Despot Stefan

Stefan Lazarevic (c. 1377 – 19 July 1427), also known as Stefan the Tall, was the ruler of Serbia as prince (1389–1402) and despot (1402–1427). The son of Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic, he was regarded as one of the finest knights and military leaders at that time. After the death of his father at Kosovo (1389), he became the ruler of Moravian Serbia and ruled with his mother Milica (nee Nemanjic), until he reached adulthood in 1393. Stefan led troops in several battles as an Ottoman vassal, until asserting independence and receiving the title of despot from the Byzantines in 1402.

Becoming a Hungarian ally in 1403–04, he received large possessions, including the Belgrade and Golubac Fortress. He also held the superior rank in the chivalric Order of the Dragon. During his reign there was a long conflict with his nephew Djuradj Brankovic, which ended in 1412. Stefan also inherited Zeta, and waged the war against Venice. Since he was childless, he designated his nephew Djuradj as heir in 1426, a year before his death.

On the domestic front, he broke the resistance of the Serbian noblemen, and used the periods of peace to strengthen Serbia politically, economically, culturally and militarily. In 1412 he issued the Code of Mines, with a separate section on governing of Novo Brdo – the largest mine in the Balkans at that time. This code increased the development of mining in Serbia, which had been the Serbian Despotate’s economy backbone. At the time of his death, Serbia was one of the largest silver producers in Europe. In the field of architecture, he continued development of the Morava school. His reign and personal literary works are sometimes associated with early signs of the Renaissance in the Serbian lands. He introduced knightly tournaments, modern battle tactics, and firearms to Serbia. He was a great patron of the arts and culture by providing shelter and support to scholars and refugees from neighbouring countries that had been taken by the Ottomans. In addition, he was himself a writer, and his most important work, A Homage to Love, was characterized by the Renaissance lines. The Resava School, centre for transcribing, translating and illuminating manuscripts, was established during his reign.

Early years and rise to the throne

Stefan was the son of the prince of Moravian Serbia, Lazar, and his wife Milica, whose father, Prince Vratko, was a descendant of Vukan, the eldest son of Stefan Nemanja. In addition to Stefan, they had seven other children.

Stefan Lazarevic was born probably in 1377 in Krusevac, the capital of his father, Prince Lazar. After the Battle of Kosovo, 28 June 1389, where his father was killed, Stefan became the new Serbian prince, but before he became of age the state was ruled by his mother, Princess Milica. In the battle of Kosovo in 1389, both rulers were killed, the Serbian Prince Lazar and Ottoman Sultan Murad I, which is very rare in history. (Murad I was the only Ottoman ruler who was killed on the battlefield).

He came to the throne at the time when Moravian Serbia was surrounded by powerful neighbours. On one side there was Bayezid I, who withdrew after the Battle of Kosovo in order to consolidate his power among the Ottomans, while next door there was Vuk Brankovic, the husband of Stefan’s sister Mara, who after the battle became the most powerful Serbian lord. The neighbour on the west was Bosnian king Tvrtko I (1353-1377 ban, king 1377-1391), who was considered the legitimate successor of Nemanjic crown and portrayed the Battle of Kosovo as his own victory over the Ottomans, while the territory in the north bordered with Hungary, ruled by King Sigismund.

On 7 July, three weeks after the battle, Sigismund sent his palatine Nicholas II Garay to negotiate with Vuk Brankovic. Although both Nicholas and Vuk were married to Stefan’s sisters, it was not uncommon at the time that strong neighbours, even relatives, suppressed the legitimate heirs to throne as juvenile. The outcome of these negotiations is not known, but already in the fall, Sigismund began an offensive against young Serbian prince Stefan. His forces crossed the Sava River in October and in early November they occupied the fortresses of Borac and Cestin (today Kragujevac).

In these circumstances, the Serbian noblemen, with the support of Serbian Patriarch Spyridon (1379-1389), decided to conclude peace and accept the supremacy of Sultan Bayezid I, by mid-1390.

According to the peace treaty provisions, Prince Stefan pledged to send extra squads to Ottoman sultan and pay tribute, and he and his brother Vuk Lazarevic had to appear annually at the Sultan’s Palace to confirm the allegiance to Bayezid I. In addition to these common vassal obligations, Bayezid I married the youngest daughter of Prince Lazar and Princess Milica, Olivera. Her brother and the new prince, Stefan, personally had to take her to Sultan Bayezid in Bursa. The consequences of this peace were immediately visible because already in the summer 1390, Serbian forces reinforced with extra Ottoman detachments, recaptured the lost towns, and probably in part of these operations the Ottomans took Golubac.

There is no data of the activities of Vuk Brankovic during this period. It is certain that after Battle of Kosovo he sought to expand his territories (among others, he conquered the part of Polimlje) and he used the same title that was used before him by Prince Lazar (Lord of the Serbs and Podunavlje).

However, by early May 1390, he felt threatened and asked the Republic of Ragusa to facilitate his safety, if it came in a quandary, which could be linked with the Ottoman detachments who helped Stefan against the Hungarians during the summer. But there is no evidence that there was any hostility between Stefan and Vuk Brankovic. The sources recorded in that Vuk attended the ceremony of transferring Prince Lazar’s body from his capital Pristina to the monastery Ravanica in late 1390 or early 1391, and it is also known that Princess Milica was in his court during 1392.

The conflict at the Serbian-Hungarian border continued over the next two years, and King Sigismund was involved, repeatedly visiting the army at the Danube. In the summer 1392 he crossed the river near Kovin and marched to the town of Zdrelo near Valjevo, then retreated and tried to win Golubac. At the same time, the domain of Vuk Brankovic was under the Ottomans’ attack. In early 1392 they occupied Skoplje and continued marching to the north, forcing Vuk by the end of the year to make peace with Beyazid and become his vassal.

Battles of Rovine and of Nicopolis

In 1393, Stefan became of age and took over the throne, and his mother became a nun and withdrew to her endowment, monastery Ljubostinja. That same year, Bayezid I dealt with his Bulgarian vassals for their alleged links with the Hungarian King Sigismund. Veliko Tarnovo was besieged and Bulgaria devastated; Stefan’s brother-in-law was Bulgarian ruler Ivan Shishman. After this, many Bulgarian scholars sought refuge in Serbia and other neighbouring Christian countries.

At the end of 1393 and in early 1394, Bayezid I began gathering his Christian vassals at Serres. Byzantine sources tell that among the vassals were Stefan, Emperor Manuel II (1391-1425), his nephew John VII (1390) and his brother Theodore I of Morea (r. 1383-1407), and the Serbian lord Constantine Dragas. It is believed that Bayezid I planned to kill the vassals at the meeting and take their lands. He gave the order to kill them, but it was not done immediately, then he changed his mind, after which some of them went home, while the rest of them completed the conquest of Thessaly and Thessaloniki (12 April).

During the autumn of 1394, Bayezid started gathering forces for a campaign against the Wallachian voivode Mircea I (1386-1418). In this campaign, Stefan personally led the Serbian heavy cavalry, while Serbian nobles Prince Marko (1371-1395), Constantine Dragas and Konstantin Balsic led their own forces. Bayezid’s forces crossed the Danube and the battle of Rovine took place on 17 May 1395, near the present-day Pitești, with a Wallachian victory. Prince Marko and Dragas were killed in the battle, and Bayezid annexed their lands. According to Constantine the Philosopher in his Life of Stefan Lazarevic Marko said to Dragas before the battle: “I pray God to help the

Christians and that I will be among the first dead in this war.”

The Ottoman forces then took over Vidin, and reinforced by Serbian detachments during the summer of 1396 marched into Banat, after attacking the lands of Vuk Brankovic and conquering a large part of it, including Pristina.

However, the victory at Rovine sparked a great crusade in which forces from England, France, Germany, and other European countries joined Hungarian king Sigismund and Mircea I with the Venetian fleet which was to enter the Danube from the Black Sea and support the army on the mainland. Crusader forces gathered in Hungary, after which they crossed the Danube and took Vidin. After that, the march continued down the Danube. Nicopolis, which had a large Ottoman garrison was besieged. The siege broke the blockade of Constantinople, forcing Bayezid to send troops towards the Danube, joining forces with Stefan Lazarevic’s heavy cavalry near Plovdiv. A great battle took place on 25 September 1396 in which the Crusader forces were completely destroyed. Although very large, the Crusader army lacked a joint command and thus was poorly coordinated on the battlefield, and an important factor was the complete ignorance of the Ottoman army’s war tactics. After initial Crusader success, the Ottomans went on a counterattack that stopped with the entry of Hungarian knights in battle, which began to suppress them. In this turning point of battle the Serbian heavy cavalry led by Stefan Lazarevic broke through Hungarian lines, surrounded King Sigmund and attacked the Hungarian banner troops of Nicholas II Garay. Garay’s troops were dispersed, which had a decisive influence on the course of the battle, because some of the Crusaders thought that Sigismund had died and that the battle was lost, while the Hungarian commanders convinced Sigismund that the battle was practically lost and that it was better to withdraw. After that Crusader orders fell apart and carnage followed.

Sigismund I managed to escape by fisherman’s boat to the Venetian ships in the Danube. It is possible that Stefan left enough time for him to board the boat; Stefan saving Sigismund may be one of the causes of Stefan’s later induction into the Order of the Dragon (as the first and foremost)

There were disastrous consequences for the Balkan Christians after the defeat at the Battle of Nicopolis. Vidin was destroyed, Athens occupied (1397), the Despotate of Morea devastated once again, the fall of Constantinople became practically inevitable, and the domain of Vuk Brankovic was taken by the Ottomans. Vuk Brankovic was captured and soon died in captivity (1397). Most of his territories was transferred to the control of Stefan Lazarevic, a small portion (centred in Vucitrn) was left to his wife Mara and sons (Djuradj, Grgur and Lazar), while the Ottomans retained strategic locations under their direct rule. In addition, the Ottoman forces marched into Hungary and plundered its southern parts, in particular Zemun (which was devastated) and Sremska Mitrovica (which was burned down, and its population displaced).

Battle of Angora

Great changes of events in Asia Minor and Southeast Europe were caused by an invasion of the Tatars under the leadership of Tamerlane, one of the great conquerors in world history. His invasion into Asia Minor forced Bayezid I to gather his forces and try to confront him in battle, which took place 28 July 1402, near Angora (today Ankara, the capital of Turkey).

In this battle Ottoman forces suffered defeat, Bayezid I and one of his sons, Musa Çelebi, were captured and the following year Bayezid died in captivity. One of the main reasons for the Ottoman defeat was the desertion of Turkic and Tartar cavalry from Anatolia, which prior to the beginning of the battle defected to Timur’s side, unhappy with Bayezid’s rule and due to a sense of kinship with the forces of Timur. This allowed the Timur’s forces to break Bayezid’s left wing and encircle his centre, where the Sultan was located with his janissaries (around 10,000) Bayezid’s vassals were on the right wing, among whom were Djuradj Brankovic and his brother Grgur, Stefan’s brother Vuk, and Stefan himself, who was also a commander of the right wing. He fought bravely, which caused Timur’s admiration. Prince Stefan and his knights, which according to chronicler Duka and several contemporaries, were 5000 heavily armed men with spears, including cavalry, repeatedly attacked the enemy lines in order to rescue Bayezid. He eventually succeeded in it, but Bayezid refused to withdraw, after which Stefan took with him his son Suleiman and started to retreat towards Bursa under constant attacks of the hordes of Tatars. Byzantine chronicler Laonikos Chalkokondyles wrote that “the Serbs fought as real heroes, each worthy of praise”, adding that “They attacked Tatars with great vigor, crushing them hard in the fight”, and a toponym Srb-ghazi (Serbian victor) near today’s Ankara testifies that.

Sultan Bayezid I had probably reconciled with his destiny. During the fight, Prince Stefan was wounded, while Gregory Brankovic was captured and later released. In the meantime, Bayezid was captured with his soldiers, his son Musa and his harem, where the Stefan’s sister Olivera was.

One of the main reasons Stefan honoured vassal obligations under Bayezid was his sister Olivera that had been in the Sultan’s harem. Olivera, who was just one of the women in the Bayezid’s harem, was at the same time a kind of hostage. Stephen loved his sister, and Bayezid knew this as his weakness. In fact, Stefan’s attacks on the Tatars which surrounded the Sultan were desperate attempts to rescue his sister, but with no success. She was later released, through an agreement that was signed between Stefan and Timur. It seems that a ransom wasn’t paid, thanks to the great respect that Timur had for Olivera’s brother Stefan, and she returned to Serbia (spring 1403), and a little later she settled permanently in Stefan’s castle, in Belgrade. It is interesting that a group of imprisoned Serbs were taken to Samarkand, where they were employed on construction works. On the other hand, Timur’s forces had already left Asia-Minor in 1403, and Timur himself died in early 1405, during his expedition to

China. In the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid’s capture, and then his death, brought on a civil war between his sons.

Stay at Constantinople

From Bursa Stefan and his brother Vuk Lazarevic came to Constantinople, which was released after several years of Ottoman blockade. John VII Palaiologos (who ruled in place of his absent uncle Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos) awarded Prince Stefan in August 1402 the high Byzantine title of Despot, which in Byzantine hierarchy was just beneath the Imperial. In addition, the marriage of Stefan and Helen Gattilusio, the daughter of Florentine master of Lesbos Francesco II Gattilusio was contracted. These events are evidence of Stefan’s new commitment as vassal to King Sigismund.

When the Lazarevic brothers were in Constantinople, they entered an open conflict with the Brankovic family. Djuradj Brankovic was imprisoned at the city dungeon on his return to Constantinople, on Stefan’s command. The reason for this is unknown, and many later chroniclers, such as Mavro Orbini, claim that Djuradj was planning to join Bayezid I’s son Suleiman, who established his power in the European part of the Ottoman Empire. This is probably true, as Djuradj after escaping from prison in September, went to Suleiman and asked him for military aid against Lazarevic.

Stefan’s return to Serbia was thwarted due to Ottoman hostility; returning Serbian troops were killed on their way home near Adrianople. The two brothers and about 260 remaining soldiers embarked to Serbia, with a shorter stay in Lesbos. Their first stop was Zeta, ruled by Djuradj II Balsic, the husband of Stefan’s sister Jelena. Djuradj II received them at his capital in Ulcinj, after which Stefan began organizing the army for a confrontation with Brankovic. Stefan’s mother gathered an army in Serbia, while at the same time Brankovic and Ottoman troops took control of the roads in Kosovo to prevent the return of Stefan.

Later years

In late October, Stefan’s army from Bar, moved across the country of Balsic and Venetian lands, from Shkoder to Kosovo. Avoiding the main roads controlled by his opponents, Stefan’s forces arrived at Gracanica on November 21. In the ensuing battle near Tripolje the forces of Brankovic, strengthened by Ottoman detachments, were defeated.

Victory in Battle of Tripolje, enabled Stefan to regain his throne and influence in Serbia, which was further strengthened in the coming years. However, the conflict with Brankovic had not ended and in a sense, was further complicated by the conflict that arose between Stefan and Vuk. His younger brother left Serbia in the summer 1403 and headed to Suleiman, to ask him for help and force his older brother to cede part of the state administration. Their mother followed him and eventually managed to reconcile the brothers prior to October 1404. She also succeeded in smoothing relations between Stefan and Suleiman. During the next year, Stefan tried to avoid the renewal of hostilities with the Ottomans.

Order of the Dragon

Changed conditions in Southeast Europe in the early fifteenth century, led to a convergence of Despot Stefan and the Hungarian King Sigismund. Stefan needed a strong ally who could help him get rid of Ottoman domination, but also stay on the throne of Serbia, due to an open conflict with Brankovic, who enjoyed the support of Suleiman. On the other hand, Hungary was in a deep internal crisis, and, until 1403, Sigismund was unable to return to the country and regain control. It was therefore necessary for him to rely on a secure southern border, which had previously been constantly exposed to the combined Serbian-Ottoman attacks, while simultaneously trying to provide a strong base for the fight against the Ottomans and eventually spread to the south.

The negotiations were most likely initiated by King Sigismund, and he sent envoys to Stefan, among whom was his close associate of Florentine origin, Philippe de Skolaris. The objective of this delegation had been successful, and led to the conclusion of an agreement between the two rulers in late 1403 or early 1404. Under its provisions, Stefan accepted vassal relations to Sigismund, and received from him Macva and Belgrade, which were the reason for the Serbo-Hungarian conflict during nearly the entire fourteenth century. This agreement was to be the foundation of the future Order of the Knights of the Dragon. With these new lands, including the Golubac Fortress, Stefan had strengthened his northern border, now delineated by the Sava and Danube rivers.


On 12 September 1405, Stefan married Helena Gattilusio, the daughter of Francesco II of Lesbos. According to Konstantin the Philosopher, Stefan first saw his wife on Lesbos, where Francesco II offered him a choice among his daughters; the marriage was arranged “with the advice and participation” of Helena’s sister, Empress Eirene. Surprisingly, there is no mention of Helena after her marriage to Stefan; this led Anthony Luttrell to remark that “apparently there were never any children; nothing is known of her death or burial; and, most unusual, she did not appear in any of the post-1402 fresco portraits of Stefan”. Luttrell concludes “Maybe she was too young for the marriage to be consummated, and perhaps she stayed on Lesbos and never travelled to Serbia; possibly she died soon after her marriage.”

The rebellion of brother Vuk

In late 1408, Stefan’s younger brother Vuk rebelled against his rule. The reason for his dissatisfaction was that Stefan did not want to share throne with him and give him part of the state administration. Vuk was also probably disappointed with Stefan’s connecting with Sigmund I and the West. He therefore went to Suleiman and asked him for military assistance against Stefan. In return, he promised to recognize his sovereignty, if he received his own state and if Brankovic and his brothers joined him.

At the beginning of 1409, Suleiman’s Ottoman forces broke into Serbia at the battlefield of Kosovo and nearby Pristina was destroyed. Stefan was assisted in the fighting by Sigismund I, whose forces, under the command of Philip de Skolaris, came to Serbia in late January, via Kovin. After fierce battles that were fought during the summer, Stefan withdrew and enclosed himself in Belgrade. He refused to yield to Suleiman, but was forced to negotiate with his brother, which practically led to the division of the country. Vuk gained the administration of its southern part, which included the area south of the West Morava River. He ruled on his own and accepted suzerainty to Suleiman, as did the Brankovic family.

In addition to the conflict in Serbia, the year 1409 had several significant events that influenced the change of situation in the Balkans. In June, Suleiman made peace with the Venetians, who pledged to pay an annual tribute, as well as to surrender their former possessions in the area of Skadar and Zeta. His brother and rival in the struggle for power, Musa Çelebi moved to Europe and began to gather around him supporters and allies in the fight against Suleiman.

Period of peace

The end of civil war between the sons of Bayezid I was the beginning of many years of peace in Serbia, which enabled its further economic and cultural development. Stefan did not intervene militarily in the conflicts in the coastal area, nor in the wars that had swept Bosnia in 1413 and brought the Ottomans into it. In 1414 Sigismund launched two counter-offensives in Bosnia, the second of which ended as a complete disaster. Hungarian forces were broken at Lasva in July, and much of the nobility was captured and taken to Zvecan. They later managed to free themselves through paying ransom and negotiations brokered by Stefan.

Stefan used the period of peace to finish his monumental endowment Resava, with today’s Despotovac. Its construction began in 1406 but was repeatedly interrupted by the Ottoman intrusions (1409, 1411-1413), which finally ended in 1418.

Stefan was a great patron of art and culture, providing support and shelter to scholars from Serbia and exiles from surrounding countries occupied by the Ottomans. He was educated at his parents’ home, he spoke and wrote Serbo-Slavic; he could speak Greek, and was familiar with Latin. Under his rule, the Code of Mines was issued in 1412 in Novo Brdo, the economic centre of Serbia.

He was an author, and his main works include A Homage to Love, which he dedicated to his brother Vuk, and Inscription on the Marble Pillar at Kosovo.

Some works he wrote during his reign have been preserved. During his reign, rich transcribing activity – The Transcription School of Resava – was developed in his foundation, the Manasija Monastery. More Christian works and capital works of ancient civilization were transcribed there than in all times preceding the Despot’s ruling. Resava School remained an important and outstanding monument in the history of Serbian and Slavic culture in general.


As most of the rulers and noblemen of those times, Despot Stefan loved and used to saddle his horse often and ride with his escort to hunt in nearby villages. On one of the returns from castle in Belgrade Fortress finding himself near the place known as Glava, or Glavica, at Mt. Kosmaj, Despot stopped his escort in order to ride out to hunt. As usual, he stretched his hand forward to let the hobby (falcon) fly, but his body did not obey. The whole escort noticed the way his body was leaning from one to the other side, becoming aware that something unusual was happening. Everybody knew well his imposing posture on a horse and they all in disbelief watched him fall down to ground helplessly. According to Constantine the Philosopher, his sudden death on 19 July 1427 was indicated by a mystic storm which made the sky from Belgrade turn black, and the thunder muffled his soft, last words, “Get Djuradj, get Djuradj!”

The death of Despot was experienced as the Last Judgement, a disaster, as the Judgement day among people. Dreading future troubles, the whole state grieved for their ruler, whom they knew from the beginning was “the chosen messenger of the new age”. The Despot’s death announced the hardest period in the history of the Serbian state.

In order to save the memory of the moment of deceasing of favourite and honoured ruler a stone mark was erected on the place where Despot fell off the horse. Saying farewell to their master, his closest associates, who were escorting him in the moment of the accident, built a monument of marble stone, leaving messages of loyalty and respect.

Despot Stefan was buried in his endowment, the monastery of Resava (Manasija) near today’s Despotovac, and was canonized by the Serbian Orthodox Church on the five hundredth anniversary of his death, on July 19, 1927.