The History of Romania in One Object: The Steel Crown of the Romanian Kings
Updated: Jul 27
It is hard to find an artifact with a greater symbolic value for the modern and contemporary history of Romania than the Steel Crown! The country’s Independence of 1877, the establishment of the Kingdom of Romania in 1881 and the unification of all Romanian provinces in 1918 are all embodied in this exceptional token.
The Steel Crown was created for the accession of Prince Carol I of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen as the first King of Romania on May 10/22, 1881. It was made at the Army Arsenal Workshops on a design suggested by prominent personalities of culture and arts like linguist B.P. Hasdeu, historian Alexandru Odobescu, and painter Theodor Aman. The steel came from an Ottoman canon captured by the Romanian soldiers during the War of Independence of 1877. This was King Carol’s specific request so as the Crown to highlight the huge importance of Independence not only for his own reign but also for the entire history of Romania.
During the accession ceremony the King was presented with the Crown but refused to wear it. The message was that he had become King and the Principality of Romania a kingdom by the struggle, will and sacrifices of his people and not by divine grace (according to ancient custom the Metropolitan of the Romanian Orthodox Church would have anointed the King with holy oil and placed the crown on his head). The first to actually wear it, as symbol of national unity, was his successor, Ferdinand, who after the unification of all Romanian historical provinces in 1918 was crowned King of Greater Romania at Alba-Iulia in Transylvania on October 15, 1922.
Photo 1: The Coronation Ceremony of King Carol I and Queen Elizabeth (Bucharest, May 10, 1881)
Photo 2: King Carol in front of the officer’s division during the Coronation festivities (1881)
Photo 3: King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie of Romania during the Alba Iulia Coronation festivities (1922)
Since the beginning the Crown, depicted on the national coat of arms, stood as a powerful symbol of independence, dynastic continuity and a tremendous development of a country that from the dawn of the 20th century was rightly considered a true power in the Balkans. Even after the Monarchy was abolished by the communists in 1947, the Steel Crown continued to be revered as a mark of lost liberty and democracy.
Carol I’s long reign represented a remarkable period of political, economic, social, and cultural development. The Constitution adopted in 1866 was one of the most modern in Europe and created the legal frame for a momentous political and institutional evolution of the state. The political stage was dominated by two major forces, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, which took turns in governing the country. During this time of accelerated modernization, Romania witnessed an extraordinary development of the industrial sector (from 39 factories in 1866 to 450 new factories at the beginning of the 20th century), infrastructure (from a few killometres in 1866 to 29.000 killometres in 1914) and civil engineering (the Bridge at Cernavodă was the third longest in the world in 1895). Agriculture was the base of the economy and thanks to its huge output Romania became Europe’s "bread basket".
Photo 4: The Kingdom of Romania Coat of Arms
When Carol I started his auspicious reign in 1866 Romania had no national currency. One year later the "leu" was introduced and its stable value during many decades had a great impact on the economic growth of the country. In a few decades, Romania’s cities also went through a massive transformation inspired by Western models of urbanization. By the turn of the 20th century old, former semi-oriental market towns were turned into dynamic communities, whose modern administrative buildings, schools, theaters, hospitals, hotels, and restaurants, basked in the light shed by the new systems of public illumination, were linked by growing networks of public transport. No wonder that, given this impressive growth, at the start of the 20th century Bucharest became to be known as "Little Paris".
Photo 5: The CEC Bank Palace in Bucharest (1890)
Photo 6: The Union Square in Iassy (the beginning of the 20th Century)
Photo 7: The Peleș Castle in Sinaia (the beginning of the 20th Century)
In cultural terms, the transformation was equally impressive. Literature, music, architecture and visual arts joined the major European artistic currents in a movement of dramatic synchronization. Arts thrived and some of the biggest names in philosophy, linguistics, poetry, fiction, symphonic composition, painting were active during this time. Based on traditional building structures and aesthetics, major architects created a national style, in which many public institutions were erected.
With the exception of the wars and the occasional disruptions brought by a few peasant revolts, daily life in general acquired an elegant, comfortable and genial demeanor, which was praised by the many foreign travelers who visited Romania.
THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our new online program that evokes decisive epochs in the Romanian past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with The National History Museum of Romania. Video and text by historian Cornel Ilie, Deputy Director of MNIR.