It's really hard to imagine what Romania would have looked like without Vlad the Impaler. Even though he is famous for being a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula, we assure you that his life story is far more interesting, and many Romanians view him as a national hero. He was one of the most respected rulers of Wallachia, a true defender of Christianity, a great warrior, and a brilliant politician. And despite being one of the cruelest rulers in Romania's history, we must not forget that he was also a man who loved and was loved, who cared for his family and his country and lived in a time of great uncertainties, war, and conspiracies.
Did you know: There is little evidence to support the fact that Vlad Tepes ever set foot in Bran Castle. Bran Castle was never in his possession, and it was used as a fortification, not as a castle for nobility.
Born in 1431 in the Sighisoara Citadel, Vlad III - later known as Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Țepeș was the son of Vlad II Dracul, who was the illegitimate son of Mircea I of Wallachia, commonly known as Mircea the Brave. There is some uncertainty regarding who his mother is, but many historians identify her as being a daughter of Alexander I of Moldavia.
Young Vlad Tepes spent the first years of his life in the Saxon town of Sighișoara, together with his family. When he was 11, his father refused to support the Ottoman invasion of Transylvania of March 1442, and Sultan Murad II ordered him to come to Gallipoli to prove his loyalty. He departed together with Vlad and his brother, Radu, and once they arrived, they were all imprisoned.
By the end of the year, their father was released, but Vlad and Radu were kept as hostages to secure the loyalty of Vlad II Dracul.
The two brothers were trained by the Ottoman Empire to become skilled warriors in the harsh conditions of the dry Anatolian Plateau, at the Egrigoz Citadel. The goal of the Ottoman Empire was to form these two princes according to their culture, so when the time would come for them to rule Wallachia, they would not rebel against the Empire. In time, Radu, who came to be known as Radu the Handsome, grew very close to Sultan Mehmed II, with some people suggesting that they were having an intimate relationship.
Vlad was profoundly disgusted by the relationship his brother had with Mehmed II, and as his hate of the Ottoman Empire grew constantly, he found a refuge in learning the arts of combat. Thus, he became an expert in handling the yataghan and the lance. Seeing all those years how the Ottomans destroyed his family, his youth, and how cruel they were in battle, determined him to do whatever was possible to become ruler of Wallachia and destroy the Ottomans.
He was set free in 1447, after the death of his father and his elder brother Mircea (which is said to have been buried alive) at the order of Iancu of Hunedoara. Finding out that their deaths were also influenced by the decisions of some noble families, Vlad promised himself that, as the ruler of Walachia, he would revenge these atrocities, and this is exactly what happened later. This was, undoubtedly, one of the most significant moments of the life of Vlad Tepes.
About the rest of Vlad the Impaler's personal life, there is little information known. Most experts say that he was married twice, while others claim that he had three wives. But what is certain is that he cared a lot for his children, even for the ones who were illegitimate. Also, it is said that he had a single true love for beautiful Katharina Siegel, the daughter of the weaver’s guild leader. Their love lasted more than 20 years until Vlad’s death, having five children, but they never had the chance to get married. But she is, undoubtedly, the one who unconditionally supported him along his way as ruler and defender of Walachia. His eldest son was born in 1462 and was named Mihnea, his second son was killed before 1486, and his third son, Vlad Drakwlya, was the forefather of the noble Drakwla family.
One of Vlad the Impaler's main fortresses was Poenari, from where he ruled for several years. The impressive Poenari Citadel had a very strategic position, which made it very difficult to siege, not to mention conquer.
Portrait of Vlad the Impaler. Photo source: Wikipedia
The fierce reputation of Vlad III grew each day, and his preference for impaling got him the famous nickname of "the Impaler." This method had an enormous impact on people's morale, as the victims did not die immediately. Surprisingly, impaling was quite an art, as there were only a couple of ways of doing it without damaging the victim’s vital organs, so they could still live several days in great pain, writhing and twitching.
* Where does Count Dracula's name come from?
Vlad the Impaler was a member of the Order of Dragon, a monarchical chivalric founded by the King of Hungary in 1408. The symbol of the Order was a dragon, and at that time, "Dracul" (devil) meant dragon. Vlad's father had been a member of the order as well and was called Vlad Dracul; therefore, his son, Vlad III was called similarly Vlad Dracula.
Vlad ruled in Walachia three times. His first reign was in 1448 and lasted only six months because he didn’t had strong support from the nobility and was rapidly banished by the previous ruler, Vladislav II. Vlad had then only 17 years old. The second reign, however, it is the most important as it lasted the most, six years, between 1456 and 1462. This is the period when Vlad affirmed himself as a fearless and merciless leader. Fourteen years later, he succeeded to regain his throne but, unfortunately, only for a short period of time as he was killed during a battle. Even if he did not reign for many years, his actions and his powerful personality have left a strong mark in the minds of the entire population. Undoubtedly, he was remembered as cruel, violent, and sadistic and this fame of his lasts even today.
But was Vlad indeed a despot? According to many historians, he surely was. Apart from all his measures taken in order to protect his country and punish the criminals, he used many dreadful means of torture. He often ordered people to be skinned, boiled, decapitated, blinded, strangled, hanged, burned, roasted, hacked, nailed, buried alive, or stabbed. He also liked to cut off the victim’s nose, ears, genitals, or tongue. These methods were clearly used to impress, to gain the respect of both his people and his enemy and no doubt, there were usual for that time. But Vlad was also paranoiac and revengeful.
He never forgot that his father and his elder brother were killed with the help of certain noble families, so he took care to revenge their death and also, he took drastic measures to assure its own safety. The elimination of the mistrustful nobles was done successively during his reigns. He managed to kill through impaling over 500 noblemen along with their entire families. Also, he selected the bravest soldiers for his personal army and maintained their loyalty by offering them not only money but lands and houses and gold.
Weakening the power of the nobility was an important step in assuring a long undisturbed reign and also was an efficient way of telling the world that he doesn’t obey anyone. But his cruelty was also seen as a weakness. The vengeful Saxon merchants and later, their descendants, took care to portray Vlad in horrifying postures that disgusted entire Europe. Vlad was described as a sadist who used to drink the blood of his enemies, which amused torturing people or enjoyed serving the meals watching dead bodies hanged in spires. He was also accused of eating human flesh, which was a huge insult for an Orthodox Christian ruler like him. Even if all those writings meant to discredit Vlad, no one could tell for sure if they are completely false or not.
Vampires and werewolves, immortal counts, and mysterious places are, apparently, some of the most long-lasting themes of Hollywood, and the recent huge success of movies Twilight or Blade is just the top of the iceberg. There is a constant fascination about vampires that seems to defy time easily.
Undoubtedly, Vlad the Impaler and his “avatar” Count Dracula, deserve the most credits for having induced such great appetite for stories were excitement and terror are top of the list. And we must confess that life without Dracula would be pretty dull. So, thank you, Mr. Bram Stoker, for having written the novel that may be easily considered the one who changed the “lives” of vampires forever! And it also changed the status of Romania, which rapidly came out of the crowd becoming the more or less official country of all vampires. Nowadays, both Vlad the Impaler’s life and the places related to him are seen not only as historical evidence but also as the real roots of fascinating Dracula.
Labeling Vlad as a human flesh-eater, sadist, merciless, and Devil worshiper, especially by the Saxons and the Ottomans chroniclers of XV-XVII centuries, can be considered one of the first, best, vast and long-lasting campaigns of negative branding ever. These papers are, in fact, the birth certificates of future Dracula and other vampires like Lestat or Armand from The Vampire Chronicles series of Anne Rice.
So, there are many writings about the life and personality of Vlad the Impaler, but the majority of them are concentrated on Vlad’s vicious reputation. Michael Beheim, a German writer contemporary with Vlad, wrote in 1463 his Dracula poem, which framed the leader in very dark colors. More than one hundred years later, the German poet Fischaret wrote Flohhatz, describing Dracula walking among dead peoples enjoying his meal. In 1804, Johann Christian Engel, in his book The History of Moldavia and Wallachia, described Vlad as a merciless despot, and many claim that this paper was one of the main sources of inspiration for Bram Stoker and his famous character Count Dracula. But the story goes on, and the legendary Dracula seems to be restless as in 2005, a new book based on Vlad the Impaler’s life and Dracula myth was published. The Historian, the debut novel of American Elizabeth Johnson Kostova, has finally brought a balance between fiction and real history, and the novel had great success.
Vlad the Impaler seems to be an endless source of inspiration, and even if almost all the writings depict him in unfavorable contexts, he still succeeds somehow to fascinate us through his unique and versatile personality.
The Ottoman war started when Vlad refused to pay tribute to the Sultan. The Ottoman Empire was furious because a prince raised by them grew rebellious, so Sultan Mehmed II decided to put an end to it. He delegated two of his most loyal men to go to Wallachia and plan Vlad's assassination, but Țepeș found out and impaled them and their armies. And thus, the fierce reputation of Vlad the Impaler as a ruthless ruler began.
Vlad's court chroniclers noted the ruler's personal records very precisely. In Oblucitia and Nevoselo, 1.350 Ottomans were impaled, 6.840 in Dirstor, Catal, and Dripotrom, 630 at Turtucaia, 6.414 in Giurgiu, 1.460 in Rahova, 749 in Novigrad and Šištovica, and 210 in Marotiu, of both sexes and all ages.
The beginning of the war couldn’t have been better for Vlad.
But by far the most famous battle between Vlad III the Impaler and Mehmed II took place in 1462 when a great Ottoman army of more than 250,000 people was defeated by Vlad’s army of no more than 30,000 men including young boys.
Vlad harassed the Ottomans with many unexpected night attacks and constantly destroyed their possible food sources and poisoned the water wells, thus leading to a demoralized Ottoman army.
On the night of June 16, Vlad the Impaler, together with a handful of men, organized a night attack on the Ottoman army. They entered the enemy camp disguised as Turks and attempted to capture or assassinate the Sultan. Even though they didn't succeed, the Turks started killing each other because of the confusion created by the disguise of Vlad's force.
The night attack at Târgoviște. Painting by Theodor Aman.
The Ottoman army continued their march towards Târgoviște, but when they arrived there, to their surprise, the town was deserted. Instead of a Wallachian army, they found a forest of 20.000 impaled corpses of men, women, and children. This determined Sultan Mehmed II to retreat, saying that "it was not possible to deprive of his country a man who had done such great deeds, who had such a diabolical understanding of how to govern his realm and his people."
So, Mehmed II retreated, and left Radu the Handsome, Vlad's younger brother, to fight for the throne of Wallachia.
There were many battles between the two brothers, and even though Vlad defeated Radu several times, impaling over 30.000 Ottoman soldiers, Radu gained the support of the noblemen.
A very unfavorable political context sealed the end of Vlad’s leadership, and he was imprisoned by Matthias Corvinus. His imprisonment caused unrest among Pope Pius II and the Venetians, who had financed Vlad's campaigns against the Ottoman Empire, so Matthias Corvinus forged a series of letters allegedly written by Vlad Tepes. According to these, Vlad Tepes agreed to work together with Mehmed II in order to defeat the Hungarian army, under the condition that he will return to the throne.
After 14 long years spent in imprisonment, Matthias Corvinus recognized Vlad as the lawful prince of Wallachia and freed him, but without providing him with military assistance to recapture his principality.
In 1476 on July 26, Mehmed II invaded Moldavia and defeated Stephen the Great at the Battle of Valea Alba. But in response, Vlad Tepes together with Stephen Batory, attacked Moldavia and forced the sultan to renounce his siege of the Neamt Citadel. Later that year, Matthias Corvinus, the King of Hungary, ordered the Saxons of Transylvania to support Stephen Bathory's invasion of Wallachia together with Stephen the Great.
In October, Vlad Tepes and Stephen the Great confirmed their alliance, and they forced Basarab Laiota, who was the Voivode of Wallachia, to flee to the Ottoman Empire, by occupying Bucharest.
In December, Basarab Laiota invaded Wallachia with support from the Ottoman Empire, and Vlad was killed in battle. According to the letter written by Stephen the Great, Vlad the Impaler's body was chopped into pieces, and his head was sent to Mehmed II.
Vlad III is usually described as a very cruel and violent man, enjoying killing and torturing his enemies. At least, this is his worldwide reputation, and the connections with the bloody Count Dracula are just maintaining this idea. But Vlad III had a much complex personality, and this image of a merciless warrior is just one piece of the puzzle. In fact, Romanians remember him as a fair leader, brave and very intelligent so, despite his cruel methods of punishment, he was truly respected by his people. We must not forget that being a prisoner of the Ottomans for so many years and seeing lots of horrible things as a young boy changed dramatically his character and his way of seeing life in general. But one thing is sure; he loved justice and used whatever means possible to discourage any kind of crimes.
Woodcut from a pamphlet depicting Vlad III "the Impaler" dining against his victims. Artist: Markus Ayrer
There are many stories about how safe Walachia was during his command. He undertook a vast campaign of “cleaning” the country of all the thieves, murderers, rapists and beggars, and even if the methods used were quite extreme, they worked and so, Vlad III become one of the most feared-loved rulers of all times. The most representative story in this regard is that of the famous gold cup from a public fountain that was freely used by everyone but never stolen during Vlad’s leadership. There is also a legend telling how Vlad wanted to test the honesty of one of his noblemen, so he ordered someone to rob him of 50 gold coins. The next day, as expected, the nobleman came to Vlad to complain, but he said he was robbed of 100 gold coins instead of 50. So, this way, Vlad figured out immediately of how greedy and liar was actually the noblemen, so he sentenced him to death through impaling.
Under Vlad III's governance, Walachia registered great economic progress even if the country witnessed many battles. Between Walachia and Transylvania, there were also many commercial routes, but the Saxon merchants from Transylvania, supported by Mathias Corvine, the King of Hungary, wanted to be tax-free in Vlad’s country. This was obviously in detriment of the Romanian merchants, so Vlad decided to continue taxing the Saxons, so he could support his own people to prosper. This caused, of course, a lot of complaints, and the Saxons refused to respect Vlad’s rules, so as habit, anyone not obeying the low was immediately impaled.
So far, it seems that Vlad only used the impaling method to punish and not to please himself. In fact, the method was largely used throughout entire Europe, so there was nothing so extraordinary in it. But still, Vlad III got his Impaler nickname for nothing, didn’t he?
If you want to discover even more about the legend of Dracula, and how the connection between the Wallachian voivode and the vampire lord was created, book a day trip to Bran Castle and take a tour of the real-life Castle of Dracula.