The 19th-century political modernisation of Hungary was led by the land’s nobles, who championed the expansion of the nobility and its liberties. From the 14th century onward, every nobleman in the Kingdom of Hungary had ‘one and the same liberty’ (unus eademque libertas), as declared by the Golden Bull of 1222 and confirmed by Louis the Great, king of Hungary and Poland in 1351. Since feudalism did not exist in Hungary, every nobleman was equal in his political rights, regardless of native language or place of birth, while the largely German-speaking urban population insisted on local privileges instead of any universal standard. Those who claimed involvement in the political body claimed too the rights, liberties, and prestige of the nobility. This is why in the 19th century non-Hungarian ethnic groups assimilated into the Hungarus nobility, instead of German-speaking urban society. In Hungary, then, modern political society did not emerge from urban political claims and institutions, and the 1222 Golden Bull was seen as one of the most important documents in the development of the Hungarian political community of politically free and equal people.
The Golden Bull is a unique charter, as it was issued as a result of popular movements of the servientes, the common nobility, to defend and restore supposedly old customs and liberties, in the face of activities of the king and barons they perceived as harmful. After the abolition of the ius resistendi by Parliament in 1687, the Golden Bull was excavated from the past by Hungarian historians of the 18th century, who linked it to the Magna Carta and interpreted it as the ancient basis of Hungarian political liberty, a liberty they said the Habsburg kings ought to respect.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the kings of Hungary led the common nobility on numerous expeditions into what is now Poland and Ukraine, granting land and even entire counties to new, foreign-born Germanic barons who aided them both abroad and within the borders of the kingdom, unsuccessfully attempting to integrate them with the local nobility into a feudal system (a form then unknown in Hungary).
Gertrude of Merania and Andrew depicted in the 13th-century Landgrafenpsalter from the Landgraviate of Thuringia.
At the turn into the 13th century, Andrew II’s Germanic wife Gertrud and her relatives and courtiers ruled the country against the local barons, siding with the king’s brother in a dynastic conflict. The bestowal of land to barons in order to buy their loyalties only reinforced the discontent growing in the country. Andrew’s son Bela ultimately appealed to Pope Honorius the Third to help force the restoration of lands to the crown and a return to the old state of affairs (ad priorem statum).
In 1222 all this disorder finally resulted in a peace agreement, a Golden Bull, likely in response to a petition of the servientes (common nobles). The bull stated that:
- The king or the Lord Mayor have to umpire in Alba Regia in every year on St. Stephen’s Day (founder king of Hungary), and administer justice, listen to everyone and every nobleman can freely visit this meeting.
- The nobles and their properties shall not be subject to taxes and any burdens.
- No nobleman shall be either arrested or punished for a crime, unless he got a fair trial. In those cases where a nobleman was threatened by decapitation or confiscation of his property, could be judged only by the consent of the king. County comes shouldn’t judge nobleman.
- King’s people not tyrannize the habitants of the kingdom and tyrannizing comes (military and administrative head of county) has to be punished and from his office.
The preamble of the Golden Bull explains the wrongs it sets out to right:
As the liberties of the nobility, and of certain other natives of these realms, founded by King Stephen the Saint, have suffered great detriment and curtailment by the violence of sundry kings impelled by their own evil propensities, by the cravings of their insatiable cupidity and by the advice of certain malicious persons, and as the nobiles of the country had preferred frequent petitions for the confirmation of the constitution of these realms; so that, in utter contempt of the royal authority, violent discussions and accusations had arisen … the King declares he is now willing to confirm and maintain, for all times to come, the nobility and freemen of the country in all their rights, privileges, and immunities, as provided by the statutes of St. Stephen.
Seeing the danger posed by barons, privileged foreign courtiers and counsellors and influential moneylenders, the servientes preferred to be free under the king. Later on, limiting the king’s authority became the way to defend liberties, but at that time, being under the king’s authority was itself a liberty. After the infallible holy kings of the 11th century and the dynastical quarrels and changes of the 12th, the rhetoric of ‘old fine liberties and customs’ gave rise to an absolutely new concept of political authority: limited government and the sanctioned right to resistance.
As in comparable cases like those of England and Aragon, the Golden Bull of Hungary refers to the defence of “ancient laws and liberties,” but there is no evidence of such precedent in prior Hungarian written or customary law. Despite its rhetorical posture, this golden bull was evidently an innovation with ideas imported from abroad. The Byzantine golden bull (chrysobullon), written in red and marked with a golden seal, was already well known in Christian West in the 12th century, and multiple such bulls had already been promulgated in Hungary by the 13th. These bulls usually granted privileges to the Church, such as concessions of land, tax exemption, or the right to submit solely to the king instead of the local authority. The Hungarian Golden Bulls provided legal and tax liberties to the nobility, defending servientes from the barons and protecting the local people against foreigners.
Study of Hungary’s Golden Bulls has focused on questions of influence—whether they were influenced by the English Magna Carta, the Bull of Aragon, or the law of the kingdom of Jerusalem. More concretely, the research has focused on the origin of the idea of ius resistendi, which was really new in Hungary as there is no record of this concept, even in the unwritten customs of Hungarians. But though the ius resistendi of the Magna Carta and the clause of resistance of the Golden Bull have been connected regularly, in spite of their political similarities there is no serious textual connection between them.
The problem of this era was how to interpret and deal with the evil actions of a king. The ancient wisdom that no one can be his own judge (nemo iudex in causa sua) was reinforced by the theological position of St. Augustine, whose De civitate Dei taught that sinful people need a worldly magistrate to oppress their sinful lust and impose some worldly order. As original sin was the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God’s commands, obedience was the duty of any good Christian, especially since Jesus taught “That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39). In this context of non resistere malo, the unjust ruler and rebellion were equally unacceptable for different reasons, but both were seen as unlawful. The solution was to fall back on the Ciceronian reference to the tyrant who broke the good old rules and customs, while the common people merely resisted him. Resistance, then, meant that the not-absolutely morally corrupt people defend the law of God and the old laws in the not-absolutely morally corrupt world against the violent law-breaking of a tyrannical king. Though King Andrew was never named a tyrant outright, many tyrannical infractions were cited against him: unbridled bestowal of lands, breaking of old customs, rule by foreigners (Germans), and new and arbitrary taxes collected by foreigners (Jews and Muslims). Logically, it may follow that:
- Resistance is not rebellious, rather the tyrant is rebellious against the laws of God and the kingdom, and
- Resistance against the innovator ruler is for the sake of old customs and liberties.
The famous Article 31. does not use the word ‘right;’ this is a rather modern interpretation of the article: “if he or any of his successors shall ever be found to transgress the provisions of this bill, the bishops, the high dignitaries, and the whole of the nobility, for all time to come, shall, by virtue of this bill, be entitled and empowered, jointly and severally, to oppose and contradict the king and his successors after him, as the case may be, without for so doing incurring the penalties of high treason.” That is: “liberam habeant… resistendi et contradicendi facultatem,” and this refers to the political community and its every member. Definitely, there was not a person, a function, or institution named to practise resistance or to judge others resisting practice.
Papal power reached its zenith under Innocent the Third, who wielded feudal power over Hungary, England, and Aragon. It is worth noting that some form of the ius resistendi, that is the limitation of king’s authority by the consensus of political society, emerged in these three countries where there was a strong papal influence. Traditionally, the kings of Hungary supported the popes against the German-Roman emperors, particularly during the reign of Emmerich—Andrew’s elder brother.
The original 1222 Golden Bull was sent to the Pope, but he never confirmed it. Despite the lack of papal approval, the first Golden Bull became established, it was referred to already in 1318 and reinforced by Louis the Great (in 1351), by his daughter, Queen Mary (in 1384), his son-in-law, Sigismund of Luxemburg (in 1397), Vladislav the First (in 1440), and also Matthias Corvinus (in 1464). But we do not know of any efforts to call upon this resistance clause during the 13th-15th centuries. In fact, the ius resistendi was not in force over the flourishing period of the 14th to 15th centuries.
After the death of the last strong king, Matthias Corvinus, a Hungarian law scholar named Itsván Werbőczy collected the laws of Hungary and published them in 1514. The problem of the tyrannical king became acute after Werbőczy’s era, during the religious wars of the Reformation: in Hungary the first reference to the ius resistendi is from Stephan Bocskai, who successfully fought against the Catholic Habsburg king to defend his property, the old liberties of Hungary, and the Protestant cause in 1604. The next reference to this right appears in Thököly’s failed attempt to defend his properties and the Protestant cause against the Habsburgs in 1684.
After the expulsion of the Ottomans from the kingdom, the Hungarian parliament gave up the ius resistendi in §1 of the Act IV of 1687, and it was removed from the Conation Oath as well. In exchange, the Habsburg king reconfirmed the other articles of the Golden Bull. Transylvania was an independent principality after the collapse of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1526, continuing the institutional and constitutional heritage of the kingdom. After the death of the last prince, Transylvania was taken by the Habsburgs, and the ius resistendi was cancelled there too by the Diploma Leopoldinum (1691).
In the 18th century, the problem of an unjust, tyrannical king became once again acute with Joseph the Second, an enlightened absolutist ruler who openly stood against the law of the country and was never even crowned and therefore never made the Coronation Oath to uphold the country’s laws. Joseph set in motion rationalistic and enlightened reforms intended to create a new order openly against everything seen as old. During his 10-year-reign he issued around 10,000 such orders. When the French people started a revolution against their king in 1789, the Hungarian nobility started a successful counter-revolution—probably the first one ever—called ‘noble-national resistance’ to reclaim the old laws and liberties in the face of Joseph the Second’s enlightened innovations. Finally, Joseph was forced to rescind all of his orders but two. The other important result of this movement against the enlightened king was the Act X of 1791, which stated that the Kingdom of Hungary was an independent state that had to be ruled by its own laws. This insistence on the kingdom’s own laws was so important that it was reinforced in 1827 by Franz the First, and it was one of the key ideas behind the political modernization of Hungary in 1848 and 1867.
Joseph II (right) with his brother Peter Leopold (1769), a 173 × 122.5 cm oil on canvas by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1797 ), located in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
As one can see, the ius resistendi strictly speaking was called upon only a few times in Hungarian history, and only resulted in military conflict between the king and the nobility twice in the 17th century, when it merged with the Protestant idea of Christian freedom. Still, the habit of resistance has been continuous.
The Golden Bull was interpreted as a kind of constitutional paper during the formation of the modern political community of Hungary over the 18th-20th centuries. In these cases, referring to the Golden Bull, and the ius resistendi it contained, was a claim for old customs, liberties, and institutions against innovation, that is, tyrannical foreign government (in 1789 against Joseph’s innovations, and against Franz Joseph’s innovations after 1849). Ius resistendi was mainly used as an argument to defend liberty instead of creating it, because innovation is tyrannical, while liberty is traditional.
From the point of view of the subsequent centuries, the ius resistendi was less important in practical politics than the annual meeting of the king and nobility on St. Stephan’s Day. By ordering the relationship between the king and the political community, this charter was an important step in the emergence of the political community of Hungary. The text, in the context of resistance, is one of the earliest in Hungary mentioning political community (universitatis): “tam episcopi, quam alii iobagiones ac nobiles regni nostri universi et singuli” (both the bishops and the other warriors and nobles of our kingdom, together and individually). Similarly, in case of foreign invasion everyone and the whole political community are obliged to go to war (universi et singuli ad defensionem patriae contra inimicos) (together and individually to the defense of our fatherland against the enemy). I guess it is not necessary to emphasise the importance of the Golden Bull in creating the political community.