With the formidable Elizabeth of Poland as her mother-in-law, Elizabeth of Bosnia was bound to pick up some of her traits as a powerful Queen Mother. But the younger Elizabeth’s circumstances as a widowed queen were more difficult; when Elizabeth of Poland was widowed, her capable son was the new king. As for Elizabeth of Bosnia, she was left with two daughters, aged eleven and nine when her husband died, as well as two kingdoms. With an under-aged monarch ascending the throne, especially a girl, there were bound to be rebellions and opposition. Hungary and Poland never had a female ruler before, and Elizabeth had to be tough to defend her daughters’ rights.
Elizabeth of Bosnia, also known as Elizabeth Kotromanic, was born between 1335 and 1340, to Stephen II Kotromanic, Ban of Bosnia, and Elizabeth of Kuyavia, who was from the Piasts, Poland’s most powerful family at the time. In Elizabeth’s time, Bosnia was under the rule of the Hungarian king, as was the neighbouring kingdom of Croatia. In 1350, the Serbian Emperor wanted Elizabeth to marry his son. Stephen, however, turned this down, and eventually sent her to the Hungarian court, at the request of the Queen Mother. The king of Hungary, Louis I, had lost his first wife, Margaret of Bohemia to the plague in 1349 before they could have any children. He was looking for a new wife, and Elizabeth seemed like a good choice, she came from one of the most powerful families in the Balkans, somewhere Louis had territorial interests, and just like Louis, her mother came from the Piast dynasty. Louis and Elizabeth were married on 20 June 1353. Her father died later that year, and his nephew, Tvrtko became the new ban of Bosnia.
Not much is known about Elizabeth’s first decade as queen. She was overshadowed by her mother-in-law, Elizabeth of Poland, and appears to have been part of her court. We do not know if the younger Elizabeth was content with this or not. Meanwhile, Louis would often be in power struggles with her cousin Tvrtko, over Elizabeth’s dowry. Tvrtko eventually agreed to give Hum in Bosnia to Louis and Elizabeth in 1357.
Elizabeth’s biggest struggle during these years must have been the concern for providing heirs. She and Louis would remain childless for over a decade. Some historians suggest that Elizabeth had a daughter born in 1365 who died the next year. The existence of this daughter is disputed. It wasn’t until around 1370 when Elizabeth had her first proven child, a daughter named Catherine. Two more daughters, Mary and Jadwiga followed soon afterwards. It was also in 1370, when Louis’ uncle, King Casimir III of Poland died, making Louis the new king of Poland. This made Elizabeth the queen consort of Poland, but she never visited the country. Louis chose to remain in Hungary, and his mother went to govern her native country. With the older queen gone, Elizabeth was no longer living in her mother-in-law’s shadow and slowly started to play a more prominent position at court. She seems to have been well-educated, and probably wanted the same for her daughters. Elizabeth is known to have written a book for her daughters’ education, but unfortunately, no copies have survived.
By 1374, it was accepted that at least one of Elizabeth and Louis’ daughters would rule in Hungary and Poland someday. This made the Hungarian princesses highly desirable brides for Europe’s most powerful royal families. The Holy Roman Empire, which bordered Hungary was currently ruled by Emperor Charles IV, of the house of Luxembourg, who was also king of Bohemia. His second son Sigismund was betrothed to the second daughter Mary in 1373. Louis may have chosen the second daughter for this match because he did not want his kingdoms to fall under the influence of the powerful house of Luxembourg. In 1374, the eldest, Catherine, was betrothed to Louis de Touraine, the second son of King Charles V of France. Catherine and Louis were expected to one day rule both Hungary and Poland. In 1378, the youngest, Jadwiga, was betrothed to William, the eldest son Leopold III, Duke of Austria. He was from the house of Habsburg, a rival dynasty of the Luxembourgs.
It was common in the Middle Ages for queens to contribute to shrines of popular saints. Elizabeth herself ordered the commission of the Chest of St. Simeon in 1377. This chest survives to this day, and can still be seen in the Church of St. Simeon in Zadar, Croatia. Elizabeth appears on several scenes on the chest, and one of these scenes seems to depict a queen stealing a relic from St. Simeon’s body. This has given rise to a legend that Elizabeth stole a finger of the saint, was divinely punished and donated the chest for penance. It is more likely that she donated the chest as a sign of her patronage, for Zadar was a town that she had strong ties with.
Tragedy struck Elizabeth’s family near the end of 1378 when her eldest daughter Catherine died. We do not know what she died of, but it appears to have been unexpected. Louis now acknowledged Mary and Sigismund as his successors. It was decided that Mary would succeed him in Poland, but his succession in Hungary was less certain. Some historians think that Louis planned on having Jadwiga succeed him in Hungary, but it is more likely that he did not want to split up his empire, and have Mary inherit both Hungary and Poland.
The Hungarian Succession
King Louis died on 11 September 1382. Since Mary and Sigismund were only eleven and fourteen, respectively, Elizabeth was now regent of Hungary. She appears to have awaited this chance for some time, but she still did not have much political experience. Her most powerful and trusted adviser was Nicholas Garay, who held the title Palatine of Hungary. There were rumours that Garay was her lover, but it was common to slander a woman in power by having her take a lover around the time of her husband’s death, so Elizabeth was likely a victim to this. Lover or not, Garay was the most powerful man in the kingdom during Elizabeth’s regency.
A week after Louis’ death, Mary was crowned “King of Hungary“. Her title showed that she was a ruler in her own right, for “queen” was only for a consort. Sigismund was absent from Hungary at the coronation, and another reason for Mary’s title could have been a way to prevent Sigismund from being crowned king. Elizabeth loathed Sigismund, and would later try to break his engagement to Mary. Even though she was crowned as “King”, Mary was referred to as “Queen” in her charters.
Elizabeth’s regency was troubled from the start. Many of the Hungarian and Croatian nobles were not accepting of female rule and found this situation a perfect chance to revolt. The first to revolt against Elizabeth and Mary was lead by John of Palizna, a Croatian noble, in 1383. He was supported by Elizabeth’s cousin, Tvrtko, who had been King of Bosnia since 1377. Eventually, the queens’ army was able to defeat them, but peace would not last for long.
The events of Elizabeth’s regency are too complicated to explore in one article. Read part two here.
Bak, Janos M.; “Queens as Scapegoats in Medieval Hungary” in Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe
Dautovic, Dzenan; “Relations between Bosnia and Hungary through the prism of the Marriage between Louis the Great and Elizabeth, the Daughter of Stjepan II Kotromanić”
Engel, Pal; Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary
Fine, John V. A. JR.; The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest
Halecki, Oscar; Jadwiga of Anjou and the Rise of East Central Europe
Munk, Ana; “The Queen and her Shrine: An Art Historical Twist on Historical Evidence Concerning the Hungarian Queen Elizabeth, nee Kotromanic, Donor of the Saint Simeon Shrine”
Opfell, Olga S; Queens Empresses, Grand Duchesses and Regents: Women Rulers of Europe, A.D. 1328-1989