Reliquary of Emperor Charles I placed within Prague’s Saint Vitus Cathedral

Reliquary of Charles I was placed within the Cathedral of Saint Vitus

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death, a reliquary of Charles I, the last Emperor of Austria-Hungary and thus also the last King of Bohemia, was ceremonially placed within the Cathedral of Saint Vitus at Prague Castle on Sunday. Charles I is seen by the Church as an exemplary Christian monarch and was beatified by Pope John Paul II. His relic is now part of the country’s most sacred national symbols that make up the so-called Treasure of Saint Wenceslas.

Leading dignitaries, such as the current head of the Habsburg-Lorraine family Charles, or the chargé d'affaires of the Papal Nuncio in the Czech Republic Giuseppe Silvestrini, could be seen at Prague Castle on Sunday on the occasion of the placing of a reliquary of Bohemia’s last king, Charles I, into the Cathedral of Saint Vitus.

Charles I died of pneumonia as an exiled monarch on the island of Madeira at the age of just 34 on April 1, 1922 – exactly 100 years ago.

Charles Habsburg-Lorraine | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

The head of the Czech branch of the Knights of Saint George in the Czech Republic, Dr Milan Novák, says that the reliquary contains a part of Charles I’s rib.

“While Charles I was being beatified, his tomb was opened and one of his ribs was collected. The bone was then moved to the Vatican, where individual pieces of the rib were placed into reliquaries. These are now being used to honour and worship the deceased monarch as a beatified Christian.”

Charles I was declared "Blessed" in a ceremony on St. Peter's Square by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Charles was described as a “Christian statesman” by the pope who has since been declared a saint himself.

Dr Novák says that Charles’ peace efforts during the First World War are especially prescient in current times. The monarch assumed power on November 21, 1916, replacing Emperor Franz Joseph, and ruled for less than two years until the breakup of the Habsburg state.

Reliquary of Charles I was placed within the Cathedral of Saint Vitus | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK
“He inherited a multi-ethnic empire of 50 million people in the middle of Europe at a time of a world-wide general slaughter. A Christian in his heart and soul, he could not come to terms with what was happening, so he placed great effort into ending the conflict.

“He also tried to alleviate the burden of the war on the general population. Austria-Hungary was therefore the first country in the world to look for institutional solutions to these problems. Charles I founded the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Affairs. This was the first initiative of its kind in Europe.”

Although never officially crowned Czech King, Charles I lived in Bohemia for several years before he became crown prince, says Dr Novák.

“He spent four years of his life in the Czech Chateau of Brandýs nad Labem [where he moved in in 1908 after being commissioned as a dragoons officer]. He lived near Stará Boleslav, the sight of the martyrdom of the Czech patron saint Duke Wenceslas. As a practicing Catholic he was very much introduced to this Czech tradition and identified with it. He also spoke very good Czech.”

Reliquary of Charles I was placed within the Cathedral of Saint Vitus | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

Although 19th century Czech politicians, such as František Palacký, were very much open to the idea of a reformed Austro-Hungarian monarchy, by the time of the First World War the circle around the future first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was decidedly pro-independence. Charles would try to reclaim the Hungarian crown, but failed, in part due to Czechoslovak reluctance to allow a Habsburg back on a Central European throne.

Together with his wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, Charles had eight children. One of them was the heir to the Habsburg throne Otto von Habsburg, who would later become an ardent proponent of European integration.

The Treasure of Saint Wenceslas includes the skull of the country’s patron saint, as well as that of his grandmother Saint Ludmila and a reliquary of Saint Adalbert.