In 1897 London stage manager–turned-author Bram Stoker had an international bestseller on his hands with his novel about a vampiric Transylvanian count named Vlad Dracula. The inspiration for Stoker’s doomed romantic antihero was a fifteenth-century Romanian prince. But the real Vlad was far more of a monster than any Victorian gothic novelist could have imagined.
Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-76), known in his day as "Vlad the Impaler," is one of the unsavory characters I profile in ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds, coming to you from NAL on March 1, 2011. He is one of the few royals in the book who scores the perfect trifecta of nouns referred to in my subtitle.
Capricious, vicious, and malicious, Vlad Dracula was born in the citadel of Sighişoara, Transylvania, to an exiled member of the Wallachian nobility, known as Vlad II, and his wife, a Moldavian princess.
In the Middle Ages Wallachia (now the southern part of Romania) was a principality located to the immediate south of Transylvania, separated by the rugged Carpathian Mountains.
In 1431, the year of little Vlad’s birth, dad Vlad had taken an oath to protect and defend the Holy Roman Empire against the encroaching Ottomans, becoming one of only twenty-four knights in Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund’s Societas Draconis, or Order of the Dragon. This meant that the elder Vlad was permitted to spiff up his knightly wardrobe and accessories with the emblem of a dragon and was henceforth known to his people as Vlad Dracul—Vlad the Dragon, in Romanian.
When he returned home to Wallachia he discovered that his half brother Alexander Aldea had usurped his throne. On the outs with his people, not to mention his own family, Vlad senior fled to Sighişoara, a walled medieval city, fortified by guard towers at its gates. It was there that his second son, baby Vlad, was born.
From his own father, little Vlad, called Vlad Drăculea or Dracula—“son of Vlad the Dragon”—would learn the hard way that vows were made to be broken.
Young Vlad lived in a world where three vast empires vied for dominion over the geography as well as the religion of its subjects. Most of western Europe was part of the Holy Roman Empire, which practiced Roman Catholicism. Wallachia and Transylvania were located in the increasingly shrinking Byzantine Empire, a realm that incorporated elements of the exotic East and the Christian West, practicing a religion known as Eastern Orthodoxy.
In 1436, when little Vlad was barely five years old, his father decided it was high time to reclaim his throne. The only problem with this grand idea was that he lacked the forces to do it. Although Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund offered his moral support, no military support was forthcoming. So Vlad Dracul formed a strategic alliance with princes Ilias and Stefan of neighboring Moldavia. The price for their support was that the elder Dracul should espouse their sister Eupraxia (and begin a new family with her).
Obviously, that meant he’d have to ditch his current wife, the mother of little Vlad and his older brother Mircea, even though she had also been a Moldavian princess (albeit from a family that had fallen from power). Evidently Vlad didn’t think this was such an onerous demand. Historians assume that she was sent packing—possibly back to her parents—and out of her young sons’ lives forever.
With the aid of Moldavian troops, Vlad senior marched into Wallachia’s capital city of Târgovişte. After grabbing the crown from his dying half brother, he relocated his family, which by now included little Vlad’s baby half brother, Radu the Handsome.”
In Wallachia, Vlad junior received the typical education of a medieval princeling, tutored by an old boyar, a noble from the realm’s ruling class. The boy learned literature and languages and the skills required to become a knight. That same year, 1436, although he would not turn five until November, Vlad Dracula was initiated into the Order of the Dragon. He would grow up to be the ruthless son of a ruthless father.
The elder Vlad had a fluid concept of loyalty. He routinely cut deals with his enemies and consistently betrayed his friends. After Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund died in 1437, Vlad violated his oath to defend the empire and instead signed a peace treaty with the Holy Roman Empire’s archenemies, the Ottoman Turks. Their combined forces promptly invaded Transylvania.
But the new emperor had a champion, János Hunyadi, a Hungarian nicknamed “the white knight.” In 1441 Hunyadi journeyed to Târgovişte to parlay with the elder Vlad, inviting him to join a crusade against the Turks. Vlad hedged his bets, as he often would (a tactic his namesake would adopt as well), and opted to remain neutral, blithely looking the other way as the Ottoman army invaded Transylvania.
But Hunyadi successfully repelled their forces. For good measure he kicked Vlad senior off his throne and out of Wallachia. When Vlad fled to the Turks seeking asylum, they imprisoned him instead. He must have been surprised to learn that everyone else was as duplicitous as he was.
Having handily sacrificed his first wife to political expedience, Vlad didn’t blink when one of the terms of his release in 1443 was the forfeit of his two youngest sons, Vlad and Radu, as hostages.
The two boys found themselves imprisoned in a fortress seven hundred miles away while their double-crossing father was permitted to return home and reclaim his title as prince of Wallachia.
The youthful Vlad proved himself to be quite the astute student, alertly observing events around him. While he was a captive in Turkey he picked up some nifty tips on torture and mutilation and witnessed his first impalements. This method of execution commonly practiced by the Ottomans would eventually become the Wallachian prince’s bloody and brutal signature.
In 1446, at the age of sixteen, Vlad Dracula was released. But he would never see his traitorous father again. At the end of December 1447, Vlad received the news that his father and elder half-brother had been brutally murdered by a rival clan. Vlad’s young life now had a purpose: to avenge their murders.
In September 1448, while Hunyadi was busy launching yet another crusade against the Turks, Vlad Dracula seized his opportunity to grab the throne of Wallachia without a fight. But his triumph was short-lived, and by the end of the year, the barely seventeen-year-old Vlad was both homeless and throneless. The next few years were fraught with political assassinations and ever-shifting alliances.
In 1451 Vlad found himself on the run from Hunyadi’s army for several months, yet the following year, the Hungarian leader changed his tune entirely, offering the twenty-year-old Vlad a job guarding the southern border of the Holy Roman Empire from the threat of Turkish invasion. Vlad spent the better part of the next five years on the battlefield.
Bubonic plague was sweeping the region, and citizens were fleeing in droves. On August 11, 1456, Hunyadi, too, became a victim of the deadly disease. It was sweet revenge. But Dracula was far from satisfied. Everyone who’d had any connection to the deaths of his relatives would pay the price. Vlad seized the opportunity to grab the throne. He marched over the Transylvanian mountains with a modest force and confronted Vladislav II on the battlefield. His adversary retreated but was cut down on August 20 by Dracula’s supporters.
Vlad entered Wallachia’s capital city, Târgovişte, in August 1456. Taking up residence in the stone castle where he had spent his boyhood, he declared himself prince.
As Prince of Wallachia, Vlad began to make peace treaties with his neighbors and even agreed to pay the Turkish sultan an annual tribute, permitting Mohammed’s armies to march through Wallachia on the way toward distant territorial conquests. However, the new voivode was far less welcoming to the boyars, Wallachia’s aristocratic, landowning ruling class who for centuries had been accustomed to sharing power with whoever happened to be prince. They had long made trouble for the voivodes by seeking to control the workings of the government themselves.
On Easter Sunday, 1457, Vlad invited two hundred boyars and their families to an enormous feast. His guards surrounded the boyars as they were getting up from the table. Vlad scanned their faces in an effort to guess their ages, or asked them pointed questions about how many princes’ reigns they had lived through. He was trying to determine who among them was old enough to have participated in the plot ten years earlier to oust his family from Wallachia, and who might have had a hand in the assassination of his father and brother.
Several dozen of the older boyars were immediately ushered outside and taken to a place beyond the city walls, where one by one they were impaled upon stakes. The ground became stained with blood. But Vlad wasn’t finished. Instead of leaving the mangled corpses where they lay, he had their bodies artistically arranged in rows along the hillside as a warning to other would-be traitors. The site soon became known as the Forest of the Impaled.
What emerged as Vlad’s favorite method of dispatching his enemies was a particularly slow and brutal form of torture and death. Vlad Dracula was by no means the only medieval ruler to favor impalement (the Turks used it to great effect as well), but he was certainly the only autocrat to raise it to an art form, and it was observed that he took particular enjoyment in it.
Vlad’s overweening distaste for the aristocracy led to his preferment and promotion of members of the laboring classes. He drew from the lower ranks of society to staff the three types of defense forces he created to police his principality: The viteji was the military unit that would lead the Wallachian army into foreign wars. The sluji were Vlad’s national guard, also in charge of chasing criminals and flushing out his domestic political enemies. And the force that no one wanted to encounter was the armasi—Vlad’s institutionalized execution force. The armasi were highly trained in various forms of weaponry, but the tool they wielded with the most zeal and frequency was the stake, the hallmark of Vlad’s cruelty. For this the prince would eventually earn the nickname Vlad Tepes, or “Vlad the Impaler” in Romanian. He was an equal opportunity impaler as well. His victims came from all walks of Wallachian life, from corrupt noble to cheating merchant to petty thief.
Another cornerstone of Vlad’s reign was his crackdown on morality, with a particular focus on maintaining female chastity. Adulteresses as well as unmarried girls and widows who deigned to have sex had their breasts hacked off or were impaled on a hot stake inserted into their vaginas and forced through their body until it emerged from their mouths. Even Vlad’s mistress (so much for his own morality!) wasn’t spared. After her purported pregnancy turned out to be either a lie or merely a false alarm, he slit her open from belly to breasts, and declared, “Let the world see where I have been.” Vlad allowed her to wallow in her agony, contemplating what he saw as her falsehood as she suffered a painfully slow demise.
But Vlad’s brutal treatment of his mistress wasn’t personal; he was equally cruel to complete strangers, if he judged the women guilty of immorality. Before one man’s unfaithful wife was impaled, she was skinned alive in Târgovişte’s public square, and her skin was set aside on a nearby table for all to gawk over. A peasant woman was impaled for being an indifferent housekeeper after Vlad encountered her shabbily attired husband. To compensate the man for his loss, Dracula found the widower a new wife, but first he made sure to show her what he’d done to her predecessor for failing to properly look after her mate.
What did Vlad’s own wife think of this, one wonders. Somewhere along the line, he did acquire a spouse, though historians differ as to her origin. She may have been a Moldavian noblewoman or she may have been a highborn Transylvanian. In any case, her opinion, if she dared to voice one, is as lost to posterity as her name, although she was reputed to be lovely, innocent, and kind. Their marriage was most likely an arranged (or forced) one, and it is doubtful that she had any choice in the matter.
Unsurprisingly, Vlad’s method of ruling with an iron fist (or stake) didn’t thrill everyone. The peace he had made with the neighboring Transylvanian cities of Brasov and Sibiu upon claiming the throne didn’t last long. Within the year many of the citizens revolted against his tyranny. Most of the rebels were Saxon German craftsmen who had been accustomed to trading freely in Wallachia and who therefore objected strenuously to the high tariffs Vlad had imposed on their wares.
The Impaler decided to teach the Saxon upstarts a lesson. He stopped their carts at the borders and had the goods inspected. He made the items available to Wallachian merchants for next to nothing. And when the craftsmen objected, Vlad’s troops descended on their villages like Cossacks, pillaging, looting, and burning them to the ground. The following year, 1458, he decreed that any Transylvanian villagers caught sheltering his enemies be mercilessly slaughtered.
The few Germans who somehow managed to survive the first wave of the 1457 onslaught were marched back to Târgovişte, where they were impaled. Those who were lucky enough to have evaded Vlad’s grasp fled to Austria and other regions within the Holy Roman Empire. There, they spread stories of Vlad’s brutality. One of these colorful narratives opens with the words: “Here begins a very cruel, frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves.”
Thanks to the printing press, the German pamphlets received widespread distribution during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, perpetrating the image of a bloodthirsty psychopath long after Vlad was dead and buried. According to another booklet, “He had some of his people buried up to the navel and had them shot at. He also had some roasted and flayed. . . . He had a large pot made and boards with holes fastened over it and had people’s heads shoved through there and imprisoned them in this. And he had the pot filled with water and a big fire made under the pot and thus let the people cry out pitiably until they were boiled to death. . . . About three hundred gypsies came into his country. Then he selected the best three of them and had them roasted; these the others had to eat.”
During the winter of 1459, Vlad launched what would be the most vicious raid of his reign thus far. On the hunt for an enemy, Dan III of Transylvania, he burned the town of Brasov to cinders, refusing to spare even its church. Then he impaled everyone he could find regardless of their age or gender. Surrounded by their dead and dying bodies, he sat down to enjoy a hearty dinner. An extant woodcut commemorates this grisly event. And perhaps this is where the legend of Vlad Dracula drinking the blood of his victims began—with the widespread assertion that he had dipped his bread in the blood of these massacred Transylvanians.
Having unsuccessfully led a revolt against Vlad, Dan III met a gruesome fate as well. Vlad caught up with him, and invited the man to his own funeral, where he made Dan recite his own eulogy and dig his own grave. Then Vlad beheaded him.
In 1461 Vlad decided to stage an attack against the Turks, cutting a bloody swath through Bulgaria, beheading and burning his victims. He kept meticulous tallies of the numbers of people he slaughtered in each town he ravaged. The total number of deaths in some places reached nearly seven thousand—probably close to the entire population of some of the villages. In the winter a surprise raid along the southern bank of the Danube considerably raised his body count. Vlad couldn’t resist the urge to brag about his bloody triumphs to the Hungarian king. “I have killed men and women, old and young . . . 23,884 Turks and Bulgarians without counting those whom we burned alive in their homes or whose heads were not chopped off by our soldiers.”
As proof, he sent along samples of his handiwork: two sacks stuffed with heads, ears, and noses.
With a force of 60,000 men at arms, the Turkish sultan, Mohammed II, launched a counterattack against Vlad in the spring of 1462. Vlad was outmanned militarily but he managed to repulse the sultan by repelling him. An unknown Turkish chronicler wrote of the sight that greeted the Muslims upon their arrival at the gates of the capital city of Târgovişte: that of twenty thousand impaled corpses.
The sultan turned back, but assigned one of his military leaders (who just happened to be Vlad’s half brother, Radu, now a Muslim convert) to lead the Turkish forces in Wallachia. “Radu the Handsome,” as he was known, managed to convince the terrified Wallachians to abandon their bloodthirsty prince and declared himself voivode of Wallachia, putting Vlad on the run. The sadist was out of allies. He managed to reach Castle Dracula by the end of 1462, but Radu’s forces followed him. What supposedly happened next may belong more to the realm of legend, or at least apocrypha, because the specific feat of archery at the core of the story is virtually impossible to achieve.
Vlad was purportedly tipped off that Radu’s army was waiting for him. The informant was a former servant of Vlad’s who was now a Turkish slave. This brave slave is said to have fired an arrow from the ground (near the army’s camp, presumably) that managed to sail through just the right window (and medieval turrets have narrow arrow slits for windows), landing—thwomp—in the middle of a candle, as the whoosh of air extinguished the flame. The virtuous but unnamed Mrs. Vlad, noticing that the candle was out, went to relight it and discovered a note attached to the arrow shaft, warning Vlad that his half brother had the castle staked out.
Unwilling to be taken prisoner by Radu and the Turks, Vlad’s wife threw herself from the turret into the riverbed below. Vlad then fled the castle with Mihnea and twelve of his retainers; but when the boy’s horse was spooked by cannon fire, leaving the child clinging to his mane, Vlad pressed on and never looked back. His goal was to meet up with the king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, and demand the king’s aid in exchange for having defended his territory in the past.
But Matthias didn’t exactly welcome Vlad with open arms. Instead he threw him in prison, The Impaler spent the next twelve years in Buda as Matthias’s prisoner in a fortress known as Solomon’s Tower. To keep his talent for torture from becoming rusty, Vlad allegedly amused himself by brutalizing rodents and birds in his cell.
Accounts regarding the duration of Vlad’s incarceration vary. His twentieth-century biographer Radu Florescu believes that Dracula actually spent only four years—from 1462 to 1466—in captivity and that over the dozen years he remained in Hungary he and Matthias reached an accord. A fifteenth-century Hungarian court chronicler, who noted that Vlad was rather popular among certain segments of society, wrote that by imprisoning him, Matthias had “acted in opposition to general opinion,” and consequently reversed his decision to detain him. During Vlad’s incarceration he received guests from all over Europe, who regarded him as a hero mostly for his vigorous and largely successful efforts to keep the Turks at bay.
So Matthias offered Vlad a deal: Convert to Roman Catholicism and marry into the Hungarian royal family and you will be released. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Vlad renounced the Eastern Orthodox religion into which he was born, became a Catholic, and married Matthias’s cousin, Countess Ilona Szilágy.
By 1474 Vlad had been released. He and Ilona and their two young sons moved across the river to Pest, where they set up housekeeping. The older boy was named after his father, while the name of the second son has been lost to history.
The following year Vlad was back in the saddle, joining forces with Matthias and Vlad’s Transylvanian cousin Stephen to defeat the Turks in Bosnia.
A legate to Pope Pius II recorded the only surviving physical description of Vlad Dracula: “He was not very tall, but very stocky and strong with a cruel and terrible appearance, a long straight nose, distended nostrils, a thin and reddish face in which the large wide-open green eyes were enframed by bushy black eyebrows, which made them appear threatening. His face and chin were shaven, but for a moustache. The swollen temples increased the bulk of his head. A bull’s neck supported the head, from which black curly locks were falling to his wide-shouldered person.”
After another battle, Vlad briefly regained the crown of Wallachia in November 1476, but a few weeks later, on December 14, 1476, his luck finally ran out. The forty-five-year-old Impaler was killed near Bucharest during another skirmish with Basarab’s army.
Two different accounts of his death have emerged. In one, Vlad was beheaded and his head was, fittingly, mounted on a spike and delivered to the Turkish sultan as a trophy, while his body was buried in the nearby monastery at Snagov, which rests in the middle of an island. At the time of Dracula’s death, Snagov was a fortified complex like any other typical medieval town. The monastery may have had darker uses then, too. Decapitated skeletons with the heads placed in the hollows of their owners’ abdomens were discovered in an area beneath the floor that Dracula may at one time have used as a prison and torture chamber. Local peasant lore includes lurid tales of prisoners being thrust through a trapdoor in the floor, where they’d immediately become impaled on the spikes erected below.
An alternative version of Vlad’s demise has more credence. According to a remark made on a 2005 British television documentary about Vlad’s life by his twenty-first-century biographer, the Romanian historian Matei Cazacu, the Turks did not decapitate their enemies. The alternate theory regarding the manner of Vlad’s death therefore supposes that he was not beheaded but scalped, most likely via the eastern European and Asian technique of slitting the face and removing the skin, rather than slicing off the top of the head.
Facts support this method of execution, because what was believed to be Vlad’s corpse (given the lore regarding the location of his burial) was discovered at Snagov by the grandfather of another of the Impaler’s recent biographers, Radu Florescu. However, when the tomb was pried open, and the remains were exposed to fresh air and sunlight, within minutes they began to crumble to dust. The corpse’s face had been covered with a cloth, suggesting that it may indeed have been hiding the grisly results of a scalping. The fact that there was a face at all (or, for that matter, a head) should eliminate the beheading theory. The remnants of a crown were also discovered beside the skull within the tomb purporting to be that of Vlad Dracula. While there is no conclusive evidence that Florescu did indeed locate Vlad’s remains, enough of the elements tally to make the discovery a plausible one.
Although Vlad was prince of Wallachia for only seven years, spread over the course of three reigns—1448, 1456 to 1462, and 1476—he may have been responsible for causing the deaths of as many as a hundred thousand people, the equivalent of one-fifth of the population of Wallachia at the time.
And yet, in one corner of the world—the very region where Vlad Dracula perpetrated his bloody atrocities—being a royal pain remains in the eye of the beholder. To many Romanians, as well as to the Russians, despite his vicious cruelty, Vlad was no worse than many medieval rulers, and in many respects, he was somewhat better.
Vlad kept his subjects in line through fear and intimidation rather than through love. Yet the man who so terrorized Wallachia’s aristocracy was a champion of the craftsmen and the laboring classes. A Romanian Robin Hood, he reduced taxes and redistributed the boyars’ property to his poorer subjects, a move that yielded a double benefit: It won Vlad support from the lower social strata while systematically weakening the economic power of the nobility.
Albeit violently, Vlad swept Wallachia of political corruption. And he was the only leader in the region brave enough to successfully take on the enemy Turks as well as the encroaching Hungarians. To this day he remains a local hero, rather than a villain, even gracing a Romanian postage stamp issued in 1996.
Ten years later, on a 2006 Romanian TV series broadcast, Vlad Dracula was voted one of the “100 Greatest Romanians.” He didn’t transform himself into a bat, didn’t spend his days sleeping in a coffin, and probably never did drink the blood of his victims (or at least not much of it). Nevertheless, the real Vlad Dracula remains as immortal as his legend.
What’s your impression of the whole vampire craze? How do you like your fictional vampires? Sexy? Gory? Or are you “over” the whole literary trend that (all too fittingly) won’t die already!