Székesfehérvár was founded by Grand Prince Géza of the Árpád dynasty in 972. He selected this location – a patch of dry land surrounded by swamps – due to its strategic significance as an important commercial and military crossroad at the time. Presumably, Géza constructed a small stone castle at this site, along with a princely palace and a church. According to a late medieval source, he was also buried in the town’s Szent Péter-templom [St Peter’s Church].
Following Géza’s death, his son King Szent István granted town rights to the settlement and declared it the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary, which he had recently established. He founded a school and a monastery, and built a royal basilica and fortification around the town. Moreover, the National Assembly and Royal Legislative Days convened here twice a year. Székesfehérvár served as the seat of the Hungarian monarchy for hundreds of years and hosted coronation ceremonies for over 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 received special privileges, most likely established by King István III and confirmed by King Béla IV, which granted duty-free status to its citizens throughout the kingdom. Székesfehérvár played a crucial role in the distribution of salt and became well-known for its fairs.
One of the most significant events in the history of the city occurred in 1222 when King András II issued the Aranybulla [Golden Charter]. The charter expresses the ideal of justice of the trinity consisting of the free Hungarian soul, the Holy Crown, and the King, and their relationships with each other, the world, and God. It set forth the rights of the nobility, while placing certain limits on their powers, and outlined the benefits granted to members of the king’s independent army. Additionally, it included economic measures that were of strategic importance to the nation. The charter’s ‘resistance clause’ ensured the king’s compliance with its regulations, stating that the nobles could rebel without being guilty of disloyalty if the king violated the rules. The Aranybulla was a means of creating balance and thereby strengthening the Hungarian kingdom, and later served as the foundation of the Hungarian Constitution until 1848.
“Méltó szolgálattal szerzett birtokából soha senki meg ne fosztassék.”
[Let no one ever be deprived of the property acquired by worthy service.]
The town suffered from repeated attacks throughout its history. Fortunately, in 1242, the Mongol invaders were unable to reach the town due to the surrounding marshes. Whereas, in 1490, the Germans captured the town, however only for a brief period. After a long siege, the Ottoman Empire conquered the town in 1543 and it remained under their rule for 145 years until 1688. The Ottomans destroyed much of the town, including the royal palace and the coronation basilica. In the 18th century, Székesfehérvár began to prosper again and became a cultural center of the region. During the communist era, the town was transformed into an industrial center.
Most tourists visit Székesfehérvár today primarily in search of their roots. The city is home to several museums, galleries, and baroque churches. The eccentric Bory vár [Bory Castle], built by a local artist in the 20th century, is a must-visit attraction for those seeking something unique. The city hosts various events throughout the year, with the most famous being the Koronázási Ünnepi Játékok [Coronation Celebration Games] held in August as part of the Hungarian State Foundation Celebrations. It is a series of events, which honors the great figures of the former coronation city, with different Hungarian king being the theme each year. As part of the festival, during the evenings, the Koronázási Szerartásjáték [Coronation Ceremony Play] brings to the stage the coronation and life of the chosen monarch. The main attractions of the events are the giant puppets depicting historical figures from medieval times.
The Középkori Romkert [Medieval Ruin Garden] is a national memorial site that houses the remains of the Nagyboldogasszony-bazilika [The Basilica of the Assumption]. The basilica’s construction was initiated by Szent István shortly after the foundation of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 AD. The basilica was a three-aisled building with four steeples and was one of the biggest churches of Europe at the time. Although the exterior of the church was puritan, the interior was adorned with ornate stone carvings, lavish mosaics, and had a rich treasury, as evidenced by archival documents.
The basilica held great significance in Hungary during the Middle Ages as it was the coronation church for Hungarian kings. A total of 38 Hungarian monarchs were crowned there, with the last coronation taking place in 1526. In the Middle Ages, in order for a monarch to be considered the legitimate King of Hungary, the following three criteria had to be fulfilled:
- the king had to be crowned with the Holy Crown of Hungary
- the coronation had to be performed by the Archbishop of Esztergom
- the coronation had to take place in Székesfehérvár
King Szent István was buried in the center of the basilica in 1038, and 14 other monarchs, along with several members of the royal family, were also laid to rest there, with the last burial taking place in 1540. The basilica also served as a venue for national assemblies and grand royal weddings. Additionally, it housed the national treasury, including the royal throne and regalia, and the national archive. The tombs of Szent István and his son, Szent Imre, later became pilgrimage sites.
The Romanesque basilica underwent several enlargements and reconstructions over the centuries. Unfortunately, the Ottoman invaders put an end to this. They pillaged the royal graves and used the basilica to store gunpowder. Eventually, in 1601, an explosion, followed by fires, resulted in the destruction of the building.
The sarcophagus of King Szent István can be found in a modern mausoleum today. The walls of the mausoleum are decorated with the seccos of Vilmos Aba-Novák made between 1938-39. In these paintings, the duality of Szent István is depicted; as a ruler in the mystery of the Holy Crown and as a saint in the legend of the Holy Right Hand. The Communist regime, due to its political representation, whitewashed over the murals, nearly destroying them. However, they were later restored and, where necessary, reconstructed from archive photographs. The eastern wall of the mausoleum features a colorful stained-glass window of Lily Árkaly-Sztehlo, which was made in 1938 in accordance with medieval design. The window illustrates scenes from the life of the saintly king. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during World War II, but it was later reconstructed using the original designs.
The Országalma [Globus cruciger], a monument depicting one of the regalia of Hungarian kings, is located near the ruin garden. The orb bears the inscription „Libertates Civitati Albensi a S. Rege Stephano concessæ” [The liberties of the city of Fehérvár were granted by King Szent István]. It is held by three lions, each guarding a different coat of arms: those of the country, the city, and King András II. Below the lions, there are three dates marking important events in the city’s history: 1001, the crowning of Szent István; 1688, the end of the city’s Ottoman occupation; and 1938, the 900th anniversary of the death of King Szent István. During the Communist regime, the upper half of the orb was removed, but the monument regained its spherical shape in the 1960s, and finally, the cross was reinstalled in 1986.
The Archaeology Collection of the Szent István Király Múzeum [Museum of King Szent István] is housed in the former Cistercian monastery and takes 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 the stonework remains of the coronation basilica.
The Székesfehérvári Egyházmegyei Múzeum [Museum of the Diocese of Székesfehérvár] is located in the former Franciscan monastery. The museum offers a great insight into the wealth of the royal and religious treasures of the region. The highlight of the exhibition is the ornamental silver relic case containing the head relic of Szent István.
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 spot in 1688, after Hungary’s liberation from the Ottoman Empire. The museum now displays equipment and medicines inherited from each of the shop’s many owners over the centuries.
The Kovács Jenő Óramúzeum [Jenő Kovács Clock Museum] features an extensive collection of timepieces, including wall-clocks, table clocks, pocket-watches, wristwatches, as well as the mechanism of a 17th-century tower clock. The most famous artifact in the museum is the Musical Clock mounted on the building’s facade. The characters of the clockworks depict legendary kings and famous figures of Hungarian history. The clock face displays 24 hours, with the numbers on the light background representing daytime hours, while the ones on the dark background indicating nighttime hours.
The Szent István-székesegyház [Szent István Cathedral] stands on the site of a Byzantine church built by Grand Prince Géza in the 10th century. It is believed that the grand prince was buried in this church and his son Szent István was inaugurated as a ruler here. The Byzantine church was eventually replaced by a Gothic cathedral founded by King Béla IV. In 1235, the king broke with tradition and had his coronation in his own sanctuary rather than the coronation basilica. The building was later renovated in 1771, taking on its current appearance. The facade is decorated with statues of King Szent István, King Szent László and Prince Szent Imre. Inside, frescoes depict scenes from Szent István’s life. The main altarpiece, painted by Vinzenz Fischer in 1775, portrays the king offering the Holy Crown, representing the country, to the Virgin Mary for protection.
The Szent Imre-templom [Church of Szent Imre] was constructed by the Franciscans in the 18th century. The church was dedicated to Szent István’s son, Imre, who is revered as 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 is believed to be incorporated into the foundation of the building.
The Ciszterci templom [Cistercian church] was built in 1756 by the Jesuits, who arrived in the city after Hungary’s liberation from the Ottoman rule. The church was later passed on to the pálosok [Paulin Order], a monastic order of the Roman Catholic Church founded in Hungary during the 13th century. Finally, it was obtained by the Cistercians in 1813. The furniture in the sacristy is one of the most beautiful in Europe, featuring Rococo-style woodcarvings that were crafted by a Pauline monk John Hyngeller between 1764 and 1767.
The Bory vár [Bory Castle] is a peculiar complex resembling a castle, situated in the suburbs of Székesfehérvár. It was owned by Jenő Bory, 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. Rather than regarding it as a mere building, he considered the castle as his own masterpiece, akin to a statue. Despite his background in architecture, he chose not to follow blueprints and instead relied on his imagination to design the castle.
The edifice is adorned with artworks created by Jenő Bory and his wife, an eclectic collection of statues, paintings, and mosaics, some of which are placed in the most unexpected places. The sculptures depicting the legendary figures of Hungarian history, located on the castle walls that enclose the hundred-column courtyard, are particularly striking. The most beloved ornament of the castle is the elephant, which symbolically supports the castle on its back while balancing on a sphere.
Currently, the building functions as a memorial and museum, showcasing the works of art created by Jenő Bory and his wife, as well as those of other contemporary artists. The castle’s unusual atmosphere provides a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors.
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