Charles IV was obsessed with organising impressive medieval spectacles. One of the important props were his crowns, of which we know several. The history of his coronations and crowns give us important insight into his life and times.
Late medieval crowns were obvious parts of the royal glitter, pomp and circumstance. While the royal obligation was to behave with dignitas, the people of the realm owed fidelitas. Confronted with a crowned head this obligation was not only expected, but had to be delivered faithfully. Hence, medieval kings and queens generally possessed any number of crowns and diadems, which they could use in a variety of situations signalling their status as “crowned” kings, queens or princes of their realm. However, legitimacy was not as such invested in the crowns per se. Legitimacy and acknowledgement had to be either inherited or invented. Further, it always also had to be earned. As such crowns may best be understood as props, which were used in a plethora of ritualised spectacles, designed to confirm the validity of the more or less subtle negotiations, which had preceded the coronation or other event, where it was donned.
Some crowns were old and had a certain aura about them. They had been carried by illustrious persons or been part of specific spectacles. As such they lent a certain “magic” to any new wearer as they evoked memories about past events and past wearers, while at the same time as they enrolled him (or her) in the histories of his or hers forebears. Other crowns were new and had to be invested with new histories forging their own aura. Charles IV obviously knew this when wielding his crowns in a multitude of contexts. The fact was – which Charles was intimately aware of – that Charles position was always fragile. He may have been the son of the last Bohemian Přemyslid princess, but his father was primarily Duke of Luxembourg and had his son brought up at the French Court, where he even had his name changed to Charles (originally he was baptised Wencleas). He may have been the grandfather of a Holy-Roman Emperor, but he was before he was able to claim this particular inheritance. By any standard he was a parvenue or at least a lesser player on the wider European scene. It is in this context we must understand his obsession with “clothing” and “staging” his person as “the natural heir” to the powers invested in him. In these spectacles, his crowns were important devices, and during his lifetime, he used them to purpose, letting them lend him the necessary aura to whatever occasion he was taking part in.
Charles must at least have worn his first crown in 1323 as a seven-year-old, when he was enrolled in a series of rituals, which began with the coronation of his aunt as the Queen of France, continued with his confirmation and a change of name from Wenceslas to Charles and then ended with his marriage to Blanche of Valois. We know from accounts that the French Royal Treasury paid for a sumptuous trousseau including a crown to wear during the ceremony. Of course, Charles must also have worn one. When he grew up, he must have worn diadems occasionally. Crown Princes sported diadems in the 14th century and Charles was without doubt the designated heir to the kingdom of Bohemia although he spent his childhood in France.
However, his first crowning took place in 1346 after he had been elected Rival King of the Romans in opposition to the Bavarian emperor Louis IV. This ’ coronation took place in Bonn as neither Aachen nor Cologne would open their ports to him. Despite the festivities this was porbably regarded as a more or less empty gesture. Charles did not have the royal insignia at hand and he was by some characterised as no more than the “Pope’s King”. The Wittelsbachern declaired him crowned without proper pomp – sine consueta pompositate – and a multitude of German bishops and nobles simply did not accept him. It is a fact that Charles was not generally accepted as King of the Romans until the Holy Roman Emperor died in October 1347 and he was able to negotiate a reconciliation with his heirs.
At this point, though, Charles had achieved to be crowned for real. His father had died at Crécy in 1346 and Charles had been accepted as king of Bohemia. Sometime during this period he wrote a treatise on “Ordo at coronandum regem Boemorum” and had a new and fascinating crown fabricated – The St. Wenceslas Crown. With this he was crowned in September 1347.
The St. Wenceslas Crown
The St. Wenceslas Crown was wrought of extremely pure gold (21 -22 carat) and decorated with precious stones and pearls. It is the oldest item of the Bohemian Crown Jewels. It weighs almost two and a half kilos and, including the cross, reaches a height of 19 cm. Likewise its diameter is 19 cm and each of the four parts of the headband measures 14.5 cm. Charles IV had it made for his coronation in 1347 and forthwith he dedicated it to the first patron saint of the country, St. Wenceslas, and bequeathed it as a state crown for the coronation of future Czech kings, his successors to the Czech throne. However, perhaps to the end of his days (1378) he continually had the Crown altered and set with additional rare precious stones he managed to acquire. And so the crown developed into its final contemporary image.
In shape this Crown is related to the previous crown of the Premyslides and the kings of France. The Crown is similar to a headband of four sections, each of which reaches its zenith with a large lily. The sections are connected at the top by two arches to which jewels (from headbands or diadems) of earlier days are attached. It is believed that some of these jewels came from the bridal trousseau of Blanche. At the apex of the Crown, where the arches meet, there is a golden cross with a sapphire cameo, an engraving decorated with precious stones. The Crown contains a total of 19 sapphires, 44 spinels, 1 ruby, 30 emeralds and 20 pearls.
On the orders of Charles IV, the new Royal Crown was to be permanently deposited in St. Vitus Cathedral. But his immediate successor, his son Vaclav IV, probably at the beginning of the 15th century, had the Crown Jewels moved to Karlstejn Castle, where the crown was supposed to be in safe keeping in the unsettled times of strife among those ambitious to grasp power. Since then the location of the Crown Jewels has changed many times, usually at moments of political unrest, when there were struggles to gain the Czech throne and when there was a danger of war. The stormy 17th century decided on the dramatic fate of the Crown Jewels. The location where they were placed changed several times. For a while the Crown Jewels were again deposited in St. Vitus Cathedral, then in the office of Land Rolls, then in the Old Town Hall. In times when Prague was threatened, the jewels were even hidden in Ceske Budejovice. The Habsburg dynasty determined on a more permanent location for the jewels in Vienna, where they remained until the end of the 18th century. But wherever they were deposited, be it at Karlstejn or in Vienna, they were always brought to Bohemia, to Prague Castle, for royal coronations.
Legend has it that anyone who is not entitled, but nevertheless wears the St. Wenceslas Crown will die inside a year. This legend was in recent years supported by a rumour that Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia secretly wore them, and was accordingly assassinated less than a year later by the Czech resistance.
One of the interesting features of the St. Wenceslas Crown is its obvious “rough” and rather “flamboyant” character. As there is no doubt that the goldsmiths in Prague in the 14th century were able to create delicate and intricate jewellery, chances are that the crown was designed such as it might easily be viewed from afar. Later it was shown together with the imperial insignia on the yearly “Ostensio Reliquiarum” – a solemn parade from the castle across the Charles Bridge and into the great central market in the New Town, which was exactly designed for such spectacles.
The Crown from the Środa Treasure
The spectacular quality of the Wenceslas Crown becomes very visible when compared to another remarkable crown stemming from the world of Charles IV. This time, however, the crown was not kept secure in the treasury in the Castle in Prague. Instead,it was pawned by Charles IV to the Jewish banker, Muscho, in Środa near Breslau. Soon after, the plague hit the town and Muscho was never heard of. It is believed he either fled the town or died of plague. He might also have fallen victim to the pogroms, which followed remorselessly in the wake of the plague. Whatever his fate, his buried treasure was not found until 1985, when builders literally struck gold. Although parts of the treasure was looted and later tuned up on the black market, the find turned out to be quite remarkable. As of today – items still surface – it consists of a golden crown, which probably belonged to Blanche of Valois, who died on the 1st of August 1348, while Charles was still trying to gain a foothold as King of the Romans, a number of other jewels plus 39 gold coins and ca. 3000 silver coins (Prague Groschen).
The crown is a remarkable piece consisting of a circlet of trapezium panels enamelled and set with gemstones – sapphires, garnets, spinels, aquamarines, tektites and pearls. Each panel is topped with an eagle holding a ring in its beak. The panels have ben joined by pins with fleuron heads. It is suggested that this was in fact the weeding crown of Charles’ first wife as the ring motive consistently symbolise love. Another important jewel is a round brooch with a centre decorated with a cameo, representing an eagle and surrounded with gemstones. The treasure from Środa Śląska is deposited there in the local museum.
Crown from Aachen
One of the reason, Charles was in a hurry to lay his hands on some readies was an opportunity which had cropped up after the death of his first wife. Now he was free to offer himself up for marriage to Anne of Bavaria, daughter of Rudolf II, the new duke of Bavaria and Count palatine of the Rhine. Rudolf was the nephew of the late emperor, who had fought viciously with his father. Through this manoeuvre Charles was able to forge an alliance with one of his old enemies, the Wittelsbacher and lay the controversy concerning his election to Roman King to rest. From now on the road to Aachen was open for a proper coronation in the presence of his namesake, Charlemagne. One of the important issues at stake was however to get the sons of the late emperor to let go of the imperial insignia of which the crown was the most important. Believed to have belonged to Charlemagne it functioned not only as a crown symbolising the imperial might, it also – in the mind of Charles – seems to have belonged to the category, magic-working relics (for a discussion of this, see Menzel-Reuters,1999).
Unfortunately, however, Charles IV had severe problems with laying his hands on the trophies. When he finally succeeded in Munich on the 12th of March 1350 to have his representative receive the insignia, it is perhaps significant that the transaction involved two registers – in Latin as well as German. In order for this transaction to be carried through, Charles had had to promise to let the insignia stay in either Nuremberg or Frankfurt. Nevertheless, inside a week he had them brought to Prague and carried in a procession through the city, before they were deposited in sacristy in the old Cathedral there.
However, Charles cannot have considered this specific crown in the category: a sacred object necessary to invest him with regal powers. At least, we know that when he went to Aachen in July 1349 to be crowned “properly”, he wore a crown which had been specifically designed for this purpose and which was donated as part of the reliquary bust, which till this day holds the skull of Charlemagne. It is significant that this crown was embellished with not only jewels, but a series of magnificent antique cameos presenting busts of Roman emperors and gods. It is obvious Charles wished to stress his dynastic affinity with Charlemagne, as well as more generally the Roman ancestry of the powers, he was invested with.
Another similar crown sits on top of a reliquary bust, which was donated to the Abbey of St. John in Burtscheid near Aachen. The reliquary, which holds an arm of the Baptist, was probably made in the same workshop in Prague as yet another reliquary, which Charles donated to Aachen. It has been speculated whether the crown (which does not fit the head of the bust very well) is another of Charles’ gifts of crowns. The bust is decorated with cameo, while the crown is only incrusted with jewels.
That Charles was beset with collecting saintly heads and placing them in such busts, is witnessed by the inventories form St. Vitus. In 1355, the Cathedral in Prague possessed 38 skulls of saints, 28 of which had been enshrined in bust-shaped reliquaries made of precious metal and encrusted with gems. Interestingly enough, these heads took precedence in front of the other treasures and relics – arms, statues, crosses, sacred vessels and vestments. (Boehm 2006)
The Imperial Regalia
Finally in September 1354, Charles set out for Milan and Rome in order to be formally crowned as King of Italy with the iron crown; in spring, he went to Rome to be crowned the Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation, perhaps with the crown of Charlemagne. Whether he brought the Imperial Regalia with him for the coronation in Rome is not known for a fact. In general, no image depicts him with this specific crown on his head.
On the other hand, he was definitely engaged in bringing the prized treasure around and at least parade it. That he did this on occasion is known from a chronicler in the Abbey of Zwettl, who wrote in 1353 that “The Bohemian King [during a visit] behaved like an emperor, since he possessed the Imperial Regalia”; the point being that he behaved as emperor even if he had not been formally crowned as such.
In order to be able to haul such valuables around with him he naturally had to be able to box and pack them properly. To make this possible he ordered a number of leather boxes made, which still exist; in beautiful red leather and with an elaborate decoration of imperial eagles these boxes are now part of the collection held in Vienna.
A particular use of their transportability was the yearly recurring parade of the imperial regalia in connection with the feast of the Lance and the Nails in Prague. Already in 1350 Charles received confirmation of the indulgencies, which might be contrived by watching and adoring the imperial regalia. In 1553 Charles received a confirmation from the Pope that pontifical masses might be held at the altar, where they resided and finally – in 1354 – he was allowed to institute a new religious feast, two weeks after Easter. At these feasts, the imperial regalia were carried through the city of Prague to be displayed from the magnificent wooden tower, which had been erected at the centre of Charles Square in the New Town for this specific purpose, the enactment of the Ostensio Reliquiarum.
One important feature of the imperial crown was of course the fact that it was closed with a single arm and a deployable mitre. Numerous illuminations and other paintings show Charles the IV sporting just such crowns thus underlining his status as emperor and not just king. Especially, it must have irritated the King of France, when Charles visited him at Christmas 1377 -78. At least, we can see from the illuminations in the manuscript telling us about this visit, that Charles IV was wearing a closed crown, while the French king was wearing and open. This was definitely not a mistake! Charles V of France may have had the audacity to embellish his sceptre with a figure of Charlemagne wearing an imperial – closed – crown. But he is never depicted personally wearing such a creation. The French king may have believed himself rex imperator in regno suo. However, it did not allow for his adoption of the imperial symbol par excellence, the closed crown.
After his trip to Milan and Rome – from which he returned literally burdened with a massive hoard of relics he had bought, peddled and smiled to achieve, we hear of no more crownings until 1365, when Charles had himself crowned as king of Burgundy. This was his sixth and final coronation and fell in line with his attempts to consolidate his power through these spectacular happenings. We don’t know much about the actual event or the crown, which Charles used in Arles. However, we do know that afterwards he made a detour through Savoy to the Monastery of St. Augune at Lake Geneva, where another presumed “forebear” had been buried, Sigismund. Here king Sigismund had erected the monastery in AD 515 and here his remains together with those of his family had been brought after his death in AD 524 at Coulmiers at the hands of the king of the Franks, Chlodomir. At this visit King Charles – armed with an old chronicle describing the whereabouts of the tombs – cheated the monks, who were desperately claiming that they did know the exact whereabouts of the remains of their two saints, St. Maurice and St. Sigismund. It is part of this story that Charles naturally prevailed and went home to Prague carrying yet another batch of relics, which he then used to foment a cult of yet another fictive ancestor.
There is no doubt: at this point in time, different crowns mattered in different ways and under specific circumstances. Distinct crowns did not invest their wearer with specific delineated qualities of status and honour; but they were important devices for outlining the specific role, the ruler was performing at a specific time and location.
Perhaps we might say crowns were intended for or used as significant props in a diversity of stage-performances according to what was at stake at a particular point of time. Wearers and owners of specific crowns were not so much invested with a specific dignity or regal power, when crowned with a specific crown; rather, princes like Charles IV were or had themselves inserted into specific sets of histories linked to places, times and events, when crowned. As some crowns had their own histories attached to them, they were good to possess, when in the business of enacting specific dramas; for instance it was necessary to possess the Imperial Crown in order to be able to playact as emperor. However, that he could be established in this role without using the “real thing”, the coronation of Charles in Aachen is a witness to. Here, it seems to have been more important to be crowned at this particular location ain the presence of Charlemagne carrying his “mask” – the bust created by Charles for this specific purpose. This did not mean that the coronation in Bonn was void. It only meant that it did not properly insert Charles into the kind of history, he wished to be part of. Thus he had to “retell” the story anew in Aachen.
In the same way, Charles could act as emperor before the actual crowning in Rome in 1355 – for instance calling an Imperial diet in Nuremberg in 1350 after the Wittelsbacher had acknowledged him by conferring the most significant prop of them all to him, the Imperial Regalia. He was emperor, simply because he now possessed the sacred objects, which testified to the acknowledgement of this status quo by his peers. The coronation in Rome – and the actual wearing of the crown – had more to do with the perpetual necessity to perform dramas and enact histories in order to have people “see” and “witness” the specific order of things.
There is no doubt that specific crowns were invested with a plethora of histories and that they – as such – embedded their possessor and wearer into these histories. No more so than he holiest crown of them all, said to have belonged to Charlemagne. Charles knew this and took part in such festivities with much glee and creativity. On the way, he even created a series of new props, like the crown of St. Wencelas, which was used first at his coronation in Prague, then on occasion as an embellishment of the saint’s bust reliquary, and on occasion by Charles when presiding over a particular important “Bohemian” event.
Such crowns were props in a multitude of theatrical performances. As such, an ever-expanding concoction of histories left their mark on the object, which reflected back upon the next stage-performance. It is probably no mistake that the newly designed crown of St. Wencelas looks as if it had been designed by Disney. As opposed to the crown used in Aachen, this was meant to be seen and devoured from afar by multitudes of people.
As it was, when Charles for the last time was paraded through the city of Prague on the 11th of December at the solemn and mournful procession leading up to his funeral. It is probable that Charles had designed the event, himself. In this he was carried by thirty councillors from the city on a magnificent bier covered in golden cloth and with a similar baldachin protecting him from the wintry weather. There on his bier he lay with his three crowns – the Imperial crown, the Bohemian and the Lombard.
It appears, crowns were all about the spectacles of imagination. In this Charles IV was obviously a master.
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Frieze depicting a coronation in the Cathedral of Monza from the mid 14th century. It is generally believed to be a presentation of the coronation of Charles IV. Notice the crowns hanging above that altar and the man bearing a sword to the right of the king. The sword looks somewhat like the Imperial Sword form the collection of Imperial Regalia. Form the workshop of Matteo da Campion. © Museo e Tesoro del Duomo di Monza/foto Piero Pozzi