Mongol warriors, miniature from Rashid al-Din's History of the
Courtesy of the Edinburgh University Library, Scotland
Andrew's successor, Béla IV (123570), began his reign with a series of measures designed to reestablish royal authority, but his work was soon interrupted by the frightful disaster of the Mongol invasion. In the spring of 1241 the Mongols quickly overran the country and, by the time they left it a year later, inflicted ghastly devastation. Only a few fortified places and the impenetrable swamps and forests escaped their ravages. The country lost about half its population, the incidence ranging from 60 percent in the Alföld (100 percent in parts of it) to 20 percent in Transdanubia; only parts of Transylvania and the northwest came off fairly lightly. Returned from Dalmatia, where he had taken refuge, Béla, whom his country not unjustly dubbed its second founder, reorganized the army, built a chain of fortresses, and called in new settlers to repopulate the country. He paid special attention to the towns. But he was forced to give some of the magnates practically a free hand on their own estates, and a few families rose to near-sovereign local status. Further, one group of immigrants, a body of Cumans who had fled into Hungary before the Mongols, proved so powerful and so turbulent that to ensure their loyalty Béla had to marry his son, Stephen V, to a Cuman princess. The king attempted to counterbalance the power of the magnates by creating his own army, partly from the Cumans. A newly created conditional nobility comprising ennobled soldiers and settlers who gained land for military service strengthened the ranks of the lesser nobility. The system of royal estates and judicial power was thereafter transformed in an assembly in which nobles represented their counties.
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Stephen died two years after his father's death, after which the country passed to the regency of his widow, the Cuman woman, whom the Hungarians detested. Her son, who grew up wild and undisciplined, was assassinated and left no legitimate heir, and claims to the throne were made through the female line of the Árpáds. A male heir, Andrew III, was found in Italy, and, although the young man's claim to the throne was impugned, he proved a wise, capable king. With his death in 1301, however, the national dynasty became extinct.
A new Western-style feudal socioeconomic system had emerged in Hungary, but it had yet to take root. During the last third of the 13th century, Hungarian assimilation into Europe was threatened by the ongoing conflicts between various baronial factions. Moreover, Hungary was still the destination of migrating pagan tribes and the focus of barbarian attacks, and it continued to exhibit the features of a country on the borders of Christian feudal Europe.