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A Brave Woman Steals the Royal Crown – Helene Kottannerin (c. 1400-after 1458)

Helene Kottannerin (c. 1400-after 1458) composed what is possibly the earliest known autobiographical text written in German by a woman. The daughter of a lesser nobleman, she was probably born in Ödenburg (Hungarian: Sopron). In 1431, she married Johann Kottanner of Vienna. By 1436, it is thought, she was at the court of Albert II of the house of Habsburg, who was King of the Romans (and emperor-elect) (r. 1438-39) and King of Hungary (r. 1437-39). At court, Helene Kottannerin served the queen, Elizabeth (c. 1409-42). In 1439, Albert moved his court to Hungary, where he died six months later on October 27, 1439. At the time, Elizabeth was five months pregnant. After Albert’s death, a powerful party of nobles urged her to marry King Wladislaus III of Poland (1424-44), who was only sixteen years old. But Elizabeth refused, and pinned her hopes for the future on her unborn child, who, according to her physicians, was sure to be a boy. To secure the legitimate rights of her son-to-be, the queen needed to have him crowned as soon as possible. That being the case, she instructed Helene Kottannerin to break into the royal stronghold of Plintenburg (Hungarian: Visegrád) and steal the heavily guarded royal Crown of Saint Stephen. Helene obliged, and on February 20, 1440, she and a Hungarian nobleman carried out a daring raid, which is the subject of the first excerpt reproduced below. The next day, Helene embarked on a dangerous winter journey and delivered the royal crown to Elizabeth at her castle in Komorn. The queen’s son, known to history as Ladislaus (Hungarian: László) Posthumous, was born just a few hours later.

The second excerpt describes the other key event in Helene Kottannerin’s narrative. With the infant king-to-be and the royal crown in tow, Elizabeth and Helene set out for Stuhlweissenburg (Hungarian: Székesfehérvár), the coronation city of the Hungarian kings. There, on May 15, 1440, the holy day of Pentecost, the Archbishop of Gran lifted three-month-old Ladislaus from his cradle and crowned him king. Thus, Elizabeth, aided by Helene, preserved the throne for her son, who, though eventually recognized as king, reigned only four years until his death in 1457.

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[ . . . ]

But when the time had come when the Almighty God wished to perform His miraculous deeds, God sent us a man who was willing to abduct the Holy Crown. He was Hungarian, and his name was . . . He was loyal and wise and sensible in the way he took care of this business. We prepared the things we needed for the undertaking and took several locks and two files. And he who was to risk his life with me donned a black velvet night shift and two felt shoes, and in each shoe he placed a file and he hid the locks underneath his shirt. And I took my gracious lady’s small signet, and I also took the keys to the first door; for there were three of them, because near the door-hinge there was another chain and a bolt, where before our departure from the stronghold we had attached another lock to prevent that anyone else would affix one there. And when we were ready to go, my lady first sent a messenger ahead of us to Plintenburg to inform the castellan and the lords in charge of the ladies-in-waiting, Franz of Pöker and Ladislaus Tamási, that the ladies should pack and be ready for the carriage that would come to take them to my lady’s castle in Komorn, for she had had to go to Pressburg. This was announced to all the members of the queen’s household. Then, when the carriage destined for the ladies-in-waiting was ready, and the sled in which I and he who shared my concerns were to travel was ready as well, they sent us two Hungarian noblemen to accompany me to the ladies-in-waiting. Then we set out on our journey.

When the castellan learned the news that I was coming to fetch the ladies-in-waiting, it surprised him and all the other members of the queen’s court as well that they had allowed me to go so far away from my young mistress who was still young and who did not like me to leave her, as they all knew very well. Then it happened that the castellan felt a bit ill and would have liked to place his bed near the door that formed the first entrance to the Holy Crown. But then his illness worsened, which was the will of God, and because that door was in the room of the women, he was reluctant to allow his servants to sleep there with him. So then he wrapped a small piece of linen cloth around the lock which we had placed near the door-hinge and pressed his seal on it.

When we arrived at Plintenburg, the ladies-in-waiting were cheerful and looked forward to their trip to my noble mistress, and they were getting themselves ready and had ordered a trunk to be made for their wardrobe. We had to wait for a long time, and the hammering went on until after 8 o’clock. To while away the time, my companion joined us in the room and conversed with the ladies. In front of the stove, there lay some firewood which was used to heat it, and he hid the files underneath this wood. But some servants of the ladies-in-waiting happened to see the files underneath the wood and began to whisper among themselves. I overheard them and immediately told him about it. My words frightened him so much that all color drained from his face, and he quickly retrieved the files and hid them somewhere else.

And he said to me: “Woman, see to it that we have light.” So I asked an old woman to give me some candles, explaining that I had to say many prayers because it was Saturday night [20 February 1440], the first Saturday after Ash Wednesday. I took the candles and concealed them carefully. And when all the ladies-in-waiting and everybody else had gone to sleep, I remained in the little room with an old woman I had brought with me who did not know a word of German and who also knew nothing of our plan and was unfamiliar with the castle. She lay there and was fast asleep.

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