Medieval Politics in Present-Day Slovenia: Counts of Celje

By , 22 May 2019, 20:00 PM Lifestyle
Feudal ranks and houses of the Holy Roman Empire Feudal ranks and houses of the Holy Roman Empire Counts of Celje coat of arms is blue with three golden stars

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May 22, 2019

With the European parliamentary elections approaching it is perhaps appropriate to look back in time at the polity that used to rule these lands in the late Middle Ages, when “nations” didn’t exist, and the rising Ottoman Empire was the main external threat to the ruling families of the Holy Roman Empire.

The ruins of the Old Castle in Celje   Photo: Mihael Simonič, Wikipedia, CC-BY-3.0

One of the most successful feudal families that emerged in the present-day Slovenia and seriously challenged the dominance of the Habsburgs were Counts of Celje (GER: Grafen von Cilli), who were elevated to the rank of Princes in 1436, following a successful series of military campaigns and the marriage policies of Hermann II.

Hermann II, who is mostly known to Slovenian historic memory as the person who killed his daughter-in-law Veronica of Desenice, managed to establish a relationship of trust with King and later Emperor Sigismund of Luxemburg, expand his family’s territories from Styria deep into the Balkan and set the stage for his grandchild Ulric II to attempt to take the Hungarian throne. With Ulric’s death, however, the male line of the Counts of Celje was extinct and their estates went to the House of Hapsburgs, who were in a mutual inheritance contract with the House of Celje.

Hermann II and his political ambitions

In 1388 Hermann II arranged the marriage of his first born son Frederick III with Elisabeth of the Frankopans, both babies at the time. Hermann’s goal was to establish a principality – a political entity subservient directly and only to the King. The marriage with the Frankopans, a Croat noble family,  would help ease resistance in Slavonia that started to build up against the House of Celje due to its expansion into the Balkans. He also managed to secure a generous dowry that Elisabeth brought into the family, which included several estates in Kvarner on the Adriatic coast.

While the engaged were growing up, each with their own families, Hermann II made a smart move by joining King Sigismund of Luxemburg in his 1396 Crusade of Nicopolis, which was to save Constantinople and Byzantine Empire from the Ottoman Turks. During the campaign he saved Sigismund’s life and the King promised him to marry his daughter Barbara in return. Through this marriage, Barbara, once old enough, became the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire after Sigismund was elected Emperor in 1433.

Frederick II of Celje and Veronika of Desenice

The plans Hermann II had for oldest son, Frederick II, however, didn’t go as he envisioned. When Elisabeth and Frederick were finally married in 1404 or 1405, they did not get along very well. Elisabeth gave birth to two boys, Ulric II and Frederick III, the latter dying in early childhood. The couple lived separately from 1415 until Elisabeth’s suspicious death in 1422. How and where Elisabeth died is not very clear. According to one of the stories, especially popular among Frankopans who wanted Elisabeth’s dowry back, Frederick II strangled her so that he could get married with his mistress, Veronika of Desenice.

Before Elisabeth’s death, Frederick met a girl from a lower class in the village of Desenice and fell in love with her. In 1424 or 1425 Veronica of Desenice and Frederick II of Celje got married, and Frederick built a Friedrichstein castle above Kočevje, where they would presumably live happily ever after.

With this marriage he fell out of favour not only with the Frankopans, who took back control of the territories that had been included in Elisabeth’s dowry, but also his father Hermann II, whose political achievements he wasted, and the Hungarian court under King Sigismund, who felt obligated to his father. 

Frederic_II._of_Cilli Hermann II.jpg
Hermann II and Frederick II or the other way around

In 1425 Frederick II applied for asylum in Venice, claiming that his father and the Hungarian court were attempting to kill he and his wife, but the senate of the city state turned him down. Somehow King Sigismund managed to lure Frederick to his court where he was captured and handed over to his father, who threw him in jail and demolished Friedrichstein Castel.

Veronica was hiding in monasteries and forests until she was captured as well. In order to clear his son’s name in front of other noble families, Hermann headed to court accusing Veronica of witchcraft. He failed, the court found her not guilty. Hermann II then jailed Veronica in Ojstrica castle where she was drowned in a tub by Hermann’s guard on October 14, 1425.

Frederick, however, didn’t stay in prison for very long. In 1426 his only remaining brother Hermann III died. The only heirs of the Counts of Celje now were Frederick II and his son Ulric II, so Hermann II released his son from jail.

Principality of Celje

The relationship between Hermann II and Frederick II smoothed a little, but the two remained rivals. Hermann II was now reluctant to entrust Frederick with management of the family estates. In 1429 Frederick was given the title Count of Zagorje by King Sigismund of Hungary, something Hermann probably opposed. In 1435 Frederick II rebelled against his father by demanding concessions from the Hungarian King, now also the Holy Roman Emperor, , placing Sigismund in the middle of the dispute he had with his father. These trouble stopped with Hermann’s death. On November 30, 1436, Frederick II and Ulric II were elevated to the ranks of Princes, which came with power granted to them over jurisdiction, currency production and mining.

The Princes of Celje now became legal contesters for the Empire’s crown, which endangered the unity of the Habsburg estates. Between the years of 1436 and 1443 a war ensued between the two families. Although the House of Celje proved stronger in the battlefield, they had to accept the ceasefire as by then Frederick III of the Habsburgs was already crowned a King. In 1443 a mutual inheritance contract was signed by the two families in case of dynastic extinction.

House of Celje Pincipality and its feudal estates after Ulric II gained back his mother's dowry from the Frankopans

Meanwhile, Sigismund died in 1437, which triggered the succession crisis for the Hungarian crown. Ulric II entered the intrigues that followed, and Frederick II helped by engaging in diplomatic missions,  mobilizing the family’s vast connections abroad. Frederick II died in 1454, and a year later second Ulric’s son died as well, rendering Urlic II the sole surviving heir of the House of Celje.

The end of the House of Celje

In 1456 Ulric II was assassinated by the rival House of Hunyadis from Transylvania, while accompanying Hungarian King Ladislav to Belgrade. This meant that the House of Celje was extinct and according to the mutual inheritance contract, Habsburgs became legal heirs of their estates, setting the stage for the Austrian Empire. 

Skull based reconstruction of Ulric's portrait  Source: National Museum of Slovenia
For more on Counts of Celje, visit Celje Regional Museum.

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