The Bohemian Crown Jewels and St Wenceslas’ helmet are alleged to have magic powers
The real Bohemian Crown Jewels are only shown to the public on special occasions. The rest of the time, copies are on display at Prague Castle. Over the centuries, many tales have become associated with them.
The year 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia and the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Czech Republic.
The real crown, orb and scepter plus some other treasures like St Wenceslas’ helmet, sword and reliquary were shown at Prague Castle’s Vladislav Hall for a few days in January, and the line to get in was usually over three hours long.
The crown, which contains a thorn supposedly from Christ’s Crown of Thorns in its top cross, is said to have a curse on it. Any usurper who tries to wear it is fated to die within a year. While in reality the crown is state property, in theory it still belongs to the immortal spirit of St Wenceslas. He protects the Bohemian people by keeping unqualified kings off the throne.
Bohemia is no longer a kingdom. But the curse continues.
Putting the crown on is not so easy, though. It is now kept in a chamber accessible from the St Wenceslas Chapel of St Vitus Cathedral. Like something out of a Gothic mystery romance, the door has seven locks and can only be opened when all seven key holders — people in important public positions — come together. The ornate keys are each in a red leather case that looks like it holds the world’s smallest violin.
But protocol was set aside during World War II. Czechoslovakia was broken up, and Prague was part of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, one of the top officials in the Nazi party, had his offices at Prague Castle, and there are photos of him and other uniformed Nazis inspecting the crown jewels.
He was assassinated by Czechoslovak paratroopers on June 4, 1942, as part of Operation Anthropoid.
Immediately after that, rumors began to circulate that less than a year earlier, Heydrich held a secret coronation ceremony and wore the crown, but had no legitimate claim to do so.
Whether or not this is true, it was held as fact by the Czech people at the time, who swore that St Wenceslas returned to protect them from the “Butcher of Prague” by having the usurper killed.
There is another legend about St Wenceslas’ Helmet, which is a national treasure but not technically part of the crown jewels. They are often displayed together, though.
Every year on September 28, the preserved skull of St Wenceslas was taken in a procession from Prague Castle to the town of Stará Boleslav, where St Wenceslas was murdered by his younger brother, Prince Boleslav the Cruel.
As was common, many guards at the Castle were foreigners. This kept them out of political intrigues as they had no local interests. One foreign guard complained that having to stand on duty for the procession was a waste of his time, and he would rather be drinking and gambling. He went on to curse St Wenceslas for ruining his day.
No sooner did he say this than his world went dark. As blind people often do, he began shouting for someone to turn the lights back on, which made no sense as he was outside in the sunlight.
Several doctors examined him, and all manner of burning herbs and foul-tasting potions were tried. But none helped. He was blind for many weeks and at his wits’ end.
An old priest said he knew the cure. He had the helmet of St Wenceslas taken out of the cathedral and put on the guard’s head. His sight came back instantly. The guard never spoke ill of St Wenceslas again and volunteered every year for guard duty for any events relating to St Wenceslas.
Another well-known legend says that St Wenceslas will return to reclaim the sword of Prince Bruncvik and lead the now-sleeping Knights of Blaník to save the nation in its darkest hour.
While some people say that the lack of the knights showing up in World War II or during the 1968 Soviet invasion proves the legend false, others say that St Wenceslas is still looking after the Bohemians, but the worst peril is yet to come.
The sword of Prince Bruncvik likely does not exist, as the tale is just a version of similar popular tales that circulated in medieval times. But there is a coronation sword among the crown jewels. It is called the Sword of St Wenceslas, but its design comes from a later time. It may have parts of the original sword incorporated in it.
The power of St Wenceslas’ relics became clear right after his death. Even at his funeral, his spirit was already seeking to right injustice. The ox-drawn carriage with his coffin stopped at what is now Malostranské náměstí. The ox refused to move.
There was a prison at the spot. The prisoners were taken out one by one. The ox gestured with his head when the last one was presented, and then moved on again with the carriage up to the Castle, where Wenceslas’ relics were to be kept in what eventually became the St Wenceslas Chapel. The prisoner was judged to be innocent and set free.
The prison was torn down and a rotunda church dedicated to St Wenceslas was built on the spot. The ruins of the rotunda are inside the current Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University and are sometimes open to the public.
An ark-shaped wooden box containing St Wenceslas’ relics can be seen in the Chapel of St Wenceslas. A gold reliquary in the shape of a bust with further bone fragments is part of the cathedral’s treasury.
The Bohemian Crown Jewels include the Crown of Saint Wenceslas, the royal orb and scepter, the coronation robe of the Kings of Bohemia, a gold reliquary cross, and St. Wenceslas’ sword. They were originally split between Prague and Karlštejn Castle, which has a large tower built to safeguard precious items. Since 1791, they have been stored in St. Vitus’ Cathedral at Prague Castle. The crown was made for the coronation of Charles IV in 1347, and is the fourth oldest crown in Europe. The orb and scepter are more recent.
The crown was never used by Prince Wenceslas, who lived in the 10th century, but it is modeled loosely on illustrations of Wenceslas in a red felt hat with an external gold framework. Charles IV dedicated the crown to Wenceslas and gave it to the state for future kings to use. It was last used for the coronation of Ferdinand V in 1836.
The crown has four vertical fleurs-de-lis and is made from 22-carat gold. The precious stones include 44 spinels, 30 emeralds, 19 sapphires, 20 pearls, 1 ruby, 1 rubellite and 1 aquamarine, plus the thorn at the top in a cross. The crown weighs 2.475 kilograms.
The seven key holders who together can open the door to the jewel chamber are people in specific public roles: the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the Prague Archbishop, the Chairman of the House of Deputies, the Chairman of the Senate, the Dean of the Metropolitan Chapter of St. Vitus Cathedral and the Mayor of Prague.
The door with the seven keyholes is hidden in Prague Castle up a staircase accessible from the St Wenceslas Chapel. The exact look of the door and its location are secret. Each of the keys is kept in a safe or a vault, for example, in City Hall, Parliament or the Archbishop’s Palace.
The ceremony to open the door made international headlines in 2013 when President Miloš Zeman was very unsteady on his feet after spending all night at a party at the Russian Embassy. Zeman’s public relations staff said he was suffering from a virus. The press speculated that the reasons were more closely related to Russian vodka.
The story of the assassination of acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich has been depicted twice recently in film, in the 2016 film Anthropoid and in the 2017 film The Man with the Iron Heart (known as HHhH in France and Killing Heydrich in Canada).
The helmet of St Wenceslas is made of iron, with a silver-covered front piece to protect the nose. It is called a nasal helmet due to the metal nose guard. The top of the helmet is damaged, possibly from battle or simply from metal fatigue.
The helmet is from the ninth or 10th century and the nose guard may be a replacement. It is not known for certain if the helmet was used by Wenceslas, but from the end of the 10th century it has been associated with him.The nose guard has an engraving that is either the Crucifixion of Christ or the Norse god Odin.
Modern scholars believe Odin is more likely, but throughout its long history it has been believed to be Christ.
The rather crude engraving has an open-mouthed man tied to a tree with rope. Scholars speculate the tree is Yggdrasil, an important part of Norse mythology.
The figures etched on the fronts of helmets were charms to ward off demons or spirits that might be summoned by the enemy in battle.
The nose guard is thought to have come from Scandinavia, and it possibly arrived in Bohemia during the reign of Prince Boleslav II at the end of the 10th century. Boleslav II was the son of Boleslav the Cruel, the killer of St Wenceslas.
The helmet or the nose guard may have been a gift at the time of Boleslav II’s wedding to Adiva, a mysterious princess with Anglo-Saxon roots. She introduced Anglo-Saxon-style coins and may have also brought Nordic-style armor examples with her, as there was a large Norse influence in Britain at the time.
The helmet is depicted on Josef Václav Myslbek’s statue of St Wenceslas on Wenceslas Square.
Religious ceremonies were frowned upon during the communist era, but recently the annual September 28 procession with St Wenceslas’ skull has been revived.
The crown jewels were shown to the public nine times in the 20th century and five times so far in the 21st century.
An article by BabaBarock with Raymond Johnston. Copyright BabaBarock Ltd, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.