Stephen III of Moldavia (also known as Stefan the Great, Romanian: Ștefan cel Mare, pronounced [ʃteˈfan t͡ʃel ˈmare] or Ștefan cel Mare și Sfânt, “Stefan the Great and Holy”; 1433, Borzești – July 2, 1504) was Prince of Moldavia between 1457 and 1504 and the most prominent representative of the House of Mușat.
During his reign, he strengthened Moldavia and maintained its independence against the ambitions of Hungary, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire, which all sought to subdue the land. Stephen achieved fame in Europe for his long resistance against the Ottomans. He was victorious in 46 of his 48 battles, and was one of the first to gain a decisive victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Vaslui, after which Pope Sixtus IV deemed him verus christianae fidei athleta (true Champion of Christian Faith). He was a man of religion and displayed his piety when he paid the debt of Mount Athos to the Porte, ensuring the continuity of Athos as an autonomous monastical community.
Menaced by powerful neighbours, he successfully repelled an invasion by the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, defeating him in the Battle of Baia (in 1467), crushed an invading Tatar force at Lipnic and invaded Wallachia in 1471 (the latter had by then succumbed to Ottoman power and had become its vassal). When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II launched a retaliatory attack on Moldavia, Stephen defeated the invaders at the Battle of Vaslui in 1475, a victory which temporarily halted the Turkish advance. Stephen was defeated at Războieni (Battle of Valea Albă) the next year, but the Ottomans had to retreat after they failed to take any significant castle (see siege of Cetatea Neamțului) as a plague started to spread in the Ottoman army. Stephen’s search for European assistance against the Turks met with little success, even though he had “cut off the pagan’s right hand” – as he put it in a letter.
Stefan helped to oust Vlad Țepeș’s brother, Radu the Handsome who had converted to Islam and later became the Ottoman commander of Wallachia, he then installed Laiotă Basarab the Old on the throne in the hope of bringing Wallachia back into the Christian camp. This proved to be illusory, as Laiotă quickly turned his back on Stephen, deeming that Ottoman protection would better help him consolidate his rule. With Stephen’s support, Laiotă was removed from the throne in 1482 by Vlad Călugărul, brother to Vlad Tepes, and for the remainder of the 15th century Wallachia remained relatively stable under his rule.
After 1484, when he lost the fortresses of Chilia Nouǎ and Cetatea Albǎ to an Ottoman blitz invasion, Stephen had to face not only new Turkish onslaughts which he defeated again on November 16, 1485 at Catlabuga Lake and at Șcheia on the Siret River in March 1486, but also the Polish designs on Moldavian independence. Finally on August 20, 1503 he concluded a treaty with Sultan Beyazid II that preserved Moldavia’s self-rule, at the cost of an annual tribute to the Turks.
From the 16th century on, the Principality of Moldavia would spend three hundred years as an Ottoman vassal. In his late years, he dealt successfully with a Polish invasion, defeating the Poles at the Battle of the Cosmin Forest.
Battle of Vaslui
Main article: Battle of Vaslui
Coat of arms of Moldavia in 1481, at Putna Monastery.
The Battle of Vaslui (also referred as Battle of Podul Înalt or the Battle of Racova) was fought on January 10, 1475, against the Ottoman Beylerbeyi of Rumelia, Hadım Suleyman Pasha. The battle took place at Podul Înalt (the High Bridge), near the town of Vaslui, in Moldavia (now part of eastern Romania). The Ottoman troops numbered up to 120,000, facing about 40,000 Moldavian troops, plus smaller numbers of allied and mercenary troops.
Stephen inflicted on the Ottomans a decisive defeat that has been described as “the greatest ever secured by the Cross against Islam,” with casualties, according to Venetian and Polish records, reaching beyond 40,000 on the Ottoman side. Mara Brankovic (Mara Hatun), who had formerly been the younger wife of Murad II, told a Venetian envoy that the invasion had been worst ever defeat for the Ottomans. Stephen was later awarded the title “Athleta Christi” (Champion of Christ) by Pope Sixtus IV, who referred to him as “Verus christiane fidei aletha” (The true defender of the Christian faith).
According to the Polish chronicler Jan Długosz, Stephen did not celebrate his victory; instead, he fasted for forty days on bread and water and forbade anyone to attribute the victory to him, insisting that credit be given only to “The Lord”.
Battle of Valea Albă
Main article: Battle of Valea Albă
Battle flag of Stephen the Great: Saint George enthroned, trampling a dragon.
After the disaster of the Battle of Vaslui, the Sultan Mehmed II assembled a large army and entered Moldavia in June 1476. Meanwhile groups of Tartars from the Crimean Khanate (the Ottomans’ recent ally) were sent to attack Moldavia. Romanian sources may state that they were repelled,. Other sources state that joint Ottoman and Crimean Tartar forces “occupied Bessarabia and took Akkerman, gaining control of southern mouth of Danube. Stephan tried to avoid open battle with the Ottomans by following a scorched-earth policy.” In the process the Moldavians forces ended up being dispersed throughout the country, leaving only a small force of about 12–20,000 men, led by Ștefan cel Mare himself, to face the main Ottoman attack.
The battle began with the Moldavians luring the main Ottoman forces into a forest that was set on fire, causing some casualties to the attacking Ottoman army in the forest. According to another battle description, the defending Moldavian forces repelled several Ottoman attacks with steady fire from hand-guns. The attacking Turkish Janissaries were forced to crouch on their stomachs instead of charging headlong into the defenders positions. Seeing the imminent defeat of his forces, Mehmed charged with his personal guard against the Moldavians, managing to rally the Janissaries, and turning the tide of the battle. Turkish Janissaries penetrated inside the forest and engaged the defenders in man-to-man fighting.
The Moldavian army was utterly defeated (casualties were very high on both sides), and the chronicles say that the entire battlefield was covered with the bones of the dead, a probable source for the toponym (Valea Albă is Romanian and Akdere Turkish for “The White Valley”).
Ștefan cel Mare retreated into the north-western part of Moldavia or even into the Polish Kingdom and began forming another army. The Ottomans were unable to conquer any of the major Moldavian strongholds (Suceava, Neamț, Hotin) and were constantly harassed by small scale Moldavians attacks. Soon they were also confronted with starvation, a situation made worse by an outbreak of the plague, and were driven out of the country, many of then dying while crossing the Danube river. The Sultan returned to Istanbul without considering himself defeated, but also without conquering anything.
Battle of the Cosmin Forest
Main article: Battle of the Cosmin Forest
Coat of arms of Stephen the Great
After the Moldavian loss of Chilia and Cetatea Albă, the Ottoman threat seemed more evident. King John I Albert of Poland was suzerain of Moldavia, and, when Stephen asked him for military assistance, they met, in 1494 at the conference of Levoča, where together with King Ladislaus II of Hungary and Elector Johann Cicero of Brandenburg, they forged plans for an expedition against the Porte. The objective was to recapture Chilia and Cetatea Albă. However, in unexplained circumstances, Ștefan received reports from Hungary that John Albert prepared to place his own brother, the Polish prince Sigismund (later king, as Sigismund I the Old), on the Moldavian throne. By 1497 John Albert managed to gather 80,000 men and was preparing for the expedition when Ștefan invaded Galicia and pillaged it. The plans for the Ottoman invasion were put aside and John Albert went against Moldavia instead.
The campaign started on the wrong foot, with John Albert entering Moldavia at Hotin and – despite sound advice to the contrary – deciding not to take the fortress, but to go straight for the capital city of Suceava. After the abortive siege of Suceava (September 26 – October 16) – with the taking of the recently rebuilt and reinforced fortress nowhere in sight (despite having used heavy siege artillery on its walls), and facing famine, disease, bad weather plus the prospect of coming winter – John Albert was compelled to lift the siege. After some negotiations, the Poles left Suceava on October 19.
John Albert accepted Stephen’s conditions for retreat, but later decided to break the arrangement. It was a mistake that Stephen was waiting for all along: on October 26 he ambushed the Poles while they were marching on a narrow road passing through a thickly wooded area known as The Cosmin Forest. Thus, John Albert was unable to deploy his forces, rendering the Polish heavy cavalry completely useless. The several phases of battle lasted for three days, with Stephen routing the invading army, which was forced to flee in disarray, harassed all the way by the forces of the prince. At the same time a Moldavian contingent intercepted on October 29 a hastily assembled Polish relief force and completely annihilated it at Lențești. However, once back in open space, the Poles were able again to take advantage of their heavy cavalry, and that part of the remaining troops which managed to retain a measure of order and discipline succeeded in crossing back into Poland – despite Stephen’s last effort to engage the remnants of the king’s army in a battle of annihilation when they were trying to ford the Prut river at Cernăuţi.
After the failed campaign the Poles no longer threatened Moldova for the rest of Stephen’s reign.
Illness and death
The tomb of Stephen the Great and his last wife, Maria Voichița, Putna Monastery.
In 1462, during the assault of Chilia Nouǎ, Stephen was shot in the leg. The wound never fully healed. In 1486, during the battle of Șcheia, his horse was injured. They both fell and Stephen was trapped under the horse. The incident aggravated his old leg injury. Over time, he summoned to his royal court many doctors, astrologists and other persons, who attempted to heal his wound. Among these were Hermann, “bacalaurio in medicina”, astrologist Baptista de Vesentio, Maestro Zoano barbero from Genoa (in 1468), Isaac Beg (in 1473), Don Antonio Branca (skilled in fixing cut noses), Mateo Muriano from Venice (in 1502), and Hieronimo di Cesena from Venice (in 1503).
Towards the end of his life, Stephen suffered from gout, which immobilized his hands and legs. On November 9, 1503, Vladislav, King of Hungary wrote to the Doge of Venice: “The voivode of Moldavia is tormented by an old illness.” On June 30, 1504 Stephen’s wound was cauterized by the doctors present in Suceava (one of whom was Hieronimo di Cesena from Venice). The operation caused great pain to the old voivode, who died two days later, on the morning of July 2, 1504. He was buried in the Monastery of Putna.
Stephen the Great is perceived by the Romanian Orthodox Church as a defender of the faith, of the Church, and the whole of Christianity. Stephen’s opposition to the Ottoman Empire protected the entirety of Europe from an invasion. After the Battle of Vaslui, Pope Sixtus IV named Stephen “the Champion of Christ” (Athleta Christi). It is said that he built 44 churches and monasteries (see List of churches established by Stephen III of Moldavia), one for each battle that he won (44 out of a total of 48). At the end of the 20th century, the Romanian Orthodox Church decided to canonize Stephen. The canonization was enacted on June 20, 1992 by the Synodic Council of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Stephen is called “Saint Voivode Stephen the Great”. His feast day in the Romanian Orthodox calendar is July 2, the day of his death.