National coats of arms have their roots in the Middle Ages. At first they were the symbol of the knights’ right to bear arms. Later they became permanent differentiating symbols of families, clans and territories, and their usage was the privilege of the noble class. The national (state) coat of arms usually has its origins in the coat of arms of the ruling clan or dynasty. In them we often find the symbols of ruling and power, the king of the beasts (lion) or the king of the bird kingdom (eagle), and the crown.
The Holy Crown is an integral part of the Hungarian coat of arms. It is also an important national symbol in and of itself, for faith in the crown has been a fundamental element of Hungarian history ever since the foundation of the state. In the Middle Ages, aside of the importance of the ties of blood between successive kings, the mystic relationship to the first Hungarian king St. István, represented by the Holy Crown, was also of great importance. In Medieval Hungary, and even later on, a new ruler was considered legitimate and legal only after the Holy Crown had been placed on his/her head. This royal symbol also happens to be one of the oldest royal crowns of Europe. During feudalism it was considered the property of the country. Two elements of the crown’s symbolic content are important to mention: one is the continuity of Hungarian statehood beginning with the founder of the state, St. István, Hungary’s first king. The other is that the Holy crown symbolizes the territory of Hungary.
The presence of a royal crown in a nation’s coat of arms does not necessarily allude to the given nation’s form of government. Hungary is not the only republic which has a crown on its coat of arms. Hungarians today consider the crown to symbolize Hungary’s thousand year old statehood, as well as the country’s independence.
Both sides of the shield-shaped coat of arms have their origins in the dynastic coat of arms of the Árpád clan. The red and silver bands (called ‘fess’ in the language of heraldry) appear on royal seals, works of art and coins of the Middle Ages, as does the double cross. Stories explaining the symbols and tying certain elements to the geography of the country were created much later. These explanations have no heraldic foundation, but became popular over the centuries nonetheless. The identification of the four silver fesses with the four ‘national’ rivers (Duna, Tisza, Dráva, Száva) is attributed to István Werbőczy, while the interpretation of the three hills supporting the double cross as being the Tátra, Fátra and Mátra mountains dates back to the 17th century. The choice of these specific three mountains was probably prompted by their similar rhythm and the fact that they rhyme. But the fact that these attributes were added later must be emphasized.
In his short poem Hungary’s Coat of Arms Mihály Vörösmarty formulated the message of this Hungarian symbol thus:
‘Oh beautiful homeland, hills and valleys alternate in your rich lap,
the current of four rivers divides your plains;
Yet nature’s gift is but lifeless:
only the saint will of your sons can give them greatness.‘
The coat of arms and the flag: which came first? Most often the national colors are a combination of colors from the coat of arms. The origin of flags lies in the history of warfare: they were used to distinguish one’s own army from that of the enemy.
The three Hungarian national colors, red-white-green, are from the red-silver fesses and the green hills supporting the silver double cross before a red background on the coat of arms. The three colors first appeared together in cords used in official documents sanctified by the ruler.
The tri-colored flag as a symbol of the modern state came into general use throughout the country in 1848. If we try to come up with a date for the birth of the Hungarian nation in the modern sense of the word, 1848-49 would be a definitive period. At that time there was also a need for symbols expressing the independence of the country, and the example in this instance, as in many of the period, was the French Revolution of 1789. On the eve of March 15, 1848, tri-colored rosettes were prepared for the following day’s demonstrators. Many of the revolution’s fundamental demands were realized with the April Laws and an independent Hungarian government was formed. During the two historical years, therefore, national symbols were spread in an institutionalized form, even within the military. This was the first golden age of the three national colors as well as the cult of the National Anthem and the Appeal. A large part of contemporary Hungarian society had it in their power to identify with the nation. One proof of this is the folksongs of the period. Along with many recruiting songs, incorporating the name of Lajos Kossuth to help lure young men into joining his army, several folk songs praising the Hungarian flag were also born during this period:
‘That tri-colored flag,
oh, how it does fly!
Wherever there is freedom,
there we Hungarians take it!’
On the flag of the fight for independence the triangles of the picot-edge trim show the national colors. Most often the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Hungary, stands in the center of the flag with the baby Jesus on her arm. Towards the end of his life, after the loss of his son, Saint István committed Hungary under the patronage of the Virgin Mary. Hungary is sometimes referred to as Regnum Marianum (Maria’s country), a phrase popular in the Baroque. This unusual relationship connecting Hungary to the Virgin Mary was often mentioned in Catholic sermons and school textbooks, helping the tradition take root in folk culture as well; many works of art were created depicting the commitment made by the king, as well as of Mary wearing the Hungarian crown herself. It was during this period that the still popular folk hymn beginning with the lines ‘Our mother, Blessed Virgin, great patron of old’ was born, which we will elaborate on at greater length when discussing the antecedents of the Hungarian National Anthem.