Territorial Evolution of Croatia, Part 1 – Medieval Croatia

Croats arrived to Adriatic in July 626., and after ten years of warfare, defeated Avars with the help of Exarch Isac of Ravenna, Slavic tribes and local Roman populace. Thus they took the lands in the unbroken area from Istra to the Himara mountain below Valona. Emperor Heraclius recognized Croatian possession of these lands, and Roman Empire maintained only the control of adriatic islands, and cities of Zadar, Trogir, Split, Dubrovnik, Kotor, and Bar. Constantine Porphyrogennetos wrote that Croats had taken Dalmatia, Pannonia and Illyricum. Two Pannonias stretched from Mura and Drava to Sava, and Dalmatia from Sava to Adriaticum and from river Rasa in Istra to Drina and Budva in the Bay of Kotor. Illyricum stretched from Budva to the mountain Himara south of Valona.

In old Chronicle of Croatia from 8th century, span of the Croatian state(s) is recorded as “Utom Stroil, brat njegov, s vojskom svojom vaze kraljevstvo od Ilirije, a to jest sva zemlje, ca jests ovu strenu Valdemije deri do Polonije… Svioled, sin Stroilov… I bi kreljevstvo njegovo Bosne i Valdemin deri do Polonije, teko primorsko keko i zagorsko krnljevstvo” (“Thus Stroil, brother of his, with own army took the kingdom of Illyria, that is all lands, that are this side of Valdemia all the way to Polonia… Svioled, son of Stroilo… And his kingom was of Bosnia and Valdemin to Polonia, and also littoral as also backlands kingdom”).

In old Croatian work Methodos it is writtenn that Croatian ruler (king? – “kral”) Budimir on Duvno Field Convocation in 753. divided “Primorje u dvije oblasti: od mjesta Dalme (=Duvno)… do Vinodola nazva Bijelom Hrvatskom, koja se naziva i Donjom Dalmacijom… Od istoga mjesta Dalme do grada Bambalone… nazva Crvenom Hrvatskom, što se zove i Gornjom Dalmacijom” (…”Littoral into two regions: from a place of Dalma (note: Duvno)… to Vinodol he called the White Croatia, which is also called Lower Dalmatia… From the same place of Dalma to the city of Bambalona… he called the Red Croatia, which is called also Upper Dalmatia”).

Croatia in 753

Patriarch of Constantinople, Nikolaos I Mystikos, who served as a regent during Constantine VIIs minority, testifies that until the year 807. Eastern Romans did not rule in the West further than Solun.

Frankish Overlordship (803. – 879.)

At Christmas of year 800 AD, pope Leo III. Restored the western Roman Empire by crowning Charles the Great (Charlemagne, 774. – 814.) for Emperor. Croatian ruler Borna (802. – 821.) accepted Charlemagne’s overlordship. Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I. Installed Byzantine rule in Venetia, Kvarner and former Byzantine cities on eastern coast of Adriatic., and in 807. conquered all lands south of river Mathis in today’s Albania. Thus most of the “Red Croatia” was lost, and Croatia grew closer to Franks who respected its internal political autonomy.

In treaties of 810., 812. and 817., Eastern Roman Empire gave up rule over Adriatic Croatia, and set a border at river Mathis. After death of Charlemagne in 814. AD, dynastic conflicts erupted in the Frankish Empire, allowing Croatian dukes Vladislav, Mislav and Trpimir to establish de facto sovereignity. Trpimir I. mentions name of Croatia for the first time in his gift to Split Metropoly: “Trpimir, vojvoda Hrvata… po svoj državi Hrvata” (“Trpimir, duke of Croats… across the entire state of Croats”). In this document he also mentions that Croatian state was larger than the Split metropolis – which itself spanned from Raša in Istria to Drava and Danube in the north, and Drina and Budva in the east and south.

Croatia under Trpimir. Pink are states of White Croatia, orange is Red Croatia.

In dynastic conflicts between Trpimir’s sons and Trpimir’s cousin Domagoj, in 878. rule took Zdeslav, Trpimir’s second son. He cut ties with Francia and approached Byzantium, but was killed by Domagoj’s son Branimir (879. – 892.). Branimir cut ties with the Byzantine Empire, but did not renew ties to Frankish state, and thus Croatia became a sovereign state. In 879., Branimir forced Byzantine cities to pay tribute of 710 ducats as well as significant tribute in kind.

Independent State of National Rulers (879. – 1102.)

Branimir was succeeded by Mutimir (892. – 910.), and Mutimir by Tomislav (910. – 929.). During first years of his rule, Tomislav defeated Hungarians (Magyars) multiple times and secured Croatian borders on Drava and Danube. In the year 923., Byzantine Emperor Roman Lekapenos sent Tomislav the royal paraphernalia (regalia) and also entrusted him with governance of the Theme of Dalmatia in capacity of the Imperial Proconsul. By this, Croatia was formally recognized as an independent and sovereign state. Recognition was further reinforced when pope John X wrote “to dear son Tomislav, king of Croats”. After victory over Bulgarian emperor Simeon the Great, Croatia became the most powerful state in the Southeastern Europe. By the time of Krešimir I., kingdom could raise 100 000 infantry, 60 000 cavalry, 80 larger and 100 smaller ships.

Croatia under King Tomislav in 927

But as usual, internal dissafections were to harm the kingdom. In the civil war between sons of Krešimir I., one faction called Serbian great župan Časlav for help, and he “assisted” them by conquering in 948. Croatian provinces Travunja, Zahumlje, Neretva and Bosnia as well as three north-eastern districts of the White Croatia. This lasted until 960., when Predimir, voivoda of Duklja, liberated from Serbs the entire Red Croatia (Travunja, Zahumlje and Neretva) while king Krešimir II. (948. – 969.) liberated the territories of White Croatia as well as Bosnia. Since then and until 1918., Bosnia was never a part of the Kingdom of Serbia or under Serbian rule.

When in 986. Bulgarian king Samuel II (976. – 1014.) defeated Byzantine army at Trajan’s doors, emperor Basil II (976. – 1025.) sent royal regalie to Croatian king Stjepan (Stephen) Držislav (969. – 995.) and gave him authority over Byzantine Dalmatia, so as to secure Croatia’s friendship. Stjepan Držislav henceforth held the title of the “King of Croatia and Dalmatia”.

In dynastic war between Stjepan Držislav’s sons, oldest brother Svetoslav Suronja (995. – 997.) is dethroned. He however, with the help of Venice and Hungary, separated Slavonia from Croatia.

King Petar Krešimir IV. took Zvonimir Svetoslavić, an independent viceroy of Pannonian Croatia (Slavonia), for his co-ruler and successor. Zvonimir thus returned Slavonia to the Kingdom of Croatia.

Croatia under Petar Krešimir IV

After Petar’s death, in late 1073. or early 1074., Croatian Convocation (early Parliament) elected Slavac, duke of Neretva. Mihajlo, duke of Duklja (Doclea), unhappy with the choice, took Red Croatia from the kingdom and declared himself an independent ruler. Unhappy with this, Croats in the north and in Slovinj requested “help” from Venetian doge Dominic Selvo. He used the opportunity to conquer Croatian coast. However, when papal legates crowned Dmitar Zvonimir for King of Croatia, they also forced the Venice to peacefully return to Croatia islands and cities it had captured.

During last years of Zvonimir’s rule, king of Red Croatia, Bodin, conquered Bosnia. But Bosnia separated from Red Croatia in 1138. and joined Hungarian-Croatian kingdom of their own will.

After Zvonimir’s death and short rule of Stjepan (Stephen) II. (1089. – 1090.), Croatian nobility started to fight among themselves. Majority of the nobles chose Hungarian king Koloman I. (1095. – 1116.), while the opposition chose Croatian noble Petar Snačić. At mountain Gvozd, Petar intercepted Koloman’s army, but was defeated.

Personal Union With Hungary (1102. – 1526.)

Despite this, Croatia was not conquered. Koloman had to return to Hungary to defend the kingdom, first from Cumans and then from his rebellious brother. Koloman also intervened in Russia, crossing Carpathians and besieging Prezmysl in 1099., on behalf of the Grand Duke of Kiev. Defeated by duke David and Cumans, Coloman had to seek peace, and returned to Hungary. Only in 1102. Croatian nobility formally accepted Coloman as a king of Croatia. Croatia remained a separate kingdom under the Hungarian crown – it had its own laws, rights and parliament. King promised not to unite Croatia with Hungary, and to crown himself with crown of Croatia separately from the crown of Hungary. Croatian army was duty-bound to assist the king, but Croatia would only provide materials and money for the campaigns within its own territory. Any campaigns mounted beyond the borders of the kingdom, be it within territory of Hungary or elsewhere, had to be financed and provided for by the Crown. Croatia kept complete legal and financial independence.

But while union with Hungary had major benefits, not all was well. Venice had taken Dalmatia in 1098., and Coloman had no navy. But in 1104., Byzantine emperor Alexius I. Comnenus married his son and heir John II. to princess Irene, daughter of Ladislaus I. and thus Coloman’s sister. Concurrently, Hungary and the Byzantine Empire had made an alliance against Bohemond, ruler of Taranto and Antioch. In such conditions, Coloman easily liberated Dalmatia.

Croatia in 1230

Dalmatia was finally lost, for the next 400 years, when Ladislaus Angevin sold Dalmatia to Venice in 1409., for a sum of 400 000 ducats. In 1480., Venice will capture the last remaining Croatian island, Krk.

In 1435., Ottomans conquered Vrhbosna (today’s Jajce), and from there proceeded to conquer rest of Bosnia, converting inhabitants to Islam, which will eventually result in the creation of new ethnicity (today’s Bosniaks). In spring 1463., Mehmed the Conqueror conquered Bosnia, and executed Stjepan (Stephen) Tomašević, last king of Croatian blood. By 1482., last remnants of Herzegovina fell, and 1498/9. coastal areas to Cetina. Between 1512. and 1516., Turks had conquered Banate of Srebrenica, and eastern Srijem in 1526. By 1526., all lands of coastal Croatia had been lost. Croatian nobility retreats northwards, and so the name of Croatia was given to the western part of Pannonian Croatia (Slavonia).

Croatia in 1526

Some Croats started converting to Islam as early as first decades of 14th century. More significant was Ottoman raid in 1386., when Turks devastated north-eastern Herzegovina and took great number of people to slavery. When Bosnia fell to Ottomans in 1463., around 90% were Catholics while only 10% were Bogumils (Cathars). During the first 50 years of Ottoman rule, thanks to Mehmed II’s guarantee of religious freedoms, Catholics rarely converted to Islam. However, oppressive taxes aimed at Christians later did lead to (usually fake) conversions. Frontline moved steadily westwards, before stabilizing at Kupa and Glina in early 17th century.

During the Ottoman wars, over a million Croats – Catholics and Muslims alike – were killed, and many more were taken to slavery. Just after the conquest of Bosnia by Mehmed II., over 100 000 people were carried off to slavery. At Battle of Krbava in 1493., Jakub-pasha defeated Croatian nobility, rending the kingdom almost defenseless as there was hardly anyone left to raise an army. And after Battle of Mohacs in 1526., Suleiman II. took over 200 000 prisoners from Hungary and Croatia. Venetian writer Marin Sanuto stated that by the end of the third Suleiman’s campaign, Turks had taken 600 000 souls from Croatia. From 1575. to Karlovac peace in 1699., further million and a half of Croats were taken to slavery.

Habsburg Monarchy (1526. – 1918.)

Defense of Croatia from the Ottomans in later 15th and especially 16th century relied on Croatian nobility, primarily Frankopans and Šubić families. As a compensation for the military expenses, Ferdinand I. Habsburg gave in 1546. to Nikola Zrinski entirety of Međimurje.

Even before Croatia became a part of Habsburg monarchy, Habsburgs as well as Slovenian and Austrian nobility helped defend Croatia from Ottoman threat. This help included finances and, in some cases, even outright military assistance. Assistance was also provided by Ferdinand I Habsburg, who in 1521. had received Austria, Tyrol and Styria. Ferdinand I had married Anna, sister of Hungarian king Louis II. After the Battle of Mohacs in which Louis had died, first Czech and then Croatian nobility elected Ferdinand I for king. Hungarian nobility meanwhile elected John Zapolya, a noble from old Slavonian family that had gotted Magyarized.

Croatian nobility made Ferdinand’s election conditional on him assisting defense of Croatia, but he had neither will nor, likely, resources, to do so in an effective manner. As a result, erosion of Croatian territory continued, with year 1528. seeing loss of key fortresses of Jajce, Banja Luka, Ključ on Sana, as well as entirety of Lika and Krbava. In 1532., Suleiman’s campaign against Vienna was stopped by Nikola Jurišić at Kiseg, but in 1537. Turks conquered Požega and the entirety of central Slavonia. In his fourth campaign, Suleiman conquered most of Hungary, turning it into an Ottoman province. Fifth campaign saw Croatia lose Valpovo, Orahovica and Pakrac. Suleiman’s sixth campaign was stopped by Nikola Zrinski at Siget. During years 1577/1578 Ottoman commanders from Bosnia conquered Gornja and Donja Kladuša, Ostrožac, Zrin and Gvozdansko.

After Vezier of Bosnia Hasan-pasha Predojević had conquered Bihać, Croatia was reduced to an area of 16800 square kilometers, with western border roughly at current border with Slovenia and northwestern border in Međimurje (as they had been since 7th century), but eastern border following the line of Karlobag – Velebit – Sisak – Čazma – Pitomača. These sad remnants of the Kingdom of Croatia received a very appropriate nickname: Reliquiae reliquiarum quondam incliti regni Croatiae (remnants of the remnants of once glorious kingdom of Croats).

Croatia in 16th century

In order to stop the Ottoman advance and raids, Rudolph II created, in 1578, the Military Border, by giving command of all border garrisons to his uncle Charles II of Styria. Charles II carried out a massive campaign of modernization of border defences, creating multiple key strongholds, of which most important was the city of Karlovac, founded in 1579. (other key fortress, Sisak, was built by Kaptol from 1544. – 1550. in order to protect Croatian capital of Zagreb). Ottoman reply came in the form of creation of Bosnian Eyalet in 1580., which united seven sanjaks that they had created on conquered Croatian territory.

Creation of military frontier was immediately useful, as it was the first time since the collapse of the defense system created by Matthias Corvinus (Jajce and Srebrenica banates and Senj captaincy – Srebrenica banate collapsed in 1512., and Jajce banate in 1528.) that there was a dedicated defense system present. It did have negative consequences, especially the settlement of Vlachs which were Serbianized in 19th century, which in turn helped cause first the First World War (1914. – 1918.) and then the Homeland War in 1990s.

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