Monday, January 10, 2011

January 10, 1475 – Death of Stephen III Prompts Ottoman Victory

Since the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II in 1453, the Ottomans had worked to extend their power deeper into Christendom through the Balkans. For a century, they had made conquests in Greece and Serbia, taking hold of the power vacuum as Venice declined, and they pressed as far as Hungary. The Christians had been working to oppose Ottoman expansion, though many of their wars were against one another. Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, stood as the heavyweight of the land, but his defeat in 1467 by Stephen III of Moldavia proved a great new leader with impressive military clout.

Corvinus gave up his plans of conquest in Moldavia and took Stephen as an ally, supplying troops and allowing him to campaign in Transylvania and Wallacia, where the Ottoman-supported Radu III, half-brother of Vlad Dracul, reigned. Mehmed II planned an invasion to conquer the upstart Stephen, and the Ottoman forces met the Moldavians at the Vaslui in 1475. Stephen had weakened the invading army with scorched earth tactics, and he sent musicians to draw out the Ottoman army on a foggy morning. The Ottomans might have charged into the fog, but, seeing the exhaustion from his troops, General Suleiman decided to rest and fight defensively.

Stephen was caught with eager troops and his trap empty. He made a rash decision to attack, noted later by Pope Sixtus IV as his failure in not consulting God first. The armies met, but the Moldavians had gone outside of the useful range of their artillery and archers. Fighting raged for nearly a day until Stephen was killed and the Moldavian generals ordered retreat. The Ottomans pursued and wiped out the army, seizing the capital Suceava and effectively conquering Moldavia.

Christendom flew into a panic at the major Ottoman advance. The Genoese, who had been orchestrating Tartar advances from the north against Stephen’s influence over their Black Sea colonies, appealed to Corvinus for help. A council was called, and the Pope blessed Corvinus with a new crusade to liberate Moldavia. The Poles offered forces (in exchange for their own piece of Moldavia), and Corvinus endorsed Prince Vlad of Wallacia, whom he had once arrested on pretenses of working with the Ottomans but now trusted enough to allow him to marry his cousin, Ilona Szilágyi. While the main force fought in Moldavia, Vlad would undercut support in the more southern Wallacia, which had been ruled the last year by the Ottoman Basarab Laiotă the Old due to the treaty his half-brother had signed.

Vlad was welcomed as a liberator by the High Council, though many of the boyars again distrusted him as he had slain so many of them the last time he had come to power. Civil war raged, but Vlad was granted with ample knights and Hungarian troops, which gave him an impressive victory at Bucharest in 1476. Mehmed, seeing the key provinces for military security becoming lost, launched counter-invasions, which ended in Corvinus’s great victory at the Battle of Breadfield in 1479 with nearly 100,000 Turks slain.

Corvinus and Mehmed signed a treaty stabilizing the new, more southern borders, including Serbia being transferred to Corvinus as a vassal. The sultan planned a new expedition once he had secured fresh troops, but his death in 1481 (supposedly by poisoning at the hand of his Italian doctor) ended the campaign. His successor Bayezid II maintained the border and focused more southeasterly, fighting long campaigns to put down the Safavid rebellions in Persia that would ultimately break the Ottoman Empire. Corvinus, meanwhile, established his own empire, which grew out of Balkan conquests as Ottoman power fell over the next century.

Wallacia continued as a key vassal in the Hungarian Empire, sporting Vlad III as one of its greatest, though strictest, leaders. Vlad III, more often referred to as Dracula (“son of Drakul”), is remembered for his legacy of minimizing bureaucratic corruption, harsh punishments for crimes, and promoting trade. He would be immortalized by Bram Stoker in 1897’s Dracula about a harsh Transylvanian industrialist, literally a robber-baron, who comes to London and begins to drain the blood of its banks and exchanges through supernatural hypnotism and control of natural forces.

In reality, Stephen the Great and Holy won overwhelming victory at Vaslui, stemming Ottoman invasion for a year. Mehmed would regroup and be victorious, and numerous attacks from Poles and Tartars prompted Stephen to pay tribute for peace with the Ottomans. Vlad Dracula would return to Wallacia with the High Council’s support in November of 1476, but he would die in battle near Bucharest a month later.

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