Serbian Medieval History
Lazar Hrebeljanovic, Prince (1371 - 1389)
assumes royal name Stefan
The name and deeds of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic are inextricably tied to the Kosovo legend - in many ways the cornerstone of continuous Serbian national consciousness as it has developed from the late Middle Ages to date. Far more than just popular folklore, this complex of the relevant history, ecclesiastic generalization, epic embellishment, and poetic expression, to this day rings fresh with moral fortitude and spiritual depth, having profoundly inspired even European greats like Goethe, Jacob Grimm and Pushkin along the line.
Lazar came from a family of petty nobles, and his father served diligently on Dusan's court, having held several offices of medium importance. This opened the doors for his son, who held the court office of "stavilac" under both emperors, and by some accounts, may have been elevated to the statewide post of "prince" (possibly even "grand prince") around 1363.
Having retired from government service to his fiefdom around the Morava river basin early in the fateful year of 1371, Lazar was biding his time. Soon, however - through a combination of diplomacy, military action, and family alliances - he was able to establish himself as the preeminent among the Serbian nobles. In that sense, even at this early stage, he gave the impression of an able and farsighted statesman, albeit one fighting against increasingly difficult odds.
Early on Lazar realized that the badly needed central authority can not be reestablished without the prior fulfillment of several prerequisites. For one thing, the anathema cast on Serbia and its patriarchy by the powerful Constantinopolitan church establishment - a curse seen by many as coming to gory fruition with disintegration and anarchy in the empire - had to be removed. The political climate by then already favored this, but Lazar's interventions were nonetheless crucial in bringing this delicate matter to a close in 1375. Furthermore, even though he bore the relatively modest princely title, Lazar well understood the need for dynastic legitimacy and continuity. Princess Milica's Nemanjic lineage provided some basis for that, and the complex of his fresco painting and coinage iconography and documentary titulature reveal a delicate balance between aspirations to imperial continuity and constructive cautiousness. On the one hand, the use of the titular name Stefan and the designation "autocrator" testify to that; simultaneously, he had no issue with ban Tvrtko Kotromanic assuming the title "King Stefan of Serbia" in 1377 and maintained cordial relations to him to the very end.
Economically and administratively, Lazar did the best to prepare the realm for the impending showdown with the advancing Ottoman tide. His early control of the important mines and mints at Rudnik and Novo Brdo enabled prosperity, and the influx of refugees - including highly skilled ones -from the Turkish-occupied lands facilitated an intellectual boost. Numerous monasteries, many of a characteristic and original style, were erected, the preeminent among them being the prince's key endowment, Ravanica. Hailed in epic poetry as a triumph of "stone's timeless simplicity" over flashy but transient opulence, this well-preserved edifice harbors a gallery of fresco art, and - after many travails - remains the final resting place for its donor's relics.
Finally, on June 15, 1389, at Kosovo Polje - "field of blackbirds" - the two opposing armies faced each other. Reliable historical records are scarce, but it is clear that Turks came prepared in full force, led by sultan Murad and his two sons. Lazar fielded a respectable though smaller army, taking the center field and flanked by troops from his allies Vuk Brankovic and Bosnian King Tvrtko. Although analyses of contemporaneous sources indicate the outcome was more of a draw - both leaders were dead, and their armies withdrew amid heavy casualties - the relative toll exacted on the Serbian side was much higher, as the cream of its nobility, leadership, and fighting force had perished along with its monarch; the subsequent events were only to reinforce this interpretation of the outcome. Lazar was shortly thereafter sainted as a martyr, and his feast day - also known as Vidovdan (currently June 28 according to Gregorian calendar) - remains a special holiday, a day of remembrance of the Holy Prince, his comrades and successors, and their sacrifices for Christian values and national pride.
"If I choose a kingdom,
choose the Kingdom on Earth,
that kingdom is but paltry and small;
yet the Kingdom of Heaven
is forever and knows no bounds."