Battle of Kosovo
With the defeat of the Christian Crusaders in the Holy Land, the most powerful Muslim state, the Ottoman Empire, began a drive to capture Constantinople and push north into the Danube River Valley to secure the Balkans and capture Vienna. To accomplish these goals, Ottoman sultan Murad I would first have to conquer the independent kingdom of Serbia. Toward this end, he sought to take advantage of the endemic rivalries in the Balkans. The stakes were considerable. An Ottoman victory over the Serbs would bring Muslim power into the heart of Europe, while a victory by the Serbs and their allies over the Ottomans would perhaps inject new life into the tottering Byzantine Empire and even open the possibility of a renewal of the Crusades against Islam.
Murad made careful preparations for his offensive. These included securing peace treaties with Venice and Genoa that brought mercenary troops to his aid. In the spring of 1389, Murad I moved his army north from Philippoupolis (Plovdiv) to Ihtiman, then proceeded via Velbuzcd (Kyustendil) and Kratovo. Murad arrived with his troops at Priština on June 14. Meanwhile, Serbian prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic´ gathered a coalition force of Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians, and Wallachians at Niš. On learning of Murad’s movements, Lazar transferred his army to Kosovo, an important Balkan trade crossroads close to Priština.
Much of the information about the resulting Battle of Kosovo is speculative. Murad’s army, including its mercenaries, probably numbered 27,000–40,000 men, with as many as 8,500 of them cavalry. Lazar’s force was smaller, probably only 12,000–30,000 men, with the Serbs constituting the great majority. Lazar had only several thousand cavalry. Lazar commanded the bulk of the Serbia contingent, with the remainder headed by Serbian noblemen Vuk Brankovic´ and Vlatko Vukovic´. Murad’s Ottoman and mercenary forces were also much better armed and equipped than were the Serbs and their allies.
Serbian forces were drawn up on a Kosovo field about 3 miles northwest of Priština. Lazar commanded the Serb center, Vuk commanded the right, and Vlatko commanded the left. The heavy Serb cavalry were positioned in front, with lighter cavalry equipped with bows on the flanks. Murad commanded the Ottoman center, with his son Bayezid in charge of the right wing and another son, Yakub, on the left. Some 1,000 archers were on the wings, while the Janissaries were in the center with Murad and his cavalry guard behind them.
Battle was joined on June 15, 1389, St. Vitus’ Day (celebrated on June 28 according to the Gregorian calendar). It began when Murad’s archers opened up on the Serbian front-rank cavalry, who then formed into a great wedge and charged the Ottoman line. Although the Serbs enjoyed some success on the Ottoman left, they were turned back on the center and right. Bayezid won the battle by directing a decisive counterattack following the initial Serbian charge. Another factor in the Ottoman victory was the departure of Vuk and his troops at a critical juncture in the fighting, prompted by either the desire to save some of the Serb forces or perhaps treason.
Murad, though well protected by Janissaries, was killed either during or after the battle reportedly by a Serb, Miloš Obilic´. Accounts differ as to how this occurred. Obilic´ either posed as a traitor to gain audience to the sultan or pretended to be dead but then stabbed the sultan when he walked the battlefield. Murad’s tomb can still be seen on the battlefield today.
Bayezid, who succeeded Murad as sultan, immediately summoned Yakub and ordered him strangled so that there would be no other claim to the succession. Taken prisoner, Prince Lazar was executed.
The Battle of Kosovo is regarded by Serbs as a mythic event in their history, a symbol of Serb nationalism and resistance to foreign rule. Although the battle brought a pause in the Turkish advance because Bayezid had to go to Constantinople to be crowned sultan, Serbian losses in the battle were catastrophic, and Serbia was not able to recover immediately. Although some Serbian resistance continued, many Serbian noblemen were forced to wed their daughters to Ottomans as well as pay tribute and supply soldiers to the Ottoman Army. For the next 70 years Serbia was a vassal state of the Ottomans.
Judah, Tim. The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Singleton, Frederick Bernard. A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.