Vlad the Impaler – The ruthless ruler of Wallachia

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.

The early life of Vlad the Impaler

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 will 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. 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.

The rise to power and his rules over Wallachia

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.

vlad the impaler portrait
Portrait of Vlad the Impaler

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 the 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.

Vlad III had three rules in Wallachia.

He reigned for a short time in 1448 when he took advantage of Vladislav II’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire and broke into Wallachia with the help of the Ottomans, but when Vladislav II returned in December, he had to flee into exile.

He invaded once again, in 1456, with Hungarian support. Vladislav II died during the invasion, and when he came to power he sent letters to the burghers of Brașov as voivode of Wallachia. He promised them protection against the Ottoman invasion of Transylvania and asked for support for when they tried to invade Wallachia.

Multiple sources said that hundreds or thousands of people were executed at Vlad Țepeș’s order when he started a purge against the boards who were involved in the murder of his father and older brother, or whom he suspected of conspiracy and of plotting against him.

Weakening the power of the nobility was an important step in assuring a long, undisturbed reign, and was also 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 the whole Europe. Vlad was described as a sadist who used to drink the blood of his enemies, which entertained himself by torturing people and enjoyed serving his meals while watching dead bodies being hanged in spikes. He was also accused of eating human flesh, which was a huge insult for an Orthodox Christian ruler like him.

The war against the Ottoman Empire and the battle against the Turks

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 very precisely the ruler’s personal records. 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.

vlad the impaler's targoviste night attack
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 a letter written by Stephen the Great, Vlad the Impaler’s body was chopped into pieces, and his head was sent to Mehmed II.

There are many stories about how safe Wallachia was during the rule of Vlad Tepes.

He undertook a vast campaign of cleansing 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 Dracula became 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 which 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 discovered how greedy the nobleman was, and he sentenced him to death through impaling.

vlad the impaler
Woodcut from a pamphlet depicting Vlad III “the Impaler” dining against his victims. Artist: Markus Ayrer

Under Vlad III’s governance, Wallachia registered great economic progress, even if the country witnessed numerous battles. There were many commercial routes between Wallachia and Transylvania, but the Saxon merchants from Transylvania supported by Matthias Corvinus 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’s prosperity. This caused a lot of anger among the Saxon merchants, but the ones who refused to respect Vlad’s rule were, of course, impaled.

So in the end, it seems that Vlad only used the impaling method to punish, and not to please himself. In fact, the method was largely used throughout all of Europe, so there was nothing so extraordinary in it. But still, Vlad III did not get his Impaler nickname for no reason, 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.

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