Serbia, Europe, Historical Profile (1922), #008-The Despotate


After the battle of Kosovo Serbia existed for some seventy years (13S9-1459) as a country tributary to the sultans but governing itself under its own rulers, who received from the Greek Emperor and bore the Greek title of "despot." 1 The first despot was Tsar Lazar's eldest son, Lazar II. or "Stephen 'Dushan is a term of endearment, derived from dusha, "the soul, " and not, as formerly believed by Western philologists, from dushiti, "to strangle "the Tall, " who was an intimate friend of Sigism'und IV., king of Hungary and emperor of the Germans.

Being childless, Stephen appointed his nephew, George Brankovich. to be his successor. George worked to establish an alliance between Serbia, Bosnia and Hungary. But before such an alliance could be arranged, Murad II attacked Serbia in 1437 and forced George to seek refuge in Hungary, where he continued to work for a Serbo Ilungarian alliance and organized an expedition, under the joint command of the Despot George and of Hunyadi Janos, which defeated the Turks in a great battle at Kunovitsa in 1444.

The sultan was forced to restore all the countries previously taken. At the age of ninety George was wounded in a quarrel with the Hungarian governor of Belgrade, Michael Szilagvi, and died on Dec. 24, 1456. His youngest son Lazar III succeeded him, but only for a few months. Lazar's widow Helena Palaeoliogina offered Serbia to the pope, hoping thereby the secure the assistance of Roman Catholic Europe against the Turks. Indeed, for a few months, a Roman Catholic prince, Stephen Tomashevich, son of the king of Bosnia, who had married Lazar IH.'s daughter, was "despot" at the then capital of Semendria. But no one in Europe moved a finger to help Serbia, and Sultan Mohammed II, occupied the country in 1439, with the aid of the anti-Catholic Serbs, making it a pashalik under the direct government of the Porte.

For fully 345 years Serbia remained a Turkish pashalik, enduring all the miseries which that lawless regime implied (see TURKEY: History). But the more or less successful invasions of the Turkish empire in Europe by the Austrian armies in the iSth century-invasions in which thousands of Serbs always participated as volunteers-prepared the way for a new state of things.

The defeat of Kosovo reduced Serbia to a passive role: she looked on helplessly when the Turks overran Bulgaria (1393) and when Sigismund of Hungary's new crusade ended in the disaster of Nicopolis (1396). The Turks thus entrenched themselves firmly to the south and east, and all that Stephen Lazarevic could hold was the country lying between the Danube, Save, Drina and Timok, as far south as Xis. Stephen paid tribute to the Sultan and served as his vassal at Angora (1402), afterwards escaping to Byzantium and receiving from Manuel II. the title of Despot. In this dignity he was succeeded in 1427 by his nephew George Brankovic, who married a Cantacuzene and maintained himself by alliance with the Eastern Empire and Hungary.

King Sigismund seized Belgrade and forced George to transfer his capital to the Danubian fortress of Smederevo (Semendria), but compensated him with huge grants of land in Southern Hungary. Though he gave his daughter Mara in marriage to Sultan Murad (1433 ), George was attacked and expelled by the Turks in 1439 and only recovered his dominions thanks to King Ladislas of Hungary's victorious Balkan campaign in 1443.

The Turkish triumph at Varna next year ended all hope of a general Christian Coalition, and the rest of George's reign is filled by precarious intrigue and negotiation with Turk, Hungarian and Venetian, with Skanderbeg and the new ruler of Hercegovina. George died at the age of 80 in 1456, in the same year that John Hunyady died after his successful defence of Belgrade against Mohammed II. George's son Lazar only survived him one year, the succession was disputed, and in 1459 Smederevo and all Serbia were finally overrun by Mohammed.

The fall of Bosnia (1463) and of Hercegovina (14S3) set the seal to Turkish predominance in the Balkans. The only fragments of Southern Slav territory to retain independence were the Ragusan Republic (Dubrovnik) and Montenegro. Under the Sultans Seh'm I. (1512-20) and Suleiman I. (1520-66) the Turks resumed the offensive northwards: in 1521 Belgrade was wrested from Hungary, and in 1526 the battle of Mohacs broke Hungary's powers of resistance, and led to her partition.

The numerous Serb colonies which had been formed along the Danube and in Southern Hungary after the conquest of Serbia, shared the fate of the Magyars: the Banat of Jajce, Syrmia and parts of Croatia and Dalmatia were also seized by the Turks, whose constant raids into Croat and Slovene territory forced the Habsburgs to organize the defensive Military Frontiers

      "Serbia, Europe, Historical Profile (1922), #008-The Despotate," The Encyclopedia Britannica. (New York: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1922); digital edition, ( : posted 15 Jan 2013)

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