Since at least the 19th century Serbs have memorialized the defeat and death of Lazar I at the Battle of Kosovo in (1389) as an event of central significance in the nation’s history. The defeat of Lazar’s forces by the army of Ottoman sultan Murad I is frequently used to mark the end of independent, medieval Serbia and the beginning of Turkish rule.
Popular songs and poems dating back to the 16th century or earlier recount the martyrdom of Lazar, who according to tradition was visited by an angel the night before the battle and offered a choice between a heavenly and an earthly kingdom.
Choosing the former he was then betrayed by a rival prince secretly allied to Murad. Some versions of the story include a Serb nobleman who demonstrated his true loyalty by sneaking into the Ottoman camp and killing the sultan before the battle.
The traitorous prince is commonly identified as Vuk Brankovic and the loyal noble as Miloš Obilic, both supposedly sons-in-law of Lazar and rivals for his attention. Nationalist writers have used this tale of divine selection, betrayal, loyalty, and deceit to symbolize the historical destiny of Serbia and explain its subsequent incorporation into the Ottoman Empire: 1299–1453.
Between the 12th and early 14th centuries Serbia was united under the Nemanyich dynasty, which consolidated Serb control over much of the central Balkans. The last ruler of the dynasty, Czar Stephan Dušan (r. 1331–55), built a short-lived Serbian empire, extending his control over Albania, Macedonia, and much of Greece, and promoting the elevation of the archbishop of Ipek to the position of patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Following Dušan’s death his son Uroš proved unable to maintain his father’s legacy, and real authority quickly slipped into the hands of a number of regional lords. In 1371 one of his supporters, Vukašin, was killed at the head of a large Serb army in battle with the Turks on the Maritsa River. Uroš died two months later, ending the Nemanyich dynasty and with it any real hope for the revival of the Serb empire. The country disintegrated into a number of independent but weak principalities, each vying for territorial control.
The strongest of the remaining Serb rulers was Lazar Hrebeljanovic of Kruševac. In 1374 a gathering of Serb nobles at Ipek recognized him as their leader. Lazar consolidated his position by concluding marriage alliances with the leading nobles in Kosovo and Montenegro, Vuk Brankovic and Gjergj Balsha. He also developed close relations with King Tvrtko of Bosnia, the strongest ruler in the region.
To further bolster his position, he cultivated the support of the Serb patriarch by granting the church additional lands and founding the monastery of Ravanica. Though successful in establishing and defending his role as the leading prince in Serbia, Lazar was unable to reunite a Serb state.
As for other Serb rulers, Lazar’s relations with the Ottoman Turks were complicated. In the 14th century Ottoman influence in the Balkans was growing rapidly, capitalizing on the internal disorder and decline of the Byzantine, Bulgarian, and Serbian empires. Numerous Christian rulers entered into alliance with the Turks or accepted vassalage in return for Ottoman support in their struggle with neighboring princes.
Christian forces were commonly found fighting on the sultan’s campaigns and Turkish soldiers were occasionally lent to Christian princes. Throughout, the Ottomans steadily gained territory and strength, emerging as the leading power of the region.
In 1386 Murad seized Niš from Lazar and two years later raided Bosnia. The following spring the Ottomans prepared to occupy Lazar’s possessions in Kosovo as a prelude to an attack on Bosnia. Lazar called on the assistance of Tvrtko, who provided a large force, as did Lazar’s son-in-law, Vuk Brankovic.
The two armies met at Kosovo Polje on June 15, 1389. Both armies suffered heavy casualties and Lazar and Murad died in the battle, at the end of which Lazar’s army fled. Though the Ottoman army controlled the field, Murad’s son Bayezid I abandoned the campaign in the Balkans and led the remaining Turkish forces against his brother in Anatolia in order to secure his succession to the throne.
There is no direct historical evidence supporting the details of the popular legends associated with the Battle of Kosovo. The identification of Vuk Brankovic as Murad’s secret ally in the battle and the betrayer of Lazar is unlikely given his subsequent, firm resistance to the Ottoman advances in the region.
Similarly the suggestion that Lazar’s defeat marked the end of the medieval Serb empire and the beginning of Ottoman rule fails to account for the dissension of the Serb nobles following Dušan’s death, their continued independence in the half-century following the battle, and their frequent cooperation with the Turks throughout the period.
Though it was likely not the epic confrontation described in Serb folk traditions, Lazar’s defeat in the Battle of Kosovo, as the battle on the Maritsa in 1371, marks the gradual decline of Serb resistance to Ottoman expansion in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. In both cases, the Serbs suffered large casualties. After the battles Serb princes were divided in their reaction to Ottoman victory, with some continuing to resist and others seeking to accommodate the Turks.