The Raven of Matyas Corvinus

In the middle of the 15th century, Hungary had bad luck hanging on to its foreign kings: Two of them died unexpectedly within seven years. They suffered amidst plague, treachery, and foreign encroachment and seemed all but doomed to lose their hold on bloodline and border.At this dark moment, the Hungarians looked to a 15 year old boy, Mátyás (or Matthias in English) for salvation. According to legend, Matthias’ mother sent for him with a raven with a ring in its beak. The raven supposedly flew non-stop from Transylvania to Prague and thus the boy king of Ravens was crowned. The raven-with-ring motif became part of the family crest, as well as the family name: Corvinus (Latin for “raven”).

Matthias Corvinus returned to Buda, becoming the first Hungarian-descended king in more than 150 years. Progressive and well-educated in the Humanist tradition, Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–1490) was the quintessential Renaissance king. A lover of the Italian Renaissance, he patronized the arts and built palaces legendary for their beauty. Also a benefactor of the poor, he dressed up as a commoner and ventured into the streets to see firsthand how the nobles of his realm treated his people.

Matthias was a strong, savvy leader. He created Central Europe’s first standing army — 30,000 mercenaries known as the Black Army. No longer reliant on the nobility for military support, Good King Matthias was able to drain power from the nobles and make taxation of his subjects more equitable — earning him the nickname the “people’s king.”(1)

King Matthias was also a shrewd military tactician. Realizing that squabbling with the Ottomans would squander his resources, he made peace with the Ottoman sultan to stabilize Hungary’s southern border. Then he swept north, invading Moravia, Bohemia, and even Austria. By 1485, Matthias moved into his new palace in Vienna, and Hungary was enjoying a golden age.

Five years later, Matthias died mysteriously at the age of 47, and his empire disintegrated. It is said that when Matthias died, justice died with him. To this day, Hungarians consider him the greatest of all kings, and they sing of his siege of Vienna in their national anthem. They’re proud that for a few decades in the middle of half a millennium of foreign oppression, they had a truly Hungarian king — and a great one at that.

Today, statues of the raven with the ring in its mouth can be seen around Budapest.

(1) Rick Steves Eastern Europe