Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Thursday, July 11, 2024

Barbara of Cilli: Queen, Empress, Regent

Barbara of Cilli, queen of Hungary and Bohemia, empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and regent of Hungary (died 11 July 1451)

The daughter of Herman II, count of Celje (a city in what is today Slovenia), and Anna of Schaunberg, Barbara of Cilli would become "one of the most powerful and influential women in fifteenth-century central Europe." Her recent biographer writes that Barbara of Cilli "is one of the most remarkable historical female personalities of the Middle Ages," a figure who became part legend, part myth, and part of the national folklore. 

Barbara of Cilli, from the
fifteenth-century Nuremberg Chronicle
Very little is known of Barbara's early life. Although her date of birth is conjectural, Daniela Dvořáková indicates that Barbara was probably born in 1392.

Dvořáková also notes that "how" Barbara was raised and "who" oversaw her childhood are both unknown. Nevertheless she asserts that Barbara of Cilli must "undoubtedly" have "received an excellent education."

Barbara's father was an influential feudal landholder and a supporter of Sigismund of Luxembourg, the man who would become his son-in-law. I've written about Sigismund before--his first wife was Mary of Hungary, and Sigismund fought long to secure his marriage to her and then to ensure her rights to inherit the crown of Hungary. Even after the pair were crowned, Sigismund struggled to maintain Mary's role as queen--as for his own position in Hungary, that was even more difficult. 

After Queen Mary of Hungary's early death in 1395--she was in her twenties and pregnant--Sigismund's role as king was disputed. He was king consort, not king--that is, he had been king of Hungary by marriage, not in his own right, by inheritance. 

To bolster his claims in Hungary, Sigismund settled on another bride, but before his marriage to Maragaret of Brieg could be made, he was imprisoned. He was freed in time to lead a Christian force against the Turks and to suffer a disastrous military defeat in 1396. Returning to Hungary, he was again imprisoned, but this time he had the support of Herman of Celje. A condition of Herman's effort on behalf of Sigismund seems to have included Sigismund's marriage Herman's daughter, Barbara of Cilli.

And so, in 1401, Sigismund was released from prison and betrothed to Barbara. Her family connections improved Sigismund's position in Hungary: Sigismund's first wife, Mary of Hungary, and his second, Barbara of Cilli, were cousins--although the origins of Herman's mother are unclear, she was closely related to Mary of Hungary's mother, Elizabeth of Bosnia. Another of Barbara's cousins,  Anna of Cilli, became the queen of Poland in 1402, when she married Jogaila of Lithuania (later known as Władysław II Jagiełło)--Jogaila was the widower of Jadwiga, queen of Poland. After Jadwiga's death, Jogaila had maintained his position as king of Poland, and he offered another important source of support for Sigismund.

Sigismund and Barbara of Cilli were married on 24 May 1405. After years of tumult and conflict, Sigismund finally found his fortunes changing. Following his marriage, he managed to retain the crown of Hungary, holding on to it until his death in 1437. In 1410, he was elected king of the Romans and Germans, he became king of Bohemia in 1419, and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1433. 

As for Barbara, she was crowned queen of Hungary in 1405 and served as regent there during Sigismund's absences. She was crowned queen of the Romans and Germans in 1414, Holy Roman Empress in 1433, and queen of Bohemia in 1437. She also gave birth to the couple's only child, Elizabeth, on 28 February 1409.

From the mid-fifteenth century
(Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)--
the lower panel shows the entry of
Barbara of Cilli into the Council of Constance 
(her daughter Elizabeth is behind her in the procession)

Together, Sigismund and Barbara founded the Order of the Dragon in 1408, a chivalric order dedicated to the defeat of the Turks, the defense of Hungary, and the defense of Christianity. Barbara was regent of Hungary from 1411-14 and again from 1431-34, governing with powers "markedly exceed[ing] the practice of the era." In addition to serving as regent for her husband, Barbara attended the Council of Constance with him in 1414-5 and appeared in imperial diets in 1420, 1422, and 1429. Charters were issued in her name, she administered the collection of taxes, and she settled disputes that were brought to her.

Barbara also acquired significant properties during her marriage, assets that were developed and grown through her own "economic and financial policy." 

Although her "huge fortune" and her political power were used in support of Sigismund, Barbara's wealth and influence made her the subject of venomous attacks. While accusations about her infidelity did not seem to affect her relationship with her husband, the libels of her contemporaries shaped images of Barbara of Cilli as a "Black Queen," linked not only to sexual depravity and heresy but to practicing alchemical magic, the drinking of human blood, and keeping a harem full of women. 

By the seventeenth century, her reputation had been fixed:
[Sigismund's] consort Barbara was a German Messalina, a woman of insatiable appetite for lust; at the same time so heinous that she did not believe in God and neither angel nor devil, neither heaven nor hell. How she scolded her maidservants when they fasted and prayed, that they were agonizing their bodies and worshipped a fictional god: she on the other hand admonishes . . . that they should make use of all the pleasures of this life, because after this one, there is no other to hope for. (trans. Sara Katanec)
Although the scurrilous accusations about Barbara's infidelity may not have been the cause, there was some kind of disagreement between the couple in 1419. Her biographer, Daniela Dvořáková, suggests that Barbara of Cilli's independence and her "individual decisions" may have been the source of the rift. The two were ultimately reconciled, however, and Barbara's court was re-established and her control of her income fully restored. Whatever the nature of the problem between them may have been, by 1424 Barbara received further grants and territories from her husband.

Meanwhile, in 1421, Barbara of Cilli's daughter, Elizabeth, was betrothed to the Habsburg Albert II, duke of Austria. At the time of the engagement, Elizabeth's position as the sole heir to the crown of Hungary was affirmed. (For the sad end of all that, click here.) The two were married the next year, in 1422.

Barbara continued as her husband's financial manager, diplomatic negotiator, and political advisor throughout the 1420s and 1430s, her "power over Sigismund" widely recognized by their contemporaries. But as Sigismund lay dying, in 1437, Albert decided his mother-in-law offered a challenge to his own interests. He confiscated many of her possessions in Hungary, and after Sigismund's death, he had her imprisoned. Barbara of Cilli was ultimately able to find protection at the court of the Polish king. (In the years since their marriage in 1402, both Anne of Cilli and Jogaila had died--the new Polish king, Ladislaus III, was the son of Jogaila and his fourth wife.) 

A fifteenth-century depiction of
Barbara of Cilli. from Konrad
Kyeser, Bellifortis
(Besançon, France,
Bibliothèque municipale, Ms. 1360) 
After Albert's death in 1439, Barbara of Cilli went to Bohemia, where she was the dower queen and where she had maintained lands originally given to her by Sigismund. She died there, of the plague, on 11 July 1451.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the scholarship on Barbara of Cilli is inaccessible, at least to me--much of the original work is in German, Croatian, and Slovenian, and while there seems to be a great deal of interest, particularly archival work and reassessments of Barbara of Cilli's role in fifteenth-century politics, I am handicapped as a reader. 

The one recent biography in English is also, unfortunately, largely inaccessible--Daniela Dvořáková's Barbara of Cilli (1392-1451): A Hungarian, Holy Roman, and Bohemian Queen, trans. David McLean, is so expensive I don't know who can afford to read it. It's so expensive that I doubt many academic libraries would purchase a copy. The book's publisher, Brill, does not provide a sample to read on Amazon, and not even a snipper view is available via Google Books. 

Dvořáková's "The Economic Background to and the Financial Politics of Queen Barbara of Cilli in Hungary," in Roman Zaoral's Money and Finance in Central Europe during the Later Middle Ages, is more accessible and is the source I've quoted from here. (This book is also extremely expensive, but at least some of it can be found via Google Books.)

The most helpful account of Barbara of Cilli I have found is found in Sara Katanec's M.A. thesis, "The Perquisite of a Late Medieval Wedding: Barbara of Cilli's Acquisition of Wealth, Power, ad Lands." I've linked to this thesis in numberous places, above, and although Katanec notes that hers is a "limited" study of Barbara, it includes an invaluable survey of Barbara of Cilli's reputation among chroniclers and historians, from the fifteenth century through today.

I do not usually link to Wikipedia in my posts here--not because there are not excellent essays to be found there, but because anyone can find them, and I like to point readers in directions that they may not otherwise find. But I will note here that the Wikipedia entry for Barbara of Cilli is excellent.

A two-Euro commemorative coin,
issued in 2014 on the occasion of 
the 600th anniversary Barbara of Cilli's coronation