A statue of Stephen the Great
King Stephen the Great or St. Stephen of Hungary (Szent István király in Hungarian, Štefan in Slovak) (about 975 – August 15, 1038), was the first king of Hungary. His father was the Magyar chieftain Géza: his mother was named Sarolt, and Stephen was given the name Vajk (meaning hero) at birth. Born a pagan in the village of Esztergom, Vajk was baptized, as a precondition of accepting the crown from Rome, at age 10 by Saint Adalbert of Prague, and given the baptismal name Stephen (in honor of the original early Christian Saint Stephen), protector of the church at Passau).
He was married in 995 to Gizella of Bavaria, the daughter of Henry II the Wrangler, and his wife Gisela of Burgundy. Stephen and Gizella had at least three children; we know the names of the sons Imre (Henry or Emeric) and Ottó (Otto) and the daughter Hedvig (Hedwig). All of Stephen's children apparently predeceased him and left no descendants to claim the throne upon his death, so that the crown had to be contended for by his nephews and cousins.
After battling and defeating the pagan nobles who opposed him (including his uncle, a powerful warlord named Koppány), Stephen successfully united all the Magyar clans in the year 997. The victory was achieved also thanks to the substantial material and military assistance from Slovak Christian noblemen Poznan and Hunt. According to Hungarian tradition, Pope Silvester II sent a magnificent jeweled gold crown to Stephen (which became the symbol of Hungary under the name of the Holy Crown) along with an apostolic cross and a letter of blessing in the beginning of January, 1001 to officially recognize him as a Christian king of Europe.
Stephen divided Hungary into 50 counties, and continued the work of his father Geza by applying the decimal organizational system of his ancestors and setting up ten dioceses in Hungary, ordering every ten villages to erect one church and maintain a priest. He founded the cathedrals of Székesfehérvár and Esztergom, the Nunnery of Veszprém, the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma, and the Monastery of Saint Peter and Paul in Óbuda. Inside the abbeys and monasteries, schools were established and they became important centers of culture. Saint Astricus served as Stephen's advisor, and Stephen also had Saint Gerard Sagredo as the tutor for his son Saint Emeric (Imre).
Stephen discouraged pagan customs and strengthened Christianity with various laws, including ending the use of the old Hun-Magyar runic alphabet and making Latin the official language of the royal court. Stephen gave generously to the churches, personally visited them often, and supervised their construction. He often disguised himself as a peasant whenever he traveled, and freely gave money to any poor people he met (in one account, Stephen was beaten and robbed by a group of beggars to whom he was giving alms, but he forgave them and spared their lives).
He intended to retire to a life of holy contemplation and hand the kingdom over to his only surviving son Imre, but in 1031 Imre was wounded in a hunting accident and died. In Stephen's words of mourning:
By God's secret decision death took him, so that wickedness would not change his soul and false imaginations would not deceive his mind — as the Book of Wisdom teaches about early death.
Stephen mourned a very long time over the loss of his favorite son Imre, which took a great toll on his health. He eventually recovered, but he never regained his original vitality. Having no children left, he could not find anyone among his remaining relatives who was able to rule the country competently and willing to maintain the Christian faith of the nation. Unable to choose an heir, King Stephen died at Székesfehérvár (a city he built in central Hungary) on the Feast of the Assumption, and was buried there. Both his nobles and his subjects were said to have mourned for 3 straight years afterwards.
Shortly after his death, healing miracles were known to have occurred at his tomb. Stephen was canonized by the Vatican as Saint Stephen of Hungary in 1083. Catholics venerate him as the patron saint of: Hungary, kings, the death of children, masons, stonecutters, and bricklayers. His feast is on September 2, but in Hungary his chief festival is observed on August 20, the day on which his sacred relics were transferred to the city of Buda. His crown is currently enshrined in the National Museum of Budapest.
Excerpt from Saint Stephen's admonitions to his son Imre:
My beloved son, delight of my heart, hope of your posterity, I pray, I command, that at every time and in everything, strengthened by your devotion to me, you may show favor not only to relations and kin, or to the most eminent, be they leaders or rich men or neighbors or fellow countrymen, but also to foreigners and to all who come to you. By fulfilling your duty in this way you will reach the highest state of happiness. Be merciful to all who are suffering violence, keeping always in your heart the example of the Lord who said, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." Be patient with everyone, not only with the powerful, but also with the weak. Finally be strong lest prosperity lift you up too much or adversity cast you down. Be humble in this life, that God may raise you up in the next. Be truly moderate and do not punish or condemn anyone immoderately. Be gentle so that you may never oppose justice. Be honorable so that you may never voluntarily bring disgrace upon anyone. Be chaste so that you may avoid all the foulness of lust like the pangs of death. All these virtues I have noted above make up the royal crown, and without them no one is fit to rule here on earth or attain to the heavenly kingdom.