Rising up to the Turkish challenge - The Florescu family in the age of Michael the Brave

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The years between Neagoe Basarab’s death in 1521 and Michael the Brave’s accession to the Wallachian throne in 1593 marks a period of relative stability in Wallachian-Ottoman relations, due to the focus of the Ottomans shifting to expanding their Empire to the west and north into Hungary and Transylvania, and their rivalry with Venice for control of the eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, it was between the Battle of Mohacs of 1526 and the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, that the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith, with the Turkish army reaching the gates of Vienna for the first time in 1529, the bulk of Hungary and the Banat succumbing to direct Turkish rule, and Transylvania being forced to accept paying a tribute to the Sultan, effectively having been reduced to the same vassal status as Wallachia and Moldavia. 

With Ottoman encirclement a seemingly unmovable reality, but Wallachia also benefitting from strengthening north-south trade routes criss-crossing it, the old alternation between crusading Basarab princes and ones who favoured a more compliant policy towards the Turks degenerated into a number of internal rivalries for the Wallachian throne, with different factions competing for the spoils of victory.   This was the age of the ruthless and greedy Wallachian Prince Mircea the Shepherd (so-called because of his enrichment from the Wallachian-Ottoman sheep trade) and his wife Chijana, who was loyal to Turkish interests and cruelly persecuted the local boyars, or of Prince Mihnea the Turk, who came from the legendary Draculesti branch of the Basarab family but scandalously converted to Islam in 1591.

 

Michael The Brave

Michael The Brave

The Florescus were not immune to intrigue, and in 1539 Stroe, Draghici Florescu’s only surviving son  who had inherited the Florescu estates and had served on Prince Radu Paise’s divanas Cupbearer, exiled himself in Transylvania to lead a group of boyars who plotted to remove Prince Paise from the throne, rallying around a rival Basarab pretender.   Thus the family’s traditional prudence was abandoned, and with disastrous effects.  Stroe led three campaigns to de-throne Paise, and was initially successful, forcing Paise to take refuge across the Danube at Nicopolis, managing to get the rival Basarab pretender appointed to the throne.  But Prince Paise eventually summoned Turkish help and was able to defeat Stroe, who was taken prisoner and immediately executed.  Prince Paise has left us a testimony of what happened:  “In the first battle with Stroe the Exile…Stroe defeated our armies and we lost our treasury, and our enemies began to steal the money…[However] our treasurer, Radu [Golescu], successfully defended our treasures by his courage and was able to return the money to me.  At Nicolopis I was greatly pleased with the work of our treasurer Radu Golescu”

In normal circumstances, the defeat of Stroe should have signalled the end of the Florescu family, especially as Stroe died without heirs. Furthermore, as a traitor to the ruling prince, it would have been customary for Radu Paise to confiscate all his properties.   But Stroe had two sisters who had made powerful matrimonial alliances with other boyar families (Neacsa, who had married Radu Dragoiescu;and Voica who had married into the powerful Cornateanu family), offering some protection to the remaining Florescu family, while the survival of the family’s name and fortune was ultimately due to a third sister who had not married, but had had an illegitimate son called Radu.  Whilst we do not know for certain who Radu’s father was, he was most likely Prince Patrascu the Good, who ruled Wallachia from 1554 to 1588 and who is widely considered to have also fathered Michael the Brave, one of the great figures in Romanian history.   The main supporting evidence for Prince Patrascu having fathered Radu is Radu’s name, which had never been used before by the Florescu family but was the name of Patrascu’s own father;Radu’s eventual burial not at the Florescu monastery of Gaiseni but at the Princely burial compound of Tirgoviste;and Radu’s life-long proximity to Michael the Brave, his likely half-brother.  Indeed, when Michael the Brave was killed and buried in an open field, we know that it was Radu who removed Michael’s head from the body to give it a proper burial at the Monastery of the Hill. 

Remarkably for the time, Maria Florescu was to lead a long life of over 90 years and would eventually come to be known as “Maria the Old”, dying around the year 1610.  Having been dealt a very week set of cards, she had to navigate the turbulent waters of mid-16thcentury Wallachia with extreme prudence and agility, not least of which because Patrascu the Good, the likely father of her son Radu, was soon usurped by his Chancellor Socol, who probably poisoned him with the support of a group of boyars, and Socol was then succeeded by the even more ruthless Prince Mircea the Shepherd who, together with his wife Chiajna, terrorized the Wallachian boyar class.

Shortly after Radu was born, Maria legitimized her weak position by marrying Cernica, a minor boyar who served as Postelnic(Master of the Prince’s Chamber) in Prince Patrascu’s court at the time.  Cernica promptly assumed the Florescu name and properties, thus allowing Maria to pass on the Florescu name to her son, Radu. (Although Cernica and Maria were to have two children together, their only son died young, once again putting the entire family fortune in the hands of a single heir, Radu).  Then, when Mircea the Shepherd acceded to the throne in 1558, Maria, her husband Cernica and her son Radu left Wallachia for Brasov, where they remained in exile for ten years, carrying on a Florescu tradition of seeking refuge in Transylvania during turbulent times at home.  They eventually returned to Wallachia in 1568 when the reigns of Mircea the Shepherd and then his wife Chiajna’s son came to an end, and the new Basarab Prince Alexandru Mircea acceded to the throne.  However, when Alexandru Mircea executed Maria’s brother-in-law Radu Dragoiescu and his son Tudor, she decided it was prudent for her and her family to return to Transylvania, where they remained until Cernica’s death sometime around 1576.  Thus in total Maria and her family had spent almost twenty years in exile in Transylvania.  Radu Florescu must have benefitted from being educated in Brasov, at the time an important centre of the Reformation with some of the earliest printing presses and a strong humanistic tradition.  We know that later on in life he spoke fluent Italian, French and German.  

Radu Florescu’s education was to serve him well, for he was to become one of Michael the Brave’s closest collaborators, militarily, politically and diplomatically.   The extraordinary career of Michael the Brave has been extensively written about, and only a brief sketch of the main events should suffice for the purpose of this article.  He claimed to have been an illegitimate child of Patrascu the Good, which was most probably true but may have been a deliberate attempt to provide legitimacy to his claim for the throne.  He married a wealthy Oltenian widow and moved quickly up the various court functions, becoming in turn Stolnic, Postelnic, Aga, and then Banof Mehedinti.  His mother was a Cantacuzino and therefore he had the backing of this important Phanariot family, and in particular his uncle Andronic Cantacuzino who was able to arrange Ottoman support for his candidacy to the Wallachian throne.  He thus was elected Prince of Wallachia in the normal way, having obtained the necessary Ottoman support with copious bribes.  On his accession to the throne, after replacing the boyars on the Divan with a new generation of loyal supporters, amongst whom the leading ones were the three Buzescu brothers, Radu Florescu, and Prince Radu Serban who was to succeed him to the Wallachian throne, his reign took an unprecedented course.  For Michael had decided that the time was ripe for a clear break with the past and, in 1594, he arranged a massacre of Turkish creditors, tax collectors and soldiers stationed in Bucharest, an act of outright provocation.  Under the threat of a full-scale Turkish invasion, he was then forced to sign a humiliating treaty with Prince Sigimond Bathory of Transylvania, effectively turning himself into a vassal of Bathory under terms even more onerous than those imposed by the Ottomans.

As Michael prepared for war with the Turks, he appointed Radu Florescu as his Great Comis, effectively putting him in charge of the Wallachian defences, a position which Radu held until almost the end of Michael’s reign.  Radu’s first job was to destroy all possible bridgeheads across the Danube.  He then organized, together with one of the Buzescu brothers, an attack on Harsova, a town on the lower Danube, defeating the local Turkish contingent:

“The Turks emerged in an attack on Harsova fighting against Preda [Buzescu] and Radu [Florescu] the Comis, and as the two armies faced each other, the Turks were defeated.  The Romanians chased them across the frozen River Danube and beat them decisively.  They then burnt Harsova” (Cantacuzino Chronicle)

This provoked a full Turkish army of approximately 200, 000 men to invade Wallachia under the command of the great Turkish military leader Sinan Pasha, where it was defeated by Michael the Brave’s much smaller army at the famous battle of Calugareni.    Radu Florescu actively participated in all phases of this battle.   After Calugareni, Michael sent Radu on a diplomatic mission to persuade the Moldavians and the King of Poland not to adandon the Holy League, which had been set up by the European Catholic powers to push back the Turks.  The failure of that mission led to Michael forcibly dislodging Prince Movila of Moldavia, and installing himself on the Moldavian throne.  Then came Michael’s boldest move, when, using the pretext of Prince Sigismond Bathory’s resignation in favour of his cousin Andrei, which had upset the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf, he invaded Transylvania in 1599 and installed himself on the Transylvanian throne.  Thus Michael had managed to get himself elected to the three thrones of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania, an unprecedented achievement for a Romanian Prince.  But his tenure was not to last long for in 1603 he was eventually murdered by his supposed comrade-in arms the Imperial commander General Basta, who had been entrusted to him by the Emperor Rudolph.  

Michael was undoubtedly one of the great characters of Romanian history.  He had judged that the international context was propitious for a change of policy towards the Turks, with the Catholic Church, having recovered from the blows of the Reformation, once again resurgent, and the Papacy promoting a “Holy League” against the Turks, supported by the powerful Philip II of Spain, whose own kingdom had so successfully repelled the forces of Islam.  He then by a combination of cunning, opportunism, boldness and military expertise made himself the indispensable figure of that resurgent anti-Turkish “crusade” in South East Europe, and through his increasing military successes managed to persuade Pope Clement VIII, Sigismond Bathory of Transylvania, and Emperor Rudolph that, with the Turks in Buda, it was worth raising levies to pay for Michael’s army of mercenaries to fight the Turks.

Later generations of Romanians have not ceased to draw inspiration from Michael’s achievements, and he remains a powerful symbol of national pride and resistance to the Turks.  However, it would be anachronistic to presume that Michael’s achievements were driven by a sense of nationalism or a feeling for the plight of the Romanians across the Carpathians.  His army was made up of mercenaries of a number of nationalities, including Hungarians, Szekelys, French, Italians, Serbs, Albanians and Cossaks, paid for primarily by foreign powers.  Rather than fighting for the rights of the downtrodden Romanian peasantry, Michael ruled Transylvania in the traditional way, by trying to gain the support of the three privileged nations of Saxons, Szekelys and Hungarians, often not hesitating to strengthen their privileges.

Furthermore, Michael’s career, much as it was a perpetuum mobileof inspired military improvisations and diplomatic bravado, left little time for lasting reforms within the lands which he governed, and his rule was at best precarious, dependent as it was on foreign mercenaries who had to be paid by the great European  powers.  He faced notable enemies, not only the Turks but also the ambitious Polish Chancellor Zamoyski who was effectively in control of Moldavian affairs, not to mention the constant threat of Tartar raids.  As long as Michael managed to position himself as the instrument of the great powers to fight the Turks he enjoyed their support, but the moment he became a force to be reckoned with in his own right, his fate was sealed.  Consequently, his rapid fall was in many ways inevitable, not least of which because he was unable to get the support of the powerful Hungarian, Szekely and Saxon nations of Transylvania which he had so much craved.  Finally, the cohesive support of his leading boyars had often been achieved at considerable cost to the state, with Michael rewarding some of his closest collaborators with huge riches, and a notable increase in serfdom at the expense of the free peasantry.  For example, under Michael the Brave the Buzescu family owned no less than 128 estates, many of which had been granted to them by Michael himself.

The gravestone of Radu Florescu (1555-1604)

The gravestone of Radu Florescu (1555-1604)

Abandoning the traditional Florescu policy of not provoking the Turks, Radu Florescu had been a loyal and effective commander of Michael, who also entrusted him with important diplomatic missions.  Radu was loyal to Michael right to his death and, as we have seen, when Michael was hastily buried in a field, Radu personally removed his head and took it to the Monastery of the Hill where it was given a proper burial.  However, Radu did not get involved in Transylvanian and Moldovan affairs, and throughout Michael’s Transylvanian adventure he stayed on in Bucharest, continuing to serve on the Wallachian Divan, working for Michael the Brave’s son Nicolae Patrascu, whom Michael had left in charge of Wallachia.    Perhaps this reflects an innate conservatism of Radu, who felt the limit of what Michael could achieve.  It also reflects Michael’s desire not to over-run Transylvania with Wallachian boyars, but rather to run the principality with the support of the local Diet, made up of the Hungarian and Szekely nobility and the Saxon burghers.  Finally, it may reflect a certain distance between Radu and Michael, as Michael never rewarded Radu with the great riches he bequeathed upon the Buzescu brothers, one of whom (Preda) had joined him in Transylvania.  

Radu remained on Michael’s divan until 1599, after which he retired to the one property which Michael had given him a few years beforehand, at Namaiesti high up the Carpathian mountains on the Wallachian side of the border with Transylvania.  He moved there with his wife, sister, and, of course, his old mother Maria the Old.   We know that he built a troitathere with the simple inscription:  “In honour of the great Comis and his wife Stanca and his mother Maria who have built this cross for the family”.  This was followed by the names of many other members of the family.  Although the troitano longer exists, the inscription was transcribed by a major in the Romanian army in 1906. 

Radu’s retirement did not last long, because soon afterwards he was called to join the divan of Radu Serban, Michael’s successor, where he held the lower rank of Clucer and was the seventh boyar out of a total of eleven.  We also know that he was on a list of boyars which the Emperor Rudolph, obviously aware of Radu’s diplomatic skills, had drawn up to help negotiate a peace settlement with the Turks.  In addition to Radu, the list included the three Buzescu brothers, the Metropolitan of Romania, and Andronic Cantacuzino.  According to Peter Grigorevici, an Armenian diplomat often used by Michael, and Aloisus Rudibrand, who worked for the Emperor Rudolph, Radu was the best choice for this mission, and he seems to have also been seen favourably by the Grand Vizier.  

However, this mission was never to happen, for, as Attilio Vimercati, the local commander of Rudolph’s imperial army, described in a letter dated 23 July 1604:

“The Clucer Radu Florescu, a principal nobleman descendant of ancient family, a vassal of your majesty, having retired to his mountain house in order to take shelter from the incoming Tatars, was in the process of reaping the harvest, when he was suddenly attached on the 18thJuly in his own house by murders who emerged from Transylvania.  They began pillaging and killing his household.  The women folk and some of the neighbouring boyars were able to escape seeking refuge in the mountains.  Radu was not so lucky.  He died, killed by the outlaws from Transylvania.”

Thus ended Radu Floresu’s male family.  His mother, Maria the Old, survived him, and she arranged a stately burial for him at the Metropolitan Church in Tirgoviste, as well as prayers to be in read in perpetuity (Polmelnic) for the repose of his sole at the monasteries of Tismana, Cosia and Strambu-Gaiseni, whilst his wife lived on another fifteen years at Namaiesti.  But she was childless, and Maria the Old’s ruse of marrying Cernica to pass on the family assets and name had not lasted more than a generation. 

With no direct heir left to inherit the Florescu properties, they passed on to the descendants of Maria’s sister Voica who, as we have seen, had married into the powerful Cornateni family.  Voica and her husband Vintila Cornateni had a son called Staico, who in turn had a son called Draghici, and it is Draghici’s son Socol, born sometime between 1592 and 1599, who, on inheriting the remaining Florescu estates, simply took on the Florescu family name, a decision which was not only approved of, but also encouraged by, the new reigning Prince, Matei Basarab, who was related to both the Florescus and the Cornateanus.  Socol Florescu then made an important alliance when he married Marula, the daughter of Michael the Brave and his Greek mistress Teodora of Targsor, who had been recognized by Michael and endowed with extensive domains. 

Socol’s career followed closely that of Prince Matei Basarab, whom he faithfully served, just like Radu had served Michael.  Unlike earlier Princes, Matei was not the subject of constant plotting by the Turks, and managed to reign for twenty-two years (from 1632 to 1654).  His main problem was the relentless plotting of Prince Vasile Lupu of Moldavia, who coveted Matei’s throne, supported by the Poles.  Benefitting from the achievements of Michael the Brave, Matei managed to keep a certain distance from the Ottomans, maintaining a degree of autonomy in managing Wallachian internal and external policy, which also involved strengthened relations with Transylvania and the Holy Roman Empire.  Matei’s father had fought at Calugareni and Matei himself considered himself a military ruler.  His most longstanding achievement was the creation of a standing Wallachian standing army of some 40, 000 men, in order to reduce the state’s dependence on foreign mercenaries.  He is also remembered as a builder of fine churches.

Socol joined Matei Basarab’s divan as clucerin 1641, thereby becoming responsible for the provisions of the court, and later on becoming paharnic, and then stolnicand sluger.  One of Socol’s functions was to supervise the building of the important Campulung Monastery in 1635-6, where the earliest Basarab prince was buried, which was endowed with twelve towers and seven-metre high walls.  Socol was also to follow Matei’s example by building two churches himself, one in Razvad and one in Cornateni.  He also undertook important diplomatic missions for Prince Matei, having worked hard to strengthen relations with the neighbouring Prince of Transylvania in order to strengthen Matei’s position against Vasile Lupu of Moldavia, who was plotting against him with the Turks.  Thus he was sent to Transylvania to negotiate an alliance with Prince Rakoczi, and a possible place of refuge in case things did not work out for Matei.  This alliance was vital, as shortly afterwards the Sultan sent a letter to Prince Matei inviting him to Constantinople and leaving no ambiguity as to the consequences of his further disobedience:

You must do what has been said, if not you won’t remain unpunished.  I am the one who demolished Baghdad and am able to wipe you from the face of the earth.  The head of the Tatars is waiting for a word on my part and he will rush on my victim like a falcon.  I shall destroy you and bring Turks to your country.  The muezzin will be heard in your churches”

Matei Basarab was eventually able to resist such threats, even defeating a Turkish contingent near Tirgoviste.  In actual fact, the Turks had no desire to engage in a prolonged war with Matei, and were worried that further hostilities would simply drive Matei closer to an anti-Turkish alliance with Transylvania.

Eventually, Socol was undone by a revolt of the very mercenary soldiers who had helped Matei Basarab keep the Turks at bay.  Demanding higher pay, they killed a number of boyars, including Socol whose estates were directly in front of the Princely residence in Tirgoviste, and his son Carstea, whilst Matei died a year later in 1654, after having been wounded in a battle against his nemesis, Prince Vasile Lupu of Moldavia. 

The bulk of the 16thcentury had been marked by endless plots involving the leading boyars and the different candidates to the Wallachian throne, variously supported by Moldavia and Transylvania, but also the Ottoman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and even the Papacy.  The Florescu family was not immune to these plots, and indeed Stroe’s tragic miscalculation in supporting a rival Basarab candidate to the Wallachian throne in 1539 was to lead to his complete undoing, and the almost extinction of the Florescu family.  This was only avoided by the skill with which his sister, Maria the Old, managed to save the situation, first by getting her illegitimate son Radu recognized as a Florescu after her marriage to the minor boyar Cernica, but also by her careful avoidance of Wallachian intrigues, and long period of exile in Transylvania. 

After that period of instability, her son Radu was to become a loyal servant of his likely half-brother Michael the Brave, fighting alongside him in all his main campaigns against the Turks, and assisting him on various sensitive diplomatic missions.   Similarly, Socol Florescu faithfully served Matei Basarab, who succeeded to the Wallachian throne shortly after Michael the Brave’s death, although he was not involved in military campaigns, reflecting Matei’s relatively peaceful long twenty-two year reign.

Undoubtedly, the main achievement of the Wallachian state in the 16thand early 17thcenturies was its continued survival as an independent entity within the Ottoman Empire, at a time when that Empire reached its absolute zenith, converting neighbouring Serbia, Hungary and Transylvania into mere pashaliks.  Up to the reign of Michael the Brave, the main cost of this independence was a progressive increase in the tribute (haraci) paid to the Turks, estimated to have quadrupled during the second half of the 16thcentury.  To this one must add the various bribes that the candidates to the Wallachian throne had to pay to various officials in Constantinople to get themselves elected (estimated to have been equivalent to the tribute in value terms), as well as the economic cost of the various trading privileges granted to Turkish merchants operating within Wallachia.  One of the direct consequences of Michael the Brave’s military achievements was a reduction of the tribute in the period after his death.

Although superficially the resistance of Michael the Brave recalls the exploits of Vlad the Impaler and the other early Basarab princes, this did not come without a cost.  Vlad the Impaler had been able to raise a huge temporary army, the ostea mare, possibly made up of as many as 40, 000 men, by a levee en masseamongst the peasant freeholders.  This was not only effective militarily but also gavve the ruling Prince a large degree of independence from the boyars, who were not required to supply soldiers from amongst their serfs.  However, the development of the Wallachian state in the 16thcentury had meant a progressive reduction in the freeholder peasant class, as more and more peasants passed into serfdom, making it much more difficult for the ruling prince to recruit an army without the support of the boyars, whilst he also became increasingly dependent on foreign mercenaries.  The fact that Socol Florescu was murdered by a revolt of mercenaries illustrates the risks and precariousness of the situation.  Although Radu Florescu was not greatly enriched by his service to Michael the Brave, the close collaboration of leading boyars like Radu and Socol Florescu and their respective ruling Princes is emblematic of a new settlement within the Wallachian state, where the Prince was much more reliant on the boyars for his military campaigns, and at the same time had to grant them more and more land and privileges.  It was a new settlement which provided for greater stability in internal Wallachian politics, but one which increasingly depended on the institution of serfdom.