JÁNOS HUNYADI,
A HERO FOR ALL EUROPE

János Hunyadi’s father, Vajk, came from Wallachia (now southern Romania) to the court of the Hungarian King Sigismund of Luxemburg, and received the estate of Hunyadvár (today Vajdahunyad in Hungarian and Hunedoara in Romanian, located in Transylvania, Romania) as a perpetual gift in 1409. János, who was born a few years earlier, is also mentioned in the document. He would eventually go on to become governor of Szörény, voivode of Transylvania, and ultimately regent of Hungary. The most historic event in the career of this military commander and national leader, who earned a deservedly glorious name in the wars against the Ottoman Turks, was the defeat of the army led by Sultan Mehmed II at the Siege of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade), on 22 July 1456. The prayers and tolling of bells ordered a few weeks earlier by Pope Callixtus III continued as a result of the victory that brought security to Europe and Hungary, and thanks to the decree of Pope Alexander VI, the noontime tolling of the bells continues to remind the Christian world of Hunyadi’s victory to this day. Although he fell victim to the plague shortly after the siege, his victory enabled the election of his son Mathias, who was born in Kolozsvár (today Cluj[1]Napoca, Romania), as king.

Hungary has a long history, and we can look back with pride to the days when the very existence of the Hungarians as a people was in question, yet there were always brave and heroic individuals who served the cause of their people even at the cost of their lives, rescued their country, and averted ultimate destruction. The list is a long one, but even among the most exemplary figures—King Béla IV, István Bocskai, and Ferenc Rákóczi II, for instance— János Hunyadi stands apart. He not only fought a selfless struggle against the invading Ottomans, but his final, glorious victory over them was so crushing that it turned back the Ottoman conquest for seventy years. The reign of his son, King Mathias Corvinus (1458–1490), and with it the golden age of the Kingdom of Hungary, took place during these decades. It can thus be stated definitively that without János Hunyadi’s victory at Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade), Matthias would have never been king, and there would have been no Hungarian Renaissance.

In 1456, the Turks attacked Hungary and sought to capture the fortress of Nándorfehérvár at today’s Belgrade, then considered the southern gateway to Hungary, by siege. The united Hungarian armies—the 12,000-strong army led by János Hunyadi and the 27,000-strong crusader army recruited in Hungary by the Franciscan monk János Kapisztrán—fought bravely, but were vastly outnumbered by Sultan Mehmed II’s army of more than 60,000, equipped with heavy artillery. However, János Hunyadi led the Hungarian troops with tough steadfastness and a sure hand, and his personal courage became a lodestar for the defenders, who believed that by the help of God and the faith of János Kapisztrán, they would win. And the miracle happened: at the most critical moment, when the captain of the fortress, Mihály Szilágyi, was thinking of surrendering the fortress, which had already been reduced to ruins and was awaiting the final, overwhelming Turkish attack, Giovanni de Capestrano’s audacity—known in Hungarian as János Kapisztrán—and the lightning-quick ingenuity of János Hunyadi not only averted the defeat but turned it into a brilliant victory.

Hearing of the Turkish advance, Pope Callixtus III ordered a crusade, and on 29 June 1456, he issued his famous bull, in which he prescribed the daily ringing of the bells and the associated prayer:

In these last years, the wicked persecutor of the Christian name, the tyrant of the Turks, has captured Constantinople [1453]. There he committed all manner of cruelty […]. He has continued to carry out his evil intentions with the greatest force ever since, inflicting blow after blow on the Christian peoples he wished to conquer, so that news of fresh ruin and destruction arrives every day. But—and this is even more outrageous—even this does not satisfy him. Indeed, so far up has he mounted in the chariot of pride that his thoughts have turned even to the destruction of all Christendom, and as such he is preparing every day to attack it with the utmost ferocity […]. We have diligently devoted all our efforts, both mentally and spiritually, to this cause. We have already imposed a tithe on all the clergy of Christendom, and in our letter, we drew the attention of the Christian peoples to the common cause of faith, which we sent nuncios to preach: all who can should gird themselves to protect the Holy Cross of the Lord, and collect donations to help Christians. We have also sent our envoys, partly to reconcile the kingdoms, partly to encourage the kings and princes to recruit and lead an army against this new Muhammad, who follows in the footsteps of the old […]. And so that the whole people, without regard for rank or sex, may be part of these prayers and farewells, we order and decree that in every church of every city, territories and place, the bell should be rung three times each day between terce and vespers, that is, before the bell for the evening prayer, with one or more ringing bells so that they can be clearly heard, for half an hour at intervals, just as it is customary to ring the bell for the Annunciation, and all should say the Lord’s prayer three times.11 From the Bulla Turcorum of Calixtus III, 29 June 1456. For the full Latin text see G. Érszegi, ‘La
campane siano der empre suonate a mezzogiorno’, in Zsolt Visy, ed., La campana di mezzogiorno
(Budapest, 2000), 192–201.

The prayers, the tolling of the bells, and the self-sacrificing struggle all bore fruit barely a month later. On 22 July 1456, a victory of global significance was won, and thus the ringing of the bell prescribed by the papal decree became forever intertwined with the commemoration of the great victory. In the holy year 1500, in response to the growing threat from the Turks, Pope Alexander VI wrote his own bull to the Christian world, ordering that the tolling of the bell should be set to noon:

On this day, for the first time, bells were rung at noon in every parish church in the city, to offer Our Fathers and Hail Marys against the Turks, just as Pope Callixtus III of blessed memory had introduced, and our Holy Father—as I understood it—commanded that this tolling must continue forever, at noon on every day of the year.22 Excerpt from the diary of Papal Master of Ceremonies Johannes Burchardus, 9 August, 1500. For
the full Latin text see G. Érszegi, ‘La campane siano der empre suonate a mezzogiorno’, 202.

After a long hiatus, the victory at Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) returned to public consciousness around the last millennium, and in 2011, 22 July became a national day of remembrance in Hungary. The academic Batthyány Society of Professors first undertook the installation of a János Hunyadi statue in Belgrade, then in Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureș, Romania). The latter statue and the Hungarian– Romanian-language study volume, The Noon Bell in Hungary and in the World, were made possible through the financial support of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Affairs. The statue was created by sculptor Vince Bocskay and cast in bronze by sculptor Csaba Sánta. The pedestal was carved by Dóczy Gránit Kft. and the installation of the statue was undertaken by the mayor’s office of Târgu Mureș.

  • 1
    1 From the Bulla Turcorum of Calixtus III, 29 June 1456. For the full Latin text see G. Érszegi, ‘La
    campane siano der empre suonate a mezzogiorno’, in Zsolt Visy, ed., La campana di mezzogiorno
    (Budapest, 2000), 192–201.
  • 2
    2 Excerpt from the diary of Papal Master of Ceremonies Johannes Burchardus, 9 August, 1500. For
    the full Latin text see G. Érszegi, ‘La campane siano der empre suonate a mezzogiorno’, 202.

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