On Capitoline Hill in Rome is a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is customarily called Aracoeli church. According to legend it was built above a pagan altar, which had Haec ara fili Dei est written on it. Greek monks were in it from the beginning, after them the Benedictines, and in 1250 it was given to the Franciscans, who had their general residence next to it. Since the Middle Ages, Aracoeli church has been considered to be the official church of the municipality of Rome.
Throughout the past Croatians had close ties to this church. While the general residence for the Franciscans was next to it, many Croatian Franciscans because of their own work in academia while in Rome, were put up near this church. But it was also a gathering point because Katarina Vukcic Kosaca, the wife of Bosnian king Stjepan Tomaš (1441-1461), is buried here and who hoped and yearned for her homeland died on October 25, 1478 in Rome.
Katarina was the daughter of the Bosnian nobleman Stjepan Vukčić Kosača. She was born around 1424. Her childhood and life coincided with a difficult period for the Bosnian kingdom. Turks attacked periodically, looting and burning and giving a clear sign that they intended to conquer it all together.
Bosnian nobles in these times of general insecurity were not able to successfully take a united stand against the destruction, which threatened them every day. In fact they were suspicious of one another that they individually often attempted to into contact with the Turks, in the hope that they could lessen the force of Turkish attacks in their areas and save themselves if the Turks decided to conquer the Bosnian kingdom.
Tvrtko II, the last king of the Kotromanić line, died in 1443. By Tvrtko II’s will, Stjepan Tomaš succeeded him onto the throne, even though his illegitimate older son Stjepan Ostoja Radivoj had the right of succession.
Stjepan Tomaš was the illegitimate son of Bosnian King Stjepan Ostoja, who died in 1418. Up until his election as king Stjepan Tomaš kept his origins secret because of security. More over, he took a commoner named Vojača, and promised her according to patrician ways that he would marry her if she was good and faithful and served him well. When he became king, the nobles advised him to leave his wife because she was of a lower class and was unsuited to be queen. Tomaš who became a Catholic didn’t think he could do this without the personal permission of the Holy See. That’s why he went to Pope Eugene IV to get permission to take another wife, even though he promised to marry the commoner and already had a son with her. On May 29, 1445 the Pope released him from his promise and allowed him intentional marriage.
At the same time, Stjepan Tomas who was also illegitimate, asked the Pope to recognize all legal rights to his son. The Pope granted that request on the same day.
Now Stjepan Tomas could freely contemplate marriage. In all likelihood under the influence of his advisors he set his sights on Katarina the daughter of Stjepan Vukcic Kosaca who was then 21 years old. It was believed that she could strengthen the Bosnian kingdom because with their marriage Bosnian king Stjepan Tomas would be tied together with his nobleman Stjepan Vukcic Kosaca.
Stjepan Vukcic Kosaca was then the most respected nobleman in Bosnia. Clever and enterprising, he was able to spread his holdings to all of today’s Herzegovina, southern portions of Bosnia, some portions of Serbia and Montenegro, central Dalmatia, and places from Dubrovnik to Kotor.
Stone throne of Bosnian kings, Bobovac Stjepan Vukcic Kosaca believed early on that Bosnia could not win the struggle against Turkish superiority and that they get into contact with the Turks, so that a difficult future for the Bosnian kingdom would be less sad. Because of his stance with the Turks, Stjepan Vukcic Kosaca was against Stjepan Tomas’s arrival on the throne of the Bosnian kingdom. He was for Radivoj, also an illegitimate son of Stjepan Ostoja, who had already served the Turks and for 10 years called himself the Bosnian king under Turkish patronage.
But the stronger side was the one that was against an agreement with the Turks and which sided with the Christian west, particularly with the Pope. This side grew stronger when Pope Eugene IV on January 1, 1443 called the entire Christian world to battle against Turkey. That also helped bring Stjepan Tomas onto the Bosnian throne.
As soon as he arrived onto the throne, Stjepan Tomas worked to tie himself closer to Stjepan Vukcic Kosaca and to bring about unity in the kingdom. It was believed that Stjepan Tomas could best achieve that if he married Stjepan Vukcic Kosaca’s daughter Katarina.
Katarina was raised as a patrician. Prior to her marriage, she converted to Catholicism and wed Stjepan Tomas according to the Catholic rite. In all likelihood the marriage was held on the Assumption on May 26, 1446.
After the death of Stjepan Tomas in 1461, Katarina was left with two weak children, Sigismund and Katarina. Stjepan Tomasevic, the son Stjepan Tomas had with Vojaca, became the Bosnian king. He was the first Bosnian king to be crowned with a crown from Rome. His main concern was to also be on good terms with Stjepan Vukcic Kosaca. Because of that, even before he was crowned as king, he recognized Queen Katarina all rights as the Queen Mother.
Katarina stayed at the royal court until the fatal year of 1463, when Mehmed II the Turkish sultan attacked and conquered Bosnia with a large army. Stjepan Tomasevic was captured and killed, and the two weak children of Queen Katarina were taken into Turkish captivity, however she was able to escape, because she was with her brother Vladislav in the southern regions.
At the beginning of July 1463, she moved to the Republic of Dubrovnik where she acted as the legal representative of the Bosnian kingdom.
During her time in Dubrovnik, Katarina followed the situation in Bosnia, and hoped that her kingdom would quickly be liberated. But as days passed, liberation did not happen, and she moved to Rome in 1466.
In Rome Katarina found refuge with Pope Paul II who decreed that she receive permanent help from the papal treasury. From 1467 to 1478 she received at least 6541 gold ducats for support. She had a small court of Bosnian nobles with her, and in her last ten years, she lived near the church of St. Mark, where the Croatian brotherhood of St. Jerome had their houses, and it isn’t impossible that she may have lived and died in one of them.
Bosnian Queen Katarina (portrait by Giovanni Bellini, Rome) During the entire time that she lived in Rome, she thought about the liberation of her kingdom, and in particular the liberation of her two weak children who were taken to Istanbul, to the sultan’s court in the Islamic faith. When it happened, on occasion the Turks would return captured children for a good price, she believed that she could also free her children from captivity. With that aim, she asked various Italian rulers for financial help. That is how in 1470, for example, she sent two members of her court, Nikola Zubranic and Abraham Radic to Mantova and Milan, to ask for help in her name. A Mantovan prince among others wrote at the time:
“Facit mea adversa fortuna, quae viro rege ac liberis et regno opibusque spoliavit, ut non solum ad pontificem maximum patrem clementissimum, sed etiam ad alios principes christianos me confugere oporteat pro implorado subsidio.”
In 1474 she had decided to go to the Turkish border because she had heard that the sultan had promised to free her children. All of her efforts were for nothing. She never saw her children again, and she took the hope of their liberation with her to the grave.
When she was 54, she became ill. That death didn’t catch her unexpectedly she immediately called the imperial notary Ante, a priest from Split, who was in the posted at St. Peter’s church in Rome, according to the law at the time make her last will. She called as witnesses Jure de Marinellis the Archdeacon of Rab on duty in Rome, and six Franciscans from the Aracoeli monastery.
In her testament, Katarina asked that she be buried in the Aracoeli church. She left 200 ducats for that. She also left the church her royal robe and a silk altar cloth.
To the Croatian church of St. Jerome, she left her royal chapel: books, dishes, and church clothing.
She even remembered the church of St. Catherine in Jajce, which she allowed be built, and bequeathed it all of her relics.
But the main will of Queen Katarina as legal representative of the Bosnian kingdom, related to the Kingdom of Bosnia: she left it to the Holy See, if her children could not be returned to the Catholic faith.
Katarina died five days after her last will. According to her wishes, she was buried in the Aracoeli church in front of the main altar where they made her a beautiful tombstone, which depicted her in her actual size and with the royal crown on her head. An inscription in bosancica was also put on the tombstone.
Bosnian refugees in Rome certainly came to pay respect at grave of their Queen, who left the voice of a holy woman and was considered to be the ideal of all virtue. But with time, even her grave was somewhat forgotten. When the Franciscans had decided to move the great altar forward, they had no difficulties in covering the grave of the Bosnian Queen. They moved her tombstone onto the right pillar in front of the main altar, where it is today.
In all likelihood that is when the Croatian inscription on the tombstone was changed to a new Latin inscription, which as we see today had several modifications were added to the translation:
Catherine Reginae Bosnensi
Stephani Ducis San (c) ti Sabbae Sorori,
Et genere Helene et Domo Principis
Stephani natae, Tomae Regis Bosnae
Uxori. Quantum vixit annorum LIIII
Et odbormivit Romae Anno Domini
Et odbormivit Romae Anno Domini MCCCCLXXVIII
DIE XXV Octobris
Monumentum ipsius scriptis positum.
Croatian pilgrims through the long centuries after the death of Queen Katarina have come to her grave and in stopped front of her tombstone. Her painful life and her conscience of royal responsibility, even though have been forgotten, leave an indelible mark in the spirits of Croatian visitors.