Most medieval dowager Queens were expected to live quietly and retire to a chaste and religious life after their husband’s death. Sometimes, if they were still young, they could remarry to a man of fitting rank. Kunigunda of Slavonia is an example of a queen who did neither of these things. Instead, she took a lover who was of lower rank.
Princess of Hungary and Kiev
Kunigunda of Slavonia was born around 1245, as a daughter of Rostislav Mikhailovich and Anna of Hungary. Her father was a Russian prince from the Rurik dynasty. He once was the prince of the Principality of Halych (in present-day Ukraine), but he had lost it by the time Kunigunda was born. Rostislav was descended from the Grand Princes of Kiev. After losing Halych, he fled to Hungary and married Anna, the daughter of King Bela IV of Hungary and Maria Laskarina. Anna was reportedly the King’s favourite daughter. Bela granted Rostislav territories in Hungary, making him Ban of Slavonia in 1247 and Duke of Macso in 1254. Rostislav claimed the title Tsar of Bulgaria in 1257 but was never recognised as its ruler.
Around the time of her birth, Kunigunda’s father was fighting for his lost territory of Halych. Not much is known about her early life, but perhaps she was raised at her grandfather’s royal court. Kunigunda is also known as Kuingunda of Halych or Kunigunda Rostislavna.
The Bohemian Marriage
The King of Bohemia at this time, Ottokar II, first married Margaret, heiress of Austria in 1252. At this time, Margaret was widowed, had no surviving children, and was about 48 years old – well past her childbearing years and about 26 years older than Ottokar. However, she was a desirable bride due to her claim to Austria. Margaret’s brother, Frederick II of Austria, the last male member of Austria’s ruling Babenberg dynasty, was killed in battle in 1246, leaving behind no children. Margaret, as the oldest sister of Frederick, was seen as a possible successor. The territory of Styria was attached to Austria. As the husband of Margaret, Ottokar claimed Styria, but Bela IV of Hungary also lay claim to Styria. In the end, Ottokar won a battle against the Hungarian King in July 1260 and added Styria to his territories.
But Ottokar still needed an heir to continue his dynasty, and his wife was past her childbearing years. With his mistress, a lady-in-waiting of Margaret, named Agnes, Ottokar had one son, Nicholas, and two daughters. Ottokar tried to get the Pope to recognise Nicholas as his heir, but this request was denied. This meant that Ottokar had to have a legitimate son in marriage, but in order to do so, he had to divorce Margaret and find a younger wife.
Ottokar looked towards Hungary for a new wife, seeing marriage as a perfect opportunity to confirm peace with Bela. First, Bela offered his only unmarried daughter, Margaret, who was previously promised to the church. Margaret refused and wished to remain a nun. So Bela chose his granddaughter, Kunigunda, instead.
Kunigunda and Ottokar were married on 25 October 1261 in Bratislava. Kunigunda was about 16, and closer to Ottokar’s age than Margaret. Two months later, Ottokar and Kunigunda were crowned in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Ottokar had been King of Bohemia for eight years but was not previously crowned.
Queen of Bohemia
The marriage of Kunigunda and Ottokar turned out to be successful. In their seventeen years of marriage, Kunigunda bore between three and six children. Their first child was a daughter named after Kunigunda, born in January 1265. Two more surviving children followed, a daughter, Agnes in 1269, and a son, Wenceslaus in 1271. There may have been three other children who were short-lived. There are some mentions of two sons who died in infancy. They may also have had a daughter named Margaret, who died in 1277.
While Kunigunda was bearing children, Ottokar was building an empire. Besides his inheritance of Bohemia and the Margraviate of Moravia, he still held on to his first wife’s territories of Austria and Styria. In 1269, he acquired the southern territories of Carinthia and Carniola. His realm now reached the Adriatic sea, but his empire would not last for long. Many of Ottokar’s lands lay within the Holy Roman Empire. When the Hohenstaufen dynasty, (who ruled the empire) died out, Ottokar was hoping to reach the imperial crown too. After all, his mother was from the Hohenstaufen dynasty. However, in 1273, a new and unlikely candidate was chosen instead – Count Rudolf of Habsburg. Ottokar saw the choice of Rudolf – a mere count – as a slap in the face and refused to acknowledge his election.
War soon broke out between Ottokar and Rudolf. Ottokar was forced to surrender Austria, Styria, Carinthia and Carniola to Rudolf in 1276. During this time, Kunigunda would find herself torn between loyalties. Her uncle, King Stephen V of Hungary, and later her cousin, King Ladislaus IV of Hungary would go to war against her husband. Kunigunda nevertheless seemed to be a faithful wife during this time and stood by Ottokar.
On 26 August 1278, a fateful battle took place between Ottokar and Rudolf. This battle, known as the Battle on the Marchfeld, is surrounded in many myths, some which involve Kunigunda. Around this time, a Bohemian nobleman, Zavis of Falkenstein made his first notable appearance. One myth has Zavis betraying Ottokar on the eve of the battle. Some legends say that Kunigunda pushed her husband towards the battle. Other stories have Kunigunda and Zavis becoming lovers during Ottokar’s lifetime. These legends are not given serious credit. Zavis did, however, previously participate in a rebellion against Ottokar. Ottakar was killed in the Battle of the Marchfeld. His only surviving son, Wenceslaus, was not yet seven.
An Independent Widow
Bohemia fell into turmoil after Ottokar’s death. Since the new King was barely seven, Kunigunda acted as regent for him. However, her power was limited, and she only controlled Prague and the surrounding area. The main protector of the kingdom was Ottokar’s nephew, Otto V, Margrave of Brandenburg. Kunigunda seemed to look toward Otto for help at first. He soon occupied Prague Castle, causing Kunigunda and her children to flee. Kunigunda seemed disappointed with this and sought support from Rudolf of Habsburg instead. Shortly afterwards, marriages were contracted between their children. Wenceslaus was to marry Rudolf’s daughter, Judith, and Agnes was to marry his youngest son, Rudolf.
The disagreements between Kunigunda and Otto continued. In January or February 1279, Otto had Kunigunda and Wenceslaus taken in the night from Prague to Bezdez castle, when they were kept under close guard. Kunigunda managed to escape that summer, but she left Wenceslaus behind. The circumstances of her escape and her reason for leaving her son are not clear. Perhaps Kunigunda wanted to take care of the kingdom’s affairs but was unable to take her son with her at first. Soon after her escape, she gave her husband’s body a proper burial and then retreated to her dower lands. She may have also taken some steps to liberate her son during this time.
Around 1280, Kunigunda began an affair with the Czech nobleman, Zavis of Falkenstein. This created quite the outrage since he was of much lower rank than the Queen, and he had once rebelled against her late husband. Even though later legends had the affair starting during Ottokar’s lifetime, Kunigunda probably did not meet Zavis until after her husband’s death. Kunigunda and Zavis seemed to have allied together against Otto of Brandenburg. Kunigunda even had an illegitimate son by Zavis, named Jesek, born 1281 or 1282. During this time, they may have even married in secret.
In 1283, the government of Otto of Brandenburg ended in Bohemia, and Wenceslaus was freed from captivity. In May 1383, the eleven-year-old King returned to Prague, where he was met by his mother. Apparently, Kunigunda did not bring Zavis with her at first, because she did not want to shock her son. However, Zavis eventually joined Kunigunda and was introduced to the young King. Wenceslaus seems to have at first accepted Zavis into his family. Zavis was now the most powerful man in the kingdom.
Sometime after Wenceslaus’ return, he allowed Kunigunda and Zavis to marry openly. The exact date of the wedding is not known, but it appears to have happened in 1284 or early 1285. In January 1385, the marriage of Wenceslaus with Judith of Habsburg was consummated. Kunigunda attended the ceremony. Rudolf of Habsburg, however, was displeased by Kunigunda and Zavis’ relationship, so he took his daughter back to Germany for the next two years.
Kunigunda did not enjoy her new marriage for long. She died on 9 September 1285, aged about 40. She possibly died from tuberculosis. Kunigunda was buried in the Monastery of St. Agnes in Prague. Zavis continued ruling as regent for the king, but as Wenceslaus grew, their relationship weakened. In 1289, Zavis was arrested for high treason, and Wenceslaus had him executed in August 1290.1