The Battle of Kosovo, 1389

For Serbs the 1389 Battle of Kosovo was a physical defeat against the Ottoman Turks, but a moral victory that formed the backbone of Serbian national identity.

Ottoman Sultan Murad I and Prince Lazar of Serbia face one another at the Battle of Kosovo, manuscript from 1460. Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Public Domain.

In the early morning of St Vitus’ Day, June 15th, 1389, the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Murad I defeated the Serbian ruler Prince Lazar and his Bosnian allies at Kosovo Field, a high-rolling plateau some sixty miles north of Skopje. This battle, once celebrated in Western Europe, is nowadays scarcely remembered. The domination of the Balkans by the Turk is usually linked with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a time when the Imperial City had already been isolated from most of her European neighbours for fifty years or more.

But in South-East Europe, especially among Serb and Montenegrins1, Kosovo Field is still considered to be a turning-point in history. It is famous in three ways: as a great battle fought with exceptional heroism, as the moment of crisis when the Ottoman Turks overran Serbia and condemned her to centuries of repressive rule, and lastly as a symbol of enduring nationalism, which found its popular expression in epic poetry, and was eventually to inspire the Serbs to break free from Turkish control.

The general political situation in the Balkans, from 1350 to the turn of the century, is confused by a mass of conflicting evidence from contemporary and near-contemporary chronicles: Turkish, Byzantine, Slav, French and Italian; the great Czech historian Jirecek called it ‘the most obscure and difficult period in South Slavic history’. The Byzantine Empire was already in decline and the Ottoman Turks were expanding their territory.

They were frontiersmen from South Bithynia in Asia Minor, ‘warriors of the faith’ who fought continually against Byzantium and turned shepherd in times of peace. In the early years of the fourteenth century they had come under an able ruler, Osman. He gained possession of the southern coast of the Sea of Marmora; his son Orhan succeeded him and took Gallipoli, after an earthquake had conveniently breached its walls, in 1354.

Two years later, he shipped Turkish settlers to Thrace. The Ottomans had begun their thrust into Europe, though still on a relatively small scale. They had already learnt their way about the Balkans in 1349, when the Byzantine Emperor, John Cantacuzene, had employed them as mercenaries to hold back the Serbs.

The struggle between Byzantium and the Ottoman power was by no means clear-cut. The Byzantines, already racked by civil war, had to contend in the West with two Balkan Empires—Serbia, and to a lesser extent, Bulgaria2—and with the destructive influence of the last Crusaders, who wanted to bring them under Papal supremacy.

Although occasional Crusades were still planned, and the last great action fought by Western knights took place at Nicopolis in 1396 (Varna, in 1444, was a much smaller affair), the new prosperity of Europe had doused the impulse to strike out against Islam. The war between Christian and Moslem had, by 1350, taken on a different pattern. The main bulwark against the Ottoman invasion of Europe was the Serbian Empire, an Orthodox power that derived its religion and its culture largely from Byzantium, with some influences from Western Europe.

It was a feudal state, and by mid-century had reached its greatest strength under the Emperor Stephen Dusan, a descendant of the twelfth-century founder, Stephen Nemanja.Its boundaries stretched from the Neretva to the Gulf of Corinth, from the Iron Gates of the Danube to the Thracian coast. Epirus, Albania, Thessaly and Macedonia all came within Dusan’s frontiers. His aims were both aggressive and defensive: he hoped to conquer Byzantium and then to drive the Ottomans out of Europe by uniting the forces of Christendom against them.

He could obtain no support from Pope Innocent VI who underestimated the Turkish menace; while from his Hungarian neighbours, eager to convert South Slavs to Roman Catholicism, the most he could get was a truce. The Papacy, the Western powers and Hungary were to ally themselves against the Turks only in 1390-6, when it was too late; it resulted in the disaster at Nicopolis when the Crusader knights charged haphazardly at the well-organized Ottoman army, and were massacred.

Meanwhile, Dusan and his army, in 1355, prepared to march on Byzantium alone: but the Serbian Emperor died, perhaps from poisoning, on his way there. His death probably changed the course of European history, as he could almost certainly have taken Byzantium, and for a time, at least, have checked the Ottoman advance.

The death of Dusan caused the disintegration of the Serbian Empire. There were squabbles among his successors and among the feudal nobility. The last chance of a confrontation on equal terms between Serbian and Ottoman forces had vanished.

Orhan pressed on westwards. He moved his capital to Adrianople—now Edirne on the Turkish-Bulgarian frontier—about 1360. From this base he began to wage war in an episodic but effective fashion. The Turks inflicted a terrible defeat on the Balkan powers at the battle of the River Marica in 1371: the Serbian despots in Macedonia were killed in action, and Marko Kraljević, the son of one of them, became a Turkish vassal as did the Bulgarian ruler.

A few months later, Stephen Uros V, the ruler of Serbia, died. The Marica was strategically a victory of the first importance, for it enabled the Turks to establish themselves in Macedonia, and opened up the way to Eastern Serbia.

The Serbian Empire had crumbled, but Prince Lazar, who had now succeeded to its northern territories, began to rally his people against the Turks. He built up a Serbian kingdom and secured the support of his son-in-law, Vuk Branković, the ruler of Kosovo and Skopje regions. By careful diplomatic activity—which included the marriage of other daughters—he made alliances with his neighbours, especially Bosnia and Hungary. It is uncertain whether he originally envisaged military action, for the Turks had offered reasonable terms of vassaldom to the Balkan princes who had already accepted Ottoman rule.

The history of the growth and decay of the Othman empire, by Dimitrie Cantemir, Voivode of Moldavia, c. 1734-35. Houghton Library, Harvard University (CC BY 4.0 DEED).
The history of the growth and decay of the Othman empire, by Dimitrie Cantemir, Voivode of Moldavia, c. 1734-35. Houghton Library, Harvard University (CC BY 4.0 DEED).

Then, in 1386, the Turks moved up to Eastern Serbia and took Nis, and early in 1389, Pirot. They had also renewed their activity in Bosnia, where they lost one battle, fought against a joint Serbian-Bosnian force. It was, however, Prince Lazar’s kingdom, and not that of the Bosnian king Tvrtko, which barred their way northward to Central Europe and the Danube. In 1389, Sultan Murad I, who had wintered his troops at Plovdiv in Bulgaria, began preparations for a major attack on Serbia.

The story of the action at Kosovo really begins at Plovdiv, and the fifteenth-century Turkish chronicler Neshri has left a valuable if inaccurate account of the whole campaign. From Plovdiv Murad had a choice of two routes into Serbia: through Sofia and Nis, the easier road, or south through Kustendil (Velbuzd), more difficult, being liable to flooding, but quicker. He chose the second. At Kratovo, a Serbian envoy met him with a letter from Prince Lazar, in which he addressed Murad as ‘my brother Khan’. Murad sent the envoy packing; from then on, the Serbs could only expect war.

The Turkish army moved steadily on to the Southern Morava and reached the point where the river forks south. Banners were unfurled, trumpets played, drums beat, and the troops set off" again in full battle order. By mid-day they had covered the thirteen miles to Novo Brdo; they had hardly paused on the march except to take captive two ‘unbelievers’, probably Serbian reconnaissance troops, who strayed across their path.

Then they encamped under the walls of the city: this famous silver-mining town was so well-fortified that they did not attempt to take it. The next day they reached Kosovo Field, a crossroads for the Balkan trade routes. They set up camp on the high land to the north of Pristina. Mules, horses, and camels carried in supplies, eked out by the contributions of Konstantin Dejanović, Murad’s Macedonian vassal, for the Turks liked to live off the country if they could.

Murad and his son Bayezid—nick-named Yilderim, ‘thunderbolt’—looked down from a hill on the enemy forces: they were dismayed by the Serbian numbers, for Prince Lazar had gathered together about 25,000 men.3 In fact, the Turks greatly outnumbered the Serbs and their forces have been estimated at 38,000 or more. The Serbs’ alarm survives in one of their epic poems, where a knight describes his reconnaissance of the enemy lines:

‘From Zvecan Fortress, brother, to Cecan,
From Cecan to the mountains’ summit,—
Everywhere the Turkish soldiers pressed:
Horse upon horse, hero on hero,
Their battle-lances like black mountain-peaks,
Their banners like the clouds
And their tents like winter snows;
If heavy rain had dropped from the sky,
Nowhere would it have fallen on the earth,
But on goodly horses and heroes.’

Far less is known of Lazar’s approach to Kosovo, but according to Serbian popular tradition, confirmed by Neshri, his army set out from Krusevac. This was Lazar’s capital and a strategic point from which he could quickly march out in any direction towards territory endangered by the Turks. The Serbs’ route to Kosovo would have taken them southwards through Kursumlija. They arrived on the battlefield before the Turks and must have encamped somewhere to the north of them.

The Kosovo plateau is bounded to the north and to the west by two rivers, respectively the Lab, flowing at that point east to west, and the Sitnica, flowing north-west. They form two sides of a triangle, never more than five miles wide and narrowing to its apex in the north, where the rivers join below Vucitrn. These natural boundaries contained the action of the battle.

The main road from Pristina, leading to Belgrade and the Danube, bisected the triangle in a north-westerly direction, running parallel with the Sitnica. On the next morning, June 15th, both sides had drawn up their troops for battle straddling this road. The Serbian lines faced south-east. The centre was commanded by Prince Lazar himself, acerrimus bellator, who had royally feasted his commanders the previous night.4

Now his son-in-law, Vuk Branković, was at the head of the right wing, probably because he had supplied the largest contingent of soldiers. The left wing was headed by Vlatko Vuković and his Bosnian troops sent by King Tvrtko; with him were the Serbian leader Miloš Obilić and his men.

The Serbs had no standing army: Lazar depended mainly on troops raised by feudal lords from their lands and by his allies. Foreign mercenaries were also employed. Archers from the feudal levies were placed in the front rank, and behind them were ranged the cavalry, who bristled with weapons. Each horseman wore a belt slung diagonally over his shoulder: on the left side hung his terrible two-edged sword, on the right, long and short knives were stuck into the belt, ready to hand.

Some carried halberds and knobbed maces. They had fantastically-shaped helmets, some horned or shaped like an eagle, and heavy armour. Their stout shields, made of wood faced with leather and steel, were brilliant with heraldic devices. Behind them was the rabble of untrained foot-soldiers.

Opposite them, the Turks were massed in formidable order. The greatest difference between the Turkish and Serbian forces was that the Turks had a standing army: firstly, foot-soldiers paid by the State and secondly, the corps of janissaries founded by Murad himself; men taken as children from Christian territories, converted to Islam and turned into an admirable fighting force. The larger part of the army was still made up of feudal troops, apart from some vassal contingents, as both Turks and Serbs had inherited from Byzantium the system of military fief-holders (pronoia).

Turkish archers formed the front line; behind them was a terrible obstacle, a deep ditch studded with sharp stakes and covered up with loose earth. It protected the centre and right-wing infantry only; the left wing had free if dangerous passage towards the enemy. Then came the cavalry: Sultan Murad faced Prince Lazar in the centre.

Round him was a cluster of flags: four marked the place where he stood; another, his personal banner, had been lettered in gold. Military hierarchy was strictly observed: the Begler Beg of Rumelia (Turkey-in-Europe), Murad’s elder son Bayezid, led the right wing; the Begler Beg of Turkey, Jakub Celebija, the left, with troops from Asia Minor. (Had they been fighting in Asia, the positions would have been reversed.)

The Turks’ helmets were pointed and often covered with coins. The plates of their armour were inscribed with texts from the Koran and with the name of the Sultan, but they preferred to wear chain-mail if they could because it was more comfortable. They had lit fires and brought up camels to frighten the enemy horses when they charged. Their commissariat carts were drawn up as a barrier behind the soldiers.

The battle seems to have begun at sunrise (4 a.m.) and to have ended about four hours later: a long time for a medieval conflict. There have been many contradictory accounts of the action. What seems clear is that it fell into four phases: a Turkish attack, met by a Serbian offensive—apparently successful—a Turkish counter-attack, and the final flight of the Serbs. The Serbs

probably opened hostilities with a volley of arrows, which gave the cue for the Turks to launch their first charge. Bayezid’s right wing was engaged with the Serbian left led by Vlatko Vuković and his Bosnians. With the Lab behind them, they defended their positions fiercely. The Serbian right wing under Vuk Branković must have stayed at their vantage-point near the top of a slope during the opening phase of the battle.

Now they charged, and this onslaught of heavily-armoured cavalry forced the Turks back. The janissaries and other foot-soldiers fought desperately, the bowmen inflicting heavy losses on the Serbs. The battlefield, strewn with heads and with turbans of many colours, reminded one Turkish chronicler of a huge bed of tulips.

It is likely that at this stage of the action Sultan Murad was stabbed to death by a Serbian commander, Miloš Obilić, who is said to have penetrated to the Sultan’s tent by posing as an informer. Victory seemed near for the Serbs, but the stake-strewn trenches proved a deadly barrier and their casualties there stopped them from following up their advance.

Bayezid assumed his father’s command and began to counter-attack. First he ordered out the bukaci-bozundzije: men paid by the State to alarm the enemy. They shouted: ‘The unbeliever has been routed. He has fled.’ Bayezid saw the danger to the Turkish left wing and centre from Vuk Branković’s attack, and he tried to divert the battle westwards towards the Sitnica by attacking the Serbian centre. It wavered, and the surviving janissaries and cavalry from the centre seem to have joined him as well as the retreating Turkish soldiers who surged back to help their comrades.

The last phase of the battle was an overwhelming advance by the Turks. With their superior numbers they were able to drive back one section of Vuk Branković’s forces5; the rest started to retreat northwards towards Vucitrn and Mitrovica, and the whole Serbian line broke. Prince Lazar was captured—tradition says at a village just short of Vucitrn—along with many of his nobles and taken before Bayezid who had already ordered the assassination of his brother and rival Jakub. According to Constantine the Janissary, a fifteenth-century Serb who had been in Turkish service:

‘Then said Sultan Bayezid to Prince Lazar: “Now thou seest my father and brothers laid on biers, how hast thou dared to try and oppose my father?” Prince Lazar was silent, but Duke Krajmir [of Toplice] began to speak: “Gentle prince, answer the Sultan thus: the head is not a willow-tree, that it grows again a second time.” And Prince Lazar said to the Sultan: “A greater marvel is this: that thy father dared to attack the Serbian kingdom.”

Then he continued: “Had I known what I now see with my own eyes, thou wouldst have lain on a fourth bier, but the Lord God did not will it so, because of the magnitude of our sins. May God’s will be done this day!” Then the Sultan ordered that his head be cut off, but Krajmir prevailed on the Sultan by his entreaties, to hold a dish beneath the head of Prince Lazar, that it might not fall to the ground

Then Duke Krajmir bent down his head and said to Prince Lazar: “I have sworn today to the Lord God that where the head of Prince Lazar shall be, there shall be mine”, and both heads fell to the ground. About the same time, a janissary brought in the head of Milo§ Obilic and threw it before the Sultan’s feet, saying: “Here, O Sultan, are the heads of your two fiercest enemies”.’

The action at Kosovo remains full of unanswered questions. When and how was Murad killed? During the battle by a Serbian knight posing as an informer or afterwards by one who shammed dead and leapt on him from a pile of corpses? Why did the Serbs give way so easily at the end? Had the Bosnian contingent withdrawn earlier? Did the Turks and Serbs have fire-arms, as one manuscript version of Neshri states and an early Serbian source seems to imply? Or was this improbable in an age when cannon were so clumsy that they could only be used in siege-warfare?

One conclusion can reasonably be drawn: that the Turks won the battle because of their superior discipline. Their army fought as a united force and not as distinct feudal companies each with its own leader. Again, their tactics were more organized than those of the Serbs: they counted on an opening which used their defensive strength—that is, their foot-soldiers—followed by a strong counter-attack. Two larger questions remain. How complete was the Turkish victory? How important was it historically?

Although the Serbs had lost the battle, their rulers and many of their leaders, for a time the Turks seem to have been so dazed by the death of their own Sultan and his son that they hardly claimed the victory. Bayezid withdrew to Jedren, presumably to confirm his claim to the throne, and a Russian travelling to Byzantium found the whole region in disorder.

In the West, Kosovo was at first celebrated as a victory of the Serbs over the infidel: there was great rejoicing in Florence, and a Te Deum of commemoration was sung in Paris at Notre Dame. Probably this mistake arose from the letter sent by the powerful Bosnian king Tvrtko to Trogir and to other cities in Dalmatia and Italy: in it he announced that he had defeated the Turks at Kosovo. Doubtless, Tvrtko wished to impress the Dalmatian cities whom he hoped to bring under his sovereignty, but he may also genuinely have believed, through Vlatko Vuković, that with such heavy casualties the Turks could not have won a clear victory.

While the Turks certainly profited from the battle, it did not represent the decisive moment at which Serbia came under their rule, but rather a diminishment of Serbian power. A period of consolidation followed: in the 1390s Bayezid cleaned up pockets of resistance in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Eastern Hungary. The Serbian kingdom survived in various forms for nearly seventy years after Kosovo. Immediately after the battle it was ruled by Lazar’s widow Milica and her son Stephen Lazarevic.

After being hard pressed by a Hungarian offensive late in 1389, Milica, probably in 1390, negotiated Turkish vassaldom for Serbia and gave her youngest daughter Olivera in marriage to Bayezid. Thereafter the Serbs fought as bravely with the Turks as they had done against them. The Ottomans had to contend with other enemies in this period, particularly the Byzantines and the rebellious Turkish emirates in Asia Minor. The situation changed in 1402 when Bayezid was disastrously defeated at Angora by the Mongols of the Golden Horde under Tamerlane.

Stephen Lazarevic had fought there as a vassal prince, but he now took advantage of the Ottoman weakness, accepted the title of Despot from the Byzantine Emperor and set up an independent Serbia with Belgrade as his capital. Eleven years later he was forced into vassaldom again. His successor George Branković surrendered Belgrade to the Hungarians, now his allies, and built himself a fortress-capital at Smederevo down the Danube. The Turks, fully recovered from the Mongol onslaught, launched a major campaign against Hungary: on the way, they over-ran Serbia: in 1459 Smederevo fell and the Serbian state was extinguished.

When Kosovo is placed in its historical context it becomes clear that the battle of the Marica in 1371 or Nicopolis in 1396 has the better claim to be considered as a turning-point in the Ottoman advance through the Balkans: the first opened up so much territory within Europe, while the second represented the utter defeat of belated Western intervention, and the triumph, even more marked than at Kosovo, of Turkish discipline over Western feudal disunity.

Nor was Kosovo the beginning of ‘500 years under the Turks’, an old saw still often repeated in Belgrade. Direct Turkish rule of Serbia can best be dated from the mid-fifteenth century: it lasted about 350 years, except in ‘Old Serbia’: the southern districts round Kosovo itself which were only freed after the First Balkan War of 1912.

Kosovo may have been less significant, strategically, than is sometimes made out, but in other ways it was one of the most important battles in the Middle Ages. It was, firstly, a major confrontation between Christian and Moslem forces at a time when Europe thought, indeed had to think, of keeping the infidel at bay. Secondly, in terms of military history it was a vast pitched battle fought on the open field in a period when, though siege warfare was beginning to decline, it was still the usual means of making war.

Crecy in Western, Velbuzd in Eastern Europe, were the precedents for Kosovo, but the bloodshed there was long remembered, and even in England, some two hundred years later, Richard Knolles was to write in his Generall Historie of the Turkes: ‘It is thought, greater armies than these two had sildome before met in EUROPE’.

The influence of Kosovo in the Balkans was long-lived. A cloud of Christian and Moslem propaganda partly obscures the records of the battle. The Serbian monks who wrote the first eulogies of Prince Lazar and wove them into their liturgies gave the dead ruler a martyr’s crown: the Turks in their documents did the same for Murad, alleging that Miloš Obilić had ‘caused the illustrious Sultan to drink the sherbet of martyrdom’.

For both sides Kosovo was an heroic story. It was the first time that an Ottoman Sultan had been killed in action, and the last time that a Serbian ruler was to meet death at the head of a South Slav alliance. Over the next hundred years both Turks and Serbs wrote much about it, and the literary forms they used reflect the meaning of the battle to each nation.

The importance of Kosovo to the Turks has been under-rated. They described the battle at length, in prose and verse, in their fifteenth-century chronicles which glorified the rise of the Ottoman Empire. It was a major episode in the spread of their religious faith and their political power; this, together with the tragic element, was recorded for them as dramatized history.

For the Serbs, a subject people, the battle had a more enduring significance. As with the Turks, it kept a religious meaning, but of a different kind. The cult of the ‘heavenly victory’ begun by monks in the 1390s culminated in the re-naming of St Vitus’ Day (June 28th, New Style) as a Feast of the Serbian Church in 1962, that of ‘the Holy Serbian Martyrs for the Faith’. Kosovo was recorded not as history but as myth based on the events of the battle.

The first layer of this myth was Christian; the second layer—into which some Christian ideas of mercy and resignation were mixed—was pagan. Under the Turks, the peasants from the fifteenth century onwards created epic poems about their glorious past, about the great Nemanjid Emperors and especially about the defeat at Kosovo. They emphasized the individual hero: Miloš Obilić, Prince Lazar, and the cunning vassal prince Marko Kraljević—each acquired a legendary personality. Shame, honour and revenge are the qualities which build up a moral code, often a savage one, in the poems:

Whosoever the Serb and Serbian born,
Serbian his blood and his lineage,
Who comes not to fight at Kosovo,
By his own hand he shall bring forth nothing:
Neither golden wine nor fine white wheat.
There shall be no harvest from his lands
Nor in his house children of his blood.
While his race lives, they shall waste away.’

These warrior epics complemented the work of the Orthodox Church in keeping alive a national identity. They entered the imagination of a whole people for centuries. Karageorge, who led the first Serbian uprising in 1804, recalled Miloš Obilić’ name as he rode through that part of the country associated with him to peasants for whom the hero was a symbol of patriotism.

As late as 1930, a reprint of the Kosovo cycle of poems was advertised as ‘an ever necessary, ever living example of how to die and sacrifice oneself for the fatherland’. In the history of the Serbian people in both World Wars, there are constant reminiscences of the poems in people’s behaviour and feeling: it is as if they could only meet their own twentieth-century tragedy in terms of their medieval ancestors.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Kosovo is the most important date for Serbs in the whole of their history. The Nemanja Empire had been proof to them that they were once a civilized state, and could be so again. Like all memories of former power, this has had its dangers: some Serbs continued to dream of ‘Greater Serbia’ during the first World War, under Pasic, and more recently as well. But Kosovo itself, fought in the twilight of Empire, was proof that they had been warrior heroes.

The second piece of knowledge was the most essential to them when, like the Greeks and other peoples who had fallen under Turkish domination, national pride was more important to them than statehood. The Kosovo legend gave them hope that they could fight again and win their freedom: it had been a physical defeat but a moral victory, ‘a triumph of Good over Evil’. In this way history was translated into myth, and then became history again, in nineteenth and twentieth-century wars waged within the lands which, after 1918, were united as Yugoslavia.

1 Serbs and Montenegrins'are both of the same South Slav stock and Orthodox religion, but their history differs. The Montenegrins, once part of the medieval Serbian Empire, stayed independent of the Turks except for a short time in the seventeenth century. Many Serbs, because of the prolonged Turkish occupation of their lands, migrated to other South Slav areas and to Hungary. In present-day Yugoslavia Serbia forms one Republic within a Federation of six; numerous Serbs are to be found in at least five of the other Republics.

2 The supremacy of the medieval Bulgarian Empire had been broken by the Serbs at Velbuzd in 1330, and its strength was finally sapped by the divisions that followed the death of the Emperor Alexander some forty years later.

3 Of these, 5,000 might be commissariat troops and servants, who would fight as foot-soldiers.

4 The Serbian epic poem which describes this banquet has echoes of the Last Supper, but the veille d’armes was in fact a medieval custom.

5 Vuk Branković’s treachery, mentioned in the Serbian epic poems, has no historical foundation. On the contrary, he held out against the Turks until 1392, when he finally accepted vassalage. He may well have become a scapegoat because he survived the battle alive while Lazar died for his people.