As I was writing about the mayor of Salgótarján and her incredible open letter to Robert Fico, prime minister of Slovakia, I became interested in the real history of the Hungarian and Slovak coats of arms. You may recall that the mayor generously stated that the Hungarians "don't even want to take back such precious symbols from [the Slovaks] as the three mountains and the double cross," today parts of both the Slovak and the Hungarian coats of arms. Well, I said to myself, that's an interesting project: let's see what the "real" situation is in this coat of arms controversy. Ah, the "real" story? That's almost impossible to come up with. Because there are two conflicting versions and no definitive way to decide between them.
First, let's take a look at the Slovak version. Here is the description of the coat of arms of Slovakia. It is composed of a silver double cross, elevated on the middle peak of a dark blue mountain consisting of three peaks. It is situated on a red early gothic shield. The double cross obviously has something to do with Christianity but even that is not so simple. According to the Slovak interpretation the three-peaked mountain represents the three symbolic Slovak mountains, Tatra, Fatra, Matra. As it turns out, the story of the mountains is not so simple either.
According to Slovak interpretation the double cross came to the area called Slovakia today by St. Cyril and St. Methodius, two missionaries from the Byzantine Empire. Apparently this double cross, known as the patriarchal cross, was used all over the Byzantine Empire already in the ninth century. According to the Slovaks Saint Stephen's coins already contained this double cross in "rudimentary form." Here is Stephen's "denar" front and back. I must say that I don't see the double cross, not even in "rudimentary form," but perhaps others have better eyes. I further learned that Stephen before he became king was prince of the Principality of Nitra (Nyitra), a county and a town about 90 kilometers north of Komárno. Moreover, after his marriage to the Bavarian princess Gisella he and his wife actually lived in Nitra. Even after he was crowned as king of Hungary his court was in today's Bratislava (Pozsony) that was called in those days Prešporok. I will return to this Principality of Nitra question later. Now I would like to present the Hungarian arguments.
According to the Hungarian version, the double cross first appeared in the Hungarian coat of arms only at the end of the twelfth century, during the reign of Béla III. Béla grew up in the Byzantine court and was for a period the official heir to the throne there. But even after his return to Hungary, in order to claim the throne from his younger brother Géza, he kept up very good relations with Byzantium. The Holy Crown of Hungary which consists of two main parts, the corona graeca and the corona latina, was also created during his reign, again under Byzantine influence. As far as the three mountains are concerned, the Hungarians claim that Hungarian heraldics didn't like symbols that "floated," i.e. were not anchored in some fashion. Apparently as late as the fourteenth century there are examples of the double cross under which there is only one mountain not three. But by the fifteenth century the anchor for the double cross is definitely a mountain with three peaks. So while the Slovaks are certain that these three peaks symbolize the three Slovak mountains (one of which happens to be within the current Hungarian borders) Hungarians disagree. Admittedly, the Slovak interpretation is not new. It appeared in several codices around the end of the fifteenth century and was spread widely by István Werbőczy in his Tripartium in the first half of the sixteenth century. Most Hungarian heraldic experts think that the explanation of the three-peaked mountain is a kind of urban legend, mind you an old one, as is the belief that the four red and silver stripes in the Hungarian coat of arms represent the four Hungarian rivers: Duna, Tisza, Dráva, Száva.
Now let's return to the Principality of Nitra because I must admit it was new to me that Stephen before he became king had actually lived there with his new wife Gisella. Even Slovak sources are a bit hesitant when trying to tell the story. Let me quote one source: "It may have been a separate principality in the 8-12th centuries that existed as an independent state… or it may have been a nascent state that merged into Greater Moravia and lost its separate existence around 900." Here I will concentrate on the story of Nitra after the Hungarian conquest. As I mentioned the other day, there are very few written documents for these early years of Hungary's history. I pretty well summarized the other day what we definitely know about St. Stephen and his country. And there I couldn't find anything specific about Nitra. However, I most likely found the source of the story of Stephen and his young wife settling in Nitra after their marriage. The hypothesis appears in György Györffy, István király és műve (Budapest: Gondolat, 1977). According to Györffy (p. 115) recent archaeological excavations proved that the foundations of the cathedral at Nitra were laid only during the Age of the Arpads and not during Moravian times as had been earlier thought. They found the earlier church's foundations not on the top of the hill but down on the plain. This new church was named after St. Emmeram who was the patron saint of Regensburg. Therefore, says Györffy, it is very likely that the cathedral was built after Gisella became the wife of Stephen. Because in the Middle Ages under the altar a relic had to be placed that belonged to the saint for whom the church was named, it is likely that the cathedral was built after Gisella's arrival in Hungary. So far, so good, but can we say that therefore "Stephen most likely took his wife to the castle of Nitra"?
So these people can argue constantly about a time about which we know very little. How useful is this? Well, it keeps medieval historians busy, but I would rather put my faith into archaeology when it comes to this period. I think that the Moravian church that was built on the plain and the later cathedral on the hill is far more interesting and tangible than whether Stephen and Gisella lived in Nitra or not.