In the year 1440, a servant woman named Helene Kottanner is given the task of stealing the crown of the King of Hungary. Helene tells us how she did it.
We have very few documents from the Middle Ages that were written by women, especially those who were not high ranking members of society. However, we do have an account, The Memoirs of Helene Kottanner, that tells us the remarkable story of the theft of the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, and Helene’s role in it.
In the year 1439, Hungary was ruled by Albert II and his wife Elizabeth of Luxembourg. Albert, who was also the Duke of Austria, had only gained the Hungarian throne a couple of years before, largely because he was married to Elizabeth, the daughter of King Sigismund I (who ruled Hungary from 1387 to 1437).
Helene Kottanner was one of the female servants in the royal household, and portrays herself as loyal confidant of “the noble and most gracious king.” At the start of her account King Albert has fallen ill and, despite the best efforts of his physicians, he dies on October 27, 1439.
The kingdom is thrown into an immediate crisis, as the nobles are fearful that without a strong ruler they will be invaded by the Ottoman Empire. They ask Elizabeth to marry Wladislaus III, king of Poland, but she replies, “Dear lords, please do not give me a pagan; I would sooner rather marry a Christian peasant.” Moreover, she is also several months pregnant, and her physicians assured it would be a boy – Elizabeth would much prefer that he be king, under her supervision. However, the nobles press upon her to marry and she agrees (although Helene adds that she never intended to go through with a wedding).
Instead, she devised a secret plan – she was going to steal the Holy Crown of St Stephen, from Plintenburg Castle – also known as Visegrád – where it was being kept, and use it for the coronation of her unborn son. Elizabeth believed if she could obtain this important treasure, which had been used to crown the kings of Hungary as far back as the eleventh century, then the nobles and people of the kingdom would accept the child as their new king.
To carry out this theft, Elizabeth called up Helen Kottanner. Helen writes that the Queen “said that I should do it because there was no one she could trust who knew the place as well as I did. The queen’s request frightened me, for it meant great danger for me and my little children. And I weighed the matter in my mind, wondering what to do, and there was no one I could ask for advice except God alone. I said to myself that if I did not do it and something evil happened as a result, then I would have sinned against God and the world. And so I said that I was willing to undertake that difficult journey even at the risk of losing my life, but I asked that they give me a helper.”
The first man they asked to join the plot “was so overcome by fear that all the color drained from his face as if he were half dead,” and soon ran away. Another man was asked – a Hungarian which Helene refuses to name, but she adds “he was loyal and wise and sensible in the way he took care of this business.” The plan was made to have Helene and her companion travel to Plintenburg in February in order to collect the other ladies-in-waiting of the court and bring them to the queen. They arrived at the castle on February 20, 1440 and would depart with the retinue the next day. They soon got some luck – the castellan in charge of the protecting the crown was ill so he was not sleeping in his normal room that was next to the royal treasury.
As the night descended on the castle and everyone went to sleep, Helene and her companion (and another unnamed man they had recruited) began their theft – Helene provided them with several keys of the queen along with candles – she had asked the servants for extra candles as she would be saying many prayers that night – while they brought files to break to other locks. The two men entered the royal treasury while Helene kept watch. She writes:
…they worked so hard on the other locks, that the sounds of their hammering and filing could be heard distinctly. But even if the guards and the castellan’s men had been on alert that night and actively watching the treasure entrusted to their care, then surely God Almighty would have stopped their ears to prevent them from hearing anything. But I alone head everything very well and kept watch while invaded by many fears and worries, and I kneeled down in deep devotion and prayed to God and Our Dear Lady, that they might assist me and my helpers. Yet I feared more for my soul than for my life, and I begged God that if the undertaking were against His will, I should be damned for it; or if something evil should result for the country and the people, that God have mercy on my soul and let me die here on the spot.
She did hear noises, which Helene thought must be a ghost. Helene promised that if they were successful she would go on a pilgrimage to Mariazell – until then she would not sleep on a bed of feathers on Saturday nights. She then writes:
But while I was praying like this, I seemed to hear loud noises and the din of armor at the door that led directly into the apartment of the ladies-in-waiting. This frightened me so much that my entire body began to shake with fear and I broke into a cold sweat, and I thought that it must not be a ghost after all and that while I stood at the chapel door, they had gone around to see the other side; and I did not know what to do and strained my ears to see if I could hear the ladies. But I did not hear anyone. Then I went softly down the steps through the room of the little princess to the door that led directly to the room of the ladies. And when I arrived at that door, I heard no one. Then I was relieved and thanked God and resumed my prayers once more and said to myself that it surely was the Devil, who would have liked to foil our plan.
Soon after her co-conspirators came out with the crown. Next, they took a red velvet pillow, opened it and removed some feathers, and then stuff the crown inside before sewing it back up. It was nearly morning now, and Helene began to get ready with the other women for the journey to meet with the Queen. She had the pillow which concealed the crown put on her own sled as they left Plintenburg, with Helene writing “I kept looking back frequently for fear that anyone might be following us. Indeed, I worried incessantly, and thoughts were crowding in my mind, and I marveled at what God had done or might still do.”
Her adventures were still not over. She writes:
Then we reached the Danube, which was still covered with ice, but the ice had gotten thin in several places. When we were on the ice and had come as far as the middle of the Danube, the carriage of the ladies-in-waiting proved too heavy; the ice broke and the carriage toppled over, the ladies screamed, and there was much chaos and confusion. I was afraid and thought that we and the Holy Crown would all perish in the Danube together. Yet God came to our rescue. None of our people went under, but of the things that were on the carriage several fell into the water and disappeared underneath the ice. Then I took the duchess from Silezia and the highest-ranking ladies into my sled, and with the help of God we made it safely across the ice, and all the others did too.
On February 22nd they arrived at the queen’s castle in Komorn, where Helene found that Elizabeth was about to give birth – quickly she and mid-wife went to work, and “it did not take half an hour before the God Almighty had a young king ready for us.”
The baby was named Ladislaus and when he was twelve weeks old he was crowned the King of Hungary by the archbishop of Gran. Helene was there too, giving us details of the coronation, mentioning that “as the Archbishop placed the Holy Crown on the child’s head and held it there, he held up his head with the strength of a one-year-old, and that is rarely seen in children of twelve weeks.”
The story of the new Hungarian king was not a successful one. Wladislaus III pressed his claim to the throne, and soon the queen and her son had to flee. By 1442 Elizabeth had died, rumoured to have been poisoned, and young Ladislaus would spend the rest of his childhood as a pawn in the politics of East Central Europe. At the age of 17, just before he was to marry, Ladislaus died (scientific studies have revealed he died of leukemia) and has gone down in history as Ladislaus the Posthumous.
All we know about Helene Kottanner is the short account she left us. Perhaps she wrote it for Ladislaus, to let him know about the story of how he got his crown and her role in it. Her work is found in The Memoirs of Helene Kottanner, translated by Maya Bijvoet Williamson and published in 1998.
Top Image: Crown of St Stephen – Photo by granada_turnier / Wikimedia Commons