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27 Jul

Kingdom of Serbia (13th – 15th c.)

The first King of Serbia, Stefan II Nemanjic (1217-1228) was succeeded by his sons Stefan Radoslav (1228-1233/34) and Stefan Vladislav I (1234-1243) who were less active rulers than their father. Stefan Radoslav was completely under the influence of his father-in-law Theodore Komnenos Doukas of Epirus. He was deposed after the defeat of Epirus against the Bulgarians and replaced by his brother Stefan Vladislav I, son-in-law of Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria. Thus the Greek influence was replaced by Bulgarian.

Stefan Vladislav I was deposed after the Mongolian invasion in 1241/42 and Serbian crown was offered to the youngest son of Stefan the First-Crowned, Stefan Uros I (1243-1276). His reign was characterized by economic progress and successful foreign politics which made the Kingdom of Serbia an important power in the Balkans. However, the rise of Serbia was temporarily halted by the dynastic struggles which resulted in the deposition of Stefan Uros I by his son Stefan Dragutin (1276-1282) who was supported by the Hungarians. In 1282, Stefan Dragutin abdicated in favor of his younger brother Stefan Milutin (1282-1321) who started the Serbian expansion on the expense of the Byzantine Empire reaching the Aegean Sea in 1282. The Byzantine Empire was unable to stop Milutin’s advance and ceded the lost lands to Serbia as a dowry for Simonis, daughter of Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos who became Milutin’s fourth wife. Milutin’s relations with the Byzantine Empire were afterwards mostly friendly although he tried to take advantage of every Byzantine weakness. Milutin’s brother Stefan Dragutin kept the northern lands of the country and gained Macva with Belgrade, and the Bosnian areas Soli and Usora through marriage of his son Vladislav to the member of the Hungarian royal family. Thus a second Serbian state emerged at the Sava and Danube Rivers on the north which existed until Dragutin’s death in 1314.

Fresco of Stefan Decanski at Visoki Decani monastery

Stefan Decanski

Milutin and Dragutin initially get along well but a rivalry that broke out between the brothers at the beginning of the 14th century provoked an armed conflict which lasted from 1301 to 1314. Milutin’s attempt to assure the succession to his son Stefan Decanski was against the agreement that was reached between the two brothers in 1282. The agreement of 1282 foresaw abdication of Stefan Dragutin in Milutin’s favor in return for designation of his son Stefan Vladislav II as Milutin’s successor. Milutin appointed his son Stefan Decanski as regent of Zeta (today’s Montenegro) during the war which lasted until Dragutin’s death in 1314. Dragutin’s lands were afterwards seized by Milutin who imprisoned his nephew Stefan Vladislav II. However, Milutin’s actions disturbed Hungary and its king Charles I who invaded Serbia and regained control over Belgrade and Banate of Macva. Milutin retained Branicevo with the border on the Danube River and had to deal with a rebellion of his son Stefan Decanski that broke out at the same time. Milutin captured his son, had him blinded and sent into exile in Constantinople.

Milutin’s sudden death in 1321 was followed by severe conflicts over the Serbian throne. The Serbian nobility split into three fractions supporting one of the three pretenders to the Serbian throne: Milutin’s sons Stefan Decanski (never blinded properly) and Stefan Constantine, and Dragutin’s son Vladislav II. The throne was won by Stefan Decanski (1321-1331) but the dynastic struggles greatly weakened the central power and temporary halted the Serbian territorial expansion. Bulgarians and Byzantines tried to take advantage of Serbian inner difficulties and prepared for a major invasion in Serbia in 1330. Stefan Decanski defeated the Bulgarians and killed the Bulgarian Emperor Michael Asen III in the Battle of Velbuzhd (Velbazhd) but the Serbian nobility discontented with his policy began to conspire against him.

Wall painting of Dusan Silni at Lesnovo monastery

Dusan Silni

In 1331, Stefan Decanski was deposed and imprisoned by his son Stefan Uros IV Dusan Silni (the Mighty) (1331-1355) who became one of the greatest Serbian rulers. Serbia reached its territorial peak and became one of the largest states in Medieval Europe during his reign. The early Dusan’s reign was marked by strengthening of central power and preparations for military campaign against the Byzantine Empire. He conquered Macedonia except for Thessaloniki by 1334 and captured the western Balkans to Kavala except for the Peloponnesus and Thessaloniki by 1342. Stefan Dusan proclaimed himself emperor and was solemnly crowned Emperor and Autocrat of Serbs and Greeks in Skopje in 1346. Dusan continued military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire after his imperial coronation, and conquered Epirus and Thessaly in 1348. However, his great plans were cut short by his premature death in 1355.

Portrait of Prince Lazar by Dura Jaksic

Prince Lazar

Dusan Silni was succeeded by his son Stefan Uros V (1355-1371) whose reign was characterized by decline of central power and rise of numerous virtually independent principalities. Uros V was not able to sustain the great empire created by his father neither to repulse the foreign threats and failed to limit the independence of the nobles. He was succeeded by Stefan Lazar also known as Knez Lazar (1371-1389), the most powerful Serbian noble at the time. His reign started with a severe defeat against the Ottomans. The Serbian army suffered heavy losses and much of the Serbian nobility has been killed in the Battle of Maritsa in 1371. Prince Lazar, aware of the Ottoman threat began diplomatic and military preparations for a campaign against the Ottomans. Both forces clashed in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 resulting in heavy casualties on both sides but the Serbian loss was devastating. Most of the Serbian political elite including Lazar himself were killed during the battle.

The Ottomans could not take advantage of their victory in the Battle of Kosovo. Lazar’s widow Milica Nemanjic agreed to became a vassal of Sultan Bayezid who married daughter of Prince Lazar, Olivera Despina. Prince Lazar’s son and heir Stefan Lazarevic (1389-1427) took advantage of the Mongol invasion in the Ottoman Empire in 1404, revoked the vassalage and went to Constantinople where he was granted the title despot by the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos. However, renewed Ottoman threat and opposition within Serbia forced him to accept vassalage to the Hungarian King Sigismund who ceded him Macva with Belgrade. Stefan Lazarevic reconciled with the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman and the Brankovic family shortly afterwards but the rivalry between the Lazarevic and Brankovic families continued. In addition, Sultan Suleiman supported his brother Vuk (Lazarevic) and forced Stefan to cede his brother the southern part of the Serbian Despotate.

The Balkan Peninsula was meanwhile invaded by Suleiman’s brother Musa who attacked Serbia in 1412. Musa was defeated by combined Christian forces under the command of Stefan’ nephew and the first Serbian ruler of the House of Brankovic, Durad Brankovic (1427-1457). He moved the Serbian capital to Smederevo but the city was captured by the Ottomans after a three-month siege in 1439. Durad retreated to Hungary, while the Serbian Despotate was devastated. Durad restored his rule in Serbia after the Peace of Szeged (1444) signed between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire but he failed to restore the Serbian Despotate in its former extent. One year after the fall of Constantinople (1453), Serbia was invaded by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror who captured great part of Serbian Despotate, devastated the state and enslaved about 50,000 people. Mehmed II failed to seize Smederevo but he captured Novo Brdo in 1454 and forced Durad to cede him the entire southern Serbia.

Serbia was unable to repulse the Ottoman threat after Durad’s death in 1456 and the Serbian nobility split into two fractions. The first tried to create closer ties with Hungary, while the other supported a friendlier policy towards the Ottomans. Durad’s successor Lazar Brankovic (1456-1458) was under the influence of the pro-Ottoman fraction and made a deal with sultan Mehmed II who granted him the lands of his predecessor with exception of Novo Brdo. Due to the threat of an eventual Hungarian invasion a pro-Ottoman member of the regency open the gates of Smederevo to the Ottoman forces but the pro-Hungarian fraction killed the Ottomans, deposed Lazar Brankovic and replaced him by Stefan Brankovic (1458-1459). The latter tried to unite Serbia and Bosnia through marriage of his niece and late despot Lazar’s daughter, Jelaca and the heir to the Bosnian throne, Stefan Tomacevic. However, the latter proclaimed himself despot and expelled Stefan Brankovic even before the marriage, while the plan of an union between Bosnia and Serbia failed. The Ottoman forces conquered Smederevo without a fight in 1459 and Serbia fell under a four centuries-long Ottoman yoke.

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