Stephen: the Great, the Intriguer

Two Different Views of History.

by Luis Alberto Alonso Clavero


In this essay I'd like to show how the figure of the Stephen III, Voevod of Moldavia (1457-1504) is regarded by Romanian and Hungarian historians. Versions differ greatly depending on what side of the Carpathians history - the one but not only - has been written. From Zaragoza, and with some help, I could only find information to reflect on these two versions. It would have been interesting knowing the Polish and especially the Turkish version. The policy of the small state was always a game of influences of the bigger surrounding countries, that is Hungary, Poland, and the Ottoman empire. Apart from these three countries, in the time of Stephen III there were also relations with Russia, Crimean Tartars, Venice & Genoa. There were even diplomatic exchanges with Rome mostly concerning the Turkish menace.

My sources of information were:

The tragedy of Central Europe. Laszlo Gorgenyi.

Esteban el Grande, Principe de Moldavia. Serban Papacostean

Russian travellers to Constantinople.

Dictionary of the middle ages. Downey Fairfax

Genova, un impero sul mare. Enrico Basso

In my opinion, the Hungarian text is the least objective.

1) The Greatness of Stephen.

Papacostean: Many nice references which make a nice story. Thirty years after his death, Segismund, King of Poland, wrote about him as "Stephanus ille magno". A chronicler of Ivan III, Kniaz of Moscow, dead a year later speaks about the friendship with that great voevod of the Moldavians. In a chronicle of Moldavia, written over 150 years after his death it is said that for the people of Moldavia he was simply, the Great. Among peasants he became something short of mythological hero, the invincible prince, Saint Stephen the voevod. I think that the reason of his popularity, apart from the military success, is that most of his army were peasants, ordinary people.

Gorgenyi: Recently promoted by Romanian historians to the rank of "cel Mare" (The Great) Stephen is the only voevod mentioned in the Kinder Hilgemann with a short remark. "He played his neighbors off against one another" (Personally, I can't disagree totally about that) The Great was a puny man, measuring a mere 5 feet four inches tall including a high spiked crown he used to wear to create the illusion of a higher stature"

2) The Ambitions of Stephen.

Gorgenyi: He presents Stephen as a man showing territorial ambitions at the expense of Poland in Pokutia, a region he annexed to Moldavia after some success in the battle of Dumbrava. True, Pokutia was subject to claim of both Poland and Moldavia, but there is more. It was mostly received as means of payment for the help received. At that time a battle of influence took place in naming a successor to the throne of Hungary after the sudden death of king Matthias Corvinius in 1490. There were three candidates: The emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg, John Albert, supposed heir to the Polish throne, and his brother Vladislav Jagelons, king of Bohemia.

Papacostean. Stephen helped the best candidate according to his interests. Maximilian recommended privileged classes in Transylvania under the auspices of Stephen, who would be declared representative on his behalf. On the other hand, a possible union between Hungary and Poland could be too risky, so he chose helping Vladislav. That way, Stephen took military actions in the south of Poland. In effect the situation put him in contact with the powers opposed to Poland and Lithuania: Moscow and the Khanate of Crimea. In 1499 a Polish campaign against Poland finished with a Moldavian victory and recognition for the first time of a relation in terms of equality between the two countries.

3) The Razesi

Gorgenyi: Gorgenyi largely speaks about these ancient Hungarian settlers in Moldavia - remaining from the year 895. The time when Hungarians moved to the Danube Basin. For what I read, these razesi where independent from the authority of Moldavian Voevod. They were under the rule of the King of Hungary. The ambitious Stephen wanted to expropriate the razesi lands for his benefit provoking the anger of King Matthias Corvinius. In 1467, the centralising policy of the King of Hungary in Transylvania had the effect of an upraise of privileged classes who saw their independence diminished. Stephen backed the rebels. In the same year the Hungarian army entered Moldavia in order to restore the Hungarian influence. Both armies faced each other at the battle of Baia, that of course is described as a success for both sides. But the Hungarian army could not reach Suceava. It seems that Moldavia got rid of Hungarian influence. In the following years Hungary was at war with Bohemia. In that too busy involved with matters in Central Europe to think about the east of the Carpathians.

Papacostean: He does not mention the razesi, only the big boyars (I understand the razesi were among them) and the confrontation he had for many years trying to reduce their power. Before, and more seriously after the campaign of Matthias Corvinius, there was an important boyar rebellion seriously punished. Eliminating them, Stephen enlarged the power of the voevod against nobility (by large land purchases and concessions). Placing them among little boyars close to the prince, at the base of the army, among participants of the principal council and in the orthodox church, one of the pillars of the voevodal power. Of course there is more. Stephen supported the rebellion in Transylvania as a preventive measure to avoid or at least delay a confrontation with Hungary. This confrontation was expected after restoring the city of Chilia to Moldavian hands (Chilia was very important port and way out of Moldavia to the Black sea and the Danube). At first one intended to take Chilia with the help of a Turkish fleet. Finally, the city was taken in 1465 by co-operation with Poland, as part of a treaty between Poland and the Ottomans. That was previous to the Ottoman campaign against Wallachia and it allowed Moldavia to recover the lost territories. This treaty enabled Moldavia to escape from under Hungarian influence, getting closer to Poland.

4) Stephen and the Ottomans

One of the most interesting parts of the story, is the question of what was happening at that time in the Black sea. According to Gorgenyi it was Hungarian military assistance that saved Moldavia repeatedly from Turkish slavery. It was like that in 1475 at Vaszlo (Vaslui) and again in 1497. The kings of Hungary provided a line of fortresses which protected the eastern borders of Hungary as a last refuge used during the boyars' revolts and the Turkish campaigns. Gorgenyi also says that promoters of Stephen to the rank of "cel Mare" remained silent about Hungarian help. The main reason for the support of Moldavia was keeping buffer zones for Hungary against the Ottoman empire and Crimean Tartars. Besides, at that time Moldavia was part of an important trade route between northern and central Europe and the Italian cities (Caffa, today's Feodosia, was the main Genoese colony in the Black sea, the trade way to oriental products and one of the ends of the silk and fur routes).

Papacostean: Stephen started the real confrontation with The High Port once Hungary and Poland were busy at war in Bohemia. Renouncing to give any military support to Poland against Hungary despite the treaties, this was against the interests of Moldavia. In many cases Papacostean describes the opposition against the Turks as a Moldavian initiative. He mentions the diplomatic efforts of the ambassadors travelling to Hungary, Venice, Crimea, and the Turkoman State of Akkoyunlu. It started in 1473 when Stephen renounces to pay any more tributes to the Sultan and starts taking action in Wallachia, joining a group of European countries in a war against the new ascending power. The war becomes general in all the Balkans, Turkey, and later in Crimea. The great Moldavian victory at Vaslui in 1475 made the army of Soliman Baja return without subjugating Moldavia. An immediate Turkish campaign was sent to Crimea were Stephen was pushing the Christian states against the Sultan. The quick Turkish victories in Crimea (Caffa, Tartars under Turkish influence) were followed by the invasion of Moldavia by Turkish and Tartar forces in 1476. This campaign did not succeed. A fast Tartar withdrawal due to an attack in Crimea by the Volga Horde (in relations with Stephen), and the help of Hungary released Moldavia and Wallachia of the Ottoman orbit. A few years later, Stephen could not convince the rest of European powers to start a new campaign against the Turks - to recover Caffa with the help of the Volga Horde. Isolated, the country was invaded again in 1484, and definitely separated from the sea with the conquest of Chilia and Cetatea Alba. From that moment, Moldavia was again under the influence of Poland, as a payment for this protection.

5) Tradition and Culture in the Time of Stephen the Great.

In the time of Stephen, and specially once the war against the Turks was finished, all the country was covered with new stone religious buildings substituting the old wooden ones. Stephen had the intention to give the country a tradition. For that reason small churches in villages were built by local architects to big monasteries, like Putna. A Chronicle of Moldavia was written to be continued in the future for the same reason. Of this chronicle there was also a German and a Russian translation- as an instrument to present the new political reality in Europe.


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