Hungary's queen meets her match after 1,000 years

Adrian Bridge
Sunday 05 May 1996 23:02

More than nine centuries after death parted them, Hungary's first king and queen were reunited in body as well as soul this weekend in an extraordinary ceremony which commemorated their 1,000th wedding anniversary.

It was a macabre reunion. After so long apart, the preserved remains of King Istvan's right hand were finally brought back together with a bone taken from the arm of his wife, Queen Gisela.

Thousands watched as the royal remains, safely protected in glass-and- gold cases, went on display outside the basilica in the western town of Veszprem, where Queen Gisela once lived.

"I am so proud to live just when this has happened and to be part of it," said Anita Koszegi, a teacher at a Catholic school in the nearby town of Papa.

The preserved hand was transported to Veszprem from its home in the Saint Istvan Basilica in Budapest in a van with a police escort bearing the Hungarian and Vatican flags.

His wife's arm bone had a longer journey from her tomb in Passau, Bavaria, where she was born and later buried.

German bishops joined their Hungarian counterparts in conducting an open-air Mass in Veszprem on Saturday.

"Hungarians have never forgotten their first queen," the Bishop of Passau, Franz Xaver Eder, told the crowd of 20,000, which included Otto von Habsburg, the son of the last Habsburg emperor and King of Hungary, Karl I.

"The bone of the arm that Gisela gave to Istvan, which carried their children and blessed the people of Veszprem, has returned home. This blessing will now remain with the town forever."

Bishop Eder agreed to the transportation of the bone after an appeal earlier this year from the bishop of Veszprem, who had asked for a part of Gisela to be present at the 1,000th anniversary.

The wedding of Istvan and Gisela on 4 May 996 marked a turning point in Hungary's history. As the sister of the Duke of Bavaria, Gisela's union with Istvan crystallised the alliance between Hungary and the German empire. It also marked Hungary's conversion to Catholicism, which was acknowledged by Pope Sylvester II four years later when he crowned Istvan as the first Christian King of Hungary and agreed to his subsequent canonisation. As Laszlo Diossy, the mayor of Veszprem, said: "Hungary was founded by Istvan and Gisela. From a pagan tribe that had settled in the Carpathian basin, they formed a European nation."

Saturday's commemoration would have been unthinkable in the Communist era. With the end of Communism in 1989, Hungary has sought to stress historic ties with Western Europe as part of its bid to join the European Union and Nato. All EU ambassadors were invited to the events in Veszprem, known as "Gisela Days".

Not all legends show Istvan in a saintly light. To make sure he would not be succeeded by his brother, Istvan is said to have poured molten lead into his ears, thereby killing him. And one version of the story says the method of killing was devised by Queen Gisela.

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