The Austrian-Hungarian memoirist and courtier Helene Kottanner (1400–c. 1470) was the author of the first autobiographical document written by a woman in the German language. Her manuscript, titled Die Denkwürdigkeiten der Helene Kottanner, chronicles her life and describes a daring act of political intrigue she carried out on behalf of her employer, the reigning queen of Hungary.
In her unique self-scribed memoir, Helene Kottanner described how she oversaw an operation in which two Hungarian accomplices broke into a vault at the Hungarian royal compound at Plintenburg, known in Hungarian as Visegrád. The men removed the Crown of St. Stephen—for centuries a treasured symbol of the Hungarian monarchy—and carried it out of the palace hidden in a pillowcase. Kottanner went on to describe how the crown was then presented to the newly widowed Queen Elizabeth, who arranged to have her infant son crowned king. In this way, the queen forestalled the plans of her Polish and Hungarian rivals, who demanded that political power now be transferred to a Polish prince. A vivid document of cooperation among women in a male-dominated world, Kottanner's Memoirs received scant attention except among specialists in medieval culture until the late 20th century.
Except for the events she reveals in her Memoirs, little is known about Kottanner's life. Sometimes known by the feminine German form of her name, Kottannerin, she was born in 1400 in Ödenburg, Austria (now Sopron, Hungary). Her birth name was Helene Wolfram, and her father, Peter Wolfram, was a nobleman of middling rank who served local Hungarian rulers. Kottanner married a well-off Hungarian, Peter Székeles, who died in 1431. She wed Johann Kottanner, an official at the Vienna Cathedral. The couple had several children and Helene mentioned a daughter, Katharina, in her memoir.
Now thrice married, Kottanner spent much of her life in the Hungarian court, even though she was of Austrian nationality and never became fluent in Hungarian. From her Memoirs, however, it is apparent that she understood the court language to a degree. By 1436, she was working as a lady-in-waiting and nanny at the court of the notoriously anti-Semitic Duke Albrecht of Austria. The duke lived in Vienna together with his wife, Elizabeth of Luxembourg, and several daughters.
The marriage between the duke and his wife was not a happy one, and their problems were political as well as personal. Elizabeth, as the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (1368–1437), should by rights have inherited political powers equal to those of her husband. When Albrecht assumed the throne as king of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia in 1438, however, a majority of Hussite nobles (a pre-Protestant faction that was well represented in Bohemia and Hungary) were reluctant to accept a female ruler and insisted that Elizabeth serve only as queen consort.
Adding to these political tensions was the threat posed to Hungary by the Polish state to the north, as well as the threat Hungary and Poland both faced from Turkish Sultan Mehmet II, who, known as “The Conqueror,” ruled the expansionist Ottoman empire. Realizing that she was viewed as a political threat, Elizabeth mistrusted Albrecht. Upon hearing rumors that the duke planned to remove the treasured Crown of St. Stephen from its vault at the Plintenburg palace, she moved it into her private bedchamber. Ultimately, Queen Elizabeth moved her entire retinue to the city of Komorn (in Hungarian, Komárom) and appointed a trusted lieutenant to guard the Crown of St. Stephen after locking it up with royal seals.
Two events in 1439 brought matters to a head for Queen Elizabeth as well as for Kottanner, who in addition to supervising the education of the royal children was the queen's close confidant on political matters. The first event involved Elizabeth's current pregnancy, which, if the child were male (as doctors predicted), would produce an heir to the Hungarian throne. The second event occurred on October 27, 1439, when Albrecht died while fighting against the Ottoman Turks. Hussite nobles allied with Poland now actively pressured the newly widowed Elizabeth to marry King Wladislaus of Poland. Although he was only 16, they argued, as head of the Polish army he could marshal needed help in Hungary's battle against the Turks.
Queen Elizabeth had other ideas, however. Before his death, Albrecht had named his first male offspring as successor. She knew that the weight of Hungarian tradition, manifest in the Crown of St. Stephen, would help her male child if he was born healthy, but she had to recover the crown quickly and make him king shortly after his birth. In early February of 1440, she and Kottanner hatched a plan. Under the pretext of traveling to Plintenburg to accompany two of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting back to Komorn, Kottanner would hire two loyal noblemen skilled in locksmithing to steal the Crown of St. Stephen. She would then aid them in breaking into the chamber where the crown was kept; she was a familiar face at court and her request for candles would arouse no suspicion. A brave woman, Kottanner located and provided the files and other tools needed to compromise the vault, and she served as a lookout during the break-in.
This plot, set in motion on February 20, 1440, succeeded. After a considerable effort in gaining entry through the metal locks, the vault was opened and the crown removed. Kottanner's companions, whom she understandably did not name, replaced the locks they had broken, and Kottanner applied fresh wax seals using an intricate stamp given to her by the queen. The group smuggled the crown out of the palace in a sewn-up pillowcase from which the feathers had been removed, bending it in the process, and Kottanner threw the metal files the men had used into a pit toilet in the bedroom of the ladies-in-waiting they had ostensibly come to fetch—“where you will find them, if you break it open, as proof that I am speaking the truth,” she later wrote in her Memoirs (as translated by German History in Documents and Images online).
Kottanner was just in time. Queen Elizabeth's son, christened Ladislaus, was born within hours, on or around February 22, 1440. By early May, the queen was able to assemble a group of supportive nobles and church officials, and she declared that Prince Ladislaus would be crowned king. Kottanner knitted the infant's regal ceremonial garb, and on May 15 Ladislaus V was confirmed in the church, knighted, and proclaimed king of Hungary. Kottanner's memoir describes the ceremony in detail, noting that it fulfilled three requirements for a Hungarian king's legitimacy: the baby king wore the sacred crown, was crowned by the Archbishop of Gran, and that the coronation took place in Stuhlweissenberg (now Székesfehérvér, Hungary). Probably for political reasons, she fictionalized several details when describing the actual ceremony.
Kottanner's Memoirs describing the events surrounding the accession of King Ladislaus, were unique among works written in German during the late medieval times. While they had the clear purpose of supporting her patroness, Queen Elizabeth, they also enhanced the series of politically motivated events by describing the pulse-pounding excitement of the crown theft and its aftermath. Even when encountered by readers six centuries later, Kottanner's descriptions are vivid, well structured, and compelling. In The Power of a Woman's voice in Medieval and Early Modern Literatures, Albrecht Classen argued that Kottanner's Memoirs have a “literary dimension” and a “trend toward the fictional” that set her writing apart from male contemporaries who penned similar documents.
Kottanner's daring raid did not settle the question of the Hungarian succession. Hungarian and Polish nobles installed the young Wladislaus as a rival king, and a lengthy civil war erupted between the two factions. A later passage in Kottanner's Memoirs describes the tense atmosphere in Hungary at the time and how she took the young King Ladislaus to Ödenburg to escape what his mother feared was a plot on his life.
Perhaps as the result of poison, Queen Elizabeth died in 1442, leaving the two-year-old monarch to be protected by loyal noblemen, chief among them John Jiskra of Brandy's and Ulrich II of Rosenberg. Once Ladislaus came of age, he assembled the support of key nobles and became the undisputed Hungarian king, reigning from 1452 to 1457, ultimately succumbing to a fatal illness (possibly the plague) during a visit to Prague. From letters left by his mother, Ladislaus knew what Kottanner had done to secure his birthright, and he gave her a financial reward shortly after taking the throne at age 12. Her Memoirs were probably written several years prior, likely around 1450.
Although little is known of her later years, Kottanner is thought to have died around 1470. For centuries, her Memoirs remained in manuscript form, stored in Vienna's Royal Library, and were known only to scholars able to read medieval German. Feminist scholarship in the late 20th and early 21st centuries sparked new interest in her life and work, however. The Crown of St. Stephen, still bent from its trip out of Plintenburg castle, can be seen on display at the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest.
Classen, Albrecht, The Power of a Woman's Voice in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, De Gruyter, 2007.
Kottanner, Helene, The Memoirs of Helene Kottannerin (1439–1440), translated by Maya Bijvoet Williamson, S.D. Brewer, 1998.
Wilson, Katharina M., editor, Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, University of Georgia, 1987.□