Over a period of nine hundred years, the monarchs of the Kingdom of Hungary were crowned in four different cities. Three of these four cities still lie in the territory of the Hungarian nation today. They are Esztergom, Budapest and Szekesfehervar. Interestingly, it was the last of these three towns that saw more Hungarian monarchs crowned than any other. From the middle of the 11th century through the middle of the 16th, no less than 37 kings and 39 queens consort were crowned in Szekesfehervar, at the Basilica. This was exactly how the first King of Hungary, Stephen I had planned it. Stephen had ordered the construction of a grand basilica around the year 1010 for just such ceremonies. It was one of the largest and most prominent buildings in Europe during the Middle Ages, a symbol of the power, majesty and Christianity of the Kingdom. Long before Visegrad or Budapest came to prominence, Szekesfehervar was the nerve center of Hungary during the Middle Ages.
The Coming of the Turks – The Path to Pozsony
As with so many things in the history of the Kingdom of Hungary, this underwent radical change with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks. In 1543, the Turks occupied Szekesfehervar. They proceeded to loot the tombs of the 15 kings and queens buried in the Basilica. Their banditry knew no bounds. It respected neither tradition nor religion. Insultingly, the Basilica was turned into a storage site for gunpowder. With much of their kingdom occupied, Hungarian leaders had little choice, but to move the coronation site. Beginning in 1563, coronations took place in upper Hungary, at St. Martin’s Cathedral in Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia). For over two-hundred and fifty years, prospective monarchs strode through the Old Town of Pozsony along the coronation route. They made their way to the Gothic confines of the cathedral where kings and queens were crowned.
Following the expulsion of the Turks from the lands of historic Hungary in the late 17th century, coronations continued to take place in Pozsony. The last one occurred in 1830. In the meantime, the basilica in Szekesfehervar had longed since ceased to exist. It was destroyed in 1601 when a Habsburg Army unsuccessfully laid siege to the city. The gunpowder stored inside the basilica was sparked by fire from the ongoing battle and consequently blew up. Meanwhile St. Martin’s served the purpose of continuity and tradition. As the site for the coronation of 19 kings and queens, including no less a historical personage than Maria Theresa, it played an integral role in both Hungarian and Habsburg history. The coronations may have ended in Pozsony by the mid-19th century, but history was not through with the place.
Historical Twists – The Fate of Hungary’s Coronation Sites
The city was lost by the Hungarians, along with Upper Hungary (Felvidek) to the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, due to the post-war Treaty of Trianon that followed World War I. Today Pozsony is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Other than tourists, the presence of ethnic Hungarians in the city is minimal. In a historical twist of fate concerning the coronation sites, Hungarians had been detached from their history during the Middle Ages at Szekesfehervar due to an external threat. Nearly four hundred years later, they were once again severed from their historical past, but this time by an internal disruption. St. Martin’s Cathedral with its glorious past was cut asunder from its historical antecedents.
Today the cathedral still stands on the western edge of what was the Old Town of Pozsony. Within a stone’s throw, a major highway acts as a conduit for automobiles racing back and forth over the Novy Most Bridge and the Danube. In the last decade and a half, the church has undergone stabilization due to the vibrations caused by the nearby traffic. In this case, the past has become present once again, in prior centuries the church survived fires, earthquakes and lightning strikes. Today the question is whether it will survive the rumblings of modernity? Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for the presence of Hungarian history in Bratislava. It rests on shaky foundations.
St. Martin’s Cathedral – Where History Reigns Supreme
The question today is how will the rich history of St. Martin’s Cathedral be viewed in a Slovakia which looks more toward the future? As opposed to a Hungary which is obsessed with its past. Strangely enough, there is a magnificent reminder that all has not been lost. Quite literally a crowning achievement tops St. Martin’s. Atop the church’s Gothic steeple is a gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary. At 85 meters (279 feet) it soars above the Old Town, just as it did when it was first placed there in 1847. It was meant to commemorate the church’s historic role in royal coronations. The crown is still there today, resting on a gold pillow, a spectacular reminder that no matter what nation rules over this land today, it is still history which reigns supreme.