Syrena logo Two Thousand Years of the Modern Era
in Eastern Europe

Part 3: 14th to 16th Centuries - Turkish Advances.
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15th.C EE At the beginning of the 14th. century the last of Bohemia's native kings died. The nobles elected John of Luxemburg as new king, but enforced numerous privileges for themselves. Although Bohemia became part of the German Holy Roman Empire, for a while it enjoyed considerable autonomy. In fact the 14th. century became known as Bohemia's Golden Age. The next king, Charles, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope but chose Prague for his capital. Bohemia and all the provinces attached to it (Moravia, Silesia and Lusatia) enjoyed peace and great prosperity. In 1348 the first university of Central Eastern Europe was opened in Prague.
In 1402, a priest and teacher at the university, Jan Hus started advocating reforms in the Catholic Church, a century before the German Martin Luther. When, a few years later he decried the indulgencies being granted to large contributors to the church, he was accused of heresy. His conviction and execution started a hundred and fifty years of strife between his supporters and the church. By the end of the 16th. century, the Habsburgs gained control of Bohemia which they held for the next 400 years.

For Poland a period of increasing strength commenced with the reign of the last Piast, Casimir the Great. He unified the kingdom, increased it with the annexation of Galicia and Podolia in the east and by treaties with Hungary and Brandenburg. Even more important were the laws guaranteeing tolerance of religion and autonomy for the increasingly important towns. These assured an influx of German and Jewish artisans and traders and saved Poland from religious strife during the spread of the Protestant Reformation. The privileges granted to landowners provided the means for electing future kings. In 1364 the second university of Eastern Europe was founded in Cracow. One of its later students, Copernicus, developed the revolutionary idea that the earth revolved around the sun (1514).
The new laws were put to the test when Casimir died childless. His nephew, Louis I of Hungary, was elected king creating an empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic. After Louis's death, his youngest daughter Jadwiga was selected to be Poland's first ruling queen.

GrunwaldA hundred years earlier a Piast prince, Conrad of Mazovia, had invited the German Knights of the Cross to come to help in converting to Christianity the Prussian tribes living between Poland and the Baltic Sea. This they accomplished by slaughtering the entire population of the region and bringing in German settlers. Then they directed their attention to Lithuania. To ward off the threat the Lithuanian princes turned to Poland for assistance. With the approval of the Polish magnates, prince Jagiello was baptized and married Queen Jadwiga, thus creating a union of the two nations which lasted 400 years. In 1410 the combined Polish and Lithuanian forces defeated the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald (Tannenberg). The Knights were allowed to retain their possessions as vassals of Poland. But the Prussian state was created, with disastrous consequences for all Europe 500 years later.

In the south, the Ottoman armies were engulfing what remained of Byzantium. The Serbian king Stefan Dusan enlarged Serbia in the early 1300's to include all of Macedonia and northern Greece, but upon his death the kingdom collapsed under Ottoman pressure. Sultan Murad's armies destroyed the Serbs at Kosowe Polje in 1389. Sultan Murad I was also killed in the battle. Bulgaria was occupied about the same time. Constantinople was surrounded but, thanks to the network of fortresses, the ability to obtain supplies by sea and the underground water reservoirs, was able to hold out until 1453.

Hussars The relentless push northward continued. In 1444 the Polish King Wladyslaw lead a Polish and Hungarian army to stop the onslaught, but they suffered defeat at Varna and the king was killed. By 1520 Wallachia and Moldavia were also occupied.

In the 15th. and 16th. centuries Hungary suffered from a serious decline due to internal fights between the increasingly powerful nobles. They elected weak kings and declined to pay the taxes needed for a strong army to defend the country from invasion. A brief respite was provided by the succesful defense, in 1456, of Belgrade by Janos Hunyadi, a general from Transylvania, and the election of his son Matthias as king. Upon his death, the nobles again elected weak figureheads.

When Suleiman the Magnificent resumed the Ottoman attack in 1526, a small Hungarian army lead by 20 year old Louis II (of the Jagiellon family) was soundly defeated at Mohacs and Louis died. Suleiman went on to besiege Vienna in 1529 but then retreated when paid off with a large ransom. Hungary was split into three parts - Royal Hungary, a narrow sliver of land ruled by the Austrian Habsburgs - Turkish Hungary, including the city of Buda - Transylvania in the mountains. Transylvania maintained its independence as a vassal state paying taxes to the Ottomans. It was ruled by local princes, the towns, inhabited by Saxon (German) settlers, prospered from trade between Christian and Moslem Europe.

EE in 1600

As the 16th. century drew to a close, Eastern Europe was dominated by two super powers - Poland in the north and the Ottoman empire in the south. As in Hungary, the nobles were increasing their strength and independence in Poland. Under Sigismund (Zygmunt) II August, the Lublin Union of 1569 effectively created the Republic of Poland, uniting the two realms of Poland and Lithuania, and granted the gentry effective control over the country through the parliament (Seym). The king was required to convene the Seym every two years and in between had to consult with the Senate. Thus a constitutional kingdom was established, preceding that of England by half a century. It was also a new democracy, the first since the decline of Athens two thousand years earlier. True, only the landed gentry and the bishops had a voice, but universal suffrage would not appear until 200 years later after the French revolution, and then only briefly.
When Sigismund died without heirs, the Jagellonian dynasty ended. The Seym elected Stefan Bathory, prince of Transylvania. Under him and his adviser Hetman Zamoyski, Poland gained control over Livonia and the Smolensk area in the north, thus becoming the largest country in all Europe. At the same time, with the growth of an educated urban middle class, Poland firmly entered the Renaissance age. A new university had been established in Vilnius, while the university of Cracow was flourishing. Gradually the Polish language was taking the place of Latin in literature, and new architecture was appearing to replace the Gothic.

In the West, Queen Elizabeth ruled England; the religious wars were just starting in France; the Inquisition was in full swing in Spain; the colonies in America were just in their infancy.

This brief summary does little justice to the complex history of three hundred years. Please follow up on the many links to learn more.
And please continue to Part 4 for a review of the 17th. and 18th. centuries.

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Last update May 2002