The personage of the fifteenth century King Matthias (Mátyás in Hungarian, Matei Corvin for Romanians) has been a bone of contention between Hungarians and Romanians for ages. Gheorghe Funar, the Hungarian bashing Romanian mayor of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) in the 1990s, took the claim of Romanian history textbooks that Mátyás was of Romanian origin literally, and deleted Hungarian references from the statue of Mátyás in the main square of the city, causing a lot of inter-ethnic conflict.
True, Kolozsvár was the birthplace of Mátyás, whose father, János Hunyadi (Ioan de Hunedoara), Voivode of Transylvania (1440–1456) and Regent-Governor (1446–1453) of the Kingdom of Hungary traced his ancestry back to Wallachia (Old Romania). Nevertheless, the irrational ethnic rivalry of latter centuries would hardly have made any sense in the 15th century. Hunyadi wrote himself into the history books by his decisive victory over the advancing Ottomans at Nándorfehérvár (today Belgrade) in 1456, which delayed the Turkish conquest for 70 years. Pope Callixtus III was so thrilled by the victory of Christian forces that he ordered the bells of every European church to be rung every day at noon, still an existing practice in Hungary. His younger son Mátyás continued his legacy two years after János Hunyadi’s untimely death from the plague, which he contracted at Belgrade.
Mátyás’s thirty-two-year long reign (1458-1490) is considered by Hungarians to be the country’s golden age, and Mátyás himself is the most popular historical figure, as recent polls have revealed. His cult is based on the legends and tales of Hungarian folklore and persistently reinforced even by such popular cultural products as a cartoon series based on tales about the king’s good deeds when he mingled among the people in disguise. Some of these are even available in English on YouTube (e.g. King Mathias’ tale – There Was Only Once a Dog Market at Buda). His benevolent figure, who rewards the good and punishes the bad, is dear to Hungarian hearts, adults and children alike. However, it is always a risky enterprise to write about this great Renaissance king because of the myths surrounding his life and actual deeds.
The real story of his reign is much more prosaic. One thing is certain, in his lifetime he was not popular either among the ruling elite of barons, nor among his people. Though he was an elected king due to a compromise between rival factions of barons, they were condescending about his low origins. On the other hand, the people who were so nostalgic about his rule after his death surely were not happy to pay the new taxes he levied amounting to a 400% increase to finance the wars conducted by his standing army.
The clue to this paradox is that Mátyás was raised to power at a time of feudal disorder, when a strong central government was in demand. Due to his early education, he embodied all the qualities conducted by great humanists of the time. He had vision and ambition, accompanied by erudite knowledge, tactfulness and perseverance. He envisaged a strong Hungary and aspired to acquire the title of Holy Roman Emperor to counter-balance the threatening advance of the Ottoman Empire. This explains the numerous wars he conducted against the Czech and Austrian provinces. At the same time his huge Black Army secured the southern borders of the country against the Turks. His centralizing efforts included financial and administrative reforms which stabilized the country and brought prosperity not only in the economy but in the arts as well. His sumptuous court at Buda and Visegrád welcomed Italian artists, men of letters and scientists. His famous library Bibliotheca Corviniana contained about 3000 fine codices, including the works of mainly Greek and Latin authors. His fascination for the Italian Renaissance might explain his generous patronage of the arts and his choosing to marry Beatrice, the daughter of the King of Naples in 1476.
He died unexpectedly in Vienna in 1490, the city he captured from his Hapsburg rival Frederick III only five years earlier. His death left the country in disarray, since his designated heir, John Corvinus, his only child but illegitimate, was not accepted by the Hungarian nobility as their king. His lifetime achievement of a strong Hungary vanished into feudal turmoil again. Not only justice died with Mátyás, as the popular saying goes, but his empire as well. He remains the last national king since afterwards only foreign rulers reigned and the gap between the development of Hungary and Western Europe widened for centuries to come, due to a 150-year long Turkish rule, then an even longer Habsburg rule until 1918. Never again did Hungary win a war, and never did it have a ruler to match Mátyás’s qualities, which might be an explanation of the belief in all the myths surrounding his character.
As far as the dispute over his ethnic affiliation is concerned, a rare happy ending occurred in 2011 when, after a joint effort by the Hungarian and Romanian governments, Matthias’s renovated statue in Kolozsvár was unveiled to the joy of both nations.