Reign of Stephen the Great Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Stephen the Great established Moldavian independence, blocked Ottoman expansion in the region, and ensured the necessary prosperity for cultural accomplishments.

Summary of Event

In 1457, Stephen the Great was proclaimed prince of Moldavia, ending the dynastic strife that had weakened the principality since the death of his grandfather in 1432. Having consolidated power by eliminating rivals and nobles of doubtful loyalty, he strengthened the defenses of Suceava, his capital, reinforcing the walls with stone able to withstand increasingly common explosives and artillery. Eventually, he constructed or improved a series of frontier fortifications, including those on vital trade routes through Cetatea Albă, at the mouth of the Dniester River, and Kiliya, near the delta of the Danube. Stephen the Great Mehmed II Bayezid II Süleyman the Magnificent Matthias I Corvinus Vlad III the Impaler Casimir IV John I Albert Maria de Mangop Stephen the Great Vlad III the Impaler Matthias I Corvinus Radu III the Handsome Basarab Laiotă the Old Mehmed II Bayezid II Casimir IV John I Albert (king of Poland) Süleyman the Magnificent Maria de Mangop Stephen the Great

Recurring invasions and ceaseless diplomacy characterized Stephen’s reign. The principal powers allied or at war with Moldavia included Hungary and Poland, both of which wanted Moldavia as a vassal principality, and the Ottoman Empire, which was consolidating its hold on the Balkans and securing its flanks before advancing up the Danube. The Crimean Tatars, intermittently allied with the Ottomans, also threatened Moldavia from the northeast. Finally, the principality of Walachia Walachia acted as a buffer zone between Moldavia and the Ottoman Empire, in which both powers jostled for influence. In this contest, the Ottomans were the more successful, especially after Vlad III the Impaler was dethroned in 1462; thereafter, Walachians frequently allied with the sultan against Moldavia, despite their common language, culture, and religion.

The challenges facing Stephen divide into three periods. The first began in November, 1467, when King Matthias I Corvinus of Hungary Hungary;invasion of Moldavia invaded Moldavia to punish Stephen for aiding some disloyal Hungarian nobles the previous summer and to regain the Kiliya fortress that had been captured by Stephen in 1465. The Hungarian army moved eastward, plundering towns and capturing Baia on December 14. Stephen’s forces set the town afire. In the confusion, the Hungarians sustained heavy losses and Matthias himself was wounded, thus ending Hungary’s last attempt to gain Moldavia as a vassal.

Stephen faced an Ottoman Ottoman Empire;invasions of Moldavia[Moldavia] challenge in the second period, dating from 1471, when he refused to pay the sultan’s annual tribute. In November, 1473, Stephen replaced the sultan’s appointed prince of Walachia, Radu III the Handsome, with his own man, Basarab Laiotă the Old. Thus provoked, Sultan Mehmed II ordered his forces, ironically aided by the traitorous Basarab Laiotă himself, into Moldavia. On January 10, 1475, at Podul Inalt, Podul Inalt, Battle of (1475) located south of Vaslui in a foggy marsh surrounded by forests, the Moldavians attacked. Stephen had carefully selected the site to nullify the enemy’s numerical superiority and to ensure the overwhelming Moldavian victory that followed. On January 25, Stephen addressed a circular letter to the rulers of Europe, inviting their participation in an anti-Ottoman crusade. This invitation was not accepted, but Pope Sixtus IV increased Stephen’s growing fame by calling him “the athlete of Christ.”

Mehmed II took revenge in 1476, ordering the Crimean Tatars to cross the Dniester River and attack Suceava. Elements of the Moldavian army rushed north to meet the threat to their capital and thus were unavailable when Ottoman forces entered Moldavia that July. At Razboieni in the Valea Alba, the Turks, commanded by Mehmed II himself, defeated the Moldavians on July 26. The sultan continued his advance and laid siege to Suceava. Thereafter, the detachments sent to confront the Tatars rejoined Stephen, Ottoman supplies ran short, cholera broke out in the Ottoman camp, and the Hungarians advanced eastward, threatening the Turkish lines of supply and retreat. As a result, Mehmed II ordered withdrawal on August 10.

In 1477, Stephen again set about building an anti-Ottoman coalition. When Venice signed a peace treaty with the Turks in January of 1479, Stephen realized that he, too, had to negotiate. That year, he resumed tribute payments to the sultan. Nevertheless, in July of 1484, Sultan Bayezid II captured Kiliya and Cetatea Albă. Seeking Polish support, Stephen reconfirmed the old Moldavian-Polish treaty and swore fealty to King Casimir IV on September 15, 1485. The Ottoman army, however, took advantage of Stephen’s absence in Poland: It invaded Moldavia and burned down Suceava on September 19, 1485. A combined Polish-Moldavian army forced the Turks to retreat, but hope of reconquering their lost fortresses disappeared in 1489, when Poland also concluded a treaty with the sultan. Stephen was forced to do the same and resumed the tribute, thus bringing to an end his anti-Ottoman efforts.

The third period of Stephen’s reign dates from the death of Matthias I Corvinus in 1490. John Albert, the Jagiellon heir apparent to the Polish crown, advanced claims to Hungary’s throne as well. To forestall a Polish-Hungarian union, Stephen invaded Poland, annexing the territory of Pocutia. Complicated diplomatic activity followed for several years between the countries of the area, during which time Casimir IV died and John Albert succeeded his father as king of Poland.

King John I Albert invaded Moldavia in August of 1497 and laid siege to Suceava. Successful negotiations lifted the siege, but the Poles failed to follow the stipulated withdrawal route. Stephen attacked and defeated them at Codrii Cosminului on October 26, 1497. Pressing his advantage, Stephen invaded Poland the following year. Hungarian mediation restored peace on July 12, 1499, and John I Albert abandoned hope of making Moldavia a vassal.

The years immediately before Stephen’s death on July 2, 1504, were peaceful. The years thereafter, however, were marked by a succession crisis, revolts by Moldavian nobles, and further conflicts with Walachia and Poland. Weakened and unable to resist the Ottomans, who were led by Süleyman the Magnificent, Moldavia became a Turkish vassal in 1538 and so remained until the nineteenth century.


The rapid decline after Stephen’s death only underlines his skill in maintaining Moldavian independence for forty-seven years. Because his wars were usually fought in Moldavia, he almost invariably enjoyed better intelligence, superior knowledge of the terrain, and shorter supply lines than his enemies. These advantages were coupled with Stephen’s uncanny ability to coax his enemies into pursuit as he retreated behind scorched earth until they were positioned where superior numbers were no advantage and their baggage and artillery a distinct disadvantage. Although his army fought as infantry, it maneuvered on horseback for speed and surprise.

Stephen was an equally skilled diplomat, making and discarding treaties with a sure sense of Moldavia’s shifting needs. Although the grand anti-Ottoman coalition of which he dreamed eluded him, he was a master at dividing his enemies and setting them against each other.

Beyond his military and diplomatic successes, however, Stephen’s epithet, the Great, derives from his presiding over and generously patronizing one of the richest periods of Romanian culture. The Moldavian ecclesiastical architectural style, combining Byzantine and Gothic with traditional Moldavian elements, was perfected during his reign. The resulting structures reveal balance, proportion, and unexpected unity of design. Best known are the painted monasteries at Voronet and Neamt, whose exterior frescoes were added after Stephen’s death. Architecture;Moldavia Many churches he endowed were built during the peaceful, prosperous period after the Ottoman invasions. Putna monastery, however, was finished in 1466, and Stephen was buried there with his wife, Maria de Mangop, whose tomb covering is considered a masterpiece of medieval embroidery.

Stephen was a generous patron of many arts. The illuminated manuscripts, icons, frescoes, richly embroidered vestments, gold and silver liturgical vessels, and book bindings that he donated to churches throughout the Romanian area preserved the memory of his reign long after his death, as he doubtless hoped would be the case. Also helpful in preserving his memory was The Chronicle from the Origins of the Moldavian Land, which he commissioned and to which he himself contributed some passages concerning his accomplishments.

For his piety, generosity, and determined defense of Christendom, Stephen the Great was canonized by the Romanian Orthodox Church on June 20, 1992.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Iorga, Nicolae. Byzantium After Byzantium. Translated by Laura Treptow. Portland, Oreg.: Center for Romanian Studies, 2000. A study of Moldavia and other Romanian territories in the years following the 1453 fall of Constantinople. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Panaite, Viorel. The Ottoman Law of War and Peace: The Ottoman Empire and Tribute Payers. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 2000. Discusses Stephen the Great and his attempts to resist the Ottoman demand for tribute. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Papacostea, Serban. Stephen the Great: Prince of Moldavia, 1457-1504. Translated by Sergiu Celac. Reprint. Bucharest: Editura Enciclopedică, 1996. Biographical monograph by a noted Romanian historian with useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosetti, R. “Stephen the Great of Moldavia and the Turkish Invasion.” Slavonic Review 6, no. 16 (June, 1927): 87-103. Romanian military historian’s examination of Stephen’s army and its organization, tactics, and strategy in the Ottoman wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sadoveanu, Mihail. The Life of Stephen the Great. Vol. 3 in Classics of Romanian Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Romantic narrative by a famous Romanian novelist, underlining the rich legends surrounding Stephen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sedlar, Jean W. East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500. Vol. 3 in A History of East Central Europe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994. A series of essays by a noted medievalist on social, economic, intellectual, and political topics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sugar, Peter F. Southeastern Europe Under Ottoman Rule, 1354-1804. Vol. 5 in A History of East Central Europe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977. Authoritative study of Ottoman penetration and rule in the Balkans with separate chapters on such vassal states as Moldavia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Treptow, Kurt W. “Stefan cel Mare—Images of a Medieval Hero.” Romanian Civilization 1, no. 2 (Fall, 1992): 35-41. Contrasts Stephen’s image as heroic symbol of Romanian national unity with historical reality.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

1458-1490: Hungarian Renaissance

1463-1479: Ottoman-Venetian War

1478-1482: Albanian-Turkish Wars End

1481-1512: Reign of Bayezid II and Ottoman Civil Wars

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

Categories: History