Hungary and Britain in the Later Middle Ages: The Bohemian Connection   Leave a comment

Following the Hungarian episodes in the lives of the members of the Wessex Royal family which occurred before the Norman Conquest of England, and the marriages to the Scottish and English kings which resulted from these early contacts, a whole century elapsed before the descendants of Margaret came into contact again. The late, great figure of the House of Árpád, Béla III (1178-93), showed a decided preference for connections with the West. His second wife, the French Princess Margaret, was the widow of Prince Henry, the second son of Henry II. She had been crowned Queen of England and, before arriving in Hungary, had spent her life in Normandy and England. The large retinue that she took with her to Hungary included many Normans and Englishmen. Among the latter was Robertus Anglicus who later on won recognition as Bishop of Veszprém before rising to become Archbishop of Esztergom. We have a personal description of Béla III from one of these English contemporaries, ‘Ricardus’ of London. In addition, King Henry II of England determined to pass through Hungary on his way to the Holy Land on Crusade. This would also give him the opportunity to visit his relative, the Queen of Hungary. His unexpected death prevented him from carrying this out, but we have a letter from the King of Hungary in which he promises his royal kinsman every assistance and support to enable him to pass through Hungary securely.

Most of the connections of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were purely in terms of trade. In the second half of the twelfth century the Transylvanian Saxons, or Flandreses settled in Hungary. They had very lively commercial links, especially in the fourteenth century, during the reign of Louis the Great of Hungary. At the same time, Edward III of England  contributed greatly to the development of the English wool trade, partly by encouraging Flemish weavers to settle in England, thus increasing England’s trade not just in wool, but also woollen cloth. It was also through Flanders that the Saxons of Transylvania entered into commercial contact with England, so English cloth began to be imported by Hungarian merchants and English and Scottish merchants shipped silver, hides and even horses (for breeding) in the opposite direction.

Other than for traders, England and Scotland must have seemed very remote for most Hungarians travelling westward. However, Hungary’s remoteness in the eyes of English-speaking men travelling eastwards would not have seemed so great in this period, due to its geographic position on the eastern side of Christendom. The events of the Crusades enhanced still further the importance of the Hungarian route to the Holy Land. From 1095 onwards, English, Scots and Hungarians fought side by side for the same ideals. In 1095 French, Spanish and English envoys came to the Hungarian King Ladislas with the request that he take up the supreme leadership of the Crusade. A century later Henry II of England proposed to lead his crusading army through Hungary and sent his ambassador, Ricardus Barre, to inform King Béla III of his intention. Hungarian knights fought alongside King Richard I against the common enemy. At the siege of Damietta in 1218, Thomas, Bishop of Eger, represented the King of Hungary, and many Hungarian nobles joined the English barons who fought there under the leadership of John Lackland’s natural son. Finally, we know that Andrew III, the last monarch of the House of Árpád, sent an envoy to Edward I of England to discuss a common expedition to the Holy Land. However, it was not until the respective reigns of Richard II of England and Sigismund of Hungary that these earlier links finally bore fateful fruit.



Although Hungary’s Angevin kings were related to the Plantagenet dynasty, their attentions were directed towards southern Europe in general and Italy in particular, rather than towards the West. Similarly, the Plantagenets seemed more concerned with gaining hegemony over the other parts of the British Isles left relatively untouched by the Normans, than with extending their continental links beyond France. Even so, when Louis the Great began his Neapolitan campaign, he sent an envoy to Edward III to acquaint him with his plan. The letter sent in reply shows Edward to be in complete sympathy with his royal cousin’s intentions. Apart from this, there are few traces of any political links between Hungary and the British Isles throughout most of the fourteenth century until the reign of Sigismund (1387-1437). He was the brother-in-law of the King of England, Richard II, who had been married Sigismund’s sister Anne between 1382 and 1394. 

ImageAs a courtier of Richard II, Sir John Golafre donated two unusual stained glass pieces to the parish church in Wytham in Oxfordshire. Like King Richard himself, Golafre was a great lover of Gothic art forms from across Europe. These windows are not roundels, but depictions the figures of royal saints, complete with halos, which bear a resemblence to the King and his wife, Anne of Bohemia, the sister of the Hungarian King Sigismund. Foxe (author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) later claimed that it was through Anne of Bohemia that John Wycliffe’s works and ideas were taken to Bohemia, influencing Jan Hus and the Reformation in the Hapsburg Empire.

Certainly, it was in the days of Sigismund that the waves of the major English Lollard revolution, led by John Wycliffe of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, reached the frontiers of Hungary. Wycliffe’s teachings were first made known to Hungarian theologians at the University of Prague, where Jan Hus explained and expounded them. There were very close connections between Prague and Oxford at the time when Anne of Bohemia, the sister of Wenceslas and Sigismund was Queen of England, the wife of Richard II. There is nothing surprising in Wycliffe’s teachings having made most headway in Bohemia and Hungary, but it would be a mistake to believe that his teachings took root in Hungary purely through the Hussite movement. One of the key principles of Wycliffe’s reform was the necessity for the Bible to be translated into each vernacular language. He himself translated the New Testament into English, while his followers translated the Old Testament in order to spread scriptural knowledge among the people. It was only later that his followers in Prague became known as Hussites. Wycliffe’s followers in England refused to stay silent even when Henry IV proclaimed his severe law, de heretico comburendo (of the burning of heretics) in 1401. Wycliffism lived on for a further decade and a half in England, but gained European importance through Jan Hus’ propagation of the ideas of the morning star of the Reformation as Wycliffe later became known.

The Hussites maintained their connections with England, but their opponents, especially Sigismund, tried to stifle it, just as the Lancastrians had sought to exterminate it in the flames around the stakes. As well as being translated into Czech, we also have a fragmentary translation of the Bible into Hungarian from this period. This was done in Moldavia, where an English Lollard, Peter Payne, sought refuge, fleeing from Prague. He had clashed with his learned adversaries both in England and Bohemia, until he was finally forced to flee from the wrath of Sigismund. The former Oxford principal and Prague professor hid in Moldavia, probably for years. A letter written by him confirms that during his stay there he converted many Hungarians and Germans. Payne was a zealous propagator of the idea of translating the Bible, and it may be that it was due to his influence that the first translation into Hungarian was made. In this, there is an attached calendar of the Munich Codex, a linguistically important Hungarian translation of parts of the Bible from 1466 (now in the State Library of Munich), containing the names of English saints not found in any other calendar. This curiosity may also provide testimony both to Payne’s involvement in the translation, copied with the Hungarian text of the Gospels in Tatros, and to how Wycliffe’s ideas helped to bring about an unparalleled spiritual and intellectual revolution in Hungary as well as in England and Bohemia.

Around 1500, Michael de Hungaria, a great Hungarian preacher and reformer, preached sermons in London and Nottingham. In the other direction, the English humanist and friend of Erasmus, Leonard Cox, became headmaster of the Hungarian Schools of Lőcse and Kassa between 1520 and 1524. He published a book in Kassa, which provides evidence of his humanist learning. There were also many Hungarian who made pilgrimages to England, and thence to Ireland in order to descend into St Patrick’s Purgatory, including Georgius de Hungaria, who gave an account of his visions in the Irish cave to King Edward III. This account went on to influence contemporary European literature. Laurentius Tar, a favourite knight of Sigismund, inspired a well-known Hungarian play. The visions he dictated to an Irish monk when he came out of the cave, in Latin, were translated into many languages, and he became a hero of Hungarian legend.


When Sigismund finally agreed peace terms with Poland in the spring of 1412, he held a great celebration in Buda to which many foreign guests came from remote countries. Apparently, seventeen languages, including English, could be heard simultaneously. Sigismund became a lifelong, sincere admirer of the Kingdom of England. He was on friendly terms with four English kings in succession and had personal audiences with at least two of them, Henry IV and Henry V, making an alliance with the latter. On one occasion, in 1415, he spent four months in England with a large retinue of Hungarian and German nobles, concluding the Treaty of Canterbury. He even attended a sitting of the English Parliament. At the Synod of Constance that same year, Sigismund was asked for his opinion of England, and replied by saying that when in England he had felt like being in Paradise (quasi esset in Paradiso). Jan Hus was soon to find out exactly what Paradise felt like, as he was burnt at the stake following this Synod, leading to the fifteen year-long ‘Hussite Wars’. Sigismund added that what he had admired most about England was the good government. His excellent relations with the Lancastrian monarchs continued after the death of his great personal friend Henry V, as is evidenced by the next king, Henry VI sending him the dress worn by the Knights of the Garter, which Sigismund is reported to have held in very high esteem.


Sigismund became Holy Roman Emperor in 1433, an event which marked the establishment of the great central European Empire under Habsburg rule, through his daughter’s marriage, until 1918. As Emperor, he acted as intermediary between Henry V and the King of France. From this time onward Anglo-Hungarian relations entered a new phase. The menace of Ottoman expansion loomed large over Europe and the English and Hungarian armies joined again in common cause. Following Sigismund’s death in 1437, the Austrian-Bohemian-Hungarian alliance collapsed during the rule of his son-in-law. However, the fame of János Hunyadi’s exploits against the Turks (he was Regent, 1446-53), were reported in contemporary records in English, and subsequently influenced Elizabethan literature. He dispatched a special courier to England after his splendid victory at Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) in 1446. After the humiliating defeats suffered by the Hungarian-led knights, including some English Hospitallers, at Nicopolis in Bulgaria, and the 1444 defeat (see picture), the good news was joyfully received in Canterbury, and the students celebrated the victory for all Christendom of the great Hungarian captain-general with the pealing of bells. We also know of three Hungarian knights who went to England during the reign of Edward IV, to take part in tournaments.


When the Tudors came to the English throne, initially they continued to support their central European allies with money, though not with arms or armies, against the Turks. Henry VII sent a money-gift to Vladislas II to help him in his struggle against the Ottomans. Vladislas returned the gift with a golden cup, which was left by the envoy, Geoffrey Blythe, to his Cambridge College (King’s) in 1502. However, it may have been Vladislas’ decision a few years later to give shelter to Richard de la Pole, the Tudors’ enemy as the last Yorkist claimant to the English throne, which turned the vindictive Henry VIII against Hungary. On the eve of the fateful Battle of Mohács of 1526, Louis II of Hungary addressed a letter to Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, appealing for armed assistance. That such appeals went unanswered is evidenced by the fact that, for the next 160 years, Hungary lost its independence to Ottoman occupation on the one side of its territories, and Hapsburg hegemony on the other. However, the course of events could not have been reversed even by the powerful Henry VIII. After 1526, the ‘old Hungarian glory’ grew dimmer in the public consciousness of England and Wales and the Anglo-Welsh monarchs viewed the rump of Hungary as an Austrian province, while maintaining links with Protestant Transylvania as a separate state.


Posted March 2, 2014 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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