Helene Kottamer brings to light a dilemma that has puzzled believers of all ages, from the Jewish midwives in Egypt to the Christians who hid Jews during World War II: is it right to deceive or break the law in order to fight injustice or prevent a greater evil?
Helene Kottanner had been a loyal friend and adviser to Queen Elisabeth of Hungary. But when the queen asked her to steal the royal crown, her devotion was severely tested.
It all started in 1439, when King Albert II died after fighting against the Ottoman Empire. As it was customary at that time, the Hungarian nobles ignored the queen’s claim to the throne and chose to give it to the Polish King Władysław III. This, they thought, would have created a profitable alliance between the two kingdoms and would have provided better protection against the advancing Ottomans. To that end, they pressured her to marry Wladyslaw.
But Elisabeth was pregnant with her fourth child. She had two living daughters. A boy, born four years earlier, had died soon after birth. What if this new child were a boy, as the doctors were suggesting, and survived birth?
Still, the noblemen were looking for a king who could fight now, not years later. But what if she bypassed them? What if her child, hopefully a son, were to be crowned soon after birth?
To be legal, the installation of a Hungarian king had to meet three requirements. It had to be performed in Székesfehérvér, by the Archbishop of Gran, while the king wore the royal crown. Transporting the baby secretly to Székesfehérvér and gaining the complicity of the archbishop was not an easy feat. But it paled in comparison to the greatest challenge of all – obtaining the royal crown, which was considered holy and was carefully kept in the stronghold of Visegrád.
It could, of course, be stolen, but how? Elisabeth began to formulate a plan, while she stalled the Hungarian nobles by agreeing to consider their marriage proposal. To enact her plan, she needed a trusted accomplice. And who could be more trustworthy than Helene?
How to Steal a Crown
“The queen’s request frightened me, for it meant great danger for me and my little children,” Helene wrote in her memoirs. “And I weighed the matter in my mind, wondering what to do, and there was no one I could ask for advice except God alone.”
Born of a noble German family, Helene was at that time in her early forties. She had at least three children, one from her first husband, who died around 1430, and two from her second, Johannes Kottanner, a burgher from Vienna who served with her at the royal court. Helene was supposed to keep the stealing of the crown a secret even to Johannes.
Elisabeth had no doubts that her actions were within God’s will. She firmly believed that her son was the rightful heir. Helene shared the same conviction. In fact, she was certain that a union with Poland would have been detrimental to the kingdom. At the same time, she was worried about the consequences of a failed mission – particularly for her children.
In the end, the initial conviction prevailed. “I said to myself that if I did not do it and something evil happened as a result, then I would have sinned against God and the world.”
Elisabeth had already made some preparations. Instead of remaining in Visegrád, where the crown was kept, she had moved to her castle in Komorn. But she had left all her maids-in-waiting in Visegrád, so she would have an excuse to send Helene to get them.
Before embarking in that dangerous mission, Helene asked for a helper. Initially, they thought of a man from Croatia. But when they explained the plan to him, he “was so overcome by fear that all the color drained from his face as if he were half dead.” He went back to Croatia, and the two women had to find someone else. In hindsight, Helene realized it had been God’s way to delay the operation, so that the baby could be born soon after the queen received the crown.