Matthias Church, atop Castle Hill in Budapest, is an architectural fantasy. With its diamond patterned roof tiles and gargoyle covered spire there is scarcely a more stirring scene of eclectic grandeur in the whole of Europe. This beautiful building was reconstructed in the late 19th century to a rough approximation of its medieval self, with flourishes of neo-Gothicism added to recreate it for the modern age. The church has been the site of numerous historical events, including the wedding of famed Hungarian Renaissance King Matthias Corvinus to Queen Beatrix of Naples. It was also the scene of multiple coronations. The last of these, less than one hundred years ago, was the setting for one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of Hungary. It was at this event, what turned out to the last coronation of a Habsburg Emperor, that the fate of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foretold by an unanticipated event that took place in the church. This event exposed the crumbling decay that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War.
“Creating Reality From Imagination” – Crowning A Final King
In the latter part of 1916, Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which he was at the helm of the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was hastily arranged. The demands of a raging war were set aside for the sake of tradition. This was imperative since the tottering monarchy needed to adhere to the trappings of power in order to give the appearance of strength and unity. The coronation in Budapest was set for the next to last day in December of 1916. Franz Josef’s great nephew, the man who would become Emperor Charles I was to ascend the throne.
The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in pageantry and protocol. Soon after it began, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this happened, the audience – made up of the crème de la crème of the aristocracy – was to exit the church. We have an astonishing first-hand account of what happened next from Miklos Banffy, the director of the State Theatres, who was charged with organizing the ceremony. As Banffy watched, “the court ladies and those in waiting started to descend slowly from their places in the gallery on the left of the church…They came down, one by one or in pairs, down the steps from the gallery and into the center aisle, all in dresses of gold and white and silver studded with jewels and glittering like figures from ancient times suddenly come alive again, creating reality from imagination. As they moved slowly out of the church in procession they were accompanied by the softest of organ music as if the disappearance of all this beauty imposed silence in the now emptying basilica.”
“The Sad, Grey Tragedy of War” – The Knights of the Golden Spur
With the church now empty, it seemed just a matter of moments before the king and queen would exit as well. Yet protocol took precedence as suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur arrived to receive accolades from the newly crowned king. They were a seen of tragic poignancy at the ceremony:
“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them 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, looked 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.”
A greater contrast of scenes occurring in just a matter of moments could hardly have been imagined. Majesty met a deathly sense of duty. Splendor was overcome by decay and decline. The entire ceremony can be interpreted as a metaphor of life imitating art. In this case, art foreshadowed a tragedy of historic proportions. In the church that day the ladies represented what the empire had been, the alluring glamour and beauty of the aristocracy. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the stark reality of what the empire had become: broken, feeble, on its last legs and fading fast. The future was to be a very different place. After what these men – who were just a few of many millions – had endured nothing could or would ever be the same. The empire was disintegrating at the front. The broken soldiers were the physical embodiment of a mortally wounded monarchy. The end was near.
The Verge of Oblivion – The Dual Monarchy On Its Knees
Studying this scene, it is much easier to understand what happened in the months and years that followed. The shimmering power of the monarchy had all but disappeared amid the dark shadows of war. It was a relic of a bygone era which had come to an end far from the neo-Gothic splendor of the Matthias Church. Belief in the monarchy had been buried in muddy and bloody trenches, drowned in the marshlands of Galicia and blown to bits high in the Italian Alps. The survivors were barely better off than the dead. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the last, stumbling vestige of a tradition that was on the verge of oblivion. Soon the monarchy, the empire and the Kingdom of Hungary would cease to exist. Chaos would soon reign supreme.