On this date in 1457, Hungary lost a young prospective statesman and gained a national martyr.
A tale of noble bloodshed begins as so many do with a contested succession, this one amid the confusing feudal geometry of central Europe in the shadow of the rising Ottoman Empire. The untimely (albeit unsurprising) death in battle of warlike Albert II of Germany put the crown in the hands of a son born four months after his demise — the memorably named Ladislaus the Posthumous.
Effective government, needless to say, was in the hands of more senior gentlemen: the ambitious Slovenian-Croatian count Ulrich II and the able Hungarian commander John Hunyadi.* With two strapping Hunyadi boys who were contemporaries with the nominal king, it was only a matter of time before someone wound up dead.
Hunyadi pere saw it all coming. On his deathbed in 1456, he warned his children never to find themselves both together with Ladislaus.
Events moved fast after John Hunyadi’s passing. The Posthumous, now a teenager, set Hunyadi’s longtime rival up against the boys’ claim, but Laszlo, the elder brother, killed Ulrich. Ladislaus — answering the exigencies of the moment but possibly also sincerely relieved to be rid of his overbearing uncle — immediately pardoned the killer and offered to have him over to court.
Dad would have said, “I told you so.”
Upon arrival, Laszlo was seized, sentenced to death by a kangaroo court, and summarily beheaded. The most melodramatic version has the beheading botched three times and Laszlo demanding a reprieve on the grounds that heaven had attested his innocence by preserving him. Ladislaus had his guys keep at it until heaven threw in the towel.
The Buried Lead
So, hard going for some noble tit in the borderlands 551 years ago. What’s the relevance? Why, when Hungarian artists of the 19th century groped for an expression of national identity did they hark back to unlucky Laszlo on canvas …
… and in opera?
The answer is less to do with Laszlo’s own qualities, courageous though they may have been.
A few months after having the young man put to death, Ladislaus himself died suddenly. Contemporaries suspected poison; others thought cosmic justice punished him for breaking faith. Modern science — vulture, whose wings are dull realities! — fingers something as unromantic as a medical condition.
One way or another, Ladislaus really was Posthumous, and into the empty throne stepped Laszlo’s 15-year-old brother Matthias — who had been more judicious about his head than his brother. Matthias would reign for 32 years and enter Hungarian folklore as “Matthias the Just”.
The long and adroit span of Matthias’ career and his father’s combined to immortalize the Hunyadi name (which fell extinct after Matthias’ passing before it could produce any buzzkilling scions of more doubtful abilities) as synonymous with Hungary’s golden age.
Laszlo’s reputation mostly just comes along for the ride — had, say, Ladislaus enjoyed Matthias’ run, the elimination of a boyhood rival would have been chalked down to the regrettable griminess of the day’s political reality; had some other claimant followed him to the throne, the Hunyadi name would never have had the luster to make him an attractive operatic subject.
A Symbol of National Rebirth
But they’re called “counterfactuals” for a reason: it may have happened by chance, but it did happen that Laszlo Hunyadi’s martyrology, in the victim’s very name, conveniently totes to the present day a pleasing theme of national redemption and greatness.
In the national mythology the Hunyadi family’s descent into the underworld is symbolized by the fate of Laszlo Hunyadi, the firstborn of Janos Hunyadi who was 10 years Matyas’s senior. His life and death were preserved in the collective memory of the nation not as an independent legend but as the middle part of an imaginary trilogy about the Hunyadis. Laszlo Negyessy wrote that the opera Hunyadi Laszlo “has an air of incompleteness because the story is suspended at a point where all our senses appeal for continuation. However, this continuation and poetic justice is served in our national memory.”
Here is Erkel’s celebrated funeral march (“Gyaszindulo”) rendering the victim’s journey to his scaffold this day — the non-choral prelude to his mother’s dramatic plea for his life in the video above, and one of the signature compositions of Hungarian music**:[audio:Hunyadi_Laszlo_funeral_march.mp3]
* John (Janos) Hunyadi wasn’t above meddling with the neighbors himself. Hungary figures as a bully of the kingdom of Wallachia (modern Romania) at this time; John Hunyadi deposed the father of, then (in the course of political alignment) helped raise to Wallachia’s throne, Vlad the Impaler, the sort-of historical model (and apparent historical namesake) for the vampire Dracula. When Vlad Dracula was deposed in turn, he fled to the protection of Matthias Hunyadi.
** Erkel also wrote the Hungarian national anthem.