Louis the Great (1342–1382) of Hungary

King of Hungary Charles I’s successor was his eldest son, the sixteen-year-old Louis. If we set to one side the details, his reign can be seen as the direct continuation of his father’s. His rule was based upon the authority that had been created by Charles and which had proved so solid that it was not in the least shaken by the change of ruler. The young Louis was surrounded by his father’s faithful and obedient barons and his lands and treasury seemed inexhaustible. He faced no serious opposition and consequently could rely on the resources of his kingdom virtually without restriction.


The times when royal authority had been constantly weakened by dynastic strife were over. Charles’s second son, Andrew, had been brought up in Naples since 1333, and Andrew’s brothers seem to have got along well with each other in Hungary. Louis and Stephen were given the titles of duke of Transylvania and duke of Slavonia respectively by their father, though this did not mean that they effectively governed their provinces. Stephen received a household of his own in 1349, when he was allotted a small region to govern with the title of ‘duke of Spis and Šaríš’. In 1350, during Louis’s second Italian campaign, he was appointed king’s lieutenant jointly with his mother. After Louis’s return, Stephen was first given the government of Transylvania; then, in 1351, he became duke of Croatia and Dalmatia and also that of Slavonia two years later. As far as we can judge, his political role was not significant. When he died in 1354, at the age of 22, his province passed to his son, John, who was under the guardianship of his mother, Marguerite, daughter of Emperor Louis of Bavaria. In the spring of 1356, when the war with Venice broke out, the court decided to put an end to the autonomous status of the duchy. Slavonia was provisionally placed under the government of a lieutenant (vicarius), who recovered the title of ban when the little prince died in 1360. Croatia and Dalmatia were likewise taken from the hands of Duchess Marguerite and bestowed upon another ban in 1357. Henceforth Croatia and Slavonia were to have separate governments until 1476, although on occasion (as between 1397 and 1409) the same ban governed both provinces.

Leaving aside the legends of the holy kings, Louis is the first king of Hungary for whom something of a portrait has come down to us. John, archdeacon of Küküllő, one of Louis’s clerics, wrote a biography of him around 1390, according to which Louis was ‘a man of middling stature, with fleshy lips and slightly bent shoulders’, whose ‘proud regard’ was the sign of his self-consciousness and authority. In contrast to his mistrustful and stingy father, Louis was amiable, open-hearted and generous. And while Charles had distinguished himself more in the work of administration than on the battlefield, Louis strove to embody the somewhat outdated ideal of the chivalrous and bellicose king. What he liked most was to go to war, ‘since it is not the kingship itself that is desirable but the fame that goes with it’, and to his search of glory he subordinated politics. Hardly a single year passed without his taking the field personally, but his expeditions often lacked a realistic goal and sometimes even a reasonable pretext. It seems that it was war itself that gave him pleasure; indeed, he could fall under its spell to such an extent that on more than one occasion he endangered his own life. When, during the siege of Canosa in Italy, he fell into the moat surrounding the castle, his barons ‘rebuked him for meddling in something that is alien to his royal dignity’.

His other favourite pastime was hunting, and in this activity he displayed no less courage than on the battlefield. Once he was attacked by a bear and his followers were hard pressed to save his life. He visited his ‘hunting places’ several times a year. He rebuilt the castle of Gesztes and constructed a magnificent palace at Diósgyőr, at the foot of the Bükk mountains. However, most of the time he spent in his immense forest of Zvolen, where three castles built by him (at L’upča, Víglaš and Zvolen itself) still bear witness to his passion for hunting. Although Petrarch suggested that he should pay more attention to the style of his Latin letters than to his favourite greyhounds, Louis was not entirely devoid of a taste for erudition. After the occupation of Naples he had King Robert’s library brought to Hungary, and he bought books himself. His copy of the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum can now be seen in the Bodleian Library. His liking for astrology was widely known, and he seems also to have loved history. It was upon his command that the Illuminated Chronicle, a piece of Angevin art unique in Hungary, was made. The codex, once preserved in Vienna and now kept in the National Library in Budapest, summarised Hungarian history up to 1330 on the basis of earlier chronicles. Since it has preserved texts that have disappeared in their original form, its historiographical value is inestimable. No less valuable are the 147 splendid miniatures that decorate the text. These can be attributed to a local artist of Italian education, who can possibly be identified as the German, Nicholas, son of Hertul.


It is customary to characterise Louis’s reign as Hungary’s age as a European power. In contrast to many of his fellow rulers, he was not troubled by disobedient subjects: there is no evidence of serious internal problems and we may safely conclude that there were none. Although towards the end of his reign some cleavages did appear in the regime, these had remained under the surface during his life. On the whole, he left a strong impression with his contemporaries, both within his own kingdom and, as far as we can judge, abroad as well. His biographer, who seems to have admired him, thought that ‘the perfection of his virtues made him beloved even among the barbarians and made his name seem glorious to many a nation.’ Even if this was an exaggeration, it was indeed a foreigner who first added the sobriquet ‘Great’ to his name, not long after his death.

Immediately after his accession to the throne, Louis focused all his attention upon the Neapolitan question. King Robert died on 20 January 1343 and in his testament he designated his grand-daughter, Joan, as his only heir. Her Hungarian husband had to content himself with the title ‘duke of Calabria’. Louis and his mother did their utmost to have the decision annulled and to secure the crown for Andrew. They sent one embassy after another to the Pope and Elizabeth travelled to join her son, spending nearly a year in Italy. She brought with her an enormous amount of treasure to cover her ‘expenses’, with the evident aim of creating a favourable atmosphere for her son. It appears, however, that Andrew was treated as something of a barbarian in the fine court of Naples. Joan simply could not stand him and was having an almost open affair with Robert of Taranto, one of her cousins. All that Elizabeth was able to achieve was the Pope’s consent to Andrew being crowned. However, before the papal bull containing this decision could be issued, the news arrived that the duke had been strangled at Aversa on the night of 18 September 1345.

Although the actual executants of the murder were found, the background to it was never cleared up. Suspicion fell on Joan herself and on her cousins, the princes of Taranto, especially after one of them, Louis, married Joan and was even accorded the royal title by the Pope. Unconcerned with the details, the king of Hungary held the Angevin kindred as a whole responsible for the murder. With increasing anger, Louis pressed the Pope to put Joan on trial, and at the same time demanded for himself the throne of Naples, which he considered now to be vacant. He was not satisfied with the inquisition that had been carried out by order of the Holy See, and, receiving but evasive answers from the Pope, he eventually decided to take personal revenge for his brother’s death.

One and a half years after the murder, in the spring of 1347, Louis sent off an army and followed it himself in November. Since the Adriatic Sea was controlled by Venice, he marched through Italy, his army swelling with German mercenaries en route. He met virtually no resistance. By the time Louis reached Aversa, Joan and her husband had already fled to Provence. It was to Aversa, the very site of the murder, that he summoned his Angevin relatives, but once they had arrived, Louis promptly set aside his feigned welcoming sentiments and seized them. Charles, duke of Durazzo, was executed on the spot without any formality and the others were held as prisoners. This extreme harshness was to do irreparable damage to his cause, but in the short-term Louis met no obstacle when on 24 January 1348 he marched into Naples, took the title ‘king of Sicily and Jerusalem’ and began his rule.

It soon became obvious, however, that the crown of Sicily was easier to obtain than to hold. Only three months had elapsed before Louis was forced to return to Hungary by the outbreak of the Black Death. Although he installed his mercenaries in several important castles, his rule collapsed immediately after he had left his new kingdom. Joan had returned as soon as September and somewhat later only a couple of strongholds remained in Hungarian hands. At the beginning of 1349, Stephen Lackfi, voivode of Transylvania, whom Louis had sent to Italy with a freshly-recruited army, launched a successful counterattack, but was forced to withdraw when his mercenaries abandoned him. Louis then realised that his presence was needed in order to maintain his rule.

In the meantime a treaty signed with Venice had opened the route across the Adriatic, and so on 1 May 1350 Louis disembarked in Apulia. Having reduced the coastal fortresses he took Aversa after a month’s siege. Joan sailed from Naples to Gaeta. Although the military victory was almost complete, it was impossible to exploit it, for Louis had become so unpopular by this time that he had to leave Naples in the autumn of the same year. He at first went on a pilgrimage to Rome, then returned to Hungary, completely disillusioned. Joan recovered her throne immediately and the remaining Hungarian garrisons found themselves hard pressed once again. By this time Louis was forced to realise that his plan for a union of the two kingdoms of Hungary and Naples was doomed to failure. A peace treaty was elaborated through papal mediation. Once it had been signed by his envoys on 23 March 1352, Louis recalled his remaining troops and set the Angevin princes free.

The Black Death, which struck the West between 1347 and 1352, had reached Hungary in 1349. In March Venice withheld her ambassadors because the plague had already broken out there. In the summer Louis informed the Republic that it was over, but it flared up again and carried off Queen Marguerite in September. Entire villages are known to have been depopulated around Oradea, and in Sopron the year of the plague was later referred to as ‘the time of mortality’; but it seems that the plague was less devastating in Hungary than elsewhere. Indeed, a second wave that arrived in October 1359 and lasted through the winter might well have been more destructive. A contemporary from Poland claimed that the epidemic of 1349 had mostly taken its victims in the countryside, while that of 1359 decimated the towns and the nobility, and the evidence that we have seems to support this observation. In January 1360 the Venetian ambassador spoke of the deaths of ‘many famous barons’, and in February he mentioned the live ‘under an alien roof great number of victims in Buda and Visegrád. The lists of office-holders show that the voivode of Transylvania, the Judge Royal, the magister tavarnicorum and the Master of the Cup-bearers all died during, and presumably as a consequence of, the plague, and the government had to be reorganised in the spring of 1360. Yet it is evident that neither of the two epidemics had disastrous demographic consequences for Hungary, probably because the population was sparse and much better nourished than in the West. Hungary was proverbially rich in food and, as far as we know, had been spared by the famines that had been regularly decimating the West since 1315.


Unlike the Neapolitan adventure, which offered no real prospect of success, the acquisition of Croatia and Dalmatia was an altogether more realistic proposition. From the very beginning of his reign, Louis considered it one of his most important tasks to complete his father’s work by forcing the ‘provinces’ that formerly had belonged to his crown to obedience. High on the agenda was the bringing to heel of the lords of Croatia. The first attempt by the ban of Slavonia in 1344 yielded no success. In the summer of 1345, following the summons of a general levy, Louis marched in person to Croatia and his campaign brought about the desired result. The Nelipčíć, the Šubić and the counts of Corbavia all submitted to the king without resistance. The province was to be governed from Slavonia until 1357.

The expedition to Croatia led to a conflict with Venice, which was in any case unavoidable given the disputed possession of Dalmatia. When Louis arrived in Croatia the city of Zadar shook off Venetian rule, as a result of which the troops of the Republic began a prolonged siege. In 1346 Louis returned and attempted to relieve Zadar, but on 1 July suffered a serious defeat under the walls of the city. Zadar fell soon after and in 1348 the king was forced to make peace for eight years. However, on the expiry of the peace in 1356 he took the field once again. This time he was able to secure the moral support of both Pope Innocent VI and Emperor Charles IV, while the lords of Padua joined him with their own troops. At first Louis directed his attack against the Italian provinces of Venice, but his advance was halted under the walls of Treviso and he was obliged to sign a truce at the end of 1356. The struggle was, in the event, decided in Dalmatia, where in the course of 1357 the Republic suffered a series of defeats. The cities revolted one after the other, drove out the Venetian garrisons and acknowledged the Hungarian king as their ruler. By the time Louis arrived at the end of 1357, Zadar had fallen as well, with only the citadel offering resistance. The situation of the Signoria had became hopeless. On 18 February 1358 it signed a peace at Zadar, acknowledging Louis and his successors as the only rulers of Dalmatia. It renounced ‘for ever’ its claims to rule the cities and islands, assured free movement for their trading ships in the Adriatic Sea and even consented to the doge’s abandonment of the title ‘duke of Dalmatia and Croatia’, which his predecessors had borne for centuries. Louis’s victory was complete. He relinquished his acquisitions in Italy, but was now able, unconditionally and durably, to incorporate the whole coast of Dalmatia from Dubrovnik to Rijeka into his kingdom.

Hungarian rule over Dalmatia was not to be challenged in Louis’s lifetime, but the friendship established with Padua dragged the king into two further wars with Venice. In 1373 Hungarian troops helped Francesco da Carrara in his war against the Republic, but they were defeated and their commander, Stephen Lackfi junior, was taken prisoner. In 1378 Louis entered into the alliance that had been formed by Genoa with the aim of ruining Venice. In the ensuing war another Hungarian army fought in Italy for several months, again assisting the lord of Padua. The peace of Torino, signed on 24 August 1381 and intended to last ‘for ever’, confirmed the stipulations of the Treaty of Zadar concerning Hungary. In addition, Venice agreed to pay her northern rival an annual sum of 7000 florins. At the time of Louis’s death, Hungarian rule in Dalmatia appeared more solid than it had ever been.

By the time of the Peace of Zadar, Hungarian authority had also become firmly established in Croatia, and it had even come to spread over the western part of Bosnia. Louis had seen to it from the beginning that his rule did not become purely symbolic in these parts. During his Croatian campaign of 1345, he forced the Nelipčić to hand over to him Knin and three other castles. From the Šubić he acquired Ostrovica (near Nin) in exchange for lands in Slavonia in 1347, Omiš (Almissa) in 1355 and Klis and Skradin (Scardona) in 1356. All these castles were to be governed by the Hungarian retainers of the ban.

During the time of the war against Venice in 1356, Louis began to contemplate the occupation of the neighbouring parts of Bosnia. In 1353 he had married Elizabeth, daughter of the ban, Stephen Kotromanić, ruler of Bosnia. This marriage alliance could now serve as a pretext for a move against Bosnia. In 1357 he summoned Stephen’s successor, Tvrtko I, his wife’s cousin, to Požega and compelled him to hand over the region west of the Rivers Vrbas and Neretva as Elizabeth’s dowry. The local lords, who passed under his rule as a result of the treaty, were forced to consent to an exchange of their castles. Louis took into his own hands Imotski, Livno, Glamoć and Greben, and compensated their lords with domains in Slavonia. Some lords, however, were reluctant to accept the proposed exchange and found support from Tvrtko. This was bound to lead to an armed conflict, and in the summer of 1363 two Hungarian armies marched into Bosnia. The palatine and the archbishop of Esztergom attacked Usora (Northern Bosnia), but at the siege of Srebrenik they were so hard pressed that the great seal of the kingdom was lost. (According to the official version it was stolen from the tent of the archbishop.) Louis himself advanced into the valley of the Vrbas, but was forced to turn back from Sokol and only acquired the castle of Ključ.

In spite of his success, Tvrtko was forced in 1366 to ask for Hungarian help against his rebellious brother, and in the winter of 1367–68 he was restored to his throne by a Hungarian army. Henceforth, as far as we can judge, relations between the two rulers were peaceful. In 1377 Tvrtko took the royal title, apparently with Louis’s consent.


During the reign of Louis I there were important changes in the Balkans. The Byzantine Empire was weakened by the civil war that had been sparked off in 1341. Serbia broke up after 1355, as did Bulgaria in 1365. Behind them appeared a new conqueror, the empire of the Ottoman Turks, which at the end of the Angevin period was threatening the southern frontiers of Hungary.

Ottoman expansion did not play a major part in the politics of Louis I. In 1364 he attended a congress in Cracow, along with Emperor Charles IV. At this meeting, Peter, king of Cyprus, tried to persuade his colleagues to join a crusade against the Turks; yet this campaign would have been directed against the emirates of Anatolia, which presented little threat in comparison to that offered by the Ottomans. The Byzantine emperor, John V, who came to Hungary for help in 1366 and spent several months at Louis’s court, had a much clearer view of the danger. In return for effective support, he would have been prepared to go as far as to accept the union of the Greek Church with Rome. Louis seemed willing to take the field in person against the Turks, but made the unacceptable condition that the Greek Christians should be re-baptised in the way that the Hungarian Serbs had. The consequent cooling of relations was evident when the emperor left for home in the autumn of 1366. Louis escorted him for a short distance, but turned back before John had left the country: a chilly farewell, indeed, leaving the emperor to wait alone at Vidin until, in December, Šišman of Bulgaria finally allowed him to cross his realm.

The idea of Hungarian supremacy over Serbia had not been raised for a long time. Stephen Dušan (1331–1355) had transformed Serbia into a major power in the Balkans and throughout his life his state remained an effective rival to Hungary. Louis’s aim in this period seems to have been to retain the footholds that had been secured by his father beyond the Danube and the Sava. Since these had come under serious threat in Charles’s last years, Louis consolidated them by means of a brief campaign in the summer of 1343 and strengthened Belgrade at the same time. In October 1346, on the eve of his Italian expedition, he concluded a peace with Dušan, based upon the status quo and pledged with a matrimonial alliance. Dušan’s heir, Uroš, was betrothed to one of Louis’s female relatives, presumably with a princess of Silesia. It seems, however, that the marriage never took place, and when Dušan attacked Bosnia in 1350, war broke out again. In the summer of 1354 Louis is found in Serbia at the head of his army.

The situation began to change with Dušan’s death in December 1355. Within a couple of years Serbia had broken up into semi-independent provinces and was unable to put up any resistance. The Rastislalić, lords of Braničevo and Kučevo, were the first to acknowledge Hungarian suzerainty. In the summer of 1359, perhaps at their invitation, Louis marched deep into Serbia and defeated Tzar Uroš at Kruševac. The period of the Serbian wars was concluded by a new intervention by Louis in the spring of 1361, when Lazarus, lord of northern Serbia, acknowledged his overlordship. He remained henceforth a vassal of Hungary, but in this capacity he seems to have acquired Mačva, and direct Hungarian rule in Serbia around 1380 was limited to Golubac and possibly to Belgrade.

As regards Wallachia, Charles’ defeat in 1330 served as a deterrent for some years. Albeit unwillingly, Louis had to accept the practical independence of Basarab and his son, Alexander. It seems that personal relations between the rulers were only established at the end of 1359, when Louis led an army to Moldavia. Alexander considered it advisable to submit himself to Louis, who recognised him as lord of Severin, as a result of which the ban of Severin disappeared from the lists of Hungarian office-holders. However, ‘following the wicked example of his father’, Prince Vlaicu, who acceded in 1364, was reluctant to renew his allegiance to the Hungarian king. Louis declared him his enemy, but before launching an attack against him he turned on Bulgaria to secure his flank. In May 1365 he invaded Bulgaria and took Vidin, the residence of Tzar Ivan Stracimir, whom he imprisoned in the fortress of Gomnec in Slavonia. Vidin was to be governed by a Hungarian captain, who received the title ‘ban of Bulgaria’ (banus Bulgariae) in 1366 and whose authority extended to the neighbouring Hungarian counties including Timişoara.

After the fall of Vidin, Vlaicu of Wallachia submitted himself to Louis, and received the district of Făgăraş Transylvania as a fief, with the title of duke. Nevertheless, when Šišman, brother of Stracimir and ruler of Tirnovo, attacked Vidin, Vlaicu joined him. In the autumn of 1368 Louis launched a two-pronged attack against Wallachia: he marched in by way of the lower Danube valley, while Nicholas Lackfi, voivode of Transylvania, advanced with another army through the Carpathians. The king took Severin, but Lackfi met with disaster. ‘Such a great number of Wallachians rushed upon him from the forests and the mountains’ that he perished together with his army.10 Now Vlaicu took the initiative and reduced Vidin in early 1369, thus forcing Louis to negotiate. In the autumn a treaty was agreed that put an end to the short-lived banate of Bulgaria, but allowed Louis to save face. Vlaicu submitted himself once again, in return for which he was given Severin and Făgăraş. Having promised to remain a Hungarian vassal, Stracimir recovered his freedom and Louis ‘sent him back happily to Vidin’, retaining his daughters as hostages.

While the tzar, according to John of Küküllő, kept his promise and ‘persevered in his fidelity and obedience to his Majesty’, Wallachia was not to be held in dependency for long. It was rumoured that Vlaicu had defected to the Ottomans as early as 1374, and in the summer of 1375 Louis marched once more into Wallachia. Prince Radu, Vlaicu’s successor, was supported by Turkish troops, but his army was defeated in battle. In memory of this victory, Louis founded a chapel at Mariazell in Styria. Also arising from this military success was a short-lived revival of the banate of Severin. However, Wallachia did not submit to Louis. In 1377 the king constructed the castle of Bran to protect one of the passes through the southern Carpathians. The castle of Tălmaciu had been built at the entry of the other pass in 1370, while Orşova, commanding the road to Bulgaria, was also reconstructed in 1373. All this strategic building activity indicates the extent to which the southern frontiers of the kingdom were not regarded as secure.

Important changes took place during Louis’ reign along the eastern frontiers. This region had long been dominated by the Golden Horde, which had naturally been regarded by Hungary as an enemy. Charles’s reign seems to have witnessed some Tatar incursions, but nothing is known about relations with the Horde before 1345. In this year, we are told, Andrew Lackfi, count of the Székely, led an army over the Carpathians, defeated the Tatars and placed part of their lands under Hungarian rule. Encouraged by this victory, Louis asked the Pope in 1347 to restore the bishopric of Milcovia, which had been destroyed during the Mongol invasion, and to put a Franciscan friar from Hungary at its head. Louis entrusted the government of the newly conquered territory, which was mostly inhabited by Romanians, to the local voivode, Dragoş. This event is generally regarded as the birth of Moldavia, another Romanian principality.

After the death of Khan Berdibek in 1359 the Horde rapidly dissolved and the Tatars ceased to be a significant element in political calculations. In the turmoil, Moldavia was snatched by another Romanian prince, Bogdan, voivode of Maramureş in Hungary, who expelled the grandsons of Dragoş from their principality. In January 1360, Louis marched against him and appears to have forced him into submission; but five years later, accusing Bogdan of rebellion, Louis deprived him of his possessions in Hungary. From this time on we have practically no information concerning Moldavia; but it was probably with good reason that John of Küküllő wrote that, besides the Serbs, it was against the Moldavians that Louis had to fight most frequently. There is no other evidence concerning these wars, however, and we can only surmise that they took place in 1366, 1368 and 1370, which according to Louis’s itinerary were the years that he dwelled in the land of the Székely for several weeks at a time. From the silence of Hungarian sources we may infer that none of these campaigns was successful, but there is some evidence that the situation changed in the last years of Louis’s reign. In 1374 Wladislas, duke of Opole and governor of Galicia, led an army to Moldavia and by 1377 he had apparently succeeded establishing Angevin authority there. At least this is what John of Küküllő seems to suggest when writing that around the time of Louis’s death ‘the voivodes chosen by the Romanians of this country [Moldavia] regard themselves as the vassals of the king of Hungary and are bound to pay their tax to him on time.’

There are chapters of Louis’ policy towards the Balkans that remain obscure. We do not know, for example, why and against whom a Hungarian army marched to Bosnia in 1372, to Serbia in 1378, or to Wallachia in 1382. The discovery of new sources may provide an explanation of these shadowy events.

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