By Cameron Hewitt
The Árpád dynasty — descendants of the original Magyar tribes — died out in 1301. For more than 600 years, Hungary would be ruled by foreigners...with one exception. In the middle of the 15th century, Hungary had bad luck hanging on to its foreign kings: Two of them died unexpectedly within seven years. Meanwhile, homegrown military general János Hunyadi was enjoying great success on the battlefield against the Ottomans. When the five-year-old László V was elected king, Hunyadi was appointed regent and essentially ruled the country.
Hunyadi defeated the Ottomans in the crucial 1456 Battle of Belgrade, which kept them out of Hungary (at least for another 70 years) and made him an even greater hero to the Hungarian people. But soon afterward, Hunyadi died from the plague, which he had contracted during that fateful battle. When the young king also died (at the tender age of 16), the nobles looked for a new leader. At first their sights settled on Hunyadi's eldest son, László. But the Habsburgs — who were trying to project their influence from afar — felt threatened by the Hunyadi family, and László was killed. At this dark moment, the Hungarians turned to the younger Hunyadi son, Mátyás (or Matthias in English). At the time, Matthias (whose first wife was a Czech princess) was at court in Prague. According to legend, Matthias' mother sent for him with a raven with a ring in its beak. The raven supposedly flew non-stop from Transylvania to Prague. The raven-with-ring motif became part of the family crest, as well as the family name: Corvinus (Latin for "raven").
Matthias Corvinus returned to Buda, becoming the first Hungarian-descended king in more than 150 years. Progressive and well-educated in the Humanist tradition, Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–1490) was the quintessential Renaissance king. A lover of the Italian Renaissance, he patronized the arts and built palaces legendary for their beauty. Also a benefactor of the poor, he dressed up as a commoner and ventured into the streets to see firsthand how the nobles of his realm treated his people.
Matthias was a strong, savvy leader. He created Central Europe's first standing army — 30,000 mercenaries known as the Black Army. No longer reliant on the nobility for military support, Good King Matthias was able to drain power from the nobles and make taxation of his subjects more equitable — earning him the nickname the "people's king."King Matthias was also a shrewd military tactician. Realizing that squabbling with the Ottomans would squander his resources, he made peace with the Ottoman sultan to stabilize Hungary's southern border. Then he swept north, invading Moravia, Bohemia, and even Austria. By 1485, Matthias moved into his new palace in Vienna, and Hungary was enjoying a golden age. Five years later, Matthias died mysteriously at the age of 47, and his empire disintegrated. It is said that when Matthias died, justice died with him. To this day, Hungarians consider him the greatest of all kings, and they sing of his siege of Vienna in their national anthem. They're proud that for a few decades in the middle of half a millennium of foreign oppression, they had a truly Hungarian king — and a great one at that.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of Rick Steves' Budapest.