The Army of Stephen The Great

The first recorded use of handguns in the Principalities is in the XVth century. The Wallachian Voivode Vlad the Impaler and the Moldavian Voivode Stefan the Great successfully used handheld arquebuses in several battles including the Battle of Valea Alba in 1476 and at the Battle of Vaslui in 1475 when Stefan ordered his artilery, followed by the archers and handgunners to fire on the Ottoman army from three sides. However, the Wallachians and Moldavians themselves refused to use gunpowder until later on because it was associated with brimstone and the devil. As such, in the XVth century the handgunner corps of both Moldova and Wallachia were made up mainly of mercenaries, generally Hungarians, Szekely, Germans, Serbians, Bulgarians and other South Danube nations. The word ‘lefegii’ literally means wage earners as the hangunners served in exchange for wages. By the start of the XVIth century the locals started using the arquebus and joined the ranks of the Lefegii. In Moldova the arquebusiers were known as ‘sânețari’ from the word ‘sâneață’ meaning gun and in Wallachia they were known as ‘pușcași’ with the same meaning. These men are armed with experimental weapons which have more an psychological impact on the enemy. The handguns can not be used in rainy weather and are prone to misfire but if used at the right moment they can break the morale of the enemy and cause them to rout.


The destruction of the South Danubian states meant by the Ottomans in the XVth century led to numbers of soldiers making their way North of the river to continue the struggle against their foes. Foremost amongst these soldiers are the Serbian Hussars that joined the Moldavian armies and took part in numerous battles such as the Battle of Razboieni in 1476. The Moldavians soon learned from these horsemen and formed their own corps of cavalryman known as Hansari. This army corp had a special status in the Moldavian army as, unlike other corps such as the Curteni or Lefegii which went to war in exchange for tax exemptions or for wages, they went to war in exchange for receiving loot from the battle fields (this known as ‘dobanda’). The Hansari were usually free men or small landholding peasants and their number never exceeded several thousands. This army corps appeared in the second half of the XVth century and continued to be part of the Moldavian army all the way to the XVIIIth century. Like the Curteni the Hansari were organised in units called ‘vatafii’ and were commanded by an officer called ‘vataf’. Like the equivalent Hussar corps in other armies the Hansari are very lightly armoured being protected only by a wing shield and are armed with a long cavalry spear. The Hansari exchange armour for speed and the ability to strike in the battlefield wherever the enemy is weaker.


The boieri class emerged from the chiefs (knezes or judes) of rural communities in the early middle ages, initially elected, who later made their judicial and administrative attributions hereditary and gradually expanded them upon other communities. After the appearance of more advanced political structures in the area, their privileged status had to be confirmed by the central power, which used this prerogative to include in the boieri class individuals that distinguished themselves in the military or civilian functions they performed (by allocating them lands from the princely domains). Being a boyar implied three things: being a land-owner, having serfs, and having a military and/or administrative function. A boyar could have a state function and/or a court function. These functions were called “dregătorie” or “boierie”. Only the prince had the power to assign a boierie. In time the boieri split into two different classes the boieri mari (great boyars) who owned large swathes of land had important functions in the administration and the boieri mici (lesser boyars) who owned less land and less important administrative positions. Starting with the first half of the XVth century the boieri became the most important political class in the Principalities. Since the boieri of the Princely Council had amongst their attributes the election of the voivode this led to increased instability as successive voivodes were elected and then overthrown at the whims of the powerful boieri. During the times of war the boieri have the obligation to raise all the fighting from their domains and join the army of the voivode. Since they are the wealthiest class in the land the boieri use heavy armours and shields for their protection and are armed with cavalry lances. They fulfill the role of heavy cavalry on the field and if their loyalties can be harnessed they can prove to be formidable foes.

Established during Stephen’s reign, the army was composed of the personal guard, a powerful and impressive special unit composed of 3,000 courtiers, most of them footmen (similar to janissaries who guarded their sultan) of the fortress guard troops (an entity composed of hirelings who were paid a monthly wage and meat and bread rations) and the border guard troops, composed of the people living along the borders who were awarded certain service privileges and commanded by marele vornic.

In wartime, Stephen was able to gather an army of 60,000 people, most of them riders. His military forces consisted of the peacetime army; boyars, or noble riders (similar to the Ottoman spahis, but having a higher motivation to fight and a stronger cohesiveness); and servant riders or footmen (called dărăbani). To these forces were added the “spoils” units, so called because the prince had promised them the items plundered from the enemy in case of victory. This army was composed of units of peasants and hirelings.

A warning and mobilization system was also set up for crisis situations. The warning was the prince’s call, and following it, the princely peacetime couriers, or ocălari, would speedily ride around the country on its main roads, giving notice to everybody. Ringing church bells and fires lit on hilltops would disseminate the call to every corner of the land. Men who were able to fight would grab their arms and horses and gather under their flags at predetermined meeting points. From there, columns of peasant fighters led by pârcălabi would head to the gathering post established by the prince.


The Moldavian army’s armament was designated both for hand-to-hand fighting (maces, hatchets, sickles, scythes, spears, and swords made in the country) and distance fighting (200 meter-range bows; between sixteen and twenty-four arrow quivers; firing weapons like small-caliber guns and cannons made of cherry wood, strengthened with iron or bronze rings and using stone or iron cannonballs made in Transylvania (Braşov) or Poland (Lemberg). Stephen the Great hired armorers and craftsmen to help with the local production of the bows, arrows, and swords with which he equipped his peasant fighters. The peasant fighters were responsible for bringing their own arms into battle when they were summoned. The Moldavians’ military dress was the same as that of their ancient ancestors, and the punishment for the use of foreign clothing and arms was death.


During the reign of Stephen the Great, the fortresses were ruled by pârcălabi,-officials who had military, administrative, and judicial authority. Thus they could be found on the border fortresses like Soroca, Tetina, and Hotin (built to counter the Poles’ attacks from the north); Chilia and Crăciuna (on the southern border to counter the Ottomans’ and Wallachians’ attacks); and Cetatea Alba., Tighina, and Orhei (on the eastern border to counter the Tatars’ attacks). The western border was secured by Cetatea Neamt, ului, Suceava’s fortress, and the Carpathians.

Stephen the Great is also the one who incorporated cannons into the fortress defense system, placing them on the country’s strategic access routes. Around the fortresses were built brick and stone external walls in the form of a polygon; they had towers at the corners to deflect cannonballs. The fortresses were also protected by grooves that were five meters deep-large enough to provide protection-and sometimes filled with water.

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