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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 14, 2022

From 1313 to 1341, Özbeg Khan oversaw what is normally  described as the Golden Horde’s Golden age. As our last episode on Özbeg discussed, things were not going quite so golden for old Özbeg. The appellation of golden age belies the troubles which were growing ready to rock the Golden Horde. As our last episode looked at Özbeg and the Golden Horde’s relations south and east, with the other Mongol khanates and the Mamluk Sultanate, today we take you west and north, to see how Özbeg interacted with the powers of Eastern Europe and the Rus’ principalities. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


What appears almost shocking at a cursory glance, is that despite so many authors claiming Özbeg’s glory, he also oversaw its first loss of Golden Horde territory. We’ll begin in the Balkans, and work our way north. On his accession, Özbeg had continued the policy of the late Toqta Khan, by keeping the Bulgarian lands a part of the Horde, backed up by Mongol military presence. Özbeg’s support was important for the Bulgarian tsars in this period: the Tsar from 1323 to 1330, Georgi Terter’s son Michael Shishman, relied heavily on Mongol military support and kept one of his sons at Özbeg’s court as a royal hostage. At the battle of Velbuzjd in 1330, a Bulgarian and Mongol army was defeated by the Serbians, in which Tsar Micheal Shishman was killed. The threat of a military response from Özbeg is probably what kept the Serbians from pressing their advantage. The journey of a Bulgarian embassy to Cairo in 1331 resulted in the Mamluk chronicler al-Umarī to report that despite fighting between the Bulgarians and Serbs, both respected Özbeg due to his great power over them. Though it was not comparable to the influence Nogai had once wielded over the region, the presentation of contemporary chronicles is that the Bulgarian lands remained dependent on the Golden Horde; Bulgaria, for example, was the base from which the Mongols launched attacks on Byzantium, rather than seen as a country they passed through. It was the eventual loss of this Mongol backing that would result in Bulgaria’s vulnerability to Ottoman expansion at the end of the century. 


Like Toqta, Özbeg too married an illegitimate daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, this time of Andronikos III in 1331. This wife was called by the Mongols Bayalun Khatun, and Ibn Battuta accompanied her when she returned to Constantinople to give birth. The impetus was to dissuade further attacks by Özbeg, for Özbeg had resumed raiding the Byzantine Empire. Annual attacks from 1321 to 1323, the largest coming in 1323 and causing a great deal of damage. Raids at first ceased with the marriage of 1331, but when Bayalun refused to come back to the Horde after returning to Constantinople to give birth, attacks resumed. The last recorded assault came in 1337, advancing as far as the Hellespont. Supposedly in response to the failure of Constantinople to supply its annual tribute, the Horde army spent 50 days plundering Thrace, and in the process defeated a Turkish force sent across the straits by a growing beylik in northwestern Anatolia, the Osmanoğlu. Though you may know them better as the Ottomans. So ended the last recorded attack by the Golden Horde on the Byzantine Empire. Sometimes this is compared as a symbolic act, the passing of the torch from Mongol to Ottoman, from old conqueror to new, when it came to the main threat to the region. In 1341 a Byzantine embassy was sent to the Horde to mollify Özbeg, but arrived after his death.


While in truth Özbeg’s attacks on the Byzantine Empire were raids rather than efforts at conquest, he apparently played them up somewhat in his own court as great victories over Christian powers. Ibn Battuta, during his visit to Özbeg, presents the Khan as a great victor over the enemies of God who undertook jihad against Constantinople. Özbeg, it must be clarified, never showed any attempt at conquering that famous city, and his military actions against Europe all seem considerably minor efforts compared to his wars against the Ilkhanate.


Along the borders of the Hungarian Kingdom, troops of the Horde —perhaps not always with Özbeg’s permission— raided regularly, especially in Transylvania. However these assaults could now be repulsed, as Hungary was rejuvenated under the skillful leadership of a new dynasty, headed by Charles I of Hungary. On occasion Charles led attacks onto dependencies of the Horde or of Bulgaria.  It is remarkable that most of these raids are known only indirectly; often only from charters, where an individual was rewarded for fighting against the Mongols, rather than through any chronicle mention. Özbeg may have preferred indirect pressure, by supporting the former Hungarian vassal, the voivode of Wallachia, a fellow named Basarab. There is no shortage of debate around Basarab and early Wallachia, and we’ll avoid it here; the exact origins and timeline of the emergence of this principality is very far from agreed upon. Established on the border regions of modern Romania and Moldova, these were lands otherwise under control of the Golden Horde. Basarab himself is a target of many arguments; his name suggests a Turkic, likely Cuman origin, however contemporary sources consistently describe him as a Vlakh, a member of the Romance-language-speaking community which today mainly refers to the Romanians. Depending on how his father’s name is reconstructed, it appears either recognizably Mongol, or even Hungarian. While initially a subject of the Hungarian King, by the end of the 1320s Basarab was at war with the Hungarians, and decisively defeated them at the battle of Posada in 1330. There is indirect indication that Basarab had some military support from the Golden Horde.


The independence of Wallachia appears a part of the gradual secession of authority of the Golden Horde over its westernmost border. Most dramatically was this apparent through today’s Ukraine and Belarus, where the influence of Lithuania grew at the expense of the Golden Horde. Early Lithuanian-Mongol contacts over the thirteenth century seem to have consisted of raids in both directions. Several times did Nogai provide armies for Rus’ princes to attack the Lithuanians, while the Lithuanians took advantage of the initial Mongol invasion in the 1240s to raid deep into the Rus’ lands. The transition from the thirteenth to the fourteenth century is one of poor coverage for Lithuanian history; scattered Lithuanians princes of the 1200s appear in the 1300s unified and consolidated under the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, particularly from Duke Gediminas onwards. By the 1320s, Gediminas was in position to influence the succession over Galicia-Volhynia, in today’s western Ukraine and Belarus and at the time subject to the Golden Horde. Between 1321 and 1323, the young princes of Ruthenia died without heir. The King of Poland Władysław I, the Lithuanian Duke Gedminas, and Khan  Özbeg were all very interested in the succession. While  Özbeg may have been caught up in his conflicts with the Ilkhanate, at this time the Polish King wrote to the Pope fearing a Mongol attack, and in 1324 Mongol ambassadors were in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Threats and diplomacy, rather than open war, was the means by which the three powers came to a conclusion. An acceptable candidate to replace the deceased princes was selected in the form of Yurii II Boleslaw, a fellow of Polish, Ruthenian and Lithaunian background, a Catholic who converted to Orthodox Christianity, and who married a daughter of Duke Gediminas. And what did  Özbeg get out of it? The continuation of tribute from Galicia-Volhynia. 


This willingness for diplomacy with these western neighbours seems surprising, but the sources indicate it was very much  Özbeg’s preferred order of operations in this theater. In 1331, a brother of Lithuania’s Duke Gediminas was installed in Kyiv, alongside a Mongol basqaq, or tax collector. In what has been termed a Lithuanain-Mongol condominium, it seems the arrangement was that these westernmost Rus’ lands paid tribute and military service both to Lithuania, and the Golden Horde. As noted by historian Darius Baronas, news of this arrangement made it as far as France, where a French poet in the 1330s described Lithuania as paying tribute to the Golden Horde. It seems that  Özbeg’s calculation was simple;  Özbeg wanted the income from these western Rus’ principalities, but didn’t desire war over them, intent as he was on focusing his forces on the Ilkhanate. The frontier with Lithuania and Poland was long, the region as a whole rather peripheral. It was cheaper and more convenient to give the administration over to the Lithuanians while still retaining the income. When necessary the threat of the Horde’s horsemen could be levied; in 1333 there was a raid on Briansk, then under Lithuanian control. Meanwhile the Lithuanians could avoid open conflict with the Mongols, allowing them to deal more fully with those troublesome Teutontic Knights. It would not be until the end of  Özbeg’s life that this arrangement was challenged, but until that point it proved remarkably flexible and workable to all involved, except for those at the bottom of the ladder now  being taxed twice. But  Özbeg, however clever he thought he was, had given a foothold for Lithuanian expansion which would soon push right to the Black Sea coastline.  In 1340 when Yuri Boleslaw of Galicia-Volhynia died, the King of Poland Casimir III invaded, but quickly withdrew as the threat of Mongol retaliation mounted. While border clashes with Poland, and soon Hungary, commenced,  Özbeg actually engaged in diplomacy even with Pope Benedict XII, notifying his holiness of  Özbeg’s displeasure. Papa Benedict even offered to make the Kings of Poland and Hungary pay for damages Özbeg incurred because of them. A far cry from the days of the khans demanding the submission of the Popes, but the matter was not resolved before Özbeg’s death in 1341.


And what of the Rus’? Here  Özbeg intervened most forcefully, particularly compared to his predecessors. On  Özbeg’s enthronement in 1313, the lead prince of the Rus’, Grand Prince Mikhail of Tver’, spent two years cozying up to  Özbeg in his court, eager to secure his support. In his absence from the Rus’ Principalities, Mikhail’s rivals got to work. His main foe was his cousin, Yurii Daniilovich, the Prince of Moscow. A grandson of the famous Alexander Nevskii, Yurii was a man overflowing with ambition. While Mikhail of Tver’ was with  Özbeg in his ordu, Yurii of Moscow stormed Novgorod and took it for himself. Mikhail convinced  Özbeg to give him an army, and in 1315 they retook Novgorod. Yurii of Moscow was summoned to  Özbeg, ostensibly for punishment. But the silver tongued Yurii managed to work his way into  Özbeg’s favour, with this one simple trick: convincing  Özbeg that he would be able to collect more tax revenues than Mikhail. For this, he received a yarliq installing him as Grand Prince of Vladimir, the chief Prince of the Rus’, as well as receiving a sister of  Özbeg in marriage. Konchaka was her name, and she was baptized a Christian, taking the name of Agatha.


Full of confidence and the Khan’s blessing, Yurii then attacked Mikhail of Tver’, and was promptly defeated. Yurii fled the field, while his newly betrothed Konchaka was taken captive by Mikhail. The Prince of Tver’ tried to tread carefully; in the Nikonian Chronicle,  Mikhail treats the captured Mongol generals and troops respectfully, showering them with honours, gifts and releases many of them. His intention was to re-earn Özbeg’s favour, and be reinstalled as the Grand Prince. Unfortunately for him,  Özbeg’s sister Konchaka then died in Tver’s captivity, in mysterious circumstances. As you might guess, this was not exactly beneficial to any reelection campaign. Mikhail of Tver’ was put on trial on Özbeg’s court, and after several months of deliberation, Mikhail was condemned and executed in 1318. Yurii of Moscow was thus confirmed as Grand Prince by  Özbeg.


The significance of this is twofold. Firstly, the khans had previously confirmed as Grand Prince whoever was presented to them, and thus followed Riurikid tradition. That is, succession as Grand Prince normally went brother-to-brother, before passing onto the next generation.  Özbeg upended this by choosing the new candidate out-of-order, generationally speaking. Yurii of Moscow, as the son of Nevskii’s third son Daniil of Moscow, was very much out of place in this rota system while the previous generation was still alive. Furthermore, this was the first time that the Princes of Moscow received the title of Grand Prince. Moscow had been a minor settlement before the Mongol invasion. Because of  Özbeg’s confirmation of the title onto Yurii, Moscow was put onto the steady course to, in time, ‘gather the lands of the Rus’, and eventually swallow up the remnants of the Golden Horde. But that was still some centuries ahead.


Yurii was not to enjoy his position as Grand Prince for long. After being confirmed by  Özbeg he returned to Rus’ where he was met with angry princes and an angry population. The late Mikhail of Tver’s sons swore bloody vengeance. Unable was Yurii to provide the promised volumes of tax. In 1322  Özbeg removed Yurii from his post, and by 1325 Yurii was murdered by Dmitri the Terrible-Eyes, a son of Mikhail of Tver’. Dmitri was executed by  Özbeg the next year, but the Grand Princely title was given to Dmitri’s brother, Alexander of Tver’. Nearly did it seem that Tver’ would monopolize the position; Tver’s wealth was then greater than Moscow’s, their right to rule better recognized internally in Rus’. So it would have stayed, until 1327, when there was an uprising in Tver’ which resulted in the killing of several of Özbeg’s officials. Tver’ was then sacked as punishment and Grand Prince Alexander Mikhailovich fled for his life. And who stepped into the vacant spot of Grand Prince? Well, the brother of Yurii of Moscow, Ivan Daniilovich. Or as he is better known to posterity, Ivan I Kalita; Ivan “the purse,” or more usually translated as money-bags.


Ivan, as you may guess by his sobriquet, proved quite adept at providing Özbeg the much desired tax revenue. Enjoying the position of Grand Prince of Vladimir until his death in the 1340s,  Ivan Kalita’s lengthy time in the position solidified Moscow’s monopoly over the Grand Princely title, and began in earnest its ascendency. For Kalita greatly enriched the city itself, bringing other holdings to its authority and thereby turned the once minor city into one of the most eminent of the Rus’ principalities. The Metropolitan of the Rus’ Orthodox Church moved to Moscow in the 1320s, which also cemented it as the centre of Rus’ Christianity, politically. On his death he was succeeded by his son Simeon —confirmed of course by  Özbeg Khan— as Prince of Moscow and Grand Prince of Vladimir, and so the title remained among their line. Ivan Kalita’s descendents would transform Moscow and the Rus’ principalities into the Tsardom of Russia, and ruled until the sixteenth century, when the extinct Rurikids gave way to the Romanovs.


But such dreams of conquest were far off in the mid-fourteenth century. Rus’ history should not be read backwards. The fourteenth century Daniilovichi, the Moscow princely line, were not in a contest for independence against the khan. Far from it. As they had in effect, usurped the succession to the Grand Principality, and had numerous rivals due to it, the Princes of Moscow relied greatly on the khans for their legitimacy. The Grand Prince was the most important tax collector for the khan, and the basis had now been established for the khan to remove him if desired. And  Özbeg was not above reminding the Rus’ of his might; some ten Rus’ princes were executed on  Özbeg’s order, more than any of his predecessors had done combined. As long as the Princes of Moscow kept bringing in the revenue that the khan wanted, then Özbeg kept the Daniilovichi propped up against any threat. Without the Golden Horde, there was therefore, no rise of Moscow.


When it came to the succession to the Golden Horde itself, as noted in our previous episode Özbeg had violently trimmed the Jochid lineage, hoping to ensure only his sons could succeed him. His favoured heir, Temür, predeceased him, leaving Özbeg with two troublesome boys; Tini Beg, and Jani Beg. Tini Beg seems to have been the favourite to succeed Özbeg, and after the death of Qutlugh-Temür, Tini Beg became the governor of Khwarezm on behalf of his father. A possible indication of falling out between though, comes from coinage minted near the end of Özbeg’s life. Then, coins begin to be minted bearing the names of Özbeg and Jani Beg, and letters from foreign rulers were addressed to Özbeg and Jani Beg, perhaps suggesting Jani Beg had taken the #2 role in the khanate. Sadly our information on the internal situation on the Jochid court is scant, preventing us from making any proper conclusions or charting its history in this time, particularly as the history of Özbeg’s final years is considerably less detailed.


Possible troubles between his sons were not the only issues he faced. In 1339 a coup attempt briefly had Özbeg besieged in his palace in New Sarai before the guards broke it up, captured and killed most of the conspirators. Evidently there had been Christians involved; a letter from Pope Benedict XIII thanked Özbeg for only executing three of the Christian conspirators. As this coincides with the appearance of Jani Beg’s name on the coinage in place of Tini Beg, and Tini Beg apparently showed greater favour to Christians than Jani Beg ever did, we might wonder if Tini Beg had a hand in the coup attempt. How else would conspirators be so brazen as to attack the khan in his own palace? But this is mere speculation, and the origins of the coup are unfortunately lost to history. 


For a man of such a lengthy reign, and relatively well covered in the primary sources, Özbeg’s final days are surprisingly unclear. One Mamluk source, aš-Šuğā’īs, has Özbeg die while leading an attack on the Chagatai Khanate in 1342, an attempt by Özbeg to take advantage of that khanate’s ongoing political struggles. Another Mamluk writer, al-Asadī, mentions Özbeg dying in New Sarai in 1341. Most sources simply note the fact of his death in late 1341 or 1342, with no additional details. Regardless, Özbeg, Khan of the Golden Horde, died likely late in 1341, after 28 years on the throne. He was likely in his late 50s or 60s, making him one of the longest reigning, and longest living, Mongol khans. Only Khubilai Khaan’s 34 years on the throne was longer, while Chinggis Khan himself had only 21 years as Khan of the Mongol ulus. Wealth and prosperity within the khanate, and the violent removal of rival princes, ensured Özbeg enjoyed the longest reign of any khan in the 1300s, a century when most khans hardly ruled as long as 5 years and generally died in their mid-thirties. 


What do we make of Özbeg’s life then? In some respects it certainly was a Golden Age, in terms of the arts, crafts and city-building in the steppe. It’s a period of staggering prosperity in comparison to the anarchy which would soon follow. The internal stability of the Horde in this period alone makes it appear an oasis compared to the years on either side of his life. But Özbeg’s claim to fame, his efforts at islamization, were hollow and never complete, and likely they were never intended to be. In foreign policy Özbeg largely experienced defeats, or inadvertently laid the groundwork for the rapid loss in Mongol authority in certain regions. The Golden Horde likely enjoyed its greatest period of wealth and in some respects, international prestige under Özbeg. But the precedent he had set with horrific princely slaughters would soon reign ruin upon the Jochids, as would an event far outside of any monarch’s control: the Black Death.


A final remark can be made regarding the modern Uzbeks. The name is sometimes attributed, even by medieval authors, as coming from Özbeg’s name.  That is, that in some sense the Uzbeks saw themselves as followers of Özbeg Khan, and thereby named themselves for him. The argument though is rather weak; the Uzbek confederation would not emerge until well after Özbeg Khan’s death, and Özbeg as a name is hardly unique to the Jochid khan, for it dates back to the twelfth century, if not earlier. Much like the attribution of the Nogai Horde to the thirteenth century prince Nogai, it’s an effort to attach a nomadic union to an earlier prominent figure which rests on little or no direct evidence.


With Özbeg’s death, it was time for his son Tini Beg to take the throne. But things would not go well for Tini Beg, as the Jochid state was soon to experience a period of anarchy it would never recover from. 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.