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The Visit of King Sigismund to England, 1416

The Visit of King Sigismund to England, 1416

By Norman Simms

Hungarian Studies Review, Vol. 17:2 (1990)

Depiction of King Sigismund of Hungary from the mid-15th century
Depiction of King Sigismund of Hungary from the mid-15th century

Introduction: In their chapter-length account of Sigismund’s visit to England in 1416, James Hamilton Wylie and William Templeton Waugh remark that, though this was the first and only visit by a Holy Roman Emperor to England during the Middle Ages, aside from an immediate political gain, in the treaty signed by Sigismund and Henry V to defend each other against the French, the impact in terms of anecdote or literature is virtually nil; and they conclude somewhat ironically, “The most notable momento of Sigismund’s stay in England is his sword, which is now one of the insignia of the corporation of York.” I would like to review the events of Sigismund’s visit, particularly expanding on what Wylie and Waugh offer, and to suggest that Sigismund’s visit did indeed have an influence on English literature, not a major influence of course, but more than these two historians recognize. Though Sigismund grew up in Prague and was known elsewhere as a German prince, in England he seems to be recalled as a Hungarian knight. He is also written about as “German” Emperor. His influence on literature may therefore be characterized as a near-crystallization of the image of Hungary in the late Middle Ages as a land of Christian knights on the frontiers —indeed, the embattled frontiers — of Europe and the encroaching Ottoman menace.

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Because of his striking appearance while in England in 1416 he seems to have emphasized a vogue for calling many otherwise vaguely identified romance heroes as “Hungarian knights” and for making it fashionable to give Middle English narratives a setting in “Hungary” which in their continental versions are indeterminate. While I have elsewhere discussed these more oblique and somewhat speculative consequences of Sigismund’s visit to London, in this paper I wish to draw together some of the particular references to that visit itself. My purpose is not to interpret the political or economic consequences of that royal tour in the Emperor’s career, but, by  synthesizing the evidence in various sources and above all in citations from ceremonial writings of the period, to indicate his dramatic impact as a romanticized image, of Hungarian knighthood.

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