Jelena was the third daughter of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović and Princess Milica of the Serbian ruling family of Nemanjić. It is most likely that she was born in 1365 or 1366, perhaps in Prilepec near Novo Brdo. Her childhood is not well documented, as is the case with most historical figures from the Middle Ages. It is known that she spent her childhood in her father’s court in Kruševac, where she probably lived until her marriage.
Already as a mature person, Jelena married the Zeta lord Đurađ II Stracimirović Balšić during 1386 at the latest. A year later, she had a son with Đurađ, the later ruler of Zeta, Balša III Balšić. In addition to Jelena and Teodora, she had another son of an unknown name who died when he was a young child. The Ottomans threatened all surrounding countries after her father was killed in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Amid the Ottoman threat in Zeta during 1392, Ragusan authorities anticipated Jelena’s arrival in Ragusa, where they determined her place of residence as well as the amount of money for support. Her husband was captured by the Ottomans in November of the same year, and he had to surrender certain areas in order to be freed. At that time, Jelena played a significant role in creating political orientation and managing the state. In November 1396, she asked the Ragusans for transportation from Ulcinj to Ragusa in order to meet Duke Sandalj Hranić, with whom the Balšićs were in conflict. Jelena became a widow in April 1403 due to the death of her husband Đurađ. From this point on, her involvement in the management of Zeta becomes even more active. Đurađ was succeeded by their son Balša III, still very young at the time, and his mother ruled alongside him. Jelena fought the most significant conflicts against the Venetians, who had already occupied some parts of Zeta and were attempting to gain even more control. In 1405, an uprising began in Zeta, and on this occasion Skadar and Drivast were freed from Venetian control and joined Zeta. The Venetian offensive included a proclamation offering two thousand ducats for the surrender of Jelena and Balša, alive or dead. The Venetians achieved a number of successes and won numerous places along the coast. The conflict ended with an agreement in May 1408, when Balša and Jelena had to give up their possessions in Donja Zeta. In order to avoid the departure of Balša’s son to Venice to confirm peace, Jelena went to Venice by herself in July 1409, where she stayed for three months, and in October she negotiated peace for a year.
After the diplomatic trip to Venice, sources do not provide much information about Jelena in the following two years. In August 1411, the Ragusans complained to her that her subjects were obstructing their merchants who were traveling through her territory. They were robbing them of silver, horses, weapons and other goods they carried with them. In December 1411, Jelena married the Bosnian lord, Grand Duke Sandalj Hranić Kosača. This was Jelena’s second and Sandalj’s third marriage. It was a political marriage resulting from shared interests in Zeta. Since his marriage to Jelena, Sandalj has been actively engaged in diplomatic relations with his neighbors for her son Balša, whom he wholeheartedly supported at every chance he had. Furthermore, this marriage brought the Bosnian lord good relations with Jelena’s brother, the Serbian despot Stefan Lazarević. Jelena owned personal wealth at the Kosača court, and she deposited part of the money and valuables in Ragusa through her husband Sandalj. According to available information, she and her husband attended the knight’s tournament in Buda in 1412. In Ragusa, Jelena, along with Sandalj, was received with the highest honors at the end of January and the beginning of February 1426. As an integral part of the purchase of Konavle from Duke Sandalj, Jelena was awarded a gift in the amount of one thousand ducats in June 1429.
Duke Sandalj died on March 15, 1435, and the Ragusan authorities sent representatives to Prince Stjepan Vukčić, Sandalj’s nephew and heir, and his widow Jelena to express their condolences. While Sandalj was alive, Jelena actively advocated with the Ragusans for the construction of an Orthodox church on their territory, but the Ragusans refused because an Orthodox church required the approval of the Roman Pope. After Sandalj’s death, Jelena is often mentioned in Ragusan documents in connection with raising profits from the invested money that Sandalj provided her with during the sale of Konavle, then depositing and withdrawing from deposits various gold, silver and pearl objects, buying grain, and she personally came to Ragusa in order to carry out certain tasks, as was the case in October 1436. As a result of having part of her Ragusa money confiscated, Jelena became involved in investing money for a profit, and she invested a thousand Venetian ducats with Kotor merchant Luka Pautinović. This shows that Jelena had a thorough understanding of the financial flows of her time, a skill that she could certainly have acquired from her husband Sandalj, who was actively involved in this type of financial business. After her husband’s death, Jelena appears to have spent most of her time in Novi and on the island of Beška Gorica in Lake Skadar. During the spring of 1441, Jelena ordered a book cover be made, for which she gave 850 grams of silver to the famous Kotor goldsmith Andrija Azat. Sandalj was succeeded by his nephew Stjepan Vukčić, who, in addition to having excellent relations with Jelena, also assumed the role of protector for her and her family. During 1440, Jelena built the church of Virgin Mary on the island of Beška Gorica on Lake Skadar. Her will was drafted by the monk Nikandar in Goričani on November 25, 1442. Her granddaughter Jelena and Prince Vladislav were named executors of her will.
In her will, she left valuable items to Duke Stjepan, his wife Jelena, sister Olivera, Stjepan’s children Vlatko, Katarina and Teodora, monk Nikandar, monk Jovan, Vukosav Tamarić, priest Teodosi, noblewoman Ruža, Doberko Marinić and others. She left her golden icon, which was previously deposited in Ragusa, to her sister Olivera, aka Despina, and in case of her death, the icon was to be inherited by Jelena’s granddaughter Olivera. A testament such as this is not just a listing and stereotypical inventory of various garments and valuables of gold, pearls, and precious stones, but also reflects Jelena’s attitude towards life and death, as well as her relationships with family and friends. It is a kind of panorama of manorial life and customs. She was one of the most respected individuals in the region during her time. In her unique character, she united the ruling and noble houses of Nemanjić, Lazarević, Balšić and Kosača. She died in February 1443 at the latest, and was buried in the church in Beška Gorica that she built during her lifetime.
Dubrovnik State Archives, letter from Queen Jelena in 1397
Dubrovnik State Archives, Consilium Rogatorum, vol. 6, f. 80 (4.10.1436) Jelena, wife of Sandalj Hranić
Dubrovnik State Archives, Consilium Rogatorum, vol. 5, f. 252 (22.3.1435) Jelena, wife of Sandalja
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