The Last Habsburg Coronation: Budapest - 1916

By Thursfield, Patrick | Contemporary Review, January 1996 | Go to article overview

The Last Habsburg Coronation: Budapest - 1916

Thursfield, Patrick, Contemporary Review

Count Miklo's Banffy (1873-1950), Hungarian magnate, politician, writer, designer, Transylvanian landowner, director of the State theatres from 1913 to 1918, and Foreign Minister from 1921 to 1922, published his first book of memoirs in 1932. His novel, The Writing on the Wall, was described in last July's issue of Contemporary Review. Emlekeimbol - From My Memories is in two parts, in the first of which he describes the hurried coronation in 1916 of the Emperor Franz-Joseph's successor, the Archduke Karl, as King of Hungary. It was to be the last great pageant in the history of the Habsburgs; and Banffy, whose father held the high office of Lord Chamberlain, was given the task of making all the arrangements in the Coronation Church, a few hundred yards from the Royal Palace which dominates the hill of Buda.

In the first chapter of the memoirs Banffy gives a fascinating account of the preparations and, in the second, his eye-witness account of the ceremony itself. I know of no other account of this impressive occasion as detailed as Banffy's, though film exists of those parts of the ceremony which took place out of doors. Banffy's own design for the high altar can still be seen in the Treasury of the Matthias Church.

The old emperor died on November 21st and was buried three days later. On his return from the funeral Banffy was summoned to the palace in Budapest and charged with the arrangements for crowning the new King before December 31st, for, according to Hungarian law, the royal assent to the annual budget had to be obtained before the end of the year; and this would not be valid unless the sovereign had been crowned. After several postponements the date chosen was December 30th. The Austro-Hungarian empire was in the third year of the First World War: a war launched by Serb terrorists who murdered the previous heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Banffy first describes the church before the dignitaries and guests started arriving. He then goes on to recount how the Crown and other symbols of power had been previously placed in the Loretto Chapel where they had been fastened to velvet cushions by special clips so that these sacred emblems could be carried in the horseback procession without risk of mishap. These are now brought into the church.

`It was the last time that anyone was to see the Crown of St. Stephen used for its essential purpose. It was a fabulous object, not only for its historical associations and for the many legends that had accrued to it, but also for its own sake as a unique work of art . . . made from two diadems it had a wondrous and unexpected beauty. What was so surprising was the freshness of its enamels, as glowing and translucent as when they were first seen made by the hands of those unknown artists, goldsmiths, jewellers and enamellists, a thousand years before. Unbelievable, too, was the warmth and glow of its pearls, hundreds of them, still alive and radiant despite being kept for centuries in airtight sealed cases ...

`... another extraordinary object was the sceptre. When it first came into the possession of the Kings of Hungary is not known, though tradition dates it to the time of King Stephen. The ball is of crystal, as big as a man's fist, and rampant lions are carved all over it. It is Arab work of the VIIIth or IXth century and the gold shaft and setting is contemporary with the ball . . . the sparkling crystal above the golden shaft symbolised the eternal truth that above even the noblest of human values ruled the dispassionate clarity of the Word and Will of God.'

The main doors are now opened and the guests started crowding in: `The Court ladies, those in waiting on Queen Zita, affived in a group and, dressed as they were in traditional Hungarian court dress, it was as if a bevy of family portraits had suddenly come alive. They all wore elaborate diamond tiaras and diadems and their pearl and jewel-embroidered capes glittered in the brilliant light. …

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