Restoration and rise of the Bulgarian state

The restorated St. Demetrius church in Veliko Tarnovo
The restorated St. Demetrius church in Veliko Tarnovo

1185 - 1246


The spark that kindled the Bulgarian liberation insurrection in the spring of 1185 was the heavy special taxes imposed in the Bulgarian lands with a view to meeting the exorbitant expenses on the occasion of the Byzantine emperor's dynastic marriage with the juvenile Hungarian princess. Sporadic, not well-planned riots broke out in the southern Bulgarian Black Sea littoral, the Balkan Range area and in Macedonia. Engaged in severe battles with the Normans, Byzantium failed to suppress these riots on time. This made the rebels even more audacious. The sources shedding light on these events are rather scanty, but there is some secondary evidence that the idea to restore the Bulgarian state had quickly pushed to the background the initial economic motives of the unrests. There was a provision in the Bulgarian law that the Bulgarian throne should be ascended only by persons of royal descent. This must have made riot leaders approach two remote descendants of the Simeon dynasty, the brothers Assen and Theodor - military and administrative governors of a region in Moesia at the time. The brothers, however, were hesitant in responding to the rebels' ideas. The military confrontation with the still mighty empire kept everyone alert. Thus, they tried to achieve the goals of the movement by peaceful means. Assen and Theodor were sent to see the emperor at his military camp on the Aegian coast. They asked to be appointed military and administrative governors of all Bulgarian lands which would probably give them a certain taste of autonomy within the empire. The emperor's consent would have committed them to incorporating the rebels' combat forces into the emperor's army7 then at war with the Normans.

One could hardly think of a better proposal which would so well come up to the interests and save the reputation of both parties to the conflict. It is known, though, that wisdom and sagacity are qualities not often inherent to politicians. In that case, too, the emperor not only rejected the idea but also literally slapped Assen in the face. The Bulgarians returned to their fortifications in the mountains which, according to a Byzantine chronicler, had busily been renewed and reinforced.

It seems, however, that a large proportion of the Bulgarian people was still reluctant to tread the path of open confrontation with the imperium. On that account, the two brothers did something which may look strange by today's standards but was fully justified by the spirit of that epoch. At the time of the Norman seizure of Thessalonica (1185), a group of Bulgarians managed to salvage and transfer to the Balkan mountain fort of Turnovo the icon of St. Demetrius - the most worshiped military patron in Byzantium. Assen and Theodor erected a church in Turnovo, accommodated the icon in there and, during the official inauguration in November 1186, announced that St. Demetrius had turned his eyes away from Byzantium and would thereafter be the patron of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian army. Gripped by a flush of inspiration a multitude of warriors immediately proclaimed Theodor a tsar of Bulgaria. As such he goes by the name of Peter. Assen assumed the command of the Bulgarian armies. Then the Bulgarian contingents left Turnovo and rode swiftly to the old Bulgarian capital of Preslav where tsar Peter had remained. Assen stayed back in Turnovgrad to govern his and his brother's patrimonium there.

Turnovo was soon to assume the functions of a capital city, for the real power was in the hands of Assen. He was, incidentally, also given the title of tsar of Bulgaria in 1187.

It During the first year of the rebellion only the regions of Moesia and Wallachia had their independence from Byzantium restored. In the subsequent year, however, the armies of the Bulgarians made an entry into the formerly Bulgarian southern territories. And, while Macedonia - the kernel of the Bulgarian resistance against the Byzantine aggression in the 10th and the 11th centuries, was freed without any particular difficulty, battles waged in Thrace could be compared, by scope and severity, only with those at the time of the so-called Bulgarian epic. There followed about a ten-year period of alternating twists: at times the Bulgarian troops reached the neighborhood of Constantinople and Thessalonica - the two main cities of the empire and, at times, the Byzantines led battles in Moesia. At one stage the Bulgarians had just gained superiority in the fighting when the seeds of discord yielded their fruit that fell among the Bulgarian palace aristocracy. In 1196, tsar Assen I (1187-1196), a victim of a plot, was murdered. Shortly after, his brother tsar Peter (1189-1197) suffered a similar fate. The conspirers did not succeed in consolidating their power.

The two assassinated royal brothers - liberators of Bulgaria, had a third brother who ascended the Bulgarian throne as tsar Kaloyan (1197-1207).suppressed the strong boyar opposition, the young Bulgarian ruler declared war on Byzantium in 1199. By 1202 he succeeded in liberating the parts of Thrace, Macedonia and the Black Sea littoral still under Byzantine rule. This time Byzantium's attempts to repeat its 9th- 11th century experience of using the Hungarians against the Bulgarians, failed. In 1203 the Hungarian imperial troops were defeated and some parts of the central Danubian tableland, which had been taken away from the Bulgarians during their agony at the beginning of the 11th century, were restituted to the Bulgarian state.

Meanwhile tsar Kaloyan was well-aware of his country's serious international isolation. A conflict with the Latins interpolated into the conflict with Byzantium which had permanently been seething with the help of the Hungarians, always at hand for a revenge. For this reason, as early as 1199, he wrote to Pope Innocent III to propose subordination of the Bulgarian church in return for his being crowned as a sign of the legitimacy of his reign. The negotiations, conducted with perfect diplomatic skill by both parties, ended in 1204. Tsar Kaloyan received from Rome a crown, a sceptre and a blessing for his title as a king while the Bulgarian archbishop Basil was consecrated as primate of the Bulgarian church. This act enabled tsar Kaloyan to declare illegal all Hungarian revenge-seeking intentions with respect to Bulgaria, already a fully fledged Catholic country and even, with the Pope's blessing, to strike a preventive stunning blow on the Hungarians in Transilvania and Serbia.

At that juncture, in 1204 Bulgaria's perennial enemy - the Byzantine empire, unexpectedly collapsed. Debilitated by the 20- year long hostilities with the Bulgarians, it yielded to the pressure of and eventually fell to the crusaders in the Fourth crusade. The foundations of the political prodigy of Western Europe, the Latin empire, were laid in conquered Constantinople. The new state quickly got down to occupying almost all Byzantine territories in Europe and Asia Minor.

Tsar Kaloyan was anxious to negotiate a settlement of the borderline dispute with the Latin emperor Baldwin of Flanders (1204- 1205). However, the Latins' reply was haughty and rude. They said that, as far as they were concerned, Bulgaria was an illegitimate political formation and that its territory, as part of the former Byzantine empire whose heirs-at-law they thought to be, would belong to them by rights. They informed Kaloyan in a sarcastic fashion that their coming was imminent. Kaloyan's plea to Pope Innocent III to bring the crusaders to their senses took no effect at all.

In that situation the Bulgarian ruler, who surely did not like being at the tail-end of events, decided to strike first. In the spring of 1205 a rebellion, inspired by tsar Kaloyan, broke out in Latin Thrace. Only when the Latin army besieged the main city of the region, Adrianople (present-day Edirne), did the crusaders see, in spell-binding amazement, that the fortress walls had Bulgarian standards fixed on top. Surviving Byzantine nobility had to recognize the supremacy of the Bulgarian tsar. Soon after, the Bulgarian army also arrived at the walls of Adrianople. Confident of their invincibility, the knights raided the Bulgarian army on 14 April 1205 and sustained tremendous losses and a defeat. On that day, in the vicinity of Adrianople, emperor Baldwin was taken prisoner and the that day. It marked the end of the reveries of some West European political circles about their enduring presence in the East. For, the Adrianople disaster was a death blow to the infant empire which did, never again, succeed in assuming the role of a primary political power in the European East and which, after a painful agony six decades long, was to disappear completely from the political stage.

During the couple of years that followed, the Bulgarian contingents struck fresh and severe blows on the crusaders. The last of the Fourth crusade leaders, Boniface of Montferrat, 'king' of Thessalonica, got slain in a battle with the Bulgarians. The Byzantine aristocracy, confused by and frightened of Bulgaria's triumphant marches which had already pushed it forward again as a predominant power in the Balkans, backed out of its alliance with the Bulgarians, and, as a result, was completely done away with in Thrace. A legend was circulated among the few survivors in which Kaloyan was seen as the Providence itself retaliating the evil caused to the Bulgarians in the beginning of the 11th century.

In October 1207 tsar Kaloyan besieged Thessalonica. On the eve of the battle, the Bulgarian tsar died in circumstances which are rather vaguely described in the various sources. According to some he had died of heart failure and, according to others, he had been ambushed and murdered. Boril, Kaloyan's nephew and the only adult descendant of Assen's House, was set on the throne.

Tsar Boril (1207-1218) possessed none of the diplomatic or military abilities of the three royal brothers. A number of discontented boyars - regional governors in Macedonia, Thrace and the Rhodopes refused to obey the central power and set up autonomous feudal possessions. The exhausted Bulgarian state could not counteract a Latin raid in 1208 and lost Thrace. The Hungarians were also on the offensive from the west. As late as 1214 Boril succeeded in defeating the invaders. The hostilities with the Latins and the Hungarians were discontinued by the intercession of the Pope, while peace was being consolidated by dynastic marriages. Opposition against Boril was gaining momentum which was due to the tsar's political and military ineptitude, as well as to his suspected complicity in the plot that had resulted in tsar Kaloyan's death.

In 1217 the legitimate heir to the Bulgarian throne - the son of tsar Assen I, by name Ivan Assen II, returned from exile in the Russian principality of Galich where he had been sent as a juvenile at the time of Boril's ascension to the throne. Now Ivan Assen was at the head of a company of Russian mercenaries. One after the other the fortresses opened their gates to him. Boril shut himself up in the capital city of Turnovo which took until the spring of 1218 to fall. Boril was deposed and blinded, and Ivan Assen began his I reign as a Bulgarian tsar.

The young sovereign differed from his predecessor in his extraordinary statecraft skills. From the very beginning of his reign he had to cope with a rather complex foreign political situation. The bipolar pattern of political relations, i.e. Byzantium versus Bulgaria, which had been typical of the development of the European East for centuries on end, was substituted by a conglomerate of state formations with equal power and ambitions: the Latin empire, Byzantium's successors Epirius and Nicaea, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. By choosing to negotiate (this approach was not common in medieval political affairs all that much), rather than to get bogged down in unrestrained military confrontation, tsar Ivan Assen II succeeded in attaining goals almost as high as those achieved by Simeon the Great and tsar Samuel. His diplomatic marriage with the daughter of the Hungarian king guaranteed the return of Belgrade and Branichevo - territories in the central Danubian tableland which had been detached from Bulgaria earlier on. Ivan Assen II also had the region of Upper Thrace returned under a Treaty of alliance with the Latin empire.

In 1230 Bulgaria was raided by the troops of the Epims despotate. Its despot, Theodore Comnenus, who regarded himself a legitimate heir to the Byzantine emperor's throne, was defeated in a pitched battle near the village of Klokotnitsa and was taken prisoner. The Bulgarian state occupied all his realms and thus, once again, became an unrivaled power on the Balkans. Similar to the situation back in the 10th century, its territory comprised almost the whole of the Balkan Peninsula.

During the subsequent ten years of his rule, the Bulgarian tsar became famous for his expert maneuvers among the rest of the political powers on the peninsula, not allowing even one of them to dispute Bulgaria's hegemony. The status quo was preserved until the tsar's death in 1241. Even in the last months of his life Ivan Assen II managed to demonstrate the potentialities of Bulgaria. The Bulgarian army crushed hordes of Tatars who had been invincible until that time. It is worth reminding that the Tatars, obsessed with the Asian mania for world hegemony, had already engulfed all state formations west of the Urals including Russia, had defeated and unmanned Hungary and were then heading towards Bulgaria in order to cover their flank - a prerequisite needed for their planned invasion of Western Europe. But in 1241 the Bulgarians routed the Tatars which took the edge off their intended aggression against Western Europe once and for all. They remained a major political power for long centuries ahead but their ambitions did, never again, stretch beyond the borders of Eastern Europe - the lands reached thusfar.

The territorial expansion of the Bulgarian state within the boundaries of the Bulgarian ethnos had created favorable conditions for its successful economic and cultural development. From that time on, the Bulgarian economy took an active part in the all- round exchanges with the economy of Western Europe. Ivan Assen II signed many agreements with European political formations which helped regulate their trade with the East. Fully restored in 1235, the Bulgarian patriarchal became the only institution of the Eastern Orthodox religion to be backed up by a well-established political power, bearing in mind the collapse of Byzantium and Russia as it really was at that time. Thus, it gained enormous authority with the whole of the East. The cultural exchanges initiated by the intellectual circles in the bosom of the Bulgarian church became an example to follow for the intellectuals of the East.






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