After Matthias` reign: the rise of the Fuggers

The political, economic situation around King Matthias was very promising and after the taking of Vienna, all conditions were seemed to be granted in his favor so as to launch his long-planned great campaign against the Ottoman Empire.
Yet, sadly his health was not the best in 1490. It was not only the Turkish envoy told him that he was being poisoned but later some historians point at certain telling signs that he was really poisoned by his eternal rival, Emperor Frederick. Besides, he was not unconditionally loved by all his barons around him, especially the Szapolyai family had high plans in secret. The king’s biggest sadness was the lack of a legitimate heir to the throne, although he tried to grant more and more ranks and offices to his illegitimate son, János Corvin in order to make him accepted by his barons. Unfortunately, his Italian wife, Queen Beatrix was already plotting openly against the king, hoping to get the throne of Hungary for herself. She became somewhat scared in 1490 when Matthias was looking for a way to divorce her.
The death of King Matthias has been discussed and analyzed by many historians. There is an opinion which claims he had been poisoned on Palm Sunday (6 April) 1490 in Vienna by his own wife; firstly, he was given a poisoned fig, then he lost his abilities to speak and his wife didn’t let anyone touch him; it was recorded that finally, she “tried to give him a medicine by forcing his teeth to be open” which killed the king soon.
Rapidly, the kingdom began to decline. Lord Szapolyai ceded the occupied Austrian territories and Vienna to Emperor Frederick; Pál Kinizsi, the general of Matthias broke his oath to János Corvin and turned against Matthias’ son by arms; the famous Black Army was not paid anymore and when began pillaging for food, it was their former commander, Pál Kinizsi who scattered and eliminated them; and life seemed to have stopped in the kingdom.
Coincidentally, it was the decade when the mightiest banker family, the German Fuggers were making their fortune and established their wealth which twenty years later determined who can be Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. Their involvement in the business with the Pope to sell Ablassbrief (written documents which one could buy in order to enter Heaven) triggered the action of Luther and was a factor to launch the Reformation. Soon, they have had a major role in the African slave-trade to North America, they have gained the cattle business of Hungary which was feeding half Europe, and the fabulous mines of the Carpathian Mountains have become theirs in exchange for some loans given to the inadequate rulers of Hungary after Matthias’ death. They were involved in all „good business”, let it be usury, slave trade or prostitution.
We can track the Hungarian word “fukar” (meaning “tight-fisted”) derived from the name of the Fugger family. Assumedly, the Fuggers used to be one of the thousands of German weaver burghers from the area of Augsburg who was dealing and trading with textiles. Hans Fugger was already a respected burgher of Augsburg in 1367. when he died, he was the eight wealthiest burgher in the town. His grandson was a most talented businessman, Jakob Fugger (1459-1525) who have made their enterprise the biggest in Europe.
His wealth was about two million gold Forints altogether, five times bigger than the Medici family`s property. His annual income only from the interest rates was 80,000 gold Forints which was similar to the income of some European monarchs. (Just to compare: an apprentice in a guild earned 33 Forints a year while a peasant made 15.) The Fuggers` money has grown to 5 million gold Forints by 1546 which was roughly equal with the 10% of the Holy Roman Empire`s wealth.
King Matthias` expansion to Austria may have helped Jakob Fugger to make a very good business in 1488 with Archduke Sigismund of Habsburg of Tirol who needed the money very badly; Fugger took hold of the income of the silver mines of Tirol in exchange for a loan to the needy monarch. These were the richest mines beside the Hungarian ones, ten thousand miners worked there. As the army of King Matthias was threatening these mines, the Fuggers regarded Matthias as a threat and considered Hungary as a promising business in the future. Jakob Fugger was lucky because Matthias died and the Hungarian kingdom began its decline so he could become the biggest loan-giver of the Habsburgs in the years to come. There was a Hungarian merchant called János Thurzó who was trading with copper to South-Germany. Thurzó was improving the technology to divide copper and silver (read the legend about it in my book here: ) Jakob Fugger realized that Thurzó could be his entrance to Hungary and they made business in 1495, they began to hire the mines of Besztercebánya from the Bishop of Pécs, Ernuszt Zsigmond. Thurzó provided the technology and his local knowledge while Fugger gave the money. Soon, they have intermarried. Every year, 11,000 hundredweight(1,100 tons) of copper was transported from Besztercebánya alone. Part of it was used in the weapon-factories of the Fuggers in Germany. Meanwhile, in Hungary, the Thurzó family was appointed in 1498 to the rank of Comes of Chamber of Körmöcbánya (the main gold coin-minting mining town of Hungary). Thus, they rose to be the wealthiest barons of Hungary and they were allowed to rent the gold income of the mines of Körmöcbánya and the other taxes which otherwise would have gone to the king. The Fuggers joined in, too, and against the law, they exported raw, un-minted gold from the country. They got also involved into the money exchange and coin minting business of Hungary. (As I had mentioned before, the silver and gold coins had to be collected each year and „new” coins were given to the people in exchange for it; the new coins always had less silver or gold in them but nobody was permitted to trade with „old” coins. I hope our modern lords will not re-introduce this system.) All in all, the Fuggers had 800,000 gold Forints a year form their Hungarian business. Just to compare, the whole Hungarian army which was put together by great difficulties before the Battle of Mohács in 1526 cost about 80,000 gold Forints. We have to mention the excellent information network of agents who provided up-to-date information to the Fuggers. The Fuggers were bribing whoever they could, it was a „lobby”, giving gifts to high lords so as to gain their support. It was the Fuggers who gave half a million gold Forints as a loan to Charles Habsburg to get elected as Holy Roman Emperor. They received further rights and properties for this business, like the control over book printing in Augsburg, new mines, and iron-casting factories. When the Hungarian Diet finally took away the mining rights from the Fuggers, a year before the Battle of Mohács, the bankers were able to turn the western world against the Hungarians; they made the Pope, the Emperor and half a dozen of monarchs protest against the decision. They could block the copper trade coming from Hungary and they blocked the import of lead to Hungary so as to disable the silver mining. In fact, Hungarian King Louis II had not much income from his mines after this because the Fuggers had removed not only all the mining equipment but all the miners from the Hungarian mines; they got these mines „back” only when the Hungarian kingdom was lost and Habsburg Ferdinand usurped the throne of Hungary in 1527. The story of the Fuggers changed in the 1550s and 1560s when many monarchs went bankrupt and could not pay their loans to the Fuggers back, altogether 8 million gold Forints. Instead, they were given huge domains and ranks; they withdrew from the business and became aristocrats.
In order to understand properly why the prosperous and strong kingdom of Matthias has declined so rapidly, we had to take a look at this aspect of the disaster. There were many people who had a hand in the weakening of the country, the Fuggers were just one of them.