The earliest Croatian Princes and Kings

The earliest Croatian Princes and Kings

The earliest known Croatian prince was Borna, who ruled from around 812 to 821.

Prince Trpimir ruled from 845 to 864. In 852 he issued the oldest known governmental document in the Latin script, where the Croatian name was mentioned (dux Chroatorum). The fact that his name is recorded in the Cedad Gospels (from today’s Italian city Cividale) shows the cultural level of his state. The most famous Benedictine monk Gottschalk found refuge at the Croatian court from 846 to 848. Trpimir invited the Benedictines, known as great promoters of education and economy. One of the earliest Benedictine monasteries was built in 852 near Split. In the 11th century Croatian Benedictines had more than 40 monasteries, mostly along the Adriatic coast. They contributed a great deal to the cultural and material development of the Croats. On the photo you can see a choir screen panel from Split, containing pentagram and nice interlace patterns, 11th century.

Besides the name of Trpimir also the names of some other Croatian princes can be seen in Cedad Gospels: Branimir, Braslav, their wifes, and escort.

In 871 the King of Italy Ludovic II and Byzantine Emperor Basil I defeated the Arabs in the city of Bari (Italy). Croatian soldiers also participated in the battle, arriving to Bari on Dubrovnik ships.

Some of the earliest Benedictine monasteries in Croatia were founded in

  • Karin, 850,
  • Bisevo, islet near the island of Vis, 850,
  • Rizinice (near Split), 852,
  • Zadar, St Krsevan, 908,
  • Nin, St Ambrosius, 941,
  • Nin, St Maria, 948,
  • Ugljan (on the island of Ugljan near Zadar), 988,
    It is interesting that both names Uljan and Uglian(o) can be seen on old maps of the island.

Today there are altogether eight benedictine communities for nuns in Croatia: on the islands of Cres, Hvar, Krk, Pag, Rab, and in the towns of Sibenik, Trogir and Zadar. The only benedictine monastary for monks that remained to these days is Cokovac on the island of Pasman near Sibenik, not far from Zadar. See redovnice (nuns) and redovnici (monks).

The Croatian Prince Branimir made further steps in strengthening the relations with Rome. During the solemn divine service in St. Peter’s church in Rome in 879, Pope John VIII gave his blessing to the prince and the whole Croatian people, about which he informed Branimir in his letters. In his letter dated from 881 the Pope addressed Branimir as the `glorious prince’. This was the first time that the Croatian state was officially recognized (at that time the international legitimacy was given by the Pope). In Branimir’s time Venetians had to pay taxes to the Croatian state for their ships traveling along the Croatian coast.

The earliest Princes and Kings we know of lived in the 9th and the 10th century (see a figure of an unknown Croatian Dignitary). The strongest among them was King Tomislav, who ruled from from 910 to 928. The previously mentioned Constantine Porphyrogenitus, a Byzantine emperor, referred to him as the Croatian King. In his time Croatia was one of the most powerful states in Europe. It had an enormous (for that time) army of 100,000 foot-soldiers and 60,000 horsemen, 80 larger and 100 smaller ships. When Bulgaria occupied Serbia in 924, King Tomislav accepted and protected many Serbs who had escaped and sought refuge in the Croatian state. The Bulgarian tsar Simeon soon tried to spread his reign to Croatia, but Tomislav defeated him in 927. The Serbs organized their earliest internationally recognized Kingdom in 1217.

The Arabs began to attack the Croatian coast in the 9th century. So a Croat from Dalmatia, known under the Islamic name Djawhar ben Abd Allah (911-992), was taken as a slave to the court of caliph Al-Khaim in Tunisia. Later he made a great career becoming the supreme general. He conquered the land of pharaohs, thus extending the Empire of Fatimids from the shores of the Atlantic to the river Nile. He founded the new Egyptian capital Al-Qahira (Cairo), the future second largest Islamic city after Baghdad. In 970 he built up the mosque named Al-Azhar (the Brightest).

A very old mention of the name of HORITS, the ancient name of the Croats (Horvat), can be found in the Latin work “Historia adversus” Pagano by Paulus Orosius (9th century). Its translation into Old English has been made by King Alfred (871-901). See [Mardesic], p. 130.

As is well known, many important monuments of pre-Romanesque Croatian art have been found in the region of Knin which used to be the residence of Croatian Kings (11th century). Here are two examples, both from the 9th century.

One of the most important discoveries of Don Frano Bulic (1846-1936), an outstanding archeologist, is an inscription in the Latin language from the sarcophagus of Croatian Queen Jelena (10th century). Though it was broken, Don Bulic put it painstakingly together from 90 fragments. The advanced level of Latin literacy, simply rhymed, is quite different from the stereotyped “memento mori”, designed to fill the passer with the fear of death. Here is the English translation of one of the most important Croatian monuments, carved in 976:

In this grave rests famous Jelena, wife of King Michael (Kresimir), mother of King Stephen (Drzislav). She brought peace to the Kingdom. On the eighth day of October 976 from the incarnation of Our Lord she was buried here in the 4th indiction, 5th lunar cycle, 17th epacta, 5th solar cycle. While she lived she was mother of the Kingdom and she became mother of the poor and protectress of widows. You who look here say: God have mercy upon her soul.

An important monument is a stone panel from the 10th century mentioning the name of DUX CHROATORUM Drzislav, a son of Queen Jelena. It contains nicely interlaced interlace patterns.

An important Croatian Pre-Romanesque church is Sv. Spas near Cetina river, built in the 9th century. It also has remains of some wattle patterns.

Photos of Sv. Spas and the spring of Cetina river below by Julija Vojkovic

Probably the greatest achievement of Croatian Pre-Romanesque sculpture is choir screen panel from the Church of St. Domenica (Sv. Nediljica) in Zadar, with scenes of the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight to Egypt, created in the 11th century (André Malraux included it into his “Musée imaginaire”). The Croats were deeply devoted to the Western Church. When Pope Alexander III visited Zadar in 1177, one of the most beautiful European cities, he was solemnly greeted by people singing very old songs in their Croatian language (as noted by Italian chronicler Baronius): “…immensis laudibus et canticis altissime resonantibus in eorum Sclavica lingua.”

There is no doubt that this was Croatian glagolitic singing (see an article by dr. Marija s. Agnezija Pantelic in [Badurina, p. 106]). During the shameful aggression of Venetians and Crusaders in 1202, the Christian city of Zadar, a dangerous rival of Venice at the time, was robbed and terribly destroyed. Geffroy de Villehardouin, a French chronicler who described the siege and destruction of Zadar for the good of Venice during the Crusade, wrote that Zadar in Sclavonia (a synonym of Croatia at that time) is one of the best fortified cities, surrounded with strong walls, and that it is difficult to find a more beautiful, better fortified and richer city.
The City was again destroyed

  • in the Second World War; carpet-bombed 72 times by Anglo-American air-forces by the end of 1943 and in the beginning of 1944, including its historical centre, with great human and material losses. WHY? We still do not know. The City had no military importance.
  • bombed during the Greater Serbian aggression in 1991-95, and for long periods without water and electricity.

Pope John Paul II visited Bosnia and Herzegovina twice (1997, 2003), and three times Croatia (1994, 1998, 2003). His apostolic visit to the city of Zadar in 2003 will always be remembered, like the one by Pope Alexandar III in 1177.

Vekenga Evangelistary

Vekenega Evangelistary (with musical notation), Zadar, 11th century

Zadar was an important European cultural center at that time due to its Benedictine monastery of St Krsevan (founded in 986, shelled by the Serbs in 1991), in whose scriptorium the famous Vekenega Evangelistary. This richly illuminated Latin text from the 11th century is held today in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (which also possesses other important Croatian documents written in the Latin, Glagolitic and Croatian Cyrillic Script). Even older is the the Cika Breviary from the 11th century, written in the Latin script in the same scriptorium in Zadar. This jewel of Croatian culture (see on the right) represents the oldest known breviary in Europe, and is kept in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. It also contains musical notation. Another important book written in 1081/82 in Zadar scriptorium of St Krsevan is Osor Evangelistary (Osor is a town on the island of Cres), known as Evangeliarium Absarense, held in the Vatican Library (Vat.Bibl. Ms Bergianum Lat. 339). Zadar is also the oldest university center of Croatia (1396). For additional information about Croatian art in Zadar see here.
Dalmatian rounded beneventana that was in use in the Zadar scriptorium of St Krsevan shows original characteristics different from the south-Italian round beneventana.

The church of St. Simun in Zadar possessed an old codex written in Latin script, containing well known lauds from12th century. Zadar had a famous scriptorium at that time. The book disappeared by the end of 19th century, and since 1893 is held in Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, see [Strgacic, p. 374]. Numerous Croatian valuables are held throughout Europe. See a list of Glagolitic books and manuscripts only, held outside of Croatia. Pre-Romanesque architecture in Croatia is described in detail in works of [Delonga].

See a few of numerous Croatian stone monuments with interlace patterns found in the region of the city of Dubrovnik.

It is interesting that King Richard the Lion-Hearted (1157-1199) sojourned in Zadar (and not in Dubrovnik as it has been believed). Also Henry of Lancaster, the future King Henry IV, visited Zadar and Dubrovnik during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1392 and 1393. See [Mardesic], p. 134-135.

Among important Croatian Preromanesque jewels from 11th century we mention the church of Sv. Mihajlo in the town of Ston (on the Peljesac peninsula, west of Dubrovnik). It has interesting frescos representing various saints, and a Croatian dignitary (probably Mihajlo Viskovic):

In the 12th century the famous Arabian geographer al-Edrisi (Idrisi) was working at the court of the the Norman King Roger II in Palermo. After 15 years of study he prepared a huge map of Europe (3.4×1.5 m) where one can find bilad garuasia

where bilad = land, country, and garuasia = Croatia.

The map appeared in 1154, when many contemporary countries still do not exist in Europe. Especially important is a description of GARUASIA in the accompanying book of commentaries, where he states that Croatia starts with Istrian cities of Umag, Novigrad, Porec, Rovinj, Pula, Medulin, Labin, Plomin. Then al-Edrisi describes the cities from Bakar to Dubrovnik. It is known that he visited Senj, Knin, Biograd and some other Croatian cities. The original map is kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, while partial copies can be found in Paris, St Petersburg, Constantinople and Cairo.

Very important historical source for early Croatian history is Libellus Gothorum, a chronicle from 12th century known in Croatia as Ljetopis popa Dukljanina and Croatian Chronicle. It was written by Archbishop Grgur of Bar (a city in Boka kotorska, a region annexed to Montenegro in 1945), born in Zadar. The chronicle represents the oldest historiographic work of Croatian Middle Ages. There exist two versions, Croatian and Latin. Especially important is Grgur’s presentation of assembly (SABOR) on the Duvno field (“in planicie Dalme”), and above all his terms for Croatian territories:CROATIA ALBA (White Croatia), and CROATIA RUBEA (Red Croatia).

The source Sclavorum Regnum, known as Ljetopis popa Dukljanina and Croatian Chronicle, is also the earliest known literal text written in Croatian language. Marko Marulic translated this chronicle from Croatian into Latin in 1510, and the manuscript is held in Belgrade. The title isREGVM DALMATIE, ET CROATIAE HISTORIA

Another version is written in Croatian, and in Latin script, due to Jerolim Kaletic from 1546, held in the Vatican. It is a copy of Dmine Papalic’s copy of Croatian Chronicle. There are clear indications that the original was written in the Glagolitic script (the opinion goes back to Franjo Racki, and is further supported by Muhamed Hadzijahic from Sarajevo and by Ivan Muzic from Split). For more details see a monograph [Hrvatska kronika 547.-1089.] and the references therein.

It is interesting that Shakespeare’s The Tempest has its source in Ljetopis popa Dukljanina, see here..

Toma Arcidiakon (Thomas arhidiaconus Spalatensis, 1200-1268), an important chronicler from the city of Split, wrote in his Historia Salonitana that (a part of) Croatian tribes arrived to their present day homeland not as pagans, but as Aryan Christians (though very rude): Quamvis pravi essent et feroces, tamen christiani erant sed valde rudes, Ariana etiam erant tabe respersi.

That is why in Croatian history we do not know of any single and precise date of christianisation, as in the case of other European nations, like Ukrainians, Czechs, Bulgarians etc. It seems that we can speak only about conversion of parts of newly arrived Croatian Aryan Christians to Catholicism in their new homeland. Indeed, Toma Arcidiakon writes the following:Posteaquam per praedicationem praedicti Johannis et aliorum presulum salonitanorum duces Gothorum et Chroatorum ab Ariane heroseos fuerant contagione purgati.

Henry S. Hart in his book “Venetian Adventurer Marco Polo” (Oklahoma, 1967) states that Marco Polo was a “descendant of an old Dalmatian family which had come from Sibenik, Dalmatia, and settled in Venice in the 11th century”. Hart also claims that “crews of the Venetian ships were freemen, so many of them Slavonians (Croatians) from the Dalmatian coast that the long quay by St. Mark’s was and is known as the Riva degli Schiavoni (or Riva od Hrvatov in Croatian sources). It is said that Marco Polo had a home on the island of Korcula in Dalmatia. His coat of Arms includes four chickens. And in Italian, Polo (pollo) means chicken or fowl, while in Croatian Pilich means chicks or chickens, which was probably his original name. See [Eterovich], p. 13. Eterovich cites about 20 references (mostly Italian, and also English and German, the oldest one being from 1522), claiming the Dalmatian roots of Marco Polo, either from the city of Sibenik or from Korcula, at that time under Venice. See also Marko Polo = Marko Pilich? on this web-site.

The grave of Prince Mladin III Subic Bribirski, 14th century, which can be seen in the famous Trogir Cathedral, contains an extensive poem carved in the Latin Script, describing him as

Croatorum clipeus fortis

that is, “a firm shield of Croatians.”

Riva od Harvatou, mentioned in the 17th century list of books in Venice
(source Lovorka Coralic, Hrvatski tragovi u Mletcima, Zagreb, 2002, ISSN 1330-4941)

Venice was very important place for publishing books of numerous Croatian writers, philosophers and scientists. It is no surprise that in 17th century a Venetian master Bartol Occhi published a catalogue of Croatian books, in which the central Venetian pier (Riva degli Schiavoni) was called Riva od Harvatou, and the catalogue was sold in his workshop in this very street. Precisely in front of the grand hotel Danieli Excelsior in this pier, there is an inscription (hardly legible) showing that this part of Venetian harbour had been reserved for ships from islands of Hvar and Brac: FINE DI STAZIO DEI ABITANTI DELLA BRAZZA E DI LESINA (Lovorka Coralic).

Another important Benedictine monastery, unfortunately almost totally ruined, built probably in the 11th century, is the one in Rudine (Western Slavonia, near Pozega). A sensational discovery were the exotic human-like figures (like on the photo, see also here) and some glagolitic inscriptions. Professor Andjela Horvat, historian, discovered stone inscription with BRAT IAN, from 12th or 13th centuries. This is the oldest known Latin inscription in the Croatian language.

From 1102 the Croats had shared together with Hungarians a newly built state under common Hungarian and Croatian Kings. The Kings were crowned twice: with the Hungarian and the Croatian crown. From that time on, the Croats were dreaming about having their own independent state, and it was revived after almost nine centuries in 1991.

During this very long period parts of Croatian soil were dominated by Venetians, Italy (in the first half of the 20th century), the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburgs. Among all the nations reigned by the Habsburgs (Czechs, Poles, Slovenians and others) the Croats are together with Austrians and Hungarians the only ones who have preserved an uninterrupted continuity of their state since the Early Middle Ages. Furthermore, as stated by one of best Croatian historians Vjekoslav Klaic, the Croatian Kingdom was the oldest one in the Habsburg Monarchy, older than Austrian, Hungarian, or Czech Kingdom.

During many centuries the Croats had their bans (viceroys) and their assembly called Sabor (Deit). The oldest known Sabor was held in Split in 925 and in 928 (devoted more to religious than to secular questions), and in 1076 when Dmitar Zvonimir was elected the Croatian King by the “unanimous choice of the clergy and the people”. The Croats preserved these important state institutions of ban and Sabor also when they decided to enter the Habsburg state (1527-1918). Today the Sabor has the meaning of the Croatian Parliament.

The oldest known minutes of Croatian Deit (Hrvatski sabor), dating from 1273 (Conclusions of the Deit of the Kingdom of Slavonia, held in Zagreb)

See the list of heads of the Croatian state during 13 century, and the list of bans in Croatian Kingdom

It is interesting that Dante Alighieri (13/14th centuries) mentions the Croatian pilgrims to Italy in his Divine Comedy (Paradiso XXXI, 103-108):

Qual è colui che forse di Croazia
viene a veder la Veronica nostra
che per l’antica fame non sen sazia,
ma dice nel penser, fin che si mostra
“Segnor mio, Gesù Cristo, Dio verace,
or fu sì fatta la sembienza vostra?”

It seems that Dante traveled through Croatia with Croatian Bishop Augustin Kazotic.

It would be difficult even to trace interesting historical personalities that connect the Croats with other nations. So Ivan VI Frankapan was a master of the Royal Palace Stäkebórg, and also led the entire estate of the Royal Court in Sweden. He lived there from 1427(?) until 1433, and was a close friend to Eric VII of Pomerania, the second common King of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. How did Ivan VI get there? Well, when King Eric VII travelled to the Holly Land in 1424, he also passed through parts of Croatia. His travel back to his homeland also led him through Croatian lands. It is known that he visited Dubrovnik, Omis and Senj. It was probably in Senj that King Eric VII met Ivan VI, and made friends with him. Ivan VI Frankapan became known in Sweden as Johann Valle or Jany Franchi. During an uprising of Swedes against the Danish authorities, led by Engelbreksston, Ivan VI was at the Royal Palace. Upon his return to Croatia he became the Ban (viceroy) of Croatia.
I owe this information to dr Petar Strcic, director of the Archives of HAZU (Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts). For more information see

Very important personality in Croatian history is Ban Josip Jelacic (1801, Petrovaradin – 1859, Zagreb). We offer you quite interesting presentation of the Jelacic family (in French), written by a descendent of this noble family in France, Monsieur Michel Iellatchitch.

From 1918 to 1929 Croatia was one of the states in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians. In 1929 it was renamed Yugoslavia and existed as such until 1941 and as a communist state from 1945 to 1991. The Croats are despite all the difficulties the only ones among all the nations of former Yugoslavia whose state has had uninterrupted continuity since the ninth century.

The territory of former Yugoslavia (named so in 1929) was a point of contact of three very different worlds in its past:

  • the Catholic West,
  • the Orthodox East,
  • and Islam.

Only Slovenia, situated to the west of Croatia, was relatively safe from the threat of Orthodox Christians and Islam. This is why the Republic of Slovenia was nationally the most compact and economically the most developed region in former Yugoslavia. Please, note the difference between Slovenia, Slovakia and Slavonia, which is a part of Croatia. The origin of all these names is the same – derived from the name of SLOVO (= word), from which then the names of Slovinje, Slovinci, Sloveni, Slovenci, Slovani, Slaveni were coined.

It is lovely and amusing to see how in Slovak language one says “Slovenian – Slovakian dictionary”: Slovinsko – Slovenski slovnik. And in Slovenian language, the same would be Slovensko – Slovaski slovar!

In Slovenian part of Istria, near Italian border (south of Trieste) there is a small town of Hrvatini (= the Croats). It is indicative that the most widespread second name in Slovenia is Horvat (= Croat). The Croats living for centuries in present-day Slovenia do not have the status and rights of national minority (3% of entire population of Slovenia), contrary to much smaller national minority of Slovenians in Croatia (0,47% of population in Croatia; see Hrvatske knjige izvan Hrvatske, Hrvatska matica isljenika, Zagreb 2009, p13).

Srb is a small village near the spring of the river Una (north of Knin). Serbian linguists see this name as a trace of the Serbian name (Serb -> Srb?). However, according to academician Petar Simunovic the name of Srb originates from an old Croatian verb serbati, srebati = to sip, from which the noun “srb” has been derived (see his interview in Fokus, 30.09.2005). Thus “srb” denotes the spring of river Una, where the village lies. In fact, there are as many as fifty water springs. Compare with the villages of Srbani (near Pula), and Srbinjak, both in Istria, which clearly have nothing to do with the Serbian name. The Istarski razvod from 13th century mentions the name of srbar, meaning a water spring. In Sokol & Sokol, p. 29, it is emphasised that the name of the town of Srb is not an ethnonym, but hydronym: “Već je N. Klaić dobro napisala da Ljudevit iz Siska nije pobjegao nikakvim Srbima nego u S/a/rb u Lici, koji je još i danas ondje, a u srednjem vijeku bio znani grad i plemićka općina, odnosno županija. On međutim nije etnonim, nego hidronim, te svojom sličnošću pučkim etimolozima stvara nerješive probleme, pa tako i kod Einharda”. Dr. Vladimir Sokol was the first to indicate that the name of Croatian town of Srb is in fact a hydronim, and not an ethnonym. 

Povezan s time je i naziv za meko (vodenasto) kuhana jaja u Dalmaciji: “jaja u sorbulu” ili “jaja u šorbuli”. U bilježničkim zapisima 1353.-1354. od zadarskog notara Andrije pok. Petra iz Cantua objavljen je jedan ugovor od 17.11.1354. u kojem piše …Iursa condam Pervoslavi de Serbo, districtus Corbavie… (Jurša pok. Prvoslava iz Srba, iz Krbavskog distrikta). Izvor je ova knjiga: Andreas condam Petri de Canturio. Quaterni imbreviaturarum 1353-1355./Andrija pok. Petra iz Cantua. Bilježnički zapisi 1353-1355. Prepisao latinski tekst te izradio hrvatske sažetke i kazala Robert Leljak. S izvornikom sravnio, izvršio redakciju teksta i kazala te izradio kritički aparat i bilješke Josip Kolanović, sv. 1, Notarilia Iadertina/Spisi Zadarskih bilježnika 4, Zadar, Državni arhiv u Zadru, 2001., 783 str. Prikaz Damira Karbića o toj knjizi: [PDF].

In Istria there is the village of Sorbar, north of Grožnjan, which has 7 glagolitic graffittos  in the churhc of Sv. Petar See [Fučić, Glagoljski natpisi], under Sorbar.

In the town of Vrbnik there is an expression “palenta se serbje“, that is, “paletna se srka”, that is, “polenta is being sipped” (according to personal investigation of dr. Sanja Vulić in Vrbnik). There is the town of Srbljani in Istria (peninsula in Croatia), 5 km south of the town of Pazin. The meaning of srbati is “upijati vodu”, that is, to “absorb water”. Information in this paragraph by the courtesy of dr. Sanja Vulić, 2014.In [Eleršek, Žic Mikulin, p. 92, in the last sentence of item 41.], posrbali has the meaning of popili (have drank, derived from drinking). On p. 158 of the same book (in item 276.) there is the notion of srbat – popiti (to drink).

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