A thread through the murky labyrinth of Serbian nineteenth-century history is the feud between the country’s two leading families, the Obrenovich and Karageorgevich dynasties. Both were founded by leaders of the Serbian struggle for independence from the Turks and the original Karageorge (‘Black George’) was murdered in 1817 by his rival Milos Obrenovich, who had him killed with an axe and sent his head to the Sultan in Constantinople. During Serbia’s gradual emergence from the Ottoman empire, the two families alternated as rulers. In 1882 Milan Obrenovich, the reigning prince, declared himself King of Serbia, but found things so difficult that in 1889 he abdicated, leaving his twelve-year-old son Alexander to succeed him with a council of regency, while he betook himself abroad.
In 1893, aged sixteen, Alexander proclaimed himself of age and in the following year Milan returned. From then on he was the power behind his son’s throne until 1900, when Alexander asserted himself, and against his father’s wishes announced his intention to marry his mistress, Draga Mashin, a beautiful widow of doubtful reputation, ten years older than himself. The furious Milan resigned as commander-in-chief, the cabinet quit and the army was deeply affronted.