For a day at least, Vienna was honouring, rather than merely profiting from, the source of its lustre, as the casket of Otto von Habsburg was borne from Stephansdom to the Kapuzinerkirche. Otto, who died at his Bavarian home on 4 July 2011, had been the last living link with a sacred and regal Central Europe that the twentieth century’s furies so cruelly swept away. Nearly ninety-five years earlier, a four-year-old Otto had walked in white as a new Crown Prince, following the funeral cortege of Emperor Franz Josef along the same route that his own body now took.

But even as Otto’s remains rested among his Habsburg ancestors in the simple Capuchin crypt, there was a further appointment to be kept between the earth and royalty across the Leitha. Lost amid much of the talk of a final imperial burial that July was the reality of a connected but distinct moment in Hungarian history. No one would have needed to remind Otto of it, for he had ensured that while his body would lie in Vienna, his heart would be interred in Hungary.

The Benedictine monastery in Pannonhalma was the destination, and for Otto’s heart to reside there was the completion of more than one circle. While in Iberian exile as a boy, Otto had been tutored in Hungarian language and history by teachers sent from Pannonhalma, keeping alive the heritage from which he had been torn.1 And the monastery was bound to the very genesis of the kingdom of Hungary and the Christian kingship which marked its existence. Founded by the first Christian ruler of Hungary, Géza, in 996, the Pannonhalma monastery was then endowed a few years later by his son, István (Stephen), the first crowned king of Hungary.

It was 916 years after Szent István had been crowned at Esztergom on Christmas Day of the year 1000 that Otto witnessed the last such occasion, as his own father, Karl, was invested and crowned Károly IV of Hungary. With the death of Franz Josef (Ferenc József in Hungarian) in late autumn 1916, the war-torn and starved Habsburg crown lands and principalities, from Galicia to Trieste, immediately received a new emperor in Karl. But little appreciated or understood either now or then was that the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy was a separate and sovereign legal entity to whose full rulership no automatic elevation existed. The Compromise or Ausgleich of 1867 had not created this independence, but merely re-affirmed its legal reality following numerous attempts by Hungary’s Habsburg monarchs to evade it and rule Hungary as they would the hereditary Habsburg lands.2

This keenly preserved sovereignty of the kingdom of Hungary was both demonstrated and guarded by the unique weight and significance of Hungary’s coronation rites. In most other kingdoms, coronations had long waned into a formality which merely confirmed the de jure authority of a new monarch. But in Hungary, even and indeed especially in the midst of war, the authority of a properly crowned king was required in order for the legal duties of government to proceed. To think, therefore, of Hungarian coronations and the Holy Crown which sat at their centre, is to ponder a carefully constructed and finely conceptualised structure of legitimacy and continuity which was, until the apocalypse of the Great War’s conclusion, the bulwark of a Central European civilisation.

With the grand old man, Franz Josef, only laid to rest on 30 November 1916, little time was left for Karl’s coronation before a Hungarian interregnum would allow certain essential financial laws to lapse in the new year. Thought was given to a pre-Christmas ceremony, but even the prodigious skills of renaissance man Miklós Bánffy, who was put in charge of much of the planning, could not pull off such a feat, and the date was set for the thirtieth day of December.3 Some logistical aspects were deemed automatic, such as the location. Many indeed already referred to what we now call the Mátyás Templom (Matthias Church) in Buda as the Coronation Church, but neither designation is accurate.

In fact, only the coronation of Karl’s illustrious predecessor, which loomed so magnificently over the 1916 ceremony, had taken place in that church; and only one other had even been in Buda (more of both later). The so-called Mátyás Templom is also not a cathedral, but the Nagyboldogasszony Templom (Church of Our Lady), which had been established as the parish church of medieval Buda’s substantial German-speaking population. As Buda’s largest church, however, it did rise to prominence alongside its city. After István was crowned in Esztergom – the citadel on the great Danube bend where the archbishopric that came with István’s new kingdom was centred – he established a royal centre one hundred kilometres south, along a new route to the Holy Land at Székesfehérvár, where Hungary’s kings would be both crowned and buried for five centuries. But even before the sixteenth-century Ottoman invasion pushed the coronation ceremonies north to unoccupied Pozsony (now Bratislava), Buda had become a de facto capital, where new kings would be acclaimed and to which they would return after their coronations. Buda’s pre-eminence was even signalled by the exclusive right of its finest men to guard the doors, during coronations, of the Székesfehérvár basilica.4 

The fame of Buda’s Church of Our Lady was, as its popular moniker suggests, sealed by a connection with the king that stands second only to István himself in Hungarian history, Mátyás (Matthias Corvinus). Before he managed to retrieve the royal regalia necessary for his 1464 coronation in Székesfehérvár, Mátyás had been enthroned in the Buda church, and was also twice married within its walls. Those walls, however, bore little resemblance to the magnificent neo-Gothic edifice which entrances so many present-day visitors to Budapest. Only the 1916 occasion occurred behind and amid its current form, a result of Frigyes Schulek’s remarkable late 19th century redesign (Schulek is also responsible for the magnificent Halászbástya – Fisherman’s Bastion). These signs of novelty serve as further markers that we must move before and beyond the residues of royalty in Buda to locate the significance of the coronation heritage which Karl paid reverence to in 1916.

The Hungarian kingdom and monarchy was and remained distinct from many of its European counterparts in at least two significant ways. Hungary did not adopt the heredity pattern of feudalism, which was so essential a part of the social and political system in other realms. In general, the lack of primogeniture meant that while great families were important, their prominence did not easily devolve into the private power of individual family members. This was reflected by the situation in which, for the first three hundred years of Hungary’s Christian kingdom, there was an unquestioned family of royalty – the Árpád house whose rulership stretched back to the establishment of the Magyar people in the Carpathian basin – but the death of one king did not automatically usher a particular successor into his place. There was in Hungary, therefore, what the venerable statesman Albert Apponyi would term a “half-elective” manner of accession.

This was a via media to which a great deal of the idiosyncrasy of Hungary’s developing mode of kingdom and kingship can be traced. It was not a fully elective system, which avoided rendering the king a merely dependent creature of his electors; an emasculation that fatally undermined Poland’s late monarchy, among others. But without the principle of automatic hereditary succession that became de rigueur elsewhere, Hungarian traditions of law and governance left no room for the divine-right presumptions that placed many foreign kings beyond the reach of constitutional parameters and redress.

In this context, the coronation process is neither a rubber stamp nor an empty gesture, but a means – if properly designed and protected – of maintaining and passing on a particular kind of rulership, while reflecting and affirming the same. There is no point both conferring authority and rigorously protecting the mechanisms of conferring authority if the authority so conferred is not legitimate, effective and robust. At the same time, it is self-defeating to take great care in conferring authority if equal care is not taken to ensure that this authority is exercised according to the same principles and boundaries which guided its conferral. Such was the burden that the coronation would bear in Hungary. That these competing needs had already begun to be met and maintained by the rites of coronation is partly illustrated by what happened when the house of Árpád ran dry at the beginning of the 14th century.

Despite the fact that the lack of automatic successors had encouraged ferocious competition for the crown, the 1301 disconnection from the only ruling house the kingdom of Hungary had ever known did not persuade the leading men and families of the realm to flee to alternative principles. In fact, as would happen in every similar moment of danger, the kingdom seemed to sink the anchor deeper into its customary laws and mores in defence of her independence and sovereignty. When the last Árpád – András (Andrew) III – died in 1301, there was pressure from, amongst others, Pope Boniface VIII, to cleave to the most logical familial successor, Charles of Anjou. When Charles took matters into his own hands and entered Esztergom, the archbishop-elect and an ally of Boniface followed suit, and, with the Holy Crown unavailable, “crowned” him with “a provisional crown”.5 The nobles and bishops who corporately elected new kings (this body had not yet formalised to the degree that it could be called a diet, but it would in the following century) regarded this performance to be, as it was, a sham. Ignoring the faux rex, the lords spiritual and temporal elected the child-heir to Bohemia’s throne (Vencel/Václav/Wenceslas) as the new king; he was crowned by the Archbishop of Kalocsa in Székesfehérvár with the Holy Crown (Sacra Corona).

Beset by Habsburg, Angevin and Papal opponents, Wenceslas in 1305 abandoned his Hungarian claim in favour of the newly vacant home throne in Prague. But even though Charles was now unopposed and ascendant, he remained illegitimate while his claim rested on a fake coronation and the Holy Crown remained out of his reach. The papal legate, Cardinal di Montefiori, found that Rome’s authority had no impact on the issue, when his 1309 “coronation” of Charles with a crown of his own consecration (at the Church of Our Lady in Buda) was deemed an empty gesture, leaving him to write to the new pope in exasperation at the “reverentie” and “auctoritatis” which the Hungarians ascribed to the only legitimate means of coronation.6 Charles only gained the authority he had claimed a decade earlier when, in August 1310, having already received the backing of barons and bishops, he was properly crowned as Károly I with the retrieved Sacra Corona in Székesfehérvár.7 A principle of legitimate rulership in Hungary had, despite the pressures, been successfully maintained, establishing among other things that any familial fidelity which Hungary maintained could not be pawned with impunity as a way to subject it.

It would be tempting to understand this turn of events as the triumph of mere superstition or intransigence. But it would be a mistake. Firstly note that – to the evident surprise of the pope’s man on the ground, and despite the indelibly Christian nature of Hungarian kingship – the papacy could not determine its course in this Catholic kingdom. Interestingly, resistance to papal authority persuaded other kingdoms, including the German lands, to deny the efficacy of coronations, as they became seen as a means of doing exactly what adherence to the coronation tradition had prevented in Hungary. With the confidence that perhaps came from never worshipping under the aegis of a foreign archbishopric (unlike the Poles and the Bohemians), Hungary’s rulers maintained the essential nature of its thoroughly Christian rites of coronation without ceding an inch to papal overlordship.8

More importantly, however, the events of that first post-Árpád decade demonstrated that it was neither the nation-sanctioned coronation (which is what the prior approval of the assembled and unanimous barons and bishops signified) nor the significance of the Holy Crown alone that conveyed the authority of kingship. It was the combination of these aspects that formed a remarkably potent and durable double-lock on the doors of genuine and acknowledged legitimacy. Together, the duly sanctioned coronation – with all the rites that accrued over years within and without it – along with the Holy Crown itself, and all its layered meaning and mystery (which we will shortly explore), guarded and stewarded the realm’s need for both effective kingship and established limitations. Both coronation and crown proved to be ultimately far above and beyond mere tools in the hands of any passing actor, and indeed consistently eluded the grasp of those who sought to privatise the power of either for their personal purposes. The coronation and the Holy Crown became more like great landmarks, whose spiritual, legal and linguistic presence shaped the manner in which kingdom, nation and people could be conceptualised, communicated with, and led. Together, they were strangely effective in frustrating the machinations of those who would regard the Hungarian realm as subordinate to external power, private ambition or political fashion.

It is a sad irony that Károly IV, whose grim and embattled two years of kingship at the close of the First World War drew the curtain on a millennium of kingship, was in many ways the perfect sovereign for such a constitutional settlement. Reverent and deeply imbued with the solemnity of both holy rite and legal custom, he approached his hurriedly prepared late December coronation with as much, perhaps more, care as any of his predecessors had. Even then, many Austrians regarded Hungarian constitutional sensibilities as self-indulgent arrogance; Karl’s Habsburg forebears had certainly often amply manifested such an attitude. Yet, “he prepared himself conscientiously for this great ceremony”, remembered János Csernoch, the officiating Archbishop of Esztergom. “He examined every detail and pondered the inner meaning of it all. Like a priest before his ordination – that was how devout and prayerful the King was before his coronation.”

“The oath of 30 December 1916 remained [Karl’s] most solemn pledge as sovereign”, wrote biographer Gordon Brook Shepherd, and the close bond formed between him and Hungary was equally clear every time his son, as an old man, was able to return, unleashing his fluent Hungarian with gusto. Such an enduring and sincere loyalty would have seemed unlikely when the Habsburgs first attained the Hungarian throne in 1526, in the wake of Hungary’s definitive Ottoman defeat at Mohács, and on the verge of its division at the hands of those Muslim invaders. That over three hundred years later, the kingdom could emerge with its independence and sovereignty explicitly acknowledged by the post-Compromise coronation of Franz Josef was a testament, amongst much else, to the value that adheres when people regard something beyond the present as unshakeably binding, despite all appearances to the contrary. The main value, after all, of inheriting organically gained principles of law, outside the scope of the ephemeral, is the possibility it provides of maintaining a society’s equilibrium and continuity when circumstances render that most difficult. So it was that the Holy Crown placed on Károly IV’s head that cold, grey Saturday had, if anything, increased its grandeur in the tussle between that gentle king’s forebears and the estates of Hungary.

He would not surely have taken those oaths and pledges so seriously had he walked into the Mátyás Templom at nine that morning fully possessed of the powers of kingship. As we have observed, he would have done in any other European monarchy by that time, and his imperial authority in the rest of the Dual Monarchy was undimmed by his lack (ultimately permanent) of a Viennese crowning. But in Hungary the coronation oath remained not what a king was obliged to repeat to placate tradition, but the literal legal basis on which the crown would be placed on his head and the powers of kingship would accrue to his person. “The election and coronation of Ferdinand [beginning the Habsburg line in 1527] took place on the express condition that the independence of the Hungarian crown and the constitution of the realm should remain unimpaired”, Apponyi insisted in his 1908 treatise on Hungarian constitutionalism. “That condition was accepted and sworn to by the new king; it was confirmed by the coronation oaths of all his successors belonging to the same dynasty; whatever practical encroachments may have occurred, this legal state of things never became altered.”9

As the architect of the 1867 Compromise, Ferenc Deák insisted, “What violence robs us of, the fortune of time and circumstances may restore; but if we ourselves give up our rights, they will be forever and irrevocably lost”. Therefore the oath was not only also repeated after the coronation proper before a symbolic gathering of the people, it also came to be enacted at each coronation as part of a legal decree, called the diploma inaugurale, with the pre-coronation negotiations over the exact content of the diploma serving as an additional reminder of the contingent basis of the new king’s ascendancy. Given its central place, it is fitting that András II seems to have established the precedent of an inauguration oath, as he was the sovereign who issued the Aranybulla (Golden Bull) of 1222 that formed such a precious part and model of the oaths that followed. Like its near chronological neighbour, England’s Magna Carta, the Aranybulla set out the specific limitations and accountability of Hungary’s king vis-à-vis the nobles of the land. The second Angevin king of Hungary, Lajos I (Louis I, who earned the superlative Nagy– the Great) re-confirmed the contents of the Bull as binding in 1351. Even more significant for posterity was Mátyás’ affirmation of the same at the 1464 pre-coronation diet.

The liberties of the Aranybulla – which, as genuine liberties always are, were restraints on legal power – along with other accrued customary obligations of the monarch, became the heart of the oath which a new king swore to as an integral pillar of the legality and legitimacy of his accession. His oath, enacted before the ceremony and made during and after it, formed the proper contours of his kingship. That 1687, of all years, saw the beginning of the practice of a diploma inaugurale decreeing the contents of the new king’s oath underlines the strange trend of threats to Hungarian independence from Habsburg dominance serving as a means of strengthening that independence’s legal foundation.

The 150-year Ottoman grip on Buda had ended with a Habsburg military victory the year before, and with the rest of Ottoman-occupied Hungary liberated under Habsburg power, the diet in Pozsony decreed that Habsburg heirs would be the legal successors to the Hungarian kingship. In this context, the introduction of the diploma inaugurale made it clear that the right to be heir was not the same as the right to the full powers of kingship. “The authority of St Stephen’s Crown, if anything, acquired new significance during the reign of the Habsburg dynasty”, argues historian László Péter. “The diaetalis coronation, with the oath and with bargaining which preceded the issuing of the [diploma inaugurale], offered the best institutional safeguards to the nobility against the encroachments of the alien monarchy.”

Following this pattern, the apparent sealing of the Habsburg hereditary principle in Hungary, with the Pragmatic Sanction and consequent 1741 coronation of Maria Theresa (Mária Terézia in Hungarian), was again more than balanced by the contents of her oath and the diploma which enacted it, as well as the legalisation that affirmed the Pragmatic Sanction within Hungary. It is often repeated that the elective principle was abolished in 1687, but, despite what certain Habsburg centralists may have wished both then and later, this was not so. The Hungarian law implementing the Pragmatic Sanction clearly stated that “when the above-described lineage [descendants of Kings Leopold I, Joseph I, and Charles III] becomes extinct, Hungary will use again her ancient right of free election to the throne, irrespective of what Austria, or any part of Austria, may choose”.10 Maria Theresa’s diploma inaugurale specifically referred to this law in re-affirming the same principle. Furthermore, “We will piously accept and firmly observe and make others observe intact all the general and special liberties, immunities, privileges, rights and laws of this Hungarian kingdom and its borderlands, accepted by former kings”, the new king (for Maria Theresa was crowned king of Hungary) swore. And, even more significantly, she added, “Whenever, at a subsequent period, such inauguration of a monarch shall be undertaken in this kingdom by a parliament, our successors and heirs … shall at all times promulgate this acceptance of the guarantees of the diploma, and the confirmation of the same by oath”. Thus, despite the loss that the acceptance of hereditary succession may have entailed, that very novelty, as historian Henrik Marczali argued, was legally bound to the maintenance of Hungarian constitutionality and independence.11

It should be no surprise, therefore, that when the great Franz Josef, Károly IV’s predecessor, finally agreed to be crowned king after nearly two decades of unsuccessful direct rule, it was precisely these principles and precedents that were re-affirmed in the agreements that preceded the coronation and the oaths that structured it. The Spectator of London admirably captured the significance of Franz Josef’s July 1865 visit to the Hungarian capital, when he declared himself “willing to submit to coronation – a ceremony which always implies the previous assent of both King and Diet to a pact called the coronation diploma”. Warming to the subject, The Spectator continues, “He is compelled in short, after relying for sixteen years upon force, while still in command of a great army, while still in theory absolute lord, to replace himself by his own act in a legal position”. The conclusion is as apropos a summary of the matter as could have been formulated: “He must either be legal or weak, the very alternative which it is the first object of constitutions to secure.”12

The sense of restoration of right – and the genuine rapprochement that both Franz Josef’s humility and his Queen’s unabashed Magyarphilia inculcated – perhaps made the 8 June 1867 coronation (the first in the Mátyás Templom) the most glorious yet. “The centre of the world is just for the time this capital of Hungary on the lordly Danube”, The Times correspondent reported from the scene. Inside the church, Liszt’s magnificent coronation mass, written for the occasion, reverberated around the medieval interior. And, as the ceremony began, Franz Josef knelt on the top step of the altar and swore his oath. “Mama sat on a kind of throne and Papa went to the altar, where a great deal of Latin was said”, was how the eight-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf described it.13 “We will inviolably maintain the privileges and Constitution”, Franz Josef promised, “the independence according to law, and the territorial integrity of Hungary and the Charter of King [András] II.”14

Forty-nine years later, the same church was renewed with Gothic design, and, for the occasion, both subdued with regal red cloth and blazing with lights. Here Károly IV likewise knelt on the top step of the altar and swore his coronation oath. “He was sincerely striving to adhere to and to accomplish the things that he was to promise on oath”, the presiding Archbishop Csernoch remembered. “And he wished that during the Coronation, in which not only the words but also every gesture and every action had its symbolic meaning, everyone would know and understand.” With the oath taken, there came a further reminder that this was a sacred ceremony, beneath and beyond all else it was and signified, as the Archbishop anointed Károly IV, again kneeling before altar, with oil on his right arm and between his shoulders. It was an element that had been mostly avoided in the coronations of Europe’s great kings, besides England and France, but it emphasised the sacramental, as well as legal and political, efficacy of the proceedings. Hungary’s status as a kingdom and its official Christian character were inseparably bound together with the inaugural coronation of István in 1000. Therefore, to move toward the idea, as other kingdoms had, of coronations merely confirming authority was also for this reason absurd. Károly, furthermore, had sworn not only to protect the regnum and its people, but also the Church.

Naturally Szent István was indeed the spoken and unspoken presence in all this, and, while the Holy Crown so long and often referred to as “St Stephen’s Crown” had not in fact ever adorned his head, the mantle that was now placed around Károly, as he once more returned to the altar, could indeed be traced back to the first king himself. The magnificent Byzantine silk piece was made as a chasuble by Queen Gisela, István’s wife, and given by the royal pair to the Székesfehérvár basilica in 1031. Depicting Christ as both victor and ruler, as well as the prophets and apostles, the mantle also features an István with crown, lance and orb, alongside a crowned Gisela. Its first recorded appearance as a coronation mantle is on the shoulders of last Árpádian king, András III in the late thirteenth century.15

The next part of the coronation, in which the imminently crowned receives a sword and sheath from the Archbishop, before brandishing the sword to the left, right, and centre, is more poignantly repeated outside of the church, as we shall see. We can imagine how the thoughtful Károly and the attendant dignitaries must have reflected on this moment, overshadowed as all were by the endless bearing of arms in a desperate war. But recapitulating the protective responsibility of a king to his kingdom and people was an appropriate way to prepare for the legal and symbolic centre-point, for which Károly once more returned to a humble posture at the altar.

Seizing the Holy Crown to place it on a royal head for the last time was, in addition to Archbishop Csernoch, Prime Minister István Tisza, serving as acting Palatine. Crown Prince Otto much later recalled his four-year-old self “being particularly struck by Count Tisza for, like all Hungarian Calvinists, he was wearing a costume in black which stood out among the vivid coloured dresses of the majority of Catholic nobility present”.16 Tisza’s political enemies had attempted to prevent his appointment to this position (which also placed the crown in his hands until the crowning), seizing on the argument that a Protestant ought not to play so crucial a role in the rite; an objection that was silenced by none other than Csernoch. In retrospect, it is fitting that Tisza was permitted this, ultimately epochal, honour. Assailed then and even now, Tisza stayed nobly at his post during the war, despite the fact that he had persistently opposed the fateful invasion of Serbia. Károly’s Queen, Zita, later insisted that, “In war, Hungary was a pillar of the Dual Monarchy, and Tisza was the man of iron who carried that pillar”.17 It was quite literally a thankless task, in which Tisza also ensured that, unlike the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy, Hungary retained its parliamentary and legal processes, resisting the slide into wartime military rule.18 His statesmanship was irreplaceable in those dark days, but Bánffy recalls his appearance during the coronation, “like a man weighed down by the hopelessness of his task, by the pain and endless worry of a duty that could never succeed”. Less than two years later, as the empire and kingdom collapsed, Tisza would be assassinated in his home. But today he was the Palatine, entrusted with Hungary’s most luminous possession.

Every aspect of the Holy Crown (Szent Korona in Hungarian), from its provenance to its precise meaning, was and is the subject of fierce debate. It is an item that stands apart in royal regalia; two crowns fixed together, with a lower corona graeca of late eleventh-century Byzantine origin beneath an upper corona latina, whose two intersecting bands hold up the iconic cross. The best estimate of the date at which the two crowns were joined together is the late twelfth century.19 “This was the last time anyone was to see the crown of St Stephen used for its essential purpose”, recalls Bánffy of Károly’s coronation day, which granted him what was then a rare sight of the diadem. “What was so surprising was the freshness of the enamels, as glowing and translucent as when they were first seen”, he remembers. “Unbelievable too was the warmth and glow of its pearls – hundreds of them set in lines on every possible edge, still alive and radiant despite being kept for centuries in airless steel cases.”

We have already seen how the Holy Crown formed a central aspect in the legitimising role of the coronation in Hungarian law and lore. There are many more examples to employ, but two more are worth relating before we return to the meaning of this status. In 1440, after the diet elected the Polish Ulászló (Vladislav) king, but found the Holy Crown in rival hands, his backers proceeded with a coronation using a different crown, claiming that the diet’s will was the only relevant factor in the coronation. If the Holy Crown remained un-retrieved, they declared, its “mysterium et robur” could be passed on to the new crown. “The innovation, bordering on sacrilege, ended in well-deserved failure”, Péter relates. “[Ulászló] I was dead before the Holy Crown had been recovered and none of his donation letters were recognised in court.” A more recent king who imagined that his own ideas could supersede the very foundation of the authority he presumed was the Habsburg emperor and son of Maria Theresa, Josef/Joseph/József II. Entranced by the dubious example of Frederick the Great, he was insistent on both the right and felicity of a centrally-ruled and united Habsburg dominion. While the emperor was feted by the fashionable, in Hungary he was derisively known as the kalapos király (hatted king) for his arrogant refusal to be crowned in the kingdom of Hungary. As with Ulászló, after József II’s death ten years into his reign, his decrees were deemed null and void in Hungarian law. The man who would not wear the crown had also removed it from Pozsony to Vienna, and when it returned to Hungary in 1790, the diet legally required it to henceforth remain in Buda.20

Due to the unique prominence placed on this specific item in the legally and conceptually authenticating power of the coronation, it is natural that disagreement and confusion remains about the relationship, borders and intersections between the literal and symbolic significance of the Holy Crown. This is in some way unresolvable, even if we leave aside, as we will, the post-1918 ideas of the crown’s meaning and presence. There is indeed much cause for discussion far beyond the scope of these pages, especially as the debate also relates to the instability of seemingly simple terms like kingdom and land. It should be said, however, that it is a sign of misguided theorising when the literal meaning of the crown is used to contradict its symbolism, or vice versa. These are mutually dependent sources of meaning, and, as Sir Francis Bacon said, regarding another conundrum of royal ideals, “it is one thing to make things distinct, another thing to make them separable”.

The foundational significance of the A.D. 1000 coronation meant that, from the beginning, the actual crown of Hungary’s kings (while István’s original crown and the Holy Crown were not the same, they were assumed to be so for most of Hungarian history) could not easily be regarded as a mere royal appendage. The semi-elective nature of the monarchy also added to this sense, with the understanding of a bestowed authority attached to the crown. This was, as we have seen, held in balance by the partially familial nature of succession, preventing the nobles from successfully regarding the crown or its power as theirs. The crown and the authority it represented was not privately the king’s, the nobles’, or the Church’s. All three had a stake in, and a mutually complementary part to play in, its authentication and exercise, as the interlocking steps of national (i.e. nobles or diet) approval, the oath of the king, and ecclesial anointing and crowning indicate. When one of these three parties refused to play the part that custom and experience had understood necessary for legitimacy and effectiveness, the Holy Crown invariably exposed the missing piece, as the examples of Ulászló and József II indicate. And this was only possible because of its dual and compatible significance as both an irreplaceable object and a transcendent symbol.

The specific physicality and literalness of the Holy Crown’s importance, therefore, was neither a contradiction nor an impediment to its symbolic and metaphysical value, but became an essential function of it. The peculiar historical need in Hungary – born of Angevin, Habsburg and Ottoman threat – for a metaphysically powerful Crown also necessitated its intensely physical veneration in practice and law. This is particularly hard to understand in an age that ascribes meaning to the abstract and the physical, while discarding the symbolic as meaningless. But ascribing symbolic meaning to a material object does not detract from its literal importance (as abstract thinking often does), but intensifies it, uniting the two aspects in mutuality, creating the possibility of meaning that is simultaneously organic and conceptual.

So the Holy Crown which Archbishop Csernoch and István Tisza raised in that Buda church one hundred years ago was neither “merely” a symbol (for a symbol, above all things, is never “merely” something) nor just an object. As they placed it on the head of the young man who knelt at the altar, they crowned and endowed him with the authority of Hungarian kingship, in all its mystery and strength. “At that very moment a shaft of light shone through the window above the altar”, Bánffy recalls, “a pale wintry ray, but sunlight nonetheless, transforming the scene into a magic shining picture … It was an unforgettable sight, even though it lasted but for one brief moment.” Tisza then stepped forward, as the crowned king walked to his throne, and led the men and women gathered in firstly loudly acclaiming, Éljen a király (Long live the king), and then singing the hauntingly bittersweet national anthem.

Traditionally, royal consorts had been crowned as Queen in separate ceremonies, but, at Franz Josef’s request in 1867, his wife Elisabeth (Erzsébet in Hungarian), whose fluent Hungarian and overt love of all things Magyar had so charmed the country, was crowned immediately after him. Young Károly followed his lead, and so Zita’s crowning quickly followed, with the Holy Crown brushed on her shoulder before she received her own diadem. With this, the focal point of the pageantry was done, but there was far more to follow.

Firstly, once the coronation guests had filed out of the church, the new king could begin the usual post-coronation inducting of the chosen few as Knights of the Golden Spur. This had taken place in a separate church in the years of coronation in Pozsony, and even after the previous coronation at the Church of Our Lady in Buda, Franz Josef had retired to the nearby Mária Magdolna Templom – which had been the medieval parish church of Buda’s Hungarian-speakers – for the ceremony. This church had also housed the other previous Buda coronation, of Ferenc/Franz in 1792. Two years after the death of the kalapos király who had irreverently stripped that church and closeted the Holy Crown, unworn, in Austria, it had been a potent gesture for his nephew to honour both with the first coronation in Hungary’s long-occupied and oft-besieged capital. But the span of the 1916 festivities was limited by war-time considerations, and the king remained in the church of coronation for the knightly investitures. Once that was completed, the two most public, and highly dramatic, scenes of coronation day could commence.

Having sworn the coronation oath at the altar before being crowned, it was incumbent on a new king of Hungary to repeat that oath before the crowds, emphasising the public nature of his charge and duty. In Pozsony, this had taken place in front of the extant Brothers of Mercy monastery (Kostol navštívenia Panny Márie) in what became, due to its royal purpose, Schwur Platz (Oath Place), but is now Námestie SNP. Franz Josef, in 1867, had crossed the river to Pest and made his way to the Belvárosi Plébániatemplom (Inner City Parish Church) – which even now retains its serenity despite the Erzsébet Bridge crashing across the Danube beside it – to a temporary stand just north of the Marian column that used to guard the church. Here he took his oath before the quayside throng. This square had for many years been known as Templom tér/Kirchen Platz after the old church, but around the time of the coronation it was re-christened Plébánia tér, before the new king’s exploits caused it to be yet again re-named Eskü tér (Oath Square). This stood until after the Second World War, when it became Március 15. tér, which it remains today.

In 1916, Miklós Bánffy had planned Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion) as the latest site for the oath, but he was overruled by the chief of police, robbing Budapest of an iconic scene for the ages. Instead, the statue in Szentháromság tér (Holy Trinity Square), outside the church, hosted the solemnity. Still robed in István’s mantle, head overwhelmed by the Holy Crown, Károly intoned the oath before the crowd, his right hand raised while his left clasped a crucifix. Bánffy regarded this as “the most sublime and important moment of the Hungarian coronation”, and, despite his enduring disappointment at the lost location, drunk in the moment. “As each sentence was read out, the king repeated the words loudly and in a clear voice… He held his head high, and a youthful smile, unchanging and full of hope, was on his lips.”

From there the king rode the short distance to Szent György tér, by the palace. Here the coronation mound had been assembled, consisting as it always did of earth from all of Hungary’s counties, where the new king would, while displaying the fine horsemanship so prized by Hungary’s noble sons and daughters, thrust his sword to the four points of the compass and kingdom, demonstrating his very real responsibility to the realm. As much as any moment of this lore-laden day, this one reverberated with the echoes of monarchs past. As with the public oath, there would have been some in the crowd who remembered Franz Josef’s equivalent equestrian display by the Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) in what is now Széchenyi tér (after being Roosevelt tér for most of the post-war period), but then appropriately bore the new king’s name. Hungary’s first female king, Maria Theresa, had memorably rode her mount up the coronation mound in the Pozsony square that also bore the name of its coronation function (and is now Námestie L’udovíta Štúra), showing herself the equal of her predecessors. Now it was Károly’s turn.

It was just as well that Zita and Otto had gone straight from the church ceremony to gain a vantage point over the coronation mound, for here the crowds were thick and expectant. “It was a scene of surging life when the blood is at its hottest – vitam et sanguinem”, wrote Bánffy, “when all Hungarians present forgot themselves utterly in an expression of ardent patriotism.” Young Otto understandably found this thrilling moment the apex of the day too, the people roaring their approval as his kingly father galloped up the temporary hillock – the Holy Crown on his head yet visible to all – turning the steed as his sword flashed high above the city.

The zenith of the occasion was also its fitting denouement. While private audiences remained, the royal couple, now rightful king and queen of a venerable and vast kingdom from Sopron to Sepsiszentgyörgy, had departed the capital by nightfall. “The evening”, Bánffy reminisces, “was like any other during the winter. The departure of the king and queen quenched all rejoicing and sense of occasion.” The pressing dangers of a cruel war returned to the hearts and minds of men. But for those who were there, Otto included, the sounds and sights lived on – Éljen a király ringing through the squares and sacred places of stately Buda.


1 Gordon Brook-Shepherd, Uncrowned Emperor: The Life and Times of Otto von Habsburg (London: Hambledon and London, 2003), 74. It is often written that Otto studied at Pannonhalma itself, but this appears to be a distorted version of the above detail.

2 The Ausgleich did, however, re-affirm the sovereignty of Hungary in a way that gave it a degree of centralisation which had not previously existed.

3 Miklós Bánffy, The Phoenix Land: The Memoirs of Count Miklós Bánffy (London: Arcadia, 2003). A Transylvanian noble, parliamentarian, diplomat and future writer of great renown, Bánffy was at that time Director of Theatres.

4 András Kubinyi, “Buda, Medieval Capital of Hungary”, in Nagy, Rady, Szende, and Vadas, eds., Medieval Buda in Context (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

5 Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary, 895–1526 (London: IB Tauris, 2001), 130–31.

6 László Péter, Hungary’s Long Nineteenth Century: Constitutional and Democratic Traditions in a European Perspective (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 29–30.

7 Engel, 131–132.

8 This was particularly impressive, as the dubious idea that the Holy Crown had originated as a papal gift was long accepted and could have given credence to papal authority over Hungarian kingship.

9 Albert Apponyi, A Brief Sketch of the Hungarian Constitution and of the Relations between Austria and Hungary (Budapest: St. Stephen’s, 1908), 57–58.

10 Ibid., 58–59.

11 Henrik Marczali, HungaryintheEighteenthCentury(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), 349–52.

12 “The Hungarian Victory”, TheSpectator (8 July 1865), 7–8:

13 Alan Palmer, TwilightoftheHabsburgs:TheLifeandTimesofEmperorFrancisJoseph(London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1994), 158–59.

14“ Coronation of the King of Hungary”, The Illustrated London News (29 June 1867). Specifically omitted from this oath, as it had been since 1687, was the jus resistendi – the thirty-first clause of the Aranybulla, which granted to bishops and nobles the right of resistance.

15 “The Coronation Mantle”, Hungarian National Museum:

16 Brook-Shepherd, 28–29.

17 Justin C. Vovk, Imperial Requiem: Four Royal Women and the Fall of the Age of Empires (Bloomington: Universe, 2012), 315.

18 Pieter Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 392, 398.

19 Péter, 19–20.

20 Ibid., 30–31.

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