Who was St Stephen the Great?

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.

14 thoughts on “Who was St Stephen the Great?

  1. As long as you never lived or ever visited Moldova, for sure you can not and should not comment. Come visit some of his churches and monasteries and then at least you could fill with your heart, not judge, how saint he can be. For us it matter what he left behind. He left a country, not ruins. Most of the monasteries he built still exist and monks and nuns live there to keep alive his memory. “Moldova does not belong to me or yours, it belongs to our offspring and our offspring’s’ offspring…” He said that and we can say it is true because we are still here, speaking the same language he spoke, we are Christians as he was, we had never become muslim and never lost our language. He was the greatest who ever kept together this land between the Carpathian Mountains and the Nistru river. Even though the land between Nistru river and Prut river was stolen by Russians in ’44, people from there are still part of Moldova’s Stephen, we all speak the same language. Excuse me for the history lesson if you are not interested. I wonder why did you write this article? Because you are gentle and you care? All the best…

  2. Me again!
    “fitting patron saint” for whom?
    He is a saint in our Romanian orthodox calendar so why do you wonder? He is not intended to be fit for anyone else then us. Romania exist as a country because he existed. Why should someone from another country should judge? Don’t you have something else better to do?
    “Today” ? This means the modern days? Let me tell you, Moldova is not modern and will never be. We are just what we are. Still alive, no matter how much others judge us or want to change, erase, etc.
    Do you think God is modern, actual, fit? Come to Putna Monastery and will see what it means to be “fit” for God. Cheers!

  3. Cheers, thanks for your comments. I am happy to rejoice with the people of Moldova and Romania that Stephen III protected your country from the invading Ottoman Turks. As such he was a great national leader. I am not sure that that qualifies him to be a saint, but that is a matter for the the Orthodox church.

    The reason that I wrote about Stephen is because of the way his name and heritage have been abused by the owners of “St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust”, against whom action has been taken by a US judge and the Charity Commission here in the UK because of their mishandling of the trust’s finances. For more on this story including the latest developments see the SPCK/SSG blog.

  4. Travis, my qualm is mainly that to hold up as a saint a man whose main claim to fame is defeating Muslims in battle is an inappropriate and inflammatory action in a society where Christians should be seeking to live in peace with a sometimes threatening Muslim minority. Stephen was a great national leader, but in my opinion not a great example for Christians today.

  5. I would also add that St. Stephen’s failings (all men have failings) were comparable to King David’s the Psalmist, yet who would doubt his name should not be honored?

    Like King David, King Stephen also created lasting poetry dedicated to God, yet St. Stephen’s poetry was not formed by words and stanzas, but in the beautifully frescoed stones of the monasteries and churches he founded. And just as the words of the Psalmist support and edify thousands upon thousands of Christians even today, so to do the great buildings St. Stephen dedicated to God support and edify Christian communities in the 21st century.

    St. Stephen the Great, pray to God for us.

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Who was St Stephen the Great? | Headlines Today

  7. AMEN!

    Jonathan, dear, really now, I must assent to your view. I dunno if it’s due to the fact that I’m a Christian or Romanian, but I do feel there is truth in your saying with regards to the matter (the second topic, actually, namely whether St. Stephen is a saint or not; and not the main issue concerning that eponym trust which started all this)

  8. it’s late I can’t sleep, I’ll add something here. Moldavia and the rest of romanian principalities were tributary states – they kept independence as long as they payed tribute. They had a choice – pay lesser taxes in exchange for islam and ottoman rule, or pay tribute and keep independence. They were the only states that chose the latter. But the wars didn’t end with Stephen’s death, the turmoil continued for centuries
    Stephen reigned for half a century and won 46 out of 48 battles, not 34 out of 36. He defended not only his people, but his religion as well. We were always taught that defending religious and cultural integrity was the most important principle in our people’s past

    I just read the replies… for 8:23 – your ideals don’t apply in real life. Ottomans were brutal! Medieval times didn’t have “human rights” like today – there was no “living in peace”. They would’ve raped your wife, your daughter, steal all your belongings and treat you like a slave. It was either fight back, or be persecuted. Ask our neighbors about life under “total” ottoman control and the constant raids and the terror. Brancoveanu tried the “live and let live” principle, never lead a single war and he was beheaded together with his children. Ottomans didn’t care about Jesus principles, I’m sorry but that made me laugh

  9. Cris, thank you for your comment, and for correcting some apparent errors which I think were in the Wikipedia article.

    I agree and accept that Stephen was a great national leader, as I wrote before. It was a brutal age and most likely he did what he had to do to preserve his nation’s heritage. It is certainly good that he built all those churches.

    My only issue is whether it is appropriate for us today, in Britain and the USA rather than in Moldova, to promote as a patron and symbol a man whose main claim to fame seems to have been to defeat Muslims in battle. I see this as a provocation against Muslim minorities in our own countries who are mostly wanting to live in peace with us, and playing into the hands of the few extremists who want to make trouble. And of course I also object to shady businessmen abusing the name of any saint for (alleged) dishonest gain.

  10. Peter kirk<"I see this as a provocation against Muslim minorities in our own countries who are mostly wanting to live in peace with us, and playing into the hands of the few extremists who want to make trouble. And of course I also object to shady businessmen abusing the name of any saint for (alleged) dishonest gain."

    We the people from Moldova never attacked other countries. We only defended ourselves from the ottoman empire. We were forced to fight back and protect ourselves. We didn't go after the ottoman empire to destroy them completely. We only wanted them out of our country. We wanted to live in peace with our fellow neighbors. We never kicked people out of country. It's their fault that they kept attacking us. Stefan won 46 battles out of 48. This proves that a small country can look like a easy pushover but we stood our ground and won.

    So I don't see how this is a provocation against Muslims. We didn't go on their lands to attack them and force our religion to them. We stood in our ancient lands in peace. Stefan the great is a hero and deserves to be characterized as a saint, he defended our religion and he didn't force it on other people, he protected our country and our religion from the ottoman empire that tried to take over us. If it wasn't for him there is a chance that we might be a Muslim now( no offense to Muslim, I have nothing with them, I live in peace with them)

  11. Stefan, thank you for your comment. I don’t want to reopen an old controversy. But I stand by what I have written, including:

    I agree and accept that Stephen was a great national leader, as I wrote before. It was a brutal age and most likely he did what he had to do to preserve his nation’s heritage. It is certainly good that he built all those churches.

    My main issue is with the way that his memory was being abused in a provocative way by people with no interest in your Moldovan heritage.

  12. Peter, the comments by Stefan were straight to the point. Stephen the Great was a DEFENDER, not an enforcer of Christianity against Islamism.
    If your Muslim citizens feel offended by this use of Stephen the Great’s name, then they are being retarded and not to be given a second thought. And if they become violent, then put them in prison or in mental asylums. They shouldn’t be exempt only on account of religion. We all abide by the same rules in society.

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