Battle of Kosovo 1389 – Rise of Ottoman Empire

Battle of Kosovo 1389 – Rise of Ottoman Empire. The last years of Murad and the climax of his wars in the Balkans culminated in the famous Battle of Kosovo. After its triumph over the Karamanids at the  Battle of Frenkyazisi, the Ottoman state under Sultan Murad had become the undisputed premier power of the Anatolian peninsula. However, even before Murad had secured his great victory in the region.

The sultan of the Ottomans would have to deal with rising tensions between himself and his Serbian vassals, who had accompanied him during the military campaign. During the aftermath of the short siege on Konya, Serbian troops under the sultan’s banner had begun looting civilian property within the city without the authorization of Ottoman leadership. On his march back to Edirne,   Murad would respond by executing the Serbian perpetrators responsible for the looting.  

Battle of Plocnik

Outraged with their brethren being executed by their foreign overlord, a vast majority of the Serbian vassal contingent within the  Ottoman army would defect to Prince Lazar, who had by 1387 refused to give his yearly tribute to Edirne, and started to form a large alliance of lower powers against Murad. Momentum would shift further into the Serbian prince’s favor that same year when he defeated and scattered an Ottoman raiding force of 20,000 during the decisive Battle of Plocnik, thus garnering even more support for an anti-Ottoman coalition in the region. 

With a Balkan prince openly defying him and with the death of his much-trusted Grand Vizier during the same year, Murad would once again turn his gaze to the West as he and his armies crossed into   Europe during the late months of 1387. The Ottoman  Sultan would first appoint Candarlizade Ali Pasha,   the son of the former Grand Vizier, to his father’s former post before making military plans against Prince Lazar.

Kingdom of  Bosnia

By 1388, the Serbian prince had signed a peace treaty with Hungarian King   Sigismund, thus securing his northern flank, and began consolidating his forces with the Serbian nobles of his realm and the neighboring Kingdom of  Bosnia in addition to the Albanian principality of Muzaka. Seeing that a powerful coalition was being formed against him, during the spring of 1388, Murad would launch a major two-pronged invasion deep into the Balkans.

The first was aimed at   Ivan Shishman of Bulgaria, who was said to be in the process of entering Lazar’s coalition, and the second directly at Tvrtko I of Bosnia in the hopes of dislodging him from his alliance with Serbia.  Murad’s Grand Vizier, Candarlizade Ali  Pasha, would lead the first invasion. With his 30,000-strong host, he would pass over the  Balkan Mountains and descend into the Northern   Bulgarian plain in a swift surprise invasion.

The Bulgarian Tsar

The Bulgarian Tsar, caught off guard by the sudden Ottoman attack, would flee from his capital city of Tarnovo to the more secure Danube fortress of Nicopolis, where he planned to coordinate his country’s defenses. However, the fierce and swift Ottoman invasion would surprise many Bulgarian garrisons in the region, causing many of them to surrender in droves, such as the garrisons of  Cherven, Shumen, Venchan, Svishtov, and Ovech.  

With large sections of Eastern Bulgaria falling to Muslim rule, Ali Pasha’s forces would next make their way towards the Danube River and the Black  Sea, besieging the towns of Varna and Tutrakan; however, the Ottoman Grand Vizier would be unable to seize either city as he lacked the men and materials to maintain a siege on the two well-fortified coastal towns. Turning westwards, Ali Pasha would march on the fortress town of Nicopolis, which Ivan Shishman presided over with the remnants of the Bulgarian military.  

Ali Pasha

However, after some time besieging the town,  it became evident to Ali Pasha that he couldn’t break through the defenses of the Bulgarian Tsar with his current numbers, so he sent letters to Murad I for reinforcements from Edirne. Seeing that he was about to be gravely outnumbered, Ivan Shishman tried to bargain with the Ottoman  Sultan to avoid losing all of his territories to the Muslim invaders.

These negotiations were successful, and the Tsar relinquished the Danube fortress of Silistra to Murad in return for a  cessation of all hostiles, the continuation of paying a yearly tribute to Edirne, and a promise he would not join Lazar’s military coalition.  After that, what remained of the Bulgarian realm was a petty collection of lands surrounding Tarnovo and Nicopolis, the Tsardom of Vidin to the west, and the Despotate of Dobruja to the east.

With Bulgaria ceasing to be a threat on his northern flank, Murad would now turn his attention to his second planned invasion of the year targeted at the Kingdom of Bosnia.  During the summer of 1388, while Ali Pasha was commencing his invasion of Bulgaria,   an Ottoman army of 18,000 led by the Rumelia  Beylerbey, Lala Şahin Pasha, would spear through Serbian territories into the domains of Tvrtko I.

Grand Duke of Bosnia

However, this time the Christian defenders of the region were well prepared against their  Muslim invaders, with the Grand Duke of Bosnia, Vlatko Vukovic, ambushing the forces of Şahin  Pasha near the town of Bileca, resulting in the utter destruction of the Ottoman host and the near-death of the Ottoman pasha himself. 

Despite the various costly defeats inflicted upon his forces in the Balkans, Murad I did not give up his imperialistic ambitions and made plans for a grand military campaign directed at Prince Lazar for the next campaigning season in  1389, which this time he would lead personally. Gathering up his local forces in the city of  Plovdiv, Murad would send letters to his two sons, Şehzade Bayezid and Yakup, to muster their levies in Anatolia and meet their father in the Balkans.  

Throughout the spring of 1389, an Ottoman host of around 40,000 was formed in Plovdiv. Meanwhile,   Lazar was not idle and began preparing for an eventual Ottoman invasion. With all his preparations for the campaign complete, Murad and his grand Ottoman army would start their march to Serbia, first stopping in the lands of his Serbian vassals, the dominions of Marko Mrnjavcevic and Konstantin Dejanovic.

Ottoman Invasion

Gathering up the remaining Christians who had not already defected to Lazar in these regions, Murad would then make his final march towards Pristina,   a vital crossroad town located in the heart of the central Balkan Peninsula.  In the wake of the Ottoman invasion, Prince  Lazar had ordered the consolidation of his coalition forces in the Moravian Serbian capital of Krusevac. The majority of the Serbian prince’s army was made up of military contingents from his holdings and the realm of his son-in-law Vuk Brankovic.

In addition to his primary host, Lazar would also be accompanied by smaller contingents from Bosnia, Hungary, Albania, Wallachia, and even a small group of Knights Hospitallers In the first weeks of June, the coalition army under Lazar would begin their march south to meet Murad’s host with the intent of repelling the Ottoman invasion and perhaps starting a  process of kicking the Ottomans out of Europe.  

On the 15th of June, 1389, on a flat plain northwest of Pristina, the armies of Lazar and Murad would face and initiate one of the most significant battles in Medieval European history.  His foe had unexpectedly challenged him to a  field battle, so Murad set up his Ottoman host in a defensive formation. On the Ottoman front line was a contingent of around 1,000 archers encamped in defensive positions between the two armies.

Lazar’s Army

Behind them stood the majority of the Ottoman host, the infantry, made out of primarily irregular light infantry units called “azabs,” who were mainly recruited from Anatolia and armed with axes, maces, bows, and poleaxes. Further in the back stood the Ottoman cavalry, mostly Akıncı light cavalry, and Timarli Sipahi heavy cavalry. Lastly was Murad’s own personal guard, also known as the Kapikulu,   made out of 2,000 elite Janissaries and 500 Kapikulu Sipahi cavalry.  

Şehzades Yakub and Bayezid were respectively given commands on the left and right wings,   while Murad and his Grand Vizier, Candarlizade  Ali Pasha, commanded the Ottoman center.  Although Murad’s army outnumbered Lazar’s army by 40,000 to 30,000, the majority of the Serbian host was better equipped and armored than their  Ottoman counterparts. The strength of Lazar’s army lay with his mounted knights and light archer cavalry, which made up the Serbian front line.  

Behind them were various contingents of infantry units formed out of Lazar’s coalition members and his holdings. Lazar would command the Serbian center while Bosnian Grand Duke Vlatko Vukovic and Vuk Brankovic were respectively given commands on the Serbian left and right wings.  The battle would begin with a general charge of  Ottoman Akıncı light horsemen towards the flanks of Lazar’s host. However, after unsuccessfully trying to harass individual enemy formations, the Akıncıs would retreat to their original positions at the Ottoman rear.

Ottoman Empire

After repelling this initial Ottoman assault, Lazar would then attack his own by ordering a general charge of his entire line in the hopes of overwhelming his foe with his numerically superior heavy cavalry. Prince Lazar himself and his fellow commanders on the  Serbian wings would accompany this mass charge of mounted knights as hundreds of banners from across the Balkans filled the Kosovo field.  

As Lazar’s Serbian Knights were making their way through the plains, Ottoman archers, from their defensive positions on the Ottoman front line, would send volleys of arrow fire into the ranks of the Serbian cavalry, perhaps as a way to dislodging their tight wedge formations before impact. However, this would inflict marginal damage, and the entire heavily armored   Serbian line violently crashed into Murad’s army resulting in heavy Ottoman casualties. 

Although Prince Lazar and Vlatko Vukovic both made ground pushing through Imperial lines,   on the Serbian right, Vuk Brankovic made the most significant progress by pushing back Ottoman forces all the way back into their war camp. At this critical junction, it seemed like the Ottoman left, commanded by  Şehzade Yakub, was on the brink of total collapse, which would have allowed the Serbian coalition to fold up the entire Ottoman Empire army. 

Death of Murad

At this precise moment, historical sources and traditional Balkan folklore on the Battle of   Kosovo begin to provide different accounts of the following events. According to Bosnian sources written a couple of months after the battle,  a group of twelve dismounted Serbian Knights had managed to break through the crumbling Ottoman left wing before making their way to Murad’s tent, killing the Ottoman Sultan in the process before being hacked down by Murad’s personal guard.  

Ottoman sources, meanwhile, also agree that the sultan died but describe his ultimate fate differently. According to them, the death of Murad occurred after the battle. As the sultan was inspecting the dead on the battlefield, a knight who had been previously playing dead rushed towards the Ottoman ruler, fatally stabbing him in the heart. Serbian sources also state that the death of Murad occurred after the battle, claiming that a Serbian nobleman named Milos Obilic, sometimes cited as Lazar’s son-in-law, wished for an audience with the sultan in his tent to convert to Islam and surrender his arms.

However, once entering the tent, the nobleman would draw out a hidden dagger and stab Murad in the chest before being killed by the sultan’s personal guard. Whichever one of these renditions of events was true, the result was the same: the sultan of the Ottomans lay dead on the Kosovo Field.  Whether the sultan was dead by this point in the battle or not, Vuk Brankovic’s successful charge on the Ottoman left had begun to stall as reinforcements from the back line had started trickling into the crumbling wing,  thus stabilizing the Ottoman front line for the time being.

Prince Lazar’s

As the initial Serbian charge lost momentum and thousands of men from both sides were bogged down in hand-to-hand combat,  the tides slowly shifted in favor of the Ottomans. In a sudden counteroffensive with his Anatolian calvary, Şehzade Bayezid began to push back the overextended forces of Vlatko  Vukovic in a drive that would spiral into a large-scale Bosnian rout. With the Serbian left in a complete rout and Bayezid’s forces converging on the Serbian center, uncertainty and dread began to ferment in the ranks of Prince Lazar’s coalition.

With the tides of the battle suddenly changing in favor of the Ottomans, Vuk Brankovic began conducting an organized withdrawal from the battlefield in a move to save the remaining troops under his command. Perhaps the Serbian nobleman wanted to conserve his forces to resist the Ottomans in the future. However, according to traditional  Serbian folklore, it is stated that Brankovic had more sinister reasons to withdraw from the battle as he wished to make a bid for the Serbian throne by secretly working with Murad.

Whatever the case, whether Lazar intended to withdraw himself but could not, or his son-in-law betrayed him, the Serbian prince prepared to make a last stand with Ottoman forces now flooding down both his flanks. After hours of withstanding Ottoman attacks, the remaining Serbian army contingent had either been routed or killed. Lazar Hrebeljanović, the Serbian prince who had tried to reform the former  Serbian Empire under his rule and had been a thorn in Ottoman ambitions in the Balkans for years,  was captured by Ottoman troops and beheaded.  

Battle of Kosovo

Sultan Murad I, the ruler responsible for the widely successful Ottoman conquests in the   Balkans and Anatolia, was also dead. In his  18th-century history of the Ottoman Empire,   Edward Gibbon recorded the following on Murad’s  twenty-seven-year reign, “Osman gathered a race   around him, Orhan turned it into a state,  but it was Murad who established an empire.”  The Battle of Kosovo had been the bloodiest battle so far fought by the Ottoman state since its foundation.

Even though the Ottomans had managed to wipe out the majority of the Serbian nobility and their prince in a single battle, it came at a high cost. A large portion of the Ottoman army had been killed along with their sultan during the battle. Now, the House of Osman’s lands were susceptible to outside invasions from its hostile neighbors in the Balkans and Anatolia.  

According to Ottoman sources,  during the aftermath of the battle,   a fatally wounded Murad had requested the audience of his son Bayezid to swiftly confirm the line of succession to the Ottoman throne. In front of the Grand Vizier and other   Ottoman pashas and statesmen, the bedridden Murad proclaimed Bayezid as Sultan before passing away.   After Murad’s death, civil war became a  possibility.

Ottoman Civil War

The former sultan’s younger son,   Yakub, was still uninformed of his father’s death or the ascension of his older brother since he was still pursuing the ruling Serbian army. The pashas, who had experienced the Ottoman civil war of 1373, decided that all threats to Bayezid’s claim were to be eliminated. Upon returning to the   Ottoman camp, Şehzade Yakub was called into  Bayezid’s tent and strangled to death by a group of executioners, thus continuing the Ottoman practice of fratricide. 

The reign of Bayezid I would begin with the withdrawal of the remnants of the Ottoman army back into Ottoman territory. The new sultan of the  Ottomans would first visit the capital of Edirne to secure the Ottoman throne before visiting  Bursa to bury his late father and brother. While in Europe, the Battle of Kosovo was seen as a victory for Christendom over the invading armies of Islam as the Ottoman invasion was repelled, and the death of Sultan Murad I was celebrated in many European capitals.

However,  the reality on the ground was much different, as Moravian Serbia was now in a state where it could not resist its foes on the battlefield anymore due to the losses in manpower it had endured during the aftermath of the battle. The late prince’s son, the twelve-year-old Stefan Lazarevic, would succeed his father during the days after the battle with his mother, Princess Milica, becoming regent for the minor prince until he was of age to rule independently. 

The Hungarian Invasion

While there was a transfer in power in the Moravian capital of Krusevac,   the Serbian state under the young prince became ever so surrounded by enemies on all sides.   Bosnian King Tvrtko I, now seeing his alliance with Serbia reaching its maximum practicality after the Ottoman withdrawal from Kosovo, had begun planning to seize Serbian lands to truly become the King of Serbia, a title which he took back in 1377.

Meanwhile, Vuk Brankovic, having preserved the majority of his troops from Kosovo, had allied himself with Hungary to make a bid for the Serbian throne. Lastly,  it was still unknown whether Bayezid would conduct a military campaign of revenge for his father’s death in the following months.  During the fall of 1389, the first action against  Moravian Serbia was taken with the Hungarian invasion of the principality resulting in the fall of many border fortresses in the region, such as Borač and Čestin.

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Lacking any options to repel the northern invasion, Princess Milica submitted to the Ottoman vassalage in 1390 to protect what remained of the once-large Serbian realm.   In addition to paying a yearly tribute to Edirne,  the youngest daughter of the former Serbian prince, Princess Olivera Lazarevic, would be sent to Bayezid’s harem to marry the Ottoman Sultan. By the summer of 1390, the Hungarian invasion would be repelled by local Ottoman detachments sent to the region. All of the border fortresses that had fallen to Hungary the previous year were retaken.  

Death of Sultan Murad I 

Even though Vuk Brankovic still resisted Ottoman rule and the rule of his brother-in-law Stefan   Lazarevic in Krusevac, the year 1390 would mark the beginning of more than 470 years of   Ottoman rule in Serbia. The Battle of Kosovo is an integral part of the story of the rise of the   Ottoman Empire. With the submission of the most formidable state in the Balkans, the Ottoman state was now able to expand its domains throughout the local region and beyond freely.

Kosovo would also be an integral part of the story of Serbian national identity, which arose during the 19th   century as the battle is depicted in Serbian nationalistic circles as the end of a heroic colorful golden age and the beginning of centuries of oppression and slavery under the Ottoman yoke.  With the deaths of Sultan Murad I  and Prince Lazar and the destruction of Serbian autonomy after the Battle of  Kosovo, a new age started in the Balkans.  

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