The Holy Crown of Hungary
Surprisingly little of the Medieval royal regalia of Europe has survived. One exception is the Holy Crown of Hungary. This lovely piece has seen almost a thousand years of history, and was itself history at a few points. It’s a marvelous bit of treasure, and it has a remarkable number of plot hooks baked right in!
This post is brought to you by beloved Patreon backer Justin Moor. Thanks for helping keep the lights on! If you want to help keep this blog going alongside Justin, head over to the Patreon page – and thank you!
The Holy Crown is a bit of an odd duck. It’s assembled from multiple pieces that were built separately. The lower ring is a gold band adorned with precious stones and little enamel paintings. It may have been a gift from Michael VII (Byzantine Emperor 1071-1078) to the unnamed Greek wife of Hungarian King Géza I (1074-1077). The little enamel paintings depict Géza I, Michael VII, and some saints and angels. Later, two intersecting bands were added atop the ring. These bands may have originally been part of the cover of a Bible. Eight enamel paintings on these bands depict eight apostles, and a ninth enamel painting where they cross depicts Christ. This ninth enamel has a hole crudely drilled through the middle of it to attach a golden cross. The cross is crooked – more on that later. All the bits may have been put together in the twelfth century, but it’s hard to be sure.
The scholarship demonstrating that the crown was assembled is relatively recent. Until the 20th century, its origin story was mostly taken from The Life of St. Stephen, by a Bishop Hartvic. St. Stephen was the first king of Hungary and Christianized his people, who were still not far removed from their steppe nomad origins. Hartvic, writing a century after the event, claims the Pope granted St. Stephen his crown, and that St. Stephen became king on Christmas, 1000 A.D. The crown coming from the Pope means that Hungary owes its sovereignty to God and the Church, not to the Byzantine Empire to the east or the Holy Roman Empire to the west. It may be true that St. Stephen received a crown from Rome – but it was not this crown, which never touched his head.
The crown we have today – believed at the time to be St. Stephen’s – became a requirement for kingship. You weren’t king until you wore this specific crown. In 1163, the crown was stolen – and not for the last time. From 1301 to 1526, it was common for succession crises to follow the death of the king. In these crises, it didn’t matter if you won the war or had the better bloodline; you weren’t king until you could find the damned crown. At one point, the Holy Roman Emperor held the crown ‘for safekeeping’, and the next Hungarian monarch had to pay a handsome bribe to get it back and become king – six years after he’d acceded to the throne. At another point, another king acceded to the throne, but the crown was abroad in the hands of his political rivals. By the time it got back to Hungary, the king was dead, and none of his land grants held up in court – since, technically, he’d never actually been king. By the 1300s, there was a belief that the crown was made in heaven, and that the Pope who gave it to St. Stephen was only a middleman.
The Holy Crown being smuggled out of the country
Custody of the crown thus became a very sensitive appointment. For a while, the crown was held by the head of the basilica at the center of the cult of St. Stephen. Then it was kept in a a particularly strong castle. Starting in 1464, parliament took control of safekeeping the crown. Part of that task was keeping it off of non-royal heads: there’s an oft-repeated quote that even an ox must be treated as an “inviolate saintly king” if it has worn the Holy Crown.
In 1526, the crown was present at the Battle of Mohács, a great military disaster against the Ottomans. King Louis II fled the field, but blundered into a swamp and drowned. His attendants had to fish the crown out of the mire. Otherwise, there would be no successor.
Sometime in the 1600s, the cross atop the crown was knocked askew. It’s not clear why or how – you see various claims, but none of them seem supported. In any case, no one has ever fixed it. For a few hundred years, art showing the crown vacillated on whether to depict the cross as straight or crooked, but now it’s consistently shown as crooked, even on the coat of arms of Hungary.
The last time the Holy Crown saw a coronation was in 1916, and it was an inauspicious occasion. The crown is too big for a human head; it has to be worn with a thick liner. But the new King Karl IV had a small head, and even with a liner, the crown slipped sideways. Within two years, there was no king of Hungary.
The mid-20th century was a bad time for the crown. King Karl IV of Hungary was also King Karl I of Austria and Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost WWI, the winners deposed him. The Hungarian parliament voted that Hungary should formally remain a kingdom, even though it had no king. They designated the Commander of the Army to serve as ‘regent’. In WWII, Hungary was an Axis power – though not an effective one, as they betrayed their German allies by trying to sign a separate surrender. In 1945, with the Soviets closing in from the east and the Nazis closing in from the west, there were fears the Holy Crown would be lost. A Hungarian colonel packed the crown in a black satchel and spirited it away to the American army. The crown sat in Fort Knox until President Carter returned it to communist Hungary in 1978.
Today, the crown sits in the Hungarian parliament. Hungary has no king. The royal family, though, survives! Technically, the ‘pretender’ to the throne of the vanished Kingdom of Hungary is Karl von Habsburg, grandson of the deposed Karl IV. He’s a minor European politician and a former UN employee. He’s in the awkward position of being an ordinary rich dude with a bunch of weird ceremonial duties related to his bloodline. If the Hungarian monarchy were to return, he would presumably be crowned Karl V.
Image credit: Zairon. Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
If you want to bring an artifact based on the Holy Crown into your fictional RPG setting, you have a lot of awesome content to work with! Was the crown built by angels? Maybe they want it back. Do you protect the crown against them or heist it on their behalf? Was the crown cobbled together from various sources? Maybe one of them was your plot’s MacGuffin and you need to convince the King to offer up part of his crown to restore the grand artifact of whatever. Once you have the crown in your possession, though, you can apparently crown whomever you want! There’s also the matter of the crown’s odd size. In real life, it may have been built too big so it could fit over a big Hungarian fur hat, but in your fictional campaign, maybe it was not built for a human head! Maybe that’s the real reason it never graced the head of St. Stephen: this was the crown of the inhuman power behind the throne!
There’s also the matter of the Battle of Móhacs and the crooked cross. When the crown was down in the swamp with the corpse of Louis II, what evil swamp spirits may have snuck inside? Could that be why the cross was knocked askew, to render the vessel imperfect and force the spirits out? It may not be a coincidence that the crown’s arrival in the swamp coincided with most of Hungary being conquered by the Ottomans, and that the cross becoming crooked roughly coincided with Hungary’s ‘liberation’ by the Habsburgs. If the cross were ever straightened, would that re-admit the swamp devils and doom Hungary once again?
In a modern-day campaign, the crown provides an excuse to include an NPC modeled on Karl von Habsburg. I adore heirs to thrones that no longer exist. They’re invariably super-rich European dudes (improbably, this often holds even for thrones that aren’t European), and they’re always clearly uncomfortable about their role in society. I think they’re hilarious. Sadly, Karl von Habsburg is not a super-inbred weirdo (sorry 30 Rock). He’s from a branch of the Habsburg family that took over after the incestuous main branch died out. He also seems like a good person – he did a lot of excellent work at the UN. But he’s still a dinosaur living in a world that has no place for his kind, and I love it!
The Holy Crown of Hungary, Visible and Invisible by László Péter (2003)
Localization of the Enamels of the Upper Hemisphere of the Holy Crown of Hungary by Magda de Bàràny-Oberschall (1949)
The Habsburg Monarchy 1618-1815 by Charles W. Ingrao (2000)