According to some historians, the shape of world politics changed forever on June 28, 1389. On that day, the Serbian and Ottoman armies clashed on the outskirts of what is now Kosovo. Though both sides suffered heavy losses, the Ottoman armies managed to squeak out a win. With the Serbian military might broken, the stage was set for the Ottoman sultans to sweep over southeastern Europe, culminating in Mehmed the Conqueror capturing Constantinople in 1453.
The Serbian Empire had been in decline since the death of Stefan Uroš V. Called ‘the Weak’ even in his own lifetime, he died without an heir and left the other Serbian nobles vying against each other for power. Compounding this problem is that much of the Serbian noble class had perished at the Battle of Maritsa the same year that Uroš V died.
Only one Serbian leader, Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović, understood the threat from the Turkish Ottomans to the East. He spent much of his reign both consolidating his own power while building up his kingdom’s military strength. By the time of the battle, he had an army of around 14,000 fighters strong. He also entered into several alliances with neighboring Serbian rulers, bringing their total martial strength to approximately 25,000 fighters.
On the other side of the battle was Sultan Murad I. He inherited power after his older brother died without sons and entertained grand ambitions for the future of his budding empire. The Sultan had an impressive military career; his first campaign was the conquest of Adrianople. He made the city his capital in 1363 and began forming many of the institutions that would define the later Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman army significantly outnumbered the Serbs, weighing in at an estimated 35,000 soldiers. Two thousand of these were janissaries, the unique type of Ottoman musketeer – giving them a distinct advantage, as gunpowder had not fully spread into Europe yet.
Both Sultan Murad and Prince Lazar personally led their respective armies. In Murad’s case, he was supported by his two sons, while Serbian nobles commanded the various wings of Lazar’s armies. The fighting was fierce, and Prince Lazar was eventually captured and summarily executed. Seeing this, many Serbian commanders retreated or surrendered.
However, victory was not clear on the Ottoman side. A contingent of 12 Serbian noblemen either feigned capture or formed a wedge and drove straight to the Sultan’s tent. Either way, Sultan Murad, I fell to a Serbian blade. Almost immediately afterward, his elder son strangled his younger brother to secure his own rise to power.
Though no clear victor emerged that day, Serbia had lost much of its military strength. Meanwhile, the Ottomans could draw soldiers from elsewhere in their empire. Within the year, Lazar’s widow accepted Ottoman suzerainty on behalf of her adolescent son. The Ottomans would sweep across Europe, reaching as far as Vienna before settling their borders. The battle has become a lasting memory for Serbia, becoming part of their national identity.