By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
ABOUT THE YEAR 895, THE MAGYARS, a federation of nomadic tribes whose origin was in the distant forests of Siberia, crossed the Carpathian Mountains led by a chieftain named Árpád (c. 845-907), and occupied the wide, fertile Danubian basin. Known to the Romans as “Pannonia”, this region had seen the rise and fall of the Huns, the Goths, the Avars, and others.
Magyar warriors were horse archers, a skill that takes years of training and constant practice to master. They were valued as allies in the wars of the Franks and the Byzantines. During the 10th century they became fearsome raiders, looting and pillaging across much of Europe. They abandoned their predatory ways following a crushing defeat in 955 by the armored knights of the German emperor Otto “the Great” (ruled 936-973) at Lechfeld in Bavaria.
Few medieval coins would win a numismatic beauty contest, but their stories give us insight into the brutal “game of thrones” that characterized this turbulent era.
A descendant of Árpád, Stephen (István in Hungarian) was born about 975. Stephen (Stephanus in Latin, which appears on his coins) was his baptismal name; originally he was named Vajk. The Catholic Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople competed fiercely over which would convert the pagan Magyars. Rome won out, and Stephen was crowned as the first Hungarian king in 1000 (or 1001). As a symbol of sovereignty, he received from the German emperor a replica of the Holy Lance.
This relic appears on a rare silver denar, probably issued at the royal capital, Esztergom, for Stephen’s coronation. The type was unknown until the discovery of about 40 pieces in a mixed hoard in 1968 (now in the National Museum in Budapest). An example appeared at auction in 2011, realizing €34,000 (about $48,816) against an estimate of €15,000. On the obverse, a hand grasps the spear, adorned with a fringed pennant. The Latin inscription is LANCEA REGIS (“Spear of the King”). The reverse shows the facade of a church topped with a cross, with the inscription +REGIA CIVITAS (“Royal city”).
Stephen’s common regular coinage began around 1020, crude denars modeled on contemporary German coins, both sides bearing a short cross with wedges in the angles, the obverse inscribed +STEPHANUS REX (“King Stephen”), the reverse +REGIA CIVITAS. Examples can be found for under $200.
“The letters are straggly and badly formed, as if made by workmen to whom writing was unfamiliar (Grierson, 76).”
Stephen died in 1038. His son, Emeric (Imre in Hungarian,) predeceased him, succession passing to his sister’s son, Peter Orseolo, who had been raised in Venice. Stephen was canonized by Pope Gregory VII as a saint in 1083. His feast day (August 20) is a public holiday in Hungary.
As a foreigner, Peter (Velencei Péter, “Peter the Venetian” in Hungarian) proved unpopular.
He favored Italian and German courtiers, alienating Hungarian nobles. In 1041 he was deposed in a pagan uprising, led by Samuel Aba. Restored with the aid of German troops in 1044, he lasted only two years, being overthrown and blinded in another pagan uprising. A Byzantine custom, blinding (which rendered the victim ineligible for the throne) was considered more merciful than execution.
Peter’s common denars are inscribed PANNONIA on the reverse, the ancient Latin name for the region.
Samuel Aba was a high official, possibly of Kabar origin, under King Stephen and was removed by King Peter. When Peter was overthrown in 1041, the nobles made Samuel king. Fortunately, his tyrannical rule was brief; he was defeated and killed in 1044 by an invading German army.
As such, his coins are scarce. The name of the country on the reverse is misspelled PANONEIA, suggesting that the standard of literacy was in decline.
Andrew (András in Hungarian) a nephew of King Stephen, came to the throne in 1046 when rebels overthrew the unpopular Peter Orseolo. He refused allegiance to the German emperor, Henry III, who invaded Hungary without success in 1051 and 1052. Andrew’s wife, Anastasia, was the daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kyiv. In 1060 during a revolt by his younger brother, Béla, Andrew died in captivity from wounds sustained in battle.
Andrew’s coins, inscribed +REX ANDREAS are relatively common.
Born c. 1015, Béla lived in exile in Bohemia and Poland, marrying the daughter of Polish king Mieszko II (reigned 1025-1031). When his brother Andrew became king of Hungary in 1046, Béla ruled about a third of the kingdom as duke, issuing coins in his own name. His ducal coins, inscribed +BELA DUX, are more common than royal ones (+BELA REX) issued after he seized the throne in 1060 from his brother. The ancient tribal tradition of succession from older brother to younger brother was in conflict with the Western custom of succession from father to son.
A big man who was nicknamed “The Bison” (Bölény Béla) he was mortally injured in 1063 when his wooden throne collapsed under him.
Exiled when his father Andrew died in 1060, Solomon (Salamon in Hungarian) took power with the aid of German troops in 1063. His reign was a long struggle against his cousin Duke Géza, who seized the throne in 1074. Solomon retained control of two western counties and spent the rest of his life in futile attempts to regain power, dying in 1087.
His coins bear a crude, half-length facing image of the king, hands raised in prayer. Spelling of the country’s name on the short-cross reverse varies: PANNONENIA, PANONIA TERA, and PANONAI.
Eldest son of Béla I, Géza ruled a large duchy on the northern border of the kingdom (now part of Slovakia). For his coronation, Géza received a gold and enamel crown from Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Doukas, still treasured as the lower part of the Holy Crown of Hungary.
His coinage as duke (1064-1074) is more common than his scarce royal issues (1074-1077) inscribed GEVCA REX. Géza died in April 1077 and his brother Ladislaus (László in Hungarian) became king.
Second son of Béla I, Ladislaus was born in exile in Poland. A gifted military leader, he commanded the army of his brother, King Géza. Géza’s sons were minors when he died, so Ladislaus became king in 1077.
While most of his predecessors issued only one or two types of denar, at least 10 different designs are known for Ladislaus, including a crowned head, various crosses, and three rods or scepters.
Ladislaus died without a male heir. In 1192 he was canonized by Pope Celestine III. Ladislaus’ daughter Piroska married the Byzantine emperor John II Komnenos (ruled 1118-1143) and was later canonized by the Orthodox Church as Saint Irene.
Son of Géza I, Coloman “the Learned” (Könyves Kálmán in Hungarian) became king in 1096. Early in his reign, unruly bands of Crusaders pillaged and looted their way across Hungary. Coloman faced repeated attempts by his brother Álmos to overthrow him. King Coloman occupied Croatia and Dalmatia, being crowned as king of Croatia in 1102. In 1114, Coloman ordered Álmos and Álmos’ son, the future Béla II, blinded. According to a later chronicle (c. 1358), he also ordered that Béla be castrated, but the soldier charged with this task refused to do it.
About a dozen different denar types are known from this reign, mostly common, neatly struck on small flans (10-12 mm, about 0.35 gram). The king’s name is variously spelled: CALMAN, CALVMA, or COLVMBANVS.
“The monarchy and the nobility began to decline under the rule of the inept Stephen II (1116-1131). By this time Hungary had become a battlefield for the rivalries of the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire (Cantor, 234).”
Son of King Coloman and his wife Felicia (daughter of Count Roger of Sicily), Stephen II came to the throne at the age of 15. He fought with most of the neighboring kingdoms. Stephen had no “wish to marry a lawful wife but took to himself concubines and harlots.” Having no legitimate heir, he left the kingdom to the blind Béla II when he died of dysentery in 1131.
About eight types of denar are known from this reign, mostly common, many anonymous, with simple geometric patterns.
Because of his blindness, Béla II relied on his Serbian wife Helena to run the kingdom. She bore six children; three sons would eventually be crowned as kings. Béla’s denars of about a dozen types are mostly common.
Eldest son of Béla the Blind, Geza came to the throne in 1141 at the age of 11, with his mother as regent. She ordered the execution of 68 nobles who had approved Béla’s blinding. Géza married Euphrosyne, sister of Prince Iziaslav II of Kyiv, and Hungarian troops fought in the complex internal wars of Kievan Rus’. To strengthen his armies, Géza invited German knights and Muslim nomads from the steppes to settle in Hungary.
Géza’s denars, mostly common and anonymous, some single-sided, are known in about 20 types.
Stephen III, eldest son of Géza II, became king in 1162 at the age of 15. His uncles, the future Ladislaus II (1162-1163) and Stephen IV (1163-1165), in exile at Constantinople, contested his right to the throne.
Ladislaus II was probably poisoned; his coins are rare. Stephen IV was poisoned, and no coins are known from his brief reign. Stephen III issued about 10 types of anonymous denars, mostly common with simple geometric patterns of crosses and crescents.
Second son of Géza II, young Béla III was sent to Constantinople at the age of 15 to live at the court of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. Betrothed to the emperor’s daughter, Béla was in line to the Byzantine throne, but conflict between Hungary and Constantinople over Balkan territory, and the birth of a male heir to Alexios, caused the engagement to be broken off in 1169.
When Stephen III died in 1172, Béla returned to Hungary to be crowned as king. Béla’s revenue from mines in Slovakia amounted to some 23 tonnes of silver a year. About 20 different denars were issued during his long reign, some anonymous, some inscribed BELA or BELA REX.
“He established the Royal Chancellery and ordered that all matters discussed with the king be written down, marking the beginning of Hungarian bureaucracy (Frynas, 153).”
Béla also issued two types in copper, very common; one bearing an image of the Virgin Mary and modeled on the contemporary Byzantine trachy, and one modeled on the Islamic fals, with a pseudo-Arabic inscription.
Eldest son of Béla III, Emeric (Imre in Hungarian) ruled from 1196 to 1204. He was opposed by his brother Andrew, who became regent for Emeric’s four year-old son, Ladislaus III, when Emeric died. His single type of denar, inscribed with his Latin name, HENRICVS, is rare.
Andrew II, son of Béla III, became king when the child Ladislaus III died in 1205 (no coins are known for Ladislaus).
During his long reign, Andrew issued about 80 different types of denars and obols (tiny half denars) some extremely rare. A few are inscribed +ANDREAS, but most are anonymous. In 1217, Andrew went on Crusade to the Holy Land, earning the epithet “Andrew of Jerusalem” (Jeruzsálemi András). The cost of this adventure was so great he was forced to debase the coinage, which fell to about 75% silver.
Béla IV must surely rank as one of history’s most beleaguered sovereigns. Very early in his reign, Hungary was invaded by the … Mongol Horde under Batu Khan; half the nation was put to the torch, while Béla was reduced to fighting running skirmishes and counting himself lucky to scamper away … His impassioned pleas to western Europe for aid were answered by a second invasion of Hungary on the part of his rapacious neighbor, Frederick of Austria. That both Béla and Hungary survived at all must be accounted a small miracle.
Eldest son of Andrew II, Béla IV came to the throne in 1235. Invading Mongols annihilated his army at the Battle of Mohi (April 11, 1241). He spent the rest of his long reign rebuilding the country, fortifying towns and forging alliances with neighboring kingdoms.
Béla IV issued about 40 different types. According to Philip Grierson:
“The coins are very small, mainly but not exclusively biface, the pennies [denars] about 10 mm and the obols 8 mm in diameter, but they are of good silver and for the most part beautifully designed and carefully struck … most of the coins have figured types such as heads, seated rulers, buildings and animals… (132)“
One scarce type bears the inscription +MONETA BELE REGIS (“Coin of King Béla”).
Béla lived to the age of 64, and his son came to the throne in 1270 as Stephen IV. Stephen lived only two more years, being succeeded by his 10-year-old son, Ladislaus IV.
Known as “Ladislaus the Cuman” (Kun László in Hungarian) his mother was a princess of the pagan Cumans, a Turkic tribe invited to settle in Hungary after the Mongol invasion. His 18-year reign was “marked by anarchy and civil war. The king’s power was weak and parts of the country were governed by powerful nobles (Frynas, 172).” About 40 types of denar and obol are known from this chaotic period, many of them quite rare.
Assassinated by the Cumans under obscure circumstances, Ladislaus left no heir.
Born and educated in Venice, Andrew III was a grandson of Andrew II. The barons and clerics chose him as king after the murder of Ladislaus IV in 1290 because he was the last male survivor of the Árpád dynasty. About 30 types of denar and obol are known from this troubled reign.
Andrew died, possible from poison, in 1301.
Collecting Hungarian Coins
Medieval Hungarian coins appear mainly in auctions of Hungarian and German dealers. Except for a few rarities, they are surprisingly affordable. The standard reference in English is Frynas (2015), but catalog references invariably cite Huszar (1979) in German or the monumental two-volume Corpus Nummorum Hungariae (Réthy, 1899-1907) in Hungarian.
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 Nudelman Numismatica Auction 9, 11 June 2011, Lot 5.
 Numismatic Naumann, Auction 77, 5 May 2019, Lot 1006. Realized €140 (about $157 USD; estimate €40).
 CNG Electronic Auction 122, 7 September 2005, Lot 410. Realized $191 USD (estimate $100).
 Around 830, three tribes of Kabars rebelled against the Khazar steppe empire and joined the Magyars.
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 64, 28 November 2019, Lot 1077. Realized UK£800 (About $1,030 USD; estimate £750).
 CNG Electronic Auction 122, 7 September 2005, Lot 411. Realized $105 USD (estimate $100).
 Pannonia Terra Numizmatika Auction 41, 14 November 20015, Lot 17. Realized €250 (about $268 USD; estimate €250).
 The European bison or wisent (Bison bonasus) was hunted to extinction in the 19th century.
 Numismatic Naumann, Auction 72, 2 December 2018, Lot 857. Realized €110 (about $125 USD; estimate €40).
 Hess-Divo Auction 296, 7 May 2003, Lot 686. Realized CHF 1200 (about $904 USD; estimate CHF 300).
 Pannonia Terra Numizmatika Auction 41, 14 November 2015, Lot 33. Realized €150 (about $161 USD; estimate €80).
 Numismatic Naumann Auction 72, 2 December 2018, Lot 859. Realized €55 (about $65 USD; estimate €40).
 Macho and Chlapovic Auction 12, 7 April 2017, Lot 1046. Realized €42 (about $45 USD).
 CNG Electronic Auction 464, 25 March 2020, Lot 170. Realized $80 USD (estimate $75).
 Pannonia Terra Numizmatika Auction 46, 26 May 2018, Lot 68. Realized €36 (about $42 USD).
 Pannonia Terra Numizmatika Auction 39, 29 November 2014, Lot 82. Realized €60 (about $75 USD; estimate €30).
 Solidus Numismatik Auction 21, 4 November 2017, Lot 759. Realized €65 (about $76 USD; estimate €30).
 CNG Electronic Auction 388, 14 December 2016, Lot 646. Realized $90 USD (estimate $100).
 Heritage Long Beach Sale, 5 September 2019, Lot 34161. Realized $650 USD (estimate $300-500).
 VAuctions Auction 310, 25 September 2014, Lot 427. Realized $80 USD (estimate $100).
 Künker Auction 130, 9 October 2007, Lot 2858. Realized €140 (about $197 USD; estimate €50).
 Pannonia Terra Numizmatika Auction 47, 17 November 2018, Lot 158. Realized €110 (about $125 USD; estimate €30).
 Pannonia Terra Numizmatika Auction 47, 17 November 2018, Lot 173. Realized €340 (about $387 USD; estimate €100).
Cantor, Norman F. (ed.) Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. New York (1999)
Frynas, George. Medieval Coins of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland. London (2015)
Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. London (1991)
Huszar, Lajos. Munzkatalog Ungarn (Catalog of Hungarian Medieval Coins). Battenberg (1979)
Molnár, Miklós. A Concise History of Hungary. Cambridge (2001)
Réthy, Laszlo. Corpus Nummorum Hungariae (2 volumes). Budapest (1899, 1907)
Ruckser, David. The Coins and Kings of Hungary, to Leopold I.
Tompa, Peter K. “Money of the Magyars and their predecessors”, The Celator (October, 1996)
Walker, Ralph S. Reading Medieval European Coins. Fairfield, CT (2009)