Hungarian designer, politician and writer Count Miklos Banffy provides the most detailed account of the 1916 coronation of the Archduke Karl as the King of Hungary in his memoirs entitled 'From My Memories.' Banffy, being the son of the Lord Chamberlain, was able to provide accurate descriptions of the coronation since he was assigned the task of organizing the event at the Coronation Church.
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.
`As we stood at the great doors telling everyone where to find their seats I was accosted in French by a tall, broad-shouldered man in the uniform of a Hungarian general. It was the King of Bulgaria ... and he was very cross. He wanted first to see the Crown, he said shortly . . . For a few moments he was so absorbed in studying the Regalia that he forgot his anger. Then, turning to me, he spoke passionately of how he had been insulted. He had been given a seat in the gallery of the oratorium, next to the six-year-old Crown Prince; hidden away where no-one could see him, he, the only foreign monarch who had had the courtesy to come to Hungary for the coronation. He was very angry, repeating several times that he had been hidden away with a little child, where no-one would remark the presence of a foreign King, a traditional and long-time friend of Hungary, who had come in these troubled times to make a public gesture of alliance and friendship. "And this is all the thanks I get! This is how they treat me!" he said furiously.
`It was extremely painful for me to listen to King Ferdinand's outburst; especially as only a year before he had received me in the palace at Sofia and treated me with exceptional kindness and courtesy. I tried to explain that I had not been responsible for the seating arrangements and that, in any case, the little Archduke Otto, as hereditary Crown Prince, was the highest ranking person in Hungary after the King ...
`"That's all nonsense!" interrupted King Ferdinand. "I know it's not your fault, but I know whose fault it is. It's that camarilla at court . . . especially Montenuovo, who's always been my enemy. He would stop at nothing to humiliate me ... he, and those others ... they're my enemies all right. Always have been. Always!"
`Still trying to soothe him I escorted King Ferdinand to his place in the gallery. There, however, although he was still fuming with rage I had to take my leave. After more angry words he at last finished by saying, "If I'd known it, I wouldn't have come!".'. . .
Banffy now has to go to greet the little Crown Prince who, he writes, `was a lovely child ... dressed in a resplendent brocade mantle lined with ermine and decorated with egret feathers . . . In tiny shoes he tripped hurriedly along so as to keep up with General Count Wallis, whose finger he clutched in a tight little fist ...
`Now the officiating clergy all lined up outside the church to receive the royal couple, while in the Loretto Chapel the Keepers of the Regalia and the standard-bearers ensured that all those with a part to play had been provided with the badge or clenodium each one had to carry. Everyone was in place except for Ivan Skerlecz, the Ban of Croatia, who was nowhere to be seen.' The Ban (Governor) later excused himself, saying he could not get through the police cordon outside, but his absence caused a momentary delay while the procession was reformed. Now the royal carriage draws up, but Banffy is unable to see the sovereigns, arrival as he had to take up his own place where he could supervise the lighting.
`Suddenly there was silence. Then the powerful notes of the organ announced that the King had arrived. In front of me the Lord Chamberlain - it was my own father - moved forwards on the lowest step before the throne, staff of office in hand. Across from him, on the other side of the throne, the apostolic cross rose high on its long black shaft . . . A few moments went by. Then the white figure of a woman appeared briefly in front of me, clad in lace and satin and wearing a crown of diamonds. For a moment she was motionless; then she sank to her knees with a grace that was both womanly and regal. It was a moment that touched the heart to see the queenly movement of this radiant young woman when, with her coronation robe streaming out behind her, she bent over the purple prayer-stool that had been embroidered with crosses and silver lilies. A long veil of white lace drifted diagonally from her head...'
The coronation ceremony began with a mass in which the 1,000-year-old Latin text was interspersed with music and singing. Then:
`The King moved up to the altar. Then he came back before once more returning there, this time wearing St. Stephen's robe. Now the crown was placed upon his head. At that moment a shaft of light shone through the window above the altar, a pale wintry ray but sunlight nevertheless, transforming the scene into a magical shining picture. Facing me, seated under the high windows, were all the chief dignitaries of the Hungarian Catholic Church; and the combination of the sunlight from outside and the electric glow of the chandeliers banished all shadows, metamorphosing the multiplicity of ritual hieratic garments, the all-white brocades of the clergy's pluviales, the gold-embroidered mitres, the infulaes, into one translucent, crystalline, unreal, angelic mist. It was an unforgettable sight, but it lasted for one brief moment only ... but it was at this moment that the crown was placed on the young King's head.
`The ceremony lasted for a long time . . . in that resplendent, unreal, fairyland atmosphere no-one noticed the passing of time . . . there was music and song; and incense rose in clouds and dissolved in the high vaulting of the church. The organ rumbled and sang, and from outside could sometimes be heard the sound of a saluting cannon. Inside the church the constant shifting but silent groups of clergy moved solemnly in ritual observance; bishops glowing in their formal robes stood hieratic and immobile as the ancient ritual drew to its inevitable conclusion . . .
`The King and Queen retired to the sacristy . . . As the crowd inside began to disperse the court ladies and those in waiting started to descend slowly from their places in the gallery on the left side of the church . . . one by one or in pairs . . . all in dresses of gold and white and silver studded with jewels . . . family jewels, diamonds, pearls, emeralds and rubies adorned their heads in great iridescent, sparkling clusters and from their shoulders long trains of velvet and brocade and ermine fell in soft folds to the ground behind them. As they moved slowly out in procession they were accompanied by ever-softer notes from the organ as if the disappearance of all that beauty imposed silence in the now emptying basilica.'
When the church was almost empty, those appointed to be dubbed Knights of the Golden Spur filed in from a side-door: `There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service at the front. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps. One could see at once how old their boots were ... In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of moving . . . out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war . . . Some of them, those who had been most grievously wounded, sank down onto the seats provided for them. The others, whom fate had left physically intact, lined up at attention ... their tunics stiff with medals and ribbons and orders, the outward symbols of their gallantry. No-one spoke ... they just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, look death in the face ....
`The King, crowned with St. Stephen's Crown and wearing St. Stephen's mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen's Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.'
Banffy records that he was thankful not to have to watch more of this` nightmare' scene as his duties now required his presence outside before the next ceremony, that of the Swearing of the Oath before the people. `The law was that the new King, holy crown upon his head and regal cape over his shoulders, under God's free sky and in the sight of the entire population, should swear to keep and to uphold and enforce the Law; for to maintain the law was the first and unalterable duty of the sovereign, who thereby protected his people ...
`. . . the procession formed up ... firstly the standard-bearers, then the great golden Hungarian coat-of-arms, then the Lord Chamberlain and his suite, and finally the King ...
`The cheering stopped and the Oath was read, slowly, sentence by sentence. As each phrase was read out the King repeated the words, loudly and in a clear voice. In his left hand he held the apostolic cross, the Pax, and his right hand was held up, palm towards the people, for all to see. He held his head erect and on his lips there was a youthful smile ... full of hope.'
While the King and his entourage returned to the church, all the spectators move to the St. George's Square for the third part of the traditional coronation ceremonies.
`From a window on the first floor Queen Zita looked down on the square. She had stood the little Crown Prince, the Archduke Otto, on the windowsill and held him enlaced with one of her beautiful hands. They were alone, framed in the window, the dark-eyed Queen with her diamond crown and ... the golden-blond boy in his traditional Hungarian dress....'
Now the cheering grew louder telling everyone that the royal procession was on its way. `Suddenly the mounted figure of the King emerged from the forest of banners in the square. Up the little balustraded hillock he rode. Then with the sword he slashed the air as a groom turned the charger's head to north and east and south and west, to the four corners of the world. A few moments the steed was once more led down into the crowd and the figure of the King lost to sight among the ceremonial banners. Not long afterwards . . . with the joy of a job well accomplished, he emerged from the crowd ... waived a greeting to his wife . . . and then quickly galloped away towards the palace. . .'
The last official ceremony was the State Banquet. The moment it was over `the court officials disappeared with the King while the members of Parliament hurried down to the House so as to enact the necessary legislation confirming the act of enthronement and the consecration of a new monarch.'
Meanwhile Banffy has been received by the King and thanked for his work. All that remained was the royal reception at which all those ladies invited to the coronation would be presented to the King and Queen:
`In the throne room ... the presentation had already started. In order of rank each lady to be presented enters the room. She walks to the throne where, on this occasion, only the Queen is seated. The King stands behind her and the Crown Prince ... is at her feet. There, as the Lord Chamberlain reads out her name, she sinks into a deep curtsy' before retiring as another lady enters. At first it all went very slowly but soon because the royal couple were anxious to board their train for Vienna no later than 6 pm, and there were several hundred ladies to be presented, the chamberlains started to speed up the process `until the ladies were scrambling in, now singly, now in groups, pushing up to the throne, and elbowing each other out of the way ...
`Everyone was exhausted, for most had been in full evening dress since early in the morning, wearing tiaras or diadems on their heads and supporting the weight not only of their trains but also of the heavy gold and silver embroidery of the dresses themselves; and many had been up half the night waiting their turn with some fashionable hairdresser.
`When tired and faltering, pale with exhaustion and tottering under the weight of their finery, they came into the drawing-room they sank thankfully onto the few chairs and sofas that lined the walls ... the room was rather dark, for not all the chandeliers had been lit ... In this poor light every vestige of beauty and pageantry drained away ... the silver veils looked merely grey; gold braid a dull black; and even the jewels lost their sparkle with so little light to reflect. Make-up ran on the older faces; powder vanished ... the erstwhile radiant creatures were a sorry sight ...
`After the royal couple had left ... the evening was just like any other during the winter. The departure of the King and Queen had quenched all rejoicing and sense of occasion. Rumours and gossip started spreading at once. People whispered about imaginary ill-omens; that the crown had been placed crooked on the monarch's head and that he had stumbled just at the moment of repeating the words of the oath ... but all this passed me by. Only one thing could have provided food for this kind of gossip, but I do not think that any-one knew about it. The coronation church was only just empty when the inch-thick glass plate in the purple tent above the altar split in the heat and crashed like a giant guillotine to the altar and the prie-dieu below. However no-one was told about it except those who had work to do in the church on the following day; and afterwards no-one spoke about it.
`Later in the evening the rain turned to snow, and for a brief moment the white flakes lay on the city pavements and glistened in the light of the street-lamps. Then all turned to mud and slush, and everything returned to an all-enveloping greyness.
`Already, on the very same evening as the coronation, the pageantry and colour of the morning seemed no more real than a half-forgotten dream ...'.
[The brief extracts used in this article have been taken from the second chapter of Miklos Banffy's From My Memories and have been translated by Patrick Thursfield and the author's daughter, Kathy Banffy-Jelen, who have also completed a translation of Banffy's classic trilogy A Transylvanian Tale. St. Stephen's Crown and the other Regalia are now on view in the National Museum in Budapest.]
Editor's Note: Karl, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary, died in exile in Madeira in 1922. For his efforts to promote peace as well as for his personal qualities he is now being considered for canonisation as a saint. Empress Zita died in exile in 1989 after a life spent trying to save the peoples of her former Empire from the ravages of Nazism and Communism. She was given a grand funeral in Vienna. Their son Otto, a distinguished writer and political thinker, is now the senior member of the European Parliament. In 1989 a film, Habsburg Ottorol, made up of archive footage of the 1916 Coronation, attracted great interest when it was shown at a Budapest cinema.