Stephen Tomašević of Bosnia

Stephen Tomašević

A detail of the painting of the King kneeling in front of Christ, painted by Jacopo Bellini in c. 1460[1]
King of Bosnia
Reign 10 July 1461 – 25 May 1463
Coronation 17 November 1461
Predecessor Thomas
Despot of Serbia
Reign 1 April 1459 – 20 June 1459
Predecessor Stephen
Died 25 May 1463
Carevo Polje, Jajce
Burial Franciscan monastery of Saint Luke, Jajce
Spouse Maria of Serbia
House House of Kotromanić
Father Thomas, King of Bosnia
Mother Vojača
Religion Roman Catholic

Stephen Tomašević (Serbo-Croatian: Stjepan/Stefan Tomašević, Стјепан/Стефан Томашевић; died on 25 May 1463) was the last sovereign from the Bosnian Kotromanić dynasty. His father, King Stephen Thomas, arranged for him to marry Maria of Serbia and become Despot of Serbia in April 1459. The marriage was meant to unite Bosnia and Serbia in their fight against the expanding Ottoman Empire, but failed in that regard. After ruling Serbia for merely two months, Stephen surrendered it to the Ottomans and fled back to his father's court.

Upon his father's death in 1461, Stephen Tomašević ascended as King of Bosnia, a kingdom whose existence was being increasingly threatened by the Ottomans. He desperately tried to secure help from Pope Pius II, King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and monarchs of other neighbouring countries. Confident that they would come to his aid, Stephen refused to deliver the customary tribute to Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror and thus provoked the invasion that cost him his life. In 1463, Mehmed marched into Bosnia, meeting little effective resistance, and captured Stephen, who was then beheaded. The execution marks the fall of the Kingdom of Bosnia to the Ottoman Empire.


Like all Bosnian kings before him, Stephen Tomašević bore the name Stephen. His predecessors, with the exception of his uncle Stephen Ostojić, took the name Stephen upon accession as an honorific that signified their claim to the throne of Serbia, whose Nemanjić rulers had first adopted it.[2][3][4] Stephen Tomašević, on the other hand, appears to have been baptized as Stephen (Stipan), the last part of his name being a patronymic. On occasions when his predecessors referred to themselves by their Christian names only, omitting the honorific Stephen, Stephen Tomašević called himself simply Stipan[5][6] suggesting that the name was in his case more than an honorific. The same is true for his uncle, Stephen Ostojić. For this reason, Stephen Tomašević has been listed as Stephen II his uncle being Stephen I albeit very rarely.[7]


Stephen Tomašević was born into the House of Kotromanić as one of the two known sons of the Bosnian prince Thomas and a commoner named Vojača. The other son died as an adolescent. Stephen's father was an adulterine son of King Ostoja and a younger brother of Radivoj, who contested the rule of their cousin King Tvrtko II. Thomas was politically inactive and did not take part in the struggle between his brother and cousin, enabling his family to lead a quiet life in a period when the Ottoman state tried to weaken Bosnia by encouraging internal divisions. This all changed when the ailing and childless King Tvrtko II decreed that Thomas should succeed him. The King died shortly after, in November 1443, and Stephen's father ascended the throne. The legal status of his parents' marriage is ambiguous; his mother has been described as either his father's concubine or common-law wife. The marriage ended when Bosnian noblemen, unwilling to recognize a commoner as their queen, requested that Thomas take a wife of noble birth. The annulment was granted by Pope Eugene IV on 29 May 1445.[8]

King Thomas, raised as a member of the Bosnian Church, converted to Roman Catholicism in c. 1445; Stephen Tomašević later stated that he had been baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as a child, and that he had been taught Latin letters.[9] In 1446, Thomas married Catherine of St Sava,[8] by whom Stephen had a half-brother named Sigismund and a half-sister named Catherine.[10]


In 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and annexed the remnants of the Byzantine Empire. Without an adversary to their rear, the Ottomans were now able to freely campaign against European states, including the Kingdom of Bosnia and the neighbouring Despotate of Serbia. King Thomas thereupon desperately tried to ensure Christendom's help in case of Ottoman invasion, and entered into negotiations with Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, over Stephen Tomašević's marriage to an illegitimate daughter of the Duke.[11]

Serbia's despot, Lazar Branković, died in 1458, and a power vacuum ensued. Having left three daughters and no sons, he was nominally succeeded by his older brother Stephen, but Stephen's authority was challenged as he was blind and thus considered unfit to rule. Thomas took advantage of Serbia's weakness to recapture Eastern Bosnian towns he had lost to Lazar's and Stephen's father George. Shortly afterwards, he entered peace negotiations with Lazar's widow, Helen Palaiologina.[12] Abandoning the prospect of his son's marriage to a daughter of the Duke of Milan, Thomas came to an agreement with Helen: Stephen Tomašević was to marry the eldest of the three daughters of her and Lazar, the 11-year-old Helen,[13] and assume the government of Serbia.[12] The Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus agreed to the arrangement it was in his interest to create a strong buffer zone between his realm and the Ottoman Empire by uniting the Kingdom of Bosnia and the Despotate of Serbia, which he considered Hungary's vassal states, under Stephen Tomašević. The Diet of Hungary confirmed Stephen Tomašević's right to Serbia in January 1459.[10]

Stephen Tomašević duly set out for Serbia but narrowly escaped imprisonment during an Ottoman raid on the royal residence of Bobovac. He arrived to Smederevo, capital of the Eastern Orthodox despotate, during the Holy Week of 1459, and ascended the Serbian throne on 21 March.[10] Michael Szilágyi, regent for the underage King Matthias, arrived at the head of an army to ensure that command over the town's fortress would be assumed by Stephen without any difficulties.[12]


Portrait of Mehmed by Gentile Bellini, whose father painted the only known portrait of Tomašević

Stephen Tomašević's marriage to Helen took place on 1 April,[12] the first Sunday following Easter.[10] Following the presumably Catholic ceremony,[13] the bride was known as Maria.[12][13] He assumed the title of despot, despite the fact that the title was neither hereditary nor tied to a specific territory, but a grant from the Byzantine emperor. It is possible that his mother-in-law, a member of Byzantium's last imperial family, believed that she had the right to grant the title in the absence of an emperor. Within a week of the wedding, Stephen Tomašević exiled his wife's deposed uncle from Serbia.[10][12] King Thomas retold these events in a letter sent to the Duke of Milan, claiming that the title of despot was granted to his son by the King of Hungary "with the agreement and will of all the Rascians". It is more likely, however, that only Hungarians and the supporters of Stephen Tomašević's mother-in-law were pleased with his accession to the Serbian throne.[11]

It was clear from the onset that Stephen Tomašević's reign in Serbia would be short-lived. The Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror considered Stephen's enthronement an unwarranted violation of his own rights, for the Ottomans too considered Serbia their vassal state.[10] Mehmed promptly launched an attack on Smederevo in June, and there was no serious consideration of trying to defend it.[10] Aware that it could not withstand the attack, Stephen Tomašević surrendered the fortress on 20 June.[12][13] The Ottoman proceeded to annex the rest of the Serbian state to their empire within a year.[10]

Following the fall of the town which Pope Pius II lamentably termed "the gateway to Rascia",[10] Stephen Tomašević fled to Bosnia with his wife and in-laws, seeking refuge at the court of his father. The King of Hungary accused Stephen Tomašević and the Bosnians of selling Smederevo Fortress to the Ottomans, and the Pope at first believed the Hungarians.[12][13] Pius's own investigation appears to have come to the conclusion that Stephen Tomašević did not sell the fortress, as the Pope did not repeat the claim.[13] Ottoman, Bosnian and Serbian sources say nothing about the supposed betrayal, so the allegation is unlikely to be based on fact.[12] The Serbian-born Janissary Konstantin Mihailović and the Byzantine Greek scholar Laonikos Chalkokondyles maintained Stephen Tomašević's innocence and pointed out to the strength of the Ottoman army. Both agree that the Serbs within Smederevo were so unhappy with Bosnian rule and convinced that the Ottoman would prevail (and grant them more religious tolerance than the Hungarians) that they went out to meet Mehmed and presented him with keys to the city.[13]


Accession and coronation

Pope Pius II's memoirs provide a major insight into Stephen Tomašević's reign

Stephen Tomašević's father died in the summer of 1461. The 16th century Croatian chronicler Ivan Tomašić wrote that the King died on 10 July more precisely, that he was murdered on the order of his brother Radivoj and with the consent of his son Stephen. No contemporary source records that the King was murdered, however, and historians have generally discarded the claim.[11] Stephen Tomašević ascended the throne without difficulty, as he had been designated his father's already during his brief reign as Despot of Serbia.[6] He ensured that his uncle would not contest the succession by generously endowing him with land.[5] The new monarch assumed the pompous title inherited from Tvrtko I, the first Bosnian king, styling himself as, "by the Grace of God, King of Serbia, Bosnia, the Maritime Lands, Zachlumia, Dalmatia, Croatia, and the Western lands" regardless of the fact that Serbia had by then become an Ottoman pashaluk, that Croatia had been lost to Hungary in the 1390s, and that he had to beg the government of the Republic of Venice to allow him to take refuge in Dalmatia in case of an Ottoman attack.[14]

Immediately upon his accession, Stephen set out to resolve all disagreements within the royal family in order to strengthen his own position. His relations with his stepmother, the 37-year-old Queen Catherine, had been strained during his father's lifetime, but he now guaranteed that she would retain her title and privileges. Her father, Stjepan Vukčić Kosača, wrote to Venetian officials that the King had "taken her as his mother",[6][8] Vojača having already died by the time he ascended the throne.[8] Kosača was the kingdom's most powerful nobleman, and had been engaged in a never-ending conflict with Stephen's father. It appears that he nevertheless refrained from claiming the Bosnian crown for his adolescent grandson Sigismund, Catherine's son and Stephen's half-brother, probably because he was aware that Bosnia needed a strong, mature monarch more than ever.[6] Stephen Tomašević took the Venetians' advice to make peace with his stepgrandfather, thus finally ensuring the nobility's absolute support of their king.[5][6][14] He then focused on improving Bosnia's economy, which became stronger than ever during his reign, and ensuring that the state would collect more profit from the flourishing metalworking trade.[5]

Pope Pius proclaimed Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus "Defender of Bosnia" on Stephen Tomašević's request on 7 November,[9] and sent a crown to be used for his coronation.[5][9] On the feast of Saint Gregory ten days later, the newly appointed Bishop Nicholas of Modruš, Pope Pius's legate, crowned Stephen in the Church of Saint Mary in Jajce.[9] The coronation marked the first and last time a Bosnian monarch received his crown from Rome.[14] It exemplified how, with the religious persecution established by Thomas and Stephen's active correspondence with the papacy, the Kingdom of Bosnia acquired the character of a true Catholic state only at its very end.[9]

Ottoman invasion

Conflict broke out in 1462 between Stephen Tomašević's stepgrandfather and stepuncle Vladislav Hercegović, and the latter sought Ottoman help in the revolt.[9] The King and Stjepan Vukčić Kosača, along with the papal legate Luke de Tolentis, prepared for an imminent Ottoman attack. The King could not count on Hungarian aid: Pope Pius's recognition of Stephen Tomašević as a sovereign independent from Hungary gravely insulted King Matthias, who had not forgiven Stephen for surrendering Smederevo in the first place. Stephen seemingly appeased Matthias by paying him off with a considerable sum of money, ceding a few Bosnian castles, and promising to cancel the tribute due to the Ottomans.[14]

Encouraged by Matthias's commitment to help and possibly by the Bishop of Modruš, Stephen Tomašević made a tactless and fatal decision in June 1462. Pope Pius wrote in his diary that, "relying on one knows what hope", the King "refused the tributes which his ancestors had long been used to pay the Ottomans and had stormed the town which the enemy had built at the confluence of Sava and Bosna to put fear into the Hungarians and Slavs."[13] According to Chalkokondyles, Stephen Tomašević invited the Ottoman ambassador to his treasure house and showed him the money set aside as tribute, but informed him that he would rather use it to fight off an Ottoman attack or to live off it in exile.[10][14] Mehmed the Conqueror was enraged by Stephen's insubordinance and audacity. The Pope recounts how,[13] hearing of Sultan Mehmed's vow to conquer his kingdom and destroy him,[5][13] Stephen summoned the Bishop of Modruš and blamed him for infuriating the Sultan. He commanded Nicholas to go to Hungary and seek immediate action against the Ottomans, but no help ever arrived to Bosnia from Christendom;[13] Matthias of Hungary, Skenderbeg of Albania and the Ragusans all failed to carry out their promises,[5] while the Venetians flatly refused the King's pleas.[10]

"I am the first to expect the storm. [...] My father predicted to your predecessor, Nicholas V, and the Venetians the fall of Constantinople. He was not believed. [...] Now I prophesy about myself. If you trust and aid me I shall be saved; if not, I shall perish and many will be ruined with me."
Excerpts from King Stephen's letter to Pope Pius[15]

In the spring of 1463, Mehmed gathered an army of 150,000 men in Adrianople and prepared to march towards Bosnia.[14] In his despair, Stephen Tomašević turned to the Sultan himself and tried at the last moment to procure a 15-year-long truce with him. Konstantinović claimed that he was present when the Ottomans duped the Bosnian envoys into thinking that the King's request for truce was granted, and that he tried to warn them about the deceit.[5][10][14] Mehmed's army set out right after the envoys.[14] Fortresses fell rapidly, and Stephen Tomašević fled with his family and possessions from Bobovac to Jajce. The Ottoman army under the leadership of Mahmud Pasha Angelović laid siege to Bobovac on 19 May, with the Sultan joining them the following day.[5] Believing that Bobovac could withstand the siege for two years, Stephen planned to assemble an army in Jajce, still counting on foreign aid.[10] He sent his wife with their possessions to Dalmatia, while his stepmother took the rest to Ragusa.[5]

Capture and death

Contrary to Stephen Tomašević's expectations, Bobovac fell within days. The King had already realized that he had no choice but to take refuge in the neighbouring Croatia or Dalmatia. Angelović tirelessly pursued him, and caught up with him in Ključ. The Ottoman army was reportedly about to pass the city's fortress, not suspecting that the King was hiding within its walls, when a local man revealed his whereabouts in return for money. A four-day-long siege of the fortress ensued. Eager to capture him, Angelović had his messengers solemnly promise the King that he would be done no harm if he surrendered, and sent him a document guaranteeing him freedom. With food supplies and ammunition running short, Stephen decided to surrender himself and his garrison to Angelović. Angelović, in turn, brought him, his uncle Radivoj and 13-year-old cousin Tvrtko before Mehmed in Jajce.[10]

The captured King sought to ingratiate himself with the Sultan, and sent out orders to commanders and castellans to surrender, enabling Mehmed to take command of more than seventy towns in one week. Mehmed, however, had no intention of sparing Stephen's life and summoned him on 25 May. The King brought Angelović's document,[10] but Mehmed's mullah, Ali al-Bistami, issued a fatwah declaring that the Sultan was not bound to keep the promise made by his servant without his knowledge.[5][10] As if to demonstrate the validity of his fatwah, the elderly mullah took out his sword and beheaded Stephen in front of Mehmed. Benedetto Dei, on the other hand, recorded that Mehmed himself decapitated Stephen. The execution of the King, his uncle, cousin and two noblemen took place in a field next to Jajce, which has since been known as Carevo Polje ("the Emperor's Field").[5]

Assessment and legacy

Stephen Tomašević was buried on a hill near Jajce. Europe was stunned to see the Kingdom of Bosnia fall almost completely within weeks of his death. The country's quick submission is said to be the consequence of a poor cooperation between Stephen and his noblemen, but it is perhaps most accurate to attribute it to the people's low morale and general belief that the conquest was inevitable. Additionally, the religiously diverse Bosnians were aware, much like the neighbouring Serbians, that the country would be overrun by Hungary if not by the Ottomans, and that they would enjoy far less freedom of religion and far higher taxes in that case. Therefore, resistance was not as strong as it could have been. Pope Pius's claim that adherents of the Bosnian Church betrayed the kingdom is groundless.[9]

Putative remains of King Stephen

Stephen Tomašević's half-siblings were taken to Constantinople and converted to Islam. Queen Catherine, his stepmother, left for the Papal States and unsuccessfully campaigned for the restoration of the kingdom; Bosnia only ceased to be part of the Ottoman Empire in 1908, 445 years after Stephen's death. His widow, Queen Maria, spent the rest of her life in the Empire.[5][10]

In 1888, the Croatian archeologist Ćiro Truhelka excavated bones in a settlement close to Jajce known as Kraljev Grob (King's Tomb) and found the skeleton of a decapitated adult male. Though there is no direct evidence that these are the remains of Stephen Tomašević, folk tradition and circumstantial evidence have led to the conclusion that they are. The bones were placed in a glass coffin, and have since been housed in the Franciscan monastery in Jajce.[10]


  1. The portrait was kept at the Franciscan monastery in Kraljeva Sutjeska before being taken to Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters. Höfler, Janez (1995), Gotico in Slovenia, Narodna galerija v Ljubljani, p. 56, ISBN 9616029134
  2. Bašić, Denis (2009), The roots of the religious, ethnic, and national identity of the Bosnian-Herzegovinan [sic] Muslims, University of Washington, p. 165, ISBN 1109124635
  3. Matica srpska (1975). Proceedings in history, Issues 11-12. Novi Sad: Odeljenje za društvene nauke, Matica srpska. p. 102.
  4. Ćirković, Sima (1964). Istorija srednjovekovne bosanske države. Srpska književna zadruga. p. 137.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Ljubez, Bruno (2009), Jajce Grad: prilog povijesti posljednje bosanske prijestolnice (in Croatian), HKD Napredak, pp. 148–150
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Draganović, Krunoslav (1942), Povijest hrvatskih zemalja Bosne i Hercegovine od najstarijih vremena do godine 1463 (in Croatian), HKD Napredak, p. 555
  7. Hrvatski zmaj: glasilo Vitežkog reda hrvatskog zmaja, Hrvatska državna tiskara, 1944, pp. 31, 33
  8. 1 2 3 4 Mandić, Dominik (1978), Sabrana djela Dr. O. Dominika Mandića: Bosna i Hercegovina: povjesno kritička istraživanja, Zajednica izdanja ranjeni labud, pp. 314, 323
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Fine, John Van Antwerp (1975), The Bosnian Church: a New Interpretation : a Study of the Bosnian Church and Its Place in State and Society from the 13th to the 15th Centuries, East European Quarterly, p. 339, ISBN 0914710036
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Babinger, Franz (1992). Mehmed the Conqueror and His Time. USA: Princeton University Press. pp. 163, 222–224. ISBN 0-691-01078-1.
  11. 1 2 3 Klaić, Vjekoslav (1974), Povijest Hrvata od najstarijih vremena do svršetka XIX stoljeća, 4, Nakladni zavod Matice hrvatske, pp. 23, 29, 45
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Fine, John Van Antwerp (1994), The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest, University of Michigan Press, pp. 575–581, ISBN 0472082604
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Miller, Timothy S.; Nesbitt, John W., eds. (1995), Peace and war in Byzantium: essays in honor of George T. Dennis, S.J, Catholic University of America Press, pp. 189–191, ISBN 081320805X
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 The Cambridge Medieval History, Volume 4, Cambridge University Press, 1923, pp. 578–579
  15. The Commentaries of Pius II, Smith College, 1955, pp. 740–741
Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Bosnia
Ottoman conquest
Preceded by
Despot of Serbia
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