Extinction of Serbian Independence

The Rise and Fall of the Serbian Empire and the Extinction of Serbian Independence, 1168-1496

Neville Forbes, Oxford University

This is chapter 15 of the famous work, The Balkans, written by several famous authors, including Arnold Toynbee, and was released in 1915. It is not copyrighted. It provides an excellent background to Serbian medieval history and provides a great degree of light onto Serbian history, so distorted by establishment historians and journalistic whores–MRJ

From 1168 the power of the Serbs, or rather of the central Serb state of Raska, and the extent of its territory gradually but steadily increased. This was outwardly expressed in the firm establishment on the throne of the national Nemanja dynasty, which can claim the credit of having by its energy, skill, and good fortune fashioned the most imposing and formidable state the Serb race has ever known. This dynasty ruled the country uninterruptedly, but not without many quarrels, feuds, and rivalries amongst its various members, from 1168 until 1371, when it became extinct.

There were several external factors which at this time favoured the rise of the Serbian state. Byzantium and the Greek Empire, to which the Emperor Manuel Comnenus had by 1168 restored some measure of its former greatness and splendour, regaining temporary control, after a long war with Hungary, even over Dalmatia, Croatia, and Bosnia, after this date began definitively to decline, and after the troublous times of the fourth crusade (1204), when for sixty years a Latin empire was established on the Bosphorus, never again recovered as a Christian state the position in the Balkan peninsula which it had so long enjoyed. Bulgaria, too, after the meteoric glory of its second empire under the Asen dynasty (1186-1258), quite went to pieces, the eastern and northern parts falling under Tartar, the southern under Greek influence, while the western districts fell to Serbia. In the north, on the other hand, Hungary was becoming a dangerous and ambitious neighbour. During the thirteenth century, it is true, the attention of the Magyars was diverted by the irruption into and devastation of their country by their unwelcome kinsmen from Asia, the Tartars, who wrought great havoc and even penetrated as far as the Adriatic coast. Nevertheless Hungary was always a menace to Serbia; Croatia, Slavonia, and the interior of Dalmatia, all purely Serb territories, belonged to the Hungarian crown, and Bosnia was under the supremacy of the Magyars, though nominally independent.

The objects of the Magyars were twofold--to attain the hegemony of the Balkan peninsula by conquering all the still independent Serb territories, and to bring the peninsula within the pale of Rome. They were not successful in either of these objects, partly because their wars with the Serbian rulers always failed to reach a decision, partly because their plans conflicted with those of the powerful Venetian republic. The relations between Venice and Serbia were always most cordial, as their ambitions did not clash; those of Venice were not continental, while those of Serbia were never maritime. The semi-independent Slavonic city-republic of Ragusa (called Dubrovnik in Serbian) played a very important part throughout this period. It was under Venetian supremacy, but was self-governing and had a large fleet of its own. It was the great place of exchange between Serbia and western Europe, and was really the meeting-place of East and West. Its relations with Serbia were by no means always peaceful; it was a Naboth's vineyard for the rulers and people of the inland kingdom, and it was never incorporated within their dominions. Ragusa and the other cities of the Dalmatian coast were the home during the Middle Ages of a flourishing school of Serbian literature, which was inspired by that of Italy. The influence of Italian civilization and of the Italian Church was naturally strong in the Serb province, much of which was under Venetian rule; the reason for this was that communication by sea with Italy was easier and safer than that by land with Serbia. The long, formidable ranges of limestone mountains which divide the Serbian interior from the Adriatic in almost unbroken and parallel lines have always been a barrier to the extension of Serb power to the coast, and an obstacle to free commercial intercourse. Nevertheless Ragusa was a great trade centre, and one of the factors which most contributed to the economic strength of the Serbian Empire.

The first of the Nemanja dynasty was Stephen, whose title was still only Veliki Zupan; he extended Serb territory southwards at the expense of the Greeks, especially after the death of Manuel Comnenus in 1180. He also persecuted the Bogomils, who took refuge in large numbers in the adjacent Serb state of Bosnia. Like many other Serbian rulers, he abdicated in later life in favour of his younger son, Stephen, called Nemanjié (= Nemanya's son), and himself became a monk (1196), travelling for this purpose to Mount Athos, the great monastic centre and home of theological learning of the Eastern Church. There he saw his youngest son, who some years previously had also journeyed thither and entered a monastery, taking the name of Sava.

It was the custom for every Serbian ruler to found a sort of memorial church, for the welfare of his own soul, before his death, and to decorate and endow it lavishly. Stephen and his son together superintended the erection in this sense of the church and monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos, which became a famous centre of Serbian church life. Stephen died shortly after the completion of the building in 1199, and was buried in it, but in 1207 he was reinterred in the monastery of Studenica, in Serbia, also founded by him.

The reign of Stephen Nernanji['c] (1196-1223) opened with a quarrel between him and his elder brother, who not unnaturally felt he ought to have succeeded his father; the Bulgarians profited by this and seized a large part of eastern Serbia, including Belgrade, Nish, Prizren, and Skoplje. This, together with the fall of Constantinople and the establishment of the Latin Empire in 1204, alarmed the Serbs and brought about a reconciliation between the brothers, and in 1207 Sava returned to Serbia to organise the Church on national lines. In 1219 he journeyed to Nicaea and extracted from the Emperor Theodore Lascaris, who had fallen on evil days, the concession for the establishment of an autonomous national Serbian Church, independent of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Sava himself was at the head of the new institution. In 1220 he solemnly crowned his brother King (Kralj) of Serbia, the natural consequence of his activities in the previous year. For this reason Stephen Nemanji['c] is called 'The First-Crowned'. He was succeeded in 1223 by his son Stephen Radoslav, and he in turn was deposed by his brother Stephen Vladislav in 1233. Both these were crowned by Sava, and Vladislav married the daughter of Tsar John Asen II, under whom Bulgaria was then at the height of her power. Sava journeyed to Palestine, and on his return paid a visit to the Bulgarian court at Tirnovo, where he died in 1236. His body was brought to Serbia and buried in the monastery of Milesevo, built by Vladislav. This extremely able churchman and politician, who did a great deal for the peaceful development of his country, was canonized and is regarded as the patron saint of Serbia.

The reign of Vladislav's son and successor, Stephen Uros I (1242-76), was characterized by economic development and the strengthening of the internal administration. In external affairs he made no conquests, but defeated a combination of the Bulgarians with Ragusa against him, and after the war the Bulgarian ruler married his daughter. In his wars against Hungary he was unsuccessful, and the Magyars remained in possession of a large part of northern Serbia. In 1276 he was deposed by his son, Stephen Dragutin, who in his turn, after an unsuccessful war against the Greeks, again masters of Constantinople since 1261, was deposed and succeeded by his brother, Stephen Uros II, named Milutin, in 1282. This king ruled from 1282 till 1321, and during his reign the country made very great material progress; its mineral wealth especially, which included gold and silver mines, began to be exploited. He extended the boundaries of his kingdom in the north, making the Danube and the Save the frontier. The usual revolt against paternal authority was made by his son Stephen, but was unsuccessful, and the rebel was banished to Constantinople.

It was the custom of the Serbian kings to give appanages to their sons, and the inevitable consequence of this system was the series of provincial rebellions which occurred in almost every reign. When the revolt succeeded, the father (or brother) was granted in his turn a small appanage. In this case it was the son who was exiled, but he was recalled in 1319 and a reconciliation took place. Milutin died in 1321 and was succeeded by his son, Stephen Uros III, who reigned till 1331. He is known as Stephen Decanski, after the memorial church which he built at De[)c]ani in western Serbia. His reign was signalized by a great defeat of the combined Bulgarians and Greeks at Kustendil in Macedonia in 1330. The following year his son, Stephen Dusan, rebelled against him and deposed him. Stephen Dusan, who reigned from 1331 till 1355, was Serbia's greatest ruler, and under him the country reached its utmost limits. Provincial and family revolts and petty local disputes with such places as Ragusa became a thing of the past, and he undertook conquest on a grand scale. Between 1331 and 1344 he subjected all Macedonia, Albania, Thessaly, and Epirus. He was careful to keep on good terms with Ragusa and with Hungary, then under Charles Robert. He married the sister of the Bulgarian ruler, and during his reign Bulgaria was completely under Serbian supremacy. The anarchy and civil war which had become perennial at Constantinople, and the weakening of the Greek Empire in face of the growing power of the Turks, no doubt to some extent explain the facility and rapidity of his conquests; nevertheless his power was very formidable, and his success inspired considerable alarm in western Europe. This was increased when, in 1345, he proclaimed his country an empire. He first called together a special Church council, at which the Serbian Church, an archbishopric, whose centre was then at Pe['c] (in Montenegro, Ipek in Turkish), was proclaimed a Patriarchate, with Archbishop Joannice as Patriarch; then this prelate, together with the Bulgarian Patriarch, Simeon, and Nicholas, Archbishop of Okhrida, crowned Stephen Tsar of the Serbs, Bulgars, and Greeks. Upon this the Patriarch of Constantinople gave himself the vain satisfaction of anathematizing the whole of Serbia, as a punishment for this insubordination.

In 1353 the Pope, Innocent VI, persuaded King Louis of Hungary to undertake a crusade against Serbia in the name of Catholicism, but Stephen defeated him and re-established his frontier along the Save and Danube. Later he conquered the southern half of Dalmatia, and extended his empire as far north as the river Cetina. In 1354 Stephen Dusan himself approached the Pope, offering to acknowledge his spiritual supremacy, if he would support him against the Hungarians and the Turks. The Pope sent him an embassy, but eventually Stephen could not agree to the papal conditions, and concluded an alliance, of greater practical utility, with the Venetians. In 1355, however, he suddenly died, at the age of forty-six, and thus the further development and aggrandisement of his country was prematurely arrested.

Stephen Dusan made a great impression on his contemporaries, both by his imposing personal appearance and by his undoubted wisdom and ability. He was especially a great legislator, and his remarkable code of laws, compiled in 1349 and enlarged in 1354, is, outside his own country, his greatest title to fame. During Stephen Dusan's reign the political centre of Serbia, which had for many years gradually tended to shift southwards towards Macedonia, was at Skoplje (Üsküb in Turkish), which he made his capital. Stephen Dusan's empire extended from the Adriatic in the west to the river Maritsa in the east, from the Save and Danube in the north to the Aegean; it included all the modern kingdoms of Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and most of Greece, Dalmatia as far north as the river Cetina, as well as the fertile Morava valley, with Nish and Belgrade--the whole eastern part of Serbia, which had for long been under either Bulgar or Magyar control. It did not include the cities of Salonika or Ragusa, nor any considerable part of the modern kingdom of Bulgaria, nor Bosnia, Croatia, North Dalmatia, nor Slavonia (between the Save and Drave), ethnologically all purely Serb lands. From the point of view of nationality, therefore, its boundaries were far from ideal.

Stephen Dusan was succeeded by his son, known as Tsar Uros, but he was as weak as his father had been strong. Almost as soon as he succeeded to the throne, disorders, rebellions, and dissensions broke out and the empire rapidly fell to pieces. With Serbia, as with Bulgaria, the empire entirely hinged on the personality of one man, and when he was gone chaos returned. Such an event for Serbia at this juncture was fatal, as a far more formidable foe than the ruler's rebellious relations was advancing against it. The Turkish conquests were proceeding apace; they had taken Gallipoli in 1354 and Demotika and Adrianople in 1361. The Serbs, who had already had an unsuccessful brush with the advance guard of the new invaders near Demotika in 1351, met them again on the Maritsa river in 1371, and were completely defeated. Several of the upstart princes who had been pulling Stephen Dusan's empire to pieces perished, and Tsar Uros only survived the battle of the Maritsa two months; he was unmarried, and with him died the Nemanja dynasty and the Serbian Empire.

After this disaster the unity of the Serbian state was completely destroyed, and it has never since been restored in the same measure.

That part of the country to the south of Skoplje fell completely under Turkish control; it was here that the famous national hero, Marko Kraljevi['c] (or King's son), renowned for his prowess, ruled as a vassal prince and mercenary soldier of the Turks; his father was one of the rebel princes who fell at the battle of the river Maritsa in 1371. North of Skoplje, Serbia, with Krusevac as a new political centre, continued to lead an independent but precarious existence, much reduced in size and glory, under a native ruler, Prince Lazar; all the conquests of Stephen Dusan were lost, and the important coastal province of Zeta, which later developed into Montenegro, had broken away and proclaimed its autonomy directly after the death of Tsar Uros.

In 1375 a formal reconciliation was effected with the Patriarch of Constantinople; the ban placed on the Serbian Church in 1352 was removed and the independence of the Serbian Patriarchate of Pe['c] (Ipek) recognised. Meanwhile neither Greeks, Bulgars, nor Serbs were allowed any peace by the Turks.

In 1389 was fought the great battle of Kosovo Polje, or the Field of Blackbirds, a large plain in Old Serbia, at the southern end of which is Skoplje. At this battle Serbian armies from all the Serb lands, including Bosnia, joined together in defence of their country for the last time. The issue of the battle was for some time in doubt, but was decided by the treachery and flight at the critical moment of one of the Serb leaders, Vuk Brankovi['c], son-in-law of Prince Lazar, with a large number of troops. Another dramatic incident was the murder of Sultan Murad in his tent by another Serbian leader, Milo[s] Obili['c], who, accused of treachery by his own countrymen, vowed he would prove his good faith, went over to the Turks and, pretending to be a traitor, gained admission to the Sultan's presence and proved his patriotism by killing him. The momentary dismay was put an end to by the energetic conduct of Bayezid, son of Murad, who rallied the Turkish troops and ultimately inflicted total defeat on the Serbians. From the effects of this battle Serbia never recovered; Prince Lazar was captured and executed; his wife, Princess Milica, had to give her daughter to Bayezid in marriage, whose son thus ultimately claimed possession of Serbia by right of inheritance. Princess Milica and her son Stephen continued to live at Krusevac, but Serbia was already a tributary of Turkey. In the north, Hungary profited by the course of events and occupied Belgrade and all northern Serbia, but in 1396 the Turks defeated the Magyars severely at the battle of Nikopolis, on the Danube, making the Serbs under Stephen fight on the Turkish side. Stephen also had to help Sultan Bajazet against the Tartars, and fought at the battle of Angora, in 1402, when Tamerlane captured Bayezid.

After Stephen returned to Serbia he made an alliance with Hungary, which gave him back Belgrade and northern Serbia; it was at this time (1403) that Belgrade first became the capital, the political centre having in the course of fifty years moved from the Vardar to the Danube. The disorders which followed the defeat of Bayezid gave some respite to the Serbs, but Sultan Murad II (1421-51) again took up arms against him, and invaded Serbia as far as Krusevac.

At the death of Stephen (Lazarevi['c]), in 1427, he was succeeded as _Despot_ by his nephew, George Brankovi['c]; but the Sultan, claiming Serbia as his own, immediately declared war on him. The Serbian ruler had to abandon Belgrade to the Magyars, and Nish and Krusevac to the Turks. He then built and fortified the town of Smederevo (or Semendria) lower down on the Danube, in 1428, and made this his capital. He gave his daughter in marriage to the Sultan, but in spite of this war soon broke out again, and in 1441 the Turks were masters of nearly the whole of Serbia. Later George Brankovi['c] made another alliance with Hungary, and in 1444, with the help of John Hunyadi, defeated the Turks and liberated the whole of Serbia as far as the Adriatic, though he remained a tributary of the Sultan. The same year, however, the Magyars broke the treaty of peace just concluded with the Turks, and marched against them under their Polish king, Ladislas; this ended in the disastrous battle of Varna, on the Black Sea, where the king lost his life. In 1451 Sultan Murad II died and was succeeded by the Sultan Mohammed. In 1453 this sultan captured Constantinople (Adrianople had until then been the Turkish capital); in 1456 his armies were besieging Belgrade, but were defeated by John Hunyadi, who, unfortunately for the Serbs, died of the plague shortly afterwards. George Brankovi['c] died the same year, and at his death general disorder spread over the country. The Turks profited by this, overran the whole of Serbia, and in 1459 captured Smederevo, the last Serbian stronghold.

Meanwhile Bosnia had been for nearly a hundred years enjoying a false security as an independent Serb kingdom. Its rulers had hitherto been known by the title of Ban, and were all vassals of the King of Hungary; but in 1377 Ban Tvrtko profited by the embarrassments of his suzerain in Poland and proclaimed himself king, the neighbouring kingdom of Serbia having, after 1371, ceased to exist, and was duly crowned in Saint Sava's monastery of Milesevo. The internal history of the kingdom was even more turbulent than had been that of Serbia. To the endemic troubles of succession and alternating alliances and wars with foreign powers were added those of confession. Bosnia was always a no man's land as regards religion; it was where the Eastern and Western Churches met, and consequently the rivalry between them there was always, as it is now, intense and bitter. The Bogomil heresy, too, early took root in Bosnia and became extremely popular; it was the obvious refuge for those who did not care to become involved in the strife of the Churches. One of the kings of Bosnia, Stephen Thomas, who reigned from 1444 till 1461, was himself a Bogomil, and when at the insistence of the Pope and of the King of Hungary, whose friendship he was anxious to retain, he renounced his heresy, became ostensibly a Roman Catholic, and began to persecute the Bogomils, he brought about a revolution. The rebels fled to the south of Bosnia, to the lands of one Stephen, who sheltered them, proclaimed his independence of Bosnia, and on the strength of the fact that Saint Sava's monastery of Milesevo was in his territory, announced himself Herzog, or Duke (in Serbian Herceg, though the real Serb equivalent is Vojvoda) of Saint Sava, ever since when (1448) that territory has been called Hercegovina. In spite of many promises, neither the Pope nor the King of Hungary did anything to help Bosnia when the Turks began to invade the country after their final subjection of Serbia in 1459. In 1463 they invaded Bosnia and pursued, captured, and slew the last king; their conquest of the country was complete and rapid. A great exodus of the Serb population took place to the south, west, and north; but large numbers, especially of the landowning class, embraced the faith of their conquerors in order to retain possession of their property. In 1482 a similar fate befell Hercegovina. Albania had already been conquered after stubborn resistance in 1478. There remained only the mountainous coastal province of Zeta, which had been an independent principality ever since 1371. Just as inland Serbia had perished between the Turkish hammer and the Hungarian anvil, so maritime Serbia was crushed between Turkey and Venice, only its insignificance and inaccessibility giving it a longer lease of independent life. Ivan Crnojevi['c], one of the last independent rulers of Zeta, who had to fly to Italy in 1480, abandoning his capital, [Z]abljak, to the Turks, returned in 1481, when the death of Sultan Mohammed temporarily raised the hopes of the mountaineers, and founded Cetinje and made it his capital. His son George, who succeeded him and ruled from 1490 till 1496, is famous as having set up the first Serbian printing-press there. Its activities were naturally not encouraged by the Turkish conquest, but it was of great importance to the national Serbian Church, for which books were printed with it.

In 1496, Venice having wisely made peace with the Sultan some years previously, this last independent scrap of Serb territory was finally incorporated in the Turkish dominions. At the end of the fifteenth century the Turks were masters of all the Serb lands except Croatia, Slavonia, and parts of Dalmatia, which belonged to Hungary, and the Dalmatian coast and islands, which were Venetian. The Turkish conquest of Serbia, which began in 1371 at the battle of the Maritsa, and was rendered inevitable by the battle of Kosovo Polje, in 1389, thus took a hundred and twenty-five years to complete.