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Book Review

Coro/nations: Research on the Performance of the Last Two Centuries of Habsburg Rule in Europe

Klaas Van Gelder (ed.), More Than Mere Spectacle: Coronations and Inaugurations in the Habsburg Monarchy during the Eighteenth & Nineteenth Centuries (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2021), Austrian and Habsburg Studies 31, xii + 326 pp., 17 ill.

The coronations of Charles III and Camilla as king and queen of fifteen Commonwealth realms with over 150 million inhabitants which took place in May of this year has led many to reflect on the significance of such ceremonies in the current world. What roles do the couple and the ceremonies play in tying together such a variety of territories and peoples? Why did an estimated television audience of over twenty million people in the UK alone watch this set of events, the fortieth such royal coronation to have been held in the hallowed Westminster Abbey church? Was this all simply ‘mere spectacle’ or does something more substantial and constitutive stand behind the pomp?

Similar questions stand behind the research in the volume here under review, a collection of articles originating primarily as papers at two international conferences, one held in Rotterdam and the other in Ghent in 2015 and 2016. In this collection, edited by the Belgian post-doctoral researcher Klaas Van Gelder (who also contributed a chapter), scholars in various career stages and from various academic disciplines, including History, Art History, Legal History, and Literary Studies from six countries across Europe (and the UK) delve into the complicated stories of Habsburg coronations and inaugurations starting around 1700 and ending with the last Habsburg coronations, in 1916 in Budapest. Examples are drawn from the Habsburgs’ Austrian hereditary lands, the Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, Bohemia, the Austrian Netherlands, Galicia, and Lombardy-Venetia.

In some ways, the volume reflects a return to themes addressed in this journal’s pages almost two decades ago (Volume 9, Issue 1, 2004), an edition dedicated to English coronations in a European context. (With articles, for example, on the significance of Carolingian coronation rituals, and one on the Habsburgs’ 1916 Budapest coronations.) That edition of The Court Historian also grew out of a conference, one held in London that year. The conference was apparently also tied partly to the publication of Roy Strong’s 2005 book on British coronations.Footnote1

The 2021 collection on the Habsburgs’ lands after their loss of the Iberian kingdoms in the early eighteenth century reveals a continued interest in symbolic communication and how power is effective when it is made visible. (See Van Gelder’s introduction, p. 2.) The reciprocal nature of the ceremonies of coronation and inauguration which are studied in this volume is underlined. Van Gelder writes, ‘ … reciprocity remained a key feature of almost all Habsburg inaugural rites’ (p. 11). The Hungarian researcher Fanni Hende in her study of the Hungarian royal coronations of Kings Charles III and Leopold II (1712, 1790) sees such ‘ … rituals as acts of political communication expressing compromise’ (p. 99), a theme echoed in her compatriot Judit Beke-Martos’ chapter on the importance of the 1867 coronations of King Francis Joseph and Queen Elisabeth, a political ceremony still known as marking the start of the period of Austro-Hungarian ‘Compromise’, the ill-fated ‘Dual Monarchy’. These coronations ended an awkward period of almost twenty years’ length in which the de jure king of Hungary, Ferdinand V’s 1848 abdication was not recognized by the Hungarian political authorities. This had led to a sustained constitutional crisis in the country which the legal historian Beke-Martos states could only be solved by the coronations (p. 284). The ceremonies were particularly important in Hungary, she writes, because it had no written constitution until 1949: events such as coronations were ‘legally relevant constituting elements’ (p. 295).

The detailed readings of the various ceremonies analyzed in the volume under review also show how the process of organizing them was important. As Van Gelder vividly describes in his introduction, ‘ … the organization of inaugural rites vibrated a web of material and nonmaterial interests, goals, and tactics between many groups of actors who interacted partly in competition, partly in co-operation with each other’ (pp. 11-12). As he discusses in his chapter on the forty-five Habsburg inauguration ceremonies in the Netherlands which were held between 1703 and 1794, the negotiations proceeding these ceremonies could often last for months (p. 173). This is part of what he calls ‘entangled bargaining processes between the prince and the subjects’, ‘a tool in the game of give and take’ (172).

In the Netherlands, these ceremonies, unlike in many other Habsburg lands, rarely included the rulers themselves: of the forty-five ceremonies studied, only once did a Habsburg ruler appear in person. Emperor Francis II participated in the ceremony in Brabant-Limburg in 1794. The Netherlanders were used to having their ruler appear in a portrait and not in person. In fact, as Van Gelder points out, no Habsburg ruler visited the territories for 160 years (1621–1781) (p. 171)! (Making Habsburg rule in the Low Countries look similar to their rule in the American or Italian viceroyalties.)

In his chapter on Queen Maria Theresa’s entrée into Brabant in 1744, (undertaken not by the future empress but by her representative Charles of Lorraine,) the Belgian doctoral student Thomas Cambrelin makes a similar point. In his eyes the drawn-out negotiations around the details of the ceremonies reflect how ‘[t]wo ideologies of power clashed and dialogued at the same time’ (p. 211).

In addition to the effects of the processes of organisation, the Habsburg ceremonies studied also could have a positive effect in and of themselves. This point is made in the chapter by the Austrian historian William D. Godsey. In this rich and archival source-based chapter on ‘Pageantry in the Revolutionary Age’, Godsey looks at four case studies of inaugural rites undertaken in the tumultuous years between 1790 and 1838 (out of a total of over two dozen such ceremonies in this period) in the diverse territories of Lower Austria, Hungary, Tyrol and Lombardy-Venetia. The Habsburgs, faced with the consequences of revolution and war, had to expand their political base and perform their rule over new or re-acquired territories as well as over ones which they had ruled for longer. The new emperor Leopold II, for example, had to rush to pick up the pieces of Habsburg rule after his brother Emperor Joseph II’s death in 1790. According to Godsey, ‘Leopold II’s inauguration in Vienna revitalized an unwritten legal order embodied by the ceremonial hierarchy on display’ (p. 254).

The particular circumstances of Habsburg rule in the French Revolutionary period are also discussed in the chapter by the German historian Harriet Rudolph. She looks at the six imperial and royal coronations which took place in Frankfurt am Main from 1711 to 1792 and wonders how these elaborate ceremonies fit into what she calls ‘ … the still prevalent narrative of a continuous decline of the Holy Roman Empire at least since the second half of the eighteenth century’ (p. 68). By this point in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the coronations of the emperors or their heirs-designate had become more important than their elections (partly because almost all of the emperors since the mid-fifteenth century were Habsburgs and the elections were rarely very much in doubt). Rudolph points out that due to the sudden death of Emperor Leopold II in 1792, just weeks after the French declaration of war on the Habsburgs, two imperial coronations were held in the space of two years, a set of events unique in Imperial history. Emperor Francis II, putting up a strong symbolic front versus the revolutionaries, was elected and crowned on 14 July 1792, using the opportunity to show that the Empire was not (yet) obsolete (p. 79).

The first chapter in the collection, ‘The Care of Thrones’, by historian Petr Mat’a of the Austrian Academy of Science’s Institute for Habsburg and Balkan Studies, provides a thorough overview, some definitions, and broader historical contextualization reaching back into the sixteenth century. In a rather puzzling footnote, Mat’a explains a lack of references to back up his statistics by claiming that the numbers ‘ … are based on extensive research of both primary sources and secondary literature. It is impossible to provide even only partial references here’ (p. 33, n. 15). That caveat notwithstanding, he provides over one hundred additional footnotes as well as seven pages of bibliography.

Mat’a argues that the coronations and the inauguration ceremonies (or sometimes ‘acts of homage’) which are studied in this book are ‘functional analogies’ (p. 30). Reviewing the period from 1526, when the Habsburgs took control of Bohemia and its affiliated lands and (part of) Hungary, until 1800, he identified 108 relevant ceremonies conducted with or for twenty-one different Habsburg rulers and linked to fifteen different political units (not including the two autonomous hereditary municipalities of Trieste and Rijeka and a certain number of what he calls ‘petty lordships’, p. 33).

Like many historians, Mat’a points to the pivotal role of the Spanish Habsburg prince Ferdinand as the ‘constructor’ of the dynasty’s Central European holdings or monarchy (p.34). Ferdinand came from Iberia to Austria in 1521 at the order of his older brother who had recently been elected and crowned Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. It would be Ferdinand, named after his maternal grandfather Ferdinand, king of Aragon (who had died shortly before in 1516), who utilized forms of rule similar to those performed on the Iberian peninsula. Although Mat’a does not make this connection explicit, he does point out that the forms of rule of the ‘utterly composite’ Habsburg ‘state’ and its ‘intrinsically juxtaposed’ dynastic lands (p. 34) were mostly closely paralleled by what he calls ‘the paradigm of a conglomerate state’, the Spanish monarchy (p. 39). There, the Habsburg rulers similarly had to take coronation oaths (without coronations however) in the various constituent kingdoms over which they ruled including Castile, Navarre, Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia. This western, senior branch of the Habsburg dynasty also sent delegates to represent them in their territories such as those on the Italian peninsula or in the Low Countries. Mat’a argues, ‘ … the inaugural process’ in Aragon and Navarre was most like the one in central Europe (p. 40).

Prince, later King, and then Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (died 1564) participated in at least nine personal investitures. According to Mat’a, this requirement that Ferdinand and his successors participate in all of these ceremonies is something which made the Habsburgs unique in Europe (p. 38). Although French or English monarchs made progresses and entrées, they were ‘not a constitutional obligation’ as they were and would remain for the Habsburgs (p. 38).

Of course. things changed over time, and the world of Ferdinand I of the Holy Roman Empire was not the world of Ferdinand I of the Austrian Empire. (He ruled 1835–1848.) However, as this complicated and intriguing book points out with its variety of examples from the later period, it is not as though these ceremonies were discarded. Instead, they were reinvented, reused and rediscovered. Mat’a tells us that although they may have changed their functions, for example in Bohemia after 1627 and Hungary after 1687 when these kingdoms became formally hereditary in the House of Habsburg and lost their aspects of elective rule, the Habsburg rulers continued to feel constrained by—or to see the utility in—these ceremonies (p. 36).

The eighteenth century presents, according to Mat’a, an ambiguous picture. The famous empress-consort Maria Theresa, for example, avoided personal enthronements, if possible, but as we have seen above, her son Leopold used such ceremonies to calm things down after the tumultuous reign of the ‘Enlightened Despot’ Joseph II. Mat’a writes that the eighteenth century ‘by no means reveals a linear decline’ in ‘the picture of … Habsburg inaugural rites’ (p. 50). New approaches were taken over the generations, but the repeated performance of the composite nature of the Habsburgs’ rule only ended when they gave up their reins of office in 1918.

This collection of studies of a variety of forms of Habsburg coronations and inaugurations is partly based on secondary and previously-published materials and partly on new archival research. The editor could have consolidated the bibliographies from each chapter into one large bibliography to cut back repetition. The illustrations are well chosen and used as evidence, not just as decoration. There is an index to help readers locate figures and places which might appear in more than one chapter.

For researchers, perhaps inspired by the House of Windsor’s continued insistence on form and coronation now in 2023, who wish to return to the themes taken up by the The Court Historian back in 2004, this volume on the later Habsburgs is to be recommended. Its contents expand the earlier scope to look more carefully at this dynasty’s heterogeneous holdings in the final two hundred years or so of their long reigns in Europe. The editor Van Gelder estimates that the territory covered in this volume consists of all or parts of around sixteen separate countries today (p. 2). Although the stories told here are perhaps not as well-known as others in Europe’s long history, they can perhaps help to explain how this particular “composite monarchy” held on for as long as it did.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Joseph F. Patrouch

Joseph F. Patrouch

Professor Patrouch is a historian of Early Modern Europe, with a focus on the Holy Roman Empire and the lands ruled by the Habsburg Dynasty. He has taught in Austria, Canada, Israel, Poland and the US and has been a guest researcher at various institutions in Germany. His publications include A Negotiated Settlement: The Counter-Reformation in Upper Austria under the Habsburgs, and Queen’s Apprentice: Archduchess Elizabeth, Empress María, the Habsburgs, and the Holy Roman Empire, 1554–1569 as well as numerous articles and reviews. He is currently undertaking research on the travels of various Habsburg courts in 1569 and 1570.


1 Roy C. Strong, Coronation: From the 8th to the 21st Century (London, 2005).

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