Historical Sketch: Rescuing the Royal Crown

Image of the Royal Crown with a black background.
A circular logo with a silhouette of a woman in the middle holding her finger to her mouth as if to say, shhhh.

Secretum Meum Mihi Press

Rescuing the Royal Crown: Memoirs of Helene Kottanner

by Kristen West McGuire

King Albert of Hungary died in 1439, leaving no male heirs. The Magyar nobles proposed to offer the crown and Elizabeth, his pregnant widow, to Wladislas, king of Poland. To buy time, Elizabeth decided to steal the crown of St. Stephen, for without it, no king could be named. Perhaps she would give birth to a son!

Helene Kottanner was nursemaid to the tiny princess, and the queen’s favorite. The task of crown thievery fell to her. Successful in her strange caper, she wrote her memoirs to persuade the king to reward her. She recalled, “The Queen’s commands sorely troubled me; for it was a dangerous venture…I thought if I did it not, and evil arose therefrom, I should be guilty before God and the world.”

The Queen allowed Mother Kottanner (as she called her) to find a male escort, for it would be no easy task. The crown was in the vaults of the strongly fortified Castle of Plintenburg, fastened with locks and seals, and a guard slept nearby for further security.

Appearing to return for the queen’s court, Helene carried the queen’s signet ring and keys; and her unnamed accomplice had a file in each shoe, and keys under his black velvet dress. Lucky for them, the extra guard had taken ill, so he was not sleeping in the outer chamber. Helene begged extra wax tapers from the housekeepers, saying she had many prayers to offer up. (Indeed!) Finally, all were asleep.

Helene and her gentleman assistant wasted no time opening the doors to the outer chamber with the queen’s keys. They broke the extra seals and locks, and filed through several chains, which was loud business. Helene was terrified, keeping watch by the door and jumping at every bump in the night. If discovered, they would surely lose their lives!

They burned a hole into the case containing the crown to retrieve it, and hastily relocked and sealed the entrances with the queen’s signet to deter immediate detection. The crown was sewn into a red velvet cushion for transport just as dawn broke. The party packed up their sledges, and headed back to Komorn. Helene gingerly sat on the cushion in her sledge. In the dusky twilight, as they crossed the Danube River, the thinning ice broke under the weight of the maiden’s carriages. Helene and her loot survived, secrets preserved amid the slushy chaos.

The queen gave birth to a son within an hour of their arrival! Early in the morning, the Archbishop of Gran arrived to christen the child, named Ladislaus. Although grateful Queen Elizabeth offered the role of godmother to Helene, she refused so as not to draw undue attention to a child’s nursemaid.

Their opponents were no happier with the prospect of a baby king. After further palace intrigue, the determined mother brought her twelve week old child to the traditional coronation city for Whitsunday (Pentecost), with the crown hidden in his cradle near his gold, red and white coronation gown.

Queen Elizabeth spoke the oaths for her infant, while an attendant held the crown above his regally upright head. His “healthy” howls punctuated the ceremony. In the dim twilight, after the exhausted child slept, Mother Kottanner got down on bended knee and begged for restitution once their troubles were over.

The crown stayed in their possession, but Wladislas the Pole crowned himself king without it two months later. The royal baby cried his way in Helene’s arms to exile in Austria, where the queen died in 1442. Helene Kottanner was reunited with her husband and children, and rewarded with a patrimony in 1452, when teen- aged King Ladislaus finally wore the crown. While she agonized over her “sins” in the plot, Helene also relished the fact that her stability won her tiny noble his birthright.

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