Catherine of Poděbrad: between marriage and war in 15th-century Central Europe

In the fifteenth century, Central Europe was briefly reigned by two non-dynastic monarchs, George of Poděbrad (Bohemia) and Matthias Corvinus (Bohemia and Hungary). In an attempt to consolidate their power, Matthias married George’s daughter Catherine, but great misfortune left both families empty-handed.  George of Poděbrad (Cz.: Jiří z Poděbrad) became the first Hussite King of Bohemia in 1458. His father, Victor, was a lesser nobleman who partook in the Hussite Wars (1419-1434) as the leader of a moderate Utraquist faction. The wars saw the more radical Hussites defeated and produced a compromise between the moderate Bohemians and the Catholics, notably the Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of Hungary, united under Sigismund of Luxembourg.

George soon became the leader of the Hussites. At the time, Bohemia was split into two parties; the Poděbrad-led Hussites and the pro-Romans, led by Ulrich of Rosenberg. In 1448 George sought military measures to reunite the country, marching on Prague and conquering the capital with virtually no resistance. George rid Prague of its catholic lords and officials and was able to consolidate his power in the ensuing wars with mostly German gentry.

Sigismund Holy Roman Emperor was succeeded by Albert in 1437, the first of the House of Habsburg on the Bohemian as well as the Hungarian throne. However, Albert died soon after ascending to the throne, in 1439. His son Ladislaus, who was born posthumously, was obviously too young to reign, thus starting an interregnum period in Central-Europe, which saw Bohemia governed by landlords headed by George. while in Hungary John Hunyadi was appointed regent.

The young Ladislaus had an influential guardian in Emperor Frederick III as a minor, but made little friends in Bohemia and Hungary alike. In Bohemia he was crowned king in 1453, but his pro-Roman sympathies made him very unpopular. In Hungary, he untactfully had former regent John Hunyadi’s son Ladislaus executed, which sparkled an uprising against the infant monarch. The Emperor fled to first Vienna, then to Prague, taking with him a young Matthias, Hunyadi’s second son. In Prague, George of Poděbrad held Matthias captive.

When Ladislaus the Posthumous unexpectedly died in 1457 at age seventeen, it left a vacancy on both the Bohemian and Hungarian throne, which would be filled by two non-dynastic nobleman, who became enemies as well as allies in the years following. In Bohemia, George was elected king unanimously by the Bohemian estates in 1458, who even acquired the support of papists, as they disfavoured a foreigner on the throne and put up with George’s moderate religious politics. In Hungary, Matthias Corvinus (Hun. Hunyadi Mátyás), John’s son and Ladislaus’ brother, was appointed king aged only fourteen.

After Matthias was elected king, the Hungarians sent bishop and diplomat John Vitéz to Prague to retrieve their new king. Matthias was released, on condition that he marry George’s daughter Kunigunda (later Latinized Catherine), who was merely eight years old at the time. Matthias was strongly backed by George and was able to withstand Frederick III’s ambitions to the throne with his the support. However, Catherine would become a toy in the Central-European politics of the fifteenth centuries.

Catherine leaving her parents to join Matthias in Hungary

Catherine leaving her parents to join Matthias in Hungary

As girls were not allowed to marry until reaching the age of twelve, Catherine had to wait several years to wed Matthias, after coming to Hungary in 1461. They hardly ever lived a happy family life as Matthias and George developed an ever-growing enmity in the turbulent years to follow.

At the begin of the 1460s Matthias was continuously engaged in war with the Ottomans, who targeted the Balkans uninterruptedly. Meanwhile, Emperor Frederick III, wanting to take advantage of the Ottoman distraction, staged a coup against Matthias with the support of as much as thirty Hungarian noblemen. In the meantime George, who sided with the Habsburgs, renewed a conflict which involved Bohemian mercenaries attacking Hungarian stronghold in Upper Hungary (present-day Slovakia) – even though Catherine married Matthias in 1463.

George and Matthias negotiating

George and Matthias negotiating

Neglecting the Ottomans for a while, Matthias now took up arms against Frederick, with whom he was able to negotiate a favourable peace treaty, which returned the Holy Crown of Hungary to Corvinus and practically ended the northern conflict, but did grant Frederick the right to succeed Matthias if he died before leaving a heir to the throne. In 1464, twenty-one days before Matthias coronation with the Holy Crown, Queen Catherine Poděbrad of Hungary died in childbirth, along with her new-born son.

Now completely alienated from his father in-law, devout catholic Matthias eagerly used George’s radicalizing anti-papal policies to invade Bohemia in 1468 with the consent of Pope Paul II – his true aim to depose George of the Bohemian throne. The Bohemian-Hungarian War, which lasted for ten years had Matthias conquer the lands of Moravia and Silesia. Matthias had prepared one of Europe’s first professional militaries, the Black Army, which was victorious time and time again, but proved not to be strong enough to capture Prague.

George of Poděbrad died in 1471 and was succeeded by Vladislaus Jagiellon, a Polish prince. Vladislaus was able to settle a peace treaty with Matthias in 1478, which allowed both kings to style themselves as King of Bohemia, while it also promised Vladislaus the return of Moravia and Silesia in case of Matthias’ death in exchange for 400,000 florins.

Frederick III had backed Matthias earlier against George, on the pretext of defending Catholicism, but switched sides after Vladislaus started his reign. Greatly angered, Matthias started a war against the Austrians, in which he marched on Vienna, his Black Army completely humiliating the Habsburgs from 1478 until 1488.

Matthias had now made immense territorial gains, but died unexpectedly in 1490. With Matthias failng to produce a legitimate heir to the throne and the sick and elderly Frederick unavailable, the Hungarian noblemen turned to Vladislaus, who became King of Hungary – uniting Bohemia and Hungary in personal union once again.

Sources:

  • Kubinyi, A., “John Vitéz’ and John Pannonius’ politics at the time of Matthias’ reign.” In: Bartók, I., Jankovits, L. and Kecskeméti, G. (eds.): Humanista műveltség Pannóniában  (Hungarian), Pécs: University of Pécs Press (2000), pp. 7–26.
  • Smith, A., “National Identity and the Idea of European Unity” In: International Affairs  Vol. 68, No. 1 (1992), pp. 55–76.
  • Klaniczay, T.,  “The age of Matthias Corvinus”. In Porter, Roy; Teich, Mikuláš. The Renaissance in National Context. Cambridge University Press (1992), pp. 164–179.
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