Today in European history: the First Battle of Kosovo (1389)

Today is the anniversary of the First Battle of Kosovo, in 1389, the one that, as I said when talking about the Second Battle of Kosovo, in 1448, is the one most people will probably think of when you say “the Battle of Kosovo” without specifying any particular one. This Battle of Kosovo, though tactically inconclusive, was a strategic Ottoman victory that both set the stage for early Ottoman domination of the Balkans and went a long way toward establishing a Serbian national consciousness, and toward centering Kosovo within that consciousness. It’s an important battle with long-reaching implications that is unfortunately not very well-documented (a very common problem with much of early Ottoman history). But we’ll do the best we can.

The Growth of the Ottoman Empire through the late 17th century (Wikimedia)

The Ottomans made their first foray into Europe (i.e., across the Dardanelles/Bosphorus), under their second sultan, Orhan, who led them on some preliminary raids/missions of conquest into Thrace. When he died and was succeeded by Murad I, in 1362, the Ottomans continued the progress he’d begun. Although Murad lost Gallipoli, on the Anatolian side of the straits, in 1366 to Amadeo of Savoy, his westward advance continued. The Byzantine city of Adrianople (modern Edirne) was captured by the Ottomans either in 1362 (give or take) or 1369 (more recent scholarship suggests the latter date). Murad, who saw the possibilities that lay to the west, quickly moved his capital from the Anatolian city of Bursa to Adrianople, where it would remain until the capture of Constantinople in 1453.

Major cities fell to the Ottomans one after the other: Sofia, in Bulgaria, fell in 1385, Niš, in Serbia, in 1386, and Thessaloniki, in Macedonia (in Greek Macedonia today), in 1387. Murad’s Ottoman forces fought a series of engagements against the Serbs–the Ottomans won a major victory over the Serbian Empire at Maritsa, in 1371, which helped precipitate the empire’s breakup, but engagements at Dubravnica (1380 or 1381) and Pločnik (between 1385 and 1387) were won by Moravian Serbia, the most powerful of the kingdoms that emerged from the empire’s dissolution. In the latter battle, the Serbs were led by their prince, Lazar Hrebeljanović, who also led them, and died in the process, at Kosovo. Another battle, in 1388 at Bileća, ended in an Ottoman defeat at the hands of the Bosnians.

Gallipoli, if you’re curious, was given back to the Ottomans in the late 1370s by Byzantine emperor Andronikos IV (d. 1385), a payment for the Ottoman military aid that allowed him to win the throne.

The defeats at Pločnik and Bileća might have stymied the Ottomans’ advance for a short time, but a dispute involving an Ottoman vassal quickly brought them back into the western Balkans. The ruler of Zeta (more or less modern Montenegro), Đurađ II (d. 1403), the vassal in question, got into a spat with Tvrtko I (1391), the King of Bosnia (who also claimed to be king of Serbia), and Murad probably saw an opening to subjugate Bosnia, so he once again led his army west. However, to get to Bosnia, or to get to the Serbian principality ruled by Vuk Branković (1397), another potential Ottoman target, he had to go through Lazar’s territory, and Lazar decided to head him off.

Murad I (Wikimedia)

As I said, not much is directly attested in terms of how the battle proceeded. Lazar presumably chose the site, so he had the advantage in that sense. The Ottoman army probably outnumbered the Serbs, but not overwhelmingly (the upper estimates suggest maybe 40,000 men vs. around 30,000). It’s important to understand that this was not the Ottoman army you might be familiar with from later Ottoman history. It was not a gunpowder army, it was not infantry-dominated, and the famous Janissary Corps was at this point very small. This was a cavalry-centric force where the infantry was expected to absorb the enemy attack while the cavalry rode around the field and did most of the damage. Lazar’s army would have been similarly cavalry-oriented.

Unfortunately, one of the details that’s too sketchy to say much about is precisely how Lazar was killed. We know that the fighting was very fierce and that both armies inflicted substantial damage on each other, and the tide didn’t really shift decisively in the Ottomans’ favor until Lazar fell and, subsequently, Branković fled the field. At that point the Serbian army began to break. However, at some point during the battle, one Serbian knight, Miloš Obilić, rode to the Ottoman lines declaring his intention to defect–this seems to have been planned in advance. He was then given an audience with Murad, at which point he pulled out a dagger and killed the Ottoman ruler before being killed himself. Miloš, alongside Lazar, became a Serbian national hero, and his legend was used to particularly ugly effect during the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Miloš Obilić standing before Murad’s tent, by 19th century Serbian lithographers Pavle Čortanović and Adam Stefanović (Wikimedia)

The final result of the battle was mutual destruction. Both armies were gutted and both leaders lay dead on the field. The difference, then, was in the Ottoman capacity to absorb the loss of almost an entire army and simply replace it, a capacity that Serbia couldn’t match. Bosnia, surprisingly, remained out of Ottoman hands until the 1460s, though Tvrtko I’s already dubious claim to the kingship of Serbia was rendered totally fictitious when Stefan Lazarević (d. 1427), Lazar’s son and successor, put Serbia under Ottoman protection. Murad was succeeded by his son, Bayezid I (d. 1403), known as Yıldırım or “Thunderbolt,” who had a very successful reign from a conquest perspective (albeit largely in Anatolia rather than Europe), until he ran into Timur at Ankara in 1402 and was defeated so thoroughly that the whole Ottoman Empire remained shattered for the next decade. As I said above, Lazar was succeeded by his son, Stefan Lazarević, who really had no choice but to become Bayezid’s vassal (though he quickly asserted Serbia’s independence after Ankara). And with that, there ceased to be any principality in the Balkans strong enough that it could realistically hope to ward off Ottoman domination.

In practical/immediate terms, then, Kosovo is important because it confirmed that the Balkans were vulnerable to Ottoman power. But its most enduring legacy belongs to the Serbs. Though it was a Serbian defeat, Kosovo was later cast as a heroic Serbian resistance to Ottoman/Muslim encroachment and became, for better and for worse, one of the foundations upon which Serbian identity was crafted.

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