Serbian Despotate

Serbian Despotate
Serbian Despotate
Српска Деспотовина
Srpska Despotovina

Capital Belgrade and Smederevo
Language(s) Serbian
Religion Serbian Orthodox Christianity
Government Monarchy
 - 1402–1427 Stefan Lazarević
 - Established February 22, 1402
 - Disestablished November 10, 1459
Currency Serbian perper

The Serbian Despotate (Serbian: Српска деспотовина / Srpska despotovina) was a Serbian state, the last to be conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Although the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 is generally considered the end of the medieval Serbian state, the Despotate, a successor of the Serbian Empire and Moravian Serbia survived for 70 more years, experiencing a cultural and political renaissance in the first half of the 15th century before it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1459. Even then, it continued in Hungarian exile until the mid-16th century.



Origin of the Despotate

After Prince Lazar was killed in the Battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1389, his son Stefan Lazarević succeeded him. Being a minor, his mother Princess Milica ruled as his regent. A wise and diplomatic woman, she managed to balance the Ottoman threat as Ottoman Empire was in a turmoil after the Battle of Kosovo and killing of Sultan Murad I. She married her daughter, Olivera, to his successor, Sultan Bayezid I

Sometime after the battle, in 1390 or 1391, Serbia became a vassal Ottoman state, so Stefan Lazarević was obliged to participate in battles if ordered by the Ottoman sultan. He did so in the Battle of Rovine in May 1395 against the Wallachian prince Mircea I and the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 against the Hungarian king Sigismund. After that, Sultan Bayezid awarded Stefan with the majority of the Vuk Branković's land on Kosovo, as Branković sided with the Hungarian king at Nicopolis.

When Mongols entered the Ottoman realm, Stefan Lazarević participated in the Battle of Angora in 1402 when Ottomans were defeated and sultan Bayezid was captured. Returning to Serbia, Stefan visited Constantinople where the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos granted him the title of despot. In previous years, title would mean that the despot would rule some vassal state, but as the Byzantine Empire was too weak to assert such a rule and Serbia was not its vassal state, Stefan Lazarević took this title as the personal style of the Serbian monarchs, thus the Principality of Serbia became the Serbian Despotate.

Stefan Lazarević

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Already in Constantinople, Stefan had a dispute with his nephew Đurađ Branković, son of Vuk Branković who was accompanying him and got arrested by the Byzantine authorities. Đurađ would later succeed Stefan. Stefan's brother Vuk Lazarević was also in his escort and as they were returning over the Kosovo, they were attacked by the Branković army at Tripolje, near the Gračanica monastery. Vuk headed the Lazarević army, which was victorious, but reaching Novo Brdo, the brothers had a quarrel and Vuk went to the Ottoman side, to the new sultan (actually co-ruler with his 3 brothers) Suleyman (I) Çelebi.

Counting on unrests within the Ottoman empire (Ottoman Interregnum), in early 1404 Stefan accepted vassalage to the Hungarian king Sigismund, who awarded him with Belgrade, until then in Hungarian possession, so Belgrade became capital of Serbia for the first time in history as all the old capitals of Serbia (Skopje, Priština, Prilep and Kruševac) were already taken by the Ottomans.

Next few years are marked by events in Stefan's personal life. He managed to liberate his sister and Bayezid's widow Olivera. In 1404 he made peace with his brother Vuk, in 1405 he married Katilina Gatiluzzi, daughter of Francesco II Gatiluzzi, ruler of the Greek island of Lesbos. Also in 1405 his mother Milica died.

In 1408 brothers disputed again and Vuk, together with sultan Suleyman and the Branković family, attacked Stefan in early 1409. Being besieged at Belgrade, Stefan agreed to give southern part of Serbia to his brother and to accept again Ottoman vassalage. Suleyman's brother Musa rebelled against him and Stefan took Musa's side in the battle of Kosmidion in 1410, near Constantinople. Musa's army was defeated and Suleiman sent Vuk and Đurađ Branković's brother Lazar to come to Serbia before Stefan returns, but they both were captured by Musa's sympathizers and got executed in July 1410. Through Constantinople, where emperor Manuel II confirmed his despotic rights, Stefan returned to Belgrade and annexed Vuk's lands.

Serbian Despotate at the time of Stefan Lazarević (1422) and possession limit of Venice in Adriatic coast.

When Musa became self-proclaimed sultan in European part of the Ottoman empire, he attacked Serbia in early 1412 but was defeated by Stefan near Novo Brdo in Kosovo. Stefan then invited ruler of the Anatolian part of the empire, sultan Mehmed Çelebi to attack Musa together. Securing Hungarian help, they attacked Musa at Çamorlu, near the Vitosha mountain (modern Bulgaria) and defeated him, with Musa being killed in the battle. As a reward, Stefan received the town of Koprijan near Niš (Niš itself remained in Ottoman hands) and the Serbian-Bulgarian area of Znepolje. For the rest of his rule, Stefan remained in good relations with Mehmed, which made the recovery of medieval Serbia possible.

On April 28, 1421, Stefan's nephew and ruler of Zeta, Balša III died and bequeathed his lands to his uncle. With this and territorial gains from the Hungarians (Belgrade, Srebrenica, etc.), Serbia restored majority of its ethnic territories it occupied before the Battle of Kosovo.


The rule of the poet, thinker and artist, despot Stefan Lazarević, was a period of renewed artistic development in Serbia. Stefan Lazarević himself was a poet, writing one of the major medieval Serbian literary works, Slovo ljubve ('The word of love') and one of the largest libraries in the Balkans at that period. Apart from political stability as a result of Stefan's ability to keep a distance from both the Ottoman Empire and Hungarians, stability was also helped by the very rich silver mines, Srebrenica and Novo Brdo, some of the wealthiest in Europe at that time. Belgrade, at that time became one of the largest cities in Europe, numbering over 100,000 people.

Đurađ Branković

First rule

As despot Stefan had no children of his own, already in 1426 he bequeathed the despotate to his nephew, Đurađ Branković who succeeded him upon his death on July 19, 1427. Already the second most important figure in the despotate for the last 15 years, he was confirmed as despot by the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus in 1429.

As an immediate result of Stefan's death, Serbia had to return Belgrade to the Hungarians which gave it to Stefan as a personal gift to him. As the southern wealthy cities (like Novo Brdo) were too close to the Ottomans to be declared new capitals, Đurađ decided to built a new one, a magnificent fortress of Smederevo on the Danube, close to the Hungarian border. Constructed 1428-30, Smederevo was a source of many future misinterpretations of the history, especially concerning Đurađ's wife Jerina. Being a Greek and with her brothers very influential to the new despot, people began to dislike her, attributing to her many vicious and evil characteristics including that building of Smederevo was her caprice. In folk poetry she's been dubbed Prokleta Jerina (the Damned Jerina), but nothing of this can't be confirmed from historical sources.

Temporary Ottoman occupation

Period of relative peace ended in 1438 when Ottoman army, headed by the sultan Murad II himself, attacked and sacked Serbia. Despot Đurađ fled to Hungary in May 1439, leaving a regency of two, his son Grgur Branković and Jerina's brother Toma Kantakuzin to defend the country. After three-months siege, Smederevo fell on August 18, 1439, while Novo Brdo, 'mother of all cities' was conquered on June 27, 1441. At this point the only free remaining part of the despotate was Zeta. First Ottoman governor of Serbia was Ishak-Beg who in 1443 was replaced by Isa-Beg Isaković.

Đurađ Branković restored and reconquered

In Hungary, Đurađ Branković managed to talk Hungarian leaders into expelling the Ottomans, so a broad Christian coalition of Hungarians (under John Hunyadi), Serbs and Romanians (under Vlad II Dracul) advanced to Serbia and Bulgaria in September 1443, and Serbia was fully restored by the Peace of Szeged on August 15, 1444. How hard it was to balance between such a strong powers in the region may be seen from the fact that in 1447-48 despot Đurađ provided funds to the Byzantines to repair the city walls of Constantinople, but being officially an Ottoman vassal, he had to send an army to help Sultan Mehmed II conquer Constantinople in May 1453. In the next year, Mehmed II attacked Serbia, finally taking Novo Brdo in 1455, while in 1456, despot Đurađ handed over to the Sultan the entire southern section of Serbia, before he died on December 24, 1456 in Smederevo.

Lazar Branković

Despot Lazar Branković, who succeeded his father Đurađ, seeing that Serbia is too weak and that it is impossible to defeat the Ottomans on the battlefield, managed to make a deal with sultan Mehmed II on January 15, 1457. According to this, he was granted back most of his father's lands and a promise that Serbia will not be disturbed by the Ottomans until Lazar's death, who in turn had to pay a tribute. Being relieved of the southern threat, Lazar turned to the north and Hungarian internal battles, managing to capture the town of Kovin on the left bank of the Danube in 1457, which was the first time in Serbian history that Serbia stretched across the Danube. Despot Lazar died on January 20, 1458.

Regency and Stefan Branković

As despot Lazar Branković had no sons, a three-member regency was formed after his death. It included Lazar's brother, the blind Stefan Branković, Lazar's widow Helena Palaiologina and Mihailo Anđelović, the 'governor of Rascia'. After Anđelović secretly let one company of Ottomans into Smederevo, he was imprisoned in March 1458 and Stefan became despot in his own right. Year later, Stefan opted to marry his niece, late despot Lazar's daughter, Marija, to Stjepan Tomašević. Even before Stjepan Tomašević married Marija, he declared himself new despot on March 21, 1459 and expelled ex-despot Stefan to Hungary on April 8, 1459.

Stjepan Tomašević and fall of the Despotate

Stjepan Tomašević is considered to be the unluckiest ruler of Serbia in the Middle Ages as he lost two countries to the Ottomans: Serbia in 1459 and Bosnia in 1463. His appointment as new despot was highly unpopular but pushed hard by his father, King Stjepan Tomaš of Bosnia. Since by this time Serbia was reduced to only a strip of land surrounding Smederevo, Sultan Mehmed II decided to conquer Serbia completely and arrived at Smederevo; the new ruler didn't even try to defend the city. After negotiations, Bosnians were allowed to leave the city and Serbia was officially conquered by Turks on June 20, 1459.

Despotate in Hungarian exile

In 1404 Hungarian King Sigismund lend parts Syrmia to Serbian Despot Stefan Lazarević for governing, later succeeded by Đurađ Branković.[1] After the Ottoman Empire conquered Serbia in 1459, the Hungarians renewed the legacy of Despots to the House of Branković in exile, later to the Berislavić family, who continued to govern most of Syrmia until the Ottoman conquest but territory has been de facto and de jure part of Hungarian kingdom. The residence of the despots was Kupinik (modern Kupinovo). The Despots were: Vuk Grgurević (1471–1485), Đorđe Branković (1486–1496), Jovan Branković (1496–1502), Ivaniš Berislavić (1504–1514), and Stjepan Berislavić (1520–1535). The last of the titular Serbian despots in Syrmia, Stevan Berislav, moved in 1522 to Slavonia, since Kupinik was seized by the Ottoman forces.

Rulers of the Serbian Despotate

Name Reign Remark
Stefan Lazarević (1374–1427) August, 1402-July 19, 1427 Lazarević dynasty
Đurađ Branković (1375–1456) July 19, 1427-August 18, 1439 Branković dynasty
Grgur Branković (1416–59) May, 1439-August 18, 1439 co-regent for Đurađ
Thomas Kantakouzenos May, 1439-August 18, 1439 co-regent for Đurađ
Ishak-Beg (+1443) 1439–1443 Turkish governor
Isa-Beg 1443-June 12, 1444 Turkish governor
Đurađ Branković (1375–1456) June 12, 1444-December 24, 1456 restored
Lazar Branković (1421–58) December 24, 1456-January 19, 1458 Branković dynasty
Mihailo Anđelović (+1464) January 19, 1458-March, 1458 co-regent
Jelena Paleolog (1432–73) January 19, 1458-March, 1458 co-regent
Stefan Branković (1420–76) January 19, 1458-March 21, 1459 co-regent to March 1458
Stjepan Tomašević (1438–63) March 21, 1459-June 20, 1459 Kotromanić dynasty
Titular rulers of the Serbian Despotate in Hungarian exile
Vuk Grgurević Branković (1438–85) 1471-April 16, 1485 "Zmaj Ognjeni Vuk"
Đorđe Branković (1461–1516) February, 1486-July, 1497 Branković dynasty
Jovan Branković (1462–1502) 1492-December 10, 1502 Branković dynasty
Jelena Branković (d.1530) December 10, 1502–1503 Jovan's widow; acting
Ivaniš Berislavić (d.1514) 1503-January, 1514 Berislavić dynasty
Stefan Berislavić (1504–36) January, 1514–1536 Berislavić dynasty
Jelena Branković (d.1530) January, 1514–1522 second time; acting for her minor son Stefan
Radič Božić (d.1528) June 29, 1527-September, 1528 Božić dynasty
Pavle Bakić (d.1537) September 20, 1537-October 9, 1537 Bakić dynasty

See also


  • Mala Prosvetina Enciklopedija, Third edition (1985); Prosveta; ISBN 86-07-00001-2
  • Dušan Spasić, Aleksandar Palavestra, Dušan Mrđenović: Rodoslovne tablice i grbovi srpskih dinastija i vlastele, Second edition (1991); Bata; ISBN 86-7685-007-0
  • Vladimir Ćorović: Ilustrovana istorija Srba, Vol. III (2006); Politika NM & Narodna Knjiga; ISBN 86-331-2525-0 (NK)
  • Dennis P. Hupchick: The Balkans: From Constantinople to Communism; Palgrave Macmillan; ISBN 1-4039-6417-3

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