Fathered by the Duke of Vazul and one of his pagan concubines in Hungry circa 1016 CE, Béla I’s life began inauspiciously. The middle child of three boys, he and his brothers were forced to leave Hungry after their father’s death as their presence was a threat to ruling monarchy.
Béla found himself in Poland where he entered the service of King Mieszko II Lambert. As a retainer, his was a major player in Poland’s push against the pagan tribesmen. His numerous victories earned him the title “Béla the Champion” and “Béla the Bison.”
In the meantime, the former king of Hungry, Peter, lost his office when a vicious pagan revolt upended his authority. Béla’s brother Andrew I entered the vacuum and ascended to the throne.
While Peter had been a model ally to the Holy Roman Empire and the Vatican, Andrew sought more independence. Sensing that his plans could start a war with the Christian superpower, he brought his war-hardened brother Béla into his court, offering him a third of the kingdom in exchange for his subservience.
Béla accepted, and the agreement held fast until 1057, when Béla’s wife had a son. Eager to secure country for his future bloodline, he raised an army in Poland and marched on his brother’s holdings. Andrew I’s forces were no match for the experienced Béla, and he was killed in 1060.
Béla I ascended to his brother’s position, but his rule only lasted three years. His wooden throne collapsed as he sat on it, and it killed him. Though it should be mentioned that his brief time as ruler was characterized by efficient management and political stability, it was a fitting end for a man that gained his station through betrayal and fratricide.
It was, however, preferable to György Dózsa’s death. Leader of a peasant revolt in Hungry in the early 16th century, his army of starved, disgruntled farmers began their war against the nobility with great successes. They captured the city-fortresses of Csanád, Arad, Lippa and Világos before the uprising was crushed by an army of 20,000 heavily armed soldiers.
Scholars estimate that some 70,000 peasants were tortured in the war’s aftermath, but none suffered as much as György Dózsa. Mocking his ambitions to rule over Hungary, he was chained to a heated iron throne, with a burning iron crown on his head and a red-hot scepter in his hand.
They executed his younger brother Gergely before him as he begged them to let the boy live. Then they lacerated his skin with iron rods, so that he his burnt flesh was exposed. Nine rebels, who had been starved for days, were led in front of him and ordered to eat the meat off his bones. Three refused and were killed on the spot. The remaining six bit into him, swallowing the body of their former leader.
Despite the anti-religious bent of György Dózsa’s, he was eventually accepted as a martyr by the Christian church, in part because of his enduring popularity among the peasants. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands in the spot where he was cooked on the throne. His face is present throughout Hungary, and György Dózsa is one of the most popular street names in the country.
By Matt Alberswerth