The Hungarian Knights of the Golden Spur

Military Orders in King Matthias’ age in Hungary /The Knights of the Golden Spur (Hungarian: “aranysarkantyús lovag”, Latin: “eques auratus” or “eques aureatus”)

Lord Thury György, the greatest Hungarian knight of the Golden Spur (picture: Somogyi Győző) and a 16th-century-picture, is in the middle

Few know that King Matthias Corvinus had excellent connections with the Swiss and there were many Swiss mercenaries in his Black Army, too. Note: it was called „black” only later, allegedly because they wore a black armband after the death of the king. Anyway, the presence of Swiss troops in his army explains the famous discipline of the Black Army: they were moving on the military parades and the battlefield in total silence which was quite strange in that age. The Swiss envoy in King Matthias’ court remarked that there were only 12 people in Hungary who were members of the so-famous European order of knighthood, the Knights of the Golden Spur.

The knights were persons knighted during the ceremony of the Hungarian kings’ coronations. The inauguration of the golden-spurred knights was meant to elevate the light of the royal coronation. Therefore, they did not form the organization of the order either and were only part of the Hungarian historical traditions in the coronation ceremony, when the crowned king’s first action was to knight suitable and/or appointed persons.

This was an important secular element that contributed to the originally completely ecclesial ceremony. So it was not a regular knight order, its membership did not result in any special privileges or duties. The knightly title was not hereditary, it was given only for personal use. However, the knights were authorized to wear real golden spurs, attached to their boots at the ceremony, and they also wore a small golden spur on their hats.

Gyulaffy László was one of them (drawing: Somogyi Győző)

The legend of the knights of the Golden Spur dates back to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome, which took place on October 28, 312, when Constantine I (306-337), co-ruler of the Roman Empire, defeated Maxentius (306-312), another co-ruler who fell from the bridge to the Tiber during the battle and drowned. Subsequently, Constantine became Augustus (emperor) of the Western Roman Empire, and later on, declared Christianity as the official state religion.

Hungarian Cross from the 11th-12th century (Esztergom)

Constantine and his soldiers had a vision the night before the battle, sent by the Christian God. This was interpreted as a promise of victory if the heavenly sign of the Chi-Rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, was painted on the soldiers’ shields, to fight under the protection of the Christian God. (“Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα”, in Latin: “in hoc signo vinces”, that is, “Through this sign [you shall] conquer”.)

The medieval chroniclers believed, that the knights of the golden spur can be originated from the “Militia Aurata” (golden knighthood), created by Emperor Constantine, who fought with him in the battle. The late Middle Ages and Early Modern Age historians placed knights of the golden spur at the top of the chivalric virtues.

Giovanni Francesco Capodilista (between 1434–1440), was knighted in 1434. The horse cloth is semé by golden spurs. (He also shows the badges of the Order of the Dragon, Order of the Jar, and the House of Lancaster)

As a result, various societies of the knights of the Golden Spur were formed one after another. Maybe there was an aim to commemorate the (wrongly stated) year 265 when in Rome 265 knights of the Golden Spur were created after the coronation of Emperor Frederick III by Pope Nicholas V.

The knighting ceremony took place on 19 March 1452 at the Bridge of Hadrian, and the new emperor granted the knights with golden spur hanging from the cross. (Earlier, in 1433 at the same place the Hungarian King and Roman Emperor Sigismund (Zsigmond) knighted there more than 200 knights.)

King Zsigmond arrives at the Council of Constance

We can see the creation of knights as part of the coronation ceremony in the Bohemian Kingdom during the rule of Wenceslaus II already in 1297 (Knights of St. Wenceslaus, repeated by John of Bohemia in 1311, and Sigismund in 1420, then by almost all Czech kings), as well as in Poland in 1311 (as a result of the Hungarian influence).

The origins of different knights of Golden Spur may be in some way related to various orders of St George. The Jesuit Melchior Inchofer writes in his work about Hungarian ecclesiastical history, in the year 1045, that King St Stephen (István) knighted his son, Prince St Emeric (Imre) as well as several domestic and foreign magnates Knights of the Holy Cross (Equestrem Crucigerorum).

In Hungary, it has been a habit to knight people at the coronation of each new king by touching them with the sword of Saint Stephan (István).
When Emperor Henry III reinstated King Péter to his throne (1044), several foreigners were created Knights of the Cross in the name of the King, at the Church of Mary in Fehérvár (Székesfehérvár, Hungary).

At the same time, several Hungarian magnates were knighted by Henry the Knights of the Golden Spur. The Order of the Holy Cross was also greatly promoted by King St. Ladislaus (László), who made several donations for them. All the villages, that are named after the cross (Hungarian: “kereszt”), received their names as a result of these donations (Szentkereszt, Keresztúr, etc).

Saint László in the Chronicon Pictum

There are Hungarian sources that mention the inauguration of the Golden-spurred Knights during the reign of the Anjou rulers. However, the sources suggest that it was already part of the ceremony during the reign of the Árpádian kings. Spurs have always been a symbol of the power of chivalry and some wore ornate spurs. Representative pieces could also be made of gold. During the pilgrimage of King Louis the Great’s mother, Queen Elizabeth to Rome in 1343, she was accompanied by fifty golden-spurred knights. King László V was inaugurated as a knight by Újlaki Miklós at his coronation in 1440.

Knighting of the Swiss envoy, Melchior Russ by King Mathias Corvinus in 1488

In the 15th century, the inauguration of the golden-spurred knights was already regular. Later, the infamous Dózsa György had a duel with a Turkish warrior of Szendrő, named Ali, whom he killed after cutting off his armored right arm with a blow. Therefore, King Ulászló II in Buda made him a golden-spurred knight, donated a sword, a gold necklace, and a purple robe, and gave him 40 villages between Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) and Temesvár (Timisoara), and he was allowed to wear a human arm pierced with his sword in his coat of arms. It is a pity that Dózsa became a murderous rebel who devastated half of the country with his peasant army in 1514.

The knighting of Nádasdy Ferenc and Pálffy Miklós

On 28 June 1598, Nádasdy Ferenc (“the big strong black Bey”) and Pálffy Miklós were knighted by Emperor Rudolf.

It was a traditional custom of Hungarian royal coronations that the crowned monarch knighted certain persons – deemed worthy – with gold spurs. As we can see, the Order of the Knights was not a separate body and had no privileges, but members were allowed to wear the actual golden cloak on ceremonial occasions.

Before, there had been no stipulation as to who could be knighted (in 1514, for example, we could see how King Ulászló II rewarded Dózsa), so when Maximilian I was crowned in 1563, so many people flocked there that the knighting ceremony had to be stopped. Among others, the knights Thury György and Gyulaffy László were inaugurated at that time. You can read more about them on my page, for example, the life of Nádasdy can be read here:

Nádasdy Ferenc
The inauguration of Nádasdy and Pálffy unusually took place, as it was not a coronation. However, the military merits of the two lords demanded that the court honor their achievements in the fight against the Turks, and Archduke Matthias made them knights of the Golden Spur on 28 June 1598 in Győr, which had been retaken a few months earlier. Nádasdy then (the exact date is unknown), also won the post of the Transdanubian district’s Chief Captain, which was handed over to him by his old comrade-in-arms, Zrínyi György (Juraj Zrinski).
The ceremony
From then on, he did not participate in the Fifteen Years’ War as a volunteer (voluntaris miles), but as a national military officer. He was given the corps of troops that went with the general command, 200 infantry and 150 cavalry, who were stationed in Nádasdy’s central fortress, Sárvár. Thus, by 1598, Nádasdy Ferenc had reached the highest level of military esteem, which he had already established by then with more than 20 years of almost uninterrupted fighting. And many more years of struggle were to come.
And here is the life of Chief Captain Pálffy Miklós:

Chief Captain Pálffy Miklós 1552-1600

The last knights were knighted at the coronation of the last king, Charles IV (1916-18). However, giving the Golden Spur was a great sign of royal appreciation in Hungary until the Second World War. In the pictures below, you can see some of the knights of the order. Perhaps the greatest of them were the legendary Lord Thury György and Lord Gyulaffy László. (Please, note that I use the Eastern name order for Hungarians where family names come first.) Also, there is a modern reenactment association in the Castle of Diósgyőr in Hungary, they are the Diósgyőri Aranysarkantyús Lovagrend, here is their page and you can see many pictures of them below:

modern golden spurs

Source: partly from Nádasdy Ferenc Bandérium

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