The Bohemian crown jewels: facts and legend

Crown of Saint Wenceslas, photo: CTK

Thousands of people braved the cold this week, queuing up for hours in rain and snow, for a rare chance to see the Bohemian crown jewels which went on display at Prague Castle on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Who were the coronation jewels made for and what are some of the legends attached to them? Czech Radio spoke with the jeweler whose family has been in charge of their maintenance for years.

The seven holders of the keys opened the door to the royal treasure,  January 15,  2018,  photo: CTK
St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle, the seat of Czech kings, holds a priceless treasure: the Bohemian crown jewels which were used in the coronations of the country’s monarchs. The crown jewels are deposited in a safe in a special chamber which is secured with seven locks to which the country’s top officials have the keys. The seven holders of the keys who need to assemble in order to open the door to the royal treasure are the president, the prime minister, the Prague archbishop, the speakers of the lower and upper chambers of Parliament, the dean of the Metropolitan Chapter of St. Vitus Cathedral and the mayor of Prague. This ceremony is carefully observed and traditionally broadcast live on public television on the rare occasions when the Bohemian crown jewels go on display. In the course of the 20th century they were only shown on nine occasions.

The crown jewels are not all from the same period. They include the Crown of Saint Wenceslas, the royal orb and scepter, the coronation vestments of the kings of Bohemia, a gold reliquary cross, and the St. Wenceslas' sword. The crown was made for the coronation of Charles IV in 1347, making it the fourth oldest in Europe. The royal orb and scepter that are part of the collection date back to the 16th century. They were reportedly commissioned by Ferdinand I in 1533. It is believed that the originals, which lacked any precious stones, were considered too austere to adequately reflect the prestige of the Kingdom of Bohemia, so they were replaced by artefacts made in an ornate, jeweled style that resembled the crown.

The first mention of the sword in historical records dates back to 1333. The blade dates back to the 10th century, while the hilt is from the 13th century. The sword was not only used in coronation ceremonies, but also for the purpose of granting knighthoods.

St. Wenceslas' armor,  photo: CTK
After 1918 and the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic the crown jewels ceased to serve their original function, but they remain important symbols of national independence and statehood.

The Belda jewelers have been in charge of their maintenance for years. As a child, Jiří Belda Jr. watched his father make the first copy of the crown for Expo 1967 in Montreal. Today he is in charge of the crown jewels’ maintenance, ably assisted by his daughter, also a successful jeweler.

He told Czech Radio what the work involves.

“I am called upon to provide maintenance whenever the royal jewels go on display and then once again before they go back into storage. I examine them to make sure that all the prong settings are in order and none of the precious stones have come loose. Over the years I know the crown inside out, so I know what to look for. The royal jewels are rarely handled so there is not much to be done and my job before they go on display is to clean and polish them to perfection.”

The royal crown is named after the Duke St. Wenceslaus of the Přemyslid dynasty of Bohemia. It has an unusual design, with vertical fleurs-de-lis at the front, back and sides. Made from 22-carat gold it is decorated with 96 precious stones and 20 pearls, among them sapphires, emeralds, spinels, a ruby and an aquamarine. Not all the gems are perfect –some have slight imperfections that make them unique and the ruby is visibly chipped. Jiří Belda says no one knows how this came to be.

Crown of Saint Wenceslas,  photo: CTK
“The ruby has had this defect for as long as I remember. I have no idea how the chip on it comes to be there, but it is part of the authentic crown, so there is no question of trying to fix it. Although during the reign of Charles IV some of the precious stones were replaced when the king acquired bigger and better ones.“

The crown weighs 2475g. At the top is a cross, which reportedly used to store a thorn from Christ's crown of thorns. No one knows where that has gone. This year the crown is exhibited in a new glass case which will allow visitors to admire it from all sides. Some of the gems –such as the big blue sapphire that is one of the dominant stones at the back of the crown– had never been seen before by the public. Jiří Belda explains how the precious stones were mounted.

“The precious stones in the royal crown were not cut or faceted in the usual manner in order to increase their brilliance and maximize the play of light and “fire” within them. A few have a simple facet, but most of the stones were simply polished in order to maintain their full size. Many were not originally intended for the crown, they come from necklaces or private collections. And the jeweler who mounted them left them in their original state in order to highlight their size, beauty and colour. Each stone is mounted in a perfect cup of its own – it is not directly attached to the fleurs-de-lis but stands out one or two centimeters. The stones are mounted in a simple manner and held in place by a few prongs which means that one can see the whole stone in all its beauty.”

Photo: CTK
An ancient Czech legend says that any usurper who would dare to place the Crown of St. Wenceslas on his head would die within a year. This legend was further fueled by a rumor that during WWII Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich secretly tried on the crown. He was assassinated less than a year later by the Czech resistance. Jiří Belda says he does not believe the tale.

“It is not just my own opinion, most historians would agree that this is just a legend. It reflects the feeling that the crown is something sacred, something beyond the reach of normal human beings. So I do not believe that even Heydrich would have placed it on his head. And it is something you experience very strongly when you are standing in front of the crown – you get a very powerful sense of how special this artefact is, as if the people and events of past centuries spoke out to you.”

When Belda Jr. was a small boy he watched his father make the first copy of the crown jewels for Expo 1967 in Montreal. He himself has now made two more copies of the crown on commission.

“The copies of the royal crown are all made of gold-plated silver. The stones are glass – you could not have it otherwise because it would be impossible to find precious stones identical to the ones you have in the Crown of St. Wenceslas. And also the fact that they are glass allows you to create the same imperfections that you have on the original stones.”

Despite feeling a sense of pride in his work Jiří Belda says he hopes not to make any more copies since too many of them would devalue the original crown.

“I don’t approve of the need for more and more copies of the crown to be made as we have seen in recent years – in a way I think it devalues the crown as a national symbol. I think there should be a law restricting the number of copies made, because as far as I know there are at least ten of them now. I know it is a good business, but when you consider the significance of national symbols such as this I think it is sad.”

The crown jewels will remain on display at Prague Castle until January 23rd.