The Despotate of Epirus was one of the successor states of the Byzantine Empire established in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 by a branch of the Angelos imperial dynasty. It claimed to be the legitimate successor of the Byzantine Empire, along the Empire of Nicaea and the Empire of Trebizond. The term "Despotate of Epirus" is, like "Byzantine Empire" itself, a modern historiographic convention and not a name in use at the time. The Despotate was centred on the region of Epirus, also Albania and the portion of Greek Macedonia and also included Thessaly and western Greece as far south as Nafpaktos. Through a policy of aggressive expansion under Theodore Komnenos Doukas the Despotate of Epirus also briefly came to incorporate central Macedonia, with the establishment of the Empire of Thessalonica in 1224, and Thrace as far east as Didymoteicho and Adrianopolis, and was on the verge of recapturing Constantinople and restoring the Byzantine Empire before the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230. After that, the Epirote state contracted to its core in Epirus and Thessaly, and was forced into vassalage to other regional powers. It nevertheless managed to retain its autonomy until conquered by the restored Palaiologan Byzantine Empire in ca. 1337. In the 1410s, the Count palatine of Cephalonia and Zakynthos Carlo I Tocco managed to reunite the core of the Epirote state, but his successors gradually lost it gain to the advancing Ottoman Empire, with the last stronghold, Vonitsa, falling to the Ottomans in 1479. When the Christian church split in 1054 between the East and Rome, the region of southern Albania retained its orthodox ties to Constantinople while the north reverted to the jurisdiction of Rome. This split marked the first significant religious fragmentation of the country. After the Crusaders captured Constantinople in 1204, the pronoia system continued in the Empire of Nicaea, where the emperors ruled in exile. John III Ducas Vatatzes also gave pronoiai to the church and noblewomen, which had not been done before. When Constantinople was recaptured by Michael VIII Palaeologus in 1261, he allowed pronoiai to be inherited, which made the empire more like the feudal states in Europe. He also audited the pronoiai to make their values more realistic according to contemporary conditions, as the empire had lost much of its land and revenue since the 11th century. The administrative system created by the Byzantine Empire, contributed to the eventual rise of feudalism in Albania, as peasant soldiers who served military lords became serfs on their landed estates. Among the leading families of the Byzantine greek feudal nobility were the Thopias, Balshas, Shpatas, Muzakas, Aranitis, Dukagjins, and Kastriotis. The first three of these rose to become rulers of principalities that were autonomous of Byzantium.
Karl Topia was an byzantine feudal prince and warlord who ruled byzantine areas of modern Albania from the middle of the 14th century until the first Ottoman conquest of Albania. Topia maintained good relations with the Roman Curia. In 1376 a vacant place became an ore diocese in Durrës, again with a Latin Bishop to be occupied. The first mention of the Topia is from 1329, when Tanusio (Athanasius) Topia was mentioned as one of the Byzantine counts of Albania. In 1338, Tanusio was mentioned as Count of Matia (conte di Matia). According to Karl Hopf, Tanusio's son or brother Andrea, as told by Gjon (John) Muzaka (fl. 1510), had fallen in love with the daughter of King Robert of Naples when her ship, en route to the Principality of the Morea to be wed with the bailli, had stopped at Durazzo where they met. Andrea abducted and married her, and they had two sons, Karl and George. King Robert, enraged, under the pretext of reconciliation had the couple invited to Naples where he had them executed.
The long protracted turmoil of dynastic wars had made germinate in their real victims, the Byzantines of Albania, the seeds of national sentiment which contained great promise, so that, when after Emperor Stefan Dušan's death, a descendant of Stefan Uroš I , returned to the province, the inhabitants rose en masse and, under the leadership of Karl Topia, cut down the pretender and his entire force in the battle of river Acheloos. Nikephoros II Orsini Doukas was the ruler of Epirus from 1335 to 1338 and from 1356 until his death in 1359. In late 1355, taking advantage of the renewal of the Byzantine civil war and the death of Tsar Stefan Uroš IV Dušan of Serbia, who had conquered Epirus in the late 1340s, Nikephoros returned to Greece and rallied support. Taking advantage of the anarchy caused by the death of the Serbian governor of Thessaly, Nikephoros took over the region in Spring 1356, and advanced on Epirus. He chased out Dušan's brother Simeon Uroš, who had married Nikephoros' sister Thomais, from Arta and asserted his control over the cities of the region. The countryside, however, had been overrun by the Arvanitic clans and was effectively impossible to control. To strengthen his position and avert a Serbian reaction, Nikephoros set aside his greek wife Maria Kantakouzene and prepared to marry Theodora of Bulgaria, the sister of Dušan's widow Helena, who governed Serbia for her son. However, Maria was popular and her husband was forced to recall her by the Epirote nobility. Nikephoros also entered into negotiations with his brother-in-law Simeon Uroš. Soon after recalling his wife, Nikephoros was killed in 1359 while fighting against the Arvanites in the Battle of river Achelous in Aetolia. Nikephoros II Orsini gathered his forces and marched against the Arvanites in the regions they had settled in Aetolia, modern western Greece. The Arvanites gathered their forces and under the leadership of Peter Losha fought against Orsini in the late spring of 1359 near the Achelous river. The Arvanites won the battle. Orsini was killed and his whole army was destroyed. After Nikephoros's death the remaining major towns in the Despotate of Epirus, being under risk of capture by the Arvanitic troops, submitted to Simeon Uroš and the remaining areas of the Despotate were divided between him and Radoslav Hlapen. Simeon, unable to expel the Arvanitic leaders, tried to maintain indirect control of Epirus by recognizing Peter Losha and John Spata as despots, in the regions of Arta and Angelokastron and Lepanto respectively. Although most of Epirus came temporary under Arvanitic rule, due to their tribal structure and lack of central authority the Arvanites didn't replace any existing Greek or Serbian rule with a centralized Arvanitic state. As an aftermath by 1366-67 only the city of Ioannina wasn't under Arvanitic control. In 1358, Karl Topia rose against the rule of the Anjou and managed to drive them out of Durrës from Epirus and Albania. He ruled most of modern central Albania from 1358 to 1388 and claimed the title of princeps Albaniae. Since 1362, Karl sought himself to set Durrës, which was in the possession of the Duchess Joanna of Anjou. The first, certainly still unsuccessful siege lasted from April 1362 until May 1363. Then, Topia had to withdraw his troops, who were weakened by an epidemic disease. Only in 1367 could Karl conquer Durrës, who had attained in the meantime the tacit agreement of the Venetians for his project and turn this important port into his residence. Karl gained control of Durrës in 1368, which was where the Angevins held out due to their Kingdom becoming smaller in size. Topia ruled over the regions of Durrës, Kruja, Peqin, Elbasan, Mokra and Gora, that is, along both sides of the Via Egnatia as far east as Lake Ohrid. Balša II made a fourth attempt to conquer Durrës, an important commercial and strategic center, which was ruled by his rival, Karl Topia. In 1385, Balša II started an offensive, capturing Durrës from Karl Topia the following year, and proclaimed himself Duke of Durazzo (Durrës). Topia called on the Turks for assistance. Ottoman Sultan Murad I gladly sent an army of 40,000 men from Macedonia. In the plain of Savra between Elbasan and Lushnja, Balša II fought the Turks and was defeated and killed. Thopia again gained control over Durazzo, probably under Ottoman suzerainty.
The Battle of Savra or the Battle of the Vjosë was fought on 18 September 1385 between Ottoman and much smaller Zetan forces, at the Savra field near Lushnjë. The Ottomans were invited by Karlo Thopia to support him in his feud against Balša II. In 1372, Balša II married the Greek Komnina, the daughter of byzantine John Komnenos Asen, the ByzantineDespot of Valona. As a dowry, Balša gained the cities of Valona (Vlorë), Berat and Kanina, located in Asen's province. In 1385 Balša II conquered Durazzo (Durrës), presumably from Karl Topia. In a charter to Ragusa issued in April 1385, he called himself "Duke of Durazzo". The expansion of Balšić's realm into Byzantine Epirus brought him to the frontline against the Ottomans. Being aware of Ottoman aspirations to his territory, on 8 August 1385 Balša II asked Venetians to support him with four galleys. Karlo Thopia invited Ottomans to support him in conflict with Balša II. Thopia's invitation was accepted and Hayreddin Pasha brought his forces from region of Ohrid to Saurian field, near Lushnjë. News about incursion of the Ottoman forces into the region of Berat reached Balša II while he was in Durrës. According to Mavro Orbini, Balša II rounded up one thousand men in Durrës and, ignoring the advice of his nobles, headed out to take on the Ottoman raiders. Unsurprisingly, Balša's small forces had little success and Balša II was killed. Orbini's work is the only source that mention Ivaniš Mrnjavčević as participant in this battle. Some scholars believe he did not even exist, while other believe that he was not independent medieval lord, but loyal member of Balšić family. Another person mentioned only by Orbini is Balša's voivode Đurađ Krvavčić, described as brave warrior who also died in this battle. Mavrini explains that body of Balša II was decapitated and his head taken to Hayreddin Pasha. Since the Ottomans were victorious, most of the local Serbian and Albanian lords became vassals. Immediately after this battle Thopia recaptured Durrës, under the Ottoman suzerainty. The Ottomans captured Krujë, Berat and Ulcinj and soon retreated from them keeping only greek Kastoria under their permanent control. Some sources explain that Ottomans probably remained in Berat with intention to use it as foothold to capture Vlorë. This battle set foundation for centuries-long Ottoman presence in this part of the Balkans. Serbian historian Stojan Novaković emphasized that the battle's importance for these Serbian and Albanian lords was comparable to that of the Battle of Marica (1371) and Battle of Kosovo (1389)together. In the last decade of his rule, Karl Topia closely followed the Republic of Venice, particularly with regard to foreign policy. On August 17, 1386, Karl Topia allied himself with Venice and committed himself to participate in all wars of the Republic or pay auxiliary funds and supply grain. In addition, he promised the Venetian buyers protection in his lands. In return, Venice supplied a galley, permitted recruitment of Topia's mercenaries in Venetian areas and instructed the captain of their Adriatic fleet to protect Karl's coasts from the Ottomans. The Ottomans undertook several heavy attacks on Durrës, which also still persisted as Karl died in January 1388. His son, Gjergj (George),became Karl's successor. In 1381, Karl built the St. Gjon Vladimir's Church in the proximity of Elbasan , where Gjon Vladimir's remains were held until 1995. He is depicted in the icon of St. Vladimir, painted by Onufri, wearing a crown and standing by the Church of the Saint. Inscriptions: A calligraphic inscription in Greek says: " ΚΑΡΛΑ ΘΕΩΠΙΑC ΚΑΙ ΚΤΗΤΩΡ ΤΗC ΑΓΙΑC ΜΟΝΗC ΤΟΥ ΑΓΙΟΥ " (Karla Theopias, builder of the Holy Monastery of the Saint). Another Greek inscription in the building refers to him as: "... ο πανυψηλώτατος πρώτος Κάρλας Θεωπίας ανεψιός δε και αίματος ρύγας της Φραγγίας... οικοδόμησεν τον πάνσεπτον ναόν τούτον του αγίου Ιωάννου του Βλαδιμήρου ..." ( the highest and prime Karlas Theopias, nephew and by blood king of Francia ... built this holy church of St. John Vladimir ... ) dated 1382. This inscription is currently located in the Albanian Historical Museum in Tirana. "These signs of a great lord ... Carla Thopea " (ετουτα τα σιμαδηα αυθεντου μεγα ... Καρλα θοπηα).