The Hungarian Crown Heist
Back in December, I wrote about the Holy Crown of Hungary, a fabulous relic that conveys kingship to whoever wears it – and without which one cannot be king of Hungary. I also mentioned the crown has been repeatedly stolen. If there’s a succession dispute, you can’t win until you’ve defeated your rivals and obtained the physical crown, so it’s in the best interests of all sides to steal the crown immediately – even if only to keep it out of the hands of their rivals. I couldn’t leave a fabulous adventure hook like that unexplored. So this week, I present to you the story of the 1440 theft of the crown by Helene Kottaner, drawn from her very own memoirs!
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Image credit: Zairon. Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
Helene Kottanner was the daughter of a minor member of the Austrian nobility. She was a loyal, canny, and practical woman. At some point, Helene came to work for Elizabeth of Luxembourg, who was the daughter and heir of the sitting King of Hungary and wife of the Duke of Austria. Helene oversaw Elizabeth’s household and was among her closest friends. When Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter in 1436, it was Helene who was trusted as the child’s nurse, governess, and surrogate mother. Though Helene was such low-ranking nobility she was practically a burgher, her influence with Elizabeth gave her authority far above her station.
In 1437, Elizabeth’s father died, and her husband ascended to the throne of Hungary. The family packed up and moved to the kingdom they now ruled. Helene went with them, as did her husband and children – about whom she says almost nothing in her memoirs, even though her husband also worked at court. In 1439, after only two years on the throne, Elizabeth’s husband died. He had no male heir. The Hungarian council of barons requested that Elizabeth marry the sixteen year-old King of Poland so he could be King of Hungary simultaneously. But Elizabeth had been raised to rule. She had no desire to cede her authority to some stranger. Instead, she pinned her hopes on a long shot. She was pregnant. If she gave birth to a son (the son of the late King of Hungary), she could crown him king and rule as regent until he came of age. But for that, she needed the Holy Crown, without which no coronation carried legal weight and with which a coronation carried great weight. The crown was held in a vault in Visegrád castle. She’d need someone to steal it for her. And who better than her trusted, capable friend Helene Kottanner?
Detail of Visegrád by Károly Markó the Elder (1826). The vault was on the ground floor of the lower stronghold, on the right side of the image.
Helene had lived in Visegrád castle for several months with Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, she was present a month or two before when Elizabeth herself placed the holy crown in the ground-floor vault. She watched as the Queen locked the box containing the crown, placed sealing wax over the box’s mouth, and pressed her signet ring into the hot wax. Then the Queen locked the vault itself with three more locks, and she and a few lords sealed the vault door with more wax and their respective signets. No one could get in without damaging the locks and seals, and the seals could not be replaced without the signet rings.
In the months that followed, Elizabeth and Helene hatched a plan to steal back the crown. Helene would mastermind the operation. Elizabeth’s court had moved from Visegrád to Komárom, so Helene needed a cover story for returning to Visegrád. She settled on retrieving some ladies-in-waiting who had stayed at the crown castle. She brought with her a pair of accomplices, Hungarian men whose names she never reveals, but who dressed all in black and slipped files into their quiet felt shoes to smuggle their tools past the castle guards. They also carried locks to replace any damaged in the burglary.
Helene and her accomplices spent a single night in Visegrád castle while the ladies-in-waiting got ready for the trip to Komárom. She’d brought keys to some of the locks on the door to the vault. The other keys were in the possession of the castellan. His loyalties were unknown, so they bypassed him. Helene’s accomplices filed off the locks she lacked keys to. Then they scraped off the wax seals and entered the vault. The locks on the crown’s box were too tightly attached to file off, so they had to use fire. Helene was terrified the smoke would attract attention, but there was nothing to be done. They broke the box open and stuffed the crown in a pillow.
The conspirators left the box in the vault, locked the door behind them, and replaced the wax seals on the door. Elizabeth lent Helene her signet ring, which Helene pressed into all the seals. That meant some of the seals had changed identity, from the seal of a Hungarian lord to the seal of the Queen. The switch wouldn’t survive close inspection, but as long as nobody had reason to check the seals, no one in the castle would notice. Similarly, the burglars replaced the locks they’d filed off with fresh locks. If the castellan tried to open them with his keys, he’d know right away someone had switched the locks. But as long as he didn’t have reason to try, the burglary would remain undiscovered.
An example of a wax seal. Image credit: Sony123. Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
Helene’s memoirs recount a half-dozen hair-raising moments were the whole scheme almost failed. A helpful servant moved the candles the burglars were counting on to illuminate their work. The sound of people moving nearby almost made Helene call off the heist. A servant noticed the burglars’ files and was perplexed. These moments are great for a heist movie and are tempting to use in an RPG, but resist that temptation.
If the PCs are out to heist one singular object, it is unfair to ask them to make a series of checks. Most systems give a PC a 60% chance of success on any given roll. If you ask for four separate rolls before the party obtains their prize, there’s an 87% chance they’ll fail one of them. And if the result of failing a roll is discovery, your desire for multiple rolls to better mimic a heist movie means the party will almost certainly fail. Your heist movie is now an action movie. That sort of blundering can be fun in some campaigns, but it’s deeply frustrating in serious games.
Instead, give the PCs the object of their heist after a single roll – or even without one – then give them reasons to press their luck. Maybe there’s another treasure in a neighboring vault. Is it worth the risk to stick around and break into that one too – and provoke another roll? Is it worth attempting something dangerous to avoid a plot complication down the road? Helene Kottaner’s memoirs provide some great examples of such temptations.
The gate to Visegrád. Image credit: Globetrotter19. Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
Helene stood lookout for her accomplices in the room leading to the vault. The door to her room was closed, but twice she heard noises outside it like great quantities of armored men moving about. It turned out to be nothing. We would blame it on nerves; Helene blamed ghosts and Satan. She could have gone to her accomplices and said, “There are knights outside. Forget covering your tracks. Just grab the crown and let’s go out the window.” But she didn’t. She chose to take the risk. In an RPG context, once the PCs have the crown (or whatever MacGuffin), you might ask the players whether they want to stick around and cover their tracks. If they leave now, they will definitely leave with the crown, but their crime will certainly be discovered, and they’ll be pursued by knights who know exactly what they’ve done. Or they can stick around and risk being caught in the act – but if they’re not discovered, they won’t be pursued by angry guards. The players aren’t being forced into risk. Instead, they get to make an interesting decision.
The morning after the heist, an old woman on the castle staff reported to Helene that she found something weird in the guest chambers. Helene recognized it as a piece of the crown box, which had somehow gotten tracked out of the vault. Helene had to casually convince the old woman that the strange piece of wood was nothing out of the ordinary. In an RPG context, once the PCs are out of the castle and riding for your Komárom-equivalent, word of the confused old woman might reach your castellan-equivalent NPC, who goes to check on the vault. He realizes the locks and seals have been switched, but he doesn’t know for certain what has happened, since he can’t actually get into the vault. He may send investigators to catch up to the party and ask some awkward questions. The PCs can try to prevent that complication by talking the old woman out of her concerns like Helene did – but if they do a bad job, the old woman will grow suspicious and go to the castellan immediately. Again, the players get to make an interesting decision. Do they talk down the old woman or not?
When Helene, her accomplices, and the unsuspecting ladies-in-waiting were away from Visegrád, they had to cross the Danube River. It was February, so the river was still frozen, but the ice was thin in places. The heavy carriage of the ladies-in-waiting broke through the ice! Helene was able to rescue everyone, but the carriage and some of the baggage was lost, fortunately not including the pillow holding the crown. In an RPG context, this is another tough call. Do you hurry across the river and take your chances on the ice, or do you go a day out of your way to the nearest bridge? In Helene’s case, she had reason to fear delays. Not only did she have the stolen crown, Elizabeth’s baby was due any minute, and the sooner he was crowned, the better!
The last possibility isn’t relevant to the story of Helene Kottanner, but it’s a great standby in any heist: tempt the PCs to stick around for extra rewards. Will they risk another roll if offered an incentive? Great temptations include treasure, documents with plot-relevant information, overhearing juicy conversations, and enemies in compromising situations. What matters is that these extra rolls aren’t being imposed upon the players. The rolls (and the ever-rising risk of discovery) are chosen, even sought out, by the PCs.
The frozen Danube in 2006. Image credit: konwiki. Released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
Elizabeth’s baby was a boy. She had him crowned in May with the amazing name King Ladislaus the Posthumous. The Hungarian council of barons objected to all this funny business and invited the King of Poland to come to Hungary to rule. A four-year civil war followed, during which both Elizabeth and the King of Poland died. Ladislaus had a complicated regency, then died at age seventeen.
We know less of what became of Helene. Her memoir ends mid-sentence in the opening days of the civil war. The court separated for safety, with Elizabeth, Ladislaus, and the princess going/taken in different directions. Helene and her husband had to separate to go with different parts of the court. We know they were able to reunite because they were granted a fief near Bratislava in 1452 as a reward for their faithful service. They weren’t able to take full possession of the fief until 1470 for unclear reasons, and Helene died soon thereafter.
Two quick announcements! The first is about Shanty Hunters, my upcoming RPG about collecting magical sea shanties in the year 1880. I was hoping to get the layout done before February 1st, but that didn’t happen. I had a nice window of time where I could really knuckle down and do layout, but I couldn't fully complete the task in the time I had. The 110+ pages of material on sailors, ships, the sea, ports, character creation, rules, and GMing advice is all laid out, but the shanty songbook chapter posed a different challenge and I didn’t quite manage to wrap it up. The convenient window is now closed, and Shanty Hunters once more must drop to the bottom of my priority list. Such is life.
But in brighter news, another episode just dropped of me talking about cool real-world gaming stuff on the Dicegeeks podcast! This time, I’m talking about the Year Without a Summer, English castles, and Neverland from Peter Pan. Also, my audio quality is quite good thanks to my fancy new microphone, so that’s exciting! If you’re looking for other cool Dicegeeks content, I recommend this episode with Jason Tondro of the Starfinder team, which has a really interesting discussion about working-class protagonists in RPGs, literature, and film.
Source: The Memoirs of Helene Kottanner, translated by Maya Bijvoet Williamson (1998)