The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of his Lost Library by Marcus Tanner - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

A Bellicose Bibliophile

The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of his Lost Library


Yale University Press 265pp £20

He was born Matthias Hunyadi in 1440, or perhaps 1443, in Transylvania, in what is now the Romanian town of Cluj, which has also been Kolozsvár (Hungarian) and Klausenburg (Saxon). The Hunyadi family came originally from Wallachia, and his father János Hunyadi was a notable warrior, his life consisting of one almost unbroken crusade against the advancing Ottoman Empire. He drove the Turks out of Transylvania and successfully stormed Belgrade. He died when Matthias was at most sixteen, but the young man grew up to be even more successful, famous and remarkable than his father. In 1458 Matthias was elected King of Hungary, though it took several years of warfare against the Turks, Bohemians, the Habsburg Emperor and the usual bunch of disaffected nobles before he established his authority and could have himself crowned. More wars followed, most of them successful. He drove back the Turks and made himself master of Bosnia, Moldavia and Wallachia – as a result of which successive Popes regarded him, fairly enough, as a champion of Christendom. He fought for years to make himself King of Bohemia, with less success, and near the end of his life, in 1485, drove the Emperor out of Vienna and occupied the city. His mercenary troops, known as the Black Army, were described by Matthias’s court historian, Antonio Bonfini, as ‘braver and more persevering than the Spartans’.

Interesting enough, you may say, but no more so than many thugs who have won battles and built up kingdoms that have disintegrated, as Matthias’s did, within a few years of their death. Even the title of this book – The Raven King – suggests that he was a barbarian

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