|Yes, there was a real Dracula, and he was a true prince of darkness. He was Prince Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad Tepes, meaning "Vlad the Impaler." The Turks called him Kaziglu Bey, or "the Impaler Prince." He was the prince of Walachia, but, as legend suggests, he was born in Transylvania, which at that time was ruled by Hungary.
According to legend, Walachia was founded in 1290 by a Transylvanian named Radu Negru, or Rudolph the Black. Dracula's grandfather, Prince Mircea the Old, reigned from 1386 to 1418. He fought to keep Walachia independent from the Turks but was forced to pay tribute to them. He and his descendants continued to rule Walachia, but under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey).
The throne of Walachia was not necessarily passed from father to son. The prince was elected by the country's boyars, or land-owning nobles. This caused fighting among family members, assassinations, and other unpleasantness. Eventually the royal House of Basarab was split into two factions -- Mircea's descendants, and the descendants of another prince named Dan II. Dan's descendants were called the Danesti.
Mircea had an illegitimate son, Vlad, born around 1390. He grew up in the court of King Sigismund of Hungary, first probably as a hostage and later as a page. Sigismund, who became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1410, founded a secret fraternal order of knights called the Order of the Dragon to uphold Catholicism and fight Turkey. Vlad was admitted to the Order, probably in 1431. The boyars of Walachia started to call him Dracul, meaning "dragon." Vlad's second son would be known as Dracula, or "son of the dragon." Dracul also meant "devil." So some of Dracula's enemies called him "son of the devil."
Sigismund made Vlad the military governor of Transylvania, a post he held from 1431 to 1435. During that time he lived in the town of Sighisoara or Schassburg. You can still visit the citadel there and even the house where Vlad's son Dracula was born. Today there's a restaurant on the second floor. There's also a mural in the house that may depict Vlad Dracul.
Dracula was born in November or December of 1431. His given name was Vlad. He had an older brother, Mircea, and a younger brother, Radu the Handsome. Their mother may have been a Moldavian princess or a Tranyslvanian noble. It is said that she educated Dracula in his early years. Later he was trained for knighthood by an old boyar who had fought the Turks.
Dracula's father was not content to remain a mere governor forever. During his years in Transyvlania, he gathered supporters for his plan to seize Walachia's throne from its current occupant, a Danesti prince named Alexandru I. In late 1436 or early 1437 Vlad Dracul killed Alexandru and became Prince Vlad II.
Vlad was a vassal of Hungary and also had to pay tribute to Hungary's enemy, Turkey. In 1442 Turkey invaded Transylvania. Vlad tried to stay neutral, but Hungary's rulers blamed him and drove him and his family out of Walachia. A Hungarian general, Janos Hunyadi (who may have been the illegitimate son of Emperor Sigismund) made a Danesti named Basarab II the prince of Walachia.
The following year Vlad regained the throne with the help of the sultan of Turkey. In 1444 he sent his two younger sons to Turkey to prove his loyalty. Dracula was about 13. He spent the next four years in Adrianople, Turkey as a hostage.
In 1444 Hungary went to war with Turkey and demanded that Vlad join the crusade. As a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad was sworn to obey this summons. But he didn't want to anger the Turks, so he sent his eldest son, Mircea, in his place. The Christian army was demolished at the Battle of Varna, and Vlad and Mircea blamed Janos Hunyadi.
In 1447 Vlad and Mircea were murdered. Mircea was killed by the boyars and merchants of the Walachian city Tirgoviste. There are different stories about how he died - he may have been tortured and burned, or buried alive. Apparently his father died at the same time. Some say that the assassinations were organized by Hunyadi.
Since Vlad and Mircea were dead, and Dracula and Radu were still in Turkey, Hunyadi was able to put a member of the Danesti clan, Vladislav II, on the Walachian throne. The Turks didn't like having a Hungarian puppet in charge of Walachia, so in 1448 they freed Dracula and gave him an army. He was seventeen years old.
It seems that Dracula's little brother Radu chose to remain in Turkey. He had grown up there, and apparently remained loyal to the sultan.
With the help of his Turkish army, Dracula seized the Walachian throne. However, he only ruled for two months before Hunyadi forced him into exile in Moldavia. Again Vladislav II became Walachia's prince.
Three years later Prince Bogdan of Moldavia was assassinated and Dracula fled the country. By now Vladislav II had become a supporter of Turkey, and Hunyadi was sorry he had put him on the throne. Everyone switched sides - Dracula became Hunyadi's vassal, and Hunyadi now supported Dracula's attempt to regain his throne. In 1456 Hunyadi invaded Turkish Serbia while Dracula invaded Walachia. Hunyadi was killed, but Dracula killed Vladislav II and took back his throne.
He established his capital at Tirgoviste - you can still see the ruins of his palace there. And nearby a statue of Vlad Tepes still stands. He is considered an important figure in Romanian history because he unified Walachia and resisted the influence of foreigners.
But it's Dracula's cruelty that most non-Romanians remember. After becoming prince, Dracula supposedly invited many beggars and other old, sick and poor people to a banquet at his castle. When his guests had finished eating their meal and drinking a toast to him, Dracula asked them, "Would you like to be without cares, lacking nothing in this world?"
Yes, they said enthusiastically.
So Dracula had the castle boarded up and set it on fire. Nobody made it out alive - and that was the end of their problems, as he had promised. "I did this so that no one will be poor in my realm," he said.
According to another story, he invited 500 boyars to a banquet and asked them how many princes had ruled in their lifetimes. They said they had lived through many reigns. Shouting that this was their fault because of their plotting, Dracula had them all arrested on the spot. The older ones were impaled; the others were marched 50 miles to Poenari where they were forced to build a mountaintop fortress. They worked a long time; when their clothes fell off, they worked naked. Most of them died, of course. And of course Dracula seized the boyars' property and passed it out to his supporters. In that way he created a new nobility, loyal to him.
(The ruins of the Poenari fortress can still be seen. You have to climb nearly 1,500 steps and cross a little bridge to reach it. It's now called Castle Dracula, but several places are called that. Another "Castle Dracula" is Bran Castle, near the town of Brasov. Although Dracula may have stayed there occasionally, it certainly wasn't his home.)
Dracula liked to set up a banquet table and dine while he watched people die. His favorite form of execution was impalement. It was slow; people could take days to die. He liked to impale many people at once, arranging the stakes in fancy designs. Nothing was too brutal for Dracula - he enjoyed having people skinned, boiled alive, etc. He prided himself on making the punishment (supposedly) fit the crime.
By 1462, when he was deposed, he had killed between 40,000 and 100,000 people, possibly more. He always thought up some excuse for these executions. He killed merchants who cheated their customers. He killed women who had affairs. Supposedly he had one woman impaled because her husband's shirt was too short. He didn't mind impaling children, either. Afterwards he would display the corpses in public so everyone would learn a lesson. It's said that there were over 20,000 bodies hanging outside his capital city. Of course, the stories about Dracula's cruelty might have been exaggerated by his enemies.
Despite all this, Dracula's subjects respected him for fighting the Turks and being a strong ruler. He's remembered today as a patriotic hero who stood up to Turkey and Hungary. He was the last Walachian prince to remain independent from the Ottoman Empire. He was so scornful of other nations that when two foreign ambassadors refused to doff their hats to him, he had the hats nailed to their heads. He was opposed to the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches because he thought foreigners, operating through the churches, had too much power in Walachia. He tried to prevent foreign merchants from taking business away from his citizens. If merchants disobeyed his trade laws, they were, of course, impaled.
Dracula created a very severe moral code for the citizens of Walachia. You can guess what happened to anyone who broke the code. Thieves were impaled, even liars were impaled. Naturally there wasn't a lot of crime in Walachia during his reign.
To prove how well his laws worked, Dracula had a gold cup placed in a public square. Anyone who wanted to could drink from the cup, but no one was allowed to take it out of the square. No one did.
A visiting merchant once left his money outside all night, thinking that it would be safe because of Dracula's strict policies. To his surprise, some of his coins were stolen. He complained to Dracula, who promptly issued a proclamation that the money must be returned or the city would be destroyed. That night Dracula secretly had the missing money, plus one extra coin, returned to the merchant. The next morning the merchant counted the money and found it had been returned. He told Dracula about this, and mentioned the extra coin. Dracula replied that the thief had been caught and would be impaled. And if the merchant hadn't mentioned the extra coin, he would have been impaled, too.
In 1462 Dracula attacked the Turks to drive them out of the Danube River valley. Sultan Mehmed II retaliated by invading Walachia with an army three times larger than Dracula's. Dracula was forced to retreat to his capital, Tirgoviste. He burned his own villages and poisoned wells on the way so that the Turkish army wouldn't have any food or water.
When the sultan reached Tirgoviste, he saw a terrifying scene, remembered in history as "the Forest of the Impaled." There, outside the city, were 20,000 Turkish prisoners, all impaled. The sultan's officers were too scared to go on - Dracula had won again.
Although the sultan retreated, Dracula's little brother Radu did not. The Turks had provided him with an army in hopes that he could seize Dracula's throne. Many of Dracula's boyars abandoned him to join Radu. Radu's army pursued Dracula to his fortress at Poenari. Dracula's wife was so frightened that she threw herself from the upper battlements. The Turks seized the castle, but Dracula managed to escape through a secret tunnel. There were still some peasants around he hadn't impaled, and they helped him flee from Walachia.
He went to the new king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, for help. Instead the king had him imprisoned in a tower. Dracula remained in Hungary while Radu ruled Walachia as a puppet for the Turks. After the first four years he was allowed to move into a house. He became a Catholic to please the Catholic Hungarians. He ingratiated himself with the Hungarian royal family, and even married one of its members (possibly the king's cousin).
But he was still the same old Dracula. He impaled rats and birds for fun. Once a thief broke into his house and a Hungarian captain followed him to arrest him. Dracula didn't kill the thief - he killed the officer. Why? Because the officer was a gentleman, and should have known not to enter a house uninvited.
The Death of Dracula
In 1473, Dracula's brother Radu lost the Walachian throne to a member of the Danesti clan, Basarab the Old. Radu died of syphilis in January of 1475, and in 1476 Dracula invaded Walachia with the help of Moldavia and Transylvania. They drove Basarab out of the country, and Dracula again became Walachia's prince. Most of Dracula's army then went home to Transylvania.
The Turks attacked a few months later. Dracula was killed while fighting near Bucharest in December 1476. Some say he died at the hands of a Turkish assassin posing as a servant, or that he was accidentally killed on the battlefield by his own men because he had disguised himself as a Turk to confuse the enemy. The sultan displayed Dracula's head on a pike in Constantinople to prove that he was dead. His body was buried at the island monastery of Snagov, which he had patronized. But excavations in 1931 failed to turn up any sign of his coffin!
And that is the story of the real Prince Dracula.