Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, May 20, 2019

Elizabeth of Bosnia, Regent of Hungary and Croatia

Elizabeth of Bosnia, Queen of Poland and Regent of Hungary (married 20 June 1353)


Elizabeth of Bosnia was the daughter-in-law of a remarkable queen, Elizabeth of Poland, queen of Hungary, who was for many years her son's valued and trusted political adviser. Elizabeth of Bosnia  was the mother of two ruling queens, Jadwiga, queen regnant of Poland, and Mary, queen regnant of Hungary and Croatia, and she was also regent of Hungary after her husband's death.

Elizabeth of Bosnia and her husband,
Louis of Hungary,
kneeling at the feet of St. Catherine,
from a fourteenth-century chronicle
Born about the year 1340, Elizabeth of Bosnia was the daughter of Stephen II, the ruler (or "ban") of Bosnia, and Elizabeth of Kuyavia, a Polish noblewoman who was closely related to Elizabeth of Poland. The marriage of the Bosnian ban and a Polish woman was intended to strengthen the ties between Stephen and the Hungarian king, Charles Robert (Elizabeth of Poland's husband).

Not much is known about Elizabeth of Bosnia's early years--but she must have received some education, because she is known to have later written a "manual" on the education of daughters. (See below.) 

By the time she was about ten years old, she was already a valuable commodity in the marriage market. In 1350,  as a way of settling a long conflict between Bosnia and the Serbian empire, Tsar Stefan Dušan suggested a marriage between his son and Stephan's daughter, Elizabeth.

Stephan of Bosnia declined this offer, however. At some point he seems to have sent his daughter to the court of Elizabeth of Poland, where she could be reared by the queen. Elizabeth of Poland's son, Louis, had been married to Margaret of Bohemia (daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV) in 1342, when she was just seven, but the dowager queen seem to have regarded Elizabeth of Bosnia as a spare. And after Margaret died of the plague in 1349 (she was just thirteen of fourteen years old), Elizabeth of Poland arranged for her son to marry Elizabeth of Bosnia. The marriage took place in 1353.

Stephen of Bosnia died just three months after his daughter became the queen of Hungary, but there seems to have been no question that she (or she and her new husband) would succeed him as ruler of Bosnia. Instead, Stephen was succeeded by an underage nephew.

Throughout the next few years, Elizabeth's husband and her cousin, now king of Bosnia, struggled over the payment of her dowry. In Bosnia, the new young king had trouble maintaining the integrity of the state his uncle had crafted, and in 1357, he was forced to cede a great deal of territory to Elizabeth's husband as payment of and in exchange for a recognition of his title. By 1370, Louis gained even more influence when he succeeded to the crown of Hungary and Croatia

Meanwhile, Elizabeth, now queen of Poland and Hungary, had her own struggles. Her mother-in-law, the dowager queen, remained an active and powerful political force (Elizabeth of Poland didn't die until 1380, aged about 75), while the younger Elizabeth herself "failed" in her most important duty as queen, producing an heir--she remained childless for over a decade after her marriage.

During this period of "failure," Elizabeth of Bosnia committed--supposedly--a daring but ultimately shameful act, perhaps motivated by a desire to give birth to a son. During a visit to the shrine of St. Simeon in Zadar, Croatia, she stole a part of the saint's finger. (She may have believed this relic would help her infertility.) As soon as she broke the piece off of the saint's body, it began to decompose. Since she couldn't leave the church without revealing her theft, she returned the finger to the body (where it was restored to its previous state).

The casket of St. Simeon, commissioned by
Elizabeth of Bosnia,
Church of St. Simeon, Zadar, Croatia

To atone for her action, Elizabeth of Bosnia commissioned an elaborately wrought reliquary for the body of St. Stephen, produced by the goldsmiths of Zadar between 1377 and 1380. She donated the silver herself. The casket of St. Stephen is now recognized as a masterpiece of medieval gold- and silver-work, and is under UNESCO protection.

Although she did not give birth to a son, she eventually produced three daughters in quick succession--Catherine, born in 1370, Mary, in 1371, and Jadwiga, in 1373. (Although no copies of Elizabeth of Bosnia's book on the education of daughters survives, a copy is known to have been sent to Louis of France, count of Valois, in 1374.)

Unlike some kings who shall remain nameless (looking at you, Henry VIII of England), Louis made plans for his three daughters, Catherine, Mary, and Jadwiga, to succeed him. His daughters were not only desirable marital prospects, but their marriages were also a way for Louis himself to consolidate his influence and power. 

In pursuit of his political ends, Louis arranged for his eldest daughter, Catherine, to be married to Louis I, duke of Orléans, and he promised the Holy Roman Emperor that his second daughter, Mary, would be married to Charles IV's second son, Sigismund of Luxembourg, an agreement that was signed by deed in 1373. In 1375, Louis arranged Jadwiga's marriage to the Habsburg William of Austria, and the girl was sent to the court in Vienna, where she lived from 1378 until 1380.

But plans for a smooth succession began to fall apart in 1378, when Louis and Elizabeth's eldest daughter died. Following Catherine's death, Louis confirmed his plans for Mary's marriage. By 1379, Mary and Sigismund of Luxembourg were formally betrothed, and Sigismund arrived in Hungary so he could learn not only the language but the customs of the country. In September 1379, in order to assure Mary’s succession in Poland, Louis summoned Polish nobles and ecclesiastical leaders so that they could affirm her rights to succeed her father. He achieved his goal, though contemporary reports suggest that the assent was not freely given. 

At the same time, Louis planned for his youngest daughter, Jadwiga, to inherit his throne in Hungary, though there is some evidence to suggest that, after Catherine's death and rather than dividing his kingdoms between his two surviving daughters, he hoped to leave everything to the elder, Mary.

Whatever Louis's hopes may have been--for Jadwiga to rule in Hungary and for Mary to rule in Poland, or for Mary to inherit both thrones--his plans never materialized. Instead, Louis died in 1382, and a great deal of turmoil followed. 

Following her husband's death, Elizabeth of Bosnia moved quickly to claim the regency for her two young daughters, but she ran into trouble. Given her husband's reliance on his mother as his political adviser, Elizabeth of Bosnia had little experience in politics upon which to draw. In addition, her reliance on Nicholas Garay, who had also been one of her husband's advisers, was the source of jealousy and suspicion. (As was frequently the case with powerful women and their male advisers, her enemies said he was Elizabeth's lover.)

The succession difficulties and challenges for Elizabeth of Bosnia' two daughters were many. To start, the marriages Louis had arranged for his daughters were both rejected. 

Rather than accepting Elizabeth's regency, the Polish nobility elected Jadwiga, then just nine years old, as "king" (rex) of Poland, crowning her immediately, but in doing so, they rejected William of Austria. Instead, Jadwiga was married to Jogaila, grand duke of Lithuania, on 15 February 1386. The marriage was desirable for Poland and not only because it would allow them to resist pressures from Austria--the newly combined territories of Lithuania and Poland were larger than the previous union of Hungary and Poland. Through Jadwiga and her husband, who became King Władysław II Jagiełło of Poland, the Jagiellon dynasty was established.* (For an extended account of Jadwiga's succession in Poland, including the reactions of the rejected William, click here.)

A depiction of Elizabeth of Bosnia handing a chest
to St. Simeon, with her three daughters, below;
detail on the sarcophagus of St. Simeon,
commissioned by Elizabeth of Bosnia
In Hungary, meanwhile, the nobility also preferred to be ruled by a king, not a queen--or, in this case, two queens, the dowager Queen Elizabeth, as regent, and the new queen regnant, Mary, still a minor.

By 1383, rebellion broke out. In part to solicit assistance in her struggles, Queen Elizabeth turned to France, hoping to marry Queen Mary not to her promised partner, Sigismund, but to Louis I, duke of Orléans, whose elder brother had become king of France. (Louis had been the marriage partner arranged for Mary's elder sister, Catherine, before the girl's death.)

But the proposed French marriage resulted in even more conflict in Hungary. (For an extended account of Mary's succession in Hungary, and the marital politics involved, click here.)

Although both of her daughters would eventually succeed to the throne as queens, Jadwiga in Poland and Mary in Hungary and Croatia, their powers were limited. They may have reigned, but they did not rule. And both queens would die while they were still in their twenties.

So Elizabeth of Bosnia may have "succeeded" in helping her daughters maintain their rights of succession, but all of her struggles for her daughters did not end well for Elizabeth of Bosnia--in her effort to secure Mary's crown, Elizabeth of Bosnia had been responsible for the assassination of an opponent the Hungarian nobility had invited into the kingdom. A year later, on the anniversary of the assassination, Elizabeth of Bosnia was herself strangled in an act of revenge.

Elizabeth of Bosnia was not a notably successful regent, but she has often been criticized for the very ambitions and failings demonstrated by her male contemporaries--inexperience, ambition, and ruthlessness, for example. But the title of historian Janos Bak's essay noting Elizabeth of Bosnia may more accurately suggest why she "failed" in the eyes of her contemporaries--"Queens as Scapegoats in Medieval Hungary."

Or, maybe you prefer Sophia Elizabeth Higgins's view--in her 1885 Women of Europe in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (vol. 1), she writes, "Few episodes in history are indeed more melancholy than the fortunes of [Jadwiga and Mary]. The retribution for their father's sins fell upon them." Higgins regards their mother's weaknesses and failings with a sympathetic eye: Elizabeth of Bosnia was driven by "despairing efforts to avert the ruin of her family," constantly disappointed by the "failure" and "disaffection" of the many rivalries, jealousies, and contending factions that undermined her efforts. (Higgins's discussion of Elizabeth of Bosnia is the most extended account I have found.)

*For three notable Jagiellon queens, see Isabella Jagiellon, queen of Hungary (here), Anna Jagiellon, queen of Poland (here), and Catherine Jagiellon, queen of Sweden (here).