Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 28, 2022

“The impure and proud Mamai, Lord of the Volga Horde, ruled over the entire Horde, and he slew many lords and khans and he set  up a khan according to his own will. He was, however, in great confusion, and everybody distrusted him because he killed many lords and nobles in his Horde. He even killed his own khan, and although he had a khan, this khan of the Horde was ruler in name only, for it was he, himself, who was ruler and master of all. When he learned that the Tatars loved their khan he became afraid that the khan would assume the power from him. Therefore he killed him and all who were faithful to him and those who loved him.”


So the Rus’ Nikonian Chronicle describes the situation in the Golden Horde at the end of the 1370s. Thirty years after the death of Özbeg Khan, the Golden Horde underwent another, much more violent transformation. During the reign of Özbeg’s son Jani Beg from 1342 to 1357, he had kept the Golden Horde sailing through rough waters as the overland Asian trade began to unravel and the Black Death ravaged his cities.  But with Jani Beg’s death in 1357, possibly at the hands of his own son Berdi Beg, the good fortune of the Golden Horde came to a sudden and bloody end. Now the Horde was to enter two decades of anarchy; the bulghaq, the topic of today’s episode. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


In 1357, Jani Beg had just returned from his successful conquest of what is now Azerbaijan, when he suddenly died. According to a contemporary writer, al-Ahari, his son Berdi Beg was, at the time of his father’s death, still in the Azerbaijani lands. But sources such as the later Nikonian Chronicle have Berdi Beg convinced by a cunning emir to strangle his father himself after bringing numerous princes into an alliance with him. The widespread impression seems to have been that he organized his father’s murder, even if the most contemporary sources do not place Berdi Beg there himself. After Berdi Beg left Azerbaijan, the region was lost, seized by the Jalayirids of Baghdad.


 Berdi Beg in quick order, with the backing of his grandmother Taydula, was proclaimed Khan of the Golden Horde. But feeling he faced threats, real or imagined, the new khan’s first actions were violence. Echoing his father and grandfather, Berdi Beg had his brothers murdered: 12 of them, by one count. For one infant brother, Berdi Beg is alleged to have done the deed with his own bare hands, despite the pleadings of grandmother Taydula Khatun. A number of other high ranking princes and officials too met their deaths on Berdi Beg’s order.


Berdi Beg’s actions did little to engender love to the new monarch, for whom Heaven seemed to show little favour. The Horde’s trade had declined tremendously in these years. Cities starved and shrunk, as they lost access to international trade, were depopulated by the Black Death and local farmland suffered. The mid-fourteenth century saw the Little Ice Age strike  and undo the system built up by the Jochids over the last century. Decreased rainfall over much of the steppe, and likely over-grazing from ever larger herds needed to support cities, when combined resulted in the rapid aridisation across the region. Much of the grassland simply could not sustain the great herds any longer. Almost paradoxically, the Caspian Sea was rising and causing increased flooding along the lower reaches of the Volga, which inundated cities and farmland in the Horde’s most densely populated region. 


The great cities of the Horde saw their population drop rapidly, and the material wealth evaporated without the trade or population to sustain it. The Horde’s elites who had enriched themselves off it were frightened, angered and uncertain. Berdi Beg’s efforts did little to improve things; he is known, for instance, to have raised trade duties on imports to their highest level ever recorded in the Golden Horde: 5%. And an especially virulent wave of the plague in 1359 really topped things off. 


His legitimacy already in doubt due to widespread rumours of having murdered his own father, the generally respected Jani Beg, it should not be a surprise that Berdi Beg’s rule was on thin ice. After only two years on the throne, Berdi Beg, grandson of mighty Özbeg, was murdered. The exact circumstances are unclear; the Nikonian Chronicle puts the blame on the same beg  who had urged Berdi Beg to kill his father. The murder of Berdi Beg Khan in 1359 did not, however, improve things very much. 


On Berdi Beg’s death, the throne was taken by Qulpa, a fellow who is variously identified as a brother or cousin of Berdi Beg. Qulpa was not long to enjoy the throne. After six months, Qulpa and his two sons, curiously with the very Rus’ Christian names of Ivan and Mikhail, were all in turn murdered, this time by Nawruz, a brother of Qulpa. Still, the Rus’ princes came to pay homage to Nawruz, and momentarily things looked like they might settle. That is, until Khidr came. Khidr ruled an appanage east of the Ural River, and was no descendant of Batu, but of another son of Jochi, named Shiban. In some accounts, he was invited by Taydula Khatun. But he simply may have seen a chance to throw his hat in the ring. Only months after he took the throne, Nawruz and his son were killed by Khidr, who became the new khan of the Golden Horde. So ended the line of Batu Khan, having ruled the western steppes for a century. The purging of the Batuid lineage with every succession since Toqta and Nogai’s coup in 1291 had reached its final outcome, with Nawruz and his sons the final known male descendants. With the exception of Berke, all the khans of the Golden Horde until that time had been a descendent of Batu. Now, Khidr Khan’s actions had essentially opened the succession to any possible claimant. And boy, did it.


Within a year Khidr was dead, and over the next twenty years the Jochid throne effectively became the most violent game of musical chairs. Over this period, some 25 khans, possibly more, were declared in Sarai, of varying lineages. Some ruled for two or three years, while many ruled only months.  Most of these figures are known only by their names. Some are known only by coinage; in one year, 6 different khans minted coins in Sarai.


The consequences were legion. The economic woes worsened as cities were now sacked by opposing forces. For the first time, we see archaeological evidence for fortifications around the Horde’s cities in the steppe. A number of cities were outright abandoned. In the west, the condominium with Lithuania was abandoned as the Lithuanian dukes immediately seized the western lands, and in short order the Lithuanian principality extended to the Black Sea coast line. In 1362 under Duke Ol’gerd the Lithuanians won a battle over a Mongol army at the Battle of Blue Waters. In the aftermath, everything between the Dnieper and Dniester came under Lithuanian control, although at least for Podolia, in south-western Ukraine, the Lithuanians continued to pay the tribute to the Mongols well into the fifteenth century. Moldova and other Balkan regions declared independence, while the local nomadic leaders seem to have also stopped heeding the word of Sarai.


East of the Ural River, the Blue Horde, ruled by the line of Batu’s older brother Orda, too faced its own troubles. The lineage of Orda became extinct in the 1360s and saw its own succession troubles. The khans in the Blue Horde, by the end of the decade, stopped minting coins with the name of the Sarai khans, and started doing so in their own names. The Blue Horde was thus independent once again.  


The princes of the Rus’ stopped making the trips to the Horde to declare their allegiance, for it simply became too dangerous. Rus’ princes were now being robbed and held captive by the rival Jochid powers when they made the trip through the steppe. And with the khans  being overturned every few months it was now far too dangerous a trip to make so regularly.  However the Rus’ lands were not to be ignored, as certain Jochid princes and contenders for power, having lost access to the trade they had one relied upon, were now turning evermore to the Rus’ as a source of income and loot. 


The khan’s authority decreased further, as many khans did not rule themselves, but were puppets for non-Chinggisid powerbrokers. And the chief of these was Mamai, a powerful military commander based in the steppes near Crimea. As he was no descendant of Chinggis, Mamai had no right to claim the title of khan himself, though he held prestige as beylerbeyi and  married a daughter of Berdi Beg. But that didn’t mean he could not put someone amenable to his interests on the throne. The first of these fellows was Abdullah, who was alleged to be a son of either Özbeg Khan or his son Tini Beg. He simply may have come from another corollary branch of the lineage, who Mamai had found convenient to play up. That was hardly unusual, as supposed lost sons of Özbeg, Tini Beg and Jani Beg continued to pop up, such as another claimant, Kildi Beg, in 1361. 


Abdullah Khan was enthroned in Sarai in 1361, and Mamai returned to his Crimean pastures soon after.  But Abdullah was quickly ousted by rivals in Sarai and fled back to Mamai. This was to be a regular pattern over the 1360s. Every few years Mamai would march with an army, enthrone Abdullah and return, only for Abdullah to be tossed out or flee when another claimant came a-knockin’, or the nobles in Sarai declared someone else khan. The final attempt resulted in Abdullah’s death in 1370, upon which Mamai empowered a princess in Sarai, named Tulun Bey. Her exact identity is uncertain. It is commonly assumed that she was the Chinggisid princess who Mamai had also married, a daughter of Berdi Beg Khan. If this is the case, then she was the last to rule from the line of Batu. But she was quickly switched out by Mamai, and replaced with another of Mamai’s puppet. And so this pattern continued until 1380, with Mamai’s candidates thrown out every few years, and then installed a year or two later. It’s caused an endless amount of work for historians to try and determine the order and lengths of reigns of all these khans. 


It was well known at large that the Khan was a figurehead for Mamai. As the Rus’ Nikon Chronicle states,  “At that time in Mamai’s Horde there was a khan, but he had no power by comparison with Mamai, and was khan in nothing but the title. Even this title, however, was meaningless because all glory and all action were Mamai’s. There was much trouble in the Horde and many Tatar lords had killed each other, lost their heads and died at sword’s points. Thus, little by little, the Horde’s great power was wasted away.”


Mamai’s intrigues did not merely extend to Sarai, but to the Rus’ lands as well, as the Sarai Khans sought revenue from Rus’ taxes, and Mamai intervened to earn them himself. In one of these conspiracies, Mamai granted the yarliq, or patent, to the Grand Principality of Vladimir, the chief of the Rus’ princes, to the young Prince of Moscow Dmitri Ivanovich. Or as he’s better known to posterity, Dmitri Donskoi.


Dmitri was a grandson of Ivan I Kalita, the grandson of Alexander Nevsky who had worked so well with Özbeg Khan and began Moscow’s rise to prominence. Ivan Kalita had monopolized the position of Grand Prince, the chief tax collector of the Rus’, until his death. Upon that, it went to his son Simeon, who died of plague, and then to Dmitri’s father, Ivan II Ivanovich, who died in 1359 as the Horde’s troubles began. Only 9 years old when his father died, Dmitri could not rely on the Khans’ support as his fathers had. 


We’ve discussed this matter over previous episodes, but it bears reiterating here. The top title in the Rus’ lands was the Grand Prince of Vladimir. Whoever held this was the #1 prince in the Rus’, and collected taxes for the khans— skimming off the top for himself, of course, but also giving him great influence among the Rus’. While initially the khans had just appointed whoever the Rus’ princes elected as Grand Prince, during Özbeg’s reign the khans assumed the right to rescind and appoint the Grand Prince at will.  And the Princes of Moscow, a lesser branch of the Riurikid lineage, quite desired it but held no right to the title without the khan’s backing. And so a relationship was formed, wherein the Princes of Moscow became the most scrupulous  enactors of the khan’s will, in order to retain the titles to both Moscow and the Grand Principality, as well as the khan’s military support as protection. And correspondingly, from the 1320s onwards Moscow grew in wealth and power, to the displeasure of the other Rus’ princes, who saw the Moscow line as upstarts with no right to the Grand title. 


Flashing forward to 1360, Khan Nawruz took both the Moscow title and the Grand Principality away from young Dmitri, only for it to be returned in 1362 when the new Khan in Sarai granted both back to him. Mamai saw his opportunity here, and also granted Dmitri the patent for the Grand Principality. The rival in Sarai quickly rescinded his support for Dmitri.  Without support from either the Khan or other Rus’ princes the young Prince of Moscow could only seek the assistance of Mamai. 


Mamai gained himself an excellent source of revenue in the young Dmitri, who turned out to be a very capable hand, while for Dmitri Mamai’s armies gave him security he would not have otherwise as a youth on the throne. With the loss of the overland trade, the income from the Rus’ was more important than ever, and Mamai was happy to earn it, and Dmitri did his best to deliver on time. But Dmitri was not passive, and wanted to secure his own base lest the whims of Mamai shift. Through diplomacy, marriage alliances and military threats, Dmitri steadily built his support among the Rus’ princes, and incorporated other smaller principalities under Moscow’s rule. For the first time, the city of Moscow itself received stone walls on Dmitri’s order, which proved their worth in repelling an attack by Lithuania and the rival city of Tver’ in 1368. 


Mamai had use for Dmitri only as long as he provided tribute, so when the Hanseatic League disrupted trade to Dmitri’s territories in the late 1360s, thereby preventing Dmitri from collecting the silver for Mamai, Mamai rescinded the patent to the Grand Principality and gave it to Dmitri’s rival Mikhail Aleksandrovich of Tver’ in 1370. Yet Mikhail proved even worse at sending tribute, and when Dmitri personally presented himself to Mamai to pay homage, accompanied by a great many gifts, Mamai returned him the Grand Princely title.  The situation repeated in late 1374 when the Hanseatic League cut the silver export to Novgorod. Mamai once again gave the Grand Princely title to Mikhail of Tver’, but due to plague and Mamai’s failed attempt to control the Volga trade routes, he was unable to support Mikhail militarily. Dmitri in the meantime had built up Moscow’s military and alliances, and in Mamai’s absence forced Mikhail to surrender. Confident in his abilities, Dmitri then took his army to the Volga, asserting Moscow’s authority as far as Bulghar in 1377. 


    Mamai was not pleased at this development, a threat to his income while an even greater threat loomed on the horizon. Far to the east in the Blue Horde lands, a powerful Chinggisid Prince named Toqtamish, backed by the Central Asian warlord Temür, was rapidly growing in power. The eye of Toqtamish was drifting to Sarai, and he dreamed of assuming leadership of the Golden Horde. Doing so was a threat of unification which would entail a collision with Mamai. Mamai thus needed to prepare for the inevitable battle, but to do this he needed the resources of the Rus’ tribute. And to that, he needed Dmitri to play nice with him.  In August 1378 a force in Mamai’s service was sent to collect the tribute. Dmitri set out, nervously, to meet it head on, intercepting it near the Vozha River. Dmitri’s force held firm under their attack, and succeeded in flanking the Mongols. In an attempt to withdraw across the Vozha River, many of the Mongols were killed, and Dmitri looted their abandoned camp. 


Such was the first real victory an army of the Rus’ had ever had over a force of the Golden Horde in battle, though Dmitri gained little from this victory and neither force was large. But Mamai was furious. The next year he ordered a larger, retaliatory attack on the Ryazan’ land, causing great destruction, burning several cities. Oleg, Prince of Ryazan’ fled before him. The Rus’ paid dearly for their effort.


In 1378, the same year as the defeat on the Vozha, more alarming news came from the east. Toqtamish had now taken Sarai, and proclaimed himself Khan. Confrontation was imminent, and Mamai could not face Toqtamish with Dmitri rebelling in his rear. If Toqtamish and Dmitri allied, then Mamai would be surrounded by foes. Mamai needed resources to face Toqtamish, and  he needed revenue to do that, and Dmitri, as chief tax collector of the Russian principalities and controlling much of the Volga trade, was directly undermining that. It was time for Mamai to confront Dmitri himself. Over the next year, Mamai organized an alliance with Grand Duke Jagailo of Lithuania and Prince Oleg of Ryazan. He called up troops from the Alans, the Circassians, and the Genoese as mercenaries. We are told in the Nikon Chronicle that Mamai furiously studied Batu’s conquest of the Rus’, trying to learn his tactics and strategy. It got to the point that allegedly, Mamai began to see himself as a second Batu, feeling superior to all others and his own men calling him “Great Khan.”


In 1380, Mamai was ready. He ordered Dmitri to deliver a higher amount of tribute than ever, even greater than what had been paid during the times of Özbeg and Jani Beg. The message was a stalling tactic, as Mamai made preparations to march on Moscow with Jagailo and Oleg, hoping to crush Dmitri of Moscow between the three of them.  


    In Moscow, Dmitri quickly organized all the military forces of the Principalities that he could. Surprisingly, most principalities, except Tver’, Novgorod or those aiding Mamai, answered Dmitri’s call for aid. Dmitri’s efforts to build Moscow’s influence now bore fruit, as for the first time in their history, the Rus’ offered something of a united front against the Mongols. The ascendency of Moscow over the other cities had begun, but first they had to stand against Mamai.


    In September 1380 in a field on the upper Don River called Kulikovo, Mamai and the Ryazan forces waited for the Lithuanians. In a sign of poor scouting, on the 9th of September Mamai’s army was shocked to see the arrival of Dmitri and the Rus’ host crossing the Don. Dmitri’s goal was simple; defeat Mamai in the field, before the Lithuanians could arrive and overwhelm him. One of the most famous battles in Russian history was about to begin. 


Numbers for the two armies are uncertain, with Dmitri leading perhaps as many as 30,000 Rus’ troops from across the principalities, while Mamai likely had a slightly larger force, consisting of Mongol-Turkic, that is Tatar, cavalry, Circassians, Rus’ from Ryazan and Genoese mercenaries. Battle began with a clash of champions; the Rus’ monk Peresvet, and a Tatar named variously Chelübei or Temür Mirza. They charged one another on horseback, lances before them. At the collision both were run through and killed, though Perevet’s body is supposed to have stayed in the saddle the longer.


Battle then commenced. It was across a wide front, extending the Rus’ lines thin but ravines and streams hampered the full deployment of Mamai’s cavalry. Fighting went on for hours, with Mamai’s troops holding the upper hand. Skilled Tatar cavalry and arrows took their toll on the Rus’ and both sides tired over the course of the day. Dmitri had given his standard to another to hold, and when that man fell, the Rus’ wavered. Dmitri himself disappeared in the clash, supposedly wounded and knocked unconscious. Mamai appeared on the verge of victory and kept his forces engaged. Yet one final trick was left to be put in play. Dmitri’s cousin, Vladimir of Serpukhov, was kept in reserve with the Rus’ princely cavalry. As both sides were at exhaustion, the freshly deployed Rus’ cavalry charged from their hiding place in the trees and into the flank of Mamai’s army. Mamai could only watch as his overworked, exhausted army routed, and he too fled. Learning of Mamai’s defeat, the Lithuanians rapidly withdrew before ever making contact. So ended the battle on the Kulikovo field.


Dmitri had led the Rus’ to defeat a major Mongol army in the field, and for his victory he was given the epithet Donskoi, meaning “of the Don.” While today this battle stands tall in Russian popular memory as a struggle for independence, in reality it led to little immediate change for the Rus’ or to Moscow’s standing. Our main sources come decades after the event and reflect how the battle’s stature had grown with retellings. While the more heroic and famous elements of the battle may have little basis in reality, such as the duel before the battle, the general course of events is probably accurate enough. Whether it was as great a defeat for Mamai as popularly imagined is unknown, nor can we know Mamai for certain was even present. Mamai’s losses are likely greatly overstated, since the next year he was able to raise another army rapidly, suggesting a small clash may have been turned into a grand duel. Arguments that Kulikovo never actually happened due to a lack of archaeological evidence cannot be sustained, as it is rare indeed for archaeological evidence to survive of a medieval battle. Little of the valuable metal equipment was ever left on site, usually quickly scavenged, while bodies were taken away for respectful burials or disintegrated before they could be preserved in the earth. The slightly earlier battle of Bannockburn in Scotland, for instance, though tracked to a relatively small area, has left almost no presence archaeologically speaking.


 The real victor at Kulikovo was not Dmitri, but Toqtamish. After Kulikovo Mamai had strength enough to raise another army, and fought Toqtamish on the Kalka River. There Mamai was defeated for the final time. He was soon captured and executed by Toqtamish or by Genoese in Crimea when he fled there. Either way, Dmitri had succeeded in weakening Toqtamish’s main rival for rule of the Golden Horde, and the new Khan was ready to assert his authority. So ended the Tale of Mamai.


     Our next episode takes you through the reign of Toqtamish, as we enter the final period of the Golden Horde, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.