother (Piroska). With the young Prince Béla, the emperor seized the princely estates, Dalmatia and other border territories. In return, or perhaps because of this, Béla received special attention in the Byzantine court, since his origin and his princely estates also gave the Byzantine emperor a legal basis for interfering in the affairs of the Kingdom of Hungary. Prince Béla was an excellent disciple and learned everything from the great Byzantine emperor, given the opportunity to see first-hand the workings of a power structure and to learn the opinions

of the best experts on politics, war, trade and culture. His intellect, strength and reliability earned him the title of despotes, the second highest dignity in the Byzantine Empire. In fact, Emperor Manuel, who had no children, already considered him his successor on the throne and gave him his own daughter as wife. Then, he experienced the inner workings of the empire at first hand and was a strong support for Manuel; he converted to Orthodoxy and took the name Alexios. However, the situation changed radically when Manuel unexpectedly fathered a son. Béla was stripped of his title of despotes and soon suffered another humiliation, he head to divorce his wife. Instead, he married the half-sister of the Emperor's wife, Agnes of Châtillon (Anna under her Byzantine name). In 1171, the under-age heir to the throne was crowned (co-)emperor by Manuel, making Béla completely powerless in the Byzantine court. Shortly afterwards, in 1172, news came that the Hungarian king, Béla's brother Stephen III, had died. The Hungarian lords called Béla home and offered him the kingdom. On his return home, it became clear that, in the uncertain situation, some of the elite would prefer to see Béla's younger brother, Géza as king, and in this matter their mother also sided with her younger son, along with their most influential churchman, Archbishop Lukács of Esztergom, who refused to crown Béla.

Hungary under Béla III. Source: Wikipedia

Opportunity and responsibility: leading the Kingdom of Hungary

However, Béla was already demonstrating his legendary diplomatic skills gained in the Byzantine Empire, one of the great powers of the time. Over the heads of the malcontents, he made a deal with Pope Alexander III, who ordered the Archbishop of Kalocsa to crown Béla, while at the same time Béla made a deal with the Hungarian church leaders, confirming their privileges. He removed Géza's supporters from power. He also took care to send auxiliaries to Manuel, thus maintaining good relations with his powerful southern neighbour. However, as a pragmatic ruler, he recaptured the annexed southern Hungarian territories immediately after Manuel's death. He did not forget the support of the Pope either, so there were several wars between the Hungarian king and Frederick Barbarossa, since in the contest for power the main enemy of the papacy was the empire led by Frederick. In the meantime, he gradually regained the maritime territories along the Adriatic Sea and, in a unique feat, he defeated Venice, the maritime trading power, by water. In the meantime, the Pope announced a new crusade in 1189. Béla allowed the crusaders into the country, where the unparalleled display of Hungarian hospitality was admired by the nobility of the army, including King Philip Augustus II of France and Henry II of England. The elderly Frederick of Barbarossa, who was not on good terms with Béla, joined the army, but the abundance and quality of supplies, the repaired roads and bridges, the clean accommodation, all provided free of charge by Béla, made a strong impression on Frederick and his men. The abundance of gifts, the feasts and a war tournament in honour of the crusaders' leaders impressed the army, from the most noble to the rank and file. With such diplomatic efforts, Frederick quickly reconciled with Béla, who gained considerable prestige internationally. At the same time, he used his maternal kinship to intervene in the conflicts over the throne of Halych and successfully supported his relatives, maintaining the alliance east of the Carpathians.

not a candle flame, but a shining star

Within the country, Béla III promoted culture, and through his wife, Ágnes Châtillon, French relations were strengthened. The Cistercians were given a greater role in the Kingdom of Hungary, and peregrination to Western universities began. In public life, the birth of the Legislative Days was a moment that can be considered as an early form of parliament. Furthermore, in 1181, the royal chancellery was established, which was the foundation of a modern and professional administration, outstanding for its time. The registration of cases in the authentication sites started. Drawing on his experience in Byzantium, Béla implemented a financial reform and ordered a census of income. From this we know that the income of Béla rivalled that of France and England of his time, and that the annual silver income amounting to tens of tons made the Hungarian monarch one of the wealthiest in Europe. He put an end to excessive inflation, minted silver coins of lasting value, and his copper coins made it possible to create a multi-stage monetary system. In addition to the Chancellery, there were several independent notaries. It was also the time of the birth of important cultural works such as the Funeral Sermon and Prayer. This was the time when Master P. the Nameless, i.e., Anonymus, who recorded Hungarian history in the fictional form, lived and created his work, which preserved numerous archaic elements of Hungarian prehistory. Peace and security returned to the country. In 1192, he succeeded in having László canonised, not only strengthening the Hungarian nation culturally, from the common people to the nobility, but also increasing the prestige of the Kingdom of Hungary with the help of the Church. The good reputation and the carefully nurtured relations increased the dynasty's room for manoeuvre and provided an excellent bargaining ground in future conflicts. Béla III was a true statesman. He was not shy to adopt the procedures and methods he had learned abroad, which were very different from the Hungarian conditions, if he found them effective. He learned from his failures, and his willingness to compromise and his pragmatism provided a strong basis for the creation of a stable and successful Hungary.



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