Legend has it that Pope Sylvester II in the year 1001 sent an emissary with a jeweled crown to proclaim Stephen, a ruler of the Magyars, as king of Hungary. Stephen—baptized a Roman Catholic at age ten—had delivered his tribal people into the realm of Western Christianity from pagan religion and inroads of the Byzantine East. In restructuring his state, the king promulgated a code of laws based on Christian concepts, and he firmly established the Roman Catholic Church throughout his kingdom. Thus Stephen became enshrined in Hungarian history as the sainted father of his country (he was canonized in 1083, forty-five years after his death), and his crown—passed down through generations of successors to the throne—became the symbol of Hungary’s nationhood.

Some modern scholars dispute the role attributed to Pope Sylvester, and they say that the crown really was fashioned in the 1200s, possibly from bits and pieces that included a remnant or two of Stephen’s original crown. It contained rubies and other jewels, along with enameled miniature religious scenes. The last coronation at which it was worn was in 1916, when it was placed precariously on the several-sizes-too-large head of Charles IV.

The crown and other royal relics—an orb, scepter, sword, and coronation robe—were preserved as national treasures in the following years, surviving the perils of World War II. During fighting between the Soviets and Nazis near Budapest in 1944, security guards hid the crown. In 1945, when Soviet control became certain, the guards gave the royal treasures to American troops in Austria for safekeeping. The valuables were kept in U.S. custody in Germany until the early 1950s, when they were shipped ...

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