For 100 years (1018 – 1187), Bulgaria was under the harsh Byzantine rule.
The heavy taxes imposed on the population inspired a revolt in 1187 that did away with the Byzantine rule and established the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. The kingdom existed for 200 years with Veliko Tarnovo as capital.
Much like the first kingdom, the second had to deal with the constant threat of invasions. Apart from the familiar Byzantine enemy, new players had appeared. The Serbs now had a powerful state and the Magyars were on the rise. In addition, the winds blew in the Crusaders, a previously unknown bunch of Westerners who conquered Constantinople and briefly had their Latin Empire there.
After a period of relative prosperity in the 13th century, the Second Bulgarian Kingdom declined into 100 years of feudal skirmishes that plagued and disintegrated the state until its fall under what would become a 500-year-long Ottoman domination of the region.
KALOYAN THE ROMANSLAYER (1197 – 1207)
Kaloyan’s major successes were on the battlefield. He fought the wars with Byzantium with a fervor that won him the nickname “Romanslayer,” or killer of Greeks. He also defeated the Crusaders, driving them away from Bulgarian lands and capturing their leader, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople Balduin I.
Kaloyan’s diplomatic abilities won international recognition for the newly independent state, and assured internal peace and stability.
WEDDINGS AND DIPLOMACY: IVAN ASEN II (1218 – 1241)
Ivan Asen II achieved one of the biggest territorial expansions of all time, including a brief access to three seas, although ironically he had no particular taste for war.
He fought when provoked and was a successful commander, but he was a more successful diplomat.
Through a series of clever political marriages and treaties, he secured the lands lost after the death of Kaloyan, and then added some more.
The memory of his achievement has been fueling Bulgarian nationalism from the 18th century to the present. Today, “Bulgaria on three seas!” is a familiar chant to all and a slogan of one of the ultra-nationalist parties, VMRO.
T-shirts with a map of the oversized early 13th century Bulgaria are on sale at souvenir stores.
PEASANT REVOLT: IVAYLO THE SWINEHERD TSAR (1277 – 1280)
A commoner who indeed earned money by herding swine, Ivaylo lived during difficult times when Bulgaria was declining under the pressure of constant Mongol raids, abusive and corrupt nobles, and weak rulers.
He headed a successful peasant revolt, conquered significant territories, and managed to ascend to the throne by killing the tsar and marrying his widow. However, his reign was short. He soon fell victim to the shrewd aristocracy and Byzantine foreign policy.
For obvious reasons, the story of the peasant king was very dear to the Communist leaders of Bulgaria, and his revolt was cited as one of the early examples of peasant uprisings in Europe.
THE FALL: IVAN ALEXANDER (1331 – 1371)
Famous for divorcing his first queen to marry a young Jewish woman named Sarah, Ivan Alexander ruled long and relatively well. The country reached its so-called “Second Golden Age,” and the capital, Veliko Tarnovo, was a thriving cultural and religious center.
Toward the end of his life, however, Ivan Alexander found himself unable to control his vast kingdom from internal and external enemies. Probably influenced by his second queen, he bequeathed the throne to the son he fathered with her instead of to his first-born son, compensating him with the semi-independent realm of Vidin.
This essentially split the country into two separate kingdoms, which, for obvious reasons, were unwilling to help each other even in the face of the Ottoman threat.
The Tarnovo kingdom fell in 1393. Three years later, the Vidin kingdom followed.