“Moldavia” as it existed back in the late Middle Ages isn’t really a thing anymore. One successor, I suppose, is the Republic of Moldova, but they’re not really the same thing. Moldova is the direct successor state to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldavia, but historical Moldavia was bigger than the Soviet state, encompassing parts of modern Romania and Ukraine. It’s actually possible, although I don’t know this for certain, that more of historical Moldavia is now in Romania than in Moldova. For example, the Moldova River runs entirely through modern Romania, not once touching (nor coming particularly close to) the territory of the country named for it. And the battle we’re talking about today took place near a village that’s now in eastern Romania. It’s still a matter of debate whether “Moldovans” and “Romanians” are separate ethnic groups. It’s all kind of complicated and messy, as national borders and histories and ethnic distinctions often are, particularly in Eastern Europe, but Romania probably has as much claim to historical Moldavia as Moldova does, if not more.
Anyway, this is all to explain why Stephen III of Moldavia (d. 1504) is today known as a national hero and great military leader in both Moldova and Romania–though maybe not very much outside of those two countries, which is a bit of a shame. Stephen III, who ruled Moldavia from 1457 until his death and is known as “Stephen the Great and Holy” if you’re into that sort of thing, is said to have fought dozens of battles against all comers during his reign, and only lost two of them. He defended tiny, outsized, outmanned Moldavia against every surrounding power that tried to quash its autonomy or threaten its prosperity: Hungary, Poland, the Mongols, and, most especially, the Ottomans. Stephen was among the first European rulers to take on and defeat the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople, although, struggling to fend off threats from both the Ottomans and the Poles, he eventually wound up paying tribute to Constantinople in exchange for guarantees of Ottoman non-aggression.
The Battle of Vaslui, fought on January 10, 1475, was one of Stephen’s greatest victories and, as I say, one of the first times after Constantinople that a European prince managed to run off an Ottoman invasion. The immediate cause was a dispute over neighboring Wallachia–Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror thought Wallachia was in good hands under his clients, Radu the Handsome (Dracula’s brother, and Stephen’s cousin) and then Basarab Laiotă the Old, and Stephen disagreed. Really, the fight was over the Black Sea coastal region of Bessarabia, and specifically the fortresses of Chilia (modern Kiliya, in Ukraine)–which was at one time Wallachian, then Moldavian, then Hungarian (Transylvanian, technically), then Wallachian again–and Akkerman (modern Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, also in Ukraine). Stephen at one point allied with the Ottomans to get Bessarabia back from Wallachia, then turned on the Ottomans when Wallachia became their vassal and Bessarabia thus came under their control. I get a headache trying to parse this stuff.
The region was important, obviously, or else it wouldn’t have been so highly prized. For one thing, there was its commercial value, sitting as it did along the Black Sea coast–Chilia was especially important, because it controlled the point where the Danube River empties into the sea. Strategically, Ottoman control of Bessarabia opened all of Moldavia to their armies, and Moldavia in turn was an ideal staging point for an invasion of Hungary, Poland–or the Ottoman Empire. For both offensive and defensive reasons, then, Mehmed wanted Moldavia–or at least wanted Bessarabia, so that he always had the option of easily invading Moldavia.
Stephen kept trying to put his own candidate in charge of Wallachia. He had an on again, off again alliance with Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler if you like. Dracula had helped Stephen win the Moldavian throne, but they then fell out, over control of Chilia (surprise). But Radu, who converted to Islam and went over to the Ottomans in exchange for their help in toppling Vlad, was unambiguously Stephen’s enemy. Stephen put Basarab Laiotă on the Wallachian throne in Radu’s place twice, in 1473 and again in 1474, but after the second time Laiotă stabbed Stephen in the back and pledged his loyalty to Mehmed. So Stephen invaded Wallachia again in October 1474 and forced Laiotă to flee. Mehmed demanded that Stephen knock it off with the repeated invasions, whereupon Stephen told Mehmed, politely I’m sure, to go suck an egg. So, Mehmed ordered one of his generals, Hadım Suleiman Pasha, who was busy besieging the city of Shkodër (in modern Albania), to complete that siege post haste and then march his men into Moldavia to deal with Stephen. This was a serious mistake; Suleiman Pasha’s men had already been in the field for months, and now they had to make a winter march all the way across the Balkans on this new mission. They would be in no condition to fight once they arrived.
The Ottomans outnumbered the Moldavians considerably, but how considerably isn’t entirely clear. Stephen probably had around 40,000 men, but as many as 3/4 of them were poorly armed, poorly trained peasant conscripts. Suleiman Pasha probably had over 100,000 men at his command, but some portion of this was also conscripts, picked up along the way from Shkodër, as well as some 17,000 or so Wallachians, who as we’ll see turned out to be less than reliable. Stephen elected to tax the already struggling Ottoman forces by retreating north and carrying out a scorched earth campaign behind him, forcing them to march even further, without much ability to resupply themselves, before meeting the Moldavian army outside Vaslui, in an area Stephen knew well but Suleiman didn’t know at all.
This was another Ottoman mistake, and it proved to be insurmountable. The battlefield Stephen chose was a valley, and on the heights and in the forests around it he stationed archers and artillery to strike the Ottoman forces from multiple angles. He used his infantry and light cavalry to lure Suleiman’s men into the trap. When Suleiman committed reserves into the valley in an attempt to relieve the men who were being pounded by all that cannon and arrow fire, Stephen ordered an all-out attack from three sides on the confused and bedraggled Ottoman force. The Ottomans broke and ran, and Stephen’s army spent the next couple of days chasing them back to Ottoman territory. Somewhat hilariously, Laiotă’s Wallachians refused to fight with the Ottomans, then helped harass their retreat through Wallachia.
Stephen, who had asked other Christian kingdoms for aid before the battle and was given nothing more than a handful of Polish and Hungarian fighters, now sent another appeal for aid along with some of his Ottoman prisoners to Poland, Hungary, and Rome. Owing to his great victory at Vaslui, this time Stephen’s appeal was met with…pretty much nothing, just like before. Mehmed was furious, as you might imagine, and made vengeance on Stephen his top priority. After Stephen drove off a raid into Moldavia by the Ottomans’ Crimean Tatar vassals, Mehmed sent a ~150,000 man army north in 1476 that ultimately defeated Stephen (albeit at considerable cost) at the Battle of Valea Albă in July. However, the Ottomans weren’t able to capitalize on their victory, as a combination of disease, Stephen’s harassment, and the arrival of a new army raised by Dracula (who was still contesting rule of Wallachia with Laiotă) forced them to retreat (Vlad then briefly put himself back on the throne of Wallachia, before the Ottomans killed him in December 1476). The Ottomans eventually did capture Chilia and Akkerman in 1484, but Moldavia proper remained out of their hands, maybe because Stephen eventually agreed to accept Ottoman vassalhood and begin paying tribute to Constantinople.
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