Introduction part one – the sovereigns
The 1389 Battle of Kosovo, the famous Field of Blackbirds, is usually seen as the greatest and final calamity in the history of medieval Serbia, the gaggle of feuding despotates and principalities which Serbia had become briefly making common cause against the Ottomans only to be utterly crushed and have their lands placed under the Turkish heel, where they would remain for the next five centuries.
That is what happened, but what led to it is, in the opinion of many historians, far more significant. Eighteen years earlier, on 27th September 1371*, the far less well known Battle of Maritsa sounded the death knell of the once-great Serbian kingdom, which under the vigorous and able Nemanjić dynasty had for two centuries been one of the major powers of south-eastern Europe, and left Serbia in chaos. Only sixteen years previously the kingdom had been at its peak, its territories stretching from the Adriatic to the Aegean due to the many victories of Stephen Uroš IV, known as Silni, ‘the Mighty’. The map above shows the legacy he left his son Stephen Uroš V, whose corresponding epithet was Nejaki, ‘the Weak’.
Universally praised for his gentle and humane character, and not necessarily incapable, Stephen Uroš V nevertheless was not the man to hold his father’s conquests together. Before many years passed most of the south of the realm broke away altogether under his half-uncle Simeon, while elsewhere local lords ruled without reference and sometimes even lip service to the King. The strongest of the lords, Vukašin Mrnjavčević, first compelled Stephen Uroš V to crown him co-king, then to associate his son, later to be famous in legend as Prince Marko, as Young King, the title of the heir.
Despite not having one drop of Nemanjić blood, perhaps Marko might indeed have held the kingship he claimed on Stephen Uroš V’s childless death. But there was no kingdom left to claim, and all Marko ever ruled was one part of one province of the former realm. As night fell over Maritsa, Vukašin Mrnjavčević, his brother Despot Jovan Ugleješa, scores more Serbian nobles and thousands of knights and common troopers lay dead, and the river for which the battle is named ran red with Serbian blood. The Ottoman forces they had faced were numerically far weaker, but the Turks were the great masters of warfare in that age, and their tactical superiority had achieved what was rather a massacre than a victory.
His army all but gone, the nobility decimated, the guiding hand which despite his quasi-usurpation Mrnjavčević had at least provided removed, Stephen Uroš V’s hollow shell of kingship was even thinner than before. Less than two months later he died, and with him any last vestige of the medieval Serbian monarchy.
Ivan Sratsimir of Bulgaria was also to be the last King until modern times of a once-great, prosperous and cultured kingdom. Founded in the seventh century by Turkic invaders, the Bulgars, over time the Turkic ruling class became assimilated into the Slavic population, and under Boris I the khanate became a kingdom, the state religion changed (not without bloodshed, as many of the aristocracy opposed the move and were consequently executed) from shamanism to Orthodox Christianity and Bulgaria, long a power in the region, became dominant. A long period of prosperity under Boris I and his son Simeon I and grandson Peter I saw medieval Bulgarian civilisation reach its apotheosis, leaving a cultural legacy which includes Old Church Slavonic and the Cyrillic script, first developed in Bulgaria under Boris I.
Peter’s son Roman however failed of issue, which was the end of the original dynasty. He left the throne to his general Samuel, a capable ruler who was however utterly defeated by the Eastern Emperor Basil II, and his realm subjugated. More than a century and a half later the brothers Theodore and Asen, nobles from Tarnovo, led a successful rebellion and established the Bulgarian kingdom anew, Theodore being crowned as Peter IV. Under his nephew Ivan Asen II, son of his brother Asen, the revived kingdom became again a great power of the region and there was a second cultural flowering, comparable to that under their great predecessors of previous centuries.
The twists and turns of the succession thereafter are dizzying, with tsars such as George Terter I appearing who had no discernible connection with previous rulers, but nevertheless the last of them, Ivan Sratsimir, was a descendant of Ivan Asen II, his 3 x great-grandson to be precise. He reigned in Vidin, in the west of Bulgaria, while his younger half-brother Ivan Shishman reigned in the east. The heir to their father Ivan Alexander had been Sratsimir’s full brother Michael Asen IV, but he fell fighting the Ottomans and Sratsimir then expected to be crowned co-ruler and heir. However Ivan Alexander’s choice fell on Shishman, son of his second marriage, to Sarah, a Jewish convert from Thessalonica.
Sratsimir promptly rebelled, declaring himself tsar in despite of his father, who made no moves against the son he had tried to disinherit, even aiding him against the Hungarians. Nevertheless Shishman succeeded in the greater part of the realm, and until his 1395 death at Turkish hands there were two tsars. Shishman’s former realm was absorbed into the Sultan’s dominions, and the Vidin tsardom was now all that was left of free Bulgaria. Following the calamitous Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 that too fell, Sratsimir meeting a similar fate to his brother’s.
Despite all the trials of the time, the age of Ivan Alexander and his sons saw a further flowering of the native Bulgarian culture that was soon to be extinguished forever. Shishman became remembered as a heroic figure, gallant, noble and wise and a tireless defender of Bulgaria, while his brother Sratsimir had no such glory attached to his name. Nevertheless as Sratsimir was the last tsar it seemed fitting that he rather than Shishman appear in the charts.†
The third and by far the oldest power in the region was the Eastern Empire, which at this date was under the intermittent reign of Emperor John V. Crowned Emperor aged eight, following the early death of his father Andronicus III, his childhood had been racked by civil wars, and Constantinople and its lands by plague, both of which had been to the empire’s great weakening.
The regent appointed by the dying Andronicus, his lifelong friend and ally John Kantakouzenos, was an admirable choice, wise, humane and loyal. The Empress Mother Anna of Savoy (of whom the great Cavafy wrote in his 1924 poem John Kantakouzenos Triumphs ’If only Lord Andronicus had never married her! Has she ever done anything good, shown any humanity?’) however distrusted him, suspecting quite without grounds that the elder John was planning to seize the throne for himself, and conspired with the Patriarch John XIV Kalekos and the chief minister Alexios Apokaukos to take over the regency.
John Kantakouzenos was forced in self-preservation to take the very step he never would have otherwise, and declare himself Emperor John VI. Six years of internecine warfare, which the Serbs, Bulgarians and, crucially, Ottomans all used for their gain, ended with John VI triumphantly enthroned. He did not however depose the teenage John V but reigned alongside him. The families, already akin, were joined by the marriage of John V and John VI’s daughter Helena, and there was some hope for a period of at least internal peace, in which the Empire could restore itself.
That hope was to be dashed by John V himself, who launched a second civil war in which he ultimately succeeded in overthrowing his father-in-law and consigning him to the monastery where he ended his days. During the conflict the Ottomans had, disastrously, gained their first foothold in continental Europe, and the rest of John V’s days were to be dominated by the ever-increasing threat they posed. As his son Manuel II would later do John V travelled around Europe seeking aid, but like his son returned empty-handed. Eventually he accepted vassalage to the Sultan Murad I, and was subsequently deposed by his indignant elder son Andronicus IV.
The Sultan aided John V to regain the throne, only for him to be deposed again, this time by his grandson John VII, son of Andronicus IV. John V was restored with Venetian aid this time but died the next year, still the vassal of the Sultan, as all succeeding Emperors were until Murad I’s great-great-grandson Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, killing John V’s grandson Constantine XI and extinguishing the Eastern Empire as finally as his forebears had the Serbian and Bulgarian kingdoms.
It was not just the Ottomans extending their power to the north that troubled the Balkan realms, but also the King of Hungary extending his power to the south, partly in pursuit of his conflicts with Venice, partly with a view to forcing the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans to accept the Catholic faith, and partly simply for the enlargement of his realm.
Lajos I, the Great. King of Hungary, Poland and many other realms besides, fought during his long reign against Naples, which he conquered twice, Venice as aforesaid, Bohemia, Lithuania, the Mongol khanate, Wallachia, Bulgaria, Serbia and the Ottoman Sultan. Victorious almost everywhere, even against the all-conquering Turks, he was seen as the very pattern of a chivalrous medieval monarch. There were only three years out of the forty he spent on the throne when he was not on campaign, but Hungary itself was at peace under his firm rule, an island of stability, order and prosperity in an increasingly storm-tossed Europe, and his sobriquet can be considered to have been merited.
In due course much of Lajos the Great’s heritage would be destroyed, as Hungary too was ravaged and ultimately conquered by the forces of the Sultan. The legacy of the Emperor Karl IV however endures today in the marvellously beautiful city of Prague, his royal capital as King of Bohemia, which he made the Empire’s capital also and endowed with many of its most famous monuments, from the Charles Bridge to St Vitus Cathedral, founding also the Charles University, still one of Europe’s leading universities. His father John the Blind had disliked his Bohemian realm and spent as little time there as possible, but Karl IV was quite the opposite, deeply devoted to the land of his birth and presiding over what was seen as its Golden Age.
His interest in German affairs was less, but he left a legacy there too, his Golden Bull regulating the succession of the Empire until its dissolution four and a half centuries later. And his interest in Italian affairs minimal, visiting the country only twice and briefly, once for his coronations as King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor and again to have his wife crowned Empress by Pope Urban V, whom he had reinstalled in Rome, bringing the Avignon Papacy to a temporary end which became permanent under Urban V’s successor Gregory XI. But such was his love for Bohemia and so well did he rule it that in his funeral oration he was called Pater Patriae, father of his country.
There was a King and a Queen in Italy besides the Emperor, but they were not spouses but rather rivals. The King was Federico III of Sicily, and the Queen Giovanna I of Naples. Following the death of her father Charles, eldest son of King Robert the Wise of Naples, and the posthumous birth of Charles’s only other child, Giovanna’s sister Maria, Giovanna had become heiress apparent; as far as I know, the only heiress apparent to a royal throne in all the centuries before 1980, when with Sweden’s adoption of equal primogeniture Princess Victoria of Sweden became Crown Princess.
She was remarkable in other ways, too. A woman of great beauty, profoundly spiritual, an exceptionally capable and diligent ruler who cared deeply for her subjects, greatly enriched her realm and strictly maintained internal peace and order, she has nevertheless gone down in history, probably unjustly, as a scheming murderess.
Her marital career was by no means as successful as her personal rule was, and eventually plunged the kingdom into disaster. She had been married to her first husband Andrew, a brother of Lajos of Hungary, when she was seven and he was six. Their only child, the short-lived Charles Martel, was born twelve years later, but in the meantime relations between the couple had become poisoned by Giovanna‘s refusal to share the throne with her husband.
So when a group of conspirators violently murdered Andrew the Queen was widely seen as the guiding hand behind the conspiracy. There was and remains no evidence for this, and Giovanna submitted to trial by the Papal court and was exonerated, but nevertheless Lajos, vowing vengeance for his brother, invaded and conquered Naples. Giovanna fled to Provence, of which she was hereditary Countess, with her second husband, her cousin Louis of Taranto. A devastating outbreak of plague drove the Hungarians away and the Queen and King, as she had allowed Louis to be, returned and resumed their rule.
Louis died of plague and Giovanna resumed sole rule, which she maintained despite marrying twice more. That rule was ended by her second cousin Charles of Durazzo, who invaded with Hungarian support, seized the kingdom and had Giovanna murdered. Her body was put on public display in the city she had once ruled and after several days flung into a well, burial being denied as she was for political reasons excommunicate. Her two daughters by Louis of Taranto lived no longer than her son by Andrew of Hungary, and her other marriages had been without fruit, so there was no more living heritage of Giovanna than there is known grave.
In the 1372 Treaty of Villeneuve Giovanna formally acknowledged the legitimate rule of Federico III over Sicily, though the title was still to be King of Trinacria, a provision which continued to be ignored outside Naples. Coming to the throne aged fourteen after the death from plague of his elder brother and predecessor Luigi, Federico ruled for 22 years more, troubled by incursions from Naples and further outbreaks of plague, and died leaving the kingdom to his sole legitimate child, his thirteen-year-old daughter Maria. Her death without surviving issue ended the separate Sicilian line and ultimately returned the kingdom to the Crown of Aragón, after a series of complicated evolutions in which Maria’s widower Martin the Younger continued to reign as Martin I, then died and was, uniquely as far as I am aware, succeeded by his father, Martin II of Sicily who was already Martin I of Aragón.
In 1371 however this was all still to come, and the King of Aragón was Pero IV, father of Martin I/II of Aragón and Sicily and grandfather of Martin I of the latter. Known for reasons unclear to me as ‘the Ceremonious’, his fifty-year reign had by no means been easy, greatly troubled in its earlier years by the demands of the nobility for a lessening of the royal power and an increase of their own. Pero was actually held prisoner for a time by the Valencian Union, an association of the nobles of that kingdom. He escaped during an outbreak of plague and took a terrible vengeance, the molten metal of the bell used to summon meetings of the Union being poured down the throats of Union leaders.
After which his authority was not much challenged and he could busy himself in foreign warfare, which he did with some success, adding Majorca and the rest of the Balearic Islands to his dominions, acquiring territory in Greece and consolidating Aragonese control over Sardinia and Corsica. Through his wife Leonor of Sicily, sister of Federico III, he had two sons who succeeded him in turn, Chuan I and the previously mentioned Martin I, and then the succession passed through Pero IV’s daughter, another Leonor, to a branch of the House of Trástamara, already reigning in Castile.
It had come to do so following the murder of the King, remembered in history as Pedro the Cruel, by his illegitimate half-brother Enrique, Count of Trástamara, and the latter’s ascension to the throne as Enrique II. Their father Alfonso XI was married twice, discarding his first wife in favour of his second, Maria of Portugal, Pedro’s mother. Maria in turn was neglected and spurned in favour of Alfonso’s beautiful mistress Eleanor de Guzman, mother of the future Enrique II and no fewer than eleven other sons of the King besides.
Alfonso’s treatment of his first wife caused insurrection in Castile, and of his second war both with Portugal and after his early death between his legitimate and illegitimate sons, the latter led by Enrique, the fourth but eldest surviving of them. After Pedro’s murder and Enrique’s accession war continued, with John of Gaunt, a son of Edward III of England, claiming the throne in right of his second wife Constance of Castile, elder of the two possibly legitimate daughters of Pedro the Cruel.
After Enrique II’s death the conflict was resolved through the marriage of Catherine of Lancaster, only surviving child of John and Constance, to the future Enrique III, son of Enrique II’s own son Juan I. The younger Enrique was the first heir to bear the title Prince of Asturias, modelled on the English heir apparent’s title of Prince of Wales and a specific requirement of the peace settlement.
Enrique II was buried in Toledo, where his tomb can still be seen today. The inscription on it reads in part: ‘Here lies the most adventurous and noble knight and king, the sweetly remembered Don Enrique, son of the late noble king Don Alfonso’. Another opinion might be that he was, quite literally, a murdering bastard. In fact he was brave and gallant and a capable King, and his fratricide could reasonably be excused by his half-brother and predecessor having executed his mother, Leonor de Guzman, and his younger twin brother Fadrique, who of course was Pedro’s brother too. Either way, the Crown of Castile, later of Spain, has remained (with interruptions) in the hands of his heirs to this day.
Fernando I of Portugal in contrast was succeeded by no heir of his own, but rather by his illegitimate half-brother João of Aviz, who became King João I and is remembered far more fondly then his legitimate predecessor, last of the Burgundian line that had founded the kingdom 232 years before. Fernando engaged in repeated warfare with Castile, the crown of which he claimed following the death of Pedro the Cruel, and in settlement of the conflict the recently widowed Juan I of Castile, referred to above as the son and heir of Enrique II, married Beatrice, Fernando’s only legitimate child to survive infancy and thus his heiress.
Fernando's marriage had caused great scandal in Portugal and further afield. In an earlier peace settlement he had engaged to marry Enrique II’s daughter Leonor. Fernando’s Queen was indeed named Leonor, but she was not the one envisaged in the treaty. Shortly after completing the agreement Fernando began a passionate affair with the noblewoman Leonor Telles de Meneses, wife of João Lourenço da Cunha, Lord of Pombeiro. A divorce was procured and the ‘wrong’ Leonor became Queen of Portugal.
As far as birth was concerned she certainly was not qualified for the post, and she soon proved herself even less suitable in other ways. She was no more faithful to her second husband than she had been to the first, was suspected not without reason of having plotted the murder of her own sister Maria, and as regent for her daughter following Fernando’s death betrayed her country, serving the interests of her Castilian paymasters rather than those of her native land. The idea of union with Castile was already anathema to most of the Portuguese people and nobility, and Leonor’s conduct made it even more unthinkable. Beatrice’s reign never became effective, and instead after two years of warfare, internal and external, the House of Aviz was left in possession of the throne.
The rejected Leonor of Castile was married instead to the future Charles III of Navarre, son and heir of Charles II, becoming foremother of all future Navarrese monarchs. Not too many of which were particularly famous, at least until Henri III of Navarre became Henri IV of France, but the one then reigning was. Though ‘infamous’ might be the better word; this was Charles the Bad, and rarely has a sobriquet been more thoroughly deserved.
A murderer, a serial betrayer, an unworthy monarch who impoverished his kingdom and neglected it in his pursuit of the crown of France, all his schemes and plots and repeated treacheries came to nothing and he ended his days in Navarre, humiliated, impotent and universally hated. Though sources disagree on how it happened, his death, burned alive in his own palace, was understandably seen as divine judgement on one of the worst men ever to wear a crown.
The man who actually wore the crown Charles the Bad so wanted was his brother-in-law Charles V of France, whose sobriquet was the considerably more creditable Charles the Wise. The first heir to bear the title of Dauphin, he had succeeded his father seven years previously, having been Regent for most of the preceding decade due to his father’s captivity in England. Third of the thirteen monarchs of the House of Valois, he was by most reckonings the best, victorious against England, rebuilding France’s devastated finances through his prudent management, founder of a professional army on the Turkish model, thus sparing France’s devastated countryside from further ravages by the mercenaries, hardly distinguishable from brigands, previous Kings had employed, and a great patron of architecture, literature and the arts. The contrast with his less than sagacious namesake of Navarre, his would-be supplanter, could hardly be starker.
Charles V’s rise coincided with the waning of Edward III of England’s star, which until then had burned brightly indeed. The deaths of many of his close companions, men who had been with him from the beginning, the decline into terminal illness of his mighty son the Black Prince, and a perceptible diminution in Edward III’s own hitherto unflagging vigour and determination, all combined to make the last years of his reign an unworthy coda to the brilliance that had gone before.
He remains among the greatest of England’s kings, winner of several of its most famous victories, the first since the Conquest to use English as a language of government, effective founder of the enduring institution of Justices of the Peace, and founder also of England’s greatest order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter. Personally he was humane, with a reputation for clemency unusual for a monarch of that age, brave and skilled in war and skilled also in the arts of government. His family life was exemplary, and generally he was, as the historian Ian Mortimer called him, ‘the Perfect King’.
Earlier, revisionist historians had sullied a reputation that had stood undimmed since Edward III’s reign ended, calling him an irresponsible, reckless adventurer and warmonger among other things, but that view is now discredited and his high place in the long line of England’s monarchs generally accepted; a step or two below Alfred the Great and Elizabeth I perhaps, but that is surely an honourable enough position for any monarch to occupy.
Another monarch who for a time had a poor reputation among historians but is now held in better regard is Robert II of Scotland. He did not become King until he was 55, a year older than his grandfather Robert I was when he died, but had already ruled the country for long periods while his uncle (who was nevertheless eight years younger) David II was first in exile in France then later a captive in England.
Brought up Gaelic-speaking on the Stewart lands in the west of Scotland, this heritage did not make for a comfortable relationship with the mostly English- or French-speaking aristocracy, but then few Scottish monarchs had that anyway. He ruled shrewdly and well, showing a concern for all parts of his kingdom, not just the Lowlands on which David II had focussed, but in 1384 would lose power to his son and heir John, Earl of Carrick, whose incompetent rule led to him in turn being shunted aside for his younger brother Robert, at that date Earl of Fife but later created Duke of Albany, who ruled better but was to earn a grim reputation for his ambiguous conduct in the succeeding two reigns.
Robert II continued to reign and so the deterioration in the kingdom’s position was laid at his door. It is hard to see why, as his surrender of power was not voluntary and under his personal rule Scotland had been prosperous and for the most part settled and peaceful. There is not too much more that can be asked of any King, apart from ensuring the continuation of the dynasty. This he did perhaps a little too well, fathering four sons and six daughters by his first wife and another two of each by his second, plus at least eight illegitimate children by various mistresses. But the troubles that arose among his sons and grandsons also cannot fairly be laid at the door of what seems to me one of Scotland’s better Kings.
Anyone still with me will be glad to learn that there are only five more monarchs to consider, and I intend to be fairly brief with them all, going from Denmark through the other Scandinavian realms, east to Russia then south all the way to the Mediterranean and Cyprus.
Denmark’s King was Valdemar IV, then thirty-one years into a reign which would continue for four more. For eight years before his election there was no King at all, Denmark beggared by Valdemar’s feeble father Christopher II and feckless uncle Erik VI and its lands parcelled out among German mortgagees. This was a situation Valdemar was determined to remedy, which he did with ruthlessness, not infrequent treachery and unfailing energy. The first two qualities plus the oppressive taxes he levied so as to pay off mortgages made him detested during his life, but after his death he was recognised as the restorer and renewer of the Danish kingdom, his harsh medicine a necessary remedy for the parlous state he found but did not leave it in.
Valdemar’s counterpart in Norway was Haakon VI, his son-in-law through marriage to Valdemar’s daughter Margrete, later to be famous as Margrete I of Denmark, effective ruler of all three Scandinavian realms. Haakon was born in Sweden, his father Magnus IV/VII being King there as well as in Norway, but raised in the latter realm, to which although second son he was always intended to be heir. The childless death from plague of his elder brother Erik however made him heir to both realms, but then Sweden was lost to Albrecht of Mecklenburg, the next monarch to be considered. The rest of Haakon’s life was filled with unceasing and unsuccessful warfare to recover the lost kingdom, the strain of which probably contributed to his early death aged only forty.
The aforesaid Albrecht, Haakon’s first cousin through his mother, a sister of King Magnus, was the only King (though there has also been a regnant Queen, the late Juliana of the Netherlands, and several Queens Consort, the most famous of which were probably Louise of Prussia and Charlotte of Great Britain) in the long history of the House of Mecklenburg, which uniquely among surviving German ruling houses is of Slavic origin. Having come to power in a coup organised by his father, Albrecht II of Mecklenburg, the younger Albrecht managed to occupy Sweden’s unstable throne for a quarter of a century, though part of the realm remained in Norwegian hands and the struggle from Albrecht’s viewpoint was as unceasing as it was from that of Haakon VI, albeit more successful. However Haakon’s widow Margrete I triumphed where her late husband had failed, and Albrecht ended his days back in Mecklenburg, of which he was Duke in succession to his father.
Whereas Dmitry of Vladimir and Moscow’s predecessors had followed a wise policy of subservience to the Khan of the Golden Horde, Dmitry had the wisdom to recognise that the time for that policy had passed, gaining his sobriquet Donskoy from his great victory over the forces of the Khan at the 1380 Battle of Kullkovo, fought beside the River Don. Founder of the Kremlin, he left another enduring legacy, all the Grand Princes of Vladimir and Moscow and Tsars of Russia down to Feodor I being of his line, and he being the only one of these last five monarchs with crowned, or indeed any, descendants today.
The very last is Pierre II of Cyprus, who came to his throne aged fifteen following the murder of his father Pierre I by disaffected knights. Pierre I had been a strong King, like his father Hugues IV, but Pierre II was not. During his reign nearly all the kingdom’s remaining territories in Asia Minor were lost to the Turks, along with parts of the island itself to the Genoese, including the key port of Famagusta. When his uncle Jacques I was released from Genoese captivity following Pierre’s childless death and his own succession it was a dispiriting legacy he returned to, the once strong and prosperous island realm in the terminal decline that would end in Turkish conquest.
And I will now end this part of the introduction. The second part will at least be far shorter, since it follows the pattern of 1330 and much that was explained there doesn’t have to be explained again here.
* Depending on the source, you will also see the date given as the 26th and the 28th; I went for the one in the middle.
† Both brothers were connected only through their father, Sratsimir’s Wallachian mother offering no more help than the Jewess Sarah, so if you want to see Shishman’s connections you need only look at Sratsimir’s.