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The crown of Saint Stephen (also known as the Holy Crown of Hungary) is not merely fancy headgear worn by the monarch of Hungary. By ancient tradition, the crown has legal personhood and is the monarch of Hungary—its wearer is simply the vehicle for its sovereign authority. For example, Charles Robert of Anjou had to be crowned thrice as Charles I of Hungary “because it was not until he was crowned with the Holy Crown, in 1310, that the coronation was seen as legally binding.”
The crown’s name comes from the myth that Saint Stephen, the first king of Hungary, offered the crown to the Nagyboldogasszony–the Virgin Mary in 1031 AD as he lay on his deathbed with no obvious heirs. The crown is actually of more recent–and more prosaic lineage. It is a kamelaukion-type crown, typical of Byzantine rulers of the 12th century and was probably fashioned during the reign of Béla III (1172-1196) by Byzantine goldsmiths. It consists of three separate pieces: the lower diadem or corona greca, the upper bands called the corona latina, and the cross at the apex–which was added much later (probably during the sixteenth century). Constructed out of solid gold, the crown is decorated with nineteen enamel paintings as well as semi-precious stones, genuine pearls, and almandine (which is a garnet-family mineral–not some sort of nut paste). There are four ornamental pendants hanging from chains on each side of the crown and one pendant dangling from the back.
Because the Crown of Saint Stephen so thoroughly embodies sovereignty over Hungary, it has been stolen, moved, hidden, or annexed many times. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 when Hungary attempted to throw off the Austrian yoke and be free of the Hapsburgs, the crown was spirited away by Lajos Kossuth, the theatrical leader of the resistance. Kossuth buried the crown in a wooden coffer in a willow forest, near Orşova in Transylvania. It was not until 1853 that it was dug up (along with the other royal jewels) and returned to the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s royal castle in Buda. During the age of nationalism and strife surrounding the first and second World Wars, the crown became the focus of right wing Hungarian propaganda. Miklós Horthy the pro-fascist regent of Hungary from 1920-1944, tied the crown to his regency and to the concept of regaining control of the so-called Lands of Saint Stephen. Horthy allied Hungary to Nazi Germany in order to attain his goal of control over certain Carpathian territories. Hungary paid a dreadful price for the alliance:being first attacked in 1944 by its nominal German allies and then by the red army and the allied armies. On 4 May 1945, the U.S. 86th Infantry Division (the “blackhawks” of the Danube) captured the Crown of Saint Stephen. For most of the cold war, the crown sat in Fort Knox, Kentucky until Jimmy Carter returned it to the Hungarian people in 1978.
The crown’s most distinctive feature, its crooked cross, was added during the sixteenth century by metal workers less gifted than the original makers. The cross was not meant to be crooked—some unnamed person sloppily stowed the crown in a trunk and bent the crucifix by closing the lid too quickly.