The earliest records of the city of Vác date from the 11th century, thus the city is considered to be nearly a thousand years old. However, the surrounding area has been continuously inhabited for several thousands of years, thanks to its favorable natural conditions. At the meeting point of a mountainous area with the Great Plains, the Danube Bend has provided the basic needs of human life from the earliest times. The hilly country, the forest and the river provided plenty of food and a safe habitat. The availability of water transportation was a good background for trade and commerce, not to mention the important trade routes and the possibility to cross the Danube.
The settlement which was established after the Hungarian Conquest (when the first Hungarians arrived at the Carpathian Basin in 896) was one of the earliest pontifical centers. The first Hungarian king, Saint Stephen, laid the foundations of the Vác episcopate. The deed of foundation unfortunately has not survived, thus the first written record of Vác comes from 1074 from the almanac of the Niedersaxon city of Yburg, which refers to Vác as "Watzenburg". Another mention of the city as "Wac civitas" can be found in a document of the Abbey of Garamszentbenedek. There are several theories regarding the origin of the word "Vác", but there is no common agreement in this issue. Today most linguists agree that the name was originally a personal name that later became a geographical one. According to a legend in the Illustrated Chronicle of Vienna, in 1074 princes Géza and László fought a battle to decide the succession to the Hungarian throne. Before the battle, they happened to wander in the nearby forest where they allegedly met a hermit called Vác, and the city was later named after him. A different theory attributes the name to one of the Hungarian clans 'Vath'. Yet another possible explanation is the the Slavic word 'vác', meaning a major settlement or centre.
Its role as a main ecclesiastical center has had a considerable influence on the life of the city throughout its history. The prevailing bishop was also a feudal landlord of the settlement, which entitled him to a strong say in local administration and legislation. The presence of the episcopate and the court of the church dignitary influenced local architecture, handicraft industry, culture, and the development of the city’s institutions.
The medieval core of the city, the Castle of Vác, was a fortification built on a small hill near the river bank. This is where King Géza built a cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and he was buried there in 1077.
Due to its central location and significant role in the life of the country, Vác has often been affected by warfare, which caused considerable damage to the city. In the spring of 1241 the Mongol invasion reached Vác. The cathedral and the episcopal buildings were burnt and destroyed along with the residents who sought refuge in them. After the departure of the Mongol army, Vác was where King Béla IV and his noblemen came together to discuss the rebuilding of the country from its ruins. As a result, the first wave of settlers arrived from overpopulated western regions, like the southern German territories. They settled in the area of the current Main Square, and built their homes, institutions, and a church dedicated to St. Michael according to their traditions.
A flourishing, prosperous and peaceful period followed in the 14th and 15th centuries. The famous bishop, Miklós Báthori, who was of royal relation, established and formed his Vác residency in renaissance luxury, using the products of the best manufacturers. At that time Vác was an important city in Hungary preceded only by the Royal Cities. However, Turkish invasion and rule for nearly one and a half centuries put an end to this great and prosperous period. Many battles were fought here to control the important crossing of the Danube, and the city changed hands more than 40 times.
Vác was liberated from Turkish occupation in 1686, but by that time it had lost its population. The buildings were in ruins, and the land was uncultivated. Rebuilding started immediately, but wars and natural disasters hindered it for decades. After a fire in 1731, when 198 of 229 houses burnt to ashes, significant reconstruction work took place, financed by the bishopric. By the 1770s, a baroque city built on medieval remains was taking shape. The city was filled with people again, in part thanks to the bishops’ efforts to re-establish the settlement, and partly due to voluntary migration.
In order to attract Catholic settlers to the city (other denominations were not really welcome) the bishops, as landlords, offered various benefits such as free building sites, materials or tax breaks. In addition to the returning Hungarian population, the majority of newcomers were Germans, but Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Serbian, Morvian, and even a number of French and Italian settlers came as well. By the end of the 18th century, inhabitants of Vác formed a unique and conscious identity from this heterogeneous background. There was substantial development in agriculture and handicrafts. The age of religious unrest left its mark on the city, however. Under Turkish rule a considerable number of the population adhered to protestant beliefs, and the Vác bishopric made serious efforts to encourage believers to convert back to Catholicism. In 1712 Bishop Kollonich passed an act to impede freedom of worship for non-Catholics. During this time the Calvinists moved north of the city to establish a village called Kisvác, which functioned as a separate community until 1769. Another peculiar problem that further divided the city was the question of the rights of possession of the city, shared by the bishopric with the local Chapter. By mutual agreement, the chapter --as an independent institution-- was supposed to recieve one eighth of the profits from the land. However, as the bishop’s estate had failed to pay them the due amount, the matter was taken to court. Consequently, the Chapter won the case and took hold of one eighth of the city and its bordering land, further dividing the city. Since then, Káptalan-Vác (the Chapter's territory) and Vác have functioned as distinct civic bodies, with separate councils, official seals, and guilds. Vác became a detached or so-called 'twin city,' and only issues of mutual interest brought a committee of the two market-towns together.
Among the bishops of the late 18th century, we find many splendid, sophisticated and highly educated individuals who dedicated themselves to town planning and paid special attention to improving the conditions of institutionalization. Since they were appointed by the Austrian Royal Court, many of them were not Hungarians. The efforts of excellent dignitaries such as Frigyes Mihály Althann, his cousin Károly Althann, Károly Eszterházi, and Kristóf Migazzi contributed to the shaping of the current towns.
Around 1830 the so-called "Red House" (Vörösház) was built outside the city gate, which served as a farm house of the bishop’s estate. It was named after the red colour of its walls, made by builders from Naples. The foundations of the city hall were laid around the same time. After the plague of 1740-41, in the hope of protection from further diseases, the city dedicated a column to the Trinity and raised a chapel named after Saint Rókus beside the cemetery where the victims of the plague were buried. In 1745 the Piarist Church was consecrated, followed in 1755 by that of the Dominicans, which is commonly known in Vác as the „Church of the Whites”. Bishop Károly Eszterházi demolished St. Michael church, which formerly stood on the main square, giving the square its present form, and he began the construction of the Cathedral. The baroque bridge over Gombás stream, called "Koszentes híd" (meaning "bridge with the stone saints") was built in 1759.
The golden age of Vác is connected to the time of Bishop Kristóf Migazzi (1756-57 and 1762-1786). The most significant historic building of Vác, the Cathedral, was built between 1761-1771, in which architectural elements of classicism blend with the late baroque style. On the occasion of Queen Maria Theresia's visit in 1764, the city completed the construction of the city hall and within six months erected a triumphal arch called the "Diadalív". It is commonly known as the "Kokapu" (the Stone Gate) and is a unique memorial. In 1766, the Franciscan order built their church on the site of the former castle, and in 1772 construction of the pontifical residence (opposite the cathedral) was completed.
The 19th century was an age of industrialization. By the end of the century, the guild system, which was very advanced in Vác, had gone through many changes, giving way to small factories and firms. The opening of the first railway line in Hungary in 1846, between Vác and Budapest, contributed greatly to such development. But progress had its drawbacks too, such as weakening the positions of Vác in the market due to easy access to the capital. On the other hand, rail transportation was a great help to bring work to the city for thousands of citizens who had lost their living when phylloxera struck their vineyards.
In 1848-49, the year of the Hungarian War of Independence, two major battles were fought here. Vác was the first Hungarian city to build a memorial to commemorate that war. It can be found at the south end of town, near the famous shrine called "Hétkápolna" ("Seven Chapels").
After the Compromise of 1867, a brief period of peace and prosperity dawned. Industrial progress, rich culture and a vivid public life characterized the city at the turn of the 20th century. There were several associations, societies, sports clubs, active journalism and numerous social events. The picturesque Danube bend and the new part of town, called Deákvár, where land was divided into plots, attracted many to stay for shorter or longer periods, or even to settle down. Many artists, celebrities and scientists are associated with Vác. Their works convey the atmosphere, the culture and the past of the city.
The two great cataclysms of the 20th century and their aftermath left a mark on the city. Victims of war, people denied their rights, orphans, refugees and whole families, sufferers of deportation, were left behind. Military occupation and physical and mental oppression left the country in ruins. The social changes which followed the war restructured all of society. By the 1950's, nationalization, which meant bringing private property under state control, erased the former economy and fundamentally transformed proprietorship. The same way, in the field of culture, education came totally under state control. The institutions of the church suffered secularization and were drastically mutilated. Large-scale industrial works in state owned companies and factories offered an alternative for those deprived of their private property. Consequently, there was a massive influx of people to the cities. Housing estates with blocks of flats were built to satisfy the demands of increased population. These fundamental and inevitable social changes had their impact on the life of Vác, too. As for culture, newly established institutions - like the community center, public collections, art education, and different workshops at companies - took the role of preserving and further developing our traditions.
With Hungary's democratic transformation in 1989-90, the story of Vác took another turn. Winding up big industrial concerns caused massive unemployment, but on the other hand the city could face new challenges, and rapid progress in the business sphere changed the old structures. The church opened its schools again and contributed to the diversity of education. Tertial education is represented by an affiliated department of Dénes Gábor College, the College of Theology, and Apor Vilmos College.
Today Vác is a dynamically growing town, with advanced infrastructure and institutional systems, a teeming culture and public life, and spectacularly renewed historical monuments and buildings. Its picturesque baroque square, its promenade along the Danube River and its historic sights and museums attract many visitors and make Vác an ideal destination for visitors.
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