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Maria of Serbia, Queen of Bosnia

Maria of Serbia, Queen of Bosnia

Queen of Bosnia
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Queen of Bosnia
A.K.A. Helena Maria da Sérvia
Gender female
Birth 1447 (Smederevo)
Death 1500 (Çorlu)
Mother: Helena Palaiologina of the Morea
Father: Lazar Branković
Spouse: Stephen Tomašević of Bosnia
The details

Maria of Serbia (Serbo-Croatian: Mara Branković/Мара Бранковић; c. 1447 – c. 1500), christened Helena (Jelena/Јелена), was the last Queen of Bosnia and Despoina of Serbia. As the eldest daughter of the deceased Despot of Serbia Lazar Branković, she was given in marriage at the age of twelve to the Bosnian prince Stephen Tomašević, who obtained the title to Serbia through her. The country was lost to the Ottomans within a few months, and the couple fled to Bosnia. They became king and queen of Bosnia in 1461, but two years later the kingdom too fell to the Ottomans, with Maria becoming a widow upon her husband's execution. She avoided capture by fleeing to the coast. Having spent a few years in Venetian Dalmatia and possibly Hungary, Maria settled in Ottoman Greece at the court of her aunts Mara and Kantakouzene. Her string of conflicts and legal disputes with Kantakouzene, the Republic of Ragusa and Athonite monasteries earned her an ill reputation, with the monks describing her as an "evil woman".


The decline of the Serbian Despotate in the late 1450s

Maria was the eldest of three children born to Lazar Branković, son of the Despot of Serbia Đurađ Branković, and his wife, Helena Palaiologina. Born probably in 1447, she was christened Helena. Two sisters followed her: Milica and Irene. Lazar succeeded his father as despot on 24 December 1456, but died on 28 January 1458. Despoina Helena and Lazar's brother Stefan seized power and began negotiating a marriage between her eldest daughter and Stephen Tomašević, the elder surviving son of King Thomas of Bosnia. The intent was to consollidate an alliance against the threat of the expanding Ottoman Empire, which had already reduced the Despotate of Serbia to a strip of land governed from the Smederevo Fortress. Stephen Tomašević arrived to Smederevo during the Holy Week of 1459, taking over the fortress and the government on 21 March. The marriage was celebrated on 1 April, the first Sunday following Easter, and the bride soon afterwards adopted the name Maria.


Stephen Tomašević's reign in Serbia was short-lived. The Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror regarded the arrangement as an offense to his rights as overlord of Serbia. On 20 June 1459, Ottoman forces captured Smederevo without a struggle and proceeded to annex the remnants of the Serbian state to their realm. Stephen and Maria fled to Bosnia, seeking refuge at the court of his father in Jajce. Maria carried with her the relics of Saint Luke the Evangelist, her precious family heirloom. Upon the death of King Thomas in the summer of 1461, Maria's husband ascended as King of Bosnia. Maria became the new queen consort, with her stepmother-in-law Catherine possibly retiring from the court as queen dowager.

Maria's queenship did not last long either; in 1462, the King made a fatal decision of refusing to pay tribute to the Ottomans, who started preparing an attack which ended the independent Kingdom of Bosnia. Following the Ottoman invasion in May 1463, the royal family appears to have decided to split and flee towards the neighbouring Croatia and Dalmatia in different directions to confuse and mislead the attackers. Stephen Tomašević, who had sent Maria to Dalmatia along with Saint Luke's relics in the company of a few Bosnian Franciscans, was captured and executed. The two queens, Maria and Catherine, were the only members of the royal family to escape the invaders and both eventually reached the territories of the Republic of Ragusa. The 16th century chronicler Mavro Orbini wrote that Queen Maria was captured by the Ban of Croatia Pavao Špirančić during her journey to the coast, but this is unlikely because Pavao himself was in Turkish captivity around that time.

Years of wandering

On 9 July, Ragusan authorities issued a decree allowing the Queen to take refuge on one of their islands. The decree also made reference to an important issue the Ragusans wanted to discuss with her, most likely the sale of Saint Luke's relics. The Republic of Venice also expressed interest in Maria's heirloom, and eventually succeeded in concluding a sale through her deputy, the Bosnian nobleman Ivaniš Vlatković. She regretted the sale after the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus offered her three or four towns in exchange for the relics, but her attempt to have Ivaniš retrieve them in late August failed. Both Ivaniš and Maria were rewarded by Venice, with the Queen being allowed to settle in the Monastery of St Stephen under the Pines near Spalato. The Venetian authorities, however, grew suspicious of visits Maria received from Bosnians and Hungarians in the monastery. They soon instructed the government of Split to recommend moving her to Sebenico or to an island on the grounds of poor living conditions in the monastery, with the intention of permanently removing her from their territory. Unlike her stepmother-in-law (and even the Hungarian king), the 16-year-old Queen Maria refrained from claiming the patrimony of Bosnian kings during her exile in Dalmatia and Ragusa.

Possibly having spent some time in Hungary after leaving Dalmatia, Queen Maria settled in the Ottoman Greece. She probably joined her paternal aunts, Mara (Mehmed's esteemed and influential stepmother) and Kantakouzene, on their estate near Serres. A conflict which erupted in 1476 between Maria and Kantakouzene led to the latter's brief imprisonment after the Queen complained to Mehmed. The strife may have caused the Queen to move to Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, where she enjoyed protection of Mehmed and his successor, Bayezid II. She spent years "slandering and intriguing against her closest relatives", as well as suing everyone from whom she could profit.

Lawsuits and frauds

Maria's aunts Mara and Kantakouzene

In October 1484, Queen Maria approached the Sublime Porte to ask for the Sultan's help in reclaiming a third of her paternal grandfather's deposit in Ragusa, which she insisted had not been returned to her father. Bayezid wrote to Ragusa and sent an envoy to bring the gold, but the Ragusans responded with a letter proving that the deposit had been returned to Lazar. Maria, however, disputed the authencity of her father's seal, and Bayezid sided with her. It is not known whether the Ragusans obeyed Bayezid's command to send the gold to the Queen, but there is plenty of evidence against her allegations in the letters of her father and uncle.

Upon the deaths of her aunts Mara and Kantakouzene in 1487 and 1490 respectively, Maria inherited their possessions in accordance with the Sharia law. She immediately launched a claim to icons left by Mara to the monastery of Great Lavra on Mount Athos. Since her sex precluded her from accessing the holy mountain, it took Bayezid's intervention in 1492 for her to receive the icons. Shortly afterwards she called to Sharia court the monks of Xeropotamou Monastery, alleging that one of them stole money from her aunt Kantakouzene while in her service, but could not prove this.

In c. 1495, Maria became involved in another legal dispute with Ragusa, this time concerning the tribute of Ston. The tribute had been paid by Ragusa to Serbian rulers since the reign of Stefan Dušan, but the income was ceded to the Monastery of Saint Archangels Michael and Gabriel in Jerusalem. Mara reclaimed the income after the monastery was closed, and after her death it was managed by Kantakouzene. Maria decided to claim it as her aunts' legal heir, but the Athonite monasteries of Chilandar and Saint Paul's cited her aunts' non-formalized bequest. Queen Maria, described straightforwardly by the monks as an "evil woman", died c. 1500, when Chilandar and Saint Paul's were recorded as having secured the income. She is believed to have died in Çorlu and to have been buried in a local church along with her maternal uncle, Manuel Palaiologos.

It is not clear why Maria enjoyed such strong support of the sultans in her various conflicts and plain frauds. An explanation might be offered by the narrative of her relative Theodore Spandounes, who lived for some time with her aunts and whose family maintained close relations with the Branković dynasty. He wrote that Queen Maria married a sipahi with whom she had no children, but went so far as to claim that she was captured by the Turks in Bosnia and forced into the marriage, which is evidently untrue.


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