The History of the Royal Palace of Visegrád

The Mongolian invasion of 1242 destroyed the eleventh-century castle of Visegrád. Subsequently, a new castle was built on the hill rising above the Danube, and a new settlement was born on the bank of the river. In 1323, King Charles I chose Visegrád as his seat and granted the privileges of a free royal town to the settlement. In the second half of the 1320s, the king had the first royal palace complex erected in the town. At this time several large buildings replaced the timber houses of the earlier, provincial settlement. Two large houses were constructed in the northern part of the area. On a terrace at the foot of the hill a large, hall-like building was raised; its interior was divided into two aisles by wooden piers. By its side there was a two-storey residential house provided with underfloor heating. Frames of attic windows discovered during excavations suggest that the attic of this house also contained living rooms. In the southern part of the area, at the foot of the hill, there was another large building whose ground level was constructed of stone and its upper level of wood. Above it on a terrace carved into the hillside there were two houses of two storeys each. Besides these buildings, further houses built of wood or stone probably belonged to the palace complex. It was in the king’s residence here in Visegrád that Felicianus Zach made in 1330 his failed attempt on the life of the sovereign and his family. The murderous attempt is reported in the Chronicon Pictum, a famous fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript on Hungarian history. This is the first record of the existence of the palace.

Perhaps drawing a lesson from Zach’s attempt, in the 1330s King Charles I moved to the top of the hill, within the safe walls of the Visegrád citadel, where he died in 1342. After his death, his son King Louis I (the Great) returned to the palace on the bank of the river and continued its construction. By 1347 an enclosure wall surrounding the northern area of the palace complex and a gate tower leading through it were completed. Construction work also began on a chapel probably located by the side of the former hall-like building. The masons’ workshop responsible for the construction was housed in a two-storey residential house nearby. This large project was, however, interrupted because of the murder of the king’s brother, Prince Andrew, in Naples and the ensuing Neapolitan war. For the time of the war, the royal court moved to Buda. When the campaigns came to an end in 1352, the king took up the construction of the Visegrád palace again. He had a new palace wing erected on the site of the unfinished chapel. The house formerly adapted into a masons’ workshop was pulled down. On its site a spacious rectangular courtyard was laid out and surrounded with two-storey wings that ran alongside the previously constructed enclosure wall. A kitchen with adjacent storage rooms was located in the south end of the ground floor of this new structure. The upper floor of the wing facing the Danube contained the royal apartment, whereas in the northern wing there was a large reception hall. Further up in the hillside there was a long, narrow building, which perhaps served to house the royal household. The palace complex was probably completed by 1355 when the royal court moved back to Visegrád. Construction work, however, continued even after this date. Across from the gate tower, a chapel was erected on a terrace in the hillside. It was partly consecrated in 1360 and fully completed by 1366. After the completion of the chapel, a two-storey palace laid out on a square ground plan, with an internal courtyard in the centre, was erected on its north. The new apartments of the king and the queen were placed here. The building was furnished with flush toilets installed in a separately standing tower and a bathroom with hot and cold running water. Flower gardens enclosed by walls were attached to its side. The upper garden and the internal courtyard of the palace were decorated with splendid fountains. Contemporarily with these developments the earlier palace wings below were furnished with a two-storey loggia on their courtyard sides while the streetfront was decorated with a Gothic wall fountain. On the north, an orchard enclosed by walls was attached to the palace complex, and provided with a gardener’s house made of timber, a red marble fountain, and a well. In the southern area, the buildings dating from the time of Charles I were enlarged and probably used to house the royal mint. These large constructions must have been overseen by the royal master mason, a stone carver named John, who was also mayor of Visegrád in 1358 and received a building plot in Buda for his work from King Louis.

Construction on the palace continued also in the last decade of King Louis’s reign. This is when the south enclosure wall of the palace complex was built, as well as the new royal mint next to it and some further, attached buildings where perhaps the leading officers of the palace lived. The construction was completed after King Louis’s death in 1382, under the reign of her daughter Mary and her husband Sigismund of Luxembourg. At this time some old buildings falling outside the newly raised south enclosure wall were demolished, and an enormous kitchen wing was erected south from the gate tower, along the inner side of the enclosure wall. The works ended probably around 1409, after which year King Sigismund often visited the palace. He also liked to receive his royal guests here. In 1412 the king left for a several-year-long European trip. During his absence the chief state offices moved from Visegrád to Buda where Sigismund had started constructions on a new palace. The king returned to Hungary in 1419 and continued to use the Visegrád palace until 1426 because of the protraction of the construction work in Buda. In 1424-1425 he founded the friary of the Bosnian Observant Franciscans in Visegrád, near an old royal chapel south from the palace complex. After 1426, however, the significance of Visegrád declined rapidly: Sigismund and his immediate successors did not visit it any more.

The Visegrád palace was revived only in the second half of the reign of Matthias Corvinus, after the king’s marriage to the Neapolitan princess Beatrix of Aragon at the end of 1476. Through works lasting a decade, King Matthias had the palace turned into a magnificent country residence. The splendour of the palace was recorded by the Renaissance historiographers Antonio Bonfini and Nicolaus Olahus. According to their descriptions, there was a cavalry field in front of the palace complex on the bank of the Danube, where tournaments were organized to the king’s liking. A splendid late Gothic balcony decorated with coats of arms and statues towered over this field. Entering the gate of the palace complex, the visitor found himself in a spacious, grass-covered courtyard. This was bordered on the south by another field used for infantry tournaments and the grand stand belonging to it, and on the north by the late Gothic loggia added to the façades of the large reception halls. A Renaissance red marble fountain, the Fountain of the Muses, must have stood in the centre of the courtyard. Across from the entrance, stately stairs lead up to the chapel. In the summer, the king often dined under the linden trees on the terrace in front of the chapel and received foreign ambassadors there. The furnishings of the chapel were made by Italian masters in Renaissance style. The sources record here marble altarpieces, a tabernacle, and an organ with silver pipes. A sacristy opened from the sanctuary of the chapel, with a royal oratory on its upper lever. The way from the chapel terrace led into the large residential palace building which comprised the king’s and queen’s apartments. In King Matthias’ time, the central courtyard of this building was surrounded on the ground floor by a Gothic walkway and on the second level by a Renaissance loggia. In the centre of the courtyard stood the Renaissance Hercules Fountain, a masterpiece by Giovanni Dalmata, the king’s sculptor. From the third level of the palace an upper garden opened, surrounded by a Gothic loggia. In this garden sculptors from Buda carved a red marble fountain decorated with lion figures in late Gothic style. The orchard north of the palace complex was renovated and furnished with Renaissance terraces, pergolas, and a garden villa. King Matthias even began the renovation of the Franciscan friary situated south from the palace but this was completed only around 1510 by his successor King Wladislas Jagiello II. With this, the construction history of the enormous Visegrád palace complex came to an end: the Turkish wars beginning in 1526 ruined these magnificent buildings shortly afterwards.