The European country of Romania has always been a source of wonder and curiosity. Its central region, Transylvania, is often named the country’s most famous attraction. Irish writer Bram Stoker immersed himself in one of Transylvania’s biggest legends, and the result was the timeless horror masterpiece Dracula.
The character of Dracula has been a popular fixture in pop culture for decades. He first came to light after Stoker published his fictional novel of the same name back in 1897. Since then, his legacy has shaped the vampire mythology we know today. From countless movies, television series, and even conspiracy theories, humankind’s fascination with Dracula certainly looks like it’s not going to fade anytime soon.
Dracula may have been a genius work of pure fiction, but the historical figure Stoker took inspiration from is far more terrifying. Vlad III goes by a lot of names, but Vlad the Impaler is perhaps the most fitting among all of it. The sinister and somehow morbid nickname has its own dark origins.
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The History of Vlad the Impaler
Birth and Early Life
Way before he became a fixture in vampire folklore, Vlad was believed to be born around 1428 to 1431. In fictional literature, he was directly linked to Transylvania, but historians are quick to note that not everything you read in Stoker’s novel was real.
Florin Curta, a distinguished professor of medieval history at the University of Florida, stated that while Vlad may have been born in Transylvania, he did not reside in the historical castle.
Many people have concluded that the Wallachian prince had spent his days in Bran Castle located on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia, but that is merely something that highly imaginative tourists came up with. In reality, Vlad III, like his ancestors before him, was said to have resided in Sighișoara, Transylvania. Curta went on to note that the conqueror had not spent a single day in the aforementioned castle.
An in-depth look into Vlad III’s childhood can be quite a challenge. There are no precise records about his real mother. It was only stated that she was likely Vlad II’s unknown first wife or a kinswoman of Alexander I of Moldavia.
The Order of the Dragon
Vlad II was inducted into the Order of the Dragon shortly after his son’s birth. He was given the honor by none other than King Sigismund of Hungary, who would later become the Holy Roman Emperor. After being appointed, Vlad earned a new surname, Dracul, which was an old Romanian word for dragon. These days, the word was derived to represent a more terrible creature: the devil.
As a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad was part of a crusade against the Ottoman Empire. His home in Wallachia was a common fixture for brutal war scenes, but Vlad continued to dedicate his life to the order, so he fought relentlessly in each battle.
Entrapment and Captivity
Vlad II, together with his sons Radu and Vlad III, were slated to attend a diplomatic meeting with Sultan Murad II. The family walked straight into their enemy’s trap and were forced to make an agreement. Both Radu and Vlad III were handed over to Murad to ensure that their father remained loyal to the Ottomans during the ongoing war.
Despite being political prisoners, the boys were treated well by their captors. They were trained in the art of war and received lessons in both horsemanship and swordsmanship. This piece of information was verified by historians and former professors at Boston College, Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, who both penned several books on Vlad the Impaler.
While Radu adjusted to life in captivity, the younger Vlad remained bitter over his current situation. It was also rumored that his stay with the Ottomans shaped him to become the feared Vlad the Impaler in the future, but that claim is yet to verified.
Still, it did not change how the adolescent boy felt in the hands of his enemy, and this later became one of his motivations for leading a battalion against them when he was of age.
Vlad the Prince
The Fall of the Dracula
John Hunyadi, voivode (or warlord) of Transylvania, traveled to Wallachia to start a campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Vlad II lent his support by sending 4,000 horsemen to fight against the Ottoman fortress at Giurgiu. But the following year, he avoided war and once again made peace with the Ottoman Empire. As a result of his supposed betrayal, Hunyadi invaded Wallachia and drove Vlad and his army out of the castle. Vlad II was later killed alongside his other son Mircea in a nearby village in Târgoviște.
The distressing events only fired Vlad III’s desire to avenge the death of his father and elder brother. With their demise, he became a potential candidate for the throne of Wallachia. To obtain this, Vlad had to team up with Ottoman governors to overthrow Wallachia’s current leader, Vladislav II.
His risk proved to be successful, to say the least, but his time as ruler of Wallachia was short-lived. Vladislav II returned to Wallachia with the aid of Hunyadi, and together, they ousted Vlad III from the throne.
The events that followed were poorly documented. Not many people know what the conqueror in the making was up to between the years 1448 and 1456. It was most likely that Vlad III was planning his next big move.
The first thing he chose to give up was his previous ties with the Ottoman governors. After this decision, he obtained military support from King Ladislaus V of Hungary. The two had a common enemy: Vladislav II of Wallachia.
Vlad’s invasion eventually led to the demise of Vladislav II. It did, however, come at an inconvenient time as Ottomans were poised to invade all of Europe following the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Vlad was asked to pay an annual tribute to the Ottoman sultan as a result of the historic event, and this was to sign a peace treaty between Wallachia and the Ottomans.
Vlad the Impaler
During his time on Earth, no one would ever dare to call him Vlad the Impaler. But seeing how he abused his power as voivode, it is easy to see how such a terrible name would stick throughout history.
According to legend, Vlad had invited hundreds of boyars to a banquet only to lead them to their own deaths. He ordered his guards to stab them in the back and impale their still-moving bodies on spikes while he feasted on the rest of his meal.
This was not the only gruesome tale that rose after Vlad’s death, hundreds of stories surrounding his sadistic escapades began circulating around. Others made its way to publications and pretty soon, printed copies of his brutal exploits were released for the world to see.
Another gruesome tale involved the impaling of a dozen Saxon merchants in Kronstadt (now Brașov, Romania). They were said to have allied with the boyars, hence were considered to be enemies by the infamous leader. To continue his reign of terror, Vlad the Impaler allegedly punished a group of Ottoman envoys when they declined to remove their turbans during an audience with him. He did so by ensuring their turbans remain in their heads forever by having it nailed directly to their skulls.
It is not clear whether these claims were true or not, but they seem to specifically have one motive: to damage the image of Vlad III. But it is important to note that not all published tales about Vlad were terrible, as some publications such as the 1490 book The Tale of Dracula, painted Vlad III to be a fierce yet just ruler.
While historians can never really pinpoint the accuracy of these sources, they are eerily consistent with one another, leading many to believe that Vlad’s violent tendencies could have at least been partially true.
According to historical records:
“After Mehmet II—the one who conquered Constantinople—invaded Wallachia in 1462, he actually was able to go all the way to Wallachia’s capital city of Târgoviște but found it deserted. And in front of the capital he found the bodies of the Ottoman prisoners of war that Vlad had taken—all impaled.”
Vlad the Impaler’s death
Mehmet II was responsible for putting an end to Vlad’s reign. He was imprisoned and sentenced to number of years in exile, during which he married and had two children. His brother, Radu, took over his place as leader of Wallachia following his trial and eventual imprisonment.
Rulers of nearby principalities were quick to call for Vlad’s return as leader after Radu’s death in 1475 despite his diabolic means. He successfully took back the throne and marched straight to yet another battle with the Ottomans. But this ambition and lust for power proved to be his Achilles’ heel, and he was killed in battle.
With that piece of information, it is easy to see how different Vlad was from his fictional adaptation. Unlike Stoker’s Count Dracula, Vlad III was confirmed to have died together with the disturbing stories of murder that plagued him his whole life.
Vlad III was buried in the monastery church in Snargov, although it was disputed that his remains are at rest at the Monastery of Comana, between Bucharest and the Danube, the very place where his life ended.
Legacy and Folklore
Acts of violence
Claims on Vlad the Impaler’s evil deeds were strengthened after the publication of a poem titled “Von ainem wutrich der heis Trakle waida von der Walachei” (Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia). It was written by Meistersinger Michael Beheim and was later performed before the court of Frederick III. The harrowing work includes details on how Vlad assisted the deaths of two monks so they could go to heaven. It also states how Vlad was deceitful toward Beheim after he promised support to Mehmed II but failed to live up to his promise.
More stories surrounding Vlad’s violence began to surface. Gabriele Rangoni, Bishop of Eger, recorded how Vlad would catch rats and stick them on small pieces of wood during his stay in prison. Antonio Bonfini also wrote about Vlad in his Historia Pannonica: Sive Hungaricarum Rerum Decades IV where he described the latter as “a man of unheard of cruelty and justice.”
. . . Turkish messengers came to [Vlad] to pay respects but refused to take off their turbans, according to their ancient custom, whereupon he strengthened their custom by nailing their turbans to their heads with three spikes so that they could not take them off. (Bonfini, 1568)
Vlad’s cruelty was published in literary works in Low German before 1480. They provide an in-depth look into Vlad’s conflict with the Transylvanian Saxons. The stories were said to have been written during the early 1460s, as they detail Vlad’s campaign across the Danube in early 1462. However, they fail to recognize Mehmed II’s invasion of Wallachia in the same year.
The stories were believed to be based on eyewitness accounts due to the accuracy of each detail. They describe Vlad as a psychopath, sadist, murder, and masochist, even stating that his character was far worse than that of Caligula and Nero. But historians have warned that many of the published tales were likely to be exaggerated by the Saxons due to their dislike to Vlad the Impaler.
Tales of Vlad’s horrific ventures turned out to be a profitable business for publishers around Europe as many of his stories wound up to be bestsellers. A lot of the works contained horrific drawings that featured Vlad at the center of all of them. An example of which is the work below where Vlad is seen dining at a table while being surrounded by impaled bodies.
. . . [Vlad] had a big copper cauldron built and put a lid made of wood with holes in it on top. He put the people in the cauldron and put their heads in the holes and fastened them there, then he filled it with water and set a fire under it and let the people cry their eyes out until they were boiled to death. And then he invented frightening, terrible, unheard of tortures. He ordered that women be impaled together with their suckling babies on the same stake. The babies fought for their lives at their mother’s breasts until they died. Then he had the women’s breasts cut off and put the babies inside headfirst; thus he had them impaled together.
—About a mischievous tyrant called Dracula vodă (No. 12–13)
Vlad the Impaler: A National Hero?
The Cantacuzino Chronicle became the first Romanian published work to document the tale of Vlad the Impaler. They provided emphasis on the impalement of the old boyars of Târgoviște after Vlad sought revenge for his brother’s murder. Following this act of cruelty, he forced the younger boyars to build Poenari Castle, which now stands as a ruined structure in the outskirts of Romania.
Constantin Rădulescu-Codin, a teacher from Muscel County, published a legend surrounding Vlad’s letter of grant for villagers who helped him escape from Poenari Castle during the invasion of Wallachia. Furthermore, it was stated that Vlad’s violent acts were only done to secure order in Wallachia, and as a result of his supposedly “just actions,” many of his people chose to admire him.
Rădulescu-Codin’s work was not the only one that admired Vlad’s political choices. In fact, a lot of Romanian artists have regarded him as a ruler who served justice to those who opposed the law. Some of the most notable publications are the following:
- Ion budai-Deleanu‘sȚiganiada (Gypsy Epic), where Vlad the Impaler is portrayed as a hero who fought tirelessly against the boyars, Ottomans, and strigoi (vampires that represented armies of evil)
- Dimitrie Bolintineanu‘s Battles of the Romanians, which paid homage to Vlad’s triumphs
- Mihai Eminescu‘s “The Third Letter,” which is addressed to the princes of Wallachia, including Vlad
- Theodor Man‘s painting, which glorified Vlad the Impaler’s actions
An excerpt from Mihai Eminescu’s poem “The Third Letter” reads,
You must come, O dread Impaler, confound them to your care.
Split them in two partitions, here the fools, the rascals there;
Shove them into two enclosures from the broad daylight enisle ’em,
Then set fire to the prison and the lunatic asylum.
Up until the 19th century, Romanian historians have revered Vlad and have not shied away from calling him one of the greatest Romanian rulers in history. His acts of violence and title as Vlad the Impaler have ignited national attention, with many coming to his defense.
Constantin C. Giurescu, a professor at the University of Bucharest, remarked that Vlad the Impaler’s torturous actions were always verified, despite their violent nature.
Vlad the Impaler may have had quite the rich history, but he will forever be embedded in pop culture as the man who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was said that Stoker made the connection between Vlad and vampirism after reading books centering around Transylvanian history, such as William Wilkinson‘s Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them as well as Emily Gerard‘s collection of Romanian folklore.