Ivaylo: The Original Rags-to-Riches Story
We all love a good rags-to-riches story. We seek them out wherever we go and sometimes we fabricate them (Benjamin Franklin, famous in America for arriving in the New World with nothing but a few pennies was actually well-connected in the printing business and easily found work). I find it strange and a little sad, then, that we don’t know the greatest story of them all – the story of the pig farmer who became a king.
Pig farmer to king? Sounds like a terrible fantasy novel. But it’s better than that – not just because it really happened but because it isn’t the usual cliché of him being the true descendant of a grand old king or that he found a magical sword. This was a dude who decided enough was enough and took the reins from government and proved himself the most capable monarch of the day.
We begin our story in 1277 in the great Second Bulgarian Empire in the far east of Europe. For years the Mongol hordes had been raiding the countryside of Bulgaria, slaughtering people and burning houses to the ground. The Bulgarian Emperor (or Tsar), Constantine, had failed to do anything about the plight of his people. Either he was incapable or unwilling, but in either case he stayed behind his safe stone walls and the people of Bulgaria were left on their own. And then came Ivaylo.
Ivaylo was a swineherd – he looked after pigs – and he was a peasant of the lowest order. He was the definition of nobody. So it surprised everyone when this unassuming peasant from the middle of nowhere had come to lead an army of angry peasants against the Mongol invaders. It surprised everyone even more when he won great victories. Ivaylo’s peasant army beat back the Mongolians and turned instead on their useless and much-hated Tsar Constantine. Constantine led the professional Bulgarian Army against this motley gang of rebels and not only suffered terrible defeat but was also killed by Ivaylo himself on the battlefield.
By this point the Byzantine Emperor of Constantinople figured Bulgaria was weak – easy prey for his powerful army – and he could install his own puppet on the Bulgarian throne. Ivaylo and Tsar Constantine’s widow Maria both knew that Bulgaria would only defeat the Byzantines united, and so Maria married her husband’s lowborn killer. Thus in 1278 Ivaylo, this pigherder-come-rebel found himself on the throne as Tsar Ivaylo, Emperor of the great Bulgarian nation. As Tsar he successfully fended off the superior might of the Byzantine Empire and Mongolian hordes for the next year and a bit.
It all ended tragically for Ivaylo, however. Whilst besieged in a fortress by Mongols, Ivaylo was proclaimed dead by his enemies and a Byzantine puppet was put on the throne. Ivaylo eventually broke through the Mongols and laid siege to the capital but was unable to crack it – though he did defeat the Byzantines a further two times and scared the Byzantine puppet-tsar so much that he abdicated the throne to his younger brother and fled. This younger brother united the aristocracy against Ivaylo and our poor swineherd-king was forced into exile among the Mongols where, less than four years after he first became Tsar, he was murdered by the Mongol khan.
Ivaylo has not been forgotten by the Bulgarian people – even today they remember their peasant-king and call him Bardokva – “cabbage” – in memory of his humble beginnings.