Crowns of gold have a potent and conditioning magic. In Shakespeare, reigning Monarchs, Usurpers and Heirs Apparent devote powerful speeches to the Crown’s mystery, hand the thing back and forth, grab it from sleeping brothers, and brood beautifully about its sacred responsibilities. Every child knows that if in the thick of battle you find the crown hanging carelessly upon a thornbush, the thing to do is fit it firmly and instantly over your own helmet.
The most complete study of crowns was completed by Lord Twining. ”A History of the Crown Jewels of Europe” , which documents the history of some six hundred crowns; detailed accounts of regalia and crown jewels in twenty-six European countries over seventeen centuries, an alphabetical order beginning with Austria and ending with Yugoslavia.
Through the book run several major themes, haunting and ominous, though never directly stated. One is power, as the stylized playing card figures of kings and queens succeed and die, are deposed, intermarry, enlarge their territories , put their second-best crowns into pawn, and dazzle the eyes of awe-struck enemies by a sensational display of diamonds. Another is money: the treasures and gems that were used to strike bargains and seal treaties, that were looted and stolen and moved hurriedly in insignificant little boxes during revolutions, that were acquired by penny-wise royal mistresses with a gift for sticking it out, and grabbed back by royal wives, that were thrown out of windows and grubbed for in the gravel, that were once set around minatures of loved faces and made into pretty little earrings and bow brooches, and later sold at auction to dealers and collectors.
A third is the irony of changing fortune, especially when kings, who were dangerously mortal, and stones, which are tough and coveted, are the links in the main chain of narrative. A stone can go from an oriental prince’s turban to a crown to a ring to a cloak clasp to a brooch, to a sword hilt; it can be cleft and cut and reset according to the fashion and the growing skill of jewelers and, when the royal cards are packed away in the box, finish up in a state museum.
A history of the crown jewels of Europe is necessarily a history of European monarchies as well, and Lord Twining’s interest was not specifically in jewelry and precious stones but the historical and symbolic attributes of these objects. Still, it is hard not to feel somewhat puritan about these preeminent persons’ need to amass such a stunning quantity of diadems, jeweled girdles, blazing buttons, diamond-dripping earrings , and great waterfall-necklaces so that barely a square inch of themselves remained to be covered by mere silk and velvet.
The beautiful stark burial crowns of early Germany and Hungary, old grey wolves of crowns, looking as though they were made for heroic warrior kings, come as an extraordinary relief; and one’s heart warms toward ugly, witty Louis XI of France , who may have made his coronation entry in style with jewels worth a million ”ecus” on his horse’s harness alone, but who for everyday wear preferred an old felt hat decorated with a small leaden saint, and chose to go to his grave very plainly indeed.
It is perhaps something similar that makes the four early Russian crowns from the Kremlin Museum look so extraordinarily elegant and appealing. They are like four small jeweled cathedral domes sitting snugly in four wide bands of fur. To all intents and purposes they are in fact, fur hats. They are practical, sensible even, in spite of the grandeur; cozy crowns for cold-weather kings.
Of all the royal headgear in Lord Twining’s ”A History of the Crown Jewels of Europe” , no piece is more renowned than the Hungarian Crown of Saint Stephen, and none has a like history of falling onto the oddest hands and disappearing. Fought over during rten centuries as the symbol of Hungary’s turbulent kingship and nationhood, it has on occasion been hidden in a cushion by a lady in waiting, concealed in the disguise of a baby’s bowl by a queen, buried in a swamp by revolutionary patriots, seized by Red chieftains; and, strangest of all, it rested somewhere in the recesses not of the Hungarian, but of the United States government until returned by Jimmy Carter in a diplomatic gesture in 1978.
A low slung cloth cap braced with gold ribs and ornamented with rough cut stones and Byzantine enamel inlays, the crown is not a major jeweler’s item as crowns go; yet a particular aura and mystery surrounds it. Pope Sylvester II appears to have sent at least part of it for the crowning and anointment of Hungary’s first king, Stephen, in the year 1000; where the rest came from is still being debated. No one is sure whether its tilted cross was the result of design or accident. What is known is that for centuries, in order to get yourself made king of Hungary, you first had to gain possession of it by one means or another, which lent to the holder of the ”Holy Crown” far greater powers than those of dynastic birth. The Hapsburg’s commandeered it; Kossuth’s patriots and Bela Kun’s communists in turn seized it from them, and thus, America’s possession of it would have been enough to make Jimmy Carter Hungary’s rightful king.