|Most authorities believe the character of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel was based upon the historical figure Vlad Tepes (pronounced tse-pesh), who intermittently ruled an area of the Balkans called Wallachia in the mid 15th century. He was also called by the names Vlad III and Vlad Dracula. The word Tepes stands for "impaler" and was so coined because of Vlad’s propensity to punish victims by impaling them on stakes, then displaying them publicly to frighten his enemies and to warn would-be transgressors of his strict moral code. He is credited with killing between 40,000 to 100,000 people in this fashion.
Origin of the Name "Dracula"
King Sigismund of Hungary, who became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1410, founded a secret fraternal order of knights called the Order of the Dragon to uphold Christianity and defend the Empire against the Ottoman Turks. Its emblem was a dragon, wings extended, hanging on a cross. Vlad III’s father (Vlad II) was admitted to the Order around 1431 because of his bravery in fighting the Turks. From 1431 onward Vlad II wore the emblem of the order and later, as ruler of Wallachia, his coinage bore the dragon symbol.
Order of the
The word for dragon in Romanian is "drac" and "ul" is the definitive article. Vlad III’s father thus came to be known as "Vlad Dracul," or "Vlad the dragon." In Romanian the ending "ulea" means "the son of". Under this interpretation, Vlad III thus became Vlad Dracula, or "the son of the dragon." (The word "drac" also means "devil" in Romanian. The sobriquet thus took on a double meaning for enemies of Vlad Tepes and his father.)
To appreciate the story of Vlad III it is essential to understand the social and political forces of the region during the 15th century. In broad terms this is a story of the struggle to obtain control of Wallachia, a region of the Balkans (in present-day southern Romania) which lay directly between the two powerful forces of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.
Europe, circa 1560
For nearly one thousand years Constantinople had stood as the protecting outpost of the Byzantine or East Roman Empire, and blocked Islam’s access to Europe. The Ottomans nonetheless succeeded in penetrating deep into the Balkans during this time. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 under Sultan Mohammed the Conqueror, all of Christendom was suddenly threatened by the armed might of the Ottoman Turks. The Hungarian Kingdom to the north and west of Wallachia, which reached its zenith during this same time, assumed the ancient mantle as defender of Christendom.
The rulers of Wallachia were thus forced to appease these two empires to maintain their survival, often forging alliances with one or the other, depending upon what served their self-interest at the time. Vlad III is best known by the Romanian people for his success in standing up to the encroaching Ottoman Turks and establishing relative independence and sovereignty (albeit for a relatively brief time).
Another factor influencing political life was the means of succession to the Wallachian throne. The throne was hereditary, but not by the law of primogeniture. The boyars (wealthy land-owning nobles) had the right to elect the voivode (prince) from among various eligible members of the royal family. This allowed for succession to the throne through violent means. Assassinations and other violent overthrows of reigning parties were thus rampant. In fact, both Vlad III and his father assassinated competitors to attain the throne of Wallachia.
History of Wallachia Prior to Vlad III
Fortress of Belgrade
Wallachia was founded in 1290 by Radu Negru (Rudolph the Black). It was dominated by Hungary until 1330, when it became independent. The first ruler of the new country was Prince Basarab the Great, an ancestor of Dracula. Dracula’s grandfather, Prince Mircea the Old, reigned from 1386 to 1418. Eventually, the House of Basarab was split into two factions—Mircea’s descendant’s, and the descendants of another prince named Dan (called the Danesti). Much of the struggles to assume the throne during Dracula’s time were between these two competing factions.
In 1431 King Sigismund made Vlad Dracul the military governor of Transylvania, a region directly northwest of Wallachia. (Vlad III was born during this time, in the latter part of 1431.) Vlad was not content to serve as mere governor, and so gathered supporters for his plan to seize Wallachia from its current occupant, Alexandru I, a Danesti prince. In 1436 he succeeded in his plan, killing Alexandru and becoming Vlad II. (Presumably there was an earlier prince also named Vlad.)
For six years Vlad Dracul attempted to follow a middle ground between his two powerful neighbors. The prince of Wallachia was officially a vassal of the King of Hungary and Vlad was still a member of the Order of the Dragon and sworn to fight the infidel. At the same time the power of the Ottomans seemed unstoppable. Vlad was forced to pay tribute to the Sultan, just as his father, Mircea the Old, had been forced to do.
In 1442 Vlad attempted to remain neutral when the Turks invaded Transylvania. The Turks were defeated, and the vengeful Hungarians under John Hunyadi—the White Knight of Hungary--forced Vlad Dracul and his family to flee Wallachia. In 1443 Vlad regained the Wallachian throne with Turkish support, but on the condition that Vlad send a yearly contingent of Wallachian boys to join the Sultan’s Janissaries. In 1444, to further assure to the Sultan his good faith, Vlad sent his two younger sons--Vlad III and Radu the Handsome--to Adrianople as hostages. Vlad III remained a hostage in Adrianople until 1448.
In 1444 Hungary broke the peace and launched the Varna Campaign, led by John Hunyadi, in an effort to drive the Turks out of Europe. Hunyadi demanded that Vlad Dracul fulfill his oath as a member of the Order of the Dragon and a vassal of Hungary and join the crusade against the Turks, yet the wily politician still attempted to steer a middle course. Rather than join the Christian forces himself, he sent his oldest son, Mircea. Perhaps he hoped the Sultan would spare his younger sons if he himself did not join the crusade.
The results of the Varna Crusade are well known. The Christian army was utterly destroyed in the Battle of Varna. John Hunyadi managed to escape the battle under inglorious conditions. From this moment forth John Hunyadi was bitterly hostile toward Vlad Dracul and his eldest son. In 1447 Vlad Dracul was assassinated along with his son Mircea. Mircea was apparently buried alive by the boyars and merchants of Tirgoviste. (Vlad III later exacted revenge upon these boyars and merchants.) Hunyadi placed his own candidate, a member of the Danesti clan, on the throne of Wallachia.
On receiving news of Vlad Dracul’s death the Turks released Vlad III and supported him as their own candidate for the Wallachian throne. In 1448, at the age of seventeen, Vlad III managed to briefly seize the Wallachian throne. Yet within two months Hunyadi forced him to surrender the throne and flee to his cousin, the Prince of Moldavia. Vlad III’s successor to the throne, however—Vladislov II—unexpectedly instituted a pro-Turkish policy, which Hunyadi found to be unacceptable. He then turned to Vlad III, the son of his old enemy, as a more reliable candidate for the throne, and forged an allegiance with him to retake the throne by force. Vlad III received the Transylvanian duchies formerly governed by his father and remained there, under the protection of Hunyadi, waitng for an opportunity to retake Wallachia from his rival.
In 1453, however, the Christian world was shocked by the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. Hunyadi thus broadened the scope of his campaign against the insurgent Turks. In 1456 Hunyadi invaded Turkish Serbia while Vlad III simultaneously invaded Wallachia. In the Battle of Belgrade Hunyadi was killed and his army defeated. Meanwhile, Vlad III succeeded in killing Vladislav II and taking the Wallachian throne.
Vlad III then began his main reign of Wallachia, which stretched from 1456-1462. It was during this period that he instituted his strict policies, stood up against the Turks and began his reign of terror by impalement.
The Life of Vlad III (1431-1476)
Vlad III was born in November or December of 1431 in the Transylvanian city of Sighisoara. At the time his father, Vlad II (Vlad Dracul), was living in exile in Transylvania. The house where he was born is still standing. It was located in a prosperous neighborhood surrounded by the homes of Saxon and Magyar merchants and the townhouses of the nobility.
Little is known about the early years of Vlad III’s life. He had an older brother, Mircea, and a younger brother, Radu the Handsome. His early education was left in the hands of his mother, a Transylvanian noblewoman, and her family. His real education began in 1436 after his father succeeded in claiming the Wallachian throne by killing his Danesti rival. His training was typical to that of the sons of nobility throughout Europe. His first tutor in his apprenticeship to knighthood was an elderly boyar who had fought against the Turks at the battle of Nicolopolis. Vlad learned all the skills of war and peace that were deemed necessary for a Christian knight.
In 1444, at the age of thirteen, young Vlad and his brother Radu were sent to Adrianople as hostages, to appease the Sultan. He remained there until 1448, at which time he was released by the Turks, who supported him as their candidate for the Wallachian throne. Vlad’s younger brother apparently chose to remain in Turkey, where he had grown up. (Radu is later supported by the Turks as a candidate for the Wallachian throne, in opposition to his own brother, Vlad.)
As previously noted, Vlad III’s initial reign was quite short (two months), and it was not until 1456, under the support of Hunyadi and the Kingdom of Hungary that he returned to the throne. He established Tirgoviste as his capitol city, and began to build his castle some distance away in the mountains near the Arges River. Most of the atrocities associated with Vlad III took place during this time.
The Atrocities of Vlad Tepes
More than anything else the historical Dracula is known for his inhuman cruelty. Impalement was Vlad III’s preferred method of torture and execution. Impalement was and is one of the most gruesome ways of dying imaginable, as it was typically slow and painful.
Vlad usually had a horse attached to each of the victim’s legs and a sharpened stake was gradually forced into the body. The end of the stake was usually oiled and care was taken that the stake not be too sharp, else the victim might die too rapidly from shock. Normally the stake was inserted into the body through the buttocks and was often forced through the body until it emerged from the mouth. However, there were many instances where victims were impaled through other body orifices or through the abdomen or chest. Infants were sometimes impaled on the stake forced through their mother’s chests. The records indicate that victims were sometimes impaled so that they hung upside down on the stake.
Vlad Tepes often had the stakes arranged in various geometric patterns. The most common pattern was a ring of concentric circles in the outskirts of a city that was his target. The height of the spear indicated the rank of the victim. The decaying corpses were often left up for months. It was once reported that an invading Turkish army turned back in fright when it encountered thousands of rotting corpses impaled on the banks of the Danube. In 1461 Mohammed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, a man not noted for his squeamishness, returned to Constantinople after being sickened by the sight of twenty thousand impaled Turkish prisoners outside of the city of Tirgoviste. This gruesome sight is remembered in history as "the Forest of the Impaled."
Thousands were often impaled at a single time. Ten thousand were impaled in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu in 1460. In 1459, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Vlad III had thirty thousand of the merchants and boyars of the Transylvanian city of Brasov impaled. One of the most famous woodcuts of the period shows Vlad Dracula feasting amongst a forest of stakes and their grisly burdens outside Brasov while a nearby executioner cuts apart other victims.
Although impalement was Vlad Dracula’s favorite method of torture, it was by no means his only method. The list of tortures employed by this cruel prince reads like an inventory of hell’s tools: nails in heads, cutting off of limbs, blinding, strangulation, burning, cutting off of noses and ears, mutilation of sexual organs (especially in the case of women), scalping, skinning, exposure to the elements or to wild animals, and burning alive.
No one was immune to Vlad’s attentions. His victims included women and children, peasants and great lords, ambassadors from foreign powers and merchants. However, the vast majority of his victims came from the merchants and boyars of Transylvania and his own Wallachia.
Many have attempted to justify Vlad Dracula’s actions on the basis of nascent nationalism and political necessity. Many of the merchants in Transylvania and Wallachia were German Saxons who were seen as parasites, preying upon Romanian natives of Wallachia. The wealthy land owning boyars exerted their own often capricious and unfaithful influence over the reigning princes. Vlad’s own father and older brother were murdered by unfaithful boyars. However, many of Vlad Dracula’s victims were also Wallachians, and few deny that he derived a perverted pleasure from his actions.
Vlad Dracula began his reign of terror almost as soon as he came to power. His first significant act of cruelty may have been motivated by a desire for revenge as well as a need to solidify his power. Early in his main reign he gave a feast for his boyars and their families to celebrate Easter. Vlad was well aware that many of these same nobles were part of the conspiracy that led to his father’s assassination and the burying alive of his elder brother, Mircea. Many had also played a role in the overthrow of numerous Wallachian princes. During the feast Vlad asked his noble guests how many princes had ruled during their lifetimes. All of the nobles present had outlived several princes. None had seen less then seven reigns. Vlad immediately had all the assembled nobles arrested. The older boyars and their families were impaled on the spot. The younger and healthier nobles and their families were marched north from Tirgoviste to the ruins of his castle in the mountains above the Arges River. The enslaved boyars and their families were forced to labor for months rebuilding the old castle with materials from a nearby ruin. According to the reports they labored until the clothes fell off their bodies and then were forced to continue working naked. Very few survived this ordeal.
Throughout his reign Vlad continued to systematically eradicate the old boyar class of Wallachia. Apparently Vlad was determined that his own power be on a modern and thoroughly secure footing. In the place of the executed boyars Vlad promoted new men from among the free peasantry and middle class; men who would be loyal only to their prince.
Vlad Tepes’ atrocities against the people of Wallachia were usually attempts to enforce his own moral code upon his country. He appears to have been particularly concerned with female chastity. Maidens who lost their virginity, adulterous wives and unchaste widows were all targets of Vlad’s cruelty. Such women often had their sexual organs cut out or their breasts cut off, and were often impaled through the vagina on red-hot stakes. One report tells of the execution of an unfaithful wife. Vlad had the woman’s breasts cut off, then she was skinned and impaled in a square in Tirgoviste with her skin lying on a nearby table. Vlad also insisted that his people be honest and hard working. Merchants who cheated their customers were likely to find themselves mounted on a stake beside common thieves.
The End of Vlad III
Although Vlad III experienced some success in fending off the Turks, his accomplishments were relatively short-lived. He received little support from his titular overlord, Matthius Corvinus, King of Hungary (son of John Hunyadi) and Wallachian resources were too limited to achieve any lasting success against the powerful Turks.
The Turks finally succeeded in forcing Vlad to flee to Transylvania in 1462. Reportedly, his first wife committed suicide by leaping from the towers of Vlad’s castle into the waters of the Arges River rather than surrender to the Turks. Vlad escaped through a secret passage and fled across the mountains into Transylvania and appealed to Matthias Corvinus for aid. The king immediately had Vlad arrested and imprisoned in a royal tower.
There is some debate as to the exact length of Vlad’s confinement. The Russian pamphlets indicate that he was a prisoner from 1462 until 1474. However, during this period he was able to gradually win his way back into the graces of Matthias Corvinus and ultimately met and married a member of the royal family (possibly the sister of Corvinus) and fathered two sons. It is unlikely that a prisoner would be allowed to marry a member of the royal family. As the eldest son was about 10 years old at the point Vlad regained the Wallachian throne in 1476, his release probably occurred around 1466.
Note: The Russian narrative, normally very favorable to Vlad, indicates that even in captivity he could not give up his favorite past-time; he often captured birds and mice and proceeded to torture and mutilate them. Some were beheaded or tarred-and-feathered and released. Most were impaled on tiny spears.
Another possible reason for Vlad’s rehabilitation was that the new successor to the Wallachian throne, Vlad’s own brother, Radu the Handsome, had instituted a very pro-Turkish policy. The Hungarian king may have viewed Dracula as a possible candidate to retake the throne. The fact that Vlad renounced the Orthodox faith and adopted Catholicism was also surely meant to appease his Hungarian captor.
In 1476 Vlad was again ready to make a bid for power. Vlad Dracula and Prince Stephen Bathory of Transylvania invaded Wallachia with a mixed contingent of forces. Vlad’s brother, Radu, had by then already died and was replaced by Basarab the Old, a member of the Danesti clan. At the approach of Vlad’s army Basarab and his cohorts fled. However, shortly after retaking the throne, Prince Bathory and most of Vlad’s forces returned to Transylvania, leaving Vlad in a vulnerable position. Before he was able to gather support, a large Turkish army entered Wallachia. Vlad was forced to march and meet the Turks with less than four thousand men.
Purported tomb of
Vlad III Vlad Dracula was killed in battle against the Turks near the town of Bucharest in December of 1476. Some reports indicate that he was assassinated by disloyal Wallachian boyars just as he was about to sweep the Turks from the field. Other accounts have him falling in defeat, surrounded by the ranks of his loyal Moldavian bodyguard. Still other reports claim that Vlad, at the moment of victory, was accidentally struck down by one of his own men. The one undisputed fact is that ultimately his body was decapitated by the Turks and his head sent to Constantinople where the sultan had it displayed on a stake as proof that the horrible Impaler was finally dead. He was reportedly buried at Snagov, an island monastery located near Bucharest.
In evaluating the accounts of Vlad Dracula it is important to realize that much of the information comes from sources that may not be entirely accurate. With each of the three main sources there is reason to believe that the information provided may be influenced by local, mainly political, prejudices. The three main sources are as follows: (1) Pamphlets published in Germany shortly after Vlad’s death, (2) pamphlets published in Russia shortly after the German pamphlets, and (3) Romanian oral tradition.
At the time of Vlad Dracula’s death Matthias Corvinus of Hungary was seeking to bolster his own reputation in the Holy Roman Empire and may have intended the early pamphlets as justification of his less than vigorous support of his vassal. It must also be remembered that German merchants were often the victims of Vlad Dracula’s cruelty. The pamphlets thus painted Vlad Dracula as an inhuman monster who terrorized the land and butchered innocents with sadistic glee.
The pamphlets were also a form of mass entertainment in a society where the printing press was just coming into widespread use. The pamphlets were reprinted numerous times over the thirty or so years following Vlad’s death—strong proof of their popularity.
At the time of Vlad III the princes of Moscow were just beginning to build the basis of what would become the autocracy of the czars. Just like Vlad III, they were having considerable problems with the disloyal, often troublesome boyars. In Russia, Vlad Dracula was thus presented as a cruel but just prince whose actions were intended to benefit the greater good of his people.
Romanian Oral Tradition
Legends and tales concerning Vlad the Impaler have remained a part of folklore among the Romanian peasantry. These tales have been passed down from generation to generation for five hundred years. As one might imagine, through constant retelling they have become somewhat garbled and confused and are gradually being forgotten by the younger generations. However, they still provide valuable information about Vlad Dracula and his relationship with his people.
Vlad Dracula is remembered as a just prince who defended his people from foreigners, whether those foreigners were Turkish invaders or German merchants. He is also remembered as a champion of the common man against the oppression of the boyars. A central part of the verbal tradition is Vlad’s insistence on honesty in his effort to eliminate crime and immoral behavior from the region. However, despite the more positive interpretation of his life, Vlad Dracula is still remembered as an exceptionally cruel and often capricious ruler.
Despite the differences between these various sources, there are common strains that run among them. The German and Russian pamphlets, in particular, agree remarkably as to many specifics of Vlad Dracula’s deeds. This level of agreement has led many historians to conclude that much of the information must at least to some extent be true.