Political Struggle of the Croatian Church

(Napisao: gosp. Marko Marelić -  S. Francisco - USA)
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In the stunned and dreadful moments which followed the Turkish victories the opponents of Constantinople took advantage of the situation to wipe out the Byzantine power in the Balkans. Peter Kreshimir was not the only ruler who showed a firm hand in the situation and capitalized on the difficulties of the empire. The Petchenegs of Roumania invaded the territory south of the Danube, and laid waste to Thrace and Macedonia. On their return from the Aegean, the Petchenegs also raided northern Serbia and Sirmium, captured Belgrade (Alba Bulgarica) and broke into Hungary. Furious over this intrusion, King Salomon (1063-1074) of Hungary charged laxity and negligence on the part of the imperial governor of Belgrade, and in retaliation broke into Sirmium. The Hungarian troops took over the city of Sirmium (Mitrovitsa) in 1071, and on the heels of this victory captured Belgrade. After this conquest the Hungarians kept Sirmium in their possession for almost 500 years until the battle of the Mohacs (1526) when their own state was destroyed by the forces of Sultan Suleiman II, the Magnificent (1520-1566). Sultan Suleiman II was also called El Kanuni “the law giver.”

In the midst of general pressure brought to bear on Constantinople, the Bulgarians and Macedonians staged an uprising of heroic proportions. The drama of this incident unfolds some of the most beautiful pages in Bulgarian history. Under the leadership of the Boyar Georg Voytekh the Bulgarians shook off the Byzantine yoke and reestablished their independent state for the first time since 1018. Unwilling to assume the responsibilities of the crown, Georg Voytekh offered the title to Constantine Bodinus, the youngest son of Michael, Duke of Serbia, who held sway also over Doclea (Zeta), Herzegovina, and the imperial city of Cattaro (Kotor). Michael accepted the offer and sent Constantine at the head of an army to Bulgaria. Having thus consolidated their victory with the military aid of the Serbs, the Bulgarians proclaimed Constantine their emperor in the city of Prizren.

The new Bulgarian state also obtained the friendship and armed assistance of the king of Croatia. However, the foreign alliances and the new brave posture at home were not sufficient to cope with the imperial menace, once the emperor made up his mind to deal seriously with the situation. Byzantium still possessed vast reserves of power, and in a desperate struggle with their rebellious subjects, the imperial governors crushed the Bulgarian forces. Thus ended the brief chapter of Bulgarian independence, and the Bulgars were forced once again into Byzantine bondage.


Passing of a Great King

Such was the world outlook and situation abroad in the last year of Peter Kreshimir’s reign. The revival of Moslem power in the East and its victorious advance toward the Balkans was to have momentous consequences for the Croatian people. In the immediate future it would bring about the downfall of the national dynasty. Centuries later its effects would be felt in the Mohammedan invasion of the Croatian lands.

With the death of Peter Kreshimir, the greatest ruler in Croatian history goes off the stage. He was a man of natural wisdom, a shrewd diplomat who had taken advantage of every turn of events to benefit the Croatian State. His western education inclined him to prefer the enlightenment and brilliancy of the West to the rugged tradition and religious practices of his Slavic kinfolk. This attitude of the sovereign could not help but promote the cultural progress of Croatia, regardless of its political consequences.

However, Peter had underestimated the attachment of the common people to the simple and convincing word of the native faith. The Slavic liturgy of Methodious had taken deep root among the Croatian people of his time, and the foreign speech of the Latin clergy caused a great deal of irritation. Thus the pro-Latin policy of the king brought in its wake a wide-spread dissatisfaction which was to break out after his death all over the kingdom. A brief survey of the religious developments that took place during his reign will assist in placing a more adequate appraisal upon the course of subsequent events.


Religious Problems in the Reign of Peter Kreshimir

The greatest ecclesiastic event of Peter Kreshimir’s reign is the Episcopal synod convened in the Cathedral of Split in 1060 under the auspices of the papal delegate, the abbot Maynard. This council followed by ten years the first attempt to introduce the Cluniac reform in the religious life of Croatia. The papacy at this time was occupied by Nicholas II (1058-1061) who continued the reform activities of Leo IX with zeal and devotion. In his determination to purge the church of worldly abuses, Nicholas II took some severe measures against simony and clerical marriage. He sought to increase the authority of the Holy See, and make it independent of the encroachments of the emperor. For this purpose he convoked a council in the Lateran in 1059 which was destined to reform religious life throughout the Catholic Europe. Essential changes in the canon law made at this synod furnished the foundation for the religious revival and spiritual rebirth of the Church.

In the following year Nicholas II promulgated the decrees of the synod throughout his ecclesiastic dominion, and sent apostolic delegates into some countries to enforce the new laws. Abbot Maynard was one of these. He went first to Biograd, where he participated in the celebrations occasioned by the grant of property rights and royal privileges (regia libertas) to the new Benedictine monastery of St. John the Evangelist. After these festivities the nuncio went to Split in order to preside over the synod of the Dalmatian bishops and abbots assembled in the presence of the local clergy, high nobility, and other influential laity.


The Third Council at Split

On opening the council, Abbot Maynard made public the decrees passed by the Lateran synod and recommended enactment of a series of special canons to meet the situation in Dalmatian Croatia. He was apprised of the special conditions existing in this area, strongly influenced as it was by the Eastern Church, which by tradition was antagonistic to the western reform movement. In the first place the marriage of priests was considered in all Croatia legitimate and above social censure. Secondly, the dress and appearance of the long-haired and bearded Croatian clergy was identical with that of the Greek Orthodox faith. Again, the high ecclesiastic positions were under the rather effective control of the king. Thus, if Peter Kreshimir had sided with the national clergy, the reformist cause would have been lost, and the Croatian Church would have carried on as a separate organization or eventually affected its union with the Eastern Church.

The matter which most disturbed Maynard was the use of the Slavic language in divine services and sacred texts. Irritation over this point was so wide-spread among the reformist clergy that the orthodox character of the Slavic liturgy was misinterpreted, and the Slavic cult by some zealots was accused of Arian heresy and Gothic origin.

There is no reason to believe that the grotesque charges were made as deliberate falsehoods; rather, they reveal the passionate nature of the controversy in an age when the memory of both St. Methodious and Pope John VII had nearly faded out. Even in the absence of malice the consequences of such confusion were devastating. Abbot Maynard himself was swayed into this view, and he in turn succeeded in convincing the Pontiff. Thus the controversy about the Slavic liturgy in Croatia was no longer a matter of administrative expediency or disciplinary character, but was shifted into the dogmatic field.

In such a tense atmosphere, charged with prejudice and animosities, the proceedings of the council took a decidedly anti-Slavic course. We can assume that the deliberations were frequently interrupted with the vehement protests of the Croatian abbots and bishops, yet the reformist majority, supported by the authority of the papal delegate, carried a full course of reform, intended to assure the administrative, linguistic and doctrinal unity of all the Catholic churches in Dalmatian Croatia. The canons enacted at the episcopal synod in Split leave room for doubt that the reformist movement scored a great victory in Croatia.


Anti-Croatian Decrees of the Council

A brief review of a few pertinent canons will best reveal the state of mind and sentiment prevailing at the synod in Split. Concerning clerical marriage we read the following: “...If any ordained person, whether a bishop, priest or deacon contracts marriage, or retains, in defiance of this decree, a wife formerly wedded, he is thereby dismissed from the orders; is excluded from any group of persons officiating before the altar, and is barred from the source of revenue of any church“

The personal appearance of the Croatian priests is reproved in unequivocal terms: “...If any priest should in the future grow long hair and beard, he shall not be admitted to church, nor permitted to perform divine services; he will also be subjected to punishment provided for by the canon law, in accordance with his rank“

Another important decree directed against the native clergy reads as follows: “...Under the threat of excommunication it is prohibited to ordain any person of Slavic birth who is not experienced in the use of the Latin speech and letters. It is equally unlawful to subject a clergyman of whatever rank to secular authority, or to collect from him any kind of tax.” Finally, it was decreed that Mass could by celebrated only in Latin or Greek, therefore to the exclusion of the Slavic language.

Such enactments were obviously aimed at the suppression of the Glagolitic script and elimination of the Slavic speech as a language of divine services. The drastic action reflected in these canons is the best single proof of the popularity of the Slavic liturgy. It shows how deeply rooted were the rites introduced less than two centuries past by the enthusiastic disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodious. The enforcement of these canons, with other reformist decrees, was assigned to Laurentius (Lovro), bishop of Absorus (Osor), a young Dalmatian of Latin blood. For this purpose he was now elected archbishop of Split.

Upon receiving the report of Abbot Maynard, Nicholas II confirmed both the canons and the election of the new prelate. They were also approved and confirmed by another Lateran council which was then in session for the consecration of Laurentius as archbishop of Split. Tseudo, bishop of Orvisto, was sent to Dalmatia as a special delegate of the Pontiff. After the ceremonies of induction were over, Tseudo took time to study the conditions in the country and did not fail to take notice of the many complaints and the bitter feeling of the population against the enactments of the synod.

Therefore he deferred their enforcements long enough to inform the pontiff on the true state of affairs prevailing in the country. Before anything could be done, Nicholas II died and was succeeded by Alexander II (1061-1073). The new pontiff was confronted with a rising tide of opposition to the canons of 1059 in many countries, especially in Italy and Germany. For the time being therefore, the decrees of Split were left in abeyance until the situation became settled and further moves could be made. A new Lateran council was held in 1063, at which all the canons of 1059 were reaffirmed, and the synodal decrees of Split definitely approved. Soon after this decision had been taken, the pope conveyed the final decrees to the king, Peter Kreshimir, and to all the bishops and abbots of Croatia for compliance and execution. This order of the pontiff marks one of the turning points in the religious life and ecclesiastic history of Croatia. It is also the point of departure for the establishment of a separate church of Bosnia.


Opposition to the Latin Church

After the papal decree had been promulgated throughout the dioceses and parishes of Croatia, it became necessary to enforce its provisions. Concentrating on ideals and objectives, the authors of the disputed canon had lost sight of the practical angels of the cause they championed. They were so remote from reality that without the active support or complicity of the political authority, they would have been shattered against the rock of national life and its institutions. Under the constant threat of excommunication, branded with heresy and cruel punishment meted out on heretics, the national church broke down, but under its ruins it buried the social harmony and political independence of the Croatian state.

The opposing forces met at too sharp an angle to permit an adjustment of their differences. In the first place, the vast majority of the Croatian clergy did not speak Latin, nor could they make any intelligent use of it in the performance of their official duties. Secondly, practically all of the Croatian clergy led family life, and no one saw anything objectionable in it. On the contrary, this patriarchal mode of life had an archaic charm and elevation about it, hallowed by the tradition of the Eastern Church, whose influence continued to be felt all along the Adriatic coast in spite of the administrative divisions between Constantinople and Rome. An order to abandon one’s family for disciplinary reasons seemed wanton and cruel. Hence there was general refusal to obey the order.

The common people stood by their ministers, and begrudged the introduction of Latin into the church services. Their attachment to the meaning as well as form of the divine services repudiated the mere form and spectacle. To the Slav “Gospodi pomiluj!” (Lord, have mercy on us!) meant everything, and its equivalent, “Kyrie eleison!” was an unintelligible alien substitute. The first he would repeat indefinitely, through an endless variety of modulation of tone, rhythm, inflection, volume and coloring in the pronunciation of these two pathetic words, he scattered his soul through a prism of intense feeling and ecstasy.

Unfortunately the protagonists of the reform in those days lacked tact and circumspection. They failed to see in Croatia a situation utterly distinct from that in Western Europe, where clerical marriage was usually a mark of simony creeping into the high ecclesiastic ranks through the induction of feudal lords or others whose interests and occupations were worldly and self-centered. The Cluniac reform was the need of the moment in the west, while in the east it disturbed unnecessarily a hoary and dignified patriarchal institution. Upon refusal of the clergy to submit, sanctions were applied with undue haste and rigor. The Slavic churches were closed, Slavic services prohibited, and the priests unfrocked or removed from their parishes. Through the partisan policy of the king, the political authorities remained either neutral, or assisted in the ousting of priests and other measures of repression.


Vuk, the Champion of the National Church

The energy and speed with which the canons of the synod were enforced caused widespread resentment and unrest throughout Croatia. Two antagonistic camps formed in the country, the more numerous national party joining the forces of the common people, lower nobility and Croatian clergy. The second was the more influential reformist party which lacked the support of the masses, but was made up of the higher nobility, Latin clergy and the court. Even though the conflict between these two camps was more violent than in other similar clashes throughout Europe, it should be remembered that it came with a tide of general opposition to the reorganization of the Catholic Church along the principles of Cluny.

The chief organizer of resistance in Croatia was Vuk, a high-minded Glagolitic priest residing on the island of Kerk (Corcyra, Veglia). This spot had long been a stronghold of the national Church and Slavic liturgy. A man of strong will and keen intelligence, Vuk succeeded in organizing a powerful movement against the Latin clergy and Roman reforms. His goal was the re-establishment of the auto-cephalic Croatian bishopric which had existed until the second council of Split in 928. As an auto-cephalic diocese it had come under the immediate authority of the Holy See, and was therefore independent of the archdiocese of Split.

The people rallied to Vuk’s support. The idea of a national Church with Glagolitic traditions and full independence from the Latin authorities was widely acclaimed, and the movement grew in force and volume. On a wave of optimism Vuk was sent to Rome to assure the Pontiff of the loyalty of the Croatian clergy and people to the Catholic Church and the Holy See, and to refute the charges of heresy preferred against them by the Latin clergy. He was also authorized to demand the restoration of the Slavic liturgy as well as the respect for the family life of the Croatian clergy.

The pope took a sympathetic view of the Croatian grievances and demands, but declined to grant concessions, which were in excess of his own power and authority. However, he encouraged Vuk to initiate an action for approval by the synod of Split, composed of all the bishops and abbots of Dalmatian Croatia. Obviously the success of the national cause hinged on a new show of popular strength and unanimity. On his return home, Vuk reported the decision of the Holy See.


Breakdown of the Croatian Church – Reign of the Last Three Kings

The encouragement given by the pope to Vuk was received with great relief in Croatia. From the attitude of the pontiff the people gained the impression that the Holy See was not adverse to their demands, and believed that by reopening the case in Rome, and through a more forceful presentation of their grievances, the solution of their problems could be promptly effected. For this reason a new delegation was sent to Rome. Vuk was again head of the delegation and was accompanied by two prominent clerics: Abbot Potepa and the aged Zdeda. By the consent of the people Zdeda was to be made the head of the Croatian Church and consecrated by the pope as a bishop of the old auto-cephalic diocese. In this way he would rank with the archbishop of Split, and be made independent of his authority. That would make the Croatian Church an independent national institution as it was in the times of Bishop Theodosius and Pope John VIII (872-882).

But once again the delegates failed in their mission to the Holy See. The patriarchal appearance of Zdeda and his lack of familiarity with Latin had an adverse effect. His long beard and eastern garb estranged the pope and his council from the idea of Slavic liturgy and ecclesiastic independence. After long deliberation Alexander II rejected the Croatian demands and pointed out that the Slavic liturgy was of Arian origin. He further demanded that the Croatians submit to the synodal canons of 1060. However, he took care to explain that he would soon send apostolic delegates to their country to restore peace and contentment. Vastly disappointed over the papal decision, the three men returned to Croatia and decided on an open break with Rome.


Open Rebellion

The conditions in which the rebellion broke out do not seem clear. One thing only seems certain and beyond dispute, and that is that there was considerable violence on the island of Kerk between the parties of enforcement and resistance. The Latin bishop George was expelled from the island and Zdeda elevated to his office. In defiance of the papal decree, Zdeda acted as an auto-cephalic head of the Croatian Church and performed all the functions attached to such rank. He consecrated Croatian priests for Slavic liturgy, reinstated the use of the Glagolitic books and Slavic language in the churches, and reopened all the churches which had been forcibly closed. With his encouragement, the priests, who under the papal decree had severed their family ties, were again united with their families.

Reaction to this assertion of national spirit and independence in matters of faith was prompt and intense in both camps. The whole country was in turmoil and there were many bloody clashes. In Rome Zdeda’s seizure of Episcopal authority was branded as simonistic heresy. Not only Zdeda but all his followers were struck with anathema, and as heretics became subject to severe persecution. Cardinal John was sent to Croatia as an apostolic delegate. With the assistance of the king John had the three leaders of the rebellion seized and hailed before the authorities. The fate of the Abbot Potepa is not known, but pressure was brought to bear upon the aged Zdeda to have him renounce his Episcopal authority and rank. Zdeda refused to yield and soon died in prison. The proud Vuk, champion of the national church, was brought before the synod in Split for trial. After a thorough investigation of his case the vindictive Latin bishops deprived him of his priestly rank, had him shorn, and after much humiliation threw him in prison where he remained for twelve years. By 1064 the rebellion was crushed, and upon his return to Rome Cardinal John could report to the pope that order had been restored in the troubled land. Indeed the country was outwardly calm, but this was merely a lull before the storm.


Slavats and the Norman Invasion

The death of King Peter Kreshimir was a signal for the rebellion of all those who had suffered defeat at the hands of the Latin party. Both the national clergy and people, reduced to voiceless submission, were embittered over the growing influence of the Latin clergy, which gave a foreign appearance to the Croatian Church. When discipline broke up, the Slavic liturgy was restored and the national spirit revived all over the kingdom. The center of the revolutionary movement was now in the Narentian territory which was ruled by the powerful tribe of Kachich. The prince regent of this territory, Rusin, died shortly before the death of Peter Kreshimir, and the authority passed to his brother Slavats as regent for the son of Rusin who was still a minor. Dissatisfied with the conditions prevailing in the country, Slavats mustered up forces large enough to prevent Duke Stephen, Peter Kreshimir’s nephew and the last living member of the dynasty of Terpimirovichi, from succeeding to the throne. Stephen was forced into retirement in a monastery, and Slavats with his supporters assumed the reins of government. Slavats was proclaimed king, but there was much opposition to his personal rule. The Latin party, together with the Dalmatian municipalities and higher Croatian nobility, refused him allegiance and sought aid abroad to overthrow him. The Duke Zvonimir, banus of Pannonian Croatia, joined them. The opposition sent a delegation to Rome and complained to the Pope against the usurpation of the power by a “heretic” and his band! The Pontiff and his council listened to these grievances all the more intently as their own prestige and power in Croatia were at stake.

The pope at that time was Gregory VII (1073-1085), who as the archdeacon Hildebrand had been adviser and chief assistant to the former two popes: Nicholas II (1058-1061) and Alexander II (1061-1073). He made the name of Gregory VII one of the most illustrious in papal history. As a grand figure of the Cluniac reform, he strove to subordinate the power of the worldly princes to his own. He was well versed in the ecclesiastic affairs of Croatia since he himself had participated in the settlement of disputes arising from the enactments of the synod of Split. The occasion for intervention in the affairs of Croatia seem propitious to Gregory, for he could place upon the Croatian throne a man of his choice, and eradicate finally the “Arian heresy” of the Glagolitic Church. He decided therefore to act with speed and firmness.

Early in 1075 he sent messengers to the court of Denmark for military aid, offering to place a prince of the royal blood on the throne of Croatia. When Denmark refused, he turned to Amico, the Norman duke of Appulia, with the request to invade Croatia and overthrow the king. The domestic enemies of Slavats also sent envoys to Appulia suing for military aid. Towards the end of 1075 the Norman leader equipped an armed expedition to Croatia and landed with his forces on the Dalmatian coast. Slavats was captured and made prisoner. Since there is no record of any military engagements it may be assumed that Slavats fell victim to treachery and was seized by his enemies at a parley. The fate of Slavats after his capture is unknown, but it stands to reason that he was either slain, or kept by Amico abroad. At any rate, the Normans now established their control over a number of Dalmatian cities including Split, Trogir (Trau), Biograd, Zadar and Nin. The cause of the Slavic liturgy in the Croatian Church suffered another setback but was far from extinction. The Norman occupation of the Dalmatian cities led to another complication: intervention by the doge Domenico Silvio (1071-1084) and new struggles with Venice.


The Reign of Demetrius Zvonimir

After the fate of King Slavats had been sealed, several important developments took place in the Croatian lands. Early in 1076 a new synod was held in Split at which the archbishop Gerard presided in his capacity of apostolic delegate. The purpose of this synod was to consolidate the earlier gains and pacify the Croatian clergy which had sided with the rebel king. The early canons of Split were reaffirmed and clerical discipline was restored. As a further concession to the national spirit the bishopric of Nin, which had been abolished at the council of 928, was reestablished. The venerable Vuk, who had already spent twelve years in prison, was released under the promise to leave the country and never return.

The most important event of this troublesome era of turmoil and upheaval was the invasion of the Dalmatian coast by the forces of Domenico Silvio, doge of Venice. The Venetians could not brook the Norman conquest of the eastern Adriatic, and decided to expel the forces of duke Amico from their Dalmatian strongholds. After a brief but stiff fight the Normans were defeated and doge Silvio made a triumphal entry into the main coastal towns. In the city of Split he summoned all the high nobility and notables and had them take the oath of loyalty to Venice with the solemn promise not to invite the Normans or other foreigners to their country again. Domenico Silvio now took the title of Duke of Dalmatia.

Another important event of this troublesome period was the election of the banus Zvonimir as king of Croatia and Dalmatia. This union of the two provinces under one ruler checked the tendency of the time toward disintegration and dismemberment of the national territory. Through the trials of the revolutionary period all the factions had come to realize that in their disunion there was far more at stake than mere ecclesiastic questions and administrative advantages. The glamorous duke Zvonimir was not without shortcomings as a candidate for the throne. He did not belong to the family of Peter Kreshimir and the dynasty of Terpimirovichi. However, he was somewhat compensated in prestige by the fact of being a brother-in-law to Geza I, king of Hungary, and after the downfall of Slavats he was the only commanding figure available to fill the vacant throne. He was therefore the logical choice of the high nobility, the Latin party, and all the other elements who had opposed Slavats.

Partly from fear of Venetian intervention, and in part owing to uncertainty of the attitude the Holy See would take toward a king who lacked dynastic legitimacy, the coronation of Zvonimir was postponed. Complications from the pope’s position in the matter were avoided by a fortunate set of circumstances favoring the new king. Pope Gregory VII was then in the midst of his struggle with Henry IV, emperor of Germany. It was the climatic year between the council at Worms (January 1076) and Canossa (January 1077). On the first occasion Gregory VII was deposed at the behest of the emperor by the bishops of Germany and labeled a “usurper” and “false monk.” He was declared to have secured the throne through violence and was to be “accused through all the ages.” The pope retaliated by excommunicating Henry, depriving him of his imperial title, and encouraging his subjects to elect a new sovereign. It was less than a year (October 1076) before the princes met at Tribur and declared Henry IV deposed unless he should come within three months to terms with the Apostolic See. At the same time, the military campaigns of the emperor met with reverses, and to save the situation Henry swallowed his pride and decided upon reconciliation. On foot and in the coarse garb of a penitent he crossed the Alps and appeared bare-footed and stripped of all badges of his imperial authority before the pope at Canossa. This was the greatest moral victory of the Church over the political power, short of the proud gesture of bishop Ambrose of Milan, who had passed the mighty emperor Theodosius of Constantinople through a humiliating course of penitence.

In the interim between these two events, the council of Worms and penitence in Canossa, the cause of the pope looked hopeless at times. Most of Lombardy was against him, together with Venice and the southern provinces of Germany including Carinthia. It was therefore of the utmost importance to check the spread of the imperial influence in the disaffected area along the Adriatic coast. This made Gregory very cautious in his attitude to the problem of succession in Croatia and prompted him to waive the customary objections of legitimacy, which would plainly have been order here since duke Styepan, the nephew of Peter Kreshimir, was still alive and available to occupy the throne.

Gregory VII had another weighty reason for the approval of Zvonimir. He had established friendly relations with the emperor of Byzantium, who still claimed political rights over Dalmatia. Since the friendly Normans had been forced out of Dalmatia by the Venetians, the pope saw in a combination of Byzantine influence with a strong national monarchy a way to check or counteract the Venetian overlordship in Dalmatia. Thus Zvonimir, who had the support of the high nobility, the Latin party and other national elements, was the logical person to champion the cause of the Roman Church in Croatia.


Elevation to the Throne

It was, therefore, necessary to attach Zvonimir more closely to the policies of Gregory VII, and fit him into the papal conception of a perfect Christian ruler. For this reason Gregory sent two apostolic delegates to Croatia in the persons of Abbot Gepison and Bishop Fulcoin. The papal envoys summoned a council in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Solin (Salona) and announced the terms under which the Holy See could approve of the election of the new king. When Zvonimir accepted the papal terms, he was quickly acclaimed by the assembly and in the presence of the notables and common people was proclaimed king. On the 9th of October, 1076, the crown was placed on his head by Abbot Gepison, the papal delegate, in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Salona. Zvonimir took an oath of loyalty to Gregory VII and promised to discharge certain duties to the Holy See. In recognition of the spiritual supremacy of the See of St. Peter over temporal powers, he took from the hands of Gepison the papal flag. He made donations of property to churches and promised a yearly gift to the Pope of two hundred ducats.

The reign of Demetrius Zvonimir, which began under high auspices, is full of dramatic episodes. It is marked by important foreign developments, which were attended by armed clashes with his powerful neighbors. Military successes both on land and sea were constant companions of his armed forces, and Zvonimir started out on a career which promised the feats of a crusader or conqueror. His premature death arrested both and prevented him from vying for the honors of Godfrey of Lorraine, Bohemund Guiscard and Robert of Toulouse as deliverers of Jerusalem and defenders of the Holy Sepulcher. Zvonimir is the most spectacular and dramatic of the Croatian rulers, whose tragic end revealed a heroic character.

In the year of Canossa (1077) the world situation was such that it was nearly impossible for any country in Europe to stay aloof from the swift stream of events in the East and West. So much more difficult was the position of those countries, which like Croatia, were close to the center of powerful conflicts. On one hand the pressure of the Seljuk Turks, by this time already in possession of Jerusalem, and on the other the weakness of Byzantium, created a situation which was to affect the destinies of the whole Christian world. Furthermore, the gigantic struggle between the papacy and the emperors of Germany upset the foreign alignments of the neighboring countries. In the Croatian State both these situations affected deeply the alliances and struggles of the new king.


Alliance of Normans and Croats

For siding with Pope Gregory VII in his struggle with Henry IV, emperor of Germany, Zvonimir was attacked by Vetselinus, duke of Istria, a vassal of the emperor. Although the details of this struggle are not known, the length of the campaign would indicate a serious conflict. It was ended through the intervention of Gregory VII in 1079. The most important campaign of Zvonimir is one he undertook in alliance with Robert Guiscard, the Norman duke of Sicily, against Venice and Alexius Comnenus, emperor of Constantinople. A number of matters may have inspired this cause, but the most obvious is that traditional conflict with Byzantium through Croatia asserted her longing for independence, and resistance to the increasing aggressiveness of Venetian raids and encroachments. In command of strong naval forces and supported by the fleets of Dubrovnik (Ragusa) and other Dalmatian cities, Zvonimir joined the Norman duke in the attack and siege of the imperial city of Durazzo (Drach). The city was stormed and captured in 1083 after the Croatian-Norman navy won a decisive victory on the sea over the combined fleets of Constantinople and Venice.

In the next year the allied forces of the Croatians and Normans scored another victory over the Venetian navy near the island of Corfou. Soon after this event Robert Guiscard died, and this ended the Croatian-Norman alliance which had made such a powerful bid for domination of both Adriatic coasts. In compensation for the losses of his Venetian ally, Emperor Alexius rewarded the doge, then Vitelo Faliero, with the title of “Ruler of Croatia and Dalmatia,” thereby renouncing all his own political titles and claims to this territory in favor of Venice. It was a completely hollow gesture at the time, but with the growth of Venetian power along the eastern Adriatic coast, it came to serve as a source of Venetian claims and sanctions in the future. After the death of Robert Guiscard, Zvonimir soon lost another powerful friend and ally with the passing of Gregory VII (May 25, 1085). The death of these two famous historical figures dealt a blow to the ascendancy of Zvonimir’s power and ambitions from which he never recovered. A new set of political circumstances was soon to arise which reversed the favorable course of his policies and paved the way to his own tragic end.


Estrangement of the People from Zvonimir

Even during the period of his ringing victories, the war-like policies of Demetrius Zvonimir did not meet with the unanimous approval of the Croatian people. The burden of his military expeditions and sacrifices, imposed upon them through continuous warfare, caused much dissatisfaction. In addition, the oppressed national party and supporters of the Croatian Church were set stubbornly against the rising power of the Latin faction. In fact, they considered the king a puppet in the hands of the Latin magnates and churchmen. They were also opposed to the new trends in the civil administration of the state.

Following the models of western feudalism, the king replaced the old tribal chieftains (zhupani) and their leaders (bani) with a group of counts (comites) and high royal officials or lieutenants (vicarious regis) both in his court and the general administration of the country. Thus the court became a place of assembly for the Latin dignitaries, where Archbishop Laurentius, the chief opponent of the Croatian Church, was very influential. Foreign influence was further accentuated by the entourage of Queen Helen, surnamed “the beautiful” (Yelena Liyepa), daughter of one Hungarian king and sister of another. Under such auspices the Croatian people gradually became estranged from their king, and an undercurrent of sentiment was formed that was to doom the Croatian State. Finally, a dynastic problem arose with the death of Radovan, son of Zvonimir and Helen.

Dramatic developments that now took place in the Orient and the Balkans had disastrous consequences for the brilliant reign of Demetrius Zvonimir. Under the blows of the Petchenegs south of the Danube, and the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor, Byzantium began to crumble. Emperor Alexius made a frantic appeal to the Christian West which found a sympathetic echo throughout western Christendom. The chief supporter of Alexius’ plea was Pope Urban II (1088-1099), who was inspired by the emperor’s request for a strong force of mercenaries to form a grandiose scheme for the military revival of western Christianity under the leadership of the Holy See. This magnificent enterprise grew in scope and momentum as its details were revealed and discussed. It called for the conquest and colonization of the heathen lands by the excess populations of the West and provided opportunity for atonement through the risks and sacrifices of the hazardous campaign. The missionary fervor of Urban led to the Council of Clermont (1095), which may be called one of the dramatic climaxes of European history. It was there that he preached the First Crusade, unfading symbol of the militant spirit of Christian Europe, which was to establish the most cherished of all traditions of Western man, the memory of those moments in the Middle Ages when man appeared at his selfless and generous and dedicated best.


Croats Reprove the Foreign Policy of Zvonimir

With the approval of Urban II, Emperor Alexius sued for the military assistance of his former enemy Demetrius Zvonimir. This took place at the beginning of the emperor’s quest for armed support in the West, and before the crusading activity of Urban had taken root in the minds of the faithful. In spite of the best intentions of Urban, his plea in favor of Alexius, their traditional enemy, must have caused consternation in the minds of many in Croatia. Even the inducement of delivering the Holy Sepulcher was taken largely with indifference. In the eyes of many Croatian warriors, Alexius was an enemy whose destruction by a foreign power was not an altogether unwelcome prospect. Thus the efforts of Zvonimir to induce his people to render assistance to hard pressed Byzantium fell on deaf ears. Zvonimir summoned an assembly of his warriors and noblemen in a field near Knin (1089) to deliberate. His enthusiasm for the crusade moved some deeply yet failed to sway others. The quarreling became so violent and the assembly broke up in a riot. Demetrius Zvonimir himself was killed in the melee.

Thus a brilliant reign, inaugurated under the highest auspices, ended in a tragic downfall. Up to this point the military career of Zvonimir had been one of continued success and increasing effectiveness. In a time of general upheaval and in the face of almost constant attack by the forces of the German emperor, Venice and Byzantium, he had created a strong political situation for his kingdom. His alliance with Norman Italy opened a new chapter in the long fight for Croatian independence from the Venetian control. Unfortunately, this chapter of Croatian-Norman cooperation closed too soon. Zvonimir’s friendship and alliance with the great Gregory VII had been the chief asset of his reign.

Contrary to his military experience of the recent past, he was swayed by the inspiration of Urban II from the orbit of traditional Croatian policies to the support of Emperor Alexius. The Croatian people could join him in the first, but refused to follow him in the new course of assisting an enemy, even for the motives of the crusade. In this rapid change of his foreign policy lay Zvonimir’s doom and the future misfortunes of his nation.


Succession Claims

The sudden death of Demetrius Zvonimir created a new problem of succession. In the past dynastic struggles had brought the Croatian state to the edge of ruin. On this occasion the intervention of a powerful neighbor cost the political independence of the national kingdom

There were two candidates contending for succession after Zvonimir’s death. One was his widow, Helen-the-Fair, who claimed the crown as her lawful heritage. Some of the high nobility and the courtiers supported this claim but were overborne by the supporters of Styepan II (1089-1090), the nephew of Peter Kreshimir. Styepan was duly raised to the throne, but death overtook him the following year.

Thus Helen could renew her claim without interference from the dynasty of Terpimirovichi. This time she secured the support of the major part of Styepan’s party, and for all practical purposes she was now the ruler. Meanwhile the opposition became determined to settle the issue by armed force, and the clashes spread all over the country. Pressed on all sides by the tide of rebellion, the court faction decided to seek aid abroad and to invite the intervention of Ladislaus (Szent Lazlo, 1077-1097), brother of Helen and king of Hungary. Ladislaus complied with the request and in 1091 set out on a campaign to secure his “lawful heritage” of the Croatian crown. The partisans of Queen Helen controlled Pannonian Croatia, and the troops of Ladislaus met with no resistance (indeed the Hungarian king was received as a friend).


Intervention of Hungary

The fighting began near the coast in the mountain passes of the Iron Alps. Even here the progress of the invader was checked not by the national army of the Croatian State, but by the local forces of the tribes inhabiting the mountains. The Hungarians did not progress beyond these mountain ranges, although the objective of the king was to reach the seacoast and occupy the Dalmatian towns. In the midst of his campaign, Ladislaus was called back to Hungary to check the invasion of the Kumani, a nomadic horde. After the death of Vladimir of Kiev they swooped down to the Carpathian ranges from the great steppes of Russia. Thus the Dalmatian part of Croatia was saved from the Hungarian conquest, but Pannonian Croatia or the territory between Gvozd and Drava remained in the power of Ladislaus. The king left his nephew Almos (1091-1095) in control of the territory and charged him with the task of extending his hold over the occupied territory by establishing the diocese of Zagreb as a new tie between Croatia and Hungary.

While he was still campaigning in the Iron Alps, Ladislaus sent envoys to Rome asking Urban II to approve his claim to the heritage of the Croatian lands. However, the Holy See refused, whereupon Ladislaus joined forces with Henry IV, emperor of Germany against Urban II. Byzantium, as might have been expected, sided with the pope thus stiffening the national faction in Dalmatia to organize its own forces for the recovery of Pannonian territory from the Hungarian rule. This national party rallied around the figure of Peter (1093-1097), the last member of the national dynasty. This Peter is commonly known by his last name of Svachich, although some historians derive his origin from the tribe of Kachich, taking him for a nephew of King Slavats, and son of Prince Rusin Kachich. Under the able leadership of Peter the national life of Croatia was invigorated. The Hungarian Almos had to abandon Pannonia and return to his uncle Ladislaus. Thus the political sovereignty of Peter was established over the whole territory north of Gvozd and south of the Drava River.


The Death of Peter Svachich

After his accession to the throne the young Hungarian king Kalman (1095-1116) conceived the ambitious plan of conquering Croatia and thus completing the undertaking begun by his uncle Ladislaus. The international situation favored this plan because both Byzantium and Western Europe were deeply involved in preparation for the First Crusade, while the Croatian forces had not yet recovered from the civil war. Early in 1097 Kalman equipped a large army and entered Croatia. Peter was forced back toward the sea, and a decisive battle was fought south of the lower course of the Kulpa River along the northern slopes of the Iron Alps (Gvozd). The battle ended in disaster for the Croatian forces; King Peter himself was slain on the battlefield. Since 1097 the mountain range Gvozd is called Petrov Gvozd, or Petrova Gora. The victorious Hungarian armies pursued their course toward the sea and occupied the coast and the Dalmatian towns without difficulty.

Although the Hungarians overran and occupied the country, their victory would have been ephemeral if it had not been attended by moves of political wisdom. An uprising in Croatia at an opportune moment could have shaken off the foreign yoke, especially in view of the vulnerable position of Hungary proper after the defeat of Kalman’s armies by the Russians and Kumani at Przemysl in Galicia in 1099. Kalman therefore sought conciliation with Croatia and offered a compromise to the Croatian nobility by which they would retain their ancestral privileges under the sovereignty of the Hungarian king.

When the way had been prepared by Kalman’s envoys, the representatives of the twelve Croatian tribes living in the territory between Gvozd and Neretva met with the king and elected him their lawful sovereign with the title of king of Croatia and Dalmatia. As a condition for this election the king was to respect the privileges of a special diet (legislature), and accept separate coronation as the Croatian king. In turn, the nobility was to prove its loyalty by supplying a small cavalry force to the king in case of war.

After this agreement both the noblemen and the king went to the city of Biograd-on-the-sea where Kalman was crowned and invested with the title Rex Dalmatiae et Croatiae. With his oath he guaranteed all the public and constitutional rights of the Croatian State. By this new constitutional structure Hungary and Croatia were henceforth to have a common king, but to continue as separate kingdoms bound together by the person of the sovereign, who supplied the organic link to the new commonwealth. In recognition of the relationship the kings of Hungary assumed after the reign of Kalman the hereditary title of Rex Hungariae, Dalmatiae et Croatiae, (King of Hungary, Dalmatia and Croatia).

This union between the crownlands of Croatia and Hungary continued until October 1918 when it was dissolved by the Act of the Croatian Diet in Zagreb. There is much controversy in the historical literature as to the nature of this tie. Some Hungarian writers claim conquest pure and simple, and treat the Croatian territory as the “provinces” (tartomany) or “annexed lands” (csatolt orszag) of the crown of St. Stephen, i.e. Hungary.

Experts in constitutional law hold different views. The practice of crowning the kings separately with the crown of Zvonimir was replaced in the course of time by a simultaneous coronation as king of Hungary and Croatia. Later, during the accession of the Anjou and Polish kings and after the election of the Hapsburgs, the sovereigns carried the title of all their other possessions and claims.

On the other hand, the royal power during the reign of the Arpad dynasty and that of the Angevin Charles Robert was but nominal, and real authority was exercised locally by powerful oligarchs and barons. While they were on friendly terms with the king, harmony prevailed throughout the land and both parties assisted each other in the conduct of foreign policy. In the meantime, the barons could engage in mutual struggles or organize opposing factions and the kings would not interfere in their domestic quarrels. The language of the realm was Latin as it was in most parts of Europe, and problems of nationality were nonexistent. The gravest problems arose in the domain of religion and in the feudal organization of the times.

(Excerpted from A HISTORY OF THE CROATIAN PEOPLE, Pre-History and Early Period, Vol. 1, by Francis R. Preveden, pg 77-87

Compiled by Marko Marelich
Retired Mechanical Engineer
San Francisco, California USA
February 25, 2008