Marko Mrnjavcevic: The Powerful Prince of Serbia
Marko Mrnjavcevic (referred to also as Prince Marko and King Marko) was a Serbian ruler who lived during the 14th century. Although Marko is said to have had the opportunity to inherit the throne of the Serbian Empire, he was not able to achieve this as a result of the Ottoman invasions. Whilst Marko succeeded his predecessor as a ruler, he became an Ottoman vassal. Many legends and folk stories have been built around Mrnjavcevic, turning him into a great hero not only in the literature and tradition of the Serbians, but also in those of the Southern Slavic peoples.
Marko Mrnjavčević is recorded to have been born around 1335. He was a member of the Mrnjavčević family, and his father was Vukašin, the king of the southern Serbian lands, the capital of which was at Prilep. Vukašin is recorded to have been the co-ruler of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Uroš V. Marko’s mother is said in one source to have been Jevrosima, the sister of another Serbian hero, Momčilo. Marko is said to have been given the title ‘Young King’, which meant that he could have been a possible successor to Tsar Uroš, who was childless.
The fresco of king Volkašin Mrnjavčević ( Public Domain )
On the 27th of September 1371, the Battle of Maritsa took place, during which the Serbians under Marko’s father fought against the invading Ottoman army. The Serbians lost the battle, and Vukašin, along with his brother, Uglješa, were slain on the battlefield. As a result, Marko became the new king, though as a vassal of the Ottomans. Tsar Uroš himself died about two months later, and with his death, the Serbian Empire came to an end.
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Little else has been documented about the life of Marko, apart from his construction of a monastery at Sušica, near Skopje, and his death at the Battle of Rovine in 1395. During this battle, Marko, as an Ottoman vassal, is recorded to have been fighting on the side of the Turks against the Wallachian prince, Mircea the Old. According to one source, Marko’s words just before the battle are said to have been recorded, and that they are as such, “I tell and ask the Lord to be of aid to the Christians, and let me be among the first to die in this war.”
Marko's Monastery in Markova Sušica, near Skopje. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Whilst the historical records of Marko are scarce, he has been transformed into a great hero through literature and folk tradition. As an example, in a folk song, Marko is said to have not been died during a battle with his fellow Christians, but of natural causes. Furthermore, he was buried without any grave markers on Mount Athos, so that his enemies could not seek his body and desecrate his corpse. In some other traditions, Marko is said to be still alive, as he and his horse were taken by God to a cave, where he still lives today.
A Herzegovinian sings with a gusle in an 1823 drawing. ( Public Domain )
In these folk traditions, Marko is often portrayed as a wandering hero who goes on adventures in various parts of the world. In one version of the stories, entitled Marko, The Kings Son, for example, there is a tale of Marko travelling in Asia Minor, where he rescues a maiden.
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In another tale, Marko said to have rescued the daughter of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid. In another set of tales, known as The Ballads of Marko Kraljevic, the hero is depicted as, amongst other things, being a prisoner of the Moors, and killing a Turk whom he found was in possession of his father’s sword.
Prince Marko, in a 1906 painting by Paja Jovanović inspired by the poem "Marko Kraljević and the Vila" ( Public Domain )
Therefore, it may be seen that the Marko Mrnjavčević of the historical sources and that of the folk traditions are two quite distinct characters. Nevertheless, it is perhaps largely thanks to the latter that this figure is still remembered today, and has been transformed into one of that region’s greatest heroes.
Top image: Prince Marko and Musa the Outlaw, 1900 painting by Vladislav Titelbah, the Narodni muzej Museum in Kikinda, Serbia. Photo source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
Anon., The Ballads of Marko Kraljević [Online]
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Available at: https://archive.org/stream/balladsofmarkokr00lowduoft#page/n0/mode/1up
Manning, C. A., 1932. Marko, The Kings Son. [Online]
Available at: http://markokraljevic.uzice.net/index.htm
Sharevski, M., 2016. Who Was King Marko. [Online]
Available at: https://kmt.mk/en/who-was-king-marko/
srpskikod.org, 2011. Kraljević Marko. [Online]
Available at: http://srpskikod.org/en/first-level/kraljevi%C4%87-marko
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016. Marko Kraljević. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marko-Kraljevic