Helene Kottanner – A Medieval Thriller
Helene Kottanner – A Medieval Thriller
Helene Kottanner had been a loyal friend and adviser to Queen Elisabeth of Hungary. But when the queen asked her to steal the royal crown, her devotion was severely tested.
It all started in 1439, when King Albert II died after fighting against the Ottoman Empire. As it was customary at that time, the Hungarian nobles ignored the queen’s claim to the throne and chose to give it to the Polish King Władysław III. This, they thought, would have created a profitable alliance between the two kingdoms and would have provided better protection against the advancing Ottomans. To that end, they pressured her to marry Wladyslaw.
But Elisabeth was pregnant with her fourth child. She had two living daughters. A boy, born four years earlier, had died soon after birth. What if this new child were a boy, as the doctors were suggesting, and survived birth?
Still, the noblemen were looking for a king who could fight now, not years later. But what if she bypassed them? What if her child, hopefully a son, were to be crowned soon after birth?
To be legal, the installation of a Hungarian king had to meet three requirements. It had to be performed in Székesfehérvér, by the Archbishop of Gran, while the king wore the royal crown. Transporting the baby secretly to Székesfehérvér and gaining the complicity of the archbishop was not an easy feat. But it paled in comparison to the greatest challenge of all – obtaining the royal crown, which was considered holy and was carefully kept in the stronghold of Visegrád.
It could, of course, be stolen, but how? Elisabeth began to formulate a plan, while she stalled the Hungarian nobles by agreeing to consider their marriage proposal. To enact her plan, she needed a trusted accomplice. And who could be more trustworthy than Helene?
How to Steal a Crown
“The queen’s request frightened me, for it meant great danger for me and my little children,” Helene wrote in her memoirs. “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.”
Born of a noble German family, Helene was at that time in her early forties. She had at least three children, one from her first husband, who died around 1430, and two from her second, Johannes Kottanner, a burgher from Vienna who served with her at the royal court. Helene was supposed to keep the stealing of the crown a secret even to Johannes.
Elisabeth had no doubts that her actions were within God’s will. She firmly believed that her son was the rightful heir. Helene shared the same conviction. In fact, she was certain that a union with Poland would have been detrimental to the kingdom. At the same time, she was worried about the consequences of a failed mission – particularly for her children.
In the end, the initial conviction prevailed. “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.”
Elisabeth had already made some preparations. Instead of remaining in Visegrád, where the crown was kept, she had moved to her castle in Komorn. But she had left all her maids-in-waiting in Visegrád, so she would have an excuse to send Helene to get them.
Before embarking in that dangerous mission, Helene asked for a helper. Initially, they thought of a man from Croatia. But when they explained the plan to him, he “was so overcome by fear that all the color drained from his face as if he were half dead.” He went back to Croatia, and the two women had to find someone else. In hindsight, Helene realized it had been God’s way to delay the operation, so that the baby could be born soon after the queen received the crown.
They finally found the man they wanted, who agreed to help. Due to the difficulty of the task, he chose a second man. Then, as the team entered the fortress of Visegrád, the first man hid the necessary files in his shoes and the locks under his shirt. He and his partner did the break-in during the night, while everyone slept and Helene kept watch.
In her memoirs, Helene gives a detailed account of the events of that night and the fear that filled her mind every time she heard an unfamiliar sound.
At one point, she had to procure some candles to give light to the men. She asked an old woman, explaining that she had many prayers to say. It was, in some ways, true, because she was praying constantly. But she left the candles unattended for a brief moment and, when she went back to them, they were gone. She had to return to the old woman, who by then was asleep, and beg her to give her more candles, as she still had lots of praying to do.
And pray she did – desperately, in face. The hammering and filing noises that the sleeping inhabitants of the castle could peacefully ignore seemed increasingly louder to Helene, her mind “invaded by many fears and worries.” She began to doubt the legitimacy of her mission. What if the queen was wrong? “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.”
The ordeal took longer than she had expected, because some of the locks were so tight that the men couldn’t file them off, and had to burn them instead (creating lots of suspicious smoke). Eventually, it was all done. The locks were replaced, fresh wax was applied with the seals Helene had received from her queen, and everything looked as it had been before. Helene threw the files into a pit toilet outside the ladies’ bedroom. Then the team prepared to leave. It was February 20, 1440.
One last concern was a question raised by an old woman who had been working for the ladies-in-waiting and who had seen something unusual in front of the stove. Realizing it was a piece of the casing that had held the crown, Helene brushed the matter off and, as soon as the woman was out of the way, burned the casing. Originally, the woman was supposed to be dismissed after the ladies-in-waiting had left the fortress but Helene could not risk. Instead, she took her back to the queen, with the intention of finding her a new position away from Visegrád.
The crown was smuggled out of the fortress inside a red velvet pillow, on which Helene sat during the journey – which included the dangerous crossing of the frozen Danube River. In spite of her care to avoid sitting directly on the crown, the golden cross that topped it was bent – as one can still see today.
The Crowning of the King
Elisabeth’s baby was born just hours after the crown’s arrival. It was a boy: Ladislaus.
The women could then move on to the second part of their plan: bringing the baby to Székesfehérvér where he could be properly crowned. Now it was Elisabeth’s turn to doubt. When one of the noblemen told her they would be willing to crown Ladislaus as their king, she wondered if she had acted in haste, and asked Helene to help her to return the crown to the original place.
This time Helene could not go along. Did the queen forget why the noblemen could not be trusted in the first place? “I was shaken by my wise lady’s change of heart,” Helene wrote, “that I felt it in all my limbs, and I thought by myself that this must be an idea inspired by the Devil.”
Her reply must have shocked the queen: “Woman, stop that! I will not do it and will not risk my life like that and will not even help you with advice, for it is always better to be in the bushes than in the stocks [rough equivalent of ‘better freezing outside than warm in jail]. You can always return it later, but whoever is your friend now may well become your enemy.’”
The queen didn’t reply, and left the room quietly. Later, Helene’s advice turned out to be sound, because the king of Poland was not about to give up his claims to the Hungarian throne. If the crown had stayed in the fortress, he would have easily claimed it.
The journey to Székesfehérvér, taken in May, was once again suspenseful, through many dangers and pouring rain, which forced Helene to walk with the baby in her arms. The team arrived at their destination late at night, and the baby was crowned the next day.
Helene reported with amazement that, “as the Archbishop placed the Holy Crown on the child’s head and held it there, [the boy] held up his head with the strength of a one-year-old, and that is rarely seen in children of twelve weeks.”
A Short-Lived Victory
The story didn’t end in complete success. Hungarian and Polish nobles installed Wladislaw III as a rival king, and continued to press his claim to the throne, forcing Helene and the baby to flee to Ödenburg while the queen kept up her resistance. Elisabeth died in 1442, possibly from poison, and the young king continued to rule under the direction of supporting Hungarian noblemen until 1452, when he came of age. Wladislaw died in battle in 1444. Ladislaus’s reign, however, was short. He died in 1457, at 17 years of age, possibly of the plague.
As for Helene, she wrote her account around 1450, maybe for Ladislaus, displaying amazing writing talents. As a reward for her service, she and her husband received from Ladislaus the village of Kisfalud (present-day Vieska, Slovakia). She died around 1470.
Besides leaving us a riveting account of a daring mission, Helene Kottamer brings to light a dilemma that has puzzled believers of all ages, from the Jewish midwives in Egypt to the Christians who hid Jews during World War II: is it right to deceive or break the law in order to fight injustice or prevent a greater evil? Whether we agree with her conclusions or not, she acted prayerfully, finding her decisions confirmed by the constant protection she and the baby king received from the Lord.
 Helene Kottanner, The Memoirs of Helene Kottanner (1439-1440), ed. by Maya Bijvoet Williamson, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1998, 27.
 Ibid., 30
 Ibid., 39