Looking for a place to hold the next “Red Carpet event”, good enough for a king’s coronation? Try Bratislava, the go-to regal city.
That’s what the Hungarians did in 1563. The previous coronation site, St Adalbert Cathedral in Esztergom, Hungary, was unavailable because the Ottoman Turks were occupying much of Hungary after the Battle of Mohacs in 1526.
Why did they choose Bratislava? Because it was considered to be a safe haven. The city had a double fortification wall encircling it and a history of successfully warding off Turk invaders. The future king would be safe during the coronation as would the nobles and clergy who came to elect and crown the Hungarian king. Safety could not be left to chance.
But Bratislava proved to be more than merely safe. It was ideally located on the Danube, geographically connecting the Hungarian and Austrian empires, had a beautiful cathedral, Saint Martin’s, and a forward-thinking town leadership who welcomed the notoriety and royal privileges that came with becoming the “coronation city.” In fact, Maximilian, the first Hungarian king to be crowned in Bratislava on September 8th 1563, proved to be the first of eleven Hungarian kings and eight royal consorts to follow in this tradition until 1860, when the event was transferred to Budapest.
Coronation organisers – they probably did not call themselves that – also valued the city’s multi-cultural makeup. Bratislava was the nexus of four or more differing populations. Germans from the northwest, Austrians from the west, Hungarians from the south, and Slovaks from the east all brought their architecture, food and heritage to this cosmopolitan city.
And cultural melting pot it was, concentrated within the sturdy double city walls and fortifications. Nobles from Hungarian, Austrian, and German backgrounds built their palaces and manor houses inside the city walls while well-managed (and wealthy) guilds (there were 72 of them) set up their headquarters along the lanes separating many city squares. The Danube, the major artery of transport and trade, linked the city to its neighbouring metropolises.
With the coronation of Maria Theresa in 1740, things took yet another major turn for Bratislava. This powerhouse monarch really put Bratislava on the map, making it the capital city of the Hungarian part of her far-reaching empire. When not having more children (her offsprings number 16), Maria Theresa rebuilt the Bratislava castle into a showplace of 18th-century splendour and opulence. The current reconstruction of the castle is striving to capture the magnificence of her era, including a newly recreated 18th-century baroque garden.
The Empress believed, perhaps a bit prematurely, given the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the need for gothic fortifications was over and gave permission for city walls to be dismantled, freeing up land and literally tons of materials for new construction. This decree had a major effect on the centre of Bratislava, allowing the old town area to significantly develop. When her son, Josef II, moved the Austrian-Hungarian capital to Vienna late in the 18th century, the foundation and future of Bratislava was secure.
The Slovaks, today’s inhabitants of the former Pressburg, made this city their capital a few years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and are working hard to foster Bratislava’s rebirth. With the help of EU funds, good planning and extensive reconstruction have created a new Bratislava in the short 20+ years of Slovak stewardship. The heavy-handed projects undertaken during the communist years, removing more than a third of Bratislava’s Old Town, are gradually being rectified with tasteful and respectful changes.
Today, Bratislava continues to celebrate its heritage as “Coronation City” with an annual reenactment of the ancient coronation festival in late June (commemorating the coronation of Maria Theresa on June 25, 1740). Re-enactors playing the Bishop of Esztergom, the monarch-to-be, and a variety of nobles dressed in the costumes of the actual coronation date go through the crowning ceremony.
The original coronation events usually started with a procession from the Bratislava Castle to St. Martin’s Cathedral, where the ceremony was held. Today, observers cannot fail to note the 150 kg gold-coloured replica of the Hungarian crown on the church tower.
The procession then leaves St. Martins and makes its way along the coronation route from the church through the Old Town. Originally, the route was fitted out with a red canvas “carpet” upon which the newly crowned king walked with his jewelled crown. Today, it is marked by small gilded plaques with crown emblems, hammered into the paving stones.
One stop was the smaller Franciscan Church where the Hungarian king bestowed knighthoods in the Order of the Spur on deserving nobles who had just elected him, thus rewarding these electors as well as assuring their loyalty. The procession proceeded through narrow lanes. Biela ulica, or White Street, one of these very narrow lanes, got its name because it was painted white for the coronation parade to brighten up the otherwise dark alley and make it look wider.
The last stop was coronation hill, an area next to the Danube, with earth imported from each of the areas over which the new king ruled formed into a mound. The newly crowned king stood atop this hill (which is not really a hill today), waved his sword in the four directions of the compass and swore to protect his lands from all harm.
Coronations were (and are) a big deal and everyone wanted a seat. This severely taxed the rather small St. Martins. Presumably, extra platforms were installed to accommodate the throng of nobility wanting to catch a glimpse.
Speaking of catching a glimpse, along Panská Street, a block away from St. Martins, a statue of a nearly naked boy emerges about three meters up from the wall on the south side. The legend recounts this young city dweller who interrupted his long vigil awaiting his “glimpse” of the new king and perhaps one of the coronation coins that were sometimes distributed to the people with a call of nature. His friends called him back and he was so excited he did not take time to pull up his breeches.
At the end of June 2016, the 275th anniversary of Maria Theresa’s coronation will be celebrated and promises to be a really great event.