King Lajos I the Great (r.1342-1382)

The birthday of King Nagy Lajos (Louis I the Great) was on 5 March 1326, his father was King Károly Róbert who had paved the way for his son’s successful rule. Let me take the opportunity to tell just a few words about the life and reign of King Lajos I. As a foreword, let me note that the Ottoman-Hungarian wars began during the reign of our King Lajos I, an Anjou king who was also King of Poland. History claims him the first European ruler who fought the Ottomans and beat them in a bigger battle. Also, we can count with Turkish raids in southern Hungary from this period on. He was regarded as a valiant and real „chivalric king”. King Lajos who earned the epithet “the Great”, had reigned for four decades (1342-1382) and it was the age when the Kingdom of Hungary reached one of the summits of its medieval might and splendor.
King Nagy Lajos (Chronicon Pictum)

Looking at the pages of the Képes Krónika (Illuminated Chronicle, 1360) one might readily believe the legend that „three seas were washing the borders of Hungary during his reign”. (This is only true if we count the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea as separate ones; the third was the Black Sea.)

Family issues

King Lajos I was born on March 5, 1326, and Hungarian history has placed him among the great rulers. And rightly so, for during the four decades of his reign, the Kingdom of Hungary was one of the great powers of Europe. But his family life was marked by tragedy: his first wife and first child died tragically young. And politically, the fact that his second wife, Kotromanić Erzsébet, did not give birth to a male heir was an unsolvable problem.
The knightly armor of King Lajos I

After the death of his brothers, the young prince Lajos became even more of a focus of interest and could not be left out of his father’s dynastic plans. In 1338 he became engaged to Margit, the daughter of Charles Margrave of Moravia (later Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor) and his first wife, Bianka Valois, born in 1335. The marriage was intended to strengthen the hegemony of the Kingdom of Hungary in Central Europe and also to secure the support of the Bohemians in the event of the death of their son Casimir III (the Great) (1333-1370) without an heir, the Polish throne being placed under the jurisdiction of the King of Hungary.

Red: The Kingdom of Lajos, and his temporary vassals

According to the agreement concluded on March 1, Margit was to be accepted as Lajos’s wife, provided that “she does not suffer from any physical defect that would justify her being rejected by Lajos”. The future queen was to be placed at the court of her mother-in-law, Erzsébet, to familiarize her with the Hungarian language and customs. After the coronation of Lajos on August 3, 1342, it was decided to postpone the wedding, which had been scheduled for September 29, as Margit had not yet reached the legal age of marriage. The ceremony probably took place in 1345. Not much is known about the marriage of Lajos and Margit, and according to Küküllei János, the marriage with the “very beautiful” maiden was not blessed with children.

The Gold Florin of King Lajos I

The queen died in the fall of 1349, most likely of the plague, although the sources are not clear. The widowed king soon married again. He married Erzsébet, the daughter of Stephen Kotromanić, a Bosnian king, and (related) Princess Elizabeth of Kujava (Poland). The Buda Wedding of 1353 was also world famous because it was the time when the wedding of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and his third wife, Anna of Schweidnitz, took place.

Diósgyőr castle Photo: Szegedi Szabolcs

The geographical location of Bosnia made Erzsébet, or rather the person of her father, very important for the king’s Balkan and anti-Venetian ambitions. In any case, it is interesting to note that Louis’ decision was probably influenced by the ‘love’ strand. For “some reason”, the fact was that Erzsébet, who had been brought up at the court of the widowed queen mother, had to be married so quickly that the couple could not ask the pope for a dispensation from their fourth degree of kinship (a canonical impediment to marriage).

According to Bertényi Iván, the reason for the haste may have been an unborn child, at least as evidenced by Pope Ince IV’s decree of August 31, 1353. King Lajos I and Erzsébet, daughter of King Stephen of Bosnia, despite their fourth-degree relationship, requested that the excommunication imposed on them by the Holy Father be lifted for the reasons given by him for their marriage and that they be given permission to marry posteriorly. To avoid a scandal, the pope ordered the recipients to release the king and Erzsébet from excommunication in due time and to allow them to marry so that there would be no doubt about the origin of the child born of the marriage.

King Lajos I in his favorite castle, Diósgyőr 

This is the only information about the child mentioned in the bull, so he was most likely stillborn or died as an infant.
The royal couple did not have another child until 1370. Since the contemporary view was that it was the woman’s fault if she “failed” to produce a son, Erzsébet’s life could not have been easy anyway, and her strong-willed mother-in-law had a strong influence on the daily life of the court: the queen was hardly involved in national politics. In fact, according to the Italian historian Matteo Villani, the Pope was ready to separate the king from Erzsébet so that “his wife, who had seemed barren until then, could go to a convent of her own free will, and he could marry another woman so that the country would not be left without an heir of his own line”. But the king stood by his wife.

Lajos and Erzsébet

The desire for a child must have been strong, as suggested by the image of St. Catherine of Alexandria on the front page of the Illustrated Chronicle, with the royal couple kneeling before the Martyr. Some previous research has suggested that the monarch and his wife prayed to the martyr for the blessing of a child.
However, the succession to the Hungarian throne had to be secured. The closest to the throne of King Lajos I was a daughter of his brother István, (he died in 1354), and so a real race for Erzsébet’s hand began between potential candidates for the throne of the neighboring powers – the Luxembourg and the Habsburgs.

However, the Hungarian king wanted to prevent his immediate neighbors from claiming the throne, so in 1364 he brought to Hungary a member of the Anjou family of Naples, Charles of Durazzo (the Little), who was given the title of Slavonic prince, thus indicating to the public that he was the heir to the throne. Charles IV, however, made repeated offers of marriage and traveled to Buda in person at the end of November 1365 to arrange the betrothal of his son Wenceslas to Erzsébet. However, King Lajos I cut the intricate knots of the dynastic web almost at once.

At the beginning of 1370, Charles (Little) Durazzo married his own niece, Margit, and Erzsébet became the wife of another Neapolitan Angevin, Louis of Taranto, Emperor Emeritus of Constantinople. With these decisions, the King of Hungary made it clear to all that he wanted the succession to the throne to be exclusively within the family.

The Golden Cloak clasp, Hungarian Chapel in the Cathedral of Aachen, sent by King Nagy Lajos

But then an unexpected event occurred: within a short time Erzsébet Kotromanić gave birth to three daughters. Katalin was born in 1370, Mária in 1371 and Hedvig in 1374. The daughters became, in the words of Csukovits Enikő, “the best-selling brides in Europe”. In 1374 Katalin became engaged to Louis, the younger son of Charles V (Valois) of France, later Duke of Orleans, and as a dowry, she claimed the throne of Naples.

Charles IV did not want to be left behind in the “battle” for her hand, and as early as 1372 he proposed that Prince Zsigmond, then four years old, should marry one of the daughters of King Lajos I. The planned engagement to the younger daughter, Mária, was confirmed by King Lajos on June 21, 1373. The papal dispensation was necessary in any case, as the children were related to each other in the fourth degree: Zsigmond’s mother, Elizabeth of Pomerania, was a cousin of Mária’s grandmother, Elizabeth of Piast. Two years later, on April 14, 1375, the Hungarian and Polish political elites again declared their support for the marriage. The betrothal took place four years later. The future of Hedvig, the youngest daughter, was very close to William of Habsburg.

The agreement concluded in Zólyom on February 12, 1380, between King Lajos I and his mother and wife and Prince Leopold III of Austria concerning the marriage of Lajos’s daughter Hedvig and Leopold’s son William of Habsburg. The birth of children also contributed to the stabilization of the position of Kotromanić Erzsébet, although the fact that her mother-in-law became an important actor in the Polish-Hungarian personal union of 1370, ruling her homeland as a governor, also played a role.

The mother of King Lajos, Elisabeth

Elizabeth of Piast’s influence remained at the court throughout her life, so the relationship between the two queens could not always be smooth, although Elizabeth of Piast’s will of 1380 gave a prominent role to her daughter-in-law. On the one hand, she appointed her as one of the executors of the will, and on the other hand, she bequeathed to her a considerable inheritance – the castle of Óbuda, a plenarium depicting the Virgin Mary, a golden chalice, a breviary used by the queen.

The actions of the charter are also instructive for the grandchildren: Mary and Hedvig received sets of jewelry. The eldest daughter received a ten-piece wreath headdress, a clasp, a piece of jewelry to be worn under a veil, and two golden eagles. Hedvig was given a headdress with lilies and a jeweled clasp. Prince István’s daughter Erzsébet joined them in the will, and her grave was also well provided for (2,000 forints and 10 measures of purple).

King Lajos I in the Secretum Secretorum

For King Lajos, it was a very difficult problem to ensure the succession to the Hungarian throne through the female line because at that time only men (boys) could rule the country. In addition, the Polish-Hungarian personal union meant that the situation in our northern neighborhood was similar. The Polish nobility finally managed to accept the succession of the daughter branch by issuing the so-called Privilege of Kassa (1374), which granted several privileges – almost complete exemption from taxation, no appointment of foreigners to provincial offices, and the abolition of royal investiture.

The only male relative in question, Charles of Durazzo (Little), conquered the Kingdom of Naples with the support of the Emperor, who is said to have even persuaded the ambitious young man to be content with ruling the southern Italian country. In King Lajos’ vision, both of his kingdoms would be inherited by Mary, who was crowned on September 17.

However, the most important demand of the Poles – that the ruler should live in Krakow – could not be met, and the throne was taken by his sister Hedvig, who was crowned on October 16, 1384. The ceremony also marked the end of the Polish-Hungarian personal union. It was also a great personal sacrifice, as she had to break off her engagement to marry Ulászló Jagelló of Lithuania soon after.

Political issues

Having inherited a powerful and rich country, Lajos could afford to spend his immense income, coming from the silver and gold mines of the Carpathian mountains, on conquering wars. As for the neighbors were concerned, at first, he had to stabilize his rule by invading Wallachia and Moldavia in 1344, thus establishing a system of vassalage.
The statue of King Lajos I in Budapest (Photo: Zolika76)
King Lajos was also the king of Poland (1370-1382) but it was a personal union between the two kingdoms, he didn’t pay more than three trips to Poland. The Polish lords rebelled against the foreign rule but he was able to pacify them in 1374 by giving them a wide range of privileges which were the basis for the special legal situation of the Polish nobles in the times to come…
The Hungarian king managed to strengthen the royal power in his country, he had no enemy inside his kingdom. No usurpers, no mighty oligarchs. The king had the greatest domains and income, unlike in less fortunate western kingdoms of the age.
The disastrous epidemics of the Black Death in 1348 left the country quite intact, causing much less harm than in West Europe, partly because the kingdom was not so densely populated and the people didn’t suffer from the sister of the plague, the famine, as there was an abundant amount of food.
Queen Johanna I of Naples, the king’s mortal enemy
After the king had finished his campaigns against Naples in Italy by 1352, he could increase his power at home and restrict the rights of the Hungarian noblemen one step further. On one hand, as it was declared on the Diet of 1351, all noblemen were regarded as equal to each other, regardless of their wealth while on the other hand, all the heirless lands were inherited by the crown.
So far, one-tenth (10%) of the peasants’ income had to go to the Church as a rule but from now on, the landlords received the next one-tenth (10%) of the products. There was peace and order, the country was prospering and no outer enemy had trodden the land since the second Mongolian invasion of 1285 which was promptly defended anyway. Nevertheless, our chivalric king spent almost all his life in wars.
The COA of King Lajos I
King Lajos had to take care of the Serbian state which he considered to have grown just too strong. His 80,000-strong army defeated the Serbian Czar Dušan’s armies in the duchies of Mačva and the principality of Travunia in 1349.
When Czar Dušan broke into Bosnian territory he was defeated by Bosnian Stjepan II with the assistance of Lajos’ troops, and when Dušan made a second attempt he was decisively beaten by Lajos in 1354. In the meantime, King Lajos annexed Moldavia in 1352 and established a vassal principality there.
A copy of the Treaty of Zara (1358) on the wall of the St. Francis Church of Zara
Soon, the Hungarian and the Serbian monarchs signed a peace agreement in 1355. It was three years after the Turks had set foot in Europe and a year after that Gallipoli Castle had fallen to them in 1354. A decade later, the capital of the Ottoman Empire became Edirne (Drinápoly), in Europe. It was not so visible from Hungary that this age was also the glorious century of the Ottoman Empire that began to extend over the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.
The statue of St.Michael slaying the dragon in Prague was made during the reign of King Lajos I
We call the Turks Ottomans or Osmanli after Sultan Osman I who died in 1326. A fierce and very effective enemy cast his eyes on the ripe cities of the west but the remnants of the Byzantine Empire were still in-between. King Lajos’ latter campaigns in the Balkans were aimed at drawing the Serbs, Bosnians, Wallachians, and Bulgarians into the fold of the Roman Catholic Church.
Polish Angevin coat of arms and the Hungarian coat of arms with Angevin helmet and Polish Coat of Arms (1340s)
It was relatively easy to subdue the Balkan Orthodox countries by arms but to convert them was a different matter. Despite Lajos’ efforts, the people of the Balkans remained faithful to the Eastern Orthodox Church and their attitude toward Hungary remained ambiguous if not hostile. Thus, the rulers of Serbia, Walachia, Moldavia, and Bulgaria became his vassals. Not his friends, though. They regarded powerful Hungary as a potential menace to their national identity. For this reason, Hungary could never regard the Serbs and Wallachians as reliable allies in subsequent wars against the Turks.
Diósgyőr castle
Photo: Kocsis Kadosa
Sadly, the Hungarian politics of this age can be made partly responsible for the weakening of the Balkanian people against the Ottoman invaders. Many smaller Balkanian nations had to seek the help of the Turks against the expansion of the Hungarian Kingdom which tried to use them as buffer states. At the same time, we will see that the conquering Ottoman Empire was indeed bringing a sort of peace into the lands of chaos-torn Balkanian states, not to mention lower taxes to the simple people. The first clash between the Turks and the Hungarians took place in 1366 during King Lajos’s Bulgarian campaign.
King Lajos defeats the Turks
Here is a cloak clasp from the Hungarian Chapel of Aachen that was built in 1367. You can see the COA of King Lajos (Louis) I of Hungary on the clasp. The original was made between 1367 and 1381, after the construction of the chapel, it is a replica made in 1884 in Budapest. It is on display in the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest. Height: 15.5 cm

Regarding the COA, let me copy here a comment that explains it very well:
“Why the horseshoe? Because it identifies the bird as an Ostrich. Medieval illustrations show the bird thus because it was believed to eat iron. It would pick up any stones and hard objects suitable as grinders in its gizzard, and the horseshoe was shorthand for this habit. First time I have met an Ostrich in heraldry.” (by Anthea Fleming)
King Lajos I (Photo: Váradi Zsolt)

After the death of King Lajos, Mária assumed the throne of the Kingdom of Hungary, but as she was a minor, her mother, Erzsébet Kotromanić, ruled the country. She felt that her time had come, but her unpredictable and indecisive decisions led to a breakdown of stability and antipathy towards her, leading to civil war. A woman cannot govern a fierce people, a weaker one cannot calm the war she has stirred up” – these were the words with which Bishop Horváti Pál of Zagreb invited King Charles Durazzo of Naples to the Hungarian throne. Despite his wife’s strong objections, Charles accepted the invitation and set off for the interior of the country.

The queens still hoped for some kind of compromise, but on December 31, 1385, Charles had himself crowned by Archbishop Demeter of Esztergom. Before the ceremony in Székesfehérvár, Erzsébet and Mária entered the tomb chapel of King Lajos. “When they saw the marble statue of the pious king, their hearts almost broke, and they kissed the sad picture for a long time, embraced the cold stone and flooded the red marble with a shower of tears. The effect was not lost on those present, who realized that they had gone completely against the will of the great king. The fate of the “sworn” Charles II (Little) was fulfilled on February 7, 1386, when he was seriously wounded by Forgách Balázs during an assassination attempt organized by the Palatine Prince Garai Miklós, and his life ended on February 24.

We have an excellent series about his life and reign, with English subtitles:

Part Four:

Part Five: 

The first page of the Chronicon Pictum: Lajos on the throne

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