The Hungarian Crown
October 21st, 2008
The Hungarian Crown
By Kathy A. Megyeri
The Ambassador of Hungary Ferenc Somogyi hosted a historical symposium at the Hungarian Embassy on January 17, 2008 to discuss the significance of the Hungarian Crown in the Cold War. This event marked the 30th anniversary of the U.S.’s return of the Holy Crown of King St. Stephen to the Hungarian people. At the symposium, a distinguished panel of historians and American policy-makers who played a role in this event as well as members of the U.S. delegation that escorted the Crown to Budapest examined the decision to return the Crown to the Hungarian people and the aftermath of that return. The speakers included Robert Hunter, senior advisor at the Rand Corporation and former Ambassador to NATO; Robert King, then Director for Central European Affairs of the National Security Council; Istvan Deak, then a member of the U.S. delegation; Charles Gati, professor at Johns Hopkins University; and Robert Kaiser, son of the late Philip Kaiser, then U.S. Ambassador to Budapest. The Hungarian Embassy also hosted an outstanding visual history of the crown and its return to Hungary that was both informative and educational for visitors and guests.
The crown, although not an official state symbol, is regarded with particular respect in Hungary. The Hungarian crown is called either the Holy Crown or Crown of St. Stephen, and it is not only a symbol but also an attribute of statehood. Its legitimizing role can be traced back to the time when Hungary’s first ruler, founder of the state and the institution of a Christian monarchy, King Stephen I was crowned by Pope Sylvester II. Magyar tribes under the leadership of Chieftain Arpad had settled in the Carpathian Basin in the center of Europe in the 9th century. King Stephen I, who converted his people to Christianity and founded the state of Hungary, was later canonized in 1083. He ascended the throne in the year 1001 and ruled until 1038.
The symbols of Hungarian royal authority–the crown, scepter, orb and sword--are Europe’s oldest coronation regalia. The upper part of the crown with its enamel panels depicts the apostles and dates from the first half of the 11th century while the lower part was made toward the end of the century. Around 1170, the two parts, the so-called Latin and Greek crowns, were assembled into the crown we see today. From that century on, only the person who had the Holy Crown placed on his head was considered the rightful and lawful ruler of Hungary. Over the course of history, this crown was stolen, buried, smuggled abroad and even pawned. Whenever it was returned home, another national celebration was held.
Until 1527, the venue for coronation ceremonies was the Church of the Virgin Mary in Szekesfehervar. During the period of the Ottoman occupation, between 1564-1790, the Archbishops of Esztergom crowned new sovereigns first in Pozsony and then in Buda. After the canonization of St. Stephen I, the coronation regalia (in particular the crown) became relics of the king. From 1260, the crown was termed the Holy Crown and was held to be the crown of the first king of Hungary. Marthias Corvinus (1490) was elected King in 1458 but could only be crowned in 1464 after he had ransomed the Holy Crown for the vast sum of 80,000 gold forints from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. After this, a law was enacted to safeguard the coronation regalia. During the time of Matthias I, Hungary enjoyed a strong economy and army as well as a flourishing cultural life and was one of the most highly developed states in Europe.
Charles IV of the House of Hapsburg (1916-1918) was the last king of Hungary. The coronation insignia was preserved in the Buda Castle until 1944. In 1945, the Crown Guard smuggled the coronation regalia westwards and it was finally given over to the U.S. Army. The cross on the crown is thought to have been bent in the 17th century when, following the coronation, the lid on the royal chest hit the top of the crown. After the Second World War, the crown and coronation insignia–the orb and scepter as well as the coronation mantle–was stored in the U.S. at Ft. Knox.
Following the decision to return the crown, the coronation regalia was brought to Hungary on the President’s plane and during the ceremony in the Hungarian Parliament on Jan. 6, 1978, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance quoted a letter written by President Jimmy Carter. “It is with a genuine sense of pride that I am able to return to the people of Hungary this priceless treasure, which the U.S. has been privileged to shelter since the terrible devastation of the Second World War. I see in this act the reaffirmation of the traditional bonds of friendship between our two peoples.” The Coronation regalia was preserved in the National Museum from 1978-2000. Act I of 2000, which was passed on the 1,000 anniversary of the foundation of the Hungarian state, decreed that the Holy Crown, the scepter, orb and sword be guarded in Parliament but the coronation mantel remain in the Hungarian National Museum.
According to the Embassy’s display, at the free elections of 1990, six political parties won seats in the National Assembly which held its founding session on May 8th. Jozsef Antall was elected to lead the first democratic government. Occupying Soviet troops withdrew from Hungary in 1991. Hungary established new alliance relationships and joined NATO in 1998. It became a member of the Europe Union in 2004. Currently, Budapest considers the reinforcement of security, the war against international terrorism and the promotion of democracy to be the most important governmental objectives.
In his symposium speech, Columbia history Professor Deak recalled flying to Hungary on Air Force I with the crown while being offered cigars and drinks. He also remembered his days as a Radio Free Europe reporter. He admitted that the crown itself is a sacred relic and symbol of Hungarians, but says it represents more than other countries’ crowns that Hungary exists under the rule of the Crown. He said, “This is the Hungarian Empire, the land of St. Stephen, the ruler in the name of the Holy Crown.” But ironically, Deak said, “The crown was never worn by him and is therefore really not of St. Stephen. It is a gift of the Byzantines. We do not know even how the cross is attached. However, it represents the Hungarian state and signifies that the King and the nation are equal. Both have equal responsibility. When St. Stephen sat on his horse and slashed his sword in four directions, the people swore allegiance in exchange for his protection. The crown was taken out of the country by crown guards, and in 1938 was displayed first behind a glass wall. Both Protestant and Catholic contingencies were present, but experts were not allowed to examine it. In 1945, it fell into the hands of the American Army and traveled to Ft. Knox, Kentucky. President Jimmy Carter thought reconciliation could be achieved if the crown was returned and so it was in 1978. There were enormous protests by Hungarian-Americans who felt that the Communists would melt it down. The protesters felt that it should not be returned because Hungary was not yet entirely free. Even a law suit was filed to prevent the return of the crown. Notwithstanding strong Congressional opposition led by Congresswoman Rose Okar of Cleveland, Ohio, President Carter ignored such protests and went ahead with the return of the crown. Some attributed his re-election defeat to this act.”
Bob King, currently staff director of the Foreign Affairs Committee under Congressmen Tom Lantos (D-CA), said that there were many reasons for the decision to return the crown at that time. The Carter administration wanted to examine relations with Central Europe and improve them. Hungary was moving in a more liberal direction in its domestic policy, Carter traveled to Poland and the controversial debate regarding the return of the Hungarian crown was made between September of 1977 until January of 1978. Carter also felt that it had been long enough after l956 that people had put aside that historical event and that Kadar had sufficiently improved conditions in Hungary. Carter also felt that if the crown was returned, the national and historical traditions of Hungary would be emphasized. King said, “Carter always wanted to do the ‘right thing” and thought that Hungarians should hold their own crown. However, there were certain conditions put on the return. First, that Kadar and the Communist Party should not be present at the ceremony or be seen. That would downplay the Communist element. Secondly, that the crown would go to the Hungarian people, not the government. The delegations would be made up mostly of religious groups. Thirdly, that the crown and regalia must be put on permanent and public display at the National Museum. Fourthly, that in the five years before 1978, there had been 25 Resolutions introduced in Congress requesting that the crown not be returned. But the more prevalent feeling of the administration was that the crown’s return was symbolic. Trade agreements and tax treaties were signed. In 1990,” King stated, “Hungary had left the Soviet fold and had warmer relations with the U.S.” A replica of the crown was made and taken to Atlanta, GA where it is on public display in the Jimmy Carter Museum and Library.
Symposium speaker Robert Kaiser felt that Cyrus Vance influenced President Jimmy Carter’s decision to return the crown, which was a pivotal moment in the fall of Communism in Hungary. He recalled Ference Nagy, the former Prime Minister of Hungary, who said, “Outside the country, it’s only a relic, but at home, it unifies the nation to live.”
So what does the crown now mean to Hungarians? Perhaps Professor August Molnar, President of the American-Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick, NJ, said it best, “The first time I saw it was an awesome experience I’ll never forget. One sees the history of the country compressed in that crown. I went to Hungary soon after its arrival at the National Museum. It was as if you entered a church because it was such a spiritual experience. Then, I saw it a second time after it was housed in Parliament and I had a totally different experience. In Parliament, it didn’t have the same feeling to me that it had in the Museum. In Parliament, it was part of government and the administration, so it was different. But still, it’s more than just as object–it’s the symbol of a country–my homeland nation.”
Kathy Megyeri is a staff writer for the FRATERNAL MONITOR. She lives in Washington, DC and can be reached at Megyeri@juno.com.