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The Hunyadis in Alba Iulia

The Hunyadi family represented the most prominent Romanian family of medieval Transylvania. Three members of this family were buried in the cathedral of Alba Iulia. During the Middle Ages, burial in the sacred space of the church, where liturgies and prayers were regularly sung, was an element of preparing the salvation of the souls of those who could afford such a privilege.

The itineraries of his many visits made in Transylvania while John Hunyadi was voivode (a dignitary appointed by the king of Hungary to govern the Transylvanian counties) (1441-1453), regent (1447-1453), and general captain and perpetual count of Bistrița (1453-1456) show that Alba Iulia was often on his route. Although he might have stopped in the city during such travels that passed near the city, sources only indicate his presence in the city in 1446 and 1449.

The sons of Voicu - a Romanian who became a knight of the royal household (miles aule regie) and whom King Sigismund of Luxemburg rewarded in 1409 with the fortress of Hunyad for his faithful services – certainly gained spectacular prestige among the Transylvanian nobility by obtaining the honor of being buried in the episcopal cathedral, the most important place of the Roman Catholic Christians of the province.

The symbolic value of this gesture can be understood if we consider the rather modest point of departure of this family, which originated either among the Romanian knezes (Knez=leader of village) of Hațeg district, as one hypothesis holds, or as boyars from Wallachia who took refuge at the court of Sigismund of Luxemburg. In either case they could be regarded only as new men or parvenus by the old noble families of Transylvania. The amazing political success achieved by John Hunyadi and his homonymous brother, generally known as John Jr. (also called as Johannes Miles), who were appointed bans of Severin in 1439, followed by John Hunyadi’s appointment as voivode of Transylvania in 1441, contributed to the creation of rumors suggesting that he was an illegitimate son of king Sigismund.

Between 1441, the time he became voivode of Transylvania, and 1456, John Hunyadi visited Alba Iulia several times. Examination of the sources shows that during his numerous visits to Transylvania, the city was on the route of his itineraries, even though traces of his presence in Alba Iulia are documented only in two instances. It appears he might have stopped in this city during his trip from Timișoara to Turda in June and July 1441. At the beginning of 1442 he was in Turda and in March he led the military operations against the Ottoman army that was defeated at Sântimbru on 18 March 1442. Next year, in March, he travelled to Mediaș coming from the west, and again, in May and June, his itinerary indicates visits to Cetatea de Baltă and Hunedoara, and again to Mediaș. These trips brought him in the vicinity of the city. He traveled from Timișoara to Turda in May 1444 and, later, in July and August, he issued documents at Sebeș. In 1445, his itinerary indicates that he was in southern Transylvania, namely at Hunedoara and Șura Mare, but Alba Iulia was not on this itinerary. However, in 22 July 1446, he issued an important document while visiting the city on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. The document was a charter which exempted Romanian tenant peasants of the cathedral chapter of Alba Iulia from payment of the sheep fiftieth (quinquagesima ovium) to the nobles of Transylvania, a royal revenue owed by Romanians to the kings, which King Sigismund of Luxemburg had transferred to the nobility.

The next document that John Hunyadi issued at Alba Iulia came only in 1449. He may have returned to Alba Iulia in 1447, when he traveled to Aiud and then to Mediaș. Next year, around 20 February he was in Sebeș, and he returned there several months later, on 31 July 1448. On 25 May 1449, he issued a document in Alba Iulia. After this, we find him in the proximity of the city only in early May 1451. Subsequently, on 13 June 1453 he was at Vințu de Jos and then, on 16 June and from 12 to 14 September he was at Stremț. Sebeș, Vințu de Jos, and Stremț are all located within 20 km from Alba Iulia. In January 1455, John Hunyadi, who since 1453 had been general captain and count of Bistrița, traveled from Timișoara to Bistrița, and then in August and September made the trip back from Bistrița to Marginea. In the fall of 1455, he made a visit which took him from Banat to Cluj and the cities in eastern Transylvania. On 1 January 1456, he was in Teiuș. From this little town, where he had founded a Roman Catholic monastery, he traveled to Timișoara. During this trip he may have seen Alba Iulia for the last time before the victory against the Ottoman forces of Sultan Mehmed II on 22 July 1456 and his subsequent death on 11 August. He was buried according to his wishes in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Alba Iulia next to the grave of his brother, John Jr.

According to written sources, John Hunyadi chose his burial place in 1441 after his younger brother, John Jr., lost his life during a mission in Transylvania and had been buried in the cathedral of Alba Iulia. An official document from 3 January 1442 informs us that Hunyadi ceded three villages – Tinod, Geomal, and Cergău – to the chapter of Alba Iulia because he discovered that their former owner, who had died without heirs, had donated his properties to the church before his death. Despite having received the three villages as a donation from the king, Hunyadi agreed to the request of the chapter to donate them not only because it was justified, but also because his brother was buried in the episcopal cathedral (“pro salute refrigerioque nostre et felicis reminisscentie Egregii Johannis Junior de Hwnyad fratris eiusdem”). He also announced his desire to be buried in the same place. This wish was fulfilled fourteen years later. In 1458, King Mathias Corvinus, the younger son of John Hunyadi, buried the body of his elder brother Ladislas Hunyadi, who had been executed in Buda on 16 March 1457, at the sentence of King Ladislas V the Postumous. Thus, a third member of the Hunyadi family received burial in the Roman Catholic cathedral of Alba Iulia.

Today visitors can see the group of three sarcophagi placed in the southern nave and belonging to John Hunyadi, his brother and his son. Initially, the graves were located in the northern side of the transept. Recent research has found out that the sarcophagi were reconstructed in 1533, by the Bishop of Transylvania, John Statileus, at the request of King John Zápolya (1527-1540). In 1658, during the Ottoman and Tatar sack of the city, the graves were destroyed and were reconstructed from fragments at a later point in time. Recently, scholarly research has suggested that the tombstone on the sarcophagus of John Hunyadi does not display a knight, as would have been proper, but might perhaps be a tombstone of a later prince. (C.P.G.)