The story of how the SPCK bookshops were taken over by St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, recently in the news, prompts me to this purely historical study of who this St Stephen the Great might be. I remembered only one thing, that he is not the biblical Stephen, the first Christian martyr. I thought I had remembered another fact, that he was a Serb like Radovan Karadzic, but it turns out that my memory was faulty.
It was hard to find good information about this St Stephen. I did manage to find the following transcription of Mark Brewer’s words from a video, but only courtesy of a Google cache as this is from one of the posts by Dave Walker whose deletion Mark Brewer seems to have demanded.
I’m Mark Brewer, Chairman of the Saint Stephen the Great charitable trust. Who was Saint Stephen the great? He was a man who lived in the fifteenth century who fought some forty seven battles against the Muslim Turks who were invading Eastern Europe at that time. During his lifetime, after every battle he commemorated a church, built a new church to the glory of God throughout eastern Romania. He restored churches that had been destroyed by the Ottoman Turks. He is therefore a very fitting patron saint for this trust. We want to aspire to do the very same thing that Saint Stephen did, we want to rescue restore and re-energise the churches of this great country to the glory of God and to the salvation of the people.
I also found with some difficulty a Wikipedia article about St Stephen the Great, who in fact seems to have been a 15th century ruler of Moldavia (Moldova). He does indeed seem to have been a great defender of the cause of state-controlled Christianity in eastern Romania. So it is not surprising that he was canonised by the Romanian Orthodox Church, and is even now considered in Romania to be the greatest Romanian of all time.
But there is another side to this man at least in his associates. The details are sketchy, but Stephen seems to have been a close relative of Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracula, Stephen’s contemporary as ruler of Wallachia (southern Romania). The name “Dracula” comes from the Order of the Dragon (dracul, a stange symbol for a supposedly Christian order) into which he had been initiated as a child. The two rulers were close associates. As young man Stephen fled to Vlad’s court for protection from his enemies; he sent troops to help Vlad regain his throne; and later he married Vlad’s niece. Vlad also defended Romania from Turkish invaders, and on one occasion managed to impale 20,000 Turkish prisoners. He probably avoided being canonised by the Orthodox by later converting to Catholicism.
Stephen doesn’t seem to have been the same kind of cruel character as Vlad. But, despite the claim that “He was victorious in 34 of his 36 battles”, he ended up losing the war and having to cede sovereignty over his lands to the Muslim invaders:
Finally on 20 August 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.
Is this man a fitting patron saint for today? I would not presume to comment.