Székesfehérvár was founded by Grand Prince Géza of the Árpád dynasty in 972. He chose this site, a patch of dry land surrounded by swamps, because it was an important commercial and military crossroad at the time. Presumably, he built a small stone castle here, with a princely palace and a church in it. According to a late medieval source, he was also buried in the town’s Szent Péter-templom [St Peter’s Church].
Later, his son King Szent István granted town rights to the settlement and proclaimed it the capital of his newly founded Kingdom of Hungary. He established a school and a monastery, and built a royal basilica and fortification around the town. Twice a year the National Assembly and Royal Legislative Days were held here. Székesfehérvár was the royal seat for hundreds of years and the coronation town of Hungary for more than 500 years.
In the 12th century, the town became an important station on the pilgrim route to the Holy Land; artisans and merchants settled here, and monastic orders were established. The town enjoyed certain privileges (probably established by King István III and confirmed by King Béla IV), so the citizens of the town enjoyed duty-free throughout the kingdom, the town played an important role in the distribution of salt and was famous for its fairs.
One of the most important events in the life of the town took place in 1222, when King András II issued the Aranybulla [Golden Charter]. The charter expresses the ideal of justice of the trinity of the free Hungarian soul, the Holy Crown and the King: their relationship to each other, to the world and to God. It defines the rights of the nobles, i.e. limits their rights, the benefits granted to the members of the king’s independent army, as well as economic measures of strategic importance for the nation. Royal compliance with the regulations of the charter was guaranteed by the ‘resistance clause’, which stated that the nobles could rebel without being guilty of disloyalty if the king violated the rules. This royal charter was a means of creating balance and thereby strengthening the Hungarian kingdom. It was the basis of the Hungarian Constitution until 1848.
“Méltó szolgálattal szerzett birtokából soha senki meg ne fosztassék.”
[Nobody should ever be deprived of his possessions earned by worthy service.]
Later on, the town suffered from repeated attacks. Luckily, in 1242, the Mongol invaders could not get close to the town through the surrounding marshes. Whereas, in 1490, the Germans captured the town, however only for a brief period. The Ottoman Empire conquered the town after a long siege in 1543 and Székesfehérvár stayed under their rule for 145 years, until 1688. They destroyed most of the town, including the royal palace and the coronation basilica. The town began to prosper again in the 18th century and became a cultural center of the region. During communist times, the town was converted into an industrial center.
Probably the most famous festival of the city is the Koronázási Ünnepi Játékok [Coronation Celebration Games] held every August in conjunction with the Hungarian State Foundation Celebrations. It is a series of events, which commemorate the great figures of the former coronation city. Each year the celebrations are themed around a different Hungarian king. The main attractions of the events are the giant puppets depicting historical figures from medieval times. Part of the events is the Koronázási Szerartásjáték [Coronation Ceremony Play], which brings to the stage the coronation and life of the monarch chosen for that year.
The Középkori Romkert [Medieval Ruin Garden] is a national memorial site with the remains of the Nagyboldogasszony-bazilika [The Basilica of the Assumption]. Its construction was initiated by Szent István shortly after the foundation of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 AD. The constructed three-aisled building with four steeples was one of the biggest churches of Europe at the time. According to archival documents, the puritan church exterior hid an outstanding interior, including ornate stone carvings, lavish mosaics as well as a rich treasury.
The basilica was one of the most significant places in Hungary in the Middle Ages. It was the coronation church of the Hungarian kings; 38 Hungarian monarchs were crowned here (the last one in 1526). In the Middle Ages, nobody could be considered the legitimate King of Hungary without fulfilling the following three criteria:
- the king must be crowned with the Holy Crown of Hungary
- the coronation must be performed by the Archbishop of Esztergom
- the coronation must take place in Székesfehérvár
King Szent István was buried in the center of the basilica in 1038. Further, 14 monarchs and several royal family members were buried in the basilica (the last one in 1540). The basilica also hosted national assemblies and glamorous royal weddings. The national treasury including the royal throne and the regalia was kept in the basilica as well as the national archive. Later on, the tombs of Szent István and his son, Szent Imre, became pilgrimage sites.
Over the centuries, the Romanesque basilica was continuously enlarged and reconstructed. Unfortunately, the Ottoman invaders put an end to this. They pillaged the royal graves and used the basilica to store gunpowder. In 1601, an explosion in combination with subsequent fires destroyed the building.
Today, the sarcophagus of King Szent István is located in a modern mausoleum. The walls of the mausoleum are decorated with the seccos of Vilmos Aba-Novák made in 1938-39. In the compositions, the painter depicts the duality of Szent István: in the mystery of the Holy Crown, he is portrayed as a ruler, whereas in the legend of the Holy Right Hand as a saint. Because of its political representation, the Communist regime whitewashed over the murals, which nearly destroyed them. They were restored and, where it was necessary, reconstructed from archive photographs. The eastern wall of the mausoleum is decorated with a colorful glass window of Lily Árkaly-Sztehlo made in 1938. Following medieval design, the composition depicts scenes from the life of the saintly king. The window was destroyed in the Second World War. It was reconstructed using the original designs.
The Országalma [Globus cruciger], located nearby the ruin garden on Városháza tér [City Hall Square], is a monument depicting one of the regalia of Hungarian kings. The inscription running around the orb reads: „Libertates Civitati Albensi a S. Rege Stephano concessæ” [The liberties of the city of Fehérvár were granted by King Szent István]. The orb is held by three lions each of them guarding a different coat of arms that of the country, the city and King András II. The three dates below the lions mark three important events in the life of the city. The date 1001 refers to the crowning of Szent István. The date 1688 refers to the end of the city’s Ottoman occupation. Whereas, the date 1938 refers to the 900th anniversary of the death of King Szent István. During the Communist regime, the upper half of the orb was removed. The monument regained its spherical shape in the 1960s. Finally, the cross was put back in 1986.
The Archaeology Collection of the Szent István Király Múzeum [King Szent István’s Museum] is housed in the former Cistercian monastery. The collection presented here takes the visitor on a journey from the Neolithic to the Ottoman times. It is divided into four themed galleries: Prehistory, Ancient Rome, Migration Period, and Medieval period. The most treasured artifacts of the collection are remains of stonework from the coronation basilica.
The Székesfehérvári Egyházmegyei Múzeum [Museum of the Diocese of Székesfehérvár] is housed in the former Franciscan monastery. The museum offers great insight into the wealth of royal and religious treasures of the region. The highlight of the exhibition is the head relic of Szent István in an ornamental silver relic case.
The Fekete Sas Patikamúzeum [Black Eagle Pharmacy Museum] has been a functioning pharmacy for 300 years. The very first pharmacist in the city took up residence at this very spot in 1688, after Hungary’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire. The shop inherited equipment and medicines from each of its many owners, which are now on display in the museum.
The Kovács Jenő Óramúzeum [Jenő Kovács Clock Museum] houses hundreds of wall-clocks, table clocks, pocket-watches, wristwatches, and even the mechanism of a 17th-century tower clock. The most famous artifact of the museum is the Musical Clock on the facade of the building. The characters of the clockworks depict legendary kings and famous figures of Hungarian history. The clock face shows 24 hours; the numbers on the light background represent the daytime hours, whereas the ones on the dark background represent the nighttime hours.
The Szent István-székesegyház [Szent István’s Cathedral] stands on the site of a Byzantine church built by Grand Prince Géza in the 10th century. It is presumed that Grand Prince Géza’s burial and Szent István’s inauguration as a ruler took place in this building. The Byzantine church was replaced by a Gothic cathedral founded by King Béla IV. In 1235, breaking with the tradition, he had his coronation in his own sanctuary instead of the coronation basilica. The building gained its current appearance in 1771. The facade is decorated with the statues of King Szent István, King Szent László and Prince Szent Imre. The interior frescoes depict scenes from Szent István’s life. The main altarpiece, painted by Vinzenz Fischer in 1775, portrays the king as he dedicates the Holy Crown representing the country for the protection of Virgin Mary.
The Szent Imre-templom [Szent Imre’s Church] was built by the Franciscans in the 18th century. The church was dedicated to Szent István’s son, Imre, who is the patron saint of youth. According to the local folklore, the church stands on the site of King Szent István’s former palace where the prince was born. The holy relic of Szent Imre was built into the foundation of the building.
The Ciszterci templom [Cistercian church] was built in 1756 by the Jesuits, who came to the city after Hungary’s liberation from the Ottoman rule. Later on, it was used by the pálosok [Paulin Order], a monastic order of the Roman Catholic Church founded in Hungary during the 13th century. Finally, in 1813, it was obtained by the Cistercians. The furniture in the sacristy is one of the most beautiful in Europe. The Rococo-style woodcarvings were crafted by a Pauline monk, John Hyngeller, between 1764 and 1767.
The Bory vár [Bory Castle] is a peculiar castle-like building complex in the suburbs of Székesfehérvár. It belonged to Jenő Bory, who was a Hungarian sculptor, painter and architect. He built the castle with his own hands; starting the construction in 1923 and working on it until his death in 1959. He considered the castle as his own masterpiece, not so much as a building but preferably a statue. Even though he was an architect, he did not follow blueprints but rather relied on his imagination.
The edifice is decorated with his and his wife’s artworks, an eclectic collection of statues, paintings, and mosaics, some of them appearing in the most unexpected places. The sculptures depicting the legendary figures of Hungarian history, situated on the castle-walls running around the hundred-column courtyard, are exceptionally striking. Probably the most popular ornament of the castle is the elephant symbolically holding the castle on its back while balancing on a sphere.
At present, the building functions as a memorial and museum with the works of art created by him and his wife as well as other contemporary artists. The castle with its unusual atmosphere offers a unique experience to visitors.
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