This Autumn marks the anniversaries of two conquests of ‘England’. One by the Danish King, Canute, in 1016, and the second, better known of course, by the Normans in 1066. But through all the dramatic emphasis on dynastic struggle and military campaigns which accompanies these two anniversaries, we may be in danger of underestimating the part played by by three royal houses in ensuring the continuity of descent and eventual stability of a fourth, the Plantagenets. The triangle of royal families which brought this about were the House of Wessex, the Hungarian House of Árpad and the Scottish House of Canmore.
Earliest Traces of Magyar-Saxon-Viking Relations:
In the eighth and ninth centuries, England did not really exist, except perhaps as an idea. Neither did Hungary, but the Magyar tribes had come together under one leader, Árpád (above). The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the Heptarchy were never in danger of invasion by the marauding Magyar horsemen, even in their most occidental adventures. The Magyars were never a sea-faring people, and they reined in their horses on the shores of the seas. Nevertheless, the western Celtic and Roman Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were only given safe passage along the Danube Road when, under the rule of Szent István (St Stephen), Christianity became the official religion of the country. Vajk, his pagan name, was given Christian baptism by the papal envoy, together with a crown confirming his country as a Catholic Christian kingdom.
It was not until 1012 that St Colman decided to take this road on his pilgrimage to Palestine from Ireland. He never got as far as Hungary, however, as he was killed by Austrian peasants who mistook him for a spy. However, the fact that he chose the route along the Danube testifies to the new attitude of Western nations towards Hungary, with pilgrims and traders now being able to approach István’s crown lands without fear.
However, for some centuries, only a few pilgrims from the British Isles made their way across the country. The Anglo-Saxon chronicles state that Aeldred, the Bishop of Worcester, was the first churchman from Britain to travel through Hungary to the Holy Land, in 1058.
He probably had a special interest in Hungary as, before the Norman Conquest, he was the leader of the Saxon partisans of Edward Aetheling, whose claim to the throne they supported and who had been a refugee guest at the Hungarian Royal Court for nearly forty years, since the Danish King Canute’s takeover of the Saxon throne. However, by the time he reached Hungary Edward the Exile had already returned to England with his family in 1057. Soon after he set foot in Wessex, Edward died somewhat mysteriously before he could be anointed by Edward the Confessor as his successor.
Before the reign of István (1000-1038), there are no traces of direct relations between the two countries. Alfred the Great, contemporary of Árpád, the conqueror of the Carpathian Basin, wrote that all he knew of this territory was that it was desert. Neither did Alfred write of any of the peoples living in the regions between Carinthia and Bulgaria, which he mentioned.
So, the first mention of Hungary is recorded when St István received the two young sons of Eadmund Ironside at his Court, exiles from Canute’s Court following his takeover of their father’s kingdom in 1016.
Archaeological finds along the banks of the Oder and Vistula reveal that Hungary had direct commercial relations with the Vikings. The road across Russia, and especially to Kiev, seem to have played a prominent role in these relations.
St István’s coins (above) have also been found as far north as the Faroe Islands. According to a passage in a chronicle written in French verse by Gaimar, who lived in Northumbria, István was acquainted with the Dane Valgarus even before he brought the sons of Eadmund Ironside to the Hungarian Royal Court. This is the only written record linking the Vikings and the Magyars. Aethelstan’s victory of the Saxons over the Vikings at battle of Brunanburgh in 937 had contributed towards the peaceful settlement and co-existence of Saxons, Angles and Scandinavians in the North and East of England. Four years earlier, the defeat of the Magyars at Riade in 933 had led to Géza, István and his descendants in the Árpád dynasty, especially Andrew I, transforming Hungary into a ‘civilised’ Western European Catholic country.
The Wessex Exiles at the Court of St István:
Eadmund Ironside died shortly after reaching his agreement with Canute, King of Denmark, deciding the boundaries of his realm. He died on 30 November, 1016, leaving his Queen, Ealdyth, with two small sons, Eadmund and Edward. Canute’s advisor, Eadric, tried to persuade his king to have the two little orphans to be put out of the way as they might cause trouble in the future. However, since Canute had already gained control of the whole of the kingdom, he had no desire to sully his name with the blood of children. Instead, he dispatched the two boys to Sweden, with the command that the boys should meet their end there. Olaf, the devout Christian King of Sweden, was revolted at the idea of a murder which Canute himself was unable, or unwilling to undertake. He therefore caused the boys to be taken to Hungary, to István’s court. Presumably, they were taken through Russia in 1017-18, and the Anglo-Saxon chronicles record nothing further of them for the next forty years. We know that the King of Hungary received them cordially and educated them with deep affection. Edmund, the elder of the two, died young, but in due course, Edward married a Hungarian noblewoman, Agatha, a relative of the German Emperor. She bore him three children: Margaret, Christine and Edgar. The three children were educated in Hungary until 1057 when, after four decades of exile, Edward was recalled to England with his family by the ageing Confessor who was delighted to hear of his nephew’s survival.
There are no contemporary Hungarian records about how the Princes arrived in Hungary, who accompanied them, whether their mother was with them or whether Edward was in communication with anyone at the court of Edward the Confessor after the latter came to the throne in 1042. It was only in 1054 that the English courtiers began to show an interest in Prince Edward of Wessex as a possible heir to the throne. Edward the Confessor had himself come to the throne after years of exile in Normandy, and was without issue. Attention was called to the prince living in exile in a far-away land. Aeldred, the Bishop of Worcester, went to Cologne as ambassador to Henry III, Emperor of Germany, with the request that he should negotiate with the King of Hungary for the return of the Royal family of Wessex. Although the Bishop was received with pomp and splendour, he left the imperial city a year later, without accomplishing this task. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not give the reason why the powerful Emperor of Germany did not comply with the King of England’s request, but the Wessex family did not reach England until 1057, after Henry III’s death.
On his return to England, Edward became heir apparent to the English throne, but he died before he was able to see his uncle, Edward the Confessor, to receive his blessing. His widow, Agatha, and family continued to live in England in the company of the Hungarian gentlemen who had escorted them there and remained in their retinue until they eventually settled in Scotland after the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066. According to the hereditary succession, Edgar was the rightful heir to the throne and therefore just as much in the way of the ambitions of William the Conqueror as were his father and uncle, the exiled princes, in the way of Canute the Great. Although receiving the support of both the Saxon thanes and bishops for his claim, being the last prince of the dynasty of Cerdic and Alfred, the only lawful heir, he was forced to flee. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had twice proclaimed him King, but had not yet crowned him by 1066. Finally, they were obliged to admit that they could not hope to be liberated by a young king who was not exceptionally bright. Later, Edgar was forced to pay homage to William of Normandy and so the last male descendant of Cerdic dragged on a sluggish and contented life as the friend and pensioner of Norman patrons. Not for the last time, the law of male primogeniture determining the English succession denied the country the rule of a great woman in the form of the Princess Margaret, Edward of Wessex’s eldest and undoubtedly brightest child.
The rest of the royal family were obliged to contemplate flight, and their thoughts turned again to Hungary. They boarded a ship, presumably bound for Hamburg, but a storm drove them into port in Scotland. They anchored in the harbour which is still called ‘Margaret’s Hope’ and landed there. According to the legend, there they were met by the King of Scots, Malcolm III (Canmore), who rode out to them. Apparently, he soon fell in love with the beautiful, gentle Margaret, so much so that he sought her hand in marriage.
After a period of hesitation, Margaret accepted the proffered hand, and with it a major role in European and Scottish history. Her sister, Christine, eventually returned to England after Edgar’s reconciliation with William the Conqueror. She entered the convent of Romsey back in Wessex and became a nun, playing a prominent role in the education of Queen Margaret’s children, especially her daughter Maud, or Matilda, who became Henry I’s queen consort. Christine became personally acquainted with Anselm, the great Archbishop of Canterbury. However, it is Margaret, of Wessex, Hungary and Scotland, who I will investigate further in my next blog.