Ivaylo - the peasant with extraordinary military talent

Photo: Архив
This year 735 years since the coronation of King Ivaylo /1278/ is marked. He was one of the most successful leaders of peasant uprisings in the age of feudalism. According to some legends Ivaylo was swine breeder. Byzantine chroniclers called him “Lakhanas" /cabbage/, which emphasized his low social origin. Again, according to them, before Ivailo became military leader he was a man of a mystical character. He often preached before other peasants, talking about an important mission. This is similar to later mass movements in the Middle Ages, such as the story of Joan of Arc in the fifteenth century.

Ivaylo had an incredible career, in what was in fact was an appropriate political climate. During the reign of King Constantine Tich feudal Bulgaria experienced an internal crisis. Economic instability was closely related to foreign policy failures and problems. The most serious of these, in the 70 years of the thirteenth century, was the Tatar invasions in Northern Bulgaria. The central government was unable to cope with them. It should be noted that the feudal system had not yet taken deep roots in Bulgarian society. Among the peasants was alive the memory of the times when most of them were free, served in the army and constituted the military power of the kingdom.

In 1277 Ivaylo headed a group of villagers who took the defense against the Tatars in their own hands. The new leader won several consecutive battles against the hordes. Villagers gathered into his army and whole areas came to be under his authority. The Army of Bulgarian King Constantine Tich went against the villagers’ army and suffered a crushing defeat. The Tsar was even killed by Ivaylo in the battle. The Byzantines then decide to make Tsar Ivan Asen III the new king in Tarnovo. He was the son of King Mitso, former rival of Constantine Tich. Unexpectedly, Queen Mary, widow of the late king made a bold move to protect the throne. She proposed marriage to Ivaylo. He married her and sat on the Bulgarian throne in the spring of 1278. In the same year a new dizzying series of military campaigns followed as the rural king appeared to be a military talent. Ivaylo defeated the Byzantine army, sent against him. Then again fought against the Tatars, and for three months was besieged in the Drastar fortress – today’s Silistra. Eventually he won the war but for a while rumors circulated in Tarnovo that he died. Boyars decided to opt for the Byzantine ruler protégé Ivan Asen III.

After the new victories over the Tatars Ivaylo returned south and crushed the Byzantines at Devnia /near today’s Varna/ in July 1279. Ivan Asen III fled to Byzantium. In Tarnovo, however, the boyars were determined to avoid giving power to Ivaylo. They quickly elected boyar Georgi Terter for king. Terter’s troops prepared to defend a well-fortified capital city while pessimism started to take hold of the peasants’ army. Ivaylo went to seek support in the camp of his former opponent - Tatar leader Nogai. At first he welcomed him, but soon Ivaylo was killed, according to some reports - during a feast.

The extremely successful uprising Ivaylo organized is no exception to the general logic of rural movements in the Middle Ages. They are devoid of historical perspective, and do not offer changes to the economic and social system. They focus at the legends of the past when free rural communities existed and centered around the illusion of the “good king.” True changes to the feudal system started in Italian principalities and England, where a rising new middle class of merchants and craftsmen created new market relations. However, Ivaylo remains in people's memory as a symbol of heroic struggle against social injustice. 


English version: Alexander Markov
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