The dynastic history of Bulgaria is something I had not intended but was compelled to do following a series of short conversations with a Bulgarian work-and-travel co-worker of mine. Quite a while ago, I inventoried in my royal genealogical files the tsars of Bulgaria, a series of monarchs who ruled periodically from the 10th to the 20th century in some fashion or another. To my surprise, my Bulgarian co-worker expressly denounced any such monarchy on two occasions, despite the fact that I had researched it fairly deeply many years ago. Thus, the basis for today's long-awaited dynastology is established.
Indeed, Bulgaria has a most interesting dynastic history and one that should not be overlooked. Despite its modern placement in the far-south-eastern corner of Europe — between European Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, and the Black Sea — it once spanned an empire that encompassed most of the Ukraine. The Bulgars historically were people of probably Turkic origin infused with a heavy dose of Persian. Over time, the dominant Slavic migratory groups supplanted first the proto-Bulgarian languages and later the ethnicity itself. Thus, all Bulgarians today descend primarily from Slavs though they may retain some ancient Bulgarian blood. The modern region of Bulgaria was a nexus of Greek, Roman, Gothic, Hun, Slavic and Celtic cultures and thus elements of all can be found in modern Bulgarian society. Of the original Bulgar invaders, it is thought that they consisted of a relatively small group who mostly interbred with the native population.
Dulo Dynasty (681 – 753) & the First Bulgarian Empire
The history of Bulgaria begins with the ruler, Asparuh, who founded the First Bulgarian Empire around 681 CE. While he is often titled "khan", the Turkic title for king, it is unlikely he or his successors took that title. Asparuh was the second son of a Bulgar ruler, Kubrat of the Dulo clan, who ruled a large kingdom called Great Bulgaria in the Ukraine. After his death, his eldest son ruled for a short while before the region fell to the Khazars in 668. After this point, Bulgaria became associated solely with the region on either side of the Danube River from roughly modern-day Belgrade to the Black Sea. This immigration pushed into previously Byzantine lands. The Byzantines were distracted by attempted to fight back, but failing morale in 681 led to a treaty that was later seen as the establishment of the Bulgarian state in the Balkans.
Kubrat was the first Orthodox Christian Bulgarian monarch. While it is unknown whether Asparuh was Christian, his son, Tervel, certainly was. Tervel allied with the Byzantine emperor, Justinian II, and helped him reclaim his throne from the usurpers Leontius and Tiberius III. In exchange for this, Justinian crowned Tervel Kaisar (Tsar) of Bulgaria, making Tervel the first foreign monarch to ever receive the Roman title. In addition, Justinian ceded additional lands to Bulgaria. Despite problems between the two countries, they banded together in 718 and routed the Arabs during the Siege of Constantinople. For this aide, Tervel was added the title "Saviour of Europe" by contemporary historians. Since Byzantine histories are the primary sources for early Bulgarian history, it is thought that the Dulo Dynasty maintained a relative peace after 718. Kormesiy succeeded his father, Tervel, around 721 and little is known about him, though he may have been deposed. Sevar, his son, succeeded him but was also later deposed. Following his deposition, the Dulo Dynasty fell and was replaced by the Vokil Dynasty.
Vokil Dynasty (753 – 762)
Kormisosh was the first ruler of the Vokil Dynasty and he began a long period of political instability in the First Bulgarian Empire. The Byzantine Empire had decided to defend its western borders with Bulgaria by moving Armenians and Syrians into nearby Thrace. Kormisosh was so enraged by this obvious threat that he invaded the Empire and laid a short siege to Constantinople which unfortunately backfired on the Bulgarians as they were defeated and forced to flee, ultimately ending with Kormisosh's death through a palace coup which replaced the ruler with his kinsman, Vinekh. Vinekh held his ground against the Byzantines but ultimately failed to win the day. Though Vinekh managed to finally defeat the Byzantine army, he failed to pursue the fleeing army and, in response, was killed with his entire family by the Bulgarian nobility.
Non-Dynastic Period (762 – 803)
A period of intense confusion followed the end of the Vokil Dynasty. Telets, a member of the Ugain clan, claimed the leadership of the Bulgarian Empire for three years during which time Bulgaria lost a battle to the Byzantines and the nobles, in turned, lynched Telets for his defeat. His successor, Sabin, was a relative of the Dulo Dynasty and attempted to make peace with the Byzantines. However, when this peace offer was discovered, the Bulgarian nobility rebelled and Sabin fled to Constantinople. His successor, Umor of the Vokil Dynasty, lasted only 40 days before also fleeing to the Byzantine Empire to find sanctuary. Toktu adopted, instead, a hostile policy against the Byzantines but was murdered before ever being able to implement it. His successor, Pagan, tried again for peace but was betrayed by the Byzantines and also murdered after the Byzantines penetrated to the middle of the Bulgarian Empire. With the Byzantines now on the offensive, Telerig sued for peace and succeeded, but was forced to flee to Constantinople just as his peaceful predecessor had, later being baptized and renamed Theophylaktos prior to marrying a relative of the Byzantine Emperor. The instability of Bulgaria ultimately ended in the reign of Kardam, who took the mantel of leadership in 777. Between 791 and 792, the Bulgarians decisively defeated the Byzantine Empire multiple times and the Bulgarians pressed their advantage, forcing tribute to be paid. A palace coup in Constantinople ended further aggression to the Bulgarian Empire for a short time and allowed a restoration of the Dulo Dynasty through the nephew of Kardam, Krum.
Dulo Dynasty (803 – 977)
The Dulo Dynasty was restored upon the death of Kardam and the empire thrived during this time. The empire expanded northward to encompass all of modern Romania, Moldova, and most of Hungary. Indeed, for a short while the empire shared a border with the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne. Interestingly, Bulgaria was also under constant attack from the Byzantines. This allowed Krum his greatest victory: over the many invasions, Krum successfully killed or forced the deposition of three Byzantine emperors. Nikephrous I was killed in battle. Staurakios was injured in that same battle and later died. Michael I was forced to abdicate and became a monk. Meanwhile, Krum died a natural death, passing the throne to his son, Omurtag.
The next three monarchs expanded the empire's borders and the laws of the land. Omurtag became famous for his persecution of the Christians, while Malamir and Presian I were ineffectual leaders who nonetheless furthered their ancestor's laws and expansions. It was Boris I, however, that ultimately became the most famous of the Bulgarian monarchs. Boris was ruler in a time of great conflict. East Francia, the Byzantine Empire and Serbia all pressed in, yet Boris succeeded in defeating them all. In 866, somewhat out of nowhere, Boris was baptized into the Orthodox church under the Christian name Michael. Soon after, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, an autocephalous (autonomous) part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, was founded. In addition, Boris adopted the Cyrillic alphabet and Slavic language as official for Bulgaria. Boris abdicated in favor his son, Vladimir, but after a short pagan revival, Vladimir was deposed and replaced with another son, Simeon I. Boris I was later sainted by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Bulgaria thrived under the reign of Simeon I the Great. He was proclaimed Tsar of Bulgaria and established the first Orthodox patriarchate outside of the antique Pentarchy. His son, Peter I, was likewise made tsar and even married the granddaughter of the Byzantine Emperor Romanos I. Despite military and political setbacks during his reign, he was highly revered and was sainted soon after his death. Boris II, his son, did not fare so well. Soon after his elevation, his lands were conquered by the Kievan Rus. He was coerced into fighting the Byzantines and lost badly. Southern Bulgaria was taken while pieces of the rest of the empire were parched between neighbors. The empire ultimately fell to the Byzantines in 971, though Boris tried desperately to reclaim it in 977, an attempt that ended his life. His brother, Roman, survived the affair and claimed the throne but was captured in 791 and died in prison. The Dulo Dynasty had finally met its end.
Cometopuli Dynasty (997 – 1018)
The tsardom passed to Samuil, a general under Roman who served as regent during the captivities of his predecessors. Samuil was successful in conquering back lands from Serbia, the Byzantine Empire, and Hungary – indeed he controlled the majority of the Balkan Peninsula north of Greece – but he was unable to hold them. He is widely considered the last monarch of the First Bulgarian Empire despite the fact that a son and nephew both ruled parts of the empire for another four years. Gavril and Ivan, though, were not able to hold back the Byzantine armies and the empire inevitably fell. Two members of the dynasty claimed the throne during the 167 years of Byzantine rule — Peter II and Peter III — but neither were able to retake the empire. The Bulgarians still remained an important part of the region, though, as three Byzantine emperors married Bulgarian princesses.
Asen Dynasty (1187 – 1396) & the Second Bulgarian Empire
After so many years as a tributary state of the Byzantine empire, the Second Bulgarian Empire rose from a revolt left by Theodore and Ivan Asen, two men from Moesia of probable Cumen origin who were otherwise unknown individuals. After three years of revolt, Emperor Issac II finally recognized the new Bulgarian entity in 1187. Peter IV was chosen as the new tsar, though he co-crowned his brother as Ivan I in 1189. Ivan was later murdered and his youngest brother was crowned as Ivan II in 1196.
Ivan II, better known as Kaloyan, was a successful general who expanded the Second Bulgarian Empire to its maximum limits. He successors continued maintaining the empire's size despite internal and neighborly intrigues. For the first time in Bulgarian history, the threat of Byzantium was minimized by the overthrow of the monarchy by the Latin Crusaders who created a new empire based in Constantinople. The Byzantine nobility fled and focused their efforts on retaking their capital rather than attacking the Bulgarians. Boril did little during his reign but his cousin, John II, brought the second empire to its height. John established an alliance with a Byzantine splinter-state, Epirus, but Epirus betrayed them and Bulgaria successfully defeated and annexed the small empire into its lands. The battle between the Latin Empire and the Empire of Nicaea, unfortunately, proved to be John's undoing. He could not choose a side so lingered in the south as the Mongol Horde invaded his northern lands. Though John died prior to the Mongol's ultimate victory, his son, Kaliman I, was forced into subservience to the Mongols under Batu Khan. Michael I was able to buy off the Mongols, but had an ineffectual reign. His nephew, Kaliman II, murdered Michael II and became tsar but died soon after through his own murder. Mitso, a kinsman of the family, tried to claim the throne, the nobles elected another man, Constantine, and Mitso fled to the Nicaean Empire.
The Asen dynasty had ended by this point, and Constantine was a scion of a Serbian family of Bulgarian nobles. He led the country poorly and saw it piecemeal away. By the time of his death, the empire had shrunk to half its size and the peasants were revolting. Ivan III, a son of Mitso, ruled for a very short time before fleeing to Constantinople with the royal treasury.
Terter Dynasty (1280 – 1292, 1300 – 1322)
Ivaylo, the leader of the peasant revolt, took the empire over for a short while before being forced to flee to the Golden Horde of the Mongols in 1280. He was later murdered by his very protector, Nogai Khan. Mongol raids continued into Bulgaria during the reigns of the next four monarchs. George I, the first monarch of the Terter Dynasty, eventually had to flee, though he returned to Bulgaria more than a decade later durning the reign of his son. Smilets was ineffectual and ruled during the height of Mongol control over Bulgaria. Indeed, the next monarch was the son of Nogai Khan, Chaka, who was later deposed then strangled to death in 1300. With Chaka's death, the Terter Dynasty resumed under the leadership of Theodore, who was finally able to rest control of Bulgaria away from the Mongols as well as Thrace from the Byzantines. He later made peace with both neighbors and caused the Second Empire to enter a new age of expansion. His son, George II, took advantage of Byzantine intrigue to expand the empire further, but died before any significant gains coalesced.
Shishman Dynasty (1323 – 1396)
When George II died, a descendant of the Asen Dynasty took control in the form of Michael III Shishman. Shishman is noted for many important "lasts" for the Bulgarian Empire. He was the last tsar to actively seek to rule the Balkan Peninsula. He was the last to attempt to seize Constantinople. And the dynasty was the last to rule the Second Empire. He died while fighting the increasingly dominant Serbs in 1330. His successor, Ivan Stefan, faced opposition on all sides and abdicated without ruling a year. Ivan Alexander, the next tsar, was nephew to Michael III Shishman and ruled the Second Empire into a second Golden Age. But the end of Bulgaria as an independent entity was already in sight. The Ottoman Empire was growing around the Byzantine Empire, hoping to entrap it, and the Bulgarian Empire was in the way. Elsewhere, to the north, the Magyar Hungarians were seeking new lands in Bulgarian Wallachia. And the Black Death was spreading its death across all of Europe. In an attempt to fight off this triple threat, Ivan Alexander divided his tsardom into two realms each ruled by a son. In the end, though, this only made its demise easier, separating resources and splitting armies. Ivan Shishman, Alexander's fourth son, held onto central Bulgaria until 1393 and remained alive for two years longer before falling under the Ottoman's axe. Alexander's third son, Sratsimir, lasted decided to ignore the pleas of his brother resulting that brother's fall. A year later, the Ottomans came for Sratsimir too, and the tsar was captured and strangled in 1396, thereby ending the Second Bulgarian Empire. Sratsimir's son, Constantine II, tried desperately to hold onto a few remaining lands of the Bulgarian Empire and was widely recognized as tsar, but failed to reclaim his heritage and died an exile at the Serbian court in 1422. The empire never revived and no independent state of Bulgaria re-emerged until 1878.
The Principality and Kingdom of Bulgaria (1878 – 1946)
Europe had greatly changed since Bulgaria fell so many centuries earlier. The German dynasties ruled most of Central and Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire was falling to pieces. When, in 1878, Bulgaria was allowed to become an autonomous monarchy within the Ottoman Empire, the Russian czar encouraged the Ottomans to choose his nephew as prince. And so, on 29 April 1879, Prince Alexander of the House of Battenberg assumed the long-vacant throne of the Bulgarian monarchy. Soon after his elevation and due to Russian intervention, Alexander rebelled and overthrew the new constitution to become an absolute ruler. While his coup was reversed two years later, Alexander lost the support of the Russians. War with Serbia lost Alexander any remaining support in Bulgaria and he was deposed in 1886.
His replacement was Ferdinand I of the Wettin sub-house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Koháry. Prior to his election, the throne had been offered to princes from across Europe in an effort to avoid Russian control of the new principality. His election was unexpected but his reign was unusually successful. On 5 October 1908, he declared the independence of the Kingdom of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire and proclaimed himself king. He soon after joined the other Balkan states in destroying Ottoman control of the Balkans. With World War I starting in 1914, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers to gain lands from Serbia but lost the war. Alexander abdicated in favor of his son, Boris III, and went into exile where he died in 1948.
Boris III was a reluctant leader who saw the fortunes of Bulgaria turn from bad to worse. He allied with the Axis during World War II in order to take back Macedonia from Greece and Yugoslavia. Boris became a hero to many Jews by not extraditing his 50,000 strong Jewish population to Poland for processing, though he did condemn those Jews living in lands conquered by Bulgaria. Boris also refused to declare war on Russia due to the strong pro-Russian sentiment of many Bulgarians. This rift ended when Boris died a few months later in 1943 due to heart failure.
His son, Simeon II, became the final Bulgarian monarch. He was six at the time and unable to rule, and thus his uncle, the prime minister, and the head of the military took over as a triumvirate regency. In 1944, Bulgaria was overrun by Soviet troops and the regency was ended. Two years later, a plebiscite ended the monarchy in favor of a Soviet/communist republic. Simeon II went into exile having never ruled under his own power. Though Simeon attempted many times to form a government-in-exile, no such entity came about. However, in a strange turn-of-fate, Simeon was issued a new Bulgarian passport in 1990 upon the fall of the communist government. Lands and property taken from the pretender four decades earlier were returned to him and his family. In 2001, he announced the creation of a new political party called the National Movement Simeon II (NMSII). The party won a majority of seats in Parliament and Simeon II became Prime Minister, becoming one of the only former monarchs in history to later become head-of-state of a democratic republic.
Thus ends the dynastic history of Bulgaria, and a long history it has indeed seen. For whatever reason, I still do not know why my co-worker believes Bulgaria has never had a monarch. Indeed, it is the only country I can think of that elected its former monarch as Prime Minister! In any case, Bulgaria remains a developing republic today, but its rich dynastic history remains a memory for most, though not all, of its people.
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