|The Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III, The Impaler, c. 1560,|
reputedly a copy of an original made during his lifetime
Vlad III’s father (Vlad II) was admitted to the fraternal order of knights called the Order of the Dragon, founded by King Sigismund of Hungary, who became the Holy Roman Emperor in 1410, to uphold Christianity and defend the Empire against the Ottoman Turks around 1431. Vlad II wore the emblem of the order, a dragon, wings extended, hanging on a cross, as ruler of Wallachia. So Vlad Tepes was also called Vlad Draculea (“Vlad, the son of the dragon”) because of his father, also called Vlad Dracul (“Vlad the dragon”).
In 1431 King Sigismund made Vlad Dracul the military governor of Transylvania, a region directly northwest of Wallachia. Vlad was not content to serve as mere governor, and so gathered supporters for his plan to seize Wallachia from its current occupant, Alexandru I, a Danesti prince. In 1436 he succeeded in his plan, killing Alexandru and becoming Vlad II. For six years Vlad Dracul attempted to follow a middle ground between his two powerful neighbors. The prince of Wallachia was officially a vassal of the King of Hungary and Vlad was still a member of the Order of the Dragon and sworn to fight the infidel. At the same time the power of the Ottomans seemed unstoppable. Vlad was forced to pay tribute to the Sultan, just as his father, Mircea the Old, had been forced to do.
Born at the end of 1431 in Sighisoara, Vlad Tepes III Dracula spent his early years by his father's side, in the company of his two brothers, Mircea and Radu. After leaving Transylvania and seizing the Wallachian throne in 1436, their father began a successful six-year reign. Sadly, in 1442, as the Turkish forces invaded Transylvania, Vlad II Dracul was exiled from the throne and country by the superior power Hungary, on the basis of not siding with them at the time of a previous crisis. The following year, in 1443, Vlad II changed his position and decided to abandon his alliances with the Hungarians and prove his loyalty to the Turkish Sultan. As a vassal nation, he had to pay a tribute, but even more important, send his two younger sons to Constantinople and Adrianople as "official" hostages, for education in the spirit of loyalty and dedication for the Sultan (1444-1448). Dracula was about 13 at this time.
In 1447, after a period of war with Hungary, Vlad II and Dracula's older brother, Mircea were killed while in battle, murdered, possibly buried alive, by Hungarian assassins. What followed, was a period of chaos and controlled rule of Wallachia by the Hungarian power, with puppet kings, or various boyars leading the region. As a counter measure, the Turkish rule freed Dracula, and gave him an army in order to take control of the now corrupt Wallachia. Regaining the power, he kept the throne for only two months, until he was, just like his father, forced to flee to Moldavia . Next, history repeated itself, and Dracula decided to abandon his ties with the Turks and sought help from the Hungarian king. So, in 1456, he successfully took the throne again, and was crowned Prince of Wallachia. What followed, was a reign of power, but above all, justice. His leadership, strong, uncorrupted, created unprecedented unification in the spirit of the Romanian people, a force and resistance against the influence of foreign nations. Until 1462, he ruled with extreme devotion, instituting his infamous methods of execution and punishment such as crude torture and more than often impalement. His nickname is derived from this method of establishing order in the land. At this time, numerous legends and folk tales appeared, describing his atrocities, with an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 people executed over his six year reign.
From his capital at Tirgoviste, near today's Bucharest, Dracula started a campaign to drive the Turkish forces below the Danube. In his efforts, he reached that zone, only to find an army three times larger than his waiting to attack. A massive blood-bath followed, in which about 20,000 Turks were impaled in the name of Dracula and freedom for the Romanian people. The foreign forces retreated, but not before reinforcements were sent, lead by Dracula's younger brother, now 17, Radu. A series of battles emerged, with no clear winner, but some of which proved Radu's sole allegiance to the Islam Nation. The battle grounds extended to the north and finally reached Dracula's castle at Poienari. The Turks seized the castle, and Dracula's wife committed suicide to prevent having to surrender herself to the invaders. Dracula himself managed to escape through a supposed secret pathway or corridor, below the mountains and into Transylvania. There are variations to the story, as to the location of the famed suicide, the circumstances, and battle, and the name of Dracula's wife.
Once in Transylvania, Dracula sought help, once again, from the Hungarian king, then Matthias Corvinus. Instead of help, the king imprisoned Vlad; after at least 4 years in prison, he slowly recovered and created new alliances through family ties in the Hungarian aristocracy and the royal family. There he remained for 12 years. In the meantime, in Transylvania, his brother, now known as Radu the Handsome, ruled the lands for a brief period of time, after which he mysteriously died. Seeing this as an only chance to regain power, Dracula left Hungary and invaded Wallachia for the third and final time. He would rule for a matter of weeks only.
To retaliate, the Turks sent an army which pushed as far as Bucharest. In battle, while fighting, Dracula was killed, possibly by one of his own men. Although this is not a fact, his death in 1476 could have been an act of assassination or a simple accident as some of the chronicles of the times say. Decapitated, the body remained in Romania, while his head was sent to Constantinople as proof of his death and the ultimate Turkish victory. He was buried at Snagov, in a small rural monastery situated on a remote island.
More than anything else the historical Dracula is known for his inhuman cruelty. Impalement was Dracula's preferred method of torture and execution. Thousands were often impaled at a single time. Ten thousand were impaled in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu (where Dracula had once lived) in 1460. In 1459, on St. Bartholomew's Day, Dracula had thirty thousand of the merchants and boyars of the Transylvanian city of Brasov impaled. One of the most famous woodcuts of the period shows Dracula feasting amongst a forest of stakes and their grisly burdens outside Brasov while a nearby executioner cuts apart other victims.
Dracula began his reign of terror almost as soon as he came to power. His first significant act of cruelty may have been motivated by a desire of revenge as well as a need to solidify his power. Throughout his reign Dracula systematically eradicated the old boyar class of Wallachia. The old boyars had repeatedly undermined the power of the prince during previous reigns and had been responsible for the violent overthrow of several princes.
Dracula's atrocities against the people of Wallachia were usually attempts to enforce his own moral code upon his county. He appears to have been particularly concerned with female chastity. Maidens who lost their virginity, adulterous wives and unchaste widows were all targets of Dracula's cruelty. Such women often had their sexual organs cut out or their breasts cut off. They were also often impaled through the vagina on red-hot stakes that were forced through the body until they emerged from the mouth. One report tells of the execution of an unfaithful wife. Dracula had the woman's breasts cut off, then she was skinned and impaled in a square in Tirgoviste with her skin lying on a nearby table. Dracula also insisted that his people be honest and hard working. Merchants who cheated their customers were likely to find themselves mounted on a stake beside common thieves.
Much of the information we have about Vlad III comes from pamphlets published in Germany and Russia after his death. The German pamphlets appeared shortly after Dracula's death and, at least initially, may have been politically inspired.
Some anecdotes that are almost universal in the Dracula literature:
(1) The Golden Cup
Dracula was known throughout his land for his fierce insistence on honesty and order. Thieves seldom dared practice their trade within Dracula's domain – they knew that the stake awaited any who were caught. Dracula was so confident in the effectiveness of his law that he placed a golden cup on display in the central square of Tirgoviste. The cup was never stolen and rermained entirely unmolested throughout Dracula's reign.
(2) The Foreign Merchant
A merchant from a foreign land once visited Dracula's capital of Tirgoviste. Aware of the reputation of Dracula's land for honesty, he left a treasure-laden cart unguarded in the street over night. Returning to his wagaon in the morning, the merchant was shocked to find 160 golden ducats missing. When the merchant complained of his loss to the prince, Dracula assured him that his money would be returned and invited him to remain in the palace that night. Dracula then issued a proclamation to the city – find the thief and return the money or the city will be destroyed. During the night he ordered that 160 ducats plus one extra be taken from his own treasury and placed in the merchant's cart. On returning to his cart in the morning and counting his money the merchant discovered the extra ducat. The merchant returned to Dracula and reported that his money had indeed been returned plus an extra ducat. Meanwhile the thief had been captured and turned over to the prince's guards along with the stolen money. Dracula ordered the thief impaled and informed the merchant that if he had not reported the extra ducat he would have been impaled alongside the thief.
(3) The Two Monks
There are several versions of this anecdote. In some the two monks were from a Catholic monastery in Wallachia or wandering Catholic monks from a foreign land. In either case, the Catholic monks would be viewed as representatives of a foreign power by Dracula. In other versions of the story the monks were from a Romanian Orthodox establishment (the native church of Wallachia). Dracula's motivation also varies considerably amomng the different versions of the story.
All versions of the story agree that two monks visited Dracula in his palace at Tirgoviste. Curious to see the reaction of the churchman, Dracula showed them rows of impaled corpes in the courtyard. When asked their opinions of his actions by the prince, one of the monks responded, "You are appointed by God to punish evil-doers." The other monk had the moral courage to condemn the cruel prince. In the version of the story most common in the German pamphlets, Dracula rewarded the sycophantic monk and impaled the honest monk. In the version found in Russian pamphlets and in Romanian verbal tradition Dracula rewarded the honest monk for his integrity and courage and impaled the sycophant for his dishonesty.
(4) The Polish Nobleman
Benedict de Boithor, a Polish nobleman in the service of the King of Hungary, visited Dracula at Tirgoviste in September of 1458. At dinner one evening Dracula ordered a golden spear brought and set up directly in front of the royal envoy. Dracula then asked the envoy why he thought this spear had been set up. Benedict replied that he imagined that some boyar had offended the prince and that Dracula intended to honor him. Dracula then responded that he had, in fact, had the spear set up in the honor of his noble, Polish guest. The Pole then responded that had he done anything to deserve death that Dracula should do as he thought best. He further asserted that in that case Dracula would not be responsible for his own death, rather he would be responsible for his own death for incurring the displeasure of the prince. Drcaula was greatly pleased by this answer and showered the man with gifts while declaring that had he answered in any other manner he would have been immediately impaled.
(5) The Foreign Ambassadors
There are at least two versions of this story in the literature. As with the story of the two monks, one version is common in the German pamphlets and views Dracula's actions unfavorably while the other version is common in eastern Europe and sees Dracula's actions in a much more favorable light. In both versions ambassadors of a foreign power visit Dracula's court at Tirgoviste. When granted an audience with the prince the envoys refused to remove their hats as was the custom when in the presence of the prince in Wallachia. Angered at this sign of disrespect Dracula had the ambassadors' hats nailed to their heads so that they might never remove them.
In the German version of the story the envoys are Florentine and refused to remove their hats to demonstrate their superiority. When Dracula asked the ambassadors why they wouldn't remove their hats they responded thet such was not their custom and that they wouldn't remove their hats, even for the Holy Roman Emporer. Dracula immediately had their hats nailed to their heads so that they might never come off and had the ambassadors ejected from his court. In Germany and in the West, where the concept of diplomatic immunity was at least given lip service, this was held to be an act of barbarity against the representatives of a freindly power.
In the version of the story common in the east, the envoys are Turkish. When ushered into the presence of the prince, the Turks refused to remove their Phrygian caps. When questioned they answered that it was not the custom of their fathers to remove their hats. Dracula then ordered their hats nailed to their heads with three nails so that they might never have to break such an excellent tradition. The envoys were sent back to the sultan. In the east this was held to be a courageous act of defiance in the face of the Ottoman sultan. It should also be noted that the nailing of hats to heads of those who displeased a monarch was not an unknown act in eastern Europe. Apparently this method was occasionally used by the princes of Moscow when faced by unpleasant envoys.
(6) Dracula's Mistress
Dracula once had a mistress who lived in a house in the back streets of Tirgoviste. This woman apparently loved the prince to distraction and was always anxious to please him. Dracula was often moody and depressed and the woman made every effort to lighten her lover's burdens. Once, when Dracula was particularly depressed, the woman dared tell him a lie in an effort to cheer him up; she told him that she was with child. Dracula warned the woman not to joke about such matters but she insisted on the truth of her claim despite her knowledge of the prince's feelings about dishonesty. Dracula had the woman examined by the bath matrons to determine the veracity of her claim. When informed that the woman was lying Dracula drew his knife and cut her open from the groin to her breasts while proclaiming his desire for the world to see where he had been. Dracula then left the woman to die in agony.
(7) The Lazy Woman
Dracula once noticed a man working in the fields while wearing a too short caftan. The prince stopped and asked the man whether or not he had a wife. When the man answered in the affirmative Dracula had the woman brought before him and asked her how she spent her days. The poor, frightened woman stated that she spent her days washing, baking and sewing. The prince pointed out her husband's short caftan as evidence of her laziness and dishonesty and ordered her impaled despite her husband's protestations that he was well satisfied with his wife. Dracula then ordered another woman to marry the peasant but admonished her to work hard or she would suffer her predecessor's fate.
(8) The Nobleman with the Keen Sense of Smell
On St. Bartholomew's Day in 1459 Dracula caused thirty thousand of the merchants and nobles of the Transylvanian city of Brasov to be impaled. In order that he might better enjoy the results of his orders, the prince commanded that his table be set up and that his boyars join him for a feast amongst the forest of impaled corpses. While dining, Dracula noticed that one of his boyars was holding his nose in an effort to alleviate the terrible smell of clotting blood and emptied bowels. Dracula then ordered the sensitive nobleman impaled on a stake higher than all the rest so that he might be above the stench.
In another version of this story the sensitive nobleman is an envoy of the Transylvanian cities of Brasov and Sibiu sent to appeal to the cruel Wallachian to spare those cities. While hearing the nobleman's appeal Dracula walked amongst the stakes and their grisly burdens. Some of the victims still lived. Nearly overcome by the smell of drying blood and human wastes the nobleman asked the prince why he walked amidst the awful stench. Dracula then asked the envoy if he found the stench oppressive. The envoy, seeing an opportunity to ingratiate himself with Dracula, responded that his only concern was for the health and welfare of the prince. Dracula, angered at the nobleman's dishonesty ordered him impaled on the spot on a very high stake so that he might be above the offending odors.
(9) The Burning of the Sick and PoorDracula was very concerned that all his subjects work and contribute to the common welfare. He once noticed that the poor, vagrants, beggars and cripples had become very numerous in his land. Consequently, he issued an invitation to all the poor and sick in Wallachia to come to Tirgoviste for a great feast, claiming that no one should go hungry in his land. As the poor and crippled arrived in the city they were ushered into a great hall where a fabulous feast was prepared fore them. The prince's guests ate and drank late into the night, when Dracula himself made an appearance. "What else do you desire? Do you want to be without cares, lacking nothing in this world?", asked the prince. When they responded positively Dracula ordered the hall boarded up and set on fire. None escaped the flames. Dracula explained his action to the boyars by claiming that he did this, "in order that they represent no further burden to other men so that no one will be poor in my realm."