The Battle of Kosovo (1389): Circumstances and Tactical Analysis
The Battle of Kosovo took place on the 15 June (Julian calendar) in 1389 between the army led by the Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović, and the invading army of the Ottoman Empire under the command of Sultan Murad Hüdavendigâr. The army under Prince Lazar consisted of his own troops, a contingent led by Serbian nobleman Vuk Branković, a contingent sent from Bosnia by King Tvrtko I, commanded by Vlatko Vuković, and Croatian knights under Ivan Paližna. Prince Lazar was the ruler of Moravian Serbia, and the most powerful among the Serbian regional lords of the time, while Vuk Branković ruled the District of Branković, located in a part of Kosovo and other areas, recognizing Lazar as his overlord. The battle was fought on the Kosovo Polje, in the territory ruled by Branković. The site of the battle is about 5 kilometers (3.1 mi) northwest of the modern city of Prishtina.
Reliable historical accounts of the battle are scarce. The bulk of both armies were wiped out in the battle; both Lazar and Murad lost their lives in it. Although Ottomans managed to annihilate the Serbian army, they also suffered high casualties which delayed their progress. The Serbs were left with too few men to effectively defend their lands, while the Turks had many more troops in the east. This battle can be regarded as a Serbian victory, but in the long-term, it is effectively a Turkish victory. Consequently, one after the other, the Serbian principalities that had not already been Ottoman vassals fell under their rule in the following years. Given the death of their leader and the decision to return immediately to Edirne, it was perhaps a Pyrrhic victory at best. More likely, the battle was a draw.
Prior the battle of Kosovo, Serbs and Turks matched 7 times. Turks won 5 times, while Serbs won twice. Most of these battles were small skirmishes and served only as “test battles”. The most important of these was fought at Pločnik (1386) where the Serbs proved victorious. Pločnik was a decisive Serbian victory since Serbs managed to kill 15 000 out of 20 000 Turkish soldiers. According to the Serbian folk tradition, Serbian knight and folk hero Miloš Obilić participated and distinguished himself in this battle, and was wounded by an Ottoman arrow.
Another defeat that the Turks suffered was in 1388 on Bileća. The battle was fought on 27 August 1388 between Bosnian forces led by voivoda Vlatko Vuković and the Ottomans under the leadership of Lala Şahin Pasha. Vlatko’s army numbered 7,000 fighters from Bosnia, and Şahin Pasha’s army numbered 18,000 fighters. According to the written sources, it was decisively a Bosnian victory.
How big of a deal it was to win over the Turks could be represented by the fact that whole coalitions of Christians failed to do so; thus, what Vuković and Lazar did was outstanding. Now, both of them decided to join forces in order to defend their lands from Ottoman aggression.
One thing that always makes me ponder is the date of the battle. Among the pagan Slavs, June 15 (Julian) or June 28 (Gregorian) was the day dedicated to Svetovid – the God of war. I always wonder whether it was just a weird coincidence or Lazar wanted help from both the Christian and pagan Gods. One must remember that only 40 years prior, Dushan forbade pagan burial rites in his Code, which implies that such practices were still a regular occurrence at the time.
The Fall of the Serbian Empire
The ruler who established the empire, Stefan Uroš IV Dušan “the Mighty” (r. 1331–55), was succeeded by his son Stefan Uroš V “the Weak” (r. 1355–71), whose reign was characterized by the decline of central power and rise of numerous principalities which were virtually independent; this period is known as the fall of the Serbian Empire. Careful analysis of the post-Dušan era, however, demonstrates that the empire had already collapsed long before the battle. Uroš V was unable to sustain the great empire created by his father, nor was he able to repulse the foreign threats and limit the independence of the nobility. Uroš V died childless on 4 December 1371, after much of the Serbian nobility had been destroyed by the Ottomans in the Battle of Maritsa earlier that year. Prince Lazar, ruler of the northern part of the former empire, called Moravian Serbia, aware of the Ottoman threat, began diplomatic and military preparations for a campaign against the Ottomans.
The fact that the armies were led by the Turkish ruler Murad I and by King Lazar of Serbia illustrates the importance of the Kosovo battle; Turkish historians, however, lay more stress on Sırp Sındığı, where Ottomans defeated a Christian coalition, consisting of the Serbian Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, Banate of Bosnia, Wallachia and Hungarian Crusaders. The strength of the Christian coalition was 30-60,000 and it lost against 5-10,000 Turks. According to some sources, this battle and the Battle of Maritsa (also known as Battle of Chernomen) was one and the same battle; whereas other sources claim those were two different battles.
At the instigation of Pope Urban V, a crusading army of Hungarians, Serbians, Bosnians and Wallachians was formed and in 1364 it set forth to recapture Adrianople. It marched undisturbed to the Maritsa river, but there it was taken in by a night attack and cut to pieces. Nevertheless, the Serbs resolved to stop the Turks in the valley of the Maritsa, and marched as far as Chernomen between Philippolis and Adrianople. There, at dawn on September 26, 1371, a considerably inferior Turkish force surprised them and slaughtered their larger numbers. In Old Turkish, sındık means “destruction”, hence sırp sındığı means “destruction of Serbs” or ‘Rout of the Serbs;’ which would go to symbolize the casualties of Serbian soldiers in this battle. On the other hand, this battle occurred in the Sarayakpınar village near Adrianople, the old name of which was “Sırp sındığı”.
Previous Clashes and Preparation for the Battle
The first mention of any Ottoman movement into Lazar’s territory is from a chronicle entry of 1381, when two of Lazar’s subjects, Vitomir and Crep, defeated the Turks on the Dubravnica River near Paraćin. After that, there is no record of any hostility between Lazar and the Turks until 1386. A chronicle entry for that year reports that “Murad set out against Prince Lazar and conquered Niš.” Another isolated entry of the same year observes that “Emperor Murad fled in front of Prince Lazar from the Toplica River at Pločnik.” These early Turkish attacks were basically plundering expeditions organized to test the strength of the enemy forces, to exhaust those forces as much as possible, and to prepare for an eventual conquest of the area.
The Turkish incursions into Bosnia and Bulgaria certainly made Prince Lazar aware that it was only a matter of time until he would face another Turkish assault on his own territory. When it did come, however, it was anything but a minor border skirmish or plundering raid. The Battle of Kosovo on 28 June 1389 was a full-fledged battle in the heartland of Serbia.
It was natural that the Turks would choose the plain of Kosovo as their next objective in their continuing conquest of the Balkan Peninsula, for it was a particularly strategic territory. It’s natural boundaries are the mountains: in the north the summits of Kopaonik and Rogozna; in the south, the Skopska Crna Gora and the Šar mountains; in the east, the slopes of Prugovac, Mramor, Koznica, and Žegovac; and in the west, the mountains of Nerodimka, Crnovljeva, Drenica, and Čičavica. At the southern end of the plain is the watershed between the Aegean and Black Seas which barely separates the headwaters of the Vardar and Morava rivers.
This watershed in itself gives Kosovo a strategic position, because the path which nature carved through the mountains of Serbia and Macedonia that is followed by these two rivers is the shortest north-south route across the Balkan Peninsula. It connects the middle Danube with the Gulf of Thessaloniki. Celtic tribes traversed this route as they advanced into Greece, and Romans used it to reach the Danube from Macedonia. Later it became one of the principal routes of attack for various barbarian peoples – most importantly the Slavs. Moreover, the hills surrounding Kosovo contained the richest sources of mineral wealth in the entire peninsula. These factors combined make Kosovo a particularly enviable target for Sultan Murad and the Ottoman Turks.
Ottoman Emperor Murad I had been expanding his territory into the Balkans. Determined to conquer the Balkans, Murad gathered his troops in Philippoupolis (now known as Plovdiv) in the spring of 1389, and arrived in Ihtiman (Bulgaria) after a three-day long march. From there, he chose the route across Velbužd (also known as Kyustendil) and Kratovo. Though longer than the alternative route across Sofia and the Nišava valley which would give him direct access to Lazar’s lands, it led him to Kosovo, which was strategically significant as one of the most important trade crossroads on the Balkans: from Kosovo Murad could attack either the lands of Lazar or Vuk Branković, who were two of the most powerful of Serbia’s ruling nobility. After staying in Kratovo for a while, Murad passed across Kumanovo, Preševo and Gnjilane to Priština, where he arrived on June 14.
There is less information available about Lazar’s preparations, but it could be assumed that he gathered his troops near Niš, possibly on the right bank of the Južna Morava. He probably stayed there until he learned that Murad had moved to Velbužd, when he too moved, presumably across Prokuplje to Kosovo. Lazar arrived to the Kosovo Field right after Murad’s arrival to Priština. This was the optimal choice for the battlefield as it controlled all possible directions that Murad could take. According to Mehmed Nesri, Lazar suggested giving the Turks a taste of their own medicine and doing a night attack on the unsuspecting Turks, but everyone else in his camp rejected the idea.
Murad’s army numbered from 27,000 to 40,000 fighters. These 40,000 included no more than 2,000 Janissaries. Janissaries were elite infantry units that formed the Ottoman Sultan’s household troops, bodyguards, and the first standing army in Europe. They began as an elite corps of slaves made up of kidnapped young Christian boys who were forced to convert to Islam, and became famed for internal cohesion cemented by strict discipline and order. 2,500 of Murad’s cavalry guard, 6,000 sipahis (cavalry corps), 20,000 azaps (light infantry) and akinjis (light cavalry), and 8,000 troops from his vassals. Marko and Dragaš, Serbian magnates vassal to the Ottomans, did not participate in the battle. The Ottoman army was supported by the forces of the Anatolian Turkoman Beylik of Isfendiyar.
Lazar’s army numbered from 12,000 to 30,000. According to a Yugoslav Encyclopaedia (1972), there were approximately 30,000 fighters present; 12,000 to 15,000 were under Prince Lazar‘s command, with 5,000 to 10,000 under Vuk Branković, the nobleman of Kosovo on whose territory the battle took place, and just as many under the nobleman Vlatko Vuković sent by the Bosnian king Tvrtko I Kotromanić. Also, there were a few thousand Croatian Knights Hospitaller. They were led by the Croatian knight Ivan Paližna. Furthermore, there have been several anachronistic accounts which have mentioned that the “Christian army” of Lazar was far greater, and that it also included contingents of other nations, although these cannot be verified. Some sources even mention Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Greek, Wallachian and Bulgarian knights, but others claim that that is an overstatement. So the Christian army looked something like this:
12-15,000 Prince Lazar
5-10,000 Vuk Branković (mostly cavalry)
5-10,000 Vlatko Vuković (sent by king Tvrtko)
1-5,000 Croatian Hospitallers + Christian forces
Plan of the Battle
The armies met at the Kosovo Field. Murad headed the Ottoman army, with his sons Bayezid on his right, and Yakub on his left. Around 1,000 archers were in the front line in the wings, backed up by the azap and the akinci; in the front center were the janissaries, behind whom was Murad, surrounded by his cavalry guard; finally, the supply train at the rear was guarded by a small number of troops. One of the Ottoman commanders was Pasha Yiğit Bey.
The Serbian army had Prince Lazar at its center, Vuk on the right and Vlatko on the left. At the front of the Serbian army was the heavy cavalry and archer cavalry on the flanks, with the infantry to the rear. While parallel, the dispositions of the armies were not symmetrical, as the Serbian center had a broader front than the Ottoman center.
Serbian and Turkish accounts of the battle differ, making it difficult to reconstruct the course of events. It is believed that the battle commenced with Ottoman archers shooting at Serbian cavalry, who then made ready for the attack. After positioning in a wedge formation, the Serbian cavalry led by Vlatko Vuković managed to break through the Ottoman left wing, but were not as successful against the center and the right wing. Vlatko Vukovic and his Bosnian troops were so successful that he had, on two occasions, sent news of a Christian victory to his king. This battle was fought rather unimaginatively by each commander, although Lazar used shock tactics that Serbian armies were accustomed to. Namely, a great cavalry charge backed by heavy infantry. Meanwhile, Murad did not exactly use nomadic tactics his Ottoman armies were accustomed to, that is, luring the enemy into a rash attack and then ambushing them when they broke formation. Uyar & Erickson attribute this and the infancy of the units involved as the reasons for the Ottomans’ poor performance (2009: 26). Murad did, however, allow the Serbians to attack into the teeth of their defensive position, weakening the momentum of their charge, eventually winning through attrition.
The Serbs had the initial advantage after their first charge, which significantly damaged the Ottoman wing commanded by Yakub Çelebi. When the knights’ charge was finished, light Ottoman cavalry and light infantry counter-attacked and the Serbian heavy armor became a disadvantage. In the center, Serbian fighters managed to push back the Ottoman forces, except for Bayezid‘s wing, which barely held off the forces commanded by Vlatko Vuković. Vuković thus inflicted disproportionately heavy losses on the Ottomans. The Ottomans, in a ferocious counter-attack led by Bayezid, pushed the Serbian forces back and then prevailed later in the day, routing the Serbian infantry. Both flanks still held, with Vuković’s drifting toward the center to compensate for the heavy losses inflicted on the Serbian infantry. Vuk Brankovic held his flank well. There is information that Vlatko Vuković, with the aid of the Croatian unit, had achieved victory over Kapici-pasha on the left flank, and that Vuk Branković had beaten Yakub, sultan’s younger son, on the right. According to the Serbian folk tradition, Murad I was killed during the battle by a Serbian nobleman Miloš Obilić.
The earliest preserved record, a letter from the Florentine senate to King Tvrtko I of Bosnia, by Coluccio Salutati (died 1406), Chancellor of Florence, dated 20 October 1389, who says that Murad was killed during the battle. The killer is not named, but it was one of 12 Serbian noblemen who managed to break through the Ottoman lines. On 1 August 1389 King Tvrtko I of Bosnia (r. 1353-1391) wrote a letter to Trogir to inform its citizens about the Ottoman defeat.
Regardless of how Murad died, the confusion that followed was eventually quelled by Bayezid, the Sultan’s son. As revenge for the death of the Sultan, the Ottomans killed many of their prisoners. Serbian victory was a matter of time since both Vlatko Vuković and Vuk Branković had defeated the Turkish troops on their flanks.
The main fights were fought around Mazgit and Gazimestan. There, Prince Lazar had smitten Saridza-pasa in the beginning of the battle; however, after Murat’s death, Bayezid took command and, taking the troops which were in reserve, and the janissaries, entered the heart of Lazar’s forces, broke their resistance, captured the now-wounded Lazar and slayed him. Bayezid, who would after the battle become the Ottoman sultan, used the same strategy as Alexander the Great in the battle of Gaugamela, gained his nickname “The Thunderbolt” in this battle, after leading the decisive counter-attack. It was the only way for the Turks to win the battle – the Turkish army was in collapse and Bayezid charged with the whole army to the Serbian center where Lazar was positioned. Had the charge not been successful, the Turkish army would have been surrounded by Serbian forces and massacred. After the death of Lazar, the Serbian army felt apart so both armies retreated.
As usual, the casualties are impossible to state precisely. Primary sources list casualty figures greater than the strength of the armies present, and Sedlar vaguely describes both armies as being “largely annihilated” (1994: 244). It is hard to believe that any medieval army could lose more than 50% of its force unless they were pursued by the enemy, enveloped, or fighting a desperate rearguard action as a last resort. Based on how the battle was decided – primarily on attrition, I reckon the Florentine chronicler Mezieres’ conviction that each side suffered equal casualties, even with his raw estimate, the figures are simply impossibly high (Heath, 1984: 88).
When the battle was over, both leaders were dead, and Murad’s son, Bayezid, returned to Edirne to secure his succession. The picture becomes very cloudy beyond these meager details. The early documents are not particularly concerned with armaments, tactics, size of forces, and the general course of the battle. Surprisingly enough, it is not even possible to know with certainty from the extant contemporary material whether one or the other side was victorious on the field. There is certainly little to indicate that it was a great Serbian defeat; and the earliest reports of the conflict suggest, on the contrary, that the Christian forces had won.
Due to inadequate reliable historical sources, the result of the battle is not clear. Although the Ottomans managed to push the Serbian forces back, they did not conquer Kosovo immediately after the battle. Instead, due to Sultan Murad’s death they returned to Turkey so that the new sultan, Bayezid, could be crowned in the Ottoman capital. On the other hand, some Serbian nobles started paying tribute and supplying soldiers to the Ottomans after the battle, but not all of them. Therefore, despite the fact that Serbian myth unambiguously depicts the battle as a defeat, it was not a clear victory or defeat for either side. However, the Ottomans now had the initiative, since the toll on the Serbian side was heavy/ier. By 1459, Serbia was under Ottoman rule.
In fact, the crowned King of Bosnia and Serbia, Stefan Tvrtko I Kotromanić, who himself contributed forces to the Battle of Kosovo, sent numerous letters to European capitals in which he claimed that the Christian Serbs defeated the Ottoman Turks on the Field of Blackbirds (the literal translation of Kosovo Polje). His letters reached Trogir, Venice, Florence, Vienna and Paris, and in return he received letters of congratulations from his European allies.
Rumors of the battle were disseminated as far as Constantinople, Florence, Venice, Barcelona, and Paris, but they appeared to emphasize just one particular bit of news: the death of the Ottoman sultan. While the West had been slow to judge the seriousness of the Ottoman advance into Europe, by the late fourteenth century there was a growing awareness of this new threat to the Christian world. The death of Murad was, therefore, a cause for celebration in the streets of occidental cities. In itself it was a kind of Christian victory indeed.
The response of the Florentine senate to Tvrtko on 20 October 1389 gives us some idea of the news that was emanating from Tvrtko’s court and elsewhere. The Florentine letter is a critical document for our understanding of the battle because it provides certain information about the event for the first time. It correctly identifies Kosovo as the battlefield and June 15, St. Vitus’ Day, as the date of the battle. Most important, however, is its claim that the Ottoman Sultan died at the hands of a Christian assassin.
In time the assassination would become the central act in the evolving record of the Battle of Kosovo. And while the Florentine description of the deed is quite different from later accounts which emerge in both Ottoman and Serbian sources, nevertheless, it provides a contemporary historical foundation for the idea that Murad was killed by a daring Serbian assassin.
Other brief contemporary references to the battle are found in notes of the senate in Venice; in letters penned by the Byzantine orator and rhetorician, Demetrius Cydones; in two works by the French writer, Philippe de Mezieres; in an anonymous Florentine chronicle; and in treatises by Beltram Minianelli of Siena and the Castilian Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo. In all of these the death of Murad is the primary focus of the authors’ attention. The most unequivocal expression of a Christian victory is found in those accounts of the battle which do not mention Prince Lazar or, when they do, are not aware of his death at Kosovo. Sources which do know of Lazar’s death as well as Murad’s are generally ambiguous concerning the outcome of the battle. Even the anonymous Florentine chronicler, who speaks of a Turkish victory, is not convinced that it was a decisive triumph for the Turks. His emphasis on the Turks’ great losses on the battlefield and along the route of retreat seems to suggest a Pyrrhic victory at best. Only many generations later, under the influence of Ottoman chronicles and histories did the westerners begin to describe the Battle of Kosovo as a clear Serbian defeat.
All of the portrayals of Lazar as a hero and martyr for the faith contributed to the creation and establishment of a cult of the prince which took its place among the other great cults of medieval Serbia – those of St. Simeon and St. Sava. The cults helped unite the Serbs into a strong religious and political unit. It appears that it was crucially important for the eulogists to establish some continuity between Lazar’s Serbia and the Serbia of the Nemanjić dynasty. Even though the church supported Lazar as a Serbian autocrat, there is no proof that similar support existed outside the church. Therefore, the creators of the cult were eager to proclaim Lazar’s divine‑right selection as successor of the house of Nemanjić.
Such expression makes it clear that Lazar’s death paralyzed Serbian society. Serbia lost its strongest territorial lord, who seemed to represent the last hope against the Turk. He may have trampled down the Turkish sultan at the Battle of Kosovo, but he paid for it with his life and left Serbia without its God-appointed shepherd. In the eyes of Lazar’s contemporaries, this was the great tragedy of Kosovo.
Some 250 years following the Battle of Kosovo, Benedict Kuripešić, member of the Austrian diplomatic mission to Constantinople and a historian of the Balkans region, came to the conclusion that when the circumstances of the battle are considered in the appropriate historical context, the Turks were in fact defeated in the Battle of Kosovo. This Islamic military campaign in Serbia was put to an abrupt halt and it was forced to retreat, which, according to Kuripešić, signified defeat.
It is difficult to determine which faction actually won this battle; both sides claimed victory and subsequent events only further muddled the consequences of the actual battle. If anything, both sides lost. Both commanders were killed, both sides suffered grievous casualties and neither side fought well enough to be confident of victory in the next battle. However, the Ottomans held the field – important at this time – and the Ottoman empire and army would only become greater after this battle while the Serbian army would be forced to fight under the Ottoman banner.
According to this tradition, the battle of Kosovo was the most important and the most fatal event of the whole Serbian history. In the popular understanding, deprived of the clear and complex knowledge about the history, the whole Serbian past was divided into two periods – the period before the battle of Kosovo, and the period after it. It was believed that the Serbian medieval state, which was idealized as some kind of a golden age, had been destroyed on Kosovo field, after which direct Ottoman rule started, with all of its real or alleged horrors. This belief, which is, by the way, still present, is historically untrue, but it later had much influence on the national ideology.
The Battle of Kosovo is particularly important to Serbian history, tradition, and national identity. Epic poetry, with the Kosovo myth as its central subject, was some kind of ideological basis during the wars for the national liberation at the beginning of the 19th century. Here was present an idea: revenge for every Serb killed by the Turks, not just in the terror prior the uprising, but from the times of the battle of Kosovo – and especially for those who were killed on the site. In the most famous poem of the period of the First Serbian Rising (1804-1813), the very blood of those killed is literally calling for retaliation (which is an old pagan belief: eye for eye). Petar II Petrovitć Njegoš’s poetry represents precisely the real culmination of the Kosovo myth. Using his great poetical talent, this prince-bishop, ruler of Montenegro, philosopher and poet, established the Kosovo myth as the highest moral code of Serbian nation, especially emphasizing the role of Miloš Obilić, making him an ideal hero and a paragon of virtue, and emphasizing the need of unity in actions against the Turks, reflecting also the political situation in Montenegro at the times. He put forth the idea that disunity had caused defeat at Kosovo and the disappearance of Serbian state in his poem and play The Mountain Wreath, his major work.
The day of the battle, known and celebrated in Serbia as Vidovdan (St. Vitus’ day), is an important part of the Serb ethnic and Serbian national identity, with notable events in Serbian history occurring on that very day. Some of these events are:
-in 1876 Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire (Serbian–Ottoman War (1876–78));
-in 1881 Austria-Hungary and the Principality of Serbia signed a secret alliance;
-in 1914 the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was carried out by Gavrilo Princip (although it was a coincidence that his visit fell on that day, ant thus Vidovdan added nationalist symbolism to the event);
-in 1921 Serbian king Alexander I proclaimed the Vidovdan Constitution;
-in 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the battle, Serbian political leader Slobodan Milošević delivered the Gazimestan speech on the site of the historic battle, etc.